It’s hard to think of any historical moment that more deserves political theological reflection than the American Civil War, yet a very quick Google Scholar search turns up only one book (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis) that uses the phrase “political theology” (once, in passing) in its discussion of the event. Why is the Civil War so richly deserving of entering the ranks of privileged political theological points of reference (along with Schmitt’s and Benjamin’s focus on the European Baroque with its doctrine of absolute sovereignty, or Agamben’s camp and the Musselman, or Hardt and Negri’s Empire, to name a few)? Consider the constellation of factors: the crisis of sovereignty, the friend-foe decision, the state of emergency, the status of the human reduced to bare life, and, not the least significant factor, the claim made by North and South to be waging a battle for the future of Christendom. And there are two texts from the period that I think deserve a place in the canon of political theological thought from Paul to Augustine, and from Hobbes to Arendt (I rank her Human Condition as one of the 20th century’s top political theological works). The great thing is that they are both short, even shorter than Epistle to the Romans. One of them is amazingly short: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The other is a little longer: Herman Melville’s Supplement to his Civil War poetry collection, Battle Pieces. (Here is a PDF link to Melville’s collection; the Supplement begins on pg. 178.) I want to talk a little bit about both texts, starting with the second.
Melville explains the cause of the war: “the erecting in our advanced century of an Anglo-American empire based upon the systematic degradation of man.” The political theology themes are raised clearly: the conjunction of progressivist/enlightenment ideology with a systematic reduction of humanity to bare life. The reference to “Anglo-American” suggests the racial basis of the empire, something made explicit in the so-called “Cornerstone Speech” given in the opening days of the Confederacy by its newly minted Vice President, Alexander Stephens: “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Stephens goes on to make the point that the Confederacy is the most advanced and enlightened of all nations: “It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.” Melville refuses to base his rejection of this attempt to build a racist empire upon the ground of theological dogma of any kind. In fact, he appeals to the groundless uncertainty (shall we call it undecideability) that makes self-righteousness impossible: “Let us revere that sacred uncertainty which forever impends over men and nations. Those of us who always abhorred slavery as an atheistical iniquity, gladly we join in the exulting chorus of humanity over its downfall. But we should remember that emancipation was accomplished not by deliberate legislation. Only through agonized violence could so mighty a result be effected. In our natural solicitude to confirm the benefit of liberty to the blacks let us forbear from measures of dubious constitutional rightfulness toward our white countrymen, measures of a nature to provoke, among other of the last evils, exterminating hatred of race toward race.” A political theology based upon anything except “that sacred uncertainty” (and perhaps we should consider that this uncertainty, for Melville, extends even to the existence of God, let alone of which side he is on). And any political theology that raises the flag of a permanent “state of exception” in which “constitutional rightfulness” is nullified, runs the risk of legitimizing “exterminating hatred” as its extralegal principle.
Finally, a word about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Like Melville, he rejects any appeal to certainty that God is on the side of the North and the South is in thrall to the Devil. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” Lincoln acknowledges that it is the entire nation that is suffering, and, if God’s hand that is behind the war, it falls on both the North and South equally, for their equal culpability. In words that can only astonish someone who has mostly heard the din of self-righteous zealotry from the mouths of most politicians, Lincoln has the audacity to draw down the full force of God’s wrath upon his nation for its sin of slavery: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said `the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
What makes Melville and Lincoln deserve a place in the canon of political theological texts is that they understand that divine justice cannot be executed by one human against another, and to think that one is empowered to do so is to set up the conditions of “exterminating hatred.” Divine justice, if it exists—and this must be the heart of a “sacred uncertainty”—demands the rejection of both forms of humanity’s hybris: the attempt to build an empire upon the systematic degradation of one’s fellow human, and the attempt to wage a permanent war upon this empire as if it were in thrall to the Antichrist. In both forms of hybris, whether it means an empire built on slavery or a war upon the Antichrist, humanity is playing God and taking his justice into its own hands against itself. Political theology, if it does nothing else, should “mind the gap” between divine and human justice. To imagine that there is no gap is suicidal.