Posted by: Dan | May 12, 2007

Non/violence, "Sadomasochistic Piety," and a Conversation with a Transsexual on the Bus

Neil Elliott, in his excellent study of Paul (Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle), continually addresses the ways in which many traditional and contemporary readings of Paul neglect the socio-political issues that confronted Paul. Consequently, the result has often been a presentation of Paul as a “theologian,” or “genius” or “mystic,” and this theologian/genius/mystic Paul is consequently not so concerned with politics or ethics. Elliott wants to collapse the false dichotomy between “theology” and “politics” or between “thought” and “action” in order to to arrive at a new understanding of Paul.

Thus, in his chapter on “Paul and the Violence of the Cross,” Elliott argues that many traditional and contemporary readings of Paul “de-politicize” the political nature and significance of Jesus' death. Thus, Elliott writes the following:

Rather than God triumphing over the powers through Jesus' nonviolent self-sacrifice on the cross, the Powers disappear from the discussion, and God is involved in a transaction wholly within God's own self.

However, this has drastic consequences, as Elliott goes on to write:

The cross could thus become the focal symbol for a sadomasochistic piety cultivated by the Domination System itself: a piety that inculcates submissiveness and resignation in the oppressed and teaches the oppressor the divine necessity of “good” violence.

At this point, Elliott is engaging in dialogue with Walter Wink (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers. It was Wink who first popularised an understanding of the New Testament language about “the Powers” as language about socio-political powers, and it was Wink who named the structure of those powers “the Domination System.”

However, Elliott also goes on to disagree with Wink on one key point. Wink argues that the praxis of nonviolence that Jesus embodies on the cross is that which overcomes the Powers; for Wink, the cross is thus a revelation of the defeat of the powers. Elliott, however, argues that the only thing the cross reveals is the violence of the powers, it reveals that the powers are “intractably opposed” to God, but, in the cross, they are not yet overcome. For Elliott, it is the resurrection that reveals the imminent defeat of the Powers in the final triumph of God.

Elliott believes that he and Wink differ because Wink focuses more on Colossians and Ephesians (letters that Elliot believes to be pseudo-Pauline forgeries), while Elliott himself chooses to focus on 1 Corinthians (a genuine Pauline letter). 1 Corinthians, Elliott argues, is a letter that takes the Powers completely seriously whereas Colossians and Ephesians “have underestimated the magnitude of the Powers' imperviousness to nonviolence.”

Now then, I was on the bus thinking about Elliott's reflections on the “Powers' imperviousness to nonviolence” and the ways in which nonviolence can easily become one of the expressions of the “sadomasochistic piety” that is encouraged by the “Domination System,” when the person sitting in front of me suddenly decided to turn around and start talking to me (why does this sort of thing happen to me so often?).

It turns out that this person was a transsexual woman, who was in the midst of transitioning (in this case from “male” to “female”). She began to talk about her experiences transitioning, about the oppression and marginalisation of the trans community, and about her own experiences of systemic discrimination at the hands of doctors, counselors, and other professionals. Needless to say, I was intrigued and, given that we were both riding the bus to the end of the line, we had quite a bit of time to chat back and forth. The conversation moved quite naturally into a discussion of solidarity, resistance, liberation, and the relation of violence to these things. While I was advocating for nonviolent resistance, my conversation partner was adament that the time had come for the oppressed to take up arms. Nonviolence, she argued, just doesn't bring about any sort of significant transformation. We've done it enough, and we've seen how all our non-violent means of protest and resistance have been co-opted or neutralised by the oppressors. Violence, she continued, is the only thing that will truly create change. For example, she said, doctors will continue to discriminate against, belittle, and further marginalise members of the trans community, unless the trans community takes up arms and begins to shoot doctors that behaved in that way. (It seems that my conversation partner had not underestimated “the Powers' imperviousness to nonviolence”!)

Having seen firsthand the ways in which oppressive structures, break, scar, and destroy so many people, I can understand the appeal of violent resistance. Further, when I think about the ways in which those structures actually encourage nonviolence (“sadomasochistic piety”), and even nonviolent resistance (like the “designated protest zones” that are now created at G8 or WTO meetings) the temptation to resort to violence becomes even stronger. However, I also believe that this was a temptation that Jesus experienced, that appealed to Jesus, but that Jesus ultimately rejected. Consequently, based upon his witness (and the witness of the early Christians), I believe that violence is not an option for Christian action today.

Consequently, I have a few questions:

(1) For those who disagree with me and believe that violence is a viable option for Christians, when is violence a viable option? For example, the violence espoused by people like Bonhoeffer and the French, Dutch, or Italian resistance movements during WWII is often considered virtuous, admirable, and even heroic; why then do those who admire these movements seem to totally oppose the very idea of violent resistance within North America? In my mind, there is not much difference between the damage and death being inflicted by political and corrupt powers in North America today, and the damage and death that was inflicted by Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s.

(2) For those, like myself, who believe that violence is never an option for Christians, how do we practice nonviolence in such a way that it cannot be co-opted by the Powers to met their ends?

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