Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sign of the Gun

We’ve all heard it, “guns don’t kill people, people do”, the duplicitous logic of no-gun-control. Well then, how about this variation on the undeniable human component in killing? Words kill people, and so do images, in fact any of the elements of the complex human sign-system that people use can be responsible for producing actual lethal violence against others.

Jared Loughner’s murderous attack on an Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a constituency crowd gathered at a Tucson supermarket on the morning of January 9th is now known to at least half the planet. In the seconds it took for him to empty the thirty rounds of his Glock machine pistol he killed six people and injured fourteen. The general opinion, based on reports of Loughner’s attendance at and dismissal from a community college, as well as his on-line postings, is that here was a very seriously disturbed individual. Words like “psychotic” and “schizophrenic” are freely bandied around.

But Loughner’s deranged state of mind is also desperately and dishonestly invoked by those who were responsible for stoking the fires of his unhappy imagination in the first place, in order that their talk and their imagery may continue to inflame the mind of America and yet never be held accountable. They say he was a lone “nut job” and no one is politically answerable. As if the drug peddler should come upon a fatality from an overdose and say this is nothing to do with him, because the victim in fact had a history of lung cancer. As if the words and imagery these people continually use to infect and affect people suddenly come to a full stop at the ear of an individual truly vulnerable to them.

For sure there has also been a reckoning with the poisoned political climate which prefaced that fateful morning. The local Sherriff of Pima County where the event took place, Clarence Dupnik, went on TV and suggested that hate speech, mistrust and rhetoric against government had a direct causal link to the attack. Several politicians appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows attempting to cool the temperature of political debate. Numerous commentators (including a prophetic warning months ago from Giffords herself) indicted Sarah Palin’s map with the gun-sight crosshairs over the congresswoman’s Arizona constituency as incitement to violence. Giffords’ Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, also has to live down a June political event called “Get on Target for Victory” in which voters were invited to shoot a fully automatic M16 with the candidate.

Naming these connections is important but what needs to be understood is the way they are anything but trivial or superficial. It is not simply a matter of a “climate” that is somehow exterior to us. This kind of language and imagery touches a nerve at the root of our souls, a very dangerous one: the semiotics of violence, its sign-system, mobilizes us first in our deepest being and, after that, out come the semi-automatics!

The terms, signs and signals of armed violence are used to bring supporters of political movements to a state of energy and confidence that will ensure actual electoral and political victory. At a certain point I am sure that is the one and only intention, but it is already an extremely dangerous and culpable game which can and will spill over into overt violence at any moment. Jared Loughner was someone who complained about brainwashing and you could say that his fear was self-fulfilling. Violence has a deeply infectious quality to it and someone drinking at its politically-licensed fountain can quickly find themselves with a gun in hand. This is true of the population in general but it’s true in particular of the isolated individual, of the lone wolf looking somehow to make an impression. The general repetition of codes and cues invoking armed violence can work on a fragile sense of self to produce an acting out, which promises meaning to life but in fact brings catastrophe. There can be little doubt this was the case with Loughner.

Today in a sign-saturated world, where the codes of violence are so universally present in entertainment, there is a political temptation to use violent signals as a short route to power, but without thought for the consequences. As if signals and imagery can exist in some detached world of communication, solely as a language to shift opinion, but without becoming facts. We know now only too brutally how quickly they become facts.

Jesus was extremely aware of the way a violent world and its signs could be “downloaded” into individuals so they became possessed by violence. The Gerasene demoniac had a “legion” of demons within him, i.e. a division of Roman soldiers at full battle strength. Jesus set him free, and many like him, by the absolute regenerative peace he communicated.

Jesus also was very aware of the power of signs, of words and language, in their own right. “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36-37) He’s not talking about simple offhand remarks, but the overall use of words, the way they can produce life or death, and it is a vitally serious consideration.

I believe perhaps the one good thing to come of this terrible episode is to make us more conscious of the power of signs, of images, of language, and to take up their challenge anew. Followers of Jesus do not fight on the battlefield, but they do continually engage in a struggle over signs, words and meaning. Their gospel of peace “Goes out through all the earth, (its) words to the end of the world.”

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian-in-Residence

Monday, January 3, 2011

Girardian Thought Is Materialist, But So Is The Gospel!

Growing up in a Roman Catholic household materialism was the most wicked sin, more wicked even than Protestantism. At least the Protestants believed in Jesus, but the Communists—the all-time poster boys of materialism—just believed in dust and machinery. How awful was that? To believe that kind of thing you had to have dust for brains.

In contrast we, as Roman Catholics (and o.k. tagging along the Protestants too-- except I found out later they’re actually way ahead here) believed in the spirit, the great amorphous quality that stretched you beyond the earth, that put you in contact with the enormous force way above everything, the truth itself, big G., God. If you dropped spirit from your human equation you were a walking worm, struggling up inexplicably from the slime, and doomed to head straight back down there.

Another sense of materialism, linked morally but not metaphysically to the first, was consumer wants and purchases, the practical view of life as consisting of T.V.s washing machines, new cars, clothes, toys etc. In contrast to communism, which almost by definition was excluded for believers, this other form of materialism was a high risk condition, something like a family illness, insidiously creeping into the souls of Christians and choking off the springs of communication with the other, spiritual dimension. A smart new Rover or Jaguar saloon (upscale British cars for the uninitiated) would not exactly send you to hell (in fact the local parish church would relish a brace or two in the parking lot) but there was a general sense of an inverse proportion: the more Western wealth the less real devotion. Ah well, what were you going to do…

Well, indeed: if this latter kind of materialism was a spiritual malaise back then, it’s a full-blown mutation now. With the endless permutations of electronic paraphernalia which now are imperative for average human life there is almost no turning back. We all need the computer terminal, rich or poor, and digital phones are like an extra human limb which we scratch every five minutes.

All this has crept up on us, in hardly more years than since the outset of the century. Our material conditions have changed enormously, and they continue to do so, but our theology has hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Except, that is, for the amazing possibilities offered by the thought of Rene Girard. In short, Girard offers us an understanding of human beings (an anthropology) which decisively ends the old Greek-influenced Christian thinking of matter/spirit division and plunges us into a new world where spirit and matter are effects of the same extraordinarily supple, single structure of the human. Girard discovered mirror neurons before mirror neurons were discovered. He discovered that we are intimately inhabited by the “other” just as the other is by us; that there is an absolute lack of borders between humans as desiring beings; that the human world is by nature a shared space and all this crossing of boundaries and shared space is the spiritual of the material!

O.k., actually he has not, to my knowledge, ever exactly said the last bit, about the spiritual and the material. In fact a few years ago I was at a meeting of Girardian scholars and one of the more eminent was smart enough to realize this was a problem and worried it publicly: however, in the opposite direction. He told us “We asked Girard explicitly whether there was a soul and Girard said there was”. Well, we sure were glad to get that sorted out! Nevertheless, the fact that the question had to be asked, and to the highest authority, showed clearly there was an issue.

It meant that mimetic theory had already subverted the classic Greek solipsistic soul and brought us into a very human world, one which is much more to do with the exchange of inputs and information (interdividuality) than any ideal intellectual self. And then came the science of mirror neurons to prove it: my most intimate self, my desire for this or that, my feelings about this or that, all that is already a neural copy of what you are doing or what is happening to you, and of course vice versa. Love, therefore, the “greatest of the gifts” and the one that endures for ever, is simply (but wonderfully) a meeting and merging of neural pathways…

We are walking a fine line. The sin of materialism is to say love is nothing but the meeting and merging of neural pathways, i.e. ultimately it is dust, the stuff we see these neurons continually break down into. And to believe that the present storm of neural inputs--as our contemporary way of being human--is all there is, that would be and is apocalyptic. The materialism of Dolce and Gabbano, Goldmann Sachs, Rover and Jaguar, any of those names to conjure with, becomes actually very “spiritual”. It leaps up, desire over desire, building its city in the sky without any dust at all, until finally the bubble it creates must and does explode...

Yet at the same time the deep provocative materialism of the gospel remains. Christians call Jesus God because in our very human meeting and merging with Jesus we find an infinite love. And the abstract teaching of “hypostatic union” means that “God” (big G) at some point is marvelously and truly the same thing as Jesus’ neural pathways. For what other sense of “person” is there for a human being than the one we find fluxing, growing and relating to others along those neural routes? (It’s worth pointing out that the discussions of the first centuries decisively rejected the notion that the divine “bit” of Jesus replaced or displaced the human “soul”, i.e. the Greek-style immortal essence. Instead they invented the new relational category of “person” to describe the identity of Jesus and the eternal Word. So you don’t have to look further than Jesus’ neurons to find the second person of the Trinity. Which means also that God him/herself copies those human neurons relationally: “He who has seen me has seen the Father”.)

All of which ups the ante enormously for confessional Christianity. It can no longer be a matter of getting folks’ passports properly stamped for a final exit from here to the heavenly spirit-world. Rather it’s a matter of following the human situation to its radical and wonderful consequences in and through Christ. This is a materialism with a very different turn from the various philosophical or consumer materialisms. In fact you could flip the whole thing on its head and say that Marxism and Darwinism, as well as Madison Avenue, are just false starts and/or distortions of the root materialism of Christian thought and existence. None of these versions of reality could flourish if not against the background of radically materialist Christian culture. All of which leads me to say the only real enemy of Christianity is Christianity itself—either it dissipates itself in various idealist Greek displacements, rather than go the whole way with its materialism, or it blows itself up in fundamentalist violence because its materialism is just so demanding.

We are called in Jesus to turn our neural pathways into the endless torrent of divine love. As the Psalmist says: deep calls to deep in the roar of many waters. The depths of God are not ours to conceive in some hokey Greek essentialist way. But they are ours to meet and merge with in the depths of our amazing Christ-nerved humanity.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence