Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tentative Beginnings . . .

So John Quiggin has noticed me, or at least noticed me noticing him, which amounts to the same thing. Anyway, he opens up the linked thread and what one finds is, in a sense, the same, sterile back-and-forth that leaves me wondering if these folks understand what it is they're saying. Not in the sense that they are writing about topics about which they have no knowledge; rather, I wonder if they grasp how so much of their discussion is in a vocabulary that, really, no longer holds up. In particular, the whole question of tactics versus strategy - incremental versus revolutionary change, that kind of thing - becomes a quagmire precisely because it states the problem without addressing the utterly changed context.

As I stated yesterday, our world is currently in a muddle, politically. The de facto reality is the senescence of the nation-state and the reality of international capital existing outside any controlling legal framework of accountability. It seems to me that even stating this reality cuts through so much of the nonsense one hears on the news and reads on the internet. Some seem to be aware of it, yet wish to address it in terms similar to those, say, of Matt Yglesias, who seem to land in territory that says, in effect, incremental bureaucratic management of capital is the best offer on the table, using the relative success of the mixed economies of western and northern Europe as models. Yet, he is pretty explicit in saying that his conclusion is the result of the current alternatives having exhausted themselves as practical failures.

While I have to admit admiring Marx as diagnostician, I think using him as a guide for moving forward in an age when, in many ways, his predicted withering of the state is already at hand, only under the auspices of transnational capital rather than the victorious proletariat, leaves us at sea. For this reason, as attractive as social democracy seems in many respects, its victories are those of the past, and cannot address our current reality.

Just one example of our current confusion is this comment:
It is an unhappy fact that if the Third World suddenly became inacessible (with the exception of Saudi Arabia) the 1st World would barely notice. If Africa, for example, suddenly vanished, it would change the economic course of the 1st World almost not at all.

The Third World is the First World's garbage pit, the source of our cheap labor, the source of our elite beverages and snacks (often at the expense of local, indigenous, sustainable agriculture), and contain vast amounts of currently inaccessible mineral wealth (only because of endemic political and social instability, mostly the result of hundreds of years of imperial exploitation). To state as bald fact that we would not even notice the disappearance of Africa is ignorance masquerading as thought.

I believe the problem is stated accurately, if not fully, at the two posts Quiggin has written. The solutions, however, still range over issues that by and large were settled decades ago.

So, how does a Christian who accepts this reality (very sketchy and certainly incomplete) move forward? In the first instance, I think we need to consider a range of questions from the traditional formulations of the doctrine of the state (at least in its Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed versions) to how we understand terms such as "power", "authority", "justice", and "law" in an age where these are decreasingly concentrated in state actors. Indeed, in many ways, while it seems reactionary, considering the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of the place and role of the secular power might be as good a starting point as any. From W. A. Whitehouse (pp. 69-70 of The Authority of Grace):
God created men, and the world in which He set them, with the purpose of establisheing the human race in supernatural communion with Himself. The Kingdom of God which accomplishes this purpose is realized in the relation between Christ and His believing people; that is to say, in the Church. The powers of Christ in His kingdom are communicated to His people, and though not realized in their fullness in any indivudal, they are completely deployed in the total hierarchically ordered life of the Church. The Kingdom may therefore be identified with the Church of Jesus Christ, made visible through the ages in the Roman communion, under the headship of the Pope.

The bearing of these powers on politics is to reinforce in man the active pricinple of natural community, which can be apprehended by the intellect, and affirmed in moral freedom in particular concrete acts which establish a State, whose end is "right order," expressed, preserved, and developed by the proper functions of the State in the community. The political life gives to all men the possibility of self-realization of their social nature, towards an end of natural self-sufficiency. . . . The Kingdom of God in the Church embraces that whole life of man, and it is from the Church that the believer learns true political life, in terms of "Natural Law." He learns that politics is concerned only with the natural life of man. As a political creature, made for community with his fellows, he affirms the State as an ordinance of God which guarantees the public order, and expresses the inner moral necessity that the lives of individuals be organized in community. He learns also to require of the State, to which he gives political allegiance, that it acknowledge the supreme status of the Church as above all other communities.

Lutheran thought, usually dubbed "Two Kingdoms theory", differs little with the sole exception that the "Kingdom of Man" as an ordinance of God bears particular responsibility for natural order - usually termed "the power of the sword", or what we would call "police power" - and this is a power and authority received directly from God under the orders of creation.

While moderns might blanch at the thought the state would derive its authority from the Church, and Protestants would certainly more than quibble over the declaration that the primacy of the Roman communion is the source of state power, the basic source of this doctrine lies, Biblically, in St. Paul's exhortation for the Christian communities of Rome to pray for their leaders precisely because they have received their power and authority from God. This basic Biblical formula, for all its contentiousness, remains the fount of much political theology, even in an age of political repression and mass death.

Yet, from a different vantage point, there are all sorts of questions that cannot be answered if we consider the question from this point of view. If we start, not from St. Paul, but from the crucified and risen Christ as Divine revelation in its fullness, how are to understand "justice", "power", and "authority"? For the last, do we turn, say, to Philippians 2 and the kenosis hymn, which recognizes that all authority is granted to the risen Christ, and all knees shall bow and all tongues confess the Lordship of Christ? Of what does the power and justice of God under the sign of the cross consist but the rejection of "power" as coercion, and the embrace of those who commit injustice? How can a state ever attempt to reign in the powers that be if it rejects the kind of temporal power thus expressed, and seeks justice through grace?

To begin, I think we need to consider that traditional Roman formulation with a more ecumenical mind and heart, and always keep the cross of Christ shadowing our words and thoughts. The order thus considered under "natural law" is not the traditional Natural Law of the Scholastics, even less of the high Enlightenment thinkers for whom the term meant something very different. Indeed, it has been my contention all along at this site that the word "nature", whether in its scientific or philosophical understanding, is far too muddled to serve as anything other than an obfuscatory role. It confuses rather than clarifies. Considered in light of the full revelation of God in the crucified and risen Christ, what is "natural" might just mean something completely different than we normally grant; indeed, as the whole created order is restored through the sacrifice of Christ, that would include, of course, the natural order, which includes it seems the political order.

These are tentative statements by way of prolegomenna, I guess. Thoughts, anyone?

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