Monday, December 6, 2010

Grace and Self-Activity

When I was meditating and praying tonight I got stuck on something Pete said earlier. He said instead of changing the world we should submit to God's grace and through His grace He may empower us to change ourselves which in turn could have an impact on the world. I disagreed based on the idea that our Self and the world are not fully separate so changing one means changing the other.

But at a deeper level, isn't my answer still limited? Aren't I denying what Marx calls "self-activity", the ability of oppressed people to take matters into our own hands and to shape history. Aren't I still projecting that human activity onto God, giving God's grace credit for something which humans actually can and must do? Isn't this just another example of what Marx calls alienation or estrangement - when human beings create an idea or a material object or a social system and then endow it with power so it appears to be acting as an independent force which alienates and suppresses our own self-activity?

I think that a lot of Christians do in fact do that. We do at times abdicate our moral responsibility to change ourselves and the world, saying "I can't do anything about it, I'll just wait for God to fix it" when we can in fact do something about it and to not do anything about it is actually a sin of omission because it leads to unnecessary suffering for other people.

BUT, I think this typical Marxist criticism of Christianity is still limited. After all, the concept of "self-activity" itself can be a fetishization or projection.

Marxists and can also estrange themselves, and the intellectual concept of "self activity" is not a safegaurd against it. Like all concepts it can actually become reified, or frozen, taken out of the flow of the historical process, and turned into an idol.

As I argued in response to Pete, the idea of the "self" is itself a creation of human history... it was born with the Enlightenment and the rise of bourgeois liberalism. So this idea of a "self" that makes history is just as alienating as the idea of a God in the sky who makes history for us.
In reality, the self is an ensemble of social and material relations.... I am a relationship, not a thing, and so are you. I am far more contradictory and complex than a thing, and so are you.

So my "self activity" is also therefore more contradictory and complex, and so is yours.

So when we make history, we are not "things" empowered with force that shape a passive world... instead we are a complex part of a living, breathing web of life and we change that web as we act.

So that brings me back to prayer. Most of my prayer is not actually begging God as some detached object in the sky for favors. The deepest prayer I have ever experienced was after I read the book the Cloud of Unknowing, by a medieval Christian mystic. It argued that any image we put forward of God is actually a false idol, and to really pray we need to extinguish all notions we may have of God.

Marxism really helps with that.. it helps us walk through exercises like the one I just did above to strip away false and alienating concepts of God. That time when I read the book I remember stripping away all concepts of God and trying to pray to the Cloud of Unknowing that resulted.

At a certain point I realized that I would also have to strip away the experience of myself praying to that cloud.... if God is no thing, then my self is also no thing. And in that encounter of no thing with no thing, we actually become real. We just are what we are, and we are what we are becoming. I remember in that moment of prayer feeling more real, more connected to the world than ever because I no longer had a sense of "self" separate from the world, I was simply a part of it's process - a part with clear agency and the ability to change, not just a cog in the wheel - but a part nonetheless.

So maybe that kind of experience is what Grace really is. Grace is when our "self-activity" transcends and extinguishes self-consciousness... when we act without the false, alienating, ever-degrading awareness of being a separate self that is acting... when our action making history is not separate from the rest of history making itself - or rather all the other sentient beings making history together... when we have a deeper consciousness that goes beyond self-consciousness and is consciousness of our activity within a larger, complex, dialectical totality of life generating life.

So worship of God is not necessarily alienating... grace is not necessarily alienating. If anything, it can help us get beyond the idea of our SELF, which is a bigger fetish for those of us in 2010, and a bigger opiate of the masses than any notion of God.

Because after all, didn't Marx say that the real movement of the proletariat, it's real "self activity" in history IS communism? In other words, communism doesn't just come after the revolution, it is what we practice when we make history now through our self-activity.

But communism is the opposite of selfishness! It is love - Marx lifted the vision directly from the Book of Acts in the Bible: from each according to ability, to each according to need. So self-activity that IS communism needs to be selfless, and prayer to God as the Cloud of Unknowing is one way to live in that selfless grace.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Further discussion on pacifism and revolution

A bunch of folks made very thoughtful comments on my essay Problems with Pacifism and Prayers for a Land Without Prayer. I just finally got a chance to respond to all of them. One comment, in response to Pete, was too long to fit in the comments section so I am posting it as a new post here instead. Please read Pete's comments first by clicking the link above and scrolling to the bottom. This is in response to his last comment:

Pete, I also agree with what you wrote here: " I don't believe that everyone is called to be on the front lines of the revolution: I believe there is space for artists, poets and contemplatives to create a more beautiful world without organizing in the community working to break down the structures that have made our world so ugly." I'll say more about that at the end of this comment.

That being said, I do think everyone has a responsibility to change not only ourselves but the world around us. In fact, I don't think that the Bible actually entertains any separation between our inner life and the rest of God's creation. That idea of an individual separate from his/ her social relations, and separate from the rest of the material world that sustains his/her body is not a Biblical idea, it is a distinctly modern Liberal idea that really began with the rise of the bourgeoise and modern capitalism. The capitalists actually had to destroy a lot of previous Christian ways of life in order to create the idea that each of us has a "self" we can change that is somehow separate from everyone else.

Like I said in my response to Tee, we are called to change the way we live... but to do that seriously will require us to come into conflict with the capitalist system that requires us to live and work in alienating and sinful ways. Jesus didn't just make a change in his own heart. His new way of life was manifested in concrete, material changes which brought him into bodily conflict with the Empire. That's the cross. It is not simply an abstract symbol of inner martyrdom and mortification, or a change of heart that separates us from sinful ways of thinking. It is a bodily change which brings us into a life or death reckoning with the World and its principalities and powers.

To paraphrase what the guerrilla priest Camilo Torres said about these questions: if I am going to love my neighbor, what I am I supposed to do when my neighbor is starving because his land was seized by an imperialist corporation? At a certain point, doesn't love really mean confronting those who wish to destroy our neighbors (and us?)

So, to summarize, Revolution definitely does require changing ourselves, not just exterior social structures... but we can't really change ourselves unless if we change the rest of society which our "selves" are not really separate from.

As for Jesus, I do think he was a revolutionary, and he reminds us that revolution is not exclusively violent because he did not take up arms. However I don't think he was a pacifist either, as the the quote you mentioned ("I haven't come to bring peace, but rather a sword") suggests. I think Jesus was preaching in a context where the ruthless revolutionary violence preached by the Torah was a given. The Exodus, Samuel, Judges, and the Prophets are full of calls for violent revolution at a scale an intensity that would shock even the most hardened Marxists or anarchists. Jesus does temper this message with a call for love, community, and compassion,in short for revolutionized social relations..... but I don't think he completely destroys or supersedes the ancient messages of conflict and struggle either... he claims to be their fulfillment. And the book of Revolution certainly ends the Bible with a return to a lot of these very violent revolutionary themes from the Hebrew Bible.

I disagree with you that "all the way to heaven is heaven." We definitely are not in heaven now brother! The ghettoes of Detroit, the oil choked Gulf Coast, the hellish factories lining the Pacific Rim, the slums of Baghdad and Kabul are definitely not heaven. The world is something more like purgatory - a volatile contradiction that could go either way. It is God's heavenly Paradise occupied by Satan's colonial army and the battle rages through the centuries and is not yet resolved. I do think we can come together in sacraments that prefigure the Kingdom of God - we can celebrate the fact that in Christ's life death and resurrection the world is "already" on the path to redemption, but at the same time we need to wait in Advent hope for the coming of the Kingdom because it is also "not yet" fulfilled. This is the basic tension that exists within Christianity. As I wrote in my most recent post, that waiting for the eruption of God's grace in history can't be passive (we probably agree on that)... we need to actively name that grace when we experience it, we have to name it by intervening, by living differently and encouraging others to do so as well, and by naming it we actually transform ourselves and the world.

That being said, I don't think Revolution and the Kingdom of God are the same. I'm not sure if the revolution we're fighting for now (the end of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and ecological destruction) will be the final redemption of humanity. It will certainly be a step in the right direction but perhaps the Kingdom will be something with infinitely more potential even than that. It is dangerous for revolutionaries to think we are going to create the Kingdom, the end of history. First of all, I don't think the revolution is an automatic given... we have to actually make it, if not it won't happen and we'll likely descend into barbarism when the oil runs out and the sea level rises. Second of all, there very well may be sin, conflict, prejudice, etc. even after the revolution, and in some ways the new society will simply be a more amenable environment for us to develop spiritually as human beings, for us to get down to more serious work on the spiritual conflicts which have been plaguing humanity since its birth. We'll be able to develop in virtue in ways we never thought possible, or rather in ways that only the most perceptive monks, poets, and philosophers dreamed of since antiquity. Again, we don't have to wait until after the revolution to do that - in fact we shouldn't' - but it will certainly be a lot easier in a society that is not systematically based on the worship of greed and murder.

Finally, I disagree with you that Ghandi is a model for revolutionaries. Perhaps he was a revolutionary the way Robespierre or Thomas Jefferson or George Washington was a revolutionary - he did help bring down an outdated and corrupt old regime. But that didn't mean he helped build a positive or anti-oppressive alternative. He was not fully anti-capitalist, he left the caste system intact and was very patronizing toward the dalits, India's most oppressed caste. He was also quite patriarchal.

The Body of Christ at the picket lines

In Ethiopia, he said, there are monks who pray
in the jungle, somewhere,
not for themselves but for everyone

but you are not monks
so why have you come to support our labor struggle
when it doesn't directly benefit you?

When I replied, someone ended my sentence with a phrase
That I can only understand as a prayer:
An injury to one is an injury to all

He added that his mother was single
Boeing laid her off right before Christmas
From then on he couldn't believe in a system that rewards such evil

Are these conversations theology?
Some would say we are Reds, preaching atheism
Creating a monstrous new religion that ends in a Stalinist apocalypse

But I see the Body of Christ clandestinely recomposing itself
in basic human decency

At the picket line tonight it felt like a Church basement on a good Sunday,
Passing around cups of coffee
Good conversation about ultimate matters
Jeers at the devil
And signs of peace

Advent thoughts on Badiou and the Event

So Advent has started, and I'm sitting here next to the Christmas tree reading about the advent of revolution in past moments in history and wondering when it's going to arrive next. This got me thinking about how our act of perceiving something new happening in history relates to our intervening to create that something new. For example, to what extent did people's response to the Good News of Christ's advent on earth actually constitute this event? Throughout the gospel, Jesus is unable to heal people unless they themselves make a willing choice to be healed - unless they are open to a new rebirth and a break from their past, unless they participate in an Event, something new in their lives and in history.

Similarly, when do we know a revolution is starting? At a certain point, isn't it the revolutionaries themselves who recognize something new is breaking out in their own life activity, and by recognizing and naming it a revolution they actually make it a revolution?

In this comment on a very interesting piece by Don Hamerquist, somebody named Jordan gets at this question, reflecting on the French Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou. Badiou criticizes rigid Marxist political parties of the old 20th century model that are not open to the advent of new Events in history and end up missing or trailing them instead of helping to create them. He says that in contrast revolutionary organizations today need to have a certain "porosity to the Event".

Badiou wrote a book on St. Paul and Christianity that I hope to read, and it seems his understanding of revolution is shaped partially by Paul's "porosity" or openness to the Christ Event.

Here is Jordan's comment:

This is specifically in response to Nate’s questions about Badiou’s conception of the event in relation to the ‘revolutionary party’:

By ‘porosity to the event’ Badiou means firstly the apprehension of the event. He doesn’t mean any sort of normal occurence like a tree falling or a person running into another; there is no sense of the day to day happenings that surround us implied in his definition.

Instead the event is something which is a nameless (only upon introduction into the situation) name, a part of the situation that has no clear basis in it. In this sense it appears totally radical and irrational, but this is only to the ‘state’ and those who view the event in the same way.

So, to have ‘porosity to the event’ one must be the ‘intervenor’, as Badiou says, that names the event first–so that it may become a reality in the situation and circulate as part of the knowldge therein–and secondly ‘selects’ those occurences which happen as a result of the event. Keeping watch for an event is what this ‘porosity’ entails, that one might be sensitive enough to discern what is actually new and therefore completely generic (not particular as a nameable object) in the situation. The generic character of the event is what makes it possible to be universal, though John points out that it is not of a completely transcendental character. If it were particular it would only have one place in the structure of knowledge and the world.

This is the precise futility of a firm political party. The rules and guidelines that may be laid out in this party do not entail a revolution nor an event because they are in reaction to the current state and the overall situational structure. Reaction to the political or governmental structure is a simple denial of what is actually existent. It cannot be argued that the current structure is actually in place and actually working throughout the ‘Western world’, but trying to implant an idea into the structure, trying to change it by its own means, as it were, will never universally proclaim an idea, nor proclaim one that is radically different to whatever structure is in place. This is not to say that disagreement and denial of a flawed system and its rules is not an honorable first step, but that is not the point of intervention, of changing the structure and bringing a new idea into the world.

Badiou’s discussion of the Christ-event as the foundation of Christianity is a completely legitimate event that even the most stubborn atheist cannot deny. It isn’t that there is a metaphysical being called ‘God’ or that Jesus was the ‘dei filius’, but that as the ‘death of god’, which takes place in existence through his son, the event has happened. This is the point that what is trans-worldly comes to appear and then immediately exit (in the form of death) the realm of the world, or existence. This makes it event, and the cross as a newly obtained religious symbol, for before it was only an object of capital punishment. And the fact that this punishment is inflicted by the state and by a statist tool (the cross) it is recognizing that this man, this messiah to a certain group of people, is dying by it. Therefore the death is the emergent life and circulation of the Christ-event whether or not spirituality is involved. One can see then how this foundational circumstance had the effect of the Church-system. This, though being a religious model, is one that is congruent in structure to the political one.

His (Badiou’s) works are dense and sometimes sections of them come across as very cryptic. I can understand that someone without much time to undertake a new study would be overwhelmed by Badiou, so I hope that this helps a little. Though I have explained this in a philosophical way (hopefully easily understandable!) I don’t know that it can be done otherwise. I would say that the confusion and the upset that is found in our present time is due to a lack of ideological ground and so I won’t deny that we are in need of philosophy at the moment. We are in need of it to make sense of our situation and to found any worthwhile ‘action’, any legitimate thought on the world that we are engaging in.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Prayer after virtue

social waves of innocent people
contemplate ballistic skies
The lights of Seabrook folding inward
The Atlantic shaking like the fourth of July

I swore to God I heard Him speaking
through the static of charred goodbyes
And floating thoughts in rivers tweaking
Sentences composed while high

I chase the sound of sterile beacons
memories of winter sighs
the ache of longing still was sweet then
now it sags like tired thighs

church roof eaves leave bevels bleak with
snow lashed to the tips of eyes
apartments old enough to think in
residue of cleaner times

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Meditation and the Crisis

I am reposting this article from an outstanding new blog, "Diary of a disparaged CNA". It is by a nursing assistant who is trying to make sense of the caring work she does every day in a capitalist society that just does not care. This piece really shows the importance of meditation and contemplation as part of the struggle, a theme we've been discussing on here recently. I encourage everyone to check out her blog, it's updated regularly and its very inspiring.


***for those who might not know, POC stands for "people of color"

POC meditation

Every Tues, I try to go with my friend R, to a POC meditation circle.I need the space for my mind to quiet, to meditate on survival and its trials. This summer/fall has been very strange. I have had very emotionally exhausting drama with people whom I thought were my good friends, and feeling betrayed by them. I suppose all relationships go through these kinds of tribulations, and you just have to grow from it.

R. and I talked alot about how in today's world, as the world seems to be increasingly collapsing in front of our eyes -- perhaps not in a dramatic apocalyptic manner, but in a manner of disintegration, chunks dropping off, increasing fire, increasing hazards, food riots, race war, future nuclear wars, etc -- it all seems very plausible. Everyone I know is feeling lost. We utilize, urgently, Marxist theory to try to explain the world, to try to intervene, to build organization, but the objective conditions are that the world is crumbling before us and we dont know really, what to do.

I think that the sense of helplessness I feel from the spate of publicized queer suicides and anti-queer violence, is exactly going to be the kind of emotions I increasingly feel -- extreme anger at the system but also a forboding sense that the problem is too big, too massive, and not knowing WHERE or HOW to start.

As more and more of us get unemployed, as more of us get shut out from school, as more of us who thought we could get a decent job w a BA degree find ourselves doing menial, undesirable work or worse still, be unemployed AND strapped w mountains of student loan debt -- we will feel the same: Helpless and massive demoralization cos what's pushing us down feels really really big and heavy and all-around. It is the State, it is Wall Street, it is the fucking WORLD ECONOMY.

We need to strategize and build organizations to resist, to articulate the problems, to start from somewhere. But more than ever I think, we need to create communal spaces for people to process pain, confusion and sorrow. This is increasingly where we are going to be headed: an emotional vacuum.

That's why I love going to POC meditation with R, and E and be in the presence of folks whom I dont organize with, but whom I respect deeply for the calming and honest vibe they bring to my life. I know I need this quiet space to share survival stories and boost up my emotional strength to face the ugliness of the world everyday, to organize with people who might not show me the same respect that I deserve, to face the bosses. To do that, I need emotional resilience and strength.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Problems with pacifism, and prayers for a land without prayer

I was just reading Thomas Merton's diary "Dialogues with Silence" and one of his prayers really struck me:
Lady, the night has got us by the heart.
The whole wide world is tumbling down.
Words turn to ice in my dry throat
Praying for a land without prayer,

Walking to you on water all winter
In a year that wants more war.

It made me think about a video a friend shared earlier criticizing pacifism, showing that Ghandi and King were only successful because there was a real threat of armed insurgency against colonialism and global white supremacy during their era and the rulers knew they were better off dealing with the pacifists than the insurgents. In other words, nonviolence was used to co-opt revolution.

I am tired of liberal pastors, the American Friends Service Committee, and other organizations that preach nonviolence and then preach that we should go and vote for Democrats who are presiding over American Empire's war machine, which tortures and kills mercilessly as the recent leaks of classified war documents have further confirmed.

I'm tired of nonviolence being presented as a tactic that can stop this kind of mass slaughter. It clearly can't . We marched in the streets for years and hundreds of people chained themselves to federal buildings to stop the Iraq war and it didn't stop. It will only be stopped through revolutionary struggles, which are going on abroad right now and could erupt here if things keep getting worse.

That being said, I've heard people say they can only imagine dying fighting, they can't imagine living in the new society after the revolution, they wouldn't know what to do there. I think this happens to quite a few revolutionaries. We need to remember that the goal of revolution is life, not war. Sometimes it is necessary to fight to defend your life and your community. But the point of it all is not the fighting itself, it is life.

I actually have more respect for people like Thomas Merton than I do for the liberal pastors and nonviolent "activists" who claim to be for nonviolent "revolution". Merton was just sitting there in his monastery cultivating inner peace. That's not gonna change the world but at least he wasn't stopping others from changing the world or trying to co-opt their movements into ineffective and hypocritical "nonviolence."

Actually, I think Merton and other monks do make a small, humble contribution to the revolution. They show us one side of what life could be like after the revolution is won. They are so impatient for the new society they try to catch a glimpse of it now by separating themselves from the capitalist world, and they are willing to put up with all sorts of obnoxious church hierarchy and bureaucracy just to live free from alienated labor where they can at least partially live the lifestyle Karl Marx described as Communism,

where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
It seems to me that folks like Merton live in the spiritual desert, the wasteland at the edge of capitalism. They know they aren't separate from it, they know their existence on its margins is a result of their privilege and they know that like the rest of us in America, they live off the spoils of empire and capital, ill gotten and covered in blood. They're not pretending to be innocent or above it all... as Merton expresses directly in the title of his book "Conjectures of a guilty bystander." But in that spiritual desert they spend their time prefiguring the life Marx describes and praying for a world where we can live it, "praying for a land without prayer", or rather for a land where prayer is not a separate sphere of activity divided from work, play, and life itself. By living, and praying that way, they make a small, humble contribution to the revolution by helping remind the rest of us what we are fighting for, by reminding us what life looks like so that we don't start thinking it is only war.

What we need is to overcome the capitalist division of labor between scholars and soldiers, ministers and militants, prayer and labor, life and struggle. We need to be like the ancient Israelite armed prophets or the Wu Tang warrior-monks who combined the intellectual and the martial arts. Soldiers follow directions given by commanders. Warriors are creative and self-governing in their battle, and fight for life and a broader vision of society. They take the best virtues of the monastery (virtues Merton hints at) and deploy them in the streets.

God forbid that I become a solider who lives only for war

God forbid I become an old burnt out former revolutionary preaching nonviolence and telling others not to struggle valiantly, to simply give in and attempt to reform the Empire.

My prayer is that if I ever get burned out, and if I don't die fighting first, that I retire to some place where I'm not in other people's way and pray for a land without prayer.

But my real prayer is that I fight courageously as a warrior with others and that we build a new society together so that we can all live together and pray/play together in that land. There will be no prayer in that land because capitalism will no longer divide prayer from life... the revolution should make life itself our prayer.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Radical Jesus blog

When I was a student and a new organizer in Providence, I was blessed to find a lot of mentors among the radical Christians in that city. We did a couple of demonstrations for affordable housing together and prepared for them with prayer, reflection and song. I learned a lot from this, and it was a key step in my developing commitment to radical politics. One of them just shared with me a blog he writes for: I encourage folks to check it out.


A response to "Biodiverse Resistance"

A friend just told me about this blog called Biodiverse Resistance and I'm really blown away by it. The author, Shiva, explores the links between the liberation struggles of folks with disabilities, queer liberation, feminism, transliberation, ecology, and anti-capitalism, and they use this concept of biodiversity as a framework for articulating these connections. It is some of the freshest radical theorizing going on right now. I particularly like this post. I'm posting my comments on it here because they were too long to put in the comments section on Shiva's blog. I'd be interested to hear Shiva and other folks' thoughts on all of this. My own knowledge on these topics, especially when it comes to disabilities liberation struggles, is very limited and I'm open to critiques.


For years, I studied Christian theology, including ecological theology and feminist theology. I agree with Shiva that in Western cultures (and perhaps others?) there is a somewhat theological emphasis on "bodily acceptance", the idea that God (or nature) gave you your body and you shouldn't alter it. For a lot of Catholics, God and Nature are often synonymous, because so many of the traditions of Catholic moral theology are based in the concept of Natural Law, the idea that God as a Creator infused the world with purpose and direction. For this tradition, fulfilling the purposes of our bodies, our lives, our planet, etc. is a moral imperative. Here, norms don't come from external laws imposed on humans, they spring from our bodies themselves and their relationship to the rest of nature.

For reactionary, patriarchal, heterosexist, and transphobic Catholics this means that anything which does not conform to a narrow definition of bodily flourishing is evil. They would say, for example, that masturbation, birth control, homosexuality, trans identity, abortion etc. are evil because they go against some sort of normative bodily imperative to "flourish" by reproducing. They would argue that our genitals are to be used only for reproduction because that is their "natural", and hence God-given purpose. Some even even take this to the extreme and argue that walking on our hands is a venial sin because the hands are not made for walking, they are made for other purposes. I have also heard anti-choice Catholics use this as a wedge to divide disabilities liberation and feminist movements, when they argue for example that legalized abortion plus new screening technologies that can analyze the genetics of fetuses will lead to the selective abortion of fetuses with disabilities, and hence eugenics.

The irony is that a lot of these reactionaries have a completely different stance when it comes to altering those parts of the natural world that exist outside the human body. They would generally endorse capitalist development projects that enclose land and resources and turn them into commodities to be traded on the "free market". They would generally endorse aspects of modern science that alter nature for profit. They would be critical of deep-ecology and other political ideologies that say nature (conceived of as outside and opposed to human civilization) should be off limits for human influence and that any attempt to alter it is evil.

Some Catholic feminists have rejected natural law because of this reactionary baggage it carries. Others, like Christina Traina and Jean Porter have tried to reclaim/ reinterpret natural law by redefining what is natural based on contemporary science and the insights of feminist theory. They reject the patriarchal biases and the barely updated 12th century science that informs so much official Catholic thinking on nature, and would include homosexuality, and open celebration of women's sexuality as "natural" and hence something good, something that is part of human flourishing. The problem is, some but not all of these folks would endorse aspects of deep ecology and would say we shouldn't alter non-human nature and that our attempts to alter it are what have caused the ecological crisis. Again, there is that contradiction - what we ought to do with our bodies is contrasted to what we ought to do with the rest of nature.

Shiva's emphasis on biodiversity seems to overcome that contradiction, by breaking down the divide between human and non-human nature. The concept of biodiversity does this well, and it also is a good tool for challenging reactionary understandings of human nature, because it shows that human nature, like non-human nature, thrives when it is complex and diverse, and it perishes when it is reduced to some narrow concept of what is "normal." What's key here I think is to link the concept of biodiversity back into evolutionary theory, to show that nature itself is not static, it is always changing. At a certain point in evolutionary history, some of the things we take for granted like opposable thumbs or large brains were mutations, variations on the average body type. Who is to say that the body types our oppressive society considers "abnormal" or "freakish" today might not actually be new evolutionary forms of humanity and nature? Maybe queer folks, transfolks, folks with disabilities, etc. are actually showing the rest of humanity aspects of being human that are currently underdeveloped, and if they flourish they could help humanity as a whole grow and liberate itself from past material constrains and social oppression.

I would be cautious to say this is the only reason why queer folks, transfolks, and folks with disabilities should have freedom and justice because it can come off sounding like those liberals who argue for affirmative action only because "diversity" improves the leaning environment of white folks - instead of getting at the real problem which is that a long history of oppression has kept oppressed people down and this needs to be overthrown. Also, I want to avoid romanticizing the experiences of folks with disabilities, or reducing these experiences to some kind of "improvement" on "normal" body types. This can become its own kind of essentialism because not everyone with a disability necessary wants to embrace this disability and see it as something the contributes to humanity, and that's also a choice people should be able to make. So politically this rhetoric of biodiversity would need to be complemented by an emphasis on justice and liberation (I imagine Shiva might agree with this), but biodiversity is a key philosophical concept that can ground this struggle for justice and liberation in a broader understanding of nature and society.

The danger here is this type of thinking is illustrated by the person who criticized Shiva at the queer ecology conference. What about choice? What about folks who choose to be queer, or trans, for example, and don't want to see it as something "natural" they were "born with"? I agree this critic and with Shiva - politically, we need a libertarian approach that does not police folks choices when it comes to their bodies. As commentor Anne C put it well, bodily acceptance and bodily autonomy are not separate, they're two sides of the same coin because we should be free NOT to change our bodies if we don't want to and we should be free to change our bodies if we do want to. Anything other than that gives society and government too much power which can and will be used to reinforce oppression. This is true when it comes to limiting the power of the current patriarchal-white supremacist-capitalist-heterosexist state, but it is also true when it comes to envisioning a new society. Our revolutionary dreams could rapidly become nightmares if people start to tell transfolks or folks with disabilities "you can't alter your body that way anymore because there is no need to do it now, we've had a revolution and you're free to accept your body the way it is." This sounds a lot like the Revolutionary Community Party USA's line where they said homosexuality would disappear after the revolution.

Often the Left deals with this kind of dilemma by trying to do away with the concept of what is "natural" or "healthy" altogether. I've heard many Leftists argue that all concepts of nature and health are socially constructed, and hence can be changed by human agency. The problem with this is it imagines an abstract human individual who is separate from material reality and can just change that reality based on individual will. This seems to fall into some of the classic mind over body splits that Capitalism and patriarchy have created, which is something that feminism has tried to challenge. Also, it seems to put human willpower over and against nature, which can't be good in terms of developing an ecological politics.

What about an alternative approach, one that tries to understand choice, freedom, and agency as part of nature itself? Maybe Shiva's concept of biodiversity can contribute to that. Have folks ever read Murray Bookchin's book "The Philsophy of Social Ecology"? He tries to get at something similar (though his politics on disabilities, queer liberation, and transliberation are limited) He argues that human history is a part of natural evolution, they are not separated. Like Shiva, he thinks human society thrives when it has its own biodiversity,when it is complex and changing instead of simplified and static. He sees capitalism as simplifying and suffocating both natural and human biodiversity, possibly bringing evolution to a halt. And he envisions a social ecological revolution where human biodiversity will flourish and human society will become "nature rendered self-conscious."

He is able to imagine humans as nature rendered self-conscious because he sees choice, agency, and what libertarian Marxists would call self-activity present throughout nature. He argues that the idea of evolution as "survival of the fittest" or "adaptation" is outdated and is a distortion of oppressive Victorian era patriarchal, racist, and capitalist science. He draws from more contemporary evolutionary theorists who argue that sentient beings actually shape our surroundings and play a role in shaping our own evolution. Not just humans, but other beings as well. In other words, there is a an aspect of self-activity present in the evolutionary process even before humans emerge from it. Our capacity for self-activity and choice actually comes from our bodies and the way they evolved.

So if you take that as step further, our choices to alter our bodies could actually be an extension and continuation of this evolutionary process. And, this evolutionary process is not always as slow creeping linear development, it also includes breaks, leaps, and revolutions, which could happen even faster as humans re-organize technology to express our desires for freedom instead of to dominate each other and the rest of nature.

In any case, I think returning to some of these philosophical and theoretical points can really help us overcome some of the limitations of contemporary ecological, anti-capitalist, and feminist thinking. I'm looking forward to continuing the dialogue.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Trinity in Prayer: contemplation, liberation theology, and comparative theology

Just like God is a Trinity, a tension between three forms, so too does our spiritual practice need to live out a tension between three forms of prayer:

Prayer to God the Absolute means stripping away all attachments and images, to let go of our egos and our desires to be famous, well-liked, beautiful, wealthy, powerful, etc. All of these will pass away while the glory of God will flourish. This is the practice of contemplation.

Prayer to God the Incarnate Revolutionary, Jesus Christ, means following Christ's revolutionary path even if it means living in poverty, suffering under state repression, or even being crucified by gun. It means doing all of this for love of others. This is the practice of liberation theology.

Prayer to God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Freedom, means constantly being open to new seeds of the spirit in every part of our lives, and learning from these seeds of the spirit in every history, every culture, every religion. This is the practice of comparative theology and interfaith dialogue.

A well rounded Christian revolutionary needs to live out all three of these forms of prayer and practice : compassion, liberation theology, and comparative theology. Without all three of these in tension and contradiction with each other we can't grow..... or more precisely we will grow but it will be oppressive and distorted growth instead of the flourishing of God in history through our self-activity.

Self-activity means our free creativity, unalienated labor, our struggling, our co-creation.... but it is really selfless activity when done right because it is done out of love for others. Ultimately the highest form of self(less)-activity is what the Taoists call "wu wei" or actionless action - action which extends the developing healthy and free tendencies in folks social actions instead of forcing and confining these to the actions we desire. In Christian terms, it is graceful action, action which incarnates God's grace and sparks others to encounter this grace in their own experiences, through their own activity instead of through what we think their activity should be.

The three forms of prayer help us develop this graceful action instead of dissipating our energies in useless and frustrating activism.

The Trinity and Dialectics

Recently I've been studying dialectics, which is a tradition of philosophy born with Heraclitus in ancient Greece and the Taoists in ancient China. It was developed by Aristotle and many others and came to fruition with Hegel and Marx. Dialectics means that everything grows through overcoming contradictions. For example, right now there is a conflict within me between the person I am and the person I am becoming, and I grow through that inner conflict. Right now there is a conflict our society between the ruling class and the working class and we grow through that contradiction.

I wonder if this concept of dialectics could help us understand the riddle of the Trinity, the complex traces in the scriptures and tradition of God's manifestation in 3 forms.

When I was in Church the other day it hit me with some clarity: The Trinity represents a profound contradiction in our understanding of God, a contradiction that explosively reveals our ignorance and forces us to abandon our false conceptions of divinity.

God "The Father" in Christianity means the Absolute, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Almighty. No images can ever represent this Absolute because it cannot be contained.

Jesus Christ is the negation of this absolute. In the person of Jesus, God becomes concrete, incarnate, personal, intimately present, and, most importantly, involved in concrete historical struggles for liberation against oppression. When Jesus Christ confronts us and asks us to walk with him we need to give up and negate the ideas we have of God as some all powerful force that would never relate to us in our humility. We need to give up abstract and intellectual concepts of God. We need to stop thinking of God as someone or something that only skilled, trained intellectuals or monks can reach in the abstraction of their minds and their withdrawal from daily life in the world. We need to see God, hear God, touch God, and in Communion, become one with God. In Jesus Christ, God becomes human so that humans can become divine. Jesus is the ultimate exaltation of humanity which humans can find through practicing what Jesus practiced: love, compassion, and justice for others.

However, the cycle of the Trinity does not end there. If it did, there would be a danger that we could turn Jesus Christ into an idol. We could worship him as the physical manifestation of God in the world as if God were not present in all of the rest of the universe. We could assume that the only place in the world that is Holy is is the place where he walked and the only time in the world that was holy was the time when he lived. We could assume that the only cultures in the world which have sanctity and holiness are those cultures that have had contact with the culture he was born into. This can justify imperialism and profoundly conservative conclusions - if you are not connected to the spiritual bloodline of Jesus Christ and the spiritual soil of Jesus' Christ's Holy Land then you are not part of that exaltation of humanity so we, the true divinized humans can exalt ourselves at YOUR expense. We can take YOUR land, dominate YOUR history and graft you as a subordinate into the tribe of descendants of the God-Man. This is basically what Christian Empires have been doing for centuries, from Rome under Constantine to the British Empire of the 19th and 20th centuries. This idolatry has lead to the genocide of millions of indigenous people who were deemed to be "pagans" and it has lead to the destruction of beautiful and illuminating non-Christian religious traditions.

That's why God in his infinite mercy negated Jesus Christ as well. God knew we would turn him into an idol and a symbol of conquest. That's why Jesus died on the Cross, descended to the Dead, rose again, and ascended into heaven. Just when we thought we had him pinned down he slipped from our grasp and traversed the full lengths and depths of life and death. Just when we thought we had him nailed down in one holy spot, he disappeared, negated himself, and then told us that if we want to find him we can find him everywhere and anywhere, in the Holy Spirit. Anyone, Jew or Gentile, Roman, Ethiopian or Celt, European or Asian, African or Latin American, etc, etc. can communicate with the Spirit because the Spirit dwells in all times and places. It's like the Bruce Springsteen/ Rage Agasint the Machine Song:
"Wherever you seen a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Wherever there's a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Ma, I'll be there
Wherever somebody's strugglin' for a place to stand
For a decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes, Ma, you'll see me
You'll see me"
Jesus may have died but in his death he did not withdraw into the safety of the Absolute. No, he was and IS reborn again in every human's struggle for freedom and dignity, every ecosystem's struggle for health and dynamism, every living breathing development of freedom in history. The flame of the revolution Jesus launched against Roman tyranny and elite religious dogmatism may have been stomped out in the 1st century but the embers were scattered and spread around the world and from time to time they burst out in new fires of Pentecost.

To put it in dialectical terms, Jesus is the negation of God the "Father", and the Holy Spirit is the negation of that negation. In Jesus Christ God revels to us that he is not abstract and inaccessible, but as soon as he reveals that he also contradicts our ignorant grasping at this revelation by negating himself again and showing us that his concrete, incarnate presence in history is not confined to one time or place but is everywhere. So God becomes a concrete universal, the Absolute present in the concrete in every moment, every location, and most importantly in every living breathing sentient being struggling for life, love, and freedom.

So with this understanding we can end with a revamped Trinitarian prayer:

In the name of the Absolute, the Revolutionary, and the Spirit of Freedom, as it was in the beginning, is becoming now, and for ever will become

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ableism, the gospels, and the Book of Eli

I've been giving more thought recently to the oppression that folks with disabilities face in our society. Under capitalism we are judged based on our ability to sell our labor as a commodity - that, is to work for wages. Those who can't work are often either cast aside or treated with pity and contempt; they are not considered equal citizens in society. This situation is called ableism, and just like racism, sexism, and classism, it is something we need to confront.

Do the gospels shed any light on this situation or do they simply reinforce ableism? Skimming through the Book of Luke today I was struck by several different perspectives on folks with disabilites that seem to exist side by side. I have very little time to write now, so this is only a sketch, not a serious analysis/ exegesis...

1) many of the religious authorities at the time (the scribes and Pharisees) considered people with disabilities to be cursed or possessed by demons. At times it seemed Jesus agreed with them; he just debated with them about whether or not these demons could be cast out on the Sabbath. (At times it seems he was also debating about whether this healing should be done for free or for a charge). This doesn't seem to be all that liberating because it still associates ability with godliness and disability with evil. It also assumes people need to get rid of their disabilities to be happy and free and doesn't imagine any positive role folks with disabilites could play in society.

2) At other points Jesus seems to flip this logic on its head; he says that people with disabilites are actually the ones who are more righteous than the religious authorities who judge them. In the Parable of the Great Feat (Luke 14: 15-24), Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven will be like a banquet where the master has invited many prestigious guests of honor who are all too busy to come because they are caught up in their own possessions and business dealings. So the master invites all the "poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame" to eat instead. The idea is the last shall be first, the first shall be last - the outcast and oppressed in this society are actually more likely to find salvation. Those who you think are good are actually evil, and those you think are evil are actually good.

3) A similar theme runs throughout the gospels, where the scholars are unable to "see" clearly who Jesus is but the blind who they condemn are able to "see" and understand him.

This last theme is dramatized very well in the movie the Book of Eli which I saw the other week. In the post-apocalyptic world described in that movie, all of the Bibles have been burned because the war which brought the apocalypse had to do with religion and people burned the Bible to prevent it from happening again. Carnegie, the warlord/ gangster figure wants to get ahold of the last Bible so he can use it to rule through hegemony and ideological manipulation instead of through brute force. Eli is trying to bring the Bible to Alcatraz, which symbolizes the monasteries which protected certain forms of learning during and passed them on during the Middle Ages. At the end of the book we realize that Eli is blind. The copy of the Bible he is carrying is in braille. So when Carnegie steals it from him, he is unable to read it. The idea is that the true power of the book cannot be understood by the powerful who wish to use it to justify their power.... only those who "walk by faith not by sight" understand the book's purpose.

Is this consistent with basic themes of liberation theology? For example, the "hermeneutical privilege of the oppressed", the idea that oppressed people can unlock the meaning of scripture better than their oppressors? Are people with disabilities, as oppressed people, able to unlock the secrets of scripture better than those who condemn or pity them? Or, is the movie(and perhaps the Gospel narratives it revamps), reinforcing oppressive narratives like the "supercripple" who through sheer willpower overcomes adversity (the Christopher Reeve mystique?) Or is the movie (and the gospel narratives it revamps) romanticizing folks with disabilities, treating them like symbols of truth who are somehow more "pure", without recognizing their existence as complex and contradictory human beings?

These are questions I need to explore a lot further and I am open to folks' insights on this if you have any suggestions.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Haiti, Black Liberation, and the Book of Job

My friends and I are doing labor organizing with custodians at University of Washington as part of the overall struggle against budget cuts, structural adjustment, and privatization there. Many of the workers are East African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean. Together we have been following closely the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti and are organizing and collecting aid donations in response.

For us, this is a matter of outrage, not pity. Outrage that the US military is stopping aid shipments from organizations it can't control. Outrage that the white supremacist leaders of the US are using this as an excuse to further neo-colonial control over Haiti. Outrage that Haiti just signed an IMF rescue package that will plunge them into further debt peonage to the global ruling elite. Outrage that Haiti's poorly constructed slum cities crashed and burned during the earthquake because for decades resources were diverted away from social reconstruction and toward paying back earlier loans to US-backed financial institutions. Outrage that the US had repeatedly plunged Haiti into deeper social instability through coups and civil wars, including the kidnapping of liberation theologian/priest-turned president John Bertrand Aristide.

Haiti was the site of the only successful slave revolution since the Exodus, a revolution which terrified the US slave-owning elites and inspired Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey's, and John Brown's revolts. In this sense the Haitian revolution has left a permanent mark on the development of insurgent Christianity on this continent. It is part of all of our collective tradition of liberation and the fact that the diabolical rulers of this continent have spent 200 years punishing the Haitian people for it should be something that propels us into the streets in aggressive solidarity.

How many Katrinas, how many Haitis, how many Detroits will it take before the Black liberation movement ignites again, pulling large segments of the New World working class into its vortex? I can't wait for that day...

Our group, International Workers and Students for Justice will be tabling on campus collecting donations for relief efforts in Haiti and we will be passing out literature talking about Haitian resistance to imperialism and the need for a direct worker-to-worker foreign policy from below, a new type of mutual aid. I encourage folks to donate online to some of the non-imperialist aid organizations listed here.

On a theological tip, I was horrified but somehow not surprised to hear Pat Robertson claim that the earthquake was God's vengeance for a supposed "pact with the Devil" that the Haitians made during their revolution against the French slave-masters. If anything, this theology is demonic, portraying God as a racist cracker who gets off on watching people suffer. On Facebook an image was circulating (I can't find it now) of a placard outside the "First Baptist Church of Haiti". It said simply "Fuck you Pat Robertson." Whether it was fabricated or real, this poster reminds me of Job's retorts to his patronizing and dogmatic friends. They try to console him in his suffering by suggesting he earned his pain by sinning. He basically tells them to fuck off. The middle of the Book of Job (minus the somewhat shady intro where God seems to act like a gangster proving to Satan he is harder than him) represents a profound rebellion against any form of theology that aims to justify the suffering of oppressed people.

I just got through Roland Boer's chapter on Ernst Bloch from Criticism of Heaven. In the spirit of Bloch, and in solidarity with Haiti, the only God I can worship right now is the one who will come to END suffering, to usher in the Kingdom of Freedom.

Review of Avatar

I wrote this review of the movie Avatar for It deals with the political implications of the movie in terms of anti-colonial struggle, racism, dissent in the military, and ecological politics.

Tucked away inside the review is a discussion of the religious themes in the movie. I argue that the film contrasts the dualism of colonial scientist Grace Augustine with the spirituality of the Navi'i, the indigenous people of the planet Pandora. Their spirituality integrates idealism and materialism in a dialectical process; Augustine's mental and social location as a colonial scientist prevents her from understanding this.

I am reposting that part here in the hope of further discussing these themes.

At the same time, [Grace] Augustine is right, the Navi’i do not practice a “primitive” mysticism. Eywa is not a disembodied Spirit. The Navi are not idealists, in fact they fully integrate spirit and matter, idealism and materialism, in a way that only the most utopian libertarian Marxists and anarchists have dreamed up. They do not worship a God who stands outside of and dominates the natural world, nor do they merge into a pantheistic Oneness, a “night in which all cows are Black” as Hegel put it. Their worship involves merging their consciousness with the world around them through creative praxis: though a mix of contemplation and action. It is almost like all of them become Jesus figures: fully God and fully human(oid), they are in touch with universal truth in and through the concrete, particular, embodied reality they live in. This allows them to co-develop/ co-evolve with the natural world and that’s why they are able to develop such a sophisticated system of biologically-based technology. To extend the theological echoes here, I wonder if the choice of Grace Augustine’s name was intentional. For her, like for St. Augustine, grace and spirit come down from above to control disobedient bodies; for the Navi’i who defy her liberal racist science, there is no separation between spirit and matter.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great quote from Harry Chang

I was just reading the interesting discussion on socialism and Black nationalism over at Advance the Struggle and I came across a classic piece by Harry Chang critiquing Stalinist and Maoist approaches to Black liberation. The last paragraph is a pretty stunning and precise historical summary of how white supremacy has functioned as an integral part of capitalism the past 500 years. The second sentence of this paragraph suggests that the rise of "races" as modes of social organization was part of the ascendency of the bourgeoisie and it's attack on previous modes of social relations, including religious ones. I know this is something that Loren Goldner has explored, and I hope to post on his work here in the future. All I can say is that this is disastrous for Christians who are supposed to be baptized "neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free." I can't help but notice that at times it seems in church we are asked to worship "Western civilization" (code word for "the white race") instead of God. But at this point we can't go back to a parochial identification with past forms of Christianity instead of with Western Civilization. No, we have to take up what Chang suggests - class struggle organizing that can target and destroy the socio-economic base of white supremacy, replacing it with true global solidarity.

Racist thought is probably the most inhuman thought produced by the bourgeois era. In its origin, it carries the bourgeois birthmark, being premised on the dissolution of tribal, religious, and cultural "ethnics." In its career, its virulency closely parallels the progress of primitive accumulation from Portuguese and Spanish colonies, through Dutch and French colonies, to the English-speaking world. In its death-throes, it has become married to fascist thought. The proven ability of Marxism to smash all the illusions of the bourgeois era must now come to aid us in our effort to keep vigilant against all attempts to reproduce racist thought, in our movement to expose its inhuman irrationality, in our struggle to destroy its socio-economic base.