No gods – A retelling of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

I was asked to offer an ‘experimental re-telling’ of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 for Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization.  Nothing particularly insightful came to me, though it did help to clarify and confirm the truth of the phrase the foolishness of the world. I mean, the world is a place where growth is outstripping resources; wealth is produced to be concentrated; violence is enacted in the name of peace and order; mental and spiritual well-being is being eroded even among the most secure. We might as individuals and as small groups deviate or resist this wisdom from time to time but really it does not change the prevailing (dominating) wisdom and how it effects the earth and life on earth. It seems clear that the wisdom of the world is foolishness and I tried to make that clear in my retelling.

Is there good news in such a situation? What would that sound like? Or, who could hear it? I could not simply speak of the wisdom of God. We are 2000 years on from Jesus. The world has been shaped by what the church and her theology became. We can’t simply reassert or reassemble a true or original Gospel message from the words we have inherited. If there is hope for wisdom then the gods of this world must be named and denied. And that was my point in the piece. I did not feel that I had available to me constructive language of good news in the face of the world’s deadly foolishness.

I did not want to assume what is being referred to when people (or I) say ‘God’. A god is a concentration of the world. I think gods are inevitable for humans, that does not mean I think humans create them; that gives us too much credit. But the culmination of our value, attention, and energy forms part of a spirit that honours something. This is clear in overt nationalism. This clear, though seemingly less so for us, in our economic system. What else do you call a symbolic belief structure that demands our attention, determines our value, promises a future, and avenges disobedience? Neither modernity nor secularism nor even atheism has rid the world of gods.

Further I would argue that the church has been midwife if not mother to the gods of Capitalism and Western/White supremacy. Sure, a complicated history but one that the church cannot be extracted from without the history of the West becoming unintelligible.

So I did not think I could simply evoke ‘God’ in this re-telling; this would be to risk letting the gods of the world control the message of ‘good news’. After all Paul is clear that the preaching must be of Christ crucified. It should also be noted that there is a reason why early Christians were sometimes called atheists. The form of their belief in God was literally unintelligible to the wisdom of the world. Now this is not a case for contemporary atheism, in my understanding most atheism still honour gods; that is, they embrace the wisdom of the world (often in keeping with the supremacist legacy of the church but with new terms).

So something has to give for there to be an intervention of wisdom (a wisdom not of the world). And because my understanding of wisdom is the unintelligible (the things that are not according to Paul) then I could only offer a critical re-telling, though a liturgy of sorts. No gods. A refrain. This is not a refrain that is helpful or appropriate in all contexts but perhaps necessary in the face of everything in this world including the church’s role in the formation of present world. No gods. We can’t be too careful right now.

The Israelites were commanded to leave the space between cherubim in the holy of holies empty. They could rarely if ever manage this. Jesus was accused of blasphemy because of how he held out the possibility of embodied divinity, rejecting any complicity with images of the empire. We can’t be too careful. Begin, like Paul, with things that are not (to be sure there are other perhaps better interventions but this is still relevant). In this way let the prohibition of false gods be rigorous and thoroughgoing. And then wait. Listen. See if any others have taken up this refrain. Gather. Perhaps something will yet rise up from what seems like death. Perhaps something will pour down like fire and wind. But I could not move as quickly as Paul does to a positive message in this passage because we are not the community that Paul was addressing and if you are serious about seeing if there is something other than the wisdom of the world you can’t skip the initial and needed refrain. No godsChrist crucified.

That was all I was trying to say in my retelling.

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Being Unreasonable: Culture, Abuse and Support

Others have said it before and better and for some time I have indeed believed or understood those who have it said before. However, it seems that I am only coming to feel or, not really to feel, but to have those beliefs rub against, agitate, a deeper formation in me that, it seems, has remain largely undisturbed.

Almost by definition a culture (perhaps this is not the right word, we may be talking about a world here) can only convict and condemn that which is not culture, uncultured. While we might talk about a culture of violence or abuse this designation proves the point of what tends to be signified when we talk about culture in itself. To be cultured is to be good. This remains the track record of black, indigenous, poor, mentally ill and other populations. These groups and individuals (not to fully equate them) are often defined apart from, are deviant from culture. What I am coming to more deeply understand is how this relates to questions of abuse.

When abuse is perpetrated by people who already occupy an uncultured position then the conviction of abuse tends to be easier. However when an individual occupies enough of a cultured position then allegations of abuse tend not to stick. This is logical. Explicitly, our culture denounces and condemns abuse (the term itself of course remains contested). Culture condemns abuse. Therefore if a cultured environment cannot readily identify an experience or event as abusive and yet an individual emerges with an accusation of abuse then that individual is not only accusing an individual but is also accusing a culture.

That is, if a person is cultured and has not themselves admitted or confessed to abuse then the culture itself has little resources to convict one of its own. Culture has no inherent capacity for siding with those making accusations of abuse against a cultured person. An accusation against such a person is an accusation against the culture. I have not fully appreciated this reality because I also have been intimately and fundamental formed in contexts that have explicitly normalized, enculturated actions and individuals that are abusive. I was brought up in a logic that dismissed and rejected the disruption of accusation. This is not as easy to dismantle and discard as I once thought.

If the connection between culture and cultured (or the in the church you can substitute the words ‘faithful’ or ‘righteous’ here) individuals is true then accusations of abuse may be by definition unreasonable. As I have begun wading into my own experience of those speaking out about their abuse I can testify as to how quickly and easily rationalizations emerge. I remain a deeply cultured person. Within this logic there is always a reasonable explanation for what happened that softens (at the least) or can fully discredit the accuser’s claims.

I suspect that the working assumption in dominant culture is that real abuse will be self-evident, that a clear outlining of the ‘facts’ will render a verdict irrefutable. Perhaps we can accept that ‘good’ and cultured people do from time to time abuse and then deny it to protect themselves but surely we as a civilized culture will be able to discern these matters clearly. But if we listen to advocates of abused individuals we will hear the refrain that our culture and courts create an environment that benefits and protects abusers. We may agree that such injustices occur but have we interrogated our own enmeshment with a culture that by definition exists to protect its own? What follows are observations that I have read before but now they come more as confessions of my own enmeshment and as validation for those who needed to break this ground pioneering outposts rejected by culture.

  1. There will always be a reasonable explanation to deny or minimize abuse allegations. The accused would never do such a thing. The account is exaggerated. The accuser has ulterior motives. The accuser is not well. There was a misunderstanding. I knew these things but when in closer proximity to such accounts I was astonished at how quickly and how naturally these responses came. Do not underestimate this.
  2. You will probably never get the ‘victim’ you want. We likely have an image of a victim we want to help save (and it should be noted that image was likely produced by our culture). It may feel easier to support a victim who seems victimized and needs our protection from an easily identifiable predator. Perhaps it is someone unsure needing our confirmation. This image may well fit some situations but there is also a good chance that you will encounter a victim who is also, by personality or circumstance, a bit of a jerk; or, if not a jerk tends towards hyperbole in expression or uses ‘inappropriate’ language or characterizations. The accuser may be exceedingly angry or disarmingly confident. And unless you have a lot of experience in this area most accusers, in whatever form they express themselves, may well seem unreasonable. Be prepared for this.
  3. To side with an accuser is to take a risk. To side with someone who has experienced abuse is to leave your investment in power and your cultural protection. You won’t know the facts first hand and you may never feel like you know ‘the truth’ or that some lingering doubts remain. This is the risk. Reason, reasonableness is culture’s terrain of safety. To side with someone making accusations of abuse is almost by definition to be unreasonable. Culture tells us that abuse is in fact unacceptable and so the fact that someone needs to make accusations is to already make an accusation against the culture. To accuse the culture of at the very least being inadequate. This is a risk, understand that.
  4. If you are like me you will make mistakes. Your formation, despite your best intentions, will work against you. Expect this. Apologize when you have actually seen the error but don’t make the apology about you. My sense is that there will be times when you just need to get out of the way if you are no longer the person to be trusted.

These are expressions, articulations that I have read often enough but slowly I am trying to articulate them from my own experience, particularly as my own formation is working against my attempts to be consistently supportive. This is not as easy and not as clear as I thought. For those of us who have fit well enough in our culture there tends to be little reason to articulate the negative conditions and forces of that environment because to do so means questioning an authority that has protected us and perhaps being criticized for biting the hand that feeds us. Rearrange your humility and your defensiveness so that it might better serve those vulnerable to our culture. It is unreasonable to consistently walk with those making accusations of abuse. Learn to be unreasonable and keep walking.

2017 Sexual Abuse Revelations – 2018 Sexual Ethics Engagements

Below is an active archive of particular responses to the charges and movements related to issues of sexual violence emerging in 2017. I hope to manage this post as a collection of primary sources for the further development of sexual ethics.

Women’s March 2017
https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3060-march-as-feminists-not-as-women
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/06/women-strike-trump-resistance-power?CMP=share_btn_tw
https://www.bustle.com/articles/201378-what-every-white-woman-attending-the-womens-march-needs-to-know
http://www.brittanytoliver.com/blog/2016/11/16/why-i-do-not-support-the-one-million-women-march-on-washington

#metoo
http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2018/01/05/the_new_york_times_joins_the_chorus_of_voices_arguing_that_metoo_will_end.html
https://verdict.justia.com/2018/01/03/sexual-revolution-cause-sexual-misconduct-revealed-metoo

Donald Trump
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/listening-to-what-trumps-accusers-have-told-us
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-and-the-truth-the-sexual-assault-allegations
https://www.cnn.com/2016/10/08/politics/trump-on-howard-stern/index.html
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html

Harvey Weinstein
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/us/harvey-weinstein-harassment-allegations.html

Louis CK
Accusations – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/09/arts/television/louis-ck-sexual-misconduct.html
Louis CK’s response – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/arts/television/louis-ck-statement.html
Responses
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/opinion/louis-ck-not-funny-harassment.html

Aziz Ansair
Original piece – https://babe.net/2018/01/13/aziz-ansari-28355
Responses
http://www.katykatikate.com/2018/01/not-that-bad_15.html
https://jezebel.com/babe-what-are-you-doing-1822114753
http://www.survjustice.org/blog/the-azizansari-accusation-and-the-metoo-movement

Cat Person – New Yorker
Original piece – https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person

Sexual Abuse and Disabilities
https://www.npr.org/series/575502633/abused-and-betrayed

Incels and the Toronto Van Attack
http://www.wehuntedthemammoth.com/2018/04/24/incels-hail-toronto-van-driver-who-killed-10-as-a-new-elliot-rodger-talk-of-future-acid-attacks-and-mass-rapes/

Stanley Hauerwas on John Howard Yoder
Hauerwas’ piece – http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/10/18/4751367.htm
Responses
http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/11/30/4774014.htm
https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/historical-justice-era-metoo-legacies-john-howard-yoder

General Engagements
https://jezebel.com/theres-nothing-more-ordinary-than-abuse-1821615223
http://theweek.com/articles/749978/female-price-male-pleasure

Engagements coming from a broadly Mennonite context (or background)
https://intoaccount.org/2017/11/21/a-manifesto-on-ass-grabbing/
http://www.queerpgh.com/throw-rock-hit-rapist-me-too/
http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/we-are-the-answer-weve-been-waiting-for/
https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2017/afterword
https://intoaccount.org/2018/01/26/responding-to-reports-of-abuse-whos-getting-it-right-and-where-does-theology-come-in/

The Body in Pain: Unmaking the World

The Body in Pain

I’m not sure what to make of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. It is has been a while since I have read something that attempted the scope of what Scarry is approaching. It has been a while since I felt convinced of a brilliantly simple thesis and yet unconvinced of so many details. Scarry offers a mediation on the relation between the imagination and the body; pain, sentience and objects, making and unmaking.

Part One: Unmaking the World

Scarry addresses torture and war. She begins with the observation that pain is notoriously difficult to express. Pain, it seems, is unique in its inexpressibility. There are political stakes to this inexpressibility. With torture, pain is not meant to illicit information but to deconstruct the prisoner’s voice; to separate body from meaning. What emerges from this obscene surgery is the emergence of the torturer, or more accurately the torturer’s regime, as exhaustively real.  Any possible existence and meaning is controlled by the one who controls the fullness of pain.

Scarry defines war as a contest of injuring. But the act of war does not in itself bring its consequence. The actual acts of war do not make clear who has ‘out-injured’ who at a given time. As a contest, how does war end? Typically in war both sides have bodies in pain, bodies are altered in some way. This pain only indicates that there was a war, not who was a winner or loser. The end of war is ultimately a contest of belief, of meaning. The losing party must somehow be persuaded of their defeat or they must be exterminated. In either case fundamental meaning must again be severed; their sense of cultural reality must be exposed and rejected as a cultural fiction. A contest of injuring bodies provides this means. A war is won when one side no longer has the ability to self-describe.

The timing and context of such feelings [aggression, pride, etc.] here and in other international disputes suggest that when the system of national self-belief is without any compelling source of substantiation other the material fact of, and intensity of feeling in, the bodies of the believers (patriots) themselves then war feelings are occasioned. That is, it is when a country has become to its population a fiction that wars begin, however intensely beloved by its people that fiction is. (131)

War is in the massive fact of itself a huge structure for the derealisation of cultural constructs and, simultaneously, for their eventual reconstitution. The purpose of the war is to designate as an outcome which of the two competing cultural constructs will by both sides be allowed to become real, which of the two will (after the war) hold sway in the shared space where the two (prior to war) collided. Thus, the declaration of war is the declaration that ‘reality’ is now officially ‘up for grabs’. (137)

War and torture share this process of using pain to divorce voice (meaning) from body. Scarry takes time considering the difference between these two forms. War is a contest in a way that torture is not. Technically speaking if war is meant to disrupt a nation’s substantiation of itself then inflicting pain is not necessary. This is why we might talk about politics as war by other means (we might also speak of economics as war in this way). But Scarry does not focus on this, rather she observes that the question of consent is the key difference between war and torture; that those involved in war have consented to put into play the question of truth and reality. This seems entirely unconvincing as she goes on to site examples of how “after the American Civil War, the population of the South comes not only to accept but to take pride in its presence within the larger Union” (144). And never mind the conditions a country would create in order to enlist the faithful, as it were.

As she concludes the first section of her book on ‘Unmaking’ she introduces the notion of objects and artifacts, how they are extensions of the body, how in their creation they often arise in compassion (a chair to accommodate and relieve the weight of a body) and in decreation (war and torture) all those objects and artifacts that have accommodated bodies are now severed and destroyed.

Torture ends at what is the other’s starting point: it ‘produces’ the pain that has not only been eliminated by the act of creation, but whose very existence had been the condition that originally occasioned the act of creation. . . . the very existence of each requires the other’s elimination (145).

Scarry draws this section to a close by bringing the notion of pain, unmaking and making even closer in the observation that there is a human tendency to locate pain as an affirmation of belief. Where seeing is often a confirmation of an object, hurting can also be a way of confirmation. Scarry locates this in the religious register. Pain allows confirmation of what has no object or artifact. And so the tendency to idols (a benign source of substantiation as Scarry puts it). Scarry has drawn close, it seems, to what it is to be human, that is, discursive, making and unmaking. To understand this one must attend to the body in pain.

Writing 1985, with no reference to Derrida and a brief footnote to Foucault Scarry writes of how we are discovering the extent of human constructs/creations (God, law, childhood, sexuality, nature, etc.) and says,

very little inquiry into the nature of fictions has actually occurred, and thus creation – which will eventually come to be understood as having moral and ethical import at least as great as what in earlier centuries was ever perceived to be entailed in questions of ‘truth’ – is at present barely understood in even its most elementary forms. When one day the nature of human creation is fully unfolded, a new language will accommodate a long array of distinctions that are now nearly invisible, and that only being with the profound difference between a creation and a lie, between a fiction and a fraud. . . . it will be clear that the moral and aesthetic value of a given creation does not just depend on the content of the fiction but on the nature of the substantiation used in its confirmation in the transitional period when it is between the states of having been already made-up and not yet made-real (150).

Pain, trauma, and the Real these are all themes that get taken up in the wake of our encountering the discursive nature of reality and how our bodies move in this environment. Part II shifts focus onto the making of such objects, artifacts, and fictions.

The Gospel of Gentrification

If I am an evangelist for anything it is my neighbouhood. I have lived in the West End of Winnipeg for about 13 years (first moving onto Spence St in 1999). It won’t be long and it will be the place I have lived longest in my life. I can’t think of a better place to live in Winnipeg. The suburbs don’t register. Wolseley is too white. The Exchange seems okay but maybe just not residential enough. Maybe parts of St. Boniface. Anyway.

I am coming to realize that the fact that I am evangelist for my neighbourhood should give me pause. How did I come into this neighbourhood? How has it shaped me, how do I effect it? I first moved into the neighbourhood in my third year of Bible college when I formed an evangelical notion of the social gospel. A Christian should be among the least of these. The West End is probably considered by most the second worst neighbourhood in the city (would I have ever considered the North End, probably not). The Gospel was meant to address material needs and not spiritual insurances. So this is where I needed, wanted, to be. I don’t really know what I did here. I worked at the community centre for a while, talked to folks on the street, and cultivated a notion of how depraved suburbanites are. Over time I found that I just liked the neighbourhood. I liked finding my identity in it. But in truth I came to the neighbourhood believing I had something superior to offer while being able to profit from what was there (sound familiar?).

My first years in the neighbourhood I learned the term ‘gentrification’. All I really knew about it was that it was bad. That it forced the most vulnerable to leave or make them even more vulnerable. I learned that gentrification in many cities was initiated by large influxes of investment capital making quickly and dramatically reshaping the landscape of a neighbourhood. This mostly hasn’t happened in Winnipeg except maybe along Main St. But if Wolseley is any example, what does happen is the slow ‘improvement’ of a neighbourhood through white investment and ownership. I like to think the West End is a little more textured than Wolseley was before its white washing. Currently it is still difficult to visibly identify an ‘ethnic’ group. Businesses and religious/community centres are diverse. Very mixed income housing. But of course the trend has started. The good part of the West End is now affectionately called North Wolseley. We are in the fortunate position to home own and are doing some renovations. Hipsters and hipster businesses are creeping up out of West Broadway. The University of Winnipeg continues to extend its influence.

So what to do? Probably nothing. Or is there? I don’t know. I still really love this neighbourhood. Maybe I’m looking for absolution, wanting to be considered native enough to be above (or below) these trends. But hipsters aren’t the only thing on the rise. The influence of the mosque is increasing. Orthodox Eritreans are moving in and opening businesses. Second generation Filippino’s are making their mark. The indigenous community is becoming more prominent. Will this all be for not. Will whiteness just win again? What are your experiences in other cities?

Perhaps in college I should have the foresight, the vision, to just move immediately to suburbs. If a white person can formulate theology with integrity perhaps it must be able to survive and respond to the suburbs and not rest on the credibility of other people’s vulnerability.

Prophet to king: You have caused the people to sin

A while back I noticed a curious phrase in the Book of Kings. I remember it saying something to the effect of accusing the king of ‘causing Israel to sin’. Such a phrase feels pivotal at this point in our political/historical moment. We are increasingly comfortable naming things like ‘structural violence’ but still tend to collapse into very individualistic based responses. More and more attempts are being made highlight how these appeals to individual actions actually fall well within how the powers of our age organize and communicate. Such a system of placing the burden on the individual offloads any guilt or charge of responsibility from those places and people where power is concentrated. One of the places endorsing the responsibility of individual is the church. The church, broadly understood, heralds the virtue of the individual. This emphasis cuts across liberal/conservative divides as both look to the individual whether for personal, spiritual salvation or in discipleship responding to social injustices. [See Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World for how the church’s theological traditions have informed our current understanding of the individual].

Continue reading “Prophet to king: You have caused the people to sin”

So sad and beautiful

Speeding toward the ground
Through the air without a sound
So gracefully

Each one in awe, for they’d never seen a girl so sad and beautiful

– Pedro the Lion ‘June 18, 1976’

My neighbourhood shifts noticeably in spring. Through fall and winter everyone has the same destinations and schedules but we are all hurried moving from warmth to warmth in a cold world. In spring it seems that the neighbourhood grows. Children in particular appear to multiply through the slower commutes to and from school. Now they talk and laugh and tease meandering the sidewalks and lingering at bus stops. My walk to work takes me through the paths of numerous school children. In the past few days I have found myself feeling almost unbearably sad walking through these scenes. I have witnessed nothing to be sad about. They are beautiful. There is a boy who is probably around 12. He is large, not quite obese, just large framed and slow moving. There is nothing that commends him by the world’s standards but neither is he dirty or in worn out clothing just poorly styled in nearly every respect. Wide straight jeans, large t-shirt, short uniform hair, fuzzy hair on his upper lip. In the past two days my timing has been such that I watch him walk out his door on his way to school. By the gate to the sidewalk he turns and looks back to his mother or grandmother and offers a huge smile and vigorous wave.

This morning there was a car accident at the corner of my street. I took a little longer slowly walking by and then when I turned to go up Toronto St and little girl quickly left her house and caught her stride alongside me and asked what happened. We had never met. I felt awkward and unsure what protocol was for such an occasion. We fell into conversation and walked for a block as she was going to meet a friend who she walks to school with. She was in grade four, curious, good-natured and a good conversationalist (did I mention I was a stranger). She liked recess and gym, school was going well for her. As quickly as came alongside of me she crossed over the street to meet her friend. I wished her a good day and as she faded away she said, ‘Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.’

After walking on for a while I started to cry, just for a bit. I treasured these images. But where did the sadness come from? It was my speculation. I speculated about their place and future in this world. I considered how the world might value and use them. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this was all just my own arrogance. But these images have added to many, many others that lead me to believe that beauty is something plus vulnerability. I don’t know what the something is but I know the vulnerability. If we value beauty we must also at some point reject the world.

This led me to think of the church. I have been highly critical of the church. Increasingly my only real concern is whether the church can be a place of rest, refuge, and resistance to the evaluation of the world. That is all that really matters. I find I have much more grace for the church but this only comes with an increased sense of complete intolerance for vipers who may reside within. The only course of action there is strike at the neck or crush with the heel.