Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Capitalism & Christianity - Part 14 (final)


What provoked this series, or blog-book, on Capitalism & Christianity was repetition.  I'm no expert on either Christianity or capitalism, nor am I a professional historian.  I am a Christian, as well as I know how to be right at the moment, but a hell of a lot of people can say the same thing; and they don't claim expertise either.  But I have taken an interest in a few things that sent me looking for answers, capitalism was one of them.  Still looking.

The reasons are particular to me, and not everyone - in fact, precious few of us - feels the need to really study it, or has the time and resources.  What I have found is that there are some boilerplate arguments on behalf of capitalism that come up with tedious regularity - that repetition I was talking about - that are plainly wrong in view of both history and facts.  So I tried to put together a series of pieces that can be at hand to respond in some depth to these repetitiously wrong arguments.  That doesn't mean all the counter-arguments are right, or that those counter-arguments will be the last word.  We struggle with the best we can pull together from what is already there, and if new information comes along that creates an epistemic crisis, then we are obliged to go back and review our conclusions in light of that new information.  The institutional church got stupid in response to Galileo, and they've had to fight for credibility ever since with many people.  These analyses are the best I have for the time being, but I have no doubt that many things I have written or dictated from other writers will appear as strange to people in the future as 70s hairstyles do to us now.

I was not very kind to capitalism, I'll admit, or to modernity - whichever perspective you want to take on the last 400-plus years; but I was pretty tough on preceding epochs, too; so I hope I've dodged the criticism that I have romanticized the past.  We live in a post-lapsarian world, and evil has found its way in through our fissures of pride and hard-heartedness in every period of recorded history.  Nor am I arguing for some broad systemic alternative, like "socialism," however that is defined.

I am arguing that the world was redeemed some two thousand years ago, and therein is the reason I can be a pacifist in the face of the evils we still see.  I'll even cling to that pacifism, God willing, when it is clearly not efficacious - which sometimes it is not.  As punishment for my sins, I am still frequently still armed and in uniform in my dreams.  Long story short, this is not some revolutionary tract that means to fire people up to "overthrow capitalism."

I used to buy into that narrative.  I was a soldier for a long time, and I learned to love the way that force could shake things up.  Force can shake things up, it's true.  Little boys love to blast inertia.  Crash and boom!  Scream and shout!  Wound and kill!  Shock and awe!  I was brought up a boy, and the boy-stuff goes deep.

And there is plenty about "the system" to provoke a righteous anger, so the boy-stuff can feel righteous in reply.

More to the pragmatic point, I don't believe social systems are overthrown until they are already unstable from internal weaknesses (the left likes to call them "contradictions"); but more to the nonviolent point, I have seen little evidence that such overthrows inaugurate anything substantially better than what they replaced.  Any of us can imagine "the best of all possible worlds," but imagination can never keep up with the incredible complexity of our post-lapsarian existence, now or in the past... human moral frailty is paradoxically powerful, just as the submission of Christ is paradoxically powerful in the opposite way.

This series is a critique and an analysis, not advocacy.  It was not advocating anything except that people become more informed about the society in which they live.  Christians make decisions like everyone else, but we are obliged to use the gift of our own reason in ways that are consistent with the tenets of our faith - love of God, neighbor, even enemies, and to live as if our proclamation that Jesus is Lord is the truth.  If the things our culture teaches us, habituates us to, and imposes on us are leading us away from love and from our eschatology, if we are trying to serve Mammon and God at the same time, then the more we know about how and why this society works, and how it came to work that way, the more faithful can our decisions about what we do, when and where we are, can be.

I owe a tremendous debt to a man who I have mentioned only briefly in this series, and that is Stanley Hauerwas.  It was he who, in his own ornery Texas way, made clear to me what church is, and many of the ways that capitalist modernity has hijacked the consciousness of its members.

He didn't have to explain overmuch, for me to understand, how the modern nation-state has become our sanctuary and nationalism our truest religion.  This may be a difficult point for him to make to others, but I spent a very long time in the army, in its teeth, as we say, and not in its tail - as a combat troop in those very units that are glamorized in the media and idealized in our fiction - Rangers, Special Forces, counter-terrorism.  We knew that we were icons; how could we not?  Some of us even began to believe all the bullshit.

We just went through Memorial Day, a holiday I despise and which I hide from.  I went to Mass on Monday to avoid being called out in church (I don't know if it happened)... "Will all the veterans stand," which is followed by applause.  I hate that!  It is coercive!  Priests and preachers, don't do that!

I may attend the only church in town that doesn't display an American flag in the sanctuary.

Even still, on Monday, after the Mass was ended, we were asked to sing "America, the Beautiful," which is in the hymnal!  I left.

So even though I was never a student of Stanley Hauerwas, in the sense that I attended his classes at Duke University, when he said the following, I understood exactly what he meant:

Should not Christians call on the power of the state to employ its coercive force to secure more relative forms of justice?  Such action would not be a question of using violence to be "in control," but simply to prevent a worse evil.

Although I have sympathy with this position and though it certainly cannot be discounted as a possibility for Christians, one problem with many efforts to demonstrate the necessity of the use of violence is that they often misrepresent the character of the alternatives.  Violence used in the name of justice, or freedom, or equality is seldom simply a matter of justice:  it is a matter of the power of some over others.  Moreover, when violence is justified in principle as a necessary strategy for securing justice, it stills the imaginative search for nonviolent ways of resistance to injustice.  For true justice never comes through violence.  It can only be based on truth, which has no need to resort to to violence to secure its own existence.  Such a justice comes at best fitfully to nation-states, for by nature we are people who fear disorder and violence and thus we prefer order (even if the order is built on the lies inspired by our hates, our fears, and resentments) to truth.  The church, therefore, as a community based on God's Kingdom of truth, cannot help but make all rulers tremble, especially when those rulers have become "the people."  (from his essay, "The Servant Community")
For all Stanley Hauerwas' alleged irascibility, I find him here to be diplomatic in the extreme, as he is with soldiers - and I told him as much recently in an email.  He credits soldiers with "honor" as a motivation, as does MacIntyre, which at least connects to some sense of virtue and character - and the military does emphasize apprenticeship, as well as a kind of individual formation for the "good" of the overall community.  The problem is the military's modern, utilitarian instrumentalism has made honor a kind of window-dressing for its moral outsourcing (just following orders) and its psychic basis in dominator masculinity and the hatred of women.  Many soldiers today want to kill people as a way of making their masculine bones.  Dr. Hauerwas knows that, too, but as I said, he is generous of heart.

The order of the state, in my experience as a frontline instrument for the US state abroad, is completely based on lies.  No official pronouncement is ever given for the sake of representing reality.

Let's repeat for emphasis:  No official pronouncement is ever given for the sake of representing reality.

If it does, that is incidental.  All official pronouncements are made with an eye to preserving, consolidating, or expanding its power - or preserving, consolidating, or expanding the power of the particular party that governs.  The truth is anathema to the state!  It is a danger to the state because the order of the state is an order of lies that serve power.

These things I know as one who kept the state's secrets, who was from time to time one of the state's secrets myself.  And this opened a wide door for me into the mind of Stanley Hauerwas, and onto the significance of what he means when he says that we are both a doxological and an eschatological community.  Would that we, the church, more faithfully live into that, and the rulers would more surely tremble.

It was Stanley Hauerwas who showed me how the Christian impulse to make the church responsible for the maintenance of civilization can only degrade the church, even if I was already coming to the conclusion - after studying Illich and Hornborg and Mies before, a renegade priest, a heterodox anthropologist, and an "ecofeminist" - that civilization itself is highly problematic, an ideological appendage of empire, which has a "need to resort to to violence to secure its own existence."  It divides the Roman from the Jew, the Jew from the Samaritan, the core from the periphery, the "black" from the "white," man from woman, the nation from the other nations.

And now Stanley Hauerwas, and Ivan Illich, and Amy Laura Hall, and Dallas Willard - and all those other thoughtful Christians who have forced me to struggle for a perspective on progress, on modernity, on capitalism - have left me (and you, perhaps) to figure out how to live faithfully, how to live with the faith of Christ, in a world where its brokenness has been transformed, in many ways by the church itself, into an ever more universal and frightening brokenness - a world where we exterminate one another for fuel, split atoms, play games with genomes in the way a child plays with an accidentally-discovered and loaded gun.

How do I, how do we, live eschatologically - believing in the promises Jesus made - as a light of love in this world, and still resist the temptation that got us here?  Making ourselves responsible for outcomes in history, attempting to criminalize sin, trying to take the power that the tempter offered in the wilderness... to convert the cross where Jesus' hand was nailed into the symbolic hand-grip on a sword.

In short, how does the church reclaim its mission as counter-cultural?  I doubt the answer will have much to do with respectability, which has become part of the "marketing" mentality of so many confessions.  Nowadays, we might add "hip."

One thing that both the Christian Right and the Christian Left often agree upon is the church's "responsibility" (a loaded word, as we have seen) is to intervene in the "public" sphere, where we can get done those things we need to get done to ensure that their particular versions of the Kingdom of God are brought about.  Oddly enough, many on the Left have found a way to rationalize away any suggestion that this attempt to ensure the future is constantinian.  Surely, God needs our help to make sure things turn out the way they ought to!

In the preceding thinkpieces, I employed a range of critical perspectives as a way of dislocating myself and readers from standard ideas and explanations, even though several of these perspectives - taken by themselves - are themselves embedded in ideas that can be placed under critical scrutiny by the combination of them with others.  Not least among these perspectives is the most modern, or postmodern, and that is systems-thinking.  Mies and Hornborg are "world-systems" people, for example.

I have been a proponent - as many know - of the reclamation of local food production, sometimes even citing "systemic" articulations of this project, like permaculture, bio-dynamics, and transitional reskilling.  Many of the principle proponents of these practices are themselves self-professed systems-thinkers, many deep ecologists seeing systems-thought as a break from modern instrumentality - the man-conquers-nature trope - and a way to re-embed human beings within... natural systems.  The kernel of truth in this notion, however, yet again conceals its continuation of the disembodiment that accompanied modernity/capitalism, which in turn puts out of reach the miraculous Now of the encounter described by Illich between the Samaritan and the Jew injured along the road.

Illich pointed out that Jesus emphasized how the Samaritan felt, physically, when he saw the beaten Jew - that the sensation in the Greek was described not as "taking pity," but that in his gut he reacted to the pain of the other, and that this embodied reaction that fit them together in this unique encounter was a gift.

A gift.  Here, in our actual presence to one another, is where the Kingdom is "at hand."

Systems-thinking, as Illich pointed out in an interview, is the latest epistemic revolution.  Where premodernity was divided from modernity by the instrumentality of the latter, the tool in my hand was no longer an extension of my hand (premodern), but something separate with its own inhering purpose (modern), the systems revolution that accompanied "cybernetic" thought with the "information age," folded the person back into something - a "system" or "systems" - but this time with a deeper loss of agency, a deeper alienation from embodied experience - in our guts - wherein each of us becomes merely a part of the system.  Capitalism prefigured this to some degree - because people were made into interchangeable extensions of their machines, but this was a function of power.

Again, there is a kernel of truth to this notion.  I myself said in an earlier installment that not even leaders have the kind of agency we imagine relative to the inertia of large-scale, self-organized systems.  But the disembodiment of this perspective theoretically shifts us out of body, where the miracle of fitting with the other is experienced in the gut.

One thing we proclaim, hopefully, as Christians descended from Jews, is that the future is in the hands of God.  That doesn't mean imagining we are instruments of God when we become "activists" (I am not an activist!).  We already have a way of enacting the Kingdom of God right now - communion.  Once upon a time, it was preceded by a kiss, the conspiratio, exchange of pneuma, both breath and spirit.

With systems-thought, we are taken totally outside the body, which is itself transformed from a felt experience into another system to be monitored and managed and subjected to various risk analyses.

Barbara Duden, in her book Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn (Harvard University Press, 1993), delivers a “history of perceptions inside the skin,” of a medical monopoly within which pregnant women are thrown open (in a way that echoes Sir Francis Bacon’s cruel metaphor for the practice of natural science – of tearing Nature open to expose her secrets).  Pregnant women turn their bodies over to the care of this technocratic monopoly, where they are “turned inside out,” skinned, as it were, with ultrasounds peering into their innards.  Duden’s most provocative discovery as an historian of body perception is that the idea of “life,” as it is now understood in political and ethical speech, is a relatively new notion.  This critique of “life” puts her squarely in the cross-hairs of policy debates, in particular debates about criminalizing abortion.  Her observations put her in neither camp, though they are also uncomfortable for each.  She declaims:
I want to emphasize that this essay espouses none of the positions that typically appear in current controversies over life, abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, or the environment.  It formulates no opinion on the legal regulation of abortion or on access to prenatal care, nor does it deal with the social, ethical, or medical evaluation of chemical, genetic, or surgical interventions.  I limit myself to one task:  to show historically that the human fetus, as conceptualized today, is not a creature of God or a natural fact, but an engineered construct of modern society.  I shall discuss the many-layered process involved in the synthesis of this fetus, the invention of fetal norms and needs, and the pseudoscientific directives that ascribe the responsibility for the management of a new life – as defined for optimal measurement and supervision – to women.  Listening to my pregnant friends and reflecting as a historian, what I am deeply troubled about is this:  how a woman’s acceptance of this kind of fetus not only disembodies her perceptions but forces her into a nine-month clientage in which her “scientifically” defined needs for help and counsel are addressed by professionals.
Barbara Duden

Writing in 1993, Duden described how the controversies over women and childbirth were suddenly shifted by a new vocabulary.

A public battle is under way in Germany [Duden's home] in which both women and the churches are involved, Lutherans as deeply as Catholics.  In a common declaration in 1980, hese churches defined the issue of "future mothers," "pregnant women," "conflicts of conscience," and the "claim and rights of fathers to the birth of a child."  Pregnancy and women at risk stood at the center of he discussion.  By 1990, however, in a second joint statement, the one had profoundly changed.  In the interim, Presbyterians and the Salvation Army, and other churches had joined the bishops.  The second statement is entitled God Is a Friend of Life, and in it women are eclipsed by something entirely new - life. "We stand in need of a joint and embracing effort by everyone for the protection of life," reads the text.  "Therefore this declaration deals with the challenges and tasks involved in the protection of earth as a living space and in the protection of human life."  Life, "a complex eco-system [!] like a forest, the self-development and transmission of genetic information by a single organism, or the full development of a human being from the fertilized egg cell to the newborn and its further growth."

...The Pope [quoted] the "Exultet, iam angelica urba coelorum," a solemn hymn of jubilation that is sung in a pre-Gregorian tone when the Easter candle is blessed on Holy Saturday night.  In beautiful Latin, it describes the struggle of the Redeemer with the forces of evil:  "mores et vita duello conflixere mirando" - "death and life are involved in a momentous conflict."  ...[T]he Pope's words  were... a spiritual leader's call to government to use secular power against millions of women allegedly intent on extinguishing "lives."

...I want to call attention to he profound consequences, for women and for society, that accompany this public dispute.  Politicians and jurists, theologians and physicians are engaged in a major effort of social creation whose object is "life."  As a result of this effort, a new idea has become universally accepted:  just as the Blue Planet - "seen" from space - is the environment of all life, so woman is the environment of new life.  Almost overnight, these beliefs have become growth industries for new professional establishments, from ecological systems engineers to bioethicists, to manage.  Concurrently, the term life ( and a life)  has become an idol, and controversy has attached a halo to this idol that precludes its dispassionate use in ordinary discourse... I want to examine the conditions under which, in the course of one generation, technology along with a new discourse has transformed pregnancy into a process to be managed, the expected child into a fetus, he mother into an ecosystem, the unborn into a life, and life into a supreme value.  (pp. 1-2)

In the abortion policy debate, Duden gives both sides something to hate.  Her interest, however, is not in those debates.  As an historian of the body, she explores how the way women experience pregnancy has changed in different periods and places in history, how they experience their bodies during pregnancy.

Women have not always thought of themselves as an "ecosystem" for a "fetus."

She notes that as modernity evolved, more and more we became oriented to visual stimuli, to the point where we experience a great deal vicariously through images; so  much so that we can come to confuse the image with what it ostensibly represents.  Her metaphor for this process as we enter the age of systems-thought is "lost horizons."

Before the ubiquity of photographic representation, people experienced a world with a horizon, and actual limit beyond which they could not physically see.  Before photographic images from inside the pregnant woman's body, the actual moments before birth constituted a kind of horizon, too, because what was in there was experienced as a sense of expectation, of hope, but never as an image.  Birth was the appearance of a new human being from across that horizon.

Two highly popularized photographic images shattered those horizons in the years leading up to our cybernetic selves:  a photo from space of the blue earth, and a photo of a "fetus" inside the womb.

How did the unborn turn into a billboard image and how did that isolated goblin get into the limelight?  How did the female peritoneum acquire transparency?  What set of circumstances made the skinning of women acceptable and inspired public concern for what happens in her innards?  And, finally, the embarrassing question:  how was it possible to mobilize so many women as uncomplaining agents of this skinning and as willing witnesses to the creation of this haunting symbol of loneliness?  To explore these questions we must do two things:  First, we must find words and images and a way of presentation that allows a modern reader to grasp how unseen things were present in other times.  Then we must strive to keep the argument outside the large shadow cast by the fiery rhetoric of the abortion debate.  (p. 7)

What follows is a fascinating history of pregnancy in the past, wherein we discover that once upon a time, people were really very different from us, phenomenologically, because they did not experience the world and their lives the way we do (actual lives, not the disembodied signifier "life," which has nothing to do with Erwin Schrodinger's physical definition of life, or we'd be legislating to protect mosquitoes and flagellate protozoa).

What she is aiming to understand is how we were transformed from beings who perceived the world directly through our senses - inside and out - or haptic perception, into beings whose bodily perceptions were anesthetized in favor of vicarious, often visually representative, perceptions - what she calls optic perception.

In the 12th Century, Hildegard of Bingen described the unseen contents of a woman's womb during pregnancy:

When the woman has absorbed the seed, then, it can be formed to bring forth a human being and a little skin grows from the woman's blood, like the container for this figure and holds it fast and encloses it... so that the little being lies in the middle like a person in the chamber of his house.
In medieval iconograms of babies - even unborn - the being was not represented as proportionally different from adults, only smaller.  In part, that was because there was not yet such a thing as staged childhood, infant, toddler, adolescence, and so forth.

Duden reports from the careful physician's journal of Johnathan Storch, an 18th Century physician in Thuringia, where his job as physician was primarily to listen to women - who he understood quite well, even though each of them had different kinds of reports on their conditions.  One knew she was pregnant because of a beating vein in her neck, another because of a nasal discharge, another because the blood was rising on the left side of her head.

Some women were unsuccessful at producing a child, in which case "something leathery" left them during a short hemorrhage, or they had "blood curds," and in time their menses began again.  There was never an idea of something called a fetus.  The products of spontaneous abortion were called "molas," or "bubbly lots," or other such things, but never was the substance produced regarded as a human.  Storch called these discharges "inappropriate fruit" of the womb, rightly disposed of by nature.

Duden visited a Harlem prenatal center, where pregnant, newly arrived Puerto Rican women were sent by various social services.  The women found it difficult to understand the social workers, who kept pushing charts and diagrams at them, which represented various stages of fetal growth an d various "risk factors" for pregnancy.  But these ideas, this way of experiencing a pregnancy, was something new for many of them.

One called Maria - a psuedonym - who had given birth four times before she arrived in New York, could not seem to get her head around these ideas.

Maria... seemed unwilling to buy.  As she sat here, she was urged to accept a fetus.  She was being bombarded with a dozen notions that together make up the conceptual framework of a slum pregnancy in New York:  normal development, risk, expectancy, fetus, social security payments, and the like... I am trying to understand... the difference the encounter with a professional makes for Maria and the degree to which it removes her from the way her mother experienced the body.  Maria is given a graphic representation of something called a typical fetus, which assumes the notion of normality expressed in measurements, such as average weight an position.  Maria must stretch her imagination to grasp these abstractions.  The experience of her mother was more sensual, warm, touchable, familiar.  (p. 27)
Duden notes that the most frequent word in the mouths of the social workers was "mire," "look."  "Mire!" they were constantly commanding.  Look at this!  Which was some picture or graph.

Now, we see what we are shown.  We have gotten used to being shown no matter what, within or beyond the limited range of human sight.  This habituation to the monopoly of visualization-on-command strongly suggests that only those things that can in some way be visualized, recorded, and replayed at will are part of reality.  Starting with children's TV and prekindergarten videos, new generations are being socialized to see whatever appears on the screen.  We have all been trained to live by the recognition of flash cards, news bites, spots, ads, digests, catalogues, schedules, or class hours.  Each of these packages is a bundle of lures that inveigles a side of reality which beguiles us as something we must be told about because we cannot see it on our own.  The result is a strange mistrust of our own eyes, a disposition to take as real only that whichis mechanically displayed in a photograph, a statistical curve, or a table.  (p. 17)
In Spanish, if I want to say "my life," I can say "mi vida."  If I want to emphasize that it is mine, for example, to say, "I have my own life," then I would say, "Tengo mi proprio vida."  It's Latin, proprio, for "one's own."

The term proprioception means experience directly through one's own body.  You can close your eyes, and
you won't fall over.  Many people close their eyes when they kiss a lover, so the distractions of vision will not take away this intense but invisible experience.  When I turn out the light at night, I can feel the weight of my body relaxing into the softness of the bed.

This is what Duden means when she contrasts haptic with optic experience.

[M]y generation was socialized into [an] atomistic view.  [Duden was born in 1942.]  I will never forget the wall charts that surrounded me in the classroom during one entire school year.  One showed the skeleton, one the muscles, another the urogenital apparatus, and the last one internal secretions...

When I cross the corridor between old books and the office, I do not arrive in the place where my generation grew up.  Not only my schooling, but also my committed struggles as a feminist presupposed a kind of body which, for the world [of my students], must appear hopelessly dated.  My libido vivendi could still be satisfied by my father's post World War I encyclopedia, in which I could peel off successive transparent pages showing body surface, nervous system, and digestive organs before I reached the reproductive apparatus in its male and female versions.  And here I also became acquainted with the baby in the womb.  Apparatus and system, when I first heard hem, sounded like stilted synonyms for organism or connection.  When I cross the corridor I move into a milieu of modern women among whom the woman I was made to be is, in subtle ways, strange.  In the late 1960s, when we used the speculum, we thought we were radicals, breaking the last taboo.  In fact, we were radicals only in the sense that we paricipated in Leonardo's project [dissective anatomy], taking just one more step.  A greater step - and break - came later.

When students tell me, "I must take care of my system," or, "My system cannot take this stress," or, "I cannot survive in this system," they believe what hey say... They perceive themselves in terms of feedback within a psychophysiological system.  Not only in biology and sociology, but also, increasingly, in areas such as literary studies and art history, students are taught to look for complex feedback and communication within a system.  Their bodies are transistorized rather than transparent.  I hear them complain about what is done to women by living "in the system" and, proud of their understanding of obscure authors, they define themselves as cyborgs, symbiotic beings resulting from an interface between cybernetics and the organic.  (pp. 48-49)

This transition was in progress before the advent of cybernetics, or systems-thought, as people were dis-embodied by machines and by the abstract "individual."  But with systems-thought, returning now to Illich, our bodies become mere systems nested in systems nested in systems.  As Illich and Duden point out, we assess ourselves now as an "immune system" or a "gene sequence."

As such, we require more and more the intervention of experts and managers, who must ensure we have the right inputs - that is, that our "needs" are satisfied.  Need satisfaction, of course, does not require an I-Thou relationship.  In fact, such personality might endanger the efficient delivery of them.

This is more than a mere change in perception; it is the latest stage in the gestation (forgive me) of a particular kind of evil - what Illich calls, citing 2 Thessalonians, the mysterium iniquitatis - the mystery of an evil that could only come into existence with the new life inaugurated by Christ.

Truth, says Stanley Hauerwas, "has no need to resort to to violence to secure its own existence."  And yet, the church - as institutional carrier of a remarkable Gospel truth, which Illich discerns from the Parable of the Samaritan - has resorted to violence, and more than a few times, either directly or through its influence on the state - precisely to "protect" and "defend" the faith.  True from the execution of heretics, to the Crusades, to witch hunts, to civilizing wars, to eugenics, to welding themselves to Democrats and Republicans.

But the more subtle evil - the anti-Christ in the church - is attached to this notion of responsibility and the depersonalization of faith in need-satisfaction under management.  "Charity" is giving money to a bureaucratic cheerleader, who resembles us, which goes to those we neither need nor want to meet... certainly not know.

How we get from the Samaritan to systems-thought and what that has to do with the mystery of evil is difficult for us to understand, because to understand it we have to know what Jesus meant when he was talking to his fellow Palestinian Jews 2000 years ago.  We can't simply know that by studying he words, and by that I mean far more than the difficulties around translations.  Just as a woman 300 years ago experienced pregnancy in a decidedly different - and for us, very foreign - way from how a modern woman experiences pregnancy, the other experiences of people who have gone before us in superficially similar circumstances were not what we immediately imagine them to be.  It requires a disciplined effort of imagination for us to even dislodge our own ways of perceiving long enough to acknowledge that people can perceive differently than we do.

When Jesus says the Samaritan felt pity, what the Greek text actually says is the beaten Jew provoked a sensation in the Samaritan's belly - not some recognition of distress that constituted a need to be fulfilled; this is too impersonal.  The gift of the beaten Jew to the Samaritan is this visceral, bodily connection, to which the Samaritan responds person to person, I to Thou.  Something miraculous has leapt across the social boundaries separating the two (This is why it is a scandalous story for the Pharisees!) - something new Jesus was announcing with the story, something free that had nothing to do with norms or ethics.

Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor summarized Illich's thesis:
Illich is alone, I think, in seeing the modern West as a betrayal of Christian faith...

To understand [this thesis] one has to see first of all why "the greatness of the truth revealed to us" was, for that very reason, uniquely liable to corruption.

The New Testament, in Illich's view, relates the appearance of something radically and explosively new in the world.  Often he illustrated this novelty... by the Parable of the Samaritan.    The story is told in the Gospel of Luke:  "And behold, a certain lawyer stood up," the King James Version says, and asked "Who is my neighbour?"  Jesus responded with the tale of a man assaulted by thieves and left "half-dead" in a ditch.  Two religious officials come along, but both "pass on to the other side."  Then comes a foreigner, a Samaritan, the first to pass who does not belong to the same community as the man in the ditch.  And it is he, "moved with compassion," who befriends the wounded man.

What is new here, according to Illich, is the untrammeled freedom with which the Samaritan acts.  Modern people are unlikely to notice it, he says, because centuries of preaching have inured them to the idea that this parable exemplifies a rule concerning how one should behave; but Jesus' auditors would have seen in the story a shocking violation of ethical decency [respectability? -SG].  They would have felt that priest and the Levite had behaved entirely properly in passing the wounded man by, perhaps because he appeared to be dead and was therefor ritually impure, or perhaps the two religious officials were on the way to the Temple to fulfill much more urgent duties.  And they would have felt that he should have been of even less interest to the Samaritan, whose obligations would have extended only to his own people, and not to a foreigner lying beside the road.  So what is remarkable about the story is its revolutionary assertion that the neighbour could be anyone, and that who it turns out to be could, as Illich says, "appear arbitrary from everyone else's point of view."  No category, whether of law or custom, language or culture, can define in advance who the neighbour might be.

Illich believed that this teaching threatened the very basis of ethics, because, in the world in which Jesus spoke, ethic were defined by the cultural boundary that made them meaningful.  Ethics were maxims that expressed an ethos, the spirit of a people in a place:  they stipulated proper conduct only towards those with whom one shared a recognized bond.  But Jesus repeatedly transgressed such boundaries, not just with Samaritans but with all sorts of people whose status ranged from marginal to completely taboo:  tax collectors, women of doubtful reputation, the mad, and so on.  He broke religious rules, and even questioned the primacy of the family.  All this represents, from Illich;s point of view, a glorious revelation of the freedom to turn in love towards the other, whoever it may be.  What Jesus calls the Kingdom of God stands above and beyond any ethical rule and can disrupt the everyday world in completely unpredictable ways.  But Illich also recognizes in this declaration of freedom from limits an extreme volatility.  For should this freedom ever itself become the subject of a rule, then the limit-less would invade human life in a truly terrifying way.

It is critically important, therefore, to note a second aspect of the story of the Samaritan:  the nature of the appeal that the injured man makes.  The relationship that comes into existence between the Samaritan and the beaten-up Jew is a voluntary and bodily tie.  It does not fulfill a duty; it answers a call.  The Samaritan, Jesus says, is "moved by compassion."  He undergoes a conversion, an inward turning around which begins in his guts and ends in a unique and entirely personal relationship.  The Samaritan's action, according to Illich, "prolongs the Incarnation" and would not be possible without the Incarnation; that is, it is a revealed possibility and not one that innately belongs to human beings.  The Samaritan can dare to enter the no man's land that lies between cultures and separates him from the wounded one only because he is enacting God's love, the love revealed in Jesus.  He does not abolish the distinction between them; he overcomes it by what Christians call grace, the action of the Holy Spirit.

What is revealed in the New Testament... is a summons beyond all cultural or religious containment.  "[F]aith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross," he says, "is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science."  The definition of religion is a complicated matter, and beyond my scope here, but what this means, I think, is that religion is always conducted within the spell of the sacred, that terrible but also protective power which the community must propitiate, obey, and shield from any polluting contact with the profane.  What the Samaritan does is to step fearlessly outside what his culture has sanctified in order to create a new relationship and, potentially, a new community.  He does not seek God within a sacred circle but finds him lying by he road in a ditch...

...But once this horizon is open, a new possibility of denial, or turning away, is also revealed.  "If I had not come and spoken to them," Jesus says in the Gospel of John, "they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin..."

When we use the word evil, we normally mean two things:  an active wrong of one person against another, or an act of nature that has a negative effect on humans.  The massacre at My Lai was evil.  The tsunami that devastated Indonesia brought all manner of evils.

Illich is referring to a third evil, one that only became possible with the appearance of God in the flesh and this new Kingdom of the Call, the radical catholicity pointed to in the parable of the Samaritan.

My subject is a mystery of faith, a mystery whose depth of evil could not have come to be without the greatness of the truth revealed to us. (Rivers North of the Future, p. 29)
Charles Taylor further explains:

Illich makes a ... convincing evisceration of the myth of the secular when he claims that contemporary Western societies are in no sense post-Christian but rather constitute a perverted form of Christianity. He shows... that a whole constellation of modern notions, most too obvious even to raise a question in most minds, are distortions of Christian originals— from "the citizen" on whose shoulders the state rests to the services which are its raison d'etre, from the planetary "life" that right-thinking people want to conserve to the technology that threatens it. And he further claims that these notions would have been unthinkable without their Christian originals. They owe their very existence, in other words, to the ancestry which they distort, deny, and conceal.
Illich, with admitted trepidation, calls this view apocalyptic. His hesitancy is understandable, since this word, as it is now used, tends to evoke fundamentalist fantasies of divine vengeance or the gruesome cataclysms that have become a staple of popular cinema. But Illich uses the word in its literal meaning of uncovering or revelation.  For him, the contemporary world reveals an evil that can only be grasped when it is understood as an imposture, or simulation, of the Samaritan's unforseen and unforseeable response to the man in the ditch. Evil, traditionally, was an absence, a forgetfulness of the good. Illich points to a new kind of evil that appears only when the good is replaced by measurable values and transmogrified into an institutional output. 
In this case, the good is not just temporarily forgotten, it is rendered imperceptible; and this reversal, whereby the greatest good opens a door to the extinction of the good, is what Illich calls the mystery of evil.
And now Illich speaking for himself:

Yes, we see that there's a kind of suffering in modern life that results from unsatisfied needs for service, but why do you say it's a suffering of a new kind, an evil of a new kind? Because I consider this evil to be the result of an attempt to use power, organization, management, manipulation, and the law to ensure the social presence of something which, by its very nature, cannot be anything else but the free choice of individuals who have accepted the invitation to see in everybody whom they choose the face of Christ. That's the reason why I speak about corruption, or perversion...

...And the perversion of faith is not simply evil. It is something more. It is sin, because sin is the decision to make faith into something that is subject to the power of this world...

...More than that, this inversion of the extraordinary folly that became possible through the Gospel represents a mystery of evil, and it is to this mystery that I now want to turn...

...I think they had to announce a mystery, which was that the final evil that would bring the world to an end was already present. This evil was called Anti-Christ, and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest. The Church had gone pregnant with an evil which would have found no nesting place in the Old Testament. Paul in the second chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians calls this new reality the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil....  (pp. 56-59)
"Sin is the decision to make faith into something that is subject to the power of this world," and so we are back to Stanley Hauerwas rather more cryptic point that our truth "has no need to resort to to violence to secure its own existence."  God has not called us to arms, but to friendship.

So there, I've said something - or allowed others to say something rather substantial about being a Christian - after countless pages unpacking capitalism - our creature, the thing that we let through our very own door, and which - in many respects - we have become.

So what is to be done?  To begin with, Proclamation.

Jesus is Lord.



  1. "I am arguing that the world was redeemed some two thousand years ago, and therein is the reason I can be a pacifist in the face of the evils we still see. I'll even cling to that pacifism, God willing, when it is clearly not efficacious - which sometimes it is not."

    Being a pacifist, what does that mean? Is is not a claim to knowing something about the nature of violence and how to best respond to violence? But what if your strong belief in the image you have of something that happened 2000 years ago, is itself, inevitably, a seed of the violence which you want to oppose? Surely that is a possibility. If it is true, then would you be willing to give up your belief in order to reduce your contribution to violence?

  2. Nonviolence is not an end in itself, it is part of being Christian as I understand it. You are begging the question, petitio principii, smuggling your own conclusion into your premises.

    I do actually know some things about violence, but that doesn't connect the dot to your own belief, ie, that my belief is a root of violence. With which I disagree. Because it fetishizes violence, makes "violence" which is an uprooted category, into a kind of a thing to which I must now relate. My own pacifism means that I cannot do a violent action. Specific. If he insults me, or someone I know, I cannot hit him. There are other things I can do, but they cannot include the infliction of humiliation, injury, or death.

    This is a Christian blog, and here certain things are taken for granted, at least by me, that can be generally summed up in the Apostle's Creed. My reasons for eschewing violence cannot be explained on "secular" terms, because I am not secular. My reasons are explicable only through an understanding of the Gospels by believers.

    If someone does not know, study, understand, or care about the Gospels, I will be unable to to persuade them of my reasons, because we can't begin from a common point of departure.