Derrida via Claiborne

Like many students, I was saddened to learn on January 30th that Shane Claiborne’s expected campus event had been canceled. In one sense it was simply disappointing that we missed an opportunity to listen and dialogue with Claiborne in person. More importantly, the incident was disappointing in what it revealed about the “forces for status quo” (to use John Edwards’ phrase), or the length to which the foot soldiers of legalistic fundamentalism will go in order to silence an “ordinary radical” whose message of love, peace, and justice are simply too extreme for this campus. Personally, I’m particularly drawn to Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution because it seems to me an important picture of “The Great Law of Hospitality”; that is, the ethics of Jacques Derrida.

The juxtaposition of Shane Claiborne and Jacques Derrida is, at first blush, more than a little odd: one a young American hippie, the other a deceased French theorist. However, Derrida’s connection to Claiborne and Derrida’s immense relevance to this campus is perhaps best encapsulated in his claim that “ethics is hospitality.” For Derrida, unconditionally welcoming the foreigner — the Other — is the very meaning of justice.

As he tells the story, the history of philosophy or Western ideas is the history of exclusion. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, it is a history that is hell-bent on erecting binaries: male/female, rational/irrational, objective/subjective, inside/outside, presence/absence, fact/opinion, and so forth. The former is always privileged and the latter always sidelined, dominated, oppressed. To be male, rational & factual, was supposedly clearly superior to being female, irrational & opinionated. Derrida’s goal, among and with many others, is to subvert — he says “deconstruct” — this traditional arrangement to demonstrate the inter-dependence of both concepts. For example, it does not make sense to speak of being inside unless there is an outside with whom it is contrasted; there are also spaces which destabilize the binary even more by being both/neither inside and outside. Derrida does not want to invert the binary, so that being outside is better/greater than being inside, but rather make the two live in tension between the forces of violence that would pull them apart or have one subjugate the Other.

Most relevantly to us today, we need to see that the marginalized Other in our society is undoubtedly the sick, the poor, the downtrodden, the impoverished, the “least of these.” In the face of these, Derrida calls us to an impossible task: unconditional hospitality. The impossibility of such a demand is the very condition of the call itself, the very reason it ought to nag us by day and haunt us at night. Furthermore, this call contains in itself immense risk: there is no guarantee that an unqualified openness to the Other won’t bring personal danger, harm, tragedy. This is justice, Derrida says, for it invites the foreigner inside (our home, our space, our koinos, our heart) without question and without demand.

Enter Shane Claiborne. For I am convinced that Irresistible Revolution, a humble book that is certainly otherwise than philosophy, sketches a brilliant picture of what a life of unconditional hospitality might look like. Claiborne’s simple call is to love; love deeply, generously, excessively. Most importantly, do this to the unlovable.

Last fall, after reading Claiborne’s book, I attempted to commit myself to giving and welcoming unconditionally. One night I went to Dayton to spend on a 2-hour movie what one billion humans earn as a week’s wage. As I left The Neon I was approached by Jesus, disguised as a beleaguered white woman and her boyfriend. I don’t remember whether it was to see a long-lost brother or just escape the impending winter, but she wanted bus tickets and so I gave her money and wished them well. Not 20 feet onward I came across Jesus again, this time in the form of a scraggly black man who wanted to eat at Arby’s. There’s no doubt that the beggar and I should’ve shared a meal together, but opening my arms to a dirty Jesus seemed more difficult and so I just gave him some bills. The third time I saw Jesus was just minutes later, when a beggar began heading towards me from a ways down the sidewalk. I immediately began to think of excuses: that the price of my evening had already doubled, that I was “poor” too, that I “needed” to get home, that giving unconditionally was just getting to be too hard. And so I turned a blind eye and crossed to the other side of the street. Was there ever a more disgusting, obviously Pharisaical act? That my Savior passed His three tests, that He died on the cross, that He rose again on the third day, that is only what saves a wretch like me.

You see what Derrida and Claiborne were driving at is an ethical demand that’s too radical for us to handle, almost even comprehend. It was just as radical 2000 years ago when a Nazarene carpenter first proclaimed these truths. The Sermon on the Mount is so outrageous that it’s still unwelcome today, banned even from our Christian university. For if we truly unconditionally welcomed the Other — the unwanted, the marginalized, the destitute, even our enemies — our lives would require such radical re-constitution that we’d be shaken to the core. Wouldn’t we as individuals, as communities, as towns, and as a nation ultimately conduct ourselves very, very differently? Would we any longer bless the pre-emptive war-mongers, so that they might inherit the earth? Would we any longer tolerate cowboy imperialism, pretending that it represents the kingdom of heaven? Does unconditional hospitality erect a 2000-mile fence to keep out Unwanteds and Outsiders? Does unconditional giving mean HMO bureaucracy just to treat a sick child? To turn the other cheek and to give (not invest) our last dollar: these are the demands of that wandering Christ we claim to follow. Welcoming — not bombing — the poor, tired, and huddled masses is undoubtedly a risky proposition. Our Jesus, however, does not call us to safety or economic efficiency; He calls us to love. It’s so simple. To love extravagantly beyond all measure, because that is how our Father in Heaven loves us. This is a love that can transform my life, and yours, and all of us here at this Christ-ian university, so that next time Jesus wants to visit us in the disguise of a long-haired hippie from Philadelphia we unequivocally say Yes, please. Welcome.

One thought on “Derrida via Claiborne

  1. Have you read The Brother’s Karamazov? I can’t remember. It was my senior project and I think this concept of hospitality as described by the brother Ivan (I think) would be really interesting to you.

    As perhaps might be the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out. The second section of the book talks about moving from Hostility to Hospitality. The first is moving from Loneliness to Solitude; the final from Illusion to Prayer. Loved this book too.

    ~Allison

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