Radical Democracy and Theopoetry

In the following passage from “Theopoetic/Theopolitic,” John D. Caputo writes the following:

 What would a political order look like, were the Kingdom able to be reinvented and transformed into a political structure? What would it be like if there really were a politics of the bodies of flesh that proliferate in the New Testament, a politics of mercy and compassion, of lifting up the weakest and most defenseless people at home, a politics of welcoming the stranger and of loving one’s enemies abroad? What would it be like were there a politics of and for the children, who are the future; a politics not of sovereignty, of top–down power, but a politics that builds from the bottom up, where ta me onta  (I Cor 1:28) enjoy pride of place and a special privilege? What would a political order look like if the last are first, if everything turned on lifting up the lowliest instead of letting relief trickle down from the top? What would it look like if there were a politics of loving one’s enemies, not of war, let alone, God forbid, of preemptive war?

Would it not be in almost every respect the opposite of the politics that presently passes itself off under the name of Jesus? Are not the figures who publicly parade their self-righteousness, their love of power, and their hatred of the other under the name of Jesus singled out in advance by Jesus under the name of the whited sepulchers and long robes whose fathers killed the prophets? In this connection, it would be amusing—were it not so tragic—to recall that the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”, which provides a cover for the arrogance, militancy, greed and hatred of the Christian Right, is taken from an immensely popular book written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon entitled In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”  Sheldon was an early leader of the Social Gospel movement, and his answer to this question was, in brief, that Jesus would be found in the worst neighbors in the poorest cities serving the wretched of the earth. To do what Jesus would do, would mean to make everything turn on peace not war, forgiveness not retribution, on loving one’s enemies not a preemptive war, on all the paradoxes and reversals that can be summarized under the name of “radical democracy.”

A politics of the Kingdom would be marked by madness of forgiveness, generosity, mercy and hospitality. The dangerous memory of the crucified body of Jesus poses a threat to a world organized around the disastrous concept of power, something that is reflected today in the widespread critique of the concept of “sovereignty”—of the sovereignty of autonomous subjects and the sovereignty of nations powerful enough to get away with acting unilaterally and in their own self-interests. The call that issues from the Cross threatens what Derrida calls the “unavowed theologism” of the political concept of sovereignty by returning us to its root, to its understanding of God, to its underlying or archi–theology. The crucified body of Jesus proposes not that we keep theology out of politics, but that we think theology otherwise, by way of another paradigm, another theology, requiring us to think of God otherwise, as an unconditional claim or solicitation without power, as a weak force or power of powerlessness, as opposed to the theology of omnipotence that underlies sovereignty.

On Libertarian Socialism, Anarchist Communism, and Other Such Absurdities

There was a great post today on Koinonia Revolution called “Socialism and Communism: The Last 100 Years“, dealing with the demonization of socialism and communism.  Since this is a conversation I have had many times, I thought I’d thrown in my two cents on the common misunderstandings and subsequent misuses of terms such as socialism, communism, and anarchism.

When asked about my political views, if I have the time, I might describe myself as a libertarian socialist who is particularly sympathetic to anarcho-communism.  Otherwise, I will probably just say I’m an anarchist.  But even this term can be problematic.  Indeed, as soon as I start throwing out terms such as “socialist”, “communist”, “anarchist”, and “libertarian”, I am likely to be misunderstood–and even more so when I suggest that there is some meaningful political philosophy that is actually characterized by a commitment to the basic ideas of all of these terms.

In general, “libertarianism” is taken to refer to the free market, minimum government ideas of thinkers such as Ron Paul; socialism is a catch-all term for any left-winger who advocates “big government”; “communism” is the horrible evil of the USSR; and “anarchism” would mean the abolition of all government, order, organization, etc.  Therefore, it is assumed, it is surely impossible that any of these terms could agree in any meaningful way with the other.

On the contrary, as I point out in the “Terminology” section above, socialism is an economic theory that, quite simply, refers to the collective ownership of the means of production.  There is no specific role of the state that is necessary to socialism–the state could be gigantic or non-existent.  Communism, furthermore, is a socialist economic theory, which generally refers to a specific way of structuring a socialist society around the idea of “from each according to her abilities; to each according to her needs.”  Again, no specific state role is necessary for this definition.  Anarchism also goes back to 19th century socialism: It simply refers to a type of socialism that is characterized by a non-hierarchical society (i.e., no state).  And finally, libertarianism was originally used as a synonym for anarchism.  So, in other words, libertarianism is anarchism; anarchism is socialism; communism is socialism; and socialism does not refer necessitate an authoritarian state.

For this reason, it is, historically speaking, more of a redundancy to speak of “libertarian socialism”.  It was not until the mid-20th century that the term libertarian began to be used to refer to laissez-faire economics, even though up until that point libertarians (i.e., anarchists) had always been characterized by an opposition to capitalism.  And similarly, it wasn’t until certain authoritarian regimes (i.e., the USSR, North Korea, etc.) arose as nominally “communist” that communism came to be demonized in American media.  But, as I have suggested, an authoritarian state is not the condition of possibility for socialism.  In fact, Noam Chomsky has argued (I think rightly), that the original definition of socialism is incompatible with an authoritarian state, which would mean that such states as have historically called themselves “communist” were in fact simply authoritarian and nothing more.

On “Reverse Racism” and “Reverse Sexism”

If you’ve been paying attention to things happening in the world in recent years, you’re undoubtedly aware that there is an ongoing debate about “reverse racism” and “reverse sexism”–viz., are such reversals possible and, if so, are they a problem?  It is perhaps already obvious by my inserting the terms between quotation marks that I am not convinced that such phenomena are real, and, living in the south, this is often a surprising opinion to express when the conversation turns political.  For this reason, I thought it might be worthwhile to briefly explain my reasoning behind this position.

I think it’s important to consider that if racism and sexism simply refer to prejudice based on one’s race or gender, then what black folks and women have historically faced is something much more harmful and pernicious than just racism and sexism.  Indeed, to say that the mere prejudice that can be expressed toward me as a white man by a black person or a woman (which almost certainly would nevertheless present no threat whatsoever to the privilege I enjoy simply in virtue of being a white man) is somehow the same as the historical, systematic domination of black folks and women strikes me as incredibly offensive.

Therefore, I think that either a) what women and black folks have faced is in fact racism and sexism, in which case, unless or until black folks and women systematically dominate and oppress white men for hundreds (or even thousands) of years, it makes about as much sense to speak of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as it does to speak of “reverse antisemitism” when a Jew expresses prejudice toward a Christian.  On the other hand, if b) racism and sexism do in fact refer to nothing more than prejudice based on one’s race or gender, then, as I have said, what black folks and women have historically faced is something much, much worse than racism or sexism.

Either way, we need to acknowledge the difference between everyday prejudice on the one hand, and historical, systematic domination and oppression on the other, and quit ignorantly lumping them into the same category.

Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic

I. The Principle of Mutual Aid

In Mutual Aid, Peter Kropotkin traces the development of mutual aid through human and animal evolutionary history, ultimately concluding: “That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough.”[1]  “Sociability,” Kropotkin is convinced, “is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”[2] And these claims he supports with an impressive amount of evidence from studies of both animal and human society.  The idea that pre-civilizational human society was characterized by a Hobbesian war of all against all is absurd on its face, Kropotkin argues, and

It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[3]

And furthermore,

The very persistence of the clan organization shows how utterly false it is to represent primitive mankind as a disorderly agglomeration of individuals, who only obey their individual passions, and take advantage of their personal force and cunningness against all other representatives of the species.  Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.[4]

Human beings, according to this view, have not evolved in such a way (as is commonly assumed) that we are all, at bottom, selfish, and that we must be dominated and coerced to prevent us from destroying each other—why, if we are simply selfish by nature, we would ever decide that we shouldn’t dominate and coerce one another remains unclear—but instead are evolutionarily inclined towards mutual aid and egalitarianism.

But surely, it will be objected, this is merely the revisionist history of hippie socialists.  Kropotkin, however, contends that, “not only many aspirations of our modern radicals were already realized in the middle ages, but much of what is described now as Utopian was accepted then as a matter of fact.”[5] However, “The absorption of all social functions by the State necessarily favored the development of an unbridled, narrow-minded individualism”[6], rendering the once-assumed place of the individual as an integral member of the collective whole a vague memory.  Where members of a society would have previously considered caring for the poor, orphan, widow, etc. to be a duty inseparable from social life, these responsibilities were now undertaken (or, rather, ignored) by the state.  “The result is,” Kropotkin continues, “that the theory which maintains that men can, and must, seek their own happiness in a disregard of other people’s wants is now triumphant all round–in law, in science, in religion.  It is the religion of the day, and to doubt its efficacy is to be a dangerous Utopian.”[7]

II. The Kingdom of God

Historically, Kropotkin points out, religion has often served as a challenge to these assumptions of self-interested individualism when they have arisen:

Even the new religions which were born from time to time–always at epochs when the mutual-aid principle was falling into decay in the theocracies and despotic States of the East, or at the decline of the Roman Empire–even the new religions have only reaffirmed that same principle.  They found their first supporters among the humble, in the lowest, down-trodden layers of society, where the mutual-aid principle is the necessary foundation of every-day life; and the new forms of union which were introduced in the earliest Buddhist and Christian communities, in the Moravian brotherhoods and so on, took the character of a return to the best aspects of mutual aid in early tribal life.[8]

It is tempting (and perhaps rightly so) to find in this an understanding of Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”[9] as referring precisely to this principle of mutual aid, for, as Kropotkin tediously chronicles in his book, and as he mentions in the above quotation, it is very often among the poor that we still find the mutual aid principle most fully and beautifully realized.

After all, as Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is among[10] you”[11].  That is, the kingdom of the God who is love is, is continuing to be, and is still yet to be, realized among us.  And the clearest hint of where to find this kingdom is given to us when we consider where Jesus spent the majority of his time: among the poor and lowly.  And what is often found among the downtrodden of society is the aforementioned principle of mutual aid, preserved in spite of the rhetoric of self-interest perpetuated by the state.[12]

Furthermore, Jesus constantly emphasizes hospitality and the opening of one’s home to the stranger.  And, taken in tandem with the above considerations, this casts Matthew 25:34-40 in a new light as well:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Christ is found in the face of the stranger.  As Richard Kearney writes, “Love of the guest becomes love of God.”[13] And in this there is no distinction.  As Kierkegaard points out, the commandment to love one’s neighbor is the commandment to love without distinction:

Your neighbor is every man, 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.[14]

And, consequently, “by being a Christian he does not become free from distinctions, but by winning the victory over the temptation of distinctions he becomes a Christian.”[15] Indeed, this is how Slavoj Zizek suggests that we read Luke 14:26[16]–as teaching the rejection of social, economic, political, etc. distinctions within society[17].  Similarly, Greg Boyd argues for a reading of Luke 24:13-35 as an instance of Jesus appearing as the stranger, and only revealing himself to his disciples once they had opened their homes to the unfamiliar guest—which Matthew 25, as suggested above, equates with being hospitable toward Christ the stranger[18].  Therefore, once the disciples had opened their home to this unfamiliar guest, they had opened their home to Christ.  The two are one in the same, and Christ reveals as much at the end of the passage.

What is the kingdom of God, then?  It is a community predicated on mutual aid and equality; a community that cares for the poor, the widow, and the orphan; a community that shows hospitality toward the stranger; in a word: unconditional love.  And it goes without saying that unconditional love is incompatible with oppression, coercion, greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

The kingdom of God, therefore, truly is, as Mark Van Steenwyk puts it, an (un)kingdom[19].  It is the kingdom of love, we might say.  And a kingdom that is ruled by love—by a king who is love (see Infinite Rebinding II and A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte for further thoughts on what exactly this means)—is hardly a kingdom in the hierarchical, authoritarian sense in which we have come to understand the term.  It is—dare I say?—anarchy.

Notes


[1] Kropotkin, Peter.  Mutual Aid.  (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 246.

[2] Kropotkin, 5.

[3] Kropotkin, 62.

[4] Kropotkin, 71.

[5] Kropotkin, 160.

[6] Kropotkin, 187.

[7] Kropotkin, 188.

[8] Kropotkin, 247.

[9] Luke 6:20

[10] Or within.

[11] Luke 17:21

[12] This is not, of course, to callously suggest that those who are not poor are somehow incapable of practicing mutual aid—there is certainly ample evidence to the contrary—but merely that the ideas of selflessness, of needing one another, and giving to those in need, are all too often ruthlessly stifled by the capitalistic ideals of competition, individualism, self-gain, etc. (which truly amount to, it seems, a thinly veiled valorization of greed).

[13] Kearney, Richard.  Anatheism.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 29.

[14] Kierkegaard, Soren.  Works of Love.  Translated by Howard and Edna Hong.  (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 72.

[15] Kierkegaard, 81.

[16] “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (NRSV)

[17] Zizek, Slavoj.  “Love As A Political Category.”  Subversive Festival.  Zagreb, Croatia.  16 May 2013.  Keynote Address.

[18] Boyd, Greg.  “Virtuous Ambiguity.”  Woodland Hills Church.  St. Paul, MN.  11 May 2011.

[19] Mark Van Steenwyk, That Holy Anarchist, (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012), 14.