An Excess of Evil: The Way Beyond Obscene Law and Religion

Huck Finn knows for sure his soul is damned to hell should he choose to help the runaway slave Jim. He pens a letter to Miss Watson (Jim’s “rightful owner”), explaining where Jim is and figures in this way to save his soul. Then he begins to have second thoughts about the two of them “a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing” and he weakens in what he knows is his Christian duty. As he examines the letter he knows he must choose forever between two things: heaven and hell. He pauses for a minute, then declares “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” and tears the letter to pieces. Helping Jim means a betrayal of the society of Hannibal, a betrayal of the law, and ultimately a scorning of his religious duty.

Adolph Eichmann, in defending his organization of deportation of Jews to the death camps, explained he was simply obeying orders and following the law. He appeals to the Kantian categorical imperative (“Act only on the maxim that you would will it become universal law”). He argued, that no one could argue that law breaking or disobeying orders should become universal. Therefore, he was compelled to do his duty so as to uphold universal morality. Huck is the creation of a quite imaginative intellect which recognized that rules, religion, and convention do not necessarily prescribe what is good. Huck defies the universal convention in order to do what he feels to be the right thing while Eichmann obeys that convention.

The evil of Eichmann is captured in Hannah Arendt’s depiction of a man who lacked imagination or simply the capacity to think. His thought and his life were completely shaped by the norms and standards of his society so that in becoming a colorless bureaucrat he became radically evil. Arendt established links between a debased Kantianism and the co-operation of many of the German people with the implementing of the final solution. The liquidation of the Jews was viewed as “rational,” given that the objective was to secure a German power untainted by socialism and the influence of international commerce. As John Milbank points out, Nazi concepts of universal power and legality were compatible with, and even derived from, the Kantian categorical imperative. The Nazi affirmation of a Kantian notion of free will, and law derived from free will as their good, explains precisely how evil can become good. The presumption of a free will genuinely willing the good and codified into law is a relinquishing of the powers of discrimination.

In the oldest story of the Bible, Job is something of the Huck character writ large in that he would defy every known religious understanding to claim that justice is not immanent or contained within the world (or within the understanding of his friends). His friends, and they are in the beginning good friends in their willingness to sit alongside Job in his suffering, are Eichmann-like in their insistence that justice works within the norms and standards – the law – of the world. The friends of Job argue for an immanent justice (5:16; 11:12; 8:20; 5:2; 18:7; 5:12-14; 12:17) that eternalizes the world as it is. Theirs is the Kantian categorical imperative which would identify their understanding and will with the rational norms of the law.

For the friends of Job, for Eichmann, and for all that would provide a perfectly good reason for the existence of evil (a theodicy) there is no need for appeal to transcendent categories or to the possibility of a different sort of world. The present horizon of the world and the ability to enclose this world within human thought is not only adequate but existentially satisfying. Angst, uneasiness, sorrow, and evil itself, can be sealed off. The price: Job’s claim of innocence is blasphemy, Jim was born to be a slave, and doing one’s duty in regard to the Jews is necessary and even “satisfying.” Job’s friends do not need to identify with Job as he is clearly a blasphemer and they are satisfied in their own sense of righteousness. Huck, in his moment of weakness in which he decides to turn Jim in, has the momentary comfort of knowing his soul will go to heaven. Eichmann claimed that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”

Living within the domain of the law is intellectually satisfying as the worst evil can be accounted for and it is existentially satisfying as it separates one out, as a law-keeper or even law-enforcer, from those who experience evil. The pure pleasure on the face of the one terminating our employment, the camp guard delighting in his work of torture and death, the eager willingness to inflict “due punishment,” points to the “satisfaction” of serving the (underside of the) law. The mafia don is not burdened with the murders he is “forced to carry out” nor are politicos usually conscience stricken with the killing of innocents – legal murder or “righteous slaughter” is the ultimate exercise of power. Lonnie Athens has coined the phrase, describing the explanation of those imprisoned for murder. He reports that the killers describe the feeling that killing was a necessity and that they were simply obeying the dictates of righteousness. Lamech, in Genesis, describes himself as the embodiment of the law and presumes to enact the vengeance of God promised to Cain. Lamech puts on display the notion of a law immediately enacted within himself, a “righteous slaughter,” which is the presumption of the murderous generation of Noah. Righteous slaughter describes the deep satisfaction of those who have inured themselves to killing, those who have learned to enjoy their work (as soldiers, politicos, or enforcers of righteousness), those who have completely identified with the purposes of the state, the purposes of the mob, or who presume to embody the avenging power of the law. The problem, as Paul explains, is not with the law but with our orientation to the law.

Theodicies and law-keeping point to a deep psychological tendency to find refuge in law, morality, and religion as the means of justifying the most radical evil. The lawless men who killed Christ were precisely those who were the law keepers and enforcers of the law. As the psychoanalyst, Scott Peck, points out in his dealings with what he considered to be those among his patients who had given themselves completely over to evil – they tend to be the most religious and those who have achieved leadership in religious institutions. It was, after all, the religious and political leaders who presumed to murder Jesus. Likewise, Paul describes himself as simultaneously faultless with regard to the law, a leader among the Pharisees, zealous for the law, and the chief of sinners. History is, as Hegel informs us, a “slaughter-bench” in which the divine purposes are fully worked out. “Yes, there is what might be called evil, but it is just enough for its perpetrators, its power brokers, to contain it within a law in which it is the means of bringing about a greater good.”

For Job, Huck (or Samuel Clemens), and the survivors of the holocaust, there is an excess of evil in the world. This excess of evil indicates that the world does not carry within itself its own legitimacy. The friends of Job want to account for everything according to the working of the righteous requirements of the law. What they cannot forgive, in Philip Nemo’s description, is Job’s illness, which projects the image of their own imminent demise into plain view. The law separates them from those so afflicted – those sinners – who clearly had it coming. Their world is a system or economy in which they stand within the protection of the law. For Job, as for all who have experienced evil or who have sympathized with those who do, this law is in tatters. There is the realization of an excess of evil which can in no way be accounted for by some explanation, theory, or law.

If the Word of God is to be heard or the presence of God is to be understood it will be a word heard and a presence felt in this clearing that opens up within the being of the soul in its encounter with evil. Those who mourn, those who weep, those burdened by fear and anxiety, are put in pursuit of a truth built upon the presumption that “normal life” and the order of the world is made possible by the error of obliviousness to evil. With Job, who hoped for happiness the reality of sorrow overcomes (30:26). Though we may look for the light darkness prevails. The numb disconnectedness that ensues in mourning, in the wake of tragedy, or subsequent to the betrayal of those we counted as friends, is an unendurable truth.

To fail to weep or to feel the sorrow of those that weep is to be the cause of weeping. To fail to recognize the darkness is to be at its source. The encounter with evil forever separates the perpetrators of the lie and laws of normalcy from their victims. Those who would sustain the laws of normalcy take it as obvious that one man must die, that sacrifices are necessarily made, that some must be trodden on, that evil must be done that good will abound. Those sacrificed to sustain the lie are cast out of the city and their voice is annihilated, yet it is only beyond the pale that perspective is gained and their blood is heard to cry out.

Job records the earliest messianic prophecy as an extrapolation of one who stands in the clearing opened up by the encounter with evil: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on god. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). God is not found in the outworking of evil but is the go’el or advocate for those who lament due to evil. He is the one before whom tears are marked out as a plea (16:19-21).

To know good and evil – to be able to sort them out and balance the books – is to miss knowing God. It is precisely in being confronted with an evil beyond explanation or justification that the logic of the city, the culture, the frame of reference of this world is shattered. The encounter with evil should turn us from the comfort of the city and the gods and christs worshipped there to the one who was crucified outside of the city. The goodness of God is not to be found in a justification of evil but in the realization that evil is an insistence beyond reason, theory, and law. The clearing opened in our encounter with an excess of evil is the only way to the cross.

Reflections on the Stone/Campbell Conference and the Restoration Movement

The scholarly conference shared by the three branches of the Restoration Movement (from which I recently returned), The Stone-Campbell Conference, seems to reflect the character of the Restoration Movement (RM) itself. The weight of attention at the conference is not theological or philosophical (though the conference now boasts study groups involving both) but historical and, to a lesser degree, exegetical. Theological reflection built on the Campbells’ modernist/rationalist assumptions has found expression in theological liberalism and fundamentalism on the left and right, and perhaps in the middle the mega-churches (and those churches captured by the same ideology) are simply a reflection of the RM’s openness to evangelicalism, American pragmatism, and capitalism. None of these three choices (fundamentalism, theological liberalism, or evangelicalism) will presently accommodate the theological scholarship reflected, in a budding fashion, at the Conference. That is, the theological reflection that occurs does not do so as part of the inherent impetus of the theology of the RM (primitivism, restorationism, etc.), but in spite of that theology and the ideas entailed therein. Continue reading “Reflections on the Stone/Campbell Conference and the Restoration Movement”

The Anatomy of Violence

The problem of human violence is clearly a problem that begins within each of us. But I believe we can state it and describe it in a way stronger than this. As Subjects, we are constituted in a violence that is definitive of us. Violence is a necessity for us in an outward sense because our very nature is one that is fostered in a root antagonism that is necessary to our subjectivity. Continue reading “The Anatomy of Violence”

If the Proof is in the Pudding, Where Is the Christian Pudding? Three Proofs of Christianity

In the work of Thomas Kuhn (allegedly) and taken up in a sort of broad, unquestioning way in what is called postmodernism is the notion of incommensurateness. Given a certain culture or language, a certain paradigm, a particular worldview, is it not the case that the experience, the theory, or the reality of one set of persons is beyond the ability or capacity of another set of persons to grasp? In fact, isn’t that precisely the claim of Christianity? Those outside of the faith cannot know, understand, or grasp, what it is that those who are part of the faith have. The good postmodern would just point out that this is always the case with human religions and human experience. Where the modernist would appeal to proofs of evidence and apologetic arguments the postmodernist maintains that all these proofs and evidence are based on a shared metanarrative that is in no way an established (or common sense) notion of reality. The tendency has been to fall back on one’s personal experience or personal testimony as the most compelling Christian proof in this postmodern age. We seem to be caught in a closed circle in which someone on the outside cannot penetrate the circle as there is no continuity with the truth that they hold or the world that they live in? One inside the circle is simply asked to believe and obey without anything lying outside this circle of belief and obedience (a ghetto of belief is the charge leveled at Karl Barth). This is a rather depressing conclusion which I believe can be improved upon through the Johannine understanding of proof or testimony. Continue reading “If the Proof is in the Pudding, Where Is the Christian Pudding? Three Proofs of Christianity”

Denial of the Sickness Unto Death as Definitive of Sin

Before Freud and Lacan, Søren Kierkegaard (SK) provided us with a depth psychology which exceeds secular psychoanalysis in both its powers of diagnosis and its prescription of a cure. SK arrives at a definition of sin which Lacan recognizes is the precursor to his own theory focused on the dynamics of a lie. In Lacanian theory the Subject can only exist under the dynamic (antagonistic) interplay of the symbolic (language or the law) and the ego. The real or the death drive, which describes the inherent alienation of these two realms, is something like the continual negation of a lie as part of the constitution of human subjectivity. There is no dispelling the lie in Lacanian theory as the Subject literally depends upon this deception for existence. SK offers an alternative understanding to the infinite negativity of deception. Continue reading “Denial of the Sickness Unto Death as Definitive of Sin”

Walking Theology

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. ~Søren Kierkegaard

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Walking Theology”

The Cross as Spectacle or Model

Idolatrous religion, by definition, is focused on an image and is made for the eyes. In Buddhism, the size and sheer spectacle of the religion is key. We lived near the world’s largest Buddha in Japan– one you can walk in and which even has public toilets (in the Buddha). The power of the religion is to be felt in its visual presentation – bigger is better as the intent is to overwhelm the visual field. Idolatrous religion feeds what the psychotherapist, Jacques Lacan, calls “scopophilia.” The love of looking is definitive of a form of human subjectivity in which the libido or desire is set upon attaining an object in the visual field. The idolatrous and the pornographic play the same role in holding out a lure or object which can only heighten desire in the looking and can never satisfy it. Idolatrous religion, in its employment of the phallic symbol (or in Japan what is literally a “penis idol”) points directly to sexual empowerment. The sexual, though, in idolatrous religion, as in human desire, is a vehicle of a more basic desire which is the driving force constituting a form of subjectivity. Continue reading “The Cross as Spectacle or Model”

An Unlikely Protagonist: The “Other” as Savior by Tyler Sims

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Prelude: The Blindfold Removed

The world is deceived. You can see it from corrupt fiscal systems to a new rise in nationalism. Recently, my immigrant friends in NYC had their world turned upside down by the travel ban. Simultaneously, some conservative Christian friends felt their world become safe again. There are many examples of communities and individuals set against one another and unwittingly against themselves. A systemic lie has infused itself into our world and into our lives. In this blog, I will share how an Iranian Muslim played an important role in my own delivery from this pervasive lie. But first let us look at an important question.

What initial step will woo us from the systemic lie?

A lie which envelopes our world and taints our ontology must first be introduced to its captives. The blindfold needs removal. Romans 7 provides a description of how the lie functions in individuals. It is as pervasive as the air people breathe. A simple message is spread: “I” can be God and or “we” can be God.

Self-Actualization is just around the corner; progressivism’s utopia is nigh. I am just one more accomplishment away. We are just one more policy from victory. My self is nearly forced into submission. The victims are close to delivery and we have silenced the others.

I will save myself. We will save ourselves.

“I” will find peace in power, states the man willing himself to change. “We” will find peace in silence, chants the group tired of objections. If “we” silence the others, dissonance will be gone, and the harmony of isolation achieved.

At this point the collective “we” has taken up the same painful agonistic struggle of the isolated “I” as both the deceived individual and the collective “we” seek the same goal. The goal is to silence the cries of injustice or difference and to speak their own preferred reality into existence.

The lie generates alienation from God and others. It creates isolation from self and instills an empty silence from which only emptier vessels are propagated.

It comes to its zenith in the form of genocides, xenophobia, wealth hoarding and more. Through individual lips it speaks, “I don’t need you.” Through a plentitude of lips it speaks, “we don’t need them.” Both of which imply none of us need God. We begin to believe in “speaking” a superior world into being. I, or we, can be God, creators of our own safety and power.

How do we overcome the subtle pervasiveness of this lie?

Certainly, being aware is helpful. But its deception is so systemic, so cunning, we need more than intellectual understanding. We need our intellect to bring us to practice.

If the “I” is damned by its own isolation and the collective “we” is damned by its willing alienation, then the surprising savior of those deceived is, in fact, the “other.”

It is only in a face to face meeting with the other that a person (the “I”), might see his reflection as through a mirror provided by the different other. The group of an alienated “we” loses its appeal. No longer bound to homogeneity, the adjusted reality includes the “I” and the other.

Acknowledgment of the other by necessity requires either reconciliation or annihilation.

Enticed individuals and groups believe in an ability to speak forth reality as God does. It is exactly the presence of the other which disturbs the fantastical ambitions of the “I” or the alienated “we.” A choice must be made about this disruptive other, annihilation or reconciliation?

Through inviting the disruptive other into the alienated “we” it is possible for the group to begin reconciling with the other, begin its escape from systemic deceit and thereby find reconciliation with God’s larger reality.

How exactly does the “other” play into our salvation from the lie?

The following story describes how an Iranian “other” functioned first as a disruptive other and then as a savior–a liberator. In this story, the reader will be introduced to a practice which effectively delivers us from the systemic lie of this world.

Practicing it is nearly impossible if you have not met the other, made eye contact with and talked to the other. Experiencing truth syphons the lie from your own perception of reality. Meeting a wider reality in the flesh is disturbing. Truth’s efficacy is not in remote words but in an intelligible encounter with the other. This story describes how I met face to face with the other and in that meeting discovered an age old salvific practice.

The Story: Roopya my Iranian-Muslim friend and disruptive other

Roopya is from Iran. He is a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at Columbia University and thinks of himself as a nominal Muslim. When I first met Roopya at a Manhattan library in 2014, I understood him to be a Muslim student from the foreboding country of Iran and in need of English speaking instruction. In my mind, Roopya needed to enter Jesus’ kingdom as soon as possible.

Two months later my primary understanding of Roopya was not as a Muslim student in need of immediate salvation but simply as my Muslim friend. In fact, his otherness quickly began to point to the log in my eye and the deception within my small world.

For example, Roorya seemed to be content with his life in Iran and optimistic about Iran’s future. I commented, “Iran doesn’t sound half bad from what you say. But I have grown up hearing Iran is a country bent toward ill will and other negative things.”

Roopya shared with me, “In my country we are taught to fear America and told that when our nuclear scientists are killed America is behind the killings.”

My country’s paranoia and propaganda in view of his country’s propaganda created a profound mirror for reflection.

Roopya became for me the disturbing other messing up my picture of reality. This new image included Roopya within my reality. It beckoned me to either adjust and make room for the “other” or steep my mind in further deceit, denial and acquiescence to the world’s violence. If I chose denial, I would be choosing to opt into the systemic lie, believing I could create an alternative world with no other.

Roopya’s life would not allow me to easily step back into the lie. Meeting Roopya–a kind, goofy and intelligent young man–challenged me to accept the reality of an other who was much more than an Iranian, Muslim or elite academic. This other was a person, who shares many dreams, hopes and desires that I do. He is an other who loves a whole host of people in Iran on the other side of the world.

Roopya My Brother

Early in 2015 my friendship with Roopya brought more changes. He had simply become my brother. All Identity markers were gone. My fixation on bringing Roopya to Christ was gone. Roopya’s distinct otherness had broken into my own chamber of silence, where I would speak to myself, or among like-minded people, about my ailments and the maladies of the world–an image akin to Romans 7. It is an image devoid of intelligible conversation for it is in denial of God’s wider reality. But Roopya’s distinct presence shattered the monolithic culture of small town America in which I had dwelt for so long.

Roopya’s bare personhood injected new colors, people, words and thought into my reality. The new things required me to reconstruct my comprehension of reality. My old reality understood people need Christ, aid and love. But the terms and language of that reality was set for me by middle class American and evangelical Christianity. My new friendship forced me to reconcile this reality with a reality which understood Iranians as decent people, not merely a nation on a map.

In this new reality, U.S.A. sanctions on Iran could result in unjust hardship or despair for my Iranian friend.

In this new reality, Muslim Iranians uphold the commandment to respect the elderly at a much higher level than the average American Christian.

In this new reality, Muslims are thought of as people first and their religious life is defined as they describe it on their terms— not by a world religions class.

In this new reality, some Muslims lead lives of integrity far outpacing the integrity of American Christians.

Roopya as Deliverer

In this new reality, the other became a functional savior.

The other saved me through breaking the barriers of ignorance and paternalistic self-righteousness.

The other saved and humbled me by demonstrating a level of dignity I thought only possible among Christians.

The other saved me by teaching me to love a diverse world of people and cultures.

The other saved me by asking me to hear the cries and laughter of the wider world.

Indeed, it was the other who acted as a clear mirror by which to see myself and a clearer lens by which to see reality. I knew a lot of others while living in NYC. The others originated from Yemen, Iran, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and China.

Every one of those others had funny stories to tell and family whom they cherished deeply. They also had fears, desire for safety and belonging. Most of them disliked a certain group of people. Overall, their virtues outweighed their vices and even more important their virtues found deep resonance within my own heart.

Originally, I went to the other with the gospel of Jesus out of a desire to serve and with a sense of duty. But I was gifted with a grateful heart for the liberation I received…at the hands of the other. The liberation to see myself in the context of a global world as opposed to homogenous suburban America. The liberation to step closer into the wide world of people whom Christ loves. The liberation to see that in the other–despite all of his vast differences– I see myself, and in that fleeting union I see clearly for the first time the way of Christ.

Roopya’s example demonstrates how liberation occurs. When Roopya’s identity markers became no more than incidental, something happened: he became my brother. And as we learned to embrace one another we each became increasingly aware of the wider world, increasingly complete and increasingly human.

Embracing the Other as Savior

We participated in the practice which clears away the systemic deceit of this world. The deceit which says “we” are God and by necessity there is an excluded other. What did Roopya and I practice? We practiced: embracing the other.

As I embraced the other it was the difficult exercise of embracing Roopya that made true gospel sharing possible. I learned to see him as he was and not as I perceived him to be. I was forced to be reconciled with our differences.

Even more so, I had to reconcile with our similarities. Only when I saw myself in his eyes could I begin sharing good news. In other words, only when I could see him as nothing more or less than an equal person could I offer Him the peace of Christ.

Through humbly embracing Roopya as a person, I simultaneously embraced Roopya and Jesus’ cross. Roopya’s witness, his otherness, drew out my own darkness and embracing him meant embracing my personal need to take up the cross anew. When I embraced Roopya, Christ embraced me in return.

Conversely, my otherness provided Roopya with the challenge of including a Christ follower in his perception of reality. He had to account for my faith and desire to love “others” in the name of Jesus.

Herein lay salvation from the systemic lie: we must all, personally and collectively embrace the other as Jesus did. Christ did so to the point of the cross, nonviolently bearing the gulf between the other and in his subsequent resurrection Christ provided a new way.

Embracing the other must happen in real space and time and on a name to name, face to face basis. Only then will the heavy fog of systemic deception begin its retreat from our lives and communities.

For Roopya and myself embracing each other created a peaceful and safe environment by which Roopya could consider Christ as savior. The Christ who commands us to love the other.

Perhaps, not so we can “save” the other but so that by loving our enemy we might be saved.

(Dr. Paul Axton, Mirslov Volf and work with Global City Mission Initiative all deserve credit for influencing the ideas in this blog.)

Learning to Breathe: Is Your Religion Making You Sick?

John Cheyne writes of epidemics of insanity among Christians desiring to be more holy. Obsession with sin, blasphemy, and fear that one had somehow committed the unpardonable sin has been a prime cause of insanity.1 Pietistic melancholy, Methodist quests for perfection ending in mental breakdown, narratives of lives revolving in and out of asylums due to the disease of religion, seem to point to a literal aggravation of the human disease rather than healing. Scott Peck’s advice to many of his patients, though he was a Christian, was to shed their religion as it was making them sick. Continue reading “Learning to Breathe: Is Your Religion Making You Sick?”

Salvation as Assurance Not Insurance

Disease is sometimes best diagnosed in its exaggerated or most prominent form. Jesus healed the blind to illustrate the universal predicament of blindness, which he could cure. Freud worked with severe hysterics and neurotics presuming they manifest a universal problem. They were often those wealthy enough to take the time and money to pay for diagnosis and recognition of their ailment. Today’s super-rich, likewise, display the dis-ease of the time as they have enough disposable income to address their deepest fears. The January issue of the “New Yorker” traces the movement of survivalism, from the odd ball individualists holed up in Alaska, to the super-rich among technology executives and hedge-fund managers. One of their number estimates that some 50% of this group are preparing for a potential apocalypse. These centi-millionaires and billionaires portray an exaggerated form of the universal disease. They describe the fear – or “sheer terror” – of being left without basic necessities should American culture break down. They exhibit a basic fear, which due to their vast wealth allows them to act on these fears. Continue reading “Salvation as Assurance Not Insurance”