Cavanaugh’s critique of Boff and Sobrino meets Zizek

This is taken from a conversation I am having in the comment section of my post on Zizek, Hauerwas and Chocolate Laxatives. I wanted to move it here because I thought it might stir some interesting conversation on its own. If you want to see the entire context check out the other post.

Cavanaugh has an interesting section in Torture and Eucharist 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, however, agree with the other critiques.

First, they are not using abstract principles, but rather the love and justice revealed in Christ. This seems to be a common rhetorical move by those in the RO movement and I am not sure that it is always warranted, although at times it maybe. 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 Zizek 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”.

It seems to me that 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 the oppressive global regime 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 if Malcolm X were 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 empire and colonial oppression or the less obvious, but possibly more insidious, 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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4 thoughts on “Cavanaugh’s critique of Boff and Sobrino meets Zizek

  1. Dan

    I think this post is a helpful segway from our discussion on your other thread.
    Although, I will continue to write on the other thread, I do want to comment here.
    I do not have much to say in regards to Sobrino and Boffs accounts of martyrdom simply because I
    have not read that section of Torture and Eucharist. But, I can submit a thought regarding your
    critique of Cavanaugh’s critique of them. You could very well say that what I say isn’t legitimate at
    all because I have not read Sobrino nor Boffs accounts of martyrdom, and that is appropriate. But,
    anyway, here it goes.
    Zizek’s assertions of objective and subjective violence are indeed helpful. In fact, I am glad you
    brought him in. His “Violence” is a helpful resource in regards to this conversation. Thus, a question arises: Does the violence the martyrs condoned (and/or participated in) perpetuate a Constantinian ethic? If so, then I think that Cavanaugh’s address that “whether or not the community of which the martyrs were a part is able to recognize the body of Christ in the martyrs death” is important. That I think this has everything to do with the story we tell as Christians. While I am hesitant to delegitimize the martyr’s death, I can imagine how their death may not testify to a truthful telling of our story as a people made possible by the Sermon on the Mount (Jesus). Yet, this judgement is mine to deliver. And this is what I like about your bringing about Zizek into the dialogue.
    I think it is difficult for any Northern Hemispheric Christian to suggest judgements and/or alternatives to Southern Hemispheric Christians in regards to their ontic realities. I think this is kind of where Cavanaugh is going by suggesting that it is about the (local) Christian communities ability to recognize Christ’s Body in the death of the martyr. While I am sympathetic toward that, I have nothing to say vis-a-vis the “abstract” principles (like love and justice) in relation to martyrdom.
    Another question I have as it regards your post would be: What qualifies an individual to participate in Eucharistic solidarity other than social location? Does not Eucharistic solidarity run deeper than merely social location? I do see how important social location is in regards to this context, but I’m curious as to how you would answer that question. Know that I am not trying to qualify Western critiques of Southern Hemispheric Christians, but I am curious as to how you would respond.
    Lastly, you say:
    “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 empire and colonial oppression or the less obvious, but possibly more insidious, 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.”
    I think this summarizes what you are trying to say. I think it is important that we in the West (that is, Christians in the West) must approach Christians in the Latin American context with a serious commitment to being teachable – if only that were merely enough! Another question arises though: Assuming we have Eucharistic solidarity with those in the South, does our Eucharistic solidarity with those in the South enable us to enter into those ontic realities and, in our awe and humility, tactfully provide alternatives capable of a peace witness that would otherwise go unnoticed?

    I am really enjoying your input and thoughts Dan, I hope we can continue this conversation! If I have said anything that doesn’t quite register with you (which is most likely!) then let me know.

    Merrick

  2. In about the middle of the section I have a very important typo to clarify. I said “Yet, this judgement is mine to deliver” which was meant to be “Yet, this judgement is not mine to deliver.”

    Sorry about that!

    1. Merick,

      Thanks for your comments. I will try and answer your questions, as I understand them, in order.

      1. Q.)
      “Does the violence the martyrs condoned (and/or participated in) perpetuate a Constantinian ethic? If so, then I think that Cavanaugh’s address that “whether or not the community of which the martyrs were a part is able to recognize the body of Christ in the martyrs death” is important.”

      A.)
      I am not certain what you mean by a Constantinian ethic. I have read Yoder and Hauerwas but it would help me if you could elaborate on what you are getting at with this. Remember we are talking about a subjugated people, left in abject poverty resorting to violence as a last means, not some large hegemonic nation-state exerting its political will.

      2.
      Q.) “What qualifies an individual to participate in Eucharistic solidarity other than social location? Does not Eucharistic solidarity run deeper than merely social location?”

      A.) I don’t have an answer to the first question right. However, an answer to this, that I find satisfactory would sure help me sleep at night and it is part of what this whole conversation is about. Yes, I would think that Eucharistic solidarity runs deeper than social location. Cavanaugh, whose work is heavily driving this conversation now, seems to be suggesting (in TandE) that the actions of the tortures were such that they withdrew themselves from participating in Eucharistic solidarity, yet it was not until the Church officially recognized this that any political justice could come from it. So, Cavanaugh in his book seems to be suggesting that there are some boundaries placed around participation in the love feast. The reason I did not bring in social location in the abstract, but rather in the particular, is that I have nothing to say about social location in the abstract.

      3. Q.) ” Assuming we have Eucharistic solidarity with those in the South, does our Eucharistic solidarity with those in the South enable us to enter into those ontic realities and, in our awe and humility, tactfully provide alternatives capable of a peace witness that would otherwise go unnoticed?”

      A.) I think this question nails the issue. I do NOT assume that we have Eucharistic solidarity with those in the global south. This presses the issue I am trying to raise. We are not in the same social, geographical, political and economic location as they are. Rather, as I said before in my post and is very important to my whole point, we are on the receiving end of economic-political extortion and post-colonial domination.

      What I am suggesting is this: In an analogous way to the torturers who removed themselves from Eucharistic solidarity by torturing the Body of Christ, it is possible that since our way of life is based upon the exploitation and domination of the Body of Christ we have removed ourselves from Eucharistic solidarity. Or at least we have done so to a degree and it is a degree of such significance that, at the very least, it castrates our theological-ethical critique of their resistance to the exploitation and domination that we participate in!

      Lastly, I wanted to respond to this statement quickly…

      “If so, then I think that Cavanaugh’s address that “whether or not the community of which the martyrs were a part is able to recognize the body of Christ in the martyrs death” is important. That I think this has everything to do with the story we tell as Christians.”

      This is important and something I was trying to point out the irony of. Boff and Sobrino were a part of the communities, or at least a lot closer to being so than Cavanaugh, of those who died fighting. Thus, it seems to me at least, that Cavanaugh’s argument deconstructs. Boff and Sobrino are some of the very one’s who should be doing the work of recognizing Christ in the death of the martyrs, yet Cavanaugh is dicounting them from doing so by his view of what does and does not count as participating in Christ’s on going history. Therefor, it seems that Cavanaugh’s real argument would be something like this, “It is important that those who are a part of the community of which the martyrs are a part can recognize the body of Christ in the martyrs death, but it is more important that I can recognize their recognition as legitimate based on my interpretation of what Jesus life, death and resurrection means for his on going history.”

      It probably sounds like I am bashing Cavanaugh. I am not. His work is amazing and when I heard him speak at a conference recently I was really impressed. It is just this peace of his work that I am really wrestling with and find highly problematic for the reasons I have suggested.

  3. Dan, I am glad I stumbled on your blog. I am also a Fuller grad student doing my PhD on Barth and politics. I have also been doing much work on Badiou/Zizek with regards to their views on religion and ideology.

    I have gained some interest lately in the work of Sobrino especially in conversation with Zizek. I’m actually thinking about moving the emphasis of my work toward the South of the border. Is there a Sobrino book you would recommend that I should read?

    I think your comments on violence are right on the money. We seem to be so quick to respond to physical violence because it seems to be so startling, yet ignore or are indifferent to the symbolic/objective violence that happens all over the world everyday. Of course violence begets violence, but oftentimes we don’t label “real” violence appropriately. Perhaps, all we need is to look again in a skewed way that is uncomfortable to us because it is at first self-critical, which I believe Zizek’s theories on ideology help us to do.

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