[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?