Desecrating the polity

And on Thursday morning, January 7, my teenage daughter asked me about what had happened on Epiphany, January 6, in our nation’s capitol building, And even after nearly twenty years of being formed in a supposedly alternate polis, I told her that the insurrectionists had “desecrated” it. And I truly believe that. I reached deep down into my heart of hearts and discovered that the American in my heart of hearts ran just as deep as the Christian did.

The words are those of an Episcopal priest, shaped and and influenced by the theology of Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas came to mind last week when I saw Episcopal priests on my Twitter timeline lament the use of sacral discourse in condemnation of the events of 6th January 2020.  'Desecration' was used by a number of commentators.  David Brooks, for example, said:

it felt like a desecration to me. I mean, this is our holy of the holies. This is where America comes, usually in awe.

The Capitol was described by others as 'sacred', even as a 'temple'.  For Hauerwasians, of course, such language is an affront.  The Church "stands as a political alternative to every nation", the true sacral polity challenging the secular polity and denying allegiance to it.  

I have never quite understood how Anglicans and Episcopalians accept this 'grace against nature' approach. Our liturgies, catechisms, formularies (cf. Articles 37, 38, and 39), classical teaching, and pastoral ethos embody a political theology shaped by Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Hooker - the polity is a gift to enable our common life to be oriented towards the good and the just - rather than the Anabaptist sectarianism of Hauerwas.  

The Catechism (1662 and, in the United States, 1789-1928) teaches that our shared life in the polity, and the allegiances and duties which arise from it, are rooted in and flow from the Decalogue and the Lord's Summary of the Law.  As the 1789/1928 Catechism states, love of neighbour therefore includes the duty "To honour and obey the civil authority".  The Prayer for the Church Militant sets forth life in the polity as the context for the flourishing of "justice" and "thy true religion, and virtue", and for refuting "wickedness and vice".  This is a recognition of a sacral quality to life in the polity, a necessary means of living out love of neighbour.

Similarly, Richard Hooker states that as "the light of natural understanding, wit, and reason is from God", so laws which have "proceeded from the light of nature" (including the laws of "the very heathens") have therefore "proceeded from Himself".  As such, and against the "loose and licentious opinion which the Anabaptists have embraced", Hooker emphasises that we should "have unto those laws that dutiful regard which their dignity doth require"  (LEP III.9.3).  The laws ordering our common life in the polity might fall short of "the light of nature", but mindful that determining this is far from straightforward, that the stock of reason in an individual or a crowd is always to be very cautiously assessed against that which is legitimately and customarily established, and that a process of mature debate and discernment regarding changing laws is necessary, "dutiful regard" for laws has a sacral origin.  

What is more, Hooker declares that "the cause of men's uniting themselves at the first into political societies" was "a natural inclination, whereby all men desire sociable life and fellowship" (I.10.1). This desire and need for political society is rooted in the created order: "For this cause first God assigned Adam maintenance of life, and then appointed him a law to observe" (1.10.2). While it is a common human characteristic to "make complaint of the the iniquity of our times", Hooker urges us to compare them with "those times wherein there was as yet no manner of public regiment established":

we have surely good cause to think that God hath blessed us exceedingly, and hath made us behold most happy days.  To take away all such mutual grievances, injuries, and wrongs, there was no way, but only by growing unto composition and agreement amongst themselves, by ordering some kind of government public, and by yielding themselves subject thereunto, that unto whom they granted authority to rule and govern, by them the peace, tranquility, and happy estate of the rest might be procured (I.10.3).

Life in the polity, then, is a gift from God to be received with thanksgiving.  Precisely as a divine gift, to demean, undermine, or threaten our common life in the polity has the nature of desecration.  Or, as George Washington (sounding rather like a Tory Anglican) put it in his Farewell Address, "the Constitution ... is sacredly obligatory upon all":

Respect for [government's] authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.

The fact that so many commentators in a secular age - and, indeed, in a secular constitutional order - reached for sacral language to describe the events at the Capitol witnesses to 'the law written in our hearts': a sense that our duties and obligations to one another within the polity flow from and are grounded in something greater than self-interest or social contract. It also is a reminder of the need for an unembarrassed renewal of a classical Anglican, and more widely Protestant, political theology, a rebuttal of the ecclesial sectarianism of both theological Left and Right, offering a Christian humanist account of allegiance, national life, and civic duties, revealing and underpinning their sacral character, ordering them towards the good, the just, and the peaceable.  In the concluding words of the article from which I quoted at the outset:

[I] wish I actually knew how to live a faithful political life in this earthly city ... The Cross is greater for me than the Capitol building – do not fear. But the Capitol building is not nothing to me. The Constitution is not nothing. So help me Mennonite ancestors, voting rights are not nothing. Even Nancy Pelosi’s blasted podium is not nothing. With my most atavistic and basic human instincts, I find myself revering the symbols of my country. And until we come up with an Option that reckons with that atavism and gathers it, even it, up into the Body and Blood of Christ offered at his Table, we are not going to find a way forward.


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