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.

Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk

That’s the title of Cavanaugh’s third chapter of Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, and it’s a brief exploration of Christian identity in the world globalization and nation-states. I’m always leery of discussions of identity. Not because such conversations aren’t important, but because words and ideas can be used to convey more than the actual reality does.

Nonetheless, this is a book about being church. That’s a question of identity. And this chapter is important, if somewhat limited.

Cavanaugh first looks at migrants and tourists, two types of people he sees as prime types in globalized modernity. The migrant is stateless and sees the world from the bottom. The tourist is cosmopolitan — a pretend stateless person — who sees the world from the top. More than describing such people, Cavanaugh says these types (he admits they are stereotypes, but drawn from reality) perform an important function for the modern nation-state. In talking about the U.S.-Mexico border (though he could be talking about any international boundary crossed by people legally and illegally seeking work), he writes:

The purpose of the border is not simply to exclude immigrants but to define them, to give them an identity. That identity is a liminal identity, an identity that straddles the border and defines a person as being neither here nor there. (p. 74)

Again, I don’t want to give too much weight to these words, but despite being an American, I have a somewhat different experience of borders and work, having twice crossed international frontiers (both times legally, though in the case of Saudi Arabia, my stay was long enough to become an illegal one) looking for work. There’s a fair amount to this assertion of his, and that people without rights as nationals — or nationals of the nation-state they inhabit — are important in globalization. However, it does put the lie to one of Cavanaugh’s earlier statements that in a globalized world, capital moves while labor doesn’t. Clearly labor does. It just doesn’t do so easily, or often as legally as it could.

And then he begins to wander into what I think could be an interesting discussion if he kept it up. Which he doesn’t:

The modern nation-state was born of the attempt to protect the rights of humans as humans. The Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 declared all human life as such to be the subject of rights. As Giorgio Agamben points out, however, the more “life” became the subject of rights–that is, the more life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, health, the satisfaction of human needs, and so on, became the subject of rights–the more “life” became inscribed into the political order and brought under sovereign control. This process is completed when state sovereignty becomes linked to the nation (from nascere, to be born). Political life in the nation-state is not derived from the conscious and free subject, but from the bare fact of birth. The key political question now takes the form “Who is German?” or “Who is American?” and more pointedly “Who is not?” Migrants and refugees challenge the link between nativity and citizenship. The nation-state may choose to confer citizen status on some migrants and refugees. Unless that takes places, however, migrants retain a liminal status. The person without a nation-state is what Agamben calls “bare life,” whose biological needs may be attended to by humanitarian relief efforts, but whose full identity as the bearer of rights is constantly held in question. (p. 74-75)

Two things pop out from this passage. The first is the expansion of rights necessitated the expansion of state power. For example, if suddenly the U.S. Constitution were amended to grant all Americans the right to a free lunch, the state would have to act to make sure those rights could be realized. More rights for individuals requires more state power.

The second, for me, is how citizenship/nationality have become in the nation-state what baptism was in Christendom. An accident, the result of being born in a particular place amidst a particular group of people. The United Nations has as one of its fundamental rights the right to nationality, that no one in theory can be without it. Because, as Cavanaugh notes here, civic and social — and even human — rights all flow from holding nationality. But why can’t I choose my nationality? Or, more importantly, why can’t I choose to have none at all? I can renounce my U.S. citizenship, but it is a meaningless gesture, since I’m still subject to U.S. law and taxes as long as I reside in the U.S. Statelessness is not a real option in a world of nation-states, at least not a voluntary one. And the only real choice is to obtain some other nation’s citizenship or nationality. And I’m not rich enough to do that easily.

Back to Cavanaugh. His ideal Christian type in the world of nation-states is the pilgrim. That’s important for him because Constantinianism gave Christians the illusions that we are a truly settled people, that the world and its arrangement seem more permanent than they truly are. He’s a little too enamored of globalization, spends a little too much time quoting from newspaper and magazine articles on economics and politics, but in the end, I think he’s right to want this is our primary identity:

To embrace the identity of pilgrim now is first of all to embrace a certain kind of mobility in the context of globalization. The church has been unmoored and should joyfully take leave of the settledness of Constantinian social arrangements that gave it privilege and power. To accept our status as pilgrims on our way back to God is, as Augustine saw, to accept the provisional nature of human government. Our status as pilgrims makes clear that our primary identity is not what is defined for us by national borders. The pilgrim seeks to transgress all artificial borders that impede the quest for communion with God and with other people. 

Loyalty to the nation-state is not eclipsed by a simple cosmopolitanism, however, for like the migrant and unlike the tourist, the pilgrim travels on foot and does not enjoy a commanding view of the globe from above. Again, humility is the key virtue of the pilgrim. A church that desires to be a pilgrim does not claim the power to treat every location as interchangeable and impose global solutions on the world. As it was before, pilgrimage today in a kenotic moment. The church on the periphery finds itself in solidarity with the migrant and with other people whose identity is liminal. The pilgrim church is itself a liminal reality, occupying the border between heaven and earth. The term peregrinus, from which “pilgrim” is derived, recognizes this liminal status: the meaning of the term in Latin includes foreigner, wanderer, exile, alien, traveler, newcomer, and stranger. Like the Israelites, whose care for the alien and poor was motivated by their own remembrance of their own slavery and wandering, the pilgrim church is to find its identity in solidarity with the migrant who travels out of necessity, not in order to transcend all necessity. (p. 82)

In his brief discussion of monks, Cavanaugh talks a bit about settledness. Citing St. Benedict’s orders for monasteries, Cavanaugh writes that the only real purpose of settledness is to be able to greet the stranger and wanderer properly. Only in the settled community can the kind of obedience necessary to truly “enter communion with God and with others” because this process takes a great deal of time. And only in settled communities can the kind of human relationships exist that truly create and sustain communities. Not the imagined and mediated relationships of citizenship in a nation-state of 300 million people, but real relationships on the human scale of congregation, town and neighborhood.

But Cavanaugh is clear — the point of the settled life, of creating the settled community, is to welcome and stranger and care for the wanderer. One way of living is not better than the other, nor more desired than the other. (I would add, at this point, that both ways of living are callings. The host cannot be without the guest.) Both need each other to fully live out their callings as people of God. Cavanaugh ends the chapter this way:

Following Jesus on our pilgrimage through this world clearly relativizes any national borders that define some people as “illegal.” Their primary identity is bestowed by Christ; it is Christ we welcome when we welcome the stranger. This position put the church at the margins of the law and at the margins of any national identity. Before we are Americans, we are Christians. But that marginality is accompanied by a rootedness in the concrete needs of a particular people, a rootedness that stands as the basis for hospitality to the migrant poor. The church should respond to globalism by enacting a more truly global story of all things made one in Christ. At the same time, the identity of the universal Christ is found in the one lonely migrant who knocks at the door, looking for rest. (p. 87)

Okay, from here, it is on to chapter four, which is all about the messianic nature of American nationalism.

Church and Empire

On of the things Pete Leithart is trying to do with his book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, is to question Mennonite John Howard Yoder’s ideas on the “Constantinian Deal,” the arrangement between the church and the imperial state that Emperor Constantine is supposed to embody.

Leithart doesn’t directly question Yoder’s theology. Rather, he says Yoder gets the history of the early church wrong, and the nature of the “Constantinian Deal.” Leithart states at the end of chapter 11: “At every point Yoder can point to evidence to support his claims, and at times he provides a provocative new framework for addressing a question. As I demonstrate in the following chapters, however, his claims are, as historical claims, sometimes questionable, sometimes oversimplified to the point of being misleading, sometimes one-sided, and sometimes simply wrong.” If Yoder “got Christian history wrong, that sets a question mark over his theology.”

I do not yet quite know what it is that Leithart is attempting to do with his book. It has been a fascinating read, and I am just about to start with chapter 12, “Pacifist Church?” Leithart outlines what is at stake today theologically and ethically at the end of chapter 11:

Still, it was an empire, and there’s the rub. If it an empire, no matter how Christian the emperor might be, it is not good. 

So, at least, is the widespread opinion among Christian thinkers. Yoder and other theological critics of Constantine have three main criticisms of Constantine and Constantinianism with regard to his imperialism. First and foremost, Constantinianism simply is the identification of nation or empire with the purposes of God. By misidentifying the location of God’s action in history–which Christianity assigns to the church, but Constantinianism assigns to the price, the empire or the nation–Constantinians operate on the premise “the one nation or people of government can represent God’s cause in opposition to other peoples who, being evil, need to be brought into submission.” [Leithart is quoting Yoder.] This is ecclesiological and eschatological “heresy”–ecclesiological because the church gets absorbed into some worldly system, eschatological because the eschatological community, the church, gets absorbed into the realm of this world (empire) and because the eschatological order is dragged forward into the present age. As a result of the collapse of the church’s independent identity and [merger] of Romanitas with Christianitas, the mission of the church was, after Constantine, profoundly distorted.

I think Leithart sums things up well here, even if he doesn’t agree with this. At best, nationalism confuses where God acts in the world, and how God acts — in the nation, through acts of national glory. Acts of national violence and sacrifice become in and of themselves redemptive, and are viewed that way. (A good example of this is the e-mail making the rounds equating the sacrifice of American soldiers for “freedom” with the sacrifice of Jesus for salvation.) At its worst, nationalism is idolatry, a false religion that substitutes the nation for God as God. Granted, Yoder is a Mennonite, a theologian in a church that has significant problems with the state and a church which is rooted in the Radical Reformation, which itself was almost militantly anti-statist. (Lutheranism could use a great deal more anti-statism, and could stand to learn a thing or three from the radicals, as Lutherans are far too comfortable with the state, its means and ends.)

This is especially an issue with Americans, who as a powerful people convinced of and obsessed with their virtue and giving their nation-state an almost religious significance (a key element of most Conservative American Christian churches is the belief that God has formed a covenant with the United States of America — a covenant for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever), are inclined to view their nation and its purposes as synonymous with that of God’s. The United States of America isn’t so much a a nation as it is a confessional church (our creed is the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address)* with a flag and an army. It has been my experience that all God and Country “Christians” tend to put country first, as if God only exists to legitimize the actions of the state. Especially in the making of war and the enforcing of laws.

Progressives are not immune to this. The whole notion of progressive politics is one in which the nation-state still comes first. The nation is the sanctified community of God in which the call for the poor is expressed, in which justice is to be realized, in which compassion shown. The United States of America is the entity to which God speaks when God demands justice and mercy. The nation, for progressives, is still a confessional church with a flag and an army.

I cannot, and will not, speak to the nationalism of others for two very important reasons. First, Americans are uniquely powerful as a people and a nation, and thus are able to act upon our deluded fantasies of self-righteousness in ways others are not. I do not know how the people of Uruguay would act if they were powerful, but they aren’t, and so their nationalism is not so likely to beguile them or lead them into acts of mass destruction.

Second, I’m an American, and the only nationalism I am compelled to support is that of my country. (Though some would insist I also support Israeli nationalism.) So it’s going to be the nationalism I will criticize most harshly.

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Actually, there’s more to the American “creed” than that (Supreme Court rulings, for example, some speeches and essays), and the political dispute between “right” and “left” in this country is essentially a theological dispute over hermeneutics, how one reads, interprets and synthesizes ideals and promises about government from the credal documents.