Christianity and the Gaze

From his prison cell in Tegel, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was that year to be put to death for conspiracy to assassinate the Führer, wrote in a letter to his friends that the time had come for Christians to “see [things] from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”1  This line, from Bonhoeffer’s unfinished 1942 letter, was to become the inspiration for the theologian Gustavo Gutierrez’s own liberation theology.2  Around the same time Bonhoeffer wrote this letter, the French philosopher Simone Weil, whom Albert Camus had called “the only great spirit of our times,” had died in a sanatorium in England at the age of thirty-four, probably from self-starvation.  In her posthumously published essays, she had written, “Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist.  Humanity does not exist in the anonymous flesh lying inert by the roadside.  The Samaritan … stops and looks … Love sees what is invisible.”3  Thus we have two metaphors for seeing in the Christian faith: love both sees from below and it sees what is below.  It is the view from below and it is the view of below.  Given this, the particular difficulty for Christians in this imperial moment–a moment of economic exploitation, political oppression, and religious legitimation thereof–is the task of seeing the invisible, as empire betrays a not incidental tendency to render invisible certain elements of itself, preferring instead grand illusions about itself.  This tendency is best explained by Freud as he argues in Civilization and its Discontents that the more civilized a society is, the more repressed it is.  This should be rather intuitive: the more civilized a society considers itself, the more it must hide from itself in order to maintain that image.  Thus the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote, “Civilisation is hooped together, brought under a rule, under the semblance of peace by manifold illusion.”4  The problem for Christians is thus the problem of invisibility, which empire exacerbates, for in empire, that which is unsightly is exported from the collective imagination.

In his book Empire of Illusion, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges argues that empire depends on a certain false image of itself.  It must engage in a collective delusion.  The signs of such delusion abound, and Hedges documents these in his book, but we can even find a plethora of these on our own if we care to look.  The otherwise quite inexplicable American obsession with incarceration is a telling example.  The United States boasts the highest prison population in the world, higher than even Russia’s or China’s.  Evidently, over half of all inmates are there for drug-related crimes.  The United States is also alone in locking up juveniles without the possibility of parole, of which Professor Noam Chomsky writes, “Such practices are in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every member state except the United States and Somalia (which has no functioning government)”.5  How do we explain this curious obsession?  It makes sense if we think about prisons functioning as black holes in social consciousness, the collective subconscious, places where less pleasant realities might be consigned to oblivion, much like what happens with garbage.  The Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek describes the mechanism by which garbage is expelled as similar to that by which defecation is: “when you go to the toilet, shit disappears.  You flush it.  You know rationally it’s there […] but at a certain level of your most elementary experience, it disappears from your world.”6  The term Zizek gives to this phenomenon is borrowed from psychoanalysis: “fetishist split: ‘I know very well [that the garbage exists, poses ecological problems], but nonetheless… [I cannot really believe it].’”7 In all these cases, the removal of the unsightly effectively expels it from consciousness.  So long as we do not see it, it does not for our purposes exist.

What exists in its place is the false image, the society without drug use, a city without rubbish.  This is our collective delusion, our collective denial.  As with Thomas Mann’s Madame Buddenbrooks, her old deteriorating face caked with makeup, in our society, it is the appearance, the image and not the reality, the symbolic and not the substantial, which counts.  The philosopher who most directly deals with this problem in image-driven consumerist late capitalism in particular, is the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.  For Baudrillard, the image or “simulacrum”–as he calls it–of reality has replaced the real in the late capitalistic mode of mass media.  Zizek’s thoughts here are similar.  On Italian politics, he says that “Politics is rendered more and more an empty spectacle” wherein “political debate proper is disappearing and what remains is spectacle.”8  In other words, the symbolic has come to take place of the substantial.  This is basically Baudrillard’s formulation, where the image replaces the reality to which it supposedly refers.

Our preference for the symbolic is clear, as Zizek mentions, in our thinking about ecology.  While scientists constantly warn of the impending dangers of global warming and some recently even argued that we are approaching an irreversible state-shift in climate due to global warming9, which might cause at least feigned concern in rational societies, any substantive policy dealing with global warming is not even on the table, but then again, who needs substance when we have the symbolic?  So long as we separate our papers and our plastics and install solar panels on our roofs, so long as we turn off the light when we leave the room, we will be fine.

If we turn our attention to a critique of the church, the story is much the same.  Let us not forget that the church too is a social institution, and is subject as much as any social institution to the institutional critique. In fact, for strong critiques of the institutionalized religion, one need look no further than Martin Luther or the Hebrew prophets, if not to Jesus himself. Thus we might hypothesize that religion functions in image-driven mass market, which is to say religion becomes more and more rendered into pure spectacle, where at last the only residuum is a simulacrum which takes the place of the real.  This hypothesis is not wholly indefensible.  Televangelists provide the obvious example.  Even beyond this, the church more broadly betrays certain tendencies of brand commodification in what Marx would call commodity fetishism.  It all but stretches analogy to a literalism with these “HE>i” bumper stickers and shirts.  In many ways, Christianity, Inc. may be regarded as merely the more developed form of what the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr criticized in the religious revival of 50s and 60s as “petty and trivial.”10  The songs, the clothes, the books, none of them bad in themselves, nevertheless become a form of idolatry.  Is it not Saint Paul himself who challenges Christians in the world to be not of it when he writes, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”?11  Christ may have turned water into wine, but even his feat is petty beside our ability–as Professor Cornel West is prescient in observing–to turn the blood of Christ into Kool Aid.  It is cheap Christianity with cheap answers, the kind that Kierkegaard, who would satirize this Christianity, “you must die to the world–fee, one guinea,” most greatly detested.  It is the kind of Christianity that one might say Jesus detested too.  Was it not he who chased money-changers out of his father’s temple with palm leaves?  Is not the prophet with whom Jesus most closely identifies Isaiah, and is Isaiah not the prophet par excellence when it comes to critiquing the pious assemblies of religious establishment which prefer the symbolic to the substantive?  Isaiah 1 reads like a divine indictment:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.  New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:13-17)

Isaiah 1 lays down the moral and returns us to the substantive from the symbolic.  Isaiah also presents for us a strong place from which to begin an upbuilding discourse, for the prophets, though they raze down, also edify.  Thus in the stead of Christianity, Inc., the scriptures demand a return to what Cornel West calls prophetic Christianity:

Here, we are living in the biggest empire since the Roman Empire … Well, if you’re going to talk about Jesus, did you really talk about the empire that put him to death and what the connection is between that empire and the empire we’re a part of now and what Jesus demands of us in this empire given what he himself was willing to sacrifice in his own imperial moment?12

The cross for West is tantamount to what he elsewhere13 refers to as the blue note which pierces through the superficial harmonies and imperial illusions.  The cross as the underside of empire is, in other words, a rupturing of the stream of imperial illusions, since these grand illusions function much like The Matrix, which not incidentally was inspired by Baudrillardian philosophy.  The Matrix at a most basic level is an ideological system.  Even if Neo is conceivably the hero of the film, it is from Morpheus whereby we gain our most Christological lesson: it is from Morpheus that we learn of how the system glitches.  This precisely is the role of Christ and any follower of Christ in society, to interrupt the smooth operation of its ideological fantasy.

When I searched the Marxist definition of ideology, “they do not know it, but they do it,” in Google, the second search result listed linked to a passage from Luke 23:34 where Jesus says “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Was it not ideology which crucified Christ?  In his discussion of this “tragic blindness,” in racism, Martin Luther King describes the blindness in a way all too familiar to any reader of Marx: “Even philosophical logic was manipulated to give intellectual credence to the system of slavery … So men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy … It became a structured part of culture.”14  In a word, ideology.  The solution for what Marx calls ‘ideology’ and what King calls ‘tragic blindness’ is given by King: “if we are to call ourselves Christian, we had better avoid intellectual and moral blindness.”15  We might add to this, following from Christ’s example, that to be Christian is to create a glitch in an otherwise seamless unity by the socially unacceptable act of being good–thus allowing the system to betray its own violence and terror thereby occasioning others of us complicit in the system to realize our complicity, our adjustment to materialistic greed and maladjustment to justice.

The role of Christians is twofold: (1) by living out certain values–love, justice, compassion–to display the extent to which society has normalized deformed values and become anesthetized to injustice and cruelty, to gross poverty and dehumanization; and (2) to render visible suffering that is otherwise invisible by consciousness raising, that is to say awareness, by making issues of the non-issues of the un-peoples of the world, for example, as Tavis Smiley and Cornel West have done with poverty, the very utterance of which made not one appearance in the three presidential debates of 2008.16  Martin Luther King, grand American prophet, was matchless in this regard, with his courageous commitment to consciousness-raising and moral instigation in the campaigns for racial equality, for economic justice (for example, the little-known 1968 Poor People’s Campaign King organized), and against militarization.

This, of course, is not without its consequences.  As Cornel West often reminds us, Martin Luther King died because he loved too much.  George Orwell wrote that “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”  Did not Jesus’s life itself bear testament to the axiom that no truth goes unpunished?  As the popular (and academically respected) biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes, “Christianity is the only major religion whose two most formative figures were executed by established authority.  Accident? … Or is there in Jesus and Paul a vision … that should cause systems of domination, ancient and modern, to tremble?”17 In a society which prefers to see, hear and speak of no evil, especially not its own, Christianity means doing all three.  That is why, so long as societies oppress the poor, any Christianity which even pretends to follow in Christ’s footsteps, will always be a scandal, an affront to our sensibilities, as it destabilizes the collective myths we act out and turns our sensibilities on their heads so that God is friend to the anawim, what Frantz Fanon calls the “wretched of the earth.”  It is fitting that in Zizek’s example, it is defecation we flush down the toilet as in the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton’s terminology, the anawim are the shit of the earth.  Thus we might conceive of our Christian scatology (not, mind you, eschatology) as one which turns the gaze toward the least of these, the oppressed, the invisible.  Who are the invisible?  Simone Weil quotes a Spanish song, “‘If anyone wants to make himself invisible, there is no surer way than to become poor.’ Love sees what is invisible.”18 Love sees what is invisible.  Love’s gaze pierces into what Spivak calls the “subaltern,” what West calls the “underside of empire.”  No less, Jesus says, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”  (Matt 25:40).  To consider what is done for the beggar on the street done for God himself is to see that beggar as if you were were seeing God himself.

Yet love is not only about a seeing of the underside; it is also a seeing from the underside.  To repeat what we have already quoted of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christianity must “see [things] from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer”19.  Yet what does a view from below entail metaphysically?  Here Marx’s analysis is instructive:

[L]ife is not determined by consciousness but consciousness by life … Division of labour only becomes truly such from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears.  From this moment onwards, consciousness can really flatter itself that it is something other than consciousness of existing practice, that is really represents something without representing something real; from now on consciousness is in a position to emancipate itself from the world and to proceed to the formation of ‘pure’ theory, theology, philosophy, ethics, etc.20

Thus we might postulate that as a view from above economically gives rise to a view from above metaphysically, the view from below, the poor, corresponds with its own metaphysic.  The metaphysic from above is best represented by Plato’s pure speculative metaphysics, which is only intuitive as the wealthy who are not tied to their material existence can speculate all day long about the “true” nature of reality.  The Platonic preference for the metaphysical to the physical is clear in his famous depiction of the cave.  For Plato, those who see the physical see only shadows on the walls of the cave.  True philosophy has no time for such trifling matters as these.  Writes Plato, “[T]he true philosopher, as you know, Adiemantus, whose mind is on higher realities, has no time to look at the affairs of men […] His eyes are tuned to contemplate fixed and immutable realities”21 and elsewhere, “The whole procedure involves nothing in the sensible world, but moves solely through forms to forms, and finishes with forms”22. In many ways, the Christ of the Christian philosophic tradition (as opposed to the actual Christ) is merely the Platonic philosopher-king.  Or at least, that is the sense one gets in reading Plato:

“And will anyone be able to argue that anyone so born must inevitably be corrupted?  We admit that it is difficult to avoid corruption; but will anyone object that not a single individual could avoid it in the whole of time? […] But one is enough for our purpose,” I said; “if society obeys him, he can set all our debts at rest”23

We may contrast this with the metaphysic, or rather, the anti-metaphysic, which proceeds from the view from below, that of the gospel of John, which thus begins, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”24  In its movement from the eternal world of forms (Logos) into corporeal reality, the Incarnation of Christ in the gospel thus betrays an anti-metaphysic.  Here is a corporeal gospel.  At its heart is a radical figure at the end of whose ministry his body hangs on a cross, a signifier of the ugly truth of human fallen-ness.  That precisely was the scandal to the Greek philosophers, whose more metaphysical tendencies led them to pour contempt on Christianity.  For the ancient Greek philosopher Celsus (2nd century CE), for example, the idea that the Logos would condescend to us was beyond comic.  He writes, “But that certain Christians and (all) Jews should maintain, the former that there has already descended, the latter that there will descend, upon the earth a certain God, or Son of a God, who will make the inhabitants of the earth righteous, is a most shameless assertion, and one the refutation of which does not need many words.”25  Christianity was more of a joke than a serious argument to the philosophers, for whom Plato had earlier preached a God unchanging and perfect, and Aristotle, the Ultimate Form.  So it is with this in mind that we might understand Christ’s this-worldliness an affront to metaphysics, from his feet-washing and bread-breaking to his tears at Gethsemane to his corpse at Golgotha.  Furthermore, as if God’s descent to earth weren’t lowly enough, he seems to have found it suitable that He, the Creator–capital C–of all existence should spend his time not with governors and priests but with the lowliest of us, giving us no doubt as to why Christianity spread among the lower classes.  To be sure, Celsus also disparaged this: “Taking its root in the lower classes, the religion continues to spread among the vulgar: nay, one can even say it spreads because of this vulgarity and the illiteracy of its adherents.”26

Christianity, so long as it remains the religion of the wretched of the earth and so long as empire abides, will always be a scandal, a heresy, an irreverent affront thereby its systems of power and oppression.  On the underside of the established religion of empire, there will be the cross disrupting all of its fine delusions.  Next to Christianity, Inc. will always be prophetic Christianity and the body of Christ.  For every flag, a cross.  For every priest of the establishment, a prophet of God.  For every metaphysical speculation, the Word which became flesh.  For it is the Christianity of Bonhoeffer and Weil which sees from below, which sees below, which renders visible those who are invisible.  One question indicts the Christendom in toto: where are the churches?  Where are the churches which breathed the moral air into women’s suffrage; and the labor movements of the early 20th century, which kindled the moral imagination of desegregation; and the civil rights movement, which fired the moral indignation of the great Latin American Catholic churches in the 20th century?  The great Christian thinker Walter Rauschenbusch once challenged us:

“the religious spirit is a factor of incalculable power in the making of history … [it] intensifies thought, enlarges hope, unfetters daring, evokes the willingness to sacrifice, and gives coherence in the fight.  Under the warm breath of religious faith, all social institutions become plastic.  The religious spirit removes mountains and tramples on impossibilities … If the hydraulic force of religion could be turned toward conduct, there is nothing which it could not accomplish.”27

Isaiah 1, quoted earlier, continues, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. ‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’” (1:18).  This is imperative. Instead of capitulating to worldly tragic blindness, let us turn the gaze of the Christian conscience and moral imagination upon that which is rendered invisible; let us render visible.  What right do we have to call ourselves Christians otherwise?

 

Kelly Maeshiro ‘14, a Religion Concentrator in Leverett House, is Theology Editor for the Ichthus.

Thumbnail: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

 

 


[1]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison. Ed. Eberhard Bethge. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1997. Pg. 17

 

[2]. This was conveyed to me by personal correspondence with Harvey Cox, who had corresponded with Gutierrez regarding this.

 

[3]. Simone Weil, Waiting For God, Harper Collins,1973. Emma Craufurd, trans., Pg.92

 

[4]. Taken from a poem, “Meru”

 

[5]. Noam Chomsky, Failed States, Pg. 231

 

[6]. A clip from Astra Taylor’s Film Examined Life, youtube.com: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LxkmO7hnM0

 

[7]. Slavoj Zizek, Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses. http://www.lacan.com/zizecology2.htm

 

[8]. Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, youtube.com:

[9]. Robert Sanders, UC Berkely News Center, 06 June 2012
http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/scientists-uncover-evidence-of-impending-tipping-point-for-earth/

 

[10]. Reinhold Niebuhr interviewed, The Mike Wallace Interview, 27 April 1958.  http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2008/wallace/niebuhr_reinhold.html

 

[11]. Romans 12:2

 

[12]. Cornel West, Prophetic Versus Constantinian Christianity, youtube.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fjifj_PZONo

 

[13]. Cornel West, Cornel West on Truth, Examined Life, a film by Astra Taylor.  Clip from youtube.com. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7EU0-mjw5M

 

[14]. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, First Fortress Press ed. 1981, Pg.42

 

[15]. Ibid.

 

[16]. Blake Zeff, New York Daily News, 01 September 2012. http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/the_rumble/2012/09/cornel-west-tavis-smiley-and-the-problem-of-poverty-a-conversation

 

[17]. Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Pg.258

 

[18]. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, Harper Collins, Pg.92

 

[19]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster 1997, Pg. 17

 

[20]. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, The Marx-Engels Reader, Ed. Tucker, 2nd Ed., Norton, Pg.155-159.

 

[21]. Plato, The Republic, Ed. Desmond Lee, 2nd Ed. Penguin, Pg.223

 

[22]. Ibid. Pg.239

 

[23]. Ibid. Pg.225

 

[24]. John 1:1-14

 

[25]. Celsus, qtd. in Origen.  The Gnostic Society Library. http://gnosis.org/library/orig_cc4.htm

 

[26]. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography, Pg.27

 

[27]. Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 1913, Pg.xii-6

 

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