Human Sovereignty and the Sovereignty of God
By B. Welling Hall
Good evening, Friends. It’s customary to start an after dinner speech with a humorous remark. You may have heard, however, that two of my Earlham students were killed on Wednesday afternoon just as we were gathering here for our time of worship and business together. So, I haven’t been thinking about jokes but about how these remarks could honor the memory of two fine young men who were soon to be college graduates. Two young men, the pride of their families, who were designing careers that would further the cause of peace and justice. Mark was from Chicago; Pema was from Tibet. They were from two different countries, two different faiths, two different worlds, and yet they were friends.
This evening I’m going to talk with you about the patterns of this world that stand in the way of that kind of friendship, because I know that Pema and Mark believed deeply that friendship transcends the borders of nation, of ethnicity, of language, of religion. That kind of friendship is the heart and soul of peacemaking. Remembering the power of that kind of transcendent love and friendship, tonight I want to talk with you about something called sovereignty, ultimate power and authority: human sovereignty and the sovereignty of God. That is, I’ve been thinking about States and human power struggles and how those challenge God’s will for us.
In preparation for the Friends United Meeting Triennial this week, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our scriptural theme for the session (Romans 12:2). It was very much on my mind when I visited England in May and found myself unexpectedly in Quaker country. That is, I knew that I was going to England to work on a Peace Encyclopedia project with colleagues. Then, on the way home from the airport, my friend Nigel suddenly pointed and said, “There’s the house where Margaret Fell met George Fox!” And then he said, “There’s Pendle Hill!” During that same trip to England, we visited one of the many monasteries that was destroyed by King Henry VIII in his battles with the Pope for earthly power. The ruined abbey was a spectacular sight with impossibly high arches and mildewed tombstones rising from a sheep meadow. I thought a lot about how these wars for power and ultimate political authority were fought right on the very ground where Quakerism came into being.
These were wars for ultimate authority and independence as defined by human beings for human purposes. They were wars for what folks in my field—political science—call “sovereignty.” The power and influence of political sovereignty in today’s world brings me to the theme of the Triennial: Romans 12:2.
Here I need to tell you that I majored in Ancient Greek in college and my grandfather was very active in the American Bible Society. I grew up surrounded by Bibles written in different languages. That means I had to try my own translation. This is it:
Do not try to live in keeping with the patterns of this world. No! You must change your form and completely change the way you think! Only then will you know God’s will for you and you will find that it is good, just right, and already completely perfect.
Now, here’s a fun fact that I think you’ve already come to know. The Greek word for a complete change of form is metamorphosis. We’ve had images of caterpillars into butterflies over the course of the week. I love butterflies. When my son and I recently visited Washington, D.C., we wandered through the butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Natural History and they were stunningly beautiful. But, when I think of a butterfly standing up to power or injustice—the kind of work for peace that Jesus calls us to do—I imagine the butterfly getting squashed. Maybe I’ve watched too many Saturday morning cartoons, but when I think of powerful metamorphosis I think of Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers! Transformation is the most powerful kind of change there is. Now, Paul doesn’t call us to be cartoon characters. He does call us to reject conformity to the patterns of this world.
So, what are the patterns and expectations that the Bible calls us to reject? And what do these patterns have to do with the Reformation, wars of religion, political sovereignty, and the historical context in which Quakerism arose?
Here is where I need to share some background history with you because it is essential to understanding patterns of this world. This is the Hosea 4:6 portion of my message: Knowledge is power!
I believe that Paul wants us to reject a critical pattern of this world that came into being just as Quakerism was starting to take shape.
Frederick Storrs Turner begins his important book, The Quakers: A Study, Historical and Critical, with a statement that the wars of religion that traumatized Europe in the first half of the 17th century ended in 1648 with “the Peace of Westphalia.”
Now, I know that “the Peace of Westphalia” isn’t exactly a household name that you all are familiar with. It isn’t quite up there with Michael Jackson or Harry Potter or Fox News. Still, I can assure you that the Peace of Westphalia is as responsible as any other historical or cultural phenomenon for creating the human world as we know it today. What do I mean? How so?
The wars of religion that were ended by the Peace of Westphalia were genocidal wars. Small children, women, and men were killed because they professed the wrong faith. The ceasefire that the kings and princes arrived at was an agreement that has profoundly shaped world politics ever since. After they agreed on essential matters (such as the shape of the table and who got to walk into the room first) the negotiators decided exactly how the political power, the sovereignty, of all kings and princes would be observed around the world. They decided the basic ground rules of human sovereignty. So what were these rules?
By the terms of Westphalia, kings and princes agreed that they would stop fighting over who got to be God’s representative here on earth. You heard me correctly. Yes, they had been fighting over the idea that one of them might actually be the King of Kings. This, of course, was a title that had been claimed by the Roman Emperor, was adopted by the Christian Church when it became a state religion, and was a source of terrible political violence.
This is history that has shaped the world we live in today.
The kings and princes decided that instead of fighting over who got to be King of Kings they would invent what we now call political sovereignty—human sovereignty. They decided that no king or prince would ever allow another king or prince to dictate rules that must be followed by all. The kings and princes all agreed that on the territory they ruled, they—as ultimate rulers, as sovereigns—could do whatever they liked. As commanders of the police powers in their own countries, the sovereign rulers declared that they could freely use violence to put down dissent whenever they felt like it. I could say it like this: Sovereignty means never having to ask permission and never having to say you’re sorry. So long as the kings and princes did not declare war on each other, no earthly ruler had any right to complain about or punish anything that went on in any other sovereign’s reign.
This idea of sovereignty without interference from abroad and sovereignty with impunity worked pretty well for a long time. In fact, for nearly 350 years the Peace of Westphalia succeeded in preventing genocidal wars of religion between European states. The rules did nothing to prevent massive human rights violations within countries. The rules of Westphalia meant—and continue to mean—that heads of state and the political powerful can expect immunity for crimes that they commit in their own countries.
The powers that signed onto the Peace of Westphalia were also very cozy with the adventures of colonialism and slavery that began shortly thereafter. Non-white peoples (and women) were regarded as being incapable of the kind of moral thought and action that makes human sovereignty possible. According to the theory, these backward persons might occupy land, but they could not own it. Only white males could earn sovereignty: black, brown, yellow, or red people could never truly “have” it.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European Christian lawyers divided the world into “empty” and “civilized” territories. They justified “punitive expeditions” against people they called savages in Africa and Asia. Because they believed that only Europeans deserved sovereignty—and because they had the weapons to prove it—by 1900 Europeans had claimed nearly 90 percent of African territory and much of the rest of the world. This is the origin of the saying that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”
The colonial expansion in Africa was supported and extended by the Berlin Conference of the 1880s, a major diplomatic event in which the parties to the Peace of Westphalia carved up a massive portion of what they called the “empty” world. They were followed soon thereafter by missionaries who divided territories up for colonization by different churches. These events represent perfectly what theologian Walter Wink calls “The Domination System.” That is, a system in which some earthly powers act on the belief that it is their God-given right to dominate those who are weaker, those who are unlike them, those who are not allowed to play by the same rules. No Africans were present at the Conference. Neither were Native Americans who once lived where we are sitting now. They couldn’t have sovereignty, so who cared? And it was absolutely not the business of anyone to pay attention to the conditions of life imposed by a sovereign ruler anywhere else in the world.
Are you still with me? Do you see how the Peace of Westphalia gave form to a Domination System that basically says that kings and princes can do whatever they want on territory that they occupy? Fellow human beings—those same people Jesus calls our neighbors—can be hunted down, enslaved, have their families and communities torn apart, and the rest of us have no business to care. Now, of course, there was a very active Domination System during biblical times when Paul was writing. It was called the Roman Empire. What the Westphalian Domination System introduced 17 centuries later was the idea that people’s political loyalties belong exclusively to the leaders of their states and that it is wrong to care about the well-being of people who live in other countries. The Westphalian system is the system that created passports and visas; the system that makes it impossible for some of our fellow members of FUM to be with us today.
Remember: this is the system that says that it is wrong to care about the well-being of people who are citizens of other states. It is wrong to believe that someone who has a different nationality or ethnicity is your ally or your equal.
Of course, this idea has been challenged in recent decades.
Over the course of the 20th century nearly all of the colonies, not including the Native American territories, became politically independent. They gained sovereignty. Still, their independence was limited. Deep disparities in wealth between the rich countries and the poor countries sharply constrained independence—as indeed it still does. The Cold War forced practically every country in the world to devote time, talent, and treasure to building up stockpiles of weapons rather than feeding the hungry, teaching the children, and healing the sick. The friendship of a young man from Tibet and a young man from Chicago both of whom cared about peace and justice is a striking challenge to the Westphalian idea of how people should organize their lives. This is what the Domination System does. The Domination System teaches us to ignore the Gospel’s message that God wants us to care for each other.
I tell these stories in order to think out loud about the patterns and manifestations of this world. Patterns and manifestations that Paul tells us that we should, as friends of Jesus seeking God’s will, categorically reject.
A world that is constructed in line with an emphasis on human sovereignty, the divine right of kings translated into 20th and 21st century politics, is a world that one of my colleagues calls “insane.” It is a world where as a character sings in the 1949 American musical South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid
Of people whose eyes
Are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are six
Or seven or eight
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
These lessons of hate and fear smack right up against the key messages proclaimed by Jesus in the New Testament: to love God with all our heart and soul; to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The truth that God IS Love is such an extraordinary message. In my own experience, I heard this good news every week for more than 20 years before it sank in. I remember the place and time when and where it did. In the summer of 1984 I was visiting Russia for the first time. It was the height of the Cold War. I traveled to Russia not because I had friends there, but because, at the time, my country and Russia were sworn enemies. It was practically a state secret that the USA and the USSR had been allies during World War II. And yet, I believed—as a matter of faith—that not all Russians were enemies. The whole country could not be demonized. There had to be more to know. And so I traveled to Leningrad to learn Russian. Much about the Soviet Union was dismal, demoralizing, and depressing. Still there were unexpected, life-changing moments of beauty as well. One Sunday I traveled far from the center of the city to find one of the barely tolerated official churches. I sat down in a pew and was struck by a sign above the altar, a sign that looked strikingly different than an English Bible verse.
It was an excerpt from 1 John 4:16. The sign said, “God IS Love.”
In my notes here, I have capitalized the word is, put it in a bold font, and underlined it. In English, the phrase “God is love” is grammatically unremarkable. Theologically, it is perfectly compatible with the belief that God is an old man with a white beard who sits on a throne up in Heaven.
The phrase “God IS Love” looked completely different to me in Russian. Perhaps because Russian is not my mother tongue, but also because Russian rarely uses the verb “to be” and when it does, it is undeniably emphatic. Reading there that God IS Love, I understood for the first time, in a flash, that God and Love are absolutely and completely congruent and indivisible. You cannot imagine God without embracing Love as part of the image. You cannot think about Love without also imagining God. In fact, the unity is so complete that when a happy, healthy, well-fed, well-educated person tells me that they do not believe in God, I want to ask, “How is it possible that you have never felt Love?”
Here’s the point: The commandment to love because God IS Love is submerged and repressed by a world shaped by human sovereignty and the Westphalian domination system. The system that tells us that the well-being of people elsewhere in the world is none of our business.
Churches talk about the suffering plight of people who live elsewhere. We’ve heard lessons this week about Belize, about Kenya, about the brand new state of South Sudan, about Israel-Palestine, and Cuba.
The bottom line, though, is that material power is on the side of those who tell us that our allegiance belongs first and foremost to our countries and that our care, our attention, our legal protections, and our pocketbooks should be devoted to those who look like us, worship as we do, and live within the borders of our same political territory.
In other words, the patterns and manifestations of this world tell us that our love and care belongs to those who share our identity.
What is the cost of this identity politics? What is the cost of being taught to hate all those our relatives hate?
The cost is agonizing, wretched, brutal political violence. Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, Congo, Kenya, Sudan, the inner cities of the United States, and even this week Norway, as a right-wing Christian extremist acted on the belief that his hatred of Islam justified killing children who were learning about peace at a summer camp.
The list of places in this world where children of our loving God target other children of our loving God with political violence because they do not share the identity of the powers that be is long and continues to be written. The violence that demolishes homes and shatters lives because human beings have the wrong religious affiliation or skin color, or surname, or tribal membership, or citizenship, or sexual orientation is remarkably consistent with human sovereignty.
How can we believe that this is okay? How can we believe that human sovereigns who organize mass murder in the name of identity politics should be above the law?
As Christians, we cannot.
But, even though we cannot say it is okay, the world seems to say that it is. In the wake of the unspeakable genocide that took place nearly 20 years ago in Bosnia and Rwanda, Kofi Annan, the past Secretary General of the United Nations, had to go out on a real limb to say that after 350 years maybe it is time to rethink Westphalian sovereignty. Maybe it is time for us to decide that human sovereignty should not be about giving heads of state immunity for whatever crimes they might commit, but instead should be about states caring for their citizens and bearing responsibility to protect their populations from atrocities. If they don’t, the international community should come to the assistance of those who are being abused whether or not the government agrees. This was a key idea embraced by the founders of the International Criminal Court, but Kofi Annan received a great deal of criticism for saying such things. The notion that powerful political leaders should be held accountable for their actions has generated a tremendous backlash. The sovereign rulers didn’t like hearing those words.
But, here’s the thing: In preparing for this evening’s lecture I recalled that the verses of Romans 13 in which Paul talks about submission to governing authorities are followed immediately by the reminder that the most important law is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Paul knew that rulers and governors have many neighbors and therefore extra responsibilities for caring.
So, Kofi Annan’s “new” notion that governments have a responsibility to protect their populations from atrocities isn’t all that new. We could say that it is a biblical idea and it is an idea that runs directly counter to human sovereignty. Well-funded and well-orchestrated campaigns have been run to prevent the United States from signing on to the International Criminal Court and to plant seeds of doubt around the world about what good international tribunals can accomplish in the wake of political violence. It should not be a great surprise that these campaigns have been well supported by powerful people, people who sit at the top of the Domination System and who do not want to be held accountable for their crimes. This week the African Union released a statement that African countries should not collaborate with the International Criminal Court. This is a direct legacy of the Westphalian Domination System that says that sovereignty is more important than love and justice.
The notion that there might be an international community that has a duty to care for people who are subject to the will of a particular state is a direct challenge to the Domination System. The notion that anyone has the responsibility to care for others who do not look like them, who may not worship as they do, who do not live in the same place, runs contrary to the organization of human sovereignty.
Yet, isn’t this exactly what Jesus tells us that we must do?
Pledging allegiance to the sovereignty of God rather than to the flag of any nation, state, or identity is at the very heart of Christianity and it is the guiding light of the Friends Peace Testimony. Friends crafted the Peace Testimony, the declaration of peaceableness, denying all outward weapons, at the very moment that Westphalia was taking shape.
Quaker testimonies and practice from the establishment of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to the quiet diplomacy pursued by the various Quaker United Nations offices, to the continuing work of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, all point to the Quaker insistence that good government is possible. At the same time, our belief of that of God in every person should remind us at every turn that the sovereignty of God is prior to and superior to human sovereignty.
So what do we do?
How do we find the strength to stand up to injustice without inflicting injustice in return—as Jesus tells us that we must? What is required for the weak to be strong and to not forget that God IS Love even as we confront the Domination System?
I so admire Desmond Tutu’s thinking and example as he confronted these questions in the transformation of South Africa. Tutu and his country desperately needed to know how Christians could respond to mass atrocity knowing that vengeance belongs to the Lord, our God, and that forgiveness is the privilege and province of the victims. One avenue—not the only avenue—was an invitation for those who had committed horrible crimes to publicly tell the truth about what they had done.
The South African invention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one example among dozens I might point to that show how persons committed to living in faith and seeking justice can try to do that difficult work. And the work is difficult. The lessons of hate and fear have been learned very well. As Desmond Tutu said, “Those who hope to drift softly into a lasting peace as one drifts in a canoe into a sheltered bay [are dreaming], that’s not the way it will happen.”
As a political scientist, I know that many of my colleagues have been cynical about such efforts—even allowing for the fact that the work will be long and hard. Working alongside such cynicism is probably the hardest thing I do on a daily basis. I have wondered, is it possible to be cynical and to love God at the same time? I think not. Why? Because to love God is to act as if faith is possible. To love God means to dream what the world calls an impossible dream and, for Quakers, to strive to live up to a vision of persons in community that is laid out by the Sermon on the Mount. To be cynical, on the other hand, is to act as if not only faith, but that any assertion of good will, is merely a ploy for power. To be cynical means that to dream is futile. To be cynical means to attend to the needs and desires of Number One, the self, rather than to any command to care for our neighbors here and abroad. To be cynical is to reject the very possibility of what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the beloved community.”
Friends, I am not cynical. I believe that God IS Love. I believe that our faith calls us to reject the Westphalian Domination System. This means that Christian reactions to political violence must not hold human sovereignty to be sacred. It is wrong to pretend that what goes on in another country is none of our business. It is idolatry to live according to patterns that allow earthly rulers to live above and outside of the law. To give up on beloved community is to yield to despair.
Matthew 13:33 tells a parable in which Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast. Yeast is the tiniest of organisms. When dormant, how would you even know that it is alive? And yet, when yeast is mixed with flour, tiny grains of yeast work magic and cause bread to rise.
What would happen if millions of faithful people, acting together as grains of yeast, said, we accept that only God is Sovereign and God is Love? Our purpose is to raise up those who suffer because of the Lie that human sovereignty deserves our primary allegiance. Isn’t the commandment to care for each other at the center of God’s perfect will for us? What would happen if we refused to conform to the pattern of the world that says that human sovereignty is all powerful?
Think of all the time and energy that is consumed by trying to live in two places at once: the place where you know your soul dwells and the place where the patterns of this world—identity cards, passports, visas—tell us that we must reside. Our habits, our customs, our fears all point to a world in which human sovereignty is primary, even though our faith tells us that only God is sovereign.
I started this lecture with a story about Westphalia. We have all heard lessons about how Christianity underwent a major transformation even earlier when it became a state religion many centuries ago. When that happened, the message of Christian empathy and the commandment to love our neighbors was subsumed by the message that the State Knows Best.
The commandment that the State Knows Best is a message that Quakers have always resisted. Even as the ink was drying on the Peace of Westphalia, George Fox was propounding the belief of that of God in every person. This belief, embraced by Quakers, has prompted an effort to provide assistance to those who have been victimized by human sovereignty and the Domination System. Quakers try to do this work in many places: in reconciliation work in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, in the work of Right Sharing of World Resources, in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, in the work of FUM Field Staff around the world. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognized this work that directly challenged the patterns of this world when it gave its prize to the American Friends Service Committee and Quaker Peace and Social Witness back in 1947. Jesus told us to care for the least among us. How well are we doing? Is it enough? How seriously are we challenging the Westphalian Domination System? Are we Transformers? Or are we afraid to emerge from our cocoons?
In this talk about how the patterns of this world demand that we conform to human sovereignty rather than to the sovereignty of God, I have taken you on a ramble through a sheep meadow back to Wilmington by way of other lands, from the 17th century back to the Gospel and forward to the 21stcentury. In the end, this is what I believe:
I believe in the sovereignty of God, our God who IS Love.
I believe we are called to answer to that of God in every person.
I believe that God wants us to be the friends and allies of people across the world—just as Mark and Pema were.
I believe we are called to be yeast, standing up against injustice knowing that Jesus requires this of us.
I believe that when we understand that God is Love, we cannot believe that States know Best.
I believe that we are called to reject the Domination System and identity politics as antithetical to our faith.
I believe that we should not be cynical about efforts to transcend the idolatry of human sovereignty through the work of the international community.
I believe that only by seeking to transcend the patterns that the world enforces do we have the opportunity to see what Love can do.
Friends, let us pray:
God of Love, You alone are Sovereign. We come before you with Change in our hearts. We want to love all of your children as our neighbors. We want to transcend the patterns of this world as we seek to live out your will of justice and lovingkindness. Send your spirit upon this people gathered from all corners of your world, that all might be made new in Your Name. Amen.
B. Welling Hall, Plowshares Professor of Peace Studies, joined the Earlham College (Richmond, Indiana) faculty in 1986 with a B.A. from Oberlin College (Classical Greek) and a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University (Political Science). Her doctoral research focused on Soviet foreign policy and international efforts to resolve global problems peacefully. She has been the recipient of research, teaching, and public policy fellowships from the International Peace Research Association, the Ford Foundation, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Arms Control Association, the Joyce Foundation, the Academic Council for United Nations Studies, and the American Society of International Law. She has served as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Comparative Politology in Moscow and the Mershon Center in Columbus, Ohio. As a policy adviser she has worked as a consulting scholar to the YMCA’s Statesmanship Program and as a Congressional Fellow in Washington, D.C. Dr. Hall teaches courses in Politics and Peace and Global Studies. Her recent co-edited publications include The Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace and Peace, Justice, and Security Studies: A Curriculum Guide. Welling is a member of West Richmond Friends Meeting and serves on the Policy Committee of the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
The Peace Lecture was sponsored by Earlham College with special thanks to the family of Betty Carter.