The State as Confessor: a View from George Orwell

In his Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh spoke of the modern nation state as a simulacra of the Church. More specifically, he spoke of the state as a kind of simulated liturgy where, through a series of collective actions, the state mimics the Church as a site of gathering. Another way in which the state mimics the Church is in the way it takes on dimensions of the sacramental economy, administering state functions to the citizenry in the same way that the Church administers the sacraments to the faithful.

We see, for instance, the tussles between the Church and the State over the presiding of marriages, with each one claiming the power to grant certain marriages valid or otherwise. Another, less considered sacrament that should concern the Christian is that of confession. Those familiar with the sacrament that it is “through the ministry of the Church” that a presbyter exercises his apostolic function to bind or loose on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 18:18). 

This function can be gleaned by reading a passage from George Orwell. In a wartime essay entitled “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (which can be found in a slim volume of essays entitled Why I Write). Orwell spoke with some bemusement of the fact that “men who would never dream of committing murder in private life” would have no qualms about killing for his country. The reason for this distinction, he chides, is that, through the ministry of the state, the country “has the power to absolve him from evil”.

Of course, this is not the only time that sacramental language has been used to legitimise the powers of the state. Apart from the sacrament of holy matrimony mentioned above, attention was focused on the failed Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin who, in addressing an audience at the National Rifle Assocation, recommended waterboarding as a “baptism for terrorists“, a remark which drew widespread cheers and limited critique.

This slow trickle of ecclesiastical or sacramental language into state functions should not be surprising. Hegel’s 1807 work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, had already laid the blueprint for the collapse of the Holy Spirit (which is what gives efficacy to the sacraments) into the political community of the State. What would be interesting to see is how the other sacraments (the annointing of the sick, holy orders, confirmation and the Eucharist) get taken up. A seed for further thought on this is Giorgio Agamben’s presentation at the Centre for Theology and Philosophy conference in Rome in 2008 (summarised here by Adam Kotsko), in which the Marxist philosopher very creatively analysed the role of angels as ministers and messengers from God and applied that logic to the logic of state bureaucracy.

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