Icons of Protestantism

I have written before about how nature abhors a vacuum, and the banishment of traditional icons and images from Protestant churches has simply called forth in our age the introduction of TV and projector screens to dominate evangelical sanctuaries.  But I was struck upon a recent visit to London and Canterbury just how deep and disturbing this Protestant hypocrisy runs.  When you visit St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you are sure to be struck with the number of rich and lavish sculptures and monuments lining the sides of the nave and stuffed into every chapel and alcove.  But when you stop to look, you’ll realize quickly that these are not the images of Christ or his saints–at least not traditional saints.  They are state saints. 

St. Paul’s Cathedral is like Britain’s Arlington National Cemetery.  Here, in great pomp and splendor, lie the bodies of Wellington and Nelson, of the great Field Marshals of the two World Wars, and of a host of military heroes, many forgotten today but honored in their generations, from the past three centuries.  Most of their tombs are topped with grand images of the heroes, so that visitors may come and pay homage to their greatness. 

Why is St. Paul’s like this, I wondered, so much more than any other cathedral I’d visited?  St. Paul’s is something of a national cathedral, I reflected, second only to Westminster Abbey as a center for State occasions.  And as England does not (mercifully) have a temple dedicated to the express purpose of honoring its military heroes (like the unsettling Les Invalides in Paris or the downright creepy Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh), it makes sense that many would have ended up at St. Paul’s.

But there’s more to it than that, I think.  St. Paul’s is, after all, the first real Protestant cathedral in England.  All the others of any importance were holdovers from the medieval era, already chock full of bishops and saints (even if many of the shrines had been ransacked or removed at the Reformation).  St. Paul’s burned to the ground in 1666, and when Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to rebuild it, he intended it to serve as a glorious symbol of England’s new Protestant identity, and at the same time, its English identity.  This cathedral, unburdened of its medieval past, was able to fully express what it meant to be an English Protestant cathedral.  Now that the Church had been dethroned as the center of society, and folded into the state, now that saints and their relics no longer served as magnets of popular devotion, the state and its heroes became the new sacred symbols, the new icons for veneration.  And this meant above all military heroes, whose profession, now liberated from the stigma that it had never quite been able to shake off since Jesus preached that pesky bit about “blessed are the peacemakers,” returned to the churches in places of honor, as an adoring public contributed millions for monuments to offer each glorious expander of the empire.   

At places like Canterbury Cathedral, this preference for the secular icons over the sacred was explicit.  The doorway of the cathedral was once flanked by magnificent statues of great kings of England and of Christ and the Apostles.  In the Reformation, the latter were smashed to bits, but the former remain in their places of honor–kings could be given visible adoration, but for Christ and his apostles, it had best remain invisible.  Thomas a Becket, the saint of Canterbury who died standing up to an arrogant king, was the particular object of iconoclastic ire.  His shrine was completely destroyed by Henry VIII, and a century later Cromwell’s Puritans systematically destroyed every image of him in the cathedral.  The one thing conspicuously left untouched, however, was the tomb and relics of the great medieval war hero, Edward the Black Prince, who was greatly honored by Cromwell’s men.  

None of this is to say that military and national heroes were never disproportionately honored in the Middle Ages (after all, Edward the Black Prince’s tomb has been there at the head of the cathedral since 1378), nor is this to say that there were not often some good reasons for Reformation iconoclasm.  Nor is this even to insist that the “migration of the holy” from church saints to state saints was part of a conscious appropriation of the sacred by the nascent nation-state, as Cavanaugh and others have extensively argued; this narrative, whatever its value, is too simplistic.  But nature does abhor a vacuum, and if you try to get rid of icons, relics, and saints, you will soon simply find yourself with new icons, relics, and saints, reflecting new values and virtues.  

Fighting for the Kingdom of Christ

Mornay’s Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos is nothing if not thorough, and alongside its complex arguments for the legitimacy of armed resistance to civil tyranny, it mounts a parallel case for the right of armed resistance to religious persecution.  While this may seem unsurprising at first, as religious persecution was the chief form of tyranny that prompted the writings of the Huguenot resistance theorists, this is actually quite a remarkable move.  For Mornay is of course not saying, as a modern might, that religious persecution constitutes a violation of one of a citizen’s core liberties, thus justifying forcible resistance in defence of liberty toward an authority that has overstepped its bounds.  Mornay is ahead of his time, but not that ahead.  Rather, what Mornay ends up arguing is that religion as such–the Church as such–is defensible by arms.  

Such a move, it would seem, throws a big wrench into the gears of a two kingdoms theory.  Most Reformation theorists, while happy to admit various kinds of civil oversight of and protection of religion, and earnest to develop justifications for resistance to rulers aiming to stamp out Protestantism, affirmed a sharp distinction between the coercion that could and should be wielded in protection of the civil kingdom, and the peacefulness and exclusive use of spiritual weapons that must operate in the spiritual kingdom.  Hence resistance theories always appealed to the need to defend the commonwealth–not the Church as such–against the depredations of rulers who were oppressing the true religion upon which, it was argued, the commonwealth depended.  The reason for this kind of two kingdoms distinction was straightforward–their whole goal was to refute any papist idea of the Church as an independent polity, a trans-national kingdom which might wield coercive power or on behalf of which coercive power should be mobilized. 

David VanDrunen makes a great deal of this feature of Reformation two kingdoms theology in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, where he states at the outset that one valuable feature of the two kingdoms theory is that it allows us to simultaneously insist on the peaceful character of Christ’s kingdom and the legitimacy of state coercion in the civil kingdom.  “In their capacity as citizens of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, Christians insist upon non-violence and the ways of peace, refusing to bear arms on behalf of his kingdom; in their capacity as citizens of the civil kingdom, they participate as necessary in the coercive work of the state, bearing arms on its behalf when occasion warrants.”  The genius of Reformed two kingdoms theory, as he seeks to argue throughout the book, was its recognition that the fundamentally different character of the kingdom of Christ, which referred only to the Church meant that spiritual matters could not be enforced by civil means, but must be left to govern themselves by spiritual means.  In other words, you could neither advance nor defend the kingdom of Christ with the sword, but only with the Word.  

This being VanDrunen’s argument, he should find Mornay’s Vindiciae a rather treacherous ally.  

For toward the end of the second Quaestio of the Vindiciae, Mornay takes up the question “Whether arms may justly be taken up for religion” and proceeds to answer it in such a way as to seriously undermine the standard Protestant two kingdoms distinction. He begins by saying “that an answer must be given in every respect to those who believe either that the church cannot be defended with weapons, or, at any rate–which is more likely–wish to appear to believe so.”   He admits that “the church is definitely not extended by arms, but is defended against the enemies who try to prevent its increase.”  

Those who reject this, he says, will object that only under the Old Covenant could arms be wielded thus in defense of religion, but that now that Christ has come as as a peaceful king, the kingdom of God must be a peaceful kingdom.  At this point, Mornay responds with objections completely standard among the sixteenth-century Reformed–while on earth, Christ functioned as a private individual, not a king, and so of course he did not wield arms; moreover, Romans 13 makes it impossible to argue that the ius gladii has been removed from magistrates by Christ’s advent, and there is no basis for arguing that the New Testament made military service unlawful.  Now, these arguments are not entirely to the point, since the objector here is not arguing that magistrates do not have the ius gladii, only that they cannot use it to defend the kingdom of Christ, the Church.  Nonetheless, Mornay is not departing from Reformation two kingdoms doctrine (though he certainly is from VanDrunenian) when he says, “why do they imagine that magistrates hold the right of the sword, unless in protecting the good and utterly destroying the wicked they should serve God, Who girded them with the sword; and in what matter more than in protecting the church which is dedicated to Him against the impious, and delivering the absolute preserve of Christ from plunderers?” 

He goes on “And if waging war be lawful in protecting frontiers and repulsing enemies, as perhaps they will acknowledge it to be, is it not much more just in guarding the pious and repelling the impious, and, in short, protecting the frontiers of the kingdom of Christ which is, I say, the church?”  Otherwise, he says, what should we say concerning the Crusades?  Of course, we know what we would say about the Crusades, but Mornay introduces this rhetorical question certain that his audience will endorse the Crusades as a holy war.  Quite disingenuously, then, given the rather aggressive nature of the Crusades, he says, “Therefore, although the church is not enlarged by arms, yet it can be justly defended by arms.  Nor are those who died in that holy war any less martyrs than those who suffered the cross for the sake of religion.”  

Now, although all this seems to call into question a rigid distinction between a coercive civil kingdom and a peaceful spiritual kingdom, and although the rhetoric does not sit at ease with traditional two kingdoms categories, at this point, Mornay is not necessarily out of step with Calvin, Vermigli, etc., all of whom believed that the ruler had a certain responsibility to oversee and defend religion within his territory, which, combined with a robust doctrine of the inferior magistrate, could support Mornay’s conclusion.  


But in Quaestio IV, Mornay introduces a significant twist.  This Quaestio is entitled “Whether neighbouring princes may by right, or ought, to render assistance to subjects of other princes who are being persecuted on account of pure religion, or oppressed by manifest tyranny?”  Here he seeks to argue that rulers are not responsible to defend merely their own national churches, but the Church as such, a transnational kingdom which must be defended for its own sake.  He appeals to the unity of the Church to make this argument:

“The church, just as it is one, is committed and entrusted to individual Christian princes whole and entire.  For because it was hazardous to entrust the whole to any one person, and manifestly inconsistent with its unity to grant its individual parts to the different individuals, God has entrusted the whole to the individuals, and its individual parts to all of them together; and not only in order that they should defend it, but also that they should, to the best of their ability, ensure that it is expanded.  So if one part of it–the German, perhaps, or the English–is in the charge of the prince of that region, but he abandons and disregards another part which is being oppressed when he could have rendered assistance, he is considered to have deserted the church.  For the bride of Christ is certainly one, and he ought to protect and defend her with all of his strength, so that she should not be violated or corrupted anywhere….For the Ephesian church is not one thing, the Colossian another, and so on; they are individual parts of that whole church.  And the whole is the kingdom of Chrsit, which all private persons should desire, and which kigns, princes, and magistrates are obliged to increase, spread, defend, and promote anywhere and against anyonesoever….[W]hen all Christian kings are inaugurated, they receive the sword expressly for the protection of the catholic–or whole–church.”  

This passage appears to constitute a striking departure from the standard Protestant notion that tighly bound together commonwealth and the externals of the Church, and thus entrusts to each ruler responsibility to oversee the church in his realm, because it is part of his kingdom.  On that conception, there is one spiritual kingdom of the Church, but this exists more in contrast to, than in continuity with, the particular visible church which he is called to oversee.  When Mornay appeals to the unity and catholicity of the Church to make his argument here, he is treading on dangerous ground, as far as sixteenth-century Protestantism is concerned.  For Protestants, unity and catholicity were attributes that pertained to the invisible Church, to the Church as a spiritual, not a socio-political entity.  But for Mornay’s argument to make sense, the unity of the Church here must be a visible social (and perhaps even political) unity–it must be a distinct kingdom here on earth that transcends the borders of normal civil kingdoms, but not because of invisibility–no, it is visible enough that its own borders may be defended and extended.  (I say “extended” because although Mornay earlier insisted that it could only be “defended” not “extended,” the examples he alleges dissolve this distinction, and in the quote above, he claims that rulers should see that the Church is “expanded.”)  

I may be overreading, and I may still be getting this whole “two kingdoms” paradigm mixed up (an easy thing to do when there is such a violent tug-of-war over the concept), but this crusader mentality of Mornay’s, it would seem, not only violates the strict-separationist two kingdoms categories of VanDrunen and Co., but also the doctrine of most of his co-religionists.  Perhaps this is just another example of the creativity that the polemical needs of the moment inspired, or perhaps it is an invitation to dig deeper, something I certainly hope to do over the coming months.

A 400-year-old Warning against Wars of Intervention

Most of America’s wars during the past century have been justified on the basis that we were coming to the aid of oppressed peoples and liberating them, which, incidentally, is the same justification the Romans used for most of their imperial expansion.  The abuse of this justification has often led me to wonder whether such intervention is ever justified, and so I was intrigued to find the discussion of the question in Quaestio IV of the Vindiciae Contra TyrannosAlthough he is actually about to argue in favor of foreign intervention on behalf of oppressed citizens, particularly Christians, Mornay begins by offering a very insightful caution: 

“And indeed there are many who have readily judged it to be lawful, once they have hoped to augment their own wealth by affording assistance.  For in this way the Romans, Alexander the Great, and many others frequently extended their frontiers on the pretext of repressing tyrants.  Not long ago we saw Henri II, king of France, waging war on Charles V under the pretence of delivering and defending the princes of the Empire, and Protestant ones at that; just as also Henry VIII, king of England, was ready to render assistance to the Protestants of Germany, in order to create trouble for Charles V.  But if there is danger to be feard, or little profit may be hoped for, then you will certainly hear most princes debating whether it is lawful or not.  And as the former concealed ambition or pursuit of gain under the cloak of piety, so the latter proclaimed the justice of their inactivity.”

It is this principle, of course, that explains why Kuwait was desperately oppressed enough to warrant a full-scale war, while Rwanda merited no intervention.

Coercion and Motivations in the Political Sphere (Deconstructing Coercion, Pt. 4)

I’m sorry it has taken so long to post this fourth installment, especially as it was already basically written up and all I had to do was tweak a couple things.  At the end of this segment, I would like to invite feedback from anyone who has been reading, so that any questions or objections can be taken into account before I proceed to the final segment–a Christian answer to coercion.

Now, having complexified our understanding of the economic realm, I’d like to turn to the political realm, which is often depicted as essentially coercive in all its operations, to see if a more complex account is necessary here as well.  The idea of the civil authority as the realm of “the sword” of course goes back at least to St. Paul, and has dominated much of the Western political tradition since.  Max Weber famously defined a nation-state as an entity which claims “a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a particular territory.”  Although I suggested above that the language of violence and the language of coercion are not exactly the same thing, it has been long been conventional (e.g., most notably in Marsilius of Padua and the whole tradition following from him) to describe the State’s role as essentially coercive.  While not wanting to deny the traditional identification of coercion as a modus operandi of the State, I do want to seriously question whether it is always, necesssarily, or even most often the modus operandi of the state.  Governments use coercion, yes, and the fact that they can legitimately resort to it in many different situations can often give a coercive flavoring to all their activities, and explains why this has often been viewed as their defining distinctive.  However, I want to suggest that it is not usually, and cannot long remain, their dominant tool, and that most of their activities most of the time depend on other motivations.

To see how ambiguous coercion is in reality, let’s look at an environment where coercive force seems to be clearly the norm–the military.  Now, soldiers in an army are required to obey, and discipline is rigorously enforced, often by severe punishment.  Soldiers are generally not permitted to simply choose whether or not to obey and fight, or to give up and go home–they are required to do their duty.  Desertion, particularly in wartime, is often punishable by death.  Now, this looks like coercion–fear of punishment and death is the motivation for obedience.  And that is an accurate account of how many armies have functioned at many times.  However, these are not generally the most effective armies (something the US, for instance, has recognized in their repudiation of the draft for all-volunteer armies). There are also armies whose chief motivation to fight is reward, whether the crude financial reward of the mercenary, or the desire for honor that has motivated countless soldiers throughout the ages, from Achilles to modern Marines.  Perhaps most powerful of all are armies that are motivated by love–love of country, love of commander (and the latter, being more personal and less abstract, is generally more effective than the former).  Hannibal is said to have accomplished the miracles he did becasue of the intense personal devotion which he inspired in his soldiers, which led them to follow him through any dangers.  Would we say that Hannibal’s soldiers were “coerced” to fight for him?  Well, in a technical sense perhaps, since he always could (and occasionally did) have deserters executed.  But this would not be an accurate psychological description of how most of his soldiers perceived it.  This example suggests, fascinatingly, that there is a subjective, not merely objective dimension to identifying coercion: Hannibal’s soldiers were not coerced until they thought they were. As long as they loved Hannibal and wanted to fight for him, coercion was not operative; but if they once stopped loving him and started fearing him, then all of a sudden, they were fighting only because they were coerced to do so, and if they tried to desert, that coercion became very real and active.  This may seem at first like a vapid truism–of course you’re not liable to punishment unless you disobey–but I think this actually has the potential to change our perceptions of coercion a great deal, as I shall explore in particular in the final segment.

The same principle operates of course at a national level.  Were the German people coerced to go to war in World War I and World War II?  By and large no.  Even though they were under very coercive regimes that would have acted swiftly and mercilessly against dissenters, this fact was not relevant for most of the German people, who went to war not out of fear of punishment, but out of eager love for the Fatherland.  Only later, as the war began to seem a burden, did fear take hold and coercion become prominent.  (Even if you disagree with this particular example, clearly there are many such examples that could be given.)  This sort of response is every smart nation-state’s dream.  There have of course always been the Pinochets of the world who felt that the creation of a constant climate of fear was the most effective way to ensure an obedient populace, but usually the cost of such a policy outweighs the benefits, and the loyalty thus coerced is short-lived and always looking for an out.  We lump Hitler and Stalin together in the same category, but forget a key difference: Stalin ruled almost entirely by fear, while Hitler, brutal as he was to minority dissidents,  recognized that ultimate success required that a solid majority of the German people served by love, either personal loyalty for him or for the Reich.  This is why Hitler’s armies were so much more effective than Stalin’s at the beginning.  In general, states recognize that they will not get very far if most of their people are motivated to go along with the policies only by fear–fear is not a very productive emotion, but is often downright paralyzing.  Most states thus seek to instill in their people a genuine love for the country and what it stands for, a sense that the proposed policies are objectively good and should be supported, and a conviction that they themselves will benefit therein.  When a small minority do not feel this way, they can be coerced to go along with everyone else, but as that small minority becomes bigger and coercion becomes the dominant element, it also becomes less and less feasible, and, once it reaches the point where a majority of people are obeying out of coercion, the situation is so unstable that it will generally not be able to last long.   

(A brief note about hate: hate is an emotion that often gets tangled up with love as its flip-side; because we love one thing, we start to hate its opposite; because we hate its opposite, we start to love the first thing more.  In the political sphere, and particularly when it comes to war, hate can become a very powerful emotion and motivation, and if it becomes more powerful than its corresponding love, the consequences are devastating.  Thus, although hate can be in the short-term a very productive motivation, in the long-run, it is the worst of all, just as love is, in the long-run, the best of all.) 

Interestingly, since the frightful outpourings of nationalistic fervour that came to a head in World War II, many politicians have concluded that love of country (with its accompanying propensity to hate) is perhaps too volatile an emotion, and though they still summon it up on occasion when poll numbers are really low and they need a war to energize the people, they have generally resorted to the more stable motivation of reward.  Modern states have therefore become remarkably like large corporations, resorting above all to marketing their policies to their citizens, something increasingly necessary in an increasingly democratic system.  We carelessly talk about how the government can do whatever they want, and can just coerce people to pay for public healthcare.  But clearly, if it were that simple, Obama, Pelosi, et. al. would not have exerted such enormous efforts trying to persuade the American people that the healthcare reform was a good idea.  As it is, months and years were spent marketing the idea that healthcare reform was something for which citizens should willingly vote and willingly devote their tax dollars, in expectation that they would be getting more for their money than under existing healthcare arrangements.  Governments are now in the business of using the media to convince their citizens that they have a serious unfulfilled need or want, that existing suppliers of that need are insufficient–offering poor quality, a bad value for money, etc.–and that the government is best suited to supply that need.  They boast of their excellent track record of success, of the higher literacy rates and GDP growth that their schemes have produced, and use this as a basis to convince their citizens that these schemes are worth continued financial support and customer loyalty.  The goal is to produce taxpayers who are by and large willing to support the schemes with their tax dollars.  Of course, “willing to support” does not mean that they’re exceptionally eager to to part with a portion of their paycheck, anymore than voluntarily buying gas means that you don’t grumble at the pump over the astronomical sums you are forking over.  But it means that on balance you are convinced that you’re getting more for these tax dollars than you would if you spent them elsewhere.  If you aren’t convinced, then you try to oppose the legislation and get it overturned.   

Now, needless to say, most folks in America nowadays are not convinced that they’re getting a good value for money for their tax dollars.  They are not willing customers.  And so coercion enters the equation…more and more people feel like they are being coerced to pay their taxes.  I am far from denying that this is the case.  However, it is important to note that I speak of coercion entering the equation–it is not an inevitable part of it.  There have been and are plenty of times when most citizens willingly pay their taxes, or willingly pay a large part of them (approving of what they’re going to).  There have been and are times when citizens have felt that when their representatives act, they are genuinely acting as a community, tackling a problem together, and when this is the case, they are not being coerced to obey their government, even if coercion is always theoretically an option.  Coercion only becomes operative when they begin to think of their obedience in terms of coercion.  Now this tends to happen, indeed perhaps inevitably happens, in more centralized governments, where the decision-making processes become impersonal, bureaucratized, and completely out of touch with real citizens and communities.  In such environments, skepticism and mistrust flourish, both because there generally is greater corruption, and because, even when there isn’t, it is simply harder for citizens to understand clearly why certain decisions are being made.  Policies become inefficient, so it is hard to see the reward, and as they seem arbitrary it becomes impossible to feel love, unless a war is declared, artificially generating love by means of hate This is certainly the case in America today, and so I expect the sense of unwillingness and coercion to grow.  And, as governments cannot long function effectively when they have to rely increasingly on coercion, I’m afraid that the situation may become increasingly unstable in America in coming years.

In any case, I think we have seen enough to establish that coercion does not necessarily characterize the political sphere, any more that freedom from coercion necessarily characterizes the economic sphere.  The similarities, indeed, are remarkable in today’s world.  In both economics and politics, we have very large institutional actors with enormous resources that both dedicate to persuading individuals that they they are providing important and valuable goods and services that those individuals should support with their money and loyalty.  If more positive motivations fail, both are prepared to resort to more or less subtle forms of fear or manipulation to persuade people whose rational perceptions leave them skeptical of the value of the service, or else to use their weight to maneuver so that there are no other viable options in the marketplace, and people support their product because they can’t imagine alternatives.  The remaining differences, while significant, tend (in modern Western democracies at least) to be differences of degree, rather than absolute differences.  

In making this argument, we have seen that there is a striking subjective component to coercion–it isn’t at all merely a matter of what others outside of you do to your or intend to do to you, but how you view them and how you respond, and that coercion as such tends to become effective only in the absence of love.  This suggests that ethics–in particular Christian ethics–may have a great deal to say about how we should act in the face of potential coercion, economic or political.  I shall try to develop some of these ethical answers in the final segment.