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A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church
A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church
Ephraim Radner
Baylor University Press, 2012
500 pp., $49.95

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Matthew Milliner


Lenten Reading

How the church has betrayed Christ.

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Radner's opening argument involves an extended polemic against William Cavanaugh's aforementioned The Myth of Religious Violence, a book that—in Radner's view—unjustifiably absolves Christians from their share in the violence of the liberal state. On the contrary, the church needs the liberal state as much as the liberal state needs the church, because the nations as we know them arose from the inability of Christians to refrain from mutual murder. One thinks of the Muslim who holds the key to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, because Christian factions so frequently erupt into fistfights at ground zero of their resurrected life.

Radner marches his readers deep into the killing fields of Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, and returns to these two catastrophes throughout the book, as if tightening a cilice. By documenting how Christians were unable to prevent them, Radner is not suggesting that religious division causes violence as much as that it coheres with it, which is to say, Christian division is not the exclusive inflamer of violence, but it is a central one. In the case of Rwanda, Radner painstakingly catalogues how embedded Christian divisions caused a "moral paralysis" and "handicap[ped] the gospel's power to model a Christian community with any effective integrity." Radner's sources on the Holocaust are even more thorough. He unearths a horrible instance of ecumenical cooperation: Among the members of death squads, "most were in fact at least nominal Christians, who had been formed in some fashion by their churches …. They were Protestants and Catholics both."

If this sounds familiar, it is because many opponents of religion have marshaled such statistics to vilify Christianity. Radner is well aware of such accounts, their exaggerations and unwarranted conclusions. But this does not deter him:

[T]he historical evidence does show that Christian division, especially in the case of the Holocaust, did indeed occupy a facilitating role and was at least informed by prior relationships of antipathy that were never overcome in the face of evil—we can and must say this at least, and accept its challenge to our ecclesial self-understanding.

To suggest otherwise, Radner says—whether to exonerate Pope Pius XII or to overemphasize the role of Bonhoeffer (who had to leave the wider church behind)—is to succumb to what he terms "hallucinogenic fantasy." Figural readings of the Bible are often dismissed as fanciful, but Radner's figuralism has teeth, and his reading of the Church "as herself Jew" does much to properly acknowledge the extent of Christian complicity in the Shoah. "The failure and often outright refusal to treat the Church and Israel as joined has proven disastrous both to the Jewish Israel's existence and to the Christian Church's integrity." And here is a sentence to provoke heart-warming discussion at the next neighborhood Bible study: "The dead bodies, as it were, are already gathered by the time churches admit to complicity in their murder."

Radner explores Catholic and Protestant (and, to a lesser extent, Orthodox) attempts to deny the reality of Christian disunity by carving out an inviolable space of "the Church as such" in contrast to its earthy, sinful reality. But, for Radner, " 'the church as such' can never be reduced to the claims of exhaustive Catholic specificity or eschatological Protestant spiritual aggregationalism." Catholic ecclesiology, "complete in itself, admitting of neither diminution nor increase," and a Protestant vision of the church which is "circumstantial and contingent … occasional and disclosive" are equally inadequate. The saving of the church from her own sins by concocting an invisible or elusive sanctity is, admittedly, a traditional theological move, but it has been a disastrous one. Were this approach employed Christologically, it would be plainly Gnostic. What then makes it permissible in a theology of the church?

Beginning with the Bible's Jerusalem Council, A Brutal Unity offers a small church history in and of itself, moving through Gregory the Great's Pastoral Rule, the Conciliar Movement, and into early modernism. Radner finds a workable model of church unity only in the pre-Nicene era, making the villain of his story Ephiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), who listed heresies and distanced the church from her enemies, especially the Jews. This, according to Radner, inaugurated the "Epiphanian paradigm" and its program of exclusionary violence. What follows from this, if I am reading Radner correctly, is the church's "brutal unity." Providentialism and proceduralism are the blinders that prevent the church from realizing its unholy predicament. The former is the notion that God was somehow at work in church councils despite the messiness of the process, however violent; the latter is the idea that somehow bureaucratic decisions and parliamentary process betray the hand of God. We should, Radner believes, trust neither.

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