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.

 


 

Notes

[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 from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2011/02/07/nonviolence-101-resistance-is-futile-or-the-meaning-of-ἀντιστῆναι-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 http://mennonerds.com/romans-13-and-the-state/

[13] Yoder, 203.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 198.

 

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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.

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.

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.”

Anatheism: A Third Way

“The biggest no to theism in our modern era,” writes Richard Kearney, “was not Nietzsche’s philosophical announcement of the death of “God” in 1882 but the actual disappearance of “God” from the world in the concentration camps of Europe in the 1940s.” (58) Following this disappearance, the question, according to John Caputo, is, “Who–or what–comes after the God of metaphysics?”

Richard Kearney presents ana-theism as a sort of third way between theism and atheism–a way of conceding the atheist critique of theism while maintaining the sense of the sacred, of transcendence and divinity in theism. He writes in the introduction: “Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove.”(3)

The term, anatheism, is taken from the Greek, ana, which could be translated as “after”, “again”, or “return”, and theos, which is, of course, God. Kearney thus uses anatheism as a way to say, “Returning to God after God.” In the wake of the death of God, it is an attempt, not to resurrect theism, but to embrace “a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular.” (57) Anatheism is a humble third way that

differs from dogmatic atheism in that it resists absolutist positions against the divine, just as it differs from the absolutist positions of dogmatic theism for the divine. It is a movement—not a state—that refuses all absolute talk about the absolute, negative or positive; for it acknowledges that the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

I.

A central component of anatheism—perhaps, indeed, the central component—is hospitality. Kearney begins by examining moments of hospitality in the three great western monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each episode that is considered, when hospitality is extended to the stranger, the guest, it is revealed that it is in fact God who has been welcomed.

Abraham is confronted by three strangers and faces the choice between hostility and hospitality. He chooses hospitality, opens his home to the strangers, shares a meal—breaks bread, we might say—with them, and it is then revealed that they are in fact messengers of God. Had he chosen hostility—perhaps the more rational choice in a hostile world—he would have effectively closed the door to the divine who arrived in the form of a guest.

Similarly, Mary is confronted with the choice between hostility and hospitality when the angel Gabriel appears at her door. She too chooses hospitality, and in so doing receives a message from God.

Jesus also appears to have a sense of this mysterious-mystical relationship between God and the stranger, identifying himself, in Matthew 25:31-46, with the stranger who is in need of food, water, and clothing. Those who followed Jesus’ advice to “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42), it is revealed, have in fact extended their hospitality to Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke goes further in illustrating this point when Christ, having resurrected, appears to his disciples as a stranger whom they do not recognize. It is only after inviting in this strange guest and sharing a meal—again, the breaking of bread—that the stranger is suddenly revealed as Christ himself. As Kearney writes, “God is revealed après coup, in the wake of the encounter, in the trace of his passing . . . When God is revealed as having been present all the time, God is already gone.” (22)

Finally, Kearney discerns a similar moment of hospitality to the stranger-as-God in Islam, when Muhammad is met with an unfamiliar voice in the middle of the night in the solitude of a cave. Muhammad must choose whether to open himself up to the strange voice or recoil in fear and hostility. In choosing the former, he, like Abraham and Mary before him, receives a message from God.

All of these examples illustrate the way in which, as Kearney writes, “Love of guest becomes love of God.” (29) Rather than occupying some far off heavenly realm, “The divine, as exile, is in each human other who asks to be received into our midst.” (20)

II.

Anatheism, therefore, is a call to radical hospitality. Not uncritical hospitality, for “Not every stranger is divine” (45), but a hospitality that refuses to close the door to difference, to stop one’s ears and cover one’s eyes to the stranger simply in virtue of her being a stranger. To instead devote one’s discerning attention to the needs of the Other, who “is sacred in that she always embodies something else, something more, something other than what the self can grasp or contain.” (152) Our task is to translate the stranger without transforming her into what is familiar and comfortable—into another self. “But to open oneself to such radical attention one must,” Kearney writes, “abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of interconfessional hospitality can be born.” (52)

This Master God is the tribal God, the omnipotent deity who is decidedly one our side and not on the side of our enemies. “Anatheist hospitality,” however, “opposes such gnostic divides between friend and enemy, where God is always my ally and the Stranger my adversary.” (172) Rather, it is precisely through the face of the stranger that we discover God—a God who “is a promise, a call, a desire to love and be loved that cannot be at all unless we allow God to be God.” (52-53) This is the God of whom Bonhoeffer writes from his prison cell, who “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (67) Kearney similarly writes that “the only God worthy of belief is a vulnerable and powerless one who suffers with us and is incapable of being relieved from this suffering unless we act against injustice.” (61)

III.

Anatheist spirituality, then, is not one of metaphysics and ontotheology but one of temporality and immanence: “[F]aith becomes a commitment not to some transcendental otherworld but to a deep temporality in which the divine dwells as the seed of possibility calling to be made ever more incarnate in the human and natural world.” (142) Again, it recognizes the atheist critique of theism and does not make attempts to cling to the Alpha-God of old, but rather to find a post-theist language which can, in conceding the death of God, nevertheless not ignore or categorically dismiss “this radical and recurring sense of something more—something ulterior, extra, and unexpected—that various religions call God.” (183)

It is a faith—if we dare use such a loaded term—that maintains “a deep mystical appreciation of something Other than our finite, human being: some Other we can welcome as a stranger if we can overcome our natural response of fear and trauma.” (180) In this sense, “God thus becomes a God after God, a God who no longer is but who may be again in the form of renewed life.” (80)

IV.

The reader may finally be wondering whether or not the anatheist will just come out and say whether or not she believes in God, and why or why not.

“[T]he anatheist,” according to Kearney, “at least when philosophizing, provisionally brackets out questions of ‘God’ and ‘religion.'” (75) In other words, it seems, the anatheist is, in addition to a hermeneutist, a bit of a phenomenologist, with this statement recalling Joseph Dabney Bettis’ following description of the phenomenologist as one who “brackets out the question of truth as ‘actually being the case’ to expose the question of truth as meaning.” (8) He continues:

If I should say, ‘I believe that the Bible is the Word of God’, the phenomenologist might say in reply, ‘Let us bracket out for the moment the question of whether or not your statement is true and ask the question, what do you mean by ‘believe’? It is not self-evident what you mean. Describe what you mean. (8)

In other words, the phenomenologist is not, at least in the first instance, as interested in the arguments for God’s existence that fill the pages of philosophers of religion’s books, but rather with the question of what names such as God even mean. After all, can we really discuss the existence of God before having agreed upon what we mean when we say God? W. Brede Kristensen recognizes this difficulty when he writes

When we consider the idea, ‘God’, even ignoring the fact that this is absent in Buddhism, we must conclude that there is no particular idea of deity which is everywhere applicable. And if we relinquish the given forms of particular ideas of deity in order to find that which is common behind them, we are then left with empty concepts. (44)

God, while perhaps having a fairly unified identity in the southwestern United States, where I grew up, is in fact a difficult figure to pin down. There are even different theological positions in Christianity—take the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism, for example—which, while agreeing upon the basic shell of who/what God is, seem to ultimately present deities with some pretty radical differences, and the acceptance of one or the other will likely affect one’s entire practice of Christianity (i.e., how one prays, worships, reads and interprets the Bible, etc.).

Does anatheism therefore simply ignore the question of God’s existence? No. Rather, “Anatheism tries to introduce reasonable hermeneutic considerations to the theist-atheist debate.” (171) It looks for meaning in the narratives of religious texts and indeed the name of God itself beyond the questions of literal history and existence. “Mindful of the inherent art of religion,” Kearney writes,

we are more likely to resist the temptations of fetishism and idolatry—that is, avoid taking the divine literally, as something we could presume to contain or possess. The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. Spiritual art may thus teach us that the divine stranger can never be taken for granted, can never be reduced to a collective acquis, but needs to be interpreted again and again. (14)

Anatheism recognizes that “The Bible, like most spiritual texts, is an assembly of fables, histories, chronicles, polemics, letters, and moral teachings as well as some inevitable primitive prejudices and errors” (169), while at the same time recognizing that “to say that holy Scriptures are made up of stories is not to say that they are just made up . . . For stories . . . can often reveal more essential and profound truths than histories that chronicle a mere sequence of events.” (170)

V.

Anatheism is, as has been said, a third way. A way of puncturing the false binaries and either/or reasoning of our western minds and suggesting that maybe—just maybe—there is more to the story. For this reason, Kearney emphasizes that anatheism should not be taken to be a static position, but rather a movement which, “Instead of never making up its mind . . . is always making up its mind.” (184) Therefore, he concludes, we might best think of anatheism as an adjective: “I make a distinction here . . . between anatheist atheism and antitheist atheism, on the one hand, and between anatheist theism and dogmatic theism, on the other.” (184) In the end, then, while Kearney makes no bones about his suspicion of theism, the anatheist may or may not believe in something that we could call “God,” and whether or not she does, she attempts to maintain an aversion to dogma and a healthy skepticism toward any word that claims to be the final Word.

 

Notes

Bettis, James Dabney, ed., Phenomenology of Religion. (New York, Harper & Row, 1969).

Kearney, Richard, Anatheism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Kristensen, W. Bede, From The Meaning of Religion, tr. John B. Carmen, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1960, in Phenomenology of Religion, James Dabney Bettis, ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

“Human Nature”?

Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.[1]

It is commonly assumed that “human nature” severely limits our potential for improving our social, political, and economic situation. The concept is used almost exclusively as a negative to counter so-called utopians and radicals. “Human nature,” say the dissenters, will take over without a centralized government (read: monopoly of force), or capitalist economic system, and society will devolve into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, if we must talk about something called human nature, I think we need to take into account all of the scientific evidence—which I take to be pretty convincing—that not only does human existence include a self-interested struggle for survival, but also strong elements of empathy and mutual aid, which are the foundations of our moral thinking. In this case, human nature—if it exists—might not be such a terrible thing.

I would begin, however, by pointing out that if human nature truly is as ultimately selfish and greedy a thing as this argument seems to assume, how are the best preventative actions against this to a) give a few of these selfish and greedy people a monopoly of force over the rest; and b) to construct an economic system in which the one and only goal is the maximization of profit? It seems to be a truism that if the maximization of profit is the singular goal of our economic system, this will result in slavery, exploitation, and abject poverty, as these are quite profitable for the capitalists! And how much worse would these things manifest themselves if the human nature camp were correct! What more could expect? This argument seems to essentially lead to the conclusion that if we can’t beat ’em, we may as well feed ’em. But then again, why would we want to beat them at all? If we are all ultimately bad, evil, corrupt, depraved, or whatever term we choose to use, why would we ever have decided that being bad was, well, bad? Why do the overwhelming majority of moral theories developed by philosophers over the centuries praise selflessness over selfishness? If the human nature camp is right, it seems that this would be akin to praising not breathing over breathing. In other words, it wouldn’t be a moral issue at all!

However, as I suggested at the beginning, I think that the entire concept of “human nature” is incredibly suspect. For one thing, if, for example, states and capitalism (and state capitalism) are necessary to prevent the destruction and chaos that would be wrought by allowing human nature free reign, how did we survive so long before figuring this out? Both Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, and Frans de Waal, in The Age of Empathy, have convincingly argued that we would never have survived the evolutionary process if Hobbes and friends were right. De Waal, for example, dispels three of the most prevalent myths concerning human origins: “that our ancestors ruled the savanna”[2], “that human society is the creation of autonomous men”[3], and “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.”[4] “Empathy,” de Waal concludes, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”[5]

We survived the evolutionary process because we are social creatures, who depended on one another and took care of one another, and “It is evident,” according to Kropotkin,

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.[6]

The man (it is always a man) of rugged individualism, who is at bottom self-interested, greedy, and perhaps even evil, would have died off before such a time—over 100,000 years into his existence—when such things as states and profit developed to prevent him from killing all the other members of his species. As David Graeber writes in Debt,

There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.[7]

“Social Darwinists may disagree,” says de Waal, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”[8] This social motive, however, arguably runs counter to capitalism. Milton Friedman recognized this when he wrote 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.”[9] Graeber concurs that the capitalist corporation

is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.[10]

So, again, if human nature truly were such an evil thing, this fact would hardly constitute an argument in favor of capitalism.

Furthermore, it is an incredibly reductive way of thinking. I often hear that we are faced with an either/or choice between affirming the ultimate goodness or badness of humanity. But it’s unclear to me why we have to face this either/or at all. In doing so, we nihilistically resign ourselves to our supposedly evil natures. We know that this or that will never work—whether it be anarchism, socialism, an end to war, the abolition of economics that centralize greed—because of human nature, so why bother even trying? If we are determined that such things can never be achieved, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for example, we never try to end war, because we have become convinced by the concept of human nature that it’s not possible, we will never actually know if it is possible or not! To be sure, from the standpoint of the state and capitalism (and many religious institutions), this is an incredibly effective tool against dissent. Convince people that they are ultimately evil and need Big Brother to curb their evil instincts and they will fall in line and not question your authority.

According to Graeber, the idea of “self-interest”—that we are all ultimately self-interested—originated in St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But “When it was first introduced,” Graeber writes, “most English authors seemed to view the idea that all human life can be explained as the pursuit of self-interest as a cynical, foreign, Machiavellian idea, one that sat uncomfortably with traditional English mores.” Nevertheless, “By the eighteenth century, most in educated society accepted it as simple common sense.”[11] Why did society suddenly jump onto the self-interest bandwagon? According to Graeber,

Part of the term’s appeal was that it derived from bookkeeping. It was mathematical. This made it seem objective, even scientific. Saying we are all really pursuing our own self-interest provides a way to cut past the welter of passions and emotions that seem to govern our daily existence, and to motivate most of what we actually observe people to do (not only out of love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation, and pride) and discover that, despite all this, most really important decisions are based on the rational calculation of material advantage—which means that they are fairly predictable as well.[12]

The idea of the ultimately self-interested nature of human beings, then, was useful and served as a way to cut past all of the messiness of daily life, reducing it all to economic cost-benefit calculations. It was a means of simplifying the complexities of human actions and emotions. A convenience perhaps, but in the end it remains unclear why such a singular explanation is necessary in the first place.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that human beings are “ultimately good.” I am not arguing that human beings are ultimately anything. While I do believe that, per Kropotkin and de Waal (and others), empathy and mutual aid are evolutionarily wired into us, my claim is that such explanations as “human nature,” which depend on there being one basic principle by which everything else is constituted are unnecessarily—and dangerously—reductive. Again, why do human beings have to be either ultimately good or ultimately bad? Why can’t we look our history, riddled not only with war, greed, and profit, but also with heroism, selflessness, love, compassion, and mutual aid, and simply conclude that human beings are capable both of great evil and of great good? Doing so can certainly be frightening, as we are forced to accept responsibility for our actions—rather than blaming it all on human nature—and must realize that the future, far from dragging us helplessly into a world that is just as selfish, greedy, and war-torn as our past, is actually undecided and undetermined and waiting for us to act to bring it into reality. And we have a say in whether that reality is better or worse than our current condition. “To begin to free ourselves,” writes Graeber, “the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.”[13] The concept of human nature would have us believe that we are slaves to fate, but I do not think that such nihilism is at all necessary.

To my mind, human nature is in the same camp as determinism, reductive materialism, and Nietzschean will to power—viz., I think they are reductionist and self-referentially inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, if we are all ultimately selfish, where did the idea of selflessness even come from? And why did we decide that such a mode of action, which apparently runs contrary to our very natures, is in fact desirable and even morally superior? Some might argue that a psychological and/or ethical egoist position could quickly do away with this objection, but to my mind de Waal effectively dispenses with such alternatives when he writes that “Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.”[14] We are empathic, social creatures, who thrive on community, compassion, and mutual aid. As de Waal concludes, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile.”[15] (De Waal also tellingly notes that, statistically, “Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality,”[16] whereas more egalitarian states and societies tend to produce greater happiness and overall well-being.)

Therefore, I would propose that we dispense with the fictitious and oppressive concept of “human nature” altogether, and open ourselves up to the possibility of doing better. After all, apologists for the state and capitalism often also believe that the founding of the United States was a great improvement for humanity. But if the utopian revolutionaries of the 18th century were able to make humanity’s situation a bit better, why should “human nature” stop us now?

 

Notes

[1] Goldman, Emma (2009-10-04). Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 43-44). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] De Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 205.

[6] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. (Mineloa, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 62.

[7] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Brooklyn/London: Melville House, 2012), 210.

[8] De Waal, 36.

[9] Qtd., De Waal, 38.

[10] Graeber, 320.

[11] Ibid., 331.

[12] Ibid., 331.

[13] Ibid., 383.

[14] De Waal, 106.

[15] Ibid., 221.

[16] Ibid., 197.

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.

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.