Security After Christendom 

How can we understand security and practise it ethically in a global and secular age? 

Security – not justice, equality, freedom, or democracy – is arguably the primary task of contemporary politics. According to modernization theory, the secular age is also supposed to increase our subjective sense of security. Yet social scientists have long recognised that security is beset by a dilemma and a paradox. The dilemma is how a government or other entity can achieve security without threatening another entity. The paradox is that the measures they take, and which appear assuring, in fact generate fear and escalation, worsening security for all. 

Given the primacy of security to politics, we would expect Christian political theology to have something to say about this problem. However, unlike regarding war, there has been little or no work by contemporary theologians since the Christian Realism of the mid-twentieth century helped build the nascent field of International Relations. 

Writing in the shadows of the world wars, these exclusively Western thinkers focused on the state, the necessity of the balance of power, and the moderately critical role the church may play in holding culturally Christian leaders to account. But this whole approach to security assumed the existence of an imagined community which, in the twentieth century, was rapidly losing its social basis: Western Christendom.  

My book, Security After Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2024) seeks to make sense of how security has been affected by the end of Christendom – the decline in the influence of the church on government – and sketch out a new Christian political theology for an undoubtedly secular age. It defines Christendom not as a period of (Western) history – as is often the case in the English-speaking literature – but as an imagined community where government secures the church and the church ministers to government. 

This broad definition insists there is a family resemblance between all forms of Christian politics which claim a privileged position for the church. It is deployed to capture the huge variety of Christendom forms, in the past and present, global North and global South. It also allows us to explore comparatively the similarity between neo-Christendom ideas such as “Russian World” ideology, Western Christian nationalisms, and forms of “new Christendom” imagined in the Christian majority states in Africa. While these movements differ, they share core beliefs. Moreover, there are transnational ties between Russian and Western conservatives and global evangelicalmovements sharing a vision of a “restored” political Christianity.   

But secular visions of national security and the liberal international order are also found wanting. Security After Christendom explores work such as that by Charles Taylor and David Martin which argues that Christendom birthed the secular age in the West and the inherent instability of the secular as an afterlife of Christendom. This instability is about more than the security paradox. It is about the crises of the state and of faith that are reinvigorated by two dialectical processes. 

First, an increasingly disenchanted world is necessarily met by processes of re-enchantment which seek to reinsert foundations of meaning into politics. This dialectic of the secular and sacred generates conflicts between warring identity groups.  The Franco-American cultural theorist René Girard argued that all political communities use religious identity – and the scapegoating of outsiders – to try (unsuccessfully) to achieve order. Girard’s structuralism and his reading of ancient cultures is disputed, but his followers now seize on daily examples of such identity-based conflict as evidence to support his theory.  

Second, secular sovereign states – no longer “under God” – seek to centre increasing pastoral power over the lives of their subjects. However, they face decentring trends of identity groups and the recentring trends of advanced capitalism which today generates trillion-dollar companies and a proliferating number of billionaire oligarchs, both Eastern and Western. In such contexts, ideas of national security (the predominance of great powers) and human security (promoted by a liberal international order) are poor frames of references. These are the two main approaches in both academic international relations and diplomacy – and they fall far short as explanations for our security predicament.

In the final part of the book, I argue that Christan political theology – despite centuries of Christendom thinking – now has a chance to say something new and insightful about security.  However, to do this, we must focus on the post-Christendom traditions and their thought about the ends of world which centres Christian politics not on the state but on the church. These traditions have the advantage of history: having expected and welcomed the decline of Christendom that is now proceeding apace. 

In Security After Christendom, I draw on the Roman Catholic Girard, the Orthodox Sergius Bulgakov, the Anabaptist John Howard Yoder, and the liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle among others.  Each of these thinkers has a broadly universalist, nonviolent, and eschatological conception of the Christian faith. This means that they are interested in a political theology which is inclusive of others and is concerned about the ultimate purpose of the world. 

The book synthesises insights from these thinkers to sketch a new international political theology where true security is an “eschatological phenomenon” inaugurated by Christ. From this Christian perspective, Jesus provides both the model and the means of security. Such security is threefold and incorporates radical inclusion, nonviolent protection, and abundant provision. 

Security After Christendom [preview] explores these three elements not merely theologically but according to the evidence from security studies and my practical experience of working for government and various international organizations and charities. 

Inclusion is radical as it is universal, extending to all regardless of difference as repeated in the New Testament (Galatians 2:28, 1 Timothy 2:4). This means that the post-Christendom church and faith-based social movements and rightly focused on facilitating sanctuary not on supporting state bordering practices. Despite such practices, both forced and labour migration are increasing with the evidence suggesting that this is economically good both for the migrants and their new homes.

Protection is nonviolent on principled grounds that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). The historical record of the faith-based movements for non-violent resistance is itself a strategy of security. Evidence for the effectiveness of nonviolence provides the grounds for the church and social movements to participate in Unarmed Civilian Protection

Finally, provision is abundant when it withdraws (partially, as no more than this can be achieved at scale) from the environmentally destructive and scarcity-generating practices of the global economy. Jesus withdrew to feed the five thousand while Judaism as long practised sabbath and jubilee. We now live in an age where the grabbing of agricultural land and irrigation suggests we can no longer rely – if we ever could – on the global economy to provide food for all. Local supply chains and community cooperatives offer better options. 

These three elements owe much to the Christian (and particularly Christian anarchist) tradition but are not confined to it. Believers of other faiths and none have taken on and contributed to this better models of security.  The idea of returning to an era in which one faith is triumphant – a new Christendom, for example – is both morally compromised and fanciful. But secularization can never be complete and offers little ground for hope in its own terms.  After Christendom, we must draw on faith traditions to find new global and local responses to insecurity.


  • John Heathershaw

    John Heathershaw is a Professor of International Relations at Exeter. His research addresses conflict, security and development in global politics, especially in post-Soviet Central Asia.

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