Introduction: Jesus and then Christianity
[L]et everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you…
For baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul; and the gospel does not make goods common except in the case of those who, of their own free will, do what the apostles and disciples did in Acts 4. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of Pilate and Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common, and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone to the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure.~ Martin Luther, “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.”
I confess that I have had some strange bedfellows and traveling companions over the years. I’ve kicked it with Evangelicals trying to spread the so-called gospel on University campuses, I’ve chilled with old men drinking cooking sherry in back alleys, I’ve partied with “low track” sex workers, I’ve attended charismatic big tent revivals, I’ve visited real estate millionaires in penthouses overlooking English Bay (in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territories—I was friendly with their coke dealer so I sometimes got invited along), I’ve studied Greek and hermeneutics at Bible college, I’ve been a regular at many a dive bar, and I’ve participated in ceremonies with self-identified shamans and witches (psychedelic plants may or may not have been involved). Suffice to say, it has been an interesting ride. However, in all these interactions over all these years, two things have remained constant: an abiding interest in the early days of the movement that coalesced around Jesus of Nazareth in the first 60 or so years of the first century CE, and the constant friendship of and rootedness within communities of people who have been oppressed, abused, abandoned, and left for dead in the cities of the territories occupied by the (illegitimate, genocidal) Canadian state. Along the way, I came to the following conclusion: more often than not (far more often than not), those who have no upbringing within Christianity are much better equipped to easily and intuitively understand who Jesus was and what he was about, than those who were raised in some kind of Christian home. I remember as my perception of Jesus slowly began to transform based upon my studies, experiences, friendships, and allegiances, I would share ideas or thoughts that seemed “radical” to me (as a post-Evangelical, post-Christian person), and friends of mine who had no experience at all within “the Church,” would respond by saying, “well, yeah, that’s kind of what I always thought Jesus was doing.”
This is not surprising once one realizes just how fundamental the betrayal of the early Jesus movement is to the entire history of Christianity. Christianity, at least in its most popular and dominant forms, has always been invested in overcoding (as per Deleuze and Guattari) the words, actions, and commitments of Jesus and the early members of the Jesus movement (including the Pauline faction—on this point Hollis Phelps and I will disagree to some extent, but I make my case for that in my forthcoming Paul and the Uprising of the Dead series), in order to make the movement more acceptable to the values, commitments, and trajectories of patriarchal imperialism, conquest, colonialism and, in our present evil age, capitalism. This betrayal has been something present from the very beginning. Thus, for example, we see the Pauline faction struggling against so-called “Super Apostles” in Corinth who want to replace the sibling-based economic mutuality of the early Jesus loyalists (a horizontal, rhizomatic form of equality and solidarity) with the practice of patronage (a hierarchical, status-quo-affirming form of charity). I’m not convinced that the Pauline faction won the struggle at Corinth and, just as we also see how funds that the early Jesus loyalists were pooling in order to emancipate their siblings from slavery were redirected into funding the formation of institutional authorities, what becomes obvious is that the betrayal of Jesus was well on its way hundreds of years before Constantine ever formally Christianized the Holy Roman Empire. Constantine’s move, in other words, is not so much the betrayal of Christianity as it is the inevitable outcome of the Christianization of the Jesus movement. And, although it is somewhat anachronistic to speak of Christianity in the singular (there have ever only been competing, contradicting, and overlapping Christianities), it is safe to say that almost all of the dominant forms of Christianity over the subsequent decades have continued this betrayal. Thus, for example, in the quotation from Martin Luther above, we see the founding father of Protestantism calling for the slaughter of those who, well, look a whole lot like Jesus and those who first gathered with him. No wonder, then, that the racist, wannabe-fascist, death-dealing motherfuckers who support Trump in American-occupied territories also tend to identify as Christian. This is what Christianity qua Christianity has always been all about.
However, when those who do not operate from a Christian lens choose to examine Jesus and the early reports we have about him, what we often encounter are very rich, stimulating, and challenging results. This is what we encounter in Jesus and the Politics of Mammon by Hollis Phelps. In what follows, I will briefly summarize Phelps’s argument and then engage in some Q&A with Hollis who very graciously agreed to participate in this exchange with me (thanks, Hollis!). In what follows all page references are to Jesus and the Politics of Mammon (Critical Theory and Biblical Studies. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019).
Taking Jesus at His Word: Phelps’s Argument
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.~ Jesus, according to Matthew 6.24
From the beginning, Phelps is clear that he has no desire to treat Jesus as an “object of faith” or as the propagator of “a species of moralizing discourse” (3). Instead, he wants to “take Jesus out of the realm of piety, both in terms of expected piety toward him and of what he supposedly expects from us morally” (4). Phelps does this in order to try and position Jesus “as a thinker in his own right” who, far from being engaged in detached theorizing, is engaging in an embodied form of thought that is disruptive to the status quo (4). Not only this but Phelps engages in this task with an eye to our present context and a desire to “release or resurrect certain evental components contained in Jesus’ words and deeds” (8).
In particular, Phelps emphasizes that the either/or opposition between “God” and “Mammon” is fundamental to what Jesus taught and how Jesus and those who gathered with him tried to live. He is emphatic that Jesus allows for no ambiguity or equivocation when it comes to understanding this opposition. “Mammon,” understood as an entire economy that is opposed to God, is itself the problem Jesus confronts. Thus Phelps writes:
the problem with mammon is not just with the subject’s relationship to it but the thing itself, or, perhaps better put, the way that mammon determines the subject’s relationship to it and, in addition others. Mammon, that is, is not inert: once it’s established as mammon, as a source of value set in competition to other values (e.g., truth, philosophy, God), it exercises an autonomous agency over against the subject and, indeed, the world (22-23).
Therefore, over against centuries of Christian interpretation, Phelps argues that “the problem of mammon cannot be reduced to a matter of the heart” (23). The issue is not how each individual approaches wealth, property, and desires, but is with how wealth qua wealth separates a person from God and from participation within God’s political economy (24-33). Here, it is important to understand that what people claim to believe about money, whatever attitude they claim to have towards it, is less important than how they actually use money and the role money has in their lives. As Phelps states, “belief lies in practice, in what we actually do” (37). In other words, making certain claims about oneself is frequently a branding exercise that is deployed in other to make one feel good about oneself, even while one continues to participate within the very structures from which one desires to distance oneself. Thus, regardless of claims one makes about being detached from money, the fact that one’s life still revolves around money (making money, spending money) reveals the lie inherent to those claims.
It is this rejection of money—and the entire economy and valuation of values that comes with money through the broader system (Religion? Ideo-theology?) of mammon—that is fundamental to Jesus’s teaching. To choose to be for “God,” is a choice against mammon, and it is a choice that, regardless of how essential devotion to mammon seems to be in order to survive in the world (then or now), “seemingly has no time for a more practical disposition in regard to it” (42). As Jesus observes, this kind of separation appears to be impossible but, in fact, Jesus and those who gather with him offer a glimpse of living out this impossible possibility (43).
However, before exploring that in more detail, Phelps deepens his interpretation of Jesus’s opposition to mammon, with further observations about the political economy of mammon (via an examination of money, exchange, state, and debt), and then with a demonstration of how Jesus’s criticisms of mammon leads Jesus to be equally critical of work and the family.
First, Phelps emphasizes that Mammon has replaced God (and so “God is dead”) because Mammon now orders our existence, our relationships to ourselves, to others, to institutions, and even to reality. This primarily occurs through the ascendancy of money which gives rise to the emergence of self-regulating markets which come to dominate all areas of life and reason (44-45). “Money,” Phelps concludes, “contains within itself the notion of God’s death, the propensity towards God’s murder” (46). So what, then, is money? Well, after providing a quick synopsis of Marx’s commodity theory of money (46-57), Phelps argues that money is first and foremost a measure of abstract value and the means of storing and transporting that value. As such, money is a “social mechanism” that is “constituted through credit-debt relations backed by some authority [generally the state] that grants these legitimacy” (58). Because this removes trust from the relationship involved between the specific parties involved in an exchange, money vastly expands the social realm, and allows impersonal exchanges to become the norm. As such, it transforms exchange from an “I-Thou” relationship to an “I-It” relationship (59-62). This causes a massive deterritorialization of the world and then a new reterritorialization as the logic, practices, and necessity of the market invade all domains. One of the outcomes of this is that money becomes both a promise (given its rootedness with a system of credit-debt) and a threat (given that it becomes necessary to have money in order to survive) (63-64). Thus, Phelps observes, “money promises security, increased standards of living, access to needs and desires, and overall wellbeing, while threatening all of these at the same time” (64). Consequently, the ubiquitous Mammon-system ends up profoundly influencing the formation of individuals as subjects under its domain (and this formation, as Phelps demonstrates, is just as much moral as it is material [see 65-67]). Furthermore, Phelps argues that Jesus is aware of Mammon’s ability to do this which is why he so firmly opposes debt and argues for the generalization and universalization of the debt-erasure contained within the practice of Jubilee. Whereas, “debt forces one to serve mammon, rather than God” (69), Jesus calls for a “restructuring of social relationships and life as such according to the form of jubilee” (72).
Phelps argues that being against both work and family is a critical component of the restructuring Jesus has in mind. Beginning with work, Phelps notes how work is necessary because it grants us access to money: “we work to secure our needs, wants, and desires; we work, in other words, to gain access to life” (83). However, because this access to life is mediated by money, and because money is acquired through work, this ends up creating “a wage relationship … a relationship of subordination, in which one is forced to sell one’s activity and/or its products … for the purpose of gaining access to means of subsistence” (83). This then leads Phelps to analyze the Marxist notion of the relationship between work and alienation (88-90), which leads him to accept the conclusion that work itself is “forced labor” and, because of this, the task before us “is not to humanize labor but to challenge work itself, to develop the lines of an anti-work position” (95). This, Phelps argues, is what Jesus does in his refusal to work and in the calls he issues to others to abandon their work as a component of following him (95-98). Because work is on the side of mammon, “Jesus severs life from work and money, from the idea that we must work to gain money in order to have access to our needs, wants, and desire” (101). Thus, as with money, the issue is not about the attitude one takes towards one work—the issue is with work itself (102). Here, drawing on Mk 2.23-28, Phelps argues that it is important to understand how work is dissolved in God’s sabbath economics, rather than having mammon’s work ethic dominate the approach the Jesus loyalists take to sabbathing (106-107).
This also leads Jesus to an anti-family position (which, as with his anti-mammon position) is far more oppositional than subsequent Christian interpreters have permitted it to be (113-115). Jesus calls others to abandon their families not only because the household was generally where one found one’s work, but because the family itself is driven by a mammon-inspired tit-for-tat model of exchange wherein like cares for like and ignores or abandons all others (118). Over against this, “Jesus urges his followers to relate to others without regard to what is normally due. Jesus, that is, urges his followers to act in excess over the logic that normally governs human relationships” (118). This non-reciprocal model of exchange then ends up producing an economics that demonstrates a concrete preferential option for “the poor” (120). Critical to this is the realization that this economics is based upon excess and mutuality and should never be reduced (or, more accurately, perverted) into some kind of charity (121).
In fact, it is this focus on excess that Phelps (following Philip Goodchild’s work in Theology of Money), views as especially distinctive of Jesus’s approach to economics. In the final chapter of this book, “Excess Against Asceticism,” Phelps argues that Jesus does not call for asceticism as the answer to mammon and the consumption it inspires. In fact, Phelps rightly acknowledges the mistaken individualism of most ascetic approaches and the ways in which they can be violently paternalistic to those who have been impoverished and dispossessed (122-30). Instead, Jesus calls for a recognition of abundance and excess (inspired by the birds of the air and the lilies of the field) that is not governed by economic rationality but which, instead, is exhibited in extravagant celebrations and feasting (131). Once others commit to this vision of excess, new forms of distribution—like the various “miraculous feedings that take place in the Gospels—can take place. Commenting on these feedings, Phelps observes that:
These so-called miracles, then, only look like exceptions so long as we take the present order of things and the world as the sole horizon of possibility. The exceptions that Jesus makes present are, rather, standard according to the logic that Jesus invokes and provokes: the logic of the kingdom of heaven or God (132).
In other words, Jesus taps into a “moral economy of sharing” (to borrow the term Philippe Bourgois uses to describe the economics that exist in communities of housing-deprived intravenous drug users in San Francisco [see Righteous Dopefiend]) that can always, already be found below the surface in subaltern assemblies (or, to use the Greek, ekklesiai). This is why, in Lk 17.21, Jesus can say, “the Kingdom of God is [already] among you” (143-44). In such communities, one finds the practice of “mutualism that passes from parasitism to symbiosis” (145). And, according to Jesus, where this is present in all of its excessiveness, there, also, is the kingdom of God and the overthrow of mammon (151).
Therefore, Jesus does not so much target consumption as he targets possession and accumulation (136). Again, this is necessarily an anti-charity position, given that charity assumes both of those things (140-43). However, Phelps concludes by noting that all of this plays out in much more messy, difficult, and contradictory ways than simple stories and philosophical theories (driven by a desire for consistency) allow (152-58). There is an asymmetry here, akin to that found in the dissolution of work in sabbath (rather than the subordination of sabbath to the logic of work). Here, wealth can be used against itself and, while the rich are called to divest themselves of wealth, the poor are called to use whatever money they can in whatever wily ways they can imagine, in order to experience the abundance of life here and now (163). As such, the disjunction between God and mammon is clear. The desired goal is also clear (i.e., inhabiting God’s political economy of abundance, rather than mammon’s political economy of credit-debt). What is less clear is how to chart one’s way from one’s present situation towards that goal.
(DO) Hollis, thanks so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I appreciate your work a lot and am excited to chat more about it with you. So, let’s start at the beginning then. I’m curious about people who are examining Jesus and other figures from the early days of the Jesus movement from the perspective of philosophy and critical theory (i.e., from lenses that are explicitly not rooted in the Christian faith tradition, or the pietistic and moralizing approaches that you criticize in this book). It seems to me that, on the one hand, most people interested in Jesus aren’t interested in this kind of project while, on the other hand, most people interested in this kind of project (especially those who are making various efforts to embody and actualize this kind of project instead of simply theorizing about it) aren’t interested in Jesus. I have found that trying to get people who are interested in Jesus to be interested in this kind of project to be a tough sell and, on the flip side, I am not always convinced that those who are interested in this kind of project need to have much of anything to do with Jesus (especially in territories occupied by Canada and the US, given the role Christianity has and continues to play in colonization). So why did you choose to focus on Jesus in this way? What audience do you hope will discover this book and, having read it, what do you hope they will do with the knowledge they gain from it? What, in other words, are the “evental components contained in Jesus’ words and deeds” that you are hoping will rise-up (like an anastasis, an insurrection, a resurrection), in your readers thoughts and lives?
(HP) Thanks so much for the invitation, Dan. I guess the best way to approach your question is to discuss how this book came about. A few years ago when I taught at the University of Mount Olive in eastern North Carolina, I was asked if I’d be interested in participating in a panel discussion on religion and politics. I said yes, but no one else did, so the chaplain asked if I’d speak in chapel for about ten minutes on the topic. Since I knew the audience would be mostly composed of conservative Christians, I decided to do something on Jesus, using what he said as a contrast to popularly-held moral and political positions. Afterwards, my then-colleague and still good friend Christopher Skinner (a biblical scholar who’s now at Loyola University Chicago), suggested that I turn what I said into a book. I responded immediately, “There’s no way in hell I’m writing a book on Jesus!”
So I guess my initial response was along the lines of what you mention: I didn’t (then) see Jesus as necessary to my personal, political, or academic interests. I started to think about it more, though, and began to think that maybe I could do actually do something interesting.
At the time, too, I was working through some personal, professional, and intellectual issues related to my relationship to religion, and especially Christianity. I’ve been deeply shaped by the biblical narratives and theology more generally (I went to church growing up, I studied and then taught theology for a number of years), but I don’t currently consider myself a Christian. So, the book is in part a way for me to take seriously a portion of the biblical and theological traditions without, however, doing so from the standpoint of faith. In this sense, the project is in line with a trajectory that traces itself back to the death-of-God movement and currently goes under the name “radical theology.” It also, however, is in line with various discussions around and retrievals of theology and religion in continental philosophy and critical theory. In those discussions, though, everyone seemed for the most part to brush off or simply ignore Jesus (often in favor of Paul), so I wanted to redress that lack.
So I guess in a way the audience is me (and I think a lot of academic work works this way, even though we don’t often acknowledge it—our audience is ourselves) and also theologians, philosophers, critical theorists (the usual academic types). However, the book is not overly technical or bogged down in jargon, and that’s intentional—I hope it has a broader appeal. The Jesus I construct from the sources I use is an anti-capitalist, political Jesus, and so I hope anyone (and my Jesus doesn’t require faith in Jesus, so I do mean anyone) concerned with that struggle can find something of value in the book, something that allows them—us—to think otherwise.
(DO) One of the things I appreciate about your approach is the way in which you take Jesus very seriously when it comes to what he actually says and does not say about Mammon (and its component parts like money, work, and family). Of all the things Jesus says (and of all the passages in the Bible), these are the ones that are most frequently explained into meaning, um, well, pretty much the opposite of what it sounds like they’re saying. You know, this kind of thinking: “Jesus said you can’t serve God and Mammon, but what he really meant was be good stewards with your wealth, which actually means growing your wealth because, hey, the more money you have, the more good you can do!” Part of what I appreciate about your approach is that, not only do you call bullshit on that line of interpretation but, in fact, you demonstrate that a much more straightforward interpretation of the either/or Jesus establishes between God and Mammon is at the heart of the project being assembled by him and those who gather with him. In other words, to reject the hard opposition between God and Mammon is to reject the work of Jesus in toto. Where, then, does this leave the majority of those who claim to be “Jesus followers” or “Christians” in Canadian- and American-occupied territories on Turtle Island?
(HP) One of my constant frustrations is the various interpretative moves that allow us to ignore the often-straightforward claims made in the biblical texts, whether these are positive or negative. By “straightforward” here, I don’t mean “naïve” and “simple,” as if interpretation requires no critical knowledge or apparatuses. That’s not my point. My point, rather, is faith-based patterns of interpretation often require fitting the texts with certain presuppositions, because the text is considered scripture. In other words, we make the texts say something easier, something in line with what we already think, rather than taking it at its word. We’d rather blunt the force of a text—again, whether that force is positive or negative—than simply disagree with it or call its author wrong.
When applied to Jesus this strategy has everything to do with making him, what he says and does, relatable. Jesus, in other words, has to be brought into the sphere of our desires (many of the early theologians talk about Jesus in this way, as God reaching down to our level so that we can grasp matters at our level). It’s a theological move that ultimately constructs Jesus in our own image by blunting the force of his speech and actions, by making him palatable: Jesus functions as a sort of moral check on our desires, but the scope of the morality in play is determined in advance according to our desires. So, as you say and as I discuss in the book, Jesus is very clear that you can’t serve God and Mammon, and he expresses the disjunction between the two and their corresponding modes of being in various ways. That’s a tall order, though—and I think most of us like to think of our lives as somehow validated in the things we find important for whatever reason, such as religious texts. So, with Jesus, we’d rather downplay the severity of his claims about money, not to mention other matters, as a way to ease our conscience and justify our lives rather than own up to the fact that we don’t like what he says, that we disagree with what he says, that we think what he says is ludicrous and impossible. To be fair, we’re theologically primed against the latter option—Jesus’ divinity and perfect humanity rule out such responses, so we make him say something else, something a bit easier. The irony, of course, is that Jesus knows what he says is unpalatable, disagreeable, and ludicrous—that’s the whole point of the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler, whose upshot is “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (Luke 18:27). Otherwise put, we make what Jesus says possible for us when he clearly says it isn’t; in doing so, we fail to wrestle with what impossibility for us and possibility for God might mean for reorienting and reorganizing our lives against Mammon. I think that leaves most Christians in the position of the rich young ruler, which is not only a missed opportunity; it’s also a choice to serve Mammon which, as we know, has its own difficulties, its own oppressions. As André Gorz argues, we’ve been sold the promise of comfort, convenience, and security for that subservience, though perhaps we’re now seeing the breakdown of that promise, which is why it’s a propitious time to start thinking otherwise.
Another way to put it is that, as you mention, I think the opposition between God and Mammon is the core of what Jesus teaches. So, we—me, you, Christians, even everyone, if we think there’s some universality to what he says—have to make a choice. Most of us have chosen wrongly, though as I discuss in the book this choice is “forced” in various ways, so I don’t mean it in some individualizing, moralizing way that would ascribe sin or guilt to individuals who are subjected to and often oppressed by an inherently unjust economic system. Downplaying Mammon’s opposition to God (“being good stewards,” as you say) is just a way to serve Mammon. If we want to be on the right side of what Jesus says, then, we have to give allegiance to “God” but that means also acting expressly against Mammon. What that looks like concretely and in action may, of course, vary, and I don’t really spell out solutions in the book. Jesus doesn’t offer us a program but, rather, incites us to think and act differently—taking the opposition between God and Mammon seriously, as real, is the first step in doing the latter.
(DO) I especially like your section about how it is the way in which Mammon reorders our existence, our relationships, and our values, that brings about the death of God. In your analysis, I also appreciated the emphasis you put upon debt, not only as it operates within market transactions, but the way in which debt is a fundamental component of money itself. However, as you also note, in the world shaped in the image of Mammon, alternatives appear to be impossible. But appearances can be deceiving (more on that in a minute) and, as you argue in your conclusion, there can be ways to use wealth against wealth. However, I have been thinking about this not only in light of the anarchist argument that “property is theft” (as per Proudhon) but in light of Robert Nichols’s important modification, based on Indigenous teachings, politics, economies, and resistance to colonization, that “theft is property” (see here). That is to say, while some anarcho-socialist traditions tends to assume some kind of right to possession that is violated by the rich (and others), Nichols argues that the very notion of possession is, itself, a form of thieving (and here the insights gained from Indigenous ways of relating to land and all that is including within the notion of land is critical). Therefore, it seems to me that a natural extension of the argument you (and Jesus as you present him) make is that we should not only use wealth against wealth, we should also use theft against thieves (this is part of the reason why, the other day, I argued that stealing from Wal-Mart is a more virtuous form of crime than lining up to get arrested by cops at a peaceful protest). In other words, those who have grown rich from stealing the necessities of life from most others, have no inherent right to what they have and, in fact, the moral (Jesus-inspired) course of action is to steal everything one can from these death-dealers so that the left-for-dead can participate more fully in the abundance of life. What do you think of this approach?
(HP) I really like the way you’ve put that, and I think it’s consistent with what I say in the book concerning using wealth against wealth. In terms of something like debt, I think acting along these lines is essential. In the book I try to shift discussions regarding putative remedies to capitalism away from consumption and toward accumulation. Discussions regarding consumption, theological or otherwise, tend to see our basic problem in terms of using too much. The remedy, in this respect, is to reign it in or, in a theological key, to reshape our desires away from the material and toward the spiritual. Like a lot of ideas, there’s some merit to this way of thinking, so the question may be one of emphasis. But this sort of soft-asceticism fits well with the sort of austerity politics that we’ve seen take hold especially since the last financial crisis.
It’s also completely out of step with what Jesus says and does. Yes, he critiques Mammon, but he does so via consumption, not against it. He uses metaphors of abundance and fullness, talks about the kingdom of God in terms of parties, and so on—he turns water into wine, after everyone’s already drunk. These aren’t images of reigning our desires in but, rather, of allowing them to overflow. What Jesus is more concerned with is accumulation, with “storing up treasures,” as he puts it. That practice of accumulation, of ownership, becomes a means to position oneself over-against others through the asymmetrical creation of wealth and, moreover, shifts our trust onto ourselves and what we have and away from “God,” from each other. The alternative is to be like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, who have nothing, who don’t hedge their bets on their possessions. This doesn’t mean that we should romanticize poverty; rather, it’s an image that allows us to think and begin to act otherwise.
What you call “theft against thieves” is perhaps one way to work toward this notion. Although such practices may simply shift possession from one sphere to the other, they can also challenge the notion of possession itself, as something that belongs to no one and, thus, everyone. Federico Campagna in his book The Last Night talks about this in relation to work, about the various ways while at work we can and do steal our time back from our employers. What comes to mind is that meme with Elmo on the toilet, with the caption, “Boss makes a dollar. I make a dime. That’s why I shit on company time.” We should all “shit” on “company time,” whatever that looks like in particular. It’s a mode of taking back what’s ours because it’s no one’s in the first place, as some indigenous strains of thought contend, as you say.
(DO) Many years ago, I actually knew a homeless man in Toronto who came to the same conclusions as you do regarding God and Mammon and money. As a result, he chose to never possess, touch, or otherwise handle any money. When I knew him, he was living in a utility room underneath a bridge (he has somehow managed to get a copy of the key). He had one or two sets of clothes. Some blankets and candles. And that was about it. Everyday, like the birds of the air or the lilies of the field, he went to whatever corner was available to him (there is often a strict pecking order amongst panhandlers in the downtown of major cities) and waited for people to buy him food. I have also personally witnessed the “kingdom of God” (as you define it) in communities of people whose medicines have been criminalized, people deprived of housing, and at what were essentially celebratory feasts with low track cis- and trans-male sex workers (in Vancouver’s downtown eastside especially—which is sometimes referred to as the poorest urban neighbourhood in Canadian-occupied territories). Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that in places where Death pushes down the hardest (the Rastas were right, oppression is a form of downpression), the Spirit of anastasis Life also rises up most forcefully. And I, too, spent some years moving ever deeper into that alternative economy. But then, well, you know, I had a few kids and then I had to think about things like stable housing and not spending the weekend in cells (because who was going to care for the colicky baby?), and I had to make sure I had a stable income (with benefits!), and then I also had to go through the courts to ensure I had custody of my children and I sure didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that and, shit, before you know it the person with whom I most identified in the Gospels was the rich young ruler who went away mourning because he knew what was required to divest from Mammon’s economy but he chose not to do it. So, all that to say, I have personally experienced the truth of what you say about the ways in which work and family are intertwined within Mammon’s rule. Essentially, I have chosen to be a loving father who does not devastate or abandon his children rather than following Jesus in the way in which you describe, in ways that I know others do, and in the way I once did. I’ve made my peace with that decision (for the most part—and here, too, I think some Indigenous ways of being—especially as they relate to the importance of children—are significant). But I wonder, do you think there are ways in which one can still work towards an anti-mammon position, while being so deeply involved with the fundamentals of Mammon, like work and family (and, if you do think this, do you think Jesus as you present him would disagree with you)?
(HP) I think there are, but it can’t be an individual effort—it has to be collective. So, the homeless man you mention, I’m not sure of his specific situation, but I assume that his position resulted to some extent out of necessity. That’s understandable, but I don’t think we should valorize it, or else we risk romanticizing poverty. Moreover, when read in light of an economic system that favors individuality, or self-entrepeneurship (to draw on Foucault and Lazzarato), the relationship between the homeless man and those who give to them is parasitic, in the sense that Michel Serres gives to that term: the homeless man gains access to his material needs via the charity of others, while the others gain access to their spiritual needs via giving. Both positions are required for the system to function at all.
Living like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field [is] in excess [of] both of these positions. To me it means living life immediately, subtracted from the external mandates that we have set up to govern our existence. This doesn’t mean living naively or unthinkingly—birds aren’t naïve, lilies think. Rather, it means living differently, and so I think the various communities you mention, both out of necessity and a sense of mutuality and generosity—incarnate this sort of immediacy. Michel Serres again talks about this in terms of moving from parasitism toward symbiosis, and I don’t think the idea is really that hard to grasp, although it may be much more difficult to put into practice. It just means that we rely on each other and our surrounding environments, which together form ecosystems that support life and living. Our entire economic system pushes against this idea, forcing us to act otherwise. We construct our lives in opposition to “nature” and each other via possession and competition—both of which, we should emphasize, assume the myth of scarcity instead of excess and abundance—meaning that the shape of our lives is antagonistic to its surroundings, to others.
The problem with, say, family, is not necessarily family as such but the way it has been narrowly defined, which allows it to turn in on itself and, in the process, reinforce deleterious socioeconomic habits and structures: our family is what’s important. So, being anti-family (and also anti-work) requires thinking beyond the family, narrowly-defined, as something valuable as particular to ourselves and as the base unit of society. This is what I take Jesus to mean when he bids those who follow him to leave their family and work, when he says we need to hate our fathers and mothers. Being anti-family and anti-work, in this sense, in no way entails being anti-children—Jesus lets the children come to him and commands us to be like children (and I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of that metaphor). I mean, I have children and I love them dearly. But in the grand scheme of things my children aren’t anymore important than anyone else’s, and neither is any form of organization, so long as they allow for fulfilling and just intra- and interrelationships. While we can acknowledge the tragedy of our current system and the types of decisions it requires, or at least allows us to justify, we should also favor and work toward novel, just, and sustainable alternatives. Given the imminent threats posed by climate change, we also have to do this in relation to the non-human environment as well, or else be in a worse position than we currently are.
(DO) I have thought a lot about children, especially as the father of two, and I really like how you distinguish being “anti-family” from being “anti-children.” I think this is a critical distinction and one that I know a number of anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, anti-gentrification, anti-fascist grassroots organizers have struggled to put into practice. I know for myself that there were some initial years when I felt a strong conflict between my mind and my heart—in my mind, I knew my children were only two (a very, very small number when compared to the number of those experiencing oppression, even in just my own community) and by choosing to focus on those two I was, in some ways, abandoning my commitment to engaging in a mutually liberating solidarity with this great cloud of witnesses. However, my heart said, “do not be the kind of father who devastates and abandons his children,” and I chose to follow my heart but, for quite some time, this was extremely hard (and I know that it also hurt others who had come to rely on me in ways that I could no longer fulfill). However—and this is where I want to pick up on what you say about symbiosis, intra- and interconnectedness—what I came to realize is that my children, while only being two (the tiniest number of people imaginable), were given to me as my children and I was the only father they had. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there were “my children” in terms of some kind of property relationship. Rather, what I realized is that I existed in a certain kind of relationship to and with them that incorporated notions like responsibility, obligation, expectation, and accountability. Here, a story told by Robin Wall Kimmerer (a Potawatomi mother and a distinguished professor of environmental biology) helped me a great deal. When discussing the medicine bags of Potawatomi healers she notes how the bags would be adorned with various beadwork patches that showed what plants were well-known to the healer who carried that bag. However, she also observed that many of these bags had blank patches in the middle of the beadwork. Originally, she took this to mean that there was a plant that the healer did not yet know—as though the blank space represented a gap in that healer’s knowledge—but after doing some more learning she realized that the blank spot represented a time when the healer stepped back from their role as a caretaker for the community in order to raise their own children. Given the importance of children to Indigenous politics (children are the future of everyone), she realized that these blank patches were, in fact, just as honorific as the other patches. Here, then, I find a helpful way forward. Rather than becoming lost or overwhelmed in great theories, ideological conflicts, seemingly impossible tasks and conflicts (God or Mammon! Fix the Climate Crisis! Safe Affordable Housing for All! Decriminalize all Medicines [i.e., “Drugs”] and Fuck the Police!), I begin to ask about where I am rooted, to whom do I belong, to whom am I accountable, and what responsibilities do I have. However, I have found that exploring these things has not led me to retreat into a tiny little shell where I turn a blind eye to all else that goes on outside my front door—instead, I have found that it locates me (in all my smallness) within, well, everything else. For, not only Indigenous notions of the land, but also microbiology, ecological developmental evolutionary biology, genetics and epigenetics, and even quantum theory, all demonstrate that we are all component parts of something much greater, something much more wondrous, something abundant. I have the living dust of stars in my blood, the hydrogen in my body goes back to the origins of the universe itself, and there are more cells living in and on me that are not me than the cells I call “mine” (and yet, even the DNA of “my” cells is partially composed of viral fragments and, of course, eukaryotic cells only became possible when two different prokaryotes merged together and created an entirely new form of life). In other words, for me, what you refer to as symbiosis and the formation of ecosystems that support life and living is what we ourselves actually are—I am an ecosystem (that, somehow, views itself as an “I”)—and this kind of thing can be encouraged when we maintain our proper, balanced place in relation to all the other ecosystems (which also view themselves as “I”s?) in which we live and move and have our being (hence, for example, the viral video about how reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone helped the river itself to become more vibrant and alive; see here). Mammon, however, is a system that is premised upon destroying the intra- and inter-connectedness of being and transforming life-giving and -affirming systems into profit-making systems that deal death on a massive scale. How then, in the midst of our own smallness, our own specificity, our own localities, do we begin to network in new ways to change this trajectory? How do we as parents, as children, as ecosystems that often feel lonely, how do we begin to come together in ways that allow us to move from where we are now to somewhere where we would rather be? Perhaps you can share a little about how you do this?
(HP) Yes, I’m with you on all of this, and I like the examples you draw on. The idea that we are atomic individuals only concerned with myopic self-preservation, that we can abstract ourselves from the ecosystems we are and are a part of, is little more than a myth. It’s certainly been a compelling one, of course, or at least one that can easily be leveraged to construct our lives and the lives of other, non-human others, in ways that benefit the extraction of every last bit of market value for those who control said markets. Within the confines of this narrative, which is also a narrative of scarcity, relationships are mainly competitive, parasitic, and insular.
When a child is baptized according to many baptismal liturgies, in addition to the promises the parents make, the congregation also promises to care for the child, because it is also its own. In reality it’s often a formal promise whose actualization remains empty, but it’s an ideal that, I think, fits well with what we’re discussing. But perhaps rather than looking for grand ideals, maybe we should look at the places where this sort of symbiosis already happens, and use these as models for going forward. I’ve been following the wildfires in Australia and it is, frankly, disheartening and terrifying—for them, all those immediately affected, but also for what it appears to portend for our future. However, in the midst of the devastation, many have responded in ways that take seriously what I’m calling symbiosis—I’m thinking specifically about the sort of selfless actions with regard to animals. David Graeber refers to this as a baseline communism that subtends the other ways we organize ourselves, and it appears especially after disasters, when we all “pull together” for the good of all. I’m not trying to romanticize things here, to be sure—and it would be wonderful if we could act that way all the time. But perhaps we should use such actions as models, rather than exceptions to what we assume are the rules. So, I guess my response would be not asking how but when and where we already do it—then, use those instances as models for going forward.
(DO) I also very much appreciated your call for economic practices that are based upon excess or abundance and the ways in which this exists in total opposition to standard understandings and practices of charity (while I work in the non-profit industrial complex, I have constantly tried to corrupt it, redirect it, or monkey-wrench within it, to bring something life-giving out of what would otherwise be death-dealing… I don’t know that I have always done this well and, perhaps, it will be shown that my participation herein has done more harm then good but, well, here I stand). Overcoming the recourse to charity, the valourization of charity, and proposing alternatives that are mutualistic, symbiotic, and so on, are absolutely essential. You talk about some of the alternatives pursued by Jesus and those who gathered with him. I’m wondering if you could spend some time exploring examples of what a commitment to that kind of excess or gracious abundance might look like today.
(HP) One of the examples I use in the book is Strike Debt!, which is an outgrowth of the Occupy Movement (and, on a side note, those who say that Occupy is dead and never accomplished anything are wrong—it’s just morphed). The dispersed coalition focuses through its various campaigns on debt relief and resistance. One of the ways it accomplishes this is by buying up “bad” debt on the secondary market—rather than attempting to collect, as do the parasites we know as debt collectors, they simply abolish it. It’s a way of using wealth against wealth, debt against debt. A number of churches have launched similar campaigns, and they’ve received a good deal of attention (NPR recently ran a story on churches buying up medical debt for the purpose of forgiving it and Buzzfeed recently did a story on Jubilee Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC, whose mission is expressly concerned with debt forgiveness).
I think debt forgiveness—real, material, on-the-ground debt forgiveness—is central to what Jesus teaches, so I welcome these as attempts to use mammon against mammon and harness that excess or abundance I talk about in the book. However, I’m also skeptical of the way the language of forgiveness is often used, in that it implies a power imbalance that may take a way the agency of debtors, at least in this case. In ancient Mesopotamia, debt forgiveness was often used to consolidate control over populations (people are more likely to support a ruler who initially forgives their debt) and the forgiveness of sin as debt in Christianity often functions as a means to consolidate God’s power over humans, further plunging them into debt (I discuss this in my article “Beyond Redemption: Neoliberalism, Atonement, and the Logic of Debt, in the journal Political Theology). We see this, I think, in the discussion of student loan debt and its forgiveness. I’d certainly like to see that happen, but the discussion around it assumes the need for a savior, someone (or some entity, like the government) who will come in a wipe out the debt that it holds in the first place (this is the basic structure of atonement in Christian theology). We should also, I think, be talking about debt resistance, a collective refusal to pay, in that this gives agency to debtors who, because of the amount of debt involved, actually have the upper hand. The upper hand if they—we—organize, of course, which always remains the problem.
(DO) Yeah, I also have major issues with the language and practice of “debt forgiveness” as it plays out in Europe and Settler Colonial states on Turtle Island. I think the language of “reparations” is much more useful. The fact of the matter is that rich plunder the many, privatize the commons, exploit disasters, and impoverish and dispossess the poor, who they then transform into debtors (coincidentally, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is sitting next to me as I write this, but people like Todd Gordon, Jeff Weber, Dru Oja Jay, Nikolas Barry-Shaw, and Yves Engler have shown that this kind of political economy is just as fundamental to supposedly sensitive, Liberal, Human-Rights-oriented states like present-day Canada). Consequently, I really dislike the language of “debt forgiveness” because it implies that those forgiving the debts have the right to hold the debts and that they are, therefore, paragons of virtue (like other philanthrocapitalists) if they then choose to “forgive” or reduce any debts. Here, then, with your positive reference to “debt resistance,” I wish to return to the suggestion about thieving from the thieves. If those who hold the right to our debts are those who have impoverished us and driven us into debt, then any kind of acknowledgment of the legitimacy of such debt strikes me as immoral (although, of course, there are serious consequences for moral living). How then do we resist? Do we collectively agree to max out our credit cards and then refuse to pay? Do we collectively declare bankruptcy? These sound like fun ideas… that, as you say above, require a critical mass in order to have any hope of succeeding. So, then, rather than pleading for forgiveness for crimes or sins we did not commit, how do we go about engaging in the much more virtuous act of robbing the debt-mongers so that we can build ecosystems premised upon the greater flourishing of life?
(HP) Exactly. The language of forgiveness all-too-often reinforces power differentials and, with regard to debt, the creditor-debtor relationship. The creditor can be seen as virtuous, selfless, generous, and so on—but always over-against the various weakness (or sin) of the debtor. I do think that the language of forgiveness can be useful at times, but it matters who is using that language and for what purpose. This is why I think the language of debt resistance is more potent, in that it assume the agency of the debtors. Just to reiterate, it has to be done collectively. Purposely defaulting on, say, your student loans to make a statement without a critical mass doing so as well isn’t debt resistance, it’s foolish. However, I’d be willing to be[t] that if a million did so for a few months, then people who need to listen might start listening.
The problem, again, is organizing that. One of my graduate school professors used to say that the United States is simply too geographically spread out to conceive of any sort of real action against the state, and I think he has a point there. Also, the state’s pretty damn powerful . . . I don’t think protests work for the most part, although I understand why we do them. Ultimately, I think any sort of targeted action has to be economic—simply put, it has to have a financial impact on those who make decisions. Perhaps it’s time to do a little research, see who lines their pockets, and begin to target those entities through various actions. And, I think, we need to think more locally. We focus so much time an[d] energy on presidential and national party politics, and we should, as what happens at this level certainly affects us, especially when it comes to debt. But regional and local politics are just as important, often more so, since what happens at this level often affects us more immediately—and the people and processes involved here can go on to have a much broader impact.