Christianity, Sovereignty and Global Law
28 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2020
Date Written: January 14, 2020
This paper, written as a chapter for a forthcoming book on Christianity and Global Law edited by Rafael Domingo and John Witte Jnr, scrutinises the idea of global law from the perspective of Christian political theology by focusing on the concept of sovereignty. For the purposes of the paper, “global law” is defined as the law of a universal and compulsory world community which consists essentially of individuals. The paper is organized around three questions: (1) What is sovereignty? (2) What is wrong about sovereignty? (3) What is right about sovereignty? In answering the first of these questions, I focus on the nature and extent of state sovereignty as understood in contemporary international law. In response to the second question, I turn to the highly influential theories of sovereignty advanced in the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes as examples of the logic of sovereignty when developed in its most absolute form. I argue that underlying the modern idea of sovereignty is a theological concept of absolute power (potentia absoluta), first attributed to God, and later to popes, kings, and states. This gives rise to a theological critique of state absolutism and an alternative account of sovereignty that I develop in response to the third question. Here I focus on the political theory of Johannes Althusius, an early seventeenth-century jurist who developed a pluralized conception of sovereignty deliberately in contradiction to Bodin’s absolutism.
Building on Althusius, I argue that political authority, understood as legitimate jurisdiction, is a status rightly possessed in different degrees and in different respects by the ruling institutions of many different forms of human community, from the smallest and most local, to the largest and most global. Sovereignty is a term that can be used to designate this kind of rightful but limited authority, and understood in this sense, it represents something very important standing in the way of a concept of global law premised on a compulsory universal community consisting essentially and simply of individuals. To conceive global community in this way is to posit a kind of “simple space” in which there is one center of rule exercised over the multitude of individuals, instead of a “complex space” in which there are multiple locations of authority operating simultaneously in different places and in different respects. It is this kind of complex and multifaceted space that is a more appropriate model underlying any law having a global reach or universal scope.
Keywords: sovereignty, global law, Christianity, theology, international law, Bodin, Hobbes, Althusius
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