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Milbank on Mennonites

Halden Doerge has written before about a concern with the way Anabaptism is ‘appreciated’ in contemporary ecumenical circles, by expressing a vague gratitude for its witness to peace—a witness that can just be lifted off and appropriated by another tradition without any kind of structural conflict.

What’s even more bewildering, and unfortunately very common, is when the same kind of gratitude is shown by Anabaptism’s critics, as in Milbank’s most recent piece for the ABC, “Power is necessary for peace: In defence of Constantine.” The article aims at the total demolition of any ‘anti-Constantinian’ position, but for some reason Milbank feels the need to offer a little paean to Mennonites at its center.

Mennonites avoid the trap of individualism, he says, by recognizing that the practice of the power of weakness, the nonviolent and reconciling power of Jesus, is a real power that must take real form in a community. “What is most precious about the Mennonite tradition,” he says, is “that they offer, not the path of misguided purism, not the illusion of ‘beautiful souls’, but rather their own middle way between apoliticism and political compromise.” We know that Christian charity have to be animated by a certain form of power, cannot be reduced to a vaguely spiritual and inward longing. So he acknowledges that the anti-Constantinianism of the radical reformation is not driven by the obsession with purity, the singular concern with one’s own private salvation, which he criticizes at the beginning of the article.

But the Mennonites don’t see that one can’t choose the power of powerlessness rather than “contaminated, compromised coercive power”; Christianity has to have them both. The gloves come off: Mennonitism does turn out to be obsessed with purity after all (how?), as well as being Marcionite (rejecting the political level of the OT), Gnostic (“because God creates us as hybrid material-spiritual creatures, the church includes certain physical spaces that one may have physically to defend”), obviously unrealistic (because Christianity wouldn’t even exist if Christian kings hadn’t slain the pagans), incapable of redeeming the state (like the venerable Justinian did), and—best of all—in practical denial of the resurrection (an accusation he doesn’t even try to explain).

In other words—the Mennonites are very inspiring and all, but they’re also wrong in every essential respect. Mennonites are the tragically misguided heroes, the clever but immature children, stuck on a step on the ladder to ‘true Christian love’ that other traditions had legs long enough to skip.

What’s so odd about this kind of ‘appreciation’ is that, unlike some of the genuine ecumenical overtures, Milbank is explicitly aware that the Mennonite peace witness is structurally opposed to the use he wants to make of it. That is, he knows that he has no sympathy with the Mennonite peace witness in itself at all; he makes use of the tradition to say that even nonviolent love must exercise a certain power, and then discards it. That argumentative strategy isn’t invalid—’even so-and-so who disagrees with me completely would agree that x‘—but it makes no sense to go from there to speaking of Mennonites’ “specifically Catholic witness” (his emphasis, big-C, whatever that could conceivably mean) or to praising our “new and more profound” way of combining charity and power.

A nice bit of evidence that the Niebuhrian tradition lives proudly on.

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  1. November 7, 2010 at 1:33 am | #1

    And of course the ultimate irony is that Milbank once penned an article entitled “The Poverty of Niebuburianism.”

  2. November 7, 2010 at 1:07 am | #4

    A lot of this is just rehash from Milbank’s introduction to the recently published book on Radical Orthodoxy and the Radical Reformation. Milbank, as always, seems absurdly committed to the same old categories.

  3. Jeremy
    November 7, 2010 at 1:11 am | #5

    What pisses me off the most about this is not Milbank (I don’t expect anything of quality from him anymore) but Hauerwas. Why does he even associate with this guy?

  4. signonthewindow
    November 7, 2010 at 9:14 pm | #6

    Thanks for this post, Brian. Insightful and helpful.

  5. Erin Kidd
    November 13, 2010 at 1:44 pm | #7

    Hi Brian! I thought about this piece by Milbank for a while after reading it, and honestly felt at a loss to even begin to critique it. Where would one start? I couldn’t even figure out his logic (that last word should perhaps be in scare quotes). Anyhow, my point is that you’ve done a fantastic job exposing his argument and his disingenuous use of the Mennonite tradition, which seems to function just so he can say “Dudes, I’m not totally a jerk. I’m, like, friends with pacifists.”

    I’m particularly interested in his claim about gnosticism and the need to “defend physical spaces.” I haven’t read too much Milbank. Does he write more about this anywhere else? If only he had been in the garden when Jesus was arrested!

    • November 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm | #8

      Thanks, Erin! Yeah, it’s a really confusing piece. I couldn’t even begin to guess at the logic that fills in the idea that violent defense of physical spaces is necessary to a real recognition of our status as “hybrid material-spiritual creatures.” I’ve never seen him write about this elsewhere, but I haven’t read nearly enough to know, either.

      I’ve wondered if it wouldn’t be worth thinking about this article a bit more directly, though, through the “purity” problem. I’m not sure that Milbank really adds anything new to that conversation here, but I’m not sure either that we “anti-Constantinians” have managed to explain ourselves in ways that really addresses the concern that we’re preferring our own ethical purity to real, effective love.

  6. Sonja
    November 13, 2010 at 6:37 pm | #9

    Can I chime in here just to say that his invocation of “gnosticism” is kind of crappy? I understand that gnosticism (and “Marcionism”) function in a totally different, almost ahistorical way, when they are used by systematic and moral theologians (as opposed to when they are used by biblical scholars and historians of ancient Christianity), but the fact that Milbank is making an explicitly historical argument in this essay problematizes his use of the term. What it’s doing, really, is covering for his lack of argument as to why Christians need to defend physical spaces. By tarring pacifists with the brush of heresy, he effectively shuts down any further conversation. But the orthodox belief that human existence is somehow fundamentally and rightly physical (as opposed to the “gnostic” belief) does *not* have any inherent, obvious, unambiguous political implication, which is what he’s trying to claim.

    • November 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm | #10

      I completely agree. I suppose I don’t have a problem in principle with the use of ‘gnosticism’ or ‘marcionism’ or whatever as a shorthand to mean, ‘hey, aren’t you going somewhere we’d rather not go?’, but when they get applied as deliberate conversation-stoppers… And yes: the implication that ‘non-gnosticism’ directly implies the necessity of violence is bewildering at best.

      Have you read any of O’Regan’s stuff on ‘the gnostic return’? How do you feel about the effort to treat it like a kind of historical tradition?

      • Sonja
        November 16, 2010 at 3:07 pm | #11

        I’m glad you reminded me about his Gnostic Return. That was always a book I was very curious about, and now perhaps I will finally go pick it up. I also don’t actually have a problem in principle with using any of the -isms to make theological arguments–that’s part of the fun of language, and of theological language in particular. So my problem is not that they’re un- or ahistorical, really, but that they are mean conversation stoppers that cover for a lack of sustained argumentation.

      • November 16, 2010 at 3:09 pm | #12

        I’m with you. Let me know when you check out Gnostic Return. I’ve only browsed it myself, but maybe over Christmas… Then we could swap notes.

  1. November 16, 2010 at 2:25 pm | #1

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