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“William Cavanaugh continues to provide leadership and vision in the field of political theology. He addresses essential questions about the religious status of the nation-state, the political character of the church, and how the tradition of Christian political thought might be brought to bear upon contemporary politics. . . . Unfolds a theological response to present political conditions and a political response to our theological condition.”
— Luke Bretherton King's College London
“Another vigorous — but distinct — voice in the burgeoning conversation about the role of religion generally and the church specifically in political life. . . . Worth a careful read.”
— Robert Benne
1 "Killing for the Telephone Company": Why the Nation-State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good 7
2 From One City to Two: Christian Reimagining of Political Space 46
3 Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk: Identity and Mobility in a Global Age 69
4 Messianic Nation: A Christian Theological Critique of American Exceptionalism 88
5 How to Do Penance for the Inquisition 109
6 The Liturgies of Church and State 115
7 The Church as Political 123
8 The Sinfulness and Visibility of the Church: A Christological Exploration 141
9 A Politics of Vulnerability 170
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In Christian social ethics the assumption is often made, with a minimum of examination, that the responsibility for promoting and protecting the common good falls to the state. In this chapter I want to examine that assumption. All too often, Christian social ethics begins from ahistorical and idealized assumptions about the state as protector and benefactor. They are ahistorical because they assume that the state has been with us since biblical times. The state, as Charles Curran says, is "natural and necessary" and "based on creation." It takes different forms — polis for Aristotle, regimen principum for Aquinas — but these different terms refer to the same essential reality: all historical forms of political community are conflated into the term "state." These accounts are also idealized because they assume that society is prior to the state and broader than the state. Human society is represented as a pyramid: the family is at the base, other groups and associations are in the middle, and the state is at the top to coordinate and protect. The base has "ontological priority" to the state and calls forth the state to be at its service. Furthermore, "[s]ociety is broader than the state and includes much more." The state is just one limited part of society, but is established in nature with an important role to play: "the end or purpose of the state or government [is] the pursuit of the common good."
What I find unhelpful about such accounts is the way they float free from any empirical testing of their theses. Christian ethicists will commonly recognize that, in a sinful world, particular states always fall short of the ideal. Nevertheless, the ideal is presented not merely as a standard for Christian political practice but as a statement of fact: the state in its essential form simply is that agency of society whose purpose it is to protect and promote the common good, even if particular states do not always live up to that responsibility. This conclusion is based on a series of assumptions of fact: that the state is natural and primordial; that society gives rise to the state and not vice versa; and that the state is one limited part of society. These assumptions of fact, however, are often made without any attempt to present historical evidence on their behalf.
This may be because such evidence is lacking. In this chapter I will examine the origins of the state and the state-society relationship according to those who study the historical record. I will argue that the above assumptions of fact are untenable in the face of the evidence. I will examine these three assumptions in order. First, unless one equivocates on the meaning of "state," the state is not natural, but a rather recent and artificial innovation in human political order. Second, the state gives rise to society, and not vice versa. Third, the state is not one limited part of society, but has in fact expanded and become fused with society. The primary burden of this chapter is negative: in arguing these three points, I will attempt to present the case against seeing the state as the promoter and protector of the common good. Only in the conclusion will I make some brief comments on what this implies positively for Christian thinking and practice.
A preliminary comment is necessary: my analysis of the development and current condition of the state and nation-state is based on Western models — that is, primarily Europe and the United States. The state and nation-state are Western inventions. They have been exported to the rest of the world with varying degrees of success. In many Southern lands, the reality of the state and the sense of the nation are tenuous at best, and are mixed with other forms of political organization, such as tribal structures. I take most of my examples from the United States, though insofar as the nation-state has taken root elsewhere, we can see similar dynamics in other contexts.
The State Is Not Natural, but Artificial
History of the Term
The word "state" is sometimes used loosely to refer to the political form through which a stable group of people is organized. Nomadic groups are usually the only kind of political community excluded from this definition, since the term implies some form of geographical stability. The state is thus treated, as Engels says, as a necessary and ancient "product of society at a certain stage of development." Thus questions of "church and state," for example, are perennial questions. In more precise usage, however, "state" refers to amore limited development characteristic of modernity. The state emerged in Europe amidst the late Renaissance and Reformation. As Bruce Porter puts it, "The state as we know it is a relatively new invention, originating in Europe between 1450 and 1650." In this more precise sense, the state is a political form based on the distinctly modern concept of sovereignty, which may be defined as "supreme authority within a territory." As formulated by Bodin, Hobbes, and other lesser figures of the early modern period, the state claims legitimate authority — as opposed to mere coercion — a supreme authority that no lesser authorities within a recognized set of geographical borders may legitimately oppose. Sovereignty is a departure from earlier forms of governance, in which people's political loyalties were based not necessarily on territoriality but on feudal ties, kinship, and religious or tribal affiliation. If a stranger committed a crime on someone else's land, it would be necessary to find out to whom he or she owed loyalty in order to know what law applied.
It is perfectly acceptable to use the term "state" in the looser sense, provided one is clear that it is not being used in the stricter sense. Confusion is produced when, as in the case of Curran above, the two senses are intermingled. It should be made clear that, although political community in some form may be natural and ancient, the sovereign state as we know it is not. One could claim that the modern state is just one more variation on the theme of the state, but that would be extremely misleading. In the first place, the term status began to appear in a political context only in the late fourteenth century, and until the sixteenth century it was used either to refer to the state of the ruler himself (status principis or status regalis) or to the current condition of the realm (status regni). The emphasis was on a personalized kind of rule embodied in the prince. Only in the sixteenth century does there arise the concept of an abstract "state" that is independent of both ruler and ruled. Machiavelli is a transitional figure in this regard: he used the term stato to refer both to the prince's powers and position and to an abstract apparatus above prince and people. By the mid-sixteenth century, the abstract usage had won out in French and English legal writing.
In the second place, to treat the sovereign state as just one more variation on the ancient "state" is to misrepresent the radical nature of the modern state. As is often the case in the history of language, large etymological shifts followed profound changes in social organization. New vocabulary was needed to describe a radically new situation. To treat the modern state as simply a variation in the history of societies is to ignore the fact that there were no such things as societies in the sense of clearly bounded and unitary systems of interaction until the birth of the modern state. As Anthony Giddens says, traditional social systems are composed not of one society but of many "societies"; the modern unitary society that originated in Europe is highly exceptional.
This brings us to the term "nation-state," which designates an even more recent development in the history of political organization. As the hyphen implies, the nation-state is the result of the fusion of the idea of the nation — a unitary system of shared cultural attributes — with the political apparatus of the state. Nations are most commonly united by some combination of shared ethnicity, language, or history, but nationality is not simply "natural" or "objective," since ethnicity, language, and history are all themselves the result of contingent historical construction. The construction of a national sense is a matter of "common feeling and an organized claim." Historically, this claim is first organized by the state. It is only after the state and its claims to territorial sovereignty are established that nationalism arises to unify culturally what had been gathered inside state borders. National claims tend to construct historical myths of origin stretching back into antiquity, but Carlton Hayes and Hans Kohn established in the 1930s and 1940s the majority opinion that nationalism first appeared in the eighteenth century. The nation-state first arose in the eighteenth century and became prevalent only in the nineteenth century and following.
Origins of the State
The above suggests something of the wide temporal gap between the modern nation-state and the context in which language of the common good originated. With that caution registered, there is no question that the ground was prepared for the modern state in the medieval period. In his work on medieval political structures, Joseph Strayer locates the turning point toward greater administrative centralization somewhere around the beginning of the twelfth century. Although Strayer acknowledges that once the state did not exist, he sees the embryonic "state" in the increasing bureaucratization of civil authority in the twelfth century and after. Hendrik Spruyt says that Strayer overstates the early origins of the state, but contends that, in the case of France if nowhere else, the basis of the state had been laid by the beginning of the fourteenth century.
In his On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Strayer narrates the gradual accretion of power to royal courts beginning in the twelfth century. The first permanent functionaries were estate managers hired to centralize, regularize, and keep account of the extraction of revenues from the lands and populations subject to the king. Next to develop were royal courts of law. Courts of law were originally simply royal courts, that is, the "great men" who surrounded the king and made up his household. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries they were increasingly called upon to settle disputes, frequently by knights and lesser landholders asking for protection against the wealthier nobles. The royal courts that developed were thus important to the king's struggle for power with the nobility. In general, the law became the principal tool of centralization and bureaucratization. By the fourteenth century, the governing apparatuses surrounding the king had "acquired their power largely by developing their judicial institutions and by protecting the property rights of the possessing classes" (p. 61). By the fourteenth century, war had made royal courts increasingly reliant on taxation, which in turn required inviting representatives of the propertied classes to give their consent in occasional nonvoting assemblies. Such assemblies generally succeeded in shifting the tax burden more heavily onto the unrepresented classes (pp. 58-68).
What is significant for our purposes is that Strayer's account leaves little room for the pursuit of the common good as a historical explanation for the rise of the state. According to Strayer, the development of regularized systems of revenue extraction and accounting, law courts, and assemblies were undertaken with reference to its advantages for particular parties, namely the royal household and the propertied 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 referents of communal life. Legal right and the administration of justice was 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.
At this early stage, the ascendant civil bureaucracy did not yet refer to a unitary "common." In the absence of the sovereign state, there was no "society" to which a common good could be imputed. Europe was still a complex of multiple societates with a very weak level of integration among them. The administrative reach of even the most bureaucratized royal courts was short and rarely touched the lives of the great majority of people. Significant elements of military power lay outside the control of the central apparatus. Political power was still a matter of the personal disposition of the ruler, and his or her rule was diffused into a jumble of overlapping jurisdictions and loyalties. Strayer characterizes the situation of kingly rule in the fourteenth century with this example:
A king of France might send letters on the same day to the count of Flanders, who was definitely his vassal but a very independent and unruly one, to the count of Luxemburg, who was a prince of the Empire but who held a money-fief (a regular, annual pension) of the king of France, and to the king of Sicily, who was certainly ruler of a sovereign state but was also a prince of the French royal house. In such a situation one could hardly distinguish between internal and external affairs. (p. 83)
This distinction between internal and external would eventually get sorted out, but only in the establishment of sovereign borders through the coercive aggrandizement of royal power. The state does not arise as the establishment of a uniform system of common good and justice on behalf of a society of people; rather, a society is brought into being by the centralization of royal power.
The agent of this change is war. Strayer says that the increased intensity of war in the fourteenth century and following was necessary to distinguish inside and outside, and he regards the process of state-building after 1300 as inevitable (pp. 57-58). However, Charles Tilly argues against Strayer that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the rise of the state. In 1300, Tilly says, there were still five possible outcomes open:
(1) the form of national state which actually emerged; (2) a political federation or empire controlled, if only loosely, from a single center; (3) a theocratic federation — a commonwealth — held together by the structure of the Catholic Church; (4) an intensive trading network without large-scale, central political organization; (5) the persistence of the "feudal" structure which prevailed in the thirteenth century.
Tilly also faults Strayer for too little emphasis on the coercive aspects of state-building (p. 43). Tilly's larger contention is that there was nothing natural or inevitable about the rise of the state; it triumphed in Europe because of its superior ability to extract resources from the local population.
Tilly and eight other scholars changed the focus of the study of the genesis of the state with the publication of The Formation of National States in Western Europe (1975). Previous approaches tended to posit the problem in terms of whether or not political managers successfully directed socioeconomic change — or "modernization" — toward desirable outcomes, including the survival of the political apparatus itself. As Tilly says, the problem thus put reproduces the worldview of the high administrative official: the world is "out there" to be dealt with and transformed by means of government. For Tilly and associates, the question of which political forms would survive to become a sovereign, national state is best answered in terms of "whether the managers of the political units undertook activities which were expensive in goods and manpower, and built an apparatus which effectively drew the necessary resources from the local population and checked the population's efforts to resist that extraction of resources" (p. 40). Building a state depended on the ability of state-making elites to make war, and the ability to make war in turn depended on the ability to extract resources from the population, which in turn depended on an effective state bureaucracy to secure those resources from a recalcitrant population. As Tilly puts it, "War made the state, and the state made war" (p. 42).
Excerpted from Migrations of the Holy by William T. Cavanaugh Copyright © 2011 by William T. Cavanaugh. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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