Between Babel and Beast: Reviewing Peter Leithart’s Political Theology (Pt. 1)

Editor’s note:  I am pleased to publish this two part review by Brian Auten of Peter Leithart’s new book.  Brian is a reader and friend of mine and this review is both substantive and important.  I commend both parts to you, eagerly, and encourage you to buy the book itself.  

From now until July 31st, using LEITHART as a coupon code at Wipf and Stock will save you 40% off the cover price.  

In his recent remarks about Christian-and-conservative political activity of a “non-culture war” variety, Matt drew attention, among other things, to the church’s identity as a counter-polis and the potential of a responsibility-focused (in contrast to a virtue-focused) definition of American exceptionalism.  As regards the first, the church, as Matt put it, has “its own culture, [symbols], ways of speaking and manners of formation” and one shouldn’t think they have to be Anabaptist or pitch their tents in the Hauerwas/Yoder campground in order to appreciate the importance of the local church – its collective witness, theological formation and discipleship – for Christian political engagement.

Riffing from Douhat, Matt’s second point on American exceptionalism is one that would also be familiar to readers of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War Against Terror (not to mention almost any Marvel or DC superhero comic): the United States is exceptional because it’s been blessed with immense power, which means that it will be judged – with the rest of the quick and the dead – as to whether its power has been used responsibly, ethically and justly.

babel and beast leithartMatt’s points provide an uncannily well-timed segue into Peter J. Leithart’s soon-to-be-released polemic, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Perspective (Cascade Books, 2012).  Billed as a book-length footnote to his recent Defending Constantine, Between Babel and Beastcontinues Leithart’s long-term project of showing how the “kingdoms of the world have and will, more and more, become kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ” and how the church’s presence means “always and forever, an end to ‘business as usual’ [in the earthly city].”12

Defending Constantine is Leithart’s treatise against Yoderian interpretations of early church pacifism, the church’s ostensible fourth-century fall and “Constantinian” captivity.  In Defending, Leithart addressed what he had identified in earlier work as the central disconnect in Yoderian and Hauerwasian political theology – namely, if the church is indeed a polis, why the apoplexy over any explicitly Christian ordering of worldly politics?  “Will the king always refuse to listen?” asked Leithart in what is undoubtedly the most succinct—and one of the more trenchant–critiques of Hauerwas, “[And] when the king begins to listen, must the church fall silent [and refuse to succeed]?”3  While Leithart has conceded that Constantine by no means an unsullied model of Christian political engagement,4 the point is that, first and foremost, he listened, and because he listened, the empire, over time, turned its back on religious sacrifice (“de-sacrificed”) and was “baptized.”

But if emperors can rule (again, at least in part) in accordance with the church’s teaching, and empires as political types can, in fact, be baptized, what of the current theological clamor regarding God’s preferential option for the non-imperial polity?  The first three chapters of Between Babel and Beast offer Leithart’s corrective to the large-and-ever-growing body of post-Richard Horsley literature on the so-called “anti-imperial gospel” and the empire-subverting aspect of the New Testament epistles.

Leithart’s book is, he himself admits, late to the empire-focused theological party—an accurate assessment given that the high water mark for the topic in evangelical circles probably occurred during George W. Bush’s final two years in office5—but the belatedness hasn’t tarnished his exegetical and historical analysis.  Following Horsley, and in contrast to full-bore “anti-imperial gospel” proponents like Wes Howard-Brook, Leithart presents a variegated picture of empires in the Old and New Testaments.  Empires can be good or bad, and are to be evaluated by the justness of their deeds and their ends, both of which are subject to change.

In Leithart’s typology, there is God’s kingdom – the basileia or “Abrahamic imperium” of which there is no end – and the worldly empires, which he separates into three categories: cherubic guardians [of God’s people];” intolerant, totalizing Babels; and beasts satiated by the “eat[ing of] Abrahamic flesh and drink[ing of] holy blood.” “Let us make a name for ourselves,” declared those original settlers on the plain of Shinar, blueprints firmly in hand, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Using Genesis 11 as his springboard, Leithart describes Babelic empires as coercive, religious and political homogenizers who try to maximize security and stave off irrelevance and obscurity.  He argues they embody over-realized eschatologies, believing they represent, on earth, the sole political telos.  Bestial empires take another, darker step.  They are not just intolerant of difference; they harass and martyr the people of God.

Drawing from his work on I and II Kings from the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series, as well as what I expect is a preview of his forthcoming commentary on Revelation (which I’m hoping will interact with The Days of Vengeance, an expository look at Revelation by the late David Chilton, one of Leithart’s fellow Tyler Circle travelers), Leithart explains how God’s people interacted with Babelic (occasionally caveated as neo-Babelic) and bestial imperial systems in the Old Testament with reference to the Israel-in-Empire oikoumene and Jeremian political engagement.  The worldly empires were commissioned by God to be protective sanctuaries—God-ordained trusteeships, if you will–for Israel.  Hearkening to Jeremiah’s missive to the exiles in Babylon, Leithart shows how Israel-in-Empire meant that Israel’s welfare was wrapped up in various imperial commonwealths, and that God’s historical setting-apart of Israel was, in fact, preparation for collective and individual political engagement under pagan authorities.  Leithart highlights the likes of Daniel and Nehemiah – Jews who wielded significant imperial power, but who stood up to coercive, totalizing policies – arguing that they actually kept Babel-lite systems from tilting in the full Babelic direction.

How did things change in the New Testament?  Leithart’s argument is that through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus the “true Emperor” signaled the end of the old Israel-in-Empire oikoumene and established the “fulfilled Abrahamic empire” – the church.  Under Roman occupation, Israel’s Jeremian stance hit its nadir, which is why Jesus’ interactions with political authority, to include Rome’s forces, didn’t constitute anti- imperialism of the typical sort, but instead, using N.T. Wright’s phrasing, embodied “a revolutionary way of being revolutionary.”

From the Ascension to Revelation’s Great Tribulation – that is, the bestial period of Nero, the Year of the Four Emperors and the destruction of Jerusalem – the church’s political engagement echoed, at times, the Jeremian approach.  Leithart identifies echoes in Paul’s discourse on the Body of Christ and Roman authority in Romans 12-13, and even suggests possible allegory in the depiction of Paul, at the end of Acts, as the “de facto pilot of a Roman ship heading toward the imperial capital,” seeking the (worldly) Emperor’s conversion.6  However, once the Roman Empire turned bestial, once persecution kicked in, Leithart’s claim is that Rome-as- bestial-superpower, in consuming the strong wine of the martyrs’ blood, eventually drinks itself into historical oblivion and irrelevancy. Martyrdom–which would be relieved with Constantine’s conversion—became the “strategy of conquest for the empire of Jesus.”

Brian J. Auten currently serves as an intelligence analyst with the United States government and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government at Patrick Henry College. His most recent publication is Carter’s Conversion: The Hardening of American Defense Policy (University of Missouri Press, 2008). All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions in the review are those of the author and not the US government, or any entity within the US intelligence community.

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  1. Leithart’s long-term project, I would assert, goes back to his involvement with the Tyler Circle Reconstructionists in the 1980s.  At that time, Christian Reconstructionism was divided into two distinct wings, or what one might call the “Vallecito [California] Circle” and the “Tyler [Texas] Circle.”  The Vallecito Circle was centered around Rushdoony and the Chalcedon Foundation, while the Tyler Circle was comprised of former students of Greg Bahnsen (including James B. Jordan and David Chilton), Ray Sutton’s Westminister Presbyterian Church, as well as Gary North’s Institute for Christian Economics.  Indeed, a number of Jordan’s ideas about Babel and empire, referenced by Leithart in this book, were discussed in Gary North’s Healer of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for International Relations (Dominion Press, Fort Worth, TX, 1987), pp. 66-75.  One difference between the two “circles” involved the comparative importance of the family as the locus for Christian Reconstructionism (Vallecito) versus the church (Tyler).  For a detailed, archive-based study of this, one will have to await the public release of Michael McVicar’s Ph.D. dissertation on Rushdoony and the history of Christian Reconstructionism. []
  2. [2] Against Christianity, pp. 147-148, 154. []
  3. Against Christianity, pp. 148, 150. []
  4. See Leithart’s blog post, “What if they ask? What if they listen,” outlining part of his response to critiques of Defending Constantine by Mark Thiessen Nation and Vigen Guroian at the 2011 American Academy of Religion (AAR) annual conference. []
  5. Probably best exemplified by the October 2008 publication of Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel’s compendium, Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Brazos Press) – a book strangely missing from the bibliography of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast. []
  6. See Leithart’s contribution to the October 2011 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, “Defending Defending Constantine, or The Trajectory of the Gospel,” p. 648. []