modern nation-state, political theology, Rowan Williams

My Presentation at the Calvin Symposium on Religion and Politics

I’ll be delivering a paper at Calvin’s Symposium on Religion and Politics, April 23-25. So will fellow colleagues and friends, Thomas and Geoff. My presentation will be a truncated version of my paper titled: “Imagination and Exploration in Church and State Relations: Rowan Williams, Sharia, Social Space, Christianity, and America.”

I believed I alluded to this paper, or mentioned it in passing, on the blog last semester while I was writing it. Still, if anyone is curious, below is the abstract and proposal. And anyone who is thinking of swinging by the symposium, I’d be interested in some constructive feed back.

On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective,” at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. England was in an uproar within hours. Nearly a year later, the lecture resonates within English jurisprudence discussion, while in America, the lecture is better known as his “Sharia speech.” This presentation aims to give Williams a close, fair, and accurate reading, while at the same time, imagining what it would mean to carry on his challenge in another context: the United States of America. The fruit of such exploration is not mere indulgence, but aims to help us better understand the complexity of Church and State relations today — specifically around law, sovereignty, and jurisprudence — and where relations may move, or we should push them towards, in the future.

On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective,” at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. England was in an uproar within hours. Nearly a year later, the lecture resonates within English jurisprudence discussion, while in America, the lecture is better known as his “Sharia speech.” This essay aims to give Williams a close, fair, and accurate reading, while at the same time, imagining what it would mean to carry on his challenge in another context: the United States of America.

From William’s speech, I emphasize two key themes: “social space” and “transformative accommodation.” He noted that law – an outworking of or a voice of the modern nation-state – can often, if not inherently, function in a coercive, monopolistic fashion. This law is more than reluctant to allow for other jurisdictions. When law acts in such a jealous fashion, coupled with an individualistic anthropology, it ignores or rejects other communities or social bodies that contribute on a fundamental level to human identity. No only does supercessionist law function inadequately, but it does great harm when its blunt universalism is enforced. The outcome, Williams argued, is the marginalization and/or silencing of entire communities, particularly communities that are not violent.

The significance of the Archbishop’s speech is his carving out a new social space, as he called for the equalizing of jurisprudence. Not only should the law critically re-evaluate itself, it is called to recognize that its generalizing universalism is incomplete and harmful. Williams seeks to make space for distinctive communities that seek the good because of their distinctiveness. Clearly by the law, there are small allowances, or deferring to religious authorities, however, these are understood within the monopoly’s categories of accommodation or expert witness, not on equal terms. The importance of Williams’ speech for this essay lies in his challenge to the law, showing its poverty and need for a re-visioning of its self-proclaimed sovereignty, while upholding the inherent value of other communities and their jurisdictions. Thus Williams’ makes room for and shows the necessity of transformative accommodation.

In an exploration of the difficulty, with its positive and negatives, of adapting Rowan Williams’ vision for American civil and religious jurisprudence, I begin with two observations: I briefly note similarities between American and English and, at greater length, the dissimilarity between Christian and State notions of justice and peace. The difference between State and Christian notions of peace and justice should make clear to the reader that Christianity attempts to go far beyond the State in the ecclesial endeavors to rightly remember Jesus (specifically in anamnesis of the Christ). Thus, when reconciliation is achieved in lieu of litigation, something better, something holistic and healthy has been achieved. Supported by Rowan Williams’ argument, this seeking of the global common good through prophetic reconciliation should be recognized as legitimate and helpful. The social body of Christianity, the church, and its jurisprudence should be recognized for the sake of the faith’s adherents (who are also citizens of the State), to avoid an oppressive exercise of law, and to embrace those who seek, and arguably achieve, the common good by peaceful means from the distinctiveness of their faith and community.

The last two sections briefly address how each institution must begin the transformation to meet Williams’ challenge. There will certainly be difficulties in a move towards transformative accommodation and equal jurisprudence. I therefore address what I take to be the two biggest hurdles for the State: sovereignty and civil religion. Yet, there is also much for faith communitites to do, namely a greater emphasis on ecumenical responsibility, inter-faith dialogue, and inter-community cooperation. The fruit of such exploration is not mere indulgence, but aims to help us better understand the complexity of Church and State relations today and where they may move, or we should push them towards, in the future.

political theology, Rowan Williams

Beginning an Honest Reading of Williams on His “Sharia” Speech… I Think

Last February, Rowan Williams gave a speech, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective“, in London to a number of lawyers. It caused quite a stir. Anyways, here is a little piece on it from a paper I’m writing. Hopefully this will give people a better way to understand it. And hopefully I got it right. Let me know what you think:

The speech begins with a problem that Williams calls “a growing challenge” and to which the speech is aimed: to address an ongoing change in the make-up of English society: “the presence of communities which, while no less ‘law-abiding’ than the rest of the population, relate to something other than the British legal system alone.” Such groups that likewise exist in America are similarly not violent, aggressive anarchists, nor are they groups that in and of themselves exist on the margins of society because of an aggressively illegal nature. In fact, the reality is that such communities can maintain a massive constituency and exist in the heart of a town or city. Indeed, people pass by houses of faith or worship without a second thought, and certainly without a thought that they may be violently accosted by members of the congregation. Nevertheless, while churches, ummas, and other communities of worship are called by their own faith to seek the common good (although not always the status quo), in the face of the law, there is no category for truly making sense of and interacting with faith groups as a social body. Williams states the problem thus:

So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law; that everyone stands before the public tribunal on exactly equal terms, so that recognition of corporate identities or, more seriously, of supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality.

Clearly some people of faith do understand this to be problem. Some have even noted that such an idea participates in the relational fragmentation of the church, particularly in America under a rugged individualism. However, why is this really a problem for others? With the growth of a visible pluralism in today’s society, so grows the awareness of other social communities that already form identity and mediate relationships. With such a truth in mind, Williams contends that there needs to be “a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relation to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a ‘covenant’ between the divine and human.” There are broad swaths of people who gather their identity on a fundamental level from other sources than citizenship. Such a movement (which arguably has always been the case, just unacknowledged, rejected, or “invisible” to the nation-state during the modern era) exerts tremendous strain on the system of law, courts, and jurisdiction as pluralism becomes more evident in the face of a “secular government [that] assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” The result is that not only are the courts stretched in directions for which they are ill prepared, as are citizens of the state, but the law itself also begins to warp like planks of wood left exposed to the elements – useless.

Useless? Perhaps a little polemical, but the state certainly fails to make true its claim of usefulness as it rejects or ignores religious jurisdiction. It is this deficiency that Williams has sought to address in his speech, by first noting Sharia in the likes of a case study, then raising the common good, next revealing when law communicates poorly, followed by the bulk of the speech mentioning and answering three objections to recognizing and protecting “corporate religious identity and secure their freedom to fulfil [sic] religious duties”, and near the end, putting forth Ayelet Shachar’s notion of “transformative accommodation.”

modern nation-state, peace, political theology, Rowan Williams

Peace Defined

This is part of a study in theological language, the rest of the posts can be found here.

Also, the significance of this post on September 11 has not escaped me. I hope you notice it as well. The timing was not originally planned this way when I started the series, but still, it is a happy accident that I am happy to oblige.

I want to begin with what peace is not. Peace is not silence or a cessation of violence brought about by coercion or elimination of competition. Take for instance Phocus:

I am sorry, but you are a loon. You spin thoughts in your manufactured reality and occasionally consider one or two to be worth spewing onto this site. You write…”Instead of war producing peace, war is now mostly understood as a violent oppression from which good does not come from — instead, good comes in spite of such an evil.” Where to begin…and once begun, where to stop? Your lack of learning is stunning. Please study the last world wars…from start to end, and try to do this study without bias.

There are two sides to a war. One is evil, the other peaceful. If the peaceful fail to rise up and stop the evil, evil blurs into oppression, lack of freedom, and death to those who do resist. The free men and women of the world smashed Hitler’s Germany and Japan. Once these evils were stopped, the world dressed the wounds of the broken nations and then gave them back to the people.

There is one way to have peace. You get peace when the peaceful win. Period. Any other outcome…promises more war. The human spirit longs to be at peace. You get peace through strength.

Hopefully, you will grow into your obviously functioning brain and gather logic based on knowledge and facts rather than theory. If you are under 30 and not a liberal, you have no heart. If you are over 30 and still a liberal, you have no brain.

Now, I do not want to interject the… simplistic understanding of Phocus for all who claim good in or from war and violence (a straw-person argument) and nor am I seeking to legitimize Phocus’ inane ramblings, but he or she does accept a few fundamental assumptions that I am ultimately seeking to address: one that peace is the result of “stopping” evil and two, that therefore peace is attainable by violence.

Peace is not the elimination of the other. It cannot be. That isn’t peace between people because it is first not justice, it is the prosecution of death upon one group by another group. State and society can only rid the world of an existence or exact punitive violence that it calls justice; however, true peace requires true justice, not slaughter. And in fact, at least some justice work is a form of peace-making. However, those that claim a monopoly on justice, the state, or market, or cosmopolitan society, cannot achieve a full sense of justice — putting relationships aright.[1] In a word, redemption, not a malformed catharsis. In fact, even the church today as the mission of the basiliea of God cannot achieve full justice. Metz makes note that reconciliation cannot actually be achieved between Jews killed in the Holocaust and the Germans who designed and implemented the programs because both are dead (as is the case in 9/11 or some of Darfur or some of Iraq, etc.). We live in the aftermath of irreconcilable generations and only God can enact a full redemption.[2] But despite the short coming of the church, nevertheless, it is formed by the memory of Christ and eschatological hope and can therefore seek a true sense of justice, and therefore seek real peace. And if we act right, we can participate in making space where the basiliea breaks in and creates a social space of peace.

Peace is also fundamentally a conversion and discipleship — from swords to plowshares and lions laying with lambs. Quite simply, evil, or evil acts, is a warped sense of peace: it is not redemptive but seeks to convert or eliminate. Therefore, actions such as torture are violent conversions and the antithesis of peace. Torture is the re-narration of a person by destroying a human being — a fundamentally abusive relationship, while peace is instituted from the righting of relationships (justice) and is maintained as we treat each other as part of creation through the grammar of Christological, divine love.

Since peace is not the result of the elimination of the other, and indeed may be the exact opposite, peace comes in spite of such attempts to eliminate the other. Peace is something we do. Peace is something we live in. We live together in peace by living within the community of God. In the end, peace is the refusal to use evil for “good” (although such good then lacks any ability to be a true good). Peace can exist in the face of evil as the rule of God exists in an evil world.

The most significant questions I think that follow are: “Can peace exist today?” and “If the state or society cannot actually achieve true peace, what is there to do?”

It can exist, as much as the rule of God exists. It has just been a mistake to redefine peace in light of what the state can achieve, especially ever since the Enlightenment claimed it could save the world, as it used the false narrative of “The Wars of Religion” to justify its existence for mediating a peace.

However, all I think is not lost in terms of the state. As suspicious as I am of the state, there are ways of calling the state to be more than what it wants to be. Although this will put the state in tension with what it claims it can do — gather everything subject to it — nevertheless, the future calls for the state to recognize its boundaries. As the state is now, it is too restrictive for a pluralistic society that recognizes multiple relationships to communities within each person. Rowan Williams has begun to show the way. In his controversial speech on Sharia law and the need for the state to allow some community governing, one could also read his speech as talking of the Christian community as well. Ultimately Williams calls for the state to be more flexible, and to give up some of what it claims a monopoly on, so as to allow faithfulness without grand eruption by the faithful in the face of a lying, totalitarian state. However, sadly, it is not in the nature of the modern nation-state to recognize many of its own boundaries, rather it speaks only of reasonable accommodation of other systems within the state. We would have a very different state if its notion of “peace” was re-examined. Finally, perhaps the state would begin to point to true peace (and therefore towards the rule of God), rather than claiming the state can achieve peace itself. But this it will never do. However, the church will, insomuch as it works for redemption and the basiliea of God on Earth.

Edit: After some thinking and critique from Halden, I’ll succintly define peace: living out and participating in the continuing redemption by God through grace and love.
[1] I’d like to quote at length from J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (pg. 64) that calls into question even the very grammar and policy/action of the state, and therefore its warped or insufficient sense of justice:

The Principle he isolates is this: “Politics is the continuation of war by other means.”

This principle, Foucault tells us, represents the inversion of the principle enunciated by political philospher Karl von clausewitz in his 1827 work, von Kriege (On War), in which he states that “[war] is a continuation of policy by other means…. War is not merely a political act. but a truly political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” Understood in this way, politics as the instrument of peace–the means, that is, by which peace is maintained–is the norm war, therefore, represents a state of political exception, the unusual condition resorted to from time to time to reach the objective of peace. Foucault notes, however, that with this principle Clausewitz was himself inverting a prior axiom: namely, that war, the condition of bellicosity, is in fact the norm and that politics is simply the continuation of the norm of war, but by other means.

Thus, with his inversion of Clausewitz’s axiom that “politics is the continuation of war by other means,” Foucault sought to make two claims–one explicit, the other more implicit but no less important for his work. On the one hand, he was claiming to return to a principle that “existed long before Clausewitz” and to take it with deft seriousness. Yet he was also more implicitly claiming that Clausewitz’s principle renders thematic the fact that modernity functions under a perpetual state of exception or emergency, the uninterrupted condition of the crisis of politics. Indeed, the state of exception or emergency–namely, the condition of war–is modernity’s inner analytic, its syntax and grammar.

[2] This is how I believe we should understand God’s judgment, but that is a bit of a tangential question right now.

anglican, Muslim, N.T. Wright, Rowan Williams

More on Williams, the Row and the real discussion – communal identities

I love the concept of a blog for the flexibility it allows – discussion, editing, revision, more discussion and, best of all, creative citation. The following is, well, an orderly montage of sorts that addresses far more than the mere row over sharia law, it also engages the deeper under currents that were trying to be addressed, like multiple community identities concerning state and faith citizenship, before the media sidetracked the discussion.

First, an audio interview of Rowan Williams on youtube done in very simple language that should dispel some of the common misconceptions surrounding the recent row:

Second, part of Williams’ address at the recent general synod:

Third, N.T. Wright in his usual fantastic form on the row and the deeper issues at hand (and how it applies to those of us who are Americans):

And last, a link to The Wardman Wire that does more than catalog the sensationalism by the media, it shows that part of the sensationalism functioned as a preemptive PR campaign against Williams.

anglican, Rowan Williams

Go Williams

I fully support Rowan Williams in this row. I know I’m an American and not an Anglican/Episcopalian, but nevertheless, I support Williams and what he said (which by the way, can only be enacted when both parties want to use Sharia law). A leader should bring up this sort of idea and so to dismiss what he said by relegating it to an academic exercise is a way of dismissing Williams and what he said, rather than actually having the backbone to engage it. Its time to face reality, those immigrants actually live in the UK now and call it home. Don’t start sounding like the Minute Men.

As for what Williams said, it is actually not such a radical idea and is already in use in some places in UK law apparently. If there would be a discussion of the content of what the Archbishop said – rather than discussing the validity of him speaking, which by the way is perfectly fine for him to do, especially on something so important for the country he lives in – the Brits might have to face their own form of xenophobia (one that I am sure America has helped create by explicitly associating terrorism with Islam).

Lastly, this is academics hitting the ground. This is the “ivory tower” being practical and accessible. After all sorts of moaning and crying about academics and theologians sitting in their ivory tower and talking about things that don’t ever touch the ground, this actually touches the ground and people have the gall to tell him to go away? If his content is wrong, maybe he should back down (though I doubt it), or maybe he should be commended for raising an issue that ought to be raised, despite the xenophobia.

Keep it up Kim.