04/08/2014

The Revolution of the Saints Revisited From Geneva

In the West, there is tremendous fear of Islamic fundamentalism taking over the Arab world. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), often described as “extremist” and “militant,” continues its march towards Baghdad; in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood remains an important actor. Surprisingly, there should be a particular understanding of this phenomenon from a Geneva perspective.


Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints is a seminal work. It traces the history of political modernity through radical Protestantism, especially in John Calvin’s Geneva. Viewing the world as no longer fallen, ordinary citizens became saintlike in trying to create a Christian Commonwealth on this earth. The Geneva Bible, one of the first efforts at vulgarizing the Latin text, as well as the political theocracy of the local government showed how the man in the street had taken on an important role.
The first act of modern democracy was the beheading of the English King Charles I in 1641. The people spoke and acted against the feudal hierarchy. The notion that a monarch, a Pope or any magistrate could determine man’s fate was no longer acceptable. The very basis of democracy – rule of the people, by the people and for the people – was being established. Formal constitutions would follow; the legalization of democratic theory would become an integral part of Western culture including individual rights, even unalienable rights.
What about those who disagreed? If the revolution of the saints was to establish God’s kingdom on this earth, what was to happen to those who didn’t follow the saints? In Geneva, Calvin’s theocracy was not kind to outliers. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 for blasphemy and heresy under the orders of the Geneva Council. In the United States, Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for sedition and heresy and forced to lead his followers to Providence, later Rhode Island. His figure is on the Wall of the Reformation in Geneva, but his banishment from Boston should be a reminder to all those who go against the accepted creed.
Another example of the notion that God’s Chosen have a particular role to play involves many Israeli Jews. In an infamous radio interview, the Israeli philosopher Emmanuel Levinas defended the Israel Defence Forces allowing Phalangists into two Palestinian camps in Beirut, Sabra and Shatila, in 1982 where several hundred people were killed over two days.
Levinas, the philosopher of I-You relationship and original responsibility for the Other, replied to the obvious question about Palestinians being the Other: “My definition of the Other is completely different. The other is the neighbor, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be. And in that sense, if you’re for the other, you’re for the neighbor. But if your neighbor attacks another neighbor or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least then we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust. There are people who are wrong.”
In other words, the Palestinians were not to be considered as part of the Other; they were totally separate, not part of the original I-You, neither kin nor neighbors.
I am not an expert on Muslim theology. I have no special knowledge of a caliphate. And I do not accept wanton violence being used by any group in the name of revolution, religious or otherwise. But when we talk about international law, civilization, the international community, are we really including everyone in the picture? The history of Western civilization has involved crusades where millions of non-believers were killed. The original Europeans who landed in the New World for Gold, Glory and Gospel, were not benevolent to the natives they encountered – see Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other – just as Americans were not sympathetic to the Native Americans who resided in North America before they were driven West.
We should condemn wanton violence by any group. But we should also be aware that much of Western history was founded on the sword and a definite intolerance of those who were different. The revolution of the saints, the Leveller movement, was a turning point in history in establishing the idea of the importance of the individual and citizenship. But their aim was to establish Christian communities for the Chosen.
Are Sunni-Shiite confrontations really that different from the religious wars that killed millions in Europe? During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholic and Protestant states in Central Europe, 25-40% of the population in German states died, the male population was reduced by half, not to mention the witch hunts that followed.
At a time when much is being made against foreigners, immigrants, and Others, it is helpful to remember the roots of our democratic culture before knee jerk condemnations of saintlike movements just because they appear different from ours.

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