"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Reply to Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove

Faces of Integrity: Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, is the author of New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church (Baker).

"Hope, St. Augustine wrote, has two beautiful daughters. They are anger and courage. Anger at the way things are and the courage to see they do not remain the way they are. We stand at the verge of a massive economic dislocation, one forcing millions of families from their homes and into severe financial distress, one that threatens to rend the fabric of our society. We are waging a war that devours lives and capital, and that cannot ultimately be won. We are told we need to give up our rights to be safe, to be protected. In short, we are made afraid. We are told to hand over all that is best about our nation to those like George Bush and Dick Cheney who seek to destroy our nation. A state of fear only engenders cruelty; cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis. In the center of Dante’s circle the damned remained motionless. If we do not become angry, if we do not muster within us the courage, indeed the militancy, to challenge those in the Democratic and Republican parties who herd us towards the corporate state, we will have squandered our courage and our integrity when we need it most." - Chris Hedges, - "The Corporate State and the Subversion of Democracy"

Hope, like the power of the Word of God, cannot be confined to personal hope, but must open out into hope for all mankind. That means that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (perhaps the primary gift) is to work for justice in the world. This work must not be artificially bound by the constrictions of corporate capitalism, which would mean capitulation to the powers of this world, but must conduct "experiments in truth" that seek alternative economic structures.

The attitude of some of the best Christian thinking about social justice is well characterized in the following quote by Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, "People like John Perkins of the Christian Community Development Association have helped me to see that the political hope of the God movement is both more radical and more effective when it stays committed to the grassroots and to the practice of entrusting everyday people with the tactics of Jesus. You’re right: We ought not let the empire hold our imaginations captive by believing that the gospel is only personal. But neither should we imagine that we can jump to good national and global policy without being transformed ourselves." - Response to Zack Exley: Avoiding 'Resident Alienation' in Pursuit of New Humanity (by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

I fully understand and endorse this tactic and the attitude that underlies it, but I want to explore that attitude more fully. He says: "We ought not let the empire hold our imaginations captive by believing that the gospel is only personal." Much hangs on what he means here by "personal". If it means "individual", "non-social", "having to do only with me as an individual before God", then the tactic of keeping the focus on the local community makes sense. The social side of the Gospel could then be fulfilled by working in the local community. But it seems to me that this meaning of the terms represents a variation on the same captivity of the social imagination as the empire's insistence that the Gospel is exclusively personal. If we do not act outside of our local community, then we have implicitly accepted the notion that we have no power beyond that local community. The tactic also blends in smoothly with the emphasis on personal salvation since it emphasizes personal action in daily life.

The attitude that first we must save ourselves and only when we have realized God's power in our lives will we have a genuine alternative to offer the world appears to be solid Christian doctrine. But it seems to me that this is a deliberate truncation of our power to understand and transform the world. If the founding fathers of this country had adopted that attitude, they would have continued on the path of the Pilgrims and built Christian communities and accepted the oppression of the British empire because those political realities were beyond the scope of the local community. The larger issue is what we understand in the terms "personal" and "social" from the Christian perspective. We are committing acts of social and political significance every time we pump gas or buy groceries. Those who control the gas pump and food prices have an agenda that is right now causing the starvation of 18,000 children a day. To refuse to challenge those making decisions that starve children by an explicit analysis of the current economic power structures and public actions such as anti-war rallies and protests at the G8 conferences is to say in effect, "The empire is right. Our message is only for local communities and individuals. It has nothing to say about how the larger world is organized." It is also socially incoherent because local communities can never be disconnected from that larger world. Forces in that world also have the power to destroy those local efforts if they succeed enough to offer a threatening example. A quick glance at the history of Christian utopian communities in 19th century America reveals how rapidly and carelessly the world can snuff out the vision of such communities.

That said, I applaud and encourage the efforts to build Christian communities that can serve as an example to the world. But at the same time, I believe we need to take up once again the work of the liberation theologians to provide a coherent analysis of the structures of social sin and develop a strategy for confronting those structures at the appropriate level.

A good example is the growing practice of torturing the opponents (or supposed opponents) of U.S. foreign policy in order to terrorize or extract information from them. What type of sin is being committed here? Is it the personal sin of the torturers? Or is it the social sin of a complacent society dedicated to the pleasures of consumption and not too squeamish about what needs to be done to maintain those pleasures? Clearly, it is both and much more that could be added. Creating a Christian community that builds up the image of God in each member works against the attitude behind torture. But does it address the immediate reality that thousands of people are being tortured to support the unjust social structures that our inaction is partially responsible for? Is the "local only" approach of the "new monastics" the approach of Dr. Martin Luther King (before it was "democratized", as Jonathan described it (though I would use another word): direct nonviolent confrontation with the powers of injustice? This seems to be the most effective strategy for bringing about the "Beloved Community", but few have the courage or vision for it today.

I can end no better than with Jonathan's own words, "The call to conversion is total. We desperately need new imaginations as well as a whole new world. The good news is that God has already made all of this possible in Jesus. I hope we can struggle to live into it together." - Response to Zack Exley: Avoiding 'Resident Alienation' in Pursuit of New Humanity (by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

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