Killing for the Telephone Company

I often peruse the new books section at the JKM Library, and despite our current impoverished condition (there are frequent claims we don’t really acquire new books anymore), I’m always relatively impressed by the new volumes on those shelves. Maybe there’d be more if the seminary’s (and library’s) financial situations were different. But if I see something interesting, I usually pick it up and try reading it (and with Amos Yong, don’t have much success, since the book itself is too unpleasantly written to read).

But then I spied William T. Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. I make no pretense of the fact that the issue that drives me theologically, morally and ethically is that of the relationship between Church and state and Christian and state. It’s really the only thing I can get passionate about (as friends who know me and have grown frustrated by my single-mindedness can attest to). And I do so from a very critical standpoint, one that questions the very moral foundations of the state as an entity. Which is why I am so happy to have found Cavanaugh’s book. Where was it eight weeks ago when I so desperately needed it?

I have just finished the first chapter, “Killing for the Telephone Company”: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good. It’s an essay I’ve quoted from before.

Cavanaugh’s thesis is simple: the state is not an organic development arising from the needs of the human community, but rather the product of deliberate conquest and the simplification of social space. And, as the subtitle of his chapter notes, the state is not a reflection of any kind of common good (or even any single entity called society, which doesn’t pre-exist the state), but rather a very specific good arising out of the claims to monopoly power first exercised by absolute monarchs in the 17th century:

According to [Joseph R.] Strayer [author of On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State], the development of regularized systems of revenue extraction and accounting, law courts, and assemblies were undertaken with reference to its advantages for particular parties [italics mine, CHF], namely the royal household and the properties classes, and without reference to anything like a common good. The common people came into the purview of the emerging bureaucracy almost exclusively as a resource for revenue extraction. At the same time, the very definition of what is “common” had begun a gradual transformation. The centralization of royal power involved a transfer of rights from local bodies that had previously been the primary recipients of communal life. Legal right and the administration of justice as not created by royal power but was usurped from manorial lords, churches, and communities. If Strayer is accurate, this process took place to serve the particular interests of dominant groups, and not as the expansion of common space. (p. 13)

War is the primary means by which state power is truly expanded, and states made war in order to expand power — not only against other emerging states, but also against the people they governed. Cavanaugh points out the greatest expansion of domestic, non-war related state power and spending in the United States coincides with both World Wars (he could have added the War of Confederate Independence from 1861-1865, the war in Southeast Asia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Cavanaugh also states that, contrary to the ideas of the Burkeans and others, the state is not created by “civil society.” Rather, unitary civil society is the creation of the state. The great English-language theorists of the state, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, both saw the state as acts of will which individuals surrender to and contract with. Both also saw the state’s sovereign will as absolute — there could be no competing wills. Cavanaugh writes of Hobbes:

In his view, the state is not enacted to realize a common good or common telos [end or meaning], but rather to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends without fear of interference from other individuals. In the peculiar new space created by the state, the individual members do not depend on one another; rather, they are connected only through the sovereign–as spokes are to the hub of a wheel. (p. 20)

For Locke, political space has only two poles: the individual and the state:

The state is enacted immediately from the needs of the solitary individual to protect his person and possessions. The world belongs to all humankind in common, but it is quickly withdrawn from the common by human labor. (p. 21)

According to Cavanaugh, the 16th and 17th century theories of sovereignty — the ones that more or less still hold sway in our world today — “do not yield much in the way of the common good.” They are founded on the individual (and this is also true of 19th and 20th century collectivist understandings as well, which is why ideological opposition to individualism on the left almost always becomes a kind-of nihilistic collectivism which continues to advance state power) that sees the only basis of individual cooperation as “the contracts” in which the state mediates between interests and wills. In this, Cavanaugh writes:

The body politic does not pursue a common good, but instead seeks to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends. … [S]overeignty is not there mere gathering of the many into one, but the creation of sovereign individuals related through the sovereign state. (p. 23)

This is problematic for many libertarians. For if the goal is the expansion of individual liberty, then the maximization of that liberty involves destroying anything that could interfere with that liberty. Any intermediary institutions that can protect people can also stand in their way. Thus, the expansion of individual liberty as commonly understood also requires the expansion of state power as a way of destroying anything that might have a separate identity from the state. So, whatever civil society there is exists to serve the state and its ends. For example, the church is domesticated and privatized.

This is why the language of rights — civil rights, human rights — are so important to the expansion of state power:

The rise of rights language goes hand in hand with the rise of the nation-state, because political and civil rights name both the freeing of the individual from traditional types of community and the establishment of regular relationships of power between the individual and the state. Marx was wrong to dismiss rights as a mere ruse to protect the claims of the bourgeois classes. Nevertheless, individual rights do greatly expand the scope of the state because political and civil rights establish binding relationships between the nation-state and those who look to vindicate their claims. The nation-state becomes something of a central, bureaucratic clearinghouse in which social claims are contested. The nation-state is fully realized when sacrifice on behalf of the nation is combined with claims made on the state on the basis of rights. (p. 36)

This is a theological book, and in this Chapter, it appears Cavanaugh is laying the foundation for what he believes the church (for like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas before him, is speaking only to the church) should do as it thinks and acts in the context of the nation-state. For Cavanaugh notes that the nation-state presents itself as:

… the keeper of the common and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for true communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any true common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear: as Augustine perceived, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. That nation-state is a simulacrum of the common life, where falls order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the church, meant to save us from division. 

The urgent task of the church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company. At best, the nation-state may provide goods and services that contribute to a certain limited order; mail delivery, for example, is a positive good. The state is not the keeper of the common good, however, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly. The church must break its imagination out of captivity to the nation-state; it must constitute itself as an alternative social space, and not simply rely on the nation-state to be its social presence; the church must, at every opportunity, “complexity” space, that is promote the creation of spaces in which alternative economies and authorities flourish. (p. 42)

I do not know Cavanugh’s religious affiliation. He cites Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno — and the whole of Catholic social teaching, which tends to look to an idealized middle ages as a way of creating structures that will protect people and look after them — positively. And he cites a story told by political scientist Michael Budde about the unwillingness of the a group of Roman Catholic bishops in an unnamed state to conceive of a way of dealing with poverty that was more than lobbying legislators as an example of the church’s failure to see itself as creating “authentically common spaces among the haves and the have nots.”

For Cavanaugh, the failure is primarily one of imagination, a failure which careens across political lines from liberal Christians who see in the welfare state something of the Kingdom of God and in conservatives who see in the United States of America (and its wars) something of God acting deliberately and purposefully in history:

In seeing the nation-state as responsible for the common good, the church mutes its own voice in such crucial matters as war and peace, and it is pushed to the margins. Just-war reasoning becomes a tool of statecraft, most commonly used by the state to justify war, rather than a moral discipline for the church to grapple with the questions of violence. The church itself becomes one more withering “intermediate association” whose moral reasoning and moral formation are increasingly colonized by the nation-state and the market. To resist, the church must at the very least reclaim its authority to judge if and when Christians may kill, and not abdicate authority to the nation-state. To do so would be to create an alternative authority and space that does not simply mediate between state and individual. (p. 44-45)

It is early yet, and I do not quite see where the book is going. So I’ll keep my comments short here. First, those of us who believe as Cavanaugh advocates — and I am one — will have our work cut out for us, especially in very statist confessions like the Lutheran churches of North America. Lutherans have in their confessional DNA the belief and expectation that church, people and polity will be one in the same. (It is our heritage.) The northern European understanding of the nation-state is much more “organic” than the English understanding (though no less false), and thus the idea that the church serves the state and the state rules the community bounded by the church in which all share culture, faith, language and telos (which is more or less true in northern Europe and Scandinavia) does not lend itself easily to Cavanaugh’s subsidiarity. This is especially true under the progressive church’s preferred ruling ideal, multiculturalism, which just as intolerant as any other form of assimilationism, demanding the complete surrender of any alternative claims of explaining and structuring society and seeking the power of the state to enforce its claims.

Cavanaugh also says the church is different. A claim we can make as believers but one we cannot “prove” to the satisfaction of non-believers. It will also be interesting to see where Cavanaugh takes language like this:

Salvation history is not a particular subset of human history; it is simply the story of God’s rule, not yet completely legible, over all of history. (p. 45)

Such language, when used sloppily (or deliberately), can justify all kinds of things. One of the reasons I don’t break bread with the religious left is that such language seems to be an excuse to use state power and wield it illiberally. But also because Cavanaugh is right. There really is no common good in the nation-state. At least there’s no common good separate from the specific exercise of power for specific advantage.

But the truth it, the medieval world cannot be reclaimed is simply because modernity won’t allow for it. And by that, we who are moderns simply don’t live in a world where medieval organization or arrangements can or will make any sense. We live in a world of the individual. So, if I have to choose between nihilistic individualism and nihilistic collectivism (and I believe that is the only real organizational choice modernity gives us), that’s an easy choice — nihilistic individualism. Because at least there’s space within that to work with others and make something different.