Power, the state and the church in South Africa

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Abstract

In this article questions concerning power, the church and the state in post-apartheid South Africa are considered. This consideration takes place against a specific background, that is, an intellectual-historical reconstruction of the modern rise of power as a heuristic concept in the humanities, including theology. After this reconstruction the focus turns to post-apartheid South Africa as what is referred to as an enduring colonial state. In the closing section some thoughts concerning the church as an alternative centre of truth to the South African state are proposed.

The intellectual-historical reconstruction of the rise of power as a heuristic concept in the humanities begins by pointing out a rather salient irony: while more recent, particularly French, exponents of this approach such as Michel Foucault saw themselves as writing from the margins of their society, the influence of their work has been so strong that a power-centric research paradigm has become all but dominant in the humanities. In its most absurd form just about every institution, idea or tradition is under paranoid suspicion for some or other secretive agenda of power.

From here the discussion moves on to a consideration of how this came about, with reference to the work of a number of influential modern thinkers, namely Ockham, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche and Foucault. Here I draw on the recent work of a number of influential Christian thinkers associated with the Radical Orthodox movement, especially John Milbank and, to a lesser extent, Catherine Pickstock. In the process I make it clear why I am in agreement with them that modernity should be understood first and foremost as a reworking of a number of Christian motifs following on the collapse of the synthesis between reason and revelation in Western Latin Christianity from the 13th century onwards. I also draw on the recent and influential book by Michael Allen Gillespie, The theological origins of modernity.

Gillespie’s reading is based on the work of leading medieval intellectual historians such as Etienne Gilson – that Ockham opened the door for the rise of power as a heuristic concept by emphasising God’s omnipotence over God’s love.

The discussion of Machiavelli’s The Prince emphasises the fact that Machiavelli broke with the traditional view of the goal of politics as being the common good, and that Machiavelli argued that the goal of politics should be to obtain and maintain centralist political power. Here mention is also made of Machiavelli’s further elevation of the ontological status of power and war with his view that not peace (St Augustine) but war is the natural state of reality.

In the next step of my broad argument I show that Hobbes built on the foundation that Machiavelli laid. I follow Milbank’s reading of Hobbes’s Leviathan, pointing out that while roughly half of the book consists of theology that essentially serves to legitimate Hobbes’s conception of centralist political power, a key aspect to this is Hobbes’s reading of God’s command to Adam and Eve to look after nature to break with the classical Christian understanding (i.e. Aquinas’s) of this as stewardship and a restoration of the pagan (Roman) concept of dominium, that is, political authority understood in an absolutist fashion.

Next, the focus turns to Nietzsche, who further cemented the ontological status of power with his famous concept of the will to power. Arguably the most influential 20th-century French Nietzschean, Michel Foucault, then comes under the spotlight. First, I argue that Foucauldian discourse analysis with its assumption of the close link between language and power essentially builds on Ockham’s rejection of the link between words and their meanings. Second I argue that an unfortunate legacy of Foucault’s more pointed work on power and modern institutions includes in principle a mistrust of all institutions, of all forms of hierarchy and of all traditions, as if they are all naturally hiding some or other malicious power agenda.

This section ends with the conclusion that if the church is asked to be aware of power or to focus on its workings, it should be done with great circumspection, lest the church, under the guise of being in tune with the latest and best social theory, ends up giving further legitimacy to a concept that is ultimately its own bastard offspring.

In section two of the broad argument the attention is turned to the answers that influential contemporary Christian thinkers who work with this analysis of the genealogy of modernity have been offering to its challenges. I begin by pointing out that while modernity is ultimately the offspring of Christianity, modernity at the same time also represents a fundamental break with Christianity and the classical Christian tradition. This is discussed further with reference to only three among many other aspects, that is, the position of the church in society, the status of tradition, and the discussion between theology and philosophy.

As far as the status of the church in society is concerned I argue that since the modern territorial state arose out of the collapse of the old medieval Latin-Christian division between spiritual and temporal powers, as theorised by St Augustine in City of God, the church as remnant of that social order represented the main institution hindering the modern territorial state in its rise. A key philosophical strategy that was deployed to shore up the stability of this state was to redefine religion as a matter of the private sphere and politics as a matter of the public sphere – here Jean Bodin in France and John Locke in England were two of the key thinkers.

As far as the status of tradition in modernity is concerned I argue, following Alasdair MacIntyre, that modernity should be understood as the tradition that is constituted through the rejection of tradition. I also point out a rather tragic unintended consequence of the Protestant revolt against improper practices in the Catholic church, namely the de facto Protestant contribution to Christianity’s forgetting its own tradition, and its liturgical self-impoverishment.

As far as theology and philosophy in modernity are concerned I briefly refer to the fact that the modern distancing between the two traditionally close disciplines have contributed to the modern ills of fideism and rationalism, which are as bad for theology as for philosophy.

In the next sub-section of this part I very briefly endorse two key ideas, those of John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock respectively, namely Milbank’s plea for a renewed (Christian) ontology of peace and Pickstock’s apology for the liturgical city, which I suggest could be called Irenopolis.

In part three the focus then shifts to South African Christianity and the post-apartheid context.

I begin this part with a brief discussion of the nature of the South African state. I point out that while the modern territorial state in Europe could still, to some extent, draw on indigenous sources for its self-legitimation, this was not the case in South Africa, which explains why the gap between the state and communities in South Africa is wider than in Europe. Here I also caution against the illusion that the transition from apartheid to past-apartheid brought an end to this state of affairs.

On the contrary, I contend in the next section of this part, the South African state is of an enduring colonial nature. The following non-comprehensive list of characteristics of this enduring colonial state structure are listed and briefly discussed: successive South African governments from 1910 to the present sought the model of excellence outside the country; a minority governs the majority in the name of the majority; the country’s wealth is extracted and expatriated by an elite owing their position to their role as broker between local and foreign economic interests; the most important power strategy that is pursued to maintain the centralist control of the state is the colonial strategy of divide and rule; from unification in 1910 to becoming a republic in 1961 to becoming a constitutional democracy in 1994 the South African state remains centralist; from 1910 to the present one language is privileged above the other indigenous languages; the separation between where one works and where one lives, beginning with the Glenn Grey Act of 1894; the centralisation and corporatisation of the country’s media and communication networks. I argue that against this background a diabolical dialectic came into existence whereby various anti-colonial forms of resistance against this state were ultimately subsumed by this state, so that if real change is to come, this dialectic must be decisively broken.

Before considering the role that the church may play in such a moment of political rebirth, I first make three cautionary speculative observations about South African Christianity: first, that with the exception of some Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians the majority of South African Christians are not very deeply anchored in their own traditions and its liturgies; second, that charismatic theology, which is essentially a Christianised modernist aberration, sets the tone for most South African Christians; and third, that the South African Christian ecumenical discussion is not going too well.

This part, and the article itself, ends with four remarks on what the church in South Africa has to consider and to offer in the elusive South African struggle of justice for all. First, the church should not flirt with secular theories and ideas under the misconception that this is a sort of with-it response to the challenges of modernity. Second, while unity in the church remains a pressing concern, this unity should, as far as confessions are concerned, be sought on the basis of the Apostolic Creed of Nicea (325 AD). Third, the church has a specific contribution to make to a deepened sense of community in South Africa, of which the co-celebration of the Eucharist should be the centre. Fourth, the prophetic voice of the church against injustice is needed more than ever.

Keywords: church; colonialism; post-apartheid; power; South African Christianity; South African state and economy

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Mag, die staat en die kerk in Suid-Afrika

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