The Christian Roots of State Sovereignty

Humanitarian aid organizations and humanitarian military operations share not only resources but also a history that takes us back to Enlightenment notions of the human and humanity out of which humanitarianism was born. As we know, the question of Enlightenment humanism, or what is proper to man, as defined against the machine, the animal, and God, is never far from Derrida’s analysis of questions of responsibility—particularly, the secret, the witness, hospitality, perjury and pardon or forgiveness, and the death penalty. From the time of his lectures on theology and politics of the mid-1980s to the ten seminars titled Questions of Responsibility given from 1991 to 2001, Derrida continually and repeatedly returns politics and philosophy back to their theological—specifically Christian—roots, which ultimately lead back to the sovereignty of God, mirrored by the self-sovereignty of man created in his image. In his final seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida continues with the theme of the theological (particularly Christian) foundations of sovereignty.

Taking a quick survey of how Derrida relates humanist discourses of tolerance, forgiveness, and hospitality to sovereignty, particularly Christian notions of God’s sovereignty, gives us a blueprint for considering humanitarianism as the flip side of this same tolerant–intolerant sovereignty. For example, in the late 1990s, discussing the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and other political contexts, where forgiveness made its way into political discourse as a way of addressing “crimes against humanity,” Derrida (2001, 31) says, “If . . . the crime against humanity is a crime against what is most sacred in the living, and thus already against the divine in man . . . then the ‘globalisation’ of forgiveness resembles an immense scene of confession in progress, thus a virtually Christian convulsion-conversion-confession, a process of Christianisation which has no more need for the Christian church.” Derrida finds this Christian stain in the Hegelian notion of forgiveness as reconciliation, redemption, and salvation and its secular uptake in contemporary political discourse, insofar as it reinscribes forgiveness within an economy of exchange that ultimately takes us back to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as payment for human sin, on one hand, and the absolute sovereignty of God to grant forgiveness, on the other.

Likewise, in his lectures on hospitality, Derrida reveals how the Enlightenment ideal of hospitality we inherit from Kant is indebted to its religious heritage, even as Kant limits hospitality to the right of visitation in the context of commerce (for Kant, the need for commerce having given rise to political or public rights in the first place). The Kantian cosmopolitan right to hospitality is one of Derrida’s favorite examples of conditional hospitality, which always necessarily operates in tension with unconditional hospitality. The tension between conditional and unconditional is apparent in Pauline hospitality, which explicitly links hospitality to citizenship when St. Paul says, “You are no longer foreigners abroad, you are fellow-citizens of the Saints, you belong to the House of God” (Derrida 2001, 20; Ephesians 2:19–20). Yet, as Derrida insists, “there is no hospitable house. There is no house without doors and windows. But as soon as there are a door and windows, it means that someone has the key to them and consequently controls the conditions of hospitality. There must be a threshold. But if there is a threshold, there is no longer hospitality” (14). The House of God, then, above all signals the mastery or sovereignty of the ultimate host and the key to salvation.

As Derrida points out, host has its roots in the Latin hostis (which means not only “host” but also “guest,” “visitor,” “stranger,” or “foreigner”) and in the Latin hospes (a compound of hostis and potis, which means “lord and master of the house”). Thus the concept of hospitality we inherit from this Christian tradition contains within it the sovereign mastery of one’s own house, family, country, and nation, which signals a “self-limitation or self-contradiction in the law of hospitality” that Derrida associates with what he comes to call autoimmune logic (5, 14).[1] Once again, the ultimate host is the Holy Host, welcoming us into the House of God through the transubstantiation of Christ’s body and blood on the cross.

The contradictions of Christianity and its autoimmune logic come to the fore in Derrida’s analysis of the death penalty, particularly insofar as the sanctity of human life is used to justify both capital punishment and its abolition. The whole bloody history of enlightened executions (along with their abolition) is indebted to Christian humanitarianism, nailed to the thorny issue of the crucifixion of Christ’s human body. Again talking about the theological roots of modern politics, in the first session of the Death Penalty seminars, Derrida (2013, 2) announces that the seminar will be about “the religion of the death penalty” and “the death penalty as religion.” In session 8, he identifies an eighteenth-century “humanitarian” transformation of the death penalty with the invention of the “humanitarian machine,” the guillotine, by a former Jesuit of the Society of Jesus, Doctor Guillotin, who justified his invention as a more humane capital punishment, a supposedly painless, instantaneous death offering no more than a “breeze” on the back of the neck (193–95).[2] Additionally, the humanitarian machine offered an anonymous killing, rendering the executor no more than a machine operator, a mere cog in the wheel of the killing machine. The same humanizing logic is at work in drone warfare, where thousands of miles separate the executioner from the condemned, and offers the illusion not only of instantaneous death, and anonymous killing, but also of humanitarian concern for limited loss of life or controlled collateral damage.[3]

In the nineteenth century, Derrida finds Christian humanitarianism at work not only in defense of a more humane death penalty but also in the abolitionist discourse taking place at the same time, particularly that of Victor Hugo, who promises that the “gentle law of Christ will finally permeate the legal code” and that crime will be considered an illness. Then hospitals will replace prisons, doctors will replace judges, and the cross will replace the gallows, signaling the substitution of Christ’s blood for that of the sinner. It’s not just Dr. Guillotin, then, who turns punishment into medical science; the abolitionist Hugo proposes Christic “balm and unction” as a curative. On both sides, as Derrida concludes, “the medicalization of justice is done in the figure, history, and narrative of Christ” (208). As we will see, with humanitarian aid, the balm and unction of Christ become both cure and poison, operating according to the autoimmune logic of Christian charity based on the violence of the cross; after all, Christianity, like Western philosophy, begins with the death penalty. This autoimmune Christianity, embodied in the figure of the crucified Jesus, both man and God, human and divine, moral and immortal, suffering and saved, leads to the humanitarian attempt to solve the contradiction by focusing on Christ’s embodiment and suffering, that is to say, what makes him like us. And now we are getting to the crux of the matter, namely, how the history of the concept of “humanitarian,” which engenders contemporary notions of humanitarian aid and humanitarian space, is nailed to the cross through identification with the human suffering of Jesus.