My Thesis: Abstract

Here is my much anticipated thesis abstract/proposal. It’s not really in a formal thesis abstract/proposal format – mostly because it’s only an undergrad thesis and is at a small liberal arts university where we have more liberty to bypass certain formalities. I’m not entirely comfortable putting this up here because I’m a perfectionist and these are thoughts that I’m still very much in the process of working out – it is difficult to summarize something you have not written yet.  However, several readers have asked for it and in keeping with the covenant of this blog it ought to be posted.  For those who don’t know, this thesis is in partial fulfillment of an honors B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies with a double minor in Peace and Conflict Transformation Studies, and Philosophy. That might give you a sense of why I’m pulling the different figures below into conversation. I welcome your questions, comments, concerns, dear readers.

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV

The context of this verse is prophetic counsel for the people of God living in exile, as foreigners in another city.  Living in exile is perhaps an unimaginable notion for much of western Christianity.  We tend to think ourselves quite at home in the world, relegating, as a result, the prophetic word above to its particular place in history; while acknowledging it as part of our Christian story, it is clearly irrelevant for us today. But on what grounds, really, can we think of ourselves as anything other than strangers in the world?  Our North American cities are built on land that belongs to people who lived here before us. We were guests, foreigners, whose domiciliary relationship with this land is a result of war, conquest, and colonization.  Another way in which we are strangers in the world has to do with the eschatological tension in which the church lives.  We believe that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ has already inaugurated a new world order but that it has not yet fully arrived.  We live in this world with anticipation for a transformed and new creation.  In a sense then, we are not at home in this world because things are not the way they should be, or will be.

Furthermore, our ways of living at home in this world have proven destructive, violent, and at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus we profess to follow.  By making ourselves at home, by seeking to overcome our exile, our strangeness, we have habituated what one might call a colonial ethic.  We have convinced ourselves that our welfare – our peace, freedom, and well being – is secured through domination, control, and coercion.  Our resources for conflict resolution and peacebuilding have likewise been limited to such a colonial approach.  Where we were first guests and foreigners, who used the hospitality offered to us for our own ends and own advantage, we have now become hostages to our habits of thought and life.  I submit that the exilic character of the people of God, the Christian church, has important resources for thinking about ethics, and more specifically approaches to conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

John Howard Yoder, John Paul Lederach, and Jacques Derrida, are all critical of mainstream ethics.  Coming from three different disciplines (theology, sociology, and philosophy) each provide their own particular evaluation of problems with current efforts in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, as well as offering new and different ways of thinking about ethics.  The approaches of these three figures can be characterized as post or non-colonial.  Both the substance of their messages as well as the style or method of their critique, engage in ways of thinking and forms of life that effectively renounce domination, control, and coercion, preferring instead postures of servanthood, vulnerability, and non-violence. They help us move from a colonial ethic towards a non-colonial or exilic one.

John Howard Yoder uses the term ‘constantinianism’ to name a shift in the ecclesiology and eschatology of the Christian church from Constantine to the present.  This shift is historically marked by the amalgamation of the church with the Empire in the 4th Century under Constantine.  Prior to this shift, the church was a persecuted minority, whereas it had a handle on imperial power thereafter.[1]  This notion of Constantinianism is lifted out of its historical setting and functions further as a name for the church’s continues and multifarious tendency/temptation to collude with and support imperial powers.  This is problematic for Yoder because it is at odds with the Gospel Christians proclaim—that is, the Lordship of Jesus over the world.  Another place in the Christian narrative where the people of God seek to absolutize their community and take control of their history is the account of Babel in Genesis 11.  Yoder’s account of the idolatry of the builders of Babel suggests that their subsequent dispersion (galuth) is not only punitive but also missional.  The confusion of languages is a diversification of languages that is a gift.  Such diversification “is “confusion” only when measured against the simplicity of imperially enforced uniformity.”[2]  Jeremiah’s advice for the diaspora people calls for a new way of being/ living (ethics) in the world that is enabled and characterized by exile and strangeness.  It is a model for how the people of God ought to live under imperial power.  Diaspora names an ecclesial and ecumenical alternative to the imperial ethic (way of life) of both constantinianism and Babel.  The upshot of this is that ethics (or welfare, or peace) does not name the overcoming of diversity/difference.

Yoder provides an important critique of contemporary ethics but his constructive material for an alternative remains minimal. The work of John Paul Lederach in a sense takes up where Yoder left off.  One of the particular ways in which one can think about seeking the welfare of the city is in terms of peace and conflict transformation.  Lederach sees in contemporary peacebuilding approaches the same kind of residual imperialism as Yoder describes with constantinianism.  Lederach contrasts the mainstream prescriptive and theoretical approach to conflict resolution with an elicitive and concrete approach.  While he does not call it this, Lederach’s approach can be read as a fleshing out of the Jeremian/diasporic model of living in the world.  He conceives of conflict transformation and peacebuilding as the cultivation of a moral imagination.  This particular kind of imagination is formed through four disciplines: “the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance of dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence.”[3]  These are disciplines practiced by particular people with bodies, in particular places.  They name particular ways of being in the world that are derived from particular settings of conflict and are not universally applicable or a priori transferable to other peacebuilding locations.  That is, the moral imagination is embodied.  The upshot of this is that peace (or welfare, or ethics) is not the overcoming of the body.

The work of Jacques Derrida helps us to think about the prophetic notion of return in which the diasporic community hopes and how their understanding of eschatology, their future in God’s world, shapes their ethic.  The prophetic word cultivates a particular kind of understanding of and relationship with the eschaton.  It is significant that it was the false prophets who preached imminent return and restoration.  Any attempt by the exile community to re-establish itself as a nation among other nations is interrupted or postponed by the insistence that this is the work of the Messiah who is to come.  Derrida’s notion of im/possibility helps us to understand the way in which the constant delay of the return, the messianic, forms a particular kind of ethic that resists the imperial/idolatrous temptation that exiled Israel faced.  While the diasporic community works to seek the welfare of the city, any understanding of arriving at Zion is deferred, lest Israel think that it has achieved its final purpose in history.  The arrival at Zion is impossible, and yet it is that very impossibility that for Derrida makes the ethics of Zion, the welfare of the city, possible.  This is the aporetic relationship between welfare and Zion, reconciliation and peace.  It is impossible to arrive at the welfare of the city, and yet it is precisely the hope in the welfare of the city (and of all the nations) that enables them to “marry their children, buy land and eat its produce, build houses […and to] make a virtue and a cultural advantage of their being resident aliens, not spending their substance in fighting over civil sovereignty.”[4]  Diaspora and welfare (or Zion) are irreconcilable but indissociable.  The upshot of this is that peace is a dynamic and ongoing work and transformation of the old order into the new creation whose arrival is continuously deferred to the Messiah who is to come.

[1] Yoder’s use of the term ‘constantinism’ is contested, most recently in Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010).  I buy some of his critiques of Yoder and so this part of the essay will require at the very least an extensive footnote summarizing his argument against Yoder’s use of ‘constantinianism’ and the reason(s) I choose to continue its use in my thesis.

[2] [2] John Howard Yoder, “See How They Go with Their Face to the Sun,” in For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 63.

[3] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: OUP, 2005), 5.

[4] Yoder, “See How They Go,” 65, 71.


3 comments on “My Thesis: Abstract

  1. Theophilus says:

    Being not-too-distant descendents of refugees, I think this notion of being in diaspora might well be particularly poignant for both of us. I think setting yourself up against colonialism makes perfect sense in a North American context. I sometimes wonder what the Christian practice of diaspora might look like in an indigenous society rather than a colonial one, though. Coming from a semi-itinerant people myself, I have few tools to understand those kind of deep roots in particular places.

  2. lisa o says:

    in contrast with what was written in the beginning- colonial habits and thought have made this ‘home’ rather than embracing an exilic character – will you be writing about appropriate places/times for ‘home’?

    • Kampen says:

      Probably not in my thesis – I wont have space. Wendell Berry has been pushing my thoughts though on a kind of ‘home’ or ‘landedness’ with the significance of ‘place’ in his stories and essays. Maybe I’ll write on that for my final paper in my Yoder & Berry class. If I do decide to, I’ll be sure to send those thoughts your way. Whatever Berry may have to say about place aside, with my exilic argument (with Yoder, Lederach, and especially Derrida) I want to maintain a constant deferral of ‘home;’ while we seek the welfare of the city, we don’t arrive at it finally. The arrival of home, of Zion, of the Kingdom, are all finally (in their fulness) brought about by the Messiah, not us.

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