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On ‘Not Being Disappointed by the State’

Monday, 3 February 2014  | Doug Hynd

Christians in Australia who are getting increasingly distressed at the treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government. If they are to sustain themselves for the long haul of struggling for humane and compassionate treatment of this vulnerable group of people, they will need to get their perspective clear on what they can and cannot expect from governments. Unrealistic expectations may result in burnout and cynicism.


“How can an Australian government be so nasty?” That is a question and a tone of voice that I have noted in conversations with friends over the past few months. I have come to think that the question betrays a higher view of the character and potential of the state than Christians are wise to hold. While a book could be written on the issues that are at stake, let me try and highlight one fundamental issue in our understanding of the character of the state. Once we get this issue clear, the door opens up to the possibility of accessing resources that can help us to sustain discipleship for the long term in our engagement with this and other significant issues.


In a very famous quotation the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has argued that the  “modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf”.[1]


Christians have every reason for treating the state with caution. Democratic processes and judicial restraints can open up possibilities for public witness by Christians and the church. However, we should note that it becomes easy to approach this form of government in an idolatrous and uncritical way.


Theologian William Cavanaugh provocatively unpacks the issue of ‘laying down one’s life for the state’. He draws our attention to the work of the sociologist Charles Tilly on the dynamics of the emergence of the nation-state. In an article entitled "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”, Tilly

“explores the analogy of the State's monopoly on legitimate violence with the protection rackets run by the friendly neighborhood mobster. … ‘a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepeneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market in which operators of armies and states offer services to willing customers, the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government." States extort large sums of money and the right to send their citizens out to kill and die in exchange for protection from violence both internal and external to the State's borders. What converts war making from "protection" to "protection racket" is the fact that often States offer defense from threats which they themselves create, threats which can be imaginary or the real results of the State's own activities.” [2]


We cannot assume the state to be in the common good business, even though it may promote and protect some goods, and from time to time encourage some forms of civic virtue. These achievements are worthwhile, and may be accepted with gratitude for what they are. However, the internal differences, that is, the conditions of the poorest and most marginal, tend to be downplayed in this system, while political processes tend  “simultaneously to accent external differences.”

National identity becomes one’s primary loyalty, and that which separates one’s nation from all others is highlighted. In terms of law, sovereignty assumes a condition of anarchy among states, and nationalism heightens general consciousness of this condition. What is “common” is reduced to what fits into national borders, and what is good can be purchased at the expense of what is good for other nation-states.[3]


Even the so-called ‘secular’ state takes on a religious character.[4] To ensure its continued survival, the sacrifice of large number of citizens can be called for. This was demonstrated most painfully in the First World War. Ken Inglis has documented in a powerful way the extent that Anzac Day has become a form of civil religion that manifests the presence of the sacred in the way it has been memorialized in parks and streets across the country.[5]


If the state is therefore prepared to call for the sacrifice of its own members to ensure its survival, why should we be surprised if it is prepared to treat inhumanely and carelessly those who are not members in a situation in which the perception of a threat “to national borders and sovereignty”, analogous to a state of war has been drummed up by the government?


Given this creation of a perceived danger to the nation, asylum seekers are accounted as threatening that which is ‘sacred’. We should anticipate that their essential human character as bearers of the image of God will be ignored. Their rights will be expediently set aside. Their vulnerability will be cynically exploited. We may anticipate worse treatment to come. One opinion poll showed 60% of the population thought that the government should apply “harsher” measures to such people.


What can Christians and churches do? We should continue to use the avenues that are available to us in terms of the legal provisions governing the treatment of such people to challenge the slide into inhumane treatment. We can affirm in our own actions, language and contribution to the public debate, that we are not constrained by the call of the state to defend its implicit claims to a sacral character. Indeed, we should demonstrate that we are shaped by a very different story where we are called to love the enemy, and are ultimately loyal to a Messiah who served through willingness to suffer rather than do violence.


We struggle in all this, as Paul noted, “against principalities and powers”, not least of which is the nation-state particularly when it moves to claim a ‘sacred right’ to ensure its existence existence through victimizing the vulnerable, those who are on the road seeking a home free from persecution. Such a struggle requires measures of prayer, reflection and discernment to ensure that we are not sucked in to an anger and violence of spirit that leads us to our own demonization in thought and word, if not in deed, of those who we perceive to be doing wrong to “the least of these”.


Doug Hynd is a PhD student and a former senior public servant in Canberra.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, “A Partial Response to my Critics” in After MacIntyre: Critical Perspectives on the Work of Alasdair MacIntyre, ed. John Horton and Susan Mendus (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), p. 303.

[2] William T. Cavanaugh, ""A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House": The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State," Modern Theology 11:4 (1995).

[3] Cavanaugh, "Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good," Modern Theology 20:2 (2004).

[4] For an account of the development of this characteristic of the nation-state see Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in its Place  (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[5] Kenneth Stanley Inglis and Jan Brazier, Sacred places: War memorials in the Australian landscape (Fully Updated Third Edition)  (Melbourne, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2008).

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