Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus redux

I want to talk a little bit about my Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus essay. Over the last week I’ve kept thinking about a quote from Jean-Luc Marion that says “Theology renders its author hypocritical… One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology.” I take that seriously, and so it’s with fear and trembling that I’ve submitted it to Cedars for the February 14th issue. The final version — shorter, tighter, improved — can be found here if you’re interested. If Cedars hasn’t tired of my liberalism, my next piece for them will probably also concern war & peace.

I would encourage those of you intrigued by the Derrida discussion to consider reading Live Theory: Jacques Derrida by James K.A. Smith. Even the brief bits I referenced may provide food for further thought. E.g. is it possible to deconstruct all binaries? (Or more accurately, find within the binaries how they auto-deconstruct themselves) I’ve hinted before at how we might deconstruct natural/supernatural, but what about other tricky ones… like being/non-being? Saved/unsaved? Furthermore, does an unconditional openness to the Other mean rejecting determinate religions altogether — ie, the “religion without religion” of Mark C Taylor, John Caputo, etc?

My article also owes a small debt to, of all people, David Foster Wallace for his brief essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled Just Asking. DFW considers the safety vs. freedom trade-off and sides with freedom, just as I (coming from a different angle) have sided with unconditional hospitality in its dispute with safety. This idea is more profound the deeper into it you dig… and since it is not an idea original with me, I also am continuing to dig and uncover its radical implications.

P.S. — bonus war coverage: Where’s the Iraqi Voice? by Noam Chomsky

6 thoughts on “Derrida-Claiborne-Jesus redux

  1. Hi Kevin,

    I’ve never met you, but somehow this blog ended up in my bookmarks list and I visit it about once every 3 months when I’m bored. I went to Cedarville and I think we overlapped for a couple of years. I’m interested in all things Cedarville from people who are relatively sane… I guess that’s why I read this.

    Anyway, your Cedars article is nice. Perhaps it’s a little too intelligent for the medium, but what can you do. I’m touched by your description of Derrida’s radical hospitality, and your personal story of the struggle of applying it really hits home.

    However when you jump to national level I start to cry foul. I’ve gone through a lot of changes since graduating in 03 and perhaps one of the more important ones is realizing the blatant contradiction between Christianity and governments. Christians are called to love, to forgive, to be merciful, to turn the other cheek. Were governments run this way, they could not function.

    I think it’s disastrous to try to apply the principles of one side to the actions of the other, yet it’s an error made by thousands and thousands of people in the world today. This is why I’m drawn to the “Christian anarchy” of Jacques Ellul, another French thinker.

    This isn’t to say that you’re wrong about what you’re saying about war-mongering or immigration in your article. What I’m saying is that national policy cannot be based on radical hospitality if the country wants to function as a country. My own personal jump from this is that Christians are unable participate in government in a way that does not compromise their Christianity, but I don’t expect people to follow me there.

    Overall great article. Undoubtedly it’s something Cedarville needs to hear… I’m just concerned about relating this ethic to nationalism. In my opinion, practicing Christianity should put us in a place where we realize that government contradicts our goals and should be regarded as irrelevant in our struggle to live radically as Christ did.

  2. By the way, thanks for alerting me about this Claiborne thing. I read the Christianity Today article on the subject and I’m very very angry. I’m considering pulling all future financial support for the institution.

  3. Dan,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Your critique is coming from a different angle than I’d anticipated, but one that I welcome since I think you’re standing in ideological territory that I’ve been slowly working toward — so maybe you can help pull me along.

    I’ve not read Ellul though he’s long been on my radar; I actually just heard a professor here argue something very similar to you (ie, Christians abstaining from partcipation in gov’t) but I think he came to it via Hauerwas & Yoder, not Ellul. I think Derrida and I would both agree that this radical hospitality is unworkable – literally impossible – both personally and nationally. But I don’t think this is a reason not to try (correct me if this isn’t what you’re saying). Deconstruction constantly disturbs our institutions, but isn’t anti-institution necessarily.

    If we personally put the Sermon on the Mount into practice, wouldn’t government follow suit? I can’t imagine a government staffed by people turning the other cheek on a personal level, yet being warmongers on an institional level.

    I’ve written & re-written this comment numerous times and am no closer to saying anything near what I’m thinking. I’m especially confused by your reference to “nationalism,” since I think nationalism has no place in the Christian’s life and I’m not sure my essay implied otherwise. If you’re up to it, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts since I think we’re in large agreement but differ on a key point — and I’m not sure we diverge where you think we do.

    By the way, I wouldn’t get too worked up over the Claiborne thing; this school is a very different, in a great way, from what it was in 2003. This latest issue was two steps backward but we’re still making progress — and like most things, there’s much more to the story than CT or Cedars can capture. I also thought I’d mention that I just saw The Lives of Others on Friday and loved it. I’m going to have to netflix that other one you mentioned.

  4. Thanks for the reply. If you can stand the subtitles two other Danish films that are must-sees are [i]Adam’s Apples[/i] and [i]The Inheritance[/i]… both are fortunately on netflix these days.

    I think I probably misused the term nationalism. This is what I tend to call the current feeling among evangelicals that they’re destined to take over the country and enforce their theocratic rules. This is obviously a wrong tactic, as I think you’d agree.

    But my concern is that it stems from a misunderstanding about the purposes of government and the purposes of Christianity. I haven’t read Yoder, but from what I read about his views I think he and I are on a very similar path. Hauerwas was also a fan of this view as you mention, or seems to be from the little I’ve read by him.

    Basically I believe that the goals of government and the goals of Christianity are so divergent that no overlap makes sense. A police officer that turns the other cheek and/or practices Christian pacifism cannot fulfill the duties that a police officer must fulfill. A government based on mercy and forgiveness cannot adequately control crime. A country that is pacifistic cannot protect its populus. A government based on the sermon on the mount is no government at all.

    If you ask me what I thought about the war, I’d tell you that I think war is never OK without direct unambiguous communication from God saying that it’s OK. But if I set my Christianity aside I can comment more meaningfully about the situation in Iraq and say something like “I think that it’s a very real possibility that Saddam could have presented a tangible threat to the United States, but it was clear that he was not a threat at the time of our invasion, so the war was ill-advised.” The two positions are in conflict. One is a national position, one is a Christian position.

    Ellul’s extension to this is… if I interpret it correctly… that a community of people living in a ‘sermon on the mount’ way as you put it is much more effective at tasks that Christians need to be involved in than a government would be. That is, that the Church should work to effectively replace or supercede government programs in areas such as care for the poor. Government is self-serving and not to be trusted. Anything it does is inefficient and will work poorly to things done out of genuine love, care, and hospitality.

    I combine these two thoughts to call myself a “Christian anarchist”. My feeling is that “I serve God rather than men”, not “I serve God and men when men don’t conflict with God”. So when you imagine a government filled with people living in a True Christian manner, I see a contradiction. At best such participation wouldn’t be pragmatic for accomplishing Christian goals, at worst it would be completely compromising those goals.

    That’s my concern with your essay. Christians are far too concerned with government, and I wish you’d point them in the other direction rather than inferring that we can make good national policy decisions based on Christian thinking. But I understand that this position is fairly “radical” when presented to the average Cedarville student. Pacifism is a hard-sell, but Yoder’s view of government is a great place to start.

    I’m not re-checking this comment since it was so fricking long, so I hope I got everything across in the way I’m intending.

  5. Sorry for the delay, it’s been a busy week. I’ve been thinking about this a lot though. What Ellul book would you suggest I start with? I actually see in Christian anarchy a way to unify several disparate threads in my head.

    I still struggle, however, with how I’m supposed to critique our government. Derrida does, after all, rightly pass as an atheist. His call for more just institutional configurations is, ostensibly, secular.

    The question — “What does radical hospitality look like on a national level?” — was not meant as a one-to-one correspondence with “WWJD?”. I’m not looking to establish a theocracy at all, and we’d probably both agree that Constantine’s merger of Christianity & state had disastrous consequences.

    I can’t, however, categorically state that the goals of a government will never coincide with the goals of a Christian or of a church. Your post reminds me too much of Richard Rorty’s public/private split, a dichotomy I guess can’t see as workable.

  6. I guess I’d start with The Subversion of Christianity, or if you’re more interested in strictly the political implications perhaps Anarchy and Christianity.

    I was thinking about this more and I’m starting to wonder. When confronted with any massive injustice perpetuated by a government that’s ostensibly controlled by the people… there would seem to be no way to stop it except through participation. So perhaps that’s a hole in the nonparticipation side of Christian anarchy, but I think Ellul viewed this as a flexible point. I’ll need to think about it some more.

    “I can’t, however, categorically state that the goals of a government will never coincide with the goals of a Christian or of a church”

    I hear you, and I guess when I talk about divergent goals I’m talking less about things like “help the poor” and more about the methods by which those goals would be accomplished. Perhaps it’s overly simplistic but governments are based on power hierarchies and control, occasionally through force. Christianity is the opposite: we’re all one in Christ and we use love, mercy and servanthood to influence culture.

    Ellul fully embraces the tired phrase “power corrupts” as an inevitability, and I think that’s as good a reason as any for me to not participate in government. Again, the goals may be the same but choosing to accomplish something the government’s way rather than the Christian way is in my mind and ineffective and unacceptable compromise. Abortion is a great working example: for 30 years Christians have been voting based on that issue alone and it’s accomplished nothing. If all that energy had been put into serving women and children in love and forgiveness… we might not have had to wait for morning after pills to drastically drop the number of abortions happening in this country. (Which they have.)

    Speaking of that, I read some of your back posts on abortion and I think you’ll be able to appreciate Hauerwas’s commentary here.

    Anyhow I find “Christian anarchy” (which admittedly differs significantly from what people tend to think of as anarchy) to be one of the most interesting approaches to the issue, even if it does have a few holes as speculated above.

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