The nation-state is neither community writ large nor the protector of smaller communal spaces, but rather originates and grows over against truly common forms of life. This is not necessarily to say that the nation-state cannot and does not promote and protect some goods, or that any nation- state is entirely devoid of civic virtue, or that some forms of ad hoc co- operation with the government cannot be useful. It is to suggest that the nation-state is simply not in the common good business. At its most benign, the nation-state is most realistically likened, as in MacIntyre’s apt metaphor, to the telephone company, a large bureaucratic provider of goods and ser- vices that never quite provides value for money.
The problem, as MacIntyre notes, is that the nation-state presents itself as so much more; namely, as the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values that demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for genuine communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state. Civic virtue and the goods of common life do not simply disappear; as Augustine saw, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city. The nation-state is a simulacrum of common life, where false order is parasitical on true order. In a bureaucratic order whose main function is to adjudicate struggles for power between various factions, a sense of unity is produced by the only means possible: sacrifice to false gods in war. The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division.
The urgent task of the Church, then, is to demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company ("Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good" Modern Theology 20:2, April 2004)
It was worth keeping in mind that this task is not new. Today is the saints day for Marcellus of Tangiers. In the task of reshaping our understanding of the respective claims of God and the state the story of Marcellus is worth remembering.
In the year A.D. 298, enemies threatened the Roman Empire on several fronts. For reasons of state security, the government increased pressure on soldiers and others to demonstrate allegiance to the “divine” emperor. Protocol required the centurion Marcellus to lead his troops in giving allegiance to Rome on the emperor’s birthday.
An ancient account states that “Marcellus rejected these pagan festivities.” He threw down his soldier’s belt (which carried his weapons) in front of the legionary standards (the Roman eagle and images of the emperor). Then he spoke in a loud voice in front of his troops: “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal king. From now I cease to serve your emperors and I despise the worship of your gods of wood and stone, for they are deaf and dumb images.”
The record says the soldiers under the command of Marcellus were “amazed,” and promptly arrested him. An account of his trial in October 298 records the following exchange between the judge Agricolanus and Marcellus:
Agricolanus: “Did you say the things that are recorded in the prefect’s report?”
Marcellus: “Yes, I did.”
Agricolanus: “You held the military rank of centurion, first class?”
Agricolanus: “What madness possessed you to throw down the symbols of your military oath and to say the things you did?”
Marcellus: “No madness possesses those who fear the Lord.”
Agricolanus: “Then you did say all those things that are set down in the prefect’s report?”
Marcellus: “Yes, I said them.”
Agricolanus: “You threw down your weapons?”
Marcellus: “Yes, I did. For it is not fitting that a Christian, who fights for Christ his Lord, should fight for the armies of this world.”
Agricolanus: “What Marcellus has done merits punishment according to military rules. And so, whereas Marcellus, who held the rank of centurion, first class, has confessed that he has disgraced himself by publicly renouncing his military oath, … I hereby sentence him to death by the sword.”
Marcellus (being led out to execution): “Agricolanus, may God reward you.”