Nation-State

Baptism, Gun Control, and the Power of Death

What is my response as a member of the Body of Christ to gun violence?  Some fellow Christians know definitively what we should do, others know with equal assertion what isn’t the solution.  Are either informed, truly by the mind of Christ the crucified one, God Father Son and Holy Spirit.  Is my response to the question the state and its claimed monopoly on violence, so informed?  The more I sit with the horror of all the violence, what we consider legitimate (Police and military, the power of death wielded by the State) and what we consider illegitimate (the power of death wielded by non-state actors, those we call terrorists), I waver.  How do we end suffering?  Perhaps it is the best to let the state maintain its monopoly, and that will keep others safe, or at least limit suffering and death.  Can the State in wielding the power of death keep death at bay?  Maybe –  probably often, but what does that mean?  Am I, then, entrusting myself to the power of death for my own and others safety?

It is difficult to think well about such things as a White Christian (of whatever political or ideological stripe), in part I think because of the predominance of lynching, but also because we have implicitly or explicitly for the most part accepted certain types of violence as necessary for the maintenance of the secular public order that we also baptize.  Progressive White Christians want to impose a certain logic of violence upon us that continues to reserve the power of death to the state (as long as there isn’t an explicit death penalty) and demand the citizenry maintain a veneer of non-violence, partially enforced by restricting certain means of violence.  The Christian right wants to protect the constitution and a certain amendment of that constitution, and the right for Christians citizens to wield the power of death when necessary against aggressors and possibly against the state if it over reaches its bounds.  Both still bind up the Christian stance with violence, one restricts legitimate violence entirely to the State, the other wishes to extend the realm of legitimate violence to law-abiding citizens.

In this discussion the Bible is often used to shore up one’s opinion. Of course the Bible is full of violence, and even God makes use of violence and the power of death, to coerce and carry out certain ends (e.g. the Exodus from Egypt). My theological account will look to scriptures and God’s self-revelation but my beginning point won’t be the Bible and my position isn’t Biblical.  That way too lies a dead-end.

How then do we address our violence theologically and as a member of the Body of Christ?  Here I’m pulling punches, as I’ve, in that phrase, already countered a claim that the state may have upon my person as it’s citizen. I’m pointing us also to a liturgical rite.

This reflection begins at Baptism, and thus a renunciation as well as an affirmation.  A liturgical act and not the Bible is my beginning point. Of course Scripture and what God says about the act of baptism is what gives that act meaning.  Baptism takes us from one realm to another from one allegiance to another.  To be one with Christ is to renounce sin death and the devil.  Yet much of Christian history seems to contradict this as Christendom attempted to make room for death in the members of Christ that served the state (or were the state, as emperor or king).   We give little attention to a particular detail of the biography of the first Christian Emperor, Saint only became a member of the body of Christ until just before his death. He remained a catechumen his whole life, only receiving baptism upon his death bed.  This was a frowned upon but common practice at the time.  I’ve no proof of this, but I’ve wondered if that wasn’t a most honest move by Saint Constantine: As a baptized Christians he would have compromised the vows of his baptism had he wielded the power of death as the state.  These days we are well versed in the compromises of a legalized and imperial Christianity and how Christians have sought to find a meeting between the coercive power of the state and the Church, a name for that compromise is Christendom.

I mention all the above to point out that we shouldn’t be too confident of our conclusions.  Yet, at the same time there are hints that Baptism shows us that what we consider necessary for the maintenance of the state and of the common good isn’t readily compatible with being a member of Christ’s body the Church.

Where we begin makes all the difference. If we begin with the Bible, we can look to the formation of the people of Israel as they were delivered from bondage and Egypt and established in the land of Israel, and Biblically assume that a certain violence is legitimate and necessary.  But we won’t necessarily answer where the line of legitimate violence is drawn in a democracy like ours.  I’m arguing though that seeking Biblical sanction of legitimate violence isn’t seeking the mind of Christ, nor is it seeking the stance of one who is a member of Christ’s Body, through baptism.  My actions and thinking  in relation to the state and our democracy isn’t about my being a U.S. Citizen but only in my being a Baptized member of the body of Christ.  This is a radical claim.  However, I believe like the early Christians that the best citizen of the world and its states is one whose identity isn’t bound up with that state or nation but is entirely given over to Christ and the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

As one whose identity is Christ, whose body is claimed by the cross and the name Father Son and Holy spirit, I’m no longer beholden to the state and to the power of death and its logic.  While God, it is reported in the Scriptures, made use of the power of death and the logic of the state’s monopoly of that power, God’s ultimate revelation shows God’s own renunciation of that power.  God, Father Son and Holy Spirit in the incarnation of the Son in Jesus of Nazareth suffers the legitimate violence of the State, instead of  coming to wield that power.  This is the way of Christ and of the Church.

Thus, my response to our current debate over guns and gun violence is to say that as a member of Christ’s body one is no longer given over to the power of death but freed from the power of death.  Thus, neither defense of gun ownership nor shoring up the states monopoly of violence is the appropriate response or stance of the Church.  In some sense the Cross of Christ shows there’s no such thing as “legitimate” violence or wielding of the power of death.  Though, we may have to concede that to limit the destructive evil of those given over to the power of death, some may need to wield violence and the power of death, but in doing so one is in sin and in violation of one’s baptism ( this is my interpretation and application of Bonhoeffer’s reflection on the plot to assassinate Hitler; doing so was to participate in sin, but one took responsibility for that sin, as it would end a greater evil.  Though the  just end cant’t redeem the sinful act of taking a life).

As such as a citizen of Christ I’d urge, a simultaneous limiting of that state’s violence first in disarming the police while also removing military style weaponry from the possession of ordinary citizens.  Also, This would require a more Christ like culture of policing, one where the safety of the police officer isn’t paramount. Rather we would come to see policing as deeply self-sacrificial, even to the point of willingness to suffer death for the other and for peace on our streets.  This would be a radically different view of policing something that could hardly be viewed as simply a dangerous job.  It would need to be a true calling where one would enter it knowing one may not retire alive.  We wouldn’t train officers to self-protect, but to lay down their lives.  If the state was willing to limit its wielding of violence and the power of death, then so should its citizenry.  I would work with my fellow Christians progressive and conservative towards such a limit of the power of death in our world.

Church, Race and the Nation State: Prolegomena

I’m embarking on a series of posts in which I want to look at what it means to be church in light of Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of Michael Brown at the hand of a police officer (and that this sort of incident is a far too common.)  This inquiry assumes much that I’ve written about and be wrestling with here in Ecclesial Longings.   Ecclesial Longing emerges from a conviction that  Our current understandings of Church among all Protestants does not offer a means to fully live into who we are in Christ.  The Believers Church idea of the Free Church was possibly a needed corrective of ways of living into the Body of Christ that were too focused upon two of the four main orders of the Church. However as I have begun to articulate here and here, as a robust theology that takes into account the organic and architectural metaphors of Ephesians it falls short.

AS for this series of posts, it seems to me that American White Protestant (that I can legitimately put all these qualifiers on our identities as Christians should make us uncomfortable) understandings of church do not give us a means to see how the Nation-State desires (demands?) from us  the sort of identification we are are only to have with the Body of Christ.  The Nation-State co-opts or replaces, sometimes both, the Church.  In my view, this is easy to do when we view the church as a non-physical purely spiritual (non-institutional) reality of some vague connection between all individuals who “believe” in Jesus Christ. This is a very weak sense of identity based upon our sense of connection with other individuals are Christians.  To my eyes this appears as an atomization of ourselves as members of Christ’s Body, and allows for  the Nation-State to pick out the Christian from her proper identity and insert her into the Body of the Nation state without here being aware that of the dislocation or conflicting allegiances.  I don’t’ think I’m alone in making some of these observations  (Hauerwas comes to mind).  What I’d like to suggest is that the higher ecclesiologies represented by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have something to offer here.  Though, not necessarily in every aspect.

In recent two posts over at Personal Musings I have suggested that the Nation-State is the systemic seat of  Racism.  I think this is key to understanding how policing (one of the two coercive and violent arms of the Nation-State) remains racist and how then routine policing ends up disproportionately targeting Blacks and people of color.

I want to examine the Nation-State from its emergence in Europe as a state that was for and to govern a particular ethnicity, that is a nation.  The boundaries and the State itself in its original idea was for being able to clearly identify  the French and the English. This emerged also as a mean to separate from the State of the Holy Roman Empire.

Given in part that this ethic identification of State land and people was in conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, the emergence of the Nation-State in Europe is also an emerging reality out of conflicts between church and state in the late middle ages.  I wish to suggest then that there are ecclesiological consequences of the Nation-State, on some level the Nation-State is to replace the role of the Church in it’s unifying function as it was understood in Medieval Europe

I Haven’t yet read Willie Jennings The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origin of Race , but my from what I know and from lectures I’ve heard of his I think some of what I’m attempting here is related to his analysis in this book.

I will seek to articulate in this series, that Racism is the result of a series of ecclesiological heresies, and thus is as such a an ecclesiological heresy itself.  But it isn’t just about ideas, but that these heresies actually hide from us the true nature of the Nation-State and the systems (powers) we take for granted and are told are necessary for our survival and are simply the  natural way of things, and the height of our human achievement and progress.  When in fact they are inventions, and more to the point spiritually speaking are the same powers that crucified Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

I am engaging  this inquiry out of the conviction that knowing who we are as the Body of Christ is what will allow followers of Christ to act not out of the systems of the World (that is the logic of the Nation-State the current system of the World), but of the new system/cosmos The Church, the Body of Christ.

Lastly, I recognise that I can’t escape being White.  Much of what I write is an attempt to address White heresies.   In a sense what I’m doing here is also an attempt at renunciation (see this post on renunciation and privilege) of trust in systems that have and still privilege and benefit Whites.  I recognise the possible limits of what I will be exploring.  This should not be read then as trying to correct or evaluate theological systems of the African-American Church or Latino/a theology or feminist theology, Liberation Theology and so forth.  I would hope some dialogue could ensue, that we can approach this as a means to continue to learn what it means to be the Body of Christ in the World.  For myself this line of thought is already followed out of listening to and reading various authors, voices and theological perspectives.