November 21, 2013 / Theology
Contemporary art maintains a provocative fascination with the body, and in recent years several key artists have explored the body’s place in the Christian tradition to disquieting ends.
November 25, 2008
Amid the winter snows of January, 1776, a journeyman printer and sometime pamphleteer named Thomas Paine took it upon himself to change the political direction of the American colonies. A relative newcomer to New England, Paine had quickly become sensitive to the basic complaints of the colonists against the mother country, and he had gradually discerned the underlying tensions that had brought the relationship to a deadlock. Two years earlier the First Continental Congress had sent a declaration to Parliament demanding that the Intolerable Acts be rescinded. Yet in that very same document, they had implicitly declared their fundamental loyalty to the British throne by making the limited demand that their rights as Englishmen be respected. Paine saw that the situation was untenable as long as the colonists wanted to be both free from and subject to England at the same time. So he wrote “Common Sense,” a pamphlet in which he went to the root of the matter by skillfully explaining why monarchical rule—something that most of the colonists considered unchangeable—was in fact an absurd imposture that they could not dispose of quickly enough. Six months later the Declaration of Independence was signed.
In the late 1840s, a wild-eyed and slightly deranged man named John Brown felt compelled by his basic Christian convictions to do something about slavery. He had watched while the country equivocated on the issue, making compromise after compromise, until it became obvious that no fundamental changes would occur unless someone forced the issue. So he raised a small army and marched through Kansas, killing slaveholders wherever he found them. He then broadened his scope and attacked a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. It was here that he was finally arrested and stopped before he could implement his plan to invade the slaveholding South. Just a few years after John Brown’s public execution, of course, the North staged their own version of his planned invasion, and the greatest public figure of the era declared that “A nation could not long endure, half-slave and half-free,” having come somewhat late to a sentiment that John Brown had clearly articulated through his actions years before.
Nearly one hundred years later, a group of poets, artists, and working class men and women in San Francisco began to meet regularly to discuss the slightly taboo subject of anarchism. Guided by the vast intellectual reach of a poet and former conscientious objector named Kenneth Rexroth, they decided to set themselves against the development of the military-industrial state, and they tried to imagine what a world without competing capitalist nations would be like. Living among immigrant Buddhists, surrounded by the wilderness of the Sierras, and inspired by Native-American ways of living, they also talked about what it would look like to dwell in constant natural harmony with the environment and with each other. Their discussions and attendant cultural activities set the stage for the arrival of Allen Ginsberg and the beats in San Francisco a few years later, which helped to set into motion the counterculture of the 1960s. This countercultural upwelling, which centered on the peace and ecological movements, is still reverberating in every radical-progressive group that is active in America today.
Around the same time, but in a different part of the country, Martin Luther King Jr. took advantage of Rosa Parks’s symbolic act of civil disobedience and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, initiating a movement of mass civil disobedience that ultimately led to the end of Jim Crow in the South. King, inspired by Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, engaged in a new style of politics called nonviolent resistance; he got to the root of the political deadlock over segregation more effectively than any politician or judge ever could. Echoing the words of the Old Testament prophets, King took a moral ax to the roots of systemic injustice and thus brought about the real end to the Civil War. Before King, the end of segregation was politically unimaginable; after him, official segregation was absolutely unacceptable.
Since the inception of the nation, American political thought and practice have been influenced by three main complexes of ideas. Two of these ideas have been dominant in that they have underwritten most of the implicitly acceptable modes of political behavior in America; yet a third idea has arisen at crucial times to bring about necessary, fundamental changes.
The first of these ideas is Christian nationalism. Ever since John Winthrop bound together a disparate group of settlers aboard the Arbella in 1630 with his statement that the new world would be a “city upon a hill,” that is, the new Zion, Americans have tended to believe that they enjoy a special covenantal relationship with Yahweh. That belief has centered on the idea that God would bless America if it upheld his righteousness and (eventually) exported his righteousness to the rest of the world. Contrarily, God would punish America if it failed to keep the social compact. Although this idea has been associated most prominently with the Christian Right over the last thirty years, its lineage has provided the basis for almost every political ideology that has gained prominence in American culture over the last three hundred years or so. That is to say, American politics has never been entirely secular.
The first test of Christian nationalism came in the 1630s when Winthrop felt he had to banish Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson from Massachusetts in order to keep the covenant intact. In doing so, Winthrop set a precedent by which God’s will for the commonwealth was to be interpreted as being based on a covenant that did not countenance radical change. Mere individuals or minority groups could not voice the will of God, therefore, because the acceptance of this possibility would open the door to social upheaval. Winthrop, indeed, could not fathom a God who would act in such a disorderly way. Thus, the American ideological alignment of Godliness and order would forevermore override the spiritual convictions of individuals or minority groups who took up a prophetic stance. In other words, the Jeremiah Wrights of the world would not be tolerated by official public opinion in Christian America.
The second complex of ideas was derived from Enlightenment liberalism. Such enlightenment concepts as individual rights, equality, republicanism, and rule of law are strongly represented in America’s founding documents, and they are the ideas that are most strongly supported by America’s public institutions. This means that the structures of American political life are profoundly secular, though of course the “secular” ideas of the Enlightenment would probably not have been conceivable had Europe not already been rooted in a basically Christian worldview. Secularism’s Christian roots thus made it possible for these enlightenment principles to become intermingled in America with the idea that the nation was a divinely chosen land (and later, empire), and this intermingling produced the basis for our civil religion, which sees God’s will expressed in America’s founding documents and its dominant institutions. The fact that Christian scripture and Enlightenment principles are not always a perfect fit has not stopped most Americans from believing in their basic consanguinity; and furthermore, it has not stopped Americans from believing that their foreign policy, wars, and economic system are somehow founded upon God’s will.
Therefore, the belief that Christianity and Enlightenment institutions are reconcilable has been essential to maintaining a rough degree of political consensus in America over the last two hundred years. Americans may disagree about how political institutions should be managed, but we do not use our faith perspectives to question their basic legitimacy. And this is just how the founders wanted it. They hoped to create a system that would be durable because of its ability to accommodate differences in opinion. However, this flexibility was also meant to keep those differences of opinion from escalating into conflicts that challenged the basic framework itself. The potential for matters of religion to become overheated made it especially necessary for spiritual issues to be privatized and subsumed under the overall governing principles that had been derived from the Enlightenment and concretized in America’s institutions. In other words, religious dissenters, though protected by the Enlightenment notion of tolerance, would be overreaching if they worked to undermine the dominant institutions that secured their “spiritual freedom,” even if their private spiritual opinions led them to question the fundamental structures. And so, American Christians on both the Right and the Left have generally supported the implicit limit to their political activities that is inscribed into the dominant systems, and they have tended to work toward a more righteous use of the ruling systems instead of questioning the systems themselves.
The third main idea that has animated American political practice is the idea (and ideal) of anarchism. Not all who have used anarchist principles have called themselves anarchists, but as elucidated by the examples of Thomas Paine, John Brown, and Martin Luther King Jr., this perspective sees institutions and systems as overly determined by an underlying impulse to avoid radical change. Thus, anarchism sees entrenched institutions as the main hindrance to fundamental change. In fact, contrary to the popular understanding of anarchism, which sees anarchists as violent, anarchists have usually tried to expose the ways in which institutions use violence (of various kinds) to perpetuate their own status and sphere of influence. This perspective has therefore been the primary instigator of social and political change in America, from the Revolution up through abolitionism and the Civil Rights movement.
I have only touched on the most successful examples of how society has been changed by people who challenged the fundamental authorities and structures of the land. There have been multiple times, during the Gilded Age and Depression era most notably, when anarchist ideas have struck at the basic legitimacy of America’s legal, military, and economic institutions (or systems of control) only to be ruthlessly suppressed by the government or corporate power. These seldom told tales are important because they point to an underlying, continual resistance, a basic anarchist impulse in American society that surfaces when the broader society is caught in an impasse due to the ways in which the political sphere has been circumscribed by the dominant systems.
Anarchism’s modern meaning was articulated by William Godwin in the late eighteenth century when he described anarchism as a political stance that valued the interests of the individual over the interests of the state, private property, and established church. Furthermore, in Godwin’s initial formulation, anarchism was primarily a critical intellectual stance and not a program for action. But because of a few scattered instances when people calling themselves anarchists have been involved in assassinations and bombings, the word has been predominately associated in the public mind with violence, mayhem, and unrest. And it hasn’t helped that governments have consistently portrayed anarchists as violent troublemakers.
However, those groups who have acted or spoken in sympathy with the main anarchist tradition have almost always advocated pacifism, education, and the noncoercive development of the organic social body. If anarchism has a dangerous edge (at least in the minds of the ruling authorities and systems), it is to be found in its unrelenting critique of modern systems of control and their pernicious effects upon individuals and communities. The idea that anarchists are enemies of social peace is therefore only true in the sense that they are opposed to the peace that is imposed through an underlying systemic violence to which the population has become inured.
To clarify, people who have aligned themselves with the anarchist critique have historically arrayed themselves against the militarized state, capitalist means of production, organized religion, and the legal structures that uphold these entities. Anarchists have opposed these systems and institutions because, according to anarchists, each takes advantage (for their own benefit) of basic existential anxieties that are shared by all people; these systems exercise a determinative role in shaping of society, and individuals are pressured in all sorts of ways to implicitly accept that these systems provide the only means of organizing and securing their social existence. However, the anarchist critique contends that individuals have the means to organize themselves apart from such institutions, and that it is not necessary to relinquish basic liberties and social potentialities that the state, private property, and organized religion foreclose. Furthermore, anarchism calls for a politics (or method of organizing society) that does not depend on the ultimate use of violence or propaganda. It is based on the belief that people can cooperate socially apart from coercion, and it also suggests that individuals find identities that contain the greatest amount of meaning and purpose only within the freely organized social body.
Over the years, anarchists in America have primarily aligned themselves with the main thrust of the historical anarchist critique, but there are some interesting variations. For example, American anarchists have not generally been as stridently atheist as European anarchists, and American anarchists have drawn inspiration from Native American ways of living with the environment and with each other. Also, Americans have a founding generation to look back to that was made up of men who were not that far from the anarchist perspective themselves. Indeed, any study of the founders’ motives would show that they enshrined Enlightenment principles in America’s basic documents not in order to create the basis for expanding institutions, but to allow for the maximum amount of self-government within a limited set of institutions. Americans often forget that their first leaders were radical intellectuals and not, for the most part, pious churchmen. Recovering this fact might make it easier for Americans to accept what I think needs to be done in our present environment, which is to engage in a critical reexamination, and re-politicization, of all of our institutions.
America seems ripe at this time in our national life for a revival of the anarchist critique on a wider scale than it has ever countenanced before. Whereas the interweaving of Christian nationalism and Enlightenment liberalism has dominated American politics since its founding, I think we are witnessing today the unraveling of that ideological complex that has supported our political life for a dozen generations. The polarization of the electorate into red and blue states, much discussed since the 2004 election, is perhaps obscuring an even more salient fact, which is that the majority of Christians who are politically active seem to have loosened their basic civic allegiance to Enlightenment liberalism (and not just the Liberalism of “pointy-headed intellectuals”). The nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate for president and the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential nominee have brought even deeper divides into the open, so that now, instead of arguing about who is better suited to manage our dominant institutions, people on both sides are increasingly beginning to express estrangement from our institutions altogether.
On the Right, there seems to be a withdrawal into a type of Christian nationalism that verges on paganism and that deploys words like freedom in ways that have nothing to do with Locke and Rousseau. I am using the word paganism here to refer to this basic reversion to pre-Enlightenment impulses as well as to Slavoj Žižek’s description of paganism, in his book The Fragile Absolute, as an allegiance to an “ethnic” group (or “community of the same”) that puts the imperatives of the group above the universalizing command to love one’s neighbor.1
On the other hand, the Left’s general secularism has cut it off from one of the primary rejuvenating forces in American politics, the Christian nationalistic viewpoint that America has an essential and divine role to play in the world. Its absolute severing of this relationship between religion and politics has caused it to retreat into solipsistic theorizing that is often very interesting but that doesn’t offer much in terms of practical day-to-day politics.
However, if the historical conjunction between Christian nationalism and Enlightenment liberalism, which has sustained American political life for generations, is breaking down, there is always the possibility that those who are alienated from both the theocratic tendencies of the Right and the secular impotencies of the Left can find a new political impulse in the (surprisingly natural) alignment of Christianity and the anarchist critique. To give just one example of this natural alignment, both Christians and anarchists believe that ultimate authority is not to be found in any human system and that human organizations have a Babel-like tendency to become anxiously invested in their own perpetuation and to react violently toward those who threaten them. Therefore, both Christians and anarchists should never foreclose the possibility of fundamentally changing those systems if they threaten important values. From a Christian perspective, systems based on greed and fear are faithless; from the anarchist perspective, such systems are inegalitarian and a threat to individual liberties. A Christian anarchism that combines the two perspectives would thus act politically in ways that would resist and undermine systems of control based on anxiety, greed, and fear rather than on faith, hope, and love.
Christian anarchists would resist military-state-industrial complexes that pursue the chimerical goal of absolute security and the all-too-enticing goal of market (and profit) expansion. They would undermine financial systems that are fundamentally abstracted from the responsibilities of personal giving-and-receiving so that they are oriented toward the accumulation of wealth for its own sake. Economic systems of this sort have severed the term economic from its root, the Greek word oikos, which means living place and suggests an emphasis on caring about the ordering of households. And they would speak out against education systems that depend for their own existence on fulfilling market and institutional systematic demands for a certain type of student-product, thereby transforming education into a transition period for students into these systems of control.
But on a more fundamental level, the revival of Christian anarchism would open up the realm of politics to a public examination of a much wider range of issues than are possible in our current environment, an environment where the existence of certain systems have been naturalized and thus placed outside the realm of the political. A Christian anarchist perspective would explore the deeper reasons for our calamities, and it would be discontent with just managing the systems better, especially because the systems are starting to seem both unjust and unmanageable.
For instance, it is perhaps strangely appropriate that our current financial mess in America hit the fan at the height of the political season, because both situations are marked by an inability to ask fundamental questions about the systems that order our national life. The consensus opinion sees the crisis as the result of greed let loose by lax regulation. This is the easy answer, though, since it makes the problem and its solution both seem politically manageable. Thus, it should not be surprising that both parties have trumpeted the same approach, which is to lower the boom on the Wall Street fat cats who have been getting away with their sins because nobody has been looking. From now on, the candidates said, we will be watching closely to make sure that no one breaks the rules of the system. And in the meantime we will give them $700 billion to get the system working again.
However, the anarchist perspective, which is skeptical about the motives of the systems of control, might suggest that the current problems result from the system operating freely according to its own internal principles, and that all of those greedy fat cats were in fact playing the game beautifully, according to the implicit rules of the game’s structure. In other words, what we are seeing now is the actual face of Wall Street, a face that had been hidden for a while behind the mask of autoprophylactic regulations that were measured to allow the highly profitable system to not blow its cover. But now that its cover is blown, will a sufficient number of citizens recognize that fact and reflect about the bases of the system itself?
Of course, it will be difficult for this sort of perspective to take hold. The former president of the Christian university where I teach wrote several books about the evils of gambling, yet he never once talked about how our financial, capitalist system was based on millions of small and large bets, bets that have now come crashing down. He exemplified a type of critical blindness that we cannot afford right now. However, college presidents are one thing; presidents of the United States are quite another. Moral blindness in an academic doesn’t usually hurt too many people; moral blindness in the commander-in-chief can be deadly (as we have unfortunately seen over the last eight years). Therefore, it is not heartening to see both presidential candidates riding into town as the saviors of a capitalism that has never been more ruthless in its pursuit of markets, even in the days of the old imperialisms.
No, the anarchist perspective is relentlessly critical and clear-eyed about the ways in which society’s systems tend to order things for their own perpetuation, come what may. It is able to be so incisive because it adheres to some basic convictions that are consonant with the best aspects of both Christian nationalism and Enlightenment liberalism. The most fundamental of these convictions is an absolute respect for the inviolability of the individual. This is a conviction that correlates well with the Christian tenet of imago dei, or the idea that each person is created uniquely in the image of God. Political activities on this front might work toward ensuring that every man and woman is able to do creative work according to his or her giftedness within a social environment that is free from coercion. The inviolability of the individual is not just a fancy phrase for individualism, though, because both anarchism and Christianity believe that the individual is “individuated” only within a social matrix (or body of Christ) that benefits organically from each one’s faithfulness to the creative work they feel equipped (or called) to do.
Again, I don’t want to underestimate the barriers to a new alignment between American Christianity and the anarchist critique. On a minimal level, American Christians should allow the anarchist perspective to bring some corrective lenses to their own theology in order to show how it has been co-opted by the powers. For example, it might be necessary for American Christians to engage in a theological reexamination of the traditional dominant Augustinian doctrines of the Fall and original sin, which have often been used by religious institutions to keep their adherents in line and subservient to the governing powers. Indeed, a focus on sin and a concomitant skepticism about the ability to make things any better in the world has stifled a great deal of revolutionary potential among Christians down through history; and at least since Augustine, the doctrine has usually been interpreted in ways that have distorted whole cultures’ understanding of human sexuality, so that they have been burdened with distorted views of the possibilities inherent within love relationships. Thus, the most common and widely disseminated interpretations of the Augustinian view of the Fall have made Christians more likely to believe that social orderings can only occur with some degree of coercion.
Furthermore, a Christian embrace of anarchy would require a re-emphasis on the practical and communal nature of faith—on how it is an all-encompassing orientation toward the kingdom of God that never uses evil means to produce righteousness, an orientation that has no ultimate concern for self-perpetuation. Even the personal desire to escape hell, so often played upon by fundamentalist evangelists, is tinged with an existential anxiety that is contrary to the impulse of biblical faith. From this new anarchist perspective, biblical faith mainly manifests itself in a negative sense, arising when situations call for specific resistance to evils and injustices. It is not a sort of constant ontological state that concerns a person’s essence in such a way that someone can be called “a person of faith.” It is, rather, immanent in every opportunity to enact the gospel. It is not oriented toward ontological self-perpetuation, then, for the simple reason that it is only (re-)constituted in acts that proceed from imaginative hope and occasions of love.
And finally, in order to break the fateful compromise that has hindered Christians from judging their governing systems too harshly, there needs to be a repudiation of the duality between private goodness and public function. American Christians will need to realize there are no separate systems of morality for private and institutional life—at least of the type that enable institutions, governmental powers, or bureaucracies to deny moral culpability for actions that private individuals could never get away with. The claims for such discrepancies are based on moral obfuscation and bad theology. The Bible might at times seem like it is giving rulers the right to kill, steal, and destroy on the public’s behalf, but the greater weight of scripture tells us that leaders will, if anything, be held to an even higher moral standard because of the responsibility they have for society as a whole.
Even before the election was decided, we already knew a few things about the next president of the United States. First, we knew that he would be the commander of the world’s largest and most dangerous military state. Second, we knew that he would protect the interests of global capitalism with any means at his disposal. Third, we knew that he would implicitly present himself as the first bishop of the American civil religion—a religion that has always assumed that Christianity is the founding philosophy of American militarism and laissez-faire capitalism. But to go even further, we know that neither major political party will now seriously question the president’s current job description, making it obvious that the imperatives of the militarized and now hypercapitalized American state will disallow the procession of any fundamental changes from Washington itself.
What I have been suggesting is that it might be possible, however, for a radicalized Christian movement, which does not entirely reject either the best aspects of the Christian legacy or the best aspects of Enlightenment liberalism, to open up the political sphere to deeper levels of questioning and self-examination. Ideally, it might open things up to a whole new political imagination derived from the insight of that old Catholic anarchist, Kenneth Rexroth, who often liked to say that the present American society would crumble immediately if the tenets of the Sermon of the Mount were suddenly put into practice on a wide scale.2 I don’t know whether that is true, but it might be worthwhile to consider what it would mean if it were true, since it was, well, Jesus who gave the message.
At the very least, to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice on a wide scale would mean that the social and psychological foundations of our military state, capitalist system, and idolatrous civil religion would start to teeter. The Sermon’s emphasis on living without anxiety, caring for the welfare of your enemy, and seeking first the kingdom of God would all directly contradict the underpinnings of our dominant systems and institutions. And although most of us habitually find ways of reconciling the daily, visible impact of these systems with the integrity of our private spiritualities, it might be worthwhile to meditate upon what would happen if a majority of American Christians truly began to live without excessive concern for their temporal security. Wouldn’t it make the reach and power of our military-industrial complex suddenly seem a bit preposterous? And if a majority of American Christians suddenly began to put the material needs of others before their own, might it not make the capitalist mode of distributing Creation’s resources suddenly seem offensive? And finally, if the majority of American Christians began to seriously question the ways in which their faith had been co-opted by the interests of the state and the market, might they not suddenly find their “civil religion” to be an ugly perversion of biblical spirituality?
Honest answers to these questions might put us into a situation where we don’t know exactly what to do. But that’s OK. The point is to widen our imaginations enough so that we can honestly confront the questions in the first place.
Michael Van Dyke
Michael Van Dyke has taught at Bethany Bible College and Michigan State University, and he is currently an associate professor of humanities at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Opponent of the Nazi Regime (Barbour Books, 2001), and he is working on a book about the poet and social critic Kenneth Rexroth. During the Michigan State basketball season he will be officially unavailable for any communications from the outside world.