Ephraim Radner is one of those rare theologians whose work can be described as “relentless.” His most recent book, A Brutal Unity, may be his most relentless yet. Radner dismantles every self-congratulatory, self-protective ecclesiology that blinds Christians to what is self-evident to everyone else: The Church is shattered. For Radner, our divisions are more than unhappy. One chapter title, “Division is Murder,” captures the book’s substance and its searing rhetoric.
Radner rejects traditional ecclesiologies, whether Protestant or Catholic, that exonerate the Church by treating division as extra-ecclesial. According to theologians who subscribe to such views, “the ‘Church as such’ is never divided,” and so whatever divisions occur must be happening to something other than the “real” Church. Protestants distinguish the true, united invisible Church from its visibly divided husk, and in Catholic Marian ecclesiology, the true Church is figured by immaculate Mary, untouched by the sins of her children. Radner has no patience for such cheap solace. The Church as such is a historical community and thus as such is both sinful and divided.
He finds a similar evasion in William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. According to Cavanaugh, religion cannot be isolated from other aspects of life, and so religion cannot be said to be inherently violent. Religious people do violent things, but it’s a statist myth to say that their violence is caused by religion. Radner responds with a painfully detailed exploration of how the Church’s divisions contributed to the Rwandan bloodbath. “More people were killed during the genocide in church buildings than perhaps anywhere else,” and in Rwanda and elsewhere Christians have claimed to act violently “as Christians, for the sake of their belief in God.”
Even if Cavanaugh is right, the fact that the Church gets caught up in other people’s slaughters only underscores her political weakness. Though Cavanaugh doesn’t deny that Christians do violence in God’s name, Radner thinks his thesis makes it more difficult for Christians to view the carnage honestly and confess, “We did this.”
Radner traces the murderous divisiveness of Christianity back to Epiphanius’ fourth-century treatise “Refutation of all Heresies.” The “Epiphanian paradigm” treats intra-Christian discord as apostasy and preserves the unity of the Church by expelling those judged heretical. For Radner, this is another evasion since it literally places division outside the Church.
He doesn’t want to delete “heresy” from Christian discourse. As I understand him, he follows very strictly Jesus’ instructions concerning discipline. Sinners and false teachers who refuse to listen to the Church become “Gentiles and tax collectors.” But then Radner wants us to remember that Jesus lived among tax gatherers and sinners, and he calls his disciples to follow. Correct the false teacher, but then pursue him so that he can be restored to brotherhood. What the Church cannot do, if she is following Jesus, is set heretics out and then rest content with the unity that remains.
There is no “procedural” path to unity; building “consensus” is not the way forward. Rather, the Church must recognize that her unity has a “Jesus form.” The Church is not only fallible but “deformable, pervertible, turning into the contradiction of her own claims.” But Jesus cannot deny himself, so he continues to give himself to his denying Church. Likewise, “the story of the Church is the story of the self-giving of Jesus to the apostles and betrayers and indifferent.” The Church’s unity lies in her solidarity with “those who sin and who divide.” Division is, paradoxically, internal to the Church’s unity. It must be so because the figure of Jesus has been pressed into the Church’s life.
Radner’s relentlessness can sound like despair, but that description would be unfair. In the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), he finds “a classic instance of ecclesial unity at work.” This conciliar unity, though, emerges in a Church already shaped by gathering, prayer, devotion to apostolic teaching, Eucharist, and sharing of property: “Only out of this comes ‘one mind and one heart.’” His reading of Acts is not Pollyannaish. The early Church was united in one mind precisely because she followed Jesus in giving herself to deniers.
A Brutal Unity is a lament and a call to repentance. That is entirely appropriate, but some of its Lenten tone arises, I think, from Radner’s austerely Levinasian insistence that “all unity within the Church is literally ‘unilateral,’ one-sided in its motive force.” That is at best a half-truth. It is true that “we find nothing of reciprocity” in Jesus’ dealings with sinners, yet Jesus goes to the cross in hope of resurrection joy and glorifies his Father, praying that the Father will restore him to the glory they have shared from the foundation of the world. When we stand among (other!) sinners and dividers, we do so in hope of reunion.
For this too is figured in the figure of Jesus. Israel and Judah went to the grave of exile as two peoples, but Ezekiel promised that in the furnace of Babylon the two would be forged into one. When raised up and restored to the land, there was no more Israel or Judah, only Jews.
Any future unity will still display the form of Jesus, will still require that the Church “suffer contradiction” in herself. But we are not condemned to repeat forever the horrors of Rwanda. Reunion is God’s work. He may do it by turning up the temperature. But he can do it. He has done it before.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.