The Katechon — a political theological meditation on the withholding or restraining power with an afterword specifically directed to individuals and communities belonging to the Unitarian & Free Christian movement

Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, Luca Signorelli (1499)
READINGS: From Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), Political Theology: Four Chapters on Sovereignty (1922/34), MIT Press, 1985, p. 36)

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development — in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver — but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.

Introduction to the reading from 2 Thessalonians (by David Bentley Hart)

[In the reading which follows] precisely who the “lawless one” was understood to be we do not know. He seems clearly modelled upon some fairly notorious precedents. The Seleucid tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 215-164 BCE) had installed an idol in the Jerusalem Temple — perhaps Zeus, or perhaps Ba’al — and sacrificed swine to it. This is the Abomination of Desolation of which the book of Daniel speaks in veiled language. The Roman emperor Caligula (12-41 CE) had also threatened to place an image of himself as Zeus in the Temple, but was assassinated before the plan was accomplished. Whatever the case, in later Christian generations the figure of this lawless man would be combined with the “antichrist” or “antichrists” of 1 and 2 John and the “beast” of Revelation to produce the legend of “the Antichrist” who will arise in the last days.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (trans. by David Bentley Hart)

Now, brothers, we implore you — as regards the arrival of our Lord Jesus the Anointed and our being gathered together to him — that you neither be quickly shaken in mind, nor disturbed by a spirit or a discourse or a letter (purporting to be from us) to the effect that the Day of the Lord has come. By no means allow anyone to delude you that the apostasy would not come first, and the man of lawlessness (anomia) — son of perdition (apoleia) — be revealed: The one who is an adversary, and who exalts himself over everything called a god or object of worship, so as to seat himself in God’s Temple, proclaiming that he himself is a god? Do you not remember that, when I was still with you, I used to tell you these things? And now you know what restrains (to katechon) him, so that he may be revealed at his proper time. For the mystery of lawlessness (anomia) is already operating; one alone is restraining (ho katechon) it, right up until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless (anomos) one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will take away by the Spirit of his mouth, and will bring to nothing by the revelation of his arrival: The man whose arrival is brought about by the operation of the Accuser (“The Satan”, which is to say, “prosecutor,” “accuser,” “arraigner”) with all power and with signs and marvels of falsehood, and with all the deceit of iniquity for those who are perishing, because they did not welcome the love of the truth so that they might be saved — and hence God sends them delusion’s operation, so that they believe the lie, so that all who did not have faith in the truth, but instead took pleasure in injustice, might be judged.

Bob Dylan in “Absolutely Sweet Marie” (1966):

“To live outside the law you must be honest.”

In the 1940s Woody Guthrie (one of Dylan’s heroes) wrote on his lyrics of the song “Pretty Boy Floyd”:

“I love a good man outside the law, just as much as I hate a bad man inside the law.”


The Katechon — a political theological meditation on the withholding or restraining power with an afterword specifically directed to individuals and communities belonging to the Unitarian & Free Christian movement

I want to begin today with empires and note that, as they form and solidify, successful (i.e. expansive) empires simultaneously begin to display the kind of time we call an “epoch”. The word is derived from the Greek word “epoché” (ἐποχή, epokhē) which means, literally “suspension”. “Epoché” has, in certain contexts anyway, come to be used to describe any situation in which judgments about non self-evident and/or apparently non important matters are suspended which, in turn, helps to bring about a situation in which a people are free from worry and anxiety — in a state of “ataraxia”. Empires are always associated with epochs because they must provide their citizens with a stable enough set of more or less unquestioned social, political, economic, cultural and religious norms so that they feel they can confidently and safely to go about their daily business relatively free from many important worries. As the contemporary Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari (b. 1944) points out, “Were the unity of the epoch to break down, the spatial integrity of the empire would also be torn apart” (Massimo Cacciari, The Withholding Power, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, p. 28).

But the trouble with any empire/epoch in which there has been a long-term suspension of judgments is that there inevitably develops, both consciously and unconsciously, a culture of resistance to the raising of certain important questions and issues because it is feared they might create waves which may well seriously threaten the empire and rock its epoch. Of course, in an ideal situation (no such thing has ever, or will ever, exist of course) all such questions and issues would always be addressed as and when they came up and through conversation/discussion/debate a new consensus would be allowed to emerge. This basic process — so beloved of (or at least paid lip-service to) by our modern social democracies — may at times still rock the boat but the hope has always been that it would rock us in a fashion which would never threaten completely to sink the empire or destroy the epoch but reform it. But even the best example of this reforming process cannot hide from us that, so far at least, all empires/epochs that have been born have also died.

We have the dubious honour to be living at a time which is increasingly looking and feeling like it is the beginning of the end of some old empires and an epoch — I’m thinking here, of course, primarily of the extreme stresses and stains being displayed by both the USA and the European Union and also their associated epoch of neoliberalism. Even if we are not at the beginning of the end of these empires and their shared epoch, at times it certainly FEELS like it is and this feeling has to acknowledged and dealt with in some fashion. (In its own way the temporary failure on Friday of the Visa transaction system merely added to that visceral feeling.)

It seems we find ourselves in an existential situation closely related to that in which the early Christian author of 2 Thessalonians (probably not St Paul) found himself sometime during the first-century CE.

He was living in the Roman Empire and, depending on the date of composition of his letter, the empire was at the time only between 70 and 100 years old. As we now know the Roman Empire, the Roman Epoch, did not come to an end in the west until September 476 CE when the last Roman emperor of the west, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by a Germanic prince called Odovacar. In the east the Roman Empire continued until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Consequently, the author of 2 Thessalonians was living many centuries before the Roman Empire/Epoch as a whole would actually end. However, as an early Christian, he had come strongly to believe he was living in the last days of the Roman Empire/Epoch because the Lord’s recent putative first coming would quickly be followed by his second which would definitively put an end to the Roman Empire/Epoch and bring about an entirely new Age (æon) — that of God’s eternal Empire. However, there was a significant problem because the early Christians initially expected this second coming to happen quickly, within the lifetime of the first generation of Christ’s followers, but this had not come to pass and so a swift change of tactic/theology was needed. That new tactic/theology still casts a long and influential sociological and political shadow over the way we think about empire and epoch, how they form, function, are maintained and end.

The author of 2 Thessalonians was amongst the first theologians who began to suggest that Christians must not act as if the day of Christ (the second coming, the “Day of the Lord”) would be happening tomorrow because (drawing on their ancient apocalyptic literature) for that to happen a falling away (apostasia) must first occur in which the man of lawlessness (anomia), the son of perdition (apoleia) — who later came to be associated with the Antichrist figure of 1 and 2 John — must be revealed. But, as the text immediately adds, the appearance of the son of perdition/the Antichrist was conditional firstly upon the removal of a mysterious something that (or someone who) “restrains” or “witholds” (to katechon), a power that was temporarily preventing the son of perdition/the Antichrist from fully appearing.

All exceptionally weird, apocalyptic and arcane stuff you may think, and not the kind of thing to be talked about seriously in a liberal, radical, skeptical church such as this, let alone out in the secular world as someone like the atheist philosopher Massimo Cacciari has recently been doing in Italy. But the problematic issue of the katechon has gone deeply, very deeply, into our liberal democratic culture. Let me show you how.

As I have already noted, history strongly suggest to us that the end of all empires/epochs always comes and we must, therefore, always be ready to find effective and creative ways of playing our part in both the ending of the old and in the bringing about the new. But the end of any empire/epoch, when one actually comes to contemplate its possibility, is not a pleasant thing to think about. The problem is although we might clearly sense that the old empire/epoch is not working and must at some point come to an end, the collapse of the old order seems likely to bring about much more harm and distress than trying to find various ways and means to shore it up.

At this point most people of modern liberal inclination and, historically speaking the Christian Church in general — though, I should add, not always our own radical Reformation tradition of churches (cf. the otherwise inexplicable example of Servetus' going to Geneva and his certain death) — consciously begin to side with the “katechon”, the power/s which restrain or withhold. But this is, as I hope you can see, simultaneously to side with powers which are consciously stopping the new empire/epoch we feel must at some point come into being. Siding with the katechon is a strategy which always threatens, in a roundabout fashion, to be working on behalf of the “enemy” of the new, namely, the power symbolized in the Christian myth by the Antichrist and the Adversary (Satan). We may really want the new empire/epoch to come (or so we say to ourselves) but, understandably, we dread the pains its coming will bring everyone and so we seek to slow, if not actually stop, its coming. In short we are tempted to become more and more aligned with the old empire/epoch.

Not least of all this decision is made because, quite rightly, most of us have an immense fear of the danger presented by the other option on the Thessalonikan's table, namely that of openly siding with the mysterious and threatening “man of lawlessness”. Although it seems clear that at the point any empire/epoch begins to end a period of lawlessness (or more accurately a period when the undemocratic “laws” of the criminal and dictator) must be endured before the new laws of any new empire/epoch can be articulated and instituted, the mere thought of this anomia is so frightening to us that we simply can’t bring ourselves to support the man of lawlessness and so, once again, we are lured into continuing to support the current empire/epoch — supporting the katechon. 

Although it’s actually way more complicated and nuanced than this here, then, is the basic immediate dilemma that the ancient author of 2 Thessalonians bequeaths our culture as we contemplate the end of any empire/epoch: do we openly side with the katechon (which is also to help stop the new epoch we feel desperately needs to come into being), or do we side with the man of lawlessness and actively and openly seek to initiate a period of extremely dangerous, distressing and perhaps highly extended lawlessness?

As I have already noted, time and time again, liberally minded people and the Christian Church in general have generally sided with the katechon and have, alas, succeeded in greater or lesser measure to extend the life of empires/epochs whose end we might otherwise have wished had ended sooner. At worst this process has even meant that some people and churches have gone wholly native and played a distressingly active part in extending the life of empires/epochs that eventually morphed into the most evil and repressive of forms; the awful history of the Catholic Church as the religion of the Roman Empire as well as what happened in Italy, Germany and Russia during the 20th century stands as a terrible reminder of the truth of this tendency.

As contemporary religious liberals who are, perhaps, facing the beginning of the end of the post World War Two US and European empires and their neoliberal epoch, we surely can’t countenance repeating this kind of mistake can we? — either politically or religiously. However, I would suggest neither can we with good conscience willingly countenance actively and openly siding with the many hard men and women of lawlessness currently springing up in rather too many places around the world for comfort. So what are we to do in our current, extremely discombobulating times — what Massimo calls our “disenchanted twilight”?

Well, if in our own lifetimes the time of lawlessness does come like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2) then it strikes me we would do well to remember Bob Dylan’s memorable line in “Absolutely Sweet Marie”: “to live outside the law, you must be honest”, because only honest men and women will be able to do the right kind of healing and restorative work that will be needed.

But, before any such time of lawlessness I suggest that one vitally important thing we must always be doing is to concentrate not upon “the when but the how of [our] waiting. What matters is to remain vigilant, to be ready and not look back” (Massimo Cacciari, The Withholding Power, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, p. 74). It is instructive that for the atheist Massimo Cacciari the best example of this he knows is St Francis and with Cacciari’s words I conclude:

“. . . there is a hope . . . that lives in your awareness of this disenchanted twilight and shows you how to be rid of your will to power; such is good hope. Being rid of the will to power  must be shown, must be embodied as in St Francis who did not preach sermons but embodied his poverty and so the meaning of his poverty. Like him, you could embody and signify some elements of your culture or your civilization that are not connected to the will to power, or better still that manifest the overthrowing of the will to power” (Massimo Cacciari, The Withholding Power, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, p. 195).


An afterword specifically directed to individuals and communities belonging to the Unitarian & Free Christian movement.

As the Rev’d Dr Paul Rasor made clear in his keynote speech to this year’s General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christians (printed in part in the “Inquirer” and in full in “Faith & Freedom”), and as our denomination’s Chief Officer, Derek McAuley, notes in his “View from Essex Hall” in this month’s “Unitarian”, the values of neoliberalism are not those of Unitarianism and liberal Christianity. This means we have no choice but actively to oppose much about our current empires/epoch in the genuine, prophetic hope that a new and more just, equal and compassionate empire/order can, in time, come into being. (Even though it seem likely to me that many of us will eschew the use of the word "empire" in favour of some other term and type of corporate organization). 

But, being the kind of church we are, against which current political wheel can we put our shoulder with full pathos and a clear heart? Well, it’s far from clear.

For the last forty odd years our centre/left/liberal politicians (whom we would, perhaps, most naturally choose to support) have continually been siding with the katechon — trying to ameliorate capitalism, always hoping to make it “kinder” and “nicer”. Yet they have clearly failed in this and since at least 1979 we have only seen our situation become worse and worse. The financial scandal and crimes of 2008 followed by crushing austerity, the continual enlargement of the gap between the rich and poor and the increasing ecological crisis bears dark, if eloquent witness to this failure. Can we really in all honesty continue to support the katechon?

On the other hand our religious and ethical values mean we most certainly cannot support in any fashion the men and women of lawlessness that have come to the fore in recent years, people such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Heinz-Christian Strache, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others.

At the moment we seem to be stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. Despite this we have no choice but to continue to stand on the deck of our rocking boat and look forward to, and help to bring about, the end of the neoliberal empires/epoch. This is why, in the absence of any obvious current political strategies/parties to get behind we must firstly concentrate upon the how of our religious waiting and ensure it is of the kind that creates confident and honest men and women who, at the right time (kairos), will have some hope of being able to do the right kind of work by identifying (and actually helping to make) the political wheel against which we can finally put our shoulders with full pathos and a clear heart.

This is why here I am suggesting we consider well Cacciari’s advice about how to proceed.


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