Demythologizing Violence: A Rejoinder to Bill Cavanaugh

Church and Nation, PT Through History, Law, Violence

I am grateful to Bill Cavanaugh for taking the time to respond to my blog post of two weeks ago, “Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence,” and giving me the opportunity to clarify better the nature of my criticisms. Clearly such clarification is in order, as Cavanaugh’s response seems to have struck off in something of the wrong direction, defending theses that were not really under challenge. If I may adapt the opening from his post, Cavanaugh’s response would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my critique if (1) the argument of that critique were directed against The Myth of Religious Violence and (2) my purpose was to endorse Steven Pinker’s triumphalist progressivism. The first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.

I am grateful to Bill Cavanaugh for taking the time to respond to my blog post of two weeks ago, “Modernity Criticism and the Question of Violence,” and giving me the opportunity to clarify better the nature of my criticisms.   Clearly such clarification is in order, as Cavanaugh’s response seems to have struck off in something of the wrong direction, defending theses that were not really under challenge.  If I may adapt the opening from his post, Cavanaugh’s response would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my critique if (1) the argument of that critique were directed against The Myth of Religious Violence and (2) my purpose was to endorse Steven Pinker’s triumphalist progressivism.  The first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.

Throughout his response, Cavanaugh treats my post as if it were a critical review of his 2008 The Myth of Religious Violence (henceforward MRV), and accordingly complains that “My book is not an attempt to prove that modernity is more violent than previous epochs.  It is indeed not an exercise in ‘modernity criticism’ at all.”  Quite so.  I never said it was.   My post was quite explicitly an evaluation of Cavanaugh’s work as a whole, much of which, including MRV, I am fairly positive about.  I did raise some questions about the novelty of the problem of nationalistic religion that Cavanaugh identifies in that book, but my post did not really turn to the task of critique until its second half.  This half was concerned not with MRV and its main argument about religion and violence but rather with a distinct argument about the early modern state and violence, one that appears in his most recent work, Migrations of the Holy (2011, although the relevant bits are reprints of earlier essays), which I was in the process of reviewing for another venue.

Although related, the two arguments seem to me separable.  Let me elaborate. A consistent theme in Cavanaugh’s work has been to challenge the alternative soteriology, as he diagnoses it, of the liberal nation-state.  In this soteriological narrative, the rise of religion (or at least the meddling of religion with politics) is the Fall, which caused human societies to spiral into violence; the rise of the modern nation-state, its monopolization of violence for “secular” ends, and its privatization of religion, is the Savior, which rescues us from the specter of religion and re-establishes order and peace in human society. Cavanaugh is right to challenge the idolatrous pretensions of this narrative, its false generalizations about “religion,” and the ways it is used to justify violence and to drive religion out of public life.  Cavanaugh’s consistent critique has effectively unmasked and undermined this liberal Fall/Redemption narrative, and I, for one, appreciate this contribution greatly.  However, he has not been content simply to challenge its ideological hegemony and historical flaws; he has to some extent sought to replace it with an alternative narrative, with its own Fall/Redemption story.  In this narrative, the rise of the modern nation-state is in fact the Fall, which served to instigate and legitimate violence; the putative Savior is the Church, which can challenge the violence of the state by binding people together in a loyalty that transcends national borders (although he spends much of Migrations of the Holy attempting to soften the triumphalist overtones of this claim).   So Cavanaugh will say, simultaneously challenging and inverting the liberal narrative: “The nation state presents itself as a means of reconciling the many into one, e pluribus unum, and thus serving the common good.  However, this reconciliation only comes after the creation of a prior antagonism, the creation of a novel form of simple social space that oscillates between the individual and the state” (p. 23; p. 254 of original essay).  The liberal apologist claims that religion created division, and the state solved it.  Cavanaugh counters that the state created division, and then introduced itself as reconciler.

My complaint, then, is not against Cavanaugh’s critique of the liberal soteriology, but against his attempted inversion of it.  Neither Fall narrative is valid, because neither is necessary.  Violence is not due to religion, nor to nationalism.  It is much more mundane than that.  Violence is due to sin, and is part of the human condition.  Sin appears in Genesis 3, and the first murder follows in Genesis 4.  Of course, both the liberal and the neo-Anabaptist might try to wrest this narrative to their ends: the liberal might point out that Cain’s murder is prompted by a dispute over religious sacrifice; the neo-Anabaptist might note that the first thing Cain does after murdering Abel is to go found the first city, the first political society.  But on the face of it, the first murder is due neither to “religion” or politics, but to motives as mundane as envy, rivalry, and wounded pride.  And as long as human society continues, sin will continue to instigate violence upon such motives.  To be sure, the proud and the envious may always seek to draw on religion or political mythologies to cloak their violence in an aura of nobility, so much so that these narratives may become implicated in violence and injustice for the legitimation they provide.  But our task as political theologians should be to disentangle these things that are good in themselves—religion and political loyalty—from the agendas of violence they are made to serve.

Now, when put in these terms, Cavanaugh would scarcely disagree, I expect.  Of course he does not mean to say that violence was not a problem before the state made it into one.  And he will repeatedly insist (although we might counter, “methinks he doth protest too much”) that he does not mean to romanticize the Middle Ages, or deny that the liberal state has done any good.  So perhaps all I am trying to do is to push him to follow through more consistently on those concessions, by questioning those places where he overstates and over-romanticizes his narrative.  This is the purpose of my use of Pinker (although I should have been clearer here).  I by no means want to endorse Pinker’s baldly propagandistic project, which certainly leads him to distort and selectively cite facts and figures.  My instincts toward a work like Pinker’s are all prima facie skeptical.  But that’s precisely why I feel a responsibility to suspend those prejudices for a moment and say, “You know, he does have a point.  We have an awful lot to be thankful for.”  For the main point I was trying to make, I could just as well have used Muchembled’s book, or Julius Ruff’s Violence in Early Modern Europe: 1500-1800, or indeed Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, which they all cite.  Each offers somewhat different explanations for the phenomenon, and none gives us pure fact unvarnished by any bias or agenda, but all are at least agreed that the decline in violence from, say, 1450 to 1850 was real and it was dramatic.  They are also agreed in identifying the centralization and regularization of judicial authority as at least one contributory cause to the shift in behavior and social attitudes.  This should be no surprise to anyone steeped in the Christian political-theological tradition, which has almost always understood judicial authority as a God-given restraint on violence and tutor toward virtue.   While I am certainly happy to take on board Foucault’s point about the ways in which judicial authority has become a tool of invisible oppression, I am not willing to let that eclipse altogether the more positive account of this authority in the theological tradition.  Thus it is that when early modern political theologians eulogize their monarchs and magistrates for bringing peace in their time, I think they deserve a respectful hearing, rather than merely dismissing them as propagandists for “state-making elites.”

In his response to my post, Cavanaugh tried to insist that his main point had been only to decry the violence of war which early state-makers created, a violence which he says, according to Muchembled, simply redirected young men’s killing energies from neighbors to foreigners.  I would contest this defense at both levels.  First of all, that is not really Muchembled’s main argument, and if it were, it would be considerably overstated.  While there are some areas, such as Scotland, in which internal violence was essentially just redirected into military service, standing armies were too small a proportion of the early modern population for that to be the main explanation in most places.  Nor am I convinced that war deaths increased dramatically from, say, the 15th to the 17th century, cancelling out the plunging homicide rates, as Cavanaugh seems to want to argue.  Medieval wars were smaller and more local but more frequent and often quite brutal.  Second, however, I’m not convinced by Cavanaugh’s claim that he was only “referring to one specific kind of violence, that is, war between sovereign states.”  Although Tilly’s account, on which Cavanaugh is relying in “Killing for the Telephone Company,” is quite one-sided, Tilly talks not only about state-makers offering protection against external threats, but internal ones as well.  In his essay, Cavanaugh then goes on to blame the war of individuals against one another within society as a product of the state, as we saw in the quote above: “this reconciliation  [of many into one] only comes after the creation of a prior antagonism, the creation of a novel form of simple social space that oscillates between the individual and the state.”  To this I simply point out again that the antagonism was already there—the local forms of authority that predominated in medieval times were no guarantee of social harmony.

The early modern concept of “sovereignty” is a bogeyman in Cavanaugh’s narrative here, and he appears to romanticize the period when “with traditional frontiers, peripheral, poorly-marked or guarded regions in which the power of the center is diffuse. . . . [when] authority was often marked by personal loyalties owed in complexly-layered communal contexts” (18; 251).  I like the idea of local, more informal forms of authority as much as anyone, but I’m happy for the political developments that mean I no longer have three different local lords extorting my taxes, raiding my village, and passing the buck to someone else when I have to seek legal redress.  Again, I share the concern that with the centralization of political authority, important things have been lost, but I don’t think that peace and security should be numbered among them.

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