constantine, Eugene McCarraher, history, John Howard Yoder, R. Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, William Cavanaugh

Discussing Constantinianism and More

The last post, On Cornel West, Constantinianism and Adjusting Hauerwas, I had sent to a friend of mine, Adam, a few days ago. We developed an email conversation that I thought clarified well what we were both saying and would work as a continuation post. Also, I have redacted it some to get to the arguments, honest, we’re not that cold.

Thanks for sending me this. I would very much like to read both West and Stout someday.

That said, Yoder and Haeurwas are my “dirty dogs,” as they say, and I have to get their backs when I see them criticized. Your critique claims that they need to move to a more “visible”, “radical”, and “public” struggle for justice. In order for you to assert this, however, you have to deal with the fact that their original arguments are made precisely in the context of these essentially Niebuhrian contentions. The Constantinian account of history may not be airtight (myself I think it’s just misnamed), but that does not offer you any ground for saying that they are not visible, radical, or public. You know as well as I do that for Yoder and Hauerwas, the Church simply being the Church is the most radical thing possible, period. And they, and I, would never cede to you that the church is not visible or public. It may not fit your definition of public and visible, but you need to engage with their redefinition (I’m sure you’ve done plenty of thinking on that, and just don’t represent it here). For them, to become visible and public in the sense that (I think) you are hoping for means an inevitably doomed attempt to seek to express Christian truth in a narrative (democracy/liberalism/human rights/etc.) that simply does not have the structural capacity to bear it.

Hoping this conversation can be taken up at the Horse Brass,

Don’t get me wrong, I like Hauerwas and Yoder. However, I do know – because Hauerwas literally told me so – that “Dorrien’s critique in Soul in Society was excellent” (which does seem similar to West’s critique in this book). He also said that he didn’t speak up much and wouldn’t speak up anymore on race and gender because he didn’t want to co-opt the voice. I’ve also heard it said that Hauerwas thinks Cone has made it very difficult, if not impossible for white people to speak (maybe he has, maybe he hasn’t). However, I have heard Cone tell us in class to speak up, especially white people because it takes both sides to work through this.

My critique here is very much something that is attempting to include liberation theology. Certainly the church already is visible and public. [Intentional community not to be named] is public, open and welcoming. By their very existence they call into question the social order. I include the muslim scholars because they seem to have the commitment to their story, community and not working directly within the nation-state, while at the same time they continue to seek liberation. I also see this in Witness Against Torture who come out of the Catholic Worker. In fact, Hauerwas brings up the Catholic Worker and more specifically Dorothy Day as an exemplar of Resident Aliens.

I deal with Niebuhrian contentions everyday here at Union, especially because Cone is doing a Niebuhr class right now and I’m now on a dorm floor, however, the critique here isn’t so Niebuhrian as much as it is black people telling me that racism matters. I want the church to do more than create a space of the Kingdom because the Kingdom also seeks out the world – this again is not Niebuhr, but a watered down social gospel. That said, I still love the Kingdom ecclesiology and Kingdom ethics that Yoder and Hauerwas talk about, the point here is to instead add on top a verbalizing of the prophetic nature of the church. I’m not calling the church to start voting – I still don’t and don’t plan on it. I want to see the church protesting, I want to see the Ekklesia Project be more than just white people, or at least it was nearly all white people for the summer conference. I want to see us condemn racism, torture and the American dream as Christians. I want to see us reflect that condemnation in our diversity while we talk about it. And of course the modern nation-state has an imperial legacy that dates back to Constantine it seems, however, thats too far back in some senses and doesn’t situate us in the present as well as understand the modern nation-state as it truly is a colonizer of race and religion in a very tangible way. And those of us who don’t see it may be the most co-opted of all. So really, I want to radicalize the church even more in the eyes of the world – while the church being the church is the church being the Kingdom, and so an invasion of this fallen world, I also want to see the Kingdom spreading against structural evils. The crazy thing about this in the eyes of Union people here is that I want the church to be communal to do this, not through Washington.


I feel like I can get behind everything you’re saying, but again want to insist that it is all accounted for within the Yoder/Hauerwas paradigm. I believe every bit as much as you that the church is called to resist structural injustice. However, (and I feel like maybe you were hinting at this in your last paragraph) structural evils cannot be remedied by individuals operating in the democratic process, but must be contradicted by an alternative structure. And of course that alternative structure is the church, which is already by virtue of its very existence a voice “louder than bombs” – and I would add marches and rallies.

– Adam

I go with the Yoder/Hauerwas paradigm when it comes to the church as an ecclesial body and that alternative structure is necessary. However, quite frankly, their history is kindof flawed. First, my complaints on Constantinianism you’ve already heard. Second, a better history – both when it comes to content and relevance lies in Cavanaugh. Sure Rome was imperial and that maintains certain connotations of stealing land from the peasants, however, the modern nation-state is that and more – a colonizer of lands and people with the use of race and gender. In fact, I think running with Cavanaugh and McCarraher radicalizes the church because it talks explicitly about our relationship with the government and the market right now. This also seems to me to open up the church towards direct action. As Constantinianism is vague on history, that vagueness extends into opposition to evil structures. Simply, Constantinianism doesn’t challenge enough both us and the state. I think if the church is more directly challenged, those who take their Christianity seriously will leave the bourgeois christianity (that Metz dislikes/hates so much) behind and speak louder. Simply put, I think we can retain a solid, communal ecclesiology and speak loudly, visibly (that the black community calls me to do) if we understand better the history/story that we are in. We will not work with the colonizers. Solidarity with the poor and oppressed however can be both in visible action and subversive being.


I think this most recent email of yours clarifies for me what you were getting at in the revised account of history. That part I can definitely get behind. I think that for the most part, the Y/H construal of history as constantinian has vague (perhaps intentionally) by virtue of its rhetorical role as that which opposes their vision of the church. I do think it works for them initially, but for the church to move and act on their vision, I would definitely aggree that their needs to be a concerted effort to engage with and even appropriate other “independent” critical theories.

– Adam


2 thoughts on “Discussing Constantinianism and More

  1. Halden says:

    David what is this “Constantinian history” that you refer to? Is it just a sort of Christian historiagraphy that traces all of our current woes back to Constantine – and thus, I assume ignoring other more pernicious causal influences that are more immediately at hand (modern nation-state, capitalism, etc)?

    I don’t want an idealized narrative of Constantinianism, but I don’t think it can be ignored, not least in terms of how it created the political context for the medieval sythesis out of which was birthed the philosophical and political atmosphere that occasioned the rise of nation-states, free-markets, and ultimately “relgion”.

  2. d. w. horstkoetter says:

    The Constantinian history I am referring to is something of the Hauerwas flavor – Constantine hooking violent imperial power with the church, however, it isn’t only him, Cornel West said he agrees with Hauerwas on it. My over all problem with it is not the broad picture it paints, for that is important and I did say it is defensible from that standpoint. After all, we did get to where we are now through 2,000 years of history, not 500. But when one looks for the details, the details just don’t exist much with Constantine.

    And so if we situate the church in contrast to Constantine as our primary focus, then we lack depth to challenge our current situation beyond that one issue. Simply, Constantine history lacks nuance and addressing the plurality of issues that have risen today in the unique way that the state and market has colonized the world and the church.

    So in the end, I’m not saying that Constantinian history is unvaluable, but it is deeply empty. We should have something far more relevant for our ultimate focus to regularly reform our current identity and thus allows for the continual, interrupting praxis of solidarity, as Metz would say.

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