Archive for September 16th, 2011

The State of Things

September 16, 2011

I’m going to break a few personal rules in this post. Normally I try to write within the known bounds of the Eastern Orthodox faith. I also try to write about things I know – both rules limit the range of my writing. But for this post, I want to “think aloud” about some things that seem worth puzzling about.

I’ve long found it useful to look at things that are taken for granted, and question them – not question whether they are true (though sometimes I will go that far) – but mostly to ask what do they mean and to ask if there is a different or better way to say them.

I am not a “political scientist,” whatever that may mean. However, recent conversations on the blog have reminded me about some thoughts that I’ve not entertained for a while. These are questions about the nature of the thing we refer to as “the state.” What is a state and why does it have authority (even over life and death)? Where did the state come from – is it legitimate from a Christian perspective?

First answer. It seems obvious that there is something that people call a “state” and that it is not going away any time soon. The planet has arranged itself into “states” for a number of centuries (not that many actually) and states have amassed for themselves enormous powers, enormous wealth, and dreadful armaments. Whatever states are – they are big, rich, and dangerous.

Most states today embrace some theory of democracy (at least in an official sense). Very few, though some, still make some claim to divine right. Modern democracies do not make a claim to divine right (though some of them are given such a right by many of their Christian subjects – cf. America).

Imagine for a moment, a world that was organized not into states, but into commercial providers and commercial consumers. I’m not sure what we would call such an organization – maybe a business-state or some much more enlightened term. In such a world, providing for consumers would be the primary activity. Failure to provide would create the danger of being replaced by a more attractive provider – sort of like Microsoft being replaced by Apple. Can’t happen? Almost has.

In such a world, would you as a consumer feel any particular loyalty to the product providers? Would you go to war and kill for them? I have used this illustration precisely because killing for a corporation, for Kelloggs, or General Electric, just sounds absurd.

What is it about the nation-state that provokes such loyalty in people? America was the first nation that was founded as an “idea.” Whatever one may think of the Constitution – it is not a divinely inspired document and the founding of our nation  was not a great divine intervention into the course of human history (except in the mind of a few heretical sectarians and cultists). My ancestors, if you need to ask, lived here then, and fought on the side of the American Revolution. However, having been to Great Britain, I cannot think the shedding of blood to have been reasonably justified in that revolutionary cause. Slavery lasted at least a generation longer in American than Britain – so much for freedom as a founding ideal.

I am not opposed to being rich – though I think to be rich is to have an ontologically precarious position (cf. camels and eyes of needles). I do not think that keeping somebody rich is a justifiable cause for killing someone. In the same manner I do not think killing someone to take their money is justified.

I will offer several conclusions – just thoughts from the day.

The State is an illusion (a very dangerous illusion). It is an illusion in that it has no particular standing within the Divine scheme. States are secular entities, the inventions of man for his own reasons, and are therefore illusory (in an ontological sense). The Kingdoms of this World will become the Kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ – Scripture tells us (but not until the end of all things). I am more afraid of being ruled by some Christians than I am of the current corporate class.

Having said that the State is an illusion doesn’t mean that I think you or I should try and make it disappear. I simply think the State should be extremely relativized in the thought of Christians pursuing the Kingdom of God. The State will not usher in the Kingdom, nor make it move further away or come closer.

I have mentioned several times lately that I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke when I was in the Doctoral Program there. I have carried a quote of his with me for the past 20 years or so that seems to go to the heart of question of the State:

As soon as we agree that we are responsible for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do murder.

I am not responsible for the outcome of history – God is. The current world drama is an act upon a stage written by those who believe they are responsible for history’s outcome. Of course, it is presently an absurdist drama. None in the American State Department have any idea what the “Arab Spring” is about. Even those who are making it happen seem to be less than sure. But we are certain enough to kill. That seems to me to be a serious bet that you either know the outcome, or think you can manage it.

One of the great tragic dramas of human world-management followed the Cease-fire that ended the First World War. The winners (led in large part by the British and by American President Woodrow Wilson) re-drew the map of the world. They created countries where none had existed. Some of the countries included dangerous imbalances of ancient enemies (Shiites versus Sunnis, for instance). The decisions were often arbitrary beyond belief. The result has been a century of turmoil and war – much of which is rooted in absurdities born in the space of six months of 1919.

I apologize for such political asides – but the fact that we do not control the outcome of history is made be exceedingly obvious by this small six month lesson.

So what is a Christian to do? “Do your best – and try not to sin so much.” A quote I rather like. But we should understand for our soul’s sake, that God has not placed human beings in the position of world-management. We should obey the authorities under which we live – so long as they do not ask us to break God’s commandments – but we should not become enamored of their power. They are chimeras – endowed with all the power of Pontius Pilate. He imagined himself to be a world manager – one who controlled life and death. The absurdity and emptiness of his self-conceit is revealed in the Person of Christ who stands before him, tolerating his judgment, because, “You could do nothing if it were not given you from above.” It is the Father’s will that Christ obeys – not the wicked fears and threats of a Roman Procurator.

When we think about the State (ours or any other), we would do well to bring the image of Pontius Pilate to mind, and remember the eternal figure of Christ before him. We need have no fear – nor need we listen to snake-oil salesmen who tell us that we rule the world.

God rules.

Hauerwas, said once in class, “Because we are not in charge of history, we have nothing better to do than to have children and tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Please forgive me. I am an ignorant man. But these are things I’ve thought about today.