Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission
Nathan Kerr. Eugene, OR: Cascade Publishers, 2008. 222 pages.
Nathan Kerr’s Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission tracks a series of twentieth-century answers to three permanent questions for Christian theology: What does it mean to say Jesus Christ is Lord? What does it mean for the church to be the body of Christ? How is the church related to those who do not confess Jesus’ lordship? The story Kerr tells begins with the Babylonian captivity of theology to modern historicist assumptions that mute the full social-political significance of Jesus. It ends with theology finally cashing in on the promise of Karl Barth’s “No” to this captivity in his insistence that only in Jesus is the human crisis both definitively revealed and addressed.
Kerr turns to Ernst Troeltsch to articulate this captivity. Troeltsch sought to avoid reducing events and individuals either to instantiations of abstract universal laws or to mere moments in the progressive working-out of a preordained plot. But this meant that it was inconceivable that one individual, or the events of one individual’s life, could rule other individuals and the events of their life. Thus scripture’s claim that Jesus is Lord could only be meant metaphorically, as a statement of the powerful expression of the human spirit in Jesus. Moreover, insofar as history is the realm of conditioned and contingent individuality, the full manifestation of spirit in the individual is a supra-historical possibility alone, present only inchoately and anticipatorily in these times.
Now while this line of thought and its conclusions seem innocent and important, Kerr urges us to question both. The reason is that despite his efforts to be true to individuals rather than theories, Troeltsch had an agenda. Namely, “his concentration upon history’s relativity as such is derived from his Idealist commitments,” and therefore he sees history not just as conditioned but a realm of “tragic contingency” (38; emphasis mine). As a result, his historicism is not historical enough. Ultimately, individuals are interchangeable, each telling the same story of this tension between matter and spirit. For this reason Kerr labels Troeltsch “Constantinian”: he robs Jesus of his full social-political significance and reduces discipleship to Christians joining “their religious ideal” with the economic, cultural, and social powers-that-be, since for Troeltsch, “providence is embodied in the sum of the forces operative in nature and society” (50). Kerr’s verdict is severe: “the key-socio-political function of Christianity within the paradigm of modern historicist thought, as laid out by Troeltsch, is fundamentally ideological” (52).
This brings us to Barth. Here the tide turns, according to Kerr, for Barth insists that the biblical witness is only heard when we understand the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as an absolutely singular event, incapable of being understood in terms other than its own (76–77). But while the tide turns, it does not turn completely, for in Barth’s thought there remains an idealist residue (81). How so? Because Barth is unable to show, Kerr argues, that it is on the basis of the very particular history of “the peasant Jew from Nazareth” that “we come to confess Jesus as God’s Son and Lord” (91). Instead, Barth tends “to reduce Jesus’ human life to a series of episodes that illuminate (or ‘represent’) the eternal co-enactment of the two natures of God and humanity” (85). As a result, Barth simultaneously “verticalizes” the individual’s relationship to Christ and de-politicizes the church (99–100). And so, for all the good he did, Kerr’s verdict is severe again: “In thus making his end-run around the question of historicity in the name of dogmatic and ontological faithfulness, Barth comes to think of the Kingdom of God and of Christ’s presence as ‘Lord’ in no less a transcendental (and ideological) manner than that of modern historicism, with its subjective ‘psychologizing’ of Christ and Kingdom” (90).
The hero of Kerr’s book is John Howard Yoder, and justice cannot be done here to the rich analysis Kerr offers. Needless to say, Kerr attempts to show not only that Yoder affirms Jesus’ “irreducibly singularity” but also that Yoder does this by paying attention to the particularities of Jesus’ life. In Jesus’ “undiscriminating and unconditional” obedience to the reign of God’s agape to the point of death, we learn that “the pretensions to universality by which we presume to discriminate and condition—to control—history and life in this world are just that: namely, illusory presumptions and pretensions” (143). We make a grave mistake, therefore, if we try to situate the identity of Jesus and the meaning of his life within “any presumed notion of historical or political ‘universality’ ” (137). This sets the stage for Kerr’s next argument, which is that Yoder’s Jesus is both singular and excessive. Jesus lived so freely in his historical circumstances that the Jewish affirmation that creation is only in and through the continued loving mindfulness of Yahweh became an affirmation also made of Jesus: Jesus is Lord (152–53). This brings us to the final stage in Kerr’s argument, which concerns the life of the church. Here Kerr favors diaspora over polis in order to emphasize Yoder’s claim that Jesus is not where the church is but the church is where Jesus is. The ecclesia is an event. It occurs, Kerr writes, “as a very particular kind of exile from the given power structures of the world in solidarity with those marginalized and oppressed by those powers” (191).
This closing reference to the poor may bring relief to some insofar as very little in the way of concrete proposals are mentioned in the book. Yet it is at this point that I wish to push back just a little. In following Yoder, Kerr repeats and amplifies one of his rhetorical moves, which is to assert that everything outside of Christ is a “power,” and to define the powers in terms of self-glorification, control, and enslavement of others. Interestingly, this repeats a move made by one of Yoder’s sworn theological enemies. Augustine said many important things about pride and the lust to dominate. Yet at times these insights mutated into devices to “see through” what people were saying and doing, blocking out his other complex reflections on the love for peace, truth, life, and happiness that belongs to our humanity no matter how much that same humanity may impoverish these desires. And so in his better moments we also find Augustine emphasizing the need to track down unrelentingly our self-deceptions, a point perhaps no one has seen better than another of Yoder’s sworn theological enemies, Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard warns that concern for the poor must not license our forgetting that Jesus’ message is the same for both the poor and the powerful: “you wretched one who are able to do nothing at all: Do not forget to be merciful! Be merciful. This comfort, that you are able to be merciful, to say nothing of the comfort that you are merciful, is far greater than if I were able to assure you that the most powerful will show you mercifulness.” Neither Kierkegaard nor Augustine separates their conclusions on these matters from the singularly excessive loving-kindness of Jesus. Rather, his life is a reminder that “you are the tree” (Luke 6:44). But this means that our task is less to point to ideologies without and more to war with ideologies within. Kierkegaard writes: “those sacred words of that text are not said to encourage us to get busy judging one another; they are rather spoken admonishingly to the single individual, to you, my listener, and to me, to encourage him not to allow his love to become unfruitful but to work so that it could be known by its fruits, whether or not those come to be known by others.”