Faithfulness, temptation and the Deuteronomic juncture

Is Constantinianism the most basic problem for Christian social ethics?

Marpeck Lecture, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 5 March 1998

For a fuller development of this lecture, see “Deuteronomic or Constantinian: What is the Most Basic Problem for Christian Social Ethics?” in The Wisdom of the Cross: Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, eds Stanley Hauerwas, et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 449-71.

Deuteronomy 8:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, …a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing…. You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, …to humble you and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

If one knows John Howard Yoder mainly as a leading spokesman for Christian pacifism, and reads only those writings which directly engage issues of war, peace, and church-state relations, one might conclude prematurely that for Yoder and for anyone who follows his lead, Constantinianism must be the single most basic problem for Christian social ethics. Though most helpful, such a reading entails a serious oversight if not a misunderstanding, with implications for both the pastoral agenda and the prophetic witness of the Church. For to define Constantinianism as the core problematic for Christian social ethics is to concentrate our ethical reflection on the effort to avoid evil and unfaithfulness — rather than the challenge of embracing the good in a faithful manner.

We would do better, then, to understand Constantinianism as only the most prominent instantiation of an even more basic problem, which bears with it an even more subtle temptation. This is the temptation of which Deuteronomy 6-9 warned God’s people, and which arose precisely because they were God’s people. Composing sometime late in Israel’s monarchy but projecting their warning back across the Jordan and into the mouth of Moses, the Deuteronomic writers did not doubt that God had wanted to give their once-oppressed people a land in which to prosper securely. Even so, God’s very gift had brought with it the highest moment of danger. For the day in which they seemed most fully to have entered the land and appropriated God’s gift was actually the moment when they had proven most likely to forget the Lord, to trust and credit their own power, or use their selective memory of God’s gracious deliverance as a blank check to possess the land in any way they chose.

This Deuteronomic juncture, then, presents God’s people with an even more fundamental challenge than the Constantinian juncture. It is the problem of how to receive and celebrate the blessing, the shalom, the good, or “the land” that none other than God desires to give, yet to do so without defensively and violently hoarding God’s blessing. The Christian community will neglect this challenge to its peril.

The Limits of Anti-Constantinianism

Whether or not Yoder himself has interpreted Constantinianism as the most basic problem for Christian social ethics, or has simply left this impression inadvertently, is unclear. But certainly he argued throughout his career that many of the most serious temptations Christians face are ones that involve decisions to embrace the state, its protection, its sword, and its idolatrous claim to be the primary source of social creativity or even God’s very Reign. If this recurring temptation bears the name of the fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine who legalized and favored Christianity, the astute politian was hardly its source. For if Constantine’s policies do mark a watershed in church history, his importance is still one that was conferred upon him at the time by bishops and other Christian leaders such as the church historian Eusebius. Constantinianism then is really all the reasons that they did so — trends that were already in place before Constantine and rationalizations that only a minority of Christians have resisted since. Yoder and his students have identified reasons — a general acculturation that slowly made it seem normal to imagine Christian sons and brothers as soldiers, loss of the ethical rigor especially on matters of bloodshed in favor of doctrinal rigor, and the easy assumption of Christians with growing access to power that they had a responsibility “to make history come out right.”[1]

One thing all of these explanations for church-state accommodation have in common are their attempt to trace backwards toward some basic mistake or cluster of mistakes — a point at which early Christians began to fall into temptation. Now, the so-called Church Fathers who pastored a fledgling Christian movement into new cultures throughout the Graeco-Roman world surely made mistakes and committed sins. The formative theologies that they created in the process, and sought to consolidate into the rough consensus of orthodoxy, must therefore remain subject to a reassessment that will ask how their more serious mistakes and sins may have skewed their theological legacy.

Yet the effort to root out Constantinianism will begin to yield diminishing returns unless we correct an oversight in our understanding of the relationship between faithfulness and temptation. We misconstrue the Constantinian temptation unless we attend not just to how unfaithfulness and evil may surely lead to further unfaithfulness but also to how faithfulness itself, and even the good that God gives, may become the occasion (even though not the source) for temptation.

Yoder might have agreed. His best-known book, The Politics of Jesus, strongly implies that some ways of being tempted are better than others.[2] Yoder argued that even though Jesus ultimately rejected the option of violent revolution that the Zealots of first-century Palestine presented to him, it tempted him far more than did other options — precisely because he was being faithful to God’s messianic calling to free captives, heal the sick, and proclaim a Jubilee that was good news to the poor. As Aristotle has taught Stanley Hauerwas to say, “The brave … know fears that cowards never experience.”[3] Likewise, Christians may sense some temptations precisely because they have faithfully begun to follow Christ on a path that others have not.

Furthermore, when Yoder addressed his own Mennonite community, especially during the first half of his career, his interests often lay somewhere that was logically and sociologically prior to Constantinianism. In essays of the period Yoder regularly employed lessons that the German theologian Ernst Troeltsch had drawn from church history early in the twentieth century when he wrote his magisterial work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches.[4] Such lessons served to warn Mennonites about ways in which rural settledness, economic prosperity, social complacency and ethnic self-containment could lead it to duplicate Constantinian dynamics on a small scale.[5] A small Christian community of believers committed to structuring its life together according to Jesus’ law of love — a Troeltschian “sect,” that is — could change into something more like an institutional “church,” which had accommodated itself to the sub-Christian ways that society generally employs wealth and power. Yoder’s use of Troetschian analysis underscored, if nothing else, his recognition that Constantinianism always begins before there is some Constantinian settlement proper — that some other problems always arise before an Emperor Constantine presents his tempting offer.

What Yoder has not so clearly recognized is that this chronological priority reflects a logical priority, the priority of the Deuteronomic juncture over the Constantinian one. After all, for North American Mennonites or any human community to have sought to enjoy a measure of peace, economic security and communal integrity was not in itself a sin. Such a desire in fact reflects the human need for God’s promised shalom. Nor was it a sin to have actually enjoyed some measure of this shalom, at least insofar as enjoyment was one fruit from faithful proclamation and response to a gospel announcing God’s peaceable, reconciling work in all relationships. To enjoy some measure of shalom does not preclude temptation, of course; instead it easily becomes the occasion for more subtle temptation. This means, however, that Constantine should represent to us the wrong way to embrace God’s promise of liberation, shalom and blessing in all of life. But we must not forget that God does want to free, heal and bless even if, in blessing, God risks the possibility that God’s people will abuse God’s gift. It is the Deuteronomic challenge of receiving and celebrating God’s gift without oppressing, violating and hoarding in new ways that is our most basic problem.

Failure to recognize this more basic problem than Constantinianism not only leads us to misconstrue the relationship between faithfulness and temptation but leads to other misunderstandings.

On one hand, focusing mainly on Constantinianism leads us to overinterpret church history yet undervalue some of its deepest lessons. If the central challenge for faithful Christians is seen as avoiding anything that might lead to Constantinian compromise, this notion easily beguiles believers in the peace churches and other dissenting traditions into thinking that a firm renunciation of church-state alliances and use of the sword is sufficient to avoid Constantinianism. Renunciation on this basis then sets up a we/them reading of church history that depends on evidence that “they” the mainstream Constantinian Christians have become the fallen church, in order to uphold the self-identity that “we” enjoy as the presumed faithful church. Never mind that this we/them reading ignores the prospect that even the “faithful” church always is and always has been fallen too. Underestimating the common Deuteronomic problematic that Christians all face prior to the Constantinian one actually makes us more vulnerable to both. For we fail to see that the central pastoral challenge is that of learning to live “in the land” — celebrating without hoarding God’s blessing, loving God without neglecting love of neighbor, loving neighbors without failing to welcome strangers and love enemies, all while ensuring that the liturgy and piety needed to sustain these practices does not inadvertantly distract from them.

Meanwhile, the same we/them interpretation of church history easily leads anti-Constantinians to turn a deaf ear to that wisdom which has in fact emerged from “classical” theology as done within other “mainstream” parts of the Christian tradition. One does not have to agree with the conclusions Reinhold Niebuhr reached in one of his most famous anti-pacifist essays in order to agree with him that Christianity offers more than merely a new law or ethic of love. Instead, wrote Niebuhr, it “measures the total dimension of human existence” and announces that “there is a resource of divine mercy which is able to overcome a contradiction within our own souls, which we cannot ourselves overcome.”[6] The teaching, liturgy, sacraments and spirituality of the larger Christian tradition can remind pacifists of what they may learn too late if they seek to follow Christ and form communities of love through their own efforts alone: God’s grace must sustain discipleship. We love because God first loved us. We need God’s grace even to receive rightly God’s gifts and faithfully respond. Prophets too need pastors.

On the other hand, overlooking the common temptation to misuse even God’s very gifts may actually allow Christians in the all-too-Constantinian mainstream to turn their own deaf ear to the prophetic challenge of those who would resist every Constantine and refuse every sword. God’s unmerited offer of salvation and God’s gracious blessing hardly constitute a blank check for any possible way of appropriating God’s gifts and putting them to use, nor a vindication of our favorite national, tribal, economic or ecclesiastical causes.[7] The rightness of doctrine, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the authenticity of apostolic succession, the grace in sacraments, the reality of healed lives among ordinary believers, the communion of saints, and the wisdom of pastoral care do not of necessity mitigate that most basic and subtle temptation to appropriate unfaithfully and ungratefully the very goods that God has given. Becoming clear about this will actually allow anti-Constantinians to pose their prophetic challenge to other Christians more poignantly and normatively.

There is even something right about the vision of Christendom — as that societas in which right relationship with God is rightly ordering and reintegrating every relationship and all of life. Yoder’s followers have rarely noticed, but the Christendom vision is itself a vision of shalom. If we see the Deuteronomic rather than the Constantinian juncture as presenting our most basic challenge, we can insist just as strongly but even more clearly than we have done, that historic “Christendom” represents a premature effort to grasp through faithless violence at the fullness of life that is God’s to give fully at the eschaton. In other words, peace churches should be able to witness even more forcefully and prophetically to the Constaninian “mainstream” if they do not view it as utterly fallen. For it is precisely the prospect that orthodox Christianity has gotten some things quite right that its misappropriation of God’s gifts for limited, selfish, tribal and non-catholic ends is so much the greater scandal to God’s saving purposes in history.

Neither mainstream nor dissident Christian traditions can be complacent, according to this view. For if Constantinianism is not the most basic problem for Christian social ethics, then both are more clearly forewarned. The warning to mainstream traditions recapitulates the one that Israel’s prophets struggled to drive into stubborn ears: chosenness does not preclude judgment but renders it more likely and more serious. Meanwhile, the warning to dissenting traditions is this: they are hardly exempt from temptation because they renounce Constantine, and in fact become more vulnerable to it by neglecting their more basic temptation. And so the warning to both echoes that of the stern mechanic in old advertisements for Fram oil filters. Standing in front of a thousand-dollar engine overhaul that the customer could have avoided, and holding up the pricey oil filter that would have prevented far more expensive damage, the mechanic spoke with foreboding: “Pay me now. Or pay me later.”

The Primacy of the Deuteronomic Juncture

In the longer version of the paper I am writing I include a section here that walks through biblical and early Christian materials in order to show why we may legitimately transpose the original Deuteronomic challenge of living rightly in the land and chart its pattern in challenges that Christian communities seem regularly to face after their first generation.

John Yoder has taught us that Jesus brought a fresh option into the caldron of post-exilic Israel’s debate over whether they needed to control the land of Palestine in order to be a faithful people, and how to relate to other powers if this was not possible. I interpret the “original revolution” and the “politics of Jesus” as the creation of a new kind of peoplehood through a new way of entering into the land. After Jesus, “the land” becomes a redemptive community life that is not finally tied to any actual terrain, nor thus to the kind of tribal or national defense that always excludes some whom God is calling out “from every tribe and language and people and nation” to make into “a kingdom and priests serving our God, and [thus] reign on earth.”

Jesus’ inauguration of a “new community” did not exempt this community from analogues to Israel’s Deuteronomic juncture, however. As the early church struggled to balance the evangelical thrust toward inclusion with the need for church discipline and a clear moral witness,[8] it was negotiating one dimension of its own Deuteronomy-like challenge. But the most famous dimension of this challenge came as Jesus’ delayed return increasingly forced Christians to discern how God would have them labor in the world, rework pre-Christian social relationships, organize their own institutional life, and weigh the demands of family life. An early second century document, The Shepherd of Hermas, shows that in order to negotiate this challenge, Christians had to rework — and yet maintain — an eschatological perspective. Three centuries later, with negative lessons of Constantine beginning to set in, Augustine would make even clearer that the Christian community must find its way within a field of eschatological tension, lest Christians settle too complacently into any land.

Augustine’s eschatology did not provide definitive answers about how to live in the land as a pilgrim people. In part, he left the question unanswered because the dynamic of pilgrimage and the eschatological tension of exile render every answer tentative and partial. For another part, he obscured the answer by his own recourse to violence, which tempted him to do what his own theological intuitions might have rendered impossible — to grasp at the fullness of God’s peaceable end before its time, as though it were not after all a gift of grace. What Augustine nonetheless did make clear is that the fundamental challenge of the Deuteronomic juncture had not gone away.

For Augustine had at least posed the right question again, even while his more problematic answers underscored the very warning of Deuteronomy to “take care.” For even when and especially if the eschaton is delayed, Christians must then beware lest they become complacent; they must then articulate their gospel in a way that applies redemptively to this “land” and this life in time. Yet as soon as they begin living out God’s promise of redemption in life and time rather than placing their hope only beyond history, they must live in that very “land” which God gives, in a way that nonetheless sustains a tension with landedness and temporality itself.

So it is that Constantine remains a major temptation and a false answer but is not, finally, our primary problem. Life is our problem. The first of God’s gifts is the very goodness of creation, and though sin has intervened, God’s saving restoration of life and the good of right relationship actually re-poses the question: How to anticipate the temptation and avoid the unfaithfulness that will find an occasion in God’s very gift? How to live rightly in “the land?”

The Agenda of Christian Social Ethics

Once we recognize that the greatest occasion for temptation is the very good that God gives, the links between a number of difficulties in Christian social ethics start to come into clearer focus. To meet at the Deuteronomic juncture does not require Christians of historically divergent traditions to agree from the outset on their answers to the problem that it poses, but chiefly to agree that it might allow them to debate their differences more fruitfully.

Still, my argument so far has brought with it two methodological implications and will now proceed according to a third: (1) Insofar as critiques of Constantinianism either serve or depend upon a “fall of the church” paradigm for interpreting church history, they tend to be dysfunctional — not just for ecumenical debate,[9] but for ethical discernment within those very churches that historically have defined themselves over against some “fallen” mainstream Christianity. (2) Inasmuch as good itself is the most important occasion for temptation, one can never assume an inexorable link between some present unfaithfulness or moral dilemma and prior theological mistakes or ethical blunders. To be sure, no idea may enjoy a genealogy pure from self-interest and will to power; there are better and worse theologies; hermeneutics of suspician have a place. Nonetheless, suspician is not disproof. Theology and ethical reflection done within a “Constantinian” church is not necessarily wrong all the way down.

These two implications clear the way for us to act constructively upon the suggestion that (3) all who have received life in the name of Christ do share a common agenda to debate and discern. I will outline this agenda as a series of paired concerns that must stay in conversation with one another in order for Christians to negotiate how they will live in “the land” and appropriate the good that God gives. Inevitably I will hint at the direction I believe this conversation might best proceed, but my larger argument does not stand or fall on whether others would quickly agree to go the same direction. My argument, after all, is simply that any Christian community that would be faithful will have to answer to both poles of each tension — sooner or later, one way or another. Thus, ethical debates within and among Christian communities will prove most fruitful if we face our common agenda outright:

Landedness and Diaspora. Some may be objecting that I have equivocated by speaking both figuratively and literally of the challenge to live rightly in “in the land.” Others may have become positively uneasy about making ancient Israel’s occupation — of inhabited land, cities, houses, cisterns, vineyards and olive groves that others had built and planted (Deut. 6:10-11) — such a fundamental source for Christian ethical reflection. But the relationship between figurative “land,” actual land, and the shalom God promises is precisely what requires discernment. From its beginning Christianity has represented an argument with the more exclusionary and land-locked tendencies within Judaism. Thus, we should have resources for discerning peaceable relationships to land, and the overlapping communities that might live in a land, without recourse to conquest or Constantine.

But let us be clear: We do no favor to any dispossessed people if we think of land only in a figurative rather than a very earthy sense. We dare not embrace the urbane delusion of those who consume the products of late industrial society while pretending not to be in relationship with the land at all. If Constantinian ways of living in the land are what have left us uneasy about speaking to the question of land, then we should both renounce Constantine and demonstrate positive models for dwelling in the land without ejecting other inhabitants.

Liberation and responsibility. The fact that many of us continue to benefit from oppressive ways of controlling land and exploiting its resources makes it dicey to criticize or advise those who now fight for their share. One message of Deuteronomy is that it may yet be possible for the poor and the rich to meet imaginatively back across the Jordan to share experiences and wisdom from both sides. To look for perspective on that side of the Jordan is to exercise a “preferential option” for those who are making an exodus and longing for a fuller taste of the fruit of a promised land. Yet even so, the warning obtains: “Take care.” Sooner or later any successful social movement or revolution must institutionalize the changes it proposes. The way a people or community “enters into the land” will inevitably condition the way it dwells there.

One kind of case for nonviolence begins, then, with the Deuteronomy-like warning to take care — but so does another kind of case for social responsibility. A restorationist impulse has often accompanied the formation of historical peace churches. The idea is that if only the church could cross back across the Constantinian divide, it might be able to start over and cross the Jordan some other way, so to speak. Even as peace churches argue that the Constantinian way of “living in the land” has been wrong, however, they must still eventually take on the challenges not only of faithful critique, but of faithful settling, faithful institution-building, and faithful management of community life. They cannot expect their critique to be credible if they bring a principled suspicion to all institution-building in se, or to all exercize of authority by leaders called to focus communal life, or to all forms of discipline. If the only alternative that peace churches, free churches, and other reform movements within Christianity have to offer is a perpetual starting over with primitive forms of face-to-face community, then they are admitting that they really have no idea how to live long in the very land that God would give them.

Peaceableness and policing. Once a social movement or a church has begun to enjoy some good gift, it also has something to conserve and protect. So if the community has not anticipated its Deuteronomic jucture, it now arrives there flat-footed, unprepared for the occasion for its greatest and most subtle temptation. It has prospered. It experiences a certain security. And if some of its members — its children, its aged, its infirm — inevitably remain more vulnerable than others, that vulnerability seems to justify protective measures, perhaps in the name of love for these neighbors. Before we attribute this dynamic simply to inevitable moral compromise let us notice that the matter has deeper roots: “Prosperity” and “security” are legitimate (if partial) translations of the word shalom.

To be sure, preachers have abused the term “prosperity” and politicians have abused the term “security.” They have been able to do so, however, precisely because these are goods that God desires to give to all peoples, and for which all peoples long. The question for Christian ethicists is not whether but how. Once again, our root challenge is to discern how to live in the land of God’s promise in a peaceable way, a way consistent with our conviction that the land is in fact God’s gracious gift rather than a property of our own seizing. The argument of Christian pacificts against lethal forms of coercion begins with the recognition that because God in Christ has refused to consign any one or any people to the permanent status of enemy, neither may we. A community that embodies this argument would rather renounce its present claim even upon God’s gift of shalom than deny the love of enemy that God has shown to it by calling it together as community of reconciliation even “while we were enemies.” For it believes that to “protect” God’s gift of shalom in a way that excludes others from its very possibility, is in fact to lose God’s gift in another way.

Implicit here is the reminder that Christians will discern how to live in the land by the light of their eschatology.[10] The “not yet” in the eschatological life of the Church may well mean that Christian pacifists must recognize the need for some form of policing, and accept the challenge of developing non-lethal sanctions. Even so, the “already” of eschatological life means that the Church can hold lightly to the goods that God gives in this life, and stake its life together on its trust that historical existence does not limit the Giver’s promise. If “the land” into which Christians have entered is a reconciled community drawn from all tribes and nations, then we must “take care” lest we forget the nonviolent cross that wrought our own exodus into this land and so find ourselves living in some other land, by attempting to defend it now in some other way.

Discipline and hospitality. Perhaps the most subtle versions of Deuteronomic temptation are those that arise from within the church’s own life. Gaining clarity on how to live in the land does not eliminate the need to judge between behaviors and ways of life, but in fact implies already the judgment that some moral patterns are better than others — more conducive to human thriving because more compatible with God’s intention for God’s creation and people. And yet it has been the very judgment of the Christian community that its way of life and identity includes a fundamental commitment to welcome strangers and outcasts who may (paradoxically) challenge its identity or fit uneasily into its own community life. Thus, the Christian community will fulfill its calling only when it practices both discipline and hospitality. For the path of faithfulness runs between the twin temptations of rigid exclusiveness and the kind of careless inclusiveness that would erode its identity altogether.[11]

Current debates over homosexuality seem most intractable precisely when the discipline and hospitality are pitted against each other rather than held in tension. For of all human communities, this one especially requires both a disciplined corporate life that witnesses to its vision of the life God intended for human beings and a hospitality that welcomes the presence and the challenge of those who struggle to live up to the standards inherent in that vision — or who represent another vision entirely. On one hand, then, those who urge the church to recognize monogamous same-sex relations will only be convincing if they make their case in such a way that they reaffirm the right and responsibility of the Christian community to uphold moral standards compatible with its witness and vision. On the other, those who urge the church not to do so will only be convincing if they demonstrate the kind of thoroughgoing hospitality that has sat long with those who would challenge them with stories of pain, struggle and grace.

But this highly contested matter provides only the most current and pressing example of the creative and underlying tension between discipline and hospitality that is inherent in the very calling of the church. A congregation confronts the tension in a small but hardly trivial way when it weighs the relative need for “contemporary Christian music” that might be accessible to diverse social classes or new generations, and older hymns that sustain continuity with longer and deeper Christian traditions. Missionaries face it in a hundred ways when they seek to present the Christian message as good news that makes claims upon its hearers even as it requires its proclaimers to respect their dignity, their cultures, their worth and even their best religious insights. In none of these cases will we find the path of faithfulness by suppressing one pole of tension, but only by embracing the tension itself.

And so with each of the poles of tension that together define the challenge of living in the land that God gives — the basic agenda of Christian social ethics.

Conclusion: The Task of Normative Ecclesiology

If my argument leaves no one happy, perhaps that is inevitable. Since one lesson is that divergent Christian traditions must take one another’s challenges quite seriously, the argument should leave no one unchallenged. And if my conclusion leaves no one with a tidy sense of closure, perhaps that too is fitting. Since one lesson is that any normative ecclesiology must anticipate tension for as long as the church continues its pilgrimage through history, the argument suggests a paradox: Christians can only live rightly in the “land” that God gives if they nonetheless sustain a tension with landedness itself. Recognizing our shared Deuteronomic problem — how to live in the land that God gives without abusing God’s very gift? — will thus bring no easy comfort to any tradition without a corresponding discomfort.

Comforting to mainstream traditions, and discomforting to dissenters, is the message that like it or not, we are all in this together. Like it or not, those of us in dissident traditions dare not see ourselves as immune from the challenge and the call to live faithfully in the “land” through time, simply because we renounce Constantine. Thinking we are immune will only make us more vulnerable to the temptations that find occasion in God’s very blessing, more resistant to the grace that enables us to be faithful while forgiving us when we fail, and less likely to appropriate God’s blessing in grateful and responsible ways.

Ethicists from mainstream traditions can say “we told you so” if they like, but here is the bargain: To recognize that he problem of Deuteronomy is the most basic problem for Christian social ethics will also be comforting to dissenters in other ways, and discomforting to the mainstream. For it underscores the message that the free church tradition already embodies by its very dissent from the institutional unity of historical Christendom. This message is that the task of discerning a normative ecclesiology in its full sociological sense has been violently suppressed at worst, and remains sadly unfinished at best.

Perhaps it must remain unfinished until the end. But that then is the normative claim which the Deuteronomic warning imposes upon all ecclesiology. Do enter the land, for God desires to grace you with good. Yes, do. But live there with the care and lightness that recognizes all land and all good as gift. As Hermas would say, the tower is not yet completed. As Augustine would add, no earthly tower of our own making is true or stable enough to become a worthy home. And of course the writer of Hebrews said it first, citing the obedience of Abraham, Sarah and all those witnesses who have “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11:10). It is they who are really the ones who can tell us all, “We told you so.”


1. John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, ed, with an introduction by Michael G. Cartwright, with a foreword by Richard J. Mouw (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 152-57, 198-203, 388 pp.

2. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2d ed., reprint, 1972 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994). Also see John H[oward] Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism, Christian Peace Shelf (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1971), 13-33.

3. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 8, 121. Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing Company, 1985), 3.6.

4. Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 2 vols, translated by Olive Wyon, with an introduction by Richard Niebuhr, reprint, 1981 (New York; reprint, Chicago: Macmillan; University of Chicago Press, 1931).

5. In an unpublished but widely-circulated essay — “Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality,” lecture presented at Goshen Biblical Seminary forum (1969) — Yoder argued, for example, that ethnically-defined Mennonitism was not really Anabaptist at all but a “small Christendom … a Corpus Sulum Christianum, a small Christian body, a Christian corpuscle.”

6. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist,” in Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scibner’s Sons, 1940), 2.

7. The logic of unmerited favor would seem to render this a truism needless to say, yet the historical record demands that we do say.

8. In Ephesians 2, for example, Paul’s affirmation that Christ has broken down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile comes with a reminder that God’s grace had called all of them out of a deadening life of “trespasses and sins,” “desires of flesh and senses,” and “wrath,” in order to walk in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Breaking down of ethnic and cultural walls did not mean that the new community could or should dispense with moral boundary markers.

9. After all, to cite ecumenism as a self-evident value would be question-begging in this context.

10. The argument is of course akin to Yoder’s own, but also akin to more recent observations by the Roman Catholic moral theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill in Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).

11. I have addressed the paradoxical identity of the Christian community more extensively in “Beyond Two- Versus One-Kingdom Theology: Abrahamic Community as a Mennonite Paradigm for Engagement in Society,” Conrad Grebel Review 11, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 201-05.