Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The history of the Church has been one sustained attempt to bury this revolutionary way of thinking social relationships

larvalsubjects Says: September 11, 2007 at 2:03 am
Thanks for the comments, David. One of the things that interests me in Jesus as a political philosopher (who knows, maybe he spent those thirty missing years in Greece!), are his comments about kinship relations. Take the following passages from Matthew and Luke:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34 - 10:37)
I found Biblical passages such as this deeply enigmatic until I began studying cultural anthropology and discovered the central role that kinship relations play in “primitive” societies. In “primitive societies”, all morality revolves not around sex, but around kinship ties and duties defining in-group/out-group relations, or who belongs and who does belong. Elsewhere I’ve written about the sort of logic that emerges out of this sort of friend/enemy distinction:
No one else has ever commented on this latter, which means it’s either junk or I’m entirely unclear. Nonetheless, I think it captures a certain logic or structure.
A very “vanilla” and watered down reading of this passage would have it that Jesus is simply saying you should place him above all other things. However, when viewed through the eyes of an anthropologist, it becomes clear that Jesus is thinking about something far more radical. In my view, Jesus is envisioning a new kind of community or society– yes, he’s a political philosopher, not a religious prophet –where all are welcome regardless of religious belief, ethnic background, etc. Suggesting that one should “hate” their father, mother, brother, wife, children, etc., (all kinship relations, btw), is a rather dramatic way of saying that we should set aside the primacy of kinship relations as the primary ground or foundation of morality and political alliances.
I am writing a paper on this with a friend for the next RSA conference (though it won’t deal explicitly with Jesus or his historical context). Basically the paper will raise the question “how does dialogue function in an encounter with the pure stranger?” Here we can no longer assume a shared ethos, nor pathos, because we don’t share a common cultural context. Rather that a “deductive rhetoric” that varies instantiations of shared cultural narratives, it seems to me that the sort of situation Jesus and Socrates are describing is that of a rhetorical situation that calls for an “abductive rhetoric” or inventive narrative, where rules and shared customs are created together for the very first time in and through an encounter of strangers that otherwise share nothing in common. In this sense, it would be a question of how the relation of non-relation is produced.
It’s a damn shame that Jesus said “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (repeating Leviticus). I don’t know the original Hebrew, so I can’t speak to whether the original word has other resonances, though it seems like it should. If the logic of his critique of the primacy of kinship relations as the foundation of social and political institutions is followed through in thought, it becomes clear that he is not referring to the neighbor but to the stranger. Note, for instance, how important laws of hospitality were among the Jews. Sodom and Gommorah were not destroyed, according to the old story, because they practiced sexual perversions but because they failed to properly practice hospitality. The problem with the word “neighbor” is that the neighbor, semantically, is thought as the one who is like me (who belongs to my tribe). Yet it seems clear that what Jesus was really referring to was the stranger, the one who comes from afar, the foreigner, the one who is not like me, i.e., that which is antithetical to tribalistic morality. According to this view, the purest Christian, in my view, would be the one who never announced him or herself as a Christian, for to name oneself is already to create a tribe that produces an other or enemy. The true Christian would be the one perpetually open to the encounter with the aleatory, to the stranger, to the foreigner, where no pre-established standards could be presupposed but where, instead, it was all a question of the shared production of values in a bond of love… Love beyond any cultural law or set of tribal customs.
Tribal morality necessarily leads to conflict and war. There is always the necessity of the scapegoat. There is always the necessity of the other group against which the tribe defines itself. Everything Jesus said can be understood as devising strategies to dissipate tribal violence (note, for instance, how Jesus often emphasizes not praying in public like a braying ass). For instance, if we are called upon to turn the other cheek, then this is because turning the other cheek ends cycles of endless violence between groups.
If we place ourselves in Jesus’ historical situation, we can see exactly why this new way of political thinking might have emerged. Look at the ancient world: Jesus’ world is a world where we have all sorts of competing tribes and religions in one area– The Romans, Jews, Greeks, etc. This situation represents the perennial problem of the city or polis. The city is the place where people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds congregate. Given that these people do not share the same stories and given that religious stories function as the ground or foundation of social and political institutions, how can we imagine a form of human relations that overcome these differences and allow us to peacefully coordinate human relationships. Religion based on law or deduction from custom and narrative will only lead to conflict because people are attached to their stories and kinship structures. We need another way beyond religion. It seems that this is what Jesus was trying to think, in a way very similar to the Greek invention of philosophy as a new way of deliberating about politics and value beyond mythos (reason and observation being something all humans share, whereas mythos or narratives only being shared by a particular group).
I am an atheist, so my analysis of Jesus and what he was trying to accomplish is, no doubt, colored. However, I have often thought that many forms of Christianity have been the darkest of conspiracies against the teachings of Jesus. Somehow the history of the Church has been one sustained attempt to bury this revolutionary way of thinking social relationships, replacing it instead with stultifying obsessions with sex and new tribal relations. I think the problem of overcoming ressentiment is also attached to all this. The “glue” of ressentiment “stuck to the shoe” is a product of the friend/enemy distinction, similar to what Orwell describes with respect to the “ten minute hate” and the way Goldstein is manipulated by the party of Big Brother. The question is one of how to get beyond this logic and the sad passion it generates, so as to encounter others “one by one”.
IndieFaith Says: September 11, 2007 at 11:14 am
Unfortunately you will not get any help from the Hebrew in your case on neighbor/stranger. The term is actually a very “bland” one often referring to immediate proximity (with the phrase “one another” being literally “each person to his/her neighbor/fellow). This, however, does not necessarily detract from your point as Jesus clarifies that the “neighbor” is the one who it immediately present to a person (who in Jesus’ example happens to be in need). This is not a reference to the modern concept of neighbor, this is a reference to immediacy and presence. It is the person with whom community is maintained. As you mentioned the there is much in this tradition with reference to the “foreigner” which may come closer to your reference of the stranger (though I am not sure). “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt . . .”
I resonant strongly with your statements on the trappings of tribalism (as do many theologians in their own way; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr). I see the rub as always coming around what you stated at the beginning in that the goal is community. What is difficult in Hebrew scripture is that the foreigner is assumed to be at least partially assimilated into Israelite culture. However, even within the rigors of the law there is appeal. In Numbers 27 there is a group of women who appeal Mosaic law (the source of which is assumed to be divine). Moses talks with God about it and God says that they are right. Did God make an oversight and not account for this? The law was never intended to be static (which is what the rest of the Bible rails against [prophets, psalms, nt).
This is why the notion of the sacred becomes so important for me. Perhaps there are people talking about a similar thing but using “secular” language. The sacred perpetually de-centers our judgment and allows the possibility of the new (the movement of spirit). I am not sure if this comes close to the idea of “inventive narrative”.

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