Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics

Essays in Exile

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P. Travis Kroeker
Theopolitcal Visions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , November
     2017.
     280 pages.
     $33.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781620329870.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It has become a trend in recent years for established theologians to publish a book of their esteemed essays—collections that usually reflect a lifetime of work over a few essential themes. What makes P. Travis Kroeker's book, Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics: Essays in Exile, such an impressive feat is just how expansive is its reach and how detailed is its engagement. Most collections are an achievement if the author accomplishes one of these objectives. However, Kroeker covers the themes of messianic theology and ethics, apocalyptic theology, Fyodor Dostoevsky's literature, Plato's theology, Augustine of Hippo's theology, Mennonite ecclesiology, Christian theological approaches to technology, and political theology—to name a few. Kroeker not only manages to bring these essays together, and make genuine contributions in each area, but also brings them together in such a way as to make this text read like a comprehensive whole. When reading Kroeker's work, one often feels as if they are reading a sustained argument rather than a collection of essays.

Kroeker covers a vast array of subjects with the richness of a seasoned scholar, composing a comprehensive engagement impossible for a reviewer. Therefore, this review will limit itself to two main themes of the text—messianic and diaspora—in addition to one other theme that I believe readers should examine—technology. The review will end with a brief reflection on the use of John Howard Yoder in Kroeker's text. 

First, Kroeker's work provides a theological interpretation of our present political crisis (1). The language he employs is messianic. Kroeker identifies the parameters of messianic theology as a political posture juxtaposed to forms of godlike possessiveness, namely sovereignty. For Kroeker, sovereignty represents the constant totalitarian, violent, and exclusivist tendencies of our worst forms of government, and social selves. Conversely, messianic political theology is a matter of dispossession. Dispossession, in its messianic inflection, involves a profound rejection of immanent frames of meaning and identity determined by sovereignty (25). Through this inflection, the world is loved in its pure form, namely as that which is passing away. Kroeker is quick to defend this posture as not escapist or nihilistic. Preferably, it is the only way to enjoy without the need to truly dominate. Identity, in light of messianic—there needs to be a noun here; messianic is an adjective. If it must stand by itself, supply an article [i.e., “the messianic”]—does not grasp at sovereignty, but rather serves, and moves outside (of what?). 

Second, Kroeker provides a new frame of meaning in which messianic finds its companion, namely diaspora. Diaspora, like messianic, provides a means of resistance to our modern political ailments. Since late modern politics is determined so heavily by certain narratives of unitary value and meaning, it represents a corrupt, self-enclosed system of meaning. Like Babel, our late political community reduces meaning and cultural identity to a single language (75). Diaspora is useful, for Babel as well as late modern politics, given it requires communities to put down roots among difference rather than participate in assimilation into narratives of unitary meaning. As such, the community can practice a shared shalom in communion with difference (76). Diaspora enables an ethic of diversity, approaches, and traditions in order to live an open and communal life in the presence of the neighbor. It values difference for its own sake as a means to represent the New Testament vision of ekklesia.

In addition to his stimulating description of messianic and diaspora, Kroeker unpacks the vexed topic of technology. Kroeker acknowledges that technology liberates humanity from necessity by proposing a mastery of nature itself. Such mastery, according to Kroeker, leads to disincarnation, namely disembodiment over embodiment due to the increased desire to be free from the necessity of bodily life. Kroeker's work re-orients humanity to a fully incarnate account of embodied life, which returns us to Kroeker's messianic theology. Only in messianic dispossession can one honestly confront the vile and disincarnate tendencies of late modernity. Ironically, technocratic culture, through its rejection of embodied lives, calls humanity to a greater mastery of nature.

Conversely, Kroeker's account of messianic dispossession reveals the paradoxical nature of Christian commitment. Only through rejecting the idea of mastery and self-love—defined in the Augustinian vein—which is dispossession, does one receive the gift that is embodied life with self and neighbor. In order to illustrate this, Kroeker ends his book with a gesture toward the epilogue of Dostoevsky's famous work The Brothers Karamazov. In this work, Dostoevsky presents his famous picture of a new community of children that may flourish only if it can forgive. The speech and new commitment of these children reveal their liberation from the same forms of mastery signaled in technocratic culture. In these commitments, they rediscover not only life beyond the violence of mastery, but also the gift of one another. Only through messianic dispossession can this discovery manifest. 

In conclusion, it is clear that Kroeker resonates deeply with themes in Yoder, and nonetheless has received the mired legacy of Yoder. Kroeker draws from Yoder frequently in his analysis of messianic theology and Mennonite theology, but does not wade into the question many would ask of him: should we still read Yoder? This question is a critical one, but instead, Kroeker develops an answer to another question: what is the Mennonite tradition? This different emphasis is a very helpful distinction given that the Mennonite tradition is broader than Yoder, and can draw from multiple streams both inside and outside its circles. For example, Mennonites might consider how its theology is informed by the gulag (chapter 11). Utilizing figures inside and outside of the Mennonite tradition proper, Kroeker shows how one man does not narrowly define Mennonite theology. 

Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics is a riveting collection that is as broad as it is challenging. In addition, readers will enjoy Kroeker’s prose, which is both elegant and grounded in a lifetime of scholarly work. Kroeker’s book is textually sensitive and provides a definitive contribution to the theological development of messianic, diaspora, and exile.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hank Spaulding is Adjunct Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Ashland University, and Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

P. Travis Kroeker is Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of Christian Ethics and Political Economy in North America and coauthor (with Bruce Ward) of Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity. He is currently working on another book extending this reading of messianic political theology through the interpretation of a range of Christian and non-Christian literary works.

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