Monday, December 19, 2011

Note to Mimetic Theorists: The 1% are not Scapegoats, the 99% are

Sometimes I wake up and the earth is flat. My body is convinced that the earth stretches out more or less indefinitely on either side, and up above is a very big benign God who is going to put everything right totally pronto with an infinitely fine sense of justice and, yes, love too.

Then I stand on the floor, everything whirls round and gravity shifts like a roller-coaster, and I know with terminal clarity that I'm on this tiny piece of rock with a molecule-thin layer of air hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds, and I've really got to figure it all out myself. It's Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks, not The 10 Commandments with Charlton Heston. That's when the normal day gets going.

A moment later someone switches on some micro apparatus out of which pours an unbelievable volume of noise and the words are mostly to do with some person being incredibly angry about something and somebody. That's when I know I am a human being.

But then I remember I have a Ph.D. and have studied mimesis. So I can do this! I can work the problem, just like Tom.

In the late twentieth century a number of converging pathways showed that the human ape is radically imitative (mimetic), to the extent that imitation provides a powerful explanation for his near-limitless violence and also the way he always finds scapegoats to excuse and displace it. And, oh, yes, one of the converging pathways was, amazingly, the Christian bible which showed itself an acutely accurate demonstration of these phenomena, and at the same time, by natural implication, that Christ offers a decisive way out.

So, you bet, there's a chance of saving this ship, and I and a number of brave folk have set to tinkering with what we think is the instrument panel on the strength of the theory. The earth may not be flat and there is no big God in the sky box, but we can rescue this spinning rock at this eleventh hour because there is a germ of gospel hope in the rock itself, in its human components touched by the Spirit. Like good old Tom, and with the help of Houston (Risen Jesus) we can re-rig the space capsule for a safe landing. We might even make it into a completely alternative life system, a life-star, so to speak, full of peace, love, solidarity and joy.

I sit down at my desk and log on to the planetary computer, the thing we call the internet, and the way so many of us eager astronauts communicate and try in our way to fly the planet. And then all the earth's spinning and flailing and yawing and pitching hits me like an explosion. Wow, this thing is waaay out of control! There are wars and uprisings, hurricanes and earthquakes, hunger and thirst, lies and arrests, suffering, hatred and death.

What to do? Really? What to do especially if you have a theory of everything?

Well, first perhaps a little recent history. Rene Girard is the father of mimetic theory. His major book, his Das Kapital in a manner of speaking, is Things Hidden since The Foundation of the World. It was published in English in 1987, and is coming up for its English-speaking 25th anniversary. (It was first published in French in 1978.) The impact of this work, along with his previous development of his thought and his subsequent writing, led in 1990 to the foundation of an academic association dedicated to his theory, the Colloquium On Violence And Religion (acronym Cov&r). This organization is responsible for the ongoing academic application and exploration of what is called the mimetic model. The academic world of course is an intellectual world and fosters pure thought and research. Girard's last full-length work, a book called Battling to the End, by its very title confesses quite a pessimistic view on humanity's ability to pull out of its favorite sport of killing.

Ahh, a further increase in the angular velocity of our crazy spinning rock! This time nudged onward by the very author who laid out the main diagnosis of the problem, along with its inherent solution! Or is he in fact trying a desperate gamble, like a man accelerating a car toward a cliff in order to prevent his friend in the passenger seat shooting him with a gun? Who knows? I for one am definitely looking forward to the last-minute swerve, if not from Girard certainly from the spinning rock.

A number of other organizations have sprung up dedicated to mimetic theory. One of these is our own Theology & Peace, for which I am writing here. We were formed in 2007 as a conference organization, after a number of people, myself included, felt that Cov&r, with its broad academic purpose, did not offer enough pro-active concern in theology to stimulate growth in faith and practice. So, yes, let's take the medicine on the road.

But then there is more to theology than a particular conference organization and 2011 has surely provided the most powerful external jolt to in-house reflections. A different wobble has been introduced into our spinning rock by popular protest movements from the Arab Spring, through indignados of Spain, to the Occupy phenomenon here in the U.S. Largely and consciously nonviolent these uprisings of the downtrodden and dispossessed have brought to political consciousness younger generations previously unvoiced and they have raised a flag to theologians aware Jesus likely has a stake in this somewhere.

As I now finally get into my day, fiddling on the keys of my laptop while drinking coffee at my imaginary social club (which is actually a bookstore), where for a moment I kid myself that everything in the world is about writing or chatting, and hence words, gentle biddable words, I come to the point I have wanted to make since I got out of bed. And from hereon this blog might get perfectly serious.

There has been a "Girardian" reaction to Occupy, also heard in some evangelical circles, which I find both intellectually superficial and functionally Pharisaical. To the Occupy language of "We are the 99%, oppressed by the 1%" it objects that for Christians it is always "We are the 100%", no exclusions. Hence, yes, we feel sympathy with the situations and sentiments expressed, unemployment, indebtedness, loss of homes, loss of faith in the political process, but no, this language of social differentiation is definitely not the gospel. So stop it, please, at once!

And the mimetic concept of the scapegoat is turned like a huge cannon on the protesters and in one shot their moral claim is blown away. End of game. Mimetic Theorists 1, Occupy 0.

There is so much wrong with this it's hard to know where to begin.

From an historical, structural, social and economic perspective the 1% are those who excluded the 99%. You don't have to be an economist and understand the mechanisms of capital accumulation to know that those already with money have an enormous leverage which average people don't and that leverage came from somewhere. Beginning from aristocracy whose forefathers grabbed land by force (Normans in England provide a casebook example) and continuing through factory and business owners who drive down wages and stash the proceeds, wealth is always structurally tainted ("unrighteous mammon" as Jesus precisely called it). But if you also factor in the credit derivatives which caused the 2008 crash, opaque instruments where no one really had to guarantee anything while making huge profits (check bank bailouts for final liability), the Occupy case is spectacularly correct. The great majority have been scapegoated by the gilded few.

This is counter-intuitive for a Girardian mind to accept but it is intelligibly, mathematically the case. Now, of course, if Occupy was to go on a rampage down Wall St. stringing up financiers from the lamp posts then, yes, these would immediately also be scapegoats, victims of crowd mimesis and violence. But isn't it absolutely, painfully plain that the majority of people in the Occupy camps strove mightily to avoid this outcome and so preserve the clear structural truth of the 1% as scapegoaters?

To abandon the structural truth is to turn mimetic theory into a cookie-cutter formula, a shibboleth claiming pious validity but masking a deeper human reality, viz. the poor. It is to make Girardian thought a right-wing social armor. Which brings us in turn to Pharisees.

I do not use the word "class" readily, because it has been infused with violence by Marxist rhetoric. It is a word easily conflated with violence. But if we take it in a purely sociological or taxonomic sense there can be no doubt that Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, addressed the Pharisees as a class and launched a stinging critique of them as such.

Why? Because Jesus saw the structural features of Pharisaism as deeply antagonistic to the gospel. In Luke he launches a similar but shorter critique against the wealthy, in the "woes" of chapter 6. It is the attack on the Pharisees which is by far the most blistering. This class of men represented a severely demanding response to the law, but in the process they missed the simple radicalism of the gospel, and their concern with minutiae was precisely what blocked them from that radicalism. Could we say that Jesus scapegoated the Pharisees? No, not unless he wanted to hurt them and kill them at the same time as he exposed their systemic avoidance of his truth. But of course this is not the case. Rather he attacks their practices and ideas trenchantly and deeply and thereby carries through a class critique. A class in this instance is the accumulation of power and violence in a particular group made available through the generational build-up of sacred order around them. The Pharisees were probably a religious 1% (only six to seven thousand of them according to Josephus) but they were highly influential and Jesus as a teacher and preacher of the in-breaking of God's newness was obliged necessarily to take them on.

To object to a nonviolent critique of the 1% therefore runs the risk of siding with Pharisaism and being itself functional Pharisaical, which is the appearance of goodness but the denial of its radicalism.

Gospel radicalism is expressed in solidarity with those who do not have power, those who are poor and downtrodden. Solidarity places the individual's bodily life somehow on their side, at their side. Solidarity is what saves nonviolence from superficiality and pharisaism. A coruscating piece written by a desperately ill and indebted woman and shared on facebook by a fellow gospel astronaut, demanded solidarity from progressive evangelicals. These evangelicals seem to have had something of the same reaction to Occupy as some mimetic theorists. It was this piece that pushed me into writing the above, seeking one more time to nudge along our spinning rock within its own crazy dynamics.

Ah well, I'm back home and it's almost time again for bed and sleep. For the comfort of a flat earth!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian-in-Residence

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pitch Your Tent!

As George Orwell said, one of the first victims of tyranny is language. But, conversely, one of the first flowers of freedom is the refreshing of language. And that means not just language but our sign system generally.

With the shutting down of the Occupy Wall Street camps in Oakland and at Zucotti Park, New York, there is perhaps a sense among the well-thinking that authorities have drawn a containing line around a posturing parade which has no attainable goal. Sure the protesters expressed a valid point and they had the right to do so--it does seem outrageous that a small segment of people both helped create the financial crisis and were able then to profit from it. But camping out on the doorsteps of the centers of power, making temples of capital look like refugee camps, well that quickly became offensive to good taste and a threat to established order. The application of crushing force (police in riot gear, use of "bean bag" projectiles, choke holds, pepper spray, multiple arrests, exclusion of journalists and cameras, the trashing of a voluntary library and other property) all this was the minimum necessary to return people to their senses. The protesters--who according to right-wing talk radio are just commies and hippies living in their mothers basements--will be sufficiently discouraged and return dejected to their dwellings.

Apart from the fact that the Occupy movement seems to have no intention of going quietly, but is constantly finding new places to gather and protest, this reading of the events fails completely to grasp the truth of what is going on. "Occupy" was never about a program on a mainline political stage or even a standard mobilization of public opinion on the streets. It was about something much more primordial, changing the very ground on which we stand. It was and is about changing meaning itself. And the rise of such a movement in our time has literally a "significance" which cannot be overstated. Nobody alive today in the U.S, will forget that in 2011 there came to public attention the leaf-shoots of an epochal growth in our collective human possibility.

Occupy Wall Street is a renewal of cultural language. It has given a vivid new currency to a number of words, like "occupy", "people's microphone", "ninety nine per cent". But even more than spoken language it is its concrete language of tents and tarpaulins, drums and bodies, associated directly, but in non-business terms, with centers of high finance that has interjected new meaning. Here are human beings intruding themselves as real actors in an arena where they are not supposed to be, and just by doing this they have changed the meaning of those places. They have taken the cheesy T.V. immediacy of the reality show and applied it creatively and subversively to Wall St. And this is what really causes the outrage. How dare they! They have no right to be here, here is where we are, invisible to everyone! Not them and their drums. But, no, they intend to remain, intruding real bodies which are undergoing real and painful real world-effects, into a sacred space supposed to be isolated from those effects. No wonder that the movement has been compared to Jesus' action in the temple!

And that brings us directly to the heart of it all. The argument in my book Virtually Christian is exactly the way the figure and story of Jesus have infiltrated the sign system of the world so that, whether it knows it or not, it begins to repeat gospel motifs of compassion and nonviolence. This effect is not one of legal personal salvation but of long-term human infiltration and transformation. The Occupy movement is one more aftershock of the gospel, exposing and challenging the principalities of this world in the way of Jesus.

What I'm saying represents no intention religiously to canonize the movement or anyone in it. In human affairs there is endless opportunity for things to go wrong, and they very probably will. But this does nothing to take away the the catalyzing role of Jesus in the semiotic veins of Occupy. The effect of Jesus at this level has no formal relation to doctrinal belief, or church membership, but it is working consistently to change the root construction of human meaning.

For many people such a concept may remain unrecognizable, or for some even heretical. I am not concerned here to try and answer such responses with amplification or rebuttal, but purely to reflect a sense that what is happening has everything to do with what it means to be Christian today.

There was something very appropriate about the way the U.K. version of OWS found a home on the land outside St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, London. And what happened there represented the enigma that official Christianity now find itself facing. The proximity of the camp brought the resignation of two high-profile churchmen, attached to the cathedral. First Canon Giles Fraser, because he could not countenance the possible use of force to evict the camp. The second was the Dean of the Cathedral, who had agreed unnecessarily to shutting the doors of St. Paul's for the first time since the 2nd World War, and subsequently found himself in an impossible position. There was clearly an enormous tension set up between the fluid language of the gospel celebrated by the tents at the door and the traditional meanings of an established church formed in massive stone at the heart of London's financial district.

The vibrant tension in meaning caught the eye of others in England and another group set up camp outside Exeter Cathedral two hundred miles away from London. Bishop Michael Langrish complained."This is pure copycat, they have been outside one cathedral, now they are outside another." What the bishop painfully missed was the obvious fact that language is copycat, and that's what was happening! The spontaneous camp outside his ancient cathedral had seen the electric arc of meaning between the cathedral and the tents, and they wanted to relay it further!

Christianity today is called to make a massive conceptual shift to see that its ultimate reference is not the eternal beyond, but the very world around them as infected with the new meaning of Christ. Its own most proper language--Jesus and his nonviolent forgiving death realized in startling new life--has become unbound in the world, beyond anyone's magisterial power to control or monopolize. The result is at once both disorientation and a thrilling reorientation. The Bishop of Exeter was disoriented, those who pitched their camp outside his gothic walls were discovering, like Israel in its tents, a radically new orientation.

In some crazy way the world had become the church, growing the language of nonviolent change, freedom and compassion, while the church has become the world, speaking the old language of hierarchy, heaven and a business of brokering the ticket to get there.

But what does this mean for those who want to practice "church"?

It is possible that some ministers and leaders situate themselves conceptually in the new emerging matrix. They may be motivated personally by the concrete transformation brought by the gospel. But so long as pastors have not significantly transferred the focus of their operations to the symbolic boundaries, to the border areas of this world-become-church, then no one is going to notice anything new. The difference might be clear in the pastors' minds, but if they do not set about changing the signs of their work, in resonance with the way Jesus is changing the root language of the world, then they may as well be preaching the theses of medieval scholasticism.

The church's metaphysical function is so deeply entrenched that its default role is precisely that of the guardian of metaphysics, and it is almost impossible for people to see past that. What I am describing is called organized religion and, one way or another, it invokes the stock religious piety of the grand old God sitting above the clouds dealing with sinful humanity by means of his "exotic financial instrument", the death of his Son. Jesus bailed out our debt--you could say God, like one of the big banks, sold it to him--and so long as we agree to that, by confession or some form of regular practice, our souls are preserved from an immortality of torture and promised instead an immortality of bliss. Our mortgage will be paid for us and we'll get our mansion in the sky...

Only a consciously elaborated new set of signs can change this discredited-but-still-dominant notion. Only a new set of signals can get people to enter a new paradigm. Some possible examples include: non-traditional or discovered meeting spaces, names and images that make what is familiar appear strange, use of the body in worship that places us in an undefended relation to the Spirit, and above all communicative programs that present the human condition of violence and its transformation by Jesus as the meaning of the biblical story.

But don't let the blog tell you what signs to create! The whole point of a new language is that it generates itself exponentially, exactly as the "tongues of fire" descending on the first Christians enabled them to communicate to each person "in his or her own language" without need of prompting. Go pitch your tent on the borders of the church somewhere, in the place where the world-become-church perhaps already has set up camp. For the Word is made flesh and he tents among us!

Tony Bartlett, at AAR 2011 San Francisco

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Living in the Luminous Shadow!

In my book Virtually Christian I described a world radically infected by Christ. There has been a two millennial drip, drip, drip that has soaked our culture in the compassion and forgiveness of Christ, like soaking a Christmas cake in brandy!

You don't see it? You think things are worse, more violent, more unjust, than they have ever been? And has not Christendom (Christian Culture) been one of the main culprits of the heedless violence in the world?

But how would you know that unless a source of compassion had made you exactly that degree more aware?

My argument is not that things are objectively better or worse. My argument is that our minds have been changed by Christ. And now because of that things can and may become better!

The underlying logic is no different from Rene Girard's basic thesis, that the gospel has intelligently revealed the victim at the source of human culture. All I have done is added the necessary layer of Christ's compassion as the "luminous shadow" that throws this victim into relief. Plus the narrative of that shadow in culture, showing how it has progressively provided the sign and seed of transformative meaning throughout our world.

Especially in his latest work Girard accents the negative transformation. In Battling to the End he says that "The Passion brings war because it tells the truth about humanity...The Passion leads to the hydrogen bomb..." Ever since the gospel revelation of the victim humanity has lost its ability effectively to blame the scapegoat and so re-found the human order on violence, yet at the same time it has refused to renounce violence. Placed in an untenable situation by the gospel humanity continues to have recourse to violence, desperately and in larger and larger doses, until it finally unleashes nuclear war.

This is a highly negative gospel reconstitution of human history, and there is no doubt truth in it. But if the Passion leads to the bomb, that is the case from the perspective of the old unreconstructed humanity. Even more surely and powerfully the Passion and Resurrection are producing a new human way, a new creation. This has to be the case because the negative effect can only be provoked by the prior radical presence of positive meaning. The problem is in recognizing its effectiveness. At first sight it does not seem able to change political or economic patterns, nor most social or intellectual ones. It takes place in cracks in the system and can easily seem to evaporate when you would most like to see it work. But the luminous shadow is necessarily there, underlying all the travail of our modern world, prompting a progressive turn toward compassion, forgiveness, sharing, nonviolence.

Once you develop an eye for it you begin to see it more and more readily. I continue to be amazed at the act of the British Government in 2010 apologizing for the massacre in Derry, N.Ireland, in 1972, known as Bloody Sunday. This was one of the main triggers provoking the violence of the IRA with the support of the Catholic population, leading to over twenty five years of urban warfare. Those acquainted with the history of the two major islands off the coast of Europe are used to hearing of 800 years of English attacks on Ireland. Bloody Sunday could be seen as just one more in an interminable list of murder and wrong visited by the greater military power on the weaker. But then for the British government to turn around and apologize so resolutely and fully on something in living memory indicated suddenly that a new contemporary principle is at work. The healing effect was enormous.

Robert Downey Jr.'s recent appeal for forgiveness for Mel Gibson also ranks as a clear case of the luminous shadow. Gibson's pariah status in the film industry is well known, first having made a movie about Christ that pushed Jewish (and other) sensitivities to the limit, and then offending directly with a drunken rant against Jews on the occasion of his arrest for drunk driving. Robert Downey told how Gibson had given him work about fifteen years ago when he too was a pariah and no one would cast him because of his record of drug abuse. Gibson did so then on the condition that Downey accepted responsibility for his actions and was ready to offer forgiveness to the next person. As it turned out that person was Gibson. Downey appealed to an audience of Hollywood's great and glitterati :"Unless you are without sin, and if you are you are in the wrong (expletive) industry, you should forgive him and let him work.”

The cuing of Christ's compassion, to the degree of a direct quote, was unmistakably part of the appeal (and ironically layered into the situation by Gibson's own movie) and it exploded around Twitter and the blogosphere in a wildfire of fascination. Could/would Hollywood respond to this sign of the gospel? Whatever the answer there can be no doubt that multiple signs of Christ's compassion were lit up in people's brains, whether they agreed or not.

And that's the point. At the level of sign, of meaning, the compassion of Christ is irrepressible, irrescindable. It's never going to go away! It can be rejected of course. But it will keep returning, more and more insistently, and at some point it can and must be accepted. "If I am raised up I will draw all humankind to myself!"

The effect of the sign of the Cross is a geological sedimentation that over the years creates a new human landscape. It is like all those billions of tiny shells that produce limestone and over time are pressed upward by the earth to form great mountain ranges. Every individual shell is a shift in the neural structure of the human brain impacted by the sign of Christ's compassion. Little by little all those shifts are giving rise to a new humanity. To what forces can the largely nonviolent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt be attributed if not some profound change in human sensibility? And what is the seemingly leaderless and inchoate, and yet intensely communicative and symbol-producing activity of worldwide Occupy Wall Street if not to a tectonic rumbling in the deep structures of human meaning?

The gospels themselves use images of large-scale organic change. They say the Kingdom of God is like leaven which completely transforms the shape and constitution of a huge batch of dough. Or they show Jesus at a wedding changing a vast quantity of water into wine, in one stroke morphing the concrete senses of a human community from horrible failure to amazing success.

What it would be like if Christian churches lost their purpose of brokering eternity and supplying a sense of metaphysical worth, to being schools where people learned this new meaning of humanity; period?

But even if the churches don't do this it is still happening any way. Happening all round us.

In many ways the feeling of actual contemporary Christianity comes more authentically outside of church than in it. Outside has a resonance of a new transforming humanity but inside can almost completely lack it. The inside's traditional symbol system refers intimately to another, heavenly world and the rightness communicated from it. It was developed over thousands of years, both the time of Christianity itself and of other thought worlds preceding it into which Christianity tapped. So going into church with the watershed change I'm talking about in mind is to discover this place is actually designed not to represent it! The experience of the churches could in one sense be compared to walking into pagan temples in the first century while the message of Christianity was running around on the streets outside!

But when Christian communities begin to understand that their key meaningful context is not another world to which we are destined after death, but in fact this one--because it is pivoting on the compassion of Christ--then all the symbolic references change of themselves. And when Christian communities live fully in a transformed symbol system like this, well, what will that mean? Nothing less than the rebirth of Christian faith!

Tony Bartlett, TinR

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Money, it's a Crime: Jesus and the Banks

It must have gotten pretty bad out there.

For folks to begin invoking Jesus as a solution to the world of finance, the end of the world itself must have arrived.

Recent posts on Facebook and images of street-theater in the finance district of London U.K. have depicted Jesus casting out the traders and money changers from the temple. The surface message is that Jesus does not like investment banks and derivatives, but to get Jesus in on the act really suggests something quite a bit more serious.

It is a hint of a very profound disillusion with the world of financial speculation, and a shaking that goes to the foundations even of profit-driven capitalism itself.

If you check Jesus in the gospels he does not talk of reform of money or wealth. Rather he's about a root and branch stripping away of these things as principles of human organization. He replaces "get" with "give", and a worldview of scarcity with a lifeworld of abundance. "If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return....Give and and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap." (Luke 6:34-38)

Bringing Jesus into the discussion on the banks is like setting a camp fire in the built-up California canyons during the Santa Ana winds. You're asking to burn the whole place down.

People's willingness to mention Jesus in this connection, therefore, does seem like sign of the end of the world, or at least of a world. It is one of those "stars falling from the skies" things, a portent of the imminent breakdown of the established order as such.

The whole history of Christendom (actual Christian culture) is a series of unhappy compromises between the radicalism of Jesus and the actual way human beings do business and wish to continue doing. This is evidently true in regard to the issue of violence, but it's also the case in respect of money.

The latest and perhaps most effective compromise in connection to money involves a theme of personal election, whereby enormous wealth is given to a few by a form of divine decree. This can be expressed as economic dogma: the rich must be allowed to be rich for they are the only true generators of wealth. Or, it can come in Christian terms for Christian voters: a version of Calvinist election mixes with prosperity gospel to supply a God-given right to unconditioned wealth.

And then, by a perverse but watertight logic, the wealthy truly are entitled, while those who depend on Social Security have a false "entitlement" attitude. The first have the purity of divine right behind them, and the second only sinful human resentment.

But there is a crucial piece missing from the whole discussion, a piece that changes the entire perspective by which we judge wealth. And once again we have the epoch-making insights of René Girard to thank. He has given us the concept of mimesis which tells us that we value things according to the eyes of the other. It tells us our desire is mediated. (And his insights have recently received clamorous backing from the discoveries by neural science of "mirror neurons.")

If wealth was in any way simply objective, like a mountain of twenty thousand feet, or a river ten feet deep, then we'd be able to draw a measure and say yes, that is wealth. But there is an intrinsically comparative element in wealth. People with houses in the Hamptons or the D.C. suburbs probably look pretty wealthy to the rest of us. But living in those places they always have their own differentials: the size of the frontage, the number of rooms, the yacht, the private jet. And then, for the people with all those things, there remains the truly astonishingly rich. The ones who can book rooms in Dubai at $25,000 a night, who have art collections with Van Goghs and Renoirs, who can purchase newspapers, T.V. stations, private islands, football teams, and much more, more than we can imagine!

Definitely all these things have a material elements--you can't play without marbles--but they exist within a framework of being seen by others, of a shared desire that gives them their final and truest value. Even the most exclusive private yacht visited by a handful of privileged guests is seen and desired by them, and behind them stands all the lesser yachts seen by everyone else. Those billions of glances of desire are implied in the glances of the privileged few who have also shared those other glances, and carry them with them, and so say on behalf of everyone "this really is the best possible yacht in the world." Through them the eyes of all the world are trained on the most private, privileged of possessions, giving it its worth.

If this is in fact the case then it is humanly impossible--anthropologically impossible--to claim that wealth is individual and not shared. Everything is shared; it's simply in my hand not yours! But neurally and humanly it's in both our hands!

This anthropology of the mirroring of wealth then becomes the reason why a certain brand of theology has to be called in service to create a fiction that wealth is really individual. "God" is in people's minds the only unaccountable, incomparable, unmediated being. And so to give wealth its rights it has to have the backing of such an incomparable entity.

But apart from the fact that this is Greek essentialist theology and not a Trinitarian God, it is fundamentally not human. It does not respect, it does not look to, humanity.

Because here's the thing: if wealth is shared neurally or psychically between us, it means that in a fundamental human sense it belongs to everyone. That's where it's meaning comes from, from everyone. It is a common good! You can't have wealth without the other person, and without all the other persons. Wealth is something we create together and thus by its internal human logic we have to dispose of together. We can dispose of it using Greek theologies of election (i.e. the rich must stay rich) which necessarily involve endless rivalry, struggle and, in the end, plain insanity. Or we can dispose of it by a New Testament gospel of gift, something which changes the inner dynamic of mimesis from rivalry to love.

How this plays out in practical detail is a matter for actual politics. But the principle is clear and can only have clear results. We live in a shared universe. We can make that a matter of constant absurd rivalry, always seeking to expropriate what can never be expropriated. Or we can come into the space of God's intention, having created such a shared world in the first place. We can come into the space of Jubilee, the Israelite institution whereby all debts were rendered null on a systematic periodic basis (every fifty years). We can come into the area of the Lord's prayer where the same action is a condition of the prayer itself, and in a permanent present tense: "Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors..."

We can come into the space of a compassionately shared world, rather than a violently shared one. At least, that would seem to be the case once you bring Jesus into the picture!

Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence

Saturday, September 17, 2011

9/11 : Ritual In Perpetuam?

As the tenth anniversary came and passed I hesitated within myself how to approach the topic.

I did not join my voice to those who mourned the victims or mourned the missed opportunities for peace, or both. I am not insensitive to either. Of course not. The anguish for the people in the Towers touches everyone in New York. Everyone knows someone who had a friend there or who was herself in the immediate area. Then came the wars, and their anguish is ever and overwhelmingly present, the defining U.S. narrative of the 21st century.

But there is a dimension to the whole thing that happened that day which has always exceeded the standard ritual commentary, and which has continually bothered me. How could I voice it evenly, or intelligibly, when the whole world was weeping?

Only now perhaps when thoughts and emotions have settled into the everyday, and yet the commemorations still echo, may I propose a small unsettling postscript...

"Ritual commentary," and right there I said it. Not everything human beings do is spontaneous. In fact very little is. A great deal of it is programed by the group, by responses the group models to us and expects from us. Ritual is a broad and rich name for this collective programing. One of the huge things about Jesus is the way he talked and the way he acted broke across this programing, like a rip current breaking against a tide, creating enormous historical disturbances and counter eddies. Perhaps what Jesus did was the only truly spontaneous event in history!

When the first plane struck the North Tower at 8.46 a.m. I was on my way to teach a class in the Department of Religion at Le Moyne College, Syracuse. The title of the class was "Ritual Performance." I heard the news on the car radio and at that point of time, probably a few minutes after it struck, there was still speculation that this could be a small private aircraft that had veered badly off course. When I arrived at the college I remember saying immediately to a colleague, that I hoped it was indeed an accident and not a terrorist attack. He shook his head down at his desk as if I were idiotically naive. At 9:03 a.m. the crash of the second aircraft into the South Tower proved him entirely correct.

Classes were canceled for the day, as numerous students and teachers began anxiously checking on friends who may have been in Lower Manhattan. Other students and professors stood around the hallways watching events unfold on the T.V. monitors. And there perhaps was my first clue.

As the course syllabus said, "The central question of this course is the value or power of ritual today." We were using a book called "Liberating Rites" in which the author, Tom Driver, argued ritual was a basic form of ordering and re-ordering the world and which did not depend on a prior rationality. It creates its own reason. "Rituals are primarily instruments designed to change a situation. They are more like washing machines than books..."

As people drifted about in a state of half-disbelief and the T.V. relentlessly screened the towers falling, people fleeing, firemen fainting, the crashing of two more planes, it felt just like that: we were in the middle of some wildly beating laundry machine that had erupted from the sky and whether we liked it or not we were being shook. showered, rinsed, spun, wrung out, and we would never be the same. All that was left was to expect the continual repetition of these events, in imagery, in words, in memorials, and the full scale reality of a world-making ritual was upon us.

My special contribution to the course was an attention to movies. Again according to the syllabus: "Movies act as a kind ritual, in some ways far removed from ritual and yet highly ritualistic in phenomena they present." What I meant, and of course presented to the class, was the violence of movies, the unquenchable stream of blood and death in so many films. Rituals provide us with a repertoire of primary signs, so often rooted in violence, and movies continually exploit and re-energize those signs. So, again the images on T.V....on-screen intense moving signs of planes and fire, of fear, destruction, death.

Returning home that day my overpowering sensation was "This was cinematic, far too cinematic..."

The choice of city, the Big Apple, famed New York, setting of hundreds and hundreds of movies... The attack on the WTC and its Twin Towers, symbols themselves of modernity, the Western economic and cultural system and the heaven-scaling character of its architecture... And the weapon, a plane! The icon of international power and success, yet always containing an element of fear, now turned entirely into a threat, a missile. There were direct echoes of the 1996 movie, Independence Day, in which giant spaceships flown by hungry nomadic aliens vaporize skyscrapers and whole cities, and the White House, the target of the fourth 9/11 plane. Or the 1998 movie Armageddon, in which a rain of meteorites the size of "Basketballs and Volkswagens" unleash disaster on New York city, including a shot of the Twin Towers themselves, one of them on fire with its top blown away.

All of 9/11 represented a coding, a dense, sophisticated, electronic set of signs whereby some of the things most dear to Americans, to their self-image--and the images of that self-image and to those images already under threat within themselves--all of this got replayed in real time and living history as real catastrophe. How could this fiercely cinematic ritual not embed itself like a multiple barb in the national psyche? How could it not infect us like some devilishly designed mental virus loaded with fear, pain and anger? And how could it not provoke the re-ordering of everything in unhesitating retaliatory violence?

These were my thoughts, confused, jumbled, inchoate, but very, very real. I was asked to speak on a panel of religious figures hastily assembled by some churches. I tried to express myself in these terms, but I don't think anyone understood. Perhaps they still won't. But the forces that brought about the attack in this sense of a total event, its mise en scène of the truly terrible, were truly intelligent in their ability to reorder our world. And it is precisely this intelligence I resist in the spontaneous counter-current made possible only by Jesus!

Driver quoted Shakespeare's King Lear, suggesting the possibility of terrible violence done by humans for its own sake. "I will do such things,--what they are yet I know not,--but they shall be the terrors of the earth." In Driver's view killing is the performance of something absolute which is also a ritual beginning and a beginning of ritual.

René Girard goes deeper and his thought was also a key part of the course. Girard tells us that we don't have ritual or performance first and then killing. Human culture, humanity itself, is birthed out of catastrophic violence that creates a sacrificial victim that creates a ritual that creates a world. Both Driver and Girard would agree that 9/11 was a ritual beginning but Girard would be more systematic, seeing it as "the renewal of sacrificial resources". And Girard goes further still. He teaches that Jesus and the gospels manifest that whole process back to us. They shine a light on it. So that we know it and can choose an entirely different way, a nonviolent way, of ordering a world--a riptide of grace founding the world in compassion, forgiveness, peace, life.

But part of the gospel's shining a light on the process is that human beings have to a lesser or greater extent all become knowledgeable of what the whole thing is and how the whole thing works. And that is why the terrible intelligence that actually designs a total event like 9/11 is possible. In some fearful appalling way 9/11 is a radically Christian event. The violent manipulation of our symbolic space in order to produce a new ritual resource could only happen in a Christian universe. It could only happen in a world where Satan had to some extent been demystified so that Satan now acts with a devilish degree of conscious designer cunning. As the movie has it, "The devil wears Prada." Or, to say it another way, in the 21st Century Satan is also Christian!

But then that also means, in Ignatius of Loyola's famous discernment advice, he must leave his tail sticking out. The intelligence, the design, shows. We are no longer blind pawns in a primordial eruptive event, participating without consciousness. For if Satan is conscious all of us are! Satan can't outsmart Satan. We know, deep down, we are being played, and the fury of reaction that often follows when something like this is suggested, shows that those invested in the ritual know it too.

Jesus with his counter tide of grace has set us free from a universe built on founding violence. Whatever and whoever the particular agents of 9/11 the cosmos birthed by Jesus does not conform to its twisting of the world into a new sacrificial framework. Jesus said "I have seen Satan fall like lightning" and his revelation continues to destabilize all violent ritual, including this one.

It is not a comfortable situation for the world in general or the U.S. in particular, and I believe the progressive destabilization of the North American political space flows from an already-punctured attempt to give it a new sacrificial foundation. There is no other political way forward except a new shaping of society on the gospel pattern of compassion, forgiveness, peace. The ever more desperate movement to negate these values politically is itself a last frenzied attempt to shore up a Jesus-embarrassed archaic world order.

There can be no longer any ritual in perpetuam. There is only the blessed disturbance of grace.

Tony Bartlett

Friday, August 26, 2011

Brief Notes on Love

Love is a wine that flows in the veins of all things, in the dust of the planets no less than the song of the robin.

God is love, is this love, a fire which reaches round the world, given to all without discrimination.

God who is love is a solar flare exploding into space engulfing the planet, sending her signals into every smallest gap of unseen particles, into every shadowed space of human awareness.

But love can only really show itself at the cost of itself, and that cost fools the proud human observer into thinking all there really is is darkness, violence and chance. And normal human perception within a world of violence will no less conclude that the world only gives birth to love exceptionally, as doomed to failure.

In the story of Jesus, the God of love could only revealed be by being thrown out of the world. But in the process of exclusion this love is seen clearly, visibly, by those with eyes.

Subtly that exclusion becomes the most profound entry, overture and overturning, of everything...

Human culture built for the interests of the violent continues to disfigure all concepts of divinity.

In some ways it is worse in official Christianity. The legal payoff and punishment notions of salvation have dulled and disfigured the fire of love out of recognition.

But the bottomless passion of the divine is unconquerable, the beat of its heart, the timeless rhythm of the deep, beyond all quelling. The more intense and intoxicating this divine passion is the more it is deep, hidden, soundless and humble. But its hiddenness and humility are the product not of weakness but exactly of strength, of amazing ultra-strength.

To pay attention to divine love, to plunge to the level of its hiding, is to be amazed beyond words. To be struck dumb and senseless. And to emerge a completely different kind of person.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Invisible Hand Revealed, Outstretched as Compassion!

"Standard and Poor"--sounds like a run of unimpressive high-school results. It is in fact an august institution which hands out these judgments itself, not on school students, but on business and financial entities, including national economies. (The name does not refer to valuations as such: it comes from Henry Poor who began compiling data on railroad companies back in the 19th century.) As anyone who has not been on a Trappist retreat in the past weeks knows, the US has for the first time slipped into the A- range, judged for lack of credit-worthiness.

The assessment followed the so-called debt-ceiling crisis in which Congress seemed to drive the world economy to the edge of a cliff, only at the last moment to swerve away. The whole performance did not make for confidence and it's not at all surprising that some symbolic authority would wag a reproving finger. But a final judgment on the situation cannot be restricted to the scholasticism of high-finance. Everything here has a theological bottom line. And far from allowing the mysteries of economics to deter comment, theology cries out for a hearing, like the blood of Abel itself.

To get to that we must first give a snapshot of the major players in the field and their ideas.

G.B. Shaw said that if all the economists to the world were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion, and he was likely thinking of the debate between Friedrich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Or at least between the division of thought their names have come to represent.

On the one hand, Keynes argued against the idea that supply magically creates its own demand, that if you give capitalists the chance then their spending on investment will create the wealth that leads to buying of goods. He insisted instead that in the midst of recession the government has to stimulate the economy by reducing interest rates, while increasing spending on things like services and infrastructure.

On the other hand, for Hayek, government spending impedes recovery by depriving the private sector of capital for investment, and moreover inevitably restricts human freedom. For Hayek the free price system is what keeps everyone free, but it is itself a bit of a mystery. Prices are a spontaneous order "the result of human action but not of human design."

And, again for people who've not been vacationing in outer space, there are distinct echoes here of the position of some Democrats and the commentator Paul Krugman on the one hand, and the newly minted Tea Party on the other.

So where's the theology in it?

Through the work of Rene Girard theology has discovered the crucial factor of imitative (mimetic) desire: it is a core biblical motif demonstrated at the heart both of human violence (Cain and Abel etc.) and of Christ's power to change us to compassion and love. What would it mean if we applied this anthropological and theological insight to economics? The results could be intensely illuminating and could possibly change the "dismal science" of economics into something filled with the possibility of light!

How is it that things have value? If we begin with this economic question Mimetic Theory can help considerably. It tells us that we always imitate the desire of another in relation to an object. We may think we desire the object spontaneously, but there is always the shadowy present of the other whose prior relationship to the object shows that it is desirable.

When something is brought for sale to market (or shopping mall) we can concentrate on the thing in question forgetting the human hand that has produced the object and/or is offering it for sale. But just because we don't pay attention to that hand doesn't mean it has gone away. In fact it is exerting an even more intense fascination just because it's hidden. The riot of advertizing that takes place around goods for sale simply displaces and amplifies the human relationship to the object in the original production. That beautiful model showing off that diamond ring, she's just a deflected substitute, a glamorous stand-in, for the miner who mined the ring and the dealer who brought it to town! We might think it's her good looks that makes us want to be like her and have her ring, but in fact her body-look, her clothes, everything about her, are themselves held out as desirable by a further chain of other desire-instilling-relationships going on basically for ever.

Consumer desire is a gigantic self-referring universe, a vast self-feeling nervous system with a billion billion synapses, all coming down to that single image that will make us want the ring!

But what happens when there is a breakdown in the system of desire? This is the crucial question Keynes and Hayek were dealing with, writing as they were at the time of the great depression and arguing about its causes and its remedies. Their classic version of breakdown was the boom or glut, the apparent over-production of actual stuff that no one wants and, therefore, no one gets paid for. A year when there is a huge harvest of tomatoes makes those enormous piles at the market less and less salable. In a situation like that no one shows any desire for tomatoes! Of course once you are in a recession the amount of goods goes down precipitously and looks nothing like a glut. But the economists saw that as its initial premise: a boom followed by a bust.

But there is also the situation much closer to home and closer to my argument. The market itself can create the conditions of "glut" by deliberately inflating it with stuff no one can actually pay for, as in the 2008 housing bubble and bad-debts banking crisis. In this instance it is not over-production, but the deliberate manipulation of money and desire to the point where one fuels the other and a moment is reached when people realize there is not enough actual material wealth in the system to sustain it, and the whole thing comes crashing down. It's the inverse of a glut; it is an unsustainable emptiness, a vacuum. And it can only be brought about by phantasmagorical desire detaching itself from the actual universe and expanding to infinity.

You see what I mean? The whole system is complex and fluid but from a Mimetic Theory point of view you can always be sure that desire or the lack of it will influence the value of goods and the overall value of the market in which those goods are traded. Certainly there are objective factors--there is the object! There are actual tomatoes and actual houses. But it's the subjective element of desire that truly drives the system. This is surely what Hayek was referring to in "the result of human action but not of human design." It's human desire which drives the thing but it is not recognized or planned in any way, still less is it willingly surrendered to any principle, rational or spiritual, other than its all-powerful self.

Sooooo, back to our dueling economists. Whatever its cause, when desire bottoms out in the system, and business grinds to a halt, what do you do then?

Simple enough. Each in his own way says you have to get desire working again, you have to get it back in the system. Keynes essentially believes you can cheat desire. You have to introduce more money and stuff into the system so people begin wanting it and working to get it and thus producing themselves. Then everyone will begin to want goods more and more, and so on. In a nutshell, you have to create demand (desire).

Hayek says, no, no, no, that will never work! If you just give people stuff no one will ever desire anything. What you you have to do is actually the reverse. You must stop government spending, you must get rid of easy money, you must stop taxing, in order to free up the capitalists to begin over the making of real wealth. That way goods will be desirable and the great avatar and icon of desire--namely money, mammon--will itself be desirable once more and and the whole system will work again. (Well, he doesn't precisely say this, but his insistence on the sacrosanct freedom of prices and their autonomous character can only mean this.)

Hayek 's viewpoint is currently being applied in Greece, Ireland, Britain and Spain, under the name "austerity", which implies a temporary self-denial for the sake of longer term pleasure. But then lurking in the depths of it all is the greatest inciter, the last infallible fixer of the system, the terrible dragon begetter of desire in its rawest purest state--war! Nothing is more guaranteed to rebirth the order of desire than war, telling us what is really desirable by destroying everything else! Therefore both supporters of Keynes and supporter of Hayek historically agree on this. It was the immense government spending on war industry that truly dragged Europe and the U.S. out of the depression era. And these days no member of the Tea Party seriously wishes to dent the huge share of tax revenue soaked up by U.S. military spending (+ or - 50%) for current and future wars.

What then is the theological conclusion?

Hayek and the Tea Party are essentially on the right side of desire. But they are on the wrong side of history. We cannot continue to run the world in this way. Everyone knows it. Everyone knows there are not enough resources for exponential desire on the part of seven billion people. Alternately you cannot pauperize a large proportion of these same billions in order to protect desire for a privileged few. Most of all, everyone knows that if you precipitate a major war in order to restore the productivity of desire there will ultimately be no productivity at all.

Keynes was right in a better sense . The government has to spend in the midst of a recession. But that cannot be argued for classical economic reasons, as if the argument can be won out of pure mathematics. We have to see that the strange work of desire is more and more exposed for what it is, and because of that be prepared explicitly to invoke a new principle.

The "invisible hand", the "not by human design" are shown for what they are, the endless shell game of imitated human desire. What is at work, and has made things work in an apparently magical way, is the unseen and spontaneous mediating power of the model. But once we reveal the trick, once we see that invisible hand, we are able and indeed called upon to realize the possibility and the promise of something new.

In this very moment, at this very time, because of this growth in human awareness a new generative principle is intruding into the human equation, into politics itself. Unconscious desire progressively is rendered implausible and is displaced by surrendered-to compassion, a changed internal scenery that allows the other to be, to live, by virtue of my being one with her in her humanity. As time goes on this imitated compassion can and will be as neurally powerful and generative as imitated desire.

Sounds impossible, absurd? Not if you see that we have no choice. Human history has been pushed to its crossroads. And those who claim that the Gospel is central to their lives have no other voice that to say, yes, this is possible, this is what our belief teaches us! The Christian churches and Christians in general are called by the very urgency of the time to put our capitalist culture on notice that it will only survive by a new economics of compassion. We say, Blessed are the Poor!, rather than All Hail Standard and Poor!

Tony Bartlett, Theologian-in-Residence

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sign Of The Human

I am more used to my backyard than perhaps any other space on God's earth. Five years ago we put a picture window in the back wall of the kitchen providing an uninterrupted view. I see trees and plants, squirrels, groundhogs, deer, once or twice a fox, a turkey, and one night I swear there was the yowl of a coyote!

Nothing could be more natural.

At the same time I sit at the table in front of this window and I look at words and images on my computer screen, speeding their way across hyperspace. Inches or thousands of miles in seconds or less, it doesn't seem to matter. What could be more artificial? The leaves on the trees bud, mature and die in one narrow fixed space over a whole season. My thoughts and the signs that carry them fly about their electronic universe like winged silicon gods, without any solid body to hold them.

But wait...

This distinction between natural and artificial, between solid and electronic, is it so real, so assured? That leaf up there, quivering at the end of a branch, is it not just as much a product of complex information transfers, of enzymes, gravity, photons?

For sure, we see and describe these things in terms of quantifiable energy, but energy states are not actually different from information states once we get down to subatomic physics and how particles move and shift at that level. For example, in photosynthesis a packet of light (photon) is absorbed by the leaf to make it grow, but in a slightly different form (i.e. at a different wavelength) it is the means by which we see!

The only final difference with information, therefore, is the "mirror" of the human brain which captures things in images and signs. It is the fact of the human observer.

Today we are so intensely aware that in the midst of all the small particle transfers of energy there is this incredible fact of human meaning achieved through signals in and around us. The world of computers and media has enormously increased my sense of the flow of energy/information. It has plugged me into an exploding world of signs and shown me how everything human is wonderfully made out of communication. What we call a human being is something like a center of communication through signs, like the arrivals and departure screens at airports but not just for's for everything!

Another way of saying the same could be that a human being is the tipping point of the universe where creation begins to reflect back to itself its own energy/information process and and it does so as signs. The universe has become the scene of meaning as human sign...

Enter John's gospel and "In the beginning was the Word..."

Wow! How cool is that, that two thousand years ago the "theological gospel" understood that everything begins with signal, sign, word, Word? John of course is not talking just any sign or word. He is talking Jesus. He is talking the nonviolent Crucified and Risen One. Here is the sign or meaning that starts everything over and starts it for the first time. But it also establishes thereby the general principle that the human world is composed of the sign, and does so long before computers made it factually obvious. In my opinion, this one liner and everything it means have been a pivotal factor in bringing forth our world of hyper-communication.

The gospel is communication. It is good news. And with that outbreak of information the modern age was truly born (and inside that its wilder child, the postmodern age). Gone is the thick mythic world of gods and demons, heavens and hells. Gone is the lofty world of ideas belonging to a pure realm of thought. Gone even is the comforting fate of inevitable death. Instead we have the explosion of communication, of talk and story. And at the heart of talk and story there is the endless concrete choice between killing and forgiveness, retaliation and life. And within that, and because of it, there is the nagging insistence that even beyond death the word of life will pursue us, not allowing any complicity with fate and its violence.

What a stunning word! What a sign! And now because of this singular Word, because of the way it has shifted the character of actual culture, it means a crucial amount of the sensed information of our world is full of God. The God of compassion and forgiveness known in and through the sign of Jesus is broadcast through the actual contemporary sign system in all its immense variety and vitality.

The spiritual human consequences are immense. Anyone anywhere knowing her world through its signs is necessarily impacted by this God. The impact may not be powerful, it very probably will not be conscious. And, equally probably in many, many cases, it will be resisted, opposed, even hated. But anyone with an eye and a heart of compassion will pick up all around them this wonderful new human reality.

In the past this kind of experience has often called contemplative and indeed that is what it is. But the word contemplation has a tone of heavenly truths--the framework of Greek thinking which sees truth as abiding in a perfect place beyond this world, or, at least, belonging purely to a spiritual order and accessed in a purely spiritual way. But the fact of the matter is that Christian contemplation has always been very concrete and sensuous, awakened by historically concrete signs and images. The "visions" of the mystics testify to this.

However, what I am talking about is much more general and diffuse than a saint's pure-hearted love and identification. It really is a cultural condition: one mixed in with a great deal of other stuff, some of it neutral, much of it negative, but in the last analysis it is the constant presence of Christ at the heart of our concrete world.

Our world is under the pressure of Christ at an internal generative level. Once again this is not any kind of mathematically obvious fact; it does not impose itself by force. But it does mean that a Christian does not and cannot look outside of her actual human world for the truth of Christ. It means that the human world is itself the stuff of the divine, that God has become an organic part of the human system. It means your neighborhood, your city, your mall, it's all a virtual church! It means that despite the contradictions, the killings, the betrayals and the danger, Christ indeed has the victory. It means that forgiveness and peace have become the one and only true meaning of the world: Satan has indeed fallen like lightning and the semiotic reign of violence is collapsing.

It means love is the normal and constant sign of being human. It fills my backyard just as much as my computer, my computer just as my backyard...

Tony Bartlett

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Three W's and Three Anthropologies...

What is happening to us? I mean the U.S. (Yes, the U.S. is us! I couldn't have said that five weeks ago..)

It seems we are morphing into the domestic population of a 21st century Super-Rome, kept happy and stupid by a dole of bread and circuses, while the elite live on secluded estates and our armies trample across the world, fighting off barbarian hordes?

Sound vaguely right? The only major difference in the terms of comparison--a weird but totally crucial difference--is that in ancient Rome there was something called Christianity. It was a small subversive movement, frequently despised and persecuted, which did not believe in killing...


Yes, that's right, there's a huge disconnect, because now we also have Christianity, and it not only not small and subversive, it has become imperial Western society's dominant religious institution and its traditional worldview. How can that make any sense?

How can this thing called Christianity have effectively allied itself with its own great symbolic opposite? And not just allied, but over time produced its own unique and mighty hybrid?

Responding to this disconnect demands some kind of framework of understanding. And my hope is to present that, to provide a handle on this most extraordinary contradiction and conundrum for believers. What follows, therefore, is a somewhat longer blog, an attempt to gain traction in what feels like a vertical free-fall of two related identities: Christianity and America, America and Christianity.

I want to say ultimately there are three different "anthropologies" at work in Christianity and America. I think anthropology is a better core concept than theology, because an anthropology is about how you relate at a primary level to other humans, whereas theology is so often what you think about God. Thought about God is so easy to lose track of, and quickly become meaningless. Whereas how we relate to others is always concrete. Anthropology, therefore, determines theology, and is more primary than theology. Good theology grounds itself in anthropology as, I believe, Jesus taught, showed and lived.

                                             x   x   x

This is an over-achieving blog for sure, but worth it if you consider what's at stake and you follow it through to the end! It continues in two main parts; the first is context, the second response. I admit I will be hugely summarizing and condensing. But the benefit of summarizing is concentration. And concerted reflection is so badly needed today in contrast to the mind-emptying blur of information we normally live within.

First then, the contemporary context which will help set up the framework. I want to talk about the WWW.

No, I'm not referring to the World Wide Web, but rather Weather, War and Wealth.

To begin then with's impossible to deny climate change. The only real question posed is whether the change is critical and whether humans are the cause. As regards the first half of the question the sheet ice in Greenland and Antarctica is visibly decreasing. As a result of these and other factors the International Panel on Climate Change estimates that the global average sea level will rise between 0.6 and 2 feet (0.18 to 0.59 meters) in the next century (IPCC, 2007).

The tiny mid-Pacific nation of Tuvalu can serve as the canary in the mine. As the sea level has risen, Tuvalu has experienced lowland flooding, saltwater intrusion affecting its drinking water and food production, coastal erosion and increasingly destructive storms eating away at its land mass. Its leaders are now asking Australia and New Zealand to accept their whole population as environmental refugees--so far to no avail. What is happening to Tuvalu today can happen to the U.S. barrier islands tomorrow, including Long Island...( And its landlocked mirror inverse--ferocious wildfires from California to Arizona--is already happening.

As regards the human causation here is the verdict of the United States National Research Council. "There is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. While much remains to be learned, the core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious scientific debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.” (United States National Research Council, Advancing the Science of Climate Change.)

But then expressly at this point other voices will be heard, questioning the figures of studies like this, or citing other studies, loudly claiming that anthropogenetic climate change is a hoax. In other words what is happening to the people of Tuvalu is just part of standard cycles of geological and meteorological shift. To attempt to take on a sense of human responsibility, and thus a regime of good environmental practice, is a plot to restrict freedom and to deny the inevitable tough truths of earthly nature and suffering.

Exactly! In this response we are dealing with ideology and theology, modes of thinking which shape the world in advance for us before we even open our eyes on particular situations. In this case they assert that we are each of us free in a supremely isolated legal sense while we all live in a physically fallen world. And any attempt to think and act otherwise is to deny the true message of individual salvation in another world, and corollary supreme rights of the individual!

Next up, War.

The U.S. is now engaged in three, four or five wars, depending on how you keep count. The conflict in Iraq has cost $3 trillion plus (, a mind-boggling sum which I fully believe: the hidden costs of war are exponential and always exceed any audit. As of the end of May this year 4457 US soldiers have been killed and over 32,000 seriously wounded. Iraqi "extra deaths" are not reliably recorded but are conservatively in the region of half a million (the famous Lancet report put them 654, 965 in 2006, and the Opinion Research Business in London put them at 1.2 million plus in 2007). Refugees are in the region of 2 million plus. As we all know the initial justification for these terrible events-- the presence of WMD (weapons of mass destruction)--has proven perniciously and perfidiously false. But this was the bill of goods that was sold us, and once again individuals and websites can be found still arguing the case. And that is to say nothing of the popular association of Sadam with 9/11, which was fully denied by none less than G.W. Bush, but for many remains fixed as dogma.

Which again strongly suggests there is some kind of ideology or theology shaping these assessments and the actions that flow from them.

The motive for the war in Afghanistan involved toppling the Taliban and yet now it seems the U.S. is in dialogue with yes, the Taliban! Don't get me wrong. I support this wholeheartedly, but then what was it all for in the first place? Is there such a thing as a good Taliban, different from a bad one, and how do we tell them apart? Moreover, a lot of this war has been prosecuted via aerial drones and rockets unleashed on people and territory with which we are not legally at war, i.e. in the Tribal Territories in the north of Pakistan. Once again it is a question of the extremely fluid facts related to our chosen war-making and the way an overall ideology or state of mind persuades us to continue to engage heedlessly in these murky, murderous undertakings.

Yemen/Somalia/Libya take your pick, we have some sort of armed engagement going on in these places. The CIA, an organization founded in 1945, has taken on a largely unaccountable role where it can engage in lethal actions at the behest of the president. It begs into play yet again a comparison to Rome: the Praetorian Guard loyal to the Emperor alone!

The overall conclusion here is that war for the U.S. has taken on a life of its own. It is not only justified ideologically but becomes its own self-justification, reinforcing in turn the violence in our spirit and theology. As Heny Giroux says, "War, violence and death have become the organizing principle of governance and culture in the United States as we move into the second decade of the 21st century."

Finally, Wealth. The facts here are pretty straightforward. Since 1980 the U.S. economy has doubled in size but the average person's wages, adjusting for inflation, have remained more or less flat. Before 1980 the top 1% of U.S. earners took home 10% of total income. Now they take home over 20% and own over 40% of the nation's entire wealth. Before 1980 the top tax rate for the wealthy was 70%. It's now 35%. And if you add in capital gains they end up paying only 17%. (Watch It means that the present generation has witnessed an unprecedented transfer of wealth to a very small minority.

This can only have happened if the population was in some way prepared to accept the transfer. And they could only be so willing--who gives up wealth for no reason?--if ideology and theology had told them it was necessary. There was an episode of the Colbert Report in which Stephen Colbert was interviewing Michael Moore who had just presented these facts. Colbert in his faux right-wing manner retorted that the money belonged to the wealthy as a matter of right, because they had earned it. There was nothing faux about the automatic credibility of the argument he echoed. It "rang true" because so many people have accepted it as true, that wealth, even vastly increased wealth as a share of the national pie, belongs to the individual as a simple matter of personal right.

The point of this example, as in all the others, is not so much to argue the particular case--although it is obvious where my own sympathies lie. What is essential is the way a set of preconceived notions or attitudes bends critical thought in a certain direction.

                                            x x x

This leads to the second and crucial part: the response.

I have used ideology and theology almost interchangeably. One of the established meanings of the first is a political way of thinking resistant to factual contradiction. Theology is not so often seen in these terms. It can certainly be understood as resistant to factual contradiction, but because of the device by which it is conceived as separate from politics, i.e. it belongs to a supposed internal, spiritual, private area of human existence, it is not so often blamed. But Christian theology because it is as much to do with the world as it with God can in fact easily create and feel like an ideological position. It is in fact the major ideological undergirding of the present power structure in the U.S.

Immediately you say this, however, you create all sorts of roadblocks in people's minds. If Christian theology is a matter of private faith how can it be public ideology? If Christian theology is about a transcendent God how can it be tied to a given political structure?

The way through is to turn to anthropology. Any theology carries with it an anthropology and to think of it as somehow pure of one effectively masks the anthropology and makes it that much more inevitable. Indeed it turns theology into ideology. Unmasking its hidden anthropology will demonstrate theology as ideology. Revising the anthropology in light of the gospel can make it authentic theology.

We may therefore say there are three major brands of anthropology today competing for the voice of Christian theology.

The first is the one at work in all the examples above and that I have in many ways already described. It may be summarized as follows. Every human is individual both in his/her own eyes and in God's eyes. As individuals in collectives they are also rule-bound, but this impinges on freedom.. So we must always remain free to reject the rules and to settle our affairs with violence. The single rule for Christianity is to accept Jesus as your Savior and then his blood cleanses you in the sight of God. You can refuse, but if you do you will be sent to hell. If disputes arise between individuals we have lawyers or guns which can sort things out. If disputes arise between nations we have war, lots of it. Finally God as the supreme individual settles everything with supreme violence.

The second anthropology is very different. It can be illustrated in terms of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus led his hearer to the question "Who was a neighbor to that man?", i.e. to a moment of disclosure where there is no given limit to being a neighbor. And this is possible not because there is a rule, but because there is disclosure of compassion as the core human relation. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is not a rule but a disclosure of the truth that the neighbor is the self, and vice versa. We are free but our freedom is poised between two radical alternatives. If we do not link to others through love we will link necessarily through violence and it will always get worse. Thus, in respect of the first anthropology, its invocation of violence as sanction brings about the very crisis Jesus is warning us against.

This is also authentic evangelical anthropology because it is grace not works. The first anthropology is works because it invokes law and violence which are supremely human products. (See summary at Romans 4:15, "The law works wrath!") It is only this anthropology that introduces something radically new into the human equation: the possibility of relating to the other in self-abandoning love.

The third anthropology can contain elements of both the first two and is hard to pin down. What is distinctive about it is the way it idealizes things, removes them to the level of mind, essence, idea. It loves the "Cosmic Christ" because that provides the sense that everything is already perfect and the perfection can be accessed by our minds. It idealizes "the church" as the symbolic space of salvation already achieved. Because essence and symbol are at its core it can easily slip into a facile universalism where "all paths are equal" and there is no recognition of the generative violence at work in human culture. Because of this it is also prepared at certain moments to concede the case to violence as regrettably necessary--it has no radically alternative anthropology. At the same it idealizes love and peace so long as they come in more-or-less-achieved symbolic form. I will say at once that many "progressives", including myself, generally inhabit this twilight anthropology and migrate back and forth to the second as they feel able.

To conclude, therefore, the first anthropology is fundamentalism, the third is liberalism, and the second is something new. It should not have a name beyond that because it has to be created each time anew. It is not law or ideal. It is love. And it is generative. Anything lively and good in the third lives by virtue of it. And even in the first those who accept the law of love can and will discover it for themselves. It is this generativity that puts it at the heart of anything truly emerging and which promises, even and especially at a moment of crisis, to bring something radically new to U.S. identity.

Plainly also this new thing stands in profound contrast with the first anthropology of violence, the one that has haunted the soul of Christianity beginning from the 4th century and has continued to invite ever more demons in through the  course of the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and up to the present. The three W's of Weather, War and Wealth are simply the latest marching orders of this ancient Legion. It is high time, and past time, to speak in the liberating voice of Jesus, "Come Out!"

Tony Bartlett

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Oath

On May 19th I went down to the Federal Court House and became a US citizen. Instead of God Bless America the Spirit of Syracuse women crooners should have been hitting Subterranean Homesick Blues, Dylan's caustic rap on being American and young in the sixties. That song, and others like it, shaped how I felt about the US back in the day, and would have made a much better soundtrack to the occasion. I always imagined myself right there with Dylan ducking between some crooked Cold War spy and a frontier-scout dealing who-knows-what, all the while hounded by a guilty sense of fate. Coming now to America for real, was I still dodging destiny or was it truly an offer of something new?

Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I’m on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he’s got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It’s somethin’ you did
God knows when
But you’re doin’ it again
You better duck down the alley way
Lookin’ for a new friend
The man in the coon-skin cap
By the big pen
Wants eleven dollar bills
You only got ten

I stood there with all the other immigrants (thirty odd from twenty one nations, places as diverse and distant as Uzbekistan and Argentina) pledging my allegiance to the flag and the United States which it signifies. I had done my best to condition my oath to an intentional lifestyle of nonviolence and, fair enough, the federal officer at the interview had accepted, without skipping a beat, the conscientious refusal to bear arms. But the oath continued... "to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law," and I had agreed to that. At the time I felt "noncombatant" was the key word which allowed me to go along in conscience. But this morning it struck me, there in front of the judge and the flag, that I was pledging myself to a nation that saw itself for ever and always on the brink of war. Nothing about pledging yourself to peace or the welfare of your fellow human being.....

Through my twenties the US was in Vietnam. It seemed that war went on for ever. I identified with the students at the time who saw the far eastern engagement as a piece of brutal militarism in the cause of capitalism, waged against Vietnamese peasants who wished simply to live and work in a country governed by themselves. Plus it seemed that many young Americans felt they had no stake in the fight and wanted out. It always seemed the young people were the good guys on both sides of the big pond.

But then we were all getting older and the Cold War shifted focus from the far east to Afghanistan and the build up of nuclear weapons in Europe. Even though it seemed anti-war had been victorious in response to Vietnam the battlefield had simply morphed and moved location, and the dangers had become more acute and terrible. Thatcher and Reagan were remaking the world economically and politically and the voice of protest seemed effectively neutered. It was more or less at that time that my own life changed dramatically and, as I concentrated on survival, "Power to the People" sounded like nothing so much as on old hippie rant....

I would dream about far away places. I would go constantly on these dream trips up through the mountains, or on a long train journey, but I never thought it would be the USA. Essentially I was trying to get away from a previous life, and any place would have done. Yet it was the USA it turned out to be.

And, of course, that makes sense. The USA is the single most evident place in the world where people who wish to start over have sought to come. America is the place where the whole Western world started over back in the sixteenth century and it's been rebooting the universe every since. I really am grateful to get to be a part of this country and its immense sense of possibility. But pledging allegiance, especially with all those references to arms, well it doesn't sit easy, and, in point of fact, what private personal sense can it have?

So I have to say for the sake of self, and any integrity I might claim, that when I made the pledge I did so in a way that went deeper than militarism, far deeper. As a kind of apologia to the past and promise to the future here then is what I do mean.

I do not pledge loyalty to the US in the Enlightenment sense that supposedly moved the framers of the constitution, the belief in effortless rationality, in self evident truths. Neither do I do so in the popularly believed frontier sense, the manifest destiny to conquer all that stands in the way, leaving no stone unturned.or enemy unconquered. Nor at all did I do it in the Holywood movie sense, of the belief that anyone with half a brain and willingness to work hard can become as rich as Bill Gates..

I take the oath of loyalty to the USA in a sense which I believe underpins all these expressions of human self-projection. I am committing myself to something which in fact gives life and breath to the whole exceptionalist and expansionist mood even as it is almost completely unrecognized and constantly distorted and disfigured by it. What is at work in America is the spirit of deep freedom and boundless possibility communicated by the Christian gospel and instilled in the veins of Western culture. There are two things that can push men and women out into the unknown. One is greed for conquest and the other is faith and hope. And the third is a profoundly muddied mixture of the two.

This last state is what characterizes the US and its history but that should not blind us to the authentic presence of the gospel in the mix. Pledging myself to the US is really pledging myself to the work of the gospel in human culture. It means promising myself (with apologies to Dylan) to a "subterranean life-quick news" that knows no ultimate boundaries of state or race, of politics or party, of pride or past. For me the US is the land of Holywood in the core sense of imagination, the land of fluid and constantly re-envisioned self-image. It is the place where a dynamic idea can take hold and sweep all before it, and that is so because the most dynamic idea of all---of God-made-flesh--is at the root of its borderless self- meaning. The US is a long difficult work of human transformation. Ranged against its positive outcome are all the risks of wealth and war, of paranoia and anger, and now in addition climate change and environmental breakdown. But the boundless horizons of the US are encompassed finally in one world because they are radically shaped by the hope and love of the gospel.

I am o.k. to take this oath, therefore, because it is a spiritual error waiting to correct itself (which is par for the course for just about any other oath I have taken). All our words, just like the whole earth, are under the long slow arc of divine possibility and one day that one great Word will make all those other, lesser ones true. "Look out kid. It’s somethin’ you did. God knows when, but you’re doin’ it again!"

Tony Bartlett

Friday, April 22, 2011


Anyone who writes (or is driven to write) has some single big thing around which his or her writing is always turning, always navigating. It's an unavoidable bump in the road which the individual's work comes up against, goes over, or simply crashes into, perhaps sometimes breaking down completely.

In good writers, the best writers, this bump is hugely productive. There is enormous skill and discipline exercised in returning to the bump again and again and making the writing do the most amazing things, sailing over the bump, screeching round it, even dislodging the bump entirely and carrying it off like a trophy impaled on the front of the hood. I think of themes of "affliction" and "the void" in Simone Weil, the continual dissolution or disillusion of the ideal in Orwell, the vast undertow of sensuality held in check by Augustine's relentless tide of thought.

I am not putting myself in any way in this company, just simply recognizing the community of the bump: And I have to say, in my case, it something to do with space. More precisely, the lack of it. My bump is really a big hole in the road.

Probably many people lack space. Perhaps even most people on the planet are prisoners of worlds not their own, where they don't actually belong. But it was my poor fortune to be exiled from space in a very particular way, one in which the sucking away of space reached into the depths of my personal being. I was chosen to be a Roman Catholic priest from an extremely tender age by a combination of genuine spiritual instinct and an upbringing that saw the surrounding culture as, in so many words, evil, with the Roman Catholic church as the only viable social alternative. Add the default Platonism of RC discourse back in the fifties and what resulted was the vacuuming away of a huge amount of the earth and its actual territory.

Because of this I used to love travel to foreign countries. As all the signs and symbols were strange I didn't have to assume automatically this was bad space, and it was possible briefly to relax. Now at a point in time when I am about to become a U.S. citizen I rejoice in a perception of the basic neutrality of U.S. landmass for me. It's not native soil, but neither is it alien like my actual land of birth was.

But then what is truly good space? What would it be to experience space as life? It is the possibility of breathing freely. It is moments and occasions when your being and person flow seamlessly into the surrounding environment and you are at one with your world. It is connectedness to everything because the signs and signals of grace have filled the world with peace, joy, love.

Here is Simone Weil, and I have to say I feel a certain affinity with this particular writer's bump!

"All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass."

She is talking about empty space and how it can be experienced as grace. I am talking about something somewhat different, the denial of space completely. But then they are related, because if at a certain point the lack of space can be accepted voluntarily as an emptiness, a letting go, a desert waiting to be filled, then in line with what she is saying--but widening the frame to the full scriptural dimensions-- it can make real world transformation begin.

The tension of Christian existence is never toward annihilation--it does not produce Nirvana, the blowing out of the real. Rather it is toward an astonishing reconstitution of the real, the recreation or refreshing of our world by love, with and in all its variety and splendor. To believe in Christ in a world of violence is never simply a vague wishing away of the human space. There is always the concrete witness of the Spirit as love which is a strange physical ability or power to accept the disassembly of the present real and connect it at once to the assembly of the final real. And in fact the only way to reach the final real is to undergo this disassembly which is the overturning and undoing of all our human violence.

In the present Holy Week and Easter time what better description could there be of the cross and resurrection? Crucifixion is the ultimate denial of space: unable to move, to go anywhere, to hide yourself from shame, your own body your intolerable fixed point. But then in the unfathomable depths of the Christ exactly this non-space became an endless space of grace, the inexhaustible sign of love for the real. How could this infinite space of love not be raised up in deathless life? How could it not become the new creation witnessed by Mary of Magdala on one ordinary first day of the week back in first century Palestine?

As for all those holes in the road? Really, perhaps just openings to an empty tomb...

Tony Bartlett