Posted by: Dan | April 11, 2009

March Books

Well, I’m just barely keep my head above water with my reading.  Here are last month’s books.

1. John and Empire: Initial Explorations by Warren Carter.

In my estimation, Warren Carter is one of the best New Testament scholars writing today.  His knowledge of the New Testament, as well as all of the various contextual and intertextual possibilities related to it, is exceptional and makes for fascinating (dare I say ‘required’?) reading.

This is well illustrated in John and Empire, a study of the Gospel of John.  Carter takes a Gospel that is generally perceived of as more ‘spiritual’ than ‘historical’, and places it firmly within the context of the Roman Empire in general, and Ephesus in the late first-century more specifically.  Thus, the reader comes to understand John’s Gospel as a call to a particular way of negotiating the imperial realities of one’s personal and communal existence.  In particular, Carter demonstrates that the author of John’s Gospel is calling the readers to create more distance between themselves and the values, ideologies, and structures of imperial powers (which, of course, has implications for the contemporary Western reader).

I highly recommend this book.

2. The Power of the Poor in History by Gustavo Gutierrez.

This book is a collection of essays written by Gutierrez.  They reflect upon the historical development of liberation theology (within Latin America), and upon some of the major themes of that theology — notably, the transformative power of poor people and the importance of solidarity with them.

While reading this book, I was struck by the distance that has grown up between the original Latin American liberation theologians and many of those in the West who have adopted the rhetoric of liberation theology.  It seems to me that many Western copies pale in comparison to the original.  Specifically, while those like Gutierrez call us to the lived experience of poverty, concrete movement into places of oppression, and solidarity that is expressed in all areas of one’s life, Western voices have taken the language of Gutierrez and used it to support a more bourgeois, liberal democratic focus upon matters related to equality and inclusivity.

Of course, things like equality and inclusivity aren’t bad things, but the way in which these things are pursued tend to be quite superficial in comparison to the depth of the commitments of the Latin American liberation theologians.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the means by which these theologies are developed.  Latin American liberation theology is developed out of concrete solidarity at ‘the underside of history’ whereas Western appropriations tend to come out of places of privilege and power over history.

Thus, I persist in thinking that liberation theology continues to be an untested thesis in the West.  It is not the sort of theory that one can simply engage cerebrally.  To truly test the thesis of liberation theology requires the inquirer to engage in an embodied active experiment.  Sadly, I know of very few Western theologians who have been willing to do this.

So, I recommend reading Gutierrez, but I even more strongly recommend trying to live in alternative ways, so that one can properly read Gutierrez.

3. Fugitive Writings by Peter Kropotkin.

Hot-diggity-damn, this is one helluva good book.  It is a collection of essays written by Kropotkin on the theme of anarchism (its vision, principles, philosophy, ideals, morality, and relation to the State) and if you are not open to being an anarchist after reading it, then I might be inclined to think that you are also not open to being a Christian!  Indeed, it is precisely because I am a Christian that I am drawn to anarchism in general, and to Kropotkin’s expression thereof in particular.

Now, I could rant and rave some more about this collection, but perhaps a few quotes might be more helpful.

From the essay, “Anarchist Morality”:

[T]his principle of treating others as one wishes to be treat oneself, what is it but the very same principle as equality, the fundamental principle of anarchism?  And how can one manage to believe himself [sic] an anarchist unless he practices it?

We do not wish to be ruled.  And by this very fact, do we not declare that we ourselves wish to rule nobody?  We do not wish to be deceived, we wish always to be told nothing but the truth.  And by this very fact, do we not declare that we ourselves do not wish to deceive anybody, that we promise to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth?  We do not wish to have the fruits of our labour stolen from us.  And by that very fact, do we not declare that we respect the fruit of others’ labour?

By what right indeed can we demand that we should be treat in one fashin, reserving it to ourselves to treat others in a fashion entirely different?

By proclaiming ourselves anarchists, we proclaim beforehand that we disavow any way of treating others in which we should not like them to treat us; that we will no longer tolerate the inequality that has allowed some among us to use their strength, their cunning or their ability after a fasion in which it would annoy us to have such qualities used against ourselves.

Of course, what makes this so different than so much bourgeois rhetoric is the way in which the anarchists realise that this belief is tied to pratical solidarity (just like the Latin American liberation theologians).  Thus, I quote from the essay, “Must we Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?”:

The necessary and primary condition of any success whatsoever… is the full renunciation of any signs of nobility, the lowering of one’s material circumstances almost to the level of that milieu where one intends to act.  And one must work, do actual work, which each worker and each peasant can understand precisely as work… A person unable to renounce these comforts when he [sic] sees the usefulness of such renunciation, is not capable of presistent, tedious labour, and never will be capable of persistent revolutionary activity.  He might be the hero of the moment, but we have no need of heroes; in moments of passion, they appear of themselves, from amongst the most ordinary people.  We need people who, once having come to a certain conviction, are for its sake ready to withstand all possible deprivations day in and day out.  But activity amongst the peasants and workers demands precisely this rejection of every comfort of life, a lowering of one’s prosperity to a level attainable by the worker.

Of course, many people are unable to hear these words because they are afraid of the word ‘anarchy’ and have confused anarchy with ‘disorder’.  Kropotkin addresses some of these fears in the essay, “Anarchist Communinism: It’s Basis and Principles”:

We know well that the word “anarchy” is also used in current phraseology as synonymous with disorder.  But that meaning of “anarchy,” being a derived one, implies at least two suppositions.  It implies, first, that wherever there is no government there is disorder; and it implies, moreover, that order due to a strong government and a strong police is always beneficial.  Both implications, however, are anything but proved.  There is plenty of order–we should say, of harmony–in many branches of human activity where the government, happily, does not interfere.  As to the beneficial effects of order, the kind of order that reigned at Naples under the Bourbons surely was not preferable to some disorder started by Garibaldi; while the Protestants of this country will probably say that the good deal of disorder made by Luther was preferable, at any rate, to the order which reigned under the Pope.

Yet isn’t the anarchist vision one that is too ‘utopian’ and impossible to work out in real life, due to the fallen nature of humanity?  Kropotkin reverses this challenge in “Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal”:

Far from living in a world of visions and imagining men better than they are, we see them as they are; and that is why we affirm that the best of men is made essentially bad by the exercise of authority…

Ah, if men were those superior beings that the utopians of authority like to speak to us of, if we could close our eyes to reality and live like them in a world of dreams and illusions as to the superiority of those who think themselves called to power, perhaps we also should do like them…

All the science of governments, imagined by those who govern, is imbibed with these utopias.  But we know men too well to dream such dreams.  We have not two measures for the virtues of the governed and those of the governors; we know that we ourselves are not without faults and that the best of us would soon be corrupted by the exercise of power.

Another book I strongly recommend.

4. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov.

This is Goncharov’s story of Oblomov, a member of the Russian gentry who has good intentions but never seems to get around to doing anything meaningful.  Indeed, Oblomov is the superfluous man, and functions as a representative of Goncharov’s generation (as perceived by the author).  It’s a decent story and one that should be rewritten for my generation.

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Responses

  1. I agree with you about lib theo being untested. I am reading (for a class) Boff’s ‘Feet on the ground’ and I cannot imagine any church trying anything like that.

    (There is this…
    http://movein.to/2009/03/movein-conference-may-8-9/

    According to a facebook message I got, “Towards the end of the day on the Saturday the entire conference will pile into cars and fan out into the various high-needs neighbourhoods (the ones within 40 minutes’ drive) and be back 2 hours later.”)

  2. Some of these look very interesting esp, the power of the poor in history – thanks mate!!

  3. How is the family? Did you ever get my ‘care package’?
    Blessings,
    Roger

  4. Interesting! Actually, at this very time I am too reading some of Kropotkins books. And I like them.

  5. Which one of the anarchists should I be reading after Kropotkin, do you think? Earlier on, I have only been reading ABOUT anarchism (things like this; http://www.geocities.com/capitolHill/1931/book.html), and christians with an anarchist bending (Ellul, Eller, Yoder, Jesus Radicals) and some anarcho-primitivism (Derrick Jensen, Green Anarchy, John Zerzan).

  6. “if you are not open to being an anarchist after reading it, then I might be inclined to think that you are also not open to being a Christian! Indeed, it is precisely because I am a Christian that I am drawn to anarchism in general, and to Kropotkin’s expression thereof in particular.”

    I don’t know…I think I might prefer to live in North Korea than live in an anarchy. At least there would be some semblance of order and control no matter how pernicious it may be.

    I’d point to Doestoyevsky’s “The Possessed” and Emil Brunner’s “Justice and the Social Order” as being two brillant books that offer devastating critiques of anarchist ideology.

  7. Al. Most anarchists (Kropotkin among them) don´t disregard order and certain forms of control. “Anarchism” doesn´t mean without order, but without ruler. Anarchism disregards the opinion that the only way to create order is through the sword and hierarchy. And as a christian, shouldn´t we agree with this?

  8. Jonas…

    as I understand it anyone who believes that humans are by nature good would lean more towards, or will regard a state of anarcy, as desirable and possible and, therefore would “eo ipso” contest the nescessity of the state. But is it true that humans are by nature good? As a Christian I believe that we should work towards realizing greater justice or the earth…but not only this…We are to go beyond justice into the unchartered territory of love. Love is our Duty. We have been commanded to love. This seperates Xtianity from all other religions and systems of thought. We are to go beyond the “suum cuique” (to each man his due). This is the essence of Christianity. It has nothing to do with becoming an adherent or follower of anarchism.

    I just can’t understand why so many people try to marry Jesus with all sorts of various and different “isms” and ideologies? What does Jesus have to do with conservatism, capitalism, marxism, anarchism? I find the life and writings of Alexandre Solzhenitsyn to be paritcular helpful in this area. You could say that much of his life and work was directed against the influence and dangers of ideology (including anarchism in it’s various forms).

    Furturemore, to suggest that a person might have to be prepared to become an anarchist, marxist, conservative…or what ever in order to be a follower or disciple of Christ is quite frankly simplistic and offensive.

    In regards to Kropotkin’s statement that:

    “We need people who, once having come to a certain conviction, are for its sake ready to withstand all possible deprivations day in and day out. But activity amongst the peasants and workers demands precisely this rejection of every comfort of life, a lowering of one’s prosperity to a level attainable by the worker.”

    I’d refer you to G.K. Chesterton who in his book entitled “Heretics” in a chapter entitled “On Sandals and Simplicity”, where he’s arguing against the asceticism of Tolstoy, says the following:

    “the only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone no amount of turnips or cellular clothing can bring it back. It can only be brought back by tears, terrors and the fires that are not quenched. If that remains it matters very little whether a few Victorian armchairs remain.”

  9. Al. I am not proposing (Dan can speak for himself) that a follower of Jesus must become an anarchist, my firm conviction is that most of Jesus´followers don´t even know about the existence of anarchism. I am just saying that there are important overlaps between anarchism and the way of Jesus. As to “ideology”, I don´t believe it´s possible to be free from the influence of ideology. Many of us for example are following the ideology of capitalism and nationalism, without even thinking about it. As I see, it´s better to become aware of the ideologies and worldviews around, so that we can evaluate and handle the critically.

    As to love, I think Kropotkin are arguing exactly for this kind of “overflow” beyond the duty at least by some people in his book about anarchism and morality.

    And as to the Chesterton qoute, I definitely disagree. I think that Jesus, the apostles, and the early church almost with one voice said that it´s not ok to follow Jesus and stay rich.

  10. Mark:

    If you are looking for an even better collection of essays on that same topic, I strongly recommend No Salvation Outside the Poor by Jon Sobrino.

    Roger:

    My apologies for not getting back to you sooner. I did receive your care package and we’ve enjoyed it and greatly appreciate your generosity. Thank you! Also, can you email me your address once again? I did put something together for you, but lost your address.

    Jonas:

    Well, I’m really enjoying Kropotkin (was less impressed by Proudhon… and by Herzen who has some overlap with the anarchists), but I’ve begun to enjoy Bakunin as well. However, even more than reading Bakunin’s writings, I would recommend reading a good biography about him (as he was more a man of action, than a man of words).

    Al:

    I’m not convinced that you know what you’re talking about when you refer to ‘anarchy’. Seems to me that you’re just repeating popular stereotypes while refusing to engage anarchist voices more substantially. If you did so, you would see that The Possessed (which I have read) isn’t actually an assault on anarchism per se (or, perhaps better stated, on most of the positions that fall under the title ‘anarchist’).

    Further, it seems to me that you haven’t even bothered to read the passages I quoted from Kropotkin. If you had, you would see how anarchists don’t operate with any illusions as to the inherent goodness (or lack thereof) of humanity. Also, if you had read the passages above, I doubt you would really want to favour the method of the North Korean dictatorship over what those like Kropotkin believed. Ditto re: your comments on love.

    That said, I’ve always hesitated to espouse any particular -ism in relation to contemporary approaches to politics. Hence, I have always simply referred to myself as a Christian. However, the more I study anarchism the more I find that it aligns with the way I already live my life as a Christian and so I find myself (somewhat reluctantly) adopting that title.

    Finally, regarding the quote from Chesterton, I would suggest that you explore the theme of ‘simplicity of the heart’ in a little more detail. I suspect that you will then discover that simplicity of the heart is inextricably linked with simplicity of living/lifestyle, and will learn that those who seek to divide the two are only fooling themselves (and perpetuating an ideology that seems difficult to square with the biblical narrative, as Jonas has suggested).

  11. Dan and Jonas,

    I did take the time to read the articles :)

    It’s no real surprise that Kropotkin espouses a kind of “anarchist morality” or a belief in the “suum cuique”. This is merely part of being human. As Brunner says:

    “There is no doubt that certain notions of right & wrong are innate in the human mind, and the light of justice shines in them…No human being (including an anarchist) is quite ignorant of justice, whatever race, whatever stage of civilization, whatever religious creed he may belong to. It is a constant factor in all human history”

    The question isn’t whether or not anarchy is vacant of any sense of justice, order, or control. The question is whether or not (in light of human evil) it is sufficent in it’s ability to govern humanity effectively. I believe that the greatest measure of justice will come about when people stop wasting time trying to formulate grand utopian systems of (anarchism, moaism, marxism…etc…) to replace our current (flawed) systems of government, but as Brunner says:

    “infinately prefer the smallest realization of the truly just to any resounding utopian program of justice, and that, having once been able to give effect to the smallest measure of true justice, they restlessly seek to do more.”

    For example St. Paul didn’t spend his life and focus trying to abolish slavery. No, in fact, as I’m sure you know, he return Onesimus back to Philemon. How curious!! Why would Paul do this. Not only does he return Onesimus who he had succeeded in liberating from the most inhuman of human relationships, he also offers to conpensate Philemon (presumaly Jonas, a wealthy Xtian!) finacially!! No …it’s not that I don’t understand anarchy or haven’t bothered to read Kropitkin. Nothing could be more simple to understand than anarchy! I believe that our focus and duty as Xtians like Paul, certainly isn’t to waste our time fighting fruitless battles, creating nonsensical and silly utopias suiting to the fancy of smug academics and idealogues; like Paul we have more important things to do than to protest against the unalterable. As Christians we need to simply behave differently ourselves, to act in love, and to act justly. Again to end with Brunner, “to intervene high-handedly at any point and set up postulates of justice is not the business of the Christian community.”

    We see in the end that Paul in the act of returning Onesimus to his former master, was not returning his protege back into the chains of slavery. Paul had something very different in mind. He wasn’t only concerned for Onesimus but also for Philemon. He wanted to see a transformation in both of them. Paul wants see their relationship not based on justice but on love.

  12. Against the “Simple Life”,

    In regards to Chesterton’s argument of holding to a “simplicity of the heart” or retaining a child-like wonder and openess in approach to material and natural gifts/blessings from God, it might be helpful if you could read or listen to Chesterton himself. You can access it at…

    http://librivox.org/heretics-by-g-k-chesterton/

    hope it is helpful!!

    Cheers

    __________

    Here’s a sample…

    ” One great complaint, I think, must stand against the modern upholders of the simple life–the simple life in all its varied forms, from vegetarianism to the honourable consistency of the Doukhobors. This complaint against them stands, that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things. They would make us simple in the things that do not matter–that is, in diet, in costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter–in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection.

    There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who
    eats grape-nuts on principle. The chief error of these people is to be found in the very phrase to which they are most attached–“plain living
    and high thinking.” These people do not stand in need of, will not be improved by, plain living and high thinking. They stand in need of the
    contrary. They would be improved by high living and plain thinking. A little high living (I say, having a full sense of responsibility, a little high living) would teach them the force and meaning of the human festivities, of the banquet that has gone on from the beginning of the world. It would teach them the historic fact that the artificial is, if anything, older than the natural. It would teach them that the loving-cup is as old as any hunger. It would teach them that ritualism is older than any religion. And a little plain thinking would teach them how harsh and fanciful are the mass of their own ethics, how very civilized and very complicated must be the brain of the Tolstoyan who really believes it to be evil to love one’s country and wicked to strike a blow.”

  13. Al. What about the vision of God´s kingdom?


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