The pot calls the kettle a human rights violator.
In an astounding act of political arrogance and poor diplomatic relations, the US State Department recently released “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013,” a report outlining the human rights violations of various nations. On its own, such a report would not be particularly troubling, except when one begins to look through the document and finds one country conspicuously absent: the United States.
Apart from instantly pissing off the entire world with its blatant, ideologically driven hubris, the document also spawned an interesting response report from China detailing the US’s various human rights violations including the PRISM spy program, the large number of civilian casualties associated with drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen, the high homicide/gun violence deaths, among others.
What else might we add to the report?
- Torture and improsonment without trial at Guantanamo Bay and other military prisons?
- Racially biased judicial system?
- Highest Incarceration rate in the world (both absolute and proportional)?
- What else would you add?
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Already in much of the New Testament, the conception of the Church as a hierarchical dogmatic institution is apparent. In the development of the Pauline tradition within the Pastoral epistles, for example, one finds the elevation of dogmatic rigor (one must “hold firmly to the sure word as it was taught” Titus 1.9) and dissonance or difference must be eradicated from the community; dissenters “must be silenced, for they are disrupting the whole households by teaching for dishonest profit what they have no right to preach” (Titus 1.11). This “deposit of faith” (II Timothy 1.14) is conceived in absolute terms; it is Truth, it is the foundation upon which the community is constructed. In order to maintain control over this deposit, the church structure of the Pastorals is rigid. If I might quote a longer passage, II Timothy 3.1-9 reads:
You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone.
The vitriol of this overly drawn image is palpable. Having centered their conception of the church upon the maintenance of dogmatic content, it is not only alternate content which must be feared and hated, but the purveyors of such content. Simply, in order to maintain the credibility of its own presbyter-bishops, the author(s) of the Pastorals must posit a category of corrupt teachers, whose “counterfeit faith” directs them to poison the faith of the truly faithful remnant. Their dogmatic rigidity necessitates the creation of an absolutely corrupt “other.”
* * *
In distinction to this rigorous dogmatism, the Johannine church represents a charismatic alternative. Where the pastorals posit a “deposit of faith,” John posits a living Word—not only in the form of the incarnated logos (Christ), but also in the Christian community itself. The static dogmatism of true teaching is overturned by the mobile generative power of the “living water,” and here emerges the possibility of a truly radical egalitarianism. For, “out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7.38). Where the pastorals ground their community within the content of a dogmatic truth, a determinable fact, whose clear center makes variance easily identifiable, the Johannine community founds itself in a Spirit. This Spirit is certainly felt, it is present, it speaks, but it does not speak in the univocal voice of rigid dogmatism. Rather, this Paraclete-Spirit nudges and suggests, it is a weak force (as John Caputo might call it), it is not itself a determined fact or set of facts, but rather an event which creates without precedence, an unexpected voice which calls for a response, in no way predetermining the form or content of that response. In the language of Gilles Deleuze, the Paraclete-Spirit is an Idea. But not an Idea in the naïve platonic sense—an original which must be merely copied—but an Idea which inaugurates a creative space, which determines a problem for which there is no clear solution.
This centering of the Johannine community upon the mobility and plasticity of Spirit, rather than the rigidity of static doctrine can be immediately felt in the non-hierarchical egalitarian character of the fourth gospel. To once again borrow a phrase from Deleuze, the Johannine community offers a “crowned anarchy” where the pastorals offer a hierarchical rigidity. This non- (if not anti-) hierarchical perspective can be highlighted in a few different repects. First, as Raymond Brown emphasizes, one finds the language of the kingdom or rule (basileia) of God significantly diminished in the fourth gospel, “if Jesus and the Father are one, the rule of God is most perfectly made a reality in Jesus. Instead of entering the kingdom of God as a place, one needs to inhere in Jesus to be part of the community” (Brown, 87). Second, the fourth gospel tends to downplay the institution of the sacraments. In the last supper, for instance, there is no institution of the Eucharist, rather, there the washing of the disciples feet is instead emphasized. Third, the role or prominence of the twelve is severely downplayed, in their place, John leaves the “beloved disciple,” who reclines on Jesus’ breast during the last supper, and who is given Jesus’ mother to watch at the cross (see: Jn 13.23-25, 19.26-27, 20.1-10, 21.20-25). This ambiguous character appears, on the one hand, to describe an actual historical figure (likely John), and on the other, a model of authentic discipleship. The beloved disciple is a Johannine “every(wo)man.” Forth, and this is quite remarkable, the Johannine community appears radically egalitarian regarding gender roles. Contrary to above, where women are portrayed as “silly” and gullible, John portrays women in pivotal roles throughout Jesus’ ministry and the early church. Again citing Brown, “The Samaritan woman, Martha, and Mary are characters absolutely equal in importance to the blind man and Lazarus. In the portrayal of major male and female believers there is no difference of intelligence, vividness, or response” (Brown, 94). More radically, it is Martha who offers the first full affirmation of Jesus’ identity (“You are the Christ, the Son of God,” John 11.27), following the incomplete titles of the other disciples, (e.g. “prophet”). It is also worth noting that this affirmation is attributed to Peter in the synoptics.
* * *
The political ramifications of this alternative construal of a radically egalitarian community are essential to the construction of a democratic society. What the comparison of the Pastoral and the Johannine communities show us, is that the ideological center of a community and its functional structure cannot be isolate from each other. Where a society is grounded upon rigid affirmation of dogmatic truths, be those religious, philosophical, or political, the social structure will necessarily take on a repressive form. Difference, creativity, and exploration are all facets of a community which threaten the stability of a hierarchical-dogmatic structure, and must therefore be branded as “counterfeit” and eradicated. Simply, where ideological conformity is demanded, repression will be necessitated. Against this dogmatism, the Johannine community offers the model of a community which forgoes concrete dogmatisms for the fluidity of the Spirit and emphasis upon the plasticity of relation. This movement from a concrete to a fluid center is mirrored by a parallel reduction in repression. Egalitarianism presupposes fluidity. Where emphasis is taken off of abstract dogmatism and placed on the living community, the structural hierarchy withers (the kingdom language wanes, the twelve are de-emphasized and replaced with an “every(wo)man”), priority is granted to ethics over ritual (the washing of feet, over Eucharist), and oppressive social structures (e.g. gender norms) are set aside. It is these factors which constitutes the truly radical egalitarian political potential of the Johannine community.
* * *
*Raymond Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).
(Notes and disclaimers: First, I am relying upon Raymond Brown’s reconstruction of early church communities. I recognize that these are highly hypothetical and often suspect. But, that being said, even a hypothetical community is a ripe source for imaginative examination. Second, I do not hate the pastorals, I am simply using them as an example in this instance. Please do not barrage me with “why do you hate the Bible” messages. Third, to argue, for instance, that the Johannine community rightly emphasizes ethics of sacrament, is not to belittle sacrament. I think that the Eucharist is an invaluable core of Christian practice. But, it cannot be allowed to overshadow concern for the oppressed or needy.)
Influenced by the recent surge of interest in the political ramifications of Paul’s thought (see: Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism; Zizek, Milbank, & Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; etc.) as well as the work of Raymond E. Brown I have decided to put together a short series of posts examining an alternate biblical source of political thought, imagining the possible shape of a Johannine politics.
In The Churches the Apostles Left Us, Brown writes, “Johannine ecclesiology is the most attractive and exciting in the NT. Alas, it is also the least stable” (pg. 123). In the vein of this thought, and following the Paul-enthusiasts tendency to adapt ecclesiological insights as political ideas, these investigations will begin with a consideration of some of the enticing and powerful characteristics of a Johannine politics, before moving into some of the instabilities and risks inherent to such a philosophy. Although by no means firm, the tentative outline of the subjects of these posts will be as follows:
- The Spirit
As always, some deep resonances between this philosophy and the work of prominent continental philosophers can be expected. So far, I anticipate engagement with my standard cast-of-characters–Derrida, Caputo, Henry, Marx, Zizek–as well as some Deleuzian insights as I have recently begun my foray into Difference and Repetition in conjunction with some of Caputo’s lectures on Deleuze.
California prisoners need our support. If you haven’t heard, there is a massive hunger strike in the California prison system in protest to the abusive policies of the states DOC. It is currently on its 12th day, and the California DOC is becoming increasingly hostile in its efforts to suppress the protests, including moving the prisoners to alternate prisons, blasting the AC in their cells to “freeze them out” (unbelievably dangerous for people who haven’t eaten in 12 days), and blocking legal access. Talk is beginning to turn to force feeding, as in Guantanamo. If you don’t understand the full consequences of what that entails, watch this (viewer discretion advised). Their demands are simple, common sense, and backed by a 2006 US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons investigation:
- End group punishment and administrative abuse.
- Abolish the debriefing policy and modify gang status criteria.
- Comply with established recommendations concerning the use of solitary confinement.
- Provide adequate and nutritious food.
- Expand or provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
Please forward this, it really needs some publicity.
The events surrounding Texas’ “Senate Bill 5” and Sen. Davis’ filibuster raise incredibly complex questions concerning the interrelationship between politics and the voice–viz. the question of the silencing of the voice.
In many respects, the entire narrative of the night’s events pivoted around this notion of silencing. From a broader political standpoint, the very nature of “Senate Bill 5” seems to emerge from a conflict of the voice, the silencing of the politically dis-empowered (women) by the politically empowered (men). Comprising a mere 21% of the Texas senate, those whose bodies were directly targeted by the bill remain essentially voiceless in response to its powers. In resistance to this inequity of power, Sen. Davis brought to bear the subversive power of the filibuster, precisely the power of the voice. Having been politically dis-empowered, Sen. Davis’ filibuster reasserted the lost voice, called out from the silence. Yet, the resistance to the voice emerged once again, redoubled through the rigorous application of the parliamentary rules (the letter over the spirit), and eventually, as desperation set in, through the bending of these rules (the abandonment of the letter and the spirit). The final postponement of the vote succeeded only when, following the final silencing of Davis’ voice, the law itself was subverted by the emergence of a new voice, the rising of a no-longer-silent minority, who overtook the chamber, drowning out the voices of the powerful.
The structure of this event clarifies an essential relationship between politics and the voice. Simply, political power is none other than the power of the voice. To be politically powerful is to be one who can drown out the voice of opposition–political power is the power to silence. Through numbers, intimidation, social engineering, financing: the essential danger of democracy is neither the power of the majority over the minority (e.g. as race theory or feminism might suggest), nor the minority over the majority (e.g. as many critics of the politics of capitalism suggest), but more fundamentally, the domination of the voiceless by the voiced. The principal tools of socio-political change, from civil rights marches to union strikes, from grassroots petitions to the filibuster, are essentially structured around the voice, they are structures which allow an unheard voice to re-emerge into public discourse.
The question then becomes, what voice is to be heard? At what point does the repression of the voice legitimate the overturning of the political? For, the events of “Senate bill 5” are not without their own ambiguities. Certainly, the GOP used parliamentary legalism to disrupt Davis’ filibuster (first two “strikes”), but the Dems similarly used this legalism to overturn the 12:01 vote. Yes, the GOP “bent” the law in their third “strike,” and again in their push for a late vote, but did the erupting balcony not similarly subvert the law? Neither side stood simply with or against the law, both used the law as a tool when expedient, and sacrificed it when necessary.
Yet, this ambiguity vis-à-vis the law does not mandate an ethical relativism, a basic valuation might still be permitted. Against the overly simplistic readings of the night by many liberal commentators, the beauty and character of the night is not found in the “overturning of GOP trickery” as some have suggested, or the “correct application of the law” as others have implied, but in the true arrival of the ethical. The lesson of June 25th is not that true justice finally emerged from politics, but the recognition that politics are secondary to the ethical, that sometimes the political, the law, must be suspended to make room for the inbreaking of justice–as Derrida writes, “Law (Droit) is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it requires us to calculate the incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.” And what is the phenomenological form of the inbreaking of justice? Perhaps nothing other than the inbreaking of the repressed voice. Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, it should be remembered, reminds of us this intimate link between the voice and justice: “Language,” it states “institutes a relation irreducible to the subject-object relation: the revelation of the other. … Their commerce [i.e. discourse], as we shall show shortly, is ethical.” What we learn from the Texas senate is that politics and the law are a mere means toward the essentially foreign end of justice, an end which can only be glimpsed, ever so slightly, in the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the needy, the voice of the minority.
Yet, there is something explicitly anti-democratic in this emergence of the oppressed voice of the minority. If the Texas vote was easily to be passed (as both sides admit), and backed by a majority of Texans, shouldn’t the “democratic approach” be the institution of the law, not the subversion of the vote? When is it permitted for the minority to overcome the majority? The very structure of the protest movement, regardless of its democrat and “power to the people” rhetoric, appears to be an essentially anti-democratic structure, the supplanting of the majority by the minority. We see an analogous structure developing in the recent turmoil in Egypt. The ostensibly democratically elected president Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been forcibly ousted by the Egyptian military in conjunction with a massive protest movement of an unprecedented scale (the BBC estimates 33,000,000, the largest recorded protest in history). Is this protest, as well as that in Texas, an injustice?
Perhaps. Or maybe it is time to recognize that democracy is not an end unto itself. Perhaps it is simply another reiteration of politics, law, droit. Could democracy be thought as an abstraction, always secondary to the concrete oppressed other? Could we not affirm that democracy, properly thought, is always in service to something greater, something positively undeconstructible, justice-itself–and the visible image of this invisible justice, the voice of the oppressed?
Augustine’s introspective posture in his famous (or, for some, infamous) Confessions has led to his adoption by individualists of every stripe. There is certainly philosophical merit to such an adoption, if for no reason other than his notable influence upon important historical “individualists,” e.g. certain prominent existentialists: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, etc. If one were to consider the political ramifications of such a seemingly radical individualism, one might be led to suspect that Augustine would find himself comfortably situated in Liberalism, or perhaps even its more radical cousin, Libertarianism. Yet, in her Augustine and the Limits of Politics, Jean Bethke Elshtain makes the following observation:
“[For Augustine] there are two fundamentally different attitudes [caritas and cupiditas] evinced within human social life and enacted by human beings. One attitude is a powerful feeling of the fullness of life. A human being will not be denuded if he or she gives, or makes a gift of the self, to others. One’s dependence on others is not a diminution but an enrichment of self. The other attitude springs from cramped and cribbed pity, from resentment, from a penury of spirit. The way one reaches out or down to others from these different attitudes is strikingly distinct. From a spirit of resentment and contempt, one condescends toward the other; one is hostile to life itself.”*
What political lessons can be drawn from this profound dichotomy, from these two quite different loves? His existential-individuality aside, it is impossible to read here anything other than a critique of political-individuality. Simply put, Augustine was a communitarian. One might go so far as to say that President Obama’s infamous claim, “you didn’t build that,” a claim which the radical right has condemned as godless-communism with its chants of “I built this,” for Augustine, might simply be an advocation of Life-itself. For it is only as a community working together, even a community of individuals working together, that we can achieve the “fullness of life.” It is not through the myth of the self-made-man that we will attain the fulfillment of life, but on the contrary, through “dependence.” Perhaps, through this Augustinian insight, we can resurrect this term, “dependence,” a term which has become a dirty-word in American politics. And, while wedge issues like abortion and gay rights may continue to push large swaths of Christianity towards the right, Augustine may seek to remind us that Christianity is, at its source, a communitarian endeavor, a socio-religious experiment in communal living. Against the liberalism of the Democrats and the Libertarianism of the GOP, Augustine reminds us that Christianity’s love, its caritas, is always toward the other, the gift of the self, and the community.
*Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Augustine and the Limits of Politics. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press): 36.
In response to my recent discussion with Bryce at Amtheomusings, regarding “wage-slavery,” a friend offered this “double response” to both myself and Bryce.
Without further Adieu….
I certainly cannot (and do not want to) disagree with B. about
the ideologically charged expression ‘wage slavery’: not only it is
outrageously soaked in moral connotations (to the point that, as B.
points out, no one could namely be in its support) but it creates an
imaginative confusion of terms, if we consider that slavery, while
changed and mutated since the 16th century, is well alive in certain
areas of the world (and even in certain grey zones of our Western
society, cf. as an example http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/16/
local/la-me-1216-shyima-hall-20111216) and that there is certainly
a difference between a salaried worker in an US factory or a child
forced to sew shoes in some remote town of South East Asia, with
no salary and possibly with menacing guards preventing him/her to
go elsewhere or live differently.
However, I do disagree with the concept that, all in all, there is
nothing, in the hypothetical range of possible society, between the
two extremes of
a) today’s system and
b) a reality in which physical providers of food and shelter should
work in an unrewarded fashion to provide sustenance for the lazy
The problem addressed by the proposers of the (admittedly
unfortunate) expression ‘wage slavery’ is, more often than not, the
reason because of which salaried workers are completely bound
to their jobs: with the constant shift of economic power from
productive forces to productive resources, i.e. from the worker to
the capitalist (inevitable in a capitalist system, as Marx has shown
and very few have tried to contrast) the labourer is forced into a
complete submission of her life to her job. Simply put, the problem
is that to enjoy a normal life (with shelter, food, hygiene and the
like) the worker herself needs to participate in the production of
goods whose market value far exceeds the value of the money
the worker and her colleagues are paid. It is of course Proudhon’s
theory of survaleur, which only the great improvements in people’s
wealth occurred in the 20th century had allowed us to forget. Recent
years, however, have witnessed a return to a model of subsistence
for most untrained workers, who sometimes are not able to
maintain themselves and their family even when working a fulltime
All this said, I disagree with J. when he equates (or seems to me
to do so) wage-slavery with wage-work in a wage-society. The first
paragraph of his first response (partially corrected in the following
one) implies that a wage-based economic system cannot coexist
with a fair system: the problem in ‘wage-slavery’ is not the wage,
but the slavery! If wage has to be a compensation, a fair one it
must be. I found the artisan model (that I’ve heard proposed over
and over again) an oversimplification: the artisan could be alienated
as well if she was forced to receive anything less than the value of
what she produces.
Again, the response of B. is in my opinion flawed by a
misrepresented concept of ‘agreement’: he states that (and I
quote) “the laborer agrees to be provided with a wage by using the
property of their employer at a work that is in place because others
have chosen to value the product”. But it is exactly this agreement
that is devalued by proposers of a non-wage-driven economy:
the labourer, being deprived of capital (which is limited and
comparatively constantly devaluating itself) and in possession only
of working-force (which is ever-growing and largely over-present)
cannot freely choose but is force to agree. And that’s exactly where
the equation to slavery comes into play.
The almost ‘utilitarian’ justification of capitalism provided (if it is
enacted it must be what makes us all richer) appears to be more
a rhetorical device than a real evidence of virtue; following such a
claim it could be objected that if capitalism was in place because it
represented the best economic system, overthrowing it would be
self-justified, since whatever came after that would be “better” by
providing more economic wealth than capitalism (that would have
At the end of this long (and hopefully friendly) rant, I confess
that I find puzzling the final remarks by J.: while it is a certainly
acceptable moral stance that production should not produce wealth
(even in its broadest sense) I am curious to understand what other
non-economic system you had in mind when addressing such
issues. Co-op and artisanal systems both involve wealth, wealth
production and wealth-distribution.
In fide et amicabiliter
Giacomo ‘Geki’ Leoni