Agamben, “The Sacrament of Language”

Last month, Wiley Publishing published The Sacrament of Language (Polity March 2012) by well known philosopher Giorgio Agamben. The publisher’s description follows.

Oaths play an essential part in the political and religious history of the West as a ‘sacrament of power’. Yet despite numerous studies by linguists, anthropologists and historians of law and of religion, there exists no complete analysis of the oath which seeks to explain the strategic function that this phenomenon has performed at the intersection of law, religion and politics.

The oath seems to define man himself as a political animal, but what is an oath and from where does it originate? Taking this question as its point of departure, Giorgio Agamben’s book develops a pathbreaking ‘archaeology’ of the oath. Via a firsthand survey of Greek and Roman sources which shed light on the nexus of the oath with archaic legislation, acts of condemnation and the names of gods and blasphemy, Agamben recasts the birth of the oath as a decisive event of anthropogenesis, the process by which mankind became humanity. If the oath has historically constituted itself as a ‘sacrament of power’, it has functioned at one and the same time as a ‘sacrament of language’ – a sacrament in which man, discovering that he can speak, chooses to bind himself to his language and to use it to put life and destiny at stake.

Kadri on the Many Facets of Shari’a

This month, Farrar, Straus & Giroux publishes Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law From the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, by Sadakat Kadri, a lawyer and journalist.  Kadri attempts to clarify prevailing misunderstandings over Shari’a and its application both in the ancient and modern worlds.  Above all, Kadri illustrates that Shari’a is far from monolithic; rather, its application today and throughout time has been varied and a matter of debate.  While Shari’a has occasionally been considered synonymous with harshness, Kadri reveals its essential ethic of compassion and equity—one not reducible to simplistic generalization.

Please read the New York Times review of Heaven on Earth here.  Please listen to the author’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air here.  The publisher’s description follows the jump. Read more

Sternlieb on the Shomrim and the Establishment Clause

Sarah Sternlieb (Emory University School of Law) has posted When Eyes and Ears Become Arms of the State: The Dangers of Privatization Through Government Funding Insular Religious Groups. The abstract follows.

The Shomrim, Hebrew for ‘guards,’ operate as an ancillary police force in Hasidic communities. Defined by devout adherence to traditional norms, Hasidic Jews confine themselves to insular communities within America. However, like many insular or inherently religious communities, they appear to have a propensity to discriminate against outsiders in their attempts at seclusion. Although the Shomrim hold themselves out as their community’s primary police force, they frequently commit bias crimes and other discriminatory acts. This Comment advances the novel argument that the Shomrim are state actors, and that government funding to the Shomrim may also violate the Establishment Clause. The Shomrim receive substantial government funding, maintain close ties and connections with the police and the state, and perform a public function. Because these connections constitute a ‘close nexus,’ the Shomrim’s actions are fairly attributable to the state. As state actors, the Shomrim would be held accountable to constitutional limitations, and would be prohibited from discriminating against outsiders. However, remedying this attribution of state action implicates additional constitutional problems. This Comment proposes that under current state action doctrine and Establishment Clause jurisprudence, the only permissible solution in this context is to remove government ties and funding.
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Religion and State in Neoliberal Africa

This month, University of Notre Dame Press publishes Displacing the State: Religion and Conflict in Neoliberal Africa.  Edited by James Howard Smith of U.C. Davis and Rosalind I.J. Hackett, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Displacing the State collects essays exploring religion’s role in African colonialism.  It also collects essays exploring the ways in which religion shaped post-colonial African politics and continues to shape politics in present-day Africa.

For the publisher’s description, please follow the jump.  Notre Dame Press excerpts James Howard Smith’s introduction to the volume here. Read more

More on the SSPX, the Vatican, and Religious Freedom

A couple of days ago, I noted the negative response of the Society of Saint Pius X, a traditionalist Catholic body, to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent statement on the importance of religious freedomThe SSPX criticized the American concept of religious freedom, which the Conference had endorsed, as a more or less Protestant idea inconsistent with traditional Church teaching. I guessed that the SSPX represented a rather small movement within Catholicism, but thought it interesting that the bishops’ stance on religion in public life could draw criticism from the right as well as the left.

It turns out I may have underestimated the importance of the SSPX.  (A lesson: outsiders really should not assume they understand relations at the Holy See). La Stampa reports this week that the Vatican and the SSPX are poised to sign an agreement to make the SSPX a personal prelature of the Pope, like Opus Dei. This is big news. Pope John Paul II excommunicated the founder of the SSPX, the French Cardinal Marcel Lefebvre, for disobedience, but Pope Benedict has been working hard to bring the group back into the fold. One major sticking point has been the issue of religious freedom. The SSPX believes that Vatican II’s famous endorsement of religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, contradicts  earlier papal statements, most importantly the 19th Century “Syllabus of Errors,” which famously condemned the idea that “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.”

What does this week’s apparent agreement suggest about the Church’s position on religious freedom? According to La Stampa, although the agreement requires SSPX to submit to the Pope on important doctrinal matters, it specifically allows for “legitimate discussion, study and theological explanation of particular expressions or formulations found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.” Given the SSPX’s long, and apparently continuing, discomfort with Dignitatis Humanae, this language might mean that the concept of religious freedom, at least as understood in at Vatican II, is once again up for debate within the Church. That’s what the La Stampa article suggests. But, as I say, outsiders really should not assume they understand relations at the Holy See.