The Commodification of Counter Culture
One of the challenges in doing this is the way in which we so easily don the appearance of being counter cultural without embracing a fundamental change in our patterns of life and the way in which we engage the existing patterns of domination.
Counter cultures are not a threat to empire because the global consumer capitalist system commodifies everything. Music and language and style and anti-consumer rants can all be commodified. Practices, however, are harder to commodify. So, if you want to have a faithful witness in the midst of empire, you need to embody an alternative.
Most radical or counter cultural movements, however, reach a place where the dominant culture seems to be willing to listen…if only we could drop some of the radicalism that scares the dominant culture. And so, the radical movement compromises so that it can influence the mainstream. The desire for a platform for change, or a growing audience willing to listen to our radical message, is a profoundly seductive temptation to which we almost always unreflectively succumb. The radical fringe drops some of its more radical elements so that it can sit at the mainstream table, thereby bringing some needed change to the system. This is a story that has been told over and over again throughout history, right? But is change something that happens?
Mainstream society has historically declawed radical movements under the false promise of letting that movement sit at the table of mainstream influence. This is certainly true historically, and in the current situation, it is even MORE the case. I am convinced that, though there are similarities with previous generation, with the current mainstreaming of radicalism, the stakes are higher.
Why? Because the rate of commodification is nearly instantaneous (meaning that there is very little lag between the emergence of radical movements and their being coopted. Because the level to which people at the political and economic center are employing radical sensibilities for the furthering of empire are at an all-time high. When you combine these two realities, you end up with a phenomenon wherein radical movements are quickly co-opted, assimilated, and used to further the very imperial impulses that the radical movement emerged in order to challenge. Sure, this has always happened. One can see this with monasticism. But the sheer speed with which this is currently happening should give us pause.
A Counter Culture through Consumption?
Earlier, I suggested that we need to embrace a fundamental change in our patterns of life and, at the same time, change the way in which we engage the existing patterns of domination. One of the difficulties of the current situation is that many of those eager to speak prophetically to empire are using the tools of empire to do so.
I don’t want to sound naive here. I recognize that we are all enmeshed into empire whether we like it or not. And by “empire” I’m not talking about USAmerica, but the complex web of nationally supported consumer capitalism, globalism, militarism, and the accompanying industries that mark an affluent lifestyle: entertainment, fashion, technology, etc. When we benefit from these things, we are tied into empire. If we are a part of the massive lower economic classes that fuel these things with their labor, we are tied into empire. So I have no false sense that my hands are clean in this.
Nevertheless, the shape of our lives should challenge the powers that undergird the current imperial system. And the strategies we employ should seek to reconcile the fallen powers to Christ rather than bringing the Church into conformity to the patterns of this world.
But we have bought into a lie. We We are using imperial tools to do kingdom work. We believe that, simply by shopping for items with a particular label, we are bring about reconciliation. But the issue is deeper than whether or not coffee workers get paid $1 a day or $10 a day. That isn’t to say that such things don’t matter. Of course they do. But buying fair trade coffee is a largely superficial strategy to a profound problem. It is like putting a band-aid on an open wound.
I’m reluctant to use this as an example, because it could be misunderstood. And I fully realize that I am complicit in this by my own purchasing habits. But what does it mean when one must pay $11 for a book or $200 for a conference to hear the voices of our most radical prophets? What if much of that money goes to one of a number of religious publishers who are owned by larger companies that are directly tied into systems of oppression? For example, Zondervan is owned by Rupert Murdoch. I have a number of books (most notably The Irresistable Revolution and Jesus for President) that are published by Zondervan.
I am not saying that we should boycott Zondervan. That would be too easy. I actually recommend both books to you–they are both well worth the read. No, I bring these books up because they highlight the strange place in which many of us live. I have no place to judge someone like Shane Claiborne for publishing for Zondervan. To do so would make me a hypocrite. Rather, I share this example because he, our most visible prophet, is feeding into a system that he, like many of us, is committed to challenge.
Of Kingdom and Counter Culture
The phenomenal success of Shane’s books (and indeed the modest success of Jesus Manifesto as a website) is due, no doubt, to a move of the Spirit in stirring up the hearts of God’s people for change. But every single time there is a pure move of God, the principalities and powers conspire to lessen the potential blow. In this case, I am convinced that where there is Spirit-given zeal for change, there is also a great capacity for the co-opted use of that zeal to further empire.
Books like a Nation of Rebels show us how easily counter cultures can be co-opted. The Kingdom of God, however, cannot be co-opted. Christ’s reign is, in light of the Cross, secured forever. However, the temptation we all face as the people of God is to trade our Kingdom identity for earthly facsimiles. The most obvious example of this from the past 25 years is the way in which conservative evangelicalism has been co-opted by Republican-influenced civil religion. The left is, however, hardly exempt from this phenomenon. And among those of us who understand ourselves to be radicals, those who seek an embodied faith that conforms to the life and message of Jesus Christ (particularly his views on wealth and violence), the temptation is to align ourselves too much with other counter cultural movements.
So, we become radicals in the image of Marx more readily than in conformity to Christ. Or we become Anarchists who happen to be Christians rather than “Christarchists.” Or we find ourselves venerating violent Latin American rebels. You fill in the blank. When the Church embraces a pattern of life in conformity to the Kingdom of God, it can never be co-opted by the Powers. When we trade that pattern of life for a counter-cultural facsimile, we are in an era when we can much more easily become co-opted.
We need to ground our lives in Jesus-shaped practices, rather than in the books we read, the conferences (or festivals) we attend, or the products we buy. We must be people shaped by the vision of the New Testament who live lives that embody Christ through the work of the Spirit. I’ll talk about that more in part three.
The Sexiness of Superficial Solidarity
If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that, as of yet, the content of this article doesn’t match the stated content in the title. In other words, I haven’t yet mentioned “Pseudo-Alterity.” Alterity, as I mentioned in the first part of this series, is a fancy word for “otherness” or “difference.” It is a word used first by philosophers and later by anthropologists and sociologists. And, based upon my own reading, it doesn’t have a fixed usage. I’m using it here in a largely negative way–so perhaps there is a better word for the phenomenon I’m about to describe.
Alterity isn’t something that someone choose for themselves. Sure, we all experience being an “other.” To men, women are “other.” To women, men are “other.” To blacks, white people can be “other.” In this sense, it can simply be used to describe difference. However, “otherness” has a negative meaning. When someone is “othered” they are objectified and, as such, lose respect. Or are not granted a place at the metaphorical “table.”
Dominant culture “others” groups of people all the time. The reason Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week is that brothers and sisters in Christ separate based upon racial differences rather than finding true commonality in Christ.
One of the current irritating trends is for someone to, after reading a book or taking a class or having a conversation, they believe that they have transcended the ugly force of dolling out alterity to an “other.” Many young white evangelicals (like me) have realized that it is bad for people of color to be oppressed or poor people to be poor or homeless people to be homeless. And many have taken the next step and realized that their very young whiteness gives them a systemic premise. This trajectory, up until this point, is a largely positive one…though there is a huge potential for misstep. What OFTEN happens next is that the young white person experiences anger…and in their anger, they somehow decide that they aren’t like the BAD white people who nurture this system of forced alterity. In this process, they determine that they are somehow, mystically, in solidarity with the person of color, or the poor, or the homeless. They are, somehow, one of those special white people who are part of the solution simply on the basis of their awareness.
This phenomenon has been ridiculed often. I don’t need to ridicule it further–especially because it strikes a little close to home. I call this phenomenon “pseudo-alterity” because it is the process by which someone in the position of dominance takes upon his or herself the status of symbolic “other.” They claim to be in solidarity, but what they have REALLY done is escaped guilt and declared themselves exempt from judgment.
In that place, anger remains because the pseudo-altern has aborted the process before it has run its course. And so, the angry young enlightened white person (and yes, I understand that non-whites can be guilty of this too…but I want to keep this autobiographical) stays angry and points fingers of judgment at exactly those people who were just like them before they themselves read a book, took a class, or had a conversation that gave them their new solidarity.
The Road of Repentance and Lament
If we are going to be proper radicals–who live a prophetic alternative to the cycle of death that pervades our fallen world–we need to stay the course. We can’t simply be angry pseudo-alterns that rage against the machine. In such a movement of pseudo-alterity, it is easy to realize that the world is broken and that things are wrong. We can buy radical books, go to radical conferences. We may go further and change our spending habits. This at least moves us towards embodiment. We may even take the step that few take and live in a house with like-minded friends and tend a garden. But what is required of us is so much deeper. Our prophetic response needs to be profound and powerful enough to speak into the centers of imperial power.
This is why we use the tools of empire: because those are, according to our current way of thinking, the most powerful tools at our disposal. Why content ourselves with seemingly small and simple acts when we can have festivals and conferences and the rise of the new Christian left?
Before we can see the kingdom reality, we must first repent of the old order. Before we can experience the joy of the Kingdom, we must mourn over the Empire. And one can never mourn if they seek to save themselves from judgment. Instead, we must own our complicity.
The way of the true radical–the way of the prophet–is to open our eyes to the alternative reality that is the Kingdom and to grieve and mourn over the world to which we still cling. Sure, there is still room for anger. But above that rises repentance and lament.
We must mourn the old world, the old ways, and its cycle of death–he cycle of greed and violence and oppression as we move into the kingdom of God. And, as we do that, must must let go of the illusion of our own moral purity. We must not reach for an easy pseudo-alterity. We can’t render ourselves radicals because we happen to have superficially opted out of the system and donned the garb of the gutterpunk.
If we are able to live the part of the radical without mourning our own complicity and mourning for those trapped in the cycle, we are simply a clanging cymbal. If, because of some strong exercise of willpower we manage to, based upon the heat of our own anger, carve out an entire way of life that stands in contrast to the empire, but have not love, we are simply the beat of an angry drum.
Mark Van Steenwyk is a co-founder of the Mennonite Worker (an intentional community in Minneapolis). Mark is a writer, speaker, and grassroots educator working with radical Christian communities around North America. He is one of the facilitators of JesusRadicals.com and co-host/producer of the Iconocast podcast. Mark has contributed to several books, is the author of That Holy Anarchist and the unKingdom of God. He likes building pirate ships out of cardboard with is four year old son, cooking whatever strikes his fancy, and singing karaoke (badly).