Hauerwas, Zizek, Patagonia and Rob Bell: Capitalism’s Chocolate Laxatives and the Church

A while back a friend of mine asked me a question(s) in a dialogue we were having concerning Capitalism, justice, and Christianity. It is an honest question and in these times of Gap and Apple’s Red Campaign, Bono, Toms shoes, ad infinitum, I think it maybe an important one for anyone actually interested in disseminating the philosophical or theological problems with the current market system—I am tempted to say all encompassing reality, or at least the state of the situation—today.

My response will begin with a twofold preliminary theoretical step. First, I offer a theological reflection that will likely be meaningless for anyone not committed to the Christ event, and unfortunately probably for some who assume they are. The second is a philosophical point, a philosophically registered aporia, via Zizek, or rather an uncovering of an attempt to cover over an aporia within the constant proliferation of Capitalism with a conscious.  After this, and a somewhat long digression, I will offer a “concrete” response to the two questions.

The question(s),

1. Rob Bell’s main missions ministry at his church revolves around microeconomics in countries in Africa and even in MI. He talks about how there are “BEAUTIFUL” elements of capitalism and that when you basically just give the poor and oppressed money you are not helping them. His format is built around giving the poor and oppressed money to be creative with that through basic steps, which build their economy.

2. Patagonia, the clothing company. Their founder and current leader Yvon Chouinard talks about something called “natural capitalism.” In his book he explains that the reason they exist and continue to desire to make a profit is to (a.) Champion environmental causes and (b.)  Be an example of what a healthy and wise business should look like.

Theological Reflection

In his usual no-BS manner Stanley Hauerwas gets right to the point. Because I think his position is precisely correct I will quote it in full. Brushing away the typical justifications Hauerwas states,

“Christians, particularly in capitalist social orders, are told that it is not wealth or power that are the problem but rather that we must be good stewards of our wealth and power.

However, Jesus is very clear. Wealth is a problem. That capitalism is an economic system justified by the production of wealth is therefore not necessarily good news for Christians. Alasdair MacIntyre observes that Christians have rightly directed criticisms toward capitalist systems for wrongs done to the poor and exploited in the name of producing wealth, but

‘Christianity has to view any social economic order that treats being or becoming rich as highly desirable as doing wrong to those who must not only accept its goals, but succeed in achieving them. Riches are, from a biblical point of view, an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities.'”[1]

Put as simply and succinctly as possible; 1.) Capitalism’s telos is the acquisition of wealth and 2.) Jesus was radically skeptical of wealth, to the point of viewing it as dangerous. Thus those who follow him should be skeptical of a socio-political-economic order that situates all other goods and goals in a descending relative hierarchy in relation to this one. While critiques of capitalism that focus on the radical inequalities that it creates and perpetuates are justified, correct and worthy of recognition by all concerned with justice for the poor, Christian or non, for the Christian these critiques do not reach far enough down. The Christian, one who claims to follow Christ or at least be trying to—Cornel West reminds us what an audacious claim this is in today’s society; must begin where he did.

For any who would wish to argue otherwise, that is, to claim that Jesus didn’t consider wealth a problem I place the burden of proof on them. I have no desire to trace the argument back that far in this peace, nor do I feel the need. I simply see this claim as axiomatic in every since of the term. Further, if one is really in such a place to question this claim it is likely do to one’s subjective position, or setz im lebein, and thus no simple argument will make much difference. If the history of exegesis shows us one thing it is that Scripture can be interpreted in a multitude of ways, which are often based more on presuppositions or ruling ideologies then inscrutable methodologies. Even further still, I believe that Gadamer is right in suggesting that there is likely no methodology that will ensure a perfect interpretation, but rather interpretation is always a translation with some being better and some worse. However if you disagree with me please feel free to say so. Mu interpretation is not beyond scrutiny. But enough…

Philosophically Registered BS

As I ended the theological section with an axiom, I will begin the philosophical section with one: just because certain chocolate can make you crap doesn’t mean it’s the solution to your lack of bowl movements.

Slavoj Zizek deploys a useful, fun and brilliantly simple theoretical tool in his “chocolate laxative”. He points out that with the chocolate laxative one is able to use the very substance that constipates, chocolate, to overcome the constipation. The problem thus becomes the solution.

Zizek suggests that the philanthropists George Soros and Bill Gates function in this same way. Soros, the massively wealthy financial speculator, spends half of his day speculating on capital and the other half working with philanthropic organizations or on charitable projects. While with Bill Gates we have, “the cruel business man (who) destroys or buys out competitors, aims at virtual monopoly, (and) employs all the tricks of the trade to achieve his goals.”[2] After doing this Gates turns around to give back to the very people whom he stepped on.

So we have Soros who after a life time of financial speculation—if one is informed in the least about the causes of the current financial meltdown the connection between financial speculation and injustice should be a given at this point, if not read a paper or see here—turns around and gives back to the community, which is now the world, alongside Bill gates. Zizek locates them on a genealogical spectrum alongside, “Good old Andrew Carnegie (who) deployed a private army brutally to suppress organized labor in his steal works and then distributed large parts of his wealth to education, artistic, and humanitarian causes.”[3]Zizek labels this liberal-communism and suggests that according to its ethics the ruthless pursuit of profit is justified by charity. “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.”[4]

Objections and Digresion

It is worth noting two objections at this point. The first objection comes from a friend in the business world. This person simply pointed out that what I suggested was wrong with Bill Gates; squashing the competition, aiming at virtual monopoly etc., is simply good business. I was tempted to say, pace Hauerwas, that this is exactly why Christians should not be allowed to study business within a capitalist social order. Instead I suggested that this person might want to think long and hard about the way of life that they are being discipled and disciplined into within their current form of employment. Of course this is not to demonize this person. The Church in the West has long neglected to consider the capitulation it has made in its unwillingness to allow Christ into all areas of its life. When salvation becomes little more than an individual transaction between one person and Jesus and leads to little more than the lack of masturbation and getting drunk (or at least really drunk often) the Church has likely succumbed to the principalities and powers of the age.

The second objection is that if one is to refuse to use or accept charity that comes from less than admirable sources than where will it come from? The answer is that it will likely not come, or least not as much as has been coming. This is a real problem. The horrifying reality is that non-profits, including many churches will likely stop functioning and things will get worse for the majority of those already on the underside of history.

(Of course, one must not ignore the fact that this subjective objection is likely connected to one other little problem. If I refuse to accept money from, buy products from or participate with businesses or people that are not just in their economic dealings life will get worse for… me!)

To get back to the point, Zizek suggests that the reason these liberal-communists and their chocolate laxatives must be rejected is that they are the quick fixes that allow the system to continue to grind on, grinding up the masses as it does. The chocolate laxative may momentarily loosen your stool, but it will not fix the main cause of the problem. In order to do that one must stop living off of chocolate and eat some roughage, which doesn’t taste all that good to a palate used to sugar, cocoa and butter.

One possible danger in Zizek’s answer, for me, is that it is in danger of making the same mistake that every other purely human revolution, insurrection, or rescue mission has made. That is, in view of what must be achieved some sacrifices must be made—some heads of the aristocracy, some infidels, a couple of thousand Iraqi or Afghani civilians lives or the massive suffering and starvation of many of the wretched of the earth who depend on the charity of the liberal communists. For the Christian this is always unacceptable. People are not goods to be used no matter how lofty the purpose but persons to be loved. (Of course how this love works itself out is what is in question here.)

Many theologians have told us, rightly, that the poor are the sight of the in breaking and redeeming work of Christ. This is different than being the subjective location of, or potential for, the revolution. One must be careful that in order to achieve one’s end, the end of capitalist hegemony, an end that I believe is completely in line with the Gospel, one does not sacrifice those who cannot choose otherwise.

This does not mean that on the other hand we shut our eyes and continue to rejoice in liberal communists and chocolate laxatives. We cannot be content to wear our Tom’s Shoes and Gap Red T-shirts while drinking our fair trade coffee and going about our day pleased with the current social order. There has to be a third or middle way, a political option better than Elizabeth’s ecclesial via media.

What might this mean for us today? I will stop squirming around the obvious and state it. Socialism is the only option. Possibly even Communism if one thinks of it as the philosopher Alain Badiou does. Badiou states that philosophy can and must think under the name Communism the following,

“Egalitarian passion, the Idea of justice, the will to break with the compromises of the service of goods, the deposing of egotism, the intolerance of oppression, the vow of an end to the State; the absolute pre-eminence of multiple-presentation over representation; the tenacious militant determination, set in motion by some incalculable event, to maintain, come what may, the proposition of a singularity without predicate, an infinity without determination or immanent hierarchy; what I term the generic, which—when its procedure is political—provides the ontological concept of democracy, or of communism, it’s the same thing.” (Philosophy and Communism)

This utopian, in the best sense of the word, vision is not far off from what theology terms the Kingdom of God—at least on an existential level, while its ontological grounding maybe very far indeed—and as such it is similar to what the Church strives for as well. The Church strives for shalom, made manifest in the life of God. The in breaking of Trinitarian ontological peacableness that is already present in the ongoing life of Christ, which is his Church; though not necessarily all who claim to be.

Does this mean that the Church can unequivocally and unreservedly hold hands with those in favor of the destruction of capitalism? No, not unequivocally and unreservedly. The Church must seek to live in contra-distinction to violence in all its forms, especially killing, no matter whose name it is in. The Church claims to follow one who laid down his life instead of fighting for it and whose action God the Father vindicated through resurrection. Unfortunately what the Church, at least the church in the West, has done is hold hands with those on the other end of the ideological spectrum while they kill and subjugate in the name of democracy and development. And this is exactly where the Church can and should join with a Zizek or a Badiou. While capitalism may not be of the same violence as Islamic extremists or Blackwater mercenaries, it is a systemic insidious violence just as damaging to human life as any other.

In the 1970’s theologian Leonardo Boff wrote Ecclesiogensis, attempting to establish the ecclesial significance of the Base Communities in Brasil. He poignantly and prophetically laid before the Roman Catholic Church its choice,

“For the church as great institution, the crucial option is becoming daily more difficult to escape: either continue good relations with the state and the wealthy classes represented by the state or take the network base communities seriously, with the call for justice and social transformation that this will imply.”[5]

Boff goes on to point out that what comes with the first option is security, financial support and aid, while with the second comes insecurity and official displeasure. However, what is to be gained by the second option is the Church’s very prophetic mission, “carry(ing) to the throne of God the cries of justice that rise up from the bowels of the earth.”[6]

While America occupies a different political locus than 1970’s Brazil, the question remains the same for one main though divergent reason. America’s and Latin America’s political space has, at least since the early 20th century if not before, been continually traversed by the same set of political and economic interests and players. The fate of one has been explicitly tied to the fate of the other from political coups, CIA backed death squads and torture training to corporate maneuvering and exploitation.[7] While one central player or agency is not able to be isolated in the material realm what connects all the multifarious players and agencies is the need for Capital to expand, flow ceaselessly, and reach new territories.

We are getting way off track.

Finally Responding

  1. First Rob Bell. Why is it that Capitalism must be assumed in order to empower the poor with financial resources attached to stipulations? Sure in the current state of things, under the reign of capital, there is no other option, but this does not imply a necessary correlation between empowered poor people and the systemic force that was the cause of their poverty.[8] Rob Bell’s read of his church’s humanitarian projects is a simplistic one based on the logic of the chocolate laxative. It is my belief that the church must continue in her humanitarian aid/missions work, while nevertheless refusing to accept that just because the current social-political-economic order makes this aid possible it is necessary or even justified. Why must we allow our imagination to be short circuited so early and easily? After all we hope for nothing less than God’s shalom. I believe that the real answer to this question lies in the fact that we know, albeit implicitly or sub-consciously, that our way of life is dependant on the current order, just or unjust. We would rather have our nice cars, homes, and lives and be able to give a little back in order to subvert our consciences’ cries for justice.
  1. As for Patagonia I believe the chocolate laxative applies here as well. Who can afford to buy Patagonia’s products except for those who are made wealthy by the current state of things? The company as a whole is able to exist by selling its products to those on the receiving end of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation. If everyone refused to exploit nature, harm the environment, and or burn fossil fuels the economy as we know it would fall apart.

(I am not even going to mention the refusal to exploit workers. I do not know Patagonia’s production practices but with the incredible fuss they make over their environmental practices and the absence of any information on their production conditions I would not be at all surprised to find that they are less than just. This maybe a fallacious assumption. If anyone else knows please inform me.)

This is Marx’s second obstacle to capital—environmental resources. This doesn’t mean that blockage from an environmental resource cannot be circumvented and thus overcome—this has been the case throughout the history of capital and could be so with even the fossil fuel problem; however, with the level of dependence we now have on fossil fuels as a whole and crude oil in particular—not to mention toxic waste, destruction of the Amazon, etc.—it is highly unlikely that a radical change in business environmental practices would not cause a devastating blow to the economy as a whole.

The point is that Patagonia’s environmentally response profit is made possible by a host of other factors within capitalism, namely the surplus value made possible by the willful destruction of the environment. Choinard’s argument makes it seem as if Patagonia, and its profit margin, existed in a bubble. It does not.

My point is not to demonize Patagonia or its owner. I actually like their clothing and, the meta questions left aside, as a whole they seem to run their company fairly well. What I am concerned with is letting this one example function as an apologetic for the entire capitalist system. It does not and must not be allowed to.

I hope that this long rant answers my friend’s question and that it will stir up some discussion.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew

[2] Slavoj Zizek, Violence

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogensis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church. 8

[6] Ibid.

[7] One only need think of the current state of Honduras to get the picture. Why won’t the US and the international community at large do more than impose a nominal chastisement on the new regime?

[8] In a way I am being reductionistic here. There are always a plethora of factors, social, political, cultural, religious, that lead towards and sustain poverty. Yet, it is possible to argue that for the last several centuries there has been one main (emergent?) agency driving all other factors from colonization, to slavery, to democracy, etc. This claim is an incredibly bold one in need of an incredibly long tracing out, which I am entirely unable to do here.


11 thoughts on “Hauerwas, Zizek, Patagonia and Rob Bell: Capitalism’s Chocolate Laxatives and the Church

  1. Dan you rock! I think you answer some crucial questions and weave together some very poignant arguments from some great thinkers.

    If anyone wants to see the result of much of what Dan is speaking out against in this post go see “Food Inc.” before it is out of theaters. Food Inc. shows capitalism’s inevitable wake of destruction.

  2. Dan, great job stating the problem, the supposed solutions, and the problems with the supposed solutions.

    I’m not sure, however, that simply saying that socialism or forms of communism are more compatible with Christianity gets us practically nearer a solution.

    I also contribute to micro-finance around the world (interest-free). I don’t see it as the ‘chocolate laxative’, but rather a way of meeting people’s immediate need under global capitalism. I’m not sure I can even fathom a response to global capitalism, but I can help someone put food on the table.

    Similarly, my wife and I own a small business. I’m hard-pressed to think of ways to feed my family other than to participate in capitalism on a small scale.

    So…what then should we be doing?

    First of all, we need to liberate our imaginations from the confines of capitalism. God is able to do more than we ask or imagine, but we’ve been trained to ask and imagine in ways that are stunted. Our desires are disordered. You’re helping us along that path. Faith comes by hearing.

    Then we begin to cultivate the hard disciplines that, right under the nose of global capitalism, starts to undermine it. Much as the early Christians didn’t oppose slavery in any formal sense, yet their ecclesial practices rendered slavery unintellible (right or wrong, it’s a decent analogy).

    – Stop buying shit you don’t need.
    – Reuse everything.
    – Buy local.
    – Make stuff.
    – Share everything.

    One of the practices that I’m trying to employ is to be careful of relying on signatures and contracts. If your word isn’t good enough then neither is your signature. And even if I have a signed contract from you, Jesus economics forbids me to sue or seek civil redress.

    I’m guessing who your friend is in the article…probably a relation of mine? He brought up the ‘chocolate laxative’ thing with me. I responded that people have been involved in trade and bartering for millenia before capitalism. Where is the line? That’s an important distinction. Helping folks earn a living under capitalism needs to be distinguished from hoping that capitalism will save us from…well, capitalism.

  3. Joey,

    Thanks for sharing and sorry that it took me so long to get back to you. Also, thanks for reading this monstrosity of a post. I got a little out of control with this one and didn’t take the time to structure it either so it is a little jumbled.

    First things first. My friend was not who your thinking of. I don’t know how he explained the chocolate laxative to you but it isn’t just trade and barter. Of course these things have been going on for millennia and money has been around since at least before 300 BCE. Capitalism is a whole other beast. I think one could make the case that capitalism as we know it came about at the turn of the 17th century with the inauguration of the Bank of England. The Bank created money out of nothing, or rather out of a promise from the future, credit.

    “The Bank of England, formed by an act of Parliament at the instigation of William Peterson, provided a permanent loan of 1.2 million pounds at 8 percent interest to King William III for his religious wars. At the same time, the Bank also provided a note issue, in units of 20 pounds, of the same amount, guaranteed by the security of the government’s promise to pay through taxation. Such notes were issued as loan to worthy private borrowers. The original subscribers to the Bank would receive interest on these loans, as well as on the loan to the king. Money was effectively created in excess of the original deposit.”

    Goodchild, Theology of Money, 7.

    Goodchild goes on to argue that this only revealed money’s essence, which had always been credit. Yet, this creation of money through interest was novel in that it allowed money to go ahead of itself, so to be speak, and create itself through investment in the future for a profit. And, as Goodchild goes on to say,

    “If money can be created in the form loans for the purpose of profitable activity, then effective limits to economic growth are removed. There is no shortage of money when it can be replaced by credit and repaid by profit… Production for the sake of profit rather than use became the dominant motivation for social activity and interaction. Capitalism—its growth and its globalization—is explained by banking. Economic activity, formerly a limited segment of social life, came to predominate over all other aspects of social life, including religion. The preachers’ declamations against the evils of usury and the love of money were unheeded by those who saw the evidence of prosperity brought about through profit.”

    Goodchild, Theology of Money, 10-11

    The point I am trying to make with all of this is that the argument that since we have had a barter system or that since we have used money for a long time we shouldn’t be worried about capitalism misses the whole point. With capitalism we get a whole other phenomenon that lots of people, Goodchild being one of them, have tried to understand, critique and on the other end defend. I am convinced that the system itself is irreconcilably corrupt and corrupting. This stance has come from a lot of reading, not just naïve acceptance of some radical position.

    What I was trying to point to in the article is that the church has lots of practices that we take part in that may not actually be good practices, although they may look like it. It is possible that they are both good and bad. Micro-finance is a great example. (I have contributed to it before and I likely still will in the future so don’t hear me wrong. For a good book on why micro-finance may not be all it parades itself as see, Julia Elyachar, Markets of Dispossession: NGOs, Economic Development, and the State in Cairo [Duke, 2005] I haven’t read the whole thing yet. I am waiting to get it from a friend who owns it.)

    I am not surprised that you don’t see micro-finance as a chocolate laxative, other wise why would you contribute to it? However, you stating that you don’t see it as such is in no way an argument that it isn’t. Rather, I am afraid that it is more of a declaration that you have missed the entire issue I was trying to raise by this post. This is probably my fault. The whole point of this post was to raise the specter of the possibility that the practices we participate in as the church, such as micro-finance, may in fact being doing more damage than good in the long run and if this is the case then to ask the question what we are to do about it. Because I am afraid that if we don’t we will inevitably fall into what Goodchild points out elsewhere,

    “Unless we raise ontological questions of the nature, force, and arising of the “Real”, we risk having our social reality determined in practice by the abstract spectral logic of capital.”

    Goodchild, “Capital and Kingdom”, Theology and the Political: The New Debate, 128

    Basically what he is getting at is that we need to investigate the one social mediation that truly exists in modernity—money as credit. Without doing this we run the risk of all that we do—religious, political, etc.—being scripted back into the movement and growth of capital and this runs the risk of further exploitation of ourselves, our environment, and our neighbors. This is why I love Zizek’s chocolate laxative. It is an easy way for us to remind ourselves of this process that Goodchild has highlighted. Leading us to ask, “is what I am doing merely helping the system itself to morph, and continue on in more inconspicuous, yet in so far as this is true, possibly more insidious ways? If so, then is it worth doing? Are there ways that I could do it differently and better?” These are the questions that I see as entirely absent from discussion in the church and these are the questions that I see as incredibly important. The problem is that they are questions that require some abstract thinking and I am afraid that a church whose mental pallet is used to little more than John Piper, Beth Moore and Dancing with the Stars will bemoan and sidestep such processes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    I think that the practices you highlighted are all very important and they are practices which make me proud to call you a friend. Yet, if they enable you or us as a church to completely ignore the meta questions and problems than I am not sure how they function as little more than ideology. In other words one should read Goodchild, or Dussel, or Guiterez alongside Cavanaugh.

    Lastly, I disagree with you when you say that stating that forms of socialism or communism are more compatible with Christianity does nothing for moving us along towards a “practical” solution. While I most likely need to find new signifiers—both communism and socialism are so loaded in the social imaginary that once they are used one is almost irredeemably lost in some circles—what is signified is incredibly important. I think that at the very least we need to begin to realize that the form of life that now dominates, i.e. capitalism, is neither inherently necessary nor just. In order for us to realize that this is the case we need to imagine a form of social solidarity, or common life, that is different because it is only possible within the world in which we live once we begin to imagine it. I will leave you with the quasi Deleuzian (and Christian!?) words of Goodchild, (yes I do have an incredible intellectual man crush on him!)

    “What this entire debacle known as the history of capitalism may teach us, however, is that there is such a possibility as creation. The right eschatological expectations, the right mode of credit may call into being new systems of subsistence and production, new dimensions of subjectivity, and new modes of social association.”

    Goodchild, “Capital and Kingdom”, 148

  4. Agreed on nearly all points. You’re right that the ‘chocolate laxative’ metaphor does rightly challenge us to think deeper about the ‘solutions’ we come up with as a response to the injustice in global capitalism.

    I said this list:

    – Stop buying shit you don’t need.
    – Reuse everything.
    – Buy local.
    – Make stuff.
    – Share everything

    What I should have added:

    – Forgive all debts. Nobody owes you anything.

    I understand that offering socialism and communism as practically more compatible with Christianity is an attempt to move forward. But I’ll stubbornly maintain that I’m not confident that Christians can solve the world’s problems. We can, by living out practices that question, speak the truth about and undermine the world’s systems, live faithfully to the true political reality: the kingdom of God.

    I think it’s just as likely that what we call socialism or communism would create a new set of problems for the world…and that the church would still have to live out practices that question, speak the truth about and undermine the world’s systems.

    But terrible, indeed, are those problems when we can’t distinguish between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. I don’t want to baptize a new order. Rather, I want to live among a people of peace that are not afraid of the world and are patient enough not to start killing their neighbors.

  5. What I mean is this:

    I agree there’s a problem with capitalism and profit motive. I agree that being patient doesn’t mean putting up with injustice or even mindlessly going along with it. I agree that a better world is possible.

    I guess I just want to believe that the better world has already begun and that we can participate in it now. Show me how to participate in it now…how to be a part of a church, a family and a nation that overturns the current order.

    I need to start reading liberation theology.

  6. As I have been reading LT texts (Gutierrez, and subsequent secondary sources on LT) I have been noticing certain discrepancies between LT and European Political Theology ideas. There are obvious ones like the understanding of history and eschatology. But, it seems like European Political Theology is more hesitant toward ideological commitments to socialism or capitalism (or whatever) than Latin American Liberation theologians are (specifically concerning a commitment to socialism). Generally it is true, in Latin America, churches disciplined in Liberation theology accept socialism and are actively involved in the revolution against (under)development.
    However, my friend and I have been conversing about how the ideology of socialism is apt to produce violence, oppression and economic instability (probably not as) similar to capitalism. It does so in the coerciveness which generating a citizenry that embodies (a) particular politics proves.
    Because of Hauerwas, and Cavanugh, I am growing weary of endorsing any (one or two) ideology.
    I am not presupposing that salvation excludes ideological commitments; indeed, I am open to learning how that is congruent with your/my/our theology However, I am discovering that any “ism” – referring to ideology – is, or if not potentially dubious. I am not unreasonably cynical of all of these “isms,” but I am curious as to how to make sense of these delicate discrepancies.
    So the question I am trying to inquire is:

    How do we understand the intersection between faith and ideology as Christians?

    Thanks for your post. I found it to be informational, stimulating and humorous.

    Merrick Drake

    1. The question above, of course, is assuming that the intersection between faith and ideology is appropriate. So, my question before that question stated above is one of concern, concerning the possibility of ideology.

      Ought ideology be constitutive to faith?

  7. Merrick,

    Great question! I am really sorry that it took me so long to get back to you.

    I first want to consider LT as it is instantiated in the South and particularly South America. From my reading, which is pretty limited still, I do not see the liberation theologians as being ideologically committed to anything except that Christ means liberation in all of life’s heterogeneous practices and modalities. For them this includes the psychological, the mental, the socio-economic-political. None of these realms are isolated but rather infiltrate each other so that one cannot be radically changed or affected without the others. So, this is an ideological commitment of sorts, but one could also say that it is a theological commitment. It is a commitment to a particular view concerning the God that Christians claim to serve (and I would say it is a view that I find quite compelling).

    As far as their commitment to socialism goes I am not sure that this is not more than a certain form of pragmatism—not in the technical-philosophical sense. The deference between Western Political Theology and South American Liberation theology is a rather large contextual one, or at least it seems so to me. For the most part Western Political Theologians are academics who write in incredible comfort and ease. (Even someone like Cavanaugh who did “field work” in Chile did so under the knowledge that he would eventually leave and go back to the comfort of America and a pretty cushy academic job). In this context one has all amounts of time to theoretically consider all of the options, the possible down falls and benefits. One can read books, attend conferences, write papers and read history in comfort and continually postpone any “ideological” commitment. Now, I am not attacking these particular theologians. I like Cavanaugh, Hauerwas, Milbank, etc. etc. a lot and think they all have important things to teach us. I am just trying to recognize the contextual realities in which they do theology.

    When one turns to the global South one finds a different story. Even though many of the Liberation Theologians were/are academics they were also, often, living amongst the poor or at least incredibly aware of the suffering that surrounded them. In other words, their theology had more existential import in so far as it concerned the actual livey hood and lives of their family, friends, church and wider community. They were not simply interested in ideas for ideas sake (I am not saying that Western theologians are necessarily) but rather in helping their communities find and secure liberation from the very real and concrete suffering and domination that they found themselves in. In light of this, it is not surprising that they would be committed to a certain economic and political form, socialism/communism, over against another, globalized-capital/neo-liberalism especially since these seemed to be, or rather are, the only two options. I also do not think that any of them would have been satisfied if their nations became communist. I tend to think that their writings show that they would still be committed to liberation.

    Aristide, in Haiti, is one such example of this type of pragmatism. While he had large socialist leanings, he recognized that to even speak about this in the global context would hurt Haiti more than help it since the Western hegemonic powers (namely America) would never allow the specter of socialism to rise up, but may allow incremental changes that would eventually bring about some form of liberation for Haiti’s poor. (However, as history showed even incremental changes were too much for America to allow for the one nation that actually liberated itself from slavery.)

    As for violence, I am hesitant to embrace it from a Christian perspective. Yet, violence is perpetuated against the global south every day through socio-economic-political practices and I am not sure that it is up to us, the people who benefit and thrive off of this violence, to tell those who suffer from it what types of resistance are or are not appropriate. Context, context, context. The global south is the future of Christianity. In light of this, and even if it was not the case, it might be helpful if we in the West began to humbly listen to our brothers and sisters in the South before dismissing them due to the theological commitments and categories that we have come up with while sitting in comfort in the center of Empire. I am not saying that this is what you are doing but I have seen many others do it.

    I hope that this helps and I am thankful for your reading and critical engagement with my blog. I always learn something from the comments that people leave whether critical or not so thanks!

    To answer your last question: yes, ideology is constitutive of faith! That is, I do not see how anyone can operate without some basic ideological commitments, and as Christians we make a commitment to the Christian God as revealed in Christ. This should lead us to a loosening of all other ideological commitments, but it does not mean that in our concrete historical locations, our ontic realities, we will not have commitments to certain ideologies. I for one adamantly believe that child sexual slavery, and all forms of slavery for that matter, are evil and need to be abolished. Thus one could say that I have an ideological commitment to human liberty. Yet, I do not see this ideological commitment as one that challenges my ideological commitment to Christ but rather one that proceeds from it.

    1. Hey Dan, thanks for the post.
      I think your right, context speaks volumes vis-a-vis to this dialogue concerning ideological commitments (and theological convictions). But, I am interested in our language (more namely, your descriptions) like “ideological commitments” as opposed to “theological commitments.” For example:
      You wrote,
      “I do not see the liberation theologians as being ideologically committed to anything except that Christ means liberation in all of life’s heterogeneous practices and modalities. For them this includes the psychological, the mental, the socio-economic-political. None of these realms are isolated but rather infiltrate each other so that one cannot be radically changed or affected without the others. So, this is an ideological commitment of sorts, but one could also say that it is a theological commitment. It is a commitment to a particular view concerning the God that Christians claim to serve (and I would say it is a view that I find quite compelling).”
      What interests me about this first paragraph is the use of your descriptions. Namely, “ideological commitments” as opposed to theological ones. My latter question was meant to elicit thoughts and ideas regarding your descriptions of ideology and theology. As Christians, we are undergoing a transformation in truthfulness corresponding with reality. So, how do we navigate through these ideals if we are undergoing an ongoing training (as Christians) to see our lives as gifts? I am quite fond of what Stanley Hauerwas says regarding Christian pacifism as not being an ideal but a “reality.” He warrants that claim with an example: “Every time you go to the Eucharist, if that’s not a reality, where you partake of the Body and Blood of Christ through which you are made peace for the world…that’s a reality, it’s not an ideal (from a lecture he gave at Azusa Pacific University in response to a question by a student).” Although we may be able to see how this example is of little relation to the circumstances of the plight of the poor in Latin America, I believe we may be able to begin to understand our (mis)use of descriptions like ideological commitments and theological ones.
      I think that Western Political Theologians regard LT with trepidation because LT (in Latin America) generally endorses socialist alternatives that correspond with Marxism. They render these alternatives with suspicion because of their inherent lack of Christological trustworthiness (this represents some of their claims). Jurgen Moltmann had a difficult time endorsing the ideas of Gutierrez because of his socialist alternatives. Also, after having done ample research in Latin America, William T. Cavanaugh wrote “Torture and Eucharist” where he not necessarily deconstructs Gutirrez’ alternatives, but renders them incapable of providing a peace witness emblematic of the Eucharist. Thus, I am pondering Christian description of ideology as opposed to theological conviction.
      You also wrote,
      “Yes, ideology is constitutive of faith! That is, I do not see how anyone can operate without some basic ideological commitments, and as Christians we make a commitment to the Christian God as revealed in Christ. This should lead us to a loosening of all other ideological commitments, but it does not mean that in our concrete historical locations, our ontic realities, we will not have commitments to certain ideologies. I for one adamantly believe that child sexual slavery, and all forms of slavery for that matter, are evil and need to be abolished. Thus one could say that I have an ideological commitment to human liberty. Yet, I do not see this ideological commitment as one that challenges my ideological commitment to Christ but rather one that proceeds from it.”
      Maybe you don’t have an ideological commitment to “human liberty” after all. Maybe your commitment to “human dignity” corresponds to a deep theological conviction. So then, that would transmute your description of “ideological commitment” vis-a-vis “human dignity” into a theological conviction.
      Therefore, my query regarding ideology and faith may be re-situated for you. Are the theological convictions proposed by liberation theologians in Latin America corresponding with truthful Christological predications? I am not rendering LT in Latin America erroneous, but I am merely interested in how you would answer that question. A better query may be: Whose ideological commitments are they?
      We agree that context is critically pivotal. And I (would) deeply hesitate to provide any alternative for the Latin American church had I not grown up there, if not lived there for some time. However, the language used by liberation theologians in Latin America (like Boff and Gutierrez) promotes alternatives corresponding with socialist stories. Manifestations of socialists politics may be Christian, but our usage of language – more namely, our endorsing of any political alternative apart for church politics – is important right?

      Hopefully that made a little sense. If not, let me know and Ill try to clarify…

      Thanks Dan!

      1. Merrick,

        I must admit that I am having a bit of troubling understanding what your trying to say, which is likely a fault of my own cognitive capacities.
        First I should define the way that I am using ideology and theology I suppose.

        For Marx (and Engels) Ideology was a negative term that denoted the false consciousness that covered over the social contradictions inherent in society. Therefore to speak of ideology in a strictly orthodox Marxist sense one would always be referring to a view of reality that arose from an inverted form of reality in which explotation is the norm , hence ideology could not be revealed through critique but only through the making right of social relations. Lenin transformed the term and used it to denote the political consciousness of certain classes. That is, each class (to make it simple we will stick with the binary bourgeoisie/proletariat, although things are a bit more complex now) has its own ideology: there is the bourgeoisie ideology and the proletariat ideology. Lukac’s picks up on this use. Gramsci might as well but I am not sure. Either way, this is the way that I am using it through out my last response. When I say ideology it is a way of denoting a particular political consciousness of a particular class, or rather a particular way of viewing political life, the political landscape, etc. If I use it in a negative sense, I am likely referring to someone’s ideology that I don’t agree with, and, likely, if I don’t agree with it, it is because I see it as doing exactly what Marx originally used the term to signify, that is covering over an unjust social order.

        For me the term theology is a bit less technical. It denotes any way of thinking about God and our relationship to him. This includes one’s ethic in so far as our ethics arise out of our view of the world (vis-à-vis what the hell is really going on), which, for one who believes in something as ultimate as God, is, or should be, directly connected to God. So, our view of God, the world, our relationship to him and our ethics will be ultimately, at least I think but I could be wrong, what determine our politics. Therefore I am not sure how one can separate so distinctly these two categories.

        If your simply trying to suggest that since we are Christians and have a view of “reality” we don’t or shouldn’t consider ourselves to have any ideological commitments (which are subjective and involve a leap of faith of some sorts) then I would have to say that I totally disagree, but I don’t think that is what your trying to say so I will now try to answer the two distinct questions that I can see (although I maybe wrong that this is what your asking.)

        You write,

        “Are the theological convictions proposed by liberation theologians in Latin America corresponding with truthful Christological predications?”

        I am not certain what you mean by Christological predictions. Are you asking me if I think that socialism as it was desired by the LT theologians in Latin America is going to be an eschatological reality? If so I have no idea how to even respond to that.

        You continue,

        “A better query may be: Whose ideological commitments are they?”

        All I would say to this is that I suppose they are the ideological commitments of the LT theologians and, hopefully, the communities of which they are a part. The question seems to me to assume that you have some better grasp, or Western theologians do, of what exactly the politics of Jesus will and won’t look like in the Latin American, and seemingly every, context. If this is the case, where exactly are you getting this information from?

        “Manifestations of socialists politics may be Christian, but our usage of language – more namely, our endorsing of any political alternative apart for church politics – is important right?”

        I can really only respond to what I can make out but it seems to me that you have a reified notion of some abstract ideal of church politics. To flesh this out adequately I would have to write much longer than I am going to tonight, but suffice it to say that I do not think that the politics of Jesus is tied to church politics by any means. I could say that I want my Pneumatology to be distinct from my Ecclesiology in some important ways and in so far as the Spirit is the spirit of Jesus that will mean my Christology is distinct, but not divorced from, my Ecclesiology. It would help me if you could flesh out exactly what you mean by church politics. I love Hauerwas, but in so far as people read him as having some ecclesiocentric position, I don’t embrace that. I also love the Church and think that she is incredibly important to Christ’s work in history, but as far as I am concerned it makes no sense to me, theologically or practically, to limit the work of God to the Church.

        Did you live in Latin America? Where? For how long? That is cool if so. I didn’t know that. Even if you did live there I would still take an indigenous voice over yours. Nothing personal. It is just that we tend to take out western eyes, presuppositions and cultural biases with us wherever we go.

        Almost lastly, what do you mean by “corresponding with socialist stories”? How is this the case and what story are you in that so contradicts the socialist one, or at least which parts of this socialist story does your story contradict?

        Lastly, its been a couple of years since I’ve read Torture and Eucharist but where does Cavanaugh deconstruct Gutierez? I will have to look through it again, it is such an amazing work!

        Thanks for your engagement. I am learning from it and appreciate it. Hopefully what I am trying to say is making sense.


  8. I want to correct a couple of things I said. I should probably not attempt to write responses at midnight after working a ten hour day.

    You did not say that Cavanaugh deconstructs Guiteirrez, only that he renders his alternatives incapable of providing a peace witness that is emblematic of the Eucharist. I am still not sure where he does this. He does suggest that Guiteirrez alternative subsumes the church under the story of the world. This seems to be based upon Milbank’s critique of social theory. (TandE, 178) While I think that Milbank’s critique is warranted in many ways (that is, the social sciences should recognize the debt they owe theology and they may only be able to fully function under a theological rubric) I don’t think that this necessarily warrants a reading of Guiteirrez or other LT theologians that sees them as placing the church under the teleological trajectory of the world. It is actually Moltman who points out that the liberation sought after by these theologians is a freedom for fellowship with God, man and nature. (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 17). Just because they use Marxist analysis, a sociological tool, to understand what it happening in their social situation, does not mean that their analysis is not carried out with a theological goal in mind and even with underlying theological presuppositions attached. Milbank, and the RO crew in general, seem to want to carve out some autonomous space for theology in the hopes that this will in some way valorize the Church and Christ. I for one, while, again, I find their work really helpful, don’t see this as plausible or beneficial. Theology, just like all of human life, is carried out in the realm of immanence and as such is always conditioned, and in ways determined, by the social, epistemological, economic and political situations that we find ourselves. The hope is that as the Spirit moves us we will come into a fuller understanding of Jesus and God’s love, but I think that this can only be done as we recognize our finitude and vulnerability, existentially and intellectually, and open ourselves up to God’s Spirit and its movements that will likely surprise us and call us toward repentance.

    Cavanaugh does have an interesting section where he makes use of and then critiques Boff’s and Sobrino’s accounts of martyrdom. He likes that they want to expand the definition of martyrdom, but dislikes the fact that (1.) they base their definition on “abstract principles” of love and justice, (2.) seem to valorize the intentions of the individual martyr’s, and (3.) include those who die while participating in violence. In contrast, Cavanaugh thinks that martyrdom should be based on whether or not the community of which the martyrs were a part is able to recognize the body of Christ in the martyrs death. (TandE, 60-64). I do think it is problematic to base notions of martyrdom on the individual’s intentions if that is really what Boff and Sobrino do. I don’t agree with the other critiques. First, they are not using abstract principles, but rather the love and justice revealed in Christ. Second, and this comes back to my constant nagging about context, I am not sure that Cavanaugh is in a social location in which he can tell Boff and Sobrino that those they wish to recognize as martyrs cannot be such because of the violence they participated in.

    Zizek will help us here. In his book on violence he makes a distinction between subjective and objective violence. Subjective violence is the violence carried out by individual agents in their social interaction and existence, their ontic realities. This would be the violence carried out by those who Boff and Sobrino wish to recognize as martyres. Objective violence is the violence of the overall structural determination of social realities. For Zizek this is the blind drive of Capital, the Real, which determines all of lives. (11-13). As he says, “the highest form of ideology [resides in] overlooking this Real of spectrality and in pretending directly to address “real people with their real worries”. So, for Cavanaugh to write from the center of Empire, or one of, if not the, polestars of capital’s exploitative and speculative profit and tell those on the periphery, those who are not on the recieving end of historical-economic exploitation, but rather on the dominated side of oppresion is analogous to white middle-class men in America telling Malcolm X that his methods are inappropriate. Martin Luther King Jr. could tell Malcolm X his methods where inappropriate (that is especially true if Malcolm X was a Christian) but white middle-class men could not. So, Cavanaugh’s social location disqualifies him, or at least limits his voice radically, from making such judgments. This is the case whether he wrote these words in Chile or the US. Either way he was being funded out of the center of empire and would return to the comfort and security that this very empire made possible. This is also true even though Cavanaugh is a member of the same Church. In so far as Cavanaugh’s life is made possible by the suffering of the communities of Boff and Sobrino, he is not living in Eucharistic solidarity with them and cannot challenge their notions so flippantly under the guise that he has a better a position from which to descern what is and what is not Christ’s work in the world.

    Put simply, while, as I have said before, I am incredibly hesitant to condone violence of any sort, when we recognize that the Church’s life in the West has been based upon the objective violence perpetuated against those in the global South–whether through colonial or post-colonial neo-liberal exploitation under the guise of “development”–we must stand in silence and awe before those whom we have subjected and listen deeply, carefully and incredibly humbly before we pronounce judgement on their subjective violence.

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