9/11 (here we go again)

Torture: Obama's business in Bagram

One of the most powerful ways of perpetuating and strengthening any given ideology is to gain control over the calendar and the ways in which people mark the passage of time, remember past events, and celebrate sacred moments.  Thus, for example, Christendom took over the sacred days of paganism and converted them to Christian festivals (Christmas, Easter, and so on).  Then, in our own time, global capitalism has taken over the sacred days of Christianity and converted them into festivities of consumption and debt accumulation (and has done the same with most of the sacred days of the Nation State as well).
On any day that is marked as sacred — or designated as a moment to remember some past event — it is worth recalling that some things are being remembered, while other things are being forgotten.  Certain factions always have a vested interest in shaping our memory in this way, and they also happen to have the influence to impose their narration of history onto us.
Take today.  September 11th.  9/11.  What momentous event occurred on this day?
Well, the truth is that more than one momentous event has occurred on this date over the course of history.  On September 11, 1973, Pinochet’s coup overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende.  During his subsequent years of rule, between 9,000-30,000 people were murdered or “disappeared”, tens of thousands more were tortured or imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands experienced “situations of extreme trauma.”
Given the massive heart-breaking loss triggered by the events of September 11, 1973, one might think that it would be worth marking every 9/11 with some sort of remembrance ceremony.  However, this did not happen, nor will it be remembered in this way.  Why?  Because Pinochet’s coup was backed by the CIA, his reign was sustained by the American government, his torturers were trained by American officers, and his death-dealing economics (which crushed the people of his nation, in order to sell their resources to outside corporations) was directed by American economists (Milton Friedman personally communicated with Pinochet and encouraged him to stay true to free-market capitalism and not get distracted by the sufferings of the Chilean people).
Therefore, those with the power and resources to direct our public stories and our narrations of history — those who create the special days we mark on our calendars — have ensured that 9/11 remains a day when this event is erased from history.  Instead of being a day of remembrance, it is a day of forgetting.  Forget Allende.  Forget Pinochet.  Forget the destruction of democracy in Latin America.  Forget the death-dealing ways in which America and the rest of the West have treated the rest of the world.  Lord knows, the memory of those things might inspire some folks to fly planes into buildings (although, I should note, I believe they would be wrong to do so).
However, nine years ago, some people did fly planes into buildings and this is what we are commanded to remember today.  This is a much better option — America, the innocent victim is born!  Yet, rising above the ash, she is still willing to sacrifice of herself in order to graciously bring freedom and wisdom (McDonald’s and Coca-Cola) to the rest of the world.  America, the long-suffering hero.  America, our Dark Knight.
What is interesting, is that the year when all this went down is usually removed from the vocabulary.  Thus, people refer to “September 11th” or “9/11” instead of referring to “September 11th, 2001” or “9/11/01”.  In this way, the events of that day gain a sort of timelessness and enter into a process of eternal recurrence.  The removal of the year, brings the events closer to us and it makes it feel as though those events just happened a moment ago.  Not only does this heighten the emotional manipulation that spectacles of remembrance produce, it also conveniently helps us to forget everything that has happened since then.  In this way, we remember the American who unjustly suffered and die.  We remember the heroism of the NYFD.
What we don’t remember are the 97,767 to 106,703 civilians who have died violent deaths in Iraq since the Americans invaded.  Nor do we remember the 14,000 to 35,000 civilians who have died thus far in Afghanistan (not to mention the untold numbers left wounded, disabled, childless, orphaned, or traumatized in both those nations). We also don’t remember that countless number of innocent people kidnapped and tortured by American soldiers since 9/11 — in Bush’s Abu Ghraib and Guatanamo, and in Obama’s “super-Guatanamo” prison at the airforce base in Bagram (the picture above is not take from Abu Ghraib under Bush, it is taken from Bagram under Obama).
What we don’t remember is that the American government has invested $1,078,552,000,000 (and counting) into these wars.  This is tax-payers’ money, but we don’t remember how much these wars are contributing to the economic crisis in America, to budget cuts in everything from affordable housing, publicly-funded school systems, roads, street lighting and social services.  What we don’t remember is that the Bush administration lied to start these wars and the Obama administration has lied about ending them.
So, today we will be reminded to “never forget” the events that happened nine years ago.  However, the command to remember certain events in certain ways, to the exclusion of all else, is actually a very powerful way of producing mass forgetfulness.

On Protests and Less-Legal Tactics: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I argued that less-legal tactics do not impact the efficacy of traditional means of peaceful legal protests because those traditional forms are already completely ineffective.  The obvious place to go from here, is to explore the counter-charge that traditional less-legal tactics are also completely ineffective (a point repeated by many — often by those who theoretically claim to support a “diversity of tactics” — including some who responded to my last post).  I will take that issue up in my next post.  In this post, I would like to pause and say a few explanatory words about “black blocs” and “anarchists.”
Beginning with black blocs, the first point to emphasize is that a black bloc is a tactic, and not a particular organization or group.  Thus, as with any other resistance tactic employed — marching, squatting, etc. — a bloc will attract people from a wide variety other groups, if those people feel that a bloc would be useful at a certain time and place.  In this way, the bloc is a particularly good example of the decentralized,  rhizomatic nature of the multitude in action — and the inability of police to respond well to blocs (as demonstrated in Toronto, when the bloc there was able to escape arrest) demonstrates how the centralized, molar structures of our society are not well equipped to deal with things of this nature.  There are no leaders in black blocs — they are simply collections of free individuals who choose to work together (a good example of both democracy and anarchism, depending on whose definitions you are using) — so there is no particular party that the police can target.  Bloc participants are like a swarm of bees that gather and disperse but have no queen or hive.  No wonder the Powers-that-be hate them so much — not only are they hard to catch and manage, they are also better at creating a truly free and democratic space.  That’s a real problem.
So, what exactly is the black bloc tactic?  Simple — the black bloc tactic is the tactic of anonymity.  Rather, than being identifiable as distinct individuals, bloc participants become identified as a mass.  This is accomplished by the participants agreeing to all dress in nondescript black clothing (devoid of logos or patches) and do other things to mask their identities, like wearing black hoods and masks.  Of course, given the way in which police surveillance has increased over the years, the people who choose to participate in this tactic must find ongoing creative ways to join and leave blocs (a point to which I will return), but anonymity is relatively easily accomplished.
Once accomplished, a surprising number of results occur.  First of all, a black bloc can inspire confidence in people who might otherwise have been intimidated by the (equally anonymous and masked) police presence.  In fact, the reverse can even occur and police have often been intimidated by black blocs.  This, then, has prevented police from harming, arresting, and beating other non-bloc protesters (as when the bloc was called upon, by the Native Elders, to hold the front line of the protest that occurred during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics).  Similarly, bloc members have been able to “unarrest” many protesters (bloc members or otherwise) who were in the process of being arrested (officers will generally abandon those they are arresting when swarmed by bloc members).  It also opens public spaces that would otherwise have remained closed (as at the G8/G20 Summits in Toronto).  Finally, this reverse-intimidation can cause the police to over-invest at locations challenged by black blocs, thereby increasing the odds that protesters (usually peaceful ones) at other locations will achieve their objectives (at happened in Seattle in 1999).
Second, engaging in this form of protest is a genuine declaration of solidarity with one another.  Here individual identities are dropped and the goals of the protest and the larger cause become what are important.  What distinguishes us from one another is left behind and we become united.
Third, this solidarity is more than symbolic because it grants a safe, anonymous space to those who are targeted by police: known organizers, people who have been arrested in other protests, and those who engage in less-legal forms of resistance.  Of the first two parties, this is an important option, given their commitment to the goals of liberation and life and given that they tend to pay a higher price for their commitment than others.  Of the final party — those who engage in less-legal forms of resistance — it should first be stated that not all members of black blocs engage in those activities.  However, some people participate in blocs because their respect for the diversity of the protest movement, and the diversity of tactics, is more than rhetorical.  Thus, while not all members of the bloc in Vancouver would have made the personal decision to smash the window at the Hudson’s Bay Company, solidarity with those who chose to engage in that action meant that those who preferred other actions still chose to wear black.  More important than arguing with each other, or policing each other, the commitment to a common vision and goal is what drives this form of solidarity.
Fourth, the police response to black blocs is useful in revealing both that the Powers-that-be wish to wield hegemonic control over the public and that this hegemony is still contested.  As has been noted by several others: when domination is total, the exercise of brute force is unnecessary because each individual member of the public will have internalized everything necessary in order to control him- or herself.  Thus, blocs assist in unmasking this domination and also reveal subjectivities which are not yet totally dominated (and  which must, therefore, be controlled by brute force).  Blocs, then, at the very least, have the potential to be a biopolitical response to the exercise of biopower.  I’ll pick up on this point again in my next post.
So those are some of the benefits of employing a black bloc tactic.  I should make a final remark about the people who tend to participate in blocs.  I’ll not say a lot, given that the whole purpose of a bloc is anonymity, but there is something that should be stated regarding the way in which the police (and then the mainstream media) present bloc participants.  According to the dominant narrative, bloc participants are all “anarchists,” “juvenile delinquents,” and “people known to the police.”  Essentially, one is left with the impression that blocs are just a bunch of angry delinquent teens running around wanting to smash shit up because they were touched by their dads or something like that.  Further, we all probably knew some punk rock dude in high-school who had an anarchy symbol on his jacket and this description seems to match our memory of that guy.
Now, here’s the thing, this description comes nowhere close to describing the people who join blocs.  I can’t speak for all blocs everywhere, but my own experiences, suggest that those who join blocs are generally people who have been very invested in trying to make society a better place both professionally and in their own time.  These tend to be thoughtful people who have tried a number of other avenues to create positive change but have found those avenues to be dead ends.  In fact, bloc participants are often a lot like this guy — he’s not an at all out of place.  Of course, these people are usually “known to the police” only because they police took pictures of them at some other rally somewhere.  Not exactly criminals.  More like social workers and school teachers.
Finally, this leads me to some brief closing remarks about anarchy.  Anarchy is not, as most imagine, the embrace of chaos and violence and the total collapse of society into some sort of rampant individualism.  Rather, anarchy is the belief that people, themselves, should have the authority and ability to choose how they want to structure their life together (hence, Proudhon’s famous aphorism that anarchy is order [which, by the way, is where the most famous anarchist symbol comes from — the ‘A’ in the ‘O’ with the ‘A’ representing anarchy and the ‘O’ representing order]).  Further, anarchists believe that we should try to structure our life together in a way that is life-giving for all and not just for some.  Hence, these two things combined tend to lead anarchists to place little value in the rule of Law — especially since that rule is currently death-dealing to many and a way of protecting the expropriation of the Commons into private hands.  It is this kind of property that is theft, to quote Proudhon once again.  Not surprisingly, then, most of the anarchists I know are sensitive, thoughtful, and loving.  Yes, there is often anger present but this is an appropriate anger to possess.  It is the anger that arises from heartbreak.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying this but, in a word, the anarchists I know are “Christlike.”

On Protests and Less-Legal Tactics: Part 1

The events over the last few months — both in Vancouver during the Olympics and in Toronto and Huntsville during the G8/G20 Summits — have got a lot of people talking about protests in general and black bloc tactics in particular.  Now, a lot of well-meaning people have said a lot of well-meaning things about these events… but unfortunately a good deal of those things are inaccurate, misleading and false.  Sadly, having good intentions, an intelligent mind, and getting your picture taken next to some riot cops, doesn’t provide a person with the adequate foundation needed to accurately criticise contemporary movements of resistance.  Of course, I suspect that a number of these well-intentioned people would come to agree with me if they actually spent any significant amount of time in communities of resistance (instead of simply engaging in a spectacular form of protest tourism) so I thought I would share some thoughts as a person who has been a little more intimately involved with these things.  I will do so in a series of posts.
The biggest error made by those who criticise less-legal means of resistance  is the assertion that these tactics somehow make other forms of protesting less effective.  This is false.  Further, to make this argument is to play into the hands of the Powers-that-be.
The truth is that all of our standard means of peaceful protesting — rallies, speeches, marches with banners and bands, and so on — are already completely ineffective.  A good many actions like these occurred for years prior to the Olympics coming to Vancouver and they didn’t make a single bit of difference.  Nor did the legal protests that occurred at the Olympics, or the legal protests at the G8/G20 Summits.  What was very minimally effective in the 60s and 70s is not at all effective today.  The Powers-that-be incorporated protesting into their way of managing our societies a long time ago — with the distribution of permits, police escorts (to ensure the safety of protesters), the designation of “appropriate” protest locations (again, for the safety of protesters), and so on — but it seems that most of us need to be reminded of this fact.  Therefore, the point to be grasped here is that less-legal tactics do not make peaceful protests less effective — when something is already completely ineffective, it cannot be made more so.
Further, this helps to clarify why those who make this argument end up playing into the hands of the Powers-that-be.  This occurs in a few ways:
(a) Making this argument encourages people to continue to invest time and energy into a futile exercise (“This really does work, as long as the anarchists don’t fuck it up!” being the underlying thought).
(b) Making this argument helps to maintain the illusion that we are living in a society that can be called democratic, in the sense that the individual members of a society actually have an influence upon the running of that society (when, if fact, this is not an accurate description of the society in which we live).
(c) Making this argument also leads people to blame themselves — or other members of the multitude — for the absence of change.  Thus, the reason why the protests failed to create change in Toronto or Vancouver is said to be because of the deployment of black bloc tactics and other less-legal actions.  Of course, the truth is that it is the Powers-that-be who are to blame for the absence of positive change, and this way of thinking only leads to division amongst those who resist.
So, this is lesson number one: less-legal tactics do not negatively impact the efficacy of other forms of protests.

Manufacturing Consent and Manufacturing Dissidence: Abandoning Propaganda Models in Pursuit of Life-Giving Change

[Now that the smoke has cleared a little, I feel comfortable posting this here.]
One need not spend a great amount of time exploring matters related to economics, politics and the media before one becomes aware of the amount of spin that dominates the massive mainstream media corporations and their presentations of public events. This spin is certainly evident in the ways in which these corporations have presented the Olympic Games and those who oppose them. However, these (mostly successful!) efforts to manufacture consent have been well-documented elsewhere, so I don’t feel it is necessary to explore them in detail here.
Instead, I would like to comment upon the ways in which those who seek to counter the death-dealing economics of global capitalism (which is particularly evident when events like the Olympic Games occur) also buy into propaganda models of communication in order to attempt to manufacture dissidence. Of course, such efforts are probably inspired by good motives – after all, given the deeply rooted violence, exploitation and oppression that are connected to our current socio-economic and political ways of structuring life together, it is tempting to think that any effort to produce life-giving change is worthwhile. However, I would like to suggest that engaging in a propaganda model of communication, and thereby mirroring the activities of those whom we resist, is ultimately detrimental to our efforts to produce positive social change.
I will begin by providing two clear examples of the functioning of this model in the communications released by those who protested the Games. First of all, after the action that occurred on February 13th, and after the arrests that occurred that day, a public statement was made by those who claimed to speak on behalf of the protesters. In that statement, it was said that no members of the black bloc were amongst those who had been arrested. Now, I understand that this statement was probably made to try and protect those who had been arrested, but this statement was false. I won’t speak about anybody else who was arrested, but I know that this statement was false, because I was arrested that day, and I had participated in the black bloc. Further, given that I was arrested with black clothing, apple cider vinegar-soaked sleeves (which I much prefer to bandanas), ski goggles, and a black toque, it probably wouldn’t have been difficult for the police to convince the mainstream media of my involvement.
Secondly, after the action occurred, some of the organizers of the action released a statement stating that no physical altercations had occurred between bloc participants and bystanders. Again, I know this statement to be false, because I personally witnessed two such altercations – as did the CBC news cameras, and so the CBC was sure to comment on this statement, while also running some of the footage (of course, what they did not show was how the bystanders – given their jackets, I think they were security guards working for private companies – had provoked the bloc members, and they also did not show how other members – myself included – quickly diffused those two situations to prevent any harm from being done).
Unfortunately, by engaging in this dishonest propaganda model of communication, we end up damaging rather than furthering our goals. To lie about events – and then to be shown to be lying – is to risk losing our credibility. This is a serious problem, given that we are constantly trying to demonstrate the dishonesty of the political and economic powers we oppose. For many people, it is difficult to grasp this message, and so when we lie, we can very easily be written off and the narrative that those powers seek to impose upon us (i.e. that we are just assholes, misfits, or hooligans looking to fuck shit up, and not really people committed to the things we talk about) gains a lot more credibility in the public eye. Further, when we deny events that occurred, we lose all possibility of contextualizing those events. Thus, in the altercations that did occur on the 13th, the CBC was able to manipulate the footage they had to their great advantage (for example, the CBC footage left the viewer with the impression that other bloc participants were rushing in to gang-beat a fellow, when in fact they were rushing in to deescalate the situation!)… and the organizers of the action were left saying, “That didn’t really happen!” or nothing at all. Therefore, at the level of basic tactics, the propaganda model does not serve us well. Given the finances, technology, and man-power arrayed against us, we must understand that we will be found out if we lie.
However, there is a more serious underlying issue motivating my writing in this regard. It is this: by participating in the propaganda model of disseminating dis/information, we end up performing the same actions as those performed by the powers whom we oppose and we therefore end up becoming like them. The problem is this: motivated by a higher goal we end up sacrificing our higher values. So, even as we oppose the dishonesty of the powers-that-be, we end up doing so by practicing dishonesty – although we believe we do so for that sake of that which is life-giving, while they do so for the sake of that which is death-dealing. However, when we are willing to make these kinds of sacrifices, we must wonder what else we might be willing to sacrifice along the way. Here, of course, one cannot help but recall the example of the October Revolution and the lesson demonstrated on Orwell’s Animal Farm. If we act like those whom we resist, there is a good chance we will end up becoming like them.
Therefore, if we desire to pursue change that is genuinely life-giving, instead of simply continuing to perpetuate structures or models that are death-dealing, we must abandon the propaganda model and practice truth-telling. That means we must speak the truth about ourselves, just as much as we speak the truth about the powers (of course, this does not mean we volunteer information, snitch, or rat, but it means we need to think twice about blatantly lying to the public). So, if we engage in a certain action, it is up to us to take responsibility for that action. If we publically make mistakes, we must own up to them (without naming names, of course)… or if we do not believe our actions to be mistaken, it is up to us to try and demonstrate why this is the case, instead of simply denying those actions altogether. It is by these means that I believe genuine positive change can be produced.

Solidarity and Resistance in New Creation Communities

[This is the transcript of a paper I presented at the “Shared Space” conference that occurred in London Ontario this week.  Those who have known me for some time, will note some of the ways in which my thinking has shifted and developed.  For me, this paper is one that has organically grown out of the talk I presented at the Epiphaneia Conference last year (see here) as well as at a forum I engaged in at Regent College in 2008 (see here).  That material is sort of a necessary background for understanding how and why I propose what I do here.]
Solidarity and Resistance in New Creation Communities
I would like to begin by reading a passage from Slavoj Žižek’s recent defense of communism in light of the failures of democratic liberalism and the horrors of global capitalism.  This passage relates a joke that isn’t funny but it hammers home a point that I hope will be taken very seriously by those of us gathered here today.  Let me quote Žižek:
In the good old days of Really Existing Socialism, a joke popular among dissidents was used to illustrate the futility of their protests.  In the fifteenth century, when Russia was occupied by Mongols, a peasant and his wife were walking along a dusty country road; a Mongol warrior on a horse stopped at their side and told the peasant he would now proceed to rape his wife; he then added: “But since there is a lot of dust on the ground, you must hold my testicles while I rape your wife, so that they will not get dirty!”  Once the Mongol had done the deed and ridden away, the peasant started laughing and jumping with joy.  His surprised wife asked: “How can you be jumping with joy when I was just brutally raped in your presence?”  The farmer answered: “But I got him!  His balls are covered in dust!”  This sad joke [Žižek goes on to say] reveals the predicament of the dissidents: they thought they were dealing serious blows to the party nomenklatura, but all they were doing was slightly soiling the nomenklatura‘s testicles, while the ruling party carried on raping the people…
Žižek tells this vulgar story in order to argue that both liberal and radical leftists have been unable to offer any sort of serious resistance or sustained alternative to the death-dealing power structures of our world.  I begin my presentation with this passage, because I would like to suggest that a good many of us involved in some of the more ‘radical’ forms of Christianity are guilty of the same offence.  We are so busy congratulating ourselves for moving into poor neighbourhoods, for practicing alternative modes of hospitality, for growing our own food and for living simply that we have lost track of the fact that we’re not really making any significant difference.  Perhaps we are able to love and serve a few individual people along the way but nothing we are doing is truly challenging the death-dealing powers of our day, and the degree to which we have become captivated by our own radicality is the same degree to which we have become blinded to our own complicity in the abuse of others.  Thus, although I might be inclined to apologize to you if you were offended by the vulgarity of the passage I read from Žižek, I hesitate to do so because the fact is that the people are being raped and this should make us reconsider the significance we ascribe to sharing space with others who generally turn out to be like-minded, middle-class young adults.  Self-congratulating attitudes about self-serving efforts are far more offensive than anything Žižek writes.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I think that a movement towards a more intentional way of sharing all of life together is absolutely integral to what it means to follow Jesus and serve the God of Life.  To simply live the way in which our culture teaches us to live – growing up, getting a job and credit cards, developing debts, buying a home and a couple of cars and settling into the practice of bourgeois comfort paired with bourgeois charity and family values – seems so far away from the pattern of life established by Jesus, Paul, the prophets and the Deuteronomic law that I am baffled that those who live this way find their inspiration in the Christian story.  I can only conclude that most of us don’t actually spend any time reading the Bible or, just as likely, that most of us are looking at the Bible through such warped lenses that we can’t even come close to understanding what it says.  Reading the Bible should lead us to more intimately sharing our lives, our possessions, our time, and our space with one another.  Observing God’s gift of gracious abundance, patterning ourselves upon the life and deeds of Jesus, and relying upon the empowering Spirit of Life, should lead us to engage in practices that our culture will consider to be risky, foolish, and even threatening.  This is why I have spent four years living in intentional Christian communities.
Thus, by critically questioning our efforts to engage in alternate forms of intentional Christian community, I am not suggesting that these efforts are fundamentally misguided.  However, these efforts are often flawed and are easily perverted.  Therefore, in the remainder of this presentation, I would like to highlight three areas that deserve special attention if those who desire to pursue intentional Christian communities hope to do so in a way that is both meaningful and expressive of their commitment to following Jesus.
First of all, I would like to argue that any talk of Christian community must give priority to the question of what it means to move into more intimate forms of community with people who are marginalized, oppressed, and abandoned.  This is not to say that every Christian community must be open to all these people – for example, in our community in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, we quickly realized that we couldn’t focus upon being a safe place for both the low-track female sex workers we met, and for a good many of the homeless men from the neighbourhood – but prioritizing one population amongst those who have been abandoned is absolutely essential to developing intentional Christian communities.  If, that is, these communities are to be more than self-serving entities that fill the void we have discovered in our own middle-class lives.
Because the truth is that it is incredibly easy to establish a community that others will consider ‘radical’ and ‘inspiring’ but that, in actuality, does little or nothing for anybody apart from making those who live in that community feel good about themselves.  I know this, because I experienced this.  Granted, it wasn’t my intention to do so, but when I was living in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, I was constantly confronted by how easy it was to move into a poor neighbourhood, engage in a few acts of hospitality (hosting sex workers for dinner, having strung-out kids stop by to come down from bad trips, allowing some people to crash on our couch) but, all in all, continue to live a life of distinctive privilege and near total insignificance… while simultaneously being treated as though I was some sort of Christian superstar.  It would have been easy to buy into the hype I was receiving from others – and I know some who live in intentional community settings who have done this – so beware of the respect others will give you.  At the very least, it’s a double-edged sword.  Recall the ending of the movie, The Devil’s Advocate.  If the devil doesn’t get us to serve his purposes through money, sex and power, he’ll get us to serve his purposes by congratulating us on how holy and good we are.
The best test of the praise of others, is honestly confronting the degree to which we have moved into a mutually liberating solidarity with people who have been marginalized, oppressed, and abandoned.  This, first and foremost, is what it means to follow Jesus and bear witness to the in-breaking of God’s new creation in our present moment.  Practicing this – what some have called a “preferential option for the poor” – is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, just as it is at the heart of the witness of Paul, the call of the Old Testament prophets, and the Deuteronomic law.  If the people of God are living outside of relationships with “the poor” then the people of God are living in a (literally) nonsensical way, and contradicting their true identity in Christ.  Therefore, if we are exploring what it means to live within intentional communities that are also Christian communities, the poor must be included and prioritized.
Of course, this movement into a mutually liberating solidarity with people who have been abandoned is not an easy thing for many of us to do.  We are all too accustomed to our lives of privilege and comfort, our imaginations and habits have been disciplined in a certain direction ever since we were young, and our spiritual and cultural traditions make it oh-so-easy to rationalize our lifestyles and justify trite and superficial forms of charity.  No wonder Jesus says that the way is broad that leads to the destruction of ourselves and of others.  It is broad and it is not only lined with bloodstained electronics, food, clothing and children’s toys, it is also lined with such admirable things as a responsible work ethic, family values, safety and security, and the emphasis laid upon being a contributing member of the economy. 
No wonder, then, that the way that leads to life, for us and for others, is narrow and hard.  Jesus is absolutely clear about this.  Thus, in Lk 14.25-33, he states:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” … So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Following Jesus is a demanding task and it is one of the reasons that community is so essential to our life as Christians.  It is impossible to follow Jesus on our own.  It is impossible to move into relationships of mutually liberating solidarity with people who have been abandoned, if you do so on your on.  You will burn out or blow up.
Again, I know this because I have experienced this.  When things started going wrong in our community in Vancouver’s downtown eastside and people started dropping out of participating in the work required to run the community, I decided to just take on more and more of that work myself.  That was unsustainable and my marriage still suffers from the consequences of that decision.
Therefore, while I am operating with the happy assumption that the people gathered here are eager to participate in God’s ongoing new creation activity in the world, I do want to issue a warning that such participation is extremely difficult and demanding.  As Jesus suggests in Lk 14, you had better seriously consider the cost of what you are thinking about doing, otherwise you may just end up hurting a lot of people by pursuing this dream.  Often it is our failed efforts to love others that end up being far more hurtful to them than anything else.  There is a lot of truth in the old saying that hell is paved with good intentions.
Speaking of participating in God’s new creation in a costly way leads me to the second point I wish to stress.  It is this: if we are serious about our desire to share space, share life together, and participate in God’s new creation, then we must seriously reconsider our understanding of and relationship to private property.  Indeed, the more I study the Bible and economics, the more I am convinced that private property is at the core of many of the problems we face and is, itself, a fundamentally anti-Christian belief and practice.  There are three sources that have been particularly influential upon me in this regard.  The first is the book Faith and Wealth by Justo Gonzalez.  In this book, Gonzalez demonstrates the ways in which the Church Fathers consistently and strenuously attacked notions of private property and replaced those notions with a biblical theology that stresses that everything in creation and culture exists as a gift of God for the benefit of all.  Furthermore, because the God of the Bible is defined by acts of benevolent and abundant giving, the same characteristic should define the people who follow this God.  Therefore, if we wish to live in light of the biblical traditions, we would do well to draw our inspiration from the pre-monarchic economics of the Hebrews, from the correctives offered by the prophets, from the type of collectivity practiced by the early community of disciples gathered around Jesus, and from the economic mutuality that comes to the fore in the Collection that dominates the later years of Paul’s Aegean mission.  Therefore, Gonzalez convincingly demonstrates that those who participate in the economy of the Christian God should reject any economics premised upon a right to private property. 
I’ll provide a few representative quotations.  Ambrose of Milan writes: “When you give to the poor, you give not of your own, but simply return what is his, for you have usurped that which is common and has been given for the common use of all.”  Similarly, Hilary of Poitier asserts the following: “Let no on regard anything as theirs, or as private.  On the contrary, to all of us were given, as gifts from the same Father, no only the same beginning of life, but also things in order that we might use them… Therefore, in order to be good, we must consider all things as being common to everybody.”  Finally, John Chrysostom argues that, “The rich have that which belongs to the poor, even though they may have received it as an inheritance,” and he goes on to say that acts of charity are not enough – one will only have given enough when one has literally nothing left to give.
An important point to emphasize in all of this is that the Church Fathers understood Paul’s teaching that all people are equal before God to necessarily require us to ensure that all people are equal before one another, having equal access to material goods and resources.  This, it should be noted, is precisely the opposite conclusion to that drawn by many contemporary readers of the Paul who stress the spiritual element of his letters in order to move the focus away from any sort of material application.
This leads me to my second source.  It is the book The Fear of Beggars by Kelly S. Johnson.  Johnson calls out those who wish to get around the more radical nature of biblical economics by proposing a ‘stewardship’ model.  This model affirms private property – a sort of Christian affirmation of ‘capitalism with a human face’ – and fits comfortably with those who benefit from the death-dealing ways of global capitalism (after all, the stewardship model first came to prominence when Christian slave-owners were seeking to justify the practice of slavery).  What Johnson does is demonstrate the ways in which this ‘stewardship’ model cannot be made to fit with what the Bible teaches us about property and wealth.  Instead, Johnson looks to those like the early Franciscans or the Catholic Workers in order to propose an alternative way of sharing life together.
So, first I learned that private property is an anti-biblical idea, then I learned that Christian efforts to get around this fail to succeed.  Therefore, my third source drives this all home by demonstrating just how dehumanizing and fundamentally violent and oppressive systems built around private property will end up being.  This source is Karl Marx, whose massive and often dry writings on economics are well worth the effort it takes to read them.  Marx demonstrates that within systems of private property, not only do people gain the right to live without any regard for others, people themselves become alienated from their human identity – for private property itself is the objectification of lived labour, and so labourers become a function of private property – and so we become something less than we could be.  As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once said: “Property is theft” and it is not only theft because private property requires us to steal that which belongs to others, it is also theft because it steals our humanity from us.  Of course, if one is speaking in biblical terms about those things which make us less than human then one would need to employ the language of idolatry.  Which, again, is why Proudhon – an anarchist who trained as a theologian – is onto something when he states that “Property is the last of the false gods”.  No wonder then that he interprets the 8th commandment (“Thou shalt not steal”) as saying “Thou shalt not lay anything aside for thyself”.  This interpretation fits well with the actual practice of the Israelites in the wilderness, as they were only permitted to collect enough manna to last them one day.
Therefore, I find myself deeply sympathetic to those who are attempting to find ways to re-member communism.  As Jacob Taubes asserts when commenting on Marx’s economic theory: communism becomes the positive expression of annulled private property, and the restoration of people from their self-alienation.  Thus, “the supersession of private property is the vindication of real human life as [humanity’s] property”.  Or as Alain Badiou states in more detail:
The communist hypothesis is that a different collective organization is practicable, one that will eliminate the inequality of wealth and even the division of labour. The private appropriation of massive fortunes and their transmission by inheritance will disappear. The existence of a coercive state, separate from civil society, will no longer appear a necessity: a long process of reorganization based on a free association of producers will see it withering away… It is foolish to call such communist principles utopian; in the sense that I have defined them here they are intellectual patterns, always actualized in a different fashion… our task is to bring the communist hypothesis into existence in another mode.
Of course, this type of communism, much like the communism of which Žižek speaks, is precisely what many people are trying to bring about in their efforts to create intentional Christian communities.  However, I believe that most of our efforts to share space and share our belongings have only just scratched the surface of where this could lead us.  When some in the community are home owners while others are sharing in the rent, and others are just invited to stay for certain amounts of time if at all, I’m not sure if we’ve really arrived at a biblical model of what it means to share space.  When some people are hosts and other people are guests, I’m not sure if we are truly sharing our space in the ways in which God intends – after all, if the space belongs not to us, but to God who intends that it be used by any who have need of it, then it is anachronistic to speak of inviting others in and hosting them.  It is, after all, their space just as much as it is ours (if not more so, based upon degrees of need).
Of course, learning to negotiate this is difficult and will take time.  However, I raise the issue precisely with the hope of problematizing it, so that we will not be satisfied with the solutions we have found thus far.  We must press on.  That said, at the end of the day, we may discover that we cannot successfully negotiate this, without actually giving up our property.  This is what the disciples of Jesus did, it was what the early Franciscans did, and it is also what a good friend of mine is doing now.  After living in some quite ‘radical’ intentional Christian communities for over 25 years, he has decided that even this model is too flawed and integrated into the death-dealing ways of capitalism and private property.  So, this fall, he and his wife will be selling their house and moving into a life lived below the poverty line – most likely in a squat, like the anti-Olympic tent city in which he has been living since mid-February.
I will now move on to my third point.  It is this: too often those involved in Christian communities are solely focused upon enacting a creative, life-giving alternative and they end up neglecting the concomitant work of resistance to the death-dealing powers of our day.
This is a point I have inherited from cultural theorists and philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.  If, in the context of death, we wish to participate in something that is new and life-giving, then we must simultaneously, if not first of all, engage in the destruction of that which is death-dealing.  So, for example, taking feminism seriously requires us to not only ensure that women and men are accorded the same status and judged by the same standards; it also requires us to abolish previous structures, attitudes, and discourses that were patriarchal and androcentric.  Or, to take a second example, we can see how the worship of YHWH necessarily requires the Israelites to destroy their idols in the Old Testament, and necessarily requires Jesus to overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the New Testament. 
Therefore, if we are hoping to be involved in communities of new creation, committed to life, love, solidarity, and justice; then we must also be committed to resisting and destroying that which is given over to death, hatred, alienation and injustice.  It is not enough for us to simply focus upon being a creative alternative to the status quo.  We must also attack the status quo.  Doing so does not mean that we have given in to a “false soteriology”.  I once thought this, given the way I have been influenced by the Duke School and scholars like Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh.  Both Hauerwas and Cavanaugh have made convincing arguments that liberal democracies operate with a false soteriology and look to the State for salvation… when in actuality salvation is found in Christ and in the Spirit-empowered community of those who follow him.  However, accepting this thesis does not mean we refuse to engage or confront the death-dealing powers of our day.  We confront these powers, not because we are seeking to reform them so that they may save us; no, we confront them because they have been conquered by the crucified and resurrected Jesus.  Their time is up.  We seek not their reformation but their destruction.  It is folly to seek the reformation of Death.  We seek the death of Death, the resurrection of the dead, and the uprising of those left for dead in society.  And we seek these things here and now.
Therefore, we should realize that constructive activity also requires deconstructive activity.  Creativity must be paired with resistance.  It is not enough for us to simply envision our resistance as ‘speaking truth to power’ – a term I’m sure most of you are familiar with.  Sure, the speaking of truth to power can be a threatening and potentially liberating act, but it is not enough on its own.  The powers fear truth because it opens the space for different actions.  It holds the potential to mobilize people to pursue goals and engage in society in different ways.  Thus, if we are speaking truth, then we must also be engaging in the actions that go along with those truths.  If we are telling the powers that their time is up, then we must also be engaging in the actions that demonstrate this.
Furthermore, if we focus solely upon the creative side of things then there is a very good chance that we are not doing much at all that is creative but are, despite our best intentions, actually contributing to the perpetuation of the death-dealing status quo.  This is a lesson I have learned from reading what anarchists have written about nonviolent movements of resistance, and from reading criticisms of non-profits and their role in our societies.
Regarding the anarchists, I wish to highlight two texts, Pacifism as Pathology by Ward Churchill and How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos.  What Churchill and Gelderloos convincingly demonstrate is the ways in which successes credited to nonviolent movements in history were actually dependent upon the existence of other groups who were struggling violently to achieve the same goals.  Thus, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the American Civil Rights Movement were only able to achieve credibility and gain a voice within American politics because the Black Panthers were simultaneously arming the ghettos.  Similarly, Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution in India only achieved its limited success because of British fears about more violent uprisings that were occurring in the Middle East and because the British Empire had been weakened by two consecutive World Wars and was unable to maintain colonial power.  To provide a third example, we can note how Jewish movements of violent resistance to Nazism during WWII were actually capable of saving more Jews than any of the Jewish nonviolent movements, which only resulted in the staggering ‘success’ of the Holocaust.  Finally, we can look at a fourth example – the total impotence of the practice of nonviolence in occupied Palestine.  In an op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times at the start of this year, Bono wrote the following:
I’ll place my hopes on the possibility — however remote at the moment — that…people in places filled with rage and despair, places like the Palestinian territories, will in the days ahead find among them their Gandhi, [and] their King…
In a scathing reply to Bono, Alison Weir points out that Palestine does have it’s Gandhis and it’s Kings… it’s just that they are all dead or in prison.  The Palestinian people have a long history of practicing nonviolence, it’s just that it hasn’t gotten them anywhere. 
From this we learn that advocates of nonviolence rewrite history to exclude the important contributions of those who practice violence, while also overlooking the stunning failures of nonviolence.
Thus, as Churchill and Gelderloos point out, an exclusive or ‘pathological’ focus upon the accepted nonviolent means of resistance (like our work in creating intentional Christian communities) can simply end up being a means of alleviating our white, middle-class, Western guilt, while simultaneously leaving the state of things unchanged.  A particularly good example of this is the largest nonviolent protest in human history – that which was staged against the Iraq war.  In January and April of 2003, more than 36 million people took part in over 3000 protests around the world.  I was personally involved in the protests that occurred at that time in Toronto.  But what did these protests accomplish?  Precisely nothing.  However, a good many of those who participated in the protests went home feeling good about themselves and feeling as though they had made some sort of difference.  In actuality, the most successful protest against the Iraq War was the Madrid train bombings that occurred in 2004.  These bombings led to a change in the Spanish government and led an entire nation to withdraw from the war.
Now I mention all of this because I think that those of us involved in communities of creation and resistance must reconsider our relation to violence.  What exactly constitutes violence and is there any form of violence that we may consider Christian?  Personally, I believe that Jesus’ act of overturning tables in the Temple was an appropriately Christian form of resistance and violence.  Similarly, I think we can find inspiration in the Old Testament narratives about the destruction of idols.  Or, to pick a third example, we can find inspiration in the actions of the Jewish revolutionaries who immediately burned the records of debt after gaining control of the Jerusalem Temple in the first century (Josephus writes about this – although it probably reminds the modern reader of the conclusion to Fight Club!). 
In light of these things, we may wish to think about destroying logging machinery or bombing condo developments that are being built on land that used to contain affordable housing.  While I as a Christian pacifist cannot consider the Madrid train bombing to fall within the range of actions that may legitimately be described as ‘Christian’, I am no longer convinced that the destruction of mere property – specifically property that is stolen, idolatrous, and death-dealing – constitutes the sort of activity that Christian pacifists are called to avoid.  But regardless of what I think, these are still topics that should not be excluded a priori from discussion in our communities.
Of course, engaging in this type of resistance is certainly costly – it may cost us our lives, our freedom, and relationships with people near and dear to us – but, as I stated before, following Jesus is genuinely costly.  Paul understood this.  The brandmarks of Christ that he mentions in Gal 6 are the scars he received from being beaten, whipped, stoned and imprisoned by the Roman Imperial Powers, due to his active resistance to their values, economics, and political theology.  Who amongst us can say that they bear similar brandmarks due to their resistance to the Empire of global capitalism?  And, really, this is the point I want to stress here.  Rather than diverting our discussion into what will likely end up being utterly inane conversations about violence, just war, and absurdly framed “What would you do if…?” scenarios, I simply want to emphasize that our resistance, like our creativity, must be expressed in a costly way.  If there is no price being paid – either by us or by the Powers that be – then the chances are that the forms of resistance we are practicing are superficial and irrelevant.
So much for the anarchists.  I also mentioned criticisms of contemporary non-profits, and I would likely to briefly mentioned the text, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, compiled by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.  What the authors in this text demonstrate are the many ways in which our introspective focus upon the local, the individual, and making a difference in this-or-that person’s life, end up perpetuating broader structures and cycles of poverty, oppression, and inequality.  The authors stress that we need to move beyond our focus upon one particular space or one particular issue and begin to explore ways of building up a social movement that creates a deeper and broader change.
One of the implications for those of us involved in intentional Christian communities is that we must be more deliberate about building relationships and networking with others who, although they might not share all the same beliefs as we do, share similar goals and objectives.  To quote  Žižek once again, “Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade”.  This is one of the reasons why I chose to participate in the black bloc anti-Olympic/anti-capitalism protest that occurred in Vancouver on February 13th.  This is also why I have deliberately been interacting with a number of non-Christian voices in this presentation.  There is much fruit to be borne from engaging in that dialogue and building up those relationships.  After all, the anarchists have been doing ‘new monasticism’ a lot longer than the new monastics – we’ve all heard of the Simple Way, but how many people know the history of anarchist or communist communities in Greece and Italy?  How many of us are aware of the anarchist collectives and efforts to ‘share space’ that occur in our own cities?  There is much we can learn from these brothers and sisters and many bridges that must be built.  These are steps we must take if we, like Jesus and Paul, are genuinely interested in the new creation of all things.  We should not just be creating local communities, we should be creating a social movement.  Or, more precisely, we should be communally participating in the movement of God’s Spirit that brings new life and conquers death in all areas of society.
In sum, I am absolutely convinced of the necessity of exploring ways of sharing space and living in intentional Christian communities.  However, as I have progressed down this road, I have become convicted that our efforts in this regard must be more intimately linked to solidarity with the abandoned, to the abolition of private property, to potentially more ‘violent’ means of resistance, and to the greater goal of building a social movement.  Furthermore, I have tried to emphasize that our efforts in all these areas should become far more costly than most of us have allowed them to be.  But I hope we realize just how worthwhile they are.  Such a life is the ‘pearl of great price’ that Jesus mentions, and I hope that we will not hesitate to abandon all else for such a prize.  So I have shared these convictions with you today, in hope that you will come to share them with me.

Link: Fuck the Police?

[Somebody I know quite well wrote the following blog post on the Vancouver Media Co-Op website.  It is a reflection based upon some of the events that occurred at the anti-Olympics/anti-capitalism diverse tactics protest that occurred in Vancouver on February 13th.  I thought I would reproduce it here, as it does a fairly decent job of summarizing some of my own thoughts on things.  Note that my friend has written this anonymously so any comments related to what my friend’s identity might be will be erased.]
Fuck the Police?
I have been doing some thinking since the action that occurred on February 13th.  I was at that event and participated in the black bloc.  While participating in that event, I was struck multiple times by police officers (when the riot police moved in and tried to cut the bloc in half) and I was later tackled to the ground, arrested, and detained.
Furthermore, I am no stranger to police violence.  Having both been street-involved as a teen and having worked with street-involved and marginalized people for the duration of my adult life, I have witnessed what can only be described as the systemic corruption and violence that is integral to the police system.  I have known underage female sex workers who were raped by police officers; I have known young men who were hog-tied, pepper-sprayed, then tossed in the trunk of patrol cars; I have witnessed the bruises and missing teeth, along with the physical, emotional, and psychological scars that have marked the bodies and minds of those who are easy targets for police officers.  Of course, the multitude of marks I have witnessed tend to be considered too inconsequential to make the news, but one can also recall more public events like when police officers murdered Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in October 2007.
Now, one might be inclined to think that all of these acts of violence are performed by a few ‘bad’ people who abuse their power, and are not representative of the police force as a whole.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Again, pointing to the Robert Dziekanski murder, one can see how officers were coached to lie on the stand, how they attempted to withhold evidence, and so on.  Or one can simply look at the (false) statements made by the Vancouver chief of police after the action that occurred on February 13th.  The truth is that something is wrong on a much deeper level, and more detailed studies exist that confirm this (one thinks, for example, of the books Our Enemies in Blue by Kristian Williams and The Story of Jane Doe: a book about rape by Jane Doe; both do a fine job of demonstrating that police corruption is a systemic issue).
With these things in mind, it is no wonder that at the action on February 13th, people were chanting: “No justice!  No peace!  Fuck the police!”  It is also no wonder that the police were able to so easily incite some of the protesters.  I witnessed more than one person who was tripped or struck from behind by an officer, who then responded by lashing out – either verbally or physically – at that officer.  This is all quite understandable, and it might even by commendable.
Yet, I believe that it would help our objectives if we were more deliberate about the ways in which we engaged with the police.  While I make no claim that my objectives for pursuing social change are the same as those of others, I do have the impression that most of us would agree that we are striving for a world where abundant life is available to all people and not just to some.  It seems to me that most of us are striving for a world where all people have equal access to resources, to labour, to leisure, to freedom, and to justice.  We are striving for a world where the glorious humanity of all people is recognized – where nobody is dehumanized and abandoned into the hands of poverty, illness, isolation, and death.  I reckon that these are some of the key things that led people of diverse faiths, ethnicities, languages, and sexual orientations to put on black clothing and stand in solidarity with each other.
However, if this does describe something of our common goals, then we must remember that, within the context of oppression both the oppressed and the oppressor end up being dehumanized.  Oppressed people are dehumanized because they are not provided the opportunity to flourish and share in abundant life.  However, those who engage in oppressive acts are also dehumanized because abusive and violent actions are not reflective of those who are living out their full human potential.  Therefore, we must always remember that, in the pursuit of liberation, we must be committed to the liberation of all people.  Thus, without ever losing sight of the priority that must be granted to the oppressed, we should also seek the liberation of the oppressors.
Consequently, I have no problem chanting, “Fuck the Police!” but I always remember that ‘the police’ is not a person – it is a system and a culture that is given over to violence, exploitation and death.  As such, it is a system that must be abolished if we are to live an abundant life together.  However, the destruction of ‘the police’ does not require the destruction of individual police officers.  Rather, each police officer is also a human person who has been made into something less than he or she could be due to his or her participation within (and enslavement to) this death-dealing system.
Therefore, although I chant “Fuck the Police!” I also try to treat each officer I encounter as a brother or sister in need of liberation and life – just like the rest of us.  This is why I did not strike back, when I was struck by police officers on the 13th.  In my work, I have been struck more than once by a person who was strung-out on drugs or whose actions were the result of a chemical imbalance.  I would never consider striking back in that situation – striking an addict or a person with a mental illness is not the way to bring about freedom from addiction or mental illness.  Similarly, when struck by the police – who are not in bondage to addiction or mental illness (at least not always…), but who are in bondage to the death-dealing ways of Police culture – I do not strike back.  The answer, to all these situations, is not blows but a willingness to love and do the hard work required to bring about liberation and life for all, not just for some (even if that means I will continue to get struck along the way).  Perhaps if we kept this in mind, instead of allowing ourselves to be provoked, we might yet see the day when officers drop their truncheons and join us on our side of the barricades.  On that day, our dreams might begin to be realized.

There Can Be No Truce While the People Are Raped: Exorcising the Spirit of the Games

Last week, a co-worker drew my attention to a foundation that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has created.  It is the International Olympic Truce Centre (see here for the official website, and for the sources of the various quotations that follow… also note the way in which the IOC dominates the Board of Directors).  Even thought the Centre was founded in 2000CE, it traces it’s origins back to the first Olympiad (c.776BCE) when a truce (ekecheiria) was established between the various Greek city-states for the sake of the Games, and also roots itself in the events of 1894CE, when the IOC was established “with the goal of contributing to a peaceful future for humankind through the educational value of sport”.   Thus, the Olympic Truce calls “upon humanity to lay down its weapons and to work towards building the foundations of peace, mutual respect, understanding and reconciliation” and calls “for all hostilities to cease during the Olympic Games and beyond”.
Now, in my opinion, this is a fantastic example of ideology at work in the worst possible way.  I’m not just talking about their fascinating historical narrative; rather, this becomes blatantly obvious when one realizes that the Olympics themselves are a fundamentally violent event (a lot of literature and websites exist detailing how this is the case, but you could start here for some easy reference points).  The Olympics are consistently employed to destroy poor communities and environmental safe havens, steal real estate, criminalize poverty, erode civil rights, and place a vast amount of wealth in the hands of the already wealthy, while forcing tax payers to pick up the bills.
So, we notice the extremely narrow definition of violence employed by the Olympic Truce.  Violence is understood as doing things like striking another person, destroying property or pulling down security barriers (erected on public land).  However, things like destroying precious natural habitats, tearing down poor communities, and stealing housing from those with low incomes are not considered violent. Perhaps, an appropriate illustration of this sort of thinking would be to consider a scenario wherein a man is raping a woman and telling her not to fight back because more people should be committed to peace and the cessation of hostilities!  Essentially, the IOC wishes to rape us and our resources, while imposing an ideology upon the public that preempts and counters those who wish to fight back.
Not only this, but the IOC, via the Olympic Truce Centre, is rooted in a position of power and influence so that it can impose its narrow definition of violence upon others.  This is why the Olympic Truce Centre and the IOC can speak the language of peace and nonviolence and call for an end to hostilities during the Games… while simultaneously spending around $900 million on its security budget, bringing in 4500 soldiers, over 5000 private security guards, and masses of police and RCMP from all across Canada (the total number of people on the force is something like 16000+).  Not only this, but the Olympic Security forces are also authorized to use a number of weapons upon civilians — teargas, pepperspray, fists and boots being fairly standard, but the recently developed ‘Long Range Acoustic Device’ has also been cleared for use on protesters.  One might be inclined to take the Olympic Truce Centre more seriously if they were simultaneously disarming the cops — who have a proven track record of employing force in anything but moderation at protests of the sort that are expected to occur in the next week.  But, of course, the rhetorical power play is that these forces and weapons are necessary to maintain our safety and security.  Nobody stops to consider that the protesters themselves are acting out of their concern for the safety and security of the environment, the marginalized, and the general public.  To further the illustration used above, the Olympic Truce Centre is like the man who threatens a woman and tells her she’ll “get it twice as bad” if she fights back while being raped, so best just roll over and take it.
But, thank God, there are many people who will not roll over and take it.  The truth is that there can be no truce while the people are being raped — the precursor to peace is the cessation of the Olympics in their current manifestation (if not altogether).  That is to say, we will stop fighting back when we are no longer being raped.  It’s that simple.  So, this is why I will be participating in some of the mass actions that are taking place by those who wish to disrupt these Games, reveal their true Spirit and, as much as possible, shut them down (see this schedule for more on those).  I encourage anybody in the Vancouver area to come out and show their solidarity with the people — and come not so that you can say you ‘were there’, and not to be more hip than your roommate, and not to engage in some simulacrum of action or some counter-cultural spectacle that eases your conscience; no, come to succeed and be prepared to take some risks and pay a price to get there (although this information might help).  I hope to see you there.

Remembering 9/11

As today, is September 11th, I thought I would engage in a bit of remembering — it is, after all, important to recall moments of our history, for this is the story in which we live.
On this day in 1973, Augusto Pinochet’s American-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.  This resulted in seventeen years of torture, terror, and disappearances in Chile, and (according to people like Milton Friedman, who saw Chile as a textbook example of the type of world he wished to create) set a precedent for the way in which the United States acted in Latin America (particularly in the ’70s and ’80s… although they are at it again, as Obama’s government backed the Honduran coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in June of this year).
Sponsoring terror, imposing military rule, depriving local populations of their rights, their food, their land, their livelihood, their health, their children and their lives… this is the way that the US continues to engage with the world at large.  It is enough to make some people want to fly planes into buildings.  Which, not altogether surprisingly, is what happened on another September 11th.

Abandoning Our Home Amongst Impotent Powers: Pursuing New Creation in Solidarity with the Poor

[This is the transcript of a workshop that I delivered at a conference today regarding living as the Church ‘Amidst the Powers’.  There was some great conversation and discussion, and I was surprised by how willing some people were to share.  Many thanks to them, and to the organizers who invited me… even though they knew what I was going to be saying about the conference itself!]



Many people today are marked by a deep longing for change. We long for a different world than the one we have inherited – for we are all aware of the massive compromises and great evils that sustain the status quo of our daily life together.


But let us remind ourselves of some of these evils.


First of all, there is the massive and growing divide between the wealthy and privileged few and the poor and oppressed many. I believe that we’ve all heard the stats – 50,000 people dying everyday, simply because they are poor. 800 million people going to bed hungry every night. Every year, 3.1 million people die because of AIDS and 1.8 million people die from, of all things, diarrhea. All of these numbers are staggering, but what makes the situation truly incomprehensible is that all of these evils exist because those with the resources and the means to prevent poverty, hunger, diarrhea, and even AIDS, do nothing meaningful in response to them.


As a second example, we can look at the violent slave-like conditions that are responsible for producing almost all of the items we use and consume in our daily lives. I don’t think I’m shocking anybody when I tell them that most of our clothes, our children’s toys, and our electronics are produced by women and children working 15hr/day, 7 days/wk, in the two thirds world. For this, the workers do not even receive a living wage, and are usually forced to live within compounds attached to the factory. This is the lot of over 200 million children today. However, from this we receive everything from our Disney products, to our iPods and Macbooks, to our runners and our jeans. The situation, at least for the poor, is truly tragic, but what makes it evil almost beyond comprehension is that the only reason why things are this way, is because those who could change things, choose to do nothing.


As a third example, we can look at the production of the cheap food that we consume. Again, I don’t think I’m saying anything new when I remind us that much of our food is grown on land stolen from the rural poor and from indigenous populations who are uprooted and driven from their homes so that transnational corporations can establish mega-farms in their place. We also know that this cheap food production is responsible for the large scale destruction of natural habitats, environments, and crop-cycles, not to mention the transformation of food itself through the forceful imposition of genetically modified seeds and organisms. Thus, we see another awful situation that we must consider a great evil because it is so preventable.


As a fourth example, we can remember that the cars that we drive and the plastics we produce rely upon dwindling non-renewable resources, oil and natural gases, and we can remember that these things and our other major energy sources – coal and nuclear power – are employed in a way that is devastating the earth and putting an end to life itself. Again, I’m sure we’ve all heard the stories. We’ve all heard about ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ that contains an accumulation of plastics covering twice the size of Texas. We’ve all heard about the environmental, biological, and communal devastation and disease caused by coal and nuclear energy production and consumption, and I think we’ve also heard that our industrialism is responsible for the extinction of 2.7 to 270 species every single day.


Again, All of this points to the great evil of our time, for all of these situations are manufactured by humans, are unnecessary for our ongoing existence, but are perpetuated because of the apathy and indifference of those who could make things otherwise. Thus, we find ourselves longing for change.


However, this is not the only reason why we long for change. As participants within the Christian tradition, we are also filled with longing because the biblical narrative provides us with a vision of the sort of world that is possible to us. This vision spans the entire biblical narrative – from the Deuteronomic Law which strives to create a society where there is enough for everybody and nobody is in need, to the witness of the prophets, who define true religion as caring for the poor and make salvation conditional upon the practice of justice, to the example of the community formed around Jesus, who welcomed outcasts and shared all they had with each other. From this we learn that the world we have inherited does not have to remain the way that it is. We see that former Hebrew slaves can reject slave-based economies for economies based upon the forgiveness of debts, we see how Palestinian peasants can reject theopolitical systems of oppression in order to create a community of mutuality and care, and so on. Thus, we learn that, even now, the world can be changed. We can begin to make it new, in anticipation of the day when all wounds will be healed and all that has been shattered will be restored.


Consequently, we must ask ourselves: how is it that we possess a great deal of knowledge about the evils of our world and a powerful vision and longing for change, but do not actually see any meaningful transformation taking place?


An important first step to answering this question is identifying the existence of barriers to transformation – those things, people, ideologies and institutions who have a vested interest in maintaining the current status quo. This type of work has been done, and continues to be done by people as diverse as Walter Wink, William Stringfellow, Naomi Klein, Naom Chomksy, and many others. What we learn from these voices is threefold: first, that there are great Powers operating in the service of current cycles of violence and death; second, that these great Powers can be precisely named and identified; and third, we learn the method by which these Powers ensure that their dominion continues, without end, around the globe.


However, a crucial second step in answering our question is to confess that our efforts to produce change are often co-opted and themselves put into the service of the Powers. This has often been noted of so-called revolutionary movements – how the oppressed go on to become oppressors – but it must be emphasized that this is just as true of reform movements which pursue gradual change from within the system.


Therefore, if we are genuinely seeking to subvert and resist the Powers in order to produce change, we must think carefully about how we are to go about doing this, and, more specifically, what exactly this requires of us, so that we can avoid being seduced or misled into thinking we are acting as agents of change when, in fact, we are not.


Consequently, within this workshop I will argue that at least three things are necessary if we are to hope to see the change for which we long. First, we must begin by recognizing that we ourselves are actually constituent and participatory members of the Powers. Second, we must confess that it is precisely our rootedness amongst the Powers that makes us incapable of producing social change. Therefore, third, we must abandon our home amongst these Powers and move into solidarity with those whom the Powers label as ‘powerless’ in order to make genuine social change possible.


1. Our Home Amongst the Powers


Turning, then, to the first point, we must begin by recognizing that we ourselves are constituent and participatory members of the Powers. All too often, those involved in a discussion of these things tend to operate with an us/them mentality – as if the Powers are evil entities existing outside of us, leaving us free to criticize them from a place of uncompromising goodness. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. All of us are compromised and deeply enmeshed amongst the Powers. Indeed, the Powers depend upon our participation and complicity in order to ensure their ongoing existence.


Now, there are a couple of ways we could go about illustrating this point, but I think that one survey would be particularly helpful.


Recalling the massive disparity of wealth in our world, and recalling that nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than US$2/day, and that more that 1 billion people live on less than US$1/day, let’s go around and share our annual household income (before tax).

What is the point of this? It is not to try and shame any particular participant in this workshop. Rather, I am trying to help us to honestly confront the reality of the situation in which we are rooted and make it as clear as possible that we should not count ourselves as members of the poor and oppressed majority of the world’s population. Rather, we are quite at home amongst the Powers. We are their constituency and our day-to-day lives are what gives them the resources and permission to continue to destroy life around the world.


This is not only true of us as individual consumers. It is also true of us at a corporate level. Here it is crucial that we understand ourselves not as isolated individuals but as members of various interrelated and overlapping groups. We must recover a sense of corporate identity, where we all confess to participating within and sharing responsibility for the actions taken by the groups that shape our lives.


An illustration of the way this works might be helpful. Let’s take the recent free-trade alliance crafted between Stephen Harper’s government and Alvaro Uribe’s regime in Colombia. Now, Uribe is a notoriously violent dictator, known for committing massive acts of murder, torture, theft, and terror against his own people. It is this activity that will now receive funding from Canadian businesses and taxpayers, at the behest of the officials representing all of those who live within Canada and participate within its electoral system. Consequently, the blood of Colombians is now on the hands of all Canadians who (a) are represented by the official who created this arrangement; (b) whose tax dollars fund the ‘aid’ money sent by the Harper government to Uribe; and (c) who refuse to hold their elected representatives accountable, even though they could do so.


Now examples like this could be multiplied almost endlessly, but the point is that we are all deeply interwoven into the networks of power that mark our lives, and no one of us can wash our hands of the actions taken by our government, and by our corporations, at the international, national, and local levels. We are all guilty of the abuses perpetuated by these Powers to the extent that we buy the products of the corporations, we pay taxes to the government, and we do next to nothing to hold anybody accountable.


Of course, we are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves solely as unique and separate individuals that this is often a difficult point for us to grasp. However, when we return to the biblical narrative it is clear that our way of thinking is foreign to it. Within the biblical narrative, people are defined not by who they are as individuals but by the actions taken by the groups to which they belong. Thus, for example, when the government of Israel goes astray – when kings and priests begin to crush the poor, and when wealth is used for selfish pleasures instead of communal benefits – all the people of Israel suffer and go into exile. Tellingly, even the righteous remnant – those like Jeremiah and other schools of prophets – suffer exile alongside of the theopolitical rulers. This is because God relates to Israel as a corporate entity.


By arguing that we should think of ourselves in the same way – primarily as constituent members of certain groups, and only secondarily as individuals – I am not arguing that we should simply abandon modern ways of thinking for the premodern paradigms of the biblical authors. Rather, I believe that this focus upon our corporate identity is actually a more accurate reflection of the way things actually are. I believe that the very nature of who we are as human beings is constituted by the relationships in which we live and move.


Interestingly, this is one of the points where Marxist and post-Marxist scholars like Karl Marx, Etienne Balibar, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri find come ground with Orthodox and Trinitarian theologians like John Zizioulas, Jurgen Moltmann, and Miroslav Volf. No one of us is simply an isolated ‘I’; rather, the core of all of us is a network of social relations. Now there are many fancy ways of saying this, we could refer to this philosophically as a ‘transindividualist ontology’ or theologically as a type of ‘perichoresis’ but we can illustrate this point more easily by drawing to mind 1 Jo 4.8, which tells us that ‘God is love’. This means that the very being of God is found in the way in which God inhabits particular social relations. This, then, also explains why the call to love is not simply a call to one action amongst others, but a call to fulfill our identity as humans – loving is the way of being for which we have been created.


I hope, then, that my first point is clear: both corporately and as individuals we are all constituent members of the Powers and participate in their death-dealing ways. This is true of us regardless of how much we adopt the rhetoric of being ‘radical’, ‘counter-cultural’, or ’emergent’, and regardless of whether or not the Church we attend bills itself as ‘a church for people who aren’t into church’.


Indeed, I cannot resist using this conference itself as an illustration of how at home we are with the Powers. Here we are paying what amounts to more than one month’s wages for half the world’s population, to attend a one-day for-profit conference, at a location that requires those in attendance to own or have access to cars, in a building that cost approximately $12 million dollars, in one of the wealthiest cities in Canada where the median income is almost 2.5 times the national average. Consequently, despite our rhetoric, it should be clear to us as to whose side we are on.


2. Our Rootedness Amongst the Powers is that which Makes Us Impotent


Having established our rootedness amongst the Powers, I now wish to emphasize that it is precisely this rootedness that prevents us, regardless of our intentions, from producing any meaningful social change. While it may sound contradictory to assert that the closer we are to the Powers, the more powerless we become, I believe that this is, indeed, the case. This is so for a few reasons.


First, our proximity to the Powers undercuts our efforts to produce social change because of the specific type of power they possess. After all, when dealing with the Powers we are not dealing with omnipotence, we are dealing with a particular kind of power that is crafted and directed towards particular ends. I believe that the Powers possess an especially perverse kind of power – one that relies upon the production of violence, oppression, and, ultimately, death. Indeed, I believe that Death itself is the true Lord of the Powers, and it is from Death that they derive their sustenance and strength. Therefore, it should come as no surprise to us that we are unable to produce life, or life-giving social transformation, while we remain embedded amongst these Powers.


Unfortunately, any who are committed to pursuing change from within the system – be they liberal or conservative – have failed to grasp this point. A system that is premised upon Death cannot be reformed. It can only be abandoned for a system that is premised upon Life.


Secondly, our proximity to the Powers undercuts our efforts to produce social change because the closer we are to the Powers the more we are disciplined by them and induced to allow things to remain as they are. This occurs in two primary ways: through the perversion of our desires and the limitation of our imagination.


It is important for us to understand how the Powers manipulate our desires because controlling what a people want, and what they consequently strive for, is one of the most effective ways of maintaining dominance. After all, if we genuinely desired a different world, then we would concretely strive with all our might to create that world. However, the fact that we do not actually strive to recreate the world, suggests to me that we do not desire that alternative world in a significant way. Rather, what we really desire is a bigger handbag, another degree, a trip, or the newest flat-screen HDTV, for these are the things for which we actually strive.


Therefore, if you want to know what a person actually desires, look not at what that person says, but at what that person does. And the same goes for ourselves. If we want to know what we actually desire, don’t listen to what we tell ourselves we want, look at what we actually do.


For example, let’s look again at this conference on resisting and subverting the Powers. Here, we have all come together to give voice to the desire to see an alternative world, but then we will go on from here and continue to live lives that are just as deeply enmeshed with the Powers. This leads me to suspect that, despite our rhetoric, we are actually quite at home with the Powers and intend to remain that way.


Of course, it sounds quite brutal to say we would rather buy a new handbag or TV than provide clean water for a child who would otherwise die of diarrhea… and so we don’t say this. We lie to ourselves about what we desire. Indeed, our enjoyment of the status quo is predicated, in part, upon us telling ourselves we don’t enjoy the status quo. Thus, we attend events like this conference to try and convince ourselves that the lies we tell ourselves are true. Consequently, an event intended to subvert the Powers actually ends up reinforcing them.


Moving on to the second primary way that the Powers discipline us, we must recognize that the Powers seriously limit our imaginations and ability to think (and therefore act) creatively. This occurs in at least three ways.


First, related to what we have just said about desire, the Powers discipline and limit our imagination by distracting us. After all, it is not as if we are incapable of taking in and retaining large amounts of information – it’s just that we are continually absorbing and memorizing vast amounts of useless information. In this regard, I am consistently amazed by the people of my generation who can recite vast amounts of movie scenes, sports stats, song lyrics and pop culture trivia… but who are entirely disinterested in learning anything meaningful. To use the words of Neil Postman, we are amusing ourselves to death and, even worse, our amusement is predicated upon the deaths of others.


The second way that the Powers discipline our imagination is by manipulating the language of compassion in order to create a culture of fear. This occurs on many levels. At the international level we are feed myths of terror so that we will accept war and increasingly stricter limitations upon ‘human rights’. At the local level we are taught to fear those who are different than us. Thus, despite the dominant rhetoric of equality and acceptance, white parents still get nervous when their kids hang-out with a group of black ‘thugs’, Christian parents still prefer that their kids hang-out exclusively with other Christian kids, middle-class parents still don’t want their kids to be passing through poor neighbourhoods, and straight parents sure as hell don’t want there kids hanging-out in the LGBTQ community. Thus, fear assaults our imagination and throws up all sorts of barriers to existing in open and loving relationships with others while, simultaneously reframing self-absorbed living as a noble endeavour. Consequently, we don’t follow through on biblical injunctions – like those that forbid hoarding wealth for the future, or those that require us to invite the homeless poor into our homes – because we are afraid of what might happen and feel that such actions would be ‘irresponsible’.


This, then, ties into the third way that the Powers discipline our imagination – by using the language of ‘realism’ in order to enforce despair. Stated simply, the closer we are to the Powers, the more their world looks like the only realistic option available to us. As a result, we end up believing them when they tell us to accept ‘necessary evils’ and hope for some hypothetical ‘trickle down’ effect while simultaneously abandoning any ‘utopian’ thinking. Of course, I’m merely stating the obvious when I say that this approach flies in the face of the utopian faith of Christianity, which believes that the new creation of all things has been inaugurated in the comings of Jesus and the Spirit, which teaches us that there is nothing necessary about evil of any sort, and which therefore requires us to do things like love our enemies, forgive our debtors, and give extravagantly to others.


However, should you suggest that we practice these things as a political community, you will quickly be told that you are not being ‘realistic’, that you must abandon such ‘foolish youthful ideals’ and get to work in the compromises and messes of the ‘real world’. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: who defines our communal ‘reality’? Who sets the guidelines for what is or is not considered ‘realistic’? Whose needs are being met within this ‘reality’ and whose lives are being sacrificed to sustain it?


These are important questions to ask because they reveal that the call to ‘be realistic’ is not simply a call to ‘objectivity’ and ‘common sense’; rather what is considered realistic is always informed by a preexisting faith or ideology. After all, ‘objectivity’ and ‘common sense’ are certain ways of thinking that are only common to a particular people, in a particular place, at a particular moment in history.


Furthermore, when we begin to ask these questions we quickly discover that the sort of ‘realism’ practiced within the biblical narrative contradicts the type of ‘realism’ enforced within our culture. For example, within the biblical narrative, people like Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul, consider it ‘realistic’ to rely upon God for the provision of their basic needs. Or to take another example, Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Church, thought that it was ‘common sense’ to love their enemies and respond nonviolently even to those who hurt their loved ones. Hence, the opposition between biblical realism and contemporary realism becomes immediately obvious and, ultimately, I believe that what we see here is the difference between the Christian story, which is suffused with hope, and the story told to us by the Powers, which is given over to despair.


Having demonstrated some of the ways in which the Powers discipline us, I should note that there is at least one more way that they prevent those who are close to them from challenging the status quo. This is through the system of credit and debt.


Although credit and debt are ubiquitous in our culture, I believe that they are powerful tools that are used to socialize people into a disciplined existence, from which there appears to be no escape and no alternative. Indeed, credit and debt are the ways in which the Powers ensure that the potentially dangerous middle-class remains impotent and politically inactive. For example, members of the middle-class can become dangerous when they receive an education and acquire knowledge and the ability to think critically. Therefore, the Powers ensure that most students rely upon money loaned by banks and by the government. This ensure that our time after school will be spent making money and becoming integrated into society as it is (instead of, say, working to transform society itself). Indeed, all of us have become so busy paying off our cars, our homes, our credit cards and other loans, that we just don’t have the time to do much else.


In this regard, loans to the middle-class function in a way that is similar to the Welfare system. In part, Welfare is the means by which the government and the rest of society, pay the poor to stay poor. Were the poor to actually begin to starve en masse, or be more obviously deprived of what they need in order to live, they would be far more likely rise up and demand or create change. Therefore, they are given just enough to eke out a meager existence, while constantly being threatened that this little bit will be taken away. Consequently, the poor keep their mouths shut, don’t risk pursuing social change, and remain poor. Similarly, loans to the middle-class are the means by which the Powers ensure that the middle-class keep their mouths shut and maintain the status quo.


However, this means that much of our life is an illusion. We think we are wealthy but we are actually in debt. We think we are privileged but we are actually in enslaved. We think we are free but we are trapped without an alternative. We have become like the emperor with no clothes, living an absurd life premised upon lies. And the only way that this illusion is sustained is because we all turn a blind eye to one another’s complicity, bondage, and nakedness.


Now, to further illustrate this, let’s do another survey.


Let’s go around and share (a) how much debt we have and (b) how long we think it will be until we are out of debt.



Again, the purpose of these exercises is not to single out any particular person. Rather, they are intended to help us to honestly confront our situation.  Just as the first exercise was intended to show how we are at home amongst the Powers, this exercise is intended to show how the Powers dominate our lives.


3. Abandoning Our Home Amongst the Powers and Pursuing New Creation in Solidarity with the Poor


Therefore, in order to produce social transformation within our world, I believe that we must abandon our place of impotence amongst the Powers and pursue new creation in solidarity with the poor.


Of course, there are many things that we can and must do as we journey down this road and address the evils that we have mentioned, and many of these things have been explored by others who desire to reduce their complicity with the Powers. Thus, for example, people are learning to purchase locally grown foods, fair trade coffees, and clothing that is not made in sweatshops. They are also learning to use public transportation, cloth bags, and clean energy sources. Some are even finding ways of sharing one another’s financial burdens so that things like credit cards, loans and insurance become unnecessary.


However, while all of these things are good and necessary, it seems to me that they are still a far cry from what we need to do in order to produce social transformation. This is so because all of these things are still practiced in an highly individualized manner. We tend to practice these things in order to become guilt-free middle-class consumers, and not in order to address the stratification of human relations into upper, middle, and lower classes. Indeed, all of these things can simply end up being another way of being branded into a life of privilege. Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, realized this before many and has built a corporate empire around the marketing of the counterculture. Indeed, as those like Naomi Klein, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have shown us, being ‘different’, ‘radical’ and ‘counter-cultural’ is regularly used as one of the primary means of spreading consumption and deepening the disparity between the rich and the poor.


Thus, while ‘going green’ may make me feel better about myself as a person of privilege, it will probably do nothing for the plight of the poor and oppressed around the world. Even worse, doing things like ‘going green’, shopping locally, and avoiding items produced in sweatshops, actually tends to be a rather expensive endeavour. Consequently, practicing these things easily becomes a further badge of privilege, and just another way in which the wealthy exert their (this time moral) superiority over poor people (who can only afford to shop at Wal-Mart for their kids, or who can only afford to go to McDonald’s when they want to take their family out for dinner).


This is why I stress the theme of solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. If we genuinely desire to see a different world, and if we really mean what we say about wishing to resist and subvert the Powers, then solidarity is what is required of us.


Now, as Christians, this really shouldn’t surprise us as the biblical narrative also requires this of us. Solidarity with the poor and oppressed is definitive of the identity and mission of the God of the bible. It is also central to the identity and mission of the people who claim to follow this God. Thus, from Ex 2 to Deut 15, to Is 25, Mic 6, Lk 4, Acts 2, Phil 2, Ja 1, 1 Jn 3, Rev 18 – and a whole host of other passages – we are inescapably confronted with the call to move out of relationships of oppressive power and into relationships of mutually liberating solidarity with the poor. By doing so, we are doing nothing more than that which is required of us as disciples of Jesus. Paul makes this clear in Phil 2 when he writes:


Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, [and] taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.


This example, more than any other I know, demonstrates what ‘downward mobility’ looks like, and what it concretely requires of us. For, according to Paul, Jesus moves from equality with the person at the very top of the social, political and religious ladder, to solidarity with the people at the very bottom. As Christians, we are expected to do the same and, as Mt 25 and other passages make clear, we will be judged on this basis.


However, I don’t want to suggest that we should move into solidarity with the poor simply because it is our duty to do so. While this is true, I believe that we should also move into solidarity with the poor because this is the most effective way to produce social transformation.


To illustrate this point, we have an almost endless number of historical examples. For example, we could look at the transformation wrought by the Russian populists, anarchists, and communists in the 19th century. At that time we see a whole movement of wealthy, well-educated members of the gentry turning their backs upon their privilege and their well-established places in the military and the civil service, in order to move into solidarity with the exploited urban workers and the rural poor. What was the result of this? The emancipation of the serfs, the downfall of the Tsar, and the prophetic witness of people like Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.


Or, to choose another example, we could look at the work of Gandhi in the first half of the 20th century. Gandhi was raised in a life of privilege. He was the son of a wealthy Indian politician and he received an elite legal education in London, England. Yet look at what happened when he decided to move into solidarity with the poor and oppressed people of South Africa and India.


Or, to choose a third example, we could look at the work of the Latin American liberation theologians, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, in the second half of the 20th century. Here we see many who came from families of privilege, received educations at the finest universities in Europe, and were well-situated in places of power within the Roman Catholic Church (which, by the way, had a very cozy relationship established with the political powers of Latin America). However, as these theologians awoke to the biblical story of God’s preferential option for the poor, they moved into relationships with the campesinos, the oppressed, and the families of the tortured and the disappeared. Consequently, despite the best efforts of dictatorial Powers who were supported by our own governments, this has given birth to decades of struggle and martyrdom, which has now resulted in the fact that Latin America, more than other place in the world today, seems to be preparing the way for a world that does not require capitalism.


Having glanced at these three contemporary examples, and having mentioned the example of Jesus of Nazareth, let’s take two more examples from the biblical narrative – Moses, who dominates the First Testament, and Paul, who dominates the Second.


Moses, although the son of Hebrew slaves, was raised in Pharaoh’s household, at the center of Egyptian power and privilege. However, in a process of political awakening, he observes the sufferings of the slaves, he comes to identify with them as his brothers and sisters and even comes to share their fate when, after killing an Egyptian official, he is marked for death. Of course, the end result of this is Moses’ movement into complete solidarity with the slaves, resulting in the Exodus from Egypt and liberation from bondage.


Similarly, Paul grows up as a person of privilege. We see this in the way he speaks of his elite education in Jerusalem, and when the book of Acts tells us that Paul possessed a Roman citizenship (which granted him a social status higher than many others who did not possess this). Paul’s initial position of privilege is further confirmed by the fact that, as a young man, he was a commissioned representative of the Jerusalem Temple authorities – the greatest Powers in Palestine, next to the Romans themselves. Thus, Paul was well on his way up the ladder so, it shouldn’t shock us that violence was integral to what he was doing. It is only after receiving his call from Jesus on the road to Damascus that Paul dramatically changes his approach and his allegiances. He moves out of relationships with the Powers and into solidarity with those who are persecuted by them – he receives the forty lashes minus one from the Jewish authorities at least five times, he is beaten with rods by the civic authorities, he is imprisoned at the behest of the business leaders, and he is charged with being a revolutionary which ultimately leads to his execution by the Roman imperial powers. Not only this, but Paul speaks of knowing what it is like to be hungry and thirsty, cold and naked. Further, although manual labour was despised by the respectable and well-to-do members of society, Paul supported his subversive work by labouring as a tent-maker and working alongside of others who were mostly living just at or below the subsistence level. Yet, once again, we all know what resulted from the work of Paul and others like him – the establishment of the global Church, a subversive theopolitical community that would end up outliving all the Powers of Rome.


Therefore, we can see that both history and the bible reveal that when people of privilege move into relationships of mutual care and solidarity with people who are oppressed, the result is the explosive but often painful birth of positive social transformation – of new creation. That we don’t often realize this bears witness to the fact that our readings of history and the bible are dominated by the perspective of the Powers.


Having said that, we must be quick to emphasize that moving into solidarity with the poor is nothing like seeking to ‘lead’, ‘represent’, or ‘save’ the poor. It has nothing to do with paternalism, condescension, or treating the poor as a problem to be ‘solved’. This is why I speak of a mutually liberating solidarity. As people like Jean Vanier and Paulo Freire have argued, we go to the poor, not only to assist them in finding their own liberation, but also so that they can help us to be liberated. This is true because, in the context of oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressors are dehumanized – the oppressed are dehumanized because they are not granted fullness of life but are, instead, given over to death; and the oppressors are dehumanized because, by taking life from others, they become less-than-human themselves. Thus, they too are given over to death. Consequently, when we move into concrete historical relationships with the poor we must do so with a great sense of humility and with a great deal of openness, so that we can learn, from them, what we must do in order to be saved.


This, then completely overturns our understanding of what power is and where it is situated. First, on the one hand, we have come to see that the Powers are, in fact, powerless when it comes to matters of life and new creation. Now, on the other hand, we have come to see that those who are designated as powerless are, in fact, those who possess the power of life and salvation. Consequently, it should not surprise us that the so-called Powers spend so much energy ensuring the ongoing marginality of these populations – should we ever bring the poor and the oppressed to the center of our life together then everything would change and the Powers would be overthrown.



Therefore, to summarize the three main points I have tried to make in this workshop, I have argued: (1) that those of us gathered together today are constituent and participatory members of the Powers; (2) that our home amongst the Powers is that which makes us unable to produce meaningful social change; and (3) that we must, therefore, move into solidarity with the poor so that we all can be saved and made new, even here, even now.

To conclude, I would like us to discuss what this might mean for each of us and our own lives. If we find this way of thinking compelling (as we should if we are Christians!), what are some concrete steps that we can taken in order to begin changing our lives by moving into this mutually liberating solidarity? How can we begin to organize our lives in new ways? What can we begin to change? Because, to be honest, I could care less about speaking at conferences like this and rubbing shoulders with people like Hauerwas, if these conferences don’t produce changes in our concrete social activity. So, my question to you is this: where do we go from here?


A Less Gracious Radicalism? A Response to Mark Van Steenwyk

Mark Van Steenwyk, one of the editors of Jesus Manifesto, recently published an article there entitled “A More Gracious Radicalism“.  In it, he repeats a few common remarks about those who aspire to some sort of ‘radical’ or ‘counter-cultural’ or ‘prophetic’ expression of Christian life today — you know, that such people are more accusatory than gracious, more angry than brokenhearted, more embittered than joyful, more defined by what they are against than by what they are for, and so on.  As he summarises his lament, ‘radicalism often turns people into jerks rather than lovers’ (emphasis removed).  Thus, he proposes a ‘more gracious radicalism’, one that is gentler, more attractive, and more recklessly loving of all.
Now, that’s all well and good, as far as it goes.  I reckon that a good many so-called Christian radicals — especially those who like the ‘radical’ label — might be jerks (even if it’s worth noting that I don’t know any who would fit this description), and I reckon that we all need to be reminded that all of this comes down to love.  So, yep, hooray for peace and grace and love and all that.
However, before we all join hands and start belting out some old school rock anthems (which is a lot more fun than singing Kumbaya), we should be clear on what exactly love and grace look like in situations of exploitation and oppression (i.e. in situations like our own).  Indeed, in response to Mark, I would like to stress three points.
(1) Being gracious does not mean that we should avoid an honest and direct confrontation with reality.
The fact of the matter is this: in a death-dealing culture — wherein almost every aspect of one’s life is premised upon the despoliation, deprivation and death of others — those who speak truth on behalf of the pursuit of life (and life for all) will be decidedly unpopular.  Tell a parent that the McDonald’s toy they gave to their child was made be other children in brutal working conditions and what will that parent say to you?  Probably something like this: ‘Hey, what are you, some kind of jerk?’  Tell a friend that the blood of children is staining their favourite sneakers or brand of clothes, and you’ll probably get the same reaction.
So does a ‘more gracious radicalism’ require us to avoid these conversations or ignore these and a plethora of other facts?  I hope not.  Being gracious does not mean pussy-footing around harsh realities or trying to blunt the edges of that which is, and if espousing a ‘more gracious radicalism’ means ascribing to this sort of cheap grace, then I want nothing to do with it.
(2) Partisanship does not equal élitism.
This is an important distinction to make.  While those often labeled as ‘Christian radicals’ are also often charged with practicing a ‘sneering élitism’, the fact of the matter is that Christianity requires us to practice concrete allegiances with certain people-groups — notably people who are poor and oppressed.  Naturally, this particular calling tends to produce a great deal of discomfort amongst Christians who benefit from structures of oppression — notably the wealthy and the comfortable.  Thus, rather than recognising this partisanship for what it is (i.e. a necessary component of membership within the body of the crucified and risen Christ) these Christians find it easier to accuse those who practice this form of partisanship of ascribing to some form of ‘élitism’.  Two things must be said in response to this.  First of all, to make an allegiance with a particular group is not the same thing as saying that one is superior to other groups — it is simply to say that this is where one’s identity compels one to be.  Second, this accusation tends to distract us from the observation that those who make it tend to be counted amongst the actual, concrete economic and social élites of our world.  That is to say, one’s focus is shifted from actual historical realities, to the supposed snobbish attitude of these so-called Christian radicals.
(3) What matters is not our feelings but concrete historical action.
Our society is one that is both terribly abusive and hyper-sensitive.  Everyone wants to appear compassionate and well-intentioned, while simultaneously living self-absorbed and death-dealing lifestyles.  Therefore, when addressing these matters, we must remember that our top priority is advocating on behalf of the bodies of the oppressed and not protecting the feelings of the oppressors.  After all, at the end of the day, what matters is not how a person feels when confronted with the truth of her or his situation — what matters is the action she or he chooses to take in response.
So, for example, if a fellow at work is abusing his girlfriend, I will confront him on that abuse  — and though I will be open to working through his own history and presenting issues with him, I will also make it clear that such abuse will not be tolerated.  What I will not do is refuse to directly confront the abuse simply out of a desire not to hurt his feelings, or out of some misguided desire to be ‘more gracious’.  Thus, while it may hurt this fellow’s feelings to be told that he is (currently) an abusive boyfriend, I can’t allow my concern for those feelings to stop me from speaking this truth.  The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to how we address broader socio-economic and political issues today.
Indeed, we must remember that speaking these difficult truths is itself an act of grace.  It is only by coming to an awareness of oneself as an oppressor that one is enabled to cease oppressive activity, and one only comes to this awareness in a painful process of confrontation with an other who speaks the truth.  This, at least, has been my own experience.