The Church and the State of Exception

A famous stanza of The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats reads:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
the ceremony of innocence is drowned

"The centre" here can be defined by what Aristotle calls a common telos or end. For the ancients and medievals, societies function well when they have a conception of the good to pursue, even when how it is pursued may legitimately differ. This telos is what provides a template for the harmonious organisation of a polis. Indeed, as Joel Hodge makes clear in a post on the ABC's Religion and Ethics Portal, the pursuit of a transcendent telos, such as a committment to God, does not negate the full living out of one's life in this earth. Indeed, it has the effect of putting terrestrial life in its proper place, which has the strange dividend of enriching terrestrial life by constantly pressing against their horizons. Liberty in this framework, according to Thomas Aquinas, coheres with the pursuit of that common telos and the freedom to pursue the fullness of life within the framework of that telos, that is, within a framework of a life dedicated to perfection and virtue.

Things change fundamentally, however, when liberty becomes absolutised and pitted over and against a common telos, as is the case with many modern States. As was mentioned in classes in Political Philosophy at Campion College, the Modern state gets its legitimacy precisely through the affirmation that no common telos can be discerned or pursued. The removal of the pursuit of a common end thereby has major political consequences. The most obvious consequence is that, when liberty is absolutised, social organisation splinters into the pursuit of varied individual ends. The centre cannot hold precisely because there is no centre to do the holding.

Yet, this jettisoning of a common telos does not automatically lead to "mere anarchy", for another principle of social organisation will come to fill the void. This is far from a source of comfort, for this illusory form of organisation will still bring about the loosening of the "blood-dimmed tide" identified by Yeats' poem. This principle is what the Italian Marxist Giorgio Agamben calls the "state of exception", where the contingency of an extreme situation becomes the justification for extreme, intrusive and arbitrary bureaucratic measures. The phrase "just in case" becomes the central organising principle.

While clear examples may exist in the form arbitrary detention without trial by democratic societies, (just in case a citizen, or asylum seeker, is a terrorist or a "threat to sovereignty"), or invasive State oversight of activities previously deemed private, we tend to forget just how such measures are the pointed end of a whole complex of practices within the texture of our dominant consumer culture that are informed by this very same principle. Consider the proliferation of insurance products as one example of creating a whole life form, constituting what Foucauldians call an "insurational imaginary". In the name of forestalling the risk of accident, whole industries are now making a living siphoning millions of dollars everyday from economies. Another example is the contractual nature of relations that runs right through the culture in postmodernity, which as William Cavanaugh suggests, fundamentally turns the social fabric into an arena of strangers. Why is this done? To defend everyone in eventuality of one person in the corner of that social fabric imposing himself on another. Thus, there is no disjuncture between libertarian consumerism, arbitrary arrest and invasive State scrutiny, but each falls on different parts of the same spectrum.

The proliferation of networks of relations organised around the principle of "just in case" has another sinister dividend: the exception becomes the societal norm, and the thing that is sought to become marginalised starts to become the centre of social concern. Ironically, by taking every measure to prevent an exceptional circumstance, the thing being avoided becomes the thing that is normalised throughout the social fabric. In the name of preventing the violence of terrorism, for instance, Agamben points out, liberal politics has justified the normalisation of what he calls a "pure violence without logos". Not only is violence normalised, but the violence that is normalised is also a violence that is completely arbitrary. Thus, while the removal of a shared end in social organisation may not necessarily immediately give way to anarchy, bloodshed mascarading as order (with order being the avoidance of arbitrarily declared "extreme threats"), is quite often the next step.

Under such conditions religious communities, and in particular the Church, have an important witness to offer to a society without a centre. The Body of Christ offers that very centre, through the proliferation of an economy of practices that begin and end with the One through whom all creation was made and oriented. Yet at the same time, as was mentioned in a previous post, the Body Christ holds in tension that common Christic centre with the image the service of the one Lord assuming many parts. In the incorporation into the Body of Christ and in the worship of Christ, thus, nothing becomes the exception, or is one narrow program of ends arbitrarily declared.

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