Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What You Do, Do Quickly: Another Review of Scorsese's 'Silence'

I've already written a general review of the theological errors within the film Silence here. Before, I read a sufficient amount of reviews to get the gist. But I decided to go, and watch the movie for myself, having found a free viewing. My initial concerns were correct, but I think the film is actually a lot more powerful, and in ways, perhaps, beyond what Scorsese intended.

The main point of the film is not so much a question of faith, but of torture. And it's not just torture, but a question of how to break strong man. Contrary to almost every review I've seen, Rodrigues is not a weak man. Rather, because he is strong, because he is a man of refined tastes, intellectual vigor, a man in love with the world, he has a fatal weakness that the imperial inquisitor exploits perfectly. Silence is truly a story of Judas, and not in the sympathetic way we may expect. Rather, it's an exposition on what the Gospels might have meant when they refer to Satan entering Judas.

Early on, Rodrigues has a typical brashness about him in pursuing a mission to Japan. Most reviews cover this point. But it goes deeper. When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan their guide, an unsavory apostate Christian Kichijiro, runs off to the village. Neither priest knows what is happening. However, while Garupe prays, Rodrigues begins to say to himself: "What you do, do quickly". This is a quote from John's gospel, what Jesus says to Judas as he leaves the Supper. This statement is key to understanding Rodrigues' character. He is not just hungry for glory, but he believes that he himself is akin to Christ. Throughout the film Christ's words drop effortlessly from his mouth. In another scene he tells the suspicious acting Kichijiro, after having been fed a salty fish, "I thirst". Kichijiro notices that Rodrigues is quoting Jesus and remarks on it, to which Rodrigues has nothing to say. There are countless examples of Rodrigues intentionally trying to copycat Christ as a form of piety.

Now some other reviews point out how Rodrigues models an extreme within Roman Catholic sacerdotal ecclesiology, where the priest acts, and in office is, persona Christi. That's true, but the movie goes deeper than such a parallel. Rodrigues begins to equate himself to Christ. He sees an image of Christ as a reflection of his face. He speaks to God as His Son, who is being abandoned, asking why he must suffer. All of these other reviews highlight this point, but don't frame it fully within the context of the movie. These events happen in conjuncture with Rodrigues' magisterial commands. The inquisition suspects Christians in the village and takes four hostages. They will have to step on the fumie, an image of Christ.  When a Christian villager expresses doubt as to whether he should step on the image of Christ, Garupe says don't. Immediately, Rodrigues contradicts him and shouts, "Trample! Trample!". Garupe is taken back and dismayed as Rodrigues continues to advise and council the villagers who listen to him. Rodrigues puts the lives of Christians over fidelity.

Besides this point, Rodrigues also expresses refined cultural sensibilities that help channel his arrogance. Throughout the film, Rodrigues the priest never attempts to learn Japanese. He refers to the villagers in his prayers as living like beasts, but contents himself with the thought that God comes to the beggarly and lowly. Rodrigues is at home in a world where the Jesuit order is strong and luxurious, dwelling in the halls of the Vatican and the court of Braganza. While the film never says what Rodrigues' background is, he does not act as if he is lowborn man. Rather, he, like the apostate Ferreira he meets later, is a man concerned to make the world better and to achieve renown through it. All of these things the Inquisitor picks up on pretty quickly and targets Rodrigues for flipping.

Here a lot of reviewers seem to go astray. They get stuck in Rodrigues' frame of reference, which is all the film gives you after he and Garupe split up. They understand the film through his point of view and miss the bigger picture. After Kichijiro betrays Rodrigues and the inquisitor captures him, they begin a process of psychological molding and torture. It can be easy to miss that the Japanese do nothing to him the entire time, with the exception of handcuffing him and taking him to their compound. The whole film revolves around the Inquisitor warping Rodrigues arrogance, self-importance, and delusions of grandeur against him.

This torture is manifest in the translator the inquisitor supplies. He continues to narrate events that Rodrigues, and the viewer, see. One poignant scene is when he brings Rodrigues to watch Garupe and a bunch of Christians die. He tells Rodrigues that they told Garupe that his brother-priest had apostatized. The translator tells him that the Christians had all already recanted and that they would stop suffering if Garupe recanted. Again and again the translator, Inquisitor Inoue, and, eventually, Feirrera inform Rodrigues that none of the Japanese Christians hold any real belief. Christianity can't develop in Japan. They don't believe in Christ, they only believe in superstitious fetishes and in the priests themselves. They would continue to suffer, not because of their faith, of which they already recanted, but because of Rodrigues. In the last post, I already pointed out that the Japanese torturers set up false dilemmas; they were the ones doing the torturing, not Rodrigues. However, this point goes beyond that. The Inquisitor knows Rodrigues is a proud and vainglorious man, looking to save people. They know he will internalize their arguments and believe that he is the guilty one. If they can strip him of the idea that the faith he brings is even remotely genuine, then he has no reason to let these people suffer because of him and him alone.

The narration coming from the inquisitor's team is brilliant. There is no reason to suspect any of what they say is true. The Japanese Christians, generally, have a stronger and more direct sense of faith than he does. While Rodrigues shouts about impending death, a Japanese Christian girl informs him that they are not afraid of dying because God will give them "paraiso", a corrupt pronunciation of paradise. Both of these things are crucial, as Rodrigues is someone who wants to live in comfort and who looks down upon the peasants. To anyone who knows the remotest thing about Tokugawa Japan, the Shogunate had no problem killing peasants for reasons of state. Dozens of dead Japanese peasants was an easy price to pay for turning a Jesuit priest into the government's service. There is never a reason to suspect that the Japanese Christians ever betrayed their faith, except in the moment when Rodrigues had told them to. However, from Rodrigues' vantage, these dumb and brutish peasants were keen to do so, while the refined imperial officers were telling the truth. Hardship for Rodrigues only came on his terms, and when he lost control, he became clay in government hands. Even the debates he has with the Inquisitor are means of drawing him into a relationship with a reasonable and articulate opponent. Rodrigues is constantly batted between indulgence and scorn, respect and disdain; he is treated as a worthy opponent and as an idiot. The tactic is to destabilize him, and let his own arrogant aggregation of guilt undo him from the inside out.

The sad thing is that many film critics look at the last scene as definitive proof that Rodrigues, after apostatizing, remained faithful. As he is cremated in Buddhist fashion, the film shows us a little cross in his hand. Early on in the film, one of the Japanese Christians gives the cross to Rodrigues, it was the only piece of adornment that the community could make. However, there's no reason to think that Rodrigues expressed his faith in holding onto it. Rather, what's likely is that his wife, which he inherited after his apostasy and work for the imperial government, placed it in his hands. Again, some might look at her honoring her husband, but there is no sense that she had any affection for him. The scene reflects Rodrigues' ego and the ambiguity of the film's direction: the cross might merely represent the final destruction of Rodrigues, the burning away of the man who thought he was the Christ.

The story of Fr. Rodrigues is a story of a man who thought himself a servant of God and, through his own evil desires and arrogance, became an instrument of the Devil. When Rodrigues finally steps on the fumie, he hears the voice of Christ, which confirms what Rodrigues had wanted to do from the beginning. He merges with his own inner demons and becomes a persecutor of the righteous. He can finally become the hero he has always wanted to be through the negation of the faith he proclaimed. The film is an exploration into two questions that remain unexplained in the Gospels: 1) What does it mean for Satan to enter Judas?; 2) Why was Christ silent before His accusers? Rodrigues is an example of not only a failed missionary, but of how someone bearing the image of an angel of light becomes an instrument of darkness. Rather than the Jesus he wanted to be, he became the wicked disciple who betrayed the Lord of Glory.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Infinitum Finiti Capax: A Kenotic Reflection on the Incarnation

P.T. Forsyth carved out a space in early 20th theology, arguing against liberal tendencies as well as problematizing orthodoxy affirmations. He agreed with liberal theology that the Human Jesus is vitally important to the faith. But, he had problems with their quasi-historical Christ, which in its hyper focus on scientific historicism, what he called "Comtean", was not historical. Their realism was not realistic. Only a Christ who was pre-existence, the eternal Word of the Father, could save and be worthy of worship. Otherwise Christ is as the Unitarians or Arians say, and that has no truck with the Apostolic testimony.

However, Forsyth wanted to take seriously Christ's humanity. The Gospels tell us Christ was ignorant of His own return, He suffered weakness, He desired to live but submitted to the will of the Father, etc. How was this possible? Unlike his contemporary kenoticists, Forsyth did not want to say that Christ voided the divine attributes or had a heavenly "black out" for the period of his life. Rather, Forsyth claimed that the incarnation was a condensation of Christ's divine nature. The attributes we ascribe to the divine nature did not go away, but they became compact and folded into themselves. Thus, Christ reveals the divine nature's omnipotence in the fact that He remained silent, bore the brunt of sin's wrath, refused to return vengeance for evil for the sake of the mission. The ultimate strength was in that He restrained Himself.

In Forsyth's telling, Christ was only worthy of worship because He was the divine Word, that's what made His weakness, His condescension, even His suffering and death on a cross, so significant. The Apostles were shocked to the core because the Messiah, who was none other than the Word of the Lord, willingly underwent such horrible things on behalf of man. Christ's impotence was, due to who He really is, the highest form of power, holding His might so as to destroyed Satan's reign utterly and free the cosmos from the reign of sin and death.

Forsyth is oft forgotten, but his insights are crucial for properly articulating an orthodox Christology that keeps Christ's very Humanity front and center. I think it is very easy to vacillate between the language of some Patristics that seem to void Christ's humanity to defend His deity and liberalizing tendencies that overemphasize His humanity. Trying to find a right way to talk about it can be difficult; Christ is far enough to be outside of our chains, but close enough to break them. He joins us in prison, but has the means to spring the whole lot of us. He is tempted in all ways, but never sins.

Thus, on a day that many in the world vaguely honor as Christ's birthday, one should not melt with saccharine piety, but shudder with dread and awe. Christ the King was born, drawing wise kings to bend the knee and offer Him gifts. And these gifts were not only fit for a king, but they were fit for the Messiah who was to die and, by dying, trample death. The angels who appeared to shepherds, to even Mary and Joseph, were not effete hermaphrodites, but terrifying otherworldly warriors. The proclamation of "peace on earth and good will to all men" is better read as "peace on earth to all men of good will". The announcement was not an end to warfare, but the heraldry of an invading army. Mary's Magnificat was a cry for the God of Armies to crush the unjust who have accumulated wealth and power. When she "treasured all of these things in her heart", it was not gooey sentiments, but receiving an answer to her pray for a sword to strike the earth.

The Child in the manger was a warrior king ready to set fire to the earth, causing a rising and falling of many souls. That little baby was a declaration that the finite, the creaturely, and the sinful was no obstacle for the infinite and righteous judge to take up residence. Infinitum Finiti Capax: the infinite could make Himself known among the finite. Righteous power burned with white hot intensity in the cries of a babe. As St. Paul would reflect more generally, the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men. God's power became weakness, demonstrating His ultimate power. He snapped Satan's neck without damaging a single thing in His created order. Gentle precision vanquished all the schemes of wicked men.

Kiss the Son lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, When His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Wages Cry Out: Socialism, Private Property, and a Series of False Equivocations

In light of a recent post, I was requested to interact with a recent post from a Reformed Confessionalist about property, ownership, and sin. I will say, upfront, that the author of the post, a seminary professor, has confused multiple issues, distorts the history, and makes many logical connections that are simply untrue. I have no idea whether it's sheer ignorance or willful dishonesty, but I will respond to the post block by block:

One of the assumptions underlying the eight commandment is that there are things that are not mine. Those things belong to others. If I take them without permission or without buying them (by trading money, goods, or services for them), then I am a thief. In other words, unless there is such a thing as private property, theft is impossible. Theft exists, ergo private property exists. If everything belongs to everyone, then theft is impossible. How can one steal what is his already? The same reasoning applies to the 10th commandment. One cannot envy what is his. He envies what belongs to others. He is dissatisfied with the Lord has provided to him and wants what the Lord has provided to someone else. Here we are not talking about purchasing a good or service (though we might be guilty of envying in that instance too) but we are thinking about ungodly desires for the goods of others. Private property is assumed in both commandments.

Here there is a sleight of hand in definition. Yes, theft and envy presuppose an 'other', a person or an object that does not belong to you. But that necessarily means that the Mosaic Law acknowledged private property. This is not what private property generally refers to. Rather, it's a question of juridical ownership in sliding scales. It's a question of levels of ownership, who has the right over this or that in a way that triumphs over another. No state upholds an absolute doctrine of private property, not even the United States, for the federal and state governments can seize land, for example, on grounds of eminent domain, though it comes with monetary compensation. The point is that reasons of state can trump an individual's desire, the state has rights to the property that override individual ownership.

Now the U.S. is one of the foremost defenders of private property, and eminent domain is an exception that proves the rule. The basic sense of private property is not really a question of meum et tuum, but much more about how such a right of property is constituted. When I own land it is because I own a title, and that title is a piece of paper that a government will recognize and support, with force if necessary. There's already an early equivocation between ownership, private property, and envy. Private property only exists if there is a legal order that will back it, otherwise a title is just a piece of paper. There's no reason to assume, unequivocally, that rejecting private property is, in fact, a form of envy. Both attacking private property and defending private property can be a form of theft and envy. Consider the case of English colonists "buying" land from many Indian nations, and running to the government to force the Indians off. Many times the Indians did not understand the English idea of private property. Many times either the Indians didn't understand what the Europeans were asking for, or they had no right to actually sell the land since they, as individuals, did not own it (I'll come back to this point later). The accusation of envy can go both ways.

There are Christian traditions, however, that oppose private property and there seem to be a fair number of late-modern evangelicals who are suspicious of private property. Whence this suspicion? The French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) hated the idea of private property. He argued that, in a state of nature, there were no fences. In the state of nature, everything belonged to everyone. Ergo, as we seek to return to the state of nature, fences (private property) should be abolished. This, of course, was nothing but self-justification for his Narcissistic self-indulgence. Rousseau was the first hippy and, like the hippies of the 1960s, he made a mess of his life and abandoned his children to the care of the people of Geneva. Granting his dubious and speculative assertion (that the state of nature was a worker’s paradise) what Rousseau neglected to mention, in his (cultural) appropriation of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, was that we do not now live “in the state of nature” after the fall. The fall brought with it corruption and death. There will be no restoration of the “state of nature” in this life until the New Heavens and the New Earth.

This is not only rank ad hominem, but historically confused. No, Rousseau did not invent the abolition of private property. In fact, it originated among Christians that struggled with militarized and violent maintenance of things. Some peasant revolts in the Middle Ages attacked the justification of Feudalism that the land the peasants worked didn't belong to them and that they had to pay onerous burdens to a case of lords that didn't hold up their end of the bargain. The peasants rejected the logic that the lords were entitled to the fruits of peasant labor just because they received the land from the king. Now, none of this would have been explicitly spoken of in terms of private property, the Medieval Scholastics knew the old distinction between meum et tuum (mine and yours). The question is: did the crops belong to the peasants who toiled in labor, or did they own to the lord who claimed the land, and graciously allowed the peasants to keep some of it? Who was stealing from who?

Clark uses Rousseau is a red-herring for this entire discussion. His personal life is generally irrelevant, and his lazy historical equivocation between him and the hippies is just that. Is he trying to stir up some foggy historical resentment in his readers? Rousseau never claimed that the state of nature was a workers' paradise. In fact, Rousseau's major philosophical contribution was in distinguishing between the General Will and the Will of All. The latter is the aggregate of all individual desires, while the former is the whole, the nation's spirit, if you will, the desire for the actual good. While Rousseau was critical of noble pretensions, he would've equally been critical of workers' rights or workers' strikes. In both cases, it was groups of individuals acting for themselves, and not thinking about the whole.

Yes, Marx appropriated elements of Rousseau, as did other utopian Leftists, but that's not all. Many French nobles (including Marie Antoinette), before the Revolution, read Rousseau with vigor. Not all supported the initial stages of the Revolution. The Abbe Sieyes, a revolutionary priest and delegate for the Third Estate, utilized Rousseau to argue for the abolition of the Estates General, as it detracted from the General Will into three classes of societies. Clark is lazy here in how he understands the French Revolution. While some nobles who read Rousseau opposed the Revolution, many nobles who did supported it. The Third Estate was not merely the poor masses or the liberal literati agitators. These were thorough middle-class, bourgeois, elite who were heavily engaged in foreign commerce, civil law, and property ownership. They desired a society that did not operate along class distinction; there were only citizens and the king who was a father of their country. The king could represent the general will, fatherly guiding his people towards their good, and carefully considering the legislation the Third Estate, which became the National Assembly, proposed.

All of this is to say that no, Rousseau is actually irrelevant to larger discussion of how critiques of private property have proceeded. If Rousseau advocated for the abolition of private property, and I'm not sure he did, it was in the context of citizens being willing to allow the General Will, and the good of the whole, to override their own selfish desires. Rousseau was a degenerate reprobate; I don't care and it has no bearing on the point. Clark is just offering a lazy and garbage intellectual history as proof for his set up.

Still, Rousseau’s ethic of envy (ressentiment) has had a powerful effect in the modern world. It fueled not only the French Revolution but the Communist revolutions in Russia, China, and elsewhere. In the 20th century alone, class envy led to the slaughter of millions of people. Today, American school children are catechized in class envy in their textbooks and few parents seem to care. Christians are influenced by the ethos of the French Revolution. I was. In university I was taught by some of my professors that some version of socialism was the most just social arrangement. Over time, however, I learned that what I had been taught was not true and that my professors did not really believe what they were telling me. After all, they made a voluntary agreement with the university to trade their skill and labor for a fair-market wage. They formed no commune. They went home to decent houses in middle- or even upper-class neighborhoods in private cars. They talked about a workers paradise but they did not live in one. They lived in a nice college-town largely created by entrepreneurial capitalists, who paid the taxes to pave the roads and build the bridges over which the socialists in town drove. Socialism is institutionalized envy.

First, why does Clark put a French version of resentment in a bracket? What's the context for the phrase? What document does it even come from? But besides this point, the account of Rousseau is bad intellectual history. Ideas don't float through the air and zap people, unless Clark is some kind of hyper-Platonist. Adoption of Rousseau was not just among the Communists, he was popular across the board. Intellectual historians have debunked the theory that Rousseau was a crypto-totalitarian, though any appeal to the whole can be a cover to suppress certain groups of people. This happened not only in France, Russia, and China, but also in the United States and Great Britain. The nation, humanity, any totalizing category can be utilized as a blanket cover for a particular group who has grabbed the wheels of power. It's beyond a doubt that Rousseau influenced Romanticism and the rise of Nationalism across Europe and North America, but that's besides the point. The Russian and Chinese Revolutions can swept up in a single category of evil without little thought or concern. Does Clark know that the Russian Revolution is different than the Bolshevik take over? Does he know that Chang Kaishek was no great hero when compared to Mao Tsetung? It's a lot more complicated than "class envy" to say that many peasants in China supported government claimants who would protect them from the Japanese and Nationalist armies from pillaging their farms.

I'm not trying to justify anyone in this argument. All I'm saying is that by Clark's logic, the American Revolution was "class envy", a group of liberal elites (some of them even read Rousseau!) who didn't like giving up their property and were envious of not being able to participate in Parliament. I don't see Clark complaining that far more children are catechized in the virtue of this theft and envy. Again, I'm not trying to justify anyone here, but requesting decency in how these lazy analogies are drawn.

Clark's analysis of his own experiences is not only basically irrelevant, but, again, deploying confused categories. Arguing against private property does not mean living on a commune. Here I'll explain the distinction of private property in more detail. The problem that many socialists had was with landlordism. Here, I work the land, I harvest the crops, I maintain the equipment, but, at the end of the day, because a guy has a piece of paper that says he owns it, backed by the government, I have to give him however much percentage he requests, and many times it was exorbitant. So, the landlord says, if you don't like it, leave and do something else. This is the moral equivalent of telling me that if I don't like what I'm doing, I can always just kill myself. There's nothing unjust about making me either live in squalor or uproot my family in the quest to go somewhere else and do something else, which may involve starvation, even death, in the process?

Clark advocates a totally negative view of liberty which was infamously upheld in the late 19th century America. It was, hey if you don't like working here, go find a job somewhere else. Well, if everywhere else is exactly the same, and the fact that I don't like it gets me marked down and circulated among companies, what was called "blacklisting", what am I suppose to do? It was the "socialist" FDR who pushed through legislation that created safety nets so that the government would help, theoretically, keep people from dying in their pursuit of work. I'm not going to get into the question of whether this worked, or, more generally, the idea of a welfare state. But, Clark should know that many evangelical Christians supported the Labor party in Britain trying to legislate legal reforms to cut down on the hours companies could require, set minimum wages, improve factory conditions, and create a government network of benefits to keep people from total squalor.

What does this have to do with private property? Well, aren't those laborers just being envious, demanding that the factory owners have a responsibility to do the right thing with what they own? Even more so, why does the factory owner get to decide everything about the factory, since he is not the one using the machinery, creating the objects, regulating work schedules, etc.? He is just the one who collects at the end of the day. While some owners were good and productive and others were lazy, callous, and cold-blooded, the logic of socialist was that no one person should be able to own such "means of production", the ground-thing that labor is mixed with and produces other things. It was not all about state ownership or creating communes. Some advocated that the workers should own the means of production, and vote on policies through democratically elected councils.

None of this has to do with what has been called use-ownership. There's a difference between saying you own the small plot of land you labor on, and saying you own tracts of land you've never even seen, let alone use. The Socialist Hippy Commune butcher is an incredibly grotesque strawman, but I suppose even seminary professors are subject to the noetic effects of sin. Yes, I made my own ad hominem.

And one last note on this point: why do the wealthy capitalists pay taxes for the roads? Who owns the roads? Why do they pay? Is it voluntary? Should it be? If you can answer these questions, you understand why something shouldn't be owned by one person, and socialists only apply this same logic to other economic realities, not always saying that it should be the state that is the rightful owner. If Clark can blanket statement that Socialism is institutionalized envy, it's easy to argue that the basic doctrine of private property (again, primarily referring to means of production) is institutionalized theft.

Even before university I had heard grown ups grumble about how “those businessmen” got their wealth unjustly, by “stealing” it from others. Those grumblers never explained how this process worked. I do not remember a store owner once pointing a firearm at me and demanding my money. I do not remember anyone forcing me to walk into their business. Did the grocery store owner charge exorbitant prices? If so, why did we not go to another grocer? There were several in the neighborhood? In fact, these claims about “those greedy businessmen” could not stand scrutiny. Those complaints were nothing but envy disguised as righteous indignation. We know it is envy and not truth when we see business people, who evidently believe in charging a fair market price for their goods and services, complaining about “evil” businesses. Really? It is just for you to charge a fair-market price (what the market will bear) for your goods and services but the other business person is “evil” for doing the same? How is that not just envy?

This analogy of a shotgun-wielding shop-owner is incredibly puzzling for a Calvinist. Is Clark saying that there are never choices where all available options are bad? Isn't that the logic of being in bondage to sin, and of total depravity? Yes, I know there's a distinction between two kinds of righteousness, but unless he wants to bifurcate between being a horizon Pelagian and a vertical monergist, I don't understand how he is even confused. Does he deny larger structures that shape individual relations? Is every decision really just one individual acting with another individual, at the level of some kind of Kantian vacuum? There are plenty decisions where both options are ugly.

Plenty of industries have created standards that are unjust and disgusting, and many conscientious people agree, but they have no choice unless they want to go under. Take the meat industry for example. As plenty of documentaries, news exposes, and personal testimony have shown, what big meat does to the animals in order to mass produce them for consumers is terrible for the animals. Cows are locked up, pumped full of hormones, and forced to eat corn, the cheapest staple, which cows can't digest and are given anti-biotics to offset the deleterious diet. Some business owners dislike what they are doing. However, if they don't do it, their competitors will, and they won't be able to keep the prices competitive. The option is sink or swim, and many prefer to stay afloat, even if they don't like it. This example does not take in account corporate boards and major stockholders who drive companies forward based on profit margins, which only rarely take a backseat to other interests.

Again, as in all of these examples, I'm not justifying owners in the cow-industry. But it's perfectly reasonable to understand that business-owners can complain about other sectors of industries that take advantage of others, or put them in an impossible bind. Yes, not everyone is consistent, and people justify their own actions and condemn the others. It may very well be envy, especially as some sectors of the economy are in the tank and others are soaring. But it's not necessarily so.

Anyone old not enough to remember how the hippy communes actually worked need only to watch Forrest Gump for a briefly tutorial. None forms of socialism (the public ownership of the means of production, the state-enforced community of property) with which I am familiar have ever produced anything like Rousseau’s state of nature. They have produced misery and death from many fled and many more died trying. My millennial readers are too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall but that wall existed literally to keep people from fleeing the “socialist paradise” of the Soviet Union. Socialism was so wonderful that those who tried to leave were shot in the back by guards in towers. Socialism was so glorious that when the Soviet Union collapsed, those who lived behind what Churchill called “the Iron Curtain” danced in the street and top of the wall even as it crumbled. Robin Williams’ 1984 film Moscow on the Hudsoncaptures some of the reality of socialism in practice. One of the books that most convicted me of my envious heart was Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction. The 2nd edition (1993) contains a foreword by Robert Bork.

I assume the blogpost is for a relatively uneducated readership, so I won't ride him for pointing to Hollywood as proof of how bad socialism really is. Here, he defines socialism, but he fails to define any of his terms. Public ownership...what public? The state? The laborers who work on said means of production? The nation? The community? One of the major blows to English rural life in the 17th century was the process of enclosure, where property owners blocked off their land from many Englishmen who made a living shepherding sheep. This destruction of the commons helped fuel the tensions building in what became the English Civil Wars. Because of a desire to repurpose land that they had by title, lords effectively destroyed shepherding as a profession, as these commons were now gobbled up and closed off. This move, by several individuals all acting for their own self-interest, destroyed England's woolens industry, sending many into the city looking for work and, in the process, suffering and filling London with an urban population of riffraff. Many complained that the government's role in permitting this to happen was unjust, the king failing to protect his subjects. The question is far more complicated than labeling them all envious; the commons was traditionally something that landowners could not transform at a whim.

I'm not saying the shepherds were socialists, but that the question of who can own the means of production goes farther back than anyone who self-consciously labeled himself a socialist. And the thing about the Berlin Wall is kind of silly. Yes, the Soviet Union, as a particular flavor of Marxist Communism, claimed to be Socialist; but, well, so did West Germany. Social Democrats dominated politics post-WW2; these parties originated from the conservative wing of socialists, believing that labor standards could be changed and settled through democratic parliamentary elections. Parliament could vote people's property out of their hands into the state's when it was considered a public issue (e.g. water, healthcare, electric, gas). So, in Clark's terms, people fled from one socialist government to another socialist government. To put it that way is to be an obscurantist.

And, as a brief aside, I find the attraction to the Winston Churchill myth among Americans really disturbing. He is remembered as the great hero, the stalwart who lead Little England against the Nazi Death Machine. Well, England was still the largest empire in the globe, and encircled Germany economically as well as militarily. Churchill was a part of spreading the Empire, with rather typical racist presumptions about African inferiority and doing his part in subjugating the people of the Sudan. He is also forgotten for being a political hack, jumping ship from the Tories to the Liberals to win a cabinet under David Lloyd George. From there he sent thousands of Englishmen to their deaths in one of the worst executed invasions, and one of England's greatest military disasters, at Gallipoli. Churchill was also rather favorable to Hitler in the early 30s, as he saw in him a possible means to check the Communists, though he disliked Hitler's lack of aristocratic bearing and his populist, frothing at the mouth, tactics. But, yes, he became a legend because he wouldn't negotiate with Hitler, even though he was fine with his own set of atrocities (i.e. it's pretty hard to justify the fire bombing of Dresden). But I digress.

The gospel is good news for thieves and for the covetous. Christ obeyed and died in our place. He was raised from the dead, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he shall return to set everything right and to judge the living and the dead. All who trust him shall be saved. All the saved seek to obey his moral law, among which are the eighth and tenth commandments.

I agree with the entire paragraph, but its context makes the entire thing a sick joke. All of it is true, and yet, he's deploying it as a tu quoque fallacy to undercut any valid criticism of immoral practices. Yes, obey the 8th and 10th commandments, but that means not writing hack pieces and displaying a false sense of intelligence. So, maybe one should throw in the 9th commandment as well. Nothing in this piece has sufficiently made the argument that private property is somehow naturally just, and nothing has proved that socialism, across the board, prima facia, is "institutionalized envy".

I'll end with two thoughts, one dovetailing into the other. Clark mentions, at the beginning, that the Israelites had private property, namely the land, which the commandments applied to. However, this land was allotted to families, for each to own and work, enjoying the fruits of their labor. In the event that inequity reigned, the Jubilee was a means to return all land to its original owners. How did the original owners lose it? As the history of Israel bears out, it was through conniving that one family sold property to another, beginning an institutionalization of landlordship across the Land. Some became exorbitantly wealthy and others became destitute. Jubliee was intended to rectify the inequity, overriding even the "fair" acquisition of private property through buying it up and squeezing laborers to produce enough. God divided the land and God could redivide it, it was His dominion.

John Wycliffe, of proto-Protestant renown, applied such thought to English civil affairs. No one owned the land of England, only God owned it, and He handed it out as He saw fit. Wycliffe went as far to say that all such things, because they belong to God, only belong to us through grace. In radically Donatistic fashion, if said property owner showed sufficient sign of not being in such grace, such a person has no right to the property he claimed. Not even the English crown was guaranteed primogeniture, for if the son was profligate and debauched, he forfeited such crown, for it belonged not to a royal family, but to God and the people He established in England. Wycliffe's teaching was not well received in the royal house, but it did stir up Lollards, providing the intellectual backbone in both the Peasant Revolt of 1381 and Oldcastle Revolt (1414). For more on Wycliffe's political theology, Oliver O'Donovan has written about it in a few of his books.

I like John Wycliffe, but not for the above reasons. I'm not saying Israel's land practices ground any political doctrine. The division of the Land, the Jubilee, even the Land itself are prophetic signs testifying to Christ. However, what all of this does mean is that defaulting to private property as somehow the natural order is not only confused, but circumventing the evangelical command to share. You are not your own, but Christ's, and hiding behind property laws will not save you from the judgement. Yes, ours is not to lead a revolution and tear up signs that say "Mine, Mine, Mine!", but it means also not celebrating such a system. Lots of people claim things for themselves that do not belong to them, and God will judge them on the last day. For us, as I've said repeatedly elsewhere, we must not collude, even as we patiently wait for Christ's reckoning. When possible, seek justice in the city, but know that the wicked, those who fatten themselves on gobbling up the earth and poor, will be tossed into the fires of destruction. I conclude with St. James:

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. 4 Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.

7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 
9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! 10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Paralyzing Babel: A Primer on Politics for Pilgrims

I recently finished Teresa Bejan's book Mere Civility, in which she seeks to explain our current uncivil and tempestuous war of words and partisanship through the early modern period. First, she sets the problem. Like today, the Reformation saw the fragmentation of society and shattering of Christendom. Like today, many early modern theorists sought a way to rebuild Christendom. One option was persecution, driving out the heretics and crushing them socio-politically. The other option was eirenicism, which sought to win back heretics through formal toleration aimed towards conversion. Erasmus was the model for the latter approach, eschewing violence not so much out of principle but out of effectiveness; pummeling and killing your opponent won't win him over to a genuine conversion. Both sides sought to rebuild Christendom's unity. However, as the violence and the frustration wore on, other theorists sought an alternative to Christendom

Bejan covers Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. Hobbes advocated a politically induced silence on controversial topics, allowing for people to privately hold to their opinions as long as they kept them from the public. Locke advocated for a low-bar charity, and general acceptance for a variety of beliefs, but one that required a genuine sincerity for others. However, as Bejan explores, it's not clear what the criteria for this sincerity really was. Locke maintained a gentlemanly ethic that proscribed those considered hypocritical (Roman Catholics due to Jesuit casuistry and atheists). For Bejan, while Hobbes created a political environment that might silence dissidents, but allow them their personal beliefs, Locke is the real villain. Locke's approach demanded a kind of internal policing, requiring people not only to hold their tongue, but offer actual sympathy for opposing beliefs.

Roger Williams' approach, which Bejan labels 'mere civility', set a low bar. Unlike Hobbes or Locke, Williams maintained a strict division between the civil and the spiritual domain. He recognized that while pagans, papists, and even atheists, could be reprobate and working for the kingdom of darkness and, yet, remain decent in civil conduct. American Indians may be pagans or devil worshipers, but they too could build towns, keep order, and maintain a general sense of justice. Williams advocated an unrestrained free-speech that was grounded in his desire to have open space to convert the enemies of the gospel, even as the free-speech was not a means to reconstruct a social order. Williams believed there was a way to keep civil life generally peaceful, allowing for an exchange of harsh and condemnatory words without leading to social breakdown and murder. All speech, even really offensive and mean speech, was permitted as long as it didn't undermine the very medium of exchange. It was on this shared agonistic battleground of public disputation between groups that society's bonds could be maintained, and even strengthened, as all sides had an interest in preventing others squelching them.

Being as this work is mostly a foray into historical-political theory, it only touches lightly upon Williams' spiritual/civil divide. But such a divide is absolutely key for making sense of how Christians ought to discern fruitful political arrangements. Williams had no desire to perfect civil life, in fact all he did was restrain it from pursuing perfection, and, instead, it ordered society in ways that did not involve ultimate claims. Even though Williams thought the custom of removing one's hat before one's social superior was stupid and vain, he kept it. Such was the civil demand of order among Englishmen. But when he was required, as he was in Massachusetts Bay Colony, to pay homage to the English flag in worship, to tithe, or to withhold his tongue from preaching, he refused to obey the state authority and denounced it a whore of Babylon. He'd pay respect to Caesar, but he would not give his soul to him. Such was the proper conditions for Williams to engage in his teaching, preaching, and evangelism.

Now, I think Williams is a disastrous churchman, with his endlessly schismatic and fissiparous disposition. But, Bejan glides over the fact that he had properly rejected the social confusion between church and society manifest in Christendom. Perhaps at first glance, figures like Erasmus seem to be sane and virtuous defenders of unity. However, the major point of confusion, and this is crucial, is that he elides the unity of the Church with the unity of Christian society. The two go together for him. Roger Williams rejected this arrangement, and Bejan praises him for it, because he knew that it was a set-up for persecution. Whether it was with kid gloves or with an iron fist, efforts to rebuild Christendom would use state authority, whether in tax dollar support or in police violence. And in a figure like Jeremy Taylor, who flipped from Erasmian tolerationist under Cromwell to persecutor under the Restoration, a dark-side haunted all such talk. As Bejan repeatedly asks, who decides the standards, who decides which church is the church?

There are many episodes in church history where such a question is hardly clear. Elsewhere I've mentioned a multitude of examples, but I'll offer up one here that I've yet to talk about. In 431, the Council of Ephesus decided against Nestorius, condemning him, and supporting the phrase Theotokos as orthodox and biblical. John McGuckin, an eminent orthodox historical theologian and expert on Cyril of Alexandria, explains that Nestorius was not a heresiarch, but a really bad and arrogant churchman. Nestorius was highly elitist, using his scholastic education to draw a line between orthodox opinion and common piety. He was confusing and confused in his grammar, and no one was ever sure what he was arguing, but he refused to explain himself, owing to his chief position as patriarch of Constantinople. However, Cyril's position was not exactly air-tight either. After Ephesus, Cyril spent the rest of his writing career trying to correct errors that were being associated with his position. These conflicts were not resolved and came to a head in 451, with the council of Chalcedon. In it Cyril's writing was officially interpreted against the monophysites and radical monophysites (Eutychians), and supplemented with Leo's Tome. Alexandria shrieked that Chalcedon was the revenge of the Nestorians, and communion broke between them.

In addition, before the Egyptians left, many Syrian bishops broke communion, unwilling to officially condemn Nestorius. The patriarch had come from the Syrian church, and the Syrians had been slighted by not officially participating in the Council of Ephesus. They had been delayed, and it's not clear whether it was genuine or a political tactic to either run out the clock on the council, or save face and not condemn one of their own.

Now, in any case, which church was the true church the empire ought to side with? Just because a council had decided in such-and-such a way was not decisive. The "Robber Council" of Ephesus, in 449, appeared to be ecumenical in much of its form, and it had ruled on behalf of a Eutychian monophysitism. In addition, it is not clear what the point of divergences were, actually, on. It has been documented that Syriac and Greek grammar did not match up perfectly. Many Syrians of the now "Nestorian Church" of the East thought the Orthodox Church taught monophysitism. On the other side, Cyril's language bordered on the monophysite, even if its content differed significantly. The Monophysite church of Egypt considered Orthodoxy as revanchist Nestorianism, especially with Leo's Tome which firmly delimited distinction between the natures.

My point is not to build a case for agnosticism or some flattened version of doctrinal minimalism. Chalcedon was solid, and Leo's Tome a good explication of it. However, I am asking: How Nestorian was the so-called Nestorian Syriac Church? How Monophysite was Egypt? Where was there real difference and where was there grammatical confusion? And yet the imperial sword solved such a question, backing the Orthodox council, and harassing the now severed communions. The Egyptian church persevered, especially after falling out of the Byzantine orbit in the Arab invasions. The Copts were a second-class citizen population now, but they maintained their church under Islamic rule. The Nestorian Syrians spread throughout the Persian empire, and, following trade routes, flourished. Nestorian Syrian Christians evangelized throughout Northern India, Central Asia, and even reached the imperial capital of China, Chang'An. In the last case, the Tang dynasty tolerated a diversity of groups, and the Christians thrived.

Rather than imperial backed assertion, Christians thrived, spread, and flourished under regimes that permitted toleration. Whether it was a Christian himself governing, as it was the case with Roger Williams in Rhode Island, or whether it was a Pagan (a Chinese Buddhist to be precise), as it was in Tang dynasty China, in both cases the church succeeded. Christendom was not required for proclaiming the gospel, growth in numbers, a vibrant faith, and an intellectually vigorous leadership. In fact, as it is now becoming clearer in ecumenical dialogues between Orthodox, Nestorian Syrians, and Egyptians, the use of the sword prolonged ecclesiastical separation and reinforced misunderstands, politicizing dogma to the point of rending Christ's body afresh.

What does all of this mean? I contend that it shapes a vision of Christian political action. However, this form of politics is not exactly what most mean by politics. We might call it the politics of secularization, but that word is far too loaded to do much good. What I mean by calling it secular is that the governing authorities, the political apparatus, is diminished through a kind of self-restraint. It does not totalize, it does not become Heaven on Earth; in a word, it is paralyzed from becoming Babel. The civil realm is revealed as a temporary and contingent order; Christ has cast Satan down, and the throne of earth should remain empty until Christ rightly rests His feet upon it as His footstool.

The problem with Christendom is that, in its pursuit to claim the throne of Earth on behalf of Christ, it ends up becoming a movement of Satan. This is a legacy of the Magisterial Reformed, which, as Proto has explicated here, had pushed Rome's monistic impulse to a new level. In seeking to totally integrate the church into society, the former becomes a synagogue of satan and together they attempt the Babel project. We know that pagans will continue such efforts, worshiping whatever gods that come their way and placing them into the pantheon of the state. Such is the heart and soul of nationalism, which seeks to create a core identity which motivates and galvanizes. Christian nationalism is not anti-christ like Christendom, but it is a form of Paganism glossed with Christian terms. In these terms, we may distinguish Erasmus, as a velvet-gloved apologist for Christendom, from John Locke, who is a type of Christian nationalist. In Locke's case, it is a very low bar, we might call it a liberal nationalism, but one that seeks to guide, shape, and mold civil society in such a way as to control its character.

Again, who is the one who is deciding what this low bar of Christian civility is? The whole project is about control and border policing. It not only damages the witness of the church as a class of the oppressed becomes trampled down under her banner, but it, inevitably, puts the saints under a reign of persecutory violence. American Christian nationalism is the same motor driving the concerns under hate-speech law and identity politics. It will only be just, if not sad, when the same method becomes turned upon its architects.

I've mentioned elsewhere before that I hold left political opinions*, and my Christian convictions drive them. However, while I appreciate Marxist eschatology and critique as a means to make sure Christians don't forget their own, I have no truck with statists. My politics is more or less concerned with all of the above which I've outlined, as a means to distinguish the civil from the spiritual, or, perhaps more precisely, the ecclesial. Christian politics ought to be concerned with the jamming the machine of Earth's throne. This politics is manifest not in taking power, or attacking those in power, but in the simple advice the Apostles offer. We pay taxes and pay respect, and nothing more. St. Peter even conflates the respect one offers to the king as one offers to all men; it is a general civic respect, a recognition of the established hierarchy and doffing the proverbial hat. It bleeds out any claim of sacral authority, which all powers possess, even if they hide it from direct view. The civil must be clearly marked out and kept within its own limited and fleeting boundary.

This is why the global capital regime of Neo-Liberalism is so disastrous, and Libertarians are generally useful idiots in this regard. The problem is not that Neo-Liberalism evacuates all politics for the purposes of the economic, the problem is that that's what the ideology claims even as it does nothing of the sort. The Anglo-American Neo-Liberal global order operates through larger, multi-national firms, but it requires co-optation of states and state apparati to be effective. More times than not, giant corporations gain dominance not from ingenuity or from "free markets", but from beneficial state policies and laws, which, to be policies or laws, are backed with military and police violence. Neo-Liberalism collapses politics into economics, not to dissolve the former, but to so totally hide it that it becomes unassailable.

The original socialist battle-cry, which I agree with whole heartedly, was that property is theft. They weren't talking about ownership qua ownership. They weren't again people owning the homes they lived in, the personal objects in their possession, etc. Rather, what they meant was that the means of production can't be owned and maintained except through coercive force. Something like land would seem to naturally fall to those who actually use it and produce fruits from it. It is only through violence that an abstract claim to ownership, manifest in written title which has its power, not in itself, but through consensual force. What the original socialists picked up on was that this legitimacy could very well be a clever rouse. Just as nobility did not come from a mythical bloodline, but through wars of conquest and service to the victorious conqueror, so too does the idea of private capital appear from violent appropriation. It is not so much natural, but an arrangement through violence that received justification after the fact.

The means of production can only be owned if they are coordinated with governments willing to enforce certain peoples' claims to them. The nation-state can be one form of governing authority; others might appear in the guise of the mafia, the cartels, or just corporate police and company towns that assume the totality of life. Government didn't disappear into the market, but has been totally disguised as mere market forces. American political authorities and American corporate authorities have been so fused together, it becomes unclear where one begins and the other ends. Whether it's Bush II's financial package and legal protection for the Koch Brothers or Clinton's leaked donor talks to Goldman Sachs, red and blue share a united establishment based. The "golden straight-jacket" of Thomas Friedman is really a clever consolidation of political power towards domination. It is very subtle form of sacralization.

The point is not so much that Christians are anti-government; we're not and we're not seeking to destroy it. Rather, the point is to demythologize it, to reveal it for what it is. It is the civil, and the secular, realm and nothing more. If possible we should pray and rejoice in regimes which suspend the machine of Babel building. Our hope is in a New Heavens and a New Earth, and not in trying to save This Age or make it into something other than it is. The first Adam is dying and fading away, while the second Adam is raised forevermore. A low-level peace is all that is hoped for, so we may go about quietly, working with our hands, and reaping the harvest God has set before us. Things like free-speech, freedom to assemble, protection for minorities, a lack of cultural assimilation pressure, among others, are goods that are to the advantage of Christ's Body. May the Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Savior, bless such a reality and have mercy upon us. Amen.

*My leftist opinions approach Proudhon, and other Socialists, who vehemently rejected Marx and others seeking to use the State to further their liberating goals. Unlike them, however, I have no utopian aspirations and find them as distasteful as they are delusional. In this anti-statist streak, I have a lot in common with Burkean style Conservatives, who seek a reduced government for the mediating institutions of custom and local life. I too support localism over large and sweeping visions, and would choose "natural" hierarchies over anything intentionally constructed. But, I have two concerns with Burkean Conservatism.

First, I think labor is a more egalitarian form of social relation than custom and culture. Working together can show a more natural form of hierarchy, as people go about completing their tasks and sharing in the fruits of their labor. This is not to deny the importance of shared language and custom, but I don't think such should be self-consciously imputed an organizing and structuring power. Per my above comment, this kind of "natural" and local hiearchy is far more manageable than other realities. But, having said such, work itself can set the most limited forms of what is needed to negotiate with others for mutual support and benefit. Which follows into,

Secondly, I am wary of imputing any more social power to culture than is already there. Not that labor can't be divinized in weird ways, as is seen in Soviet propaganda, but it has a far smaller rap sheet than culture and custom. Empowering culture and custom may set up rival poles of authority for Christians, who begin to take their contingencies far too seriously. It's in this vein that Burkean Conservatism can become a gateway drug to a form of nationalism, which inevitably moves towards synthesis between the faith and a set of ethnic procedures and behaviors. If custom and culture can be evacuate even further of their power over the lives of Christian, labor becomes the last remaining residue for the foundation of the civil, allowing us a convenient space to conduct our missions.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Creating the Donatists

Donatism has become one of the straight-jacket heresies that became a common-place slur during the Reformation and continued up to the present. The accusation is usually about too tightly fence-ringing a church through moral standards. The segmentation between true and false church follows behavior among leaders and institutional integrity. The Donatist problem is not so much false doctrine, but a schismatic tendency to rend the Church over issues of purity.

In classical terms, the Donatists began over the issue of traditores, bishops and priest/elders who handed over Scripture to Roman authorities to be burned during the Diocletian persecution. While what to do with the traditores continued, one who was thought to be of their number, Caecilian acceded to the bishopric of Carthage. Many in the African churches were furious with this appointment and caused a schism. The movement, named from its first powerhouse leader, Donatus, argued for strict severity of the church boundaries; even sacraments from an immoral minister were null and void. The controversy raged on between Donatists and so-called Catholics until Augustine finally broke the Donatists through winsome appeal, sound argument, and the imperial sword. From this moment on, the Donatists were in retreat, sapped of their intellectual vigor, now surpassed by Augustine's intellectual successors.

I don't dispute that Donatists became insular, legalistic, incredibly strict, and even proto-nationalistic in its stronghold regions (particularly Nubia). But that's the kicker: became. I have my suspicions about the typical narrative, especially after reading and working with Ticonius' work. Now, I should say, Ticonius was excommunicated from the Donatists near the end of his life, but the context and reason for such schism is very unclear. Rather, it seems as if Ticonius flourished under the episcopal oversight of Parmenian. If such is the case than the Donatists were not a purity movement in this reactionary sense. In fact, the Donatists numerically overwhelmed the Catholics until Augustine's politique leadership, as well as being far more theologically robust. In addition, the Catholics only held onto a few areas due to direct imperial influence. In the dispute over Caecilian, Constantine had backed him in a hope to end the rupturing schism, but even the emperor could not resist the numerically, intellectually, and morally superior Donatist party. Constantine fumed that the Donatists even took over imperially funded churches, built for Catholics, because their sheer numbers allowed them to be the Christian mainstream in Africa.

So the truth of the typical story is teleologically focused: the Donatists did not begin as raving legalists, obsessively patrolling ecclesiastical borders and exacting moral perfection. Rather the initial conflict, originating in church problems dating back to St. Cyprian's tenure as bishop in the 3rd century, was over changing relations between church and Roman society. While occasionally some poor or artisan/trader types ended up in a persecutory net, it really hurt the wealthy the most. Romans who became Christians and were respected members of the community faced easy targeting under a persecution dragnet. St. Cyprian fled, and then suffered martyrdom, because he had previously been a wealthy patrician (though one who had sold most of his possessions and land for the sake of the poor and the Carthaginian church). The anger and agitation that motivated the Donatists was over how much was how much; it was not so much a question of forgiveness, but what standards ought we to remain accountable to. Before the Donatists became the Donatists we think of today, they were a sign that something perverse was happening, even before Constantine's adoption of the faith.

My claim here is that the Donatists would not have become what we know them for if they were not backed into a corner through imperial influence rattling, which slowly morphed an ecclesiastical dispute into an imperial/regional political feud and, in so doing, turn the Donatists more obsessively inward. Imperial favor to the Catholics, and continued military pressure, pushed Donatists into a popular-level ruffian tactics. The Circumcellions became a Donatists backed reality only after Imperial political and military pressure. And the Donatists were not united in this shift. Not all Donatists were comfortable with these changes, and the church fragmented under a series of controversies about the use of violence and the doctrinaire self-righteousness. In some ways, the imperially sponsored Catholic party created the enemy that they would resist successfully until both were deluged in the Arab invasion. If anything, it was Augustine the political machinist, and not Augustine the philosopher, who helped push back the Donatist tide. Augustine's Two Cities idea came from a Donatist, Tyconius, who freely admitted that within a church, both Donatist and Catholic, there was a struggle between Christ and anti-christ. The only unique intellectual contribution Augustine added was his thuggish interpretation of compelle intrare, which interpreted a parable to justify the use of church-backed governmental violence as salutary and loving.

What happened to the Donatists strikes me as a parallel to the Anabaptist movement. Like their African forbearers, the early Anabaptists were trying to separate secular civil society from the holy church, not confusing the two. This is what happened in Zurich, where Zwingli's reformation had put itself fully in the hands of the Swiss city-state. Some disciples of Zwingli, such as Conrad Grebel, defected over Zwingli's seemingly political indifference to his humanist, ad fontes, approach to biblical study. The issue of baptism was not so much over adult, believer, baptism as it was about untangling baptism as a marker of Zuricher/Swiss citizenship and nationality and baptism as a mark of the Church. The re-baptism was an attempt to de-christianize what had been mistakenly confused for God's kingdom; it was an attempt to redraw the boundary. As the Anabaptists grew, expanded, and developed, they became pressed by both Magisterial Protestant and Romanist authorities. They turned inward towards self-policing; the original evangelistic fervor dissipated under a cloud of self-protection. Groups like Hutterites, Mennonites, and the German Baptists became more and more ethnic enclaves, with a self-righteous defensiveness and purity fixation. In some ways, it was the only means to prevent a total collapse into the surrounding society, with its defanged ecclesiastical authority and generally evaporated fidelity to the gospel. The methodological wedges, such as re-baptism, became refined into a principle of separation, and these groups lost much of their intellectual depth and breadth in order to survive.

In both cases, whatever the errors of the Donatists and the Anabaptists, it was their government backed rivals who pushed them further into their errors. The spirit of anti-christ can corrupt the faithful through a series of compromises, security measures, and fragmentation, allowing those who will do what is necessary a place of leadership even as they act as conduits for godlessness. Both stories are sad collapses of groups who tried to struggle and put the breaks on what was happening around them, even as they became swept away in the flood. And yet our master raises the dead, and brings light to those in the tombs. Christ have mercy.

Monday, December 18, 2017

When Our World Became Eusebian: The Categorical Error of Christian Civilization

Leithart continues his egregious crusade to justify and defend Constantine. In his latest post, he summarizes Paul Veyne's When Our World Became Christian. Veyne is a French ancient historian and classicist weighing into the debate about Europe's heritage. However, the bulk of the post focuses on Veyne's treatment of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

The gist of the post is as follows: Constantine was a genuine Christian whose faith motivated his public policies, his wars, and his social changes. Veyne finds the idea of Constantine as a cynical Machiavellian, using the Christians for his own ends, foolish, simplisitic, and uninformed. Constantine's speeches, whether to the senate, to his court, or to the bishops in council, were chock full of pious language, which did not smack of Pagan syncretism. Rather, Constantine submitted the throne to the altar, seeking to benefit the Christian church. Instead of gaining from the Christians, Constantine had to defend his pro-Christian policies, which offended many ruling families and a majority of his subjects. The Christians seemed to be an alien element of Roman society, with their quasi-government organization without attachment to blood or soil. Only the Jews resembled them, but they too were tied to kinship networks. Constantine may have had an over inflated view of himself, even megalomania, but Veyne finds him generally sincere. Constantine's reign began a radical shift in Roman imperialism, which was nothing short of a revolution.

Now Leithart has two qualifiers: 1) he thinks Veyne overestimates Constantine's role in Church councils (namely, Nicaea); 2) he thinks Veyne underestimates the effects Constantine's favoritism had on creating an anti-Pagan "atmosphere. However, all in all, Leithart not only agrees with Veyne's assessment, but seems to rejoice in it.

Before I begin my criticism of how Leithart is producing an exercise in missing the point, I will say he is in fact addressing a real concern. I am assuming Leithart's pro-Constantine literature is generally aimed at the Evangelical crowd that has a superficial anti-Constantinianism. When I was an early Christian, I recall beginning to develop a dislike for Constantine as corrupter and politique manipulator of the faith. However, as I began to delve deeper, and probe more at the roots, I realized that being anti-Constantine is pretty normal. Evangelicals may bang the drums for war, may seek to influence public policy, but still remain anti-Constantine. The difference between where I was heading and where many American Evangelicals were was in how they understood Constantine's role. Evangelicals were generally not averse to civil and political participation, but rather they didn't want to get Christ confused for a political regime. They did not want the truths of the gospel to become a mere political program.

What Leithart is trying to do is prove that Constantine was not a Machiavellian statist. If Leithart can make that case there is little reason for most Evangelicals being so wary. Constantine did not coerce the Church, he was not overtly persecuting any group, he was not using religion towards his own evil ends. If that's the case, Constantine is the model Evangelical emperor; someone who respects the Church, helps it in whatever way he can, and push a social program that helps pursue Christian ways of social aid. In this way, Leithart's account is right on the nose, and he knows what he is doing.

Of course, I'd argue that Leithart's approach, and most Evangelical's anti-Constantinianism, misses the entire point. It's irrelevant whether Constantine was a sincere or insincere Christian; it's irrelevant whether he was a good or bad emperor. I'm perfectly content saying that Constantine was probably both a sincere Christian and a, relatively, good emperor. Those aren't the points of contention. Rather, it's a question of whether that's the form Scripture presents. Does Scripture give us categories of a Christian empire? Does Scripture give us categories for a state working on behalf of the Church?

The answer is no on both counts. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Eusebianism is the rot in the faith which, on the contrary, answers yes. This theological paradigm denies Christ His absolute reign and rule, and it denies the paradigmatic role for the cross, as well as exile and pilgrimage, in the Christian life. Eusebius posited that the telos of the Church's sufferings was found in the reign of Constantine, the adornment of the Chi-Ro over the SPQR of the imperial purple. Constantine, and Christendom following from him, is the resurrection in political theological terms. After a period of cross-like suffering, the Church is now victorious, ruling at the right-hand of the emperor. I don't think Constantine was so much a megalomaniac, though he may be, but fit the role Eusebians laid out for him. I don't think Constantine invented the idea that he was equal to the Apostles; that title flowed freely from sycophantic churchmen who surrounded him. The problem is that all of these things were not merely politique techniques for power; they were deeply theological. The Eusebians really believed.

Now, Eusebianism is something far more complex than Eusebius' fawning of Constantine as savior of the faith. Many were not so comfortable with such an approach; especially after seeing how the empire could shift back and forth. The experience of the Arian Constantius and the neo-pagan Julian were enough to convince many theologians that the eschaton had not yet begun. In this way, I'm willing to say Augustine represents a moderate form of Eusebianism, mingled with seeds of an anti-Constantinian paradigm. Some parts of Augustine seem to question the entire matrix, other parts seem to endorse it in vague and theoretical ways. The point is that the civil political structure has a part to play in the support and defense of the Church.

However, such an approach ignores how the Apostles interpreted the whole of Scriptures. While Christ fulfills both the lowly and exalted parts of Israel's history, there's no sense that the Church is going to experience resurrected society until the Lord comes again. The power of the resurrection courses through the Church in the same way that it coursed through Christ's lowly pilgrimage; and yet, even in its vigor, the Church is still on the way. I don't think Leithart, among many others, would deny this claim. Most Eusebians are moderate sorts, in the mold of St. Augustine. However, they still refuse to reckon with the fact that the New Testament has no place for an ascendant and politically powerful Church. Models for such have to be dug up from the Old Testament, usually confused and blurred from their Christological impact, or they have to be invented whole cloth. The fact is that even when the Church was in exile, Daniel was a court-adviser as a slave, and even though Nebuchadnezzar converted after bouts of arrogance and defiance, he did nothing to alter the course of Babylon.  There was no Israeldom or Judaendom in the Babylonian Empire; nor does Scripture even care. There is no account of imperial unfaithfulness after Nebuchadnezzar, he simply is a blip to prove God's continued fidelity to His people.

But, again, Leithart is not concerned with whether Constantine actually is faithful to the Apostolic deposit. He begs the question as to whether Scripture has a category of Christendom. But he can't give up on this paradigm because it would fundamentally undermine the entire narrative of Reformed Catholicity that he has been pushing against Evangelicals. I have nothing against tradition, but I'm against this lazy form of Evangelical Protestant tradition. Either one rejects everything before 1517, warping whatever is salvageable into a Protestant mold, or one adopts the whole thing uncritically, ripping the whole thing off from the Papists. I hear "Reformed catholics" waxing about Medieval theology, but I never hear a peep about the Waldensians. They pretend to be the true heirs of the Catholic tradition. As for me, I too would consider myself a "Reformed catholic" of sorts, but I have no vested interest in trying uncritically win the Tradition, as if such existed, to myself. I will write more about this in another post.

As long as this question revolves around "Christian culture" or "Christian civilization", which it undoubtedly does, the waters will be muddied. Yes, Christians will impress their faith into the cultural forms that they were born into, and continue, which will alter social patterns and behavior. To call it "Christianizing" is to misunderstand that such socialization of the Gospel lacks permanence. The Church is a society with its own Kingdom ethics; something the Puritans picked up on, but generally misapplied in the pursuit to make a godly commonwealth, fusing church with English society at large. In this way, Hauerwas and Leithart stand at opposite ends, even with much in common; it's the same way that the Bay Colony Puritans and the Plymouth Separatists had much in common, even as they, at first, had wildly different visions of the church's relationship to general society.

And that's the rub. Both Leithart and I would agree Constantine was a sincere Christian and a good emperor. What we radically disagree on is the council we would give a Constantine, and what significance we might ascribe to it in a larger, cosmic, sense. At this juncture I would consider Leithart an enemy of Christ, and a defender of anti-Christ, even if he, like Augustine, was ignorant of what exactly he was doing. Though, in Augustine's defense, he was on the upswing of a paradigm shift, not trying to excavate it out of the ash-heap of God's history. In this way, Leithart has no excuse; he'll just go on supporting the Roy Moores of this world, making a fool of himself along the way. I'm not sure whether to praise God or to lament.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Death of a Comedian: Fragments on 'Watchmen'

Watchmen is one of my favorite films. It's a good commentary on Americana and American social policy. After the Nolan Batman triology, it's my favorite superhero movie. It can be long and rambling at times, but I like the noir feel and pace of it. The uncut version has a lot of grotesque (but, as I'll discuss below, illuminating) nudity of the radioactive man-god Dr. Manhattan which is detestable. But here's a series of fragments on my commentary. I know it's not in line with Alan Moore's philosophy, and I'm not sure what the film's director intended; but I'm reading it off in my own way.

-Rorschach is the official narrator of the film, and Adrian/Ozymandias drives the story forward with his massive, and successful, conspiracy to rewrite the world script. But the real soul in the film is Silk Spectre II, even as she is relatively hollow character. Her hollowness is important because she represents the future of America. She is the America of the late 20th-early 21st century. She is a kind of shell and mirror for the other characters to project fantasies on, have relationships with, and, in do so, constitute their own symbolic character. She is the central object that multiple characters' plans intersect with. It's also for this reason that she is left out of the final confrontation between Night Owl II, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan. It's telling she's the only living super hero not present. It's because she's the central object of a plot that asks about the future of the US.

-If Silk Spectre II is the future of America, her mother, Silk Spectre I, is the America that is passing away. She is the early-mid 20th century US and represents a fleeting image (hence her obsession with always looking on the past). A repeated line, which becomes filled in throughout the plot, is that when Silk Spectre I looks back on the past, even the grimy parts get bright. She, of course, is referring to her near rape by the Comedian, and its consensual consummation later. Despite mom having a steady marriage to a banker/bureaucrat, her affair causes her to conceive. Now it's crucial that her husband, who is a kind of typical bankster type, can't impregnate her and the Comedian can. The Comedian, as it's clear from the film's typology, is an image of Fascism. He is a violent and brutal superhero who, after the masks are banned, becomes an agent of covert ops. The film even shows him being the second shooter on the grassy knoll, killing Kennedy. In symbolic terms, America is nearly raped by Fascism, but eagerly embraces him, conceiving the future, even as she remains married to a low-key financial establishment. Such reflects America's shift towards pro-fascist policies after World War 2, eagerly reinstalling those ex-fascists willing to fight the Communists. This policy is the gist of the US' interaction with Europe post-war, manifest in programs like Gladio. The America of the future is shaped, but not necessarily determined, by the US' fascistic turn in foreign policy. Neither the old nor the new America is fascist, but embraces it in an external way.

-Dr. Manhattan symbolically stands for the Nuclear Age. Silk Spectre II begins a love affair with him, even though she is, throughout the film, dissatisfied with his lack of attention. Dr. Manhattan gives her all the "loving" necessary, according to his calculations. But she wants his full attention. Dr. Manhattan, as the nuclear man-god he is, is mostly naked throughout the film. This represents the promise of raw power in the Atomic Age, where a kind of shallow scientism flowered. There was a kind of shock-and-awe sense throughout some sectors of the American academy and public that the modern age had finally dawned. After the Bomb there was no going back. Apocalypse was on the cusp, and there was even a psycho-social fascination with the end of all things. Hence there was the film boom in Sci-Fi apocalypse (e.g. Planet of the Apes, Space Odyssey 2000, Twilight Zone, etc.) However, the Nuclear Age did not have much room within it for particularities. The ideology envisioned Humanity, not Americans, as the future. At the film's end, Dr. Manhattan became handcuffed to Adrian's master plan, being linked to a series of explosions bearing his energy signature. Dr. Manhattan hates Adrian and what he has done, but confesses that, post-facto, following through is the best idea. He exiles himself from Earth, even as the whole world united together to oppose Dr. Manhattan. This self banishment represents the shift of the nuclear option, more or less, out of foreign policy. Atom bombs and nuclear energy dropped out of the public imagination. People were no longer intoxicated with the fear and delight of a scientific Armageddon.  Adrian's consolidation represented the excision of the nuclear option in his future world.

-Ozymandias has a fitting name because of his grandiose view of himself, which, in the poem, is immortal even as it is self-effacing. The statue remains, but the visible glory has been buried beneath the sands. Such was Adrian's plan, using the Dr. Manhattan bombs to unite the world against the man-god of Nuclear energy. Adrian represents, rather clearly, the neo-liberal globalism that rapidly engulfed the world through Anglo-American corporate interests. Adrian is a CEO of the world's largest corporation. His power and interests span multiple nations. He hopes, in subjugating the world to a faux-unity, he can direct them as a benevolent, corporate, overlord. Adrian depended upon the Comedian for awhile, but as his plan came together, he killed him and used his death to be a domino to set his plan in motion. According to the film's logic, neo-liberalism utilized fascism, and, when its networks were consolidated, buried it. There was no love-lost, but the corporate power required the use of unsavory means. The Comedian functioned as a hit man for Adrian after he lost his contracts on the government's payroll. And, per neo-liberalism's rather invisible role, Ozymandias has no direct hand in governing the globe; however the film gestures to his power in seeing that it is Adrian's company leading the way in repairing the damaged cities.

-When Adrian completes his plan, he allows Night Owl II to go home, where he rejoins Silk Spectre II. Night Owl represents an old school, moderate, liberalism, the kind of establishment platform between conservative New Dealers and east-coast Republicans. When we meet Night Owl I, he comes off as blue-collar working man, the kind of unionist who supported the New Deal Democrats. Night Owl II is more professional; it's not clear what he does, but it's not manual labor. He looks college educated and professional, the future of liberalism's base of support. While he has an off-and-on relationship with Silk Spectre II, she eventually chooses him against Dr. Manhattan's delusions of grandeur and self-absorption. As a kind of "husband" figure, he shows the formal wedding between the new America and this new liberalism. However, there's a catch. Night Owl only leaves his conflict with Adrian alive by agreeing to not talk about what happened. There's a silent complicity between neo-liberal globalism and the retired Night Owl II, who is the last gasp of liberalism. The Clinton presidency represented a traditional liberalism who is in the pocket of neo-liberal globalism, at least off the surface. The end of film is a phony home-sweet-home, the world squarely under Adrian's design, but where Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II can live happily ever after.

-This, of course, leaves us with Rorschach, who does not leave the conflict with Adrian. In fact, he dies by the hand of Dr. Manhattan. He knows he is going to die, but he refuses to back off of his commitment to the truth. While Rorschach comes off with brutally conservative morals (i.e. he comments, with disgust, on the whores and drugs that fill the city), he is not quite the Objectivist that Alan Moore designed him to be. He has a radical empirical streak in him, and he's jaded after being broken by confrontation with the vicious murder of a little girl. Rorschach, perhaps, stands in for American radicalism, an amalgamation of left and right concerns that rejects the establishment, both of the old and new America, and dies because he refuses to keep quiet about Adrian's plan. Rorschach misses the old America, in that he worked with Silk Spectre I. It's a sort of wistful commentary on the possibility of real reform back then, even if things were bad then too. Rorschach rails against "Tricky Dick", who, in the film's alternate history, has become president for the fifth time by winning the Vietnam war and reversing term limits. Nixon represents a fantasy of what MacArthur could've achieved through wanton nuclear diplomacy, but, more importantly, he is a figure for the whole establishment, melded into an aged liberal, but militant, Republican. Rorschach's death represents the obliteration of radical movements, but he left his diary of investigations for a small new organ. The film ends in a kind of quasi-optimism. Radicalism still lives on in the life of Rorschach which was preserved in his investigations, connecting the Comedian, Adrian, and Dr. Manhattan together before he perished.

I should say, for clarity, that this is how I'm reading the film's plot elements and characters. My analysis is not so much what I think, but what I think the film conveys. There is much of the analysis that is pretty revealing and true as regards America post-Cold War and pre-War on Terror. However, I don't agree with all the analyses and, now being in a different epoch of American geo-politics, it's not so much a powerful commentary, but an allegorical history of where things were at 9/11.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Augustine the Hinge: The Crossroads Between Fidelity and Infidelity

Augustine is clearly one of the most famous theologians among the churches of the West. His impact was titanic for the development of a distinctly Latin theology, as opposed to developments in the Greek and Syriac speaking East. Augustine shaped many questions that would continue, up to the Reformation and beyond. The Neo-Platonic mystical synthesis that one found among many university professors in the high Middle Ages was distinctly influenced by Augustine. Even the boom of scholasticism, in the Thomist resourcement of Aristotle or in the Franciscan attempt to reconstruct a number of theological questions, was deeply impacted by the African. Even those rejecting Augustine had to interact, they could not merely ignore him or avoid him. Augustine was the major figure on both sides of the Reformation. Even if it was not so much a question of Augustine's soteriology vs. Augustine's ecclesiology (as B.B. Warfield put it), he was a huge player in framing the issues. Even as theology dimmed in the public debates, Augustine the philosopher returned like a flash of lightening in the 20th century.

None of this should be surprising. But I want to frame a different kind of question. In a brief post, Leithart documented, according to a scholar, that it was less Augustine than his student that shaped the Middle Ages. Orosius studied under Augustine, becoming one of his most important disciples. He wrote The Seven Books of Histories, which he dedicated to his master and authored with his blessing. Augustine's quiet endorsement helped propel Orosius into fame among Medieval literati. He was just as popular as City of God, and even attracted an audience in the Caliph's court.

To put it generally, Orosius understood Augustinian political theology optimistically. Augustine's main project in City of God was to prove that the Roman imperial order was nothing special. Contrary to Eusebian odes, the Roman Empire's conversion was not the end of history, the telos of Christ's victory. Rather, Augustine expected many more empires to come and go. The Roman emperor was not a special viceroy among the nations. Now these sentiments can be taken in multiple directions. In a pessimistic vein, Augustine undercuts all nations' justifications for themselves, reducing them to passing phenomenon. In addition, Augustine shares a sense that such empires will try to co-opt the church for its own purposes. More optimistically, however, Augustine says that no empire is special, all can fulfill God's purposes for them in shielding and sheltering the truths of the Christian gospel. Obviously, the latter approach becomes the backbone for development of Christendom throughout the Middle Ages.

Frankly, I think Augustine inclined towards an Orosian political theology, even as he had learned enough to be wary of a clear-cut endorsement. Augustine never disputed the Theodosian establishment of the church. Augustine was very comfortably Roman, even if his conversion jostled him out of his decades long complacency. The son of a lower noble in a backwater province, Augustine soared into the limelight of high society, with his study of rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. He was in the court of Milan for a brief spell, he had many friends among the aristocrats. All of this is to say that Augustine was very much a Roman, and it's why he was very comfortable in calling down the guards upon recalcitrant Donatists. Augustine was no accidental agent of state, even if he was not a mouthpiece for imperial policy. He was a political operator who knew how to crush agitators and move popular opinion. Such was not uncommon for bishops at this time, though not all bishops acted with such trust in the imperial government (e.g. Cyril of Alexandria's use of Egyptian over Imperial networks).

In addition to all of this, Augustine was pretty indebted to Plotinian metaphysics. Augustine had become extremely attracted to Neo-Platonism through the preaching of Ambrose. The early days of Augustine's theological career reflected his desire to live as a philosopher, retired to a villa and surrounded with a group of fellow intellectual adventurers. He clearly desired the philosophical monasticism of a Plotinus or a Porphyry, which was less unique than a general mood that was rapidly spreading across the entire Roman world. Plotinian metaphysics stressed an essential balance, a chain of being, that connected the One to all things down the chain and, in the case of Humans who were endowed with reason, drawing them upwards to itself. The pattern of exitus-reditus, leaving and returning, unfolding and collapsing, was rather central to being. The lines of influence are confusing, as Origen and Clement of Alexandria may have left their mark on the Neo-Platonic synthesis, and Plotinus influenced many future Christians into the 4th and 5th centuries onward. Augustine, especially as he aged, was not an uncritical follower of Plotinus, and he gravitated out of the Christian Platonism that Ambrose preached. However, the philosophy and accompanying metaphysics never left Augustine, even if he modified them extremely.

Yet, still, Augustine remained aloof from the larger circuits of Christian Platonism, he was circumspect and wary about Romanitas, especially when conflated with the Christian faith, and he did not think the empire would last forever. Where did these concerns come from for someone well-fitted?

Generally, there are appeals to Augustine's special genius, his growing caution from Rome's sack in 410 to the Vandal invasion of Africa, even his consternation at the success of Pelagian theology. The former is fluff and doesn't explain anything because it can explain everything. And Augustine was simultaneously wary and vigorous, as he wrote City of God during the Donatist controversy. Inconsistency? But whence the inconsistent emphases?

I want to raise a figure who has often been forgotten, but was instrumental in Augustine's theology, especially as manifest in his On Christian Teaching. This man was Ticonius, a lay theologian in the Donatist church in Africa. Not much is known about the specifics of Ticonius' life. He wrote much, but all that survives is his Book of Rules and some fragments of his commentary on Revelation. The latter point, in itself, is interesting, especially since interest in the book declined as the Empire became Christendom. Eusebius wasn't even sure it was canonical, and while the book became established in canon through the 4th century, it was not always widely commented on.

Ticonius was not what one imagines as a Donatist. He did not think the church was necessarily pure, though purity was something which Christians should strive towards. But, to the contrary, Ticonius imagined that pure and impure would mix, and struggle would mark the church's constitution, within itself and with the Devil, until Christ returned. I'd claim, in a super generalized and unsubstantiated way, that Ticonius severely impacted Augustine's reading of Scripture and stained him with a healthy pessimism that he intermingled with his own optimistic assessments of the empire. Ticonius cast a shadow in Augustine's mind that loomed over events within the empire, leaving doubt about its significance. Regardless of whether this is, in fact, true, Ticonius opens the door on a different, and I'd say more biblical, political theology, one that became dormant within Augustine's corpus of work.

In the next few weeks, I'm going to be focusing on Ticonius' Book of Rules, giving summaries and evaluations for each section. Also, if you're interested, I have the whole thing (in Latin and English) on pdf; leave your email in a comment and I'll send it to you.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Being Proletariat in America: A Reflection on Class and Kingdom Ethics


The above article is an excellent summary of the current state of the working class in the US. It gives a fair explanation of the sort of thinking that motivated, and galvanized, widespread support for Donald Trump against his Republican contenders and boosted him over Hillary Clinton in a number of battle ground states. I don't want to summarize it; go read the article before reading the rest of this post.

The key insight in the essay is to emphasize how much "class-cluelessness" thrives in America. Talking about class is not the politics of resentment or attempting to divide. Rather, it is the division in most industrialized and/or capitalist nations. Race, in contrast, has been a tool to confuse and smokescreen real social issues. This isn't to say racism isn't real or doesn't function at various levels of society and in certain groups. It certainly does. But race is a false schema delployed that has taken up a life of its own. As a historical example: in the post-Reconstruction South, many tenant farmers and sharecroppers, both white and black, began to realize their joint interests. They even began to gain momentum through the nascent populist parties sprouting up in the late nineteenth century. Is it just coincidental that at the same time many elites of planter wealth began a heavy wave of propaganda, resurrecting many racial tropes about the black man's savagery? The collapse of populism's first wave coincided with a ready made framework to understand failure; blaming the black man as a lazy thief was a way to get white cracker farmers to back the Democratic party and help keep the South's old establishment functioning. Where their small farmers who believed in the racial tropes? Certainly. But at the same time, these ideas didn't pop out of the ground or become effective because these poor farmers had some sort of racial caste privilege. No, the idea of a united white brotherhood was never more than an ideal, only ever meaning anything when votes were at stake. I'm talking at a social whole level, not at individual interactions level. Those who had much in common were divided from one another.

On all the major points, the above essay is wholly correct in its analysis. Trump had the appeal, even though he had clearly made deals with many starved neo-cons looking for a relative return to power that they had in the first 4-6~ years of Bush II. But the far more dominant neo-liberal faction has taken to using race, gender, the whole of identity politics, to play the leftist, while propping up an order that is equally imperial, though very different in strategy and style, to their neo-con competitors. As a side note, I should say I'm using "neo-liberal" and "neo-con" as short-hand for a complex web of relationships and ideas, none of which is clear cut, and some of which overlap. On many more substantial issues, the two are wholly indistinguishable, representing what we might call an American deep-state.

As a Christian, reading and responding to the article, there is much to support. Christians ought to be among the "least of these", not seeking to straddle the imperial throne. Not pursuing glory and wealth, not hoarding up and creating dynasties, Christians ought to be found, more often than not, among such working-class people. In a memorable phrase, the Church of Christ is a "priesthood of the plebs", who receive their honor and glory from the meritorious work of Christ the Lord, the Divine Logos made flesh. Also, the essay's author makes better sense of the actual levers of oppression, and in speaking the truth, we ought to heed his voice.

But besides this, there are things to consider. The working-class values the essay describes do not overlap with the virtues of the Church. It's not necessarily a class commentary to say that many such working-class people lead wicked lives, are in love with worldliness, and sneer, scoff, and persecute righteousness. It can be a sign of a sort of idealistic infatuation to think that the poor are somehow more righteous by fact of their economic station. To say so is probably a sign you never actually spent any real time with poor folks or, in this case, live among the working-class. Rather, as Stringfellow eloquently put it, poverty is sacramental: it reveals the truth about reality which wealth can disguise and hide. To the point, living at working-class standards is probably being more in tune with real problems than the sort many professionals face. Making sure you pay your bills is more of a real problem than trying to make sure your investments are paying sufficiently high dividends for your retirement account. While I'm certainly more sympathetic to the more modest goals of working-class style middle-class, greed is still greed; the desire for a certain life-style can still eviscerate your soul.

In addition, the essay mentions the kind of moral code and religiosity the working-class has over the professional, white-collar, managerial class. But this might be worse, and only because the gospel becomes confused with social mores. Many evangelical churches are full of such people, who only care for worldly advancement. The doctrines of sola fide and once-saved-always-saved become the backbone for a myopic theology that immunizes them from the truth and Christ's Kingdom. Charismatic emphases exist, focusing on Pelagian-esque free will decision theology and a confusion of the gospel with a spiritualization of the mundane, in addition to a focus on the ecstatic. These only promote the rapid sort of individualism that not only rejects communal life for personal success in the work world, it also subjugates even Scripture to bizarre and idiosyncratic self-justifying interpretations. In addition, worship of the nation, the demonic doctrine of patriotism, becomes rather normative, fusing the military, a very much well-integrated institution (at least enlistment) among the working-class, to the Kingdom. All in all, working-class religion and values has little intrinsic merit. Trump's "evangelical" credential resonated with much of the above.

The essay is a good introduction, even as discerning Christians ought to be cautious, circumspect, and perhaps self-critical. I'm not trying to posit myself as a free-floating outsider, I was raised within a professional class household that, metaphorically, went down in flames, along with all sorts of other contingent quirks that make my background somewhat of an outlier. But, analytically speaking, the Gospel of Christ Jesus the Lord presents a vision of life that meets, and reorganizes, all lifestyles, class-values, and social mores. Both American working-class and professionals (whether white, black, or whatever; native or immigrant; even more generally the Western world) must be confronted with the vision of the Kingdom, whose authority and power do not function according to This Age. In such a way, whoever you are and wherever you come from, the Truth confronts and transforms.