A French Genocide and Salvation Outside the State

Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823)

The Revolution devoured its own at a much more alarming rate than the Ancien Regime or even Yahweh and his followers at their naughtiest (Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1823; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100)

Christians who give into their fears of their opponents miss out on a lot of great insights. This maxim also holds most for books that are labelled anti-Christian for whatever reason. For example, Rene Girard demonstrated in his I See Satan Fall Like Lightning there is much to learn about Christianity and its strange commitment to the weak from Nietzsche.

A more recent example of being all wrong about all the right things is Mark Lilla’s once much discussed, now all too soon forgotten, The Stillborn God. It was Lilla’s aim to demonstrate how liberal theology (the stillborn God of the title) failed to bring theology back into politics. For Lilla this was a happy fault. On the final page of the book he says thanks (God?) for the West no longer having to deal with the biggest problem facing Islam today: political theology. With the kind of schadenfreude I usually reserve for Oregon Duck football fans, Lilla says:

Yet, which God are we talking about here?

Yet, which God are we talking about here?

We have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.

Why do we have to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation? Because unleashing the messianic promise can only lead to violence. This is a version of the myth of religious violence. This is not the whole of the story. As William T. Cavanaugh argues persuasively in his Theopolitical Imagination, it is also the sacred story of the State as Savior:

Thus far I have been treating the Christian story and the state story as parallel accounts of salvation. The soteriology of the modern state is incomprehensible, however, apart from the fact that the Church is perhaps the primary thing from which the modern state is meant to save us. The modern secular state, after all, is founded precisely, the story goes, on the need to keep peace between contentious religiou factions. The modern state arose out of the ‘Wars of Religion’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which the conflicts inherent in civil society, and religion in particular, are luridly displayed. The story is a simple one.

S'blood: The Ark of the French covenant?

S’blood: The Ark of the French covenant?

That last sentence is a fine example of sarcasm if I’ve ever seen one. After all, as suggested by my pieces “Spreading the Blame: The West’s Exporting of Jihad” and yesterday’s “From Napoleon to Bin Laden: France and Modern Terrorism,” despite appearances and propaganda, the State has not delivered on its salvific promise.

You ought to take another look at the cover of the Simon Schama book, Citizens, mentioned in the latter post. The painting on the cover features soldiers carrying a reproduction of the ultimate symbol of the Revolution, the Bastille, on their backs like some new Ark of the Covenant. There’s even a temple veil behind them they’ve surpassed.

What most people don’t hear about is how the French Revolution, outdoing any of Yahweh’s disturbingly murderous mishaps, committed what’s been called the first modern genocide proper. The statistics in Reynald Secher’s book, A French Genocide: The Vendée are heartbreaking: “At least 117,257 people disappeared between 1792 and 1802,” which amounts to about 15% of the population. These mass killings were,

Blood on the tricolor flags.

Blood on the tricolor standards.

. . . premeditated, committed in cold blood, massive and systematic, and undertaken with the conscious and proclaimed will to destroy a well-defined region, and to exterminate an entire people.

What’s even worse, this genocide has been covered up by the Republic. The citizens of the region are nearly always callously presented as backward Roman Catholic royalist traitors who deserve what came to them, because they betrayed the revolutionary god. Secher begs to differ, he makes and then backs up the following claim:

The Vendeans were thus nearly unanimous in wishing for change; they therefore gave a very favorable, indeed an enthusiastic welcome to the fundamental principles of the Revolution of 1789.

There is still much to be said on this topic and I will continue my reflections in the coming days.

Cavanaugh say t's important to note that the so-called 'Wars of Religion' were actually 'Wars of the Birth of the Nation-State.'

Cavanaugh also says it’s important to set the record straight: The ‘Wars of Religion’ were actually ‘Wars of the Birth of the Nation-State.’

Hopefully what I’ve said so far has helped you look beyond the far too simple dichotomy between violent religions and peaceful nation-states.

I won’t be surprised if this will cause outrage among some of you, because the winners get to write the history; as far as I know, no accounts of this genocide exist in French school history textbooks. Not only that, the winners get to build the monuments. No statues commemorating the Vendée existed until a few years ago. The ones that were put up were not funded by the state, but by residents of the region.

This is how the nation-state is able to promote itself as only a savior from violence, but never unambiguously as its perpetrator. It’s not a French problem only, you’ve probably experienced this as well in your schooling.

It’s called confirmation bias.

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When you process some of these things, and remember Marianne as a symbol of the French Revolution, the following Leonard Cohen song takes on a whole new significance:

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If you’d like to explore more of the issues surrounding what I’ve written about here, check out my TOP10 Religion and World Politics List and my post on French philosophy.

 

 

 

 

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About Artur Rosman

Artur Rosman was born in Warsaw, but is secretly Krakovian.
He is husband, father of three, professor, public speaker, book translator, and a onetime television personality on Polish TV. He recently completed and defended a dissertation on the Catholic imagination of Czeslaw Milosz at the University of Washington. He was the Channel Manager of Patheos-Catholic.