Political theology and the rise of tyrants

In recent years, sociological and philosophical studies of political sovereignty and governance have featured fascinating references to biblical literature — in particular to the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. “Romans” in the New Testament contains 16 chapters and, together with many other letters, forms a whole body of works known as the Pauline epistles.

We hear didactic passages from these letters during Mass, without necessarily being aware of the context in which they were written. There has been much debate on what they mean and what they imply for politics and correct political behavior in modern times.

Particularly noteworthy is Romans 13, which opens thus: “1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”

Are the people of God really being commanded by Saint Paul to blindly and meekly obey earthly authorities on the ground that the latter “are established by God”? Does their faith bound them to subject themselves to the authority even of tyrants, some of whom take delight in badmouthing God himself and ridiculing those who follow him?

All political theology, such as here articulated by Saint Paul, proceeds from certain metaphysical assumptions. To wit: That all authority comes from God, and therefore all existing governments ultimately draw their authority from God. That their rule must be embraced because it is God’s rule. That to resist existing government authorities is tantamount to defying God.

In the age of tyranny, the absurdity of these propositions becomes immediately apparent. One would need great imagination, for example, to depict Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as the personification of God’s authority on earth, or to represent the will of the people who voted for him as the will of God. From day one of his presidential candidacy, the man has made a habit of mocking religious beliefs and observances, and of cursing and insulting bishops and priests of the Catholic faith. Since becoming President, he has increasingly sounded as though he were God’s equal, if not God himself.

Thank God, I am not a theologian but a sociologist. Sociologists resolutely avoid turning to metaphysics in order to account for phenomena like political domination and legitimation. We treat such phenomena as immanent, rather than transcendental — to be rationally explained by pointing to generative mechanisms and conditions within society itself rather than to divine wisdom or sovereignty.

Curiously, Mr. Duterte may agree with this approach. As ironic as it may be, he very likely does not believe it was God’s will that catapulted him to the presidency. I’m certain he scoffs at the idea peddled by his erstwhile spiritual adviser, the Davao-based televangelist Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, that God had told him (Quiboloy) in a dream that Mr. Duterte would be President.

I think he knows that he was plainly lucky to have made himself available at a precise moment in the nation’s history when people felt angry and desperate about politics and thought he could save the country and give it a future.

Judging from the way every single day of his presidency has unfolded in the last three years, this President seems bent on saying the most scandalous things and acting in the most outrageous way in public if only to test the limits of public support. He has dared every institution and every center of societal influence — the mass media, the Church, the business elite, workers and the urban poor, the political opposition, the military, the Left, Congress, the judiciary, academe, and the international community — to oppose him, and to get rid of him if they think he has been a disservice to the nation. That he has been able to maintain high levels of approval and trust ratings in opinion surveys despite all this speaks volumes about the way we think as a people, and only serves to confirm his narcissistic delusions.

Is God trying to communicate something in his mysterious ways when Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in relation to the rise of strongmen like Mr. Duterte? Some have tried to interpret Romans 13 in a way that makes sense of the complex problem of political legitimacy in contemporary governments. Indeed, the German jurist Carl Schmitt, in a book titled “Political Theology,” has lately become popular among those who seek justification for the “state of exception,” or emergency authoritarian rule, as a weapon against chaos. Schmitt celebrated Hitler’s rise to power, seeing in this the state’s self-defense and necessity.

But, the Jewish philosopher and hermeneuticist Jacob Taubes, a Pauline scholar, sought to counter Schmitt’s political theology every step of the way.  In his book, “The Political Theology of Paul,” Taubes argues that there are no legitimate political orders, only legal orders. For him, the embodiment of divine sovereignty is the people, who constitute the “body” of Christ. To Schmitt’s theology of the sovereign, Taubes contraposes the theology of community, which harks back to the Jewish messianic tradition of emancipation from imperial rule.

Schmitt conceived of chaos as something that rises to the top from below, prompting the state to take action to preserve itself. But, Taubes thought of chaos as something that could equally “come from above,” thus justifying civil disobedience.