Bringing Bonhoeffer into Dialogue with Schmitt in Contemporary China

In: International Journal of Public Theology
Jason Lam Senior Lecturer, Melbourne School of Theology
Senior Research Fellow, Australian College of Theology

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Since the 2000s there has been a group of prominent scholars in China embracing the political views of Carl Schmitt. They are aware of the dangerous side of his thought but have provided reasonable analysis in relation to the Chinese social situation. Outlining their discussions, this article will depict the phenomenon with a focus on Schmitt’s controversial political theology. That will be compared with the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although their political alignments were opposed to each other, the theoretical structure of their thinking reveals striking similarities. This article will thus articulate the theological reasons that allow for the differences between their ideas and actions and will produce a reflection on the contemporary situation in China. It is not due to the theoretical structure, but to the image of the sovereign embraced, that the stances of the two thinkers differed. From this we may draw implications from a public theological discussion for constructing a democratic society in the context of China.


Since the 2000s there has been a group of prominent scholars in China embracing the political views of Carl Schmitt. They are aware of the dangerous side of his thought but have provided reasonable analysis in relation to the Chinese social situation. Outlining their discussions, this article will depict the phenomenon with a focus on Schmitt’s controversial political theology. That will be compared with the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although their political alignments were opposed to each other, the theoretical structure of their thinking reveals striking similarities. This article will thus articulate the theological reasons that allow for the differences between their ideas and actions and will produce a reflection on the contemporary situation in China. It is not due to the theoretical structure, but to the image of the sovereign embraced, that the stances of the two thinkers differed. From this we may draw implications from a public theological discussion for constructing a democratic society in the context of China.

1 Introduction1

Partly because of the promotion of Agamben, Žižek, Badiou and others, the political views of Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’, have drawn attention among theory-seeking academics. Since the turn of the millennium there has also been a group of high-profile scholars in mainland China embracing and promoting his thought.2 It may look strange to some western readers3 but it could be a natural phenomenon as Schmitt’s theories on the state can easily be appropriated to help legitimize one-party rule, taking the state as a means of sustaining the unity of a nation and social order.4 But apart from incurring charges of political opportunism, these scholars also provide reasonable analyses in relation to the contemporary Chinese situation. Outlining their discussions, we will provide a portrait with a focus on Schmitt’s well-known yet controversial political theology, by which theology, in the broad sense of the study of the divine, has received due attention and raised heated discussion in academic circles in the socialist state.5 Further we shall compare Schmitt’s thought with that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), often regarded as a modern martyr for his opposition to National Socialism. It is surprising to find that, although their political alignments were opposed to each other, the theoretical structure of their thinking reveals striking similarities.6 What are the elements that allow for such differences between their thought and actions? Can we draw arguments and solutions to resist authoritarian politics? I contend that the crucial difference lies in their images of the sovereign instead of in their thought structures. Apart from presenting a thought experiment, this will help us consider relevant implications for public theology, especially for constructing a democratic society in the context of China.

2 Schmitt Appropriated in China7

From the late 1970s, the People’s Republic of China started to implement the Reform and Opening-up Policy: that was after the end of the Cultural Revolution. As a result, an atmosphere of quasi-liberalism assimilated to the west was gradually nurtured in academic circles in the 1980s. Intellectuals were optimistic about and anticipating a bright future. The lessening of totalitarian control brought about freedom of thought to some degree; a pluralistic society also affirmed individual rights and moral autonomy. The previous value of uniformity imposed by the autocratic regime was thus displaced. In this ‘modernization’ process, China also freed herself from religious control in the realms of politics, economics, and culture, although she had never been a country established on the basis of an institutional religion. Since the late imperial period by the end of the nineteenth century, Confucian social institutions had already started to decline in face of the imports of new western thoughts. China has thus not only had to face the polytheism of values in Weber’s sense;8 Chinese society has also struggled to find a cultural yardstick to which to conform under the threat of Western invasion. Therefore, she has had to encounter a cultural void since then.9 Before the Reform and Opening-up policy was implemented, a totalitarian ideology played the role of a quasi-religion that had brought about a forced value uniformity across all sectors, especially during the time of Cultural Revolution. Consequently, modern China may not have undergone a full modern transformation as was the case in the western world after the privatization of religion; but maintains to some degree an implicit unity between religion and the state, as Communism was installed as the state religion in a sense.10 Thus the era since the 1980s has often been called the New Enlightenment in mainland China. However, the ‘integrity crisis’ suggested by Harold J. Berman has also been dispersed since this quasi-liberalism and pluralism entered contemporary China.11

Beside the type of nihilism negatively represented by the lack of an objective to which people can conform, eastern and western societies also differ in the driving forces behind them, as Daniel A. Bell says:

The ideologies of the nineteenth century [in the West] were universalistic, humanistic, and fashioned by intellectuals. The mass ideologies of Asia and Africa are parochial, instrumental, and created by political leaders. The driving forces of the old ideologies were social equality and, in the largest sense, freedom. The impulsions of the new ideologies are economic development and national power.12

As pluralistic societies develop in this way, one might ask whether it is even possible for people embracing different values to live together peacefully. In traditional western thought God is the bearer of absolute values like truth, love and wisdom,13 while today personal choices void of a common absolute standard for judgment establish value.14 Thus when God withdraws from this world, it is people who decide who should rise up to fill the gap left by God or the institutional religion; civil society then takes on a crucial function for making value judgment.15

From this perspective, one of the greatest crises in China today is that, apart from the fact that the society lacks a value consensus, power is not distributed justly among the people. Thus civil society has no viable framework within which to develop healthily and serve its proper functions. In this situation, China did not experience an economic downfall such as was witnessed in the west in the early twenty-first century; instead the Chinese economy skyrocketed, transforming China into a global superpower. The result is that people are filled with all sorts of materialistic desires while lacking any consensus in values. A workable order is yet to be implemented by citizens who lack a healthy society; the rule of law has never been established within a framework of values in which principles were at odds with each other.16

Since the 1990s some ‘new leftist’ Chinese scholars have noticed that liberalism would bring about serious problems of inequality for the society. They think that unless the government takes certain measures to solve the country’s problems, society will collapse. In the present circumstances, in which the functions of the state and society are not clearly differentiated and individual rights are nominally affirmed but the government still owns vast resources, the problem is evident in swelling corruption and serious abuses of power. The current dilemma is that the model of liberalism has been deemed inadequate, however, while at the same time most people are reluctant to entertain the vision of a return to Marxism: the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution has not yet become a distant memory. Chinese intellectuals have thus begun to seek a new political model, and this is the point at which Schmitt’s ideas are brought into the debate.17

As appropriated by some Chinese statist legal scholars,18 the core problem of liberal democracy for Schmitt is that it neglects the crucial political principle of distinguishing between friend and enemy. As a consequence it exposes itself to the risk of capture by the interests of wealthy individuals and factions. Those taking advantage of the system may use the state for their own goals rather than for the greater good of the people. Liberal politics pretends that the government and the people are subject to the demands of reliable legal norms. But whenever an internal or external enemy threatens the nation and national security, the impotence of this assertion is laid bare. It is because parliamentary debates and legal procedures are not an effective and immediate response, and sole reliance on these may throw a country into chaos.19 We understand that this could have been the situation faced by Schmitt during the time of Weimar Republic, thus reiterating Donoso Cortés’s view when he pointed out that the bourgeois was merely a clasa discutidora wanting to evade decision.20 They shifted all political activity onto the plane of conversation in the press and parliament, and could thus in no way solve social conflict. Schmitt held that the political community needed to distinguish between friend and enemy in order to maintain its identity, which is revealed in the will of the nation beyond the constitution and the law.21 The above may not be the most charitable reading of Schmitt, and the situation in contemporary China is also different from that before Schmitt. Nevertheless, when the authority of the state is rising, an inclination easily arises to picture the voices not agreeing with her as enemies and their allies, regardless of whether they are inside or outside of the country.

The underlying assumption that the will of the state may ascend to the sacred throne and govern the people, as Schmitt envisioned it, is a kind of theological mechanism. An oft-quoted but controversial point of his is that ‘all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.’22 For Schmitt, the inherent problem of liberal constitutionalism can be likened to the inconsistency committed by deism: [the advocates] excluded God from the world but held on to his existence. In the same vein, the liberal bourgeoisie wanted a god, but an inactive one; it wanted a monarch, but he was to be powerless; it demanded freedom and equality but limited voting rights to the propertied classes to ensure the influence of education and property on legislation, as if these classes were entitled to repress the poor and uneducated.23 Accordingly, Schmitt thought that secular society did not really exclude God but just replaced him with another god. Therefore Thomas Hobbes, who elevated the state to the position of deus mortalis, attracted Schmitt’s intense attention.24 He pointed out that even a people-oriented democratic theory can hardly rid itself of this kind of political theology. In his Constitutional Theory Schmitt wrote, ‘… under democratic logic, only the will of the people must come into consideration, because God cannot appear in the political realm other than as the god of a particular people. That is the meaning of the principle “the people’s voice is the voice of God.”’25 From this perspective people could be creating a national god for a secularized nation-state. Therefore, the differentiation among people is a key question for his political theology, and distinguishing between friend and enemy is foundational for his political thought, as reflected in his famous quote: ‘Name me your enemy, and I will tell you who you are.’26

Chinese intellectuals nurtured under Maoist rhetoric may find the above principle familiar and be surprised that it is still applicable in the post-Maoist era. For some Schmitt promoters, for example the new leftists Wang Hui and Cui Zhiyuan,27 their objective is to claim that the world is not politically homogeneous but pluralistic, where radically different political systems exist in mutual antagonism. China must thus find and defend her own path to power and prosperity.28 Another significant point of this Schmittian emphasis on state sovereignty is that it is aware of its own implicit problem: Leviathan cannot become an effective representative of the people because it lacks the theological concept of sovereignty. When the state faces threats from enemies, this concept becomes particularly crucial. It is because the decision on the state of exception may have to be made at this time. The very first sentence of the main text of Schmitt’s Political Theology reads, ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception (Ausnahmezustand).’29 The presupposition that this decision can be made relies on the sovereignty of the state – that is, she can gather her people and is authorized by them. But the parliamentary debates and legal procedures of liberal democracy undermine the solidarity required. We may, of course, think of other theoretical models for achieving unity. But in whatever way, one must first obtain the conformity of the people (through its representatives), and parliamentary politics often affects efficacy and may even become an obstacle.30 Therefore, at the end of Political Theology Schmitt boldly claims:

we can also see a reduction of the state to the moment of the decision, to a pure decision not based on reason and discussion and not justifying itself, that is, to an absolute decision created out of nothingness.

But this decisionism is essentially dictatorship, not legitimacy … in the face of radical evil the only solution is dictatorship, and the legitimist principle of succession becomes at such a moment empty dogmatism.31

Zhang Shuangli’s analysis helps us perceive the attractiveness of Schmitt’s thought for the contemporary Chinese situation. Since Reform and Opening-up, the Chinese government has lessened her control and allowed the society to develop. But in this way the cohesive force among the people also declines. Thus the emergent question for the Chinese government is how to regain the conformity of the people to obtain sovereignty. In other words, China has yet to establish a genuine political community and an adequate mechanism for gathering individuals and letting them recognize the state as the sovereign.32 The government has been promoting the Chinese Dream for some years. Regardless of the degree of acceptance, it functions like creating a national myth for transforming the people into a homogenous community, hoping to transfer their authorities quietly into the hands of the ruling class. Since 2008 scholars promoting Schmitt’s thought have begun formulating their version of ‘responsive democracy’. They claim that Chinese people have no need to look for new representatives through direct democracy, as the history of the Chinese revolution has already chosen the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to be their representative. Moreover, the party is not only established by history as the representative of the people, but is in direct connection with the people through the practice of ‘responsive democracy’, requiring the party always to listen actively to the people so that the authority of the sovereign can be sustained. The crucial thing is that both sides (the party and the people) must self-consciously maintain this relationship.33 To a large extent, the Chinese Communist Party still upholds this line of thinking and has formulated a socialism for a ‘New Era’ as proposed in the nineteenth National Congress.34

3 Developing a Comparative Study with Bonhoeffer through Agamben

According to the analysis above, the attractive points in Schmitt’s thought for some Chinese scholars include his rhetoric of distinguishing between friend and enemy and affirming a decision above parliamentary discussion. His core concern also relates to the constitution of a political community – in order to sustain a group of insiders attacking adversaries is seen as a practical necessity. Sapio’s study points out that in the post-Maoist era the Chinese party-state still required a unique political ontology.35 As a kind of ontology, it is first of all a way of conceptualizing and understanding the world. A bipartite political system can help the regime extend its power to cover the realm outside the law. Of course, this party-state system must also be internally coherent; it must be so in a way that it is considered self-perpetuating and enjoys legitimacy. Undoubtedly Schmitt did not have a Chinese perspective, but his bipartite and sovereignty concept not only derived from the contemporary political situation; it was also inspired by a theological source: the concept of kathechon (2 Thess. 2:7) – It refers to a power for resisting the coming of the Anti-Christ; it can also be rendered as a power for achieving the greater good of a community. Some Chinese promoters identified the greater good readily as forming a homogeneous community. Needless to say, opportunists would take a hitch ride and aiming at sustaining the status quo of the regime. From this perspective, Schmitt was not only taken as supplementing a theological concept to the traditional theory of sovereignty for its sake but conflating the political and theological imageries in order to deify the state and regime. In this way all adversary camps can conveniently be demonized such that an identity can be composed. It may not be the only possible way of interpretating Schmitt, but obviously the point to make here is to maintain the homogeneity of the people, which is lacking in contemporary China. Schmitt proposed a theory but some people may want to take advantage from it and to bring about political action in contemporary China. A myth of sovereignty could bring about attractive but also intimidating power to which individuals might conform. But in such a way intimidation and myth become the elements for the sustenance of the state, and the distinction between the individual and collective realm becomes blurred.36

Discussing sovereignty against this theological approach, Agamben in Homo Sacer argued that Schmitt had not fully grasped the significance of the state of exception for the concept of sovereignty. His mistake was to confine its significance to the political. For Agamben, sovereignty is not the conventional political concept – who makes the final decision in the regime – but how the legal power regulates human existence in general:

If the exception is the structure of sovereignty, then sovereignty is not an exclusively political concept, an exclusively juridical category, a power external to law (Schmitt), or the supreme rule of the juridical order (Hans Kelsen); it is the originary structure in which law refers to life and includes it in itself by suspending it.37

If Schmitt was to establish the autonomy of the political by distinguishing politics from ethics and aesthetics, then by contrast Agamben extended the reach of the political. He did so by arguing that those realms ‘outside’ the law stand in relation to law by their very exclusion from its precepts, like the logic of Paul illustrating the concept of the gospel.38

On the one hand Agamben pointed out that the Nazi regime suspended the constitution of the Reich when discussing the state of exception, such that any atrocity became possible in the concentration camp. On the other hand Agamben also tried to explain the concept through Paul’s understanding of the gospel: the distinction between Jews and non-Jews depends on whether one is within the law. But ‘in the messianic order’ this distinction no longer holds. This does not mean that the application of the law is extended to cover non-Jews, but the distinction between the inside and outside of the law is suspended in an extreme state of exception.39 As Jesus claimed that he ‘came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it’ (Mt. 5:17–18), in a sense the law is suspended as in the state of exception. Thus Paul wrote, ‘a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.’ (Rom. 3:28) The gospel brings about ‘the law of faith’ (Rom. 3:27) to reveal the righteousness of God ‘apart from law’ (Rom. 3:21). In this vein Paul unreservedly criticized the impossibility of observing the law (Rom. 3:9–20),40 and proclaimed Christ as the one who exercises the sovereignty to establish the ‘righteousness of God’.

On this crucial point, Bonhoeffer’s interpretation appears noteworthy because he explicated his concept of the ‘extraordinary’ from the New Testament half a century earlier than Agamben.41 For Bonhoeffer, Christ was always the sovereign decision-maker in an ‘extraordinary’ situation – for example, when he commanded disciples to love one’s enemies and called one to carry out responsible actions in emergency situation.42 Another interesting point is that Bonhoeffer is one of the few modern theologians who have attracted Chinese intellectuals’ attention.43 Thus putting their ideas together in a constructive way may produce contribution to the present Chinese situation. Along these lines, Clifford B. Anderson’s analysis may help us reconnect the discussion to conventional theology and articulate the distinctive features of Bonhoeffer’s thought. He pointed out that the ultimate difference between Schmitt and Agamben (and Bonhoeffer) lies in the disagreement about eschatology.44 For Agamben this is what he referred to as ‘the messianic’, deeply rooted in the sovereign one who made the decision. Also based on an interpretation of the Letter to the Romans, Anderson quoted Barth: ‘Is there anywhere legality which is not fundamentally illegal? Is there anywhere authority which is not ultimately based upon tyranny?’45 This question is raised in a style similar to that of Schmitt on the relationship between the law and the state of exception. Barth as a contemporary also believed that the political solution to the inequality of the state was eschatological – only God ‘overcometh the unrighteousness of the existing order.’46 For Barth, the revolutionary usually only recognized the illegitimacy of the secular sovereign but not yet the sovereignty of God. The political task of Christian theologians is thus clear – denying the legitimacy of theological-political concepts by insisting on the secularity of political discourse and suspending the actions related, such that the genuinely eschatological may be triggered. It seems to be a very conservative opinion, as if one can do nothing in the face of injustice. But the true meaning could be that a genuine revolutionary event can hardly be derived from a theory of the sovereign; thus we might only reserve spaces for its emergence as an eschatological event.47

Barth’s thought is subtle here in the way of emphasizing the eschatological decision-maker, which is resonant with his Christocentric approach. Bonhoeffer’s theological ethics had precisely followed this approach, although they argued about ethics during their first personal meeting.48 As a theologian, Bonhoeffer did not discuss ‘exception’ from the perspective of jurisprudence like Schmitt. In Ethics, however, a work written during his resistance to National Socialism, Bonhoeffer mentioned that a situation might emerge in history when the law would be suspended:

There are occasions when, in the course of historical life, the strict observance of the explicit law of a state, a corporation, a family, but also of a scientific discovery, entails a clash with the basic necessities of human life. In such cases, appropriate responsible action departs from the domain governed by laws and principles, from the normal and regular, and instead is confronted with the extraordinary situation (außerordentliche Situation) of ultimate necessities that are beyond any possible regulation by law.49

As the law becomes ineffective in this situation, an individual gains absolute freedom. For Bonhoeffer, the disciples should then make their decision in accordance with Christ. But this does not refer to the eternal law but is a result of the free responsibility that is ‘contrary to all law but before God’.50 It has been a controversial topic in Bonhoeffer studies. Petra Brown’s recent work is significant in suggesting that the concept of ‘exception/extraordinary’ can be seen as an extension of the practice of discipleship.51 In Discipleship Bonhoeffer claimed that the ‘extraordinary’ (das Auβerordentliche) was a uniquely Christian category. With reference to the Sermon on the Mount he argued that the ‘extraordinary’ was related to Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies (Mt. 5:47). Therefore, the disciples should extend their love from the ‘natural’ to the ‘extraordinary’, including the enemies in their scope, contrary to Schmitt’s suggestion. Nevertheless, it is an ‘offense’ to the ‘natural’ person and may be impossible. How can one practice this ‘extraordinary’ love, then? The answer lies in God’s own act, as ‘The passio in the love of the crucified one – that is the “extraordinary” mark of Christian existence.’52 The natural person cannot become as perfect as God, thus he or she must rely on the ‘extraordinary’ love revealed on the cross as the perfect example. In grace one may make the ‘decision’ to follow Jesus as an obedient disciple.53 It can only occur as something genuinely political and eschatological in contrast to a decision made in the ordinary.

From the above we may have seen the similarity between Bonhoeffer and Schmitt, not only from the terminologies used but also their thought structures.54 Simply speaking, they both mentioned some extraordinary and emergency situations in which someone must make a decision beyond the law to repair the chaotic scene. In this sense, the absolute power exercised is not for achieving one’s own goal, but to restore ordinary conditions. It should only be exercised in the last resort in times of chaos, what we usually mean by the ‘state of exception’. Therefore, absolute freedom is conferred on the one who makes the decision, an act comparable to God’s command of creatio ex nihilo. It is also the reason Schmitt was drawing an analogy to theology.

Before elaborating their difference, let us first focus on their common dangers. Firstly, as absolute sovereignty is conferred upon the decision-maker to start the state of exception, no one can criticize any claims made in the ‘extraordinary’ situation. Secondly, as this state is beyond the reach of the law, it opens a space outside the law to use violence. Obviously, in line with Schmitt’s suggestion, the Nazi regime grasped power to destroy dissidents, while Bonhoeffer became resistant to the regime and participated in conspiratorial action. They chose opposite political stances, but on the theoretical plane, neither ‘sovereign decision’ nor ‘obedient discipleship’ required recognition by the law. Instead, both stances seemed to claim immunity from criticism. Thus one can hardly make shared judgments on them based on ethical principles in that ‘extraordinary’ situation. The danger of this decisionism is clearly revealed, as Larry Rasmussen comments:

In sum, Bonhoeffer taps a deep and common western theme he finds lethal, namely mastery that knows no limits as undertaken by autonomous humans in the name of freedom without constraint. Thus do we experience ‘the twinning of freedom and terror’, ‘the upsurge of a terrible godlessness in human presumptions of god-likeness’, the deification of humans who end up despising those who do not conform to their image.55

Therefore, it is important to take measures against the potential that the sovereign’s becoming as dangerous as or even more hazardous than the event leading to the state of exception.56

For Bonhoeffer, violence is undoubtedly taken as the last resort. Besides, the action taken in this extraordinary situation must be ‘appropriate and responsible’.57 How then can one evaluate that action? For Schmitt and the Nazi regime (and indeed for anyone who would exercise sovereignty), a power that could bypass ethical judgment is always a lure to totalitarianism. Therefore, Bonhoeffer’s supplementary explanation appears crucial at this point; it also constitutes the major difference between him and Schmitt:

Action in accord with Christ does not originate in some ethical principle, but in the very person of Jesus Christ. This is because everything real is summed up in Christ, who, by definition, is the origin of any and all action that is in accord with reality.58

Christ undoubtedly occupies the place of the sovereign in the church-community (Gemeinde). Nonetheless, he would not assume a totalitarian role. This runs along the grain of the development of Bonhoeffer’s theology. He had been suggesting a ‘theology of sociality’ from the very beginning of his academic career,59 developing an axis centering on church-community built upon the person of Christ.60 This theological insight may also shed light on the discussion of the political and the Chinese situation as explicated below.

4 A Reflection in Relation to the Chinese Situation

The above section provided a detailed analysis on the similarity of Schmitt’s and Bonhoeffer’s thought structure and their common dangers. Centring on these articulations, this part will produce reflection with respect to the contemporary Chinese situation and draw for relevant implications for constructing a democratic society. For both thinkers the cases of the action in an emergency situation and the command to love the enemies, the sovereign in the decision-making process plays a crucial role.61 How to understand the sovereign and discern the appropriate responses in the Chinese context now becomes the critical question.

As seen in the case of Schmitt, theology can be utilized to become a demonic instrument even in a country with a Christian heritage. Now the issue is transferred to the modern Chinese situation with pluralistic values on the brink of cultural collapse, the danger is potentially greater. The people and the churches in China as well have long been asked to contribute to the building of socialism in the New Era. Some have responded unreservedly similarly to the German Volk of the past. Interestingly, Liu Xiaofeng, the key scholar who introduced Schmitt to China,62 could correctly remark in relation to Schmitt when he made comments on Friedrich Gogarten, the theologian threw himself to National Socialism:

It is exactly because they took the only mediator Jesus Christ too lightly, the decision of faith, which is a heritage of the Reformation, was transformed to Heidegger’s decision of national Dasein and Schmitt’s decision of national sovereignty. In this way, Gogarten relied on the ‘German God’ indeed. But the ‘German God’ is not the Jesus Christ of personal confession but the god of a [political] community.63

Schmitt and Gogarten on one side and Bonhoeffer and Barth on the other did not only differ over the decision they made in the state of exception. The sacred position of their corresponding thinking system is occupied not by the same deity. The bigger issue seen from this comparison is that from a similar theoretical structure the subjectivity of the political community could have secretly replaced the person of Jesus Christ in the sovereign position. Schmitt claimed correctly that it was a theological issue, but one should be alert to the expansion of nationalism this theology promotes. The ultimate issue of constructing a political ontology, regardless of whether it is political or ethical, does not lie in the style but the source of sacredness or the foundation of a value system that shapes the subjectivity involved. Preventing the idolization of a Leviathan in decision is always a challenge, especially in contemporary China, when the state is aiming at increasing her power and obtaining authorization in a New Era.

Xu Jilin, a Chinese scholar often regarded as a representative of liberalism, therefore issued this warning:

Regardless of Schmitt’s theory, populism, or responsive authority, their common point is that through the name of the people and borrowing a garb of democracy, they transfer the right of the final decision to a sovereign position. This is a position similar to the Pope or an embodiment of the divine will beyond the constitution and law, upholding unlimited power of making constitution and decision in the state of exception.64

As Schmitt articulated the critical dimension of theology in the political realm, could Bonhoeffer as his contemporary provide us resources for encountering the emergence of the demonic in today’s Chinese situation? Taking our cue from Bonhoeffer’s thought, we may claim that the confession of ‘Christ as the Lord of the world’ does not concern secular sovereignty directly. This is because God embraces this world not through political power but the sacrificial action of Jesus Christ. Because of this, not owing to the retreat of some people that others can have room to express their opinions and carry out actions. On the contrary, because there is someone who is willing to sacrifice for others, even including his enemies, a space for dialogue emerges. This is the manifestation of true freedom of responsibility that a state of exception outside the law is opened. Thus Bonhoeffer claimed that what Christ manifested in the midst of the church-community was not merely a ‘being with one another’ (Miteinander Sein) but a ‘being for one another’ (Füreinander Sein).65 What is crucial is the pro-me-Struktur in the person of Jesus Christ:66

In this way the whole problem of Christology is shifted. For here the issue is now that relationship between the already given God-Man and the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’, not a discussion on how to relate an isolated God to an isolated man in Christ. This God-Man, Jesus Christ, is present and contemporary in the form which is in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’, i.e. in hidden form, in the form of a stumbling block. That is the central problem of Christology.67

The issue seen in this way is not how the two seemingly conflicting natures can be put together but where and in whom they are united. When Schmitt saw the human as a political creature assuming the priority of conflict, the person of the faith community for Bonhoeffer was derived from the image of Christ delivered by God – not the first human being Adam tempted by sin but Christ the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) who sacrificed himself for others. The pro-me-Struktur shown in Jesus Christ is the image obedient disciples should follow.

Seen against contemporary Chinese political discourse, it is not difficult to comment that the state then should not force the people to become a united front with intimidating power. Nevertheless, sometimes the political slogans may appear ambiguous. The CCP declares that it should always remain a powerful leadership core, but it ‘exercises power in the interest of the people,’ and the people are the ‘fundamental force that determine the Party’s and the country’s future.’68 It appears that the CCP would assume the sovereign position like that of Christ, acting for the good of the people similar to Christ for the church-community. At this juncture, Liu Xiaofeng made a remarkable comment in his interpretation of Schmitt worth to be noticed:

Hobbes had asked people to accept the position of obedience. The presupposition is that the individual freedom in the activities of business and science were protected by an ethical though authoritarian state. Schmitt suggested replacing personal subjectivity and scientific freedom with the ‘intimidating’ power in Hobbes’sense. To indoctrinate this relies on the revival of a myth rather than a machine of techniques.69

Returning to the present situation in China, the question is whether the state has truly exercised her power for the sake of the people. In recent years a series of actions was taken against corruption across all sectors in the Peoples’ Republic of China including the Party and the army.70 The debate will certainly continue on whether it was done due to a genuine will to be rid of corruption or to an intimidation to consolidate the power of the ruling faction. No one would doubt that the future depends on whether the state and the officials can be immune to the problem of achieving absolute power.71 In the end, how then can we avoid the danger brought about by the Leviathan-type god in Schmitt’s thought?

In Ethics Bonhoeffer suggested his unique non-bipartite reality reconciled in Christ. It may also shed light on the construction of a political ontology required in contemporary China. As Agamben pointed out, Schmitt should not confine his interpretation of the political from other realms but relate it to others through the ‘state of exception’. For Bonhoeffer, as God had become human in Christ and reconciled the world to himself, God and the world could not be thought of as separate from each other. They had to be brought into relation in the state of exception or extraordinary situation that Christ created.72 Accordingly, humans are also not separate from the world, otherwise they have no part in the reality that God constituted in Christ. This view is significant for constructing a non-exclusive ontology:

In Christ we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time, the one not without the other. The reality of God is disclosed only as it places me completely into the reality of the world. But I find the reality of the world always already borne, accepted, and reconciled in the reality of God.73

Because of this, human beings in this world may be transformed, such that they are conformed to this reconciliation. Thus we do not strive to reach some ethical standard but are shaped by God in responsible action,74 which is a practice of discipleship in making sovereign decisions.75 The significance for constructing a democratic ethics is that, when an individual embraces this world and relates to others, one does not require a bipartite system of distinguishing between friend and enemy. On the contrary, each one should constitute his or her Mitdasein without neglecting or suppressing the opinions of others. To Bonhoeffer, the possibility of constructing this ‘state of exception’ is established in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. It is a gift rather than an effort based on one’s ability. Otherwise the world would enter into a destructive self-deification process,76 as Agamben pointed out. Thus any claim of absoluteness from the church-community, both individually and collectively, should be questioned. It would be weakened by the God who is coming, such that the exteriority (or non-objectivity) or non-disposability of revelation can be maintained. If even a genuine community of faith is reminded to beware of the lure of self-deification, then people living in a secular state like China should be more alert. In light of this theological argument, the human of this world can only live between the dialectic of dependence and responsibility.77


Thanks to Dr. Naomi Thurston and Diana Summers for their sincere comments on and proof-reading of the draft of this article.


For an overview of two Chinese spokesmen, see Qi Zheng, ‘Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and the Issue of Political Legitimacy in China’, American Foreign Policy Interests, 35 (2013), 254–264.


Mark Lilla, ‘Reading Strauss in Beijing’, The New Republic, 17 December, 2010, <> [accessed 8 April 2022].


Flora Sapio, ‘Carl Schmitt in China,’ The China Story (7 Oct 2015), <> [accessed on 8 April, 2022]; Ryan Martinez Mitchell, ‘Chinese Receptions of Carl Schmitt Since 1929’, Penn State Journal of Law & International Affairs, 8:1(2020), 224–262.


Jason Lam, ‘How Should the Sino-Christian Theology Movement Carry On? Thinking From the Perspective of Humanism,’ Logos & Pneuma 55 (2021), 305–333 at 316–318.


Petra Brown, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception, (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); Karola S. Radler, ‘“Decision” in the Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Carl Schmitt: A Comparative Study’, Unpublished PhD dissertation at Stellenbosch University, 2019, 113–202; Kevin O’Farrell, ‘A Severe Trial: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a Theology of the Exception’, Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 2021, 11–17.


This article has adapted and revised materials from Jason Lam, ‘Is Sino-Christian Theology Truly “Theology”? Problematizing Sino-Christian Theology as a Public Theology,’ Interna‑ tional Journal of Public Theology 14 (2020), 97–119, particularly section 3.2 ‘Nationalism and the Genesis of a National God.’


Weber argues that values function as ‘gods of the various orders,’ which in their plurality must be considered a ‘polytheism;’ see Max Weber, ‘Science as a Vocation,’ in Hans Heinrich Gerth and C. Wright Mills eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 148–9.


After the fall of the imperial dynasty in 1911, there was only a short relatively stable Republican period with warlords influencing the country. Then came the civil war between the Communist Party and Nationalist Party in 1927 and then World War II and ending with the reign of the PRC in 1949. Therefore in mainland China there has not been a stable environment for cultural construction until the implementation of the Reform and Opening-up Policy.


Wolfgang Kubin, Xiaofeng Liu, Jinmin Wang and Liang Qi, Christianity, Confucianism and Modern Chinese Revolution , (Hong Kong: Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, 1999); see also Marcin Kula, ‘Communism as Religion,’ Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions 6:3 (2005), pp. 371–81.


For Berman, the legal systems have presupposed the validity of some beliefs like the autonomy of the law, its structural integrity, its religious root. But in the twentieth century they are rapidly washed away with the western historical tradition. See Harold J. Berman, Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).


Daniel A. Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 403.


Absolute, denoting unconditioned and independence in the strongest sense, has been considered an attribute of God since early Christianity under the influence of ancient Greek philosophy and was developed by medieval thinkers. Thus God is often taken as the bearer of values like truth, love and wisdom. Although the concept is challenged in modern times, thinkers such as Schelling and Hegel still tried to retain a relationship between God as the Absolute with this changing world.


Some prefer to name it the postmodern condition, which is a gigantic topic that this article cannot deal with. For a concise discussion in relation to theology, see Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: A Report on Knowledge of God,’ in Kevin J. Vanhoozer ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 3–25.


Nevertheless, civil society in China is a very ambiguous concept and in recent years has even become politically sensitive and prohibited as a topic for discussion; see, Eva Pils, ‘Introduction: Discussing “Civil Society’”and ‘Liberal Communities’ in China’, China Perspectives 2012/3, 2–7; Jian-Xing Yu and Jun Zhou, ‘Chinese Civil Society Research in Recent Years: A Critical Review’, The China Review, 12:2 (Fall 2012), 111–140.


See the analysis of Xu Jilin, ‘The Spiritual Belief and Cultural Life of Chinese in a Secular Society’, Logos & Pneuma 29 (2008), 27–52.


Shuangli Zhang, ‘Why Should One Be Interested in the Theological Dimension Within the Project of Modern Politics? On the Chinese Acceptance of Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology’, Critical Research on Religion 2:1 (2014), pp. 9–22 at pp. 10–1; Mitchell, ‘Chinese Receptions of Carl Schmitt Since 1929’, 224–262.


For example, Jiang Shigong and Chen Duanhong, both from the law school of Peking University, spoke against the democracy protest in Hong Kong in 2019 and argued for establishing the National Security Law on the basis of the idea of ‘distinguishing friends from enemies.’ For a concise report see Tom Harvey, ‘Xi Jingping, Carl Schmitt and China’s New Era,’ Oxford Research House Ltd Weekly Briefing (13 November, 2021). <> [accessed on 15 February, 2023].


Sapio, ‘Carl Schmitt in China.’


Carl Schmitt citing Cortés in Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 59.




Ibid., p. 36.


Ibid., pp. 59–60.


Carl Schmitt, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, trans. George Schwab and Erna Hilfstein, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996).


Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory, trans. Jeffrey Seitzer, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), pp. 254–255.


Carl Schmitt, Glossarium: Aufzeichnungen der Jahre 1947–51., ed. Eberhard Freiherrr von Medern (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991), p. 243.


For a brief view on how the new leftist school made use of Schmitt, see Xie Libin and Haig Patapan, ‘Schmitt Fever: The Use and Abuse of Carl Schmitt in Contemporary China,’ International Journal of Constitutional Law 18 (2020), 130–146.


Lillia, ‘Reading Strauss in Beijing’; Sapio, ‘Carl Schmitt in China.’


Schmitt, Political Theology, 5.


Zhang, ‘Why Should One Be interested in the Theological Dimension?’, 12.


Schmitt, Political Theology, 6.


Zhang, ‘Why Should One be Interested in the Theological Dimension?’, 12.


Ibid., 15–17.


Jiang Shigong, ‘Philosophy and History: An Interpretation of the Xi Jingping Era from the 19th CPC National Congress Report’, Open Times (2018:1), 11–31. An English translation with introduction is available at [accessed on 8 April, 2022].


Sapio, ‘Carl Schmitt in China.’


Zhang, ‘Why Should One Be Interested in the Theological Dimension?’, 13–14.


Giorgio Agamben, Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 28.


Clifford B. Anderson, ‘The Unexceptional Church: An Exploration of Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben and Karl Barth’, Zeitschrift für Dialektische Theologie (2011 Supplement Series 5), 17.


Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), pp. 105–7.


Anderson, ‘The Unexceptional Church,’ 20.


Bonhoeffer rarely used the word ‘exception’ (Ausnahme) but a series of cognate terms in his writings; See, O’Farrell, ‘A Severe Trial’, 13–14.


See explication below and Petra Brown’s detailed analysis: ‘Bonhoeffer, Schmitt, and the State of Exception,’ Pacifica 26:3 (2013), 253, 255.


Jason Lam, ‘Why Chinese Intellectuals are keen on Reading Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer Perceived as a Public Theologian in the Chinese Context,’ Bonhoeffer Legacy: An International Journal 5:2 (2018), 37–46.


Anderson, ‘The Unexceptional Church,’ 16–17; O’Farrell’s thesis also highlights the eschatological perspective, ‘A Severe Trial,’ 16–17, 220–221.


Anderson, ‘The Unexceptional Church,’ 22 citing Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. E. C. Hoskyns, (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 479–80.


Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 481.


Anderson, ‘The Unexceptional Church’, 23.


Ilse Tödt, Heinz E. Tödt, Ernst Feil and Clifford Green, ‘Editors’ Afterword to the German Edition,’ in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 411.


Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 272–73.


Ibid., 274.


Brown, Bonhoeffer: God’s Conspirator in a State of Exception, 35–50; ‘Bonhoeffer, Schmitt, and the State of Exception,’ 246–64.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship DBWE 4, trans. Martin Kuske and Ilse Tödt (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 144–5.


Brown, ‘Bonhoeffer, Schmitt, and the State of Exception,’ 248–50.


See footnote 5 above.


Larry Rasmussen, ‘The Ethics of Responsible Action,’ in John W. de Gruchy ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 213.


Brown, ‘Bonhoeffer, Schmitt, and the State of Exception’, 256–8; she also noticed in footnote 38 that ‘the ultimate necessity for Machiavelli is limited to the ruler; under Bonhoeffer it is extended to all citizens.’


Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 272–73.


Ibid., 231.


Clifford J. Green, Bonhoeffer: A Theology of Sociality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).


While some commentators, for example, Matthew D. Kirkpatrick, Attacks on Christendom in a World Come of Age, (Eugene: Pickwick, 2011) noticed that Bonhoeffer withdrew from the church in his conspiracy action, it should be remembered that even in this period he had always imagined a future community comprised of the church and the state.


Brown, ‘Bonhoeffer, Schmitt, and the State of Exception’, 253–5.


He is also one of the pioneers who initiated the Sino-Christian theology movement as a kind of public theology. See Lam, ‘Is Sino-Christian Theology truly “Theology”?’.


Liu Xiaofeng, Hanyu Shenxue yu Lishi Zhexue [Sino-Christian Theology and Philosophy of History] (Hong Kong, Institute of Sino-Christian Studies, 2000), 213.


Xu Jilin, Enlightenment and Anti-enlightenment of Contemporary China [in Chinese] (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2011), p. 268.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, DBWE1, trans. Reinhard Krauss & Nancy Lukens, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), p. 178.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lectures on Christology, trans. Edwin Robertson (London: Collins, 1978), p. 47; also compare Clifford J. Green, ‘Trinity and Christology in Bonhoeffer and Barth,’ Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60 (2006), 17.


Bonhoeffer, Lectures on Christology, p. 46.


Michael Schimmelpfennig, ‘Immunity to Temptation – “Power” in Chinese Language,’ in Jane Golley, Linda Jaivin, Paul J. Farrelly and Sharon Strange eds., China Story Yearbook: Power (Acton: ANU Press, 2018), p. 23.


Liu Xiaofeng, ‘Editor’s Preface,’ in Liu Xiaofeng ed., Shimite yu Zhengzhi Faxue [Schmitt and Political Jurisprudence] (Shanghai: Shanghai Sanlian, 2002), p. 42.


Ting Gong and Wenyan Tu, ‘Fighting Corruption in China: Trajectory, Dynamics, and Impacts,’ China Review 22:2 (2022), 1–19.


Schimmelpfennig, ‘Immunity to Temptation’, p. 25.


O’Farrell made excellent remarks on the distinction between Schmitt and Bonhoeffer at this point; See, ‘A Severe Trial’, 155–8.


Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p/ 55.


Green, ‘Editor’s Introduction’, in Bonhoeffer, Ethics, p. 7.


Jason Lam has applied this concept to discuss a situation in the recent Hong Kong protests; ‘Christonomy in a World Come of Age: The Vision and Actualization of Bonhoeffer’s Christian Ethics’, Phronema 35:2 (2020), 61–83; ‘Reading Bonhoeffer Amid the Hong Kong Protests’, Studies in World Christianity 27:2 (2021), 170–193.


Ann L. Nickson, Bonhoeffer on Freedom: Courageously Grasping Reality, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 251.


Luca D’Isanto, ‘Bonhoeffer’s Hermeneutical Model of Community,’ in Wayne W. Floyd Jr. and Charles Marsh eds., Theology and the Practice of Responsibility: Essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), p. 145.

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