On March 17, 1993, a teenager, Shidane Arone, was tortured to death by a regiment of Canadian soldiers on a ‘peace-keeping’ mission in Somalia. This is Shidane. Behind him is Master Corporal Clayton Matchee (one of the sixteen who tortured the boy, and one of the many more in the camp who listened to the boy scream and chose to do nothing).
This is what happens when armies are asked to maintain peace.
This is hell.
This is what I remember today.
Fire on Babylon. Lord, have mercy.
(NB: Master Corporal Clayon Matchee was never brought to trial because he attempted suicide shortly after this event and, although he survived, he suffered massive brain damage. He was residing in a Canadian psychiatric hospitality until earlier this year, when he was discharged to private care. Due to the state of his mental health, he was ruled unfit for trial, and all charges against him were dropped.
Private Kyle Brown, who took the above picture, was implicated as the other major party in the torturing of Shidane. He was charged with torture and manslaughter, convicted, and served one third of a five year prison sentence.)
In contrast to the simplistic opposition of good guys and bad guys, spy thrilers with artistic pretensions display all the “realistic psychological complexity” of the characters from “our” side. Far from signaling a balanced view, however, this “honest” acknowledgement of our own “dark side” stands for its very opposite, for the hidden assertion of our supremacy: we are “psychologically complex,” full of doubts, while the opponents are one dimensional fanatical killing machines.
~ Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes
The same, I think, could be said of superhero movies with artistic pretensions. Take The Dark Knight. Batman’s psychological complexity, his struggle with the moral ambiguity related his own actions, and his status as a “Dark Knight”, do not level the playing field between Batman and the evil he resists. For the Joker is, in his own words, “a dog chasing cars”, he is evil and violent, simply for the sake of being evil and violent. He promotes chaos for the sake of chaos. The Joker has no psychological complexity, no internal moral struggle, he is a “fanatical killing machine”. He is thus completely, and utterly, insane. Hence, Batman’s inner turmoil functions as a sign of his supremacy over the forces he resists, personified in the Joker.
Of course, many people have noted that this moves Batman from the realm of the heroic, into the realm of the anti-hero, and that’s all well and good (i.e. that’s where Batman has always belonged), but it doesn’t take us very far.
You see, Zizek’s remarks about “our side” refer to the ideology of the liberal democratic West, and the United States in particular. The Dark Knight functions as a powerful spectacular (think Debord) defense of that ideology.
In today’s world, America can no longer hold on to her heroic pretensions. It is clear that she is waging an illegal war, breaking UN Charters, and refusing to respect decisions made by the World Court. America can no longer be sustained with stories of innocence, and heroism, and fictions about cowboys and savages. That innocence has been lost, and many of the actions America has engaged in appear morally ambiguous (at best — in reality they only appear morally ambiguous to Americans and their allies, the rest of the world is aware that those actions are morally deplorable!). Thus, according to contemporary American ideology, things go like this: aware of the ways in which she will be (unjustly) villified, America still shoulders the burden of engaging in necessary violent actions for the sake of others (like going to war to save the world from terror), even if those others go on to condemn her for those very salvific actions!
Thus, America has become an anti-hero. She is a vigilante, engaging in actions that others condemn, actions that are illegal, for the sake of the greater good. Like Batman. And The Dark Knight ennobles this ideological (but utterly false) vision of America. Batman represents America and her allies, while the Joker represents all the forces of terror that America is fighting. Not only does this become clear through moments in the film — say when Batman is standing at the site of an explosion, a scene that looks a lot like Batman imposed upon ‘ground zero’ in New York, or when Batman decides to covertly use communication technology to spy on others (an act like phone-tapping), a deplorable but necessary act given the Joker as the creator of ‘the state of exception — it is also clear in the way in which the film was marketed. On one of the posters advertising The Dark Knight, we see Batman standing below an office building. Some of the windows of the building have been blown out, and a fire is burning inside. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not the shape created looks more like a bat-symbol, or more like the gap created by a plane flying into a building (cf. http://blog.ugo.com/images/uploads/DrakKnightPoster-4-24-08.jpg). Significantly, this scene never appears in the movie.
Note, then, some of the things that are masked by this ideology, and its recent spectacular defense in The Dark Knight.
(1) Bruce Wayne, Batman in ‘real life’, is portrayed as one of the wealthiest men in the world. This is significant, not only because it allows Batman to have the best technology for his suits and other toys, but because it portrays Batman as a person without any needs. This, then, highlights the altruistic nature of his character. Wayne acts, not for his own sake, or in his own defense, but in defense of others — especially those who cannot defend themselves. Now, when Batman is used as a stand-in for America, we receive the myth of an altruistic America, acting solely out of her desire to see others living free and democratic lives.
This is a complete reversal of the reality well expressed by Henry Kissinger: “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests.” Granted, like Bruce Wayne, America is one of the wealthiest powers out there today. But, unlike Bruce Wayne, she is not independently wealthy. She is wealthy because she has been plundering other nations for decades — all the while posing as if she had those other nations’ best interests in mind!
Therefore, although the altruistic Batman is unjustly reviled, and becomes something of a martyr for the sake of the masses he loves so much (or so the story goes), we must not be so foolish as to draw the same conclusion about America’s actions on the world stage today. America is reviled because she is plundering and killing the innocent and those who are without defense against her power, so let us be careful that Hollywood doesn’t confuse us on this point.
(2) As America cannot be equated with the altruistic Batman, so also those who struggle violently against America and her interests — notably groups that are labeled ‘fanatical Jihadists’ or something like that — cannot be equated with the Joker. On this point, let me mention another passage from Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes. In discussing the ways in which our society forces certain perspectives and presuppositions upon us, Zizek mentions the Serbsky Institute that existed in Soviet Moscow. This institute existed to torture any who internally opposed the Soviet Union, for “[t]he overriding belief was that a person had to be insane to be opposed to Communism.” Zizek then argues that the same sort of attitude was operative in response to Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic outburst in 2006. With all the talk of Gibson’s need for rehabilitation and counselling, Zizek argues that our society tells us that “a person has to be insane to be anti-Semitic”. He then draws this conclusion:
This easy way out enables us to avoid the key issue: that, precisely, anti-Semitism in our Western societies was — and is — not an ideology displayed by the deranged, but an ingredient of spontaneous ideological attitudes of perfectly sane people, of our ideological sanity itself. (To be clear: Zizek isn’t defending anti-Semitism in this passage or elsewhere — he believes that Gibson’s attitude, and the popular response to that attitude, are both problematical.)
What I think Zizek is doing in this pasage, is arguing for the importance of exploring the ideological beliefs that inspire and sustain the actions that we perform. He wants to expose those ideologies, and he wants to ask, “why is this particular ideology appealing to this person? Is there, perhaps, some good or understandable reason why this person holds to this belief (say, for example, the person who resists Communism)?” and so on and so forth.
However, this is precisely the sort of discussion that America does not want to engage in. Hence, it promotes the view that terrorists are insane, that they are lovers of death and chaos, operating strictly out of madness and inexplicable hatred. Thus, the Joker perfectly represents the ‘enemy’ as America wishes us to perceive that ‘enemy.’
However, the truth is that most of our ‘enemies’, most ‘terrorists’, are quite intelligent and are perfectly sane. Consequently, we must engage in precisely the sort of discussion that Zizek recomends. Yet, this quickly reveals that some people actually have understandable reasons for becoming militant fundamentalists — American businesses stole our land, and led my family into starvation and poverty; American planes fire-bombed my village; American companies sold weapons to the people who shot my family; and so on and so forth. This, then, is part of the reason why some people would be drawn toward a militant form of fundamentalism, but it is precisely this sort of thing that America must repress. Better to represent the enemy as a Joker. A mad dog chasing cars.
(3) Notice, also, the way in which political acts of lying and deception are justified. Apart from one moment, The Dark Knight portrays the people as always on the verge of hopelessness that quickly turns into anarchic violence and self-destructive chaos. Therefore, the people must be presented with a fictional “White Knight” in order to provide them with hope, and so that order can be sustained. Thus, continuing with Zizek’s comments in In Defense of Lost Causes, the only way to sustain Order is, paradoxically, by transgressing that Order (Agamben’s state of exception, again). But this comes with a price: “The price we pay for this is that the Order which thus survives is a mockery of itself, a blasphemous imitation of Order.”
Unfortunately, what The Dark Knight offers is a noble vision of this transgression. Sure, it may not be presented as ideal, but it certainly is presented as the best possible option for us — and it’s hella cool. Thus, how can we not agree when Dick Cheney tells us that “we also have to work… sort of the dark side… A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion.” We become incapable of seeing that this sort of Order is actually Disorder, and that this sort of structure is only the systematisation of chaos — the very thing it claims to counteract, it perpetuates (which is why America is always a nation at war, or encouraging, supplying, and funding wars elsewhere).
However, we the people — or, rather, the multitude (which Hardt and Negri carefully distinguish from the concept of ‘the people’) — should take offense at such portrayals of the public. The violence that runs just beneath the surface of us is not a self-destructive, insane expression of chaos. Rather, it is a violence that we wish to direct towards the powers-that-be, towards the political persons who lie to us and deceive us. As such, it is an expression of hope, not hopelessness. America, and The Dark Knight, would have us believe that we need to be saved from ourselves, but in reality it is the powers-that-be who know that they are the ones who may need to be saved from us. Consequently, they portray themselves as our saviours, and in this act, they continue to hold sway over us. In reality, we have nothing to lose but our chains, and the blood of others — our brothers and sisters around the world — that has been poured out over our hands, staining our clothes, the fuel we consume, and the food that we eat.
(1) The Law was created to serve people and, as such, it is subservient to the tangible experiences and lived needs of people (this is true of the Hebrew Law, the approach to the Law taken in the New Testament, and the understanding of the Law reflected in Western philosophy, from Plato onwards).
(2) Consequently, whatever manifestation of the Law we currently confront must be understood as something that has been created and, therefore, something that is temporal.
(3) As a created and temporal entity, the Law itself is not 'carved in stone' but it is open to development and change, as the tangible experiences and lived needs of people develop and change.
(4) Ultimately, when understood from this perspective, the Law is something that has the potential to do a great deal of good — and in this potential the Law itself is good.
(5) However, our first thesis is regularly reversed when those who desire to dominate and (forcefully) rule over others come to power (as they always do). Thus, in such situations, people are made to serve the Law, and their tangible experiences and lived needs are made subservient to legal abstractions and generalisations.
(6) Frequently, those who desire to dominate others go about making people subservient to the Law by reversing our second and third theses. They argue that the Law we follow is an eternal Law that, rather than being created, has now been revealed to us. Thus, the Law is 'carved in stone' and not open to change or development.
(7) Consequently, the Law's goodness is abstracted from its potential to do good, and the Law is said to be good — regardless of what results from sticking exactly to the Law in all situations.
(8) When this occurs, idolatry is the result. The Law, something created to serve people, takes on a life and a power of its own and, even apart from the manipulation of greedy people, begins to follow an oppressive trajectory of its own — a trajectory outside of human control.
(9) Christians, however, cannot stick exactly to the Law in all situations but, given the propensity of those in Power to manipulate the Law in the ways describe in theses 5-7, must continually question the Law as it is manifest in this or that situation. Thus, rather than making people subservient to the Law, Christians must once again make the Law subservient to the tangible experiences and lived needs of people.
(10) Rejecting the inherent goodness of the Law, Christians will proclaim that the Law is only good when it does good. Thus, rather than allowing the Law to become an idolatrous Power (as in thesis 8), Christians make the Law subservient to Christ and his Lordship.
(11) Therefore, this means that Christians cannot a priori accept all the rules and laws of the places in which they find themselves. Christian children can (and should) question the rules established by their parents, Christian employees can (and should) question the rules established by their workplaces, Christian citizens can (and should) question the rules established by their governments, and Christian parishioners can (and should) question the rules established by their churches.
(12) Furthermore, such questioning will sometimes lead Christians to either engage in, and/or affirm those who engage in, activity that is disobedient to their parents, that violates the rules of their workplaces, that is considered illegal by their governments, or that is considered immoral by their churches.
(13) However, such questioning should also lead Christians to affirm the rules and laws that genuinely serve people in their tangible experiences and lived needs.
(14) Consequently, Christians can neither be fully for, nor fully against, the Law, but must always critically engage the Law as it is manifested in this or that particular time and place.
(15) Ultimately, this Christian attitude towards all Law, does not come from the elevation of the individual to the place of authority over all things; rather, it comes form the elevation of Christ to the place of authority over all things, and from the Christian's subservience to Christ's sole Lordship.
Stated simply this is what I would like to propose:
If we were to invest the same amount of time and energy into pursuing change through the Church that we invest into pursuing change through the government, then the payoff would be exponentially greater.
Sure, I won't deny that positive change can come through the government (or through the rather limited avenues for change that the government allows). However, it takes a great deal of time and energy to create even a little change, and big changes only occur very rarely.
I suspect that when we work through the Church we will be able to create much larger changes with much less time and much less energy.
Let me provide an example of what I'm talking about.
Homelessness is obviously a major problem in Canadian urban centres. Affordable housing might very well be the greatest need right now in places like Vancouver and Toronto. Pursuing change through the government requires a great deal of lobbying, of protesting, of capturing (and holding) the attention of the media, of rationalising, and of imposing constant pressure upon politicians, corporations, and policy-makers. Engaging in that process requires a great deal of time and energy and the end result is always minimal. The government creates 50 more units of affordable housing, or offers to open up 40 more shelter beds (in the winter only), that sort of thing. Given that a city like Toronto has 50,000+ homeless people, this is akin to putting a band-aid on a severed artery.
So, what is the alternative to this that the Church offers? Really, it's quite simple. We take the words of Isaiah 58 seriously and “bring the homeless poor into our homes.” Rather than begging and pleading with the government, we simply become the change we seek elsewhere. Rather than wasting a great deal of time and energy asking the government to open new homes, we simply open our homes to the homeless.
And so on and so forth. Rather than waiting for the government to eradicate poverty (something that it will never do), we can become the sort of community that is described in Acts wherein a form of sharing exists that leads to the observation that “there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4). It's all rather simple (which isn't to say that it is easy). All we need is a little imagination and a little courage; a little hope, a little faith, a little love.
Why waste all that time and energy elsewhere? Really, I can't help but think of something Jesus once said (brace yourself, Stephen & Co.!) in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
Of course, the “dogs” and the “swine” are the institutional Powers — Businesses, Parties, and Laws involved (not the people, like Stephen & Co., whom I respect a great deal).
[I will now run for cover, and convince myself that I am right regardless of what is written in the comments.]
[Update: After adding some consideration of the term 'power-as-appeal', I have substituted the term 'power-as-invitation' for the previously used term 'power-as-persuasion'.]
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.
This thesis requires some explanation.
(1a) What do I mean by the expression 'power-as-force'? By using that expression I am referring to power that is exercised in such a way that it leaves those on whom it acts no alternative but to comply or be punished — it forces compliance. Power-as-force is the form of power that is exercised by the State through the military, the police, the courts, the prisons, the hospitals, and all the other institutions that discipline and punish the general population (I am, of course, indebted to Foucault in this regard). Power-as-force says to a person: “You must do this,” or “You cannot do that” and “If you do 'this', then we will imprison you” or “If you do 'that', then we will hospitalize you.” Significantly, power-as-force operates on people regardless of their belief-systems. You do not need to ascribe to the fundamental beliefs of the system of power-as-force, you simply must obey or face the consequences.
(1b) When we look to the example of Jesus, we discover that this is precisely the form of power that he rejected. Of course, Jesus did exercise power-as-force over some things:
-some property, including animals (the Temple incident!)
However, the key thing to realise is that Jesus never exercised power-as-force over any people outside of the community of discipleship. It is only within the community of disciples that Jesus exercises a minimal form of power-as-force (by issuing commands that require obedience).
(1c) We see the same thing in the letters of Paul. Paul is willing to issue commands, and expects obedience from his churches. But he thinks it is a mistake to try and extend that power-as-force outside of the community of faith. Thus, he writes:
I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside (cf. 1 Cor 5).
Paul is not interested in judging those outside of the Church, nor is he interested in holding them to certain standards of behaviour. He is, however, very much interested in engaging in those practices within the community of faith.
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.
Again some explanation is required.
(2a) What do I mean by the expression 'power-as-invitation'? I do not mean the pursuit of 'seeker-sensitive' church models, nor do I mean the ongoing fascination with presenting a 'relevant' form of Christianity. Rather, I understand power-as-invitation to be what comes when the Church models an alternate way of sharing life together. The Johannine material captures this well — we will be known, within the world, by the love that we have for one another (this emphasis also appears in the Synoptics and in the Pauline material). Of course, that love is to be an overflowing love, and just as we are to be known for how we love one another, we are also to be known for how we love the 'poor', and even for how we love our 'enemies'. Such a way of sharing life together does not exercise power-as-force, but it does exercise power-as-invitation, because it is open to others and will appeal to many. Indeed, the term 'power-as-appeal' might be an even better term for this sort of power, as the word 'appeal' implies attractiveness (i.e. “I find that way of life to be very appealing”) but also implies the sort of weakness that is found in begging (i.e. “I appeal to you as Christians”).
(2b) Therefore, rather than imposing demands upon those outside the community of faith (which is precisely what the government does when, for example, it demands that pacifist pay taxes — taxes that will help to fund the war effort), the Church issues an invitation to those outside. Governments demand, the Church invites.
(2c) Thus, we see why Christian involvement in the government is, despite good intentions, and despite whatever positive impact it might have, largely a mistake — a mistake that, IMHO, results from a misunderstanding of how Christians are to relate to power. Simply stated: the government operates by using a form of power that is denied to Christian engagement with those outside the Church, and it is impossible to participate within government without accepting this underlying power structure.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside…
If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another — and this in front of unbelievers!
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
~ Paul the Apostle, 1 Cor 5.12-13a, 6.1-7.
Now my hypothesis is not so much that the court is the natural expression of popular justice, but rather that its historical function is to ensnare [popular justice], to control it and strangle it, by re-inscribing it within institutions which are typical of state apparatus… Popular justice recognises in the judicial system a state apparatus, representative of public authority, and instrument of state power… This is why the revolution can only take place via the radical elimination of the judicial apparatus.
~ Michel Foucault, “On Popular Justice: A Discussion with Maoists” in Power/Knowledge.
In my efforts to journey alongside of, and in solidarity with, those on the margins of our society I have increasingly wondered about the extent of interaction that I should have with the criminal justice system (I have three power-elements in mind here: the police, the law courts, and the prisons; these are the militant, the judicial, and the penal power-elements of “justice” as it is enforced in our society). Increasingly, I am uncomfortable with any sort of appeal to these power-elements. This is so for several reasons.
First, I have seen innumerable physical and emotional scars caused by rampant “abuses of power” committed by police officers, court officials, and prison guards, and this has led me to the conclusion that acts of brutality, dishonesty, and violence are not abuses of power within this system, but are natural expressions of power within this system. That is to say, I now no longer believe that such actions are “freak” occurrences, extrinsic to the system; rather, I believe that they are inherent to the system and intrinsically linked to all three of these power-elements (thus, the true “freak” occurrences are when rare officers, officials, and guards are able to not engage in these violent practices).
Secondly, I have also been convinced by those, like Foucault, who argue that all three of these power-elements are fundamentally compromised and exist in order to serve the interests of the privileged few, over against the disadvantaged many. The problem that exists within these power-elements isn't simply the impact of power upon individual people; rather the problem is much deeper and rooted in the law itself. Our legislations, our laws, our rules, and our concepts of “justice” and “equality under the law” actually mask a deeper injustice and a deeper inequality that are operating through all of these things. What do laws of private property and public decency tell us? That both the rich and the poor cannot steal to survive; that both those with homes and those who are homeless cannot sleep in bus shelters; that both the employed and the unemployed cannot wash windshields at intersections to try and earn some change. And so we see how “equal rights” and “justice” operate in our society.
Thirdly, I am similarly convinced that these power-elements also fail to operate in the way in which they promise us that they will operate. The criminal justice system promises the general public order and safety, and it premises its punitive measures upon the rehabilitation of the criminal. However, in actuality it makes us less safe, not only because it exercises its power over us in an abusive manner, but also because it only entrenches criminals in their criminality. Indeed, despite all the promises to the contrary, Foucault argues that this is precisely what the criminal justice system sets out to accomplish. Rather than “rehabilitating” criminals, the judicial and penal systems justify the militant system by ensuring that criminals can only remain as criminals. Thus Foucault argues:
At the end of the eighteenth century, people dreamed of a society without crime. And then the dream evaporated. Crime was too useful for them to dream of anything as crazy — or ultimately as dangerous — as a society without crime. No crime meant no police. What makes the presence and control of the police tolerable to the population, if not fear of the criminal? This institution of the police, which is so recent and so oppressive, is only justified by that fear. If we accept the presence in our midst of these uniformed men, who have the exclusive right to carry arms, who demand our papers, who come and prowl on our doorsteps, how would any of this be possible if there were no criminals? ( from “Prison Talk” in Power/Knowledge)
Therefore, maintaining criminals as criminals is one of the major ways in which the privileged few, who control the criminal justice system, are able to divide the disadvantaged masses and make the majority adopt agendas that actually run counter to their best interest.
Consequently, with these three points in mind, my discomfort with appealing to any of these power-elements should now be understandable. To call the police because I have been assaulted, to press legal charges because I have been robbed, to initiate a process that ends with a person sent to jail — doing any or all of these things is the equivalent of surrendering a person from the margins to power-elements that are bent on the destruction of that person. Furthermore, it is difficult (impossible?) to see how such an action can be construed of as an act of solidarity with those on the margins; rather, such an action more often (always?) betrays the extent to which my solidarity is merely rhetorical and not actual.
Therefore, if our first response should not be an appeal to the police, the courts, and the prisons, how should we respond to personal experiences of violence, or theft, or other criminal acts?
Well, as Christians, we may want to begin by taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously. When struck, we can turn the other cheek (rather then striking back with the “long arm of the law”). When sued for our tunics, we can give our coats as well (rather than counter-suing in order to get back what “belongs” to us… plus a little more for damages incurred). When someone asks for something from us, we can give it to them (rather than focusing on that to which I am legally entitled). And when we encounter those who would make themselves our enemies, we can respond with love (rather than responding by seeking their imprisonment).
However, and this is where the opening quotation from 1 Cor 5-6 comes into play, Christians will only be able to spontaneously respond in this way in the public sphere, if they have previously learned to respond this way to their brothers and sisters in the Christian sphere. Consequently, rather than viewing the three power-elements of the criminal justice system as authoritative, Christians must view the Church (the Christian community) as authoritative. It is the Church, not the criminal justice system, that must define “justice” and “equality.” Our natural inclination must not be to appeal to the power-elements of the criminal justice system, our natural inclination must be to appeal to the Church — and this means that we must undergo some distancing from all other power-elements that seek to act as authorities over us. If Christians do not act in this way, if they persist in seeing the criminal justice system as the authority over their lives, then, as Paul asserts, we have already been completely defeated.
Furthermore, I believe that Paul might well be alluding to the Sermon on the Mount when he concludes by asking “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” Indeed, at this point I believe that Paul is not only concluding his reflections on law-suits in the Christian community (6.1-6), I believe that he is also concluding his reflections on how to respond to those outside of the Christian community as well (1 Cor 5.9-13).
But wait, some may object here, doesn't this argument lead us to anarchy?
Certainly the privileged few, who run the State, would want us to see anarchy as the only alternative to the power-elements imposed by the State. Anarchy, the collapse of order, is always the great enemy and the great justifier of State power — granted that power may be less than perfect but, so the argument goes, it is better than the alternative. However, as William Stringfellow shows us (cf. Conscience and Obedience), the State's claim to order is illusory. In fact, violence, war, and an increase in chaos, are intrinsic to the project of the State. The “order” imposed by the State actually results in precisely the things that the State projects onto anarchy.
Consequently, we are now in a place where we can understand Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's in/famous assertion that “Anarchy is Order.” When the “order” of our day is a mask for chaos, we have no choice but to be anarchists. However, precisely because Christian-anarchy takes place within the Church, as an element of the Church, I believe we are in a position to follow Jurgen Moltmann's line of thinking when he stated, in response to Ernst Bloch, that “only a Christian can make a good atheist.” I would like to conclude by suggesting that only a Christian can make a good anarchist.
I have spent a good deal of time recently considering the ways in which capitalism disciplines our desire and those reflections are the spring-board for my thoughts here.
Because capitalism is based upon a system of ever-increasing consumption, it leads us into a world where everything can be consumed. Everything can now be sold and bought. Consequently, everything, if marketed properly, can become an object of desire (since it is some form of desire that undergirds all of our consumption).
Martin Heidegger once made similar comments about the impact of technology upon the world (cf. The Question Concerning Technology). Heidegger argued that technology is far more than a mere tool used by people to accomplish certain tasks. Technology is actually a means of revelation (an “enframing”) that shapes how we see and understand the world. And the problem with technology is that it causes us to see things only in terms of their usefulness as means to certain ends (everything becomes a “standing-reserve”). Consequently, George Grant concludes that it is now impossible for us to apprehend this world as other than a “field of objects considered as pragmata” (cf. In Defense of America). Similarly, Albert Borgmann concludes that we have transformed meaningful things into commodities (cf. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life). Things do not have any sort of transcendent being or inherent meaning, they are only meaningful to the extent that they can be used or consumed.
Heidegger, Grant, and Borgmann all argue that usefulness, that functionality, becomes the all-determining factor in how we see the world of objects around us. Jean Baudrillard takes this way of thinking and pushes it to its necessary conclusion: not only objects but “things” like space, colour, time, forms, materials, and designs are all incorporated into the “functional system” that has come to dominate our world-view (cf. The System of Objects).
However, Baudrillard then goes on to diverge from Heidegger & Co. in a significant way. Rather than defining “functionality” as “usefulness” or as something “goal-oriented,” Baudrillard argues that “functionality” is simply the ability to become integrated into this functional system. Hence, he argues that:
An object's functionality is the ability to become integrated into an overall scheme. An object's functionality is the very thing that enables it to transcend its main 'function' in the direction of a secondary one, to play a part, to become a combining element, an adjustable item, within a universal system of signs.
This, then, leads us back to my initial comments on capitalism. How so? Because I believe that it is capitalism that governs the “functional” system that is envisioned by Heidegger, and most fully described by Baudrillard. To slightly revise Baudrillard's words: An object's functionality is the ability to become integrated into the scheme of capitalism. Therefore, it is the dollar-value that capitalism puts on everything that becomes the “secondary function” — which is really the most important function — of everything. Consequently, capitalism believes that everything is useful to the extent that it can be sold and bought. Functionality is all about consumability. And consumability, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, is all about desirability — which is why capitalism spends so much time teaching us how to desire (i.e. desire without end), and what to desire (i.e. anything that it wants to sell us).
That this way of thinking has become so ingrained within us becomes obvious when we consider the ways in which our attitudes towards ourselves, and other people, is dictated by desirability. That is to say: I am taught that I am only valuable to the extent that I am desirable. Consequently, the sort of functionality that is valued in me is either the ability to accumulate capital or the ability to become capital. I am desirable as either a consumer (just as we desire to be, or be with, the wealthy and successful businessman or woman) or as an object of consumption (just as we desire to be, or be with, the ruggedly handsome man or the beautiful woman).
Outside of that cycle of consumption I have little value — which is why our society relegates the old, the disabled, and the poor to the margins. Quite often they exist outside of this cycle and so they are considered to be without value. Furthermore, because they often participate within the same system, once they become old, disabled, or poor they also often undergo a crisis of meaning and are trapped living out lives that they feel are no longer significant.
Consequently, if we are to live Christianly in the presence of this system, we must reconsider things like functionality, desirability, capitalism, and self-worth. But more on that anon.
[Y]es, there is a direct lineage from Christianity to Marxism; yes, Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade.
~ Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, 2.
Two revolutionaries [Gk: lestes] were crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left.
~ Mt 27.38 (cf. Mk 15.27; Lk 23.32-33).
It is interesting to note that, when the sons of Zebedee come to Jesus (with their mother!) and request to be seated at the places of honour next to Jesus — one on his right and one on his left — Jesus first asks them if they will be able to drink the cup that he is going to drink (cf. Mt 20). However, even after they answer in the affirmative, and even after Jesus affirms that they will drink of the same cup, Jesus refuses to grant their request. Now, where this gets interesting is that, in the Gospels, we do not see the sons of Zebedee, or any of the other disciples drinking from the same cup as Jesus (the “cup,” in this passage refers to Jesus' upcoming crucifixion, the climax of his “messianic woes”). Rather, when the time comes, the disciples all abandon Jesus. So who is it that we find situated at the places of honour and drinking from the same cup as Jesus? Two rebels, two revolutionaries, two terrorists(!), martyred for their opposition to Roman rule (the traditional translation of the word lestes as “robbers” in most English versions of the Gospels is something of a misleading translation, as several scholars have noted).
Further, some scholars have gone on to suggest that this is no mere coincidence; Jesus' placement in the middle of the rebels, highlights his sympathy and solidarity with the cause of those who would recognise no King but God alone. Although they differed on the use of violence (Jesus refused to engage in violence, while most — but, note, not all — of the rebels engaged in violence), both Jesus and the Jewish revolutionaries recognised that faithfulness to God led them into conflict with an empire that recognised no King but Caesar. Consequently, both Jesus and the rebels find themselves “on the same side of the barricade,” dying outside of the city walls together.
(If we accept what these scholars have to say then we might well conclude that the company we keep while dying is just as significant as the company we keep while living. What, I wonder, is the significance of the observation that most of us wish to die peacefully, in our sleep, in our comfortable beds, in our comfortable homes? On which side of the barricades does such thinking place us? Or rather, on which side of the barricades does such thinking reveal that we have been living this whole time?)
With these reflections in mind, it is easy to see the validity in Zizek's statement that Christians and Marxists should fight together, rather than fighting against one another. Indeed, I am fascinated by the ways in which Marxists — like Zizek, Agamden, and Badiou — have been exploring Jesus with Paul. Unlike those who have appropriated a “revolutionary” Jesus and discarded an “institutional” Paul, these scholars desire to maintain the integrity of the New Testament witness and find revolutionary potential in both Jesus and Paul. Therefore, where once Christian theologians were recognising the liberating potential in elements of Marxism, now Marxist scholars are recognising the liberating potential in elements of Christianity! Although the weapons of Christians and Marxist can be very different, they are united in a common cause. Christians and Marxist both voice a resounding “No!” to the Powers that perpetuate processes of oppression, dehumanisation, terror, enslavement, consumption, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, although the hope of Christians and the hope of Marxists are rather different, they are both hopes that subvert and challenge the current state of affairs while inspiring action against that state of affairs.
Unfortunately, the Christian perception of Marxism has been so warped in N. America that it is often impossible for N. Americans to recognise who their allies are. That we have so easily accepted such a caricatured picture of Marxism suggest to me that perhaps our sympathies aren't really with the oppressed, the enslaved, and the dehumanised. Perhaps we are on the wrong side of the barricade.
(This language of “allies” and “sides” may make some uncomfortable since it seems to suggest an “us” vs. “them” mentality. To say that we have “allies” suggests that we also have “enemies” and many of us are ill at ease with such language. However, it should be noted that Christianity never suggested that we do not have any enemies. Rather, Christianity says that we do have enemies, but we are to love those enemies and treat them as our friends — even if they continue to live as very real enemies.)
When Caesar becomes a member of the church, the enemy becomes internalized. The problem is no longer that the church is seen as a threat to the political order, but that now my desires are disordered.
~ Stanley Hauerwas, from “No Enemy, No Christianity: Theology and Preaching between 'Worlds'” in The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jurgen Moltmann.
In my recent reflections on “Christianity and Capitalism” I observed that capitalism disciplines us in various ways. In particular, I emphasised the ways in which capitalism disciplines our desire — it teaches us to desire in certain ways, just as it teaches us to desire certain things.
It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I came across this quote from Hauerwas. From Hauerwas we can conclude that the reason why our desires have been so disciplined (and so disordered) is because we have welcomed capitalism into the Christian community, instead of choosing to resist it. Indeed, in the same essay, Hauerwas emphasises that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies; Christianity, Hauerwas says (provocatively, and as a pacifist!), is about making the right enemies. If Christianity does not do this, it will cease to exist in any meaningful sort of way.
Thus, for as long as we seek to pursue “Christianity with Capitalism” (i.e. “moral capitalism” or “capitalism with a human face”) we will find that the main area of struggle is with our own desires. Only when we begin to pursue a form of Christianity that exists as a genuine alternative to capitalism will we be able to find our desires liberated. In that scenario, the conflict will be where it should be — between the church and the political order.
Of course, the Church has a long history of internalizing conflicts that are meant to take place in the socio-political and economic arena. Thus, for example, we are accustomed to taking a passage like Eph 6.12 (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”) and assuming that it refers to my individual struggle with sin and temptation (i.e. we take it as a reference to our personal struggles with our disordered desires). However, as Walter Wink has so ably shown (cf. Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, and Engaging the Powers), the language of “rulers,” “powers,” and “forces of evil,” refers to the socio-political and economic structures of Paul's day. In such passages Paul (and his interpreters) are talking about the economic and political authorities of the Roman Empire — and it is these structures of authority that Christians are to resist.
Consequently, if we are being true to Paul, we must recognize that the primary arena of conflict should not be within ourselves; rather, the primary arena of conflict is to be the socio-political and economic realm. The conflict is not between my and my desires, it is between the Church and the political order — and the more we focus on the former, the more we are thrown off-track and become inconsequential in relation to the latter. Furthermore, the fact that we tend to focus almost exclusively on the former simply verifies the degree to which “Caesar” has become internalised in our churches.
There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? … Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?
~ Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, 45.
In the matter of slavery Paul's standpoint is maintained [by the early Church]… The fact that slavery exists is accepted as a part of the given world order which it is not the task of Christians to alter.
~ Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament: Volume 2, 230.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners… to release the oppressed.
~ Jesus, quoted as quoting Isaiah, in Lk 4.18.
Dorothy Day asks herself about the whereabouts of the saints who confront slavery in order to do away with it. That she was unable to find such saints is, in part, due to the legacy of scholars like Rudolph Bultmann.
In his study of Paul, Bultmann makes two moves that result in a presentation of a Paul who is socially conservative in his approach to socio-economic and political issues.
The first move, which is apparent in the quotation that I provide, is the social introspection that Bultmann argues existed, and was encouraged, within the Pauline communities. Pauline Christians, Bultmann argues, were not concerned with the given world order, they were simply to be concerned with themselves. Thus, that slavery existed in the world, was irrelevant for Christians who were no longer to see the distinction between “slave” and “free” as operative within the Christian community.
Now this could be a promising way forward, but Bultmann takes away what he gives in his second move, wherein he spiritualizes the transformation that occurred within Pauline Christianity. Thus, he goes on to argue that, within the Christian community, there were still Christian masters with Christian slaves; the point was that, even though nothing physical was altered, the distinction between masters and slaves should not be considered of any significance at a spiritual level.
The result of both of these moves is a depoliticized, or apolitical, Paul. However, an apolitical Paul becomes, necessarily, a conservative Paul; to show no interest in politics is to perpetuate the reign of the powers that be.
Not surprisingly, I would take issue with both of the moves that Bultmann makes. The second move is simply, IMHO, a misreading of the texts (Bultmann quotes 1 Cor 7 and Philem). As far as I can tell, the abolition of distinctions, like those between “slave” and “free,” (or those between “male” and “female”) had significant concrete, physical outworkings in the Pauline churches. The first move, however, is more troubling because it is a much more common move to make. Bultmann argues that the Pauline churches were not concerned with the “given world order” because they believed that the world order was passing away, they believed that “The End” of the world order would come within the life-span of their generation. Thus, despite their many differences, this is one place in which Bultmann is in agreement with Schweitzer and Dibelius (not to mention the host of others who have followed these two in seeing Paul as socially conservative because he believed that the End of the world was just around the corner). I would object to this on two grounds: (1) I believe that socio-rhetorical criticism has shown that Paul is very interested in socio-economic and political issues; and (2) I am not convinced that Paul was so sure that the world was coming to “The End” as some of these scholars assert. We must remember that for Paul, as a faithful Jew, the “end” of the world was really about the remaking of the world. Therefore, if, after the resurrection and Pentecost, the Pauline churches found themselves living in a time when the future was invading the present, it seems to me that they would have had an express interest in beginning to embody the new creation as it applied to all areas of life. Consequently, far from encountering a conservative Paul, I am inclined to discover a “subversive” Paul.
Be that as it may, the legacy of Bultmann (and others) lives on. We read Bultmann on slavery and we substitute a whole host of other issues — from homelessness in N. American urban centres to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa — and we conclude that it is “not the task of Christians to alter [these situations].” Thus, it comes as no surprise that Day was unable to find the saints for whom she searched — most saints never imagined that they were to do anything more than to minister to slaves, for as long as the world continued being the world (however, I wonder about the extent to which Bultmann would apply these words to anything beyond what he sees as the Pauline perspective on slavery. After all, he was a member of the Confessing Church in Germany during WWII, and his family was involved in sheltering Jews from the Nazi regime).
All this, then, leads me to my third quotation — the one from Lk. What I find intriguing about the passage is the way in which Jesus uses the language of slavery (when he speaks of “the prisoners” and “the oppressed”; this is, of course, exilic language, but exile itself is properly understood as a from of slavery) in a way that opens that language up to an application beyond the situation of slaves in the first-century. Jesus calls for the abolition of all forms of oppression, and for freedom from all forms of bondage. Thus, whereas Bultmann “spiritualises” talk of slavery in way that results in something less than the physical emancipation of slaves, Jesus employs the language of slavery to refer to much more than, and certainly nothing less than, the physical emancipation of slaves. Consequently, we see Jesus embodying this proclamation by freeing the sick from the bondage imposed by illness, freeing the wealthy from the bondage imposed by money, freeing the poor from the bondage imposed by the religious structures, freeing the possessed from the bondage of demons, freeing the outcasts from the bondage imposed by social structures, and freeing the exiles from the bondage imposed by godforsakenness.
In light of these things, my question is this: how do we begin, like Day, to follow Jesus and confront the slaveries, and slave-traders, of our day, in order to do away with all forms of slavery?