Finding a better story

The dominant modes of social, political, and economic discourse in our day may be fragmented, they may seem without coherence, and they may be characterized more by argument than agreement. Indeed, I think even a cursory survey of the ongoing public discussions reveals this to be true. The landscape of public discourse over pretty much every issue is littered with scars, discord, and mines waiting to be found and unleash their deadly fury. But there is one thing almost, if not absolutely every voice that garners a significant hearing in the public ear(s) shares, and that is the foundational story, the ground motive, the “metanarrative” that lies at its root.

This is the myth of the modern age, exemplified by Hobbes’ idea that the “natural state” of humankind was one of war, one against all, with the world as a fundamentally hostile place. Methods of control must be established to provide order where there would be unchecked chaos, control of other people, control of the natural world. The world and other people went from being gifts from God, to be loved accordingly, to being potential agents of discord and danger in need of being put “in their place”.

I do not mean to imply that Hobbes was the founder of this idea, it goes back much further – all the way back to ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt. It is an idea almost as old as the human race. It is embodied in mythologies ancient and modern. Whether it is by a social contract, the “divine right of kings”, or the rulers’ being the “image of God/the gods”, the idea that some agents of humanity are needed to enforce order and fight back the forces of chaos has been around for quite some time.

The proclamation in Genesis 1 that the whole human race is created in the image of God mitigates precisely against this idea. Instead, humans are to co-rule, to mediate God’s presence and love to the whole creation, a story rooted in primal goodness, not primeval violence.

Furthermore, it is as agents of the New Creation that the church is to engage the world. God is coming to make his home with people, with creation. We shall be his people, and he shall be our God. Indeed, God has already come in the person of Jesus, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and now the Spirit is with us as we, as Christ’s body, continue the work he began. It is not that our work brings the kingdom, but because we participate in the divine life we are called to fulfill that purpose given to humankind so long ago – to enable each other and all creation to participate in the life and love that God has for all of us.

As such, we cannot be a people whose imaginations for engaging the world, the political, social, economic, and all other realities, are determined by modes of discourse rooted in a story of primeval violence. Violence does not redeem; rather, it is an aberration, it destroys, it mitigates against working according to the call God has given to us as daughters and sons, heirs of the kingdom and creation.

Let us no longer be subject to the imaginations that have their genesis in violence, but to the divine peace that is at the center of all things and the original heart of creation. As John Howard Yoder said, people who take up their crosses are not countercultural – they are going WITH the grain of the universe, because the universe is fundamentally God’s creation, moving towards the time when the New Heavens and New Earth will be revealed.

So I ask you, dear reader… what does it look like to talk about these things with imaginations rooted in the better story? I welcome thoughts, reflections, and suggestions in the comments.

Shalom,
Jason

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A brief musing on Paul

We now can say from studies in all related fields, including epigraphy and archaeology, that the cult of Caesar the divine ruler was not merely one among other religious choices available to denizens of the ancient Roman empire. Instead, we should see it as largely the glue that held the empire together on multiple levels – political, social, religious, even economic. Particularly in the regions where Paul traveled and preached, it was the dominant cult and the means by which Rome controlled large parts of its imperial territory and population. After all, who needs armies when your king is a god and can be worshiped?

Because of this, Paul’s evangelism cannot be understood in terms of a traveling preacher who offered people a new religious experience, one superior to the religous understandings they had previously possessed. Rather, he should be seen as a kind of traveling ambassador (a term he actually uses to describe himself) for a new king-in-waiting, establishing colonies of people loyal to this new king, ordering their lives and practices according to the story and symbols of this new king, rather than to the imperial Roman story that formed the dominant religious, as well as political, mythos of the time. Paul called his converts to order their minds according to the truth of the story of Christ, not of Caesar’s. This can only be construed as deeply subversive and counter-imperial. The fact that Paul ended up in prison, executed under the reign of the “god” Nero is a sign that he did his duty for the new king quite properly.

Of course, as a Jew, Paul’s allegiance would have been to God the king, rather than to any human-made god or king. What’s interesting is that Paul defines allegiance to Christ in precisely the terms the Old Testament uses to exhort people to ally themselves with God and to eschew idols. Following Christ in Paul’s conception, then, cannot be divorced from a radically different conception of the world and how we ought to see it, smell it, live in it, than those conceptions the domination systems of the world would inundate us with.

Hearing differently leads to believing differently, which leads to imagining differently, which leads to living differently, which leads to hearing differently… “You will come to know me only as you follow me” (James McClendon’s translation of God’s revelation to Moses “I AM WHO I AM”). Only as we come to know God will we know ourselves. And only as we see the face of Christ in our neighbor will we come to know God. Thus the three loves, of God, neighbor, and self, are inextricably entwined. Let us imagine the world through the story of the Crucified God-Man, the one who washed his disciples’ feet and to whom all knees will bow.

Cornerstone seminar

The Cornerstone seminar went really well. The title of my session was “Sacred Anarchy: The Image of God and Political (Dis)Order”. I focused on Wink’s formulation of the Myth of Redemptive Violence, focused on Genesis as subversive to the Myth, and then took a trip through modern political philosophy to demonstrate how the modern state and most of our current modes of social, political, and economic discourse are based on the Myth. Then I presented an introduction to anarchism and discussed the anti-imperial proclamation of Jesus in the first century AD, with a call to the church to hear the Gospel as the news that Christ’s coming is the beginning of God’s return to his people, bringing the kingdom and God’s reign of peace and justice through the breaking of cosmic systems of evil, injustice, sin both systemic and individual, and through the healing of hearts and of creation, and that the inbreaking of this reign of peace and justice must inevitably be at odds with systems that are based on the Myth of Redemptive Violence. My hope is that the church will begin to catch more fully the radical nature of Christ and his Way, and seek to live accordingly.

I revised my zine for the session, and I’ve uploaded it to this site. Links in past posts to the old version have been replaced with links to the new version. Also, I’m going to upload the notes from my seminar as well as my notes from the “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination” seminar from last November. Look for them in a post in the near future.

Here’s the link to the new version of the zine: Radical Hope: Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination

Support our troops?

This morning, my grandfather sent me an email “action alert” from the American Family Association urging protest of the recent Berkeley, California City Council resolution that declared the downtown Marine recruiting office “unwanted” and urged the recruiters to leave town. This article does not respond to that issue, but rather to the subject line of the email he forwarded from the AFA, which was “Support our troops”.

I have to admit being somewhat perplexed by the exhortation to “support our troops”. Whose troops are they? They certainly aren’t mine – I’m not sending them anywhere, and they don’t represent me or my thoughts. It seems to me that the designation “our troops” implies a kind of kinship between us and the troops that does not really exist. Certainly it is true that my (step)brother is among those who are being sent over there, but it is not on my behalf that he is being sent, just as it is not on my behalf that any of them has been sent.

This entire enterprise of war in foreign lands has very little to do with the protection and preservation of American values, but it has everything to do with protecting and preserving business interests that profit heavily from maintaining a forced subordinate status in certain nations around the world. The United States has done the same thing for over a century now in Latin America, and has long maintained an official policy that essentially says “if you have something we want, a resource we ‘need’, then as far as we’re concerned it belongs rightfully to us, not to you”. This is the only rational explanation for the military interventions in Hawai’i for pineapples; in Guatemala for bananas; in Iran for oil (with the deposition of a popular government in order to reinstate the Shah, a move on our part whose eventual consequence was the Islamic Revolution of 1979); in Iraq not only for oil but also to create a living experiment in extreme neoliberal free trade as an example (and warning) to the rest of the world that consumer corporate “democracies” will have what they want from the “developing nations”, and we can get it the easy way or the hard way.

This critique stands regardless of one’s religious persuasion, but it is much more pertinent for me as a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace and king of all creation who urged his followers not to retaliate when evil was done to them, but rather to turn the other cheek. The unanimous response of the early church to persecution was not to respond by fighting back for their own gain, even in defense of their own personal liberties, but rather to witness to those who tormented them by showing the same attitude of Christ – loving and forgiving their attackers in the hope that they would be transformed. They believed the cross of Christ is the hope for the transformation of all doers of violence and opponents of God. To suggest that the idea of premeditated war for the economic gain of certain sectors of society (the corporate management classes first, and then to a lesser extent the consuming classes – which is to say that yes, you and I likely are beneficiaries of the violence), which was sold as a preemptive (or preventative, depending on who you ask) war to ostensibly “protect our way of life against the terrorists” would never have even occurred to them as a valid option for Christians.

Even three centuries after Christ when the church went from being a persecuted minority to the triumphant majority with the imperial sanction they did not develop a theology of warfare that went so far – instead, Augustine’s formulation of Just War doctrine carried the day. It is important to note that even Just War doctrine does not actually justify war for self-defense, to say nothing of preemptive warfare. Therefore, even on the less-strict Christian stance on war than that of Jesus himself, the type of activities in which the U.S. military has engaged in Iraq cannot in any way be construed as representative either of me or of my Lord.

They are not “our” troops, they are troops under the command of people in the thrall of the American political/business system which “make[s] unjust laws. . . deprive[s] the poor of their rights, withhold[s] justice from the oppressed. . . [makes] widows their prey, and [robs] the fatherless” (see Isaiah 10:1-2 in the NIV). They are being asked to die for a cause that, in the words of Alisdair McIntyre, is rather like being asked to die for the telephone company. They are not my troops, they are my fellow-human-beings being manipulated and exploited in more ways than they realize, and rather than praying for success in their mission I simply pray for an end to war and for the desire of men and women to make war. I pray that guns would jam and bombs would fail to explode, and that soldiers on all sides would simply lay down their weapons and refuse to engage any longer in this silly business of war. I support people, not troops, and I support them as potential brothers and sisters in the new world that God is creating even in the midst of this world of bloodshed and hatred, a new world of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation who walk in the ways of God’s shalom.

Subverting the rhetoric of American empire

Brandon Rhodes has written an EXCELLENT article at Jesus Manifesto called “Severing the Rhetorical Roots of the Empire“. In it he lists some quotes, inviting followers of Jesus to creatively rewrite them to displace idolatry and blasphemy with subversive truth, just as Paul and other early Christian authors rhetorically usurped Caesar’s place of privilege and subordinated him to the risen Christ.

I’ll start with a few contemporary quotes that ought to be easier to start with, and then work back in history.

George W. Bush:

“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.”

Bush #2:

“This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world.”

Bush #3:

“In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”

Bush #4:

“Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Abraham Lincoln:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Thomas Paine:

“We have it within our power to begin the world over again.”

The U.S. Constitution:

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

I believe that if we are to speak prophetically to the political realities of our time we have to produce language that echoes and engages the foundational statements that form the core of the American’s political self-understanding. These blasphemous claims, rooted in the idolatry of the flag and national spirit, must be challenged with the truth that Christ alone is Lord, that Christ alone is the one who defeats evil and brings peace and justice, that Christ alone makes atonement and hallows the earth, and that Christ alone has recreated, is recreating, and will recreate the world.

I end this post with one of my own – the antecedent should be obvious.

I pledge allegiance to the cross, to the one who carried it and died upon it,
and to the reign of true peace and justice, the kingdom of God in the world,
one church under God, holy, catholic, and apostolic,
in the unbreakable bond of divine life with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
with true freedom and perfect justice for all.

Christians: haters of humanity

Michael Cline has written an excellent article over at Jesus Manifesto. An excerpt:

The charge of hatred is enmeshed with the idea of religious piety in ancient Rome. To be a good citizen in the Roman Empire meant to participate in the civic life of the state. The gladiator games, the burning of incense to gods, pledging loyalty to the emperor…all of these things were deeply ingrained in Rome’s vision of religious life. To be religious was not just to worship, but to care for the welfare of the State. When the people were fulfilling their religious obligations, peace abounded and the state prospered. . .

Holding to their belief that there could be no supreme authority other than Christ, Christians simply refused to bow to the Empire’s wishes. They could not admonish Caesar as if he was lord over anything. Furthermore, their opinions on violence and human worth led them away from the coliseums where blood often flowed for sport. In stepping out of public life, they were doing more than just being superstitious (another common claim by the mobs)—they were disrupting the religious piety of the empire. Their lack of commitment to the security of Rome surely meant that they wished harm on the State and its inhabitants. Christians hated Rome, which in their thinking, included all of humanity.

Cline closes with some very thought-provoking questions for the church today, I highly recommend that you read and comment.

World War II and American Empire

“The formulation of a statement of war aims for propaganda purposes is very different from formulation of one defining the true national interest… If war aims are stated, which seem to be concerned solely with Anglo-American imperialism, they will offer little to people in the rest of the world, and will be vulnerable to Nazi counter-promises. Such aims would also strengthen the most reactionary elements in the United States and the British Empire. The interests of other peoples should be stressed, not only those of Europe, but also of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This would have a better propaganda effect.” — US Council on Foreign Relations report, April 1941.

This policy recommendation directly affected the Atlantic Charter, an agreement between the US and Britain in August 1941, the public war aims statement of the US-UK alliance, months before the US would enter the war.

We were not “drawn in” to the war by Pearl Harbor, it provided the impetus for beginning to implement what had already been planned . And the April 1941 CFR report should mitigate against the ridiculous notion that we entered WWII for some altruistic purpose, that of “saving the world” from Nazi aggression (indeed, it’s been argued by some historians that, public school history class propaganda to the contrary, the real US interest in WWII was the defeat of Japan and taking over the Far East sphere of influence). As post-war events would show, particularly in our relations with Latin American countries (support of military dictators and the training of and turning a blind eye to the operation of government-sponsored death squads in the region being just a couple of examples), the idea of supporting the right of peoples’ self-determination was at best only a propaganda statement, and at worst just an outright lie.

Only 3 years after WWII, in 1948, George Kennan wrote the following advice for US policy in the Far East:

. . . we have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. . . We should cease to talk about vague and… unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better. — George Kennan, head of Dept. of State Policy Planning Staff, excerpted from PPS23. Declassified in 1974.

Years later, here we are still, in the words of Livy, trying to conquer the world for our own defense – we call it a War on Terror.