Well, as always, these are long overdue and far too brief for the attention that some of these books deserve (especially the one by Jennings). So it goes.
1. Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr.
As the title says, this book is a reading of both Derrida and Paul in relation to the subjects of justice (those dikai- root words in the New Testament, which are commonly and perhaps deceptively translated as ‘righteousness’), law, grace, gift, debt, duty, and hospitality. Most of these subjects exist in something of an aporetic relation to one another (duty and gift, justice and law, etc.) and Jennings spells out the ways in which both Derrida and Paul negotiate those relations.
This a rich text and provided a lot of food for thought. What I really appreciated about Jennings was the way in which he expounded Derrida. Unlike most Derrideans I have encountered (who tend to get off on speaking their own argot), Jennings writes with precision and clarity and actually made me want to read Derrida some more (and that’s saying something, as he has been my least favourite of the Continental philosophers I have studied).
2. Violence by Slavoj Žižek.
For some reason, I can’t seem to get away from Žižek. I’ve got a list of ‘books to read’ that is about a mile long, but then I always seem to just end up picking up another title by this crazy Slovenian.
However, I’m glad I did. Of the Žižek books I have read (seven now), Violence is probably the most readable (I can’t tell if he is getting better at structuring his thoughts — hell, in the epilogue of this book, he even summed up his argument in its various stages! — or if I’m just getting better at understanding what he is talking about… it might be a bit of both).
Anyway, what Žižek does in this book is explore some of the facets of the structural or objective violence that undergirds our contemporary world of global capitalism. That is to say, instead of understanding violence simply as immediate subjective outbursts (one person strikes another, somebody flies a plane into a building, etc.), Žižek looks at the ways in which violence lies at the foundation of our way of life, our economics, our ideologies, our language, and so on. So, violence is not something that bursts into a previously ‘neutral’ environment; rather, violence already suffuses our environment and the outbursts we see manifest that.
One of the points that ends up being hammered home is the inescapability of living violently. Therefore, Žižek concludes that we must engage in a form of redemptive violence. For him, this amounts to doing nothing (which can be the greatest form of violence — where violence is understood as a force that actually creates a change… which is also why Žižek can say that the problem with people like Mao or Stalin or Hitler is that they were ‘not violent enough’… i.e. they continued to practice the type of violence that didn’t really create the space for a genuine change [or Event, or Novum, or whatever language you want to use for that]). Now, I may not agree with Žižek’s understanding of redemptive violence, but I do agree that violence is inescapable and am left thinking that our choice is not between being more or less violent, but between two kinds of violence.
3. How Nonviolence Supports the State by Peter Gelderloos.
I am now convinced that it is the anarchists who most urgently need to gain a voice in the Church — and particularly amongst Christians who are seeking ‘alternate’ ways of living Christianly in today’s world (those involved in New Monasticism, the Emergent Church, Sojourners, whatever). Seriously, these people are showing us the Way (of Jesus Christ). So, if you’re asking yourself ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, I think you’ll find your answer amongst the anarchists… and I don’t think I’m overstating my case by saying that.
Anyway, in How Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos continues Ward Churchill’s daming criticism of the ideology, impotence, and perversity of nonviolence. He demonstrates how a good many of the heroes of nonviolence relied upon violence or spoke approvingly of it in other contexts (King, Gandhi, Mandela), he demonstrates how nonviolence regularly fails to attain its goal (such as the worldwide protests against the Second Iraq War… while violence, like the train bombings in Spain did prove efficacious), and he drives home the point that nonviolent means of resistance are almost always a way in which people of privilege alleviate their own guilt for continuing to live as (oppressive) people of privilege. Therefore, nonviolence actually becomes a means of maintaining current structures of power, rather then being an avenue for change.
I strongly recommend this book and, true to anarchist principles, it is available for free online.
4. The Just by Albert Camus.
I know I just read this play recently but I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit and decided to reread it. Last time I read it in French, but I was able to find a free English version on line (see here). Of course, the English isn’t nearly as good (yep, I’m looking down my nose while saying this!), but it’s okay.
What I love about this play (which is based upon the true story of the bombing of the Uncle of the Tsar in Russia in the late 19th century) is all the questions it raises. What constitutes a truly ‘revolutionary’ act? Can poetry be revolutionary are only bombs revolutionary? What does love require of us? Can taking the lives of some constitute and act of love for the many? When one begins to kill out of love, where does one draw the line? Further, when our love of ‘the people’ prevents us from being able to love the ones we are actually with, what does that say about our love?
I would like to use this text in a discussion group. Recommended reading.
5. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.
This book was lent to me by a co-worker and, given that I don’t read a lot of contemporary, popular fiction, I didn’t have very high expectations. However, I was very pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the book. It’s the story of a misfit girl growing up with her dad, abandoned by her mom and older sister, in a small Mennonite town — and it contains a lovely swirl of beauty, laughter, and heartache (a bit like The Brothers K that way… although not as good). Good fun.
6. Black Hole by Charles Burns.
It has been awhile since I read any graphic novels. I’ve been hesitant to go back to that genre. My problem was that I stumbled onto (what I consider to be) the best works first — Blankets by Craig Thompson, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Epileptic by David B — and everything else I read ended up feeling like a let down. So, having lowered my expectations, this book was recommended to me (it tells the story of teens in the seventies who start contracting a strange plague-like disease and then spirals off from there). There’s some pretty rad horror- or apocalyptic-type art in the book, and it was fun enough to read, if you’re in the mood for something mindless.
July & August Books
Well, as always, these are long overdue and far too brief for the attention that some of these books deserve (especially the one by Jennings). So it goes.
I read Violence fairly recently, and was pleased to actually follow what he was saying. I agree the emphasis on subjective violence was important although overall I found the book stimulating but also frustrating. Yes, subjective violence underlays much of our responses to objective violence but people are still dying – and Zizek doesn’t really have anything to say on that.
While on the subject of violence I picked up a copy of Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology on the back of your previous comments, it looks good.
I agree with your feelings of frustration around Žižek’s proposed solutions (or the lack thereof). As with most of the cultural theorists whom I have read, I find myself often agreeing with his analysis and criticisms, but often disagreeing with his solutions.
I’m eager to reading your review of Churchill!
I read violence and found it fascinating as well as a little disturbing, but that is often a good thing. I enjoy your book reviews Dan, Thanks. LIam
I listened (online) to Gelderloos lecturing/conversing about this subject at a swedish anarchist gathering, and found it very interesting. Another (important?) voice in these matters are Derrick Jensen (anarcho-primitivist) who in Endgame 1 and 2 criticizes pacifism on the same lines as Churchill (whom I haven´t read yet). I´m not convinced, though.
(and by the way, i´m still eagerly looking forward to that letter you promised…)
Here´s the link to Gelderloos speach;
Glad someone’s posting about Gelderloos. I think his argument’s flawed for the reason that most anti-pacifist arguments are flawed (Churchill’s included), in that pacifism is assumed to be ‘passive’ and ‘sectarian’ (more Gelderloos than Churchill on the latter). what happens when pacifism and anarchism blur, such that anarchy picks up the performative aspects of nonviolence toward an alternate configuration of political activity?
I think you’re misreading both Churchill and Gelderloos if you think they outright reject pacifism or assume it to be entirely passive. Both authors spend quite a bit of time reassuring the reader that they do find some value in pacifism (when it is truly lived out as the sort of commitment that costs somebody something). Indeed, they are both pragmatic and believe that different strategies suit different contexts and, just as significantly, different strategies often work well together. So, they have no problem working alongside of committed pacifists, but find that pacifists are unwilling to work with them, undercut their efforts (and thereby undercut their shared goals), ostracize them and sell them out to the Powers, and so on. All of this is rather convincing (IMO).
Dan, I’ve been thinking about your movement towards some sort of affirmation of the inevitability of violence for some time. I think I understand it but I want to hear more. When you say the following:
“. . . I do agree that violence is inescapable and am left thinking that our choice is not between being more or less violent, but between two kinds of violence.”
What are these two kinds of violence? Either violence against the oppressed or on their behalf? Such a binary between oppressor and oppressed may have some value in certain scenarios, but I think the lines are often pretty hard to draw so finely.
And I think my most fundamental question is what does the inevitability of violence actually mean for our lives? What would it mean for you and me to chose the right kind of violence? What would that violence look like?
I hope this comment wasn’t taken in the wrong way. This really is a sincere question. I really do see the logic of what you’ve been saying lately Dan, about the inevitability of violence. But the devil is in the details and I’m curious what the details are in this case if you have time to venture some sort of response.
Odd… I emailed you about your comment (which I didn’t take the wrong way) and my response to it. Did you not get that email?
Sorry, just saw the email. Thanks!
I’ll second Halden’s request. I want to hear more. I remember you once wrote:
Thesis 1. Following the examples of Jesus and Paul, Christians should not seek to wield ‘power-as-force’ over those who are not members of the Church.
Thesis 2. Therefore, Christians should seek change within the world through the Church, which practices ‘power-as-invitation’, not through the government which practices power-as-force.
Is a ‘power-as-invitation’ conceivably violent? (Now I think of it I can see it could be) but would love to hear more on this.
violence as inevitability is ultimately a statement concerning the ‘way things are’: natural law will say yes, violence will emerge, given the limitations of time and space and the preservation of life; a more evangelical reading of ‘way things are’, though, will look specifically to the negation of violence and death in the cross, and that no, violence is not inevitable.
what would it mean that it was not a choice between violence and violence, but violence and suffering violence?
I have thought about this suggestion (moving from performing violence to suffering violence) but I question it for two reasons: (1) we will always be stuck living violently, no matter how much we try to move away from it; and (2) in order to suffer violence, one generally needs to engage in some sort of act of violence.
So, since you mentioned the cross, I think Jesus is the perfect example of this. The single most important event leading to Jesus’ crucifixion was the act of revolutionary violence that he performed in the Jerusalem temple. There is not cross apart from that event. What, then, are the implications of this for those of us who claim to follow Jesus?
I agree with Gelderloos when he states that to focus on the concept of violence, is (or at least can be) unhelpful. As a follower of Jesus, I don´t see Jesus focusing as much upon this subject as pacifists (like myself) tend to do. But I believe Jesus teaching (and example) of enemy-love and overcoming evil with good, IS central (Luke 6, Matthew 5, compare Romans 12-13).
I also agree with the the author´s here mentioned that violence is still violence when it is an aspect of the system that we depend on, even though we ourselves might not put the knife into a body of another human being. Shopping, for example, is, as I see it at least within this system always violent.
I hesitate, though, to say that violence is principally unavailable, (depending on how we define violence). To me this seems to be a bit fatalistic and defeatist (are those real english words?). Or you could say, lutheran (“always a sinner”). John Zerzan argues that civilization with it´s way of dominance and oppression is quite a recent experience in the story of human kind, and opts for another way of life post-civilization. I at least want to believe that exodus and alternatives are a real possibility.
Unavoidable, off course, not unavailable… 🙂
Does one need to engage in violence in order to suffer it? I’m thinking of Paul where he says that if one suffers for wrongdoing, it’s fine, but better to suffer for doing nothing wrong–this is more what I have in mind with my second suggestion of ‘suffering violence’. In other words, bearing violence without returning it. In this, I think Gelderloos and Churchill talk past what is at stake in a Christian version of pacifism: pacifism is not simply about the pragmatics of nonviolence or the power of it, but its bearing witness to a Christ who has rendered violence impotent. I can hear Nietzsche groaning in the background…
In terms of the cross and the temple cleansing, I think it’s anachronistic to label the temple cleansing ‘revolutionary violence’–this description allows for a too easy analogy to other acts seeking justification. I question first of all what in this event we can call ‘violent’. Is the assertion of Jesus’ will in itself violent? Is the restoration of the temple by removing moneychangers violent? What about this event are we naming as ‘violent’?
Violence is a term used too equivocally, and used thus, allows us to either capitualate too quickly or reject everything wholesale.
I get the sense that most people are either fascinated or repulsed by Zizek’s work. You’re right though, Violence is among the more comprehensible things that he has written. I’m reading The Monstrosity of Christ right now, and half the time I have no idea where he’s going with it (what I have grasped though is really interesting). Cocaine is a hell of a drug.
I’ve thought about reading that book but I have this irrational loathing of Milbank that has made me avoid it (I say ‘irrational’ because I’ve never actually read him in any sort of detail).
I haven’t got to the Milbank part of the book, I don’t really know what he’s about, so I’ll withhold judgement. So far I’ve figured out that Zizek hates penal substitution as an explanation/metaphor of the crucifixion.
I used to think that way, too. However, it is worth pointing out that one can engage in violence, while not doing any harm to a person’s body (again, Jesus’ violence in the temple is a good example of this). So, I trust that this can lead us into a trajectory of thought where violence is consistent with enemy love and overcoming evil with good.
Even more provocatively, one could recall the exorcisms related in the NT (performed both by Jesus and Paul). These are actually often rather violent events. And, just as importantly, they are events that disrupt structures of social status and profitability (as in the case with Paul and the demon-possessed girl who was being exploited for the financial purposes of others — where the exorcism is perceived as as an assault upon political, social, and spiritual Powers — or in many of the cases involving Jesus when the exorcism restores an excluded person back into the political, social, and spiritual community).
I mention these because I think the exorcism narratives problematize our relationship with violence, and require us to actively use our imaginations as we think of what that means for our contemporary context (so I don’t mention them because I have come to any hard and fast conclusions about them and their implications).
Well, if you want to use the word violence to talk about direct action that includes things like property “destruction” and the like, I am all for using violence in some cases, and I definitely think some aspects of Jesus ministry was violent. I prefer, though, to use the word in a more narrow sense, as referring to causing bodily harm to another living being (animals included, plants and rivers excluded). But even in those cases, I still acknowledge your point that we are already engaged in using violence towards others, and I also tend to think at least sometimes that violent resistance is, or at least can be, better that supporting the violent system. Peter´s BIG sin was not to pick up the sword, but to deny his leader because he was afraid of the Powers… I just think that aggressive enemy love happens to be a better option. Do you?
Sure, I never thought that we had any option but love… but the question is “what does love look like?” God’s love for Pharaoh looked very different than God’s love for the Hebrew slaves, but when Moses said, “Let my people go!” he was speaking a message of love and liberation to both parties.
That said, I’m somewhat hesitant to offer a definition of ‘violence’ because it is an impossible term to define in any sort of way that will find universal agreement — and also because such definitions are so dependent upon context. So, for example, while my personal inclination might be to see some property destruction as falling outside of proper violence, there are other times when this is not the case (for example, say a man is arguing with his wife and he throws a dish so that it smashes on the wall beside her… no bodily harm was done, only property was destroyed but that surely is a ‘violent’ act… or isn’t it?). Therefore, I am willing to accept the term ‘violence’ for acts that others see as such, even if I personally have a different perspective on the matter.
Really, defining violence is (I think) only really problematical for those who reject violence altogether (as I used to until recently). In order to do that consistently, one must come up with an increasingly narrow definition of ‘violence’ in order to exclude (or legitimate) certain actions that one finds acceptable.
This is why I think that Žižek is onto something when he talks about the violence of the status quo and contrasts it with redemptive violence. Of course, I say that as a person who still rejects 99.99% of the sort of violence that is usually described as ‘redemptive’.
A few thoughts:
(1) Just to reiterate the point I was making above (which doesn’t at all take away from the importance of following Jesus by turning the other cheek, to give to those who ask of us or rob us, and all that). My point is that to genuinely suffer violence in a Christlike way, might mean not just being peaceable when we have personal chance encounters with ‘subjective’ violence. Rather, it means placing ourselves on a collision course with the ‘objective’ violence that undergirds our environment (with the intention, of course, if altering that environment). However, to genuinely move into that sort of encounter, one might need to engage in the sort of activity that creates some sort of traumatic or apocalyptic rupture (otherwise the Powers who rely upon and sustain the objective violence of our world wouldn’t really give a damn about you, and the collision you have been pursuing will not come to be).
(2) To say that one is suffering despite having done nothing wrong, is very dependent upon one’s perspective. Paul, as a follower of Jesus, might see himself as having done everything properly, but the Powers — from their perspective — saw things rather differently. So Paul suffered at their hands (whipped by religious leaders, driven out of town by economic leaders, beaten by civic leaders, and ultimately executed by imperial leaders) because he was following in the footsteps of Jesus and creating communities who threatened the very existence of the (political, economic, spiritual) world as it was then (and as it is now). This is something we tend to lose track of in our spiritual/dogmatic/theological readings of Paul. if Paul is just a theologian qua theologian, that doesn’t explain why he was regularly getting his ass kicked by the Powers that be (although this doesn’t mean that Paul wasn’t writing theology, it just means that Paul’s theology cannot be separated from politics, economics, and all those other interrelated areas of life).
(3) Regarding understanding Jesus’ action in the temple as an act of ‘revolutionary violence’. To be honest, I think you might be letting certain spiritual or theological traditions mislead you in how you read that event. So, let me provide an alternate example.
Imagine somebody walks into the US Senate and shouts: “You say that you are the representatives of the people, but you are really nothing but greedy corporate lackeys, whose authority I completely reject!” This person then pulls out a club and proceeds to run around and smash all the Senators laptops, while also overturning tables.
Now how would such a person be perceived? Certainly the words ‘revolutionary’ and ‘violent’ would be applicable. And this is precisely the sort of thing Jesus did (and now let’s imagine that the person who performed this action in the US Senate also had gathered an increasingly large following of people… what do you think would happen to this person? No wonder Jesus got bumped off!). The key, I think, is remembering the ways in which the Temple was not just a religious centre, but was also extremely important in the social, political, and economic life of Second Temple Judaism.
Of course, you’re right that this reading of the Temple incident is open to being used and manipulated by people seeking to justify all sorts of other (inappropriate) actions. However, the same is true of any reading. So, for example, the reading of the Temple incident that you seem to suggest is, from my perspective, a misreading but one that has a great deal of popularity precisely because of what it allows people to justify (i.e. an apolitical Christ, lets me live an apolitical life and so on).
1) Does introducing a rupture necessitate violent action? What if nonviolence introduces the rupture in the stasis of violence by its very presence? This is in part what I think Jesus ‘overcoming of the powers’ means, that in Jesus being (which involved the rejection of violence), the totality of the ‘powers’ is rendered asunder by his being, which undermines the static eye-for-eye of the powers.
2) Paul suffered because he was disrupting local economies? Sure, that may be true in Ephesus, but what about Rome or Phillipi? Can we make the economic/social argument in all cases, or can we rather say that the suffering which Paul incurred was deriviately economic, that what Paul did INVOLVED economies because what Paul was introducing was nothing short of a cosmic contestation?
3) I don’t interpret the Temple narrative in my response. I’m asking what we’re naming as ‘violent’. Violence is one of those slippery words which allows us to paint things with very large brushes. What are we naming as ‘violence’?
(1) No, I don’t think that introducing a rupture ‘necessitate[s]’ violent action. Pentecost, of course, is an excellent example of that sort of rupture occurring nonviolently. However, I also don’t think that it completely excludes some types of ‘violent’ action. Therefore, although you are repeating the assertion that Jesus rejected violence, you have not really addressed the case I have made for the times when I think Jesus did act violently.
(2) Of course Paul was engaged in a ‘cosmic contestation’ but to make economics or politics somehow secondary (or ‘derivative’) while making that point is to make the fatal mistake of introducing a mode of thinking that is completely foreign to Paul. A form of thinking, by the way, the often works conveniently for Christians who live lives that benefit from intimate relations with the contemporary Powers that be.
Oh, and yes, we can make the case for Paul in Rome and Philippi (and Thessalonika, and Corinth). I would recommend further readings in Neil Elliott, Robert Jewett, Richard Horsley, and Mikail Tellbe if you want to learn more about that.
(3) I know that you didn’t interpret the Temple narrative — that’s why I wrote “seem to suggest” and “I think you might be” and so on. Feel free to offer a counter-narrative to the one I provided.
As for defining violence, see my comment above to Jonas.
Dan. Ok, I hear what you say. Maybe you are right. As I´ve said before, I´m struggling with these question in a way similar to yourself. Maybe I can accept a broader use of violence, I think we should avoid getting into a situation where the battles rage around semantics. And I agree that the situation you described is violent, although I think it´s actually more of a threat of violence.
(As to Pharaoh, I don´t think this is a valid argument, since we both would agree that it´s problematic to argue for God´s violent and revengeful character through these kind of storys in the scriptures.)
Here’s my general problem with the way this is being framed: terms like ‘the powers that be’ and ‘violence’ are being thrown around uncritically. We need to be clear about what we’re arguing about, or we’re never going to be getting anywhere, i.e. we’ll never be able to talk about Paul or Jesus b/c we’re functioning with different vocabularies entirely.
and to 1) if peace is a rupture into the totality created by violence, how can violence be anything other than a contribution to stasis, status quo?
and to 2): things like economies and politics were derivative for Paul insofar as they related to Christ’s overcoming them. They weren’t Paul’s central mission (to set up new economies or to institute some new means of exchange); that’s a totally Marxist gloss of the stories.
That being said, new economies and politics CANNOT be separated from Paul’s mission either. Naming Christ as the one conquering the powers is a spiritual act all the way down, in that it transforms the person and the material systems in which persons are embedded.
It’s not a choosing one or another, pietism or social change. It’s framing the ‘power struggle’ outside the lose-lose scenarios of violence/counter-violence.
Myles. I´m not sure we can or need to find some a priori definition of our concepts before anything. We always engage in dialogue from where we stand, and words and concept are always negotiated. To me, it sound a bit like you think we need to sort out the theory/definitions first, and then engage in dialogue/praxis. I don´t think this is possible or even desirable.
If you say that “economies and politics were derivative” for Paul, aren´t you engaging in the very separation between a political sphere and a religious sphere, that Dan (if I understand him right) is questioning? But isn´t this to see the Messiah (=Christ=the anointed ruler) “proper” as unpolitical. Which to me seems to be the same as to make him unhistorical.
Please explain if I have misunderstood your point.
I’m not saying in all cases a priori definitions are desirable, as if we think a thing first, and then act on it. That’s simply not true; I’m saying for the sake of dialogue, we need to have some sense of how we’re defining terms. Dialogue means having some sense of common language.
As to the Pauline thing, it’s not a separation–because Christ is cosmic, politics is an inseparable world, though–yes–it is derivitive. Christ didn’t come to be president, but to change the cosmos from the ground up, which involves political and economic lives, but is not limited to those definitions. You and Dan seem to be thinking that I’m some sort of Kantian, when in fact, to frame Christ’s victory in economic terms first is to limit the scope of Christ’s victory–how does one move from dollars and cents to an account of the cosmos without making dollars and cents the vehicle by which reality moves? By contrast, I’m arguing that because Christ has come into flesh, how we understand politics and money is rearranged so that we don’t have to play by the Zizekian nonsense of violence-as-status-quo. We’re able to live in other ways, and dream beyond that, and–yes–to suffer violence in the pursuit of it.
Do feel free to offer a definition of violence, if you think it would be helpful. Until you do that, I’m sort of left feeling like you’re sticking your head in the sand when you suggest that the status quo is not violent. I think that almost every aspect of our daily lives is suffused in violence (I provide some examples of that in this post: http://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2009/03/21/abandoning-our-home-amongst-impotent-powers-pursuing-new-creation-in-solidarity-with-the-poor/ so feel free to give that a skim read). There were many other authors — liberation theologians, biblical scholars, social theorists, etc. — who made this point to me before I even knew about Žižek, so you don’t have to worry about this just being another bit of ‘Zizekian nonsense’.
Also, I’m not prioritizing the economic over the other facets of Paul’s embodied gospel proclamation (although many people who are used to a ‘Spiritual Paul’ make the mistake of assuming that I am… simply because I even talk about economics!). I agree that there is no need to create a false divide between piety and economics (and whatever else is a part of a life together).
Oh, and I’m all for ‘living in other ways’ ‘dreaming beyond that’ and living outside of the ‘lose-lose scenarios of violence/counter-violence’ but one must be able to make an argument for these things that takes seriously the historical reality in which we live. So, your argument that the status quo is not violent makes me think you don’t know what’s going on, which also makes me think that any solutions that might have (for living in other ways and so on) will likely miss the point. I am, however, very open to you proving me wrong in this regard.
Wow that is a good discussion! I guess blogging all day is not so attractive now that I haven’t got a dissertation to procrastinate from. I haven’t really engaged with these issues for a couple of months now, but I find that, while they were stewing on the backburner, some things began to make a bit of sense.
I haven’t read Violence by Zizek so I’m just extrapolating on the basis of the things he presses on in his other books. That basically the violence of Robespierre and the Russian Communists is not at its root an “evil” violence. It is the violence of idealists who were moved enough to want to do something about the fact that small children very often don’t get enough to eat, and that the social system we inhabit is fine with that. They hoped to bring about a new social order, but found that it took lots of efforts to bring it about, and that not enough people were committed to making it happen. Hence, they turned violent against all perceived enemies of that new order, meaning those who had never supported them in the first place (the nobility, the bourgeoisie) and those who had only lukewarmly supported them, or who were too weak to live by the revolutionary ethos (the traitors). They ended up committing lots of atrocities in the name of those ideals. They thought that violence would only last a time, and that after that we would have a new humanity.
It must be pointed out that they did achieve stuff. The French revolution brought about massive change, some of them laudable. Also, I have lived in the Eastern part of Germany shortly after the wall came down, and in Moldova for a couple of months. Lots of people preferred communism to what they’ve got now. And let it be pointed out that the only way in which Moldova can be this strange self-sustaining heterotopy who is INDIFERENT to the state (and thus anarchist in the practical sense) is because the peasants on the ground own the land which was allocated to them by Soviet Communism.
But yes, their failure to be efficiently non-violent, their fall into violence “didn’t really create the space for a genuine change”. None of the revolutionaries ever waited around for the conversion of the population, they literally forced it down their throat. Maybe Jesus was hanging around a bit longer, for that event, the moment in which an individual commits their lives to serving God and neighbour with all their might, no matter what the cost to them might be. He seemed to have little time for people who were not at that stage. Or rather, he seemed to have double standards of some sorts. He had nothing against the punters (the large crowds) who just came to sit at his feet and listen to what he had to say, or against those who simply wanted to be healed from something. He did not tell everyone to pick up their crosses. He seemed to be grooming only a few for that. But we who read the gospel think everything that Jesus said to long-term disciples whom he knew deeply applies to us half-assed 21st century westerners. Sometimes I feel like I’m like this guy in Mark 5.18 that Jesus healed and who wanted to follow him and Jesus said no. Just go home and have the humility of testifying of the love God has shown towards you and that’s it. A lifetime of giving thanks to God is a life well-spent. Do that until the Almighty has another plan. Thanksgiving is the oxygen of the Christian life anyway. If you’re crap at it you’ll be crap at everything.
I have read Ward Churchill, and I’m even among those unpopupular folks who think that he wasn’t entirely off the mark in his appraisal of 9/11. You say at some point either in your post or in the comments that you like the critiques of the system and the critiques of non-violence say about, but you are unconvinced by their solutions. Well that is my case too and I don’t think Ward Churchill fares all that much better than the rest. I nearly wept at the conclusion of his pamphlet. So his “solution” is a rebel boot-camp in which you learn the techniques of violence, and then you put yourself in the social position of being abused (i.e. go live in some really poor part of town, see the misery for yourself, and get called names a bit cause’ that’s good for your rebel-character, then, you’ll have suffered some of these things in your own body and you’ll have a bit more street creds, and you can choose whether to use violence or not, instead of being that limp-assed pacifist). I find that very artificial, and even somewhat unsustainable. A lot of young people go through a hyped phase of wanting to be real real faithful to the real hardcore Jesus. They also outgrow that real quick and fly home to mama after six months (and cash in on their “stories” for six years, but that’s another issue). As I think the movie City of Joy shows, westerners can and do leave after a while, leaving the people they were here to help in a worst state of despair. They are also exceptionally clueless about the place in which they are “relocating”. Jesus wasn’t relocating. Oppressed Judaism was his culture. There had been a massively violent repression at Tzippori a few years before he was born. That’s the stuff the mother of Jesus grew up with. That little corner of the Earth was the most violence-saturated little place on the planet, men getting crucified and women getting raped in the hundreds. Revolutionary ideas oozed out of everyone’s pores and the Magnificat, out of the mouth of a woman who was living in an absolute shithole and had witnessed most of the atrocities first hand, is among the most violent, at once desperate and hope-filled revolutionary texts ever.
So one of my friends spent several years researching what organisation was doing the most good, and ultimately she came up with Christian Aid. The way they work is to make funding available for projects which are designed and carried by people on the ground. Westerners can sometimes tag along for a short while, after a draconian wetting process may I add, and from what I understand they place themselves under the leadership of the local project leaders. The local project managers have all the local street creds, and they won’t walk away from themsleves, because often they can’t. While, knowing myself, after three months I would be looking for the next big thing elsewhere. I’m not saying that all westerners walk away. I’m saying that a lot do. They do not set roots deeply and durably enough to become more than a liability to the local population whose candour and generosity they exploit in some voyeuristic way.
So yes, our way of life is violent. I mean there isn’t a job out there that isn’t. Even yours or mine are funded through money which was made in one way or another before it could be given away. And we need jobs. That or state support, which is all the same. We could move to Moldova, become devout orthodox and life off the land, but we still wouldn’t be good, we’d be neutral and uninvolved, much like your “lost generation” of a few posts back. But unfortunately or fortunately, Capitalism is only interested in profit. Where there is profit to be made, capitalism will be absolutely ruthless (see the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare for an example), but where there is no profit capitalism leaves the lumpenproletariat blissfully alone. Without an ounce of flour to feed its kids, that is. And so we see what? Humble westerners saved by wondrous grace, broken by the illness and death of their loved ones and by their own unworthy pettiness, who spend all their free time raising funds in the North of England to, once a year, bring sustainable clean water to the lumpenproletariat of remote parts of Tanzania, for the love of Christ and for the privilege of being His arms and legs in the world today. And for us onlookers, seeing this life abundant right next to us in the pews brings about the event (or shall we say the process) of conversion more surely than all of Robespierre’s inflamed discourse and redemptive violence.
This is a really fucking great comment. Thanks, Dany!
Dany. It sounds like you view efforts to opt out of the system and “live off the land” (like the Amish, the hutterites (anabaptists) or something like that) should, per definition, be regarded as uninvolved/passive/neutral/(sectarian?). I simply can´t see this, so please explain. Uninvolved in what, and why is it a bad thing, if the alternative is being violently and oppressively involved? From who´s perspective would this be a with-drawal? And even if we with-draw, viewed from a certain angle, wouldn´t there be other ways for us to be a blessing to the cities and the system, for example by being an example of another way of life, through the formation of other kinds of people, and wouldn´t it still be possible to send people out into the cities while maintaining much of their independence etc?
Sorry Jonas, I’ve just started a new job in a new city (the “caring” completely PC type of job, funded indirectly by capitalist ventures), I haven’t got the internet set up at home and I don’t access this blog at work. I’ve actually thought about that a lot, and I fantasise about Moldova a lot, so let me give you a little bit of background.
One of our family friends comes from there, and invited me to spend some time there immediately after graduation from uni. The way I met him was textbook perfect. He was selling Big Issue type newspapers in my smallish hometown when I was a t school. I was revising for exams on my own all day and bored out of my skin. I asked him if he spoke Russian and if he would help me with it (I wasn’t taking a Russian exam, but I was bored). We cooked some steak.
Turns out ours was the first French home he’d been welcome into. My dad showed up from work and was fascinated by his stories, our new friend barely managed to catch the last train back to the large city where he was staying. He showed up the next week with flowers for us. My dad invited him straight back in. He was painting the basement at the time, so he asked S. if he’d like to help. Turn out S. was a million times more efficient than my dad, and S. Invited my dad to an evening of Romanian music, which my dad just loved. Fast forward a few years, my dad was a caution for S.’ first flat, I slept a hundred nights on his couch, I’m best friends with his French wife and godmother to his daughter. And I can go to Moldova once a year if I want to.
Moldova, and much of actual Russia these days, is a fascinating place. Basically the state is useless and corrupt like you would not believe. So the peasants just ignore it, but as I pointed out they can only do that because they own a plot of land, which they most definitely didn’t before the revolution. The economy is a subsistence one, that is, you can only really live in the cities in you’ve got a family in the hinterland that can provide you with food and childcare. The formal economy is comparatively very small.
I was gobsmacked by how people don’t care for money. For instance, I offered a comparatively huge sum of money for a musical instrument I wanted to own. I was told to basically get lost: the guy would not sell it to me, and he did not matter that I offered to pay 200 times what he would eventually sell it for, to someone who could play it and really appreciate the workmanship. I got a serious bollocking from my friend later on who was red with shame for my insistent rudeness. I was thinking “you guys are capitalism-illiterate”.
The Christian religion was also so omnipresent you felt you were living in another time. It was absolutely assumed that you had enormous Christian knowledge and orthodox practice. People thought it a crime of serious neglect to deprive a child of it. The orthodox approach is also pretty full on, you get in serious trouble in you don’t spend a month after Easter greeting absolutely everyone not with “hello” but with “Christ is alive”. The answer to that is “he is alive indeed” and get prepared to say that 150 times a day, you will also not drink a sip of wine without raising it saying “Christ is alive”, you get my drift. It was freaking strange, I felt like the resurrection had happened a week ago in the next village.
I learned that the orthodox also don’t really care what is in your head. Before that, I always thought the minute you started cognitively having some doubts, you were not really a Christian anymore. But there I understood that my doubts did not alter the Kingdom of Christ at all. It was like me doubting that Sarkozy is the president of France. I can think what the hell I want, but Sarkozy is still president, and I still got to abide by the laws. So the cognitive elements are comparatively irrelevant, but Christ is still Pantocrator, and since you happen to be living under his rule, you’ve got to behave like a Christian, like it or not. You still get the matronly mother literally ramming some holy bread down your throat when she comes home from the hours-long service. Nobody cares what the little sheep think, you’re still in the fold, but they would care a hell of a lot if you started showing signs of outright rebellion against the Christian order, if you refused the bread, if you refused to say the greetings, if you did not defer to a monk, people would just panic and be very worried about you.
So anyway, back to your real question, which is about self-sustaining communities that do not engage in violence, but try to be a non-violent presence in the world and show others the way. The Moldovans I’m talking about are self-sustaining food-wise and dwelling-wise but in 2001 they could afford a bottle of shampoo. They saved all the presents I brought for the next wedding that would occur in the family (I’m using the past because I haven’t been back and things might be changing fast). Moldovans could and did help others through lavish gifts of food and hospitality.
So sometimes I feel like exiting the capitalist order, but I always fantasise about some remote part of Russia because, for a start, they really don’t use much money at all, you could live a year without it. While the startup neomonastic communities invariably do need money. So they print ecological T-shirts or rely on donations. I could buy Shane Claiborne’s T-shirts with money earned at Shell, for all they know. They’re not outside the system.
Besides, you wouldn’t have to start it from scratch (which can end up a bit sectarian, I see intentional communities and I think of Alex Gaarland’s The Beach). Let’s face it, we are young, inexperienced wannabe monastics, we need guidance. I for one long for a culture that would keep me straight. And by a culture I don’t mean a band of 27-years old hotheads fresh out of school who would lead all the others into their vision. I mean the faithful Moldovans whose daily life is steeped in grace, quite UNreflexively and UNintentionally, and who firmly believe that there is hope for me, a good enough subject of Christ the King.
Living there would mean not being able to afford shampoo. It would mean not earning a western salary and also not giving it away. The West would not notice my absence from the system, somebody else would take my slot in the machine, but the absence of giving would be felt. Because 50 dollars go a freaking long way in some parts of the world, it buys a hell of a lot of medicine in Burundi, sustainable clean water in Tanzania, the cool Christian Aid projects, and you name it. So I choose to be in the system, because, for me, being really out of it (in Russia) feels like a cop-out, and as for “communities” in the West, I don’t believe they can be out of it at all. I choose to work a job and invest both the cash and myself. Some choose to not work a job and invest themselves fully.
But we need each other. And, like it or not we also need the commodities produced by capitalism. Moldovans might be fairly self-sustaining; they do not make their clothes, their shampoos and their medicines. With all the Christ-like generosity and hospitality in the world, they also can’t give these things to an orphanage if they don’t have them, and that’s where we who have western salaries come into the picture. I mean, be my guest, go manufacture clothes and medicines in a radical-Christian community in the highlands of Scotland, with no use of mammon whatsoever, and then send them to Russia and please blog about it because I’m interested.
You know in Jesus’s time, the Roman aqueducs were all made with slave labour, I often ask myself whether Jesus and his band of followers refrained from drinking water brought to a place by the roman infrastructure, or whether they just used it. My guess is they did use it. Not using it made no difference to the system, but having access to water enabled you to do whatever it is that you were on about.
I think that Dan has got a post way back that explains why he is based in Vancouver and not in the two-third world. Back then he said that the hope of the world is westerners being moved to be faithful to Christ, and you can’t achieve that from a distance. Having met Dan, he does just that. He’s so committed that a chat with him makes you long to be a saint. If you’re lucky, that longing will not leave you. It’s pretty much the same conclusion that I had in the same comment, the Kingdom of God is yeast-like, we just need more wannabe saints. But to be inspiring they’ve got to be with us where we are, sometimes forgoeing the cuddly community of like-minded hipsters.
Sorry guys! I typed this in another programme, then cut-and-pasted, the skipped line did not come through.
(I just happened to delet a long comment do Dany….) 🙁
Wow! You write incredibly well, interesting and inspiring. And very long comments… I´m not sure where to pick up on your comment.
Among other things, I guess it comes down to whether you think industrial civilization is sustainable or not. I don´t, but I might be wrong. I think much of our civilization will come down sooner or later, and therefore I think it´s a good thing if we already now begin moving in another direction. So money and politicians and stuff like that will not in the long run help us. (That doesn´t mean, of course, that God cannot use them to some extent in the meantime.)
I hope for small groups that live together, loving each other and living self sufficient (more or less) and in harmony with the nature around them, inviting people to join them, and confronting the system. There are examples of this, for my own part I have been very inspired by the anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, the Amish and neo-anabaptists like the Bruderhof movement, although they have lost some of their original seal and values. I share some of your critique of N.M., but still think they are moving in a similar direction. (“Here comes the neo-Amish”.) Your stories of those orthodox people sounds a bit like the same thing. For me, Jesus through his teaching on the kingdom of God and it´s ethics, and through his example, is the most attractive way to move in this direction.
The priority, I think, should be neither to attack the system (violently or not), neither to stay and try to reform it, but to move out (exodus) and try to establish another way of life, and communities with practices that makes new people that, like Jesus, is not that interested in hoarding treasures or building their tower of power.
But I might be wrong.
No idea if anyone is still reading this, but anyway. I was thinking that I was being a bit unfair towards the Shane Claiborne types. If they knew you were wearing their T-shirts and simultaneously working for Shell, they most probably would try to invite you out of doing that. After all, maybe there is some scope for building an economy that lives more or less on its own, even though I don’t think it can exist entirely out of the system, but it can suck some blood out of it, be a positive cancer, in a way. The way I see it, there are several ways of being towards the system:
-Go where it really clashes. If you try confronting human trafficking right where it happens, or if you put yourself in the way of serious capitalist exploitation, there is a serious chance that you’ll end up dead or at least very scared. For instance, a mafia of some sorts is exploiting people on the tourist trails of Peru. If you only entered in competition with them, they’d threaten you so bad you’d be tempted to leave. If you stayed around, they’d plant some coke on you or something along these lines. You should ensure that you know what you’re doing, and if you have serious local support that makes you unhittable, that’s a lot better.
-Go where nothing is happening capitalism-wise. This is a lot safer and can be done by anyone. My parish is digging two 100-metres deep water wells in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania, just because of one guy who carried the project all the way.
-Generally buy in the social economy. Maybe it will grow so much that it will evolve into a serious alternative. For instance the water-cooler at work is in support of a very cool social enterprise. Any resources that go from the mainstream economy into the social economy strenghten the latter.
-Create an alternative community that shows people the way. That’s taking it a step further and leaning into permaculture and people-loving. If it remains at that level, it can be very self-centred, and also boring. Also, if the beautiful prefigurative communities do not meaningfully support people elsewhere (those that must sell a kidney to a dodgy mafia in order to survive, I mean), I’m not sure they achieve all that much good except attract spiritual tourists, and God knows THEY’re an annoying bunch, although not necessarily insincere.
Getting into a pissing contest about who’s got a better grasp on ‘historical reality’ gets us nowhere. I’ve done work in Kenya, Rwanda, Mexico, done my time as a volunteer coordinator with non-profits and all the rest, so let’s put aside the street cred arguments about ‘historical reality’. I’ll leave it at that.
When I say ‘Zizekian nonsense’, I mean this: seeing the basis of reality as that of violence is a matter of belief. Do we believe that violence is at the heart of our world? Do we believe that violence is the final word? If we do, then sure, violence can be our voice, violence can be our language of argument. BUT, if we confess that there is one who has conquered the bullshit of daily violence, we are compelled into it disarmed, engaged, and well aware that we may not win.
I think that your critique here is that by disallowing violence, we give up the possibility of ‘doing something’ about injustice or violence. My claim is that that’s very limited thinking. Recognizing that violence exists and exists as a destruction of world is not the same as saying that to address these violences, we have to succumb to violence. When we allow the violence of the neighborhood and world to be the defining lens by which we understand what the world is about and the direction in which the world is going, our capacity to act has already been rendered mute. Hannah Arendt pointed out a long time ago that violence is the most un-political act one can do, because it retreats from action and speech into brute force. As Christians, our call is to action, but action as those living under the one who has done away with violence. It is our call to suffering, to death, and to resurrection.
I’m out of this discussion. Blessings to you, Dan, but don’t capitulate to the bullshit that says either that the world is made of violence all the way down, or that to erradicate violence, one must succumb to thinking that violence precedes peace. Remember: violence is the ultimate stasis, the cold center of Hell where strife begets strife, while love is the slowly turning center of Heaven (Dante) which gives life to the dead.
I think Zizek’s and Dan’s important points on ‘systemic violence’ need to be reckoned with. Perhaps any Anabaptists on the site would comment on their early history and interactions with Indians in the colonies and US during our continental expansion/genocide. Quakers and Anabaptists (and some others) heroically strived to deal justly and non-violently with native peoples, but the mere fact of their existence passively contributed to colonial expansion. Levinas cites Pascal’s pensses that laments that the “…I is detestable. In the sovereign affirmation of the I, the perseverance of beings in there being is repeated, but also the consciousness of the horror that egoism inspires in myself…my place in the sun is the image of usurpation of the whole earth.” “My place in the sun,” references the Talmud that even my shadow robs life and sunlight from a blade of grass. What are we to do? Are we at best hostages, benignly complicit in a crime for which we, against our will, help the perpetrators escape and profit—indeed, the very fact of our ‘innocence’ is where and why our value as hostage obtains! But, “we are all guilty of everything all the time, and me more than all the rest,” Levinas wrote after surviving the Nazi’s; what can he mean by that? Can God be hostage? or guilty bystander? (St. Aquinas, forgive me for the question). Meanwhile the uncountable body count raises with the ocean’s tides and the murderous sun assaults our collateral–shadows, and at a ‘bible study’ last week the liberal Christians debated the moral virtues of clothe diapers over disposable. But shit must be attended to in any case! So what are we to do? Well, why not take the whole family to visit “Ohio’s First and Finest Outdoor Drama!” at Gnadenhutten Ohio. I have been there, just down river from Sandusky where I lived for a short while. It’s a historical re-enactment of Ohio pioneer days. It boasts “a cast and crew numbering over 70 people to bring this epic production to life. Professional actors, singers and dancers, brilliant lighting, authentic looking costumes, horses, battle pyrotechnics and a state-of-the-art sound system combine for an outstanding evening of family entertainment. Ohio’s First and Finest Outdoor Drama.” Among the features is a glossed over acct of the Gnadenhutten (huts of grace) massacre. The Lenape (Delaware) Indians, it turns out, caught between English, French and American God-smacked nation-building fervor faced some difficult choices. Fight, Flee, submit, integrate, convert. The pacifist Moravian missionaries had been active among the Delawares and had made many converts. While some Delawares fought with the English and some fought with the Americans, the Christian converts chose to submit and integrate and live peacefully among their conquerors in ‘Huts of Grace’. Of those that fought with the Americans, the few survivors were rewarded with starvation, murder and relocation to Oklahoma. Those that fought with the English suffered the same fate but were relocated to Ontario. However, those that followed the Moravians in peaceful non-violence were set upon by Ohio militiamen. Given that the militiamen were also Christians, they allowed the 96 men, women and children lenape’ converts to pray through the night. In the morning they lined them all up on their knees, and as the 96 prayed the militiamen took turns bashing in their heads with a large mallet (they were conserving ammunition). There was some outrage and moral condemnation back in the comfortable living rooms in Boston and Philadelphia but the boats kept landing and the immigrants, many fleeing persecution, injustice, starvation and oppression themselves, kept filling the wagons and heading West, their shadows leading them all the way to the Pacific ocean, and to Whidbey island, where I now live. Up in Coupeville we also have a festival every spring. Natives come from all over the Northwest to race canoes and sell traditional arts and crafts (my wife is the tribal liaison among the various tribes). We offer a ‘free’ dinner to all the Native Americans who participate on Sat. night and hand out complimentary T-shirts. We raised our first child in cloth diapers, and the latter 2 in disposable. How about youall? How do you deal with all this shit? Fight, flee, integrate, submit; kneel and die praying or prayerfully wield the hammer? Write indignant op-ed’s to the Boston Herald expressing moral outrage over the latest massacre? Cloth or disposable? The Indians hereabouts traditionally used shaved cedar and deer moss, but not anymore. Obliged, Daniel.
Jonas and Dany,
The problem is that I’ve experienced (a little) and studied (a little) of the approaches that both of you suggest and they have left me fundamentally dissatisfied. Apart, perhaps, from Dany’s remarks about engaging with traffickers on the ground. The question is, in our own places of being, whom are the ‘traffickers’ and how might we engage them in a way that carries the same risks (and rewards) as those in Dany’s Peruvian example?
Dan. Blessed be the dissatisfied, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God. If you´re searching for something that will make you satisfied, I guess you either will continue as long as you live (which I would take to be a good thing), or get tired and burned out and stop searching.
Dany. I kind of like you suggestions! Hopefully many people will listen…
I was thinking, this alternative you promoted before – staying within the system, earning money and helping people with them. Isn´t this a bit like oppressing people with one hand, and helping people with the other. Wouldn´t it be better to first try to get off the back of the poor, before trying to “help” them (Tolstoy´s metaphor)?
And Dan again. But what about Jesus? Is his way relevant/important? Or are you doubting him too?
Whether it would be better to “get off the back of the poor before helping them”… It depends how we conceive of capitalism. Many people in radical circles conceptualise capitalism as fairly monolithic, any participation within it is exploitative, and as history advances it just gets worse and more savagely ruthless. So they dismiss people like Bill Gates. As one book review puts it: “The most vehement come from those who think capitalism has perpetuated the very problems Gates and others purport to be tackling. Capitalism, as a system based on the accumulation of private property, thrives through restricting profits to an ever more exclusive minority. As a result, it can’t help but widen inequalities between rich and poor.” http://www.spectator.co.uk/books/2626511/doing-good-and-doing-well.thtml
I think my understanding is that it is less monolithic than it seems and there are more benign forms of capitalism (social enterprise, local food, local T-shirts, base community ventures) which can claim some of the market space. So because I live in the West, I can buy my stuff from there in order to help that bubble grow alongside the more mainstream exploitation a la Primark.
But maybe I just say that because I don’t have what it takes to stop playing capitlalism’s endless game of musical chairs and share the fate of the poor.
I guessed that Dan would like the option of locating yourself where it really clashes. In my opinion, that really is the way of demonstrating real solidarity with the exploited and getting yourself crucified. But I also think that there is no need to be foolish. This is dangerous shit, so you might as well know exactly what you’re doing, otherwise you’d get martyred for nothing. Since you’re not Peruvian you don’t start out with knowledge and networks (read: protectors). Also that option isn’t really family friendly.
Is that “confrontation where it hurts” close to what Jesus was doing? I think he tought his message was so important that it was worth not recanting it, even if you ended up on a cross (for a fantastic bit of reading about that, this book, page 55 onwards, is the most stunning thing I’ve come across on the topic: http://www.archive.org/details/faithofsubaltern00decaiala). Sometimes, what we’re saying and what we’re doing is worth not recanting, sometimes there is room for pragmatism (and the Gospel is full of that pragmatism too).
This sacrificial life does still empower others. In Chile, if you casually mention “Pinochet” on a bus, random strangers quite often errupt into crazy emotions, desperate to convince you of the truth of what happened. Nobody has forgotten a thing. The commitment of the survivors will be raw forever, which is an incredible force.
My link to De Candole’s book does not work because I left a bracket attached to the url. Here’s another try:
Dany. I just want to say that I have read your comment and will think about it. Maybe, though, I will leave this interesting discussion here.