Surrendering to the State, Even While Fighting It

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It was Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, in his book After Christendom: How the Church is to Behave if Freedom, Justice and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas, who wrote:

The whole point, after all, of the philosophical and political developments since the Enlightenment is to create people incapable of killing other people in the name of God.

Ironically, since the Enlightenment’s triumphs, people no longer kill in the name of God but in the names of nation-states. Indeed, I think it can be suggested that the political achievement of the Enlightenment has been to create people who believe it necessary to kill others in the interest of something called "the nation," which is allegedly protecting and ensuring their freedom as individuals. (p.33)

Probably no religious thinker has so shaped my thinking on the state — and reflected my natural anarchism — as has Hauerwas. In fact, I’d love to spend some time here at some point outlining Hauerwas’ thoughts on the church and the state. They are worth reviewing and considering, especially for LRC readers. But that will not be today.

This quote from Hauerwas points out something interesting, something I hadn’t really grasped (but had noticed) prior to reading it: in the "enlightened" West, there is an almost instinctive revulsion among most "civilized" westerners to killing in the name of God (though we are not as civilized and enlightened as we, or Hauerwas, claim). As I remember the days, weeks and years following the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and northern Virginia, it was as much the fact that the United States was attacked in the name of someone’s God that was so bothersome as it was the very attacks themselves.

There was something so, well, medieval about a great big modern nation-state being at war with a band of cave-based, scripture-quoting religious warriors. While the General Boykins of America were busy telling soldiers and their sycophants that this was all about whose deity was "the biggest," most war supporters on the right and the left (such as Tom Friedman) saw the struggle as one between the modern world and the ancient, between isolated tribe and integrated nation, between a connected world living in relative peace and harmony under civilized rules versus a war-torn world ruled by intolerant, irreconcilable camps of devout believers.

A war in which there was a unique problem with Islam and Muslims, a unique rejection of modernity and all it entailed, that could be fixed through the Islamic world’s forcible inclusion in this peaceful, integrated great global market. A simple matter of firm but effective human resource management through bombing, invading and state buildings (or do I repeat myself using those terms?).

This is why I find Mark Juergensmeyer’s Global Rebellion: Religious Challenges to the Secular State, from Christian Militias to al Qaeda such a useful book. Juergensmeyer, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has apparently written widely on the subject of religious identity and resistance to the secular nation-state. He doesn’t just focus on Islam, but rather considers all religious opposition to secular nationalism — Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Sikh and Buddhist — both relatively peaceful and extremely violent (and yes, there has been Buddhist violence). And he sees in all of this one phenomenon, one that is on hand very modern and, on the other hand, very anti-modernist.

By nation-state, Juergensmeyer begins with a very traditional definition — that entity which has a monopoly on lawful violence within a given geographic area. He goes on, however, to evaluate the nation-state as a way of imposing meaning upon a group of people:

In such an organization [as the modern European and American nation-state], individuals are linked to a centralized all-embracing, democratic political system that is unaffected by other affiliations, be they ethnic, cultural, or religious. That linkage is sealed by an emotional sense of identification with a geographical area and a loyalty to a particular people, an identity that is part of the feeling of nationalism. (p.13)

Nationalism as defined here is the product of a time and place — England and North America in the 18th century. While Juergensmeyer never go so far as to call secular nationalism a religion (though he quotes Tocqueville on the matter), it clearly is. It makes universal truth claims and allows for no alternative truth claims to organize themselves. In fact, I am convinced that the nation-state is the successor of the church in the Enlightenment world, in that it is the place where salvation is defined (as earthly) and where salvation is worked out (with not so much fear and trembling).

Juergensmeyer begins by examining the moral legitimacy of the nation-state in the decolonizing, post-WWII world:

Not only Western academics but also a good number of new leaders — especially those in the emerging nations created out of former colonial empires — were swept up by the vision of a world of free and equal secular nations. The concept of secular nationalism gave them an ideological justification for being, and the electorate that subscribed to it provided them power bases from which they could vault into positions of leadership ahead of traditional ethnic and religious figures. But secularism was more than just a political issue; it was also a matter of personal identity. A new kind of person had come into existence — the "Indian nationalist" or "Ceylonese nationalist" who had an abiding faith in a secular nationalism identified with his of her homeland. (p.11)

The high water mark of this is the mid-1950s, the time of Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno and Tito, when the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia bubbled with enthusiasm and Western observers wrote approvingly of development and progress. Ethnic minorities in particular embraced secular nationalism tightly to "ensure that the public life of the country would not be dominated completely by the majority religious community" (p.11).

But several things undid it all. First, according to Juergensmeyer, the nation-state in much of the world never took hold outside the minds and hearts of urban elites — it never became a sacred notion or a sacred narrative for enough people to matter. Religious, tribal and local identities persisted, often in opposition to secular nationalism (and often derided as "communalism" or "confessionalism" when condemned by ruling elites).

Related to this first issue is a second, that secular identities were never particularly satisfying and were never able to answer deeper questions of cosmic meaning, especially in the midst of struggle. "Who are we?" usually begs a better, deeper and more fulfilling answer than "citizens of …". Religion can answer that question in a way secularism cannot. (And when secularism tries to, it careens madly out of control.)

Finally, Juergensmeyer notes that secular nationalism is the product of a long evolution in Europe and North America, the result of very particular historical forces at work that grant it a great deal of legitimacy in that context. What arose in Christian Europe, makes sense and works in (post-)Christian Europe, has proven to be a fundamental disappointment at delivering promised freedom (both individual and national), economic development, and anything remotely resembling a just social order. Secular-nationalism in much of the world (and not just outside the West) makes promises it simply cannot keep.

However, Juergensmeyer is quick to note that while many of the political movements he profiles in the book are challenging the secular nation-state, it is only secularism they are at war with, and not the nation-state itself:

This means that they are less concerned about the political structure of the nation-state than they are about the political ideology that underlies it. The focus on the rationale for having a state, the moral basis for politics, and the reasons why a state should elicit loyalty. They often reject the European and American notion that nationalism can be defined solely as a matter of secular contract. At the same time, however, many of them see no contradiction in affirming certain forms of political organization that have developed in the West, such as the democratic procedures of the nation-state, as long as they are legitimized not be the secular idea of a social contract by traditional principles of religion. Other religious activist [sic] reject the idea of the modern nation altogether and advocate a kind of religious transnationalism. But there is no inherent bias against the nation-state by religious activists in general. (p.6—7)

Juergensmeyer then begins examining religious movements region by region, beginning with the Middle East. I won’t do a blow-by-blow here, but I will hit some high points. I’ve been studying Islamic movements of this kind for close to 20 years, and I found no glaring errors in Juergensmeyer’s chapter on the Middle East. I also found this the least interesting chapter. His section on Israel focuses almost exclusively on Kach and Kahane Chai while ignoring the mystic messianic nationalism of Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful), which has its roots in Chasidic mysticism. In fact, given the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s beginnings in a branch of Shia sufism, Juergensmeyer could have at least pondered why supposedly peaceful and harmless mysticism can contribute so significantly to violent religious nationalism (also in Hindu and Buddhist nationalism). But that’s quibbling, and probably outside the scope of his book.

Most interesting was his focus on the Indian subcontinent, which in the last 30 years has seen Hindu and Sikh nationalism erupt violently in India (beginning in the 1970s, when a successor of Mohandas Ghandi declared "total war" on the state, prompting then Prime Minister Indira Ghandi to declare an "emergency" and suspend the constitution for several years) and a brutal ethno-religious civil war in Sri Lanka (that was sometimes three way, as Buddhists attempted to press the Sri Lankan government in a more Buddhist direction, often violently) that only recently ended. It would have been nice, for example, for Juergensmeyer to have described the unrest in India in the 1970s in more than two sentences, and it would have been especially nice had he cited a source when describing how Christian Tamils were involved in creating suicide bombing as a technique of war. Also, given his insistence on calling Hindu nationalism a "global" phenomena, it would have been nice to, however briefly, ask whether Hindu identity plays any significant political role in countries with large Indian populations, such as Fiji or Trinidad, and how overtly Hindu politicians organize and campaign among Indians in the very Muslim states of the Arabian Gulf.

In dealing with the Americas, Juergensmeyer reviews what might be called "the usual suspects" — white supremacists who call themselves (but are only tangentially) Christian, law-obsessed Reconstructionists, and a handful of other rightists who cannot separate God from country or government. He seems to group all of these folks together into something he calls "the Christian militia," tough he never bothers explaining his use of the term.

However, he also adds to the understanding of religious rebellion the liberation theologians of North and Latin America, seeing as its high water mark the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 and the Sandinista regime of the 1980s:

One of the leaders of the Sandinista movement declared that she was in the revolution because of her Christian faith, explaining that it helped her to "live the gospel better." (p.166)

However, Juergensmeyer also notes the unique circumstances of Nicaragua:

Nicaraguan nationalism is characteristic of both the church’s conservative leadership and its rebels. For this reason, a genuine Nicaraguan nationalist revolution, one advertised as by and for the people, as the Sandinistas claimed theirs to be, had to be in some sense linked with the church. Thus, in Nicaragua the socialist revolution was also a religious revolution. (p.166—167)

Still, this is the first time I’ve ever seen liberation theology linked to religious resistance/rebellion/violence in general. It ought to be, as anyone who believes and preaches "the Revolution and the Kingdom of God are the same thing," clearly espouses violence (p.166). I study at a seminary in thrall to liberation theology, and there is virtually no difference between the language of Sayyed Qutb and Maulana Maududi — the intellectual architects of the Revolutionary Islam of the Ikhwan al Muslimin as well as al Qaeda — or the neoconservatives of the departed Bush regime and that of a typical liberation theologian. (Gustavo Gutierrez would have made a fantastic speechwriter for George W. Bush.) Liberation theology is soaked in the language of righteous violence. It may have little actual violence to its name, but only because the appeal of liberation theology and "just revolution" (as opposed to "just war") in and out of Latin America is very limited.

(As one professor at my seminary noted, the theologians of Latin America offered their parishioners liberation, and many of those worshipers opted for the Holy Spirit in the form of Pentecostalism.)

Juergensmeyer’s book is a study, and so he comes to few conclusions. He states that religion is almost never a primary cause of conflict — material conditions, such as the promises effectively made and unfulfilled by modernity, or foreign occupation, almost always begin conflicts. However, religion contributes to conflict because it provides a framework to see a limited conflict as cosmic and all-embracing, and religion can justify violence in the way only the state can:

When antimodernism, anti-Americanism, and antiglobalization are expressed in the drama of religious struggle, religion brings in a whole new set of elements. For one thing religion personalizes the conflict. It provides personal rewards — religious merit, redemption, the promise of heavenly luxuries — to those who struggle in conflicts that otherwise have only social benefits. It also provides vehicles of social mobilization that embrace vast numbers of supporters who otherwise would not be mobilized around social or political issues. In many cases, it provides an organizational network of local churches, mosques, temples, and religious associations from which patterns of leadership and support may be tapped. It gives the legitimacy of moral righteousness in political encounter. …

… When the template of spiritual battle is implanted onto a worldly conflict, it dramatically changes how those engaged in it perceive that conflict. It absolutizes the conflict into extreme opposing positions and demonizes opponents by imagining them to be satanic powers. This absolutism makes compromise difficult to achieve and holds out the promise of total victory through divine intervention. A sacred war that is waged in a godly span of time need not be won immediately, however. The time line of sacred struggle is vast, perhaps even eternal. (p.255)

But in the end, Juergensmeyer is a supporter of the secular nation-state, and believes that religious communities and identities have no choice but to accept the supremacy of secular nationalism and, to one extent or another, surrender to it. His ideal settlement between competing religious nationalisms is the Good Friday Accords, the agreement that ended — for now — the conflict between Catholics, Protestants and the British government in Northern Ireland.

This may be true, especially given that most religious nationalisms don’t want to abolish the nation-state, but merely capture it and rule it. Juergensmeyer notes that after several decades of religious violence against the state, only in Iran have religious revolutionaries succeeded in doing just that — seizing the state. Religious activists have grasped at alternatives to the collapsing moral legitimacy of the state, but they are unable at this point to construct a meaningful and effective alternative. Or, as with the Hindu nationalist BJP, they have proven little different than the secular parties they have supplanted.

So if one is looking for an alternative to the state, religious rebellion — at least that Juergensmeyer describes in this study — is not the place to start. The book is full of examples of religious leaders and followers from every faith examined demanding and claiming the privilege to write and administer laws, shape culture, identify and defeat evil. That is the way of violence. Most religions have a way of non-violence, of surrendering claims to privilege and power (indeed, that is what Hauerwas says Christ’s church ought to do), but that surrender demands more discipline and a great deal more faith than does becoming a mere interest group in a democratic polity. Or a revolutionary group.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian who lives in Chicago, where he loves and cares for his wife, Jennifer, and spends too much time thinking about the state, power and the gathering of God’s people called “the church.”

The Best of Charles H. Featherstone

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