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Spring 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 1 · pp. 71–74 

Book Review

Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics: Essays in Exile

P. Travis Kroeker. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. 227 pages.

Reviewed by Layton Friesen

How will the human community live as it follows the Lord who manifests the sovereignty of God as a crucified messiah? This {72} is a key question in political theology. Mennonites have led the way in insisting that the kingdom of God as announced by Jesus is in fact urgently ready and intended to be enacted in earthly church community. This collection of essays by P. Travis Kroeker, professor of philosophical theology at McMaster University, rebukes this train of Anabaptism as too ecclesially triumphalistic, yet takes the same claim to a maturity and catholicity not seen before. He resources his argument with a dizzying cast of characters including novelists, critics, farmers, philosophers, and diarists, alongside a wide range of theologians.

The fifteen essays are sorted into three sections. First, “Apocalyptic Messianism and Political Theology” sets the broad exegetical and theological framework for apocalyptic messianism. Kroeker argues that, for the apostle Paul, the revealing of the Messiah in the world does not yield the nihilistic or world-denying fruit that Nietzsche and others have despised. Rather, reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 while using Augustine’s City of God as an apocalyptic interpretive lens, Kroeker shows that a creation-affirming use of the world is possible without a worldly possession and grasp. This sets our vision for the long, tenuous journey of the church under worldly conditions of suffering. A messianic use of creation is possible in a world whose powers have been confounded from within by the cross.

Second, “Political Theology and the Radical Reformation” contains essays in defense of Anabaptism as providing an eschatological ethic based in the love of neighbor for neighbor, reflecting Christ’s rule as the Lamb that was slain. Kroeker is keen to recover modest practices of community such as penitence, foot washing, and fraternal care for brothers and sisters in the church, practices that modern Mennonites leave behind even as they believe Anabaptism can find its place as a respectable academic endeavor. These practices witness to the manner in which the crucified Messiah rules in visible sovereignty.

A highlight here is a fine essay bringing into conversation John H. Yoder and Oliver O’Donovan. Kroeker shows that O’Donovan’s eschatology fails to finally issue in the specifically Christ-formed political judgments one should expect given his theology. Yoder’s eschatology, on the other hand, does not attend, as it should, to how the cross-figured life depends on a long training of our desires and affections. Kroeker feels that Yoder has grievously caricatured Augustine in this regard and has neglected a form of messianic ethic in the bishop of Hippo that could have tempered Yoder’s triumphalistic ecclesiology with an account of the process by which our loves are trained for the city of God.

Finally, in the third section “Messianism and Diaspora Ethics,” Kroeker seeks to apply a messianic diasporic ethic to a series of {73} interesting and important issues. What does a diasporic understanding of the quest for knowledge entail in a university culture dominated by the technocratic? What could prisoner diaries from the darkness of the Russian gulag teach about how the suffering Christ reorients and transforms our identity as human beings in the image of God? What does a conversation between two professors, a Mennonite and a Métis, both living in places of “exile,” show us about the tentative, gentle, and reciprocal learning that needs to characterize diasporic existence more generally? How does the apostle Paul’s description of principalities and powers show us a way to “find life again in the midst of these disembodying and death-dealing principalities” (244) when so much scientific discourse is encoded in mechanistic, even trans-humanist, visions of power?

The signal theological contribution of this volume is the maturation of Mennonite political theology into a wider public conception of messianic ethics via an apocalyptic reading of Augustine’s City of God. This, Kroeker says, “allows me to dare place Mennonites (and the Radical Reformation), with their emphasis on the visible priesthood of all believers, into the Augustinian tradition of political theology understood as the corpus mysticum” (6). Augustine’s political theology has often been assumed to underwrite the separation of the sacred and the secular that allowed a Constantinian dualism to expand unchecked for millennia. Here it was assumed that the state could at some level elude the judgments of God in Christ on the cross. But now, Kroeker shows an Augustinian “politics of Jesus” prophesying that the life of the people of God will be drawn forward by the desire for God, sustaining a walk in the world that is meek, timely, dialogical, nimble, with nothing to lose, and thus peaceful. Kroeker envisions this posture in the academy, factory, farm, and prison cell in ways that could aid Mennonites in escaping the charge that Anabaptist theology, though demanding a lofty discipleship within the adult-believers church congregation, fails to shape life beyond, in the world. Kroeker sees an Anabaptist way of life, fortified by Augustine’s City of God, seeking to find its way in the city of the world. 

Taking this messianic posture public raises a niggling concern regarding how this posture can be mediated to the life of the world. Kroeker is clear that the founding act of this politics is the death of Christ by which the powers of this world are confounded. Further, he wants this cross-figured life to extend beyond the voluntarist church to life in the “saeculum.” However, it was not always clear that this posture in the world still retains its real-time figuring by the Savior. Consider these sentences: {74}

Such [a messianic] ethic can never claim sovereignty for its own cultural or religious identity. The living “as if not” possessing one’s cultural or religious identity is not abandoning it for an “elsewhere” but dwelling within it as in “exile,” in dispossession, in all its embodied particularity. This transforms it in keeping with its true condition, its “passing away” toward an “end” that lies beyond it and remains unknown, open. (204)

I worry that words like “Messiah” and “exile” are mediated by scare quotes, revealing that the scriptural Christ has slid over into general patterns of “displacement,” “scattering,” or “pilgrimage.” Does a messianic ethic exist in perpetual contemplation of Jesus? What are the visible practices of such mediation? These are questions of ecclesiology, it seems to me, which can be considered without yielding to the temptation of triumphalism.

Overall, Kroeker’s collection of essays serves as a rich, mature book for pastor-theologians and educators.

Layton Friesen, PhD, is Conference Pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference and lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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