Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.9
[Published in Sharon L. Baker and Michael Hardin, eds., Peace Be With You: Christ’s Benediction Amid Violent Empires (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2010), 120-37.]
John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian and advocate for Christian pacifism, as much as anybody in the last half of the 20th century, popularized the Christian critique of Constantinianism. “Constantinianism” refers to a way of looking at power in social life. The term evokes the Roman emperor Constantine who, in the fourth century, initiated major changes in the official policies of Rome vis-à-vis Christians, changes by and large embraced by the Christians. Indicative of the changes, at the beginning of the fourth century few Christians performed military service due to a sense of mutual antipathy between Christians and the military. By the end of the fourth century, the Empire had instituted rules that made it illegal for anyone who was not a Christian to be in the military.
Yoder has been criticized for being overly simplistic in his use of Constantine as such a central metaphor. I think the criticisms are largely unfair, but for this essay I want to concern myself with Yoder’s application of this symbolic label more than whether it’s fully historically appropriate or not. That is, what Yoder means by Constantinianism is simply this: believing that the exercise of power is necessarily violent, that the state appropriately holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, that God’s will is in some sense funneled through the actions of the heads of state, that Christians should work within the structures of their legitimately violent nation-states taking up arms when called upon to do so, and that history is best read through the eyes of people in power.
Most people who have read the Gospels agree that Jesus stands in tension with Constantinianism. For most Christians in the past 2,000 years, the apostle Paul has been seen as a key bridge who prepared the way for the Constantinian shift in the early 4th century CE. Thus it is no accident that after Constantine, Paul’s writings become central for Christian theology (much more so than the Gospels)—we see this already the great “Father of the church,” Augustine in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Augustine is still considered Christianity’s greatest interpreter of Paul (along with the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther).
For John Howard Yoder, though, the Constantinian shift was not inevitable and certainly not a good thing, and Augustine and Luther are not definitive interpreters of Paul. In fact, for Yoder, Augustine’s and Luther’s interpretations of Paul have led to great mischief—not least in how these interpretations have leant themselves to presenting Paul (or at least Paul’s theology) as a servant of Empire.
My interest here is to look at Yoder’s non-Constantinian reading of Paul and to suggest that indeed Paul’s theology provides us powerful resources that might help us walk faithfully with Jesus today as peace churches in a world still all too Constantinian. Yoder devotes his book The Politics of Jesus to explaining what Jesus’ life and teaching have to say to Empire.
A central part of his argument has to do with a way of reading the entire New Testament (and, implicitly, the entire Bible) in light of Jesus’ life and teaching. This way of reading includes paying close attention to the writings of Paul. One of the many ways Yoder challenges the standard account of Christian faith is to make the case (in some detail) for reading Paul’s thought as resting firmly in full continuity with Jesus. Continue reading