“You know Dude, I myself dabbled with pacifism at one point.  Not in Nam, of course…”

Walter Sobchak’s words went running through my mind while reading Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine. I kept asking myself, when would Leithart drop the ball and eventually get around to echoing Walter? As if I would soon read something along the lines of, “Jesus is cool and all, but one day you have to face up to the fact that the world is a violent place… just like Constantine once did.”

The moment never came. Instead, Leithart’s book took me in another direction altogether. For one thing, I’ve had to rethink the meaning of the “C” word.

Leithart argument combines theology and history in a way that even Yoder would appreciate. The book is framed by the following questions: what historical warrant is there for believing that the early church held to a normative stance on pacifism? Did the church suffer a fall in the fourth-century from a pristine state? When these claims cannot be historically substantiated, as Leithart believes they cannot, then the entire Constantinian edifice crumbles; no such historical church characterized by non-violence, therefore no Constantinian fall (293). Instead, Leithart finds ample evidence of a “liberal Protestant metanarrative” at work; the kind that says, “the church gradually sheds its external political encrustrations and is revealed as what in essence it always has been, something ‘purely religious.’  On those premises, the critique of Constantinianism is preloaded; no matter how faithfully the church gives cultural form to its gospel, it is abandoning the ‘spiritual’ message of Jesus” (308).

However, the main target of the book is not Yoder, although he certainly provides a foil.  In fact, what makes the book interesting is that Leithart agrees with so much of what Yoder has to say about history, the politics of Jesus, Christianity and the pretensions of empire. Defending Constantine is one of those books where you have to resist the temptation to jump to the last chapter where Leithart lets loose on Yoder, Hauerwas, et. al. There’s too much at stake with the detailed history. Beyond the question of pacifism, I think there are more interesting points to be made.  Here are a few thoughts:

Leithart admits:

“Yoder’s critique is powerful because it offers a comparatively simple paradigm that proliferats new insights and seems to explain a great deal about the history of the church and the West. It is powerful too because it exposes the bonds between foundational theological grids (nature-grace, for instance), conceptions of church-state relations, theological method and the social location of the church. It is also powerful because so much of what Yoder attacks is so familiar, and so wrong. And it is powerful because it gives blunt names – heresy and apostasy – to habits of thought and Christian practices that can have become instinctive” (316).

But Yoder’s historical narrative suffers from its own Constantinian construct – the Constantinian Shift ironically becomes the driver of history, not Christ.  Yoder is aware of this danger, but he still works “with a ‘prior narrative’ of the church’s fall.  He starts with a closed narrative, the one he inherited from sixteenth-century Anabaptists.  Everything else remains open, everything else discussable; that narrative remains fixed and foundational” (319).  With Constantinianism lenses, Yoder also fails in his reading of Augustine.  Leithart pointedly asks: “Who is putting too much weight on princes – Yoder, who wrote constantly about Constantine, or Augustine, who dispatches Constantine in a brief chapter in City of God so that he can rush ahead to relate the history of God’s city?” (321).

Leithart offers another Augustinian insight:

“I wrote above that Yoder’s vision of Jewish mission in exile is invigorating, and I meant that. It is the key vision that should drive the twenty-first-century Christian response to empire in a world after Christendom. It is what Christians should be busy doing. But it does not address the question that Constantine’s career raises: what does the church do if the emperor sees a vision and wants to help Christians start building a temple back in Jerusalem? Yoder does not think that is “an available option.” St. Sebastian may have thought the same as he was shot full of arrows and then pelted with stones, but as Yoder himself would be the first to admit, God tends to surprise us with unavailable options. That’s what makes him God (297).

Leithart notes that much of Yoder’s theology relies on divine kenosis. “Jesus never reverses his kenotic act, because kenosis is the very form of his lordship.  At times Yoder claims that what is unsurpassable it not only Jeus himself but the ‘community he creates.’  My question is the same, which community?” (315).  Leithart is right to ask this question about monopolizing kenosis (and to call into question Yoder’s reading of the Jeremiahian exile). I have my own questions about kenosis and ecclesiology, and so it was refreshing to read Leithart’s take: “the story of Scripture is not a story of increasing passivity but of increasing participation in the activity of the ever-active God” (336).

The last interesting point to be made has to do with Leithart’s reading of sacrifice and the political role of the Eucharist. The Eucharistic sacrifice, as Leithart convincingly argues, was not some pious memorial, but intimately tied the end of sacrifice and life under the the stoicheia in Gal. 4. Leithart argues that Constantine undermined the hegemony of the empire by welcoming into his city “another city, a truly just city, a city of the final sacrifice that ends sacrifice” (331).  Leithart explains:

“We should make some effort to grasp the earth-quaking significance of Constantine’s decision.  Every city is sacrificial, but Constantine eliminated sacrifice in his own city and welcomed a different sacrificial city into Rome.  For a fourth-century Roman, eliminating sacrifice from the city was as much to say, ‘My city is no longer a city.’  For a fourth-century Roman, acknowledging the church’s bloodless sacrifice as the sacrifice was as much to say, ‘The church is the true city here.’  When Constantine began to end sacrifice, he began to end Rome as he knew it, for he initiated the end of Rome’s sacrificial lifeblood and established that Rome’s life now depended on its adherence to another civic center, the church (329).”

What does this all mean?  It means that “the church did not ‘fall’ in the fourth-century.  It is more resilient than that.  The church, instead, was recognized and honored, precisely as the true city.  By eliminating the civic sacrifice that founded Rome and protecting and promoting the Eucharistic civitas, Constantine was, in effect if not in intent, acknowledging the church’s superiority as a community of justice and peace” (331).  Overall, Leithart shows that the Eucharist was not some metaphysical musing, but grew out of political turmoil and upheaval of the empire. The Eucharist was therefore a direct political challenge to the sacrificial allegiance demanded by the empire. This fact was not lost on Constantine, “the first anti-Constantinian” (300).