Leithart’s Eucharistic Politics

Last week, I wrote a post at the Political Theology blog entitled “Demystifying Eucharistic Politics,” in which I sought to offer a typology of how the Eucharist might and might not function “politically.”  The post cited both Peter Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast and with perhaps the most well-known book on this theme, William Cavanaugh’s 1998 Torture and Eucharist, but I only had space for the most cursory interaction with these texts.  I would like to use this post to build on the arguments I developed there in more direct engagement with Leithart’s book, of which I am working on a review.

In a nutshell, the post last week argued that much of the talk of “eucharistic politics” rests on a serial equivocation between the Church as polis and the Church as paradigm or pedagogue, between the Eucharist as a form of genuinely political action and the Eucharist as an inspiration, resource, or model for Christians as they pursue other actions that we would normally recognize as “political.”  Proponents of eucharistic politics (of whom, I should confess, I have often been one) seem to want the rhetorical oomph of the former without actually committing themselves to its somewhat unsettling consequences.  For the most part, what they want could be better described under the latter heading, in which the Eucharist helps to form Christians for a Christ-like mode of political engagement.  

However, resolving this ambiguity is not as simple as pointing out that these proponents are not using the word “politics” literally.  Because at times, they do seem to be; or at least, to be asking for rather more than a pedagogical Eucharist could provide.  But what exactly?

One of the great strengths of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast  is its ability to telescope very large arguments and claims into a very small space.  But this can also be a weakness, or at least a frustration, and this is particularly so on the theme of eucharistic politics.  The theme is clearly a crucial one for Leithart, for when he comes to offer his so-what-do-we-do-now prescriptions in the very terse Conclusion, it is the first of his three proposals (the other two are “renounce the heresy of Americanism” and “risk martyrdom”).  Here’s what he says about it:

“American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” (152).

Now this is a fairly restrained call, one that operates, it would seem, almost entirely within the paradigmatic-pedagogical conception that I outlined in the PT post.  In this context, the phrase “eucharistic politics” seems clearly to mean something like “a politics which draws its inspiration from the practice of the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist has to teach us” rather than treating the eucharistic rite as itself a political one.  Before delving into these practices, though, I should note that the first clause suggests something different, what we might call the proclamatory function of the Eucharist.  This was a category that I did not adequately distinguish in my PT post, but which is perhaps one of the most important things that people have in mind when they speak of eucharistic politics.  The Eucharist “proclaims the Lord’s death till he comes,” we are told, and in this statement are two points of political significance.  First, by proclaiming Christ’s crucifixion, we remember the injustice of worldly powers, and remember how Christ overcame that injustice with love and self-sacrifice.  Second, by proclaiming that he will come again, we remember that he will come in judgment, that unjust worldly powers will be dashed to pieces before him.  In this way, the enactment of the Eucharist represents a kind of prophetic protest against unjust powers, a reminder that Christ has unmasked them and disclosed a different kind of kingdom.  This function of the Eucharist is more directly political inasmuch as it can be aimed in fact at rulers and authorities, intending to get their attention and convict them (this might be hard to imagine in our American context, but in struggles against some Latin American dictatorships, for instance, the church sometimes used public celebrations of the Eucharist in this way).  But what is important to note about this function, and what ties it quite closely to the more straightforwardly pedagogical function, is that it is not ex opere operato; it is not self-interpreting.  Missionaries could not enter a pagan land, march up to the local warlord who was oppressing the people, break bread and drink wine together, and expect any reaction other than bewilderment.  In this as in all else, the Eucharist (as the Reformers were keen to emphasize) depends on the Word for its power.  Only by celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Word along with it can we expect our “commemoration of the final sacrifice of Jesus” to have any prophetic value.  

But let’s get back to those practical prescriptions now.  They are frustratingly vague as stated here, and although the rest of the book provides some elucidation, it isn’t all that much, as we shall see.  The Eucharist teaches us to end sacred warfare by pointing us to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ the victim, reminding us that we fight now only as a necessary means of protecting the innocent and restraining injustice, not as agents of divine vengeance, purging the world of wickedness.  Clearly, this is a means by which the Eucharist may impact Christian approaches to politics; but equally clearly, this will not happen automatically, but will require careful teaching and discipleship to help us understand and practice these implications.  On the other hand, it is hard to know what to make of the second clause, “The formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians,” although this is a recurrent motif of the book.  Something rather like this did once exist—it was called the Catholic Church, and in the medieval period, it took the language of “imperium” quite seriously, claiming to exercise authority over all the kings of the earth.  But Leithart is a Protestant, so presumably he means nothing like this.  Perhaps the most plausible reading of this clause is as another way of stating the fourth clause: “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.”  In other words, although we in fact only celebrate the Eucharist with a fairly small group of local believers, it is a sign and seal of our union, through our mutual union with Christ, with all Christians all around the world.  The consciousness of this brotherhood will make us think twice about casually going to war with other Christians and sending our sons (and as of this week, I might add, our daughters) to kill them.  (I should not in passing that I have problems with the implication which one might draw from this and other passages in the book that a Christian could never justly kill another Christian in war, but as he never says that straightforwardly, I’ll leave that be.)  Again, this is clearly a means by which the Eucharist may inform our political practice, but again, it does so only as a pedagogue illuminated by the Word.  This is true also for the last item, “the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  By proclaiming Christ’s fearless death before tyrants, the Eucharist can help strengthen in us the faith and courage to be prepared to follow Christ unto death, a death that faithful opposition to unjust rulers may entail (although we in America are probably not going to find ourselves at that point for quite some time yet, Leithart’s somewhat melodramatic rallying-cries notwithstanding).  Again, though, the celebration of the Eucharist may prepare us to be martyrs, but it is not itself an act of martyrdom.  

Having thoroughly analyzed this concluding prescription, what can we say about the other passages in which the Eucharist crops up?  There are six, by my count.

First, page 40.

“The fulfilled Israel of the church, by contrast, was founded on the victim not the victimizer.  It was a city founded by crucified and risen Abel rather than Cain.  Its ritual center was not a repetitive round of bloody sacrifices, but the memorialization of the sacrifice-ending sacrifice of Jesus, celebrated with wine rather than blood.  With this founding and this ritual, ecclesial imperialism was sure to be a peculiar conquest.  The establishment of the ecclesial imperium did not immediately end war.  It did not even end war for Christians.  But it brought a decisive end to holy war, the sacrificial prosecution of war, the legitimation of imperial regeneration through violence.  The church’s sacrificial practice imitated that of Jesus, as willing martyr-vitims mixed their blood with His.  Renewal came through violence suffered, not violence enacted.  Force continued to be used, and could be used justly; but force was de-sacralized because de-sacrificed.”

Here we find a fuller exposition of the logic behind Leithart’s calls for both “the end of sacred warfare” and the “cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  The Eucharist teaches us to die for Christ, not to kill for Christ, and if faithfully followed, this will transform the practice of Christian politics.  Leithart is claiming in this section that in fact this is exactly what happened, and early Christendom did do away with sacred warfare.  This seems a rather romanticized portrait of the early Middle Ages, which seem in fact to have witnessed plenty of officially-sanctioned killing in the name of Christ.  But it is probably truth that the Church’s witness was effectual to some extent in changing attitudes toward violence during this time—as indeed it has been since then, I would argue.  My only complaint here, besides the romanticized history, is that this passage obscures the extent to which the Church did this by its teaching, not merely by celebrating the eucharistic ritual, as if it was some ex opere operato instrument of peacemaking.

By far Leithart’s fullest discussion of eucharistic politics comes on pages 60-61, which we will quote in full here

“At the center of this political community was a new ritual, the quasi-sacrifice of the Eucharist.  Through participation in the Eucharist, the members of the church were formed into a more-than-human community.  It was a human society constituted by its more common participation in the living God-man, Jesus Christ.  Christian belief in ‘a mystical body cohering around a godhead’ was unprecedented in Western political thought, and by this concept ‘Christianity helped father the idea of a community as a non-rational, non-utilitarian body bound by a meta-rational faith, infused by a mysterious spirit taken into the members; a spirit that not only linked each participant with the center of Christ, but radiated holy ties knitting each member to his fellows.’  By this concept, ‘The Christian community was not so much an association as a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.’  [Wolin, Politics and Vision, 119] Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of the fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham.  The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethnic borders’ and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political [61] allegiance’ that had never before been achieved.  In the Eucharist the church ritually enacted ‘a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of “empire” could have competed with.’ [Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 23-24.]

“When Constantine gave permanent legal recognition to the church, he was implicitly, more or less consciously, acknowledging the the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.  Constantine simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice, and (again, more or less consciously) placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order.  Sacrifice is an inescapable feature of political order, and the relocation of sacrifice, the public recognition of the Eucharist as the one true sacrifice, is one of the foundations of Western Christendom and Byzantine order.  Public acknowledgement of the eucharistic sacrifice went hand in hand with the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.  Where your sacrifices are, there will your heart be also.  By the regular remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, the church celebrated the end of sacrifice, the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war.”

In the latter paragraph, we find the now-familiar theme of Eucharist-as-end-of-sacred-violence, but this passage also gives us a new theme, one that ties in with the references in the conclusion to “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians” and “the forging of bonds of brotherhood.”  We might try to read all this as just a fancy way of saying, “All Christians should really love one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters”—perhaps this is what Leithart means by “the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.”  “Loyalty” can after all mean something like that, rather than political allegiance.  But we do encounter here the explicit language of “political allegiance” and it is most bamboozling what we are to make of it.  We are told that “the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.”  The only way to make sense of any of these terms in their standard English (and Latin) usage is something like the medieval papacy, which did function as an independent juridical body, claiming immunity from worldly political authority and supreme power of command (imperium) over worldly authorities.  Again, it is hard to think this is what Leithart wants, but what then does he mean.  The quotes from Wolin and Pecknold in the first paragraph just confuse the issue further.  To be sure, the Christian community is something “unprecedented,” “mystical,” “transcendent,” in which we are each “linked with the center of Christ” and through him to one another; it is “a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.”  But that is precisely the point.  These aspects of the Church do not take place at the level of body, but of spirit.  Forgive my stubborn Enlightenment dualism, but it really seems hard to deny that when we are talking about our mystical union with Christ through faith, and to all who are elect in him, past, present, and future, we are talking about something fundamentally and categorically different from a political community as we could ever meaningfully use that word.  The quote from Wolin implies somehow that this concept of a spiritual community provided a new paradigm for understanding the political community in the Christian West.  But how?  Did Christian polities start trying to fashion themselves into “non-rational,” “non-utilitarian” bodies “infused by a mysterious spirit.”  

What Leithart is gesturing at here is the idea that Christians are a people bound together by a common allegiance to Christ that will, when the chips are down, trump any earthly allegiance, and that the Eucharist is a visible sign of this allegiance.  But this “binding together” is necessarily an essentially invisible binding.  Leaving aside the stubborn theological fact that a great many in the outward Church have no real allegiance to Christ, the simple problem of geography, and of diverse denominations, ensures that this is the case.  Any attempt to make this community of shared allegiance visible and clearly-delineated would seem to require an international juridically-unified church, which requires an allegiance to earthly church authorities besides Christ—as I tried to spell out in my PT post.  Viewed in this light, the language of “loyalty to the church” takes on more troubling overtones.

All of these problematic ambiguities reappear in perhaps even starker form a couple pages later, in the following passage: 

“In Christendom and Byzantium, then, ‘political order’ in the narrow sense was founded on central metapolitical convictions.  At the heart of the project was the ‘state’s’ recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity—a sacrificial center not controlled by the state—and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end.  Christendom in the West and Byzantium in the East took shape within the metapolitics of christological and ecclesial typology, a political ecclesiology, eucharistic practice that nourished the spirit of martyrdom, and eschatology.”

What does this language of “independent polity” mean?  In using the phrase “quasi-civic order,” Leithart highlights the ambiguity. Is it civic?  Or ain’t it?  And if so, how so?  The eucharist is the “sacrificial center” around which all Christians, worshipping all over the world, spiritually unite, but can this communion of saints be described as “a polity”?  

Leithart goes on to argue that our modern woes can be blamed largely on our loss of this eucharistic center:

“The Reformation produced martyrs aplenty, but they were mostly Christians put to death for heresy by other Christians.  The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.  No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.  It was no longer even the locus of union for all Christians.  The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty.  Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war: If the state is a sacred community, and war endowed with a mystic aura, then kings might well think they have the right to demand that their soldiers sacrifice themselves and their enemies for the fatherland.” (66)

“It has been a long time since a sizable proportion of American Protestants have viewed the Eucharist as a gift of the corpus mysticum that forms individual participants into a pneumatic body in Christ, and it is thus a long time since American Protestants have thought that the Eucharist would do much to form God’s Abrahamic imperium in America.  American Eucharists have done little to nurture an alternative empire of martyrs ready to resist the unjust demands of the nation. . . . Given the pressure of American typology and eschatology, it was inevitable that a new form of nationalist sacrifice would take the place of the eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, a sacrifice not for Christ but for kin and country.” (77)

The second of these quotes may have something to it (although it should be noted that modern nationalism was much stronger in “high-church” countries like Britain and Germany and even Catholic countries like France), and undoubtedly Americans need to reclaim the powerful message of the Eucharist as a warning against sacralizing their nation.  But the first quote offers a remarkably uncritical restatement of the standard Radical Orthodox narrative of the migration of holiness from church to state during the Reformation.  The holes in that narrative are many, but I will just point out two here: (1) “the relatively new ideology of holy war”?  On Leithart’s own narrative in this book, that ideology had already surfaced in medieval Christendom at least as early as the 9th century, 700 years before the Reformation.  As new as the Canterbury Tales is today, that is.  In any case, one of the crucial planks of Luther’s reform was his wholesale rejection of the sacralization of violence.  (2) “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.”  If the point of the Eucharist is to knit together the body of Christ into a community, then the Reformation was precisely about recovering this.  The Reformers protested the medieval church’s elitization and privatization of the Eucharist; the majority of masses were celebrated by individual priests in private chapels, funded by wealthy lords.  Even in those masses that were public, very few of the laity took part, and those who did only communed in one kind.  The Eucharist was unaccompanied by teaching in languages that the common people could understand, so it could hardly serve its purpose of training Christians for potential martyrdom.  The Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s eucharistic center, with frequent celebration of communion in both kinds by the whole congregation, accompanied by thorough teaching.  The only sense in which the Church became disconnected from the Eucharist was that the Eucharist no longer functioned ex opere operato; it could not create a church without the Word, and it could not be used as a coercive threat by which clergy could intimidate lay rulers.

We are thus left to wonder whether it is in fact the overtly political function of the Eucharist—a way for the church to wield coercive imperium against other empires—that Leithart is lamenting we have lost.  A brief hint on page 110 shows this is not mere paranoia: 

“Even Christian leaders in the United States are not in any real way accountable to the officers of God’s imperium.  Whatever their private convictions, public officials are not held publicly accountable to King Jesus.  When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated?  When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?”

Of course, an unfaithful Christian who holds political office may warrant church discipline as much as an unfaithful Christian in any other station of life.  But this discipline should be conceived of as a pastoral tool for this sinner’s spiritual healing, not as an instrument for directing public policy—however good our motives.  That way lies a whole nest of temptations, that plenty of ugly episodes in church history should warn us to steer clear of.  


We have seen then that the main substance of what Leithart wants to do with “eucharistic politics” could probably be well-expressed using a paradigmatic/pedagogical conception of the Eucharist, a way of training God’s people to be more Christlike, that they might resist injustice where they encounter it.  But there is an undercurrent in his exposition that cannot be easily reduced to that way of speaking, an undercurrent that either has to remain an incoherent metaphor or else find expression in a strikingly un-Protestant ecclesiology.  I am sure Leithart does not intend this consequence, but it is hard to see exactly what else to do with his language, and it needs to be queried accordingly.  Of course, after such a negative ending, I want to hasten to say that
Between Babel and Beast is an extremely valuable book, both in its remarkable exposition of Scriptural teaching, and in its compelling and much-needed indictment of contemporary American practice.  So it is lamentable that this whole business of eucharistic politics introduces a significant ambiguity into the argument at certain crucial points, undermining some of its more valuable insights.  If you haven’t read the book, however, I certainly commend it to your careful attention.


It is Expedient that One Man Die for the People

“Jesus, a victim of a conspiracy among threatened Jewish leaders, died on a Roman cross.  Babel put Jesus to death: City and tower, Jew and Gentile, Shem and Japheth, the whole oikoumene, joined forces to kill the true Emperor.  To the Jewish temple elites, Jesus threatened the delicate balance with Rome.  As He gained a following, it became more and more likely that the Roamns would come to take away ‘our place and our nation’ (John 11:48).  It was expedient that one man die for the people.  Jesus threatened resistant Jews because he favored Judea’s untouchables and flouted the rules of purity.  His movement was a contagion that could infect all of Judaism and prevent Yahweh’s advent to redeem Israel.  He had to be expelled.  It was expedient that one man die for the people.  For the Roman procurator, Jesus was another Jewish nuisance, innocent perhaps but not worth protecting at the cost of a riot.  It was defensible to execute Him, since He called Himself a king, talked about an empire other than Rome, set Himself as rival to Caesar.  It was expedient that one man die for the people. . . . or, it was convenient to offer a scapegoat to protect one man’s dead-end post in the fetid backwaters of the empire.  Pilate’s utilitarian calculus unmasked the brutality just underneath the shiny surface of Roman justice.  Roman iustitia cracked forever at the cross of Jesus.  And Jesus’ unmasking of Roman power advanced a crucial step in the resurrection, the Father’s own verdict regarding Jesus, His ‘justification’ or ‘vindication.’  The resurrection made public what was hidden in the cross, that Jesus is the Righteous One.  If that is true, then the alliance of Jews and Romans to execute Jesus was unjust.  Before the cross, Jew and Gentile, partners in building Babel, stand exposed.” —Between Babel and Beast, 35-36.


Between Babble and Beast? A Review of a Review

Peter Leithart’s long-awaited new book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective, is starting to make a splash among Reformed folk, evangelicals, and political theologians in general.  Although in the introduction he expresses his expectation that he will “offend everyone,” the predominant response thus far has been praise.  Princeton University’s Eric Gregory goes so far to say, “Between Babel and Beast offers a bracing critique of American political history and a pastoral call for repentance from imperial ‘Americanism.’ But Leithart’s distinctive analysis provides a more complex–and potentially more constructive–biblical perspective on international politics than can be found in the many ecclesial critics of empire. This crisply argued and highly readable companion to Defending Constantine confirms that Leithart is one of the most interesting voices in theology today” (although one must take back-cover blurbs with a considerable grain of salt).  

That being the case, my friend Steven Wedgeworth’s bruising review posted today on The Calvinist International will be sure to cause a certain degree of consternation among Leithart’s many admirers—while gentlemanly and in many respects highly appreciative, Wedgeworth does not hesitate to indict Leithart of some fairly significant historical and theological errors, fundamentally calling into question key aspects of both his descriptive account and his constructive agenda.  

As someone known to be a longtime admirer and follower of Leithart, and deeply influenced by his theopolitical vision, yet more recently closely identified with the Calvinist International, some may be wondering what I think of all this.  That is difficult to say with any certainty just yet, as I am still awaiting the arrival of my own copy from across the Atlantic, after which point I hope to draft a thorough review of my own.  However, I’ve read enough about the book, and know enough of the background to it, that I can form some preliminary conclusions about the aptness of Wedgeworth’s review.

 

Although I might read Between Babel and Beast somewhat more sympathetically, I expect I would share several of Wedgeworth’s concerns, of which at least four in particular stood out to me in the post; they are worth calling attention to because they are recurrent features of much of Leithart’s recent work in political theology and ecclesiology.  (Of course, they are not unique to Leithart, but can be found in much of the broadly Radically-Orthodox historiography and theology that has shaped Leithart’s own diagnoses and prescriptions; and indeed I recognize them in a lot of my own earlier thinking about many of these issues).  I will content myself with merely listing them here, and recommend that you avail yourself of Wedgeworth’s thoughtful review, and read the book yourself with some of these questions in mind:

1) There seems to be a proclivity toward an idealist philosophy of history that is content with sweeping explanations of complex historical events as merely the concrete embodiment of pre-existing religious commitments, ideas which necessarily unfold themselves in time.  Of course, oversimplification is to be be expected in a book of such wide scope and short length, but the objection is not merely that empirical complexity is being telescoped into something more generalized, but that empirical historiography is never really the method to begin with.  This seems a natural product of the kind of grand-paradigm typologies in Leithart’s approach to the historical narratives in Scripture.  The problem is that Scripture can be treated in a unified text in a way that history can’t quite—not so readily at any rate.

2) Related to this, but distinct, is an inattentive reading of the Protestant Reformation which heavily relies, in fact, upon Catholic counter-Reformational polemics, rather than the self-understanding of Protestant theologians and jurists as they forged new ecclesiastical and political orders in the 16th and 17th centuries.  At a time when such Roman Catholic apologetics are increasingly resurgent, it’s important for Protestants  at least to stand up and give their forebears a sympathetic reading.

3) At the heart of the account of where things went wrong and how they might be set right lies an aestheticized account of the Eucharist and of the structures of church discipline and government that surround it which consistently sidestep basic questions about how these ideals are concretely realized.  What is a eucharistic counter-politics?  If it is merely the cultivation of a new social ethos based on charity, then what exactly is gained by the language of counter-politics?  If it entails concrete disciplinary powers for a juridical church authority structure, then exactly how are these to be enacted without becoming sucked into the very vortex of power politics that we are claiming to transcend, as they did in the Middle Ages?

4) Related to this, but distinct, is a systematic ambiguity surrounding the concept “church,” which does not fit recognizably into any established Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox traditions of ecclesiology, simultaneously displaying features of each while disclaiming its identity with any.  This ambiguity may be largely masked behind the fashionable language of liturgy and ritual that speaks of the Church as a culture based on a cult, but at some point this sociological account has to make clear distinctions between the church of aspiration and the church of actual practice.  How has the Church presented itself to us as a historically embodied reality?  Within those constraints, what are the realistic potentialities of the Church as a shaper of politics, and what exactly is gained by using the singular rather than the plural “churches” or even “Christian people”?

 

I would be eager to see Leithart engage critiques such as Wedgeworth’s, as I think his recent work is rich with insights that need to be heard in contemporary political theology, and it could be rendered considerably more valuable if he could address and resolve some of these sources of ambiguity.


Some Much-Needed Clarity on American Empire

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart has at last given us a sneak peek at some of the refreshing and illuminating thoughts on “empire” (which is to say, in our current setting, American empire) that have been gestating inside his fertile brain for the past couple years.  His uncanny ability to bring balance and clarity to highly polarized discussions thick with the fog of war is a great asset for this controversial topic.  Many right-wing Christians still need to be brought to a sober reassessment of their nation’s evildoings, but without losing all sense of perspective and hurtling headlong into whichever left-wing or anarchist ideology promises the most fervent denunciation of American empire.  

In his mini-essay, “Towards a Sensible Discussion of Empire,” Leithart offers ten modest theses, many of which are “truisms . . . so obvious that it is telling that they have become controversial.”  Indeed, it is remarkable how many of these truisms will immediately cause many readers (including myself) to bristle, become suspicious, or even to start casting accusations like those of one commenter who compared Leithart’s argument to something that might be “made by a German academic in defense of the Nazis during the period of their rise to power.”  Such suspicion is perhaps not a bad thing—we should always be suspicious of any claim that appears to serve the interests of those in power—but it should not keep us from being sensible, and recognizing the difference between a truth and the abuse of a truth.  I won’t of course repost the whole essay here, but will simply call attention to a couple of the most fruitful contributions it makes.

First, Leithart seeks to demystify the concept of “power” somewhat, by inviting us neither to demonize it, idolize it, or too narrowly define it.  On the one hand, he tells us right out of the starting gate that power is evil not by nature but by abuse, and although often abused, “in itself, power is preferable to powerlessness.”  “It is better to have the power of sight than to be blind,” he points out.  And yet he ends by reminding us of the transience of worldly forms of power: “Empires end, yet the world keeps going. . . . Much as the current world system depends on the U.S., the future of the world does not ultimately depend on our ability to remain the world’s superpower, nor does our survival as a polity. We do not represent the end of history.”  Between these two claims, he invites us to reflect on the variety of the forms that power takes, in a very provocative paragraph:

Abuses of power can be arrested only by an exertion of power. To rescue a victim, or to save a people from genocide, you have to exert power. Possession of power imposes an obligation to protect the weak. The power exerted in response to an abuse may not take the same form as the abuse itself. A persuasive orator can pacify a mob. Martyrs exercise a mystical power beyond the imaginations of their persecutors.”

Although the initial summary statement might appear more or less equivalent with the claim “force must be repelled by force” (as one careless reader seemed to take him as saying), it becomes clear that something more nuanced and interesting is being said.  Of course, force may need to be repelled by force, physical power overcome by greater physical power—Leithart’s stance here is forthrightly a just-war one—but the repelling power may be of a different kind altogether, and indeed, a non-physical power, like that of the orator or the martyr, may be far more powerful, as he suggests.  This, I think, is a clever and key move.  Too often, we tend to think of “power” in a very negative light, and treat all these other means as “powerful” only in a metaphorical sense.  But Leithart invites us to here to refuse to fall prey to the temptation to identify coercive force as the essence of power; power in itself is something much more pluriform and mysterious, and violence is but one, and in the end, one of the least powerful, of the forms of exercising power.  He also forces us to reckon with the fact that the martyr’s is an exercise of power, not merely a renunciation of it, echoing themes from his Defending Constantine and highlighting the problems with a lot of fashionable rhetoric.  To be sure, it is a renunciation, but the renunciation is simply a means to exercise a greater power.  The martyr’s sacrifice is not a despairing suicide, or a mere passive acceptance, but a triumphant conquest of his foe, just as was the cross of Christ.  We fear that using the language of “power” and “conquest” in this connection will give us a militaristic Christ, but perhaps such co-optation of the language of power is actually the best antidote to militarism.

 

Second, Leithart manages to be simultaneously forthright about the wickedness of empires, including our own, while also keeping this within proper perspective—a balance that seems to elude most Christian discussions of the topic.  On the one hand, we are reminded that many empires, and certainly our own, in fact do a great deal of good, intended and unintended, alongside their evils (as many contemporary intellectuals such as Niall Ferguson have been eager to point out), but this is quickly counterpointed with the insistence “The benefits from empires do not excuse the behavior of empires. We cannot give ourselves a pass on international folly and injustice by congratulating ourselves on the good things we do”—a principle that Ferguson does not appear to have grasped.  He enumerates just a few of our own unexcusable evils in a paragraph that is quite restrained overall (“Native Americans have many legitimate complaints against the U.S., as do Latin American countries” might be a little understated), but which still will discomfit many right-wing Christians at points (“While we Americans congratulated ourselves for our Christian charity in civilizing the Philippines, other Americans were killing Filipinos or herding them into concentration camps. For decades, we have deliberately dropped bombs on civilians and slaughtered hundreds of thousands.”)  

I will confess that I am not entirely satisfied with the balance that Leithart seeks to strike here; I think he goes too far, in his paragraph headed (sensibly enough) “American hegemony is not an undiluted evil”, in concluding “Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the neoconservatives are right.”  Of course, he is trying to be provocative, but I am still not sure that I would agree with the proposition (to which I take it he is alluding) that “on balance and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world today.”  To “consider the alternatives” is a very difficult matter, both historically and morally, but I would like to see it asserted, a little more clearly than it was in this brief sketch, that many of America’s evildoings in the past few decades are not merely occasional incidents of bad behavior, but have been systemic and pathological.  On the other hand, Leithart is writing in First Things, so I expect there’s a limit to how far he can deviate from the Neuhaus party line.

In any case, I eagerly await the promised harvest of further reflection on this subject, to which Leithart intimates these theses are preparatory.


The Late Great United States: A Lament

Today, August 2, 2011, the US Congress managed to agree not to send the country headlong into bankruptcy.  While we may be glad that the threat of financial Armageddon was averted for the time being, it would be an understatement to call this a Pyrrhic victory, coming as it did at the cost of the last shreds of American credibility abroad and unity at home.  Indeed, perhaps someday this day will be remembered as a symbolic milestone in the decline and fall of the American Empire.  Certainly, whether you mourn or celebrate the end of American hegemony, it is an occasion that calls for a pause for sober reflection.  

It is a perhaps clichéd now to declare that we live in the twilight days of America’s world domination; indeed, I suspect that just as the 20th century is now seen as the “American Century,” the verdict of history will mark 2001, the turn of the century, as the turning point, the year when the engine of American economic growth sputtered to a halt, when America sought to flex its muscles in response to external attack and gained nothing from the exercise but the hatred of former friends, when a maverick Texan president decided to take the country on a glorious John Wayne expedition against the enemies of civilization that ended up as a ride into its own sunset.

Yet it was only the events of the past couple weeks that succeeded in bringing the fact of our decline home to me–the recognition that we live at the end of an era, on the cusp of uncertain and perhaps unhappy days.

 

To be sure, on paper we are still a mighty nation, teeming with people (around 300 million of them, and more immigrating every day) and money.  Although all empires must come to an end, the pieces are certainly there for us to pull together and eke out another several decades at the top of the pecking order.  Indeed, there is still no lack of commentators–particularly on the Right–claiming that our weakness is all in our heads, and that that all America needs is to shake off its self-doubt and reassume its destined role as Empress of the nations.  But whatever our resources may be on paper, history offers some sobering examples, such as the last days of the Persian Empire, in which an army of a million men melted before 50,000 Macedonian upstarts.  The lesson here is simple: without the capacity to act as one, any quantity of resources are useless.  And if the last few weeks prove anything, they prove that that capacity is far beyond our reach.  Sure, in theory, we could recover it, could agree to recognise one another as fellow citizens and engage again in rational debate.  But it hardly appears likely, especially when the demographic one might expect to be most pushing for charity and the pursuit of the common good–conservative Christians–seems most hell-bent on an atomistic society based on competing assertions of “rights.” 

I will not echo the tired chorus of Christian leaders that all this is the mark of divine disfavour for an ebbing faith, and that, but for our lack of faithfulness, America’s prosperity and power would know no bounds.   After all, I’m not at all sure that God is a fan of global hegemony–at least not by creatures–nor of boundless material prosperity.  Rather, I tend to think that if we’d been more faithful, we might in fact find ourselves living a bit more humbly and simply.  In any case, rather than seek the ultimate cause of our current malaise in the inscrutability of divine providence, let us seek rather the proximate cause–our own actions.  

 

Myriad vices could be listed, perhaps most of all our prodigality and taste for instant gratification.  But all these could perhaps be overcome, or at the very least, their noxious impacts blunted, by unity and resolution of purpose, a sense that we needed to transcend our differences and tackle such serious problems together.  Perhaps this was too much to expect of a populace as drunk on self-gratifying materialism as ours, but just maybe we could hope that our leaders would show such a spirit, especially when, by late 2008, after eight years of military, economic, and fiscal misadventures, America seemed to be derailing fast.  Perhaps the crisis would shake us out of complacency and division, and help us together seek a solution.

Whatever you think of his politics, Obama certainly offered America its most convincing opportunity at a fresh start, at a symbolic end to disunity, in decades.  The nation’s first black president, he symbolised a nation that could overcome enormous differences and prejudices; he was young, he was eloquent, he was, as much as one could expect, “outside the establishment.”  Even those deeply opposed to his policies should have welcomed the hope of transcending partisanship that he seemed to offer.  But the grand new experiment was torpedoed before it got off the ground.*

No sooner was Obama nominated than the so-called “Christian Right” promptly forgot (if it had ever remembered, which seems doubtful) the Golden Rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Obama was promptly demonised as a threat to all that was good and wholesome and American, and the Right not only resolved, but publicly confessed, that its number one priority was no longer to govern the nation (a concept to which, indeed, it seemed ideologically opposed) but to undermine Obama.  The attitude seemed to be that of a child, who, jealous at not being offered some privilege, resolved to at least make life thoroughly miserable for its sibling who had.  Throughout the past two years, the rest of the world has watched in growing unease as the ensuing display of childish political squabbling has reduced America’s government to near-impotence.  

All of this has reached its climax in the last few weeks of “negotiations” about the debt ceiling.  There is certainly more than enough blame to go around for the embarrassing spectacle that has played out, enough that most of the leaders involved ought to retire from politics in shame.  There have been plenty of cowardly retreats when a principled stand was called for, and stubborn assertions of principle when an intelligent compromise was called for; there have been bluffs that should have been called, and bluffs that never should have been made.  But the lion’s share must surely go to the Republicans, who had, after all, long since abandoned any pretensions at governing.  If you ever needed proof that elections mattered (and I had long dismissed them as a waste of time, since all the candidates were crooks anyway), this was it.  Last November’s “Tea Party” triumph has ushered into office a cadre of politicians committed to political tactics that represent either disgraceful depravity or else, if we are to give them the benefit of the doubt, delusionality.  Their policy appears to have been to hold the entire nation at gunpoint unless it consented to capitulate to their ideals, ideals that seem to display only a passing acquaintance with reality.

 

What can we expect as a result of all this?  The near-term consequences, of course, are a fallout of even more intense acrimony and partisanship, and worst of all, of posturing and demagoguery, as both sides seek to convince the American people that it was all the other side’s fault.  The forthcoming election season promises to be the worst in modern memory.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world, incredulous at the display they have just witnessed, will lose all remaining respect for us, and think twice about becoming more entangled with us than necessary.  The rating agencies, having witnessed Exhibit A in political paralysis, and our complete inability to make costly decisions, will most likely conclude that our debt problems will continue to worsen, and will downgrade our credit rating accordingly.  The political wranglings and half-hearted solutions will continue for a few years, until the day of reckoning can be put off no longer, and severe economic contraction is the cost of addressing the debt problem.  And when that happens, it is all too probable that the partisanship we have witnessed recently will look like child’s play in comparison.

This long slow descent into economic doldrums, political paralysis, and financial insolvency is the way that most empires pass into their uneasy senescence.  Few go out in a sudden blaze of glory like Carthage, or the implosion of a house of cards, like the Soviet Union.  Most simply decay from within, and are gradually rolled back from without.  Even if you are unhappy with the ugly story of American hegemony, as am I, its looming end is surely a cause for unease.

For few great nations, in their decline, see the handwriting on the wall and simply determine to accept their fate and make a quiet retreat from the world stage.  Accustomed to nothing but success and prosperity, their people first resort to denial, fervently maintaining, with increasingly shrill nationalist rhetoric, that they are still destined to lead, and then turning to scapegoating, as one class turns on another, or the nation as a whole turns on its neighbours.  In some cases, such as the decline of Spain in the 17th-century, the nation is simply doomed to chronic political discord and economic depression as its slowly deflates over decades.  But the results of France’s decline in the 18th century, and Germany’s in the early 20th, provide far more worrying test cases.  The only promising predecessor is Great Britain, who managed to bow fairly gracefully off of the world stage from 1900 to 1950, handing on the torch to America, and assuming a dull but comfortable emeritus status.  But the ease of Britain’s transition owes much to the existence of a daughter-nation who could take up her mantle, and perhaps more to the fact that two World Wars allowed Britain to decline without losing her honour, and inspired enough continued patriotism to keep her from falling into the devastating internal discord that has torn so many other decaying empires.

In any case, I will make no prognostications for the future.  I will not join in with the alarmists who see Red China as the great new enemy, spreading a pall of tyranny over the world, nor the optimists that think that in the new global marketplace, all will spontaneously unite in the peaceful pursuit of commerce and prosperity.  But in any case, Americans and their leaders must wake up to the sobering truth that the days of their children will not be as the days of their parents, and the sooner we abandon false hopes for the future, the better. 

 

Whatever happens, “the grass withereth, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord stands forever.”

And yet, we may still mourn the fading of the flowers.

*See follow-up post for clarification