Category Archives: Ethics

Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

Pilate’s job was to make sure that an uprising would not happen. There was enormous pressure on him to maintain order.

How does the conversation between Pilate and Jesus go? When asked if he’s a king or what he has done to upset the Jewish priests, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of the world.”

Pilate, who only knows of one world, this world — not Jesus’s world — doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, and only manages to grab hold of the word he does understand, and asks him: “So you are a king?”

So he totally misses it. “My Kingdom of not of this world.”

Friends it doesn’t matter how many times we hear this. Christians have always struggled with how to interpret Jesus’s statements about the Kingdom of God. Even if we think we’ve got it nailed down conceptually — practically, we’re never quite sure how to work it out. What does this mean, we want to ask Jesus? Many of us have probably heard the saying, “in the world but not of the world,” but the implications of this are rarely clear. Most of the time, we take choose one or the other — in or of — and run with it!

Because, on the one hand, when we’re looking for redemption, as Israel certainly still was, the temptation is to trust in their effort to acquire or benefit from worldly power. The power of Rome’s political and military might. The religious leaders were trying to manipulate it for their own purposes so they could keep the Temple life and Jewish community the way they wanted it to be!

I mean, how many times do we do this! Obviously, it’s happening right now in the political arena in our country. But it also happens in every area of life. We resort to manipulation, deception, passive aggression, resentful treatment of each other in order to get our way. We make power moves and play these political games to fight over getting our share of the pie. This is human nature. Or, on the other hand, we want a savior, a messiah, who just goes and gets these things for us! Gives us what we want.

And finally, there is also the path that lets us check out altogether when it comes to concern for the kingdoms of this world. It’s a way that we look for escape, so that we can create our own separate, uncontaminated space in the world on the sidelines, where it’s safe from harm. It’s how we can sometimes mistakenly understand what it means to not be of the world — by looking to escape it.

Now, Pilate doesn’t seem too alarmed at first, when Jesus says he’s a King, because he doesn’t appear to be very threatening. He doesn’t have armed followers. He’s not talking about a political revolution. But then the religious leaders say that “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” Again, they’re playing the power game.

And then we’re told that Pilate becomes afraid. And when he asks them, finally, “shall I crucify your king?” What is there response? “We have no king but Caesar.”

The question that I think this poses to us is fairly straightforward: whose Kingdom are we living in? Because how easy is it, to want Jesus to be a king that looks more like Caesar? I mean do we not want that? Of course we do. We want Jesus to be in control, and in charge of everything that’s happening. We want him to command everyone’s attention and allegiance and worship because of how grand and majestic his works are on the earth. We want Palm Sunday, but without the donkey. Let’s put Jesus on a high horse!

Yeah, because what we don’t want… is the call that comes with citizenship in his kingdom. And that is the call to follow him. It makes me a think of story from earlier in the Gospels.

If you look in your booklet at the beginning in the section that walks you through the stations of the cross, I want to call your attention to two statements in the liturgy there. First the passage underneath the heating of the Fifth Station — the second half of that first paragraph.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels at all, you’ve probably heard these words from Jesus, so I’ll read them:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Stopping there for just a moment.. (Jesus says this in Mark 8, Matthew 14, Luke 9)

Jesus says this to Peter right after what’s called the transfiguration. It’s the turning point in Jesus’s public ministry.  He’s been teaching and healing people, and now he’s turning toward Jerusalem with a mission to go to the cross. But Peter doesn’t want him to do this, does he. What does Peter want. Peter wants to build an altar, a place of worship, to stay there and probably have some good church services every week in this sacred and holy place, where he can always be reminded of what happened and what he saw there, when God showed up in a powerful way. This is what the Temple had become!

But honestly, Jesus seemed much more interested in teaching people to follow him than to worship him. But I think what we actually learn from the passion narrative is that we are supposed to worship Jesus, and the way we do that, is by following him. We do not follow Jesus, by worshiping him, we worship Jesus by following him.

Ok but then look what it says after that: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now, this is not the next verse in any of these passages. Whoever worked to compile this liturgy pulled this verse, from a totally different place (three chapters earlier in Matthew 11). Which can be a little bit misleading, because as you’re reading this, you might think the verses are right next to each other in the Bible, but they’re not.

But actually, I think this is very good theology. See this is what theology does. It backs up a little bit from the zoomed up view, and tries to connect the idea in one revelation in Scripture, with another, and from what is often a very different place — one that might even seem to contradict the first one!! But it tries to then make sense of how the two can be part of one and the same  truth.

The truth is paradoxical, in this case. Y’all know what that means, if something is a paradox, right? It’s not a contradiction rather an apparent contradiction. In fact, there is a deep resonance between them! It’s like hitting a high and a low note on a musical instrument at the same time. As long as they’re in the same key, they be can octaves apart and still sound good together. And they can be different notes too! Because they make a chord! That’s what harmony does. The beautiful harmony that we enjoyed from the band last night and today.

Flip back one page now to the write-up for the First Station of the Cross in your bulletin to the prayer portion in the middle of the page — it’s the second paragraph. Halfway — about three lines down:

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Friends, this is the scandalous claim that the whole Christian faith hangs on: somehow, in mysteriousness of God’s wisdom and love, the way of the cross, is also the way of life and peace.

And we actually, like Peter, don’t like that. We don’t want it. We don’t really understand it. Most of the time we reject it. It scares us, it disturbs us… so we turn the cross into something else. We make it into a mechanism, and a means, rather than the path itself that we’re called onto.

We heard this last night too: when Jesus washes the disciples feet. Aren’t we supposed to wash Jesus’s feet?! This doesn’t make any sense. The God of all creation, comes to us, to serve and unconditionally give of himself.

This the good news of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Pilate has no way of understanding, because he lives in a world of fear and preoccupation with power and control. This is the world that God’s love subverts and undermines — not with worldly force, but with divine love, which, as the cross shows, is more powerful than worldly force. This is the way of the cross, and somehow, it brings peace and life. It feels like dying at first, and it is a kind of dying. But it’s what produces transformation.

There is no transformation without great love or great suffering. On the cross, Jesus embraces both, and calls us to be ready to do the same. That’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and that’s the good news.

Christian Responsibility During Election Season: Finding a New Political Consciousness for Churches

[A version of this same post appeared yesterday over on the Missio Alliance blog and can be read here.]

Last week, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held here in the state of South Carolina. I voted, but as I did so, I had the odd feeling that I was acting in a way that was totally divorced from my faith community and any collective sense of citizenship in God’s kingdom. I think this is because when it comes to Christian political responsibility, the role of the church is to make followers of Jesus who witness to an alternative way of being in the world together. The act of voting, privilege and duty that it is, just doesn’t have very much to do with this.

There are political ideals that many of us believe in: freedom, equality, justice, peace, and so on. But these are abstract principles that remain empty without the concrete practice of political and economic organization. Then there are the politics of Jesus: resistance to violence, solidarity with the poor, the neighborliness of the good Samaritan, and the commandment to love even our enemies. This ethical vision simply does not get incarnated at the ballot box. But what I sense in the church still, mostly, is a preoccupation with partisan, personality, media-driven politics that continues to privatize spiritual formation and mission, while at the same time holding up the last defenses of a dying Christendom and of mainstream, American evangelicalism.

Bernie Sanders has talked about the need for political revolution, and it actually looks like the United States is on the verge of having one. Donald Trump’s bewildering success testifies to this maybe even more so than the growing acceptance of the option for “democratic socialism.” There are things about both ends of the partisan spectrum that are resonating with self-identifying Christians. On the right, for example, people are tired of the inefficiencies, fiscal irresponsibility and bureaucratization of big government that has come to characterize so much of the political process. On the left, there is growing indignation about racism, classism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ folks, and ecological destruction. And both sides actually seem fed up with the control that money has over elections and legislation. It is not hard to see the justification for any of these attitudes. Insofar as one’s citizenship is seen in terms of the responsibility for the affairs of the state, these are all valid concerns that demand people’s attention.

As a Christian, though, and as a pastor, my concern is about the political consciousness that is being cultivated in the church itself. Christian political consciousness simply doesn’t strike me as very public or social at this point in time. Of course, my church context has predominately been white, middle-class and broadly evangelical, and so I’m sure that’s part of the reason for this. Nevertheless, it’s as if there are primarily two options: 1) find your side, and further participate in a culture of either conservative or liberal theological and political ideology, or 2) don’t talk about it and keep faith and spirituality merely interpersonal, or at most expressed through international mission work. This is what many pastors feel they have to do in order to prevent division in churches.

I do not think there is a clear or simple third way beyond these two chooses, which is why so few churches have found one. The other option is very difficult, and I believe it can only happen over a long period of time within a community that is committed to deep, Jesus-shaped confrontation with the issues that are facing its locale.

A Different Kind of Political Revolution

The political theorist Sheldon Wolin argued that democracy is not a fixed state form, but a political experience in which ordinary people are active political actors. Right now, this kind of democracy has been significantly compromised by the disciplinary force of individualism in our culture, as well as by consumerism’s control of our desires. A majority of Christians in this country still too often equate political involvement with partisan allegiance for the purpose of securing a more Christian way of life. As long as this persists, the church’s witness, posture and political participation in the world will continue to be co-opted, along with everyone else’s, by nationalism, militarism and above all, by the free market.

Christians have the chance to model a new political consciousness that is ecclesial and eucharistic in nature, and that challenges the grip that the dominant liturgies of our society have on people. James K. A. Smith describes how these liturgies have captured our loves and distorted them in accordance with rival exemplars to Jesus. The church must begin to imagine itself as an alternative community with a collective political witness that resists the formative allure these liturgies have on us — liturgies that seek to orient our hearts and direct our unconscious dispositions toward violence, fear, anger, greed and short-term gratification.

I believe God is calling Christians to be partners in making a new economic and political reality altogether. It takes the form of a micro-politics of what God makes possible. There’s no secret formula for this. We already know what it could look like. It’s going to mean embracing interdependence and investing in our neighborhoods — getting to know our neighbors and having them over for dinner. There will need to be more community gardens, after-school programs, farmers’ markets, credit unions, and support of local business cooperatives. It will require reaching across the segregated lines that still divide our gentrified and suburbanized cities.

Currently, most of our residential areas and patterns of life are constructed to keep us separated from each other. New shared work spaces and intentional living communities designed to make our daily lives intersect more can combat this. What better public-private entity than the church to facilitate these kinds of efforts? This is why David Fitch has called pastors “community organizers for the Kingdom.”

At the same time, piety itself and ordinary church practices like worship are also politically significant, because social transformation is a natural byproduct of spiritual transformation. The mistake is made, however, when as Christians we do not also recognize and appreciate the church itself as a political body that lives, breathes and moves in the public sphere. We are not simply dispersed as individuals into secular society throughout week after worship services to live Christianly. We are together a political and cultural, communal presence, with a common faith that sows the seeds of God’s good and beautiful social order in the world.

This election season is probably only going to get uglier and more painful from here on. I’m not saying that we should ignore it. In fact, it can be used as an opportunity to generate meaningful conversations and action for the common good. But the partisan, candidate-focused dimension of it is consuming much of our time and energy, and I’ll be the first to confess this! I find myself reading and sharing articles every day, usually instead of attending to how I might be part of a better political future right where I live. So my prayer is that the Spirit of God would grant us the political consciousness of Christ’s coming reign, for this is the different kind of political revolution into which God has invited us.

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live with a higher sense of identity and purpose.

Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, reading from the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.

The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians. Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.

The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic well-being.

Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose

Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.

For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.

One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a resurrection people?

The Resurrection Life

There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:

  1. First, against tribalism, God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our ways of doing things. So who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
  2. Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals uncritically supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, which led to the killing of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be much more egregious than we normally realize.
  3. And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.

So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life, is what it means to be truly human.

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

Furthermore, democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, because of the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, there is the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. And this requires an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms – and of routine time – only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues in contrast to Carl Schmitt, but that of the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the good, as well as their openness toward the possibility of a revelation and a conversion, or what Honig drawing on Rosenzweig calls a “miracle” (more about this notion of a miracle in a moment). Honig further explains:

Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive or progressive. [both of which Kierkegaard and Niebuhr reject] Linear time, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount (15).

One thinks as well here of the both “already” and “not-yet” presence and availability of the Kingdom of God, in the way that Jesus talks about it. And it is precisely this notion of paradox that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr each in their own way employ in their understandings of faith and politics, respectively.

First, in Kierkegaard’s view, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change – for passing on the vocation of citizenship, for the formation of virtuous people, and for the inclusion of new, formerly excluded groups. An Individual, personal leap and risk must be taken with resoluteness. But this risk and leap is always only possible as a response, not as an initiative. It’s a response to what Simon Critchley, analyzing Paul through a Kierkegaardian lens, calls an “infinite demand.”

This demand remains incomprehensible, for Kierkegaard, for whom faith is always a passionate inwardness rather than external, or primarily doctrinal security, which he criticizes both in Hegel’s philosophy and the nominal Christianity of his culture. If we politicize this, Kierkegaard serves to guard against the polarization of the citizenry into either despair or presumption – resignation or ideological entrenchment. As Critchley remarks, a faith (or faithlessness for him) “with passionate inwardness best sustains the rigor of faith because it does not require security, guarantees or rewards” (Faith of the Faithless, 252). For Critchley, believers, as well as non-believers, are no longer allowed the naivety of a pre-Kierkegaardian faith. For Kierkegaard, faith starts neither with our political effectiveness, nor even our ideas. Faith is a leap, and a realized life in response by subjects to an infinite demand — one that ultimately is a demand of love, as will be seen below.

In Kierkegaard’s day, the Danes of Christendom would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth as a security, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. For Kierkegaard, Socrates in contrast actually does put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it — and Kierkegaard admired Socrates for this — but Climacus only saw this as what he called “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would later say, Socrates lacked a messianic consciousness. For him, a Christ was not expected (Nature and Destiny).

So, as Kierkegaard has it, it is not only the nature of faith that is paradoxical, but also its object, and what that object promises. Socrates’ ethic failed to preserve this tension, and he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin. For Socrates, ignorance is the source of conflict, harm, hate, and so on, rather than sin.

So what Socrates doesn’t appreciate is this: what stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the people, then, is the paradoxical combination of human finitude and human freedom. And here I’m focusing on Niebuhr’s understanding of sin, which builds on Kierkegaard’s in part. As both finite and free, Niebuhr would say, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, and to do so to the detriment of extending new rights to new constituents –even with democracy. So the big question becomes, what does it take for people to become prepared for and postured to affect change, in spite of this anxiety?

Rosenzweig is instructive here. His view of a miracle, which I alluded to a moment ago, is not that it compels or commands attention, but that it is a subtle signal soliciting a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to be open to its possibility. This openness requires habituation to certain patterns of receptivity, and the cultivation of an orientedness to the good, to the divine (Honig, The Miracle of Metaphor).

Kierkegaard’s view is similar. Again, just as faith is paradoxical rather than reducible to the rational, so too is the remedy for sin paradoxical. It is unexpected and from outside or beyond, rather than a mere lesson to be learned. So, following Kierkegaard, for there to be any change, individuals must undergo conversions (that is, they must receive and respond to a transformative revelation — they must be open to the miraculous in Rosenzweig’s sense). But what is the nature of this conversion, for the people, at the social level? For this, one is better served by turning to Niebuhr.

Whereas for Kierkegaard the paradox of faith finds its object in the doctrine of the incarnation – that the infinite of the divine dwells in humanity – in Niebuhr’s work, while there is still a christological paradox, it is social and ethical as much as theological. Niebuhr argues in the third chapter of Nature and Destiny that:

“the significant contrast between the divine and the human in Christ is not, as Greek thought assumed, the contrast between the “impassible and the passible.” [Here we see Niebuhr’s ambivalence toward metaphysics.] It is [rather] a contrast between the perfect coincidence of power and of goodness in the divine.”

For Niebuhr, it is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness or rather by a consistent refusal to use power in the rivalries of history. Niebuhr goes on:

“The final majesty, the ultimate freedom, the perfect disinterestedness of the divine love can have a counterpart in history only in a life which ends tragically, because it refuses to participate in the claims and counterclaims of historical existence. It portrays a love which seeketh not its own” (emphasis added).

What Niebuhr does through this christology is to situate finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love.

Niebuhr may have a less suspicious outlook on philosophical theology than Kierkegaard, but he is just as realistic or even as pessimistic as Kierkegaard is in his outlook on the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard in terms of human subjectivity, and Niebuhr in terms of politics, and what human beings are to strive for.

So the paradox, politically speaking, for Niebuhr, is that Christians must strive to realize proximate justice within history, even though we will still inevitably sin in the process — while at  the same time also resisting the temptation to push forward with the expectation of fully achieving a justly representative society. This is because Niebuhr understands that the meaning of life and history while revealed in history is not fully fulfilled through history. Like Kierkegaard, he sees the meaning of life and history as having a transcendent source. (This is also what I think most distinguishes Kierkegaard and Niebuhr from several important contemporary political philosophers today, such as Badiou or Agamben, for example.  While this is far too terse of a synopsis, I would venture to say that Niebuhr would consider Badiou’s “event” as dehistoricized, somewhat like Greek though, and Agamben’s “messianic time” as lacking the universal reach of the Christ event.)

So again, Niebuhr strikes a balance bound to neither an ideology of false utopias nor despair about change. (In Nature and Destiny, he characterizes these two ends with the paradigms of “Renaissance” and “Reformation,” respectively, both of which are reactionary and half-true in what they emphasize about human progress — i.e., Renaissance humanism, and Reformation depravity).

Now of course the criticisms of this position are familiar, because it can be seen as a kind of false third way between either choosing to actually struggle for real progress or just resorting to political quietism. But Niebuhr insists that Christianity has unique recourse to a penultimate social ethic because theologically it holds together the paradox and uncertainty of faith and politics, and therefore, Niebuhr might say, the possibility of faith and politics. Niebuhr states:

“The Christian belief that meaning of both life and history is disclosed and fulfilled in Christ and his Cross, is in a sense a combination of Greek and Hebrew interpretations of life. It conforms to the Greek interpretation of life because in it there is an understanding of the fact that the meaning of life transcends history; but in Greek thought history tends to be excluded from the realm of meaning, and life is fulfilled by escaping from the historical process. In Christianity the meaning of life and history is fulfilled, though not wholly, within the historical process. New Testament faith conforms to the Hebrew interpretation of life [then] because in this view life is fulfilled in history, though in Christianity the implicit difference between “life” and “history” is made explicit…” (Nature and Destiny, 1996 (36))

— namely, because, again, paradoxically, Christ fulfills history not by just living but in fact by dying, only this death is not final. After all, that is the hope that Christians have in the midst of the uncertainties of history.

Finally, Niebuhr states that:

“The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures [– this is the false certainty we crave –] as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves [God’s self] in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (71)

— because human beings doubt that the structural character of reality really is good!

So for Christians, the agape of God, which was paradoxical for Kierkegaard because it came in the form of the finite, and paradoxical for Niebuhr because it did not exploit, is the basis of God relationship with humanity and history. And therefore it is from faith in this both seemingly tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, that I understand Kierkegaard and Niebuhr to be illuminating the horizon upon which historical-political, subjects can strive for the good — because of the consequent freedom that comes from this agape, from the anxieties and rivalries of history, and the hope that that final meaning and fulfillment is not totally tied to historical outcome.

In sum, and by way of response to this very cursory look at two major figures, the political is inherently paradoxical, and so must be our engagement with it. But people ignore, suppress, or overtly deny the paradox, clinging instead to false certainties and neat political ideologies, contenting themselves instead with voicing opinions or voting. Those most adversely affected by this are not surprisingly the poor and the oppressed. Kierkegaard didn’t speak to this very much, which in part one can attribute to his context. Niebuhr, however, was sensitive to economic injustices, but he was still addressing these issues from a place of privilege and power. Because of this, I do not think he was truly sensitive to the weight of oppression that certain groups were experiencing. Moreover, there is a difference between intervention and solidarity.  Many times it seems that people have used Niebuhr’s thought to justify the former without doing the hard work of the latter. So, if we can evaluate Niebuhr’s thought with the interests of the powerless in mind, some of his blind spots may come into focus for us. No doubt two of the most glaring are the matters of race and gender. And Niebuhr’s complicity with U.S. nationalism at times may also become evident.

In this respect, Kierkegaard’s call to actually heed the infinite demand of love is a stronger injunction to imitate Christ.  Niebuhr by comparison is satisfied, it would seem, to merely use Christ as the benchmark.  My sense is that the more faithful appropriation here, even politically, is Kierkegaard’s, but the challenge becomes how to do that in light of Niebuhr’s apt prediction that such attempts to embody Christ’s ethic will eventually lead to martyrdom.

And finally, by way one more closing critical observation, it does not appear that Niebuhr really develops his political theology with a high view of the church’s role in society in mind – despite his pastoral experience in an urban and economically depressed congregation in Detroit early on in his life. And it seems to me that, especially as the United States continues to fragment – religiously, culturally, politically, etc. – a robust understanding of the role of the church in the public sphere with respect to this paradoxical politic is essential, and wanting in both Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. The question remains looming in my view, for example, as to how the organizing identity of local congregations will posture itself and its church members for political agency and activism, in comparison to the conventional ways this has been done in recent history in both conservative and liberal contexts.

Niebuhr says, for example, that heedless love has to replenish mutual love — otherwise it will degenerate into something less. In order for this to happen, however, it seems to me that Christians must primarily derive their identity from a community in which heedless love is the norm, or the at least the archetype. This cannot be the case if the primary identity of Christians comes from citizenship of the state. Without a well-developed ecclesial structure and identity that informs the Christian politic, any complicity with violence on the part of Christians for the purpose of approximating justice will risk being rationalized instead of sorely felt, mourned and repented of.

These limitations notwithstanding, there remains tremendous promise from both of these thinkers with respect to not just Christian faith and practice, but sober hope for society, individual social responsibility and collective political engagement.

Bonnie Honig on the Promises of the Paradox of Politics, Linear Time, and Re-interpellation

I was introduced to Bonnie Honig‘s (Professor of Political Science, Brown University) work through Helene Slessarev-Jamir and the required readings for my religion and politics doctoral exam.  I’m using her writing in a presentation that I’ll be giving at AAR this year, in which I will relate her notion of paradox to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Soren Kierkegaard (see my proposal here), and will also be incorporating some of the concepts below into my final dissertation chapter on “Neighborliness and Resistance.” Here is quote from her 2011 book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy:

emergency politicsIn order for there to be a people well formed enough for good lawmaking, there must be good law, for how else will the people be well formed? The problem is: Where would that good law come from absent an already well-formed, virtuous people?  But the seeming quandary of chicken-and-egg (which comes first, good people or good law?) takes off and attaches to democratic politics more generally once we see that established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names. Every day, after all, new citizens are born, others immigrate into established regimes, still others mature into adulthood. Every day, established citizens mistake, depart from, or simply differ about their visions of democracy’s future and the commitment of democratic citizenship. Every day the traces of the traumas of the founding generation are discernible in the actions of their heirs. Every day, democracies resocialize, recapture, or reinterpellate citizens into their political institutions and culture in ways those citizens do not freely will, nor could they. Every day, in sum, new citizens are received by established regimes, and every day established citizens are reinterpellated into the laws, norms, and expectations of their regimes such that the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time.

Indeed, the first thing to go, when we face the chicken-and-egg paradox of politics, is our confidence in linear time, its normativity and its form of causality. What is linear time’s normativity? Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive (a Fall narrative) or progressive. In both regressive and progressive time, the time sequence itself is seen to be structured by causal forces that establish meaningful, orderly connections between what comes before and what comes after (Decline and Rise), such that one thing leads to another rather than forming, as plural temporalities and tempos do, a random assemblage or jumble of events. All these elements — linearity, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount.

It might seem that acknowledging the vicious circularity of the paradox of politics must be costly to a democracy, or demoralizing: If the people do not exist as a prior — or even as a post hoc — unifying force, then what will authorize or legitimate their exercises of power? But there is, as we shall see, also promise in such an acknowledgement. Besides, denial is costly too, for we can deny or disguise the paradox of politics only by suppressing or naturalizing the exclusion of those (elements of the) people whose residual, remaindered, minoritized existence might call the pure general will into question. From the perspective of the paradox of politics, unchosen, unarticulated, or minoritized alternatives — different forms of life, identities, solidarities, sexes or genders, alternative categories of justice, unfamiliar tempos — re-present themselves to us daily, in one form or another, sometimes inchoate. The paradox of politics provides a lens through which to re-enliven those alternatives. It helps us see the lengths to which we go or are driven to insulate ourselves from the remainders of our settled paths. It keeps alive both the centripetal force whereby a people is formed or maintained as a unity and the centrifugal force where its other, the multitude, asserts itself (pp. 14-15).

Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle

This is an expanded paper based on a presentation I gave for the “NAFTA and Philosophy” conference in Mexico City at UNAM a couple of months ago, and is under review for publication in a Spanish version of a book that will also include other papers from the conference.  Some of the content is recycled from previous stuff I’ve written — especially the first half, on globalization, NAFTA and the drug war — but the second half where I use Dussel and Taylor’s work and talk about the Caravan for Peace, is new.

The first word in my title, “Globalization,” signifies the more general context of the US-Mexico drug war in particular.  While I cannot thoroughly theorize it here, I will nevertheless mention some of the key features of globalization that serve to underscore and give shape to the on-going drug-trade related violence. Secondly, I will touch on the unique dimensions of the relationship between globalization, NAFTA and the violence itself. I do not assume, however, that globalization is reducible to economic neoliberalism, nor that globalization or even NAFTA is the direct cause of increased violence, but rather that both – globalization and NAFTA – in this case, are preconditions furthering and to some extent enabling the poverty and political impunity that produces the suffering and insecurity that is being experienced. Lastly, I will try to illustrate how globalization, NAFTA and the drug war together have evoked a decolonial struggle of resistance on the part of victims by looking at one recent example and arguing that its ethos and aesthetics – not just its ethical or political theory – has been vital to its effectiveness.

Globalization as the Greater Context for the Drug Trade

Every particular political situation has its own historical location to be considered, but one can nonetheless speak today of certain globalizing tendencies with mounting planetary reach. So while the crisis in Mexico caused by the drug trade is indeed just one context among many, it is nonetheless seen here to be uniquely illustrative of the more universal context of globalization itself. Thus, it will serve to highlight some of the enduring marks of globalization, which I will now discuss.

By way of a definition, globalization is thought here to be a process or set of processes that embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions (McGrew and Held (1999), p. 16). These relations are not only economic and political in nature but also culture and environmental. This process, however, is replete with contradictions, uncertainties and unevenness.

The contemporary globalizing world has seen rapidly increasing economic and political interdependence between nations on the one hand alongside growing disparity in terms of quality of life and security between and within nations on the other hand. At the same time, globalization is not a monolithic phenomenon. Not all societies are experiencing it. Hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces alike are operative in its set of processes. Power asymmetries in zones of contact are broader and more numerous than in the past. Globalization is not a closed but open, entangled system of multiple, heterogeneous hierarchies and logics in which the natureof and relations between individuals and institutions are often conceived as hybridized.

Globalization, commercialization and criminalization together have brought about a major disjuncture between the formal reach of certain states’ military power and its effectiveness (McGrew and Held (2007), p. 28).   The drug war is proof of this. States may have a monopoly on the ability to legitimize violence but not to totally control it. The invisibility of economic power structures and their ability to develop independently of legitimate political power is a key challenge engendered by globalization. This challenge is exacerbated by the permeation and extension of economic power beyond national borders.

Just as production has been outsourced in the age of globalization, so too have many aspects of organized violence. Trans-state organized cartel networks “have been able to exploit the infrastructures [and free trade policies] of globalization for their own illicit . . . purposes” (Mcgrew and Held (2007), p. 28).   The imperialism of the industrial age, while certainly still prevalent, has been increasingly rivaled by non-state forces like the criminal insurgency of terrorists groups and drug trafficking organizations (or DTO’s). As social forces like drug abuse are selectively included or excluded from formal infrastructures, it is almost impossible to prevent the parallel formation of informal and illicit networks that conversely condone this abuse and profit from it (McGrew and Held (2007), p. 33).

Despite being increasingly challenged, unilateral U.S. hegemony does continue to dominate the globe in many important respects. At the same time, with transnational corporations exploiting and propagating an international division of labor, the supra-national nature of financial markets has demonstrated a new level of power and influence over the actions of nation-states, their central banks, and even corporations themselves. Thus, the limitations of their thesis notwithstanding, one can indeed notice today the extent to which Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2001) has formed.

To a significant degree, a transformation of the modern imperialist geography of the globe and the realization of the world market has scrambled the spatial divisions of developed and underdeveloped zones. Changing and complex regimes of differentiation and homogenization, and deterritorialization and reterritorialization, have constructed new paths and limits for global flows. So even at a time in which devising alternatives to free market capitalism has become increasingly difficult, globalization is neither coterminous with neoliberalism – as stated above – nor reducible to the field of political economy (Alcoff and Saenz (2003), p. 200). As the Mexican case confirms, non-governmental criminal trafficking organizations challenge many assumptions by wielding an enormous amount of cultural power – in addition to accounting for a substantial share of international trade and GDP in some countries.

In the midst of these acute crises, the persistence of cultural globalization portends to erode and trivialize all un-commodifiable values, leaving only the fetishized desires of individual subjects to govern from the global core. Excessive accumulation and consumption is tied closely to the alterations brought about by the media in the information age and what Manuel Castells (1996) calls a communication network society. It is beyond the scope of this paper, as my focus is on political economy, but it should be noted that cultural globalization plays an important role in this conflict as well. This is especially noticeable in the recent influence and celebration of “narcocultura,” such as in “narcocorridos,” which are musical ballads write and widely popularized in honor of the cartels and their famed leaders (Holden, 2013).

NAFTA and Neoliberalism

As already mentioned, one of the most predominant features of globalization is the increasing mobility and power of global capital flow (Soederberg (2006), p. 167). According to Queen’s University development studies professor Susanne Soederberg (2006), this change in economic and political policy has been characterized by a shift from a variety of Keynesian demand management tactics and the advancement of a welfare state to neoliberal forms of government intervention: “one of the main characteristics of competition states is that traditional policies aimed at achieving social justice through economic redistribution have been challenged and profoundly undermined by the marketization of the state’s economic activities and its focus on attracting and retaining capital flows” (p. 167). Soederberg (2006) further argues that while the Mexican state has taken on some of the defining traits of an advanced industrialized country, the assumption of neoliberal practices has neither succeeded in reducing the country’s “excessive vulnerability and dependence on external sources of capital, nor [in] bringing about conditions for sustainable economic growth” (p. 168).

Inherent to the liberalization of Mexico’s political economy were the steady belief in the trickle-down theory of wealth, the prioritization of industrialization and modernization before democratization, and the mistaken assumption that the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) corporatist structure represented the interests of the average Mexican (Soederberg (2006), p. 171). The tension between domestic and international policy imperatives has failed to be resolved or balanced. In the end it seems that efforts to restructure in accordance with international (read Western) expectations – though they have led to further integration in the world economy – have generally increased social class division between rich and financial vulnerability as a result of tenuous forms of capital accumulation such as the phenomenon of the maquiladorizacion of the economy (Soederberg (2006), p. 171).

Maquiladores (international, outsourced factories) are primarily located near the northern border of Mexico so as to as to ensure cheap transport of product to the United States. The average daily salary for workers at the maquiladores in Mexico is around seven dollars for ten hours of work (Chacon et. al. (2006), p. 118). These free trade zones are exactly where most of the more recent drug-related violence has taken place – in cities like Juarez. Furthermore, the real wages in Mexico are lower today than they were before the 1982 debt crisis (Soederberg (2006), p. 181) and the minimum wage is the same (Camp (2006), p. 262). In absolute numbers, substantially more Mexicans live without sufficient food than in the past two decades (approximately 26 million) (Camp (2006), p. 274).

As international financial markets have reached considerable levels of influence in the global political economy, daily turnovers in foreign exchange markets are often $1.3 trillion or higher (Soederberg (2006), p. 168). This number is much larger than the one trillion dollars available to those governments of advanced countries for the purposes of exchange rate stabilization (Soederberg (2006), p. 169). Moreover, the major players in the exchange rate game are no longer just big international banks but insurance and pension fund managers, as well as other portfolio investors who are mobile and less vulnerable (Soederberg (2006), p. 169). Consequently, private investment capital is a major source of financing for developing countries. Not surprisingly then, new national policy is increasingly established with both current and prospective private investor interests in mind. Such interests inevitably include low corporate taxes and fewer state-sponsored welfare programs.

Even more significantly, policy makers know that new creditors are going to want easy entry and exit investment strategy options. Therefore, the stability and growth predictability of developing countries has become increasingly tied to and proportionate with international financial markets and fluctuations of stocks on Wall Street. Countries finding themselves squarely in this dilemma have sometimes attempted to manipulate their exchange rates by devaluing currency in order to boost exports for instance, or by pegging currency value to interest-rates. Practices such as these are in part what led to the peso crisis not only in Mexico in 1994 but also in Argentina, which culminated in 2001.

The Mexican Drug War Itself

U.S. attempts to intervene in Colombian cocaine smuggling during the 1990’s coincided with the forging of NAFTA, which pushed drug trade activity to the U.S.-Mexican border.  Trans-state cartel networks in various stratifications of organization have been able to take advantage of the infrastructures and free trade policies of globalization for their own illicit purposes (Campbell, 2009). According to approximations by the Trans-border Institute at the University of San Diego, more than 120,000 people have been murdered, and another 25,000 have disappeared since 2006 in the Mexican Drug War (Schaeffer-Duffy 2014, Booth 2012). These numbers are significantly higher than what is typically reported in mainstream media, and many of these murders are torturous and public in nature.

Once a kilo of cocaine reaches the streets in the U.S., it will be worth $100,000, or about $100 a gram (Gibler (2011), p.32). In the Columbian countryside the exact same substance is worth no more than $3,000, or about three dollars a gram (Gibler (2011), p. 32). The single greatest contributor to this giant surplus value is the illegality of the production, transport and consumption of the drugs themselves (Gibler (2011), p. 32). Investigative journalist John Gibler (2011) explains that,

[i]legality also requires that one [bolster] the moral discourse of prohibition with massive infusion of funds into armies and law-enforcement agencies. These infusions in turn require the production of arrests and drug seizures. Competitors in the drug economy use this need as a way to eliminate opponents and rivals, tipping off federal authorities to the whereabouts of [enemy stashes and hideouts] (p. 35).

And in this context, illegality adds another more blatant complication: every dispute within the industry must be settled outside the law. The most common method of conflict resolution in an illegal business culture where cash is rampant is contract murder (Gibler (2011), p. 38).

As a result of the competition at the border for trade smuggling routes between the different DTO’s to secure their gain from the $60 billion worth of narcotics that cross the border every year (Trans-border Institute, 2014). While the murder rate has subsided substantially in the past few years, less than 5% of these cases have been investigated, and many more deaths and disappearances are suspected to have gone unreported (Strauss, 2011). These two facts call attention to the urgency of and justification for this analysis, for it is arguably less the sheer number of people deaths that is most extraordinary, historically speaking, and more the combination of such a concentration of rampant murder with the absence of the rule of law. Such impunity intensifies the sense of injustice and betrays the degree to which the violence has been systemically produced.

Gibler further explains: “The blood and chaos that accompany drug trafficking from Mexico into the United States are inextricably related to the simultaneous demand within the U.S. population for the [drugs], and the insistence of U.S. politicians on an ideological commitment to prohibition that seeks to veil prohibition’s use for social control” (Gibler (2011), p. 43). Consequently, U.S. policy has not stopped the flow of drugs, but it has outsourced most of the killing (Gibler (2011), p. 203). And with dozens of reporters gunned down or disappeared since 2008, the DTO’s are especially skilled at silencing those who speak out. The targets seem to be anyone with access to major media channels, or anybody who annunciates facts that could be bad for business (Gibler (2011), p. 23).

The temptation on the part of U.S. citizens is often to dismiss organized crime as outside the “clean legal system,” rather than to recognize how interwoven official government is in drug trafficking. This is what makes the U.S. government’s deployment of the phrase “war on drugs” so misleading. And despite being an illegal form of capitalist accumulation, the drug industry is a substantial part of the U.S. and Mexican economic systems. Simultaneously, however, hundreds of businesses have closed down or moved away from Juarez since the army moved in and the violence escalated. So when poverty takes its toll on the economy, as it has in border cities like Juarez, often young, uneducated and unemployed men in particular – “ni-ni’s,” as they are sometimes called, which is short for “ni estudiar ni trabajar” (those who neither study nor work) – are seemingly faced with the narrow option to either join the DTO’s or live in material deprivation (Corcoran, 2012).

As alluded to above about violence and globalization in general, however, most peculiar is the degree to which DTO’s in Mexico have generally frustrated efforts by the military and police to curb their smuggling progress and success – despite their collusion with the state in many cases, and despite the country’s U.S.-backed billion-dollar budgets. It’s acknowledged by Mexico’s own government that the cartels have bribed and infiltrated not just the municipal police forces but occasionally high-level officials (Lacey, 2008). At the same time, “[p]roducing arrests is a necessary feature of the industry, and so, like murder, arrest becomes a way of settling accounts or invading territory” (Gibler (2011), p. 23). The drug machinery employs both the cops and the robbers, as it were.

Again, clear lines between the culpable and the innocent are blurred, and the hybridity of the drug war zone is glaring.DTO’s do not represent “parallel power,” separate from those of the state, “but rather a form of economic activity connected with, tolerated, promoted or protected by various sectors of the state” (Campbell (2009), p. 18). Large-scale drug trafficking is permitted, sustained and exploited on a national-political front.

Officials in charge of enforcing anti-drug laws both in Mexico and the United States have tremendous incentive to appease the public eye by capturing major drug kingpins or seizing large amounts of illegal shipments to be self-validating: “[E]ven though the drugs confiscated constitute only a fraction of the overall quantity crossing the border, and the smugglers arrested are easily replaced, these policing practices are politically popular expressions of the state’s moral resolve” (Andreas (2009), p. 11). Indeed, victims are victimizer and visa versa, on the ground level; at another level though – on the broader and global scale – there is a blatantly sharp distinction and nearly impassable gap between those with economic or political power, and those left vulnerable without it. It is still the free trade zoning coupled with continued illegalization (U.S.) – all of which is encouraged or permitted by a corrupt legal system (Mexico) – that has created the perfectly deregulated capitalist “laboratory,” which, in the words of author Charles Bowden (2010), has become “the global economy’s new killing field.”

All in all, 1) the context of widespread poverty, which neoliberalism and NAFTA exaggerates, the political legacy of impunity and official corruption, however varied – have been the major barriers to any genuine attempt to limit the power of organized crime. What will be insinuated below is that the costs of these failures creates what Enrique Dussel calls a surplus population that is rendered a “necessary sacrifice” by the logic of what he and Walter Mignolo refer to as the modern/colonial, and now global capitalist project (Taylor, 2014). The suggestion therefore, is that, though the lineage is fragmented and always taking on new forms, the oppressive impact of NAFTA on Mexico’s subaltern/subjugated peoples and the conversely lucrative payoffs for the ruling minority locates this twenty-year free trade experiment squarely in the tradition of European and now U.S. colonialism.

Obviously, to repeat, NAFTA is not solely or even directly responsible for the spike in drug-trade-related violence. Nor are US and Mexican elites the only perpetrators. There are cartels, US consumers, the prison industry, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and others that are either complicit in the drug war or have a vested interest in the terms of NAFTA. Nonetheless, this characterization should provide a credible impression of the globalization/NAFTA/drug war matrix and the social context for the ethical response to follow.

A History of Decolonial Struggle

In light of this state of affairs, and in the midst of neoliberal economic policy and political compromise incentivized by globalization in this particular context, I will now turn to theorize what might constitute a critical movement of resistance inspired by an ethics of liberation (drawing on Dussel) and an aesthetics of decolonial struggle (taken from Mark L. Taylor). First, however, it should first be noted how Dussel’s deconstruction of modern-Enlightenment reasoning/epistemology can be used to situate this conflict historically.

While the U.S.-Mexico Drug War has a history that dates back several decades before the escalation of violence that began most noticeably in 2008, Enrique Dussel provides a much broader historical framework within which I think we can place this conflict and the political, cultural and economic forces at play within it. Dussel undertakes what is intended to be not only a systematic exploration into the epistemological and geopolitical pertinence of Latin America’s history but also a decolonial uncovering of a Eurocenctric conception of this history (Maldonado-Torres (2008), p. 11). This Eurocentric position, Dussel (2002) explains, was “first formulated at the end of the eighteenth century by the French and English ‘Enlightenment’ and the German ‘Romantics,’” and “reinterpreted all of world history, projecting Europe into the past and attempting to show that everything that happened before had led to Europe’s becoming, in Hegel’s words, ‘the end and center of world history’” (p. 201).

A basic presupposition of the myth of modernity is that European civilization has come about as a result of a fairly linear progression, which can be traced through selected cultures with respect to their historical rootedness in classical Greece and Rome. This view emerged during the Renaissance but reached its height in the philosophy of history that was formulated during the Enlightenment by Hegel but also others (Dussel (2002), p. 208). Dussel argues that the Enlightenment vision removed from its memory the disconnected and “Dark Age” Europe that lasted until the fifteenth century. In his work The Ethics of Liberation, Dussel demonstrates in a comprehensive historical genealogy of his own how even on a very generous reading, Europe was a periphery of the Islamic, Chinese and Hindustani world – “that “Oriental” world, much more “refined” and developed, from all points of view, that was the “center” of the old world, and the densest part of the world-system until the end of the eighteenth century” (Dussel (2002), pp. 231-232). Dussel (2002) goes so far as to contend that, “From Hegel, Marx and Comte to Weber – including Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Popper, Levinas, Foucault, Lyotard, and Habermas – Eurocentrism shines unopposed,” and that “it would dominate the colonial world with the brilliance of “Western culture,” as humanity’s most developed center “since the beginning”” (pp. 231-232). The decisive case Dussel (1979) is gradually building from these observations is that modernity does not begin with the Enlightenment but with the Spanish Conquest:

“in the beginning of modernity, before Descartes discovered . . . a terrifying anthropological dualism in Europe, the Spanish conquistadors arrived in America. The phallic conception of the European-medieval world is now added to the forms of submission of the vanquished Indians” (vol. 3, p. 99).

Elsewhere Dussel develops the claim further (1995):

“The colonizing ego, subjugating the Other, the woman and the conquered male, in an alienating erotics and in a mercantile capitalist economics, follows the route of the conquering ego toward the modern ego cogito. Modernization initiates an ambiguous course by touting a rationality opposed to primitive, mythic explanations, even as it concocts a myth to conceal its own sacrificial violence against the Other” (p. 48).

Against the myth of modernity and the divorce of the Enlightenment narrative of progress from the preceding colonial conquest, however, Dussel (1979) urges that

It is now time to change skins to see through new eyes. It is now time to put off the skin and the eyes of the “I conquer” which culminates in the ego cogito or the will-to-power. One’s new hands are not those that clutch iron arms, and one’s new eyes are not those looking out from the caravels of the European intruders, who cry Land! with Columbus. The new skin is the soft, bronzed skin of Caribbeans, of the Andean people, of the Amazonians. The new eyes are those of the Indians who, with their bare feet planted on soft, warm, island sands, saw in wonderment new gods floating on the seas as they approached (p. 99).

In sum, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation challenges the myth of eurocentrism and modern/coloniality by:

  1. interrogating the links between philosophical projects and geopolitical positioning
  2. appreciating the relevance that the liberation of formerly colonized subjects has for philosophy that parallels that of other important moments such as the emancipation of the “people” and the bourgeois elites in the French Revolution
  3. taking as its horizon the struggle of the wide majority of people around the globe and seeks to elucidate the challenges they confront while listening to their demands, supporting their struggle, and aiming to give voice to their aspirations (Maldonado-Torres, 2008).

This gives an introduction to Dussel’s philosophy of liberation and his aim to restructure how Western history is conceived. Nonetheless, the increasing globalization of finance capital and the rearticulation of development theories through neoliberal policies, along with the increase of poverty in Latin America and around the planet, made it necessary for Dussel to revise his ethics of liberation for a new context.

Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation

To only speak of Eurocentism in terms of political conquest, modern vs. postmodern epistemology, or even cultural domination, however, is very misleading. For Dussel (1995) contests that

A new god ascended on the horizon of this new epoch. He began his triumphal march in the heavens, not under the sacrificial sign of Huitzilopochli, but under the auspices of modernity’s sacrificial myth. This new god was capital in its mercantilist phase, which prevailed in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and after in Holland. This new fetish metamorphosed, acquiring its industrial face in the eighteenth-century England and its transnational embodiment in the twentieth-century United States, Germany and Japan (p. 116).

After studying Marx’s most mature writings in the later editions and volumes of Kapital, Dussel, like several other contemporary Marxian economists (e.g., Wolff, 2013; Eagleton, 2012; Harvey, 2010), believes that the core philosophical and methodological insight in Marx’s work is that living labor is the fountain of value. As that which is appropriated as surplus value and gives commodities the ability to generate value accumulated in the form of capital, labor, or living corporeality, is the ultimate source from which value is extracted, not capital. Hence, a commodity is “a coagulation, a crystallization, of living labor” (Mendieta (2007), p. 131).

Dussel (2013) then notes how Marx places the material in opposition to the merely formal in Hegel:

Against Hegel, for whom the supreme human act is the thinking that produces the thinking that thinks itself (formally), now what produces human life with self-consciousness is real human life, from its corporeality”, which has needs that animals do not – because human beings distinguish themselves from their life activity in their consciousness . . . Moreover, this material criterion on which ethics is grounded, the reproduction and development of human life, is universal, and . . . not solipsistic but communitarian. It concerns a “community of life” (p. 94).

From this point, Dussel (2013) puts forth “a universal principle of all ethics, especially of critical ethics: the principle to the obligation to produce, reproduce, and develop the concrete human life of each ethical subject in community” (p. 94). In order to follow this principle, Dussel explains, one must “situate oneself from the standpoint of the alterity of the system” – that is, “in the world of everyday life of prescientific common sense” (p. 207). According to Dussel, this is what allows for is the ability to adopt the perspective of the victims of a given ethical system without ethical complicity. Whereas Eurocentric modernity in the age of globalization and exclusion has often tended to make the production and consumption of commodities, and the growth thereof the measure of progress and civilization, Dussel avers that, following Marx, the measure of political economy and wellbeing begins with human bodies and their life, which is the source of value.

Going one step further, Dussel’s ethics of liberation proposes that victims, who in this case are those who have died, suffered and lost loved ones as a result of drug-trade related violence, affirm themselves and their dignity as a community through transformative social movements (p. 291). These victims’ communities also function as a “red light” or “social alarm” for the rest of society and especially their North American neighbors, calling out those in the prevailing systems of domination (p. 652).  As called to by victims, participants in the system are “interpellated,” into solidarity with “the community of victims” in resistance to the system. As stated above, this is worked out in a corresponding material principle expressed as the obligation to produce life. And in being so interpellated, “both the material negation suffered by victims, and the affirmations of their material lives and dignity (affirmations both they and others make) constitute Dussel’s ‘material criterion of content’” (Taylor, 2014).

Dussel’s material principle is only one of three principles of co-determination in his Ethics.  Dussel argues that

the mere “material” dimension is not sufficient for the fulfillment of the “goodness” claim of the maxim, act, institution, or system of ethical life. Other criteria or ethical-moral principles will be necessary for their fulfillment, such as the areas of consensuality of moral validity [and] the feasibility of mediations, in order to effectively reach ‘goodness’ (p. 57).

The second is a formal and procedural principle, that of discourse ethics. Bearing in mind, though, that discourse here is always carried out with the voice of victims setting the terms of dialogue. This is the condition that the “within eurocentrism” cannot provide.

Third, there is the co-determining principle and criterion of feasibility.  It subsumes all the principles described before, and its theorizes what victims actually can effect strategically, thus also constituting the liberative principle.  And again, the subjects are not only the victims but also those interpellated into solidarity with them.

These three criteria together form the difference of the critical-ethical reasoning or consciousness for Dussel:

Critical-ethical reason is a more developed moment of human rationality than those already analyzed; it subsumes material reason (because it assumes it affirmatively, as a way to discover the dignity of the subject and the impossibility of reproducing the life of the victim), formal reason (because it also assumes this in its perception of the exclusion of the victim from the possibility of arguing in his or her own defense), and reason concerning feasibility (because it interprets the conceivable mediations of the dominant system of ethics as “nonefficient” management for life, which at some level produce the death of the victims) (p. 208).

Despite its occurrence on a relatively small scale, I submit that this process critical-ethical reasoning and of interpellation is exactly what was accomplished by “The Caravan for Peace” movement which I will now briefly describe.

The Caravan for Peace as a Critical Movement of Resistance

In mid-August 2012, following the protest and march that ended in Mexico City in 2011, which drew more than a hundred thousand participants, the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity — led by the family members of Mexicans murdered and disappeared during the drug war — sojourned across the United States (Global Exchange, 2013). They have since also had a second and smaller caravan as of the fall of 2013, but I’ve chosen to focus on the 2012 effort mostly because of its size and success in reaching a large US audience.

Starting from Tijuana/San Diego, the 120-person caravan traversed 5,700 miles, holding events in 26 cities and generating extensive coverage in most of the major media channels in the U.S. and Mexico. The Caravaners made an effort to transform their sufferings and losses into moral criticism and compassionate action. They were joined by some drug war victims north of the border who also sought peace and an end to the devastating consequences of drug prohibition. One of the Mexican survivors was the famous poet, Javier Sicilia, whose son and a group of friends were murdered by cartel members in 2011, and he has played a crucial role in building momentum for the peace Caravan.

Along its journey the Caravan spoke boldly and critically, and used creative non-violent actions to dramatize the issues while seeking common ground on which to build the difficult, bi-national consensus for peace. Parents of victims on both sides of the border found solidarity in their common experience of loss, anger and mourning in many candle-lit vigils held throughout the course of the Caravan.  In total the Caravaners spoke to tens of thousands of people – not including the coverage in the media. Their collective moral rhetoric of the movement was crafted to elevate popular awareness and energy around four major areas of legislative reform:

  • Drug Policy Reform (decriminalization if not legalization of marijuana)
  • Opposition to the Militarization of Drug War
  • An end to the arms trade to Mexico
  • A criticism of NAFTA policy with respect to its effects on wages, infant industries in Mexico, and job growth

It should be especially noted how, in this movement, Sicilia’s loss in particular, as well as the losses decried in the many other testimonies from people of the Caravan, served to call out and implore people, to be hailed and interpellated into social, moral, and political solidarity with the victims. To conclude, I will enumerate several critical impulses that can be identified with the ethos and aesthetic nature of this particular movement, but also of CMR’s (Critical Movement of Resistance) in general. (The word “critical” is being used in the sense of reflective, thoughtfully attentive to complexity, and including an openness to self-criticism) (Taylor (2014), p. 136).

The Ethos of Critical Movements of Resistance According to Mark Lewis Taylor

In Mark Lewis Taylor’s essay “Decolonizing Mass Incarceration: Flesh Will Wear Out Chains” (2014) in which he considers the U.S. problem of mass-incarceration — which also happens to partly be a byproduct of the drug war – Taylor states that there are three critical impulses of CMRs, and I will relate each impulse to the Peace Caravan itself. Taylor understands each of these three impulses to feature both reflexive and cultivated aspects. First, as an impulse, and much as the term already suggests, there is an immediate and fairly reactive response to the suffering and injustice that is being experienced by victims of the drug war and free trade policy. There was in the Caravan for Peace movement an owning of agonistic being, whichwas enacted in the testimonies from family members and friends of victims on the Caravan who shared their grief and rage, and functioned as that social alarm or red light for those who would listen and pay attention. Taylor (2014) here actually note how Dussel’s privileging of the victims’ perspective and the material starting point, as well as the process of interpellation, begin with precisely the cry or “el grito” that “emerges as a roar from the pain of the victims, in their work, in their daily torment, or from the midst of their torture” (p. 137).

In a similar manner to that of Dussel, Taylor (2014) explains how the cry of the victim is not just a sad or disturbing feature of the generalized human condition. It is a marker of an agonism. Like Dussel’s alarm or red light, for Taylor the victim’s cry “is a ‘bellwether’ (leader or indicator) for all humanity, a call to guard dignity of all subjects, health of all bodies, justice for all persons. In the agonistic cry a space is opened in the concentrated mass of suffering, and victims begin constituting themselves as a community to negate systems that cause their suffering” (pp. 136-137).

Again, this is how victims call to others – “interpellate” them to their side from out of the system, for the purpose of ultimately building social forms and sustainable community together to end the victimization. Friends and families, and persons of conscience throughout the society wounded by drug-trade-related violence, take the antagonism carried in rage, lament and mourning, and in Taylor’s apt wording, “chisel it into an oppositional stance.” The cry may be the rage and grief of the thousands of children who have lost parents, and parents who have lost children. It may be, Taylor suggests,

the cry of ‘I am dying too soon,’ ‘I am without dignity,’ ‘I am raped,’ ‘I am tortured!’ When agonistic cries build a sense of group suffering, and a sense of historical violation of one’s group, then there comes the querying cry of “how long,” and the deeply bruising, answering cry of “too long!” Especially among those with the sense that the violence to which they are subjected has a colonial sociality and history to it, the interpellating cry, reverberates… ‘We are violently excluded, exploited and oppressed – as laborers, as women and sexual(-zed) others, as dark affectable subjects, as those denied life and dignity consigned to the underworlds and interstices of ever-surveilling state authorities’ (Taylor (2014), pp. 137).

One way agonism is shown is through the second critical impulse of cultivating of artful reflex. This ethos of CMRs described above must also be cultivated if it is to achieve a lasting effect. Otherwise reflexive actions are honed, concentrated and channeled to grow its consciousness-raising, interpellating and liberating impact (Taylor (2014), p. 136). For example, after a number of testimonies were heard from the Caravan’s stop in San Antonio, TX, at a local Catholic parish, the Sisters of the University of the Incarnate Word, where I currently teach, with representatives from several other faith traditions, performed an interpretative, interreligious peace dance that they had choreographed, inviting members of their respective faith traditions to draw on their own sacred resources for inspiration to partner with the Caravan.

Indeed, the dramatic, the theatrical, becomes especially important in a media-saturated age wherein information technology wields images to create spectacles that assure domination, enlisting citizen fear and fascination to reinforce inaction (Taylor (2014), p. 139). Hence, there were college-student interns with the social justice advocacy group Global Exchange that helped organize the Caravan who traveled with it to photograph and film the events and post them online through their social media accounts. Most of all, the artistic reflex, thus cultivated, offers to CMRs amid their agonistic sensibility, a celebratory function, a fore-tasting of the futures they dream and for which they struggle. Friends and family members of victims without any other options taking up the paint brush, the pen to write prose or songs, and these are powerful instances of artful reflex (Alexander, 2012).

The third critical impulse according to Taylor is the fomenting of resistance through politically adversarial practices. This “fomenting” follows the first mark of critical resistant communities, the owning of agonistic being, which, Taylor stresses, “as an “owning,” is an acceptance, an acknowledgement, one made perhaps reluctantly but with a sense of resolve, a resolution to see one’s being as what it is, in struggle, labile, tense, in readiness for tasks, but first known simply as a being-so-poised in (dis)stress” (Taylor (2014), 139-140). Moreover, the spirit of CRM’s is adversarial in its very presupposition that there is an enemy – not necessarily a person or group of people, though it could be, but indeed, that there is a matrix of antagonism and adversarial forces at play that have be named and challenged with righteous indignation (though not with hate or violence). It should further be emphasized, however, that the practices are not just for liberation from victimization, but also for restorative, structural change.

Furthermore, it is with its deployment of the arts like poetry and story-telling that resistance practice marshals most directly a creative and dramatic challenge to the powers at work in the theaters of narcoterrorism, as creativity and imagination become dramatic action that rallies a public to its sense of critical ethical consciousness. It is action that evokes a theatrical uprising of sorts. This happens in ways that galvanizes audiences and set them in motion, constituting what Taylor calls a “stealing of the show” from the narco-terrorism spectacle – beating their intimidation tactics to the stage, as it were. Mimmicking them, but from a higher moral ground, and in a way that humanizes rather than dehumanizes. One could think of how the mothers of the disappeared daughter of Juarez demonstrated their defiance by publically placing pink crosses and pictures of victims around the city for all to see, and writing on the crosses, “ni un mas!” (Rodriguez, 2007). These Movements are about forming new relations and coalitions for some transformative purpose that posits a concrete alternative to dominate rule, be it through cartel violence or unjust free trade.

To reiterate, Taylor reminds in conclusion that a theatric that would really counter the powers of state-collusion and cartel violence today is not content with mere personal stances, nor with occasional actions of creative non-violent drama – of agony and art. No, it presses further, and seeks to form networks and embody, as Taylor words it,

practices that have transformative effect, [and that] even pose an “incendiary risk” to structures of global U.S. sovereignty. This is to strike right at the heart of the [punitive] practices of colonizing and imperial power. Here, antagonistic sensibility and artistic expression constitute forces of resistance and subversion to exploitative power. Organized and organizing practices give a certain forceful “hardness” to lament and artistic expression (Taylor (2014), pp. 139-40).

Finally, Critical movements of resistance seek to sustain life-renewing activity and communal work. It is this dynamic-oriented character of the critical theater that prevents resistance movements from becoming mere aestheticism as is always the danger. They are safeguarded against this end, however, not only in their qualitatively different mode of contestation– with its values and display of justice and compassion in contrast to corporate, state or cartel violence – but also by the fact that its aesthetics is situated in a movement that identifies its opponent, namely, poverty-sustaining and/or producing political economic policy that imposes conditions of radically deregulated and therefore violent market competition that is part and parcel to the negative externalities of globalization. For this competition issues in the impossibility of ensuring life and well-being for large segments of the population, which fails to meet the fundamental criterion of Dussel’s ethics of liberation.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2008) argues that there can be another kind of globalization, a decolonial globalization, one that is counter-hegemonic, and that grows from below, from the global periphery – not the center. Perhaps CRMs like the Caravan for Peace can give birth to this kind of globalization, one that shifts the tides of culture and knowledge, and that raises consciousness and a sense of responsibility in both countries, but especially in the U.S., where the costs are too often rendered out of sight, out of mind, as it were, and where illegal drugs are continually demanded and consumed at an insatiable rate.


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Conference at UNAM in Mexico City: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of NAFTA

Borrowing significantly from my dissertation and drawing on the work of Enrique Dussel and Mark Lewis Taylor, the title of my talk is “Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle.”  I am especially looking forward to hearing from Dussel himself, as he will be giving the keynote address.  I will share details from my presentation afterwards.

NAFTA Colloquium Póster ColoquioTLCAN

Learning from the Crowd: A Holy Week Reflection on How We Turn Against Jesus

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog two days ago as part of their special Holy Week Series.]

I remember learning as a child in Sunday school about how the Palm Sunday crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with great enthusiasm and anticipation. It never really made much sense to me how they could turn on him so much in just a week’s time, but I was too young to strongly question this. When I got older, I suppose I just stopped thinking about it. All that mattered is that I had been taught “the gospel,” namely, that even though we are fickle sinners just like the people on Palm Sunday, God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. Well, I’ve since discovered that “how they could turn on him” really matters, and so I think it’s worth revisiting what “the crowd” during Holy Week teaches us about this gospel claim.

First, that God sent Jesus:

It is crucial to remember that before sending Jesus, God sent others. There’s a story behind the story. Most importantly for Jewish memory, God sent Moses, through whom God liberated Israel from slavery and gave to them the Law. This was their primal narrative. Life in Egypt was marked by the politics of oppression, much like in Rome. Pharaoh’s gods were at the head of the religious establishment, which was synonymous with economic affluence. Like the ancient Israelites, first-century Jews were subjected to the emperor’s reign of domination and awaited one who would “command peace to the nations” (Zech. 9:10).

The Israelites began to forget where they came from, that they were once slaves in Egypt. They started looking more and more like the Egyptians themselves. After Moses, God also sent the Prophets. They had to issue a warning. Liberation from slavery is a good thing – the most original meaning of the word “salvation” – but it can so easily develop into a new form of tribalism and violence. Their fear and anxiety led them to desire once more the security of Empire. They wanted their own king and kingdom. Before long, this also meant they needed their own slaves. In other words, the formerly oppressed were becoming the oppressors. Israel was being recreated into the image of Egypt:

“[Jerusalem] that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers! Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves as bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:21b, 23).

Jerusalem was “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus knew though that the “chief priests, the elders and the scribes” neither wanted nor understood his sort of peace. This is why “[a]s Jesus drew near and saw Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41). Unlike Pilate’s triumphal entry on the west side of town, Jesus processes on a donkey, with no army behind him, and no news of conquest. While they’re not sure what to make of this, the people still chant, “Hosanna!” Maybe he really could be their deliverer…

Second, To die for our sin:

During Holy Week, we see in Jerusalem the same social system that was condemned by the prophets, the same one that Jesus confronted, and the same one that killed him. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was engaged in the dangerous business of challenging the Jewish high-priestly collaboration with imperial control. His teachings about the Kingdom of God were perceived as, and in a real sense were, a threat to the political and religious establishment. The day after Jesus’s arrival, he harshly and publically criticizes the temple and its complicity with the system of Roman exploitation in yet another street theater-styled demonstration – by driving out the buyers and sellers. This was an extraordinarily adversarial act.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of the recurring journey of God’s people from Exodus to Exile – in one week. In first-century Jerusalem, the jobs of the high priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were tricky and difficult. They had to both please Rome and quell the frustration of the Jewish people so as to prevent civil unrest at the same time. Was this the same crowd as before? Some scholars doubt it, but this wouldn’t change the lesson. The crowds did not really understand who Jesus was. They had seen him perform signs and wonders, but his teachings were scandalous. Just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, they were still scared because of their insecure material circumstances and easily swayed by the influence of their society’s scheming leaders.

When we figure out that Jesus is not going to give us what we want, and not in the way that we want it, whether we’re in a position like Pilate or the crowd, we easily turn against him. This “turning against” is the opposite of belief and repentance. It’s that tendency in all of us to let the ego take over, to be driven by fear, shame, and anger, and to close off our hearts. It is because of (“for”) the crowd’s sin of “turning against” him that Jesus dies.

Finally, on the cross:

Caesar, called “a son of the gods,” and “lord,” brings peace through conquest and the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, and Lord, brings peace by bankrupting conquest and the cross. Walter Brueggemann says this about the cross in The Prophetic Imagination:

“The cross is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism because it means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God’s odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power. It is this freedom (read religion of God’s freedom), justice (read economics of sharing), and power (read politics of justice), which break the power of the old age and bring it to death” (p. 99).

Thus, the twofold theme of Holy week is this: radical discipleship in an unjust world means following Jesus 1) to a place of non-violent confrontation with the powers of domination and exploitation, and 2) on a path toward personal transformation through death to self (“deny themselves . . . and follow me.” – Mark 8:34). For “death to self” is basically open-heartedness that extends forgiveness even to enemies, just as Jesus extends it to the rulers and fickle crowd that shouts, “Crucify him!” In truth, we are all like the rulers and the fickle crowd.

In our post-Christian culture especially, but in any culture, the appropriate response to Jesus’s week in Jerusalem is not a proud victory cry that rushes to Easter morning for relief from a guilty-conscience and the fear of punishment. Nor is it for bold propositional assertion about the “truth of our belief.” But this is what we’ve frequently made it. Instead, for Holy Week, the charge to churches is bold embodiment of and deep trust in Jesus’s alternative practice of peace – not Caesar’s – one that is both humble and subversive, that liberates us from anxiety about worldly security and false narratives of certainty and instant gratification.

Only then will we be close to loving our neighbor.

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.

The Great American Water Crisis, Privatization, and how Faith Communities are Fighting Back

Like many others, I’ve been convinced for a while that the sustainable management of energy and water consumption must become top political priorities for society, and Christian churches should be instigating the conversation.  Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

Just yesterday I overheard a commentator on K-Love (a national Christian music radio station) announce the “great news” that the U.S. has recently become the world’s number-one producer of oil, and has increased this production three hundred percent in recent years due to advances in technology such as that afforded by hydraulic fracking, which enables us to extract hard-to-access deposits of fossil fuels.  For him — and I guess for Christian radio? — this is good I suppose because energy prices can remain low, people will keep relying on gas-transportation, and the U.S. economy will continue to grow.

Despite the short-term benefits of this boom which mostly go directly into the pockets of the biggest shareholders, the reality of the water crisis, peak oil, climate change and other environmental issues seem to severely call into question how this could finally be interpreted as good news.  While there are indeed significant advantages to increasing domestic energy production, especially that of natural gas, the concern is equally that we seem to be doubling-down on an addiction that is bound to cause more harm than anything else in the long-run.  And it would be one thing if our country was simultaneously taking the necessary preparatory and infrastructural steps to transition into a post-petroleum age… but we simply are not.  Instead, we seem utterly preoccupied with secondary, partisan pettiness.

On the one hand, it’s hard for me not to be cynical about this; but on other hand, who can blame the radio guy?  Have most church leaders and Christian thinkers even tried to understand and communicate the connection between the gospel message and real world problems like this one — a problem that requires out-of-the-box imagination and learning from what experts are telling us about peak oil, globalization and geopolitical constraints?  Sadly, they have not.  Too many cannot even fathom such a connection, as they remain captive to a soterio-centric version of Christianity.

Here’s how the latest issue of Sojourners Magazine characterizes the water problem:

Corporate raider T. Boone Pickens made billions as a Texas oil baron, but he’s betting that the real money will come from mining “blue gold”—water. Pickens owns more water than anyone in the U.S.—he’s already bought up the rights to drain 65 billion gallons a year from the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds the groundwater for much of the Great Plains. Almost all the Ogallala water—95 percent—is used for agriculture, but Pickens plans to pipe it down to Dallas, cashing in on the hotter-and-drier weather from climate change. (The result, according to an Agriculture Department spokesperson: “The Ogallala supply is going to run out and the Plains will become uneconomical to farm.”)

Pickens isn’t alone in his new role as a water baron. Multinationals such as Nestlé are buying up water rights, siphoning lakes, and selling our most precious resource to the highest bidder. Slick advertising has seduced many Americans into the mistaken belief that (expensive) bottled water is “purer” or “healthier” than tap water—and led to the annual consumption of 9.67 billion gallons of bottled water, with underserved Latinos and African Americans having the highest rates of bottled water use. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns that by 2030 nearly half of the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress.

As this article goes on to explain though, “the [actual] good news is that faith-based, consumer, labor, and other community organizations have teamed up to fend off many attempted takeovers to keep their water under local public control, for the health of the poorest and the strength of the whole community.”  To see examples of this, read the full story here:

It also sounds like strides are being made in a manner consistent with peacemaking rather than social justice ideology as discussed in the previous post, so that deserves praise as well.  Let’s hope we can learn from these groups who are putting their faith into practice in creative and forceful, loving ways.