Love, Power and Violence in Hannah Arendt and Paul

Hannah Arendt arrives at a Christian insight that many Christians might find more believable or even recognizable from a political scientist and social theorist. A central teaching of the Bible, that the greatest power is the power of community, of communication, or of love, is easily passed over as a religious pablum which has to be acknowledged but without any real consequence. We all “know” that those who have the most weapons or the most material resources, are the real power brokers in society. Afterall, what is power except power over other people, the power of exploitation, the power of the master over his employees or slaves.

 “Power,” said Voltaire, “consists in making others act as I choose.” According to Max Weber, power is present wherever I have the chance “to assert my own will against the resistance” of others. He defines the power of war as “an act of violence to compel the opponent to do as we wish.” Robert Strausz-Hupe claims bluntly, power signifies “the power of man over man.”  C. Wright Mills equates violence, politics and power: “All politics is a struggle for power; the ultimate kind of power is violence.” Mao Tse-tung maintained, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Marx noted that power is “the organization of violence.” Bertrand de Jouvenel claims that the power of death or the power to make war is the very essence of the power of the state: “To him who contemplates the unfolding of the ages war presents itself as an activity of States which pertains to their essence.” As he describes it, “a man feels himself more of a man when he is imposing himself and making others the instruments of his will,” and this gives him “incomparable pleasure.” Elsewhere he says, “To command and to be obeyed: without that, there is no Power – with it no other attribute is needed for it to be …. The thing without which it cannot be: that essence is command.” Arendt concludes, that if the essence of power is the effectiveness of command, then there is no greater power than that which grows out of the barrel of a gun, and it would be difficult to say in “which way the order given by a policeman is different from that given by a gunman.”[1]

In short, power is the power of death and the one who controls and can mete out coercion and violent death, in this understanding, is the one with power. War and the capacity to make war is a primary ordering structure such that “war itself is the basic social system, within which other secondary modes of social organization conflict or conspire,” such that “economic systems, political philosophies, and corpora juris serve and extend the war system, not vice versa.” In this understanding, it is not just diplomacy and politics that are war by other means, but peace itself is war by other means.[2]  The peace of the cold war reckons with the reality that deterrence, larger and more powerful weapons of war ensure the peace, such that mutually assured destruction, or the constant threat of total war and annihilation is the only realistic peace.

It is not just the violence of war which ensures peace, but at a personal level there is a similar sort of subjection to the inevitable nature of struggle, chaos, and coercion. Humans seem to be born with an instinct of domination and aggressiveness. According to John Stuart Mill, there are two competing forces in the individual, “the desire to exercise power over others” and the “disinclination to have power exercised over themselves.” As Arendt, points out though, the will to power and the will to submission seem to be interconnected.[3] The security of slavery in Egypt is a very real temptation, certainly present in my experience in Japan, but present to some degree in every society. But perhaps the lengths to which the tyrant will go to maintain rule is the clearest marker of the limits of violence.

The Stalinist regime demonstrated that total domination based on terror cannot afford support, as the supporters and friends of totalitarianism threaten through the most subtle form of power; namely support and friendship. In the end it was the friends and supporters of Stalin who he saw as posing the greatest threat. “The climax of terror is reached when the police state begins to devour its own children, when yesterday’s executioner becomes today’s victim. And this is also the moment when power disappears entirely.”[4] Thus Arendt reaches her conclusion:

To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance. This implies that it is not correct to think of the opposite of violence as nonviolence; to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.[5] 

Nonviolence or the capacity for peace as means and end, is the very definition of power. The power of community, the power of communion, the power of consensus, the power of love, the power of democracy, all stand over and against the notion that violence is power. Violence contains no possibility of communion, other than the communion of the scapegoat, or the contradictory notion that the common enemy is the means of cohesion. Rene Girard’s depiction of the lie surrounding the scapegoat, or Peter Berger’s depiction of the social construction of reality, illustrates Arendt’s and the biblical point, that the deception surrounding death is the universal lie.  The fear of death, or the imagined capacity to manipulate and control death is the singular lie exposed by Christ.

Paul names this lie directly, and counters it with the truth of community: “Therefore, shedding the lie, let each one of you speak the truth to his neighbor, because we are one another’s corporal members” (Eph. 4:25, DBH). Dispelling the lie with the truth gets at the prime reality that we are “corporal members” of one another. This is the missing fact in the notion of equating power and violence. True power builds on the reality of mutual interdependence. Violence may gain a certain control but at the cost of this prime reality. The lie here is singular and seemingly universal in its import so that all of the darkness and deception may be tied to this singular deception. Paul ties it to the hostility or enmity unleashed by the Jewish law as expressed, first in Jewish and Gentile hostility, but then in a “futility” of mind which he equates with a hardened heart and darkened understanding (Eph. 4:17-19).

 As a result of the Gospel, “we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph 4:14–15). The cure points to the heart of the problem: “speaking the truth in love” displaces the lie (the deceitful scheming and the trickery of men) which serves dis-communion, hostility, and enmity. Paul continually links deception and alienation while also linking truth and love: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25). Being members of another is a truth, that by definition should result in the putting away of violent falsehood.

Another way of getting at this same truth is in Girard’s and Paul’s deployment of mimesis. Girard inadvertently displaces the primacy of mutual membership in one another (mimetic desire), and pictures it first of all as built upon a necessary violence and rivalry. If one person imitates another person’s desire, then their desire for the same thing results in rivalry and violence. Girard comes to his theory of the scapegoat beginning with violence, rivalry and sacrifice, and it is only later that he realizes in Christ there is a positive mimesis, and even in the development of his theory he explains mimesis in the context of rivalry and violence. Much like political theorists or social scientists who begin with the presumption of an original chaos and violence, here too the presumption on an individual level is that rivalry and violence are originary. But what if we were to reverse engineer what Girard is doing and put mimesis front and center not simply as a negative force, but as the shaping force in our lives.

Paul has his own theory of imitation and community which locates reality, not in violent rivalry but in the necessity of relationship and love. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1-2). To the rivalry prone lovers of hierarchy and false power in Corinth, Paul has a singular recommendation and resolution: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). The passage in full reads: “Give no offense [do not become a scandal] to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1). Paul understands the scandal and violence of mimetic rivalry, but this mechanism is undone in his recommendation: “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage.” Domination and coercion are set aside and with it the violence producing rivalry that is damnation itself. To be saved, is to imitate and commune in love.  

Paul warns against a “whoring acquisitiveness” (5:3) and likens the acquisitive man to an idolater (5:5), as one who has been deceived by “empty words” (5:5) and who lives in darkness (5:8). These things that are “hidden” are exposed by the light of Christ and now life reigns in place of death (5:14).

The conclusion of the chapter is a displacement of the mystery of sins alienating violence through a mutual submission to one another in one body: “’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:31-32). This communion and participation in a singular body is the power of peace that counters the lie of violence as power.

[1] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1969) 35-37.

[2] Arendt, 9.

[3] Arendt, 39-40.

[4] Arendt, 55.

[5] Arendt, 56.

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World: The Defeat of Evil as the Revealing of the Mystery

Paul describes Christ as revealing the mystery which has remained closed to every previous generation of humankind (Eph. 3:5). Matthew pictures Christ as fulfilling the words of the prophet: ”I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35). René Girard explains that this mystery hidden since the foundation of the world is the mystery of scapegoating, that which organized primitive culture and religion and which controlled violence. The violence unleashed on the innocent victim served to channel violence to a singular sacrifice (rather than unleashing violence of all against all) and it made of the scapegoat the sacred deliverer, delivering the sacrificers from whatever plague or sickness they imagined threatened. And as Girard explains, the scapegoat really did deliver from uncontrolled violence, and allowed the crops to be planted and the society to survive, rather than succumbing to all-out violence.

The efficacy of the scapegoat, however, depended on its true function being a compounded mystery. In the first instance, the innocence of the scapegoat is not a possibility that poses itself in the original murder, but then the murder itself is obscured as the myth of the scapegoat as a sacred deliverer hides the murder. Those who kill the scapegoat do not know what they are doing, first in the blind rage in which they kill the scapegoat and then in the myth which hides the murder. The killers are blind (they are doing it but obscuring the fact) to the murder and then to the sacralization of the innocent victim. The end of the story, in Girard’s telling, is that the innocent victim Jesus, speaks for the oppressed scapegoat and reveals the scapegoating mechanism as that which stands behind all sacrificial religion, and he makes impossible the mystery, that up to his exposing it, stood at the center of religion and society.

Girard’s theory, for many, provides a complete theory of the atonement and an omnicompetent explanation of the work of Christ. Whether Girard saw it that way may be beside the point, but it is no critique of his theory to suggest that what he describes is a pattern that repeats itself in a variety forms, not limited to sacrificial violence but characteristic of the lie that stands behind all violence. That is, the mystery of which Paul speaks and which Jesus exposes, is a mystifying lie, an obscuring of origins, a false dialectic, which stands behind sacrificial religion but which also stands behind all human violence at an individual and corporate level. The equation of violence and power is the original form of the lie, that expresses itself in the scapegoating mechanism (among other forms of the lie). Violence not only reifies and deifies the scapegoat, but this is always the work of violence. The larger principle is not simply that the violence directed against an innocent scapegoat sacralizes and reifies the scapegoat, but all violence “mystically” reifies.

In fact, Girard begins his theory with a reexamination of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex, which illustrates the point that the violence of the superego directed against the ego (death drive) reifies the split between the ego and superego, creating the registers of the Subject. The superego, in the voice of the father or the oppressive force of the law, is directed against the ego and the tripartite (ego, superego, id) dynamic is “born” (which is the wrong word, as this is a living death in Freud’s estimate). But what is to be noted is that the oppressive violence of the id, channeled through the superego, taking the ego as its victim, gives rise to the very notion of a self. Even if one rejects this Freudian picture of the dynamic of self, it illustrates the point, of how a lying violence gives birth to a fictional “reality.” Karl Marx’s picture of the functioning of capital, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s picture of the dialectic of life and death or something and nothing, and Peter Berger’s explanation of religion, all illustrate the same point.

As Berger explains, the phenomenon of religion depends upon a mystifying lie:

Whatever may be the “ultimate” merits of religious explanations of the universe at large, their empirical tendency has been to falsify man’s consciousness of that part of the universe shaped by his own activity, namely, the socio-cultural world. This falsification can also be described as mystification. The socio-cultural world, which is an edifice of human meanings, is overlaid with mysteries posited as non-human in their origins.[1]

In Berger’s depiction, the dialectic process of society consists of three steps – externalization, objectivation, and internalization.

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.[2]

Berger concludes, “It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society.”[3] The notion that religion or society is a sui generis or self-constituting construct blocks all questions of genealogy and simply poses the social world as reality itself.

Berger explains he is appropriating Marx and Hegel, who illustrate this three-step process in regard to capital and the human psyche. As he notes, “The terms ‘externalization’ and ‘objectivation’ are derived from Hegel (Entaeusserung and Versachlichung), are (sic) understood here essentially as they were applied to collective phenomena by Marx.”[4] Capital is externalized in paper and coins, objectivized as intrinsically valuable, and internalized as a prime marker of value. Hegel, Marx, and Freud are each building upon a constricted Judeo-Christian understanding. So, for example, Isaiah’s picture of the idolater (Is. 44:15-18), carving the idol with one half of a piece of wood (externalization), turning and cooking his lunch with the other half (allowing for the obscuring objectivation), and then turning back and bowing to the carved piece (internalization) as a god captures the same movement.

Religion is accounted for in this process as the obscuring or mystification of the process – the disconnect between externalization and objectivation. “The sacred or numinous begin as perceptions ‘externalized,’ projected upon the skies (thus sky-gods are recognized) and upon persons and natural objects (hence shamans and sacred groves and springs). The externalized sacred objects thereby acquire status as factors in social life (so magic, incantation, and worship arise).”[5] The religionist, like the idolater, does not recognize he is the one shaping the idol and reifying or absolutizing what is essentially a projection (a product of the imagination).

The religionist does on a corporate level what Freud describes is happening on an individual level. The Oedipal-self obscures the fact that it is the engineer arranging the oppressive self-relation as the religionist obscures or falsifies the fact that religion is a projection (a necessary sacred canopy) of the socio-cultural world. The child externalizes its own image as seen in the mirror, then it objectivizes or reifies the image as perceived through the projection of the superego, then the internal life is made up of this dialectic between ego and superego.

As indicated, Berger, Marx, and Freud, are building upon the dialectic first worked out by Hegel. An easy entry into Hegel is provided by Slavoj Žižek’s understanding of Hegel as building upon the cogito of René Descartes. Descartes’ isolation of himself in the “heated room” and reduction of the real world to a category of doubt and his reconstruction of that world, up to and including God, is pictured by Hegel, according to Žižek as following the course of every Subject:

when Hegel determines madness as withdrawal from the actual world, the closing of the soul into itself, its ‘contraction’. … Was this withdrawal into itself not accomplished by Descartes in his universal doubt and reduction of the cogito … which … involves a passage through the moment of radical madness? … That is to say, the withdrawal into self, the cutting off of the links to the Umwelt, is followed by the construction of a symbolic universe that the subject projects onto reality as a kind of substitute – formation destined to recompense us for the loss of the immediate, presymbolic real.[6]

The passage into subjectivity involves the “ontological necessity of madness”… the mad gesture of radical withdrawal from reality that opens up the space for its symbolic (re)constitution.”[7] There is a sacrifice of one world and subjection to an oppressive symbolic order (the law has a totalizing effect). To maintain that the product of thought is objectively true, or to fuse thought and being, involves a form of madness that is at once so universal so as to be nearly inaccessible or a complete mystery.

As David Bentley Hart describes the Hegelian system:

the system in its entirety, depending on the angle from which it is viewed, is susceptible of every possible characterization or interpretation: disembodied abstraction or radical empiricism, mystification or disenchantment, absolute idealism or dialectical materialism, Mandarin detachment or bourgeois conformity, historical essentialism or essential historicism, a “totalizing metaphysics” or the ultimate “deconstruction of metaphysics,” and so on and so on.[8]

There is a seeming impossibility of getting beyond the all encompassing system described by Hegel, but this, I believe is precisely Paul’s depiction of what is accomplished in Christ. That is, the obscuring of origins through an originary violence or an originary hostility is precisely the dialectic Paul pictures as exposed by Christ.

Paul, in Ephesians, has in mind the peculiar dialectic of Jew and Gentile which creates a dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), but which organizes the Jewish world (2:15: “which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances”). The enmity of the law which creates the fabric of this fictional construct is not a reality (created by God) but a human system built upon human enmity and violence (2:15 – Christ abolishes the enmity in his flesh, which is not from God but is cured by God in Christ). For a Jew, Gentiles are nothing at all and Jewishness is over and against the nothingness (of the Gentile) as an absolute something. The organizing hostility for Jews and Gentiles alike, something on the order of the sacrificial violence described by Girard, is undone in Christ: “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). This is the archetypical mystery revealed as Judaism depended upon this division, and Christ is reconstituting humanity, showing the divine purpose in creation: “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:15–16). Jewishness depended upon division and enmity and it was from this hostility, marked by the dividing wall in the temple that the religion, rightly or wrongly, was conceived. But Judaism is a case in point of the obscurity of every culture and religion founded upon a dialectic (inside/outside, near/far, citizen/alien, something/nothing).

In Paul’s depiction, there is a cosmic order of darkness dispelled in this revealing of the mystery. God’s will, God’s eternal purposes for the cosmos, have been revealed in Christ: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” (Eph. 3:8). The purposes of creation, once obscured behind the mystery of enmity and division are now revealed in a unifying vision in which all things are being incorporated into God: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4–6).

The mystery revealed in Christ is the exposure of the lie, which pictures reality as a violent dualism (e.g., divine/human, creator/creature, nothing/something, life/death, Jew/Gentile, ego/superego, immanent Trinity/economic Trinity, heaven/earth, transcendent/immanent). The mystery revealed is an exposure of the mystification of evil, dependent upon alienation, dialectic, and dualism. The picture of God’s purposes worked out in Christ brings together absolute difference into a unified whole:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. Eph. 4:7-10

[1] Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Anchor; Reprint edition, 1990), 90.

[2] Berger, 3-4.

[3] Berger, 4.

[4] Berger, 21.

[5] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1966) 4-25. As summarized by James McClendon, Witness: Systematic Theology Volume 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) 28.

[6]Slavoj Zizek, F.W.J. von Schelling, The Abyss of Freedom/Ages of the World (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 8-9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] David Bentley Hart, You Are Gods (p. 70). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

The Problem of Religion and Nationalism

The innocent question, “Are you religious?” raised in the Japanese context will evoke an answer which hints at a history that has been repressed in the West.  Even if the subject being questioned happens to be praying at a Shinto shrine, the answer is most likely to be negative.  Praying and offering homage or worship indicating complete obedience to a national identity – does it seem strange?  (It will make no difference if the question is raised in Japanese and the word shukyo is used in place of “religion.”) The act of praying or making an offering at a shrine or of following the practices affiliated with being Japanese are specifically not “religious” but are simply the requirements of being Japanese.

To get at the ambiguity of the question, an ambiguity that is more normative for human history and culture than not, we can raise a similar question in a Western context. Ask someone who stands and sings the national anthem, “Are you religious?” Whatever their answer, the question would not seem to apply to the act of singing or even the act of pledging allegiance to the flag “under God.” They might reply that they are religious, but probably will be eager to explain that the scruples (the original meaning of religious) demanded by the civic faith of the land are not religious. There is only a slight difference between the function of national identity in Japan and the United States. In fact, it is precisely the U. S. and Great Britain that the Japanese had in mind when the Meiji elites began to set forth the understanding that makes up the modern Japanese sensibility. That is, the supposed division between national identity and religion is of recent vintage.

 For example, a pre-Christian Roman could not have conceived of separating his religion from his identity with Empire. They were one and the same. In the ancient world the phenomena we might call “religious” permeated daily life. There was no clearly demarcated realm which one might dub religious as the gods were everywhere and everything potentially religious. Even in modern Japan the gods reign over the kitchen, the toilet, the forest, and are in control of life and death to such a degree (even if only dimly acknowledged) that to build a house, buy a car, or raise a child, without following the required practices is, for most, just too dangerous.  The notion of religion as a realm apart arises only with the accompanying modern notion of the secular and Japan’s encounter with the West.

The role of Christianity in early modern Japan and ancient Rome seems to have created very similar predicaments for potential converts. Can one be a good Roman or a good Japanese if one does not adhere to the rites required by the state? Can a Christian bow to the emperor so as to acknowledge his supreme power? The original Christians answered this question decisively, acknowledging that certain rites required by Rome were forbidden by the Christian faith. A Christian could not acquiesce to Caesars claim to exclusive or final sovereignty. The faith demanded loyalty to one God and this particular God, unlike the multiplicity of gods, would not allow preeminent loyalty to the state. There would have been numerous occasions (feasts and festival days) on which loyalty to the gods would mark loyalty to the state. The Roman provinces were kept orderly by governors who were simultaneously public cult leaders. No one really cared about private cults so long as they remained private. Notions of personal belief or private faith were allowed but were accorded little importance in terms of true piety – which was synonymous with publicly honoring the traditions.  The strange Christian notion that they could not offer sacrifices, light incense, or perform other religious rites for the gods, would have been read as disloyalty to the state. One either pledges his allegiance or he does not and Caesar was not tolerant of insurrectionists

The resolution brought about through the Constantinian compromise, the rise of modernity and notions of the secular, is not to ban oaths, sacrifices, and rites, it is to declare what was formerly religion as religious no more. The positing of this secular space simultaneously posits a separate role for religion, which tended to copy Roman cult practices and organization.  It is not Japan which first converted religion into rites of state, it was the West. It was Western Christians who developed a full-blown notion of religion as a realm apart and the profane world of the political as in no way intersecting with the sacred. Constantine’s conversion, Augustine’s two cities, Descartes’ soul and body, are the signposts of the rise of a religious sensibility which no longer need interfere with civic duties – theoretically. (The tension between Church and state was never a settled proposition, as was clear to Japan’s elites.)

The contested nature of religion in Japan and the open debate of the Meiji government as to how best deploy what is and what is not religious, points to the manipulation of religion by cultural elites aiming to achieve parity with the West. Japan offers a unique hot house for an examination of the role of national identity and religion due to its relatively late development of national institutions. It was with the specific goal of warding off Western dominance, equated with Christianity, that Japan adapted Western institutions of state.  Japanese intended to take the Western form of state and fill it with Japanese substance. Great Britain had their monarch, who was also head of the national religion, so Japan would have her Emperor as head of a new State Shinto. But to call this form of Shinto “religious” would create problems with the West and with Japanese who had converted to Christianity. There was the need to isolate the imperial institution and its connection to religion so as to justify these institutions (particularly in the eyes of the West). There was the pressure of the United States to protect Japanese Christians and the recent discovery of hidden Christians around Nagasaki became the focus of the United States and thus the concern of the Japanese government.  

At the same time, the Western model posed the puzzle for Japanese as to how the nation-state could create loyalty in the midst of conflicts created by a fragmented religion. Freedom of religion and the maintenance of social order was not a finished process in the West and had not even been posed as a possibility in the East. When religionists perceived that the West was to be the model in early Meiji, Buddhists and Shintoists began vying and arguing for the top spot in the implicit state religion, like Christianity in the West. The leap to State Shinto, the religion transformed into a national polity, points to the reality Japanese perceived at the heart of the Western nation-state. The modern nation-state is religion by another name. (As Peter Berger came to recognize late in his career, the sacred canopy of nationalism functions as religion always functioned.)

 The hardening distinction between private piety and the need for public order, hammered out over centuries in the West, became overt political policy in Japan. The Meiji Constitution reflects the attempt to relegate religion to private belief and to posit the belief supporting the public realm as non-religious. The Imperial Constitution enshrined religious freedom (a freedom of private belief) while, according to Trent Maxey, it “sacralized and secularized the imperial institution.”[1] Maxey maintains the constitution “offered the avowedly religious the promise of freedom in proportion to their irrelevance to and undifferentiated treatment by the state.”[2]

What Japanese perceived in 19th century America is the abiding truth that conservative religion, stripped of its anarchic (anti-arche or over and against the principalities and powers) and independent impulses, serves the modern state. The notion of a Christianity independent of national identity did not present itself, even to Japanese who converted to Christianity.  Uchimura Kanzo, who became a Christian and studied at Amherst College, reaches the dilemma posed by his new faith. If being Christian was a constitutive part of being American and visa versa, then this necessarily stood juxtaposed to his Japanese identity. Loving Jesus stood opposed to loving Japan. In the end, Uchimura could not abide the Western Church due to its integration into Western national identity, and so he founds the No Church Movement.

This sad history of Christianity made subservient to the state is not simply a cultural problem or a problem of practice. Even the study of religion has been infected. The father of modern religious studies, Mircea Eliade, under the guise of saving religion from the encroachments of the secular, sums up this history in creating a place for religion which is absolutely transcendent and absolutely irrelevant. Religion rises above the mere social, economic, historical, or psychological to its own sui generis category. It is universal by way of being unalterable, irreducible and inconceivable. The sacred maintains it place only in its complete difference from the profane world which people actually inhabit. Eliade’s dalliance with fascism and anti-Semitism embodies the role for religion in the modern state. Even the formal study of religion in the modern university must lend itself to state servitude.

There is a Christianity that has not bowed its knee to the Baal of the age. By definition it is a militantly non-violent, anarchic, destabilizing, critic of Empire.  It is on this basis that the upcoming PBI module will undertake the study of religion and culture. World Culture and Religion is a study of religion which aims to demonstrate how Christ exposes and defeats the religio-cultural understanding as it exists in several of the world’s major religions and cultures, most especially Christianity and the United States, as well as how Christ redirects and completes this understanding. 

Sign up beginning on January 27th at PBI.

[1] I am following my nephew Trent Maxey’s excellent work, The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Asia Center, 2014, and quoting here from p. 185.

[2] Ibid p. 184.

Catholic or Fascist Christianity: The State of the Christian Union

I have long presumed that Peter Berger’s three step description of culture gets at (in part) the reality of the manner in which culture is at once a human creation which acts upon us. According to Berger, it is through externalization that society is a human product – humans make it, build it, constitute it. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis – culture and its products take on the appearance of being independent of humans.  Then due to internalization of culture and its products man is himself a product of society. The role of religion in this process is to falsify human consciousness so that the projecting and reification involved in objectivation are mystified – made non-human. The fact that the socio-cultural world is shaped by human activity is obscured by the religion. The sui generis nature of religion, set forth by Mircea Eliade – the father of modern religious studies, cuts religion off from the realities of culture and even the realities of any particular religion. For Eliade, the historical and social conditions play into the interpretation of the religious phenomenon but they cannot ultimately explain it: “All these dreams, myths, and nostalgias…cannot be exhausted by a psychological explanation; there is always a kernel that remains refractory to explanation. . . that, we shall never tire of repeating, is not solely ‘historical.’”  Given the Berger choice that religion is a human creation and the Eliade choice that religion transcends the human, one might think Eliade is on the side of Christianity. Eliade provides a universal experience in which to ground religion and Berger seems to reduce all religion to the relativity of culture.

The problem is that Eliade’s is a cheap universality which ultimately has nothing to say (all articulation falls short) about the transcendent (it is absolutely transcendent). The transcendent object of religion does not intersect with the realities of economics, politics, or culture and at the same time it is presumed the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference. This, of course, is simply not true of any religion of which I am aware. Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, biblical idolatry, and most especially Christianity, are interconnected with economics, politics, and culture. In Japan, the rise of fascism depends directly upon State Shinto, Buddhist nationalism, and Christian accommodation to deification of Hirohito. All of these religions might be said to have maintained their universality – their transcendent orientation – but at the expense of being of no earthly value or influence.  The sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to the sui generis notion of Christianity – that the Church somehow exists apart from society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence by which we are shaped and to which we are subject.

The advantage of Berger’s theory, as opposed to the sui generis notion of religion, is that religion as key to world construction ties religion into every aspect of human society. In Berger’s notion human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Objectivation seems to accurately portray the function of money and idols (intrinsically worthless and yet the most valued object). These man-made entities confront its producers as a fact external to and other than themselves. Internalization re-appropriates this same reality, transforming it from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness.

 Berger, as a practicing Christian, has his own problems. In religion as a social construct there is no clear place for sociology and Christian theology to meet – there is no place from which to critique the society or to stand outside of it. On the other hand, if one understands that it is precisely a Berger like world which Christ disrupts– persons are constituted in culture – then salvation must take on an integration with all things human. The resolution to this problem posed by Richard Niebuhr, is to recognize that culture is the shaping force of humankind and Christ, then, is incarnate so as to reshape culture. Niebuhr offers a series of possibilities as to how this might be accomplished: Christ against culture, of culture, above culture, in paradox with culture and transforming culture.  The problem is that culture is the essence around which Christ is made to work. What we recognize from Berger is that Niebuhr has also reified culture and presumed Christ is forced to work with this given. Rodney Clapp sums up a more sufficient answer which allows for the primacy of culture without succumbing to Berger’s relativism or Niebuhr’s essentializing of culture: Christ and the Church constitute a culture. “The original Christians, in short, were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.” Here Berger’s integration of the human and the cultural are accounted for without succumbing to an essentializing of culture while also allowing for a universal through culture. At the same time, the universal is not absolutely transcendent but takes on its properly biblical slant. The incarnation is an interruption of history which re-founds what it means to be human through one who is human and divine. Yet this interruption is itself historical, cultural, and social.  

Where catholic or universal is understood to be concerned not only with all people but with every aspect of life – social, political, sexual, familial, gastronomical, etc., I presume this is not only the true form of the Christian faith but the only form resistant to the manufactured reality, described by Berger, of contemporary culture. The double-sided meaning of universal, all people and all encompassing (concerned with every aspect of life), are interdependent in that universal identity manifests itself in practices inherently (political, cultural, etc.) resistant to the human “sacred canopy” always characterized by its cultural production (local and exclusive).  The politics of Jesus, the culture of Christ, the family of God, or even Christian eating habits (eating with sinners, a communion open to all), are the particular manifestation of universality and are what constitute the Church a force of opposition to the alienating and divisive reified socio-political principalities and powers.

Where the opposition has failed and the dictates of the culture, with its essentializing ethos, nationalism, regimented conformity,exclusivism, and ethnocentrism, succeed then the distinctives of Christian universality are, by definition, absent. And while no particular church (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) can exclusively claim universality (an oxymoron?) the supreme test of whether the faith is, indeed, catholic is whether it succumbs to cultural tyranny – or the reification of culture known in our day as fascism.

 Fascism is the primary and most damaging form this cultural reification has taken in the 20th and, I would claim (along with Noam Chomsky and others) in the beginnings of the 21st century. Fascism presumes there is an essence to the national ethos (the blood and soil of Germany, the unique spirit (ki) of Japan, American exceptionalism) such that individuals, as in Berger’s picture, bear within themselves this essence (e.g. Japanese citizens are depicted as the egos circulating around the super-ego Emperor which together constitute the wholeness of a person).  There may be many markers of the passage from nationalism to fascism – the rise of a cult of personality, the violent suppression of opposition, the demonization of certain ideas, the continual gearing up for war – but one of the clearest markers in Germany and Japan was the manner in which Christianity was co opted by the state. Pictures of Hirohito adorned every official church in Japan and Christians were made to bow to this god man to inaugurate the service. Japanese theologians even attempted to incorporate Hirohito into the Godhead (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God Hirohito). German Christians were those who accepted the Aryan clause, which excluded Jews from holding public office, inclusive of state church offices and German Christian theology expunged the Bible of its Jewishness. In both Germany and Japan, this Christian fascism is one step beyond the Constantinian fusion of state and church (arguably most complete only with the reformation). Where the Roman emperor fused church and state by acknowledging Christianity, fascist Christianity presumes to overtly absorb Christianity into state ideology (which is not to deny this was implicit with Constantine).

Though there are moments in history where “fascist Christianity” accurately describes the church, in retrospect it would seem that genocide, all-out war, emperor/dictator worship, racism, and anti-Semitism, may not accord (to say less than the least) with the basic tenets of the teaching of Jesus. Fascist theologians, fascist Christians, fascist churches, are a historical reality (not just a pejorative description), which more than simple fascism (or any of the isms of the 20th century – communism, socialism, Marxism, nationalism) may best describe the contemporary anti-Christ (the imitation or displacement of Christ). In other words, the fascist reification of a particular culture and the violence this entails – equated with Christianity – is the most obvious enemy of Christ.

 Is it something like fascist Christianity, a Christianity absorbed by nationalist chauvinism, that threatens the Church universal in the United States?  American exceptionalism premised on America as a Christian Nation may have succeeded, some place and some time (as with the varieties of Constantinian Christianity), in escaping the complete co opting of the church by state purposes. But one wonders if there is not an evident incongruity in Trump Doctrine, summed up by a senior White House official with direct access to the president, as “We are America, bitch.” As Jeffrey Goldberg, who originally reported this in The Atlantic has put it, “the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence” amounts to “a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world.” The exclusivism, isolationism, mistreatment of aliens, chauvinistic hostility, and sympathy for authoritarian strongmen, captured in this posturing may be good for America (though I doubt it) but can it be equated with the teaching of Christ? Could it be that “we are Christian America, bitch” or that we are holding up a Christian middle finger to the world? This is no more unlikely than “Christian fascism” but what it clearly is not is catholic Christianity.[1]

[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch’ The president believes that the United States owes nothing to anyone—especially its allies,” The Atlantic, June 11, 2018.

Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation

Religion as a projection of man (philosophy, psychology), as a sui generis essence (religious studies), or as a sacred canopy (sociology) all partake of a singular mistake.  It is the same mistake found in the various Christian approaches to non-Christian religion (pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism).  The problem with “religion” is with the category itself.  There is the mistaken assumption that religion can be separated out from culture and practice and studied or theologized about as an entity or essence unto itself.  The Bible does not make this mistake in that it does not address religion per se (more on this later).  This raises the question as to whether Christianity is religion? Or should Christianity distinguish itself from religion? Continue reading “Breaking Free of Failed “Religion” Through a Practical Salvation”