Freedom as Social Responsibility, Part II

Progress for democracy lies in enhancing the actual freedom, initiative, and spontaneity of the individual, not only in certain private and spiritual matters, but above all in the activity fundamental to every man’s existence, his work. [i]


Erich Fromm

In part I, I explored freedom as a social activity. Describing it as radical freedom, I suggested that freedom isn’t so much what I can do, but what I can do for others. Continuing along that theme, I’ll look at freedom through the lenses of theology and political psychology.

Erich Fromm (1900-1980), the preeminent twentieth century social psychologist and psychoanalyst, in his analysis on fascism, describes freedom as a potentially destructive pull between two opposite spheres: the individual and the social. Freedom becomes a negative force whenever one pole is emphasized at the expense of the other. A complete surrender of our freedom to the social (e.g. authority, government, institution) sacrifices individuality for security, thus leading to totalitarianism. However, freedom without a social component leads to isolation, terror, and fear. In either case one sacrifices responsibility.

Erich_Fromm_1974 (1)
Erich Fromm, 1974. Müller-May / Rainer Funk / CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE)

 

For Fromm, the answer to this problem (social vs. individual) is spontaneous activity, which he describes as the activity “of the total integrated personality [ii].” He writes,

Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world—with man, nature, and himself. Love is the foremost component of such spontaneity; not love as the dissolution of the self in another person, not love as the possession of another person, but love as spontaneous affirmation of others, as the union of the individual with others on the basis of the preservation of the individual self. [iii]

Thus, spontaneity is our ability to reach out and incorporate the experiences, culture, and narratives of others. Spontaneity affirms the world—our social environment—without sacrificing our individuality. The basis of such spontaneity originates in our willingness to embrace others as essential and vital to our own wellbeing. Consequently, spontaneity is the ultimate balance between individual and communal responsibility. It’s the realization that others are necessary for the continued development of my own mental and emotional well-being. I can’t be myself without others, nor can I be myself when absorbed by the community. The balance—individual/communal—is one vital to the active and creative spirit. Fromm states, “In all spontaneous activity this individual embraces the world. Not only does his individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified. For the self is as strong as it is active [iv]. Reaching out—affirming the other—is the ultimate expression of our individuality, spirit, and freedom. However, such an action is only possible if it is done in love. I cannot act for the well-being or others without the motivating force of love. Moreover, the same goes for our individuality. I cannot act in the best interest of others if I have no love for myself. As such, love for both others and ourselves is the key for acting responsibly. According to Fromm, our best defense against Fascism lies in our responsibility toward ourselves and others. Without one or the other, we’re easily swayed into sacrificing our freedom—and the responsibility that goes with it.

Fromm advocates for a positive freedom—freedom from authority to realize one’s individuality, and the freedom to act spontaneously for others. Positive freedom “is identical with the full realization of the individual’s potentialities, together with his ability to live actively and spontaneously” [v]. The free society is one that acts in the best interests of others by expanding the means and opportunity for a equal, just, and happy society for all. Such a society (comprised of fully-realized free individuals) acts not from the pressures of external forces (state, church, law, ideology, metaphysical ideal, and so on) but because it’s the right thing to do. Consequently, freedom becomes an individual and social responsibility. To be free is to act for others, being willing and able to address those areas where freedom is lacking. Fromm calls this the “victory of freedom.” It is the freedom of possibility, one in which life needs no other justification other than growth and happiness. In his words,

The victory of freedom is possible only if democracy develops into a society in which the individual, his growth and happiness, is the aim and purpose of culture, in which life does not need any justification in success or anything else, and in which the individual is not subordinated to or manipulated by any power outside of himself, be it the State or the economic machine. . . [v]

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) echoes this sentiment of Fromm. Freedom, according to Tillich, has an interdependent relationship with destiny. Explaining destiny, Tillich states, “Destiny points to this situation in which man finds himself, facing the world to which, at the same time, he belongs” [vi]. For Tillich, destiny isn’t an impersonal force that determines our future. Rather, destiny speaks to the dynamic relationship our freedom has with our environment—community, church, nation, world. Freedom isn’t an absolute, it’s tied to the people and places in which we are immersed. In fact, our freedom functions in correlation with the freedom of others. As such, each of us face a certain degree of determinism. We’re not free to do whatever we want. We’re constrained by our environment, not just by our actions, but also by opportunity. Simply put, some are not as free as others—e.g. career, economics, healthcare, etc.

Like Fromm, Tillich considers freedom to be tied to two conflicting poles: individual freedom and destiny. Despite the conditioned nature of our freedom, Tillich considers destiny to be a necessary condition. The unity of the human individual exists and functions within this tension between freedom and destiny. Freedom, without destiny—i.e. others—loses its meaning. Tillich writes,

To lose one’s destiny is to lose the meaning of one’s being. Destiny is not a meaningless fate. It is necessity united with meaning. The threat of a possible meaningless is a social as well as an individual reality. There are periods in social life, as well as in personal life, during which this threat is especially acute. Our present situation is characterized by a profound and desperate feeling of meaninglessness. Individuals and groups have lost any faith they may have had in their destiny as well as any love of it. . . . The loss of a meaningful destiny involves the loss of freedom also. [vii]

There is no such thing as freedom alone. Our freedom is conditioned (positively and negatively) by our environment. Where we live, the things that matter to us, and the work that we do is in some way tied to our destiny, our environment. And yet, how we live, which things matter to us, and the work we choose to do is a matter of freedom. Consequently, destiny imparts meaning upon our freedom. Our ability to care, to make our world better results from destiny. Losing our destiny runs the risk of a host of abuses. Individually speaking this means losing oneself within a meaningless life. Socially this is the disastrous loss of community—existential isolation (loss of destiny) affects us both individually and socially.

Tillich describes freedom as a manifestation of the total self. Meaning that “every part and every function which constitutes man a personal self participates in his freedom” [viii]. Freedom, as far as Tillich is concerned, isn’t just one part of our being. Freedom comprises every aspect of being. Each of us, at least ontologically, is free. Such freedom is experienced through what Tillich describes as deliberation, decision, and responsibility [ix]. Deliberation and decision relate to our ability to evaluate several options, ultimately choosing one option over others. Obviously, our freedom involves choosing one path at the expense of others. The opening of one door implies the closing of others. Logically, we might consider this the end of freedom. We evaluate our options and make a decision. Interestingly however, Tillich adds a third experience of freedom—responsibility. Our freedom implies responsibility. We do not act in a vacuum. The choices that we make not only affect ourselves, they affect others as well. Thus, we are held accountable to the choices that we make in our freedom. According to Tillich,

The word ‘responsibility’ points to the obligation of the person who has freedom to respond if he is questioned about his decisions. He cannot ask anyone else to answer for him. He alone must respond, for his acts are determined neither by something outside him nor by any part of him but by the centered totality of his being. Each of us is responsible for what has happened through the center of his self, the seat and organ of his freedom. [x]

I believe this suggests something fundamentally important about freedom. Freedom suggests that we’re accountable for our actions. That is, we cannot act in our freedom without those actions having an effect on those around us. Consequently, what Tillich suggests is the interconnectedness between the individual and his or her environment. We cannot act independently from our environment, nor can we act without our decisions having an impact on our environment. As such, we are responsible for our actions, including the implications those actions have on our environment, community, nation, and world. Accordingly, destiny doesn’t just shape our freedom, the decisions we make also continue to shape our destiny. We stand within the tension between freedom and destiny. Though shaped by destiny (environment) our actions also shape the future of that destiny. Moreover, we can revolt against our destiny and the deterministic fate it holds over us. To have this alternative, to rebel against the status quo, reflects what it means to be free [xi]. To not act, to accept things as they are, is also a choice we make in our freedom.

What Tillich forces us to consider is the complex nature in which we live our freedom. Determined, but never fully so, we’re never left off the hook for our actions. To be free is to be responsible. To act or not to act, we’re ultimately left room to be spontaneous (returning again to Fromm). Freedom carries with it the willingness and necessity to risk ourselves for others. Freedom isn’t ours alone, but something that we share within a matrix of spheres—social, cultural, political, and religious. We can either choose to accept injustice or fight against it. We can live within inequality or rebel against it.  Our freedom is a finite freedom. It carries with it the expectation of learning from past mistakes, the willingness to make adjustments, and the desire to be transformed. Tillich describes it as the “actualizing of finite freedom” [xii]. There are perhaps several ways of interpreting this, but I connect this to what Tillich describes as “being a creature.” He states that to be a creature means “both to be rooted in the creative ground of the divine life and to actualize one’s self through freedom. Creation is fulfilled in the creaturely self-realization which is simultaneously freedom and destiny” [xiii]. Our freedom is a gift, within it contains our greatest attributes: independence, self-awareness, creativity, and so on. And yet, those gifts—inherited from the Fall—carry the burden of expectation. Our creative spirit isn’t ours alone. Our independent and creative spirit is forever dependent on its creative ground—God. This gift (our freedom) carries the expectation of responsibility. How will I use my gift of freedom? Will I use it selfishly for myself alone or for others?

However, a question still remains. What does it mean to be responsible? In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) thought, he affirms responsibility as an act in freedom. He writes,

To act out of concrete responsibility means to act in freedom—to decide, to act, and to answer for the consequences of this particular action myself without the support of other people or principles. Responsibility presupposes ultimate freedom in assessing a given situation, in choosing, and in acting. Responsible action is neither determined from the outset nor defined once and for all; instead, it is born in the given situation. [xiv]

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1987-074-16,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer, date unknown. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-16 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Bonhoeffer frames responsibility as an act of freedom within a given situation. Consequently, responsibility requires an acute judgement and awareness of the specific problems of one’s historical situation. To act responsibly means to act in the moment, not blindly applying an absolute (even an absolute good) from above, but using one’s freedom to enter into the situation. Responsibility, according to Bonhoeffer, is neither passive nor abstract. Instead, responsible action is the freedom to extend, to give of oneself to the situation at hand. Freedom doesn’t run from responsibility, it runs toward it. Thus, freedom and responsibility are bound within a complex and intertwined dynamic. We cannot be free of responsibility, nor can we be responsible without freedom. Bonhoeffer states,

 

Responsibility and freedom are mutually corresponding concepts. Responsibility presupposes freedom substantively—not chronologically—just as freedom can exist only in the exercise of responsibility. Responsibility is human freedom that exists only by being bound to God and neighbor. [xv]

Responsibility, according to Bonhoeffer, connects us to God and our neighbor. It is an act bound to the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves. It consists of action “nourished not by an ideology but by reality, which is why one can only act within the boundaries of that reality” [xvi]. Indeed, responsible acts are real acts. That is it means to shed the ideologies and coercive forces that compel us to act for ourselves rather than others. Thus, Bonhoeffer describes responsibility as conforming to Christ. We best exercise our freedom, and the responsibility it entails, when Christ is our model of freedom and responsibility. He states,

To act responsibly means to include in the formation of action human reality as it has been taken on by God in Christ. . . . No one has the responsibility of turning the world into the kingdom of God, but only of taking the next necessary step that corresponds to God’s becoming human in Christ. [xvii]

Our freedom doesn’t require us to “turn the world upside down” but to do what is right and necessary within our given context. Responsible action, enacted and carried out by freedom, “has to proceed step-by-step, ask what is possible, and entrust the ultimate step, and thus the ultimate responsibility, to another hand [xviii].” Here Bonhoeffer makes a subtle but key move. Responsibility isn’t ours alone. It’s not an action dependent on our individual will. Instead, responsibility is a social endeavor. We work to change the given situation together, rather than relying on our own might. Thus, freedom and responsibility work best when they’re socially enacted. Meaning that the work we do is work that should be done in correlation with our neighbors, community, and church. Consequently, meaningful social change must include a desire to embrace the social. Of course, such work begins with individuals willing to risk themselves for the possibility of social change. And yet, it can’t end with the individual alone. Our freedom and responsibility must include others. It must include others so that we can make that step-by-step change described by Bonhoeffer. Furthermore, socially minded freedom and responsibility ensures that our work doesn’t end with us. It continues on in the lives of others.

Today, I believe that we’ve lost the sense of responsibility and community that comes with living in a free society. We’ve lost what it means to be free. We lack that spontaneous outpouring of the self for others. Instead, we selfishly cling to “freedom” defending it as an individual right rather than one we all share in collectively. What Fromm, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer all affirm is the necessity of the social. Freedom shared, extended and expanded for all, is the best defense against the national and fascist ideologies we currently face both home and abroad. Freedom will always run the risk between the two poles of the individual and the social; freedom and destiny. And yet, what they show is that it’s necessary to live in the tension between both. Democracy best functions when our individual freedoms affirm, support, and work to extend the freedoms of others. And yet, doing so requires our work as individuals. It requires the hard efforts of those able to live as socially responsible individuals in community. True freedom isn’t guaranteed by the state or the individual. It’s guaranteed by the community living and working together as individuals in relationship.

Freedom as social responsibility is radical freedom. Freedom that is radically free is one that understands that the social isn’t optional. We can’t be free if we don’t care about others. Freedom that disregards migrants and immigrants, that celebrates in the extension of wealth to the few, that promotes racist and nationalistic ideology above love, isn’t freedom at all. It doesn’t model the radical freedom that Christianity is supposed to uphold. It fails to actualize the gift of freedom that God has bestowed upon us. To conclude, I think Bonhoeffer best expresses what it means to live in freedom. He writes,

Those who act on the basis of ideology consider themselves justified by their idea. Those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and judgement. . . . those who act in the freedom of their own responsibility see their action as both flowing into and springing from God’s guidance. [xix]

Featured Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash


[i] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Kindle Edition (Open Road Media), 270.

[ii] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 257. 

[iii] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 259.

[iv] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 260.

[v] Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 269.

[vi] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Volume I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 182-83.

[vii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 201

[viii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 183.

[ix] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 184.

[x] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 184 (Italics mine)

[xi] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 185.

[xii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 258.

[xiii] Tillich, Systematic Theology, 256.

[xiv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 221.

[xv] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 283.

[xvi] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 225.

[xvii] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 224-225.

[xviii] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 225. (Italics mine)

[xix] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 226.

 

 

In-Between Patriotism

This essay originally appeared on Progressive Southern Theologians (www.progressivesoutherntheologians.com). I encourage you to click the link for more progressive theological explorations of US politics, history, and religion. 

Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself – unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals. [i]


Richard Rorty

Nowadays, there is perhaps no term as loaded with controversy and confusion as patriotism. Indeed, the mere mention of the word stirs a host of conflicting opinions as to what it means to be patriotic. What are the proper actions and behaviors of patriotism? Who can or cannot be patriotic? Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, there is the question of the very idea of patriotism—particularly so for contemporary Christianity. Living in a worrying age of rising nationalism and border walls, many progressive Christians are left wondering: Is it okay to be patriotic?

Since Vietnam, the idea of patriotism has carried with it a particularly muddy history. Failed wars, questionable foreign policy decisions, economic uncertainty, and continued domestic unrest seemed to wear down the bright, unbridled, and unambiguous patriotic spirit of the pre- and immediate post-World War II era. In truth, American failures were a plenty prior to the Second World War. Yet, despite these failures, there remained some optimism that the professed ideals of the United States more than made up for these failures. One could trust in the long-term social project that we commonly describe as the “American dream.” It’s that same spirit of optimism that spurred the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) to write, “Government, business, art, religion, all social institutions have a meaning, a purpose. That purpose is to set free and to develop the capacities of human individuals without respect to race, sex, class or economic status” [iii]. Reflecting the spirit of that age, Dewey’s admiration and trust in the democratic process, describing it as the “supreme test of all political institutions,” is rare to see among the philosophers and thinkers of our time. In fact, it’s hard (and getting harder) to garner any positive feelings about our current social and political institutions.

Today, it’s hard to recapture this spirit of optimism, the trust we once placed in our political institutions. In many respects, the American project is suffering a crisis of confidence. Thus, it’s almost a truism to state that the confidence we had in our political institutions to “do the right thing” has been severely eroded. They’ve failed the “supreme test” that Dewey alluded to. As a result, we’re far more likely to expect these institutions to fail than succeed. As expected, such an attitude has long lasting consequences: apathy (why bother?) and nationalism (longing for the so-called “glory days”). Consequently, patriotism is either embraced or rejected, thus abandoning the term to the realm of radicalization (“Make America Great Again”). Patriotism suffers between the two poles of indifference and ultimacy. As such, it’s now a fraught term having no real ground beyond the most extreme of attitudes and ideologies.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, the preeminent pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) sought to recapture the spirit of patriotism. In his 1994 New York Times piece, “The Unpatriotic Academy,” Rorty suggests that the major problem facing the political left isn’t ideology, but patriotism. The left simply isn’t patriotic, consequently it “refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride” [iv]. For Rorty, patriotism isn’t about some uncritical acceptance of nationalism or a refutation of globalism; rather it’s the desire to live up to the founding ideals and vision of the nation—perhaps not as they are but as they could be. Thus, patriotism is our commitment to improve, expand, and implement the egalitarian vision of America. Patriotism is the choice to take pride in the national vision, to identify with it, and even rejoice in the unbounded possibilities such a vision represents.  

Rorty suggests that the worst mistake we can make is to reject our identity, our patriotism as Americans. For Rorty, the left had already made this mistake. That is in expanding—and rightly so—our idea of multiculturalism, the left failed to graft this vision into the American one. Instead, the left rejected the American vision and identity, choosing instead to keep these identities separate. Fear of a national identity contributes to a vacuum of identity, and without such a collective identity we’re unable to institute the social, economic, and political change our nation so desperately needs. Identity motivates our social responsibility and contributes to our collective shame—the shame associated with our failure to live up to the national ideals and visions we profess. Rorty writes,         

There is no contradiction between such identification and shame at the greed, the intolerance and the indifference to suffering that is widespread in the United States. On the contrary, you can feel shame over your country’s behaviour only to the extent to which you feel it is your country. If we fail in such identification, we fail in national hope. If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways. [v]

As progressives, we must not reject patriotism. Such a rejection is tantamount to an abandonment of the term to others who might not share our vision of a multicultural and open America. Indeed, to reject patriotism allows others to fill this void with visions of racism, sexism, violence, and hate. It leaves patriotism in the hands of those who would twist the American vision into one of xenophobia and isolationism. Those who are unwilling to offer the critique and challenge that patriotism requires, for patriotism without critique is dangerous and prone to the scourge of nationalism. Thus, what is required of us is a willingness to move our vision forward, courage to combat the narratives of hate, and the ability to admit when we are wrong. Such are the values that define true patriotism. It’s this pragmatic spirit, which President Obama so masterfully demonstrated at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches,

What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals? [vi]

The true sense of patriotism challenges the nation to live up to the values it claims to hold. It implies that you care, not just about the nation, but more importantly about the people living in that nation—your neighbors. Consequently, it’s an activity we share with one another. To be patriotic is to be patriotic for one another. Thus, the right kind of patriotism begins with “do unto others.” However, doing so requires us to perform two duties: the obligation to critique and the willingness to hope.

As progressive Christians, we would do well to take the words of Rorty and Obama to heart. We must be strong enough to take criticism, mature enough to handle shame, and wise enough to learn from past mistakes. We must find that balance between cynicism and nationalism. We need the careful, thoughtful, and action-oriented nature of what I’m calling in-between patriotism. This is the type of patriotism that can embrace protest without slipping into nihilistic despair. In-between patriotism finds no contradiction between being both proud and ashamed. Motivated by both hopefulness and vigilance, in-between patriotism holds both extremes in constant tension. Standing in-between is impossible for the individual alone. Eventually, we’ll be pulled to one side or the other: unbridled nationalism or nihilism. Holding ourselves within this tension requires the church—the community of faith. For the progressive Christian, the church is our greatest ally.

The church helps us as progressive Christians to remain, as King describes it, both “tough minded and tender hearted.” The work of the Christian necessitates that we continually live in this tension between strength and gentleness. King describes these two poles as a balance between “firmness” and “compassion.” It’s the ability to speak against injustice without becoming hateful. King writes,

Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. We must combine strongly marked antitheses. [vii]

In-between patriotism is the recognition that it’s our responsibility to be leaders for change, but we must care enough about our nation, about one another, to make that change. And yet doing so means we must also find that balance between anger and apathy. Progressive change requires patriotism, but it must be tempered with the balanced attitude of a tough mind and a tender heart. How do we do this? Admittedly, this seems incredibly difficult. But as I mentioned earlier, I believe that the church, our community of faith, offers us a distinct advantage. The church reminds us that this isn’t a task suited to one of us or even some of us. Progressive change requires all of us, the entire body, to institute the type of patriotism that will renew and reaffirm the openness, multiculturalism, and equality that we believe America represents. The church is our reminder of the collectivism and communalism required to work toward that American ideal. And while much of the American church has been lost to Trumpism, especially among evangelicals, I hold onto the hope that there’s still enough socially progressive Christians to do the work King suggests in “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” He writes,

You must be willing to challenge unjust mores, to champion unpopular causes, and to buck the status quo. You are called to be the salt of the earth. You are to be the light of the world. You are to be that vitally active leaven in the lump of the nation [viii]

In King, Rorty saw an individual with the ability to hold that tension between national identity and national shame. King was someone who “every American can be proud of” [ix]. As progressives, we shouldn’t seek to do away with patriotism, but re-appropriate it within the tension that Rorty advocated and King embodied. In-between patriotism holds that tension in conjunction with the church. And in doing so, I believe we stand a better chance of resisting and combating the rising tide of nationalism growing within our own nation.

Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash


[i] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, Kindle Edition (Penguin Books, 1999), 253.

[ii] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 254.

[iii] John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, Kindle Edition (Henry Holt and Company, 1920), 72.

[iv] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 252.

[v] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 254.

[vi] The White House, “Remarks by the President at the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Marches,” March 7, 2015, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/07/remarks-president-50th-anniversary-selma-montgomery-marches.

[vii] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Fortress Press, 2010), 6

[viii] King, Strength to Love, 147

[ix] Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, 253.

Freedom as Social Responsibility, Part I

The only thing to be done when we see anti-social acts committed in the name of liberty of the individual, is to repudiate the principle of “each for himself and God for all,” and to have the courage to say aloud in any one’s presence what we think of such acts. This can perhaps bring about a conflict; but conflict is life itself. [i]


Peter Kropotkin

What does it mean to be free? The question of freedom, both in speech and action, is one of the burning social questions of our age. Perhaps it’s the defining question of our time, for our answer to this question carries a significance that goes well beyond mere intellectual curiosity. I believe that how we answer (or at least approach) the question of freedom has much to say about who we are and the social values that we share with one another. Moreover, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the defining characteristic of humanity in all its social, cultural, and political implications. Freedom isn’t a question that we can answer without the utmost seriousness. Meaning that the question of freedom is instrumental for understanding ourselves both socially and individually. Freedom isn’t an individual question, it’s a social one. Thus, freedom remains ambiguous and incomplete until we answer this question socially.

Recently, I’ve found clarity on this question from those who arguably value freedom, so much so as to extend it beyond the bounds of conventional philosophical/theological thought. Admittedly, anarchism is an unlikely source for theological reflection—at least traditionally. Indeed, there are some who might suggest that it’s incompatible with Christianity. I don’t believe that, in fact, there are some aspects of anarchism (emphasis on community, free exchange, worker owned industry) that perhaps fit more neatly into Christian theology and thought than capitalism does. Of course, this is a discussion for another time. Suffice it to say, Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) and other anarchist writers offer an interesting perspective on many social, political, and economic issues. In many ways, the critiques of Kropotkin and other anarchist philosophers/activists are remarkably contemporary.

Returning to Kropotkin, he suggests that there are limits to how far we can extend freedom. Free acts carry the risk of abuse. Meaning that freedom naturally carries an inherent danger that may manifest itself into violent and disgusting actions. Given the risks, such danger can lead one to wonder if the cost of freedom is too high. In answering the question as to whether we should fear liberty, Kropotkin argues, “We need not fear the dangers and ‘abuses’ of liberty. It is only those who do nothing who make no mistakes” [ii]. For Kropotkin, freedom isn’t something bestowed upon people by governments, institutions, or even corporations. Instead, freedom originates from below—among those without power. Indeed, Kropotkin implies that the greatest danger isn’t freedom, but the idea of bounding freedom to an institution. The question we must ask ourselves isn’t about more-or-less freedom, but rather who is responsible for our freedom: the community or the institution?

Thus, Kropotkin suggests that freedom is a social responsibility. Freedom without social responsibility invites abuse, danger, and ultimately violence. Moreover, allowing the state to act as the lone safeguard of our freedom creates within us a sentiment that is passive and apathetic. Why should I speak if freedom isn’t my social responsibility? Consequently, should I act if someone commits a violent or hateful act in the name of “freedom of speech”? If freedom is the responsibility of the state to safeguard and manage then the answer is “No.” However, if freedom is our responsibility, both individually and communally, then our answer must be “Yes.” According to Kropotkin, “The ideal of liberty of the individual—if it is incorrectly understood owing to surroundings where the notion of solidarity is insufficiently accentuated by institutions—can certainly lead isolated men to acts that are repugnant to the social sentiments of humanity. [iii]” Freedom, when solely entrusted to an institution, is a breeding ground for despicable actions.

As such, freedom is our responsibility to maintain and uphold, particularly against those who would choose to abuse the freedom we so dearly value. For Kropotkin, freedom requires that we act with the courage to challenge those who commit “anti-social acts.” It is the duty of society, not the state or some other powerful institution, to act as a check against those who twist and manipulate freedom into a justification to hate. Such a social check runs the risk of conflict, but it’s a risk one must take in the name of freedom. To tolerate hate and hateful actions isn’t an appreciation of freedom, it’s running away from our social responsibility.

Anarchist writer, Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958), echoes this sentiment of freedom as social responsibility. Rocker maintains that freedom, when treated as an abstract and absolute philosophical ideal, loses it practical implications. Without any social checks, absolute freedom invites brutal abuses by those in power. Rocker writes:

Even freedom is only a relative, not an absolute concept, since it tends constantly to become broader and affect wider circles in more manifold ways. For the Anarchist, freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account. [iv]

Freedom, as far as Rocker is concerned, is a work-in-progress. It’s neither perfect nor complete but is instead pragmatic and transitional. Thus, our definition of freedom often reflects the current age and culture. For Rocker, our experience of freedom is tied to the question of power. Who has power and how is that power used to enforce freedom? Freedom, when wedded to the power of the state or institution, becomes an instrument of the powerful. And the state wields this freedom as an absolute, arbitrarily determining who may enjoy the “freedom” it so graciously gives.

In the United States for example, our freedom is provided for in the Bill of Rights and declared for in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, historically speaking, freedom better resembled a sliding scale rather than a fixed value. The freedom of United States allowed for institutional slavery, and later segregation, under the absolute concept that “All men are created equal.” This contradiction (abstract freedom vs. actual freedom) demonstrates the danger of entrusting our guarantee of freedom to the state. Freedom becomes an absolute guaranteed by the state, and the degree of that freedom depends on how the state interprets that freedom. And more often than not, the state will interpret that freedom in ways that benefit its own institutional power. Absolute freedom and absolute power are bound to one another. Rocker describes the danger of such power:

Power operates only destructively, bent always on forcing every manifestation of life into the straitjacket of its laws. Its intellectual form of expression is dead dogma, its physical form brute force. And this unintelligence of its objectives sets its stamp on its supporters also and renders them stupid and brutal, even when they were originally endowed with the best of talents. One who is constantly striving to force everything into a mechanical order at last becomes a machine himself and loses all human feeling. [v]

Today we see worrying signs of this mechanical order in our own society. We’re a witness to the means by which the powerful determine freedom. And unsurprisingly, it’s the powerful, the rule-makers and elites, who most enjoy the freedoms supposedly meant for all. The powerful, and those who follow and admire power, rule by fear; for the powerful praise absolute freedom for all, but in truth, they are fearful of those they have marginalized. True freedom of speech and action requires an extension and sharing of power, which few with power are willing to give up. So much so, that they’re even willing to extend that freedom to the morally reprehensible. What does it say about a society that works so hard to ensure that Nazis have freedom of speech? I believe it’s no mistake that we’re witnessing a worrying rise of neo-Nazi, alt-right, and other hate groups. These groups are keenly aware of the freedoms that have been extended to them. They thrive in the absolute freedom guaranteed by the powerful, the institutions, and the elites. Today such groups speak and act publicly without fear. Why? Because while morally reprehensible, Nazis understand the mechanical order—the order of privilege (particularly white privilege)—by which our government operates. Hate loves the absolute freedom of institutions.

The freedom of the powerful is the freedom of privilege, which prefers the voices of the powerful over the weak. Privilege questions, and is suspicious of those, who would exercise their freedom to speak against the powerful, sometimes violently so as we saw in the Kavanaugh hearings. Some people’s freedom appear to outweigh others. Why else would so many come to the defense of Alex Jones’ right to speak while subsequently ignoring those without a voice—the immigrant, marginalized, poor, etc.? Where are those fighting for their right to speak? Why are we so obsessed with providing a platform for hate? It’s what happens when absolute freedom is entrusted to governments and institutions (even corporations, e.g. YouTube) at the expense of communal social responsibility. The freedom of the state is the freedom of power and privilege.

The state is capable only of protecting old privileges and creating new ones; in that its whole significance is exhausted. [vi]

In contrast, Kropotkin and Rocker consider freedom a social responsibility. It’s freedom for rather than to. Meaning that we must abandon freedom in terms of what I can do, exchanging it for the freedom of what I can do for others. This, which I consider radical freedom (drawing upon the radicalness of the gospels), is the choice to work so that all may enjoy what privileges and opportunities our society has to offer. What I call radical freedom, indirectly relates to what philosopher Gianni Vattimo (1936-) describes as “projectuality.” While not discussing freedom per se, Vattimo uses the term projectuality as a way of describing our social responsibility toward one another. Vattimo flips responsibility away from absolute norms and laws (freedom as an absolute—i.e. metaphysical law) and redirects responsibility back to the individual. Our duty isn’t to carry out freedom as a law of the state, institution, or church, it’s to live that freedom individually and socially. Moreover, our responsibility is to each other, not to an absolute ideal.

If the ‘ultimate’ source of equality is projectuality, recognized as everyone’s right and duty, then it becomes perfectly clear that this is not true equality unless all people have the chance to alter their own situations in the world through projects that will need consensus and collaboration if they are to be effectively realized. [vii]

I believe this connects into something fundamentally important concerning freedom. Freedom isn’t about the individual alone. Freedom shouldn’t isolate but instead connect us to one another. How we act and treat one another, how we support and love others, affects the quality of our freedom; our actions shape freedom into either something destructive or uplifting. Our freedom should contribute to the overall work for equality and opportunity for all. As such, freedom is the continual work for the freedom of all. Our projectuality is thus our “right and duty” to use our freedom responsibly—freedom works for the freedom of all.

Rather than perpetuating the mechanical order, a world of absolutes and unquestioning laws, Vattimo redirects our attention toward the social situation. Freedom, if it’s indeed something we value, originates in the social situation and not in an institution. Therefore, freedom originates and is perpetuated in our ongoing efforts to remedy and improve the systemic structures of inequality within our own society. Simply put, freedom isn’t possible when large portions of our society are unable to feed, clothe, or improve their lives. The responsible society, the free society, is the one that makes the reduction of inequality its guiding principle. The free society doesn’t just selfishly enjoy freedom, rather the free society endeavors to extend that freedom—manifested as opportunity and equality—for all. The free projectuality Vattimo describes is a social guarantee that strikes at the heart of inequality, asking what can be done so others can enjoy the full extent of freedom. Vattimo writes,

What it comes down to is applying the law in such a way as to correct the ‘natural’ inequalities into which we are born, whether physical ‘deformity’ or the uneven distribution of the good of ‘fortune,’ while never losing sight of the overriding value—the freedom to project oneself. This will mean concentrating on the circumstances in which individuals start life, not the outcomes, and the correction of inequality might have to be carried out in successive stages. . . [viii]

Vattimo frames his conception of free projectuality through the lenses of the state. I instead (without discounting the responsibility of the state) would envision projectuality primarily through the community. Freedom begins and ends in the community, while also incorporating the efforts of socially responsible individuals working for the good of the community. Moreover, combating hate, inequality, injustice, and marginalization depends upon a free society, one that isn’t just free, but radically so. As alluded to earlier, radical freedom isn’t the selfish absolute freedom of states or institutions. Radical freedom is that which unselfishly extends, and if necessary, sacrifices personal freedom for the betterment of the most vulnerable—a free society isn’t necessarily the freest society. Moreover, radical freedom is the defense of those who have no voice, it’s the freedom to say and combat that which isn’t right. It’s the willingness to have the courage to stand against those who commit antisocial acts (as Kropotkin and Rocker alluded to) through public protest, as toleration of hate is socially irresponsible.

In part II, I’ll continue this exploration through theological lenses. Using what has been done in part I, the follow up will incorporate insights from Fromm, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich, as well as social theory.

Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash


[i] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal, Kindle Edition (Anarcho-communist institute, 2013), Kindle Locations 789-791.

[ii] Kropotkin. Anarchism, Kindle Locations 781-782.

[iii] Kropotkin. Anarchism, Kindle Locations 784-786.

[iv] Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Kindle Edition (ChristieBooks, 2017), Kindle Locations 678-681.

[v] Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, Kindle Locations 704-708.

[vi] Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, Kindle Locations 612-614.

[vii] Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, & Law (Columbia University Press, 2003), 103.

[viii] Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation, 107.

 

A Reflection for Ava

A beautiful face is perhaps the only place where true silence is to be found.


– Giorgio Agamben, “Image and Silence” [i]

Ava, my little love.

What do I see when I look at you? I see me; I see your mother—I see you. In you I see the amazing convergence of past love. You carry the past, mine and your mother’s. Your presence is brand new and yet it is not. For within you is the enduring past—the love of your parents. Your being, our past, the shared joy of shared life. Ava, in you I see the miraculous and mysterious awe of life—the wonderment of being. You’re a testament to the beauty of the past, its end and beginning—the past birthed into the present.

What do I see when I look into your eyes? I see my eyes, your mother’s eyes—your eyes.  In you I see the blissful now. I look at you and the newness of your being astounds me to no end. For in the newness of your existence I see my joie de vivre—my joy of life. And though you’ve yet to discover your own being, in you my being finds its purpose. Your eyes carry the present, not as a burden, but as an opportunity. In your eyes I see the opportunity to connect, to share, and to love. Thus, your eyes fill me with hope. A hope built on the togetherness we share each moment—mother, father, and child. The hope that every day is an opportunity to live in the fullness of being-with.

What do I see when I look into your face? I see my face, your mother’s face—your face. In your beautiful face I discover the silent future. I see a peaceful present that awaits the future with confidence and eagerness. When I see your face, I see your future. This future silently resides in your face. The future waits for you, beckons to you, and offers that you fill it with your presence. I see the expectation of this future in your face, your eyes, and your body. I too await this future with you, yearning to discover how your presence will mold and shape the days, the months, and the years ahead. In your face I see the culmination of the past, the joy of the present, and the silent expectation of the future.

“For this reason, in the face, and there alone, is [humanity] truly at home” [ii]

Ava, in you I better understand the liminality that we carry within us. The way that each one of us uniquely carry the past, present, and future within our being. For in you I see my own past, present, and future. In you I see what I’ve desired to see for so long.

In your face I’m truly at home.

[i] Giorgio Agamben, “Image and Silence,” DIACRITICS 40 (2) 94-98, 2012.

[ii] ibid.

Photo by Tj Holowaychuk on Unsplash

 

 

True Words

Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.[i]


Paulo Freire

What are true words? Reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed reminded me of the complex relationship between word and action. Idle words, stated without transformational action, are vapid and empty. Words, if we consider them truthful, must at some level reflect, engage, and change the world in which we speak them. Hence, the truthfulness of words must correspond with reality. To speak, as Paul Ricouer noted, is “to say something about something.”[ii] Moreover, that something is the reference of our speech. Words find life through use—the activities we do to connect speech with reality. For example—to borrow a phrase from Noam Chomsky—the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,”[iii] is obviously fantastical. We can clearly see that this sentence, while grammatically correct, has absolutely no correspondence to any action or behavior within our reality. Words require actions—implementation that has some correlative relationship with reality.

Unceasingly, our political system perpetuates a broken system of both empty words and oppressive action. Our politicians were notorious for promising everything and giving nothing. The vapid and insipid inaction of our political parties allowed for the continuation of an oppressive status quo, one which ignored inequality, civil rights, affordable healthcare, and gun violence (to only name a few). At best, the empty words of the so-called “establishment” emphasized the need to do something, but it was never the “right time” to do that something. Of course, none of this is very surprising. Our government is cruelly and purposefully inefficient. As such, words and promises from Washington were about as useful as saying, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” which is to say not very useful at all.

True words require action, but action without reflection is also oppressive. There is no truth in domination. Furthermore, true words require justification and dialogue. Thus, power does not make our words true. True words originate in the potential they have to initiate a dialogue. Herein lies the greatest mistake of those in power—the assumption that power is its own justification. Words without reflection are oppressive, and words without action are hollow. Alone both contribute their fair share of suffering upon others through either inaction or subjugation.

Hollow words, while undeniably cruel, at least offered the semblance of truth. Nothing was done of course, but it gave us some small ounce of hope that something might be done. Though perhaps it is better that our politicians finally removed the happy veil by which they hid their true motivations—power and oppression. Today’s brand of politician is one that acts without reflection. They implement words of power by force, and inflict that force upon the powerless. The powerful, with no pretense to the truth, act as if their words are true.

Of course, you can still find the remnants of the old system of deception. The White House Press Secretary still regularly talks to the press. She offers meaningless and hollow words that pays lip service to the past, knowing full well that no one buys it. This facade fools no one, and yet it continues for reasons of which no one is quite clear about—tradition perhaps? However, for the most part, the new forms of oppression have dismantled the old political systems. No matter the cost, this new authoritarian system makes words true through power and sheer will.

I have no interest in repeating the words of our President and his political lackeys. They do not need repeating. It is enough to say that the words we hear today are those of hatred and fear. Their words stoke a national fear against those who we need not to fear. They use words without reflection or foresight. Their words demonstrate a love for what Freire describes as a “necrophilic” love of oppression, “nourished by love of death, not life.”[iv] Our government institutes a violence that exploits the oppressed, making them into little more than objects for domination. The President offers words of power, which have no foundation in reality. As such, he must thereby “transform everything surrounding it into an object of its domination.”[v]

Words of power depend on objectification and domination. Having no truth or validity, the powerful must nevertheless create some foundation to justify their rhetoric. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of words of power. The more tedious power’s foundation, the most desperate are its attempts to justify and make that power legitimate. Word of power create justification through antagonism, division, and hatred—the tools of objectification. As such, it isn’t surprising when the President utters outright falsehoods. His motivation is quite clear. Power, ignorant of reflection and dialogue, can only act in its own interests—the continual perpetuation of power for itself. In this light, Make America Great Again (MAGA) isn’t just a political slogan. It is the rallying cry for oppression. Whom must we objectify to make America “great?”

Words, without reflection and action, inevitable oppress. Hollow words oppress through inaction. Words of power oppress through fear. Both demonstrate the inevitable consequences of words from authority. Those in power ultimately do not care about the powerless. For Freire, true words arise through liberative praxis.

Freire describes that true words require both reflection and action—praxis. Reflection originates in our ability to enter into dialogue with others. Thus, reflection is our ability to engage critically with those around us—not out of fear, but in solidarity. Dialogue is our most important tool for critical thinking and encountering the rich diversity that our world has to offer. Reflection forces us to consider our words in the context of people. Moreover, reflection—originated by dialogue—forces us to see that true words also require action. For our words to be true, they must engage in the concrete reality of the situation.

Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world…Human are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.[vi]

For Freire, we (humanity) cannot exist in silence. We must speak to and name our world. We have a desire to be heard. True words (dialogical and engaging) affirm our humanity. Words without action ignore our humanity, and words without reflection objectify our humanity. True words acknowledge our humanity and affirm that humanity through action. Therefore, true words are liberative. They acknowledge and affirm in order to “liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.”[vii]

True words find no firm basis in the individual’s will or power. One cannot make truth out of falsehoods. One’s own individual desire cannot create truth. Nor can one institute validity by force or bravado. Instead, true words originate in cooperative dialogue within the community. To speak true words is to speak in love, not power. Love embodies both reflection and action. For in love we discover how to be both empathetic and motivated to make change. Love alone harbors our desire to care and to act. As such, true words are those that not only show compassion through contemplative reflection, but also back up those words through willful and passionate action. Reflection without action is false love; action without reflection is a breeding ground for hate and suffering.

How do we speak true words? It begins with the desire to cooperate instead of dictate. True words, loving words, derive power from “below.” True words emerge in our desire to reflect upon and act for social change. Such words result in the dismantlement of illegitimate power—power without reflection and action. True words are the impetus for cultural revolution—“Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.”[viii] Moreover, this transformation also embodies our commitment to process and change. This transformation, enacted by true words, embodies our hope for a more just future.

Hope is rooted in [humanity’s] incompletion, from which they move out in constant search—a search which can be carried out only in communion with others.[ix]

True words are not the properties of institutions, governments, or even churches. The backing of an institution does not make our words true. Such places may comprise the grounds where true words may emerge, but only within the confines of dialogue, cooperation, and community. Thus, our institutions derive their truthfulness not from power, but from the true words spoken and acted upon in love. Among institutions, I believe the church is one of the few remaining institutions where the potential for true words still exists. Perhaps not as it is (especially in this dark political/nationalist climate) but in its potential to serve as the model of love and truthfulness of word—churches that dialogue and act with their communities.

Going forward, the role of theology seems clear to me. The role of theology isn’t to propagate dogma or the church as an institution. Its role isn’t to establish the metaphysical and/or philosophical foundations for such an institutional church. Instead, the role of theology is to reawaken the spirit of true words—words motivated and acted upon in love. Theology must become a model of a liberative praxis within our communities. For theologians, this means shifting our focus away from speculative and metaphysical positions, and re-awakening our drive for social and economic justice. Such a focus requires that theology become culturally dialogical and action-oriented. As such, this new praxis means that theological words must be true words—words that go beyond the confines of churches and academic institutions. Consequently, this means learning how to enact a new theological praxis that may serve to guide and further strengthen our communities (both secular and religious).

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.[x]

This means speaking true words against oppressive social and economic practices and policies that target the poor and marginalized. This means speaking true words that transform churches into models of communal justice that work on behalf of the poor and marginalized. This means speaking true words that commit to a cultural revolution. A revolution not built out of power or might, but one built upon dialogue, cooperation, and equality—communities of love. This means using true words to create true communities.

[i] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 87.

[ii] Ricoeur, “Structure, Word, Event,” 114.

[iii] See Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures.

[iv] Freire, 77.

[v] Freire, 58.

[vi] Freire, 88.

[vii] Freire, 95.

[viii] Freire, 87.

[ix] Freire, 91.

[x] Ephesians 4:29 (NRSV)

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash (Quote by Tim Etchells)

The Only Question about God that Matters

The only image of God is the face of our neighbor, who is also the sibling of God’s First-Born, of God’s own likeness (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). Our human neighbor now becomes a “sacrament” of God’s hidden presence among us, a mediator between God and humanity. Every authentic religious act is directed toward the concreteness of God in our human neighbors and their world. There it finds its living fulfillment and its transcendent point of contact. Could humanity be taken more seriously than that? Is anything more radically anthropocentric than God’s creative love?


Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 175-178). Kindle Edition.

Is there a God?—For many theologians and philosophers, there is no greater question to debate than the question of God’s existence. Some may even consider it the quintessential theological task. It is the worrisome and nagging question by which all of theology (and some philosophy) is built upon. After all, an unfavorable answer (at least for theologians) would quite rightly call into question the entire theological enterprise. Consequently, the question—God’s existence—remain at the very least unanswerable.

The question of God’s existence is an intellectual one. For most of us it’s a playful question of idle speculation. As a culture, many obsess over how we answer the God question. Personally, I’ve never devoted much interest into national and global polls regarding God’s existence. Quite frankly, how a society answers that question doesn’t matter all that much to me. It’s fun for pundits and pollsters to argue about a nation’s growing or waning religiosity, but to me such questions fail to adequately consider the values, ethics, and actions of a nation of society. Does a belief in God translate into moral and ethical behavior—who knows? Supposedly somewhere around 80% of Americans believe in God, which is much higher than most European nations. From this we’re lead to believe that somehow this tells us something meaningful about Americans and Europeans—though what that is I can’t begin to determine.

Our answer on God’s existence—yes, no, maybe—supposedly sheds light on who we are as individuals. Perhaps it does, though I doubt it’s anything deep or insightful. But in terms of what matters, the most important question to consider is not God’s existence. The most important question, the only question that truly matters is—Where do we encounter God? For this question should take precedent over every other question we might ask of God. Thus, the question isn’t if there is a God, rather it’s a question of how we see God within the world. Our answer to this seemingly simple question has profound implications on how we live, act, and work within the world. It influences our morality and ethics. It shapes our actions and behaviors. The question about God is a question of encounter not existence.

The question of encounter is important because it is a matter of what we seek in asking the question. Do we seek to debate or prove an idea—the concept of God—or do we seek to find and experience God within the world? Because ultimately, it’s a question of how we see others.

Where do we encounter God?—Within this question lies our understanding of morality, ethics, community, and mostly importantly, love. In Poverty of Spirit, Johannes Baptist Metz suggests a radical shift of our (theological or otherwise) perspective of God. This shift doesn’t employ the use of lengthy systems, logical constructs, or arguments from nature that we typically find in apologetics. His work isn’t a defense in that sense. But subtly, Metz forces us to reconsider how we see God through simple but powerful statements such as, “The only image of God is the face of our neighbor.” This isn’t a new or novel idea, but it is one that Metz positions as critical to our own humanity. Our failure to see God in others is a failure of humanity.

In the judgment scene, God is visible only in the visage of other human beings. Blessed are they who have served their neighbors and cared for their needs; cursed are they who have selfishly disregarded their brothers and sisters and rejected the light of love and human community. The latter, in trying to enrich and bolster their own selves, have turned their neighbor into the enemy and thus created their own hell.


Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 183-185). Kindle Edition.

For Metz, the question of God is a question that considers others. It’s a question of place rather than moral, metaphysical, or ontological arguments. Met’s claim that “God is visible only in the visage of other human beings” is both radical and freeing. In one fell swoop, Metz simplifies the whole of Christian though and theology. Consequently, there is only one theological question worth considering. It’s a question that doesn’t ask but convicts. What do you see when you look into the face of your neighbor? Metz doesn’t so much care if we believe in God—at least the God of the theologians and philosophers. What he cares about is where we meet God. This is a question we must ask of ourselves.

Metz creates a dichotomy between those that see God in others and those that only see themselves. The one who sees God within others is moved to care for those others. The one who looks with selfish rejection of the other is only moved to reject and abandon. For Metz, the question of God carriers with it the upmost seriousness. It suggests the difference between love and fear, charity and hate. The question about God is a question that reflects our values.

Poverty of spirit does not bring us from human beings to God by isolating these components into separate rate little packages: God-me-others. (God can never be just one more reality alongside others.) It operates through the radical depths of human encounter itself. In total self-abandonment and full commitment to another we become completely poor, and the depths of infinite mystery open up to us from within this other person. In this order, we come before God.


Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 185-188). Kindle Edition.

To seek God within others is to abandon the easy compartmentalization Metz describes as “God-me-others.” God-me-others is about estrangement. It represents the separation between myself and you, you and God, God and others that characterizes the deep divisions within our society. To overcome these divisions, Metz asks us to consider another possibility. One where we live in the knowledge of the encounter. The knowledge that we encounter God in the faces of those we meet each day. That meeting the other is nothing less than an encounter with the divine mystery that should stir within us love, compassion, and humility. Because ultimately—and I believe Metz would agree with this sentiment— encountering God in others is the only way God makes sense.

God is the God of encounter, not the principles and logical notions of the philosophers and theologians. God is the God of the mercy, not the name we print on money and national seals. God is the God of humility and love, not the God we piously insert self-importantly into public ceremonies and sporting events. God is the God of weakness and service, not the God of the politicians who only care about power. The God we so passionately debate about and argue for isn’t the object of our inquiry but is the God who dwells within the faces of those that suffer injustice at the hands of the powerful.

The question of encounter is one we must ask ourselves every day, not as an intellectual curiosity, but as a moral imperative. Where do we encounter God? is the imperative that moves us to acknowledge that we have a responsibility toward other people. We must care for others—not as those alien or foreign to us, but as those who carry the image of God. As such, we cannot act as if other people are unimportant or inferior to ourselves. Because in them, especially those abandoned by society, we encounter God.

We often keep the other person down, and only see what we want to see; thus we never really encounter the mysterious secret of their being, only ourselves. Failing to risk the poverty of encounter, we indulge in a new form of self-assertion and pay a price for it: loneliness. Because we did not risk the poverty of openness (cf. Mt. 10:39), our lives are not graced with the warm fullness of human existence. We are left with only a shadow of our real self.


Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit (Kindle Locations 255-258). Kindle Edition.

The inability to see others as bearers of God’s image leaves us only with the cruel mirror of our own selfishness. Others then must bear the symptoms of our selfishness, a selfishness of denial and rejection. It is the selfishness of separation and objectification, which leaves us only with lenses of power, cruelty, hatred, and greed. We “only see what we want to see; thus we never really encounter the mysterious secret of their being, only ourselves.” Consequently, this denial of God-in-others leaves us bitter and alone. And as lonely and separated people, we’re unable to temper our worse impulses—the symptoms of selfishness.

What I want to consider is the person as a liminal space of encounter. This begins with a radical departure from the ways we typically talk and think about God. Moreover, it involves a radical reorientation of the questions we ask about God. It begins with asking ourselves not what we see when we look into the face of another. Such a question should move us toward an honest engagement with how and why we treat others the way we do. The other, as encounter, offers an alternative to introspective questions about God that offer little in the way of relevance or practicality. However, questions about God that begin with an outwardly focus suggest a better starting point for engagement. More importantly it puts on a path to seriously consider how we view others in real and tangible terms. And hopefully better enables us to encounter the mystery and the divine image of God with our neighbors. The other offers us the opportunity for compassion and love.

I don’t know how to stop people from treating one another with cruelty and hatred. I frankly don’t understand our society of selfishness, greed, and apathy toward others. Nor do I understand how we can justify the ways we treat the marginalized and poor within our own society. We have a lot of work to do if we cannot see the face of God in the little children arriving at our border. The separation of immigrant children from their parents demonstrates that when we look at others we only see ourselves—American First.

I believe that human kindness begins with an intentional and sustained effort at seeing others not as strangers, but as people who bear the image of God. Where do we see God?—What we may see may surprise us if we’ll allow it.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’


Matthew 25:35-40 (NRSV)

 

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Justice is Blind

For us to try to go back to tell black people in the community that justice is blind, they’ll say, ‘you’re right. It is so blind that they can’t see us. It is so blind to whenever something happens to one of us, we get the max if we don’t get killed first.’ And so, it is blind.


John R. Hatcher III – Quoted from LA 92

Civil rights leader John R. Hatcher III made this statement following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the assault of Rodney King. Despite clear video footage, four officers walked away free of all charges. As it turned out, footage alone wasn’t enough to see a black man nearly beaten to death by four white police officers. That day, justice was blind. Because many, particularly the jurors, only saw four human beings in that video. A juror was later quoted stating, “A lot of those blows, when you watched them in slow motion, were not connecting.” No doubt this is a chilling statement. Who were the police brutalizing? Apparently no one in this juror’s eyes. For all intents and purposes, this juror did not see the person on the other end of the police baton. Rodney King might as well not have existed.

Justice was blind that day, but this blindness did not come without consequences. The acquittal sparked the costliest riot in U.S. history, resulting in over a billion dollars worth of damages and 63 deaths. The riot itself was brutal and harsh, a result of the decades of blindness by the American justice system. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 were meant to be a watershed event, as Mark Davis of the The Nation penned in June of ’92. In the aftermath of the riots, a weary nation was supposed to finally see the decades of injustice it had inflicted on the black community. Sadly, this watershed event never materialized. As it turns out, very little has changed since 1992. American justice remains blind.

America is blind. Its justice is wielded in ways that are increasingly cruel and unkind toward those it fails to see. Lady Justice, blindfolded with the scales of justice in hand, represents the supposed equality of the judicial system. She is the enduring symbol of objectivity and fairness, a reminder that all people (no matter their color, creed, or status) will receive the same treatment. It is a remarkable ideal. But there is a fundamental flaw with it. This blindness can become an injustice. A blindness that no longer sees the other as a person, or as a human being, is neither fair nor objective. For how can justice be just if it cannot see me or you? How can justice be just if it continually fails to see suffering and injustice?

Lady Justice is a symbol of something larger. She has become the symbol of our cultural blindness. As a symbol she encapsulates our desire to be a nation “with liberty and justice for all,” while remaining blind to those that don’t fit within our definition of all. It’s therefore fitting that a blindfolded Lady Justice is our cultural symbol of justice and fairness. Our justice is truly blind. So blind that we’re unable to see anyone else.

Justice is blind, and it cruelly extends into the American present in ever new and frightful ways. Our inability to see the socially and economically marginalized threatens whatever moral fabric our nation still desperately clings to. Granted, this blindness is woven into the core of the American experience. The atrocities committed against Native Americans, the institution of slavery and Jim Crow, and repression of women set the historical precedents of not seeing certain groups. Indeed, the US Constitution still bears the marks of this blindness.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.


Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 – United States Constitution

Three fifths of all other Persons. A damning example of our historical inability to see people. For until 1865, Southern blacks were not even seen, at least in the sense of being whole persons (its hard to make the case that you see me if I’m not lawfully considered a whole number). But for the United States, this is not particularly unusual. The Dred Scott case (1857) established that a slave or the descendant of a slave could not be an American citizen. The Dred Scott case is frequently touted by scholars as the Supreme Court’s worse decision, nevertheless it exists as a permanent reminder of America’s cultural and judicial blindness (as does the Three-Fifths compromise). Our blindness, and response to it, makes for a rather long list. Women’s right to vote (1920), the Civil Rights Act (1964), marriage rights for same-sex couples—Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and many more are all attempts to rectify perpetual American blindness. Thus, we have a long-established history of being unable to see certain people as people. Moreover, this history continues to linger uncomfortably into the present. Our blindness wasn’t just a temporary condition. It is in fact a persistant affliction, one that at this point remains incurable. Perhaps it is a case of treating the symptoms and not the disease, but clearly at this point our blindness continues to contribute to our inability to see others.

It’s not difficult to find contemporary evidence of our perpetual blindness. Our justice and prison system reminds us of this very fact. Today there remain large disparities when it comes to police force and imprisonment for blacks and Latinos, a trend that has continued since the inauguration of the “war on drugs” during the Nixon administration. Nixon’s own efforts, primarily motivated by his own racism, removed blacks and leftists by way of the war of drugs. Such a trend continued through both the Reagan and Clinton administrations—the 1994 crime bill and “mandatory minimums” were particularly devastating. Consequently, what we now have is an enforceable blindness. Policing and sentencing policy literally removed people from existence within our society. It’s much easier to remain blind to those you don’t want to see once you’ve removed them entirely.

As it turns out, we’re extremely good at removing people that we don’t want to see. Better than most in fact. We’ve managed to lock up 2 million people, constituting 25% of the world’s prison population. Not bad for a country that only represents 5% of the world’s population. Nothing about this is surprising, of course. The precedent for our blindness was established long ago. The methods for employing this blindness have changed, but the strategic goal remains the same. Within America, there are people that we simply don’t want to see. Our public policies continue to testify to that fact.

Today, many ignored, impoverished, and oppressed American communities (those left behind after policing) are nearing their boiling point. For these communities, there’s not much left to hold onto following housing disparities and segregation, over-policing, and income inequality. Furthermore, decades of perpetual blindness add up leaving numerous Americans without even so much as a semblance of the “American Dream.” Black and Latino communities are essentially segregated, policed, and ignored until they pass the boiling point. Riots in Ferguson and Baltimore are testaments to what happens when we ignore people. Eventually they will want to be heard, to be seen. For some, civil unrest and violence are their only methods to be seen by the rest of society.

What’s even more disturbing is that we have developed a more nuanced selective blindness. We’re selective about who we want to see and where we want to see them. Thus, there are now parameters to where and how I will see you. We’ve established designated areas of visibility. How else can we explain why white people continue to call the police on black people in public spaces? The simple answer is that our public areas aren’t truly public. Our society finds it uncomfortable to see certain types of people that we designate as our spaces. For black people, it’s apparently not okay to be seen in Starbucks, Nordstrom Rack, Yale, or even the neighborhood. However, we’re okay with seeing black people on the field or court with a jersey on. That’s fine, but only if you don’t kneel during the national anthem. America doesn’t want to see that. This phenomena, where and how black people can be seen, isn’t new of course. Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, we’ve seen neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and so on, informally designated socially as “white spaces.” Understandably, the boundaries of these are hard to navigate. Moreover, the penalties for violating these spaces are severe and hurtful. What’s politely called “racial profiling” can result in harassment or death. The lengths we’ll go to not see people are truly astounding.

Our blindness (either imposed or by choice) carries with it long lasting and devastating consequences. And yet despite the dangers, the powers that be remain willfully blind to the suffering of others. Such blindness is terrible and disturbing. And it establishes a dangerous precedent for the continuation of suffering. We’re so blind that we can’t see the destruction and devastation what we’re causing. We can’t see the effects that our actions and policies have on others. When we’re blind, we can’t accurately remember the suffering we’ve inflicted. Our collective self-induced blindness destroys our ability to see people. Noam Chomsky describes it as an “historical amnesia.”

Those who hold the clubs can carry out their work effectively only with the benefit of the self-induced blindness, which includes selective historical amnesia to evade the consequences of one’s actions.


Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead.


Noam Chomsky – Hopes and Prospects

Our blindness is a weapon. It give us the license to continue the perpetuation of violence and repression. Blindness alleviates our collective conscience—out of sight, out of mind. One of the greatest lies we tell ourselves in America is that “I can’t mistreat you if I can’t see you.” Clearly this little white lie isn’t so little or unimportant. It eats at the fabric of justice and fairness both within America and abroad. And this is reflected in our current administration’s “America First Policy.” It’s never been a secret that America doesn’t care about the rest of the world. At least American foreign policy is finally being honest. We only see ourselves (with the exception of black people, Latinos, Muslims, the poor, refugees, etc.).

This blindness continues to expand. What began with the inability to see black people has manifested into a much wider epidemic. Granted, Americans (particularly the media) have never been very good at seeing people beyond our borders. But now it has manifested into a full blown denial of the existence of others. Quite literally we’ve become a blind nation that fails to see the suffering of others. And we’ve been fairly aggressive in maintaining this systemic blindness. Totaling nearly 400,000 people, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was removed from Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Haitians, and more. Efforts to maintain and sustain our blindness includes a plan to withhold foreign aid to the home countries of illegal immigrants, a zero tolerance policy for border crossing (including splitting up of families), and the threatening of a caravan of asylum seekers. Historically, our policies on immigration have never been just. Obama was after all nicknamed the “Deporter-in-chief.” Again, credit is given where credit is due, at least Trump is being honest about what he is doing. At least we’re not denying it anymore. We’ve come to terms with the fact that our justice is truly blind.

How much longer can we be blind? Truth be told, I don’t believe we can do this for much longer. Eventually we will stumble and fall. But, more important are the lives that suffer because we are blind. How many more countless people will we deny their humanity because we failed to see them? Will justice remain blind or will we finally see others in all their diversity? For I don’t want a justice that is blind. I want justice that finally sees others as people.

Dare we hope that we might find a cure to our blindness? Admittedly, this seems immensely difficult in a time when Trump’s support remains at an all-time high among American Evangelicals. We live in an era of blindness that extends across both the sacred and the secular. And yet, I hold onto German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz’s hope that God still calls us to see others as subjects. I still believe that the role of the church is to fight for the right of all people to be seen, not out of fear or hostility, but to be seen in love. I long for the true counter-cultural church—one not transformed by fear, but one that transforms others by love.

The God of the living and of the dead is the God of a universal justice that shatters the standards of our exchange society and saves those who died suffering unjustly, and who, therefore, calls us to become subjects or unconditionally to support others becoming subjects in the face of hateful oppression, and calls us to remain subjects in the face of guilt and in opposition both to the dissolution of individual identity into ‘the masses,’ and also to apathy.


[The church] fights for the humanization of the people, for people to become subjects in the church.


Johann Baptist Metz – Faith in History and Society

Such a vision requires a church that is no longer willing to exist neutrally, but will instead remove its own blindfold so that it may enter into the struggle for justice and equality. For a blind church cannot lead the struggle for national and global solidarity if it is unable to see the marginalized and disenfranchised. It cannot support those it cannot see. America has chosen blindness, which isn’t surprising given its history. But will the church do so as well?

Christianity does not exist neutrally, without making a commitment, standing outside of or above the historical struggle for global solidarity with those who are discriminated against or are in need . . . It has to throw itself into this struggle with its motto of all persons becoming subjects in solidarity before God and with its refusal simply to pass off the subject that has already been socially empowered as ‘the’ religious subject.


Johann Baptist Metz – Faith in History and Society

Justice in America is blind. It suffers from a blindness that can only be healed from a renewal and commitment to a love for the other. Not just a love for some others, but all others. Therefore, I don’t want a blindfolded American justice. I want the justice of love personified in the person of Christ.

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?


1 John 3:17

Lady justice may be blind, but Christ sees us all. I for one hope that we as a church and a nation will remove the blindfold of justice so that we may see with eyes of compassion, acceptance, and love.

Walking in the City: A Reflection on Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau – French Jesuit philosopher and social theorist (1925-1986)

Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future


Michel de Certeau – The Practice of Everyday Life

Whenever I walk in a city I inevitably think of the French philosopher Michel de Certeau and his remarkable essay, “Walking in the City.” Published in 1980 in The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau offers a fascinating dichotomy between two very different views of New York City. The first being a view of New York from the first World Trade Center. The second being a more intimate street view of the city. Two views, one city, and for de Certeau, a remarkable contrast between seeing the city with the celestial eye of a god and the more humble view of those who live “down below.” Describing his view from the World Trade,

Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide—extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s building, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space.

Standing in the new World Trade Center, my mind couldn’t help but wonder at what de Certeau would see. What would he think about this view? How would he see this new “wave of verticals” spanning the horizon?  Today, the views of the new World Trade Center still reveal that same celestial godlike kingdom he saw nearly 40 years ago. From the observation deck, the entire world lies before your eyes. The city bursts forth across Manhattan, and consumes Midtown and Harlem in a “gigantic mass” with seemingly no barriers to impede its progress. Indeed, even nature is subdued by the city as it spills across the natural barriers of the Hudson and East rivers into Jersey City, Queens, and Brooklyn.

Today’s view obscures nothing and everything. Moreover, you can still see all within this celestial kingdom. Like a god, you observe the brutal endurance of the old as the city fights against its past. New construction in Hudson yards challenges the city. Glass and steel hover over Midtown’s brick and mortar past. The financial district rules the city with temples of commerce and banking as older buildings slip further and further from view. From on high, even the Empire State Building seems quaint when reduced to one building among thousands.

And yet, today’s view also obscures everything. The view from on top reduces the city to a view. Enclosed within the glass of the observation deck, the city becomes an object. It’s the concept city that only an architect could appreciate. There’s no sound, no city noise to remind you that you’re still in the city. A city without people, this celestial kingdom is void of life. Are you still in New York? It’s hard to say looking down from 1,250 feet. Truly you can see everything, but what you see isn’t the city. It’s just a sea of buildings, construction, and architecture. In de Certeau’s words,

To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. One’s body is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to an anonymous law; nor is it possessed, whether as player or played, by the rumble of so many differences and by the nervousness of New York traffic. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators.

Thus, to return to the city is akin to what de Certeau calls an “Icarian fall.” You leave this fiction, this place of the gods, to take your place among mortals once more. Here, “down below,” you discover the true New York. A city not of building and skyscrapers, but comprised of walkers—the true practitioners of the city. New York, perhaps more than any other city, is defined by the everyday experience of those below. Its masses, commuters, and passers-by shape the city in their image. The buildings merely comprise  the backdrop for the millions of stories acted out each day. New York doesn’t belong to the architects. It belongs to those who walk below.

There is nothing quite like walking in New York City. To walk in Manhattan is to be grasped by its presence — its sights, sounds, smells, and streets. Both wonderful and overwhelming, New York is an assault on the senses. The city is a living force, a meeting place of spatial stories of people going to-and-fro. Fixed yet transitory, New York’s rigidity (its skyscrapers, bridges, and tunnels) exists in stark contrast with its transitory people— its living story. I can think of nothing more provoking and exposing than walking in Manhattan. New York is a true city, a living city, that will call you to both consider its mysteries and give yourself to it. Even weeks after visiting, there is something about New York that calls to you. It’s a presence that you can’t easily shake off. The city imprints itself on you just by walking to-and-fro across its streets and avenues. Its movement and energy is comprised of continual narratives of millions of walkers. An endless supply of new and old stories fill its sidewalks, subways, and buses. The walkers move here and there. Walking where, I wonder? There is always somewhere to go, which offers these practitioners infinite choices of where to go. On the street everyone is transitory.

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered.

For de Certeau, these walkers form spatial stories. Walkers transform empty places into lived spaces through improvisations, shortcuts, and wandering. From above, it’s impossible to discern all the ways that people move here and there. We miss the ways that walkers “weave places together” through new and unique movements. Thus, New York city walkers create stories as they move from place to place. The city is “a space of enunciation,” whereby walkers act out new possibilities and mold space in their image.

 

Walking it Times Square is an immersive experience

You can see these stories throughout the city. The character and movement of each location changes, depending on these walking stories. Walkers in Times Square move with a walk of consumerism and awe. It’s a start and stop movement of the gaze and selfie. There is a chaos of uniformity. No one walks in Times Square to get anywhere. Instead, one walks with the intention to immerse oneself in time and space. There is no way to walk efficiently here (nor are you expected to). Walking is a process of halting, dodging, and crossing to avoid an unending mass of bodies. And yet, there is a order to this chaos. The walkers just know what to do. The story of Times Square is the story of the remarkable way people navigate this maze of humanity. Its awe and wonder isn’t in its flashing lights and enormous advertisements. Times Square is remarkable because of the intersecting mass of living stories walking up and down the street. It is the intersection of the world.

The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures.’ There is a rhetoric of walking.

You can discern the differing rhetoric of walking between the tourist and the New Yorker. The pace of walking is different. Determined and goal oriented, a local walks with a clear purpose. The sights and sounds of the city no longer hold any sway or influence. The local simply needs to be somewhere else. The tourist walks with an uneasy carefulness, as if he or she needs permission or assurance to go either here or there. Halt, stop, look characterize the tourist. However, the walk of locals is a wonder to behold. Bold and undeterred, the local knows the city. The streets, subways, and buses belong to the local. He or she commands the city’s pathways, fashioning it with a narrative of power and control. Watching how New Yorkers navigate the subway and its stations, it’s clear that they walk with the authority to write their own stories. They walk as authors. New York inscribes itself on the tourist, but the local inscribes his or her story on the city. Thus, to ask directions is the clearest sign that you’re not part of this story. Your walk indicates that you’re not a contributor to this story.

To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.

Walking is, of course, transitory. The city streets embody the liminal experience of being in-between. One walks to get toward where he or she needs to be—work, school, home, etc. For many it’s temporary, it’s easy to step in and out of this liminality. You’re free to wander, stop for coffee and smell the roses before reaching your intended destination. As a temporary space, the city streets of New York are inviting. They make for an interesting page on which you can write your story. “Will I walk down 5th avenue or take a detour through Central Park?” “I’ve never been to this coffee shop before, I wonder if it’s any good?” New York is the ultimate liminal space. Its possibilities appear to be endless.

Nevertheless, the temporal liminality reflects the privilege of those who can seamlessly hop in and out of it. New York reflects the uncomfortable truth that walking is only available to some. For many, liminality is a permanent state of lacking a place. New York’s homeless and disenfranchised live, in de Certeau’s words, a “universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places.” Thus, it isn’t unusual find those with no where to walk to. Consequently, they’re forced to make the transitory their home—Subway cars, transit stations, and city streets. Even in a transitory place, New York’s homeless are unable to actualize their stories. Their narrative is overlooked and forgotten, as they must sleep in places where others walk. This reflects an uncomfortable reality. A reality which New York seeks to hide with its glitz and glamour. Beneath the shiny lights and steel cathedrals, the city is,

Transformed for many people into a ‘desert’ in which the meaningless, indeed the terrifying, no longer takes the form of shadows but becomes . . . an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities, which is created by a technocratic power everywhere and which puts the city-dweller under control (under the control of what? No one knows).

In New York, this “implacable light” is everywhere through advertising and wealth. Capitalism is neither subtle or subdued here, rather it assaults your senses with light, video, and sound. Billboards and signs call for your attention—“walk here!” And “look at me!” Walking is not all that it appears to be. To walk is to be bombarded by a series of narratives competing for your money. Indeed, even culture and history isn’t immune to the monetary effect. A price must be paid to enjoy all that New York City has to offer. Walking may be free, but the entrance fee will cost you.

What can be seen designates what is no longer there: ‘you see, here there used to be . . . . ,’ but it can no longer be seen.

Returning back to the World Trade Center, I wonder what de Certeau would think of this new World Trade Center. Its views are unquestionable magnificent. It’s hard to not feel like a god in its celestial temple. Despite its grandeur, I have a feeling that de Certeau would walk past it without giving so much as a passing glance. I believe he would be more transfixed by what is not there—symbolized only by two large apertures. An absence that suggests the fragmentary and finite nature of our lives, our achievements, and even our greatest monuments. The absence of presence is often more striking—more haunting than our grandest celestial kingdoms.

You can read Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” here.

Digital Social Space? Interpreting Digital Action and Behavior for Today’s Churches

Another blast from the past. A paper I presented at the Association of Practical Theology in 2014. I explore the internet as a digital social space. I think my thoughts on the internet and social media have drastically changed (not for the better). However, I still hope that our digital tools can be a force for social good.

Abstract: The internet has changed the ways human beings connect and understand one another. Through the use of social media, people find themselves immersed in a digital environment consisting of various practices and behaviors. As Christianity continues to negotiate the often tricky relationship it has with digital experience, what philosophical and methodological stance should practical theology take towards the internet? This paper argues that Henri Lefebvre’s concept of social space provides a helpful avenue to engage contemporary digital interactivity and experience. Social space is the lived expression of exchanged between subjects who both live in and comprise it. As such, churches should recognize the internet’s social spatiality. The internet is no longer something one uses as a tool; instead it has become woven into the very fabric of contemporary life. A total reorientation towards the internet, by churches and theologians, is necessary in order to connect to contemporary culture and religion.

http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/M6ZG3S

 

Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash

Who Cares?

The struggle begins with men’s recognition that they have been destroyed. Propaganda, management, manipulation – all arms of domination – cannot be the instruments of their rehumanization. The only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy in which the revolutionary leadership establishes a permanent relationship of dialogue with the oppressed.


Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Last week, all eyes were on Mark Zuckerberg as congressional lawmakers grilled the Facebook CEO over how his company secures the private data of millions of Facebook users. Spurred on by reports that the data of millions of users was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytical, Congress supposedly sought to understand how this could have happened and it’s implications for data privacy. At least that’s what we were told. A week later, the point or objective of these congressional hearings with Zuckerberg remains unclear. What is clear, is that the cameras, media, and a love-to-hate-him CEO, provided Congress with a prime opportunity to display a collective ego and narcissism rivaling even the vainest Instagram selfie. And remarkably, Congress even achieved the seemingly impossible feat of making Zuckerberg a sympathetic character.

Undoubtedly, Republicans and Democrats came away from this hearing feeling good. They were able to provide us with the illusion of being proactive, engaged, and working on our behave. Sadly, a plethora of embarrassing questions demonstrated that both parties don’t know (or don’t care to know) how Facebook actually works. Consequently, congressional ignorance made it easy for us to see this hearing as the sham it actually was. Will we ever see any results from this hearings? Probably not, though the European Union (which actually cares about privacy) probably will challenge Facebook in a meaningful way. It seems very unlikely that our current Congress will do anything to harm one of America’s cherished corporations. Much of the congressional criticism will be a long-forgotten memory by the 2018 mid-terms.

And yet, who cares? For all the questioning and congressional grandstanding only further demonstrates how out of touch our government is with issues affecting a majority of Americans. Now don’t get me wrong, data privacy is most certainly an important concern. Facebook requires some oversight and regulation. But here again, the European Union is quite frankly doing much a better job than the United States when it comes to data privacy.

Take for example the Patriot Act, undoubtedly the largest invasion of American data and privacy in history. On October 24, 2001, 98 senators voted yes on installing the American surveillance state. This included Dick Durbin (D-IL), who asked Zuckerberg, “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” I also wonder if he would be comfortable sharing his phone data with NSA. Somehow, I doubt it.

All this is to say that Congress isn’t all that concerned about privacy. Worse still, it doesn’t seem that our government worries about issues that actually affect American citizens and the world community. If Congress did care, we would see no end to the hearings and meetings as our representatives and senators work around the clock to solve these issues. We would see a concerted effort at tackling some our most critical social, economic, racial, and environmental issues.

Who cares about Facebook when we are plagued by mass shooting and inner-city gun violence? Where are the hearings and questioning of AR-15 gunmaker Smith and Wesson and its parent company American Outdoor Brand Corporation concerning the use of their weapon in mass shootings? A weapon also used in the San Bernardino, California and the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Furthermore, where are the tough congressional questions as to why a military style weapon is marketed to civilians? The Violence Policy Center stated that, “The Smith & Wesson M&P15 [AR 15 variant] assault rifle demonstrates the clear and present danger of a gun designed for war and ruthlessly marketed for profit to civilians.” And yet, despite all we know about the dangers of assault style weapons, Congress did nothing. There were no hearings and no snippy questions. Apparently, Zuckerberg’s Facebook is a greater threat to American health and security.

Who cares about Facebook when the people of Flint, Michigan still don’t have clean drinking water? Where are the hearings and tough questions asking why the people of Flint still don’t have the basic right of clean water? Where are the oversight committees to ensure that American citizens can drink their water without fear of being poisoned?

Who cares about Facebook when economic disparity continues to reach new and worrying heights? Granted the Senate did have a hearing on this topic in 2014. Though little to nothing has been done about it. Current policies, such as the Tax Law of 2017, are poised to further exasperate the situation. You don’t need be an economist to see that there’s a problem when the wealthiest 1% own 40% of the country’s wealth. And what is the congressional response? The only response is silence. Again, our Facebook data seems to more important than making a living wage.

Who cares about Facebook when unarmed American citizens are killed by police? Where were the congressional hearing over the shootings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Jordan Davis (to name a few). Stephon Clark, the most recent high profile killing, provoked no congressional response. Why are deaths by police higher in the United States than any other developed nation? Why are African Americans subjected to higher rates of police brutality and unlawful searches? This should be a question to provoke our government at the highest levels. And despite the seriousness of this issue, it’s not a major policy issue. But I’m sure the victim’s families are comforted knowing that Congress will ensure that their Facebook data is protected.

Who cares about Facebook when there still isn’t a viable solution for DACA and probably never will be? Who cares about Facebook when there are Puerto Ricans (American citizens) still without power in Puerto Rico (nearly 7 months after Hurricane Maria).  Who cares about Facebook there are still Americans who can’t afford the internet? Where are the congressional hearings for those Americans? The list of issues goes on and on.

What is the response of the church in the face of inaction by the state? As an empire crumbles, the church must choose its response to a worsening economic and social crisis.

For I believe that the church must make an active choice for the marginalized and disenfranchised. It’s response, in whatever capacity it is able, should be one that embraces and gives voice to the weak. Gustavo Gutierrez states,

Although the Kingdom must not be confused with the establishment of a just society, this does not mean that it is indifferent to this society. Nor does it mean that this just society constitutes a ‘necessary condition’ for the arrival of the Kingdom nor that they are closely linked, nor that they converge. More profoundly, the announcement of the Kingdom reveals to society itself the aspiration for a just society and leads it to discover unsuspected dimensions and unexplored path. The Kingdom is realized in a society of brotherhood and justice; and in turn, this realization opens up the promise and hope of complete communion of all men with God. The political is grated into the eternal.


Gustavo Gutierrez – A Theology of Liberation

This reflects what I’m calling liminal theology. It is a choice for the marginalized, the in-between people struggling against an oppressor more interested in continuing old divisions rather than solving them. It is a theology that resists the continual economic, social, and environmental subjection of the weak by the powerful. The liminal, as transitional, suggests that we still have choices for real change in social/economic justice, racial justice, and equality. We have the choice to enact true democratic freedom. That there is a choice for a better present, a better now for today and tomorrow. Liminal, progressive justice is a fight for those who do not get congressional hearings on their behalf. It is a struggle for those whose voices are ignored by the powerful and political elite. It’s a recognition of the continued and sustained work needed for a more just society.

In liminality, the Kingdom of God does not have a finish line. For there is no utopia without the tension of transition and change. And yet, it isn’t utopia that we seek. What we seek is movement and progress toward what Guiterrez describes as “a society of brotherhood and justice.” Such a society begins with the willingness to act in the present, particularly when facing of those who fail to hear, acknowledge, and respond to the problems we face. A just society isn’t the perfect society. It’s the society that is willing to listen and act.

Let Congress have its hearings. It’s time for the church to hold its own hearing. A hearing that gives the broken, the poor, and the marginalized an opportunity to speak. It’s time to give hearings for the immigrants and the dreamers. It’s time to give hearings for African Americans who live in fear of the police. It’s time to give hearings for those without clean water and power. It’s time to give hearings for those affected by gun violence.

Congress can keep Zuckerberg.

 

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