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