Papers, Please

One of the most effective means of State control is the relentless production of required papers, permits, documents, and so on, from business licenses to drivers licenses to Social Security numbers. When a person has not met the vast number of government requirements the State has the “right” to harass and commit violence against that person. And since we are taught, virtually from birth on, that filling out papers and carrying our documents and meeting every jot and tittle of government regulations is not only necessary to avoid physical pain, but also morally good (how would society function without it?), we rarely question the value or justice of the endless regulations and documentation the State requires. The documentation regime- an integral part as well in the bureaucratic sense of totalizing control, in which every object under the State’s rule is documented and accounted for- is continually expanding, as the State seeks to extend its tentacles into every last aspect of life. And once established, one can hardly just decide to ignore it; in this both State and Capital are willing partners, as government documentation becomes necessary for transactions in the “private” sphere. Part of this, of course, is just the State’s desire to expropriate as much wealth as possible; hence anything that is “undocumented” is evil. Undocumented workers and undocumented transactions generate little or no revenue for the State and are hence evil. And when persons and entities ignore the documentation regime, they become less visible to the State and increasingly harder to control. Most importantly, when we ignore the documentation regime, when our lives are not tied into the control mechanisms and papers of the State and Capital, we begin to feel less a part of their systems, and begin to feel that our existence is not so directly tied to their existence. We begin to question, consciously or unconsciously, the legitimacy of an all-embracing State.

All of that is apropos of this article: Texas pastor protesting traffic stop arrested. The pastor and his congregation made several “mistakes” vis-a-vis the State. The accused driver lacked one of the many offical papers required for movement; as any centralized State knows, controlling and regulating human movement is absolutely vital to maintaining power. The church, apparently, also lacked proper papers, in this case an “occupancy license” required to hold services. Again, undocumented anythings are a danger to the State, even- perhaps especially- churches. Just ask the Chinese State- properly documented, “law-abiding” churches are not a threat; it is the congregations that refuse to be absorbed into the system that pose the true threat. Finally, the pastor made the mistake of a genuine protest: he was directly confronting the excercise of State power. Protest in the sense of marching on the Mall or something is no threat to the State; it serves in fact as a catharsis, an outlet for popular anger. Some governments, of course, savage all forms of protest, from petitioners to street marchers; other, arguably more savvy ones, integrate protest. But only within limits. This pastor overstepped those limits and met the consequences. For while governments, here and everywhere, largely rely upon the built-in acceptance and acquiesence to their policies, the threat of real physical violence is ultimately the source of power and authority. Papers or pepperspray, or worse.

One last point- the documentation regime is only part of the tendency, on both the part of governments and big capital, to reduce the person to a number, a aggregate of data, for purposes of control and marketing. Gabriel Marcel, the Catholic existentialist of the last century, wrote in several of his works about this tendency of the modern world to subsume all other aspects of human identity in offical information and data; the tendency continues and has arguably increased in the internet age, particularly for marketers. However, the internet also poses a challenge,since it is considerably harder to control, and is hence the cause of endless anxiety for governments from Washington to Beijing. At any rate, the documentation, person-reducing tendencies of State and Capital stand in stark relief to the iconic, “personalist” ideology of the Church. An icon, for example, is not a passport photo; it is not a reduction of the person into a mass of statistics and numbers. Hagiography is not, to the frustration of historians for the past couple of centuries, raw information, but is instead closer to a hymn or poem directed at the saint being honoured and held up as an example of transformed, Deified humanity. Even monastic life, which at first glance seems to be the most regulated aspect of Christian life, reveals a surprising latitute unallowable by modern governments, as abbots and spiritual directors mold their judgment and suggestions for each individual under their tutaleage. As the letters of two solitaries and spiritual directors from sixth century Gaza, Barsanuphius and John, reveal, the “rule” for one spiritual disciple may be entirely different from another, as one disciple is encouraged to fast more or pray a certain number of times, while another is directed in an entirely different manner. John and Barsanuphius, of course, are not relativists in any way; rather they recognize the differences between different people, different states (in Sufism a similar practice is embraced under the idea of differing maqam, stations of the spiritual life, that vary from one person to another).

Finally, the presence of Christ in the Church is in general disruptive to attempts by both State and Capital to exert their control; again, the most expansively totalitarian regimes of recent years understood this quite well and sought to control and co-opt the Faith as much as they could. Jesus does not carry papers; or rather, His “documentation” in the world ultimately moves in channels different from and ultimately uncontrollable by any temporal State. The central action of the Eucharist breaks into a world of data and person-control, as an undocumented Savior offers His Body and Blood for each person in His Body, food and drink “without cost,” in Isaiah’s borderless gathering of the peoples on the Mountain of God. From Baptism to Eucharist, Christ offers an identity rooted, not in regulations or marketing or fear or lust, but in a Living Savior Who unites each person with Himself and calls Him to theosis, to transformation in God. And surely anyone genuinely living the baptised life, inhabiting the world not of endless documents and statistics and advertising campaigns, is a far greater threat than any violent revolutionary or marching protestor.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s