On the Nations: Fr. Schall’s meditation on nations and polities
James V. Schall, S.J.
TUESDAY, JANUARY 19, 2016
In the Breviary and in Scripture, we often read passages like these: “All nations will acclaim His glory”; “He shall judge between the nations”; “All nations will see the glory of your Holy One”; “The nations shall know that I am the Lord”; “All the kings of the earth will bow down in worship”; “The nations shall see your justice”; “What great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord”; “King of the nations, you called the Magi to adore you as the first representatives of the nations”; “Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day”; “All nations will walk in our brightness”; “Men and women of every nation will serve him.”
These and similar passages strike us because these things do not happen in this world. And what’s this about “nations acclaiming God’s glory?” Nations are not persons. No political entity is a substantial being, though we do have “corporations” or “legal persons” created by law for some limited purpose. So what is this telling us that “nations” will “worship” God? And even if they could, it is extremely doubtful if many nations would worship God as He has urged them to do and in the manner He has indicated. We even come across the notion of a “wicked nation,” almost as if it were a person of some kind.
Some 195 entities we call “states” exist in the world. The word “state” is a modern term with a modern meaning. It is a form rising above the actual citizens who are its subjects. The Greek word “polity” referred rather to the way citizens who have chosen differing moral ends organize themselves to promote and protect those ends. The classical terms – monarchy, aristocracy, polity, democracy, oligarchy, tyranny, and mixed regime flow from this classical approach.
The term “nation” was discussed by Maritain in his Man and the State. The word comes from “natus,” that is, from birth. So tribes and nations technically refer to those of the same blood origin. We do not “choose” our blood lines. Whether a state should force the disappearance of nation is a delicate issue. If we remove all signs of family, kinship, and nation from our states, we are left with a concept of unattached individual citizens with no roots in blood or place, with nothing except a formal and legal relation to a distant sovereign. In this sense, the term “nation-state” is much preferred to that of “the state”, lo stato, as Machiavelli called it.
The New Testament notion of “rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was quite radical. It implied that some things did not belong to Caesar. It divided every polity in two. Then it asked the two divisions, which included the same people, to get along by respecting the division. Political rule lost its exclusive “all-powerfulness.” What things, in the end, did belong to Caesar? If everything belongs to Caesar, he will inevitably demand that he be worshiped as a god, something that has frequently happened in human history, including our own time.
On the other hand, “My Kingdom is not of this world” did not mean that the Church was totally invisible. It did mean that it was not a “state” in competition with or organized similarly to other polities whose basic structure was something of reason, not revelation, and therefore did not need to be “revealed.”
Is the notion that “all the nations will adore Thee” simply a metaphor? Only persons can adore God. States and nations are not “things.” They indicate relationships among persons. But what are we to make of these passages that speak of “all nations” worshipping God? One avenue is to posit these passages not as some form of United Nations at prayer but as eschatological. Whether there will be “nations” in eternal life can be wondered about. Certainly we shall know our “blood lines.”
The term “secular” means the things properly of this world (saeculum). We can talk of kings, queens, presidents, emperors, or prime ministers worshiping God as persons, each with his own chosen transcendent destiny. They can also “speak” in the name of the people they represent. Can a “state” that limits itself to what it is pay proper homage to God? A state honors God precisely by being only what it is.
Thus, anyone from any nation, any “blood-line,” “can” worship God as a person provided the state in which he dwells does not itself implicitly or explicitly conceive itself as a god that absorbs all reality into itself. The concerns about “idolatry” found in the texts of revelation were not idle speculations.
In Revelation 15, however, we read: “Since you alone are holy, all nations will come and worship in your presence.” Those persons that prefer the “idols” evidently are neither holy nor do they attain to the “presence.”