Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Of interest to: Students
Primary Theme: Ethics
Secondary Theme: Citizenship
In this panel we address a question that has been central to Christianity since its earliest days: the question of how to relate to worldly powers like emperors or states. Scriptural teachings of Jesus and biblical authors have been read as politically revolutionary and, conversely, as politically conservative. Various theologies have crystallized around the matter of the relationship between Christians and rulers, confronting such issues as the responsibilities and limits of civic obedience and disobedience, matters of sovereignty, political transformation, and conflicts between demands of worldly powers and Christian principles.
Through comparative ethnography, we consider how different groups of Christians in the contemporary world address these matters of governance. In particular, we pay attention to the ethical systems and values that Christians may take as their points of reference when navigating their relation with the state, and the ethical reflections they engage in on this basis. These relations might be characterized by acts of resistance or produced through works of cooperation. We are interested in the ways in which Christians – as ordinary citizens, state employees or marginalized actors – negotiate their relation to the state with regard to such potentially conflictual issues as education, legal procedures, state developmentalism (Fantini 2017), taxes, military draft, health care and responses to epidemic disease, or definitions of what it means to be a good citizen (O'Neill 2010, Fantini 2013). A focus on ethics and morality offers us a means to attend to both ideational or theological orientations towards worldly governance (e.g. Martin 2017, Webster 2016), and to the practical modes of engagement with state and political systems (Englund 2011, Marshall 2009, Kertzer 1980).
We critically propose that there may be instances where a relation of interdependence or mutual creation exists between Christians and the state (Eriksen 2013; Fernando 2014), with each side depending on the other for fulfilling its goals, from proselytization to development and entrepreneurship, or where Christians themselves are not so easily distinguishable from state machinations. By taking up these issues, we aim to shed light on an intersection that so far has received less scholarly attention than other points of connection- such as those between Christianity and economics, Christianity and other forms of religion, or Christianity and kinship. We propose that an attention to discussions in the anthropological study of ethics and of value can help us to conceptualize in theoretically and ethnographically fresh ways questions of freedom, agency, hierarchy, responsibility, and subordination in the ways that religious adherents engage with state and political powers.
Ranging across Africa, Latin America and Europe, the papers in this panel all take up cases from within the broad spectrum of Protestant Christianity. A focus on varieties of Protestant Christianity offers comparative ethnographic possibilities concerning similarity and difference. Thematically, Christian citizenship, Christian critiques of the state, and religious ethno-nationalism are at the center of attention. Together, the papers in this panel demonstrate how for many Christian groups the encounter with the state is a powerful source of ethical reflection and action.