Thursday, August 21, 2008

More Evidence that the State is not the Keeper of the Common Good

I finished reading Top Secret Tourism by Harry Helms a few weeks ago. It's an incomplete list of the major government locations in the US which were or are involved in some kind of activity which the government wants to keep under wraps (mostly, anyway) and out of the everyday thoughts of the average person. A number of the sites listed were established for something called "Continuity of Government". This program began in the 1950's during the buildup of Cold War fears that the US and Russia would annihilate each other with their growing arsenals of nuclear weapons. For instance, if Washington, DC were attacked or threatened with attack, critical functions of the government would need to be moved out of harms way. Thus underground facilities were built near Berryville, VA, known as Mount Weather, which were capable of withstanding a nuclear blast. Other sites which were built (which are safe from radioactive fallout but not from a direct hit) are at Boonsboro and Hagerstown, MD, Mercersburg, PA, and Harpers Ferry, WV. Various departments would retreat to their designated location should the unthinkable happen.

A few years ago, William Cavanaugh wrote an article called "Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good". The main thrust is that states (particularly Western ones) tend to be seen as the "keepers of the common good" in that society. He goes on to argue that the church is actually that space where the common good of the gospel is preached and practiced. Along the way, he makes the case that the state's history of development is really characterized by an idea of salvation from the common fear of death. Rather than the state being founded on a positive unity, it is founded on a negative one.

I think one of the things the existence of the Continuity of Government program makes clear is that the US government is not thinking of the "common good" first, or perhaps it sees it's own preservation as that common good. But that's not what most of us would think the common good is. While the government leaders are "safe" in the shelters, what is the "common" citizen supposed to be doing? Making do with plastic sheeting and duct tape? If the state is willing to "fight for our freedom" overseas, why is it only securing the safety of it's highest leaders here. And yes, I know the obvious answer: the government needs to continue functioning in the event of any kind of disaster. But the fact remains that the lives of government leaders have been deemed worthy of saving while the rest have been deemed worthy to be left behind. The call of the church is completely otherwise: self-sacrificial ministry and care for those who are deemed "the lowest" in our society, as well as a decentralized leadership that is nonetheless united by the Spirit of Christ. I would even argue that historically the church has a valid claim to the title "keeper of the common good" (hospitals, relief work) while the state does not, but that will have to wait for another post.

Postscript: Let me make it clear that I'm not saying that "the big one's coming so dig your backyard bomb shelters to save your own butt." I am simply following the logic of the government's plan to its apparent conclusion: "We are indispensable. You... well, good luck. We'll pray for you."

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