Hallowing bare life

Excerpt taken from “The Duty of Care to Refugees, Christian Cosmopolitanism, and the Hallowing of Bare Life”, Bretherton Luke, Studies in Christian Ethics (2006), 19(1), 39-61.

Refugees and bare life as gift

Arendt suggests that one of the reasons nation-states find it so difficult to assimilate refugees into the political order is that as a form of human civilisation it cannot cope with the sheer givenness of human existence. What cannot be organised and domesticated reminds us of the limitations of human activity. The other, in their sheer givenness, emerges as a threat that arouses ‘dumb hatred, mistrust, and discrimination because they indicate all too clearly those spheres where men cannot act and change at will, i.e., the limitations of the human artifice’ (Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 301).

By contrast, to hallow something means recognising the irreducible worth of what is before one. To hallow a name is to recognize a person and value that person’s ‘external self-outworking and self-expression in relation to all other beings’ (Barth, The Christian Life, 154). To hallow one with a name is to identify someone who is free to act in and of herself, who is not simply a passive recipient, but someone who brings herself to expression in the world (either potentially, actually or latently). A person with a name is one who is differentiated, distinct and deserving of honour that is their due. Barth identifies hallowing the name of God with glorification and transfiguration. Barth takes these to mean the overcoming of ‘all misunderstanding and obscurity concerning someone and to set forth and display his true being openly and clearly’ so that he may be known ‘distinctly and unmistakably as the one he really is’ (Barth, 160). To hallow one made in the image of God, imaging being understood in relational terms, involves this same dynamic of overcoming misunderstanding and obscurity. Thus, within discussions of refugees and asylum seekers we are to avoid characterising them as passive subjects. Rather, they are persons with a name possessing their own complex agency and motivations…

In hallowing the name of God we recognise both the otherness of God and that God is intimately related to us. The One we hallow is named to us as Father. Thus, the two dimensions of divine personal being – otherness and relation – are encompassed in the prayer. Likewise, if hallowing bare life involves recognising another person with a name who is distinct and other, it also involves recognising relationship as constitutive of creaturely personhood. (p. 56)

Refugees and bare life as promise

The hallowing of bare life involves trusting that we will see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. ‘Hallowed be thy name’ is an expression of eschatological hope for that time when God will be all in all. The Lord’s Prayer as a whole can be read as a summons to live according to the Kingdom of God. The gift of kinship with God  that is established in Christ is the beginning of a new community whose pattern of life is set out in the Prayer. This new community generates new forms of solidarity. Bernd Wannenwetsch notes how the formation of the ekklesia overcame the antinomies of polis and oikos to form a hybrid, the oikos-polis. The new political space that was the church re-figured all existing social relationships. Women, slaves and children, who were previously excluded from the public political realm where now addressed as citizens. Men, the only ones who had political agency, and who in their homes were the pater familias, are now asked to identify themselves as brothers to slaves, women and children. As Galatians 3 suggests, ethnic, sexual, political and economic differences do not count when it comes to being included as a citizen in the city of God; and as the Gospel of Matthew puts it, it is ‘whoever does the will of my Father in heaven [who] is my brother and sister and mother’. The hallowing of bare life involves just such a re-configuring of social relations in the contemporary context…

The new forms of solidarity that emerge through the hallowing of bare life necessarily involves a two-way reconfiguration. Openness to the Other involves changing the status quo in order to accommodate the Otherness of the Other. Likewise, the ‘guest’ must adapt and change as they, with their host, together seek communion with God. … However, such mutual transformation necessarily involves loss as the familiar and what counts as ‘home’ is renegotiated. In order for new forms of solidarity to emerge, a process of grieving is necessary as both guest and host emigrate from the familiar. Such grieving is the prelude to the formation of shared memories and an interdependent identity narrative….

It must be remembered, however, that eschatology is neither utopian nor idealistic. Thus, the hallowing of bare life is not a call to be overwhelmed by what cannot be done. We are not to fret that we are not gods. We can only take little steps operating within the framework of opportunities and possibilities open to us…’Measured by whether it is analogous or not to the hallowing of God’s name for which we pray, a supposedly great step might be a fairly small one. Measured by the same criterion, a supposedly little step might really be a very big one.’ (Barth, The Christian Life, 172). Stories of five thousand fed from a few loaves and fishes, of mustard seeds turning into great trees, of new life gestated in crucifixion and death should open our eyes to the reality that, within an economy of grace, small steps can bear manifold fruit. (59-60).

This entry was posted in Being human, Relationality, Vulnerability and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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