In preparation for Good Friday, it's useful to contemplate the meaning of the cross of Jesus Christ, as a spiritual matter, but also as a philosophical matter. The cross is a multivalent symbol, that contains within it a wealth of meaning, and yet, as Guiseppe Fornari argues in his new book, A God Torn to Pieces: The Case for Nietzsche, central to the message of the cross is something that Nietzsche understood and many, perhaps most, Christians have forgotten. "In the end," Fornari writes, "he was much closer to Christ than many who would claim to be Christians.”
As Adam Erikson summarizes at Sojourners, Fornari's analysis is rooted in the recognition that Nietzsche understood the significance of the cross in a way most Christians have not. He saw in Christ's cry on the cross -- "Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing!" -- a message of universal forgiveness, a message that Nietzsche rejected:
Nietzsche’s problem wasn’t his analysis that “we have killed God.” Good Friday proves him right. His problem was that he rejected the alternative of universal forgiveness that Jesus offered from the cross. Jesus’ universal forgiveness seeks to transform us from being murders into being forgivers.
And that’s where Nietzsche consciously rejected Christ, and that’s where many Christians don’t know Christ. To know Christ is to know that in his life, death, and resurrection Christ freely offers forgiveness to all – even to those who have become “murderers of all murderers.”
For Nietzsche, Jesus’ attempt to end sacrificial violence was foolish because he believed that humans need sacrificial violence to survive. To show this he compared the death of Jesus to many ancient sacrificial myths and discovered that they are structurally similar. The god is murdered by an angry mob that is united in their violence against a divine victim. After the mob murdered their victim order was restored. The only difference between the murder of Jesus and the murder of the mythical gods is in interpretation.
The cross then, as Rene Girard argues, is the end of sacrifice. Nietzsche could see that, and yet he believed we still needed sacrifice. Many Christians today fail to see what Nietzsche could, they don't believe that the cross was the end of sacrifice, since they are still engaged in the sacrificial regime that Christ came to end. Universal forgivenss is an abstraction to a great many Christians, and certainly not something that God would endorse. They need God's wrath and God's judgement to make their own righteous self-conception appear valid. Erikson continues:
Nietzsche consciously chose the way of Dionysus, and the way of violence drove him mad* because he couldn’t accept the forgiveness of Christ in his own life. And yet by clearly seeing the alternative between Dionysus and the “Crucified,” Nietzsche was closer to Christ than many who profess to be Christian. Many Christians are far from Christ because while they profess Christ, they actually believe in Dionysus; they actually believe in a god who justifies their violence rather than leads them in the way of forgive.
And the Christian world is going mad because we don’t believe in Christ who leads us to love and forgive all, including our enemies.
So, as we move through Maundy Thursday into Good friday, let us lift up Christ's prayer of universal forgiveness and pray for the reconciliation of all. But let us also be aware that the spectre of Nietzsche looms behind our protestations of self-righteousness. Until we can break the systems of sacrifice in our own lives, and cease projecting them onto the cross of Christ, we will continue to be closet Dionysians, while understanding both Christ and Dionysius far less profoundly than Nietzsche did.
*To be clear here: Erikson plays with a common Nietzsche myth: That his philosophy drove him insane. It did not. Syphillus drove him insane.
A new academic study of the relationship between economics and politics in the United States comes to an interesting conclusion, one that I think scans with what many of us have intuited for a long time about American society, but that runs counter to our democratic ideological presuppositions. In short, the study argues, we are not a democracy at all, but an oligarchy.
As summarized in the abstract, their "analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." In other words, the super-rich and the institutions dedicated to serving their interests have a much greater effect on U.S. policy than the opinions and actions of ordinary people.
And this is precisely the kind of conclusion one would reach by watching the news for the past five years. During this period, the Tea Party, which is a total sham of a political movement, orchestrated, financed and inspired by the ideological preferences of the super rich, like the Koch brothers, and their mouth-pieces, like Rick Santelli, has been effective at preventing any genuine social reform or the achievement of any substantial redistribution of wealth and power in the United States. Even their great failure -- preventing Obama's health reform act -- was the failure to prevent an act that really ultimately solidified the control of health care by private insurance companies, to the benefit of their bottom lines.
Meanwhile, Occupy, which was a genuinely grassroots movement, suffered both from it's own self-destructive tendencies and the organized attempts to repress it by governments and media organizations. And while I lay the blame for Occupy's failure mostly at the feet of its organizers, it's also true that Occupy groups that sprouted up in other countries with a deeper tradition of social protest and a more representative set of governing structures, were at least moderately more effective at achieving serious reforms.
And this brings me back to Thomas Piketty, whom I mentioned yesterday, and his book Capital in the 21st Century. Another article about the book discusses the political and economic salience of the message occupy was promoting:
Piketty's thesis, supported by his extensive research, is that financial inequality in the 21st century is on the rise, and accelerating at a very dangerous pace. For one thing, this changes the way we look at the past. We already knew that the end of capitalism predicted by Marx never happened – and that even by the time of the Russian revolution of 1917, wages across the rest of Europe were already on the rise. We also knew that Russia was anyway the most undeveloped country in Europe and it was for this reason that communism took root there. Piketty goes on to point out, however, that only the varying crises of the 20th century – mainly two world wars – prevented the steady growth of wealth by temporarily and artificially levelling out inequality. Contrary to our perceived perception of the 20th century as an age in which inequality was eroded, in real terms it was always on the rise.
In the 21st century, this is not only the case in the so-called "rich" countries – the US, the UK and western Europe – but also in Russia, China and other countries which are emerging from a phase of development. The real danger is that if this process is not arrested, poverty will increase at the same rate and, Piketty argues, we may well find that the 21st century will be a century of greater inequality, and therefore greater social discord, than the 19th century.
The question that governments need to begin contemplating is whether continuing to serve the interests of wealthy elites at the expense of the population at large is worth the increased instability that will, sooner or later, erupt into another mass protest movement, uncontrolled and potentially uncontrollable by political, economic, and media elites.
For those of us who value liberal structures and institutions, the possibility of such mass disruption should be of great concern, because there is no guarantee that it will result in a more equal, just and representative society. It could just as easily result in a prolonged era of social strife, violence, and and repression. This isn't the first time we've been to this dance, and we've got lots of examples of how this can play out. The fact that the United States transitioned from the social upheaval of the 1930s into a relatively just and stable set of economic norms in the post World War II era is no insurance that it will do so again.
If we value the peace and stability of democratic societies then, we'd better start thinking seriously about what it would mean to create a more genuinely representative and equal society now, before there is blood in the streets.
Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been getting a lot of attention since it's French publication late last year. It's been out in English for several months now, and my copy is sitting on my desk as we speak. The Guardian has a good article summarizing Piketty's argument. The conclusion:
The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His critics argue that with higher living standards resentment of the ultra-rich may no longer be as great – and his data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.
Nor does it seem likely that human beings' inherent sense of justice has been suspended. Of course the reaction plays out differently in different eras: I suspect some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.
The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable.
But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable. Capital certainly does that.
I am reminded of Karl Polanyi's remark in The Great Transformation that socialism is the self-defense of society against the economy. This is the main reason I still call myself a socialist.
So, let's talk about what happened on Game of Thrones last night. Let's explore our feelings, shall we? open up, and tell the group all about our reactions to the Purple Wedding. I'll go first (warning: Spoilers ho!)
So, I have to admit, I knew it was coming. I've read the books. Twice. In fact, I've been looking forward to watching Joffrey Baratheon/Lannister choke to death at his own wedding pretty much since the whole "Lion's Tooth" incident in season one). And this leads me to the troubling reality: I enjoyed watching Joffrey die.
I have enjoyed very little of the death on this show. I didn't enjoy them in the books either, but the show goes out of its way to demonstrate that these deaths are horrible, painful, shameful and immoral, and that, what's more, this is the reality of war. This is what war is. War is the organized pursuit of horror, death, and destruction. It's not romantic. It is not glorious. It is not what the Knights of Summer believe it to be. It is, in the end, the death of honor, not a manifestation of it. And Martin and the producers of Game of Thrones have done a painfully effective job at conveying that message. Repeatedly.
They have also demonstrated the idea that politics is, far too often, war carried on by other means, and thus only barely sublimates the brutality of war within the putatively peaceful conventions of diplomacy and political jargon. The threat of violence always lurks not particularly far from the surface of political life, and the main dispute is over the question of who gets to claim the right to weild violence under the veil of legitimacy. But again, as Martin has repeatedly demonstrated, ultimately all of the legitimation stories told by kings and princes rest on the fiction that their effectiveness at deploying violence in the interest of seizing power conveys the right to weild and control it. The Targaryans became the rulers of Westeros because of their military superiority (in the form of their dragons). Robert's rebellion established him as the King, not because he had proven some principle of legitimacy, but because he effectively murdered all who had a greater claim to the throne than himself. And after his death, all the War of the Five Kings demonstrated is that "king" is just the name we given to the last thug standing.
So, the question lingers: Can we overcome this cycle of violence, or is society ultimately condemned to base itself on the ability of one party or another to establish itself through the tools of violence, and then deprive others of those same tools? Is there a way in which authority and legitimacy can be established through nonviolence, or must violence and the threat of violence always be the ultimate trump card in any political dispute.
There are, of course, other models. One can look to India, or South Africa, or the civil rights struggle in the United States. It should be the case that legitimacy is rooted in an authentically moral standpoint which is able to pursuade the bulk of the population to either agree or at least acquiesce. Unfortunately, even in circumstances where legitimacy can be established on that basis, it often still must defend itself from illegitimate violence through resort to violence itself.
But, I also cannot escape the violence within me. It's not just governments, societies, and institutions that find a too-easy resort to violence. As individuals, violence is often our first order respons to conflict. And even when we do not actually act on our instinct to violence, it lies just beneath the surface. And so, when someone as legitimately hateful as Joffrey finally gets his comeuppance, I cheer with joy along with the entire rest of the viewing audience.
And it is for this reason that Kierkegaard once stated that original sin was the one empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.
Did you hear the one about the Republican Congressional candidate who liked to pretend to be a vampire in his free time? No, that's not the set-up for a joke; that's an actual news story from this past week:
Rush, a 35-year-old attorney who just launched a campaign in Florida’s 3rd Congressional District, knows a thing or two about role-playing. ...
The video certainly hits all the right marks by featuring a series of heartwarming and inspiring images: Rush placing his hand on a Bible, as a father of a newborn, even initiating a group of enthusiastic schoolchildren on the values of the U.S. Constitution.
What the slick video does not mention is that Rush – as “Chazz Darling,” “Staas van der Winst” and ahost of other roles – was a long-time member of the Mind’s Eye Society, otherwise known as “Camarilla.”
Mind’s Eye, or MES, is a nationwide community of gothic-punk role-players who come together to take on personas of vampires and other supernatural beings (known as Kindred), dealing with night-to-night struggles “against their own bestial natures, hunters, and each other.”
MES has a number of different sects, with names such as Vampire: The Requiem; Vampire: The Masquerade; Changeling: The Lost; Geist the Sin Eaters; New World of Darkness and Werewolf the Forsaken, among others.
Using various “domains” — through both table games and “live action”— Rush participated as dozens of “characters,” with names like Darling, van de Winst, Johan Gambrys, Zane Daily, The Kriesler, Archbishop Kettering and more.
Apparently this led to a bit of controversey, particularly, as David Weigel noted at Slate: "messages about a Rush character sporting a 'rape face' or fantasizing about snorting a line off a machete while receiving fellatio pose obvious problems for a conservative candidate."
There are a few things I find remarkable about this story: First, it shows just how far the nerd community has come when someone hardcore enough to do Vampire LARPing feels comfortable enough in his identity to run for public office without feeling the need to abandon or reject his hobby.
Second, it shows just how much the whole role-playing community remains misunderstood. Role-playing has always been a strange mixture of gaming, improv, community theater, and experimenting in alternative identities. It could be very fruitfully analyzed via any number of lenses, from psychological and sociological to philosophical and political, and there are people, like Ethan Gilsdorf and others, who have given it serious attention. But, to the wider, non-geek community, it sounds strange at first blush, and the idea that someone would enjoy sporting a "rape face" (I have no idea what that is) or pretending to snort coke off of a machette can be off-putting. But this is precisely because they don't really understand what role-playing is. It's right there in the name: You take on a role, a persona, that is often very different from your own. The answer to the question of why a person might choose to play one particular type of character rather than another is personal and ideosyncratic, but it shouldn't be construed as a reflection of that person's real-life ideology or persona. In fact, many LARPers and other role players revel precisely in the challenge posed by playing someone or something radically different from their real life persona.
As my colleague Alexandra Petri has pointed out, political consultant Peter Schorsch,who went digging for details on the Mind’s Eye Society, is stretching as far as he possibly can to suggest that Rush is palling around with dog-menacers and book burners. Never mind that no evidence exists that Rush’s activities were anything other than fantasy. And as fantasy, there is not actually much contradiction between Rush’s stated policy positions and the games he’s playing.
Dave Weigel suggested that there is tension between Rush’s work in drug enforcement during his tenure in the sheriff’s department, which he touts as proof of his law-and-order credentials, and his fantasies of snorting cocaine. But if Rush is role-playing parts that are deliberately transgressive, it makes perfect sense that he would gravitate towards the very things he finds off-limits in his professional capacity.
In that vein, so what if the”Mind’s Eye, or MES, is a nationwide community of gothic-punk role-players who come together to take on personas of vampires and other supernatural beings (known as Kindred), dealing with night-to-night struggles ‘against their own bestial natures, hunters, and each other,’ ” as Schorsch reports? Sure, supernatural metaphors might be less familiar than the typical fare on offer at a Sunday church service. But pushing back “against their own bestial natures” sounds like a project that a lot of Rush’s potential constituents might engage in on a regular basis. One person’s dorky is another person’s space for moral exploration.
Apart from that of course, someone has to be the bad guy in a role-playing game, and the effectiveness of the campaign depends on how effectively antagonists can portray their characters. It's much the same as professional wrestling: The people who play the "bad guy" aren't in most cases really bad in real life, but they take the persona on in order to enhance the drama of the match.
Ask yourself this question: If Rush's hobby had been amateur Shakespearean acting instead of live-action roleplaying, would we judge him for his effective portrayal of Iago or Richard III? I suspect not. The disconnect comes precisely in the fact that we recognize acting as a legitimate expression of one's interests and a valid expense of one's time, but we have not yet arrived at this point culturally when it comes to role-playing in general, and LARPing in particular.
All that said, as an attack, this seems to have fizzled, and Rush seems to be well positioned to become the next Congressperson from Florida's 3rd District. Like Alyssa, I would probably not vote for Rush in a million years, but in principle, the idea that nerds deserve better representation in Congress is a platform plank that I can get behind!
The first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club. But Bryan Storkel and Academy Award-winning director Daniel Junge are spreading the gospel about a fascinating new wave of Christianity in which pastors and followers are practicing faith by participating in MMA fights.
The article includes a number of great quotes from the documentary, of which my favorite is definitely:
“We’ll just be a couple of God-fearing men punching each other in the head.”
Here's the trailer. This one will definitely go on my "Must watch (when it eventually finds its way onto Netflix) list."
Micah Murray writes a provocative post today about wondering whether he really wants to continue to call himself a Christian. He writes:
Christians always tell me stuff about unity in Christ, how we’re all one family in God, how there’s room for disagreement. I get that.
At the same time, it seems that many Christians are reading the same Bible, using with the same words, and coming to opposite conclusions. At what point is that not even the same religion anymore?
I believe God is love. But all too often, Christians pay lip service to a God of love while also arguing for theology that makes God an asshole. ...
These are not peripheral issues. They get to the very nature of the God we worship, the Jesus we follow. And when your version of God is not only slightly different, but fundamentally opposite from my version of God, are we really in the same religion?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really don’t know.
There’s only one Gospel, but it seems that many Christians preach another gospel I don’t recognize anymore. Sometimes I feel like I’m caught between “What does it matter as long as Christ is preached?” and “If anyone preaches any other gospel, let him be accursed.”
If “Christian” is such a broad word that includes all this, what use is the word at all anymore?
I have to admit, he's got a good point. The key problem I have with Christianity is that the word seems, in the larger cultural context that we inhabit, to define the religion of those who follow Asshole God, and that's a problem for me, because I don't worship Asshole God.
Like Micah, I'm very clear in my own mind at least that God exists, and that God is in some unique way revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ, and that Christ's resurrection is the sign and symbol of our renewed relationship with the God who loves us and created us. I believe, in brief, in Grace.
But, far too often, Christianity seems to be a religion devoid of Grace. In fact, it often seems to be the antidote for Grace -- Anti-Grace -- Grace Kryptonite. And I have a hard time identifying myself with a religion that does such a good job acting as its own refutation. Nietzsche was not in the slightest degree wrong when he suggested Christians are the best argument against Christianity. What he actually said was "“I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed.” And not looking redeemed is something that Christians excel at.
This has been on my mind particularly over the past week, as my inital blazing hot rage against World Vision's reversal of its new policy allowing for married gay and lesbian employees under pressure from conservative Christians focused itself on the underlying culprits. As Tony Jones, Rachel Held Evans, and others have reported, the pressure put on World Vision was enormous, and really took aim at World Vision's core mission of helping poor children and their communities around the world by threatening its major sources of funding. One can hardly blame World Vision for retreating under the circumstances, much as I wish they had stood their ground. But the real villain in the story is the asshole followers of Asshole God.
And so here I am, not for the first time in my life, wondering just how it is that I can continue to call myself a Christian, despite believing in the God that Christianity claims to profess. As I noted in an argument with a Christian who was determinedly arguing in the most absurd ways against any acceptance of same sex marriage at all, every time I hear a Christian come out against marriage equality, I become a little more atheist.
But, here's the rub: My atheism is directed toward the Asshole God that these people who call themselves Christian claim to profess. And I will gladly and loudly profess my disbelief in that God. It bears no resemblance to the God I worship. The problem is that that God is all over the place in Christianity. It's difficult to escape, which is why I periodically contemplate dropping the label altogether.
But the thing is, regardless of the label, one thing remains the case, and it's the thing that keeps me holding on to the idea of Christianity, and the name of Christian, in spite of myself, and that is this: I recognize that I'm an asshole too, and that the only thing that really is capable of helping me is, not an Asshole God, but rather the God of Grace that I see manifested in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
It's Grace that keeps me a Christian in spite of myself. But believe me, a great many days it's a very near thing.
The ugly fact that we must face is that this thing can go much farther still. Plutocracy shocks us every day with its viciousness, but that doesn’t mean God will strike it down. The middle-class model worked much better for about ninety-nine percent of the population, but that doesn’t make it some kind of dialectic inevitability. You can build a plutocratic model that will stumble along just fine, like it did in the nineteenth century. It requires different things: instead of refrigerators for all, it needs bought legislatures and armies of strikebreakers—plus bailouts for the big banks when they collapse under the weight of their stupid loans, an innovation of our own time. All this may be hurtful, inefficient, and undemocratic, but it won’t dismantle itself all on its own.
That is our job. No one else is going to do it for us.
Which of course creates the obvious next question: If it's up to us to do it, how do we go about it? I remain struck by the ease with which the plutocrats Frank drescribes have managed to manipute the political climate over the past several years. From Fox news to the useful idiots of the Tea Party, to opportunitic Congressional redistricting, the deck has been so thoroughly stacked against solving the underlying problems of inequality, it's hard to imagine any enduring solution without a genuine mass uprising. And those closest we've come to that was Occupy Wall Street, which started off with such revolutionary potential, but, as so often happens on the left, fell victim to its own narcissistic idealism.
Where then to look for the next mass movement to overcome plutocracy? As is often the case, we probably won't know it's coming until it arrives. But we can prepare the ground by continuing to point out the problems of injustice caused by the continuing growth in inequality, and reminding people that it's within their power to change it.