Introduction to the Conference Reader

-- John Carlson and Erik Owens

State sovereignty at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not the indomitable idea it once was.  Since codified by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, sovereignty—understood as a state’s authority over its territory, people, and laws—has been the core political premise of the modern nation-state system.  But the end of the Cold War and the march toward economic and cultural globalization have led to debate, even confusion, about the appropriate roles and responsibilities of sovereign nations (and international organizations like NATO and the United Nations) regarding the internal affairs of other sovereign states.  Consider the following recent events: NATO’s military intervention against the nation of Yugoslavia on behalf of Kosovar Albanians; Spain’s indictment of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for human rights abuses; an international war crimes tribunal to prosecute leaders of the Rwandan genocide; and the proposal of an International Criminal Court that could one day hear cases against the world’s most ruthless dictators. Each event, in its own way, signals a challenge to the classical conception of state sovereignty; whether this change is always for the better, however, is a matter of sharp contention.

The general scope of the debate consists, on one side, of “non-interventionists”—we might call them “sovereigntists”—who contend that intervention in other states’ domestic affairs threatens the stability of a world order in which no “supra-state” or world umpire exists.  On the other side are  “interventionists” of varying stripes who believe that there are certain misdeeds for which even political sovereignty cannot provide immunity or guarantee non-interference.  The fundamental question, it seems, is this: if state sovereignty is no longer the trump card in international relations, what principle, if any, has replaced it?  Whatever the answer, we submit that some notion of “the sacred” lies at the heart of this shift of political priorities and paradigms.

For several reasons, an appreciation of religion’s role in this debate is necessary to understand fully the world of—and the world beyond—national borders.  First, religious traditions embody strong moral convictions that powerfully inform and also historicize our understandings of sovereignty and sacredness.  Furthermore, the empirical reality is that religious beliefs, practices, and movements are central to the most wrenching and difficult political conflicts of our day—Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and South Africa, to name a few.  Finally, modern religions are complex and ambiguous phenomena that, despite being causes of violence, are uniquely postured to be forces for peace and reconciliation as well.

To achieve some clarity about these complex and still evolving issues, the University of Chicago Divinity School has convened a conference entitled “The Sacred and the Sovereign: Human Rights, the Use of Force and Religious Pluralism at Century’s Dawn.”  This Reader consists of several articles and essays to serve as background material for the conference; those who attend will recognize many of the authors here as conference speakers and panelists.  We think, though, that those who do not attend will find these articles equally informative and stimulating, as the issues go beyond the conference itself.

We have compiled this Reader with several designs in mind.  First, the articles provide historical, philosophical, sociological and theological backdrops for the key ideas of the sacred-sovereign tension the conference will explore.  Second, the Reader aims to stimulate thoughts and questions about recent developments in international affairs, and how they might be perceived in light of such backdrops.  Finally, it provides an interdisciplinary body of material that can be used as a discussion guide in classrooms, workshops, or other settings. Please note that for brevity’s sake, the original articles have been edited and all footnotes have been omitted; the bibliography (p. 28) will direct the reader to the original sources. Following is a brief survey of the texts we have selected for the Reader. 

Jean Bethke Elshtain’s essays provide rich accounts of how theology, and its movement through history, has shaped our modern understanding of sovereignty (see p. 2) as well as the sacred underpinnings of human worth (see p. 17).  The protection of human dignity Elshtain describes lies at the heart of many conceptions of human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is reprinted here.

Humanitarian military intervention in a sovereign nation represents perhaps the most vivid and consummate example of the sacred-sovereign tension, which the conference’s first session will explore in depth as a kind of case study.  Four articles explicitly take up the question of intervention.  The essay by Bryan Hehir, one of the nation’s foremost experts on just war theory, argues for the legitimacy of military intervention in Kosovo from within the just war tradition.  Similarly, “Sit Tight,” an editorial from Commonweal magazine, puts forth a kind of practical-moral necessity for intervention in Kosovo.  But intervention, even when religiously inspired, is still subject to scrutiny, as Richard Miller’s article makes clear.  Miller raises questions about several approaches to intervention; in particular, the “global village” position’s inability to provide specific criteria for intervention may too readily lead to powerful nations over-moralizing their own political agendas.  The concern for a consistent policy also drives “Intervention: When and How?”, an editorial from Commonweal that considers reasons why decisions to intervene are often selectively applied.

Despite such calls for intervention, “sovereigntists” maintain critical viewpoints.  Many such critics would declare themselves to be “political realists” of one variety or another.  But Robin Lovin offers a different kind of realism known as "Christian Realism,” a position most closely identified in the twentieth-century with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  Lovin examines the interaction of religion and politics through this lens, and argues that a realist account of human freedom and human nature is needed to restore moral and political accountability in the public sphere.  Lovin’s version of realism, then, presents a position that can, and often does, make room for responsible interventionism.

Accountability is also the central theme of this Reader’s essay by John Shattuck, a legal theorist and former Assistant Secretary of State.  Shattuck details the new and complex challenges to human rights that have evolved since the end of the Cold War, and argues that that the time is ripe for communities advocating democracy and human rights to work together to address the problem.   They can reconcile their differences, he writes, if they recast the issues in terms of accountability—that of rulers to citizens, and of states to the international community.

The essays by Susanne Rudolph and Scott Appleby anticipate the themes of the second conference session, which will explore the possibilities for global influence and activism uniquely available to faith-based institutions.  Rudolph demonstrates how “transnational organizations” can militate against the dilemmas that absolute or “monopoly sovereignty” leaves unresolved.  Appleby keenly identifies religious movements’ who work towards conflict resolution, groups too often overshadowed by those that incite religious violence.  Rudolph and Appleby join Fred Dallmayr in observing that religious movements are on the rise—and with us to stay—despite the predictions of early social scientists that religion’s influence would eventually disappear.  Secularism, however, remains an important force, even for the religious, as Dallmayr’s piece shows.  This is true in large part because religion is often preeminently concerned with the saeculum, that is, the temporal affairs of this world.  Moreover, writes Dallmayr, when wisely conceived, secularism can actually enhance and enrich religious faith.

The saeculum—what Saint Augustine called the “earthly city”—has always been shaped by conceptions of the sacred, though at some times and places more than others.  Intimations of “the sacred” are often acted out while relatively few look on, as in the case of the sacred pilgrimages across national boundaries that Rudolph notes in her essay.  At other times, the sacred and the sovereign are much less compatible, and the violent results play out for all the world to see.  As we write this introduction,  Jerusalem—a holy city to three of the world’s religions—is consumed with violence spawned by rival sovereign claims to overlapping sacred space.  New and creative proposals to implement “religious autonomy” or “divine sovereignty” in the ancient city have thus far failed to take hold, and the Middle East peace process is once again on the brink of collapse.  Jerusalem remains a terrible reminder of the powerful, often deadly, tension between the sacred and the sovereign at the dawn of the twenty-first century.


John Carlson and Erik Owens are doctoral students in ethics
at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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