Seek the Peace of the City: Christian Political Criticism as Public, Realist, and Transformative
Richard Bourne. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009. 329 pages.
In Seek the Peace of the City, Richard Bourne uses John Howard Yoder’s thought to show how Christian theology is a public endeavor that sees Jesus’ lordship as a reality-changing truth. Christian faith, Bourne argues, possesses an inherent drive toward political criticism that begins in the Christian notion of witness. Such work not only subjects politics to a critique but also “enlivens hope” (79), but not by playing the game of power politics or offering an alternative to liberalism that repeats past Constantinian mistakes. Instead, such hope is radically realist in starting with the eschatological claim that Jesus has created a community of disciples who ontologically and existentially live within his life, death, and resurrection. They offer their nonviolent, vulnerable openness to others as a witness and the call to people everywhere to find ways to live peaceably and truthfully. Therefore, we participate in a distinctive politics in which the “grain of the universe” is not with the powerful but with the oppressed and downtrodden, not with violence but with suffering as Christ suffered. Jesus’ church will therefore inevitably run headlong into the fallen powers that resist the way of Christ. During these confrontations, the church will have to witness publicly and sacrificially.
The church’s public witness entails new ways of living in and viewing the world. Christians are those people who know that Jesus determines history more than anybody in the White House, the Kremlin, or Parliament. Thus Bourne interprets Yoder as a radical realist—not in the Niebuhrian sense of political self-interest but a realist who understands that the material world is the place where history unfolds and in which Jesus still operates and moves. Without living examples that embody this cosmological worldview, there is little hope that others will see how radically Jesus has altered reality. Thus Bourne argues that language about God at the very least describes the way things really are, and at the most means that theological truth is truer than other truths. Nonviolence reveals the way God is, and thus analogically reveals the way the world runs, despite the existence and influence of the fallen powers.
The most promising part of this book is Bourne’s use of Foucault to deepen Yoder’s theology. Bourne states: “Just as just war-thinkers would not sanction all violence, neither does Yoder sanction all nonviolent strategies” (126). Bourne’s juxtaposition of Foucault and Yoder could help unpack that statement, but differently than the path Bourne chooses to pursue. Bourne notes, for instance, that Yoder insisted that pacifists accept the state’s punishment for disobeying the law. But surely Peter’s jailbreak in Acts 12 complicates that picture. I would suggest that Bourne’s placing Foucault and Yoder as fellow travelers could have profound consequences on understanding the relationship between Christian pacifists and the state.
For Foucault, the most effective way to govern a people is to subdivide them into various statistically monitored segments and redefine them as a “population.” This mode of organization does not require an omnipotent and omniscient sovereign to force people into submission; on the contrary, such a sovereign has an incomplete, statistical knowledge of the market place. It requires administrative apparatus and internalized disciplinary processes so that violence becomes unnecessary because it is ineffective. Thus, the total system works to control and oppress in ways that sheer violence could never achieve. Governmentality primarily forms atomistic populations; it does not primarily force people.
Thus, pacifist efforts to give the system a more rationalized form for controlling the masses through nonviolent and nonlethal techniques can only play into the hands of governmentality and further entrench oppressive structures. Bourne’s use of Yoder and Foucault together could expose pacifist complicity in oppression and point to ways to disentangle ourselves, albeit not completely, from such systems.
Bourne identifies three subjects in Yoder’s theology that counteract governmentality. Exiles, the state of a people on the move, are unable to be statistically controlled and manipulated. Eschatology describes a reality outside of time that critiques notions of legitimacy that undergird the entire system. Finally, a theology of election counteracts social contract theories in which the ruled and rulers atomize their lives into a disciplinary, self-correcting police state and where group-think runs rampant even when individual well-being is what seems to matter. In each of these areas, Bourne argues, Yoder’s theological vision provides a powerful hope that enlivens real communities to be an alternative to the governmentality that Foucault so powerfully diagnosed.
Seek the Peace of the City is a potent interpretation and use of Yoder’s work. Unfortunately, the main drawback is that the book still has some of the difficulties that are intrinsic to being a dissertation. Bourne brings in too many sources sometimes, overwhelming the reader. His writing style can be dense, requiring numerous passes over the same passage. As a result, the writing style will discourage some readers from continuing. But those of us who tread through the pages will be richly rewarded.