Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Er…Kommunistischen?

Communism’ is a likely candidate for ‘touchiest word of the 20th century’.

While the word evokes many high-charged reactions, two seem consistent among American conservatives: First, communism is associated with naïve hippies who think there should be no war and want to sing ‘Why Can’t We be Friends?’ at Kim Jong-Il. We gape at it and exclaim, “Really? Really?”

The second association conjures up images of Soviet statues and Cold War newspaper headlines, starving citizens and maniacal despots. We think the USSR—along with North Korea, China, Vietnam, et cetera—was the inevitable product of those silly utopians.

Popular assessment of Communism treats the philosophy is as if it were like Spongebob, initially dripping with obnoxious optimism, but a Spongebob destined to devolve into a fanged beast wielding automatic weaponry. (Although, on second thought, Spongebob can’t be a communist since he owns pineapple property.)

Maybe it’s time we compare our presuppositions to what the original Communists said about Communism. It’s exasperating when people point to the Crusades and call Christianity ‘violent and cruel’–communism should receive the same fair trial that we demand for Christianity.

The Communist Manifesto was born amid the insufferable social conditions of the 19th century Industrial Revolution. The Communist League had commissioned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to create a document that would outline the rationale and goals of Communists–a fair reading of the end product will evidence that Communism, as originally imagined, was neither Utopian nor tolerant of totalitarianism.

Karl Marx openly derides “utopian socialists” in the Manifesto. He scoffs at their plan to “attain their ends by peaceful means” and end class struggle by “reconcili[ing] class antagonisms.” Marx insists that only violent revolution can destroy the Bourgeoisie/Proletariat class divide. By eradicating the Bourgeoisie, the Proletariat ends class friction and becomes the only class; ‘reconciliation’ is “fanatical and superstitious.”

Although Marx died in 1883 and never saw 20th century USSR, he would have also considered the Soviet project to be Communist heresy. Aside from the fact that Russia’s leap from Feudalism into Communism contradicted Marx’s theory of social evolution, the USSR did not eradicate class struggle–not even close. The USSR, like its modern counterparts, was a society solidly divided between ‘Party members’ and ‘non-Party members’. Far from Marx’s vision of Proletariats abolishing all political powers after annihilating Bourgeoisie, the Soviet ‘Party’ was hopped up on bureaucratic steroids, constantly exercising political muscles. So, just as Marx’s Communism is not Utopianism, we should be wary of associating Communism and Stalin’s Russia or similar dystopic states.

Approaching the Manifesto with generosity towards Marx’s ideas will both address false suppositions about Communism and allow us to truly learn from Marx and honestly oppose him. The Manifesto might not have answers, but it sure can raise questions. Instead of merely going to war with Marx, read the Manifesto as if you were talking to a friend. Assume Marx knows that Utopias are unrealistic, and assume he’s not despotic.

We find that Marx has some valuable words for us. Often, his critiques of capitalism contain painful accuracy:

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its pain wage-labourers…That [capitalist] culture…is, for the enormous majority, a mere training to act as a machine.

Marx presents a real concern for any Christian opponents: how can communism be rejected as ‘materialist’ when our consumer culture is little different? If we want to reject his solution, we need legitimate grounds and consistency. For example, theologically, Marx’s materialist teleology clashes with our doctrine of a Kingdom of Heaven distinct from a Kingdom of Earth—but so does consumer capitalism. We are challenged to find a third option: a plan to address social injustices through relationship rather than infrastructure.

Awareness and familiarity with Marx will accredit Christian responses to Communism. But, even more, developing the awareness will force us to think critically about how we ought to navigate and value our material world. Careful thought is essential, as our goal is a high one: to love our neighbor as ourselves or, as Dorothy Day wrote, “make life here for others a foretaste of the life to come.” ‘

Everyday Justice and Lent

“Welcome, dear feast of Lent!” George Herbert, English country priest and poet wrote in Lent (1633). Last week, the western church entered the season of solemn preparation to remember Christ’s great sacrifice and victory over sin and death, and in a short while our eastern brothers and sisters will join us. Lent is usually observed through practices of self-denial and increased spiritual discipline, as Amy Cannon so aptly introduced in a recent article on this site. To prepare our hearts for the joyous celebration of the empty tomb, we must first remind ourselves of the great tragedy of the cross. So, for forty days, we deny ourselves things that are good in remembrance of the things Christ secured for us that are far better, and we take upon ourselves new or intensified practices to make ourselves more like Him. Herbert was right. In fasting, we do indeed find a great feast.

In our Lenten remembrance, we strive to take on attributes of Christ. His work on the cross saved us from the chained bondage of sin and death. We are never more like Him than when we bring freedom to others, and Scripture records that the heart of God is moved most deeply by the plight of the poor and oppressed. And, since Lent isn’t supposed to be forty days of virtue in a church year full of apathy, we can spend this time cultivating aspects of Christ’s character that will carry us through the rest of our lives as we grow in knowledge and love of Him.

At a loss for where to begin? Julie Clawson offers some excellent suggestions in her book Everyday Justice: the Global Impact of our Daily Choices. As I’ve written here before, our most mundane choices from day to day dramatically affect people around the world. In some cases, we unknowingly bind them to modern slavery for our convenience and savings. It may feel great to purchase food, clothing, or luxuries at a deep discount, but the items didn’t suddenly become less expensive to produce. There’s a hidden cost to marked down prices, and we don’t often see those forced to pay. Like it or not, and aware of it or not, we are complicit in their oppression. In Everyday Justice, Clawson traces that complicity through commonly purchased items (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, and clothes) and what happens to what we consume through waste and international debt.

Clawson’s documentation is thorough. This is a book for skeptics and believers alike. In her introduction, Clawson draws a connection between Coca-Cola consumption and genocide in the Darfur region that’s shocking (Sudan is the world’s leading producer of gum arabic, an ingredient so vital to the creation of America’s favorite bubbly beverages that the National Soda Association and other gum arabic groups successfully lobbied for an exception to the US’s sanctions against Sudan, rendering those sanctions meaningless in 1997). When something as seemingly benign as an icy Coke on a hot afternoon puts the drinker in league with a lobby that sought to prevent the US from interfering in genocide, it can be overwhelming to think of hunting down each of these daily routines that have such devastating consequences to our fellow men.

But that’s why the book is called Everyday Justice. Clawson offers the reader a guide to introduce us to living more justly. It exposes the consequences of some of our daily activities and offers simple steps that anyone can take to seek justice instead. As Clawson says, it is an introduction to “tweak – not overhaul” our habits. Rather than overwhelm the reader with the impossible task of righting every wrong and making sure nothing she does has any harmful effect whatsoever on anyone anywhere (a highly unrealistic goal, especially given the nature of our deeply entrenched consumerism), Clawson’s book is an example of how to seek justice in a manageable, practical, meaningful way every day.

Above all, it is a reminder that as Christians, we are called to act in love in all things. If our purchasing choices bring real harm to people, it follows that they can also, if altered, treat people in love and respect. In this Lenten season, as we follow Christ to the Cross, we need not just deny ourselves treats like chocolate or a nice glass of wine for our own sake. We can use that denial to serve our brothers and sisters around the world. In doing so, Lent does its greatest work on us; it reminds us who we are, who God is, and helps us reorder our priorities in light of His. ‘

Declare the Word in Zion: America and the Middle East

Relations between the United States and the Middle East have always been complicated.  Given that the Middle East enjoys complicated relationships with every other region in the world as well—including itself—this should come as no surprise.

On 9/11, however, many Americans were surprised.  In the days just after the attack laymen and newscasters alike tried to explain the disaster with theories ranging from the absurd to the offensive.  Former President Bill Clinton, for example, was quick to point to the assumed cruelty of Western Crusaders when searching for an explanation—this despite the fact that, as Rodney Stark points out, Muslim ire regarding the Crusades is a relatively recent phenomenon which did not become intense until after the state of Israel was founded.

The average American pre-9/11 knew hardly anything about the Middle East, let alone the region’s Gordian relationship with our own nation.  He knows a little more now—though usually not enough to help him really understand the many difficulties we have faced in the region.  This puts him at a severe disadvantage because, troop withdrawal deadlines notwithstanding, the age-old conflicts between West and East aren’t going to become simpler anytime soon.

Ambassador Michael Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present offers the first comprehensive historical treatment of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East.  Ambassador Oren unpacks and explains the complexity of our relations with the region in a book that is fascinating, easy to read, and vigorously well researched.  He is well qualified to do so; a graduate of Columbia and Princeton and a visiting lecturer at Harvard and Yale, the American-born Ambassador is also Israel’s highest-ranking official in the United States.

Though he lives in Jerusalem, Ambassador Oren is well acquainted with Western perceptions of the Middle East—a good thing, since his book addresses not only the factual chronology of political conflicts and alliances, but also the evolution of the West’s perceptions of the mythically exotic setting for 1001 Arabian Nights. It also addresses the 19th century exodus of protestant missionaries, zealous to convert the infidels in the holy land, be they Muslims or long-standing members of the Orthodox Church.

America’s fascination with the Middle East, argues Oren, began not with 9/11, not with the discovery of oil in the region, not with 19th century protestant missionary endeavors, and not even with the Barbary Wars:

“Come, let us declare in zion the word of God,” proclaimed William Bradford, the future governor of the Plymouth Colony, as he stepped off the Mayflower in 1620.  Bradford was quoting Jeremiah, but “Zion,” for him, was not the old Promised Land of Canaan but its new incarnation, America.  Its inhabitants were not the ancient Israelites but the 101 passengers who had arrived with Bradford, his fellow Puritans.” (p. 83)

The Puritans, explains Oren, fiercely identified with and embraced the Israelites’ mythic escape from Egyptian oppression and search for a Promised Land.  These colonists, familiar as they were with Old Testament descriptions of the Holy Land, “superimposed the map of the old Canaan over the new one they now settled.” (p. 84)

America and Israel, in other words, were joined together mythically, spiritually, and, in a sense, even geographically, in innumerable ways long before they had any political dealings with each other.  As much as the public might like to ignore the problems in the Middle East post-9/11, we are inescapably married to them—and we always have been.  We can withdraw our troops from the region, but we can’t erase the results of centuries of complex American victories and defeats in the Middle East—nor should we.  Fortunately, Ambassador Oren and his writings will continue to avail those who wish to understand the background to the  innumerable challenges that always have and probably always will challenge our relationship with the Middle East. ‘

Angel Time: Anne Rice Branches Out

Teenage fan girls take note: vampires are so mid-2009.  Now that the vampire stereotype has come full circle, from Stoker’s rabid monsters to Meyers’ glittering gods, angels may develop their own marketing demographic– at least if Anne Rice’s latest series is any indication.  While Rice’s newest work has little of the complexity and sophistication of some of her earlier books, it will doubtless attract new readers who would not otherwise have been interested in her writing.

Angel Time, the first volume in the new The Songs of the Seraphim series, tells the story of a talented young hit man who abruptly leaves his profession in answer to a divine calling.  In Toby O’Dare’s world there really are circumstances in which ‘angels fear to tread’, and the angel Malchiah believes Toby is more suited than he to handle such situations.  Toby’s lifestyle of violence and constant deception somehow failed to fully staunch his childhood faith; oddly enough, however, Malchiah claims it is his unusual capacity for stealth and deception that are needed, not merely his faith.

Toby and Malchiah journey through time to a medieval European city in order to help save a Jewish woman and her family from the local Christians who believe she murdered her own daughter.  The savage emotionalism of the local parish mob is starkly contrasted with the piety and calm rationalism of the accused, painting an ugly picture of anti-semitism which is poignant, if perhaps historically misleading; while violence against Jews doubtless occurred in settings like those described, these tragic attacks were not necessarily as universal as one might infer from Rice’s narrative.  The Medieval portions of the story form a “book within a book” which, while enjoyable, reveals little about Toby’s murderous tendencies or history, and appears nearly unrelated to the modern portions of the narrative.

One hopes that Ms. Rice intends to flesh out her new protagonist more fully in future volumes, as Angel Time’s two-dimensional characters and tenuous plot connections are out of place in an otherwise readable tome by an eminently readable author.

Anne Rice’s provocative works are popular for a reason, and, while Angel Time has some definite weaknesses, it will doubtless do well within its genre.  It’s a fine book if one thinks of it as a sort of cross between a Dan Brown thriller and a Michael Crichton adventure; it makes for good airport reading.  Many fans will struggle to evaluate it apart from Rice’s earlier works, but others who might not have otherwise been interested will discover Rice for the first time.  Given her return a few years ago to the Christianity of her childhood and her commitment to letting her faith inform her recent writing, books like Angel Time may in time become useful tools for attracting secular audiences to the Christian messages in her future books. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Meet Machiavelli

Meet Nick. He is a wealthy man, and he works for President Noble as a high-powered ambassador. In a radical upset, Noble is ousted at the next election, and President Masse takes power. Nick continues to work at the capital for Masse—after all, it pays the bills.

In the next election, Noble manages to regain the Presidency. Nick comes back joyfully to reclaim his place of affluence with the administration, but instead, because he worked for Masse, Nick accused of treason. He is tortured, exiled, and all his property is seized. Still, Nick misses the importance and bustle of government work. He writes a book to Regis—a pragmatic guide to gaining and maintaining political power—in hopes ‘getting in good’ once again.

Welcome to Niccolo Machiavelli’s life, leading up to his writing of The Prince, published in 1513.

You may have heard some nasty slurs about Machiavelli. A despotic political figure might be called ‘Machiavellian’, or the phrase spat out, ‘it is better to be feared than love’. Not directly tied in origin to Machiavelli, the saying ‘might makes right’ is also closely associated with The Prince.

As with Darwin, who I discussed in my last ‘Classics’ post, Machiavelli should be read before being condemned. For the contemporary Christian, especially one concerned with current politics, The Prince can be a painful read. Why?: because it names a fanged, white elephant, and then faces us with the question, “If we don’t want this to be true, what do we do about it?”

The Prince, as I said, is practical: Machiavelli doesn’t lament that ‘power corrupts’, he assumes that breaches of ethicality are simply part of the power game. His words should ring true (though perhaps gratingly) in our ears:

You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.

When Machiavelli says ‘flexible disposition’, he means that a ruler should be willing compromise religious moralities for the sake of temporal power. That does not mean that Stalin or Idi Amin were Machiavellian—in The Prince, the ideal leader is sharply attune to the desires and opinions of his citizens. Machiavelli’s leader will found his state on “good laws and good arms”; reason and strength fortify his society. While Machiavelli has some less-than-pleasant suggestions for a prince (such as assassinating entire families of discontent nobility), his time and place should be taken into account. City-states comprised 14th century Italy, which meant that a powerful, rebellious family in a city was an acute danger to that city’s governor. Knowing that won’t make ol’ Machy a saint, but it will help us be charitable while reading him.

Machiavelli’s ideas are not fully compatible with Christian leadership. For Machiavelli’s prince, ‘appearing’ virtuous is vital—‘being’ virtuous is not. Deceit and cruelty, so long as they are used efficaciously to the general preservation of the state, are not lamentable necessities; they are commendable ‘prowess’.

Contemporary Christian leaders also face the tensions inherent in ‘lesser evil’ situations. After 9-11, do we ‘turn the other cheek’ or go to war? If a police officer goes undercover, shouldn’t he use deceit for a greater end? These and similar situations would swiftly lead us into a discussion of situational ethics.

Machiavelli is not concerned with situational ethics-at least, not in the same way. He handles the tension by creating a new ethical system. As he writes, “he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.” On first take, it is easy to agree with this: after all, isn’t war sometimes justified as a means of self-defense? However, when we say this, we are trying to show that war is still some type of ‘good’ even if not the most ideal ‘good’. Machiavelli, though, has no problem with actions that are ‘deviations’ from good–those that are not the most ideal good according to Christian ethics–for the sake of maintaining power.

Machiavelli uses two sense of ‘good’, and in that, he is divided from the Christian ruler. The ‘end’ which might makes a Christian’s ‘unethical’ behavior circumstantially ethical is not identical to that of Machiavelli’s prince. While temporal power can play a part in the Christian’s achievement of a ‘greater good’ (the undercover officer lying his way into a high position within a drug cartel), there is only one conception of good, and it is ethical. Actions should manifest a striving for peace and the pursuit of ideals like justice.

Machiavelli paints power itself as the highest good. When religious ethics come into conflict with the ethical of power, religion gives way. Political power includes some compatibility with religious ethics—not being overly cruel in order to maintain peoples’ approval, for example—but these are means to power for Machiavelli, not the purpose of power.

Keep in mind the double (but paralleling) standards employed by Machiavelli while reading The Prince. I encourage you to grapple with Machiavelli, but do so remembering his terms: he offers sound advice on leadership, even if The Prince never peers beyond the mere possession of affluent position. The Prince will not permit lofty, abstract idealism. Machiavelli forces his reader to think clearly, realistically, and dare I say it, powerfully. ‘

Classics for the Contemporary Christian: Digging into Darwin

Darwin’s Dead and He Ain’t Coming Back…or so the Christian bumper sticker says. Personally, my favorite is the one of the Jesus fish eating the upside-down mutant fish with legs labeled ‘Darwin’. In the Jesus vs Darwin showdown, apparently survival of the fittest is true after all.

For many Christians, the instinctive reaction to Darwin, author of the theory natural selection—not, as commonly thought, the author of theory of evolution—is defensive and even hostile. Darwin, some think, is the guy who tried to kill God in the 19th century. He’s the main cause of modern secularization; his theory is in direct opposition to Christianity.

Everyone and their great-uncle’s cousin have an opinion about Darwin. But few have slogged through his five hundred-page classic The Origin of the Species—the book that influenced the future shape of biology, geology, botany, et cetera, et cetera…

But is it possible to let Darwin speak for himself? Not without cracking open Darwin’s text.

From the Introduction, Darwin states that his purpose is to show that “the view which most naturalists entertain…that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.” His goal concerns the origin of species, not the origin of life. Throughout the course of Origin, the exclusive focus of his work is the interconnectedness of specific species and how they trace back to one or more ‘archetypal’ organisms.

In fact, not even until the last pages of his work does Darwin address more universal implications of his theory:

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.

Assuming that the analogy holds true, Darwin still never attempts to answer where that ‘prototype’ might have originated. He certainly never rules out the possibility of a divinely orchestrated evolution that utilizes the means of natural selection. It would seem that, if a Creationist wishes to dismiss Darwin, it must be on scientific, not religious grounds—common descent of species is possible within the Christian conception of God. As author G.K. Chesterton pointed out, “a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time.”

Whether discussing the hive bee’s architectural genius or the tyrannical, slave-making habits of the Formica rufescens ant, Darwin’s observations of the natural world evidence how miraculous it is. If those species had a common ancestor, would they be any less miraculous? For my part, and aside from any concerns of the theory’s accuracy, I find the idea of God using the gradual processes of the natural world to develop his energy from a single seed even more awing. But for any Christian, The Origin of the Species is well worth reading, particularly while keeping that in mind. Give Darwin the benefit of the doubt: he’ll open up an amazing world of intricate and diverse, yet unified life. No cannibalistic Jesus-fish required.

The opinions here expressed are solely that of the author.
…well, not solely, but you know what I mean.

Against Christianity by Peter Leithart

“Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church.”  So opens Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity. Dr. Leithart, a conservative Presbyterian minister and Senior Fellow of Literature and Theology at New St. Andrew’s college,  seems an unlikely candidate to levy the charges made in this book.  His project, to convince the Church to reject Christianity in favor of Christendom, is challenging not only because Christianity has an international establishment and following, but also because Dr. Leithart rebukes popular thinking by both modern, mainstream evangelicals as well as post-modern emergents.

The book is comprised of five chapters titled: Against Christianity, Against Theology, Against Sacraments, Against Ethics, and For Constantine.  The last chapter might seem surprising given that Constantine plays the part of the villain in the narrative told by foes of doctrine loving, corporate church, purpose driven Christianity.  More surprising than Leithart’s admiration of Constantine  is the form of prose Leithart uses to undermine the entire Christian project: each chapter is comprised of dozens of brief meditations.  As a result, he often does not give the reader an adequate understanding of the roots or trajectory of his ideas.  Nonetheless, he succeeds in provoking thought.

Christianity, Leithart argues, is a religion formed around a haphazard arrangement of modern values and practices.  It understands Christian community to be a religious layer on social life; it emasculates biblical religion through intellectualization and privatization.  Instead of confronting the language of existing culture with a robust language of its own, it offers theology, a sterile environment in which one speaks of God using clean terms, removing Him and His work from time in order to dissect timeless truths.  Theology merely adds religious words and phrases to the stock of existing language.

Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity, embraces modernity’s disdain for ritual, opposing and giving supremacy to the Word over the sacraments.  It accepts the postmodern civic myth by creating “temporary emotional communities,” post-modern tribes, instead of growing genuine, settle community life.  When it bothers to concern itself with tradition and the sacraments, it pursues false questions about symbols versus realities.  Finally, Christianity embraces segregation between Christianity and its work by speaking in terms of its “implications” for social or political life rather than speaking in terms of transformation.  It reduces the gospel to a philosophical viewpoint in order to engage in conversation about ethics, a project of godless men to justify a godless morality.

Leithart concludes his book by sharing his view of the mission of the Church.  The Church is called to be both countercultural, a separate city within the world’s cities, and also an actor subverting culture, converting whatever culture she finds herself in.  To this end, Leithart holds up Constantine as an example.  Constantine subverted the Roman Empire to the Church, making it the official religion of the empire, thereby establishing Christendom.   Upon the establishment of Christendom under Constantine, the empire underwent a kind of urban renewal.  Leithart quotes Rodney Stark arguing that cities once filled with strife, chaos, and crime were revitalized by the Church such that new norms and new kinds of social relationships were able to cope with urban problems such as homelessness and poverty.  It brought a new and expanded view of the family to the empire, and offered a new basis for social solidarity so that cities could face epidemics, fires, earthquakes, and other tragedies.  Earthly power became attentive to the Church and the Church governed the city.  Argues Leithart, “The mere presence of the Church means the end to ‘business as usual’ in the earthly city.  Always and forever, an end to business as usual.”  However, Christianity has abandoned this project, choosing instead to subvert itself and coexist unnaturally with earthly powers.  As a result, Leithart asks his readers to consider whether the Spirit has abandoned the Church.

Against Christianity has something to say to both sides of the theological debates between moderns and post-moderns.  Leithart’s emphasis on story versus doctrine, his emphasis on the need of the Church to be authentic, and his concerns that the Church has become too subservient to modernity’s arrangement of the secular versus the sacred seem to challenge the assumptions of mainstream, evangelical moderns.  However, Leithart’s belief that we ought to establish Christendom and his view that the Church has a language all its own that transcends all cultures and is accessible by all people should challenge some key assumptions of the post-modern emergents.  The book occupies a middle-ground all its own between the warring philosophies and offers readers a captivating alternative vision for  the future of the Church. ‘