On Being Particular

One of the foundational elements, or so it seems, of much of Western thinking is the claim to universality — that ideas, principles and values are only morally legitimate if they apply to all human beings equally in all times and in all places. Kant was hardly unique in this (as he tried to distinguish universal Christianity from particular Judaism) — such was the result of many centuries of Christian thinking. Such universalism clearly informs medieval natural law theory, for example.

For good social democrats and secular humanists, the idea of the universal allegedly does away with all of the scandalous things that derive from particularism — racism, slavery, nationalism, militarism, all the abuse of human beings somewhat grounded in the “we are chosen and you are not” or “by dint of culture/civilization/technology/values, we are entitled to dominate or exclude you.” (Most conservative American Christians are good liberals in this regard.) I find this assertion both troubling and untrue, mostly because it ignores how universalism also entitles and empowers. “No one is free until everyone is free.” That may sound like liberation, but when it’s said by the powerful, it is an amazing justification for empire.

And universalism is an amazing justification for empire.

I don’t think it’s any stretch to say today that liberal nationalism is the world’s ruling ideal. It claims to be universal, and is claimed by many of adherents to be universal. By that, it is the direction history is inexorably taking humanity (and is morally superior to all previous social and governing arrangements), it is how all of the world’s people either desire to live or would desire to live if they could, and it supposedly leaves room for national and individual autonomy of sorts, for some amount of local difference. What liberal nationalism isn’t, at least in the eyes of its firmest believers, is a form of empire.

This is the last essay I’m going to write from Stanley Hauerwas’ latest book, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. Hauerwas believes it is imperative for Christians to abandon the conceit of universalism — and along with it, empire — and embrace the very particularism of God. In doing so, he spends so quality with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. Hauerwas writes:

Sacks acknowledges that his refusal to abandon the distinctive perspective of Judaism means some will brand him a “tribalist.” Yet he argues that the very universalism that many assume to be the antithesis to the resurgence of tribalism, or worse terrorism, is an inadequate account of the human condition. A global culture may bring about much good, but from Sacks’ perspective, such cultures, particularly when they take the form of empires, do much harm because they fail to be capable of acknowledging difference. That Sacks should distrust the universal pretensions of empires is not surprising, for, as he observes, Judaism was born as a protest against empire. (p. 118)

Hauerwas examines the narrative many Christians (and more than a few Jews) tell about the Tower of Babel, noting that “for Sacks, Babel represents a turning point in history. For after Babel, God, who had first made a covenant with all creation, chooses to call out one people that they may be a witness to God’s will for all people.” (p. 118) Judaism is itself a very particular endeavor, a message addressed to a very particular people.

Let’s examine this in the light of the Decalogue, the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness. Throughout Christian history, the Ten Commandments (or at least the second table) have been seen as a kind-of universal natural law for all humanity. Things most people believe, more or less, and that are therefore somehow written on human hearts or somehow inscribed on human souls. (That this discussion took place in medieval Christian Europe should give some pause to these claims.) The Ten Commandments are good rules for living, then. Rules all people can and should follow. Because they just make sense.

But do they? If they make sense, why did Israel’s God wait to give this teaching to Israel in the wilderness of Sinai after yanking Israel out of Egypt? Aren’t these good rules for Egypt, too? In fact, if they were good rules for humanity, a guide to righteous and upright living, why didn’t God just sit down with Pharaoh and tell him “Inscribe these on stella across your land, so that all the people may know how to live.” I don’t much like asking this kinds of questions. But I also believe the story of scripture tells us something, and we don’t have the story I outlined above. We have a very different story. God gave this teaching to a people God had just formed, formed in trauma,  a people God had just rescued and redeemed (but in a way none of them had asked for).

The Ten Commandments are not a teaching given to all humanity. They are not meant to be posted in classrooms and in front of country courthouses. They are not universal guides to living upright and good, moral lives. God did not give the Ten Commandments to all humanity. God gave them to Israel, and by dint of our being grafted into Israel through Jesus Christ, to the church. They are an attempt by God to show those of us who have been called to be God’s people what it means to live in relationship with the God who called us and gathers us. And with each other. It is not our adherence to the teaching that makes us God’s people; the calling and gathering by God comes first.

And because God makes us God’s people, we cannot be “ungathered” through our own efforts. Whether we adhere to the teaching or not does not unmake us God’s people. Scripture clearly tells the story of consequences for failing or refusing to adhere to the teaching of God (conquest and exile), but none of that undoes God’s calling as us God’s people. The Bible is also clear that as time goes on, and as God’s people live in and with the consequences of things, God continually comes to meet them, and to change how the promises of God are realized in, for and with God’s people.

But God’s people Israel-Church never, never stop being God’s people. God won’t have it.

That, however, is not how empire works. Or human universalism. Unity and gathering are not the product of God’s work, but of human work. Hauerwas writes that the Christian answer to Babel is traditonally Pentecost:

Christians there have gone into the world with missionary zeal convinced that they possess the truth that all people desire even if they have not yet realized it. The political form this presumption took is called Constantinianism, which has taken many different forms, but [Ernst] Troeltsch’s claim for the inseparability of Christianity and Europe is as good an example as one could want for one of its most recent incarnations. 

It is, or course, hard to know which came first, that is, the presumption that the Christian faith represents universal knowledge that only needs to be explained to those who are not yet Christian, or the politics of empire. Either way it is now clear that Christian presumption of universality either as knowledge qua knowledge or as politics is — or at least should be — over. This does not mean I believe the Christian faith is not true, but that what it means for it to be true cannot be secured by a theory of truth more determinative than the faith itself. (p. 120-121)

Pentecost doesn’t undo what God did in confusing human speech at Babel. Rather, it changes what difference means. Difference, when we approach neighbors in love and vulnerability, becomes a way for Christians to know and encounter neighbors. “Pentecost has restored Babel not by mitigating the diversity granted by Babel but by creating a people who have learned how to be patient, how to be at peace, how to listen in a world of impatient violence.” (p. 132)

Christians will do ourselves or our neighbor little good by trying to convince those who do not share our story that we also can be liberal cosmopolitans. Rather, we must by what we are: the church of Jesus Christ. For if that church is not the anticipation of the peace God will for all people then we are without hope. To sustain that peace, to care for the stranger when all strangers cannot be cared for, to know how to go on in the face of our suffering, the suffering of those we love and the suffering of those we do not know, is possible because we believe God abandons no one. Our belief in God’s persistence takes the form of a story which receives us as strangers and destines us to be friends. 

The Christian word for universality is “catholic.” Indeed that way of putting the matter can be misleading because it gives the impression that “catholic” is another way of saying “universal.” But catholic is not the name of a logical category or philosophical position. It is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition. Indeed the very presumption we can identify something called the world depends on a people who have been separated from the world to be of service to the world. What the church offers is the patience and the humility learned through the gospel, which teaches us how to live at peace although we cannot write the history of humankind. (p.130-131)

The church “is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition.”I think I’m going to leave it there.