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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Intensifying Cycles

Being a professor is amazing. I am grateful for the opportunity and I am enjoying it so much. Do I miss being in pastoral ministry? Yes. Would I be a pastor again? Absolutely. Am I called to help the next generation of women & men find their way into ministry in the church? Yes!

Since my last post I have had 2 sets of intense conversations about the degree & type distinction – the first centers around the internet and the second relates to 9/11.

We live in a politically turbulent time and many people harken back to the 60’s/1968. This is a 100% valid claim. Many people alluded to the similarities and made a case that our current environment/situation is even worse than it was back then. Those who like to quote that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ shrug these similarities off by talking about how things are cyclical and how people like to hit the panic button but in the end we figure it out and things just keep on going.

That might all be true. The differences that I want to account for, however, are three-fold:

  1. the internet
  2. 24 hour news cycle
  3. increased cynicism, distrust, and discouragement

The growing disillusionment with the system, the fatigue from the constant barrage or coverage, and the crisis overload of manufactured spectacle causes me to ask …

Is it possible that our political, economic, racial, domestic, foreign, and environmental concerns are not just different in degree from 1968 but are in fact a new type or different kind of crisis?

I at least want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different sort of quagmire and that we don’t want to simple shrug that off with a ‘this happens every generation or so‘ kind of mentality. Which brings me to the second point.

9/11 was a watershed. It just so happens that the readings for all 3 of my classes this week are from the 1990’s. I can not overstate how old they all sounded. It was like they were from a different era. I started pastoring in the 90’s and every time I talk about the changes that I have seen in just those 20 years, people laugh in recognition of how quickly things have moved.

Invariably the nothing new under the sun crowd says that God is still on the throne and that things have been changing since Bible times.

I just want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different era. Between the internet, airline travel, farming practices (industrial agro), constant media, the global war on terror (not a country) and 1,000 other factors … the change is coming not incrementally any more – but exponentially.

Something is definitely different. That can not be questioned. The question is, “is it different in degree only, or is it different in kind?”

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Police Violence Is The Exception

I posted this last week in response to two conversations with friends who are very upset by the failure of the justice system to protect unarmed black men (and boys)  from those who act on behalf of the law.

I have not been blogging much as I am in preparation for my qualifying exams in the Spring. Part of my reading has been in ‘political theology’ so I thought I might share some relevant items that I have gleaned from my studies.

______________

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” is a sentence by Carl Schmitt that introduces ‘political theology’. That word ‘exception’ is a key to understanding what is going on in our nation right now.

In the last four centuries ‘sovereignty’ has shifted from God and the King to the Nation and State. In that same work, Schmitt also says that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”‘

The State* now has both the ceremony (pledge of allegiance – national anthem at all sporting events, etc.) and the power (rightful claim to foreign and domestic violence).

In a fantastic article by Bruno Gulli examining Schmitt, Gulli explains “any person with special powers (or even simply a special sensibility) could be recognized as sovereign. This would be an honorary status conferred on him.”

 The State, and those who defend it – whether police or military – have the power of exception. It is important to understand it that:

  •  The playing field is not level. It is slanted.
  •  The rules do not apply equally. There is an exception.

Citizens who are upset are not permitted to be violent. They must protest in an orderly and civilized manner.

The police/riot-squad/ military are seemingly allowed to escalate and utilize violence because they have the exception of the state behind them.

We are not all playing by the same rules. Citizens have an asymmetrical relationship with the State when it comes to violence.

It is vital here to understand the insight of Max Weber when he talks about the State’s monopoly on violence. The link explains that:

“Weber describes the state as any organization that succeeds in holding the exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorize physical force against residents of its territory. Such a monopoly, according to Weber, must occur via a process of legitimation.”

Violence is a one-sided relationship. The State – and those who act on its behalf – may behave in violent ways because it will always be construed as exceptional.

Bonnie Honig, in Emergency Politics, says “The state of exception is that paradoxical situation in which the law is legally suspended by sovereign power.”

The problem is that we now live in a permanent state of emergency.

September 11, 2001 ushered in a state of perpetual exception. This applies to racial profiling, police brutality, State surveillance of its citizenry in the NSA – to name only a few.

When people are scared they willingly sacrifice their freedom and privacy in exchange for safety. The State benefits from a frightened population and people are more willing to accept the exceptional violence and excessive forced used by law enforcement. They are more likely to turn a ‘blind-eye’ or call them ‘isolated incidents’ and claim that they are being ‘blown out of proportion’.

A population is more willing to view as exceptional the excessive tactics and escalation of violence precisely because we now live in a permanent state of exception (or emergency).

What do we do now, however, when communities are not sure they are being protected by the police and in fact need protection from the police?

In the article cited earlier, Gulli reports, “At the end of his critique of the state of exception, Giorgio Agamben addresses the question of contingency, which is very important in all of his work, when, with a reference to Benjamin, he speaks of “the urgency of the state of exception ‘in which we live’” (2005)

In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, Walter Benjamin says:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” (1968)

I hear people asking about the current protests, “What are they hoping to accomplish?”

One thing they could accomplish is to create a real sense of emergency that will call into question in the larger American conscience a question about the permanent state of exception that has crept in over the past decades. The supposed ‘war on terror’ and ‘war on drugs’ are but two examples of this.

None of us want to live in a police state.
No one I know wants to live in a state of fear.
That it why we must question the exceptional violence and emergency politics that have become too normalized and quietly accepted in our society.

The people are raising their voice in protest of this exceptional violence.

_______________________

* I will be capitalizing ‘State’ to illustrate its elevated and exceptional status.

** I know four people in law enforcement and they are all amazing, loving, kind, people. My concern is about a larger mechanism in our society.

For a powerful response to Schmitt, see Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters On the Concept Of Sovereignty 

Jihad v. McWorld (part 4)

A Second Shift

In the previous 3 parts we established that a significant shift took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. This initial shift in modernity has subsequently created the possibility of a second, more contemporary, move that I want to explore. Taylor provides the context of this potential when he says:

In earlier societies, this ability to imagine the self outside of a particular context extended to membership of that society in its essential order. That this is no longer so with us, that many of these … questions are not only conceivable but arise as burning practical issues … is the measure of our disembedding. Another fruit of this is our ability to entertain the abstract question even where we cannot make it imaginatively real.[6]

It is in this potential that citizens of the 21st century already have, or likely will, move beyond national identities to something more potentially abstract, disembodied, plural and wrapped in multiplicity. Issues of citizenship, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion are increasingly complex in an inter-racial, cross-cultural and multi-national globalized context.

Tomorrow’s posts will explore works by Kwame Anthony Appaih, Arjun Appadurai, Umberto Eco and Madan Sarup. Then we will address thoughts by Jean Buildrillard and Saba Mahmood as they relate to imaginaries and conceptions of community, the physical body and spirituality. 

In a section entitled ‘Global Villages’, Appiah points out that,

“People who complain about the homogeneity produced by globalization often fail to notice that globalization is, equally, a threat to homogeneity.”[7]

This is the same tension that was developed in the earlier section between secular and religious thought. Each sees the other as both the problem and a threat to their program – not realizing that in another sense, they actually give rise to each other and propagate each other’s reach.

It is addressed again in such examinations as Jihad v. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World by Benjamin J. Barber.  Forces that seem to be in conflict with each other are, in reality, dependant on each other in a complex interplay. Barber explains:

McWorld cannot then do without Jihad: it needs cultural parochialism to feed its endless appetites. Yet neither can Jihad do without McWorld: for where would culture be without commercial producers who market it and the information and communication systems that make it known?[8]

The complexity of the combative nature of the symbiotic relationship is found in the evolving nature of the situation.  Barber’s pairing of the phrases ‘Jihad’ with it’s perceived nemesis with ‘McWorld’ is deliberate.Jihad v McWorld

What I have called the forces of Jihad may seem then to be a throwback to pre-modern times: an attempt to recapture a world that existed prior to cosmopolitan capitalism and was defined by religious mysteries, hierarchical communities, spellbinding traditions, and historical torpor… Jihad is not only McWorld’s adversary, it is its child. The two are then thus locked together in a kind of Freudian moment of the ongoing cultural struggle, neither willing to coexist with the other, neither complete without the other.[9]

This juxtaposition is even more precarious than a simple ‘clash’ or ‘combat’ language would seem to provide. There is obviously an adversarial component but without addressing how McWorld gave rise to Jihad – and how Western constructs of religion gave rise to secularism – there is a falsity that exist for those who participate in the inflammatory dualism on both sides (as if there were only two). Conceiving of one’s identity within this fictitious and fracturous is layered in complications related to the imaginary employed.

An outgrowth of this increasing complexity is, as Appiah describes it, a “distinctively cosmopolitan commitment to pluralism”.[10] Cosmopolitan people know that we are different than each other – this is apparent at every turn – and they recognize that we have much to learn from our differences.[11] One theme that emerges repeatedly in the work of these authors is the centrality and role of media. Benedict Anderson addressed it through the textual nature of transmission that united disconnected people in the imaginary.

What Anderson coined as ‘print capitalism’ created permanent change in the way people conceived of their personhood and selfhood. Its power was housed in the dual developments of mass literacy coupled with technological innovation that allowed for ‘large-scale production of projects’.  The result was release from the need for face-to-face communication or even indirect connection between people or groups.[12]

You can see how, in these 4 posts, we live in a very different world than the one we have inhereted in our religious traditions. This helps to explain the baffling disconnect that can occur between our ancient documents and their ongoing implementation in our contemporary religious expressions.

In part 5 we begin to explore the lived and embodied implications of religion in the modern-contemporary context.  

_______________

[6] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2003), 55.

[7] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 101.

[8] Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad Versus McWorld (Ballantine Books, 2001), 155.

[9] Ibid., 157.

[10] Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 144.

[11] Appiah earlier broke down the intertwined notion of cosmopolitanism into two threads: the first is that our obligation extends beyond ties of family and kind (even citizenship) to those outside our immediate reach. The second thread finds value not just in human lives generically but in particular human lives. This is the loci for enlightenment liberal individualism. Ibid., xv.

[12] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (U of Minnesota Press, 1996), 28.

How We Imagine A ‘Nation’ part 3

In the shadow of the Sochi Olympics and the unfolding tension in the Ukraine, we are exploring the theme/thesis that:

  • ‘Nation’ is both sovereign and transcendent.
  • ‘Nation’ is both a social imaginary and an emergent reality.

[Trust me – I am going somewhere with this]

Benedict Anderson explains that the notion of imagined communities was revolutionary because:

“regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”.[1]

Such an imaginary provides a new capacity for obligation and ultimate sacrifice. Appadurai, in a section entitled ‘Patriotism and Its Future’ interacts with Anderson (among others) and observes that:

Modern nationalisms involve communities of citizens in the territorially defined nation-state who share collective experience, not of face-to-face contact or common subordination to a royal person, but of reading texts together.[2]

There are significant implications to this development because much of the rhetorical energies of the ruling powers are used in order to urge “their subjects to give up … primordial loyalties – to family, tribe, caste, and region” for the “fragile abstractions” called nations which are often “multi-ethnic … tenuous collective projects”.[3] The ability to call for ultimate sacrifice out of loyalty to an abstract imaginary is a defining characteristic of the most recent centuries previously unknown.

Two implications that illustrate the power of imagined community can be found in the examples of:

  1. ‘the tomb of the unknown soldier’
  2. the modern conception of French identity in the past two centuries.

Only within the power of national imaginaries can one see the possibility of such a monument as a tomb left intentionally empty or holding the remains of an unidentified combatant. Anderson points out the absurdity of “a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals.”[4] There is no reserve of belonging that would justify such a display. It would hold little value outside the context of national identity. For what did one give his life? Neither a concept nor a conviction would suffice for such a cemented monument to loyalty and subsequent indebtedness. Only within the confines of a national imaginary does death qualify for such a combination of reverence and pageantry. These are the sole property of nation-ness. One can hardly imagine either the advantage or the desire to make the tomb of an unknown soldier outside that which is called for to preserve a conception such as ‘nation’.

A second illustration of the historic development can be found in France since the nineteenth century. Taylor, working off of Eugene Weber, states that it was only late in the nineteenth century when millions belonging to peasant communities were “inducted into France as a nation of 40 million individual citizens.”

My favorite historian, John Merriman of Yale University, when addressing the same phenomenon of changes in France leading up to WWI comments on the sheer number of dialects (or patois) that were subsumed when ‘citizens’ were conscribed to the French army in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speakers of Walloon and Basque patois were thrust into defense of something that they barely conceived of themselves as belonging to and in defense of a unified imaginary they would have little reference for called ‘France’. Many (or most) would not have primarily spoken French and may not even have been able to understand their commanding officers.

Merriman often quips that the definition of a ‘nation’ is a dialect with an army.Pastor Holding Bible

One can see how powerful the recent development of conceptualizing the nation as a valid location of sovereignty has replaced both royalty and religion as an acceptable request for this kind of sacrifice. Whereas formerly this authority was reserved for a King or God, now it was conceptualized in a shared identity and responsibility worthy of such obligation. This also had deeply impactful ramifications on areas such as family, property, education and mobility.

Whereas in the past, family and family property were primary sources of security and survival, Nation now provided drastically different possibilities for citizens. Taylor comments that the new (modern) “modes of individualism seemed a luxury, a dangerous indulgence.” [5]

Indeed, to the previously established orders of royalty and religion, these are dangerous developments.

Come back for part 4 where we explore Jihad v. McWorld.

____________________________

[1] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[2] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 1st ed. (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1996), 161.

[3] Ibid., 162.

[4] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 10.

[5] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 17.

Imagining a ‘Nation’ part 2

In part 1 I introduced a theme/thesis for this series of posts:

  • ‘Nation’ is both sovereign and transcendent. 
  • ‘Nation’ is both a social imaginary and an emergent reality.

Charles Taylor utilizes the term ‘social imaginary’ to refer to god-like capacity described by Anderson.  The term encompasses a threefold meaning:

  1. First is the way that ordinary people “imagine” their surroundings both in theory and in images, stories, and legends.
  2. Second is the general acceptance and participation in the imaginary by a population and not simply the theories dominated by a small elite.
  3. Third is empowerment provided from the imaginary for widely shared practices and a sense of legitimization.[1]

These three aspects, illustrated as legs on a table, provide a stability upon which both national identity and personal belonging rest. Expectations for behavior and vessels of meaning are then hosted within that conception.

One impact of this capacity to conceptualize national identity and belonging is in answer to the question “what would make someone be willing to die for their country?” Anderson proposes a model of historic drift where sovereignty, which had previously been located in either religion or king (or both), has shifted decisively to the Nation in recent centuries. This is a dramatic innovation and recognizing nationality as a valid location for sovereignty has significantly altered matters related to loyalty, sacrifice and belonging.

Anderson proposes a definition of the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” The distinction of imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them”.

Communities are limited because there must be some distinguishing demarcation outside of which are other communities (nations), which provide both competition and opportunities for cooperation. This distinction provides a vital function as classifications such as all of us are difficult without the contrast inherent within the project of establishing communities. It is difficult to conceptualize amorphous membership in groups such as everyone and all.

Communities are imagined as sovereign “because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” [2]  The dissolving social order of caste and class provided more level (if desperately unequal in reality) conception of both membership and participation for the mass of the population. This perceived leveling and opening gave rise to a new capacity for sacrifice on behalf of the imagined entity – an entity that was not solely and externally located in eternity or beyond, but in an ideal which one was associated (belonged) and participated and was thus responsible. To die for a religion (God) or a King was to reinforce that social order which established the hierarchical strata. Locating sovereignty within the conception of Nation – however dispersed and elusive – was a profound change.

In 1922 Carl Schmitt wrote his famous work Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. In this book he makes two extraordinary claims: the first is that sovereign lies with the one who has the power to make the exception, the second is that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[3]  In 2011 Paul Kahn wrote an engagement of Schmitt’s work with four new chapters on the same subject. Kahn’s work is helpful in understanding this initial shift under consideration.

The capacity for the state to ask for this kind of sacrifices, the power to pardon – which is a remnant of Kingly authority, and the symbolic notion of a flag that needed to be defended are all remnants of a religious notion. The very word sovereign is borrowed from religious vocabulary.  Kahn explains:

Political theology today is best thought of as an effort to describe the social imaginary of the political… (arguing) that secularization, as the displacement of the sacred from the world of experience, never won, even though the church may have lost. The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.[4]

In this framing, we understand the constitution as the product of a popular sovereign, one to which we belong and participate. The constitution (law) is the result of an extraordinary act (revolution).  Kahn sees this as a deeply theological conception. It is born out of a (extraordinary/divine) moment; it produces a sacred center – the popular sovereign. The constitution is then the remnant that is left behind from that extraordinary moment. church

You can begin to see why the constitution is often thought of and talked about as an inspired document (sacred text) and why those who were responsible for it’s creation (founding fathers) are celebrated at patriarchs.[5]

If Schmitt is right – even partially – then all of these similarities are neither trivial nor inconsequential.

            The power of the state to ask for death in order to preserve itself and the capacity of people to willingly offer their lives in defense of that conception is profound. The notion of the sovereign holding the power of exception goes all the way from the individual being pardoned (as referenced earlier) to modern realities impacting all of humanity.

The President has the ability to launch nuclear weapons if he or she was to view that the national interest was in jeopardy. Kahn uses this to illustrate his point.

  • What are we saying about the nation that we are willing to jeopardize human heath, the planet, and subsequent generations for its defense?
  • What could possibly be above human health and planetary environmental conditions?

The answer is ‘only something that is of ultimate concern’.  The modern conception of the state is thus a result of religious conceptions and has replaced (in some sense) religion as the location of sovereignty one is willing to ultimately sacrifice and die for. Nation is a construct of transcendent meaning found in an imagined community.[6]

In the next post we round the corner (part 3)  toward Jihad v. McWorld (part 4)


[1] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 23.

[2] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[3] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Reprint (Columbia University Press, 2012), location 37.

[4] Ibid., 360.

[5] CBC Ideas part 5

[6] It is not difficult within this framing to view contemporary movements such as the Tea Party as merely an extreme example of a group calling for a romanticized notion of an imagined past or legacy.

Imagining a ‘Nation’ part 1

Watching the Olympics was different for me this time. During the past four years I have been in a PhD program and have burrowed down into topics that have deeply impacted me.  Within one of my cognate fields (non-core studies) I addressed the issue of nationalism and the modern imaginary.

The news about events that are currently unfolding in the Ukraine-Crimea has given new attention to the old alliances and tensions golden age of nationalism – something that many thought we have moved past in the new global economy / world market-place.

In the posts that follow (8 total) you will find a common theme:

  • ‘Nation’ is both sovereign and transcendent. 
  • ‘Nation’ is both a social imaginary and an emergent reality.

We will start with the ‘social imaginary’, move to Jihad v. McWorld in part 4 and finish up with ‘Body and Embodied Practices’.

I resonate deeply with Madan Sarup when after reflecting on and talking to many people about identity he comments that:

The intersections between ‘race’, gender, class, nation and religion, (show) that identity is not something we find, or have once for all. Identity is a process, and that is why it is difficult to grasp it.[1]

There are many disparate elements that contribute to the construction of one’s identity.  This paper will engage both the historic shift from pre-modern conceptions of community/tribe/family to modern expression of nationality as well as a secondary (and subsequent) shift from identity as ‘given’ to a more fluid and transitory notion. These two shifts provide a conceptual and narrative framework for addressing the contemporary context of social imaginaries and the hyper-real. The paper concludes with an exploration of the possibilities of embodied practices providing a location for identity and belonging.

Modern Social Imaginaries and Imagined Communities

Charles Taylor (2004) and Benedict Anderson (updated edition from 2006) take a macro-perspective to the issue of social conception of self and national identity.

In this way ‘national identity’ is a helpful entry point from which to examine social conceptions of self.

It is important to distinguish the massive shift that human belonging has undergone in recent centuries.[2] Long before we get the implications of social media, technological advancements, global consumer culture or changes in political, economic, or cultural realities since the Enlightenment, we need to acknowledge the epic change that has resulted since antiquity when it comes to:

What today we would call the “identity” of the human being in those earlier societies. Because their most important actions were the doing of whole groups (tribe, clan, subtribe, lineage), articulated in a certain way (the actions were led by chiefs, shamans, masters of the fishing spear), they couldn’t conceive themselves as potentially disconnected from this social matrix. It would probably never even occur to them to try.”[3]

This drastic shift in both personal and corporate conceptualization is significant for our addressing the potential understanding of another current shift being examined. The transition from pre-modern conceptions like Taylor is describing to modern frameworks of nation, and ones belonging within that national structure, is essential to establish before an analysis can be drawn for a potentially post-national social construct.

Taylor points our that

an American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity.[4] 

This reality occurs, obviously, nowhere outside of the reader’s imaginary and exists entirely in their capacity to conceptualize it as such. To say a sentence such as “Americans are _____.” (brave, selfish, innovative, etc.) is impossible. Such a sentence would have to incorporate both a person like myself, and someone I have never come into contact with – for instance a Latino single teenage mom in Florida who has dropped out of school. She and I might have little in common outside the capacity of the speaker to conceptualize both our connectedness within the imaginary and our relative shared embeddeness within a society. This society would be loose and expansive (regionally) at best. The sentence then is impossible outside of the speaker’s imaginary.

Come back for part 2 where the imaginary becomes sovereign and transcendent. 

[1] Madan Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World (Edinburgh University Press, 1996), 28.

[2] It is an oft quoted maxim the two great errors to be avoided when dealing with cultural history is on the one hand to assume that people of the ancient past were entirely like us and secondly, to make the mistake in thinking that they were nothing like us.  Both are ‘gutters’ (to use a bowling analogy) to be avoided in this present examination.

[3] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press Books, 2003), 54.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New Edition (Verso, 2006), 26.

 

Should Christians Vote? Russell Brand has me asking again

Last week Russell Brand, in a BBC interview, raised a lot of eyebrows by calling into question the legitimacy of voting. He talked about the brokeness of the system and the relative banality of the process.

I saw lots of good Facebook conversation (which seems rare these days) about the clip and it admittedly poked me in an old bruise.

You will want to watch the clip. It is 8 minutes of good exchange and Brand is a surprisingly effective and thoughtful spokesperson.

Paxman vs Brand – full interview by DaveLiason

The reason that this clip got under my skin is because, up until the last US election, I too had never voted. Unfortunately I did not so for the same reasons as Brand – but none the less, the streak came to an end and I have a little bit of buyer’s remorse.

On one hand, I am happy that I voted in a local election. We had some stuff related to funding education that I am very happy to say passed by a narrow margin and I like to think that I was on the right side of that one.
Then there is the Obama presidency.

It is important to understand that I had never voted because I had bought into an odd descendant of the Lutheran ‘two kingdoms’ idea that the kingdom of the world as one thing and the kingdom of Heaven as another. Through a long process that started with my reading Walter Wink‘s work on ‘Powers’, I emerged from that bifurcated construct.

Having no reason not to vote, and knowing the historic emphasis of people’s fighting for the right to vote, I cautiously waded into the voting booth. I am glad that I did so and it has been a good lesson in limited effectiveness.

Last week Cornel West (on the Smiley & West podcast – minute 8) said that the Obama presidency has been marked by three things and will be remembered in history by them:

  • it is a drone administration
  • it is a National Surveillance administration
  • it is a Wall Street administration

That is certainly not what I voted for. That does not represent my hopes for him. I don’t sense this is what most people wanted or expected when they voted for him initially.

This holds a valuable lesson in measured expectations for me. Do I want to go back to my old ways of sitting on the sideline in protest or apathy? Probably not.

Voting is important at some level. Voting, however, should hold just as much weight as what gifts I got for my family last Christmas or what I ate for Thanksgiving last year. I want to keep doing both of those things. I find them both very important. I just don’t think that are so influential as to change the world.adbusters_corporate_flag
Voting is often choosing the lesser of two evils. In the age of Citizens United especially, the choices that we have in candidates are immediately people who have made concessions to big business and corporate interests. That is never going to deliver the results that I would truly be excited about. On the other hand, until we get real immigration reform, somebody is going to be driving the ship and I am not willing to abandon the process altogether … in Jesus’ name.

I would love to hear your thoughts – especially on the Russell Brand clip or the Cornel West summary.

America is like God – both can ask for your life

Charles Taylor, in his book Modern Social Imaginaries,  utilizes the term ‘social imaginary’ to refer to god-like capacity described by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities.  The term encompasses a threefold meaning:

  • First is the way that ordinary people “imagine” their surroundings in images, stories, and legends.
  • Second is the general acceptance and participation in the imaginary by a population and not simply the theories dominated by a small elite.
  • Third is empowerment provided from the imaginary for widely shared practices – and a sense of legitimization.[1]

One impact of this capacity to conceptualize national identity and belonging is in answer to the question “what would make someone be willing to die for their country?”

Anderson proposes a model of historic drift where sovereignty, which had previously been located in either religion or king (or both), has shifted decisively to the Nation in recent centuries. This is a dramatic innovation and recognizing nationality as a valid location for sovereignty has significantly altered matters related to loyalty, sacrifice and belonging.

Anderson proposes a definition of the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” The distinction as imagined comes because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them”.

Communities are limited because there must be some distinguishing demarcation outside of which are other communities (nations), which provide both competition and opportunities for cooperation. This distinction provides a vital function as classifications for the project of establishing communities.

Communities are imagined as sovereignbecause the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” [2]
The dissolving social order of caste and class provided more level (if desperately unequal in reality) conception of both membership and participation for the mass of the population. This perceived leveling and opening gave rise to a new capacity for sacrifice on behalf of the imagined entity – an entity that was not solely and externally located in eternity or beyond, but in an ideal which one was associated (belonged) and participated and was thus responsible. To die for a religion (God) or a King was to reinforce that social order which established the hierarchical strata. Locating sovereignty within the conception of Nation – however dispersed and elusive – was a profound change.

In 1922 Carl Schmitt wrote his famous work Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty and claims  that

“all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[3]

In 2011 Paul Kahn wrote an engagement of Schmitt’s work with four new chapters on the same subject where he says that the capacity for the state to ask for this kind of sacrifices, the power to pardon – which is a remnant of Kingly authority, and the symbolic notion of a flag that needed to be defended are all remnants of a religious notion. The very word sovereign is borrowed from religious vocabulary.  Kahn explains:

Political theology today is best thought of as an effort to describe the social imaginary … (arguing) that secularization, as the displacement of the sacred from the world of experience, never won, even though the church may have lost. The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.[4]

You can begin to see why the constitution is often thought of and talked about as an inspired document (sacred text) and why those who were responsible for it’s creation (founding fathers) are celebrated at patriarchs.[5]  If Schmitt is right – even partially – then all of these similarities are neither trivial nor inconsequential.

The power of the state to ask for death in order to preserve itself and the capacity of people to willingly offer their lives in defense of that conception is profound. The notion of the sovereign holding the power of exception goes all the way from the individual being pardoned (as referenced earlier) to modern realities impacting all of humanity. The President has the ability to launch nuclear weapons if the President was to view that the national interest was in jeopardy.

Kahn uses this to illustrate his point. What are we saying about the nation that we are willing to jeopardize human heath, the planet, and subsequent generations for its defense? What could possibly be above human health and planetary environmental conditions? The answer is ‘only something that is of ultimate concern’. 
The modern conception of the state is thus a result of religious conceptions and has replaced (in some sense) religion as the location of sovereignty one is willing to ultimately sacrifice and die for. Nation is a construct of transcendent meaning found in an imagined community.[6]

Now this is where it gets really interesting! 

Arjun Appadurai, in Modernity at Large interacts with Anderson and observes that:

Modern nationalisms involve communities of citizens in the territorially defined nation-state who share collective experience, not of face-to-face contact or common subordination to a royal person, but of reading texts together.[8]

Much of the rhetorical energies of the ruling powers are used in order to urge “their subjects to give up … primordial loyalties – to family, tribe, caste, and region” for the “fragile abstractions” called nations which are often “multiethnic … tenuous collective projects”.[9]

Only within the power of national imaginaries can one see the possibility of such a monument as a tomb left intentionally empty or holding the remains of an unidentified combatant. Anderson points out the absurdity of “a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals.”[10]  There is no reserve of belonging that would justify such a display. It would hold little value outside the context of national identity.

And that is how the sausage called nationalism is made!


[1] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 23.

[2] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[3] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, location 37.

[4] Ibid., 360.

[5] CBC Ideas podcast  ‘The Myth of Secularism’ part 5

[6] It is not difficult within this framing to view contemporary movements such as the Tea Party as merely an extreme example of a group calling for a romanticized notion of an imagined past or legacy.

[7] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[8] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 161.

[9] Ibid., 162.

[10] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 10.

Moving Toward Multiplicity

Listening to Howard Zinn (author of the classic A People’s History of the United States) at a town hall meeting style presentation recorded in 2007 (you can get it on Itunes from WGBH Politics) I was struck by the need to recognize the sheer complexity of issues and multiplicity of perspectives. complexity

To state it as simply as possible: Not everything is the same. When we attempt to represent EVERYthing as if it were represented by ONE thing, we often neglect the complexity and multiplicity involved in the matter.

I will use two examples that Howard Zinn illustrated well at the community forum, then address the issues that it seemed relevant to connect to.

Zinn takes on the idea of “Family values”. Some conservative political interest say that they represent ‘family values’. But he asks “Which family?” I think it is a valid question. There are families with single moms and multiple kids, divorced dads raising a family, there are foster families, adoptive families, multi-generational families living in the same house. There are lesbian couples with no kids and gay couples with kids. My wife are were D.I.N.K.s (double income – no kids) hen she lost her job while were trying to adopt (which fell through recently) and every permeation you can imagine.

Which family is represented by Focus on the Family’s values? It is erroneous to act as if there is one kind of family and that you represent their values.

That is, unless you are saying that you value only one type of family.

That would be fair enough but you would have to stop using the phrase ‘family values’. Some families value making money or achieving success. Some value conformity. Some value religious adherence above all else. Some value military service while others value independent thinking or even civil disobedience.

Zinn says the same thing about the ‘National interest’. I am a big fan of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology and both he and Zinn talk about President’s ability to declare war or even launch the nuclear codes should the President deem it ‘in the national interest’.

But which of the many National interests? The Nation is not interested in only one thing. There are hundreds or thousands of interests. Unfortunately the reductive mono-speak is code. These buzz-words become code-words for an assume-unstated single issue that clouds the true complexity behind the language.

Zinn touched another example which has been showing up in a lot of my reading lately. The phrase ‘We the people’ is a magnificent ideal. I admire the phase and the idea behind it so much. But I think that it is worth noting that when it was written – we the people were not in the room. At the time of it’s writing, not every ‘we’ was represented.

There were no native americans in the room, no women, no blacks, no commoners. Just land-owning white males. But they had an idea – and it is that idea that we love!

I actually think that this is the exact type of trajectory mentality that we see in a progressive reading of the New Testament. When Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” He is doing this exact thing. He wrote in prophetic expectation using the 3 categories employed in his day were being broken with resurrection power. Barriers between nationality (or race), legal status and gender were being dissolved. My assertion is that it was not for the purpose of homogenization but for multiplicity! The former containers can not contain what it being poured out and welling up in Christ’s new life.

This is why I don’t sweat the fact that Paul appears to by anti-gay (though I argue that he was not anti-gay in the same way that those who quote him today are). You have to read Paul on a trajectory. Within the fruit of the Spirit of God is seed of liberation and transformation. So like ‘We the people’ – it looks forward to a greater reality than was present at it’s writing. Contained within the words is an ideal not yet realized. That is part of why I don’t want to conserve the reality of the time of it’s writing, but spring board off of it to be propelled to a greater one.

We can get caught up in reductive views that ignore the inherent complexity that we are dealing with. For instance, “Is the world essentially good or bad?” or “Are humans inherently evil or innately good?” That kind of simplicity is blind to the multiplicity of factors that we are dealing with in any conversation and allowing the conversation to be framed that way almost ensured that no progress will be made.

Good people still do bad things or even do good things with poor motivation. People who do bad things often love their own families.

We do ourselves a great disservice when we allow our media to talk about ‘the evangelical vote’ or even ‘the black perspective’ as if those parameters only mean one thing or as if everyone within designations voted the same way or believe all the same things, hold all the same values and act in unison. It is fictitious, deceptive and paralyzing.

You can’t even say ‘gun owners’ and mean one thing! Our language (and the dualism behind it) is crippling our culture.

There has been a great “De-centering” that has happened to humanity in the past 500 years. If you just look at the effect starting with Copernicus and continue to Darwin, the earth is not the center of the universe and neither are humans.

It would do us well to move from a reductive mentality (center/ order) to a dynamic interplay of emergent elements. When we recognize the complexity and multiplicity involved in the reality behind our ‘code words’, we will begin to access the real issues that face us.

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