When the US called its response to 9/11 ‘Infinite Justice’, it was that something was rotten in the state-church relationship. Either the state wasn’t listening to the church, or the church wasn’t speaking the truth to the state. This urgently needs to change.
The thought may trouble you. The very phrase ‘Infinite Justice’ has religious connotations and suggested that perhaps the state has been listening a little too much to the church. In the West we’ve grown up believing in ‘the separation of church and state’. Religion, we believe, is a private affair and no place in the government of a democratic nation. The church, we suspect, is lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce and impose its dogma on an unsuspecting and unwilling nation. We might grudgingly concede the church’s right to speak (it’s a free country) but we can’t imagine actually encouraging the state to listen.
But this is just what I’m proposing: that the church speak truth to the state, and that the state listen.
Let me first clarify that by no means am I suggesting that the church should run the state – heaven forbid. But that the church is called to speak to the state, and it has two main things to declare.
The first is simple that the state is not God. This might strike you as odd, surely the Australian government isn’t about to confuse itself with God. But states haven’t always been so ready to concede this. This is a message the president of North Korea needs to hear.
Atheists should be especially appreciate of this of this role of the church: if there’s no God, it’s all the more tempting for the state to imagine itself in this role.
This doesn’t mean the only option available to the Australian government is to formally acknowledge God and declare itself Christian – to become what me might call a ‘confessing state’. It has two other options. It may be agnostic in its view (a ‘non-confessing state’), or it may be atheistic (a ‘secularist state’). In practice this difference is this: a non-confessing state will allow the airing of all kinds of views, including religious ones: the secularist state will insist that any religious discussion or expression be removed from the public square.
In this way, the secularist state is in fact very similar to one which imagines itself as God. It will neither recognize nor tolerate the possibility of any authority higher than itself. It will demand ever-increasing loyalty from its citizens. The French decision to ban women from wearing their headscarves seems to fit this pattern.
When a state suggests that it can deliver ‘infinite justice’, it may have similar pretensions to grandeur. Infinite Justice is the preserve of God alone; no state can claim to deliver it. If the US government had been listening to what the church should have been saying, they might instead have called their response ‘limited justice’ instead. It’s not particularly catchy, but it’s suitably humble.
Once the church has declared the negative message of what the state is not, it can also declare the positive message of what it is. The state’s primary role is the administration of justice – promoting good and restraining evil. This will include a concern for such things as fair and accessible courts, a stable currency, preventing exploitative monopolies, and the treatment of prisoners (even bad one’s).
In this respect, we wonder if the church might have something to say to the US government. In the US’s dealings with prisoners from the ‘War on Terror’, they’ve sometimes failed to administer even limited justice. They’ll claim that instances of mistreating prisoners are isolated events. But isolated events happen in isolated places.
We have good cause to be concerned for the prisoners help in Cuba. The US may claim that they are doing nothing illegal in the matter, but this is irrelevant. Laws don’t create justice, they seek to acknowledge and express it. It’s this fact which enables us from time to time to cry out that this or that law is in fact unjust.
The US has admitted that the War on Terror is a new situation requiring new rules. Might these new rules include how to deal justly with those accused of terrorism?
If the church’s messages isn’t heard, we should expect more of the same.