Thursday, May 31, 2012

Protecting the weak.

This is last (so far) in a series on the roots of Christian Violence. You can find the other parts here. .
The Folly of Appraising Christianity
The Unpayable Debt of Salvation
The Forces of Light and Darkness
There's still one post I intend to write on this topic but its a long time coming.

At first it is impossible to see how sympathy for the weak could itself serve the rise of a violent Christian state.  By identifying with the victims of state violence through their founder, it would be reasonable to expect Christians to be protected from becoming crucifiers themselves. This didn’t happen and this post continues my series attempting to uncover the why of that.

To explain how this transformation from crucified to crucifier is not remarkable but logical requires an understanding of power that is not a natural western understanding. From a western perspective such an understanding of power can seem perplexing and over-sophisticated. I’ve struggled with how to express that sophistication in this blog. Furthermore I have reached outside of my own familial and cultural upbringing to form the thoughts in this post. I still feel unease and uncertainty in reading over this.

I believe this particular problem of an unsophisticated appreciation of power is broader than Christianity. It is there across all western philosophy. My way of understanding the problem is that Western philosophy springs from the Greeks, and Greek philosophy came out of Ancient Greek culture. Ancient Greek culture was heroic; cunning, wisdom and courage were the merits of heroes who brought those gifts to bear on the world. Ancient Greek theatre knew how to express the paradoxes of the heroic path through tragedy. However Plato despised the theatre, and Greek philosophy declared itself separate from its heroic and poetic past. Rationality was about submitting to universal truth more than the particular observer doing good.

This was a false declaration. Rationality and western philosophy have remained concerned about reforming the world to fit intellectual virtues or virtues in general. Principally this is through the merits of philosophical “heroes” like Socrates. Socrates’ willingly died for a higher truth. In fact his state execution makes him into a clear forerunner of Jesus and certainly would have helped Greeks understand Jesus if nothing more. The connection was made in a recent performance of Godspell I saw which quoted the following;
 “Wherefore, O men of Athens,
I say to you:
Therefore, acquit me or not
But whichever you do
I shall never alter my ways
Never adjust my approach to this maze
Never reform til the end of my days
Even if I have to die many times.”
        Socrates speech in Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, Godspell Lyrics.*

Unfortunately Western philosophy has also tended to deny its clearly heroic agenda.  Most western philosophy has privelaged objectivity and rationality and retained a distance from drama and narrative. In such a world view the observer is not just non-heroic but irrelevant.  Consequently it has taken Western philosophy a longer time to re-evaluate its problems with its own heroes power. Post-structural Feminist theories of violence go some way to doing this.

Post structuralism was/is an attempt to step back from how we conceptually structure the world around us - and pull such structures apart. Post-structural Feminist theories of violence recognized that victim, perpetrator and saviour all represent symbiotic roles. In particular you can’t have a saviour without the other two. In discussion amongst women particularly it was recognised that “good” men who protected women from “bad” men were in their own way disabling women. In fact “good” men were often devoting more attention to controlling women for their protection than confronting “bad” men directly. This made sense once the co-operative nature of saviour and perpetrator (or hero and villain) was exposed.

Feminism however is itself still a heroic exercise. It still engages in the world to bring rightness forth through intellectual virtue. In fact women can sometimes feel bullied by feminist rhetoric as it plays the role of saviour and requires them to play victim. Hence, I’m not sure we can complete this re-evaluation of heroism from within western philosophy.

I expect many readers to be thinking that unless we want to reform the world to fit intellectual virtues (such as through just laws or a “true” science or a logical ethics) there can be no philosophy. To many of us westerners contemporary philosophical critiques of heroism in philosophy such as moral relativism or postmodernism can feel paralyzing and de-motivating. Further it’s questionable how much they actually escape the heroic dynamic. Even these anti-truth ideologies are still trying to rescue us from wrong-headedness (often zealously).

I think we can find answers to the heroic problem of Western philosophy more easily outside of its scope. In particular I want to recommend Daoism. If we understand much of the violence of Christendom as the abuses of moral government- that is the imposition of a moral order via the state – then Daoism is the perfect place to turn. This is because Daoism is largely a critique of Confucianism which is all about the legitimacy and feasibility of moral government.

Daoism makes the claim, at first astonishing, that the more we try to impose justice or beneficence on the world the more we do harm. This is not a claim from celestial authority but from observation which the Book of Chuang Tzu illustrates beautifully:

To guard yourself against thieves who slash open suitcases, rifle through bags and smash open boxes, one should strap the bags and lock them. The world at large knows that this shows wisdom. However when a master thief comes, he simply picks up the suitcase, lifts the bag and carries of the box and runs away with them, his only concern being whether the straps and locks will hold! In such an instance what seems like wisdom on the part of the owner surely turns out to have been of use only to the master thief…..
….The more sages are brought forth to rule the world, the more this helps people like Robber Chih. Create weights and measures to judge by and people will steal by weight and measure, create balances and weights and people will steal by balances and weights, create contracts and legal agreements to inspire trust and people will steal by contracts and legal agreements; create benevolence and righteousness to ensure honesty and even in this instance benevolence and righteousness teach them to steal.
How do I know all this?
This one steals a buckle and he is executed, that one steals a country and he becomes a ruler. Yet it is at the gates of rulers that benevolence and righteousness are professed. Surely this is a case of the wisdom of the sages, benevolence and righteousness being stolen?
-          Chapter 10, Broken Suitcases

The above text is pointing out that moral or religious language functions just like the buckles on the suitcase. It might thwart the petty thief who would steal a little but it profits the master thief who would take the whole bag or country or culture. I would consider this a fair depiction of how Christianity as a more moral system could establish a harsher tyranny than its predecessors. The language of sin and God’s law are effective at reducing petty crime but are useful for the perpetration of  great crimes such as the Inquisition.

Rather than fill this post with endless quotes from the book of Chuang Tzu I’ll just urge readers to seek it out. It might be more helpful to leave off an ancient Daoist text anyway because I can find illustrations of its principles in my own life.

Parenting can be a form of “moral government”. Classically the patriarch is supposed to impose moral order on his household and even when the maleness of that role is rejected it is still seen as the adult’s responsibility to rule wisely and justly. However just as the Daoists would imagine, all attempts at parental rules for good bring their harms. For example it’s been important to me to teach my child to express thanks when someone does something for her as a matter of basic manners. As I teach her this because I teach the rule that one should show gratitude I am also inevitably teaching her something else. I am teaching her that she shouldn’t do anything for others without an expectation of gratitude. That’s not so ideal.

A friend of mine who has a teenage child told me they recently asked their family, “Can we try not be so right all the time?” That’s a brilliantly concise summary of the dilemma of moral parenting. The point of a family is not that it operates justly but that it sustains life and shares love. The former can sometimes hinder the latter.

Anyone who has witnessed their pre-school child parenting another younger child knows exactly what I am talking about. At that age your child is a literal and concrete thinker who will pretty much parent the other child into a small cage if not stopped. The brutal reality is however that they are only reflecting our own parenting. They are carrying it to its perfectly logical conclusion. I think this is what logical moral government looks like when there isn’t a pluralistic culture to restrain it; when “the good guys” win.

What then is the point of any parenting you may wonder if it isn’t to be right? I once made the sweeping statement that the young are more interested in being right than the old. A young person replied, “Everyone wants to be right,” as if any alternative was unimaginable, after all no-one wants to be wrong. However happy and healthy are also valid goals. Non-violent may even be a goal in itself. Safe is a perfectly reasonable goal.

In western philosophy our immediate reaction to this is that it is cowardice or selfishness. Longevity and contentment are to be condemned as unworthy goals of spiritual or scientific people. At the end of a recent Australian television debate between Archbishop Pell and Professor Dawkins an intersting question was asked of Dawkins. They wanted to know what Dawkins thought about justifying theism on the basis of its health benefits “even if it is an illusion.” Dawkins called this a trivial question in relation to the more important question of whether God really exists or doesn’t. Pell agreed and added that his life would be “much simpler and much easier” if he wasn’t defending Christian principles but that it’s not about a long stress free life so much as the truth. I wonder if this isn’t a perfect illustration of our problem in Western philosophy. Should we challenge these priorities?

Our life has a boundary but there is no boundary to knowledge,
to use what has a boundary to pursue what is limitless is dangerous,
with this knowledge, if we still go after knowledge we will run into trouble.
Do not do what is good in order to gain praise,
if you do what is bad be sure to avoid the punishment,
Follow the Middle Course, for this is the way to keep yourself together,
to sustain your life, to care for your parents and to live for many years.
-          Chapter 3 The Nurturing of Life

This contrasts sharply with;
 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39 NASB)

I have always understood this passage as calling us to find eternal life by adhering to that which is eternal and universal truth. This is the path of what Soren Kierkegaard calls the Hero of Faith in Fear and Trembling. This is the Socratic idea of the good life. The consequences of this are not happiness and long life;
Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. (Luke 12:50)

In Daoism all this would be called “the fault of the sage” who “infected all under Heaven with his offer of benevolence and righteousness”. Chuang Tzu would agree with Jesus that this will only lead to unhappy homes and a strife-torn world.

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