If you’ve ever found yourself straying into the distinctive online realm that is Weird Christian Twitter, sooner or later you’ll come to the conclusion that “Very Online” Lutherans are a pretty scarce bunch. It’s not hard to come across Catholics arguing over the possibility of distributism and the merits of Francisco Franco, “1689er” Reformed Baptists fighting about critical race theory, or Anglicans trying to figure out the touchstone of Anglican identity, but the sons and daughters of Wittenberg are in pretty short supply.
But within that very narrow corner of the internet, something new has popped up in recent weeks. In much the same way that socialists display the rose emoji, traditionalist Catholics wave the Vatican flag, or Democratic activists show off the blue wave, Twitter’s Lutherans have recently taken to signifying their confessional allegiance by proudly adopting the bison emoji in their Twitter bios.
Why the bison? Simply put, the bison serves as the unofficial mascot of the “Great Lutheran Khanate”—a postliberal regime humorously hypothesized to emerge in America following a Canticle for Leibowitz-style apocalypse. Given the high concentration of Lutherans in the American Midwest—and the fact that the Mongol Empire originally emerged from the steppes of Central Asia—couldn’t a regime like this theoretically emerge following a catastrophic civilizational implosion? A key plank of the Khanate’s governing platform, of course, must be the restoration of the vast bison population that once roamed the Great Plains—hence the emoji.
As best as I can tell, the Khanate appears to have been the brainchild of Wisconsin-based pastor Christopher Jackson (incidentally, the author of a very good recent article on Luther’s theology of the cross/theology of glory distinction) And on its face, I take the meme of the Khanate to be a good-natured jab at those Catholic traditionalists who spend very large amounts of time fantasizing about something like the restoration of the Habsburg Empire. (For that matter, why not work out the contours of a Pentecostal distributism? Or an Episcopalian hunter-gatherer society?)
Now, I have no intention of overcomplicating the joke: I’m keenly aware of E.B. White’s adage that “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.” Even so, I think the meme taps into some interesting theological ideas that are worth noting—at least in passing.
For one thing, the meme of the Lutheran Khanate implicitly raises a question that’s almost never asked today: how far must an authentically Christian society mirror the traditional Greco-Roman concept of the polis? Or, put differently, is a God-honoring society required to take on a fixed and urban form?
Some thinkers have implied precisely that. In his recent volume The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism—a book I broadly appreciated—D.C. Schindler proposes a somewhat idiosyncratic philosophical definition of Christianity: the united synthesis of the Jewish (theological), Greek (intellectual), and Roman (political) projects. Now, even allowing for a modicum of Catholic parochialism here, the inclusion of Rome in this definitional trifecta strikes me as questionable—what of bodies like the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church or the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church that came into being long before any Constantinian rapprochement,and that matured wholly outside the Roman Empire’s sphere of power? Are those churches definitionally excluded from being “Christian”? But in any case, Schindler’s claim reflects an undeniably longstanding association of “Christian civilization” with the Roman project, which (not for no reason) bears the moniker “Eternal City.” And this emphasis on urbanity as the cornerstone of human political flourishing is certainly not limited to the Christian tradition: versions of this argument have proliferated in the West since at least Plato onward. The claim emerges in its maximalist form in the work of Notre Dame architect Philip Bess, who suggests in Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred that something like urbanism might even rise to the level of a point of natural law.
By contrast, at least in its earliest stages, the culture of the Mongol khanate of old was nomadic, not sedentary. It seems to me that this way of life, viewed through Christian theological lenses, has a unique advantage over the traditional urban model: specifically, the nomadic lifestyle poses no risk of confusing a temporal system of governance with the eschatological Jerusalem. Without a physically rooted polis, what earthly kingdom is there to idolize, or—in Eric Voegelin’s terms—what eschaton is there to immanentize?
Now, I have no intention of endorsing a gnostic theology of escape from the world into a remote paradise. Rather, the point is that the practices of a migratory civilization reinforce the conviction that Christians are always travelers within a presently imperfect cosmos, which someday will be put right—but not yet. Indeed, it’s hard to envision a better exemplification of Hebrews 3:14—“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come”—than a wayfaring polity.
Additionally, it’s worth pointing out even something as humorous as the bison emoji—coupled with the stated goal of bringing back the great herds that once roamed North America—captures an important idea. Specifically, a healthy civilization is one that takes environmental stewardship seriously, cultivating proper respect for God’s creatures rather than transforming them into mere chattels for exploitation. And wholly apart from any theological considerations, the idea makes a certain intuitive sense. Wouldn’t it beautify the world more to have herds of buffalo roaming the American prairie, as they once did, than to set up another Bitcoin mining operation?
Now, to be sure, barring total collapse of the American constitutional order and a mass movement of Americans choosing to “swim the Danube” and confess the Formula, I’m under no delusions that such a Khanate is actually in the cards. With all due respect to Charles De Koninck and others who would insist on the “primacy of the speculative” in any political theorizing, I think there are rather better ways to love and serve my neighbors than working out a Lutheranized Yasa (as entertaining as that project might be). But to the extent that such a meme, even implicitly, brings out genuine theological truths that don’t always come to the fore in contemporary life—such as the provisionality of all human regimes and the value of the created world—it strikes me as something worth reflecting on.
John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.