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