Religion, politics and violence (Part 7): omnipotent lawgiver

10 May, 2023,

Author: Yahya Sseremba

Source: The Observer

Last week, we saw that the diffused character of pre-modern power allowed society to govern itself through society-based mechanisms like custom and religion.

Medieval Europe, however, complicated matters when it attempted to forge a consolidated structure of power around the idea of papal supremacy. As God’s representative on earth and as head of the universal community of Christian believers, the pope came to claim ecclesiastical and temporal authority over all Christian and sometimes even pagan societies.

Unlike other “religions”, Christianity organized itself into a church—the church as a universal community of Christian believers and the church as a universal truth-producing institution claiming the authority and indeed the monopoly to speak for God and to define Christianity.

By devising such an institution, Christianity, especially medieval Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism), made life difficult for the heretics who constantly faced the wrath of the church.

On the other hand, the heretics in Islam could easily get away with their views because the process of Islamic truth production was privatized and open to contestation. The violence of the Vicar of Christ (i.e. the pope) emerged in the context of the hierarchization and centralization of truth-producing authority.

The problem was not that the pope combined “religious” and “secular” authority, as the secularists claim. Rather, violence stemmed from the attempt to institutionalize, centralize and monopolize authority.

Second, it makes no sense to say that the violence of God’s representative was caused by religion, for religion never existed as a distinct and self-evident entity. This makes it impossible to separate religious causes from merely political or social or economic causes.

By extension, one cannot claim that the medieval jihads and crusades were caused—or not caused—by religion. Under the pretext of ending “religious violence”, the architects of the modern state stripped the pope of political authority and expelled the church, in other words the Catholic Church, from the processes of producing public principles.

Interestingly, whereas the modern state banished the Catholic Church from politics, the state inherited and perfected the absolutist logic of the church. In the place of the omnipotent God emerged the omnipotent lawgiver (i.e. the state).

Like God’s representative whose authority was absolute in theory though not necessarily in practice, the state theoretically and practically came to institutionalize, centralize and monopolize the authority to make, interpret and enforce the law and subject society to extensive and penetrating legal regulation.

By inheriting the absolutist logic of the church, the modern state also inherited the violence of the church. But the modern state took this violence to unprecedented heights.

Whereas the pope claimed supreme authority and sometimes even viewed the kings and emperors simply as his policemen, he fell short of monopolizing the use of force.

This greatly constrained the pontiff’s authority in the face of temporal rulers. In practice, therefore, the pope was only one among many competing power holders. His power was far from absolute.

But the modern state managed to monopolize the use of violence and proceeded to deploy force in previously unimaginable ways. For the first time in the history of political power, violence has been institutionalized and normalized as the arbiter of social order considering that modern law is founded on violence.

The violence of the state stems from its determination to institutionalize, centralize and monopolize political authority. Since the liberals have tried to reduce the state to a legal phenomenon, political authority in the context of the modern liberal state is the authority to make, interpret and enforce the law.

This authority entirely and exclusively belongs to the organs of the state (i.e. the legislature, judiciary and executive). All society-based authority, if not eliminated totally, is subordinated to the state. The authority of the clan, spirit mediums, church, mufti, royal women, and so on dissolves in the face of the state or at least comes under state authority.

The state negates or at least relegates society’s self-governance mechanisms like custom and religion to the realm of private judgment. Even when the modern state governs by religious law, the authority to formulate, interpret and enforce this law moves from society to the state.

This concentration of power in the institutions of the state means that the radical distinction between democracies and dictatorships makes limited sense, for the modern state is ultimately dictatorial.

The state, of course, does not use force all the time. It knows how to produce the consent of the society it dominates. Ultimately, however, the state will unleash violence when its domination is challenged.

By expelling God’s representative from politics and ironically turning around to imitate his sweeping powers, the modern state did not solve the problem of violence; it only secularized it.

The author is a researcher at the Makerere Institute of Social Research.