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Forbearance: a better way than tolerance

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anabaptist political theologyToward an Anabaptist Political Theology: Law, Order, and Civil Society

A. James Reimer, edited by Paul G. Doerksen

Cascade Books

Review by J Janzen

What is the subject?

The subject of Reimer’s book is political theology. Political theology investigates the ways in which theological ideas and ways of thinking relate to politics, society, and economics.

More specifically, Reimer argues that Anabaptist-Mennonites have tended to ignore the positive role of civil institutions outside the church. Reimer rightly insists that good and godly things happen outside the church.

With that in mind, Reimer seeks to provide a more robust understanding of politics, so that Anabaptist-Mennonites might adopt a more positive view of secular institutions while still equipping the church as a constructive critic of wider society.

In short, Reimer develops a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between church and society so that the church might more effectively understand its role within “the world.”

Who is the author?

A. James Reimer is a Mennonite theologian who taught at Conrad Grebel University College (Waterloo, Ont.). Before this book, intended to be the second of a three-part series, was completed, Reimer died. Paul Doerksen, a Mennonite Brethren theologian (who teaches at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg) edited and saw this material through to publication.

What makes this book important?

First, Anabaptist-Mennonites in North America have tended to be overly simplistic in their understanding of politics.

Swiss Mennonites and their descendants (who Reimer seems to primarily have in mind) have tended to be the “quiet in the land,” withdrawn from political life.

Dutch Mennonites and their descendants – especially Mennonite Brethren in the last half-century – have engaged in politics with…well…naïveté. Indeed, we’ve thought that evangelism and church planting will effectively change culture. Reimer’s book demonstrates: from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective, we can participate in society and politics so that culture becomes a more peaceable place for all.

Imagine the difference that sort of robust thinking would make in an increasingly polarized and fragmented political and social landscape north and south of the 49th parallel!

Second, for decades John Howard Yoder has been the leading Anabaptist-Mennonite voice when it comes to political theology. Oliver O’Donovan, among others, has pointed out flaws and limitations in Yoder’s thinking. Revelations of Yoder’s sexual misconduct calls in to question the integrity of other aspects of his work. Reimer’s book provides an alternative, richly-textured Anabaptist-Mennonite vision that is well worth exploring.

Finally, Mennonite Brethren readers will appreciate a) Reimer’s call to take all of Scripture more seriously, and Reimer’s consistent focus on all the members of the Trinity for Christian ethical reflection. Furthermore, Reimer’s drawing upon Anabaptist-Mennonite thinkers (as opposed to theologians from other traditions) is both refreshing and enlightening. 

Comment on the books’ perspective in light of the MB Confession of Faith

Article 12: Society and State and Article 17: Christianity and Other Faiths are kindergarten sketches compared to the complexities and depths plumbed in Reimer’s book. That is to say, this book attempts to articulate ways in which the church might relate to society and other cultural groups in ways that are fruitful so that the God’s kingdom and will as it is in heaven might be enjoyed more fully on earth.

Key insight

Here’s a sampling of Reimer’s insights…

Chapter one

Political involvement is a mandate for Christians – and is unavoidable.

Indeed, our primary home is the Mennonite/Christian church with its allegiance to Jesus. Our secondary home is our local, national, global, and cosmic world – the common space in which we live with other faiths, ideologies, and cultures.

The boundary between our primary Christian home and our secondary “worldly” home is not rigid but porous, and we move back and forth as conscience dictates and as the Christian community discerns.

Chapter two

The whole canon – not just the New Testament – should be an authoritative resource for the Christian community when it comes to seeking guidance on ethical questions. Indeed, Reimer insists that the Trinity – not solely Jesus – is the key to interpreting the Bible and all of reality.

On the basis of these convictions, Reimer demonstrates from the Old Testament and Gospels that in God’s economy, the nations in general (and not just God’s people specifically) play a significant role for human betterment.

Chapter three

Jesus as Logos (Christ as Word, Wisdom, grace, gospel) and Nomos (Christ as Law, form, boundary, and structure).

Reimer points out that Anabaptist-Mennonites inspired by the Schleitheim Confession have tended to take the extreme view that Christ exists only in the church, and that only the Father governs the world. But this violates the doctrine of the Trinity.

Drawing on Karl Barth’s insights on Genesis 1, Logos and Nomos cannot be separated, for life, even before the fall, is only possible because of order that is created out of God’s gracious setting of boundaries and limits (that is, law) against chaos. Reimer concludes that Christians with a Trinitarian perspective in mind will appreciate that law is – or at least can be – an expression of grace in that good law allows for public order which enables the preservation and enrichment of life.

The church should, therefore, be supportive of law and call upon law to live up to its calling, which is to make it possible for people to love God, neighbor, and enemy.

Chapter four

Lactantius (a fourth-century theologian contemporary with Constantine) offers a way in which “a diverse group of communities can coexist and be governed by rulers who are supported by all.”

More specifically, Lactantius called the Roman government to practice toleration, forbearance, and concord. Toleration assumes that groups will coexist side by side with little hope of converting others. Such a pluralistic world is always tenuous, with the risk of one group persecuting another. Lactantius advised forbearance, in which one group might convert another, but only through persuasion.

This policy of concord and forbearance, which gained traction under Constantine, offers possibilities for the pluralistic environment in today’s Western culture.

Chapter five

Given that much of contemporary Western political thought is rooted in notions of the individual conscience, Reimer provides a breathtaking “reader’s digest history” of how “conscience” has changed over the last two millennia.

The roster of theologians and philosophers Reimer surveys includes Plato and Aristotle, Augustine, Bonaventure and Aquinas, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, Luther and Kant, as well as Freud, Barth, Bonhoeffer and Alisdair MacIntyre.

Drawing on the thinking of the lesser known Anabaptist-Mennonite, Balthasar Hubmaier (as well as Aquinas, Barth and Bonhoeffer), Reimer suggests that conscience (the inner sense of right and wrong) needs to be linked to Christian understandings of Eternal Law, Natural Law, Human Law, and Divine Law (summarized pithily by Reimer) so that one’s conscience can be shaped to be more and more Christlike.

The unique fusion of Catholic and Protestant lines of thought in Anabaptism – particularly the emphasis on personal freedom, personal decision, and a free and uncoerced conscience – has “consequences not only for religious but also for social life within community” that led early Anabaptists to call for civil freedom to follow one’s conscience and for “toleration” from magistrates in the area of religion.

In that sense, Reimer argues that Anabaptism has a wisdom to offer larger conversations about political theology.

Chapter 6

Anabaptist-Mennonites have survived as nonconforming citizens within dominant cultures because they have adopted a Marpeckian approach (to varying degrees).

Drawing on early Anabaptist leader Pilgram Marpeck’s perspectives on natural law, civil law, human reason, and conscience, Reimer suggests that Christians retrieve a modified form of two-kingdom theology in which there is a strict separation of church and state, so that the church has a clear sense of Christian identity supported by a different set of assumptions and practices from those of “the world.”

At the same time, Christians should have a high regard for the divinely ordained role of the state to restrain evil, preserve order, and promote the common good within the wider society.

With that perspective at play, Christians should energetically engage as full-fledged citizens in civic affairs and public life but always provisionally as one’s conscience dictates in relation to one’s loyalties to God in Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Chapter seven

The West’s increasingly pluralistic society resembles that of the polytheistic culture of the pre-Constantinian Roman empire. In this environment, all religious communities face the same dilemma as Anabaptist-Mennonites: how do mutually exclusive communities co-exist peacefully when there are no longer shared assumptions?

Reimer suggests that Lactantius’ political theology of forbearance and concord, combined with Aquinas’ four interrelated levels of law, makes it possible for non-neutral groups to discover agreed-upon universal moral concepts so that there is a public space in which various groups can co-exist.

Chapter eight

How is public constitutional law to be fashioned in such a way that allows for the peaceful coexistence of groups under its jurisdiction with not only exclusive, but frequently conflicting truth claims?

Drawing on the work of Harold Berman, Reimer critiques the widely held notion that the public sphere is neutral ground. Rather, every society functions on the basis of a “public orthodoxy” of some sort.

Against the backdrop of Herbert Richardson’s understanding of teleological and procedural values, nonpolitical-monolithic societies and political-pluralistic societies, and his thesis that any political society must have three basic institutions (intrinsic authority, equitable order [i.e., justice], and differentiated and distributed power [i.e., politics]) and three inalienable rights (freedom of conscience, political equality, and brotherhood), Reimer sets out the case for forbearance as a solution.

Reimer goes further, suggesting that Menno Simons is a particular example of how forbearance can work. Simons held to strong convictions that differed from the “public orthodoxy” of his day. Yet he sought to hold rulers accountable while also attempting to nonviolently convince them to embrace a different set of values (laws) and practices. In that sense, Menno Simons is an exemplar for contemporary Anabaptist political theology.

Final chapter

With globalization, there is the distinct danger of a common morality being simply a means of spreading Western-style capitalistic economics around the globe under the guise of so-called democratic values of “freedom.” Cultural differences end up homogenized. For religious communities, their convictions are undermined.

In the face of global challenges like climate change and nuclear threat, it is imperative that we develop common understandings about how we are to live together without destroying ourselves.

Reflecting on his involvement in Christian-Muslim dialogue, Reimer argues that as different communities of belief dialogue with one another, it’s possible to arrive at universal moral principles.

More specifically, Reimer borrows John Howard Yoder’s notion of “middle axioms.” Middle axioms are concepts such as liberty, equality, education, democracy, human rights. Whereas Christians would root those ideals in biblical revelation, non-Christians might root those concepts in so-called secular sources.

In other words, different groups can arrive at shared understandings of middle axioms while differing in how they got there.

Downside

The primary downside of this book is that it is an unfinished work.

Reimer develops thick, compelling arguments with loose threads left hanging here and there.

For example, in chapter four Reimer argues that Lactantius’ program of forbearance, can be an expression of Jewish and Christian teaching to worship only one King (God) as well as to love the stranger and the enemy, but then wonders if the Lactantian vision is still a possibility, or even desirable.

Or in chapter five, Reimer concludes by saying that contemporary Anabaptists would benefit from rediscovering the rich resources of divine, eternal, natural, and human law from which they might develop a more robust conscience, and that in the process of rediscovery, Anabaptists need to explore more carefully how the “new law of Christ” is related to divine, eternal, natural, and human law, especially if we take seriously Jesus’ statement that he came to fulfill the law.

And in chapter six, Reimer notes that for those who might embrace a Marpeckian approach to politics, it remains unclear to what extent Christians can participate in the use of force.

In sum, Reimer’s book leaves one wishing that Reimer would have had the opportunity to add chapters answering the observations he makes and the questions he raises.

Other relevant info

One of the values of this book is the variety of perspectives Reimer brings into the conversation.

Readers will be introduced to John Miller and his work on second temple Judaism, and be exposed to the biblical research of Waldemar Janzen and Richard Hays.

Alongside the debates around Just War Theory involving John Howard Yoder, Ambrose, and Augustine, readers will encounter monastics, Waldensians, Brownists, and Baptists.

Readers will meet Moravian Anabaptists and Douglas C. Langston, William Penn, Munster revolutionaries, Schleitheim separatists, Hutterian communalists, Denckean mystics and Hutean apocalyptics, dip into the debates regarding religious pluralism between John Hick and Gavin D’Costa, and hear from Paul Tillich, David Tracy, Max Stackhouse, Jeffrey Stout and Harry Huebner (among others).

Whether or not one agrees with Reimer’s conclusions, Reimer’s summaries of these varied personalities and perspectives will leave one more knowledgeable of a wide variety of subjects.

Who should read it?

This book is not for everyone. It’s a demanding read in that it is densely written, often technical, and requires that a reader be able to pay attention to multiple lines of argument while keeping an eye on the larger picture.

As a teenager, I overheard Art Bergmann at Steinbach MB Church suggest that a preacher’s ideas suffered from not having read widely enough. This book is an antidote to such a problem.

Pastors should read this book slowly and carefully. They will see how history, theology, philosophy, and biblical study – among other disciplines – can be brought to bear on the complexities of our world. Perhaps more importantly, this book will teach pastors to think twice before they make simplistic pronouncements about how we should live given the difficult challenges of our culture.

People in the pews would benefit from reading this book simply because they’ll have a better ability to recognize when teachers, preachers, and cultural commentators try to pass off half-baked ideas as wisdom we ought to follow.

Politicians and institutional leaders (both civic and religious) should certainly read this book so that they might be inspired and equipped to create spaces in which forbearance might be practiced for the sake of the common good.

Finally, any student thinking of pursuing masters or PhD-level studies should read this book for the many ideas that are left begging for further research and development in theses and dissertations so that the Western evangelical church might have a more robust and constructive alternative to the woefully inadequate politics we currently have on offer.

Favourite quote

Reflecting on a two-kingdom theology in which Christians have a primary home in the church (with “our basic biblical-confessional orientation and set of commitments”), and a secondary home in “the world,” Reimer states, “The first home is our primary habitat and place of allegiance, to which we constantly return for spiritual rest, renewal, and reorientation; the second home is…The common space within which we all live…the created order that is to be preserved and within which life is to flourish, not essentially a common evil from which we need to keep ourselves pure…Whether we [Mennonites] like or not, we occupy a space in the larger world. All of us are citizens and carry passports of one country or another (some carry two), and we unapologetically draw on the benefits that such citizenship offers. Let’s be honest about this and reflect theologically on it without ideological distortion.”

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Bruce Guenther January 4, 2020 - 11:43

A very helpful synopsis of the book. It’s great to see a piece in the MB Herald on political theology, an often ignored component on Anabaptist theologies.

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