I have started a number of posts contrasting my previous traditional understanding of Christianity with my current project of addressing Christian themes from a politically radical perspective. Here I will do the same, but the subject of this essay will be the Fourth Evangelist and supposed Apocalypse author, St. John. Known as “the Divine” or the “Theologian”, it is traditionally thought that the author of the last canonical Gospel and visionary of the end of the world was “closest to the heart of Jesus” and thus the most mystical author of the New Testament, with perhaps St. Paul being a close second. In the ancient church, for example, John’s Gospel was begun at Eastertide since the new catechumens baptized during the Paschal Vigil were deemed sufficiently purified to listen to those most august opening lines of John’s description of the deeds of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word…”
As I have stated previously, these are pretty stories, but it is too bad that they aren’t true. The fact is that John’s “mystical” passages and his visions of cosmic cataclysm had real world foundations that came out of ancient Israel’s struggle against empire and its most contemporary manifestation of the time: Rome. The two books that I will be reviewing briefly in this essay deal with John’s writings employing similar methodologies and they come to proximate conclusions. The first is Wes Howard-Brook’s and Anthony Gwyther’s book, Unveiling Empire: Revelation Then and Now, which is an attempt to approach the last book of the Christian Bible from a contemporary perspective. The second is José Porfirio Miranda’s doctoral thesis on the themes addressed throughout St. John’s Gospel and Epistles: Being and the Messiah: The Message of St. John. While these works discuss the canonical books in different contexts, both try to place the historical figure of John firmly back on earth: clipping the eagle’s wings, so to speak (the eagle being the symbol of the Fourth Evangelist). However, in the process, they place the emphasis of these books back where it should be: on doing justice to one’s neighbor and struggling against a social order that exploits the many for the sake of the few.
Three Pieces on Africa
You could say that I am an ungrateful person. When life is best to me, I begin to think of all the things that could go wrong. With a young family, a comfortable home, a job that doesn’t require that I shower afterwards and not before (the true great “American” class divide, according to the late Joe Bageant), I am so far a First World success story. I am by no means at the top of the heap, or even prosperous for that matter. But I don’t have to worry about where my kids’ next meal will come from, whether armed men will come in the night to harm my family, or whether someone will steal my things while I sleep. Like most people in the U.S. imperial polity, I have come to value security and convenience above all things. Perhaps that makes me complicit in the crimes of this country or civilization, I don’t know. But at least I will pay lip service to the idea that the life I lead is not the apex of virtue. People in this country tend to mistake prosperity for godliness. I would like to think that I have enough sense to realize that these two terms, “prosperity” and “godliness”, are diametrical opposites.
The question always arises when I contemplate “First World life”: At what price? What is the price of replacing that gadget that broke, the price of cheap produce at the supermarket, the social price of that piece of jewelry a man just bought for his beloved? Suburbia is perfect for covering up the effort that you don’t see go into the construction of a great thieving empire. Our system works because no one is guilty of anything, and everyone looks innocent. I love my kids, I pay my taxes, I make small talk with my neighbor, I mow my lawn, etc. etc. Some say that city is morally superior, but even there you can withdraw into gentrified enclaves, or into the drugs and distractions that make the city “no place to raise a family”. The hologram goes on, after this commercial break.
Above: An excerpt from Cristóbal de Morales’s Requiem
On Trayvon Martin: There is no way Trayvon Martin was going to get justice under the bourgeois system. That is not simply because of the direct racism of the incident, but of the structural racism of the law itself. Those “creepy-ass crackers” who are cheering Zimmerman’s acquittal do so because they too would like to be able to pursue suspicious (black) kids in their neighborhoods and shoot them if they deem it necessary. Basically, the undercurrent of U.S. discourse nowadays is basically “every man for himself” (gender exclusive language intentional there), so when the hordes start pouring out of their designated sacrifice zones, it’s “lock and load” time. Race is written all over this, really, as it is in Florida’s murder and manslaughter laws. Except if you’re black, because there you are given the benefit of the doubt that you are a criminal up to no good. U.S. drug incarceration statistics don’t lie in that regard.
Some call it a lynching. Perhaps it was, but more important than the historical parallels are the historical discontinuities. Racism in the United States has now morphed from a scary Cyclops of open bigotry to a grotesque Hydra with a dozen heads, and if you strike at one of them, three more grow. In this case, one white man chased down a black kid with some candy, there was grappling, and the black kid ended up dead. And the non-black man walked away. No one knows what really happened; the only other person who does is six feet underground. That is what structural racism is now in the United States: nobody’s fault. There are victims, but no predators. The inner cities are sacrifice zones, but no one nailed them to the cross. Or rather, no one can be blamed for it, everyone has a good excuse. Industrial jobs can be “more efficiently done” elsewhere, so those in the inner cities who expected to take those jobs are just “excess humanity”. We can’t “discriminate” against people on the basis of color, so when we have a “color blind” basis of admission to university, for example, it’s no one’s fault that the universities don’t reflect the color spectrum of the United States. That’s just how things are, and we can do nothing about it. The same is the case for prisons in inverse proportion, etc. etc. There is an old Catholic saying that what the Devil most wants is for people to think he doesn’t exist. The same is the case with racism, I would argue.
With some trepidation, I write yet another essay about liberation theology. I say “trepidation” since I feel that I might be beating a dead horse at this point. After all, I have already put my cards on the table and stated outright that I am not a Christian in even a heretical sense, though I maintain the cultural identity of Catholicism due to sentimental and family ties. The catalyst for this essay comes from such ties. My family is good friends with a group of liberal Catholic laywomen living in a community of common life down the road (basically, nuns). My father-in-law cuts their grass, and they give my children candy whenever we go visit. All of the members there are well into their seventies, and one just made ninety. On the walls of their religious house and chapel are pictures of Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and other icons of progressive Catholicism. They are indeed from another epoch, and they have a library to show for it. I borrowed a few books for them, one of which will be reviewed below. While I wasn’t planning on doing any more essays concerning liberation theology, a new source of books for a person whose book budget is all of zero dollars cannot be passed up. And as I usually only write about things that I have read, I am forced to subject you, the reader, to yet another set of jottings about a subject near and dear to my heart.
The book in question is José Miranda’s Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. A few words concerning the author are appropriate here, especially since Anglophone readers probably have not have heard of his work. Born in Mexico in 1924, Miranda was ordained a priest in the Jesuit order in Spain in the 1950’s and studied economics at the University of Munster in Germany. His pro-working class activism in northern Mexico in the 1960’s forced him to leave again for Europe to do courses in Biblical Sciences in Rome, for which Marx and the Bible was to be his doctoral thesis. Due to its controversial nature, it was rejected as a doctoral thesis, yet he was later awarded a doctorate in Biblical Studies for another work, Being and the Messiah, which is a reading of the Gospel of John. Miranda returned to Mexico in the 1970’s, only to leave the priesthood and enter academia, notably as a philosopher dialoguing with the likes of Hegel, analytical philosophy, and John Rawls. He died in 2001, and several of his books have been translated into English.
As I have stated previously, my long intellectual meandering often results in books that I intend to read falling by the wayside. One such book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. When it first came out in 2007, I had every intention of getting to it, but the economic crisis, a move across country, a marriage, two kids, one house, and a job that would make Dilbert blow his brains out got in the way. About a month ago, however, I encountered the book again in my Internet wanderings and realized, “Hey, my local library probably has that book!” And sure enough, it did. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the writing style, which properly communicates Taleb’s curmudgeonry. As an aspiring curmudgeon myself, it was nice to find in Taleb a kindred spirit, though with totally different interests. I too would like to think that I have drunk deep from the wine skins of ancient philosophers, particularly those who were contemplating the “good life” in the face of risk. There was a time when Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other Stoics were my authors of choice. And in the end, I was compelled by one of the main messages of the book, which is how not to be a sucker. Because no one wants to be a sucker.
“Sorry, anarcho-primitivism. It’s not you, it’s me.”
I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon. The end result is usually the same: I tend to cast them off but keep the good memories from my encounters. This time around, anarcho-primitivism is the victim of unrequited love on my part. Though it has been central to my reflections in the past few months, I am fast coming to the conclusion that as a theoretical framework, it too has some seriously fatal flaws. The catalyst for this decision was my reading of Kevin Tucker’s essays in Species Traitor #4, the most recent and perhaps last edition of that journal. In general, while I found the essays convincing concerning many aspects of the “anti-civ” critique, the ethical foundations and praxis found in these essays were highly tendentious and problematic. If anything, I have concluded that anarcho-primitivism needs much more convincing and eloquent proponents than Kevin Tucker, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and the rest. Perhaps it is the occupational hazard of the anarcho-primitivist that no such spokesperson will ever be forthcoming.
[Injustice] is the great secular and religious which must be wiped out of the world. It is an objective, social fact which must be erased from history. It is a transgression which demands the death of the homo injustus so that the homo justus may be resurrected to new life. It is the denial of God himself, who is just by his very nature. Injustice negates the heart and core of Christianity. By denying the universal brotherhood of God’s children, it denies that God is the father of all human beings. It is both a dogmatic and an existential denial, because the existential affirmation of inequality and injustice gives the lie to any verbal profession of this basic Christian dogma. It is a denial of the first commandment insofar as that commandment was interpreted for us by Jesus Christ; for he made a basic link between it and the second commandment, saying that the two of them summed up the whole of the law.
-Ignacio Ellacuria, Freedom Made Flesh: The Mission of Christ and His Church
To Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga is attributed the saying that the only two absolutes in the world are God and hunger. Of hunger, I am convinced, but I am not convinced of the “God” part. In terms of reading liberation theology, the writers I have read so far have been fairly reticent about telling us what their version of God is. Part of me thinks that they are uncomfortable with the concept. After all, how can we untangle any idea of God from the empires and kingdoms of domination. Even if they would like to posit the primacy of Jesus Crucified, Christ Pantocrator still remains watching us from above: the Lord of the Universe who doesn’t allow a head to fall from your head unless it is his will that this occurs. The main question that one would take away from the dueling absolutes in Casaldaliga’s formulations is that if God is an absolute, why does the other, hunger, exist? There is no satisfactory answer.
Romanticism and nostalgia are two afflictions of the intellect against which I have tried to be particularly vigilant. The reason is obvious and requires little explanation. “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, is a cliche, but it is nonetheless true. Also, I have come to be an enemy in my thinking of all counterfactuals. Though I have given up on any idea of “Divine Providence”, nevertheless I think that things happen for a reason, especially from our point of view. Or rather, our point of view is the result of things happening in a certain way, in a certain sequence, and so on. Thinking that they could have happened otherwise is a pointless exercise.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that one can be too vigilant against these afflictions, especially if you become blinded to other realities that exist in the here and now. That of course is the mentality of the imperialist conqueror who destroyed indigenous peoples throughout the world and committed genocide all under the impression that the world could not be otherwise. The danger among some leftist tendencies is to “baptize” such imperialist ideologies under the pretense that the destruction of other cultures is needed and inevitable. It is easy to wash ones hands like Pontius Pilate over the broken body of Jesus, stating that we didn’t bring this evil upon the world, but we shouldn’t let a good catastrophe go unexploited. That might be a “realistic” approach, but arguably it is not an ethical one.
Perhaps I’m just a contrary old man, but I feel that I can embrace both the most reductionistic physical science, yet also remain devoted to the living heart of religious aspirations. Long after the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason are gone, I believe humanity will live in an Age of Love, Love’s Communism, which will be built upon the fulfillment not only of science and technology, but the maturation and judicious distillation of the world’s cultural legacies, including religion.
And other reflections
Well, it seems that the Great Purges have occurred on this blog, and I have come out as top dog. Long live the Glorious Socialist Blog Fatherland! I can tell that people are unsubscribing to this blog as I type this. This will give the rest the extra push needed to go on to more serious sites.
One thing I notice in reading other leftist “friends” on Facebook is how radically different my life is from theirs. Many are hopping from classroom, to cafe, to exciting lecture, discussing all of the minutiae of the latest theorist who they find exciting or pertinent in our current situation. Et. al. Me, I am changing diapers and blowing bubbles in the suburban backyard with my kids, waving at my neighbor who is cutting his grass in a wife-beater. The most exciting theoretical discussions I have with any random person is what restaurant has the best gumbo. True, if I were younger and less attached, I could hang out with the cool kids in the city, but my situation is what it is. I know what the pseudo-bohemian life is (I first got involved in activism in the Bay Area, after all). But give the average American a choice between your life, dear reader, with its mass transportation, crowded dirty streets, and irregular hours, and my life, with the clean strip malls, the parents pushing kids in strollers, and the joys of long distance commuting, most Americans would pick my version of things, hands down. If you as a leftist find no problem with this, then you are only in it for the glorious perks of being a weirdo. Hate to break it to you.