Thursday, 19 December 2013

Our Lady of the Barricades: The Virgin Mary’s Advent Revolution (and who wants to stop it…)

The season of Advent is a time of preparation and expectation. Something is going to happen. And as a result of that happening, change is coming. It will not be a small change but a complete change- a transformation of what was into what is to be. All things will be made new; systems will be inverted; powers will be overturned.

A revolution is coming. The season of Advent is often a study in this transformational revolution.

And in a real sense, it is a time to choose sides.

It is for that reason that Jesus declared that his coming would not bring peace- certainly not the ‘peace’ of a complacent status quo- but a sword (Matt. 10:34-35). The Gospel of the kingdom spoken of by the ancient prophets and revealed by Jesus was- and is- the great divider. God reveals himself in Jesus as a God of life and liberation, justice and salvation. But of course, if there is a God of life and liberation, there are also idolatrous systems of death and injustice. And Jesus made plain that you couldn’t serve both (Matt. 6:23-25); you had to choose.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus made clear the parametres of that choice:

Blessed are you that hunger now; you shall be filled. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they abandon you and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for my sake. Rejoice in that day, and be joyful, for your reward is great in God’s Kingdom; in like manner did their fathers treat the prophets (Luke 6:21-23).

But there was a flipside to that coin:

But woe to you that are rich! What you have now is all you’ll ever have. Woe unto you that are full! You will be hungry. Woe unto you that laugh now! You shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luke 6:24-25).

What we see is that what the message of the Gospel of Jesus is for you depends very much on where you’re standing. It is indeed ‘good news’ if you are poor, hungry, marginalised and slandered; it’s very bad news if you are making people poor, taking food from the hungry, part of a privileged minority, or spreading hate and disinformation. For some, the words of the Gospel are good news; for others, they are a threat and a warning.

All of this is very prescient for Advent, as it is the season of preparation for the incarnation of Christ. It is a time to remember the time before Jesus and those who understood themselves to be preparing the way for his coming. I’d like to focus on two:

We begin with John the Baptizer, who preached a message of repentance. What was this repentance? ‘
If you have extra clothes, you should share with those who have none; if you have extra food, you should do the same’; to tax collectors: ‘collect no more than you are required to’; to soldiers, he demanded ‘no blackmail, no bullying. Make do with your pay’ (Luke 3:10-14)

It has become easy for certain parts of the Church to focus on repentance as a personal thing, a repentance of individual piety. And while there is often a need for personal repentance, in the biblical text we see John stressing the social aspects of repentance. At its heart, John’s message was one of justice and equity.

But Advent’s most powerful revolutionary manifesto remains that of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel records the meeting of the ‘mothers of the revolution’- Mary and Elizabeth. It was here that Mary, filled with the spirit of God, proclaims the coming transformation: God had honoured her so much that every generation to come would call her- a young, Palestinian Jewish woman-  ‘blessed’; God had ‘scattered the proud… brought the powerful down from their thrones and raised the lowly… filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed’ (Luke 1:48-53).

It is impossible to overstate the radical nature of Mary’s words; there is no other description for them other than ‘revolutionary’. The incarnation of Christ was, in every sense- socially, theologically, spiritually- understood by the earliest Christians as a revolutionary transformation. And ever since, the ‘Song of Mary’, the Magnificat, has been the comfort and the hope of the poorest, the most oppressed, the most marginalised.

It has also been a threat to every repressive, unjust system ever since. The ‘Song of Mary’ was expunged from the Christian liturgies of the churches of British-controlled India; it was banned in the 1930s by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco; in the 1970s it was banned by the Argentinian military junta when it was adopted by the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ for use in their demands for justice and nonviolent resistance to the regime; in the 1980s it was banned from public use by the Guatemalan dictatorship; in Nicaragua, during the years of the Somoza dictatorship, poor campesinos mockingly referred to the documents they were required to carry proving they’d voted for Somoza as ‘the Magnificat’.

These brutal, unjust regimes were under no illusions about the potential of Mary’s words- who they were spoken to, who heard the message , who took comfort from them, and who was threatened by them. And they had every right to feel threatened; German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis, wrote:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might say the most revolutionary advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings… This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world...

We must never presume to be on the side of God and his justice as proclaimed by Mary and Jesus. We must never presume that those who govern us are not equally threatened by the Kingdom of God or immune from its denunciations. GT Hunt, one the lawyers for the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, has related his account of receiving a request for a copy of the Bible from one of the prisoners, Saifullah Paracha. Hunt dutifully sent a copy to the chaplain at the prison, with a note explaining Paracha’s request. The next time Hunt visited the prison camp, he received a stern rebuke from the prison command: the Bible represented a potentially dangerous breach of prison discipline.

And who can blame the powers that control Guantánamo? Why on Earth would they risk men being held without charge, condemned without recourse to any semblance of justice, obtaining the respite of the words of Mary or the solidarity of her son? Why allow them to fraternise with a woman who so bluntly proclaimed God’s judgement of the powerful? Why risk them meeting a man whose entire life proclaimed release to the captives, justice for the marginalised, and went as far as to identify specifically as one of them- ‘I was in prison...’? (Matt. 25:36)

What does Advent mean for us? If we ask John the Baptizer, ‘what must we do?’, do we dare receive an answer?

Where do we stand with Mary’s manifesto? Will we stand with those who shout it from the rooftops, or will we align ourselves with those who dare not have it even whispered?

The message of Advent is that the incarnation is coming. The revolution is coming.

It’s time to choose sides...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Rush Limbaugh and Pope Francis: No Marks for 'Pure Marxism'

American right-wing radio loudmouth Rush Limbaugh is upset. I realise that this is not particularly big news- he seems to have spent the majority of his adult life upset, which must be exhausting and debilitating. Oh well… at least he’s turned his disability into a successful career.

Anyway, at this particular moment Limbaugh’s upset with Pope Francis’ new encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, professing himself ‘bewildered’ with the Pope’s views laid out in the 84-page document, branding them ‘pure Marxism’. You can read his thoughts on the issue here:

It’ll probably come as no surprise to regular readers to know that it’s my opinion that Rush Limbaugh- and not for the first time- has no idea what he's talking about. It’s not just that I think he’s wrong or that his opinions differ from mine. It’s the fact that, on this issue, he so perfectly displays such a complete lack of understanding of so many topics so concisely- Marxism, Catholic social teaching, liberation theology, the Catholic Church in general- he may have achieved some sort of unified theory of ignorance. To be so completely misinformed about one issue- and from from so many angles- is actually quite stunning. It might be calculated cynicism to make a buck, or he might actually be this completely misinformed. Either way, it's almost a perverse form of genius.

Needless to say, I avoid Limbaugh like I avoid cold, damp rooms; exposure to either usually leaves me feeling like I’m coming down with something. But in this case he touched on so many things on which I’d either consider myself an expert or at least considerably well-informed that I had to wade in.

I personally wouldn’t describe Evangelii Gaudium as Marxism, ‘pure’ or otherwise… But that’s only because I’ve read a lot of Marx. When I read Limbaugh’s description of it, I immediately started playfully picking it apart. ‘What is ‘pure Marxism’? What would I say is the central premise- the ‘pure’ bit- of Marx?

Like I said earlier, I don’t think Limbaugh understands Marx, but maybe I do need to cut him some slack. Finding Marx a bit challenging is quite understandable and nothing to be ashamed of because, well, his stuff is very difficult to understand. Not that I think Limbaugh has ever tried very hard- I honestly don’t think he has the curiosity to read any long book, but that’s another matter...

So why is Marx such a challenge? Well, crucially, Marx assumed that his readers were thoroughly familiar with the full corpus of German philosophy, political, economic and social theory of his day (Hegel, Feuerbach, etc.). As you might guess, that is no longer a safe assumption.

Also, Marx made no ‘simple’ summaries of his works. Granted, innumerable authors since Marx have attempted to simplify his thought for mass consumption, sometimes doing a fairly decent job, sometimes positively butchering his work.

Additionally, Marx is difficult to put into everyday terminology. In my PhD, I had to come up with one big new term for my take on theology and plunked for ‘Transformational Theology’. Marx, over the course of his career, didn’t come up with one new term- or even a dozen- but hundreds, and trying to explain them without losing their meaning is a real chore.

Finally, there’s the long and potted history of ‘Marxism’. Marx’s  ideas have been the jumping off point for some of the most cruel and wrong-headed social experiments in history, ruining the lives of literally tens of millions. Now, is that Karl’s fault? Some would say ‘yes’, others ‘no’. Is Jesus to blame for the Crusades? That’s the kernel of the argument: is a thinker or founder responsible for the application of- or the misinterpretation of- his or her ideas by forthcoming generations? It’s not an easy question, and it is made all the more complicated because the misinterpretations have taken on a life of their own.  

So, regardless of the challenges to figuring out what Karl was on about, what was Karl on about?

Every philosopher has a paradigm, an outlook, something through which they view reality and use to interpret that reality. For Marx, it was work. Work- ‘labour’-, for Marx, is the primary way that humans interact with their environment. The philosophy of Marx is basically the philosophy of work- human labour and its place within the social order, and specifically how labour drives human society and human development. Man is bound to nature by his labour and
vise versa. It is in work that man and nature achieve a common purpose; the relation of subject and object is balanced.

In a nutshell, Marx reasoned that ‘in the beginning’ humanity worked and created for their need and joy. Man was the subject of his world; nature was the object. From this beginning, Marx sees the slow, historic deterioration of that state of affairs as the ‘Fall’. Over the course of time and human historical development, man has become increasingly alienated from his labour, thus becoming increasingly alienated from both nature and his fellow man.

Marx posited a historical, gradual development of social divisions- ‘classes’- between humans. Certain classes began to  hoard up resources and then force other classes to pay for those resources through their work. ‘Capital’- money and the things that money can buy- increasingly became the primary focus of the work process. People were no longer able to do what they loved doing and be able to live off their work; they did what work was given them by more powerful classes for whatever money those higher classes would pay them-usually as little as possible. As Marx described in his theory of surplus value, labour is always, by necessity, the cheapest part of the labour market. Worse, the ownership classes then made the workers pay for the very things they needed to survive- food, shelter,  clothing- out of the wages that they were paid.

This state of affairs- which Marx refers to as ‘the division of labour’, gradually ossified into the class ‘system’. Some ‘have’ and some ‘have not’. Some are forced into certain kinds of work, not of their choosing. Thus basic human freedom is destroyed.

This is why, for Marx, it is the system itself where the true problem lies. Marx passionately felt that man must never be treated as simply a means to an end, but that is precisely what 'capitalism'- the rise of capital, its acquisition, and its being given intrinsic value- in his mind, did. Man had become not the subject but the object; capitalism allowed a person no intrinsic value apart from the labour they could generate that could then be converted in capital.

This crisis must not be seen, from Marx’s perspective, as a moral issue, and it’d be incorrect to see Marx as a moralist. Critiques of what Marx calls capitalism existed in other quarters for centuries, but Marx strenuously fought against moral solutions to what he saw as social problems. Rather, Marx sought to formulate a scientific analysis, ‘laws of national economy’. The crisis had nothing to do with ‘evil intent’ on either the part of the capitalist or the worker and therefore couldn't be solved through ‘reformism’- basically making capitalism more ‘worker-friendly’. This is why Marxists find groups like Christian Aid and Make Poverty History ultimately a dead end.Nevertheless, there is an essential humanism to Marx’s diagnosis of the problem, even if his prescription sought to be more concretely scientific.

What is Marx’s solution to the crisis? Just as the creation of the crisis was an historical progression, Marx saw history as inevitably progressing toward a solution. The inherent contradictions and injustices of capitalism and class conflict would eventually lead to a revolutionary situation. Capitalism then collapses under its own weight. Out of this revolutionary process would eventually emerge ‘communism’, Marx’s grand encapsulation of a myriad of ideas and suggestions.

Marx gave very few clues in his work as to what a communist society would look like. But we can extrapolate that it is a radical and revolutionary re-envisioning of human society- all things held in common; private property ceases to exist; all of the fruits of work going, once again, to the workers themselves. Humans would again be subjects, shedding capitalism’s alienation and objectification, humanising the working process, gaining freedom from assigned roles and seeing a flowering of solidarity and human fellowship.  

If there is a ‘pure Marxism’, it is that idea: an historic progression from slavery and alienation to a state of freedom; humanity as subject and not object; workers themselves in control of the means of production. In a nutshell, humanity once again free to work and create out of one’s own need and for one’s own joy.

So, is Evangelii Gaudium ‘pure Marxism’? No. It’s not even watered-down Marxism. It concerns itself primarily with evangelisation in the modern world, and yes, Francis does emphasise economic inequality, the ‘idolatry of money’, and a global financial system that ‘rules rather than serves’ as anathema to the Gospel of Christ. But that’s a far cry from anything Marx was describing. As stated earlier, critiques of capitalism existed before Marx and there are critiques of capitalism from any number of angles now. But crucially- and what Limbaugh fails to understand- is that not every critique of capitalism is Marxism.

Marx was an atheist and had made a clean break with religion and theology. The idea of a change in the material conditions of the poor and the oppressed arising from Christian evangelism, spiritual renewal or even religiously-motivated social movements was, to Marx, absurd. The Pope is, well, the Pope. His desire for justice and equality derives directly from his Christian faith and a century of Catholic social teaching. If Limbaugh had even a cursory knowledge of Catholic social teaching, he’d be able to see that, apart from the freshness, the simplicity and the emphasis given to social justice by Francis’s pastoral style- undoubtedly his greatest strength- there really isn’t much that’s particularly surprising in either theology or doctrine in the encyclical.

Well, except for one thing, and it has nothing to do with Marxism...

Perhaps Limbaugh’s most ludicrous piece of ‘evidence’ of Francis’s supposed Marxism is Francis’s call for ‘people to share their wealth’ (which is actually a descriptive line from the news report, making me think that he didn’t actually read Evangelii Gaudium). This is a common anti-Marxist trope- that it calls for the redistribution of wealth.

Ironically, Marx never talks about redistribution of wealth. He was thoroughly uninterested in attempts at making capitalism more equitable by moving capital around, either by charity or public policy.

No, if you want to find something as radical as the  redistribution of wealth- the demand to expropriate the money and property of one citizen and give it to another- you have to look to Christianity.

This is the radicalism at the heart of Evangelii Gaudium; Francis delves into the radical wellspring of the early Church Fathers to bolster his vision of what he wants the Church to be. He quotes 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom:

Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.

Francis could just as easily have quoted Ambrose,  4th-century Bishop of Milan:

You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor; you are handing over to him what is his.

… or Basil the Great, 4th-century Bishop of Ceasarea:

When someone steals a man’s clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

Francis is not quoting fringe cranks or heretics, but bishops and archbishops- the hierarchy of the early Church. And every one of them calls for active, comprehensive redistribution of wealth. It is doubtful that any mainstream Christian leader- of any denomination- who said the same thing with the same force or emphasis today, would be in his position very long. And yet these men said it, constantly.

Ironically, Limbaugh boasts about how much the most wealthy in American give to charity. But what Limbaugh boasts of as ‘charity’, these early Christian leaders would refer to as 'justice', the very least we should be doing. If you have it and don't need it, then to the early Christian leadership you had no right to have it and it should be taken from you.  7th-century Patriarch of Alexandria St. John the Almsgiver declared:

If, without ill will, a man were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the poor, he would do no wrong.

Rush Limbaugh seeks to condemn Pope Francis by calling him a Marxist.

In fact, the worst thing he could ever accuse him of is being a Christian...