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