Devotional Thoughts With Rev. Zizek

Cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. The Sublime Object of Ideology

Today’s devotional is brought to you by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The following reading comes from First as Tragedy, Then as Farce:

Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the “richness of my inner life”: this is what I “really am,” in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life (as father, professor, etc). The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity. One of the ways to practise the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the “inner life” and its “sincere” emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies rather outside, in what we do. … “Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts.

Amen.

Be well.

The Politics of Forgetting

Tim Wise has been all over the Web lately with his article, “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” I had my dose of Wise last week via a six-part series on YouTube that contains his 2007 lecture, “The Pathology of White Privilege: Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality.” The videos are roughly 10 minutes each and well worth an hour of your time. A transcript of the entire lecture (PDF) is available from the Media Education Foundation. A lot of things jumped out at me, but two things tied in nicely with other reading I’ve done:

1. The self-delusion of the dominant racial group viz. minorities. A Mother Jones piece today by Greg Grandin entitled, “Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate” pointed me to a NYT/CBS poll that found that 52% of Tea Partiers believe “too much [has] been made of the problems facing black people.” For his part, Wise references two polls from 1962 & 1963 respectively — pre-Civil Rights Movement era polls, in other words — where 80% of white people thought black people were treated equally in their community, and 90% of white people thought black children had the same educational opportunities. Tim Wise:

Denial, in every generation: 2007, 1963, the 30s, the 1890s, the 1850s. My point being that, in every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation,
without fail, they have been right.
For more on forgetting and the consequences of a poor grasp of history, see “The Tea Party’s Toxic Take on History” (Salon) by Ron Rosenbaum, and “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians” (Slate) by Michael Lind.

2. The white privilege of forgetting. Wise says, “Victims have long memories… But those who create that victimization have short memories. We [white people] have the luxury of forgetting.” I thought this dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Hochschild (coincidentally, co-founder & early editor of Mother Jones) has a whole section devoted to the “politics of forgetting,” which in this case means forgetting the mass murder of some 10 million Congolese Africans at the turn of the 20th century.

The story told in King Leopold’s Ghost has something for everyone: tragic heroes, back-room political intrigue, crazy familial squabbles — even “one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time!” Hochschild’s details Belgium’s King Leopold II and his almost single-handed conquest of the Congo (with, of course, the aid & complicity of the U.S. and most of Europe). I, like Hochschild before researching this book, knew very little of this “forgotten holocaust,” save for tidbits of information gleaned from a cursory knowledge of Joseph Conrad. After Leopold’s mad grab for Africa, he personally net $1.1 billion from ivory & rubber trade (begotten from a cruel forced-labor system, not to mention the extermination of half of the indigenous population of the Congo. “The horror! The horror!” Terrible history, but an incredible book.

So: winners do write History, but I belong to a religion that, at its best, is for losers, for underdogs, for the down-and-out and the forgotten. And if that religion has too often, much too often, sided with the powerful & the upwardly mobile, there are patches of history where believes have been among the most ardent of prophets speaking truth to power. And King Leopold’s Ghost records the stories of a couple of these people; most prominently, that of African American Presbyterian Rev. William H. Sheppard. I’ve excerpted Hochschild’s passages about Sheppard and put them into a 10-page PDF; it’s highly recommended reading.

The complementary photos I added are from The Presbyterian Historical Society, as found in this article on Sheppard from The Journal of Southern Religion. It’s also interesting to note that in an interesting afterword to King Leopold’s Ghost written seven years after initial publication, Hochschild claims he understated the role of Baptist & Presbyterian missionaries; this seems, in part, to have been the impetus for his 2006 book Bury the Chains, about “prophets and rebels” in the British anti-slavery movement. If you never get to King Leopold’s Ghost, at the very least read the chapters on Sheppard — and seriously, watch those Tim Wise videos.

Is Jephthah the Anti-Abraham?

One of the most horrifying stories in the Old Testament is that of Jephthah, which is found in Judges 11:29-40. The gist of the story is that Jephthah is about to go into battle against the Ammonites, but before he does he makes a foolish oath before God that he’ll sacrifice as an offering the first thing that greets him upon his return from war. Sure enough Jephthah kicks all kind of Ammonite ass, but lo and behold who should he first see upon coming home? It’s Mizpah, his daughter, his only child. So Jephthah decides he has to live up to his vow and goes ahead and kills his daughter as a burnt offering unto God. Terrible story, just terrible.

There are a lot of intriguing questions here, such as Did Jephthah really kill his daughter? or Why did Mizpah submit to this insanity? or Is oath-breaking really worse than human sacrifice? However this story really appeals to me in light of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac; or rather, Kierkegaard’s take on Abraham’s story.

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A Christmas Message

This is by Brynne Lewis Allport, from “An Impression” on The Church and Pomo Culture:

In God, Death, and Time, Emmanuel Levinas claims that the immanent experience of a transcendent God amounts to a reversal and referral of the desirable (God) to the nondesirable (the Other). This correlation results in a mission to approach and engage the Other, especially as the Other is figured in the needy, the oppressed, and the forgotten. In this sense, God’s presence is experienced in those persons in whom God is least expected to be found (absence).I visualize this concept in the following way. God’s inbreaking into existence is a stone, thrown against wet sand. The moment of impact is unobserved (unoberservable?) and the stone is absent, bounded off somewhere unknown. What remains is a small dent, an impression left in the soft shore line. The impression is the shape of the stone, the size of the stone, retains the fine features of the stone. However, as an impression, these features are preserved in reverse. In this way, God’s presence, if it is to be found at all, is found in those places where God is most absent. The Old Testament is full of reminders that worship of God is only as good as the care extended to widows, orphans, and the poor. The epistle of James makes this same claim.

It is important to point out that it is not simply the existence of these Others that is God’s presence in the world, but our caring engagement with them. To return to my metaphor, when the impression is all that remains, the only way to experience the stone is to press into the shape it has left behind. This absence is filled with engagement in the same way one takes a plaster cast. In approaching, meeting, ministering to those in need, the community conforms to, fills out the shape of God in the world. The mold is as much the shape as what is poured into it. Holiness therefore is not a characteristic retained by either party alone, but a quality that emerges from the touch-point of the two.

I recently had the pleasure of helping our community fill its annual Christmas baskets. These baskets (boxes really) are distributed to area residents who apply for aid. They include clothes, basic food stuffs, and toys for the children. Because I had the job of matching mittens with hands that might need them, I had to read each application to determine the number and size of each pair. The requests were simple, the situations similar and familiar: illness, unemployment, injury. As I passed each box, read each name, I held each person in my heart for just a moment. As I placed each pair of mittens inside each basket, I was overwhelmed by the privilege of sharing a holy meeting in the presence (absence) of God.

Merry Christmas.

The Scandalous Art of Paul Fryer

Twenty years after Andres Serrano debuted Piss Christ to shocked believers worldwide, Christendom is again up in arms over another work of art. Fundamentalist antipathy toward the arts is well-documented, and artists like Serrano and Damien Hirst have ensured that this feud isn’t likely to die soon. British artist Paul Fryer, a churchgoing Christian himself, has joined the fray with three new pieces.

The first two are variations of the same piece, Pieta:

Unlike traditional pietas, such as Michelangelo’s, this Jesus is not cradled by the Virgin Mary, but by an electric chair. The work is displayed in a French cathedral whose Monsignor explains the work thusly: “[The goal is] to make us aware once more that someone being nailed to a cross is a scandal. Usually, we no longer feel any real emotions in the face of something truly scandalous, the crucifixion.” The piece challenges us to see modern methods of capital punishment as equally bizarre and barbaric as ancient Roman methods. Fryer seems to be expressing incredulity at state-sanctioned murder in the 21st century, asking us to be just as uncomfortable with a convicted felon in the electric chair as we are with Christ in it.
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God’s Word Has a Liberal Bias

The Conservative Bible Project is a tragi-comic effort by some politically conservative Christians to produce a translation paraphrase of the Bible that removes/edits anything that can even remotely be considered “liberal.” It’s not worth writing much about this because the problems with this approach should be so LOLobvious that I won’t waste my time. I will say, however, that I continue to wonder if my alma mater is ever going to repudiate this type of stupidity and permanently sever ties with the batshit-crazy wing — ie WorldNetDaily, Worldview Weekend, et al — of conservative Christianity.

I’m also amused because I, too, started a conservative paraphrase of the Bible. A little over 12 months ago I wrote a draft entitled “A Practical Guide to Waging a Just War: by Jesus of Nazareth” but never put it online until now. Inspired by the CBP, here’s my conservative rendering of Matthew 5:1-13:

Now when I saw your military bases, I immediately went to the mess tent and sat down. Many of your troops came to me, and I began to teach, saying:

Blessed are the poor, for they are easily persuaded to join the armed forces.

Blessed are they that mourn when a buddy is killed, for they shall then have the motivation to kick more ass.

Blessed are the badasses, for they shall conquer the earth.

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteous wars, for they will certainly invent them.

Blessed are the merciful, for they lull the enemy into complacency while we find more grenades.

Blessed are the pure in eyesight, for they shall see their enemy clearly and snipe him unscoped.

Blessed are the warmakers, for they are peacemakers in disguise.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for freedom, because our enemies hate our freedom.

Blessed are you when pacifists confront you, and march in your streets, and say all manner of untruth about you. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in Washington.

You are the asskickers of the earth. But if the asskickers stop kicking ass, how will the world get democracy? Former asskickers who conscientiously object are no longer good for anything, excepted to be relentlessly hazed and dishonorably discharged.

The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 1)

It won’t take long visiting Buenos Aires to discover that not everyone’s living large in this “Paris of the South,” even if you’re comfortably sequestered in a posh condo in Palermo or a swanky hotel in Puerto Madero. Argentina’s unemployment rate is currently lower than that of the United States, but this country’s own painful Great Depression still haunts a place that is now mercifully on the rebound. Less than eight years ago the employment rate was up to 25%, with nearly 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. Like too many other developing countries, their economic bust was the result of free-market reforms perpetrated, in part, by the monetary gangsters at the IMF.

As we close out this decade, the reminders of those horrid depression years are still everywhere, but never more obviously than at 8 or 9pm every night, on every street, all across Buenos Aires. This is when the cartoneros come out: they’re recyclers, using Argentine ingenuity to manage the budget crunch by sorting the day’s trash and selling it to factories on the outskirts of the capital. Most of them travel to the city centers via El Cartonero, a special train that transports the cartoneros, their carts, and that night’s haul. The train is one of many rights the increasingly-organized group have won for themselves, but it’s still not a luxury. The trip is obviously crowded, dirty, and smelly, with no lights and no seats. It leaves early evening and returns to the city edges in the early morning, when the cartoneros unload and sell off their collection of bottles and cardboard. A good night’s work can bring in AR$15, or about US$4, a day. This is roughly equivalent to the salary of a public elementary school teacher, but is barely enough for a meal of empanadas from a downtown confiteria.
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Where Gay Apologists Go Wrong

I really hesitate to write this post, but a confluence of factors has prompted me: Carrie Prejean’s Miss America drama, the CA Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold Prop 8, and a friend’s thoughtful response to that decision. Furthermore, now that I am done with C.U. I am free to write my opinions without fear of institutional reprisals (25 demerits and dismissal/expulsion).

When we talk about gay marriage, I think it’s best to drive straight to the heart of the issue. By that I mean that gay marriage, while an interesting subject in itself, is usually just a red herring: nobody who sanctions homosexuality will be opposed to it, and some who condemn homosexuality nevertheless won’t be opposed to gay marriage (I was once one of these for a long while). So the thorniest issue isn’t really marriage first & foremost, but homosexuality itself.

The friend I referenced in my first post is Bryce Bahler, who — it’s worth noting — was tremendously generous enough to host me for a day or two when I hitchhiked to Seattle. Bryce is also in charge of Facebook’s “Believers for Equal Rights” group and a staunch defender of gay rights. In light of the most recent Prop 8 news, he wrote a very good essay on why, as a Christian, he feels compelled to affirm homosexual believers. (I’m unsure, by the way, if this link will work if you’re not “friends” with Bryce on Facebook, but try it anyway).

Bryce’s note stirred up the usual responses, which often includes great consternation & befuddlement from the Cedarville crowd. I have a lot of sympathy for that kind of reaction, having spent most of my life with that mindset. I find Eugene Cho to be among those who’ve articulated this viewpoint in the most compassionate & thoughtful way possible. 

Yet I diverged from this path more than a year ago as a result of a paper I wrote for a C.U. Bible class on human anthropology (the professor, while disagreeing with me, nevertheless gave me an ‘A+’). I entered my research with an open mind, though with certain biases, but when it was all said & done I concluded quite differently than what I expected. You can read that paper in full right here: “Romans 1:26-27 and the Pauline Condemnation of Homosexuality” (pdf).

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Terrorists and Torture

Give Me Liberty is an underground student newspaper here at Cedarville University designed to give voice to, apparently, the extremely marginalized conservative voice. It’s an outlet for Republicans & Libertarians to join forces and decry the U.S.A.’s obvious devolution into the U.S.S.R. (this was seriously an article). Also in this April edition, there was an article entitled “Terrorists and Torture” by Nathan Dollison, a junior. Here is that essay as printed (ie, unedited by me):

In today’s world, the issue of torture is at the forefront of the struggle against terrorism, and the debate has been only deepened by President Obama’s closure of the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention center and the uproar surrounding what has gone on behind its doors since the beginning of the Global War on Terror.

On the face of the issue, it would seem that the Christian standing on the debate would be clear, that torture is wrong and that as a Christian, one should not be involved or support such measures. But when one delves deeper into the debate, the lines become much grayer. (more…)

Books Read in 2008

I tried to read a book/week again, which seems very reasonable, but fell short once again. I’m about halfway through a dozen other books, which I’ll probably just finish & count for ’09. Under each category, they’re listed in the order I read them. Incidentally, the first book I read in 2008 was The Audacity of Hope by Mister Obama. (more…)