The State of Exception and The Apocalypticism of the Kingdom of God

It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning— lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!

Mark 13:34-37

In his critique of the global response to the COVID Pandemic, Italian Philosopher Giorgio Agamben argued that the “state of exception” was increasingly becoming the normal way of governing society. The “state of exception” occurs when a crisis or emergency necessitates the suspension of rule of law or civic freedoms in order to respond efficiently and effectively to the crisis at hand. Ambigen argues that there is a “growing tendency to use the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.” The paradigm example of this is the 9-11 terrorist attack. The horror of these attacks, the strike upon the sacred centre of American national life, the awful loss of life: all this lurched the country into a state of fear and uncertainty. This ‘state of exception’ was the opening that made invasive and dehumanizing airport security seem like a ‘normal’ fact of life—simply necessitated by the risk of terrorism. This state of exception opened up by 9-11 made our surveillance state possible: a world in which we accept dystopian encroachment of government and corporate forces into our private lives for the sake of convenience and security.

According to Agamben, there is a growing trend to make the ’emergency’ the normal state of affairs: thus we are always on high alert for the threat of terrorism or the outbreak of yet another wave of COVID. This constant state of threat and fear makes extreme measures seem like an ordinary way of governing, ‘the new normal’.

It seems to me that there is a parallel example to the ‘the state of exception as a normal governing paradigm’ in Christian circles. We seem to exist in a constant state of apocalyptic crisis. Every election is the ‘flight 93 election‘, every moment is a ‘Bonhoeffer Moment’; The moment of decision is now, the armies of light and the armies of dark have assembled and all are called to choose their side. There is a constant, sustained, atmosphere of crisis and panic: civilization is about to collapse, the climate crisis is just around the corner, we are on the brink, at the edge, at the cusp of Nazi Germany. This climate of fear creates the illusion that we have to choose between sclerotic culture war options, that there is no time for patience, reflection or dialogue, that the emergency requires action, any kind of action, now! The sustained apocalyptic mood effectively makes the ordinary, democratic work of reconciliation, compromise and discussion seem futile: if we are on the brink of collapse and your culture war enemies are at fault, why bother talking or looking for a different way?

I am not trying to deny that ours are in some sense ‘apocalyptic’ times. The most recent issue of Plough Magazine is called “Hope in Apocalypse”; and it seems to me that the editors are tapping into something that is very much in the air. There seems to be a widespread cynicism about the state of our society, both on the left and the right. Our world of endless consumption, political polarization, global war, sexual and gender confusion, and technological dominance does not seem good, true, just, or ultimately sustainable. There is a sense that something—an epoch, an age, an empire— is coming to an end. And alongside the cynicism, and sense of ‘living in the end times’, there is the faint hope of other possibilities, an alternative future, a renewed society, a different way than the one we have been walking on.

So I think the ‘doomsayers’ of our times are tapping into a widespread cultural sense. What concerns me is the kind of apocalypticism on offer, and how it feeds into a constant ‘state of emergency’. We could, perhaps, make a rough and ready distinction between ‘Constantinian Apocalypticism’ and the ‘Apocalypticism of the Kingdom of God’. What I am calling ‘Constantinian Apocalypticism’ is not the apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of the heavens, but very much an earthly reality. Constantinian Apocalypticism surveys the social, cultural and political landscape and sees its interests and causes on the decline: The wrong people are taking over, the wrong causes are winning the day, the wrong kinds of political programs are being enacted. This ‘crisis’ of our political project is what constitutes the ‘apocalypse’, and something has to be done or all is lost. A prefect example of this is Eric Metaxis calling the 2016 election in the USA a “Bonhoeffer Moment”. In other words, the contemporary situation is roughly analogous to Nazi Germany, and requires decisive action, and emergency measures. Metaxis describes the stakes:

There was a time when the Democratic Party still had many pro-life voices, but that is obviously not the case. If we don’t make sure that our next president sees the importance of life in the womb, and the importance of appointing constitutionalists to the Supreme Court, we are done for. Anyone who says they’re not going to vote in this election simply doesn’t understand what’s at stake. It’s all hands on deck. God forbid we should sit this one out.

No doubt I could have found a much more extreme example, but notice the rhetoric here: we are in an emergency and emergency measures are required. Just as Agamben’s ‘state of exception’ suspends normal civil liberties for the sake of emergency measures; just so, Jesus’ teachings about the impossibility of ‘casting out satan with satan’ are suspended. The call not to worry for the morrow gives way to anxious attempts to control the future. The injunction not to resist evil is set aside in the emergency. ‘Constantinian Apocalypticism’, rather than leading to greater faithfulness, instead suspends it for the sake of its political project. Theology becomes subservient to a political agenda: The dire stakes of the situation demand that Christians act in anti-Christian ways. Theology done from the ‘state of exception’ looks suspiciously like a political power move. One wonders if the ‘cure’ will not be much worse than the disease: even more horrifying because it is a perversion of Christianity tied up with political power.

Consider another theologian who lived and theologized in the midst of the Nazi Regime: Karl Barth. When asked by his students how they should respond to Hitler, Barth infamously responded: “preach as if nothing happened.” What on earth could this possibly mean? The Constantinian Apocalypticist might accuse Barth of lacking ‘realism’, for not looking at the cold hard facts and acting decisively. But as Will Willimon explains, this kind of ‘realism’ is not ‘realist’ enough, because it does not take into account the “decisive something that has happened in Christ:”

Barth warned that in condemning Hitler, the church must not allow its imagination to be captured by the world’s myths. In our strident (though justly deserved) criticism, he said, we must not give the Nazis inappropriate glory, honor, and dominion that belong only to God. We are in this mess because our witness has become so muddled we can’t tell the difference between Germany and the kingdom of God. Bear witness! Much that we once regarded as something has been rendered into nothing because of the decisive something that has happened in Christ.

Of course, Hitler’s dictatorship is a terrible “something,” but the little man in Berlin is not Lord of history. Thus the Nazi era presents the church with an extraordinary opportunity to testify to the world that the world is God’s and that a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly is even now busy reconciling the world to God. How? In great part through the witness of the church. Nazi power is, like all earthly power, “lordless power” – provisional, passing away, dethroned by the cross and resurrection, though it hasn’t yet gotten the news. All presumptive lordlets are defeated, but not yet fully. The last word will be given not by Hitler, but by Jesus, spoken through frail humans called preachers.

In other words, Barth is pointing out that the most important event, the event that changes everything, happened not in 1933, or 2016, but in AD 33 with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Church’s life, the integrity of its witness, the truth that it proclaims does not change with the rise and fall of earthly regimes, but remains grounded in the earth shattering reality of the Resurrection. The Apocalypticism of the Kingdom of God then, lives in the new “cosmic atmosphere” of peace opened up by the redemptive work of Christ.

The ’emergency’ Apocalypticism sees only a temporary political crisis: our enemies have gotten the upper hand, our political grasp is slipping. A Church in thrall of such a ‘Constantinian Apocalypticism’ will be just another power player, just another interest groups fighting to have its interests met: This interest group wants school prayer, religious exemptions, and tax breaks. A genuinely Christian Apocalypticism on the other hand, places a much more radical crisis on the kingdoms of this world. The powers, lords, rulers, of this world; the social, cultural, religious, political institutions, all of these now stand under a question mark. They are all in crisis, all invaded, undermined, questioned by the apocalypse of the rightful Lord of all creation.

Instead of the stance of anxious, waring, ‘heroism’; the stance that an Apocalypticism of the Kingdom of God imparts is one of freedom, watchfulness, and patient faithfulness. In the first place, there is freedom because the kingdom of God, ‘the pearl of great price’, opens us up to a life free of rivalry. The ‘systems of this world’ with their dynamics of power, dominance, consumption, violence, and greed are dynamics we are able to bypass, opening us up to genuine life. Strange friendships and strange acts become possible, things that a world consumed by rivalry cannot comprehend.

Second, there is a spirit of watchfulness: we do not know when Christ will come in the guise of the stranger. “Every instant, every moment, is a small gate by which the Messiah enters.” Thus the life of the kingdom is not forced into the sclerotic options of the culture war, but waits in faithful expectation for new possibilities, new judgements, strange friendships, or new paths that can only emerge when we cease to our attempts to manage outcomes.

Finally, the characteristic feature of the Apocalypticism of the Kingdom of God is patient faithfulness. It does not worry for the morrow, try to control what is beyond its reach, or impatiently lash out. Instead it concentrates on, it builds and repairs what is good, true and real. Alan Jacob’s notion of ‘invitation and repair’ is a model here: “Asking “How can I improve this situation?” is almost always a better question than “Whose fault is this?” — and indeed, that second question can become more useful and meaningful when it is asked as part of the process of answering the [first].” By definition, this kind of work may be small, local, the kind of work that ‘goes unnoticed by the crowd’. But it does its work patiently, working in the vineyard of God, leaving the future in the hands of God.

I leave you with a quote from Wendell Berry’s wonderful essay, “Feminism, the Body and The Machine”, followed by a excerpt from his poem “all we need is here”. What Berry is trying to make us see is that we cannot come to a better future by destroying the present. Just as we cannot secure a ‘better future for our children’ by destroying the world in the present; just so, we cannot come to a better political life together by emergency measures and winner-take-all politics in the present. “If we take care of the world of the present,” Berry writes, “the future will have received full justice from us.”

The higher aims of “technological progress” are money and ease. And this exalted greed for money and ease is disguised and justified by an obscure, cultish faith in “the future.” We do as we do, we say, “for the sake of the future” or “to make a better future for our children.” How we can hope to make a good future by doing badly in the present, we do not say. We cannot think about the future, of course, for the future does not exist: the existence of the future is an article of faith. We can be assured only that, if there is to be a future, the good of it is already implicit in the good things of the present. We do not need to plan or devise a “world of the future”; if we take care of the world of the present, the future will have received full justice from us. A good future is implicit in the soils, forests, grasslands, marshes, deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans that we have now, and in the good things of human culture that we have now; the only valid “futurology” available to us is to take care of those things. We have no need to contrive and dabble at “the future of the human race”; we have the same pressing need that we have always had—to love, care for, and teach our children. (Berry, 7-8)

And from Berry’s poem, What We Need Is Here:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

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