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Milbank on Mennonites

November 6, 2010 13 comments

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.