[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.