The Cross and the lynching tree: Good Friday reflection

In God of the Oppressed, one of the most important theological works of the 20th century, James Cone compares the cross of Christ to the lynching tree. When slavery existed lynching was not common because slaves were considered valuable property, but after the end of slavery whites used lynching as a method of asserting dominance. This use of lynching corresponds well with how the Romans utilized crucifixion, which was primarily a punishment for rebellion and other crimes that threatened to undermine the foundations of the Roman social order.

One of the major threads of argument throughout the book is that God is paradoxically presented as the Liberator, who also suffers with his people. In fact, it is precisely when God’s people are faithful even in the context of oppression that God acts to bring liberation. Cone partners the Exodus of Israel from Egypt with the experience of black people in America and deeply challenges our understanding of the crucifixion and its meaning for people today. It is well worth reading, and re-reading, and re-reading again, particularly for people who are white like me who are used to understanding the crucifixion as we have heard it preached, most often by white preachers in the midst of a white-dominated culture.

As my friend Katie pointed out earlier today, “we’re taught that this horrible thing happened called lynching but it was a long time ago and only happened a few times by some Very Bad People who also sometimes put on white robes and burned crosses but of course everyone else knew they were wrong and that’s why it’s all in the past right?” I mean, we had slavery for 300 years, lynchings for another 100, but then about 50 years ago we had a Civil Rights Movement and now everyone is equal and happy, end of story.

Or maybe not. I don’t know about you, but that is very much how the issue of race in American history was largely presented to me in my school courses. There are bad individuals who are racist, but as a society we’ve moved on and everyone knows it’s wrong. This view, of course, completely ignores the deeply embedded effects of white flight, decades of systematic job discrimination, and rampant cultural appropriation and commercialization just to name a few (not to mention the fact, as Katie also pointed out, of the resurgence in KKK membership since Obama was elected).

For much of my religious life, I’ve been taught that Jesus died on the cross for my sins so that I could go to heaven and spend eternity with God when I die. I was told I was supposed to be good and love people and be nice to them and stuff, because I was grateful to Jesus for having died for my sins so I could go to heaven, but mostly that it was about me, as an individual, having my sins forgiven in a forensic exchange so that I could be whisked away to the otherworldly paradise when I died.

It should go without saying that such a view of the cross has little to say to the realities of systemic injustice that exist today – not only related to race, but also to gender and sexual identity, economic status, geographic location, and other categories. The focus is on individuals, not social realities, and on escaping the realities of life into a magical other-world. If this were really the core of the Christian faith, I might say my radical friends are right in their criticism and rejection of religion. However, Paul offers another explanation of the significance of Christ’s death on the cross.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:13-15, TNIV).

The reference to uncircumcision points to the fact that, before they were brought into the life of Christ, the people were cut off from the covenant community of God’s love. As this passage points out, in Christ sin is cancelled. Our sins, collectively, are nailed to the cross and have died with Christ. But it is not simply the cancellation of the sins of individuals that is meant here. “You” is plural, and refers to the church community. The sin that is defeated here is social, as well as individual. And the last verse testifies that there is much more going on here than a simple forensic transaction by which people enter from a state of spiritual guilt into otherworldly justification: on the cross itself, Christ disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle over them, and triumphed over them.

The purpose of the Roman cross was to make a spectacle of the victim, to inscribe the victim into the context of Roman domination and so re-inforce the might of the Empire through the rule of Caesar. Paul makes the audacious claim that what has in fact happened is precisely the opposite! The logic of oppression cannot inscribe the logos of God into its narrative. Christ is victorious, but not by operating according to the logic of the powers. Instead, Christ triumphs by allowing all the powers of sin, death, and hell to exhaust their fury on him. He trusted God unto his own death, and in so doing turned the force of evil back upon itself causing its self-destruction.

We must drink deeply from the well of Paul’s theology of the cross, because the cross is the place where the New Community of God’s people gather, the church of God that is liberated from operating according to the logic of oppression. The cross both convicts and acquits us, because in order to be healed by it we must enter into it. It may not be “good news” to learn of the ways we collude with the powers that have been defeated on the cross at first, but it is liberating because in naming the powers we open ourselves to being freed through Christ in order to live according to a more excellent way.

Paul’s argument in the rest of chapter 2 flows directly from the logic of the cross: since we have died with Christ to the forces that rule the world, why do we still live as if we were subject to its law? Because the logic of death could not apprehend the logos of God, neither can it confine us who wear the name of Jesus as our own. The logic of Rome, the logic of slavery, of collusion with and perpetuation of oppressive structures cannot define the way the people who follow the Way of the logos live.

Coming to terms with the concrete ways in which we share in the guilt of the collective sins of our age is painful – it can be no other way, because in many ways the sin goes to the very core of our self-identities, of how we define our personhood. But carrying one’s cross is more than just an exercise program, it is a march to one’s death, and if we are to be raised with Christ we must also be willing to die. The logos of God spoke creation into being, and it speaks us into the New Creation. It speaks to us from the cross, bidding us to come and die, and find that we will truly live.

Privilege-checks are welcome in the comments. It’s only right, after talking about the need to put to death those parts of our identity that depend on the logic of oppression.


Breaking a window is violence?

Hitting someone with a club is violence. Funding projects that destroy local economies and ecosystems is violence. Displacing millions of people in order to ravage the countryside to extract resources and build useless consumer products is violence. Denying refugees right of return and bombing their villages when they defy the injustice is violence. Creating social structures that systematically stifle free expression and the ability to peacefully promote legitimate alternative points of view is violence. Maintaining an economic order in which the only way to hold off collapse is perpetual growth at the expense of a finite resource base, which cannibalizes itself in order to produce growth that is mostly based on the creation of new debt to finance paying off the old debt, while blaming people who bought into the system because they believed what it promised them for its failure is violence.

Breaking a window is a symbol of the shattered illusions of people who are sick and tired, and don’t want to take it anymore. Breaking a window is a message to the monsters whose livelihood depends on murder, displacement, and ecocide that the game is up and the ones who got us into this mess have forfeited their moral authority to be the ones who define a “new world order”. Breaking a window is liberation, a sign of life, not violence that destroys it.

Whether or not it’s tactically a good idea in circumstances such as the G-20 demonstrations is another matter entirely.

In response to this blog.

Wendell Berry quote

“The work of the executive is… as unproductive and as spiritually desolate as that of the garbage collector. Indeed, depending upon the toxicity and persistence of the products and by-products [produced and sold under the executive’s oversight], it may be more so. Certainly, by any standard, to haul garbage away is more virtuous than to manufacture it.” — from “Racism and the Economy”, 1988.

computer problems

The hard drive on my computer went out, and while I can still boot up with Ubuntu from a USB flash drive it is uncertain whether I’ll be online much for the next few days. I’m up to my neck in midterms, and quite a bit of my study material was on the computer, so it’s going to be interesting tomorrow (Wednesday) when I take my last one. As such I’m not sure when I’ll be able to resume more regular posting. I do have a few things in mind, though, so when I again have the means and time I’ll be continuing the “Finding a better story” series and also letting loose other of my theo-political musings. Shalom!

Finding a better story 3

In the last post in the series, I posted some general observations about the cultural context in which the Genesis 1 creation was composed. I contend that the Biblical creation story, as well as other parts of the primordial history (Genesis 1-11) were written to challenge the literary-symbolic world of the Ancient Near East, in order to engender a way of life within Israelite society that was not rooted in the pagan mythos, but in a vision of all life having its origin in the shalom of God’s good creation. By examining how Genesis does this, we can garner resources to do likewise in our world today, with imaginations based on the shalom of God’s creation in a world whose dominant mythos is rooted in violence.

There are many sources on which we could draw to demonstrate the nature of the world Genesis challenges, but the most potent for my purpose is the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish. Enuma Elish served as the ‘official creation myth’ of Babylon during a large part of the first millennium BC. It was performed every year at the spring festival, a practice that demonstrates its importance to forming the social imagination of Babylon. Also, among the Ancient Near Eastern epics, Enuma Elish most closely parallels elements of Genesis, so it is especially useful for showing how Genesis specifically engages the mythopoetic* devices of the ancient imagination. Furthermore, Enuma Elish was adapted from an older Sumerian epic that cast the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ninurta as the heroes, and was later adapted by the Assyrians who substituted their own head god Ashur for the Babylonian Marduk. This demonstrates a fundamental continuity in the mythos of the ancient Mesopotamian societies that shaped the world in which the Israelites lived, most dramatically during their time in exile.

I present here a summary of the Enuma Elish narrative with commentary on its role in forming the ancient Mesopotamian social imagination.

* “mythopoetic” refers to the imaginative devices that construct cultural mythos, and has nothing to to with “mythical” as opposed to “factual” or “historical”.

In the beginning, the world exists in a formless state, from which emerge two primary gods, one male and one female. The gods in Enuma Elish represent various facets of the physical world, with Apsu the god of fresh water, representing male fertility, and his wife Tiamat the goddess of the sea, representing chaos and disorder. Apsu and Tiamat give birth to gods who in turn give birth to other gods, including Ea. The younger gods make so much commotion that Apsu decides to kill them, but Ea hears of the plot and murders him. Ea sires Marduk, god of spring (replacing Apsu’s role in fertility) and patron of Babylon, with his wife Damkina. Tiamat is enraged and vows revenge, creating 11 monsters, and takes a new husband, Kingu, and puts him in charge of her army.

Tiamat prepares to unleash her monsters. Meanwhile, Ea learns of her plan and attempts to convince her otherwise. He fails, as does Anu his father. The gods become afraid that no one will be able to stop her. Marduk steps in and agrees to defeat her if the other gods will make him their king, a proposal to which they readily agree. The council of gods tests Marduk, and upon his passing the tests they enthrone him as king. Marduk assembles his weapons and goes out to fight, killing Tiamat and dismembering her body. The text goes into graphic detail describing the mutilation of Tiamat’s body, and Marduk uses her carcass to create the heaven and earth. He creates a barrier to keep the raging waters, imprisoned in the sky, from escaping and unleashing chaos upon the earth.

Marduk establishes order by creating dwellings for the other gods, who take their places and go about setting up seasons of the year. The city of Babylon is established as the the audience room for King Marduk. The gods begin to grumble about the hard work of building and farming, and so Marduk decides to create human beings as a labor force. The gods finger Kingu as the instigator of Tiamat’s rampage, and so Marduk kills him and uses his blood to create humankind to perform menial tasks for the gods. The gods honor Marduk, building a house for him in Babylon and praising him for his greatness. The fifty throne names of Marduk are pronounced, declaring his dominion over the earth. Then a blessing is pronounced, and the people are instructed to remember and recite Marduk’s deeds.

This summary is greatly shortened, leaving out most of the rich detail of the text. I encourage readers to read the full text carefully and pay attention to the language used to describe the emotions of the gods, the connection between death and creation, and the exaltation of Marduk.

As mentioned above, the text was ritually recited every year on the fourth day of the spring New Year festival to reinforce its mythopoetical function in Babylon. The next day the king of Babylon would take his place at the head of a ritual procession representing the gods, with the king identified with Marduk. The king led the procession outside the city gates and then back in again, and while much of the rest of the festival is unknown there were entreaties to the gods to “fix the destinies” of the universe.

The king is identified with Marduk, and the procession invokes the imagination of the conquering king’s armies carrying out the ongoing work of making order from chaos by assimilating peoples outside Babylon into the empire. We have inscriptions and writings from Babylon and Assyria identifying their conquests as such. Creation comes from a primal state of chaos and happens by violence and bloodshed, with the heavens and earth rendered from the slain carcass of Tiamat the chaos-monster-goddess, and the human race from the blood of her slain consort (this is known as “creation-by-combat”, a common theo-sociological motif in the ancient world). Humans are created to render menial service to the gods, which legitimates the social stratification of Babylon and its division between royal, priestly, and common classes. From other writings we know they viewed creation as always in danger of reverting back to chaos, with the threat of the waters escaping from their heavenly prison, but for the efforts of the king and priests in taking forward the conquest of Marduk both on earth and in the spiritual realm. Chaos and violence have ontological priority, and the “war against chaos” (also known as chaoskampf) is ongoing, without end.

Genesis paints  a very different picture of creation and human origins, and we will examine that in my next post. Shalom!

The opposite of “liberal”

The opposite of “liberal” is not “conservative”. It’s “authoritarian”.

Likewise, the opposite of “conservative” is “radical”.

Continued opposition of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in the public discourse is likely a carryover from 19th century British politics, where the major parties were the Liberal and Conservative parties, but what we call political “liberalism” and “conservatism” in the common parlance today are both rooted in classic liberalism. “Liberal” comes from the Latin liber, which means “free”, which is the term that came to distinguish modern philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Jefferson.

In that sense, anarchism can potentially be seen as a “liberal” philosophy.

Think on that before you denounce someone as too “liberal” or “conservative”.


The Bush II and Obama administrations and the transition from American hegemony to the “Post-American world”

This past weekend the Common Root conference was held in Minneapolis. Tom and Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates led the first plenary session, and my friend Jordan Peacock wrote the following as a summary statement of one of their points:

The Pax Americana is not necessarily the strongest ’empire’. It stands together with global capitalism, which, while largely birthed from the Pax Americana, shares no allegiance to it, and will likely outlast it.

I think this is an excellent point, and one that bears fleshing out a bit by contrasting the approaches of the Bush II Administration and what we’ve seen from Obama so far. The neoconservative plan seemed to me to clearly be an “American empire” kind of strategy, with American military power as the trump card in the world political game. “Regime change” and militaristic power politics, whether through direct military intervention or the funding of “satellite” armies in places like Israel and Colombia, seem to me to be parts of a larger strategy for attempting to maintain a specifically American hegemony over world affairs. The purpose of the use of military and other overtly violent forces in this fashion seems to have been to make the world safe for “democracy”, by which is meant the interests of “American” corporate entities (often really more multi- and trans-national) who have exploited the twin Bush II tools of unilateral military intervention (or the threat thereof) and implementation of neo-colonial “free trade” policies, combined with other corporate-friendly measures, such as the widespread loosening of labor, safety, and environmental regulations at home and undercutting the social safety net (which was already quite sparse in the aftermath of Reaganomics).

The adventure in Iraq is a signal example and convergence of the combination of military and corporate objectives with the toppling of the Hussein government and the swift looting of the country through a forced rewriting of Iraq’s economic laws in an attempt to create a “free trade paradise”, causing a descent into chaos and insurgency that, contrary to what you hear from the corporate media propaganda machine, really only picked up steam as the effects of the combination of economic deregulation and the insistence on American corporations rebuilding the country (translation: looting Iraq and fleecing American taxpayers) destroyed the ability of the average Iraqi to obtain basic needs and services.

Indeed, Iraq-as-originally-conceived could be considered a case study for the Bush II approach to Pax Americana. Key to neoconservatism is the concept that the welfare of corporations is intrinsically linked to the welfare of the nation-state and its security interests and policies. This convergence of military, corporate, and political machinations is the engine that drives the neoconservative American empire project. The very name of the neoconservative thinktank, Project for a New American Century (PNAC), illustrates the imperial designs of the people who made up the backbone of the Bush II administration, as does their stated belief that “American leadership is both good for America and good for the world”.

I want to say, at the outset of my brief foray into what we’ve seen so far from Obama, along with his campaign rhetoric, that in some ways Obama substantially continues some of the Bush II tactics and underwriting assumptions unchanged. Glen Ford, editor of Black Agenda Report, cites no less a media authority than the New York Times calling Obama “center-right” and then goes on to say:

The ideological pillars of America’s first Black presidency have been planted wholly within the parameters of governance allowed by big capital and the imperial military. Obama’s “transition” is more accurately seen as a “continuity” of rule by the lords of finance capital and their protective screen of warriors and spies. The Obama regime, still incomplete, already wreaks [sic] of filthy rich thieves and gore-covered war criminals.

The two biggest differences I see between Bush II and Obama-so-far are:

  1. a re-assertion of government playing a role in establishing some kind of common welfare through a kind of social democracy (NOT the same thing as “socialism”), albeit in a much-weakened state compared to LBJ’s “Great Society” and “war on poverty” programs, over and against the explicit undercutting of the social safety net that has occurred systematically since Reagan; and,
  2. while the desire to maintain America as the foremost world power, the notion of American hegemony seems to have given way somewhat to something perhaps more analogous to America as a “senior partner”. Obama was seen carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which argues for “not.. the decline of America, but the rise of everyone else”. Zakaria sees this story, that of “the rise of the rest”, as the defining narrative for the rest of the 21st century. Obama’s talk, at least, regarding initiatives such as strong diplomacy and sitting down to talk with people with whom Bush II would not, may reflect a similar understanding of America’s role in the coming years.

The basic thrust of these same-nesses and differences between Obama and Bush II seems to me to be that Obama seeks to implement policies that will create greater stability in the world, at least as it relates to America, both at home and abroad, by strengthening regulation of the economy at home that will prevent unrest and by allowing the “junior partner” nations of the world a greater role in determination of world political action. That contrasts strongly with Bush II’s neoconservative agenda focused around American hegemony which in practice led to more destabilized conditions both at home and abroad.

However, this “change we can believe in” is a “change” designed to fundamentally underwrite the corporate consumer capitalist status quo and the continued advancement of an “economic growth” agenda. In other words, it’s a “change” that is geared towards producing “more of the same”. With a decreased link between the welfare of corporate entities and the welfare of the United States, I believe we will indeed see the Sines’ prediction play itself out in world affairs over the coming years. William Cavanaugh (in Theopolitical Imagination and Being Consumed) argues that the universality claimed by the modern nation-state is giving way to the universalizing tendencies of the global market, and the global market almost entirely consists of action by corporations. Also, Brian Walsh argues (in Subversive Christianity) that capitalism is a necessarily expansionist, even imperial, economic system. If the empire of global corporate capitalism is unconstrained by national borders, as is largely (and increasingly) the case due to “trade liberalization”, then its expansion, by definition, must increase beyond the hegemony of the USAmerican political nation-state entity.

Not only that, but it is also the case that the one-and-only responsibility of a corporation is to increase its value for shareholders. Indeed, neoliberal architect Milton Friedman called ascribing any other purpose to the corporation “fundamentally subversive” (he was specifically referring to the idea of corporate social responsibility). A corporation-based economy must grow or it will collapse, and the same is true of the current global debt-based monetary system – new debt must constantly be created to generate money to pay the interest on old debt, according to an ever-increasing practically exponential growth curve.

The empire of global capitalism is highly complex. Whereas the nation-state depends on territory for its very existence, the corporation theoretically is a territory-less entity. While I would argue that this is not true, strictly-speaking, because no economic activity can truly take place without there being land and material products involved somewhere, somehow, according to the currently-accepted rules of the game a trans-national corporation does not depend on the territory of any one nation-state, nor is it accountable to any entity outside its shareholders except insofar as maintaining relations of accountability and corporate social responsibility allow it to maximize profits and therefore value to shareholders. In addition to the “territory-less” nature, though, there is not any one entity that can serve as an object of wrath for those who oppose this evolving empire. Corporations are legion, they are interconnected, they are buttressed by international organizations and agreements, and We the Consumers play a major role in keeping them in business.

This seems to be the world into which we are headed, a world where “change” occurs to ensure “more of the same”, with the locus of imperial activity increasingly translocating from nation-state entities (particularly the United States) to transnational corporations and the entities that ensure their preeminence (such as the WTO). This does not mean that the emerging empire will not favor certain nation-states (or at least certain people in them), as mentioned above, certain nation-states will enjoy “senior partner” status (hence the continuing neo-colonial nature of global capitalism), but the world is shifting from under the dominating shadow of the United States to global corporate consumer capitalism, as illustrated by a comparison of the Bush II administration and what we’ve seen so far from Obama.

This was first posted on the Common Root discussion forum, but I wanted to also open it up for a possibly wider discussion here. Shalom!