Regius Professor of Divinity, Christ Church, Oxford, Great Britai

Аcademic Conference “The Responsibility of a Christian in Modern Society”

September 29, 2014

“The Kingdom of God: The Other Side of Sectarianism”

The paradigmatic account of the relationship between the Christian understanding of power and the state is the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate in the Gospel according to St. John. There is no doubt that we are treating with this New Testament pericope an exercise in historical writing. Whatever the facts that lie behind the confrontation – whether it took place or not – we are handling an early ecclesial and theological configuration. The Aramaic Jesus and the Latin (possibly also Greek) speaking Pilate never held the conservation they are reported as holding in the way it has been reported. We are treating a later reconstruction and therefore a reflection by the Johannine community (if indeed the community saw itself as distinctly Johannine is a much debated point), not yet organised into a single institution called the church. As such the exchange presents an account of power within church/state relations. I will come to constitutional law in a moment.

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In my book The Politics of Discipleship I gave an exegesis of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate as it related to kingship. I observed the way Jesus evades Pilate’s attempts to get him to self-identify as a king, or even to use the word. Jesus speaks of a realm, the kingdom, not about a sovereign status. On the basis of this account I wish now to develop that exegesis of an engagement between the theological and the political that reflections upon what is often called in political theology, Constantinianism, the church as allied to the state, calls forth. Of course what is immediately different is that under certain conceptions of Constantinianism there is no critical encounter between the church and the empire since each is on the side of the other. I am not competent as an ecclesial historian to comment about how historically accurate such a conflation of dominions and authorities was, but later conceptions of the relation between church and state, throne and altar, in several European countries in the Nineteenth century (Germany and Britain in particular), where the state was intimately involved in the administration and legislation of the national church, encapsulates the conflation I am calling Constantinian. One system, the juridico-political, supports the other, the spiritual and ecclesial, and vice versa. They form a single but double-headed hegemony with a joint power over all things immanent and transcendent. The most significant aspect, theologically and politically, of this conflation of powers, authorities and dominions is that sovereignty and transcendence become identical – and that identity is institutionalised. I want to say more about this as we proceed.

The strength if this allegiance of church and state lies in its ability to integrate and create what the social anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls ‘the imagined community’ of national belonging. A homogenisation is possible so that the name ‘Ghana’ or ‘Holland’ or ‘India’ operates as a common noun not just for a geographical landmass but the population living within that landmass. The weakness of this allegiance lies in its limitations for embracing cultural difference, specially religious difference when its is conflated with ethnic difference and compounded by linguistic difference. Public contestation of national authority poses a threat to its requirement for integration; a threat to what the Dutch political scientist, Veit Bader, terms a nation’s “monopolistic political pretensions.”

But, by way of contrast to the conflation of church and state let me return to the early church’s account of the encounter between Christ and Pilate in John’s Gospel to establish more clearly how the situation configured there expresses a political theology, and a view of church/state relations, at odds with such a conflation. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells him. In saying this a complex set of analogies and hierarchies is generated. To some extent both Christ and Pilate stand on the same ground as equals, since both are under a sovereignty which they recognise and obey: Christ to the Father who sent him and Pilate to Caesar who has charged him to govern the region. But this shared ground for the analogical relation is asymmetrical. The power of God is understood by Christ as the condition for the possibility of all other exercises of power: “you would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above”. God the Father permits the exercise of power by Pilate and presumably Caesar also. The sovereign authority of God the Father is recognised by Christ, the writer of the Gospel and the community of those receiving this text as ‘gospel’. Imperial hegemony is then circumscribed. It is not made illegitimate but its legitimacy is by a divine sanction that limits the imperial monopoly of power. In fact, the limitation it draws attention to questions the very existence of the Roman imperium which no longer is allowed to define itself as having supreme governance. The statement establishes the existence of overlapping jurisdictions, and a multiplicity of sovereignties that secular imperial power found threatening. Where did one’s ultimate loyality lie? The cults around Caesar addressed this religious affiliation and it is well-known that Christians found difficulties here – as certain Jewish people did under the Babylonian rule. Pilate makes no verbal reply to Jesus’s statement, but there is a description of a surprising action that immediately follows from the statement: Pilate sought to release Jesus. It is not clear what Pilate recognises as true in Jesus’s statement, but the act of trying to undo Jesus’s subjection to Roman rule, overthrow his status as a condemned prisoner and grant him both freedom and pardon is an act expressive of the limitations of such rule and a question about the Roman imperium because Pilate wishes to release Christ into a space beyond the Roman order.

The fact that Pilate fails in his attempt is a further expression of the fragility of imperial rule. If, as Carl Schmitt points out, sovereign is the one who can declare the state of exception, then Pilate’s (and Caesar’s) sovereignty is questioned. Jesus cannot be made an exception. And it is not insignificant why this cannot happen. The Jews tell him, “If you release this man you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” This statement by the Jews shuts down the space of possibilities beyond the state by refusing to recognise any sovereignty other than that of Caesar. What the Jews are shutting down here is the very notion of transcendence itself: the Roman order is the only order there is and which they espouse. In itself this went against Jewish law – though the pragmatic result that would ensue (the condemnation of Christ) was seen as the fulfilment of the law against messianic pretensions. Nevertheless, the Jewish people accepts here that all power remains immanent to this imperial order. It is, quite alarmingly for the Jews as the Gospel portrays them, an announcement of atheism; the announcement of a radical disassociation between human knowledge and divine transcendence; the announcement of the ultimate Jewish idolatry for the first command remains “you shall have no other god than me.” And in the declaration of that atheism lies also the corollary that they, as a people, are in utter subjugation to this immanent order. Few there were, Paul was one of them, assimilated into Roman citizenship. The sovereignty of Caesar has now become transcendent; its powers are divinised. Jesus is submitted to this immanent rule, pushing it to its very extremity – the power over his life. Power over life is the telos of imperial sovereignty; its governance is always, as Giorgio Agamben has more recently pointed out, biopolitical. It is not simply a question of belonging or not belonging to the imperial order. It is not just a question of state citizenship. The state has the jurisdiction to curtail one’s freedom by various means that impacts upon one’s living conditions; even to the point of death. That’s why the resurrection of Christ from the dead is so important in a Christian account of power, and of all the gospels John’s emphasises the more profound life that is in and through Christ. The resurrection announces a very different political theology subverting all other immanent dominions. In submitting himself to death on the cross, Christ opens up the transcendence of God beyond all the Roman idolatries of imperial sovereignty. To take up Schmitt again, who was attentive to the theological resonances behind declaring the exception – viewing it as a secular ‘miracle’ – the miracle of Christ’s resurrection announces a new state of exception. The kingdom of God is the state of exception par excellence. If, as Roger Hayden Mitchell, has recently claimed in his book Church, Gospel, and Empire, Constantinianism (whether in the form of the empire of Constantine to the modern biopolitical empire of capital) “obscure[s] the potential power of transcendence to re-empower the multitude” (p.xi), then the resurrection of Christ is an explicit affirmation of a divine transcendence seeking the liberation through empowerment from all immanent political hegemonies.

Notice here how the asymmetrical set of analogies between Christ and Pilate gives rise to a set of hierarchies. The hierarchies express something of the tensions in the relations between church and state at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel: the tensions of a people, a new nation of the saved in Christ, the ecclesia as the body of Christ, caught between subjugation and triumphalism, the cross and resurrection life. The hierarchies configure different sorts of power: human/divine, the rule of law/the rule of grace, biopolitical/pneumatic, socio-political/ecclesio-political, cultural/cosmic – there are probably others. The tense relations generated by these different and differently distributed powers is counterpoised by the telos within both Church and Empire towards a universal peace, a universal order in which the hierarchy of relations is ontologically grounded. Political dissonance is to be resolved and limited through assimilation; homogeneity establishes a homeostatis. The state seeks this immanently and along secular, atheistic, lines; the church seeks this in establishing the kingdom of God and working towards not an assimilation but a cosmic co-ordination of operations.

In John’s Gospel, which we are limiting ourselves to at this point, it is unclear what the relation of this kingdom will be to the world as such. Christ explicitly says his Kingdom is not “of this world [ek tou kosmou toutou)”. The emphatic genitives in the Greek here underline that the kingdom does not belong, is not the possession or property of this world. Later, and more ambivalently, Jesus will tell Pilate that his kingdom is ‘hence’ (enteuthen). What is ambivalent about enteuthen is whether it refers to a place – ‘not here’ – to a time – ‘not now’ – or to a consequence – ‘not causally connected to anything on earth’. But then ‘world’ is ambivalent in John’s Gospel.

We don’t need to clear up the ambiguities: the history of political theologies from Augustine to Joachim of Fiore, from Luther to Hegel, from Schmitt to Metz have all wrestled with this one. As I understand it, theologically, the Christian account of an offered resurrection life now, such that there is a transcendent empowerment by the divine now – rather than when we ourselves have died – announces that the empowerment of resurrection life is for a present purpose. The church as the body of Christ performs and prolongs the works of Christ in this world – the liberations, the healings, and the proclamations of salvation. Furthermore, the church is being built up, established, through these performances. The ecclesia is not then just a critical force against imperial hegemony, it is redemptive and constructive force for an alternative to that hegemony. Though, one has to admit immediately, that the church in and of itself, has no clear grasp of what the kingdom will look like or its polity. The church has to receive this polity, receive the kingdom of heaven through living it out in lives of obedience, service and worship. But the church can only continue doing the work it does – and the very unity of the church is the first of the great questions it faces – if it commits itself in faith not only to the eschatological but also to the good providence of God. That is, to live by hope, towards hope.

But a question remains - and is certainly manifest in the Christ/Pilate story - of sovereignty. This is why I drew attention to the kingship debate at the core of questioning and silences between Christ and Pilate in The Politics of Discipleship. But the sovereignty issue is not just about kingship. What needs to be qualified and defined here is the notion of sovereignty with respect to the divine. The sovereignty of Caesar is that characterised by Schmitt in Political Theology: “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.” As the one with supreme authority the sovereign holds both legislative and executive offices. In being the law-maker (in ruling on the state of exception) the sovereign stands outside or above the law. He is himself the embodiment of the exception, and in this way he transcends the order over which he reigns. The sovereignty of God differs here. As Jesus’s statement to Pilate shows, the power “from above” permits, allows for the exercise of subordinate authorities like Pilate’s and Caesar’s. These subordinate authorities do not act ‘in the name of’, they are not proxies for the divine acting vicariously. They exercise a power given to them, but they are ignorant of the gift (or the giver). God’s good providence reigns in, through and beyond the exercise of their powers. In this way divine dominion is not imposed, turning human beings into puppets. The imposition of dominion is exercised by human rulers – through violences, colonisation, war, the imposition of taxes, the threats and punishments of the law, the confiscations of properties and personal freedoms or even the right to live. God’s dominion, at the personal level, is proffered rather than imposed, proclaimed persuasively to be accepted freely. Now persuasion too can be a violation, but divine persuasion appeals to the human creature created by God, who God knows better than that person knows him or herself. God’s sovereignty invites human beings to enter their created freedom more fully; to perfect their freedom by participating in Him. We have here the paradox of finding perfect freedom in perfect obedience or service. Divine sovereignty empowers then rather than subjugates. Jesus’s submission to Pilate, and to his crucifixion is ultimately a submission to God. If this were not the case then Jesus’s sacrificial act would be suicidal.

What becomes evident about the logic of divine sovereignty in Christ’s submission is the sacrifice that is a concomitant requirement of sovereignty. Of course we have human histories in which there have been calls for that sacrifice on behalf of the sovereignty of the empire. We are about to enter a year, 2014, in which we recall the sacrifices of those in the First World War – slaughtered in the name of the nations for whom they fought. The contractual society of Thomas Hobbes is founded upon the sacrifice of the individual will on behalf of the collective will at the behest of a sovereign power. But the sacrifice required by divine sovereignty is a fulfilment of one’s freedom as created with respect to the creator. It is a sacrifice of love, in love, through love – that respects and enhances human freedom. This sovereignty reveals the sacrifice demanded by imperialisms to be murder, to be a further act of what Augustine would call libido dominandi. It also reveals imperial dominion as idolatrous insofar as it pre-empts both the rule and the judgement announced in the Kingdom of God to come. This is theologically interesting because in its realised eschatology, the empire manifests the longing and destiny of what it is to be a creature made in the image of God. Empire parodies the Kingdom, substituting an immanent order for the transcendent order. In part, the scene between Jesus and Pilate, and indeed all that follows in Jesus being sentenced to death and killed, is the revelation of the character of divine sovereignty and the difference it installs into all human forms of sovereignty. For this is a sovereignty that raises up through a radical, self-emptying in love. In raising up it restores and transforms. In and by that revelation the libido dominandi of imperial politics is shown to be tyrannical and arbitrary. And yet the restoration and transformation effected by divine sovereignty works from both above (as donation and gift) and below (through the embodied politics of everyday life).

Of course these distinctions – between divine sovereignty, the freedom it invites us to participate in, the rule it proffers rather than imposes, the non-violent sacrifice it requires and fosters and imperial sovereignty – collapse when empire and the kingdom of God are conflated, with Constantinianism. The conflation manifests itself in the use of state violence in the battle for orthodoxy against heresy. But the heresy here is now seen not simply in terms of the preaching doctrinal error but also sedition against the state. Heresy formed citizens of dubious allegiance to the state; they became enemies of the state. But in a situation where church and state were seen as agents working in tandem for the development of the New Jerusalem, then the distinction between political enemy and religious heretic is blurred. Enmity against the state is now enmity against divine rule and the eschatological peace it ushers in. Enmity tout court introduces into the state as we have heard recently as an axis of evil – the enemy is mythologically demonised in a language that conflates politics with theology. Pluralism morphs into polytheism. I was with a number of Anglican bishops early this year discussing the beginning of four years of remembrance in Britain that begins next November when the 100 years since the First World War is commemorated. The discussion was a difficult one because the church preached throughout the First World War that Britain was a Christian nation under God and German imperialism was threatening that Christian identification with the nation. Disregard of boundaries of national interest and sovereignty was a disregard of what God had established, or the law of cuius regio eius religio first announced in 1555 at the Peace of Augsburg that laid the foundation of the modern European state. It was a gospel that sent millions of men to their deaths in the First World War. So while we recall with horror, as a nation, over the next four years, the waste of a whole generation of young British men and some women, the church cannot say its hands are innocent of warmongering. There is very little of a good story to be told about the state/church relations through those years, or throughout the Second World War either.

But given the change now in church/state relations, is political theology lifted out of an outmoded discussion of the throne and altar conflation of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Sitz in Leben? Certainly, the analogy that held together monotheism and monarchy, and the rereadings of God’s concession to the Israelites, under Samuel, for a king by absolute monarchies such as James Ist of England and his Divine Right of King’s manifesto, no longer hold. Arguments against democracy and oligarchy had been made from Eusebius onwards on the basis of this analogy. Do then the sovereignty of the people, the election of a president for a Republic, and the election of a government under a party leader change the theo-political relations of state and church? Of course theological questions have not been expunged from the public sphere in such a state. Indeed, many sociologists and social theorists have drawn attention to a new visibility of religion in the public sphere that has been emerging since the mid 1970s in Europe. But are we engaging with current debates in many European countries concerning state involvement with religious freedoms with a very different political theology since the state here is the secular, liberal/democratic, multicultural and religiously plural?

I will answer this question in the negative: secularism, even secularization are irrelevant, the political theology is still, at least today, governed by an imperialism that wants to subjugate the public aspects of religion to its own immanent jurisdictions. I say ‘at least today’ because with concerns over migration the current trend in Europe has been away from programmes of multiculturalism, with its acceptance and support of other religions, ethnic cultures and mother tongues, which dominated national politics in the eighties and nineties, towards assimilationism.

And this is where constitutional law comes in: as with the first item in the French constitution that defines ‘La France’ (the common noun, a metonymy for homogenous and integrated French citizenship) as laique. As any number of French thinkers in the light of the 2004 ‘headscarf’ debates have observed: laicite was not about the separation of state politics from religion – there is only one mention of the word ‘separation’ in the 1905 Act which established laicite and that is in the title of the Act itself. Laicite is a state policy for the monitoring of religion in the public sphere; and since the 2004 law banning headscarves (fully in accord with the constitution as laique) it is a policy demanding cultural assimilation by all religions, but particularly Islam,

In defining what is understood by the secular state, Britain’s situation is complex here because the Church of England is a national church. Changes to whose ecclesial order (like the ordination of women as priests) have to go through Parliament or (for the appointment of bishops) through the Prime Minister’s office. But it is the monarch who is head of the Church, not the government. The government administer the state and the church on behalf of the monarch. And that administration is secular. What does secular mean here? It means a procedural neutrality with respect to persons, their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical embodiment and religious beliefs. As such the state is held as neutral. With respect to religion it is tolerant or believes itself to be tolerant. But the construction – and the state is a social construction, it is not a natural entity – of being without interests, prejudices and tolerant is something of an abstraction. It is clear that any government is made up of people, those who govern and administer, who have interests, prejudices and even certain intolerances. The government’s executive function is then divided, at least theoretically, from the legislature, and in this way it is not above the law (nor are any of those people involved in governing) even though it makes the law (through a system whereby Parliaments pass legislation). It is the law then, and equality before the law, that guarantees the procedural secularism of the state that, in turn, guarantees the freedom of its citizens. It is not an unlimited freedom, but a freedom circumscribed by the law. It is a liberal freedom – a freedom of the individual from unwanted interference by any other individual. As such the procedural secularism of the state subscribes to a code of human rights. These human rights, on the whole, are negative and abstract: the right not to have one’s person violated through someone else’s intrusive interests, prejudices or intolerances. These negative rights establish a positive account of human dignity, the freedom of personal opinion and free association. Although again the positive nature of human rights is circumscribed by the law: the publication of one’s personal opinion about someone else can lead to being sued for defamation and one is not free to associate sexually with a minor. The legislature (in both making and administering the law) judges; it acts as the neutral order and, in religious matters, secular umpire. It does not necessarily arbitrate when there is violation; more often it acts after the violation has become public and acts most frequently to address the effects of the violation – through a system of reparative punishments. And so injustice is counterbalanced by justice.

The church in such a conception of the secular state is a free association that can enjoy the protection of the state from unwanted interference only by submitting itself to both the executive and legislative functions of the state. As such the authority of the church over the lives of those who believe and belong is circumscribed by the secular neutrality of the state. Those who believe and belong to the church are first of all citizens vouchsafed the right to free association with the church as an institution within and in submission to the state. And the sovereignty of the state rests upon the mandate given to its government by people, who elect that government, and a system of representatives of the people who are elected to serve in the main executive body of the state, Parliament. As such those who believe and belong to the church can exercise their citizen’s right to protest should the government propose or enact measures seen as inimical to its freedoms.

Why have I detailed this secular state structure in Britain? Because I hope you can see how very fragile it all is. Fragile in ways similar and dissimilar to the Caesar’s imperium. Let me list a number of its fault-lines. First, is the election of the party government itself. It is on this basis that the government have the mandate to rule, making decision on behalf of with impact upon the people ruled. But the proportion of those voting in an election can be very small. So who are the ‘people’ here and in what sense can the represent the sovereignty of the people as a whole when the proportion is significantly lower than half those eligible to vote. The notion of the sovereignty of the people is increasingly being compromised by a culture of depoliticisation. This then negatively effects in turn the operation of checks and balances. Secondly, what is voted upon is the representative to parliament but how ‘representative’ is that representative? To what extent are they voicing the views of those who put them in office? To what extent are they voicing their own views? And to what extent are they voicing the views of the party to which they belong? Representation is not transparent. At best it’s an ideal to work towards. At worst, it is open to being bribed or corralled by some lobby group. Lobbying is now a profession and a major factor in policy-making. Both of these ambivalences, along with who is and is not numbered among those eligible to elect, compromise the nature of the sovereignty exercised by the people. Thirdly, procedural secularism, which is bureaucratic and administrative way of handling with democratic impartiality people coming from a variety of races, sexual orientations, genders, religious persuasions, and physical abilities can slide towards ideological secularism as a state policy because judicial procedures aim at becoming normative. This is important to understand because secularism in its various forms embedded itself within different European countries in different ways. In Britain the first moves towards procedural secularism came in the 1960s when waves of migration brought people of other races and others creeds into the British labour markets. Then this increased in the 1970s with the rise of identity politics – primarily gender equality and gay rights. In the face of cases of discrimination then the proceduralism was protected by law. And so Britain moved from being a “Christian country” until the 1950s into a multicultural and religiously plural country. Often the church was very much behind these changes and the discriminations they punished and threatened to punish. But we can see the near edge of a secular ideology when the government begins to legislate for gay marriage, for example. At the moment the law courts and the British Medical Council have approached the government concerning legislation banning the wearing of the Burka or Hijab in a court or a hospital. To date the government have said this a matter of professional ethics and they should make a rule themselves, but any ruling would not be binding. But if the government acts, and it may, to enforce a ban then a procedural secularism edges closer to an ideological secularism. As an ideological secularism, a state sponsored policy of laicite, for example, in France then the fragility of a liberal democratic polity becomes pronounced. For a democratic ruling for equality goes head to head with a liberal ruling based on individual human rights - the right to freedom from violation or interference. The point here is the very survival of civil society.

What the French situation reveals is a facet of empire today with respect to religion, whether church, mosque, synagogue or temple based. Faced with citizens with overlapped allegiances then the move from procedural to ideological secularism is viewed in terms of reinforcing the borders of the state, unifying the state through enforced assimilation. So the political ‘peace’ being pursued now lies in a new nationalism – not of throne and not of altar and not of their conflated dominions. It is a nationalism built upon juridical foundations that establish cultural norms and strict policies on migration. This is the temptation of governments in the developments of procedural secularism and it will enlist, if possible, the various religious councils (who are not representative because they are composed of the religious elites). They will enlist them insofar as these religious councils will assist with enforcing the juridical structures for a status quo – like helping to uncover illegal immigrations, for example.

But the new nationalism and the new secular polity point to a further fragility: competence. That is: by what competence can the government act as an umpire of religious matters? In Islam only an Imam can pass such a judgement on the hijab and the burqa and any ban would amount to a fatwa. Similarly, and recently in Britain, the legal ruling on gay marriage (against the wishes of a number of religious peers in the House of Lords, including the Archbishop of Canterbury) raised the question of whether the government had not the right but the competence to pass such a ruling that would impact a number of religious groups. Can a dominant secular view monitor and control religious practices and pieties? Observe, this is a new development on the old theme of the separation of church and state in which allegiance to the church was regarded as a private interest not subject to state interference. Liberal freedoms are being eroded in the face of a democratising secularism aimed at national unity.

I hope what you can see from my presentation is the fragility of the state here: the fragility of its sovereignty and yet the far-reaching effects of the sovereignty it can exercise with respect to religion. The question remains though whether this new imperium leaves us closer to the paradigm offered by the early Johannine community of the relations between the state and the ecclesia or heading towards political turbulence in which the role of religion is public life will demand to be reassessed. My own sense is that new juridical nationalisms and new idolatries of the nation are imminent, and will become more pronounced as the world faces new demands for migration – from global climate change, for example. Churches, in this instance, and particularly national churches will be faced with new circumscriptions of its ability to act independently, to perform the sovereignty and its freedom empowered by the divine. We await to see with what consequences.