Archive for April, 2008

Navigating the Maze of Ethical Relations

I have been recently thinking through the nature of the ethical relation between people in the work of Miroslav Volf and Emmanuel Levinas. I have come to somewhat of a wall in my thinking and would love any thoughts and engagement that anyone would like to contribute. You don’t have to have read either of them to add to the conversation because the issues at hand are far larger than these two thinkers. They have simply served as the impetus for thinking about ethical obligations in interpersonal relations.
Here is my dilemma: Both Volf and Levinas address the ethical demands placed upon a subject by the presence of the Other (i.e. my appropriate response toward all people outside of myself), and argue for an “embrace of the other” (Volf) or a “being-for-the-other” (Levinas). The difficulty is that they emphasize opposite aspects of the relation in making their ethical demands.

For Volf, the difference of the Other(s) shouldn’t be the point of focus in the relation, for such a focus often leads to an exclusion of all that are not like the subject (or his community). Volf calls this the “logic of purity” which he understands to be rooted in an “exclusive notion of identity,” that is, an notion of identity which is based in the elements of difference between myself and those around me. Therefore, if I happen to love the color blue and my neighbor loves the color green, then I understand who I am (my identity) as one who loves blue, rather than green. This “exclusive notion of identity,” Volf says, carries consequences that are often deadly in today’s pluralistic world. This, certainly, can be seen simply by turning on the news. There is no objection here on such consequences. However, I have recently been reading Emmanuel Levinas and have found his arguments for the nature of the ethical relation between the “I” and the “Other” to be rather persuasive in certain areas.
For Levinas, the nature of the ethical relation between the “I” and the “Other” is founded upon the difference, or “alterity” in his words, of the Other. In trying to move beyond the violent reduction of the difference of the Other into the sameness of the subject (a reduction he sees inherent in discussion of Western ontology in general, and in the writings of Husserl and Heidegger in particular), Levinas argues for an epistemological exclusion forced by the Other upon the subject. Now, this is no intentional act on the part of the Other but is instead an inherent iconoclasm within the relation that occurs as a result of the intentional act of consciousness of the subject. That is to say, when I, as a subject, try to conceptualize and understand (in cognitive ascent) the being of the Other (who they are), they forever allude my (cognitive) grasp in their othernesss, and shatter my concepts of who I understand them to be. Therefore, for Levinas, ethics is always critique: it is a critique of the subject’s understanding of the Other that takes place by way of the Other’s otherness (their difference that exists beyond the subject’s categories), eliciting a response of being-for-the-Other.
So, here is my question, with which I would appreciate any feedback: How is one to navigate through the maze of the ethical relation between the “I” and the “Other” without the violent reduction of absorbing the Other in the sameness of myself (Levinas’ position of preserving the difference of the Other) or allowing such difference to result in the violent consequences that often follow from what Volf calls an “exclusive notion of identity? As a side note, I must say that it is clear that there is always violence of some sort inherent in interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, how is one to move forward without being intentionally violent. I have some thoughts with regard to these questions, and some possible answers. However, I’m interested in bringing others into the conversation to open it up a bit more. Let me know what you think.

The Labor of Communion in a Capital Age

I recently read a great article by Daniel M. Bell in The Princeton Theological Review entitled “The Labor of Communion in a Capital Age.” In this article Bell takes issue with our Capitalist Age and its inherent tendencies to distort human relations with people, God, and the creation. In contrast to the subject of capitalism (homeo economicus), a subject characterized by “struggle, conflict, and competition,” Bell offers a Spirit-formed subject that is corporate and ecclesial in nature. “Unlike its capitalist counterpart this is a subject that is…neither self-interested nor relates to others as commodities in an endless (business) cycle of competition and conflict driven by scarcity but instead participates in the divine gift economy of abundance and ceaseless generosity.”

My friend (and roommate) Adam informed me that The Princeton Theological Review can be found online so I have linked the article and would definitely encourage all to read it. It is fairly short, focused in its concerns (comparing the autonomous subject of capitalism with the Spirit-formed, ecclesial subject), hard hitting in its critiques, and encouraging and hopeful in its proposals. I highly recommend it! Below is a summary quote from the article.

“In sum, the problem with capitalism is that it construes our relations with one another and God in a manner that precludes genuine friendship and communion. Under capital, we relate to one another competitively, agonistically, and God, far from befriending us, far from seeking to deliver us from the sin-induced agony that is this struggle, instead presides over it like a prison guard staging a gang fight. Thus, even if capitalism works, it is still wrong because the agony it fosters and perpetuates among people and with God is antithetical to the true communion for which we were created, to which we were called, and which Christians are empowered to proclaim and embody.”
(Daniel M. Bell, “The Labor of Communion in a Capital Age,” The Princeton Theological Review 35 (Fall 2006), 8.)

Pope Benedict on God as Creator and Redeemer

“The truth is that the rejection of Creator and creation, which Marcion shares with the wide stream of so-called gnosis, generated not only an ascetical contempt for the body, but also a cynical libertinism, for this too displays in reality a hatred of the body, of man, and of the world…In the false ascetism that is hostile to creation, the body becomes a dirty bag of maggots that deserves only disdain or, indeed, ill treatment. Similarly, the basic principle underlying libertinism is the degradation of the body to a mere thing. Its exclusion from the realm of ethics and of the mind’s responsibility means its exclusion from that which makes man human, its exclusion from the dignity of the spirit. It becomes a mere object, a thing, and thus the life of man, too becomes cheap and common…Where man despises his body–whether as an ascetic or as a libertine–he also despises his own self. Both an asceticism hostile to the creation and libertinism lead man by an inherent necessity to hate this life of his, to hate himself, indeed to hate reality as a whole, and herein lies the explosive political power of both these basic attitudes. A man who feels himself disgraced in this way would like to tear apart this prison of shame, that is, his body and the world, in order to escape from such humiliation. He cries out for another world because he hates the creation and the God who bears responsibility for all of this”
(Joseph Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God (San Fransisco:Ignatius Press, 2008 ) pg 43-43)

Why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to die, and why I think he knew this

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and, of coarse, all over people were talking about it. There were articles, radio programs, shows, etc. On one particular radio segment on NPR, interviews were held with family and friends recounting his life and the events taking place in the days leading up to 4 April, 1968.

On April 3rd, Dr. King had been in Memphis, Tenn. speaking in a crowded church regarding a strike that was taking place by sanitation workers over poor pay and working conditions. “The issue is injustice,” Dr. King stated in his message, “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.” Addressing the racial inequalities in the city, and consequent economic injustices, Dr. King spoke boldly and prophetically.
Drawing from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, Dr. King spoke of the responses of the Priest and Levite toward the man on the side of the road:

“And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” (All right)

But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” (Yes) The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question. [applause]

Dr. King was very well aware of the dangers and threats on his life that were being made as he spoke on April 3. Having been stabbed in the chest several years earlier by a demented woman with a letter opener, the tip of the blade on the edge of his aorta, he daily bore a reminder in the form of a scar. Making his awareness more explicit during his speech, Dr. King acknowledged to his audience that though he had seen the Promise Land, he may not make it there with them. In speaking of his uncertainty about what the “difficult days ahead” may hold, he, nevertheless, proclaimed great personal commitment to the mission at hand:

“[I]t really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [applause] And I don’t mind. [applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

As a minister of the gospel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in quoting the biblical prophet Amos, sought to see “justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Seeking to bring justice to “the least of these,” those to whom justice had been withheld, Dr. King ran against the contemporary cultural current in pursuing justice and righteousness, in the name of love, by means of nonviolent protest. So why did he have to die, and why do I think he knew it? He had to die because he was seeking to live out the gospel of Christ, and I believe he knew this would most likely result in his death because he was aware of the subversive implications of this gospel-it undercuts and stands directly against all other powers and authorities.

Arthur McGill, in his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method, also draws from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan and speaks of the “shocking impracticality of Jesus’ teaching.” McGill asks

“If a man really possesses a readiness to expend himself for others, will they not take advantage of him? Will they not soon take all his clothes and borrow all his money? Of course, says Jesus. Of course, if you live in this way, you will be used up by others. Of course, they will take everything you have. That is why you should expect this self-expenditure to lead sooner or later to your death. He is quite clear and unafraid about the practical implications of his teaching” (McGill, 55).

Discipleship consists of following Jesus, and the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Therefore, following him in his life of self-expenditure will lead to death. However, this is exactly what you want to happen, what you want people to do. McGill continues, “It is the essence of your love to want to be expended for others, and even to die for others” (McGill, 55).

Now, I know that many would likely object to using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of an exemplar Christian due to his extra-marital relations, etc. Nevertheless, just because someone doesn’t reflect Christ in one area of their life doesn’t mean that they can’t in another. My point is not whether or not he was an exemplar Christian in his whole life or had a perfect theological understanding of all of life (no one does!). I simply want to acknowledge that much of his life, his concern for racial equality, economic justice, his non-violent approach to those in opposition, and his willing self-expenditure, was self-confessedly rooted in the gospel, whatever other motiving factors there might have been. Because of this, he stands as a witness to the power of the gospel, a power that demonstrated in weakness, in self-expenditure, and love. In seeking to follow the call of Christ, he sought a life of self-expenditure, rooted in love, for the other. For Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., death was the logical outcome of such a life, just as it is for all who seek such a path in the service of our Lord.

Pope Benedict XVI on the name of God

“What, then, does “the name of God” mean? Perhaps it is easiest to grasp what this entails if we look at its opposite. The Revelation of John speaks of the adversary of God, the “beast”. This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number. The seer tells us: “Its number is six hundred and sixty-six” (13:18). It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number, an exchangeable cog in one big machine. He is his function – nothing more. Today, we must fear that the concentration camp was only a prelude and that the universal law of the machine may impose the structure of the concentration camp on the world as a whole. For when functions are all that exist, man, too, is nothing more than a function. The machines that he himself has constructed now impose their own law on him: he must be made readable for the computer, and this can be achieved only when he is translated into numbers. Everything else in man becomes irrelevant. Whatever is not a function is–nothing…But God has a name, and calls us by our name. He is a person, and seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a “world machinery”. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own. A name allows me to be addressed. A name denotes community. This is why Christ is the true Moses, the fulfillment of the revelation of God’s name. He does not bring some new word as God’s name; he does more than this, since he himself is the face of God. He himself is the name of God. In him, we can address God as “you”, as person, as heart” (Ratzinger, Joseph. The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 2008) p. 23-24)

O’ the Compassions of Capitalism

The time has come, and I can no longer resist commenting on the utter irony of the compassions of the corporate world in our capitalist system. In the evenings during the week I work for Banana Republic – an overpriced clothing company owned by Gap inc. (who also own Gap, Old Navy , and Piperlime). While at work yesterday, I noticed a new line of products that BR is releasing referred to as their Green line. This line of products is currently being sent out to various stores in a trial run to see how it sells in different areas, ultimately to find the most successful (success defined in terms of profit) locations and strategically place them there. Now, the characteristics that distinguish this line is that they, both the item and price tag, are made with “sustainable fibers” (usually organic cotton along with silk, soy, bamboo, and linen) that are “eco-friendly.” To be honest, I wasn’t that surprised when I first saw this in our store given the growing national concern for issues of social injustice that is increasingly being worked into the marketing world.Take for example the (Product)Red line. This is a product line that was created by Bono and Bobby Schriver, chairman of DATA, that contributes a certain percentage of the revenue to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. Various companies can sign on and distribute their own Red Products. Below is how this nifty little program works for you as a consumer:

As you can see, everybody wins! People are still able to continue in unrestrained consumption (because this, and the structural forces behind it, obviously has nothing to do with problems of social injustice) while women and children in Africa are helped by receiving (RED) money (I can’t help but smile at the further irony of the fact that the only red money I’ve ever seen came with my Monopoly game set, a game in which the whole purpose is to monopolize the geographical space of the board, and therefore the market, so as to exploit all other competitors…hmm) . You see, win, win, win!

But back to the previous discussion of the BR “Green” line. The thing that really struck me, and thus prompted this post, is that according to the BR website, what prompted this action wasn’t so much that being “eco-friendly” was good for the environment, humanity, etc., but that it was good for business. Consider the quote below, taken from the BR website under “Environmental Efforts”:

Organic and Sustainable New Products:
Banana Republic values the opinions and ideals of our customers. That’s why we responded when we learned customers wanted eco-friendlier products. We’re proud and excited to introduce a selection of products featuring organic cotton and other sustainable fibers in Summer 2008. This collection features both basic essentials as well as iconic pieces that represent the best of Banana Republic design. (emphasis added)

Notice the reasoning – Because BR values the “opinions” and “ideals” of their customers (not necessarily their own), they, therefore, responded by giving them what they wanted (and would buy) in the creation of “eco-friendlier products.” I find it incredibly ironic that commodities such as this “Green” line are able to be promoted and praised for their compassionate concern when in reality these “concerns” are set in terms of an inherently dehumanizing, capitalist system that can only function “successfully” (again, success defined in terms of gained capital) if commodities are peddled to consumers, and all others in the market are reduced to competitors.

Now, I am sure that many of the people involved in this “Green” line, and many other product lines like it, are very well intentioned. Therefore, this is not a personal attack. I simply find the utter irony of the whole situation to be rather amusing, and offer it as something worth thinking about. In addition, I am also aware of the irony of I, as an employee of BR, am writing this post and saying the things I am. I know that I am part of the system, though not comfortable in that, and therefore part of the problem, directly and indirectly. However, given the all-pervasive presence and power of Capitalism, there is nowhere to which one can flee to escape contact. However, what we can do is live out our life as a community in Christ, guided and formed by the Spirit, embodying an alternative economic order, to the glory and praise of the Father.