Hospitality in a Hostile World: Being Serious About the Madness of the Sermon on the Mount

Already since the terrorist attack on Friday analysts and commentators have been warning France – and, implicitly, the rest of the world currently waging war against ISIS in Syria, most notably the US – to be careful not to “play into the hands of ISIS” and let our anger and desire for vengeance lead us blindly into a disastrous war as happened following the 9/11 attacks. By Sunday, however, France had begun aerial assaults upon ISIS targets.

Meanwhile, on our side of the pond, fear of the Syrian Other has risen to manic levels. Several states have declared that they will accept no more refugees. A large part of the inspiration for such a move is the discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers Friday night. Some have suggested, however, that the precise purpose of planting this passport may have been hopes of stoking European fear of, and hatred for, Syrian immigrants. As Dierdre Fulton reports on Truthdig:

“One theory is that ISIS hopes to turn Europe against Syrian refugees,” Kingsley wrote. “This would reinforce the idea of unresolvable divisions between east and west, and Christians and Muslims, and so persuade Syrians that Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate is their best hope of protection. ‘You know what pissed off Islamist extremists the most about Europe?’ summarised Iyad El-Baghdadi, an activist and jihadi-watcher, on Twitter. ‘It was watching their very humane, moral response to the refugee crisis’.”

Justin Salhani concurs, writing: “ISIS has released statements saying it wants the West to turn on refugees, proving its assertions that Western nations are at war with Islam. The extremist group has also said on at least 12 occasions that Muslims should be seeking refuge in their self-declared Caliphate as opposed to ‘the lands of the infidel.'”

Watching the response of United States politicians (to say nothing of citizens) suggests that, if this in fact reflects the aims of ISIS, they have been nothing if not effective. As Adam Taylor observes, “one of the most persuasive arguments against equating refugees with terrorists is simple: It’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.”

With all of this in mind, I think we are faced with an opportunity here – an opportunity to not let the terrorists win by reinforcing a narrative of “us” versus “them”; to not continue the cycle of violence, hatred, and revenge (and implicitly thereby to affirm the legitimacy of violence, etc.), a cycle which will not end until someone has the courage to take the risky step of simply renouncing tit-for-tat violence and the logic of lex talionis (more on this in a minute); an opportunity to demonstrate the love, compassion, and hospitality so powerfully exemplified in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition of which we are the inheritors (even those heretics, skeptics, and atheists among us); an opportunity to deny evil’s superior power over good and to instead overcome evil with good – in short, an opportunity to be loving and welcoming, which (I think) are the best weapons in our arsenal in the fight against fear, hatred, and violence.

That all sounds nice, it may be objected, and the Bible gives us a lovely ideal, but this is the real world and we have to be practical and we have to defend ourselves. However, I think (and here I will surely start to lose readers if I haven’t already) that we are in the unique position of affirming and participating in a tradition (again, whether we are church-going Christians or Sunday-is-for-sleeping atheists) that wants to radically disrupt and overturn the business-as-usual, eminently practical, feet-on-the-ground rationality of the kingdoms of the world.

Though myself a heathen, heretic, and theological ne’er-do-well, one of the reasons that I still love the Gospels is Jesus’ talk of a new kingdom, a kingdom that is both among us and still to come, in which everything is turned upside down, in which the last are first, forgiveness is unconditional, strangers and weirdos are always welcome, violence is not repaid for violence, and gifts are given without anything being expected in return – in short, pure madness, holy hell, and sacred anarchy (to borrow John Caputo’s words). Human relationships are no longer matters of economic exchange but rather of overflowing love and grace.

And nowhere does Jesus say, only welcome strangers if you are certain that it is safe to do so; only give to a beggar if you are sure she won’t use your money to buy drugs; only be nonviolent if your life isn’t actually in danger. Specifically in regard to nonviolence, D. Stephen Long sums this up nicely:

Nowhere does Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount suggest that it is only for individuals. There is no footnote or proviso where Jesus says, ‘You are to live this way except when it comes to the defence of your neighbours, then you must use the violence at your disposal to protect them.’ In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is not private instruction for individual consciences; it is the political platform for the new kingdom or city that Jesus proclaims, the city that is to be ‘set on a hill’ and illumine the world (Matt 5:14-16).[1]

What madness! Yes, indeed. But the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is not of this world. And that does not mean, I am convinced, that it is therefore a kingdom of some magical hinter-world. Rather, I think, it is a radically new kind of kingdom which is breaking into this world and disturbing the present kingdoms. Mark Van Steenwyk calls this kingdom that Jesus preaches an “unkingdom,” and Jesus its “unking.” For what kind of king establishes the kingdom described above? Would not such a king be, by all worldly lights, naught but an anti-king, the very opposite of a power-grabbing monarch?

I am convinced that two of the most powerful and radical ideas on which this Unkingdom turn are radical nonviolence and radical hospitality.

I mentioned lex talionis earlier. You will hear this phrase a lot if you spend any time at all in Christian anarchist and/or pacifist circles (like Jesus Radicals or Young Anabaptist Radicals). In short, lex talionis is the law found in the Hebrew Bible of an eye for an eye. When Jesus cites this law, however, he immediately overturns it: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say unto you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also[.]” For centuries (well before the birth of “Christian anarchism,” even) certain Christians have been calling attention to the significance and radical implications of this passage. It may be old hat to some, but I think it is worth reviewing.

In his excellent work Jesus and Nonviolence, Walter Wink argues (and he is by no means the first to do so) that the word that is translated as “resist” is best understood as implying “violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention.”[2] Kurt Willems agrees with Wink’s translation, writing that “antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as ‘warfare’ and is also used in Ephesians 6:13 in the context of active military imagery.”[3] Such an interpretation furthermore confirms the words of Long cited above that Jesus was not teaching private morality but a distinctly social ethic. Indeed, scholars as different as John Howard Yoder and Bart Ehrman agree that Jesus was executed precisely because, in the words of Yoder, he was “a social critic and an agitator.”[4] Ehrman agrees, pointing out that “only two known people were specifically called ‘the son of God.’ The emperor was one of them, and Jesus was the other.”[5]

Jesus was boldly proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, of which he (Jesus) would be the king. It does not get much more subversive than that. “This was the message he delivered to his disciples,” writes Ehrman, “and in the end, it was the message that got him crucified.”[6] Once again, the kingdom that Jesus was preaching – the Unkingdom of which he is the unking – is not a magical other-worldly palace, but a very this-worldly in-breaking and overturning of the kingdoms of the world. And I think we have a role to play in realizing this impossible Unkingdom.

(Otherwise, if Jesus never meant for us to take his words literally, if we are supposed to just sit on our hands and wait for God to come back and fix all of our problems, then I don’t want anything to do with such radically life-denying defeatism. It’s a convenient way to avoid having to accept any responsibility, but it ultimately sounds to me like Gnostic escapism — which, I am convinced, comes down to nihilism in the end.)

Christian anarchists and pacifists argue that Jesus’ teachings imply a refusal to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Responding to violence with violence only results in more violence. As Jacques Ellul says, “Violence begets violence — nothing else.[7] Accordingly, commentators who argue that violent intervention in the Middle East is largely to blame for the rise of ISIS don’t sound too crazy. It’s blowback. Imagine several of your friends and family members, while attending a wedding, are killed by a US drone strike – a strike sent on the shaky suspicion that a militant or two might have been present and which is anyway considered a success because your father and brothers are all over the age of fifteen which is enough for them to classified as suspected militants. What could possibly fuel more anger and resentment toward the US? What better inspiration could there be to join a radical group committed to waging a brutal war with the western world?

Violence begets violence. And it will happen again. I suspect that ISIS knows that if they are able to evoke a violent military response from France that will only mean more recruits for them.

So, what of the bit about hospitality? I mentioned earlier the disturbingly hostile responses to immigrants that we have been hearing recently. Since we never know which Muslims might be secret members of ISIS, the reasoning seems to go, we had better keep them all out. And this fear is, to a certain extent, understandable. But ultimately such xenophobia, if left unchecked, will plant the seeds of fascism.

More to the point, I have been arguing that we are the inheritors of a tradition that teaches radical hospitality. (Here’s a nice list of references.) And that is no hospitality that only welcomes sameness and familiarity, comfort and safety. Rather, as Kierkegaard says,

Your neighbor is every man [sic], for on the basis of distinctions he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of likeness to you as being different from other men. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God: but this equality absolutely every man has, and he has it absolutely.[8]

Or in the words of Caputo:

We welcome those who are welcome to begin with, not those who are unwelcome. But if hospitality is what we say it is – that is, welcoming the other – then ought it not be a matter of welcoming those who are unwelcome? Should it not extended beyond our neighbors to strangers? Beyond our friends to enemies? Beyond the invited to the uninvited?[9]

Such hospitality is by no means easy, but, then, when was it ever supposed to be? “[I]f you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” That’s the easy part. The hard part is greeting – and loving – one’s enemies (or, in this case, those who look like one’s enemies and therefore inspire the same fearful reaction). Is it risky? Of course! But that is “the madness of the kingdom.”[10] And anyway, “There is always a risk in everything worthwhile.”[11] Is it possible that among the Syrian refugees – men and women trying desperately to save their families from the chaos and death of civil war, as any of us would similarly do – there is a militant Jihadist? Yes, it is possible (although considering the fact that initial reports indicate that most of the Paris attackers were French- and Belgian-born nationals, fears that militants are hiding among refugees from Syria seem pretty exaggerated). Just like it’s possible that your all-American neighbour is a white supremacist who has plans to shoot up a black church.

Either way, as I’ve said, I am convinced that if we let this fear drive us, if we respond only with hostility and violence, we will just exacerbate the problem; not only will we be reinforcing the beliefs of violent militants, but we will be telling the rest of the Muslim community that we are in fact the hateful, hostile, violent society that we are feared to be. A good way to make someone your enemy is to tell them that they are your enemy and treat them accordingly. And, as noted above, it would be very much in the favor of ISIS for us to do so.

If we lose faith in the power of good to overcome evil – love to overcome hatred, compassion to overcome violence, welcome to overcome hostility – then we have lost it all. If we refuse to give up the worldly logic of lex talionis then we have given up on Jesus. He was maddeningly impractical, to be sure. But, then again, revolutionaries always are. Revolutionaries are the ones who call for the impossible — who demand that we make the impossible possible. That’s what I want. The possible is easy. The possible is lex talonis. I want to push against the limits of the possible and challenge the status quo, a desire that I take to be at the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount.


Appendix (of interest to those concerned with matters of biblical exegesis):

I can foresee the objection that Romans 13 gets us off the hook of having to take Jesus literally and assures us that Jesus’ teachings aren’t that crazy. Anyone who has ever made a habit of talking about Christian anarchism and/or pacifism has grown accustomed to responding to this objection on a pretty regular basis (as in, every time the words “Christian anarchism and pacifism” cross your lips). The passage has been addressed many, many times, and there are many, many interesting points that could be raised, and but so I will try to keep my comments here short.

(Though in a very real sense I have no dog in this race — in the end my views are unaffected by what Paul may or may not have said — I think it is important to discuss alternative interpretations of this passage so that a more coherent Christian position on nonviolence and the state can be sketched out. Why do I care about finding a “coherent Christian position”? Because, as I’ve suggested, I think there are riches in the teachings of Jesus which tend to be swept under the rug because it is thought (implicitly, though it is not explicitly said) that Paul’s teachings trump those of Jesus.)

For one thing, I think it’s a little odd that I am supposed to not take Jesus literally on the basis of seven verses written by Paul (and a few more written by Peter, of course). True, the latter half of Romans 12 is basically a verbatim recitation of the Sermon on the Mount, but Romans 13:1 signals a rather strange departure from this. After all, Jesus never said anything of the sort (not even, I maintain, in the (in)famous “render unto Caesar” passage). First and foremost, then, I think that Christians should privilege Christ (this is not to advocate some kind of anti-Paul Jesusism, per say, just what seems to me like a perfectly legitimate method of prioritization).

One interesting interpretation that I think is particularly worth pointing out is that of Kevin Daugherty, who argues that it is in fact an unfounded assumption that this passage is referring to governing authorities at all. The Greek, he says, does not necessitate such a reading. Instead, Daugherty suggests, the passage could perhaps be better understood to be referring to religious authorities who wield a symbolic, spiritual sword, “Unless of course, Ephesians 6:17 means that the Holy Spirit can literally cut me.”[12]

What is helpful about such an interpretation is that it quells cognitive dissonance over how Paul could quote Jesus’ Sermon and then so suddenly seem to contradict it. Indeed, Paul himself clearly did not believe that obeying the governing authorities was of overwhelming importance, and the rulers clearly did execute wrath upon him, in spite of his “good conduct.” Accordingly, if we want to give Paul the benefit of the doubt (which, admittedly, I don’t always want to do – especially when he talks about women) this reading would be the way to go.

But even assuming the traditional translation the passage does not have to be read as condoning all forms of state violence (i.e., military, police, capital punishment). John Howard Yoder points out, for example, that “The sword (machaira) is the symbol of judicial authority. It was not the instrument of capital punishment,” nor was it “the instrument of war,”[13] so the passage has nothing to do with war or Christians’ involvement therein. Furthermore, Yoder writes, “verses 3-4 did not include any services that the Christian is asked to render”[14]; rather, these verses describe the authority as carrying out a function “which the Christian was to leave to God”[15], meaning, in other words, that the role taken up by state authorities is one which can only rightly be claimed by God and therefore state authorities have no claim on the allegiance of Christians.

Once again, we have a reading that does not so blatantly contradict the teachings of Jesus and is therefore preferable. Indeed, this makes perfectly good sense considering that the early Christians were followers of a man who had gone around declaring himself king of this crazy new kingdom and subsequently got himself killed for doing so. Of course authority only comes from God – which is bad news rather than good news for the state and those who would seek to morally justify it.

This turned out to be quite a detour into Christian anarchist and pacifist debates, but I think it is all relevant to my original point. I am fully and painfully aware that there are aspects of the debates that I had to leave out, but – believe it or not – I was really trying to be concise.




[1] D. Stephen Long, “What About the Protection of Third-Party Innocents? On Letting Your Neighbors Die,” in York and Barringer, 21.

[2] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 13.

[3] Kurt Willems, “Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2),” available fromἀντιστῆναι-part-2/ (accessed 2 August 2014), para. 7.

[4] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (2nd Edition), (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 1.

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 225.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections From A Christian Perspective, translated by Cecilia Gaul Kings, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 100.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, translated by Howard and Edna Hong. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[9] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 76.

[10] Ibid., 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kevin Daugherty, “Romans 13 and the State,” available from

[13] Yoder, 203.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 198.


Marco Rubio, Capitalist Logic, and the “Value” of Philosophy

In the fourth Republican presidential debate last night, Marcio Rubio said (now famously) that “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” As with prior comments regarding the worthlessness of the humanities, the response to Rubio has been swift, and justifications and arguments for the value of philosophy are being provided with passion and vigor. However, I think Rubio’s comments have implications for much deeper issues than simply whether or not philosophy is “worthwhile.”

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: What makes something worthwhile or valuable? As philosophers object to Rubio and argue that, in fact, philosophy is valuable, they are employing the exact same logic that Rubio is employing in arguing that philosophy is not valuable — namely, the logic of capitalism. It’s pretty simple to lay this out:

Premise 1: The measure of a thing’s value is money (i.e., the question of the “value” of something is ultimately a question of how much money it’s worth).
Premise 2: Accordingly, if a thing is not worth any money it is, effectively, worthless.
Premise 3: Philosophy is not worth any money.
Conclusion: Philosophy is worthless.

In trying to prove Rubio wrong, philosophers are implicitly accepting the first two premises and simply disagreeing with premise three. If we change premise three (the argument goes) to read, “Philosophy is worth money,” then the conclusion “Philosophy is worthwhile” will necessarily follow.

But I think there are some real problems with this (and perhaps those problems are clear at this point). I think it is absolutely true that, for capitalism, money is the only intrinsically valuable thing. Everything else — including human beings — is measured against the value standard of money. Hence, if I do not work and therefore do not contribute to the maximization of profit I do not “deserve” food, shelter, healthcare, etc. — which is to say, I do not “deserve” to live — which is to say, I am not intrinsically valuable. And hence, furthermore, I have been reassured (by capitalists) that capitalists do not like slavery “because it’s not profitable.” The question, in other words, is not whether or not slavery is immoral, but whether or not it is profitable.

I imagine it is clear at this point where I am going. When we say that philosophy is valuable because it’s profitable we are still conceding that philosophy’s value is totally relative and can only be measured against capital. What happens, then, if Rubio wins the debate and proves that, empirically, philosophy is not worth much money? Those who were arguing for the monetary value of philosophy would have to concede that, in fact, philosophy is not valuable. And perhaps in a few years the market will change and philosophy will be worth money, at which point the philosophers will be able to proclaim, “Now philosophy is worthwhile.” (Until the market changes again, that is.)

And, by the same token, if I could have demonstrated that slavery was in fact more profitable (not a difficult thing to do), my capitalist interlocutors would have been perforce obliged to concede that slavery is therefore valuable (literally! Because cheaper labor means more profit which means more value!)

I am reminded of a wonderful passage from Heidegger (which I am tempted to recite every time someone asks me what I am going to “do” with my philosophy degree):

You often hear such remarks as “Philosophy leads to nothing,” “You can’t do anything with philosophy,” and readily imagine that they confirm an expression of your own. There is no denying the soundness of the two phrases, particularly common among scientists and teachers of science. Any attempt to refute them by proving that after all it does “lead to something” merely strengthens the prevailing misinterpretation to the effect that the everyday standards by which we judge bicycles or sulphur baths are applicable to philosophy . . . granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us?

According to the logic of capitalism, philosophy may or may not be valuable at any given time. However, I maintain that philosophy, like human beings, needs no external justification (like money) for being considered valuable (I am still forced to use the economic term, “value!”) and I therefore will not try to demonstrate to Rubio and friends the value of philosophy. We would be ships passing in the night, for, in the absence of dollar signs, they would see no conceivable way that I could reasonably continue to argue that philosophy is valuable. I, on the other hand, would be unwilling to employ the rationality of: Money = Value, and No Money = No Value.

I don’t care whether or not philosophy is worth any money — that question has absolutely no bearing whatsoever upon my decision to value it.

Nietzsche on the Prejudices of the Philosophers

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are — how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray; in short, their childishness and childlikeness — but that they are not honest enough in their work, although they all make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of rank, who are more honest and doltish — and talk of ‘inspiration’); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of ‘inspiration’ — most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract — that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. They are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize ‘truths’ — and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself.

— Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil

If We Want Democracy, We Need Socialism

In my experience, the basic difference between capitalism and socialism is often missed. Capitalism, it is thought, represents free markets, consumer choice, personal liberty, etc. And socialism represents “big government,” state intervention, and a utilitarian sacrifice of the individual in favor of the “greater good.”

At bottom, however, the distinction is much simpler: It comes down to the question of who owns the means of production. Capitalists advocate private ownership of the means of production, whereas socialists advocate collective ownership. As I argued in the previous post, collective ownership is democratic and private ownership is plutocratic.

Some time ago, I offered an overview of the Marxian critique of alienated labor and I think it gets to the heart of this issue. Private ownership of the means of production goes like this: A capitalist, seeking to make profit, purchases a factory and the equipment necessary to make a product which can then be sold in the marketplace. The capitalist then hires workers to come in and use this equipment to make said product. The capitalist repays the workers in the form of wages, but, in order to ensure the maximum amount of profit possible, he [the capitalist] drives the workers’ wages down as much as possible so that he can extract the surplus value of their labor and keep it as profit. This is what we call exploitation.

The long and short of it is that the workers are selling themselves to the capitalist in exchange for wages, which will then (hopefully) allow the worker to purchase life’s basic necessities (i.e., food, shelter, healthcare, etc.) on the marketplace. But to say that one’s basic necessities must be purchased is to say that one’s freedom must be purchased. It is after all undeniable that someone who has good food, is healthy and well-educated has greater access to opportunity than someone who does not.

The private ownership of the means of production, in other words, turns everything — including human lives — into a commodity. It is said that workers are free, but of what does this freedom consist? The freedom to sell oneself to this capitalist or that one? Either way, one can expect low wages, for not only does the capitalist seek profit for himself, but must also be competing with other companies, which means products must be sold at the lowest price possible (thereby cutting into the workers’ wages even more) and strategically planned obsolescence ensures that consumers will continue to purchase new products in the years to come.

All the while, Marx argues, the worker is alienated from herself, from her labor, from the product of her labor, and from her fellow workers, all of which have been turned into commodities. Contrary to popular belief, socialists maintain that human beings need meaningful work, which capitalism all too often denies us. We are forced to work mindless, meaningless jobs, creating and selling worthless, mass produced products, and competing with our fellow workers to make sure that, if anyone is going to be hungry tonight, it will not be me. It is therefore hardly surprising that we need external incentives to work these jobs!

What we need instead, I argue, is a world in which people can freely choose work that is meaningful to them without having to worry about whether or not it will put bread on the table. And who can do better work in any given field than someone who is doing it because they are truly passionate about it? (It is true that this model would likely result in the demise of the fast food industry, but something tells me we will find the strength to carry on.)[1]

And here we find another fundamental difference between capitalism and socialism: individualism versus social holism. Socialists maintain that human beings are always and already social creatures. The cinematic, atomized, asocial, rugged individual is, according to this view, simply a fiction. This is important because it means that things are better for everyone involved when everyone has access to life’s basic necessities (crime rates, for example, drop significantly when everyone has access to food, education, and healthcare).[2] It is not forced “charity”; it is living together as social creatures. And despite the fact that we are indoctrinated from day one with “rugged individualism” and talk of the evils of “human nature,” I think that the evidence overwhelmingly favors social holism.[3]

The common notion, then, that I begin as a “private individual” who can “freely choose” to enter into contracts with other private individuals to exchange goods and services is, I think, deeply flawed. On this line of thinking, social interaction is nothing more than enlightened self-interest, rather than a fundamental part of being human. And if this individualist model is correct, it is easy to see why I should think I have no necessary responsibility to my fellow human beings.

And this detached individualism is precisely what capitalism requires. Altruism does not maximize profits — not directly, at least. Maximization of profit is, after all, the single and fundamental law of capitalism. And whether it is altruism or egoism that best serves this purpose seems to be utterly irrelevant. So while it is true that the “free market” may at times decide to favor the well-being of the people, it is only insofar as this course of action can be shown to be the most profitable. Placing inherent value in anything — including human beings — other than profit is fundamentally anti-capitalist. I see no way around this conclusion.

It is also commonly objected that the radical egalitarianism of socialism forces equality upon society. But exactly what unnatural equality is being enforced by ensuring that everyone has access to life’s basic necessities? Can one be more or less equal in regard to needing food? It seems to me that this is to say that human beings are not inherently valuable. After all, how can we affirm the inherent value of human life while requiring that one “earn” the things required to sustain said life? If we are not naturally equal in our deserving access to these necessities, we are not naturally equal in value as persons.

This is not to say that “everyone gets a trophy just for showing up.” Food is not a trophy. And to say that ensuring that all have access to life’s basic necessities is to “force equality” seems to be tantamount to affirming Social Darwinism (i.e., the strong, naturally unequal insofar as they are able to easily access life’s necessities, and bearing no responsibility to the weak, will succeed, while the weak, naturally unequal insofar as they are unable to easily access life’s necessities (whether through physical or mental disabilities, socioeconomic situation, etc.) will perish or be “weeded out”).

In the end, I see capitalism as deeply immoral. And while individual cases of its success may be presented (I do not deny that capitalism works perfectly well for some people — and not just greedy schmucks, but some honest, hardworking folks as well), an examination of the philosophical ideas that underpin capitalism demonstrates (quite conclusively, in my view) that the harms far outweigh any benefits. To reject capitalism is not to reject liberty and free choice, but instead exploitation, hierarchy, and otherwise anti-social, anti-democratic values.

Contrary to popular belief, socialism can offer a morally legitimate alternative. Personally, I do not advocate “state socialism,” but rather libertarian socialism, for I believe that worker-ownership of the means of production should mean just that — worker-ownership, not state ownership. In fact, “state socialism” is essentially capitalistic, in my view, insofar as the means of production are privately owned by a single entity (i.e., the state).

If we want democracy, we need socialism — libertarian socialism to be precise.

For further reading on contemporary experiments in collective ownership, check out Mondragon and Marinaleda.


[1] I, for example, am currently pursuing a career in professional philosophy. I am fully aware of the fact that this is a risky endeavor, but I would rather take a risk to do something I love and am good at than to simply take a job that I know guarantees a steady paycheck. If this does not work out for me and I am unable to find a job, there are many who will say that it is my own fault for choosing such a difficult profession. In other words, it is my fault for foolishly choosing what I love over what pays well. Apparently I am to submit to the demands of the market first and foremost. Unfortunately, the instrumental rationality of the market places little value in things such as philosophy, and literature, so I suppose I am simply out of luck if my passions and talents lie in the humanities. A free market indeed!

[2] See, for example, this study.

[3] See, for example, the work of Frans de Waal.

Notes On Anarchism: Plutocracy or Democracy


Capitalism is antithetical to democracy. The choice between socialism and capitalism is, to my mind, a choice between democracy and effective plutocracy (i.e., rule by the wealthy). Socialism, as the collective ownership of the means of production, implies the most radical form of direct democracy. Under capitalism, on the other hand — particularly as advocated by modern-day libertarians and so-called “anarcho”-capitalists — one votes with one’s dollar, which is to say, the wealthier one is, the more power one has. Money literally is power. Being heard, just like everything else (i.e., safety, healthcare, education, food, shelter, etc.), is a commodity to be purchased in the market place. One is only as free as one can afford. And because capitalism is not meritocratic, as I have argued before, I take this to be a pretty damning problem.

Radical Theology and Radical Hope

In light of recent events in Ferguson, I have been thinking a lot about hope – why we hope, for what we hope, in what we hope, etc. The truth is, these days I have difficulty not feeling incredibly cynical about the possibility of a better future. It often seems that all is indeed lost and there isn’t much left to do about it.

I am informed on a fairly regular basis that “human nature” is just too corrupt, greedy, and selfish, that the world is too fallen, to ever hope to achieve the (supposedly) utopian societies envisioned by radical political philosophy, and that salvation can only come through escape. We must hope for the coming of the Big Other, who will smite our enemies and lift us from the filth that is this earth. And not only are we to hope that this will happen, we are to truly believe that it will happen. It is a certainty.

As a post/non-theist, it is easy to buy into the idea that without this sort of certainty that everything will be okay and we will be saved in the end, I have no reason to hope, nothing for which to hope, nothing in which to place my hope. However, I think it is precisely this uncertainty – perhaps even this apparent hopelessness – which allows for the possibility of genuine hope. It is precisely because I don’t know what will happen, because the future is open and could go in any number of possible directions – because the responsibility rests upon us – that I can hope.

“What remains now is to hope,” writes John Caputo, “and to hope, Levinas says, requires first to be driven into a state where, calculatively speaking, it is hopeless, where the odds are hopelessly against us, to hope against hope, as St. Paul says.”[1] He goes on to write, “Hope is not hope if can see what you are hoping for on the horizon.”[2] If I can see the Big Other on the horizon, and know with certainty that he will come and will prevail, I have nothing in which to hope. All that’s left to do is wait for his arrival. I am absolved of all responsibility.

The author of the Book of Acts expresses his own ambivalence toward this cloud-staring – which seems to function as a means of regaining control over our uncertain and (potentially) hopeless state – when he has two men appear to the apostles following Jesus’ ascension:

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’[3]

These men seem to be essentially saying, “your business is here, on earth, in the messiness of daily human life, which is dark and violent and uncertain and often seems utterly hopeless. But that is the world that Christ came to redeem, and you will find him in the faces of the least of these, who need bread and water before they need the promise of a blissful hereafter.” Now, of course, I took a liberty or two in that rendering, but I think it gets the point.

Radical theology[4] has taken up the Judeo-Christian notion of Messianism, but has begun to talk, following Derrida, of a Messianism without the Messiah. According to Derrida, when we deconstruct a name, which is always historically contingent, we seek to unleash the undeconstructible event that is harbored within that name. Example: Laws are contingent, debatable, and subject to change; however, what the law aims at is justice, and justice, says Derrida, is undeconstructible. In other words, justice can never be contained or grasped in its totality, for to do so would be to render justice a lifeless thing. Justice is always to come, and if we think we’ve got it that is precisely the moment at which we can be sure that we don’t. As Caputo writes, “The event can never be held captive by any particular instance of the event, never reduced to any present form or instantation. It would be the height of injustice, not to say of arrogance, to say that justice is finally realized in some existing form, in some present person or state.”[5]

It is the same, in Derridean deconstruction, with the Messiah. Particular persons may come, but the Messiah, the messianic event harbored in that name, can never properly arrive, can never be fully and completely present. But Derrida puts it even more strongly. God in this sense must be a completely and utterly “impossible, unimaginable, un-foreseeable, unbelievable ab-solute surprise.”[6] For this God to truly be God, for Derrida, she must be so totally Other that there is no conceptualizing or imagining her in any way. Otherwise, we would be able to grasp the event harbored in God’s name, and effectively empty God’s name of its eventiveness.

However, Richard Kearney, in The God Who May Be, challenges this notion of the absolute otherness of God.

Yet – to repeat – how could we ever recognize a God stripped of every specific horizon of memory and anticipation? How could we give content to a faith devoid of stories and covenants, promises, alliances, and good works, or fully trust a God devoid of all names (Yahweh, Elohim, Jesus, Allah)? If the powers of human vision and imagination are so mortified by the impossible God of deconstruction – leaving us ‘without vision, without truth, without revelation’ – then must not our encounter with the coming of the other find itself not only blind but empty? We might be tempted to put to Derrida here the question he put so adroitly to Levinas in “Violence and Metaphysics” – how is alterity to be experienced as other if it surpasses all our phenomenal horizons of experience?[7]

According to Derrida, the to-come is the most important part of the democracy-to-come or the justice-to-come, because those names – democracy and justice – may change. But the event that they harbor, the to-come, will not. But if we are talking about the Messiah- or justice- or democracy-to-come, surely they cannot be absolutely beyond our comprehension, otherwise we would not know them or even be able to experience them. On this model, it seems, we have no idea precisely what is to come, other than that it will be so completely other that can never see it coming. But it seems here we would run up against Meno’s paradox[8] and could no longer talk meaningfully about hope if we don’t actually know what we are hoping for. Isn’t it justice and not injustice? Love and not hatred? Yes, the names justice and love may indeed be historically contingent names that harbor uncontainable events, but I would rather say that the names can still be meaningful insofar as they can’t be referring to just anything – which seems to be a dangerous implication of Derrida’s approach here – but that for which we hope and desire (i.e., again, justice not injustice, love not hatred, etc.).

Kearney would rather situate our messianic hope – our hope for a more just future – back into the biblical tradition, which, he thinks, means to put the responsibility back onto our own shoulders. Rather than a Big Other who will inevitably come and rescue us from our helpless state, Kearney’s God-who-may-be is utterly contingent upon our acting to bring her about. This possible God is the justice-to-come, the hope and desire that draw us forward into an open and undetermined future, where justice will flow like waters only if we are willing to act.

Kearney finds the first suggestion of such a God in Moses’ encounter with the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. The Hebrew is commonly rendered to favor Greek notions of being and substance, as “I am that I am,” but Kearney argues that a more faithful reading of the original Hebrew, which would not have carried this Greek influence, would be, “I will be what I will be,”[9] or, “I am who may be.” In this sense, God is revealed as a promise, a possibility-to-be, rather than pure actuality. To quote at length:

In the circular words, I-am-who-may-be, God transfigures and exceeds being. His esse reveals itself, surprisingly and dramatically, as posse. The Exodus 3:14 exchange between God and Moses might, I have been suggesting, be usefully reread not as the manifestation of some secret name but as a pledge to remain constant to a promise. God, transfiguring himself in the guise of an angel, speaks through (per-sona) a burning bush and seems to say something like this: I am who may be if you continue to keep my word and struggle for the coming of justice. The God who reveals Himself on Mount Horeb is and is not, neither is nor is not. This is a God who puns and tautologizes, flares up and withdraws, promising always to return, to become again, to come to be what he is not yet for us. This God is the coming God who may-be. The one who resists quietism as much as zealotry, who renounces both the onto-theology of essence and the voluntarist impatience to appropriate promised lands. This Exodic God obviates the extremes of atheistic and theistic dogmatism in the name of a still small voice that whispers and cries in the wilderness: perhaps. Yes, perhaps if we remain faithful to the promise, one day, some day, we know not when, I-am-who-may-be will at last be. Be what? we ask. Be what is promised as it is promised. And what is that? we ask. A kingdom of justice and love. There and then, to the human “Here I am,” God may in turn respond, “Here I am.” But not yet.[10]

Due to considerations of time and space, I cannot go into great detail regarding this provocative reading – I highly recommend Kearney’s book – but I would like to suggest, in a fusion of Caputo’s deconstructionist reading, and Kearney’s hermeneutical reading, that this “kingdom of justice and love” is the God whom we desire and for whom we hope as we struggle for justice. More precisely, this kingdom is the event that is harbored in the name of God.

This is not, to be clear, to claim at some point a being called God will literally come into existence, but that there is something going on in this name, something which cannot be reduced to the name, nor captured in historical instances, or ever fully conceptualized and foreseen – all of which is to say, an event – for which we are striving as we pursue this kingdom of justice and love. The name of God itself is historically contingent, but, as Caputo says, it “is very simply the most famous and richest name we have to signify this open-ended excess and an inaccessible mystery.”[11]

As we struggle and hope against hope for justice in our racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic world, I think there is something very real, but perhaps so deep, so utterly meaningful, that it is bursting at the seams of our understanding, that it irresistibly draws us forward into a kingdom of justice and love, which is always to-come – insofar as it cannot become a graspable thing – but not so completely unforeseeable as to exceed even our desire and our hope, our songs and stories, our gods and angels, or even – perhaps! – ourselves.


[1] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 256.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 1:10-11, NRSV.

[4] Everything that I say about radical theology is admittedly provisional. I think the writings of radical theologians are incredibly provocative and I continually return to them and feel challenged by them. At the same time, I am sympathetic to such critiques as that of Walter Kaufmann in The Faith of A Heretic, who argues that liberal and radical theologians need to let their yes be yes and their no be no, rather than redefining God into existence. Ultimately, however, I tend to think the deconstructionist approach, which does not want to redefine God, but to deconstruct all of the social and historical contingencies in the name of God and see what is left, is a valid one.

[5] John D. Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics: On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event,” in After the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 55.

[6] John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 73.

[7] Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 76.

[8] “And how are you going to inquire about it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? For what sort of thing, from among the ones you do not know, will you take as your object of inquiry? And even if you do happen to bump into it, how are you going to know that it is the thing you did not know?” From Meno, in A Plato Reader: Eight Essential Dialogues, ed. C.D.C. Reeve, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2012), 72.

[9] This alternative possible rendering is included as a footnote in my NRSV Bible.

[10] Kearney, 37-38.

[11] Caputo, “Spectral Hermeneutics,” 53.

Anatheism: A Nutshell Explanation and Some Other Reflections

In a nutshell, anatheism is this: I do not and cannot know with absolute certainty whether or not the God of theism exists. I highly doubt it, but, by definition, his/her/its existence is unfalsifiable (which is arguably a good reason to be skeptical). However, what I do know in this moment of not knowing is the stranger/foreigner/other who comes to me, present in her physical, all too physicalness. She is present to me in this world. However, she comes speaking a different language, practicing a different religion, honoring different cultural traditions, etc. and is therefore, in this sense, transcendent. She always escapes my grasp. I can never completely contain her within my understanding—part of her will always be missing. My task, then, is to translate her, without subsuming her under the same, the latter of which is much easier.

In calling upon me to engage in this act of translation, she is calling me out of myself, beyond the realm of the familiar and the boundaries of my comfort zone. In this way, my encounter with the stranger is a sort of sacramental encounter—through the physical face of the stranger I meet that which always transcends me and escapes my grasp and calls me out of myself to a fuller life. This is the something “more” that, after having been met in the mysterious yet concretely present face of the other, is subsequently theorized in various ways as “God.” This could therefore be seen as a sort of deconstructive move, which finds that the undeconstructible element of what we call God is rooted in a relational ontology–i.e., in our being-for and -through-the-other. We might say, then, that this is the deepest and most meaningful aspect of our existence. And furthermore, this links up quite nicely with arguments that empathy could be seen as the evolutionary basis of our morality.

Hence, if we have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, anatheism suggests that we can find wisdom regarding this situation in which we meet the transcendent-yet-present stranger in the texts of our religious traditions. In the biblical tradition [1], for example, it is no uncommon theme that God appears in the form of an unknown guest in need of food, water, and shelter–i.e., the three strangers who approach Abraham out of the wilderness (Genesis 18:1-15), the messenger who comes to Mary’s door (Luke 1:26-38), and the resurrected Christ on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49). In this moment, our wager—an anatheist wager—is to choose between hostility and hospitality, though we can never be sure whether the figure before us is a god or a monster (or perhaps something else entirely).

In other words, this is not done without some risk. I am—figuratively, though likely also literally—crossing borders into unknown territory. And I can never be sure of what awaits me on the other side. In the biblical tradition, when we welcome the stranger, we welcome God (or her messengers) and “Love of the guest becomes love of God” [2] (emphasis mine), for we have met this alterity—this not-me, this unfamiliar, this I-know-not-what—with hospitality rather than hostility.

The point, then, of anatheism’s maintaining and being informed by the biblical narratives rather than allowing them to go the way of theism, is not as an attempt to cling to theism, but is rather an act of hermeneutically retrieving these narratives which are deep and rich and can offer profound wisdom and insight for—among other things—this anatheist wager between hostility and hospitality. Anatheism keeps us on our toes, seeks to de-sediment our dogmatic philosophies and theologies (especially, in this instance, dogmatic theism and dogmatic anti-theism), and challenges us to remain open to alterity in whatever form it may present itself.


[1] I speak primarily from this tradition because it is the tradition in which I am rooted.

[2] Richard Kearney, Anatheism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 29.

On Gender Constructivism

Gender constructivism, in short, is the idea that gender norms are socially constructed rather than being somehow essential–viz., there is no essential “maleness” or “femaleness”–which would be gender essentialism–that somehow transcends history and culture and–in the case of “maleness”–inhabits all humans who have penises from birth (which appears to me to be an even stranger idea now that I see it written down).

Often it is objected that these lines of thinking want to eradicate difference and make everyone–men and women–the same. However, in fact the opposite is the case. Constructivism wants to recognize that every single person is different, and that it is extremely problematic to try to reduce all of these differences to an either/or of male/female. Not surprisingly, trying to reduce difference to these socially conditioned gender roles can be emotionally and psychologically damaging insofar as one faces high levels of social pressure to conform to the gender role prescribed to her on the basis of her genitalia and made to feel ashamed when she fails to do so.

And anyway, if there were truly such things as essential “maleness” and “femaleness” these characteristics would have to be universal and exceptionless. As soon as there is one exception, essentialism no longer holds water as an adequate explanation of apparent gender differences. I know of no such exceptionless characteristic that has ever been specifically and determinately demonstrated. And any apparent universal trait is typically easy to explain as a result of social condition (i.e., “Boys tend to be more aggressive” is easily explained by the fact that, from the time that they are born, boys are both directly and indirectly receiving messages from parents, siblings, other children, teachers, preachers, TV shows, etc. about how boys are “supposed” to act and “not supposed” to act, and it is therefore not surprising when a young boy tends to develop these same characteristics. In other words, from a very young age, difference is suppressed and confined to one gender role or another rather than allowing the child’s individuality develop free from social pressure and the fear of being made to feel ashamed for not being “manly” enough, being too “girly”, etc.).

So, rather than seeking to eliminate difference, gender constructivism wants to free up difference, to loosen it from the either/or grip of gender essentialism, and to allow each individual to be an individual.

Notes On Anarchism: Earning and Deserving

In capitalist societies, human life is not inherently valued. It is something that must be bought, and in order to afford it, one must sell oneself to the capitalists, prove oneself profitable, and in return will receive wages which will (hopefully) be enough to purchase life’s basic necessities–viz., food, housing, healthcare, etc. When the things that are necessary to survive are conceived as things to be earned, as things which one does not deserve simply in virtue of being human, then human life itself cannot be said to be held as inherently valuable. If it were, the things necessary to sustain this supposedly inherently valuable life would not be a matter of being earned just in case one meets certain conditions. The only inherently valuable thing in a capitalist society is capital. And I have a real problem with any system that values something–anything–above human life.

Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

Apparently, my ongoing–albeit intermittent–“Notes On Anarchism” series has morphed into a way to (attempt to) briefly and succinctly respond to frequently asked questions regarding anarchism (and socialism more generally).

Thus, today I am taking up the annoyingly common objection that, because man (it is always man–I suppose the jury is still out on woman) is inherently evil, socialism (especially libertarian socialism) could never work, because man [sic!] would have to be inherently good. Therefore, it is concluded, the state is necessary and capitalism is our best bet economically.

What I find particularly odd about this objection is that it seems to be essentially saying that, because humans are inherently evil, we should–indeed, we must–build an economic system that encourages greed, selfishness, and the valuing of profit above all else (i.e., capitalism); and that, furthermore, we should give some of these inherently evil people a monopoly of force over the rest of society. If it is true that humans are inherently evil, this hardly seems like a solution.

Secondly, the “inherently evil”-“inherently good” dichotomy is, in my opinion, a red herring. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do people always say to me, “Well, either you believe people are inherently good or you believe that people are inherently evil.” My question is: Why should we assume that people are inherently anything? This thinking strikes me as incredibly reductionistic, and I have addressed it in further detail, spelling out what I take to be serious problems with the idea of “human nature” here.

Now, to be clear, I do believe that empathy and mutual aid are an “inherent” (if we must use that word) aspect of the human species, developed over the course of evolution and without which we would never have survived. I absolutely believe that humans are social creatures and that if anarchy (in the pejorative sense) were to prevail, most of us would probably not run around killing, raping, and pillaging (and if the threat of the state’s use of force is the only thing that prevents you from doing so, I don’t think I want to hang out with you.) There is, to my mind, plenty of good and convincing evidence for all of this. Why, for example, is the lack of empathy (i.e., psychopathy) considered psychologically aberrant? Why is it so damaging for soldiers who experience firsthand the ravages of war? Why do babies who aren’t held enough often become psychopaths? Because we are social creatures!

The principles of “rugged individualism” and Social Darwinism still enjoy a considerable amount of prominence among right-wing politicians, but, quite simply, I think the evidence is completely and utterly lacking that these ideas come anywhere near accurately describing the human species and how we relate to one another. I have written on this in more detail before as well.

So, no, I don’t think people are “inherently good”, but I also don’t think people are “inherently evil.” Such reductionistic categories ignore perfectly good evidence to the contrary, as well as encourage vacuous thinking when approaching social and political problems. (I.e., “There is a lot of crime, which obviously just means that people are inherently evil”, rather than, “There is a lot of crime; why might that be? What social, political, economic, or other forms of power relations might be contributing to that?” To say nothing of asking what the historical evolution is of such ideas as “human nature”, what kinds of social and historical contingencies surrounded and contributed to the development of those ideas, how one’s own social and cultural background might be contributing to one’s adherence to these types of ideas, etc. etc.)

Social and political issues are incredibly complex, and, as is clear to anyone who is actually interested enough to do a minimal investigation into the political philosophies of socialism and anarchism rather than just assaulting us with right-wing talking points (if the reader will forgive a brief lapse into cynicism), anarchism and socialism attempt to address these issues with respect for their complexity. Anarchists do not deny that people do bad things, and that they would continue to do bad things in an anarchist society. However, anarchists also believe that there are many, many ways in which current structures–the state and capitalism chief among them–which serve to exacerbate these problems, often to an extreme degree. Capitalism, for example, must discourage and suppress sentiments of collectivity and communality among the working classes, as such sentiments encourage people to work together for mutual benefit rather than for the profit of their capitalist bosses. It is therefore in no way surprising that Milton Friedman said that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”