All too often, those involved in Christian communities are so solely focused upon enacting a creative, life-giving alternative that 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.
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…
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 Galatians 6 are the scars he received from being beaten, whipped, stoned and imprisoned by the Roman Imperial Powers, due to his active resistance toa 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.
Dan Oudshoorn works with homeless and street-involved populations (in both Toronto and Vancouver). He also regularly speak at conferences on themes related to biblical theology and social justice and have spoken alongside of professors from (for example) UBC, UofT and Duke, as well as alongside of community organizers from inner-city Toronto and Vancouver’s downtown eastside