Peter Leithart – Between Babel and Beast [Feature Review]

March 8, 2013

 

Page 3: Peter Leithart: Between Babel and Beast

 

 

Leithart’s book showcases his interdisciplinary strength. He is at ease whether in the realm of biblical studies, history, or political theory, and he brings these together with great insight. The survey of biblical material and analysis of Americanism is well-written and accessible to non-specialists. Because of this, Leithart’s book serves as a good introduction to a theological critique of nationalism in general and Americanism in particular. The book makes clear that Leithart’s last book, Defending Constantine, should not be taken as an unqualified defense of America or Americanism. Leithart makes clear that the church advances God’s imperium by martyrdom, not violence. At times, however, Leithart still sounds overly-optimistic about the notion that war and force was “de-sacralized” because it was “de-sacrificized” (40). I am still unconvinced that Constantine’s sacrifice of his enemies is somehow qualitatively different from America’s sacrifice of hers.

 

So, is America a beast or not? Leithart explicitly says that America is not. But in the end I cannot tell if Leithart is trying to hold out hope or if his rhetoric slyly suggests that we might be worse than beast or Babel, functioning in our own Americanist eyes as an “angel of light,” a “servant of righteousness/justice” (1 Cor. 11:15). This, Paul notes, is how the Enemy works: not by getting us to do horrible things for atrocious reasons, but doing horrible things for high ideals, like security, freedom, and democracy. For that reason, being a high-minded Babel (or Luciferian angel of light) is actually worse than being a bloodthirsty beast, for our high ideals will never let us see the will-to-power lurking beneath our confidence that all things will work for good for those who love America, to those who are called to accomplish America’s purpose.

 


[1] John Howard Yoder, “The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood,” in He Came Preaching Peace (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985), 62.