Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is the Spiritual Desert?


Three years ago, I was a young student of Christianity in the process of becoming a Palestine solidarity activist. I wrote this paper for a class on Early Christianity and Ecology. It describes the social, political, and economic significance of the mass movement of early Christians to the deserts of Egypt and Syria. They were sick of the increasingly decadent official Christianity that the Roman Empire was using to conquer its subject peoples, and they were looking for another way to be Christian, even if that meant going to the margins of society. The icon here shows Moses the Ethiopian, one of these early Christian radicals.
I no longer agree with everything I wrote here. In particular, my conclusion argues that the experience of the early Christian monks and nuns is relevant for us today as we face a world of diminishing resources and ecological destruction. Like them, we should learn to live on little so that we don't start fighting each other over scarce goods. What I was missing at the time was a more developed understanding of capitalism and how it actually creates artificial scarcity. Today, we have the capacity to develop the technology necessary for everyone in the world to meet their basic needs while working much less than we currently do. Capitalism wastes so much; if working people reorganize the economy from below, we could retool production to make it more ecological and more just. In the meantime, learning not to fight each other over artificially scarce resources is still important, but I guess I also appreciate much more the sense of "damn, if the rich get to live the good life, why can't we" that you see in the Bling-Bling aesthetic of contemporary hip hop. (For a good analysis of this, check out DEMOCRACY AND HIP-HOP PROJECT: a blog of politics and culture from below: The Dialectics of Hip-Hop ) We live with wealth all around us and yet we don't have what we need. We should take it, but we should also take a tip from the early Christian desert peoples and share it with each other when we get it. That'll still take some spiritual discipline.
The other thing I would do if I were to rewrite this is I would emphasize much more that the desert Christian monks were not just an arrogant vanguard looking down on the rest of the world. As I wrote back then, "Monasticism was never completely a self-righteous counterculture of ornery folks bent on the destruction of society. Monasticism was a social alternative to the world, an orderly and stable challenge to the world, dynamically engaged with it, offering its citizens new values and new possibilities of living by higher ideals." This needs to be developed further.
Finally, I don't think I paid enough attention to some of the gender and ethnic opression that the monks fell into and brought with them from the cities. Like most revolutionaries, they were far from perfect. This book, among many, is a good place to start: http://www.amazon.com/Symbolic-Blackness-Difference-Christian-Literature/dp/0415243696
In any case, I'm posting the paper here so ya'll can get a better sense of where I'm coming from with this idea of the spiritual desert. I apologize for the rough formatting, I'm still learning how to blog :)