The Editors

The Crisis of the Social Imaginary of the State: Christian Response


The state is in crisis in an increasingly globalized world. Christians are called to a post-Constantinian engagement with the political order, embodying an incarnational practice that engages with the local context of believers and an eschatological vision focused on the full flourishing of all humanity and all of creation.

For the past two weeks, I have written about how recent changes to immigration enforcement and the increasing use of drone warfare under the Obama administration both represent a crisis in the social imaginary of the modern state. Although these policies have been relatively successful in achieving their purposes (considering the large number of deportations and terrorists killed through drone strikes), they can only temporarily mask the insuperable challenges faced by the state conceived in present terms.

The ultimate purpose for exploring these themes is to describe what the crisis facing the modern state is, and how Christians are called to respond to it. In the earlier posts I described the source of the crisis as the intensifying forces of globalization. Today’s large-scale immigration to both the United States and Europe is largely fueled by labor chasing global capital, while global terrorism has taken advantage of the communication and transport networks created through the process of globalization. The modern state, sovereign over a defined territory, is no longer sufficient for dealing with the global problems facing us today.

Of course, by now this last point is a truism, both within Christian social ethics and the broader discourse. As early as 1951, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain argued in his Man and the State that state sovereignty now served as an obstacle to progress, and that states should cede some of their sovereignty to international institutions. Yet the concept of “social imaginary” helps to better diagnose the problem and understand why it is so difficult to solve. Although Maritain’s diagnosis is in many ways accurate, it also reifies the state, thinking of it as an object independent of the human mind that can be changed through human effort. As many scholars today suggest, however, the state exists as a social imaginary, a shared construct made manifest and reinforced through the behavior of its agents and subjects. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a state’s border does not physically exist on its own, but rather exists because people act as if it exists, by presenting and checking passports, building fences, etc. Therefore, as difficult as Maritain thought building an ordered post-sovereign world would be, the difficulty is multiplied once one realizes that it is more than just a matter of building adequate institutions, but also of changing deep-seated self-perceptions and engrained practices.

When I say that the modern state faces a crisis, this should not be taken to mean that the modern state is in any imminent danger of collapse. The United States and the states of Europe, barring some catastrophe, will be here for decades to come. What I mean is that we are at a point where current state practice is no longer adequate, and a long process of adaptation and transformation is at hand, similar to the development of the sovereign state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and of nationalism in the nineteenth century. It is hard to say what the end result of this process will be. What was once thought to be the most likely outcome (and that envisioned by Maritain), a world governed by cooperative international institutions, seems less and less likely. The hegemonic American power that contributed to the prominence of the United Nations and parallel institutions is in decline as the world becomes increasingly multipolar, with rising powers such as China, India, and Brazil pursuing interests too divergent from those of the U.S. and Europe to be collectively governed by much more than an ad hoc process. This institutional vision failed to see that governance requires more than the building of institutions, but also the capturing of the imagination of the people to be governed.

There is no guarantee that this crisis will have an adequate solution in the near future. As I suggested in my earlier posts, in the absence of a compelling social imaginary, naked violence rules. We can see this in weak or failed states, such as Yemen, Somalia, and Congo, where the social imaginary of the state has never fully taken hold. The twenty-first century may be characterized by a patchwork of states violently attempting to protect themselves from intrusions arising from pockets of instability. Some have proposed an emerging “neomedieval” order in which traditional states, cities, regional institutions, non-government organizations, and armed networks engage in overlapping governance.

Whatever develops, what is the role of the Christian in shaping our political future? The theologian William T. Cavanaugh has done pioneering work (also here and here) incorporating the idea of the state as a social imaginary into Christian social ethics. Cavanaugh proposes that the church should embody an imaginary contrary to that of the state, one founded on the true unity established by Christ in the Eucharist rather than the false unity of the state, founded on violence. Elsewhere (Horizons 37 [2010]: 246-70) I have argued that although Cavanaugh is correct that the modern state has developed in ways harmful to human flourishing, it is also a human effort to meet real needs that cannot be met by the church. Therefore Christian discipleship, which is concerned with the whole person, demands engagement with the state in a way not recognized by Cavanaugh.

The church today, however, must be post-Constantinian in its engagement with the state. What I mean is that the church should not be primarily focused on the redemption of society through the state, whether in the confessional form of “Christendom” or in the form of a “public theology” based on a supposed common ground with secular worldviews. Christians should first of all focus on faithfulness to the church’s ecclesial mission. The church, like the state, is a social imaginary, and should be the principal determinant of the Christian’s identity. Theologians such as Cavanaugh, Daniel Bell, Jr., and Vince Miller argue, correctly in my view, that most often this faithfulness involves local and small-scale choices about what we buy, what we eat, where we live, and so on. I would like to call this small-scale faithfulness “incarnational practice” since it embodies the Christ-like form of life in the concrete context of our everyday lives. As these authors have written, this practice often runs counter to what is expected of us by the modern state or the globalized economy.

On the other hand, the Christian imaginary is eschatological in nature. This eschatological vision is focused on the kingdom of God, the bringing to fulfillment of the human family, and in fact all of creation. The eschatological vision is utopian in the sense developed by the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch and taken up by political and liberation theologians: it provides an ideal of human potential that presents a critical challenge to present reality. This eschatological vision is the true source of incarnational practice, helping Christians move beyond paralysis in the face of large-scale political and economic forces. Christians are not called to bring the eschatological kingdom to earth, but the eschatological vision provides a key to how even small-scale actions can work toward transforming large-scale realities.

Returning to the theme of the modern state and globalization, Christians are not called to establish a new, more humane global political order to replace the system of sovereign states, and couldn’t even if they wanted to. Christians are called to thoroughly analyze the transformations going on in our world and to judge them in the light of the eschatological vision of the full flourishing of humanity and all of creation. Christians are also called to embody this vision in an incarnational practice that remains faithful to the Christian forms of life in our own historical context. This practice is one that takes political responsibility seriously and therefore does not shun involvement with the state, but also dares to resist the state by welcoming the stranger and resisting torture and targeted assassination as violations of the dignity of even the most heinous criminal.

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