In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should enjoy unprecedented savings on all their favorite brands. This was the first Black Friday and took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to find their discounts. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he had his eye on a new laptop. He went to be registered at Target with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in the latest styles from Old Navy, and laid him in a shopping cart, because they were waiting in line to get into Walmart.
We’ve been expecting less from our fantasies for quite some time now. The turning point, in my mind, was “trickle-down economics.” The entire premise was of course absurd — the whole point of capitalism is that wealth tends to flow upward — but even if it worked as promised, it would avowedly be only a “trickle.” I make a similar point in Why We Love Sociopaths about the deflationary fantasy of the ruthless social climbers and lawless lawmen:
What kind of fantasy is it to say that people can get a satisfying job, if they are capable of amazingly ruthless behavior unrelated to the ostensible skill set required to do that job? How reassuring is it to learn that the U.S. will be free of terrorist attacks, as long as there’s one guy willing to take it to the limit and openly defy every law and authority?
And on the latter point, of course, even that tepid fantasy has been downgraded in Homeland, where there’s one woman who truly grasps the terrorist threat and predicts every attack — but no one ever listens to her until it’s too late.
There seems to be a similar minimalism in Downton Abbey, a show that I keep watching more for the pleasures of its surfaces than the intricacies of its plots. Here we have a world with a yawning chasm between social classes, where the majority of characters are toiling day in and day out for the benefit of an idle few. This is of course just like our world, with one important caveat: everyone admits that’s what’s going on. No one in the aristocratic family is under any illusion that they “deserve” what they have due to their intelligence or hard work — they were just born into this family, while others weren’t.
The frank class division opens up a space for the ruling class to feel a sense of obligation toward the servant class and the tenants. After a few plots early on in which it becomes amazingly clear that Lord Grantham has no idea how capitalism works, his concrete role in managing the estate is to put the breaks on the overly “economical” plans hatched by his bourgeois son-in-law and the socialist who marries into the family, to insist there must be some way to ensure the sustainability of the estate without being ruthless in profit-seeking.
Compared to our current system, where the ruling class believes it has “earned” what it has through “merit” and feels a moral obligation to maximize profits at all costs, this system seems positively utopian. The fantasy is similar to that in Mad Men — yes, the postwar ruling class was full of terrible people, but at least they wanted to convince themselves they were making people’s lives better. At least they wanted a space for creativity, or at least sincere sentiment, alongside the profit-motive. And at least they, like the aristocrats in Downton Abbey, give us something beautiful to look at, a play of surfaces that echoes the minimal ideological veneer with which they paper over the brutality of their times.
In his testimony before the grand jury, unrepentant cold-blooded murderer Darren Wilson claimed to have been afraid of Michael Brown — an unarmed man literally the same size as Wilson — and said that in his rage, “it [Brown] looked like a demon.” Perhaps Wilson can pursue a second career as an exorcist in the long life of freedom that he has been unjustly granted.
What strikes me about this remark is what an appalling reversal it is from the original purpose of the language of demonization. For the Jews of the Maccabean period who created the concept of the demonic as we recognize it, as for the early Christians who took it up and developed it, the demonic was a concept that was synonymous with unjust earthly rulers.
Previously, the Jews in exile had been able to view earthly rulers as more ambivalent figures, carrying out God’s punishment against Israel for its unfaithfulness to the law and then subsequently being punished by God for their own injustice and violence. In the Maccabean period, however, the mad king Antiochus Epiphanes rendered this intellectual compromise impossible by persecuting Jews precisely for being faithful to the law. No longer was he the unwitting servant of God, but his conscious enemy and rival, who must be defeated in order to usher in the messianic age. The apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel are centered around this cosmic battle between God and the demonic forces embodied in Antiochus (symbolically designated the “little horn”).
Multiple texts from this period (most notably 2 Maccabees, widely available in standard Bible translations) focus on his torture of a mother and her sons for refusing to defile themselves by eating pork, and the authors credit the bereaved mother with creating a key theological concept: the resurrection of the dead. The grief of a mother whose innocent sons had been slaughtered is thus a primary site of theological reflection, something we shouldn’t forget today.
As an interesting sidebar, the same text that documents the origins of the Jewish-Christian theory of martyrdom also recounts a successful armed rebellion on the part of Jewish religious leaders, which led to the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state that lasted for a century. We tend to view non-violent resistence as an alternative to violent revolution, but the two have never been far apart.
The question I’m trying to get at in my devil research is how we got from there — where Wilson himself would be viewed as a demonic functionary of the Satanic system of oppression — to here — where language of demonization has been co-opted by the oppressors themselves. From a liberal perspective, this question is purely academic in the negative sense of being irrelevant: demonization language always “others” and “dehumanizes,” and so it is rejected on formalistic grounds as simply “bad.” Yet I think this view falls prey to the same false symmetry that always infects liberal formalistic arguments. Demonization language in the mouth of Wilson does illegitimately dehumanize Brown, but demonization language applied to Wilson reflects the objective fact that Wilson has dehumanized himself, has allied himself with demonic forces actively opposed to divine justice.
So I maintain that demonization language is both powerful and necessary — though my study of its legacy in Christian history shows me that it is also dangerous. That is in the very nature of a weapon, however, and we should not be so quick to dismiss theological tools that emerged from communities of the oppressed in the moment of their direst need.
In the United States of America, abstract liberal universalism is objectively pro-white. For instance, take the all-too-common white response to the slogan “black lives matter” — “all lives matter.” Yes, to me all lives matter. To God or nature, all lives matter. But all lives manifestly do not matter to the American law enforcement apparatus. The life of a white cop matters so much more than the life of a black person that the system is willing to let the white cop kill a black person with impunity so long as they claim to have perceived even the vaguest threat. In the face of that, the empty generality “all lives matter” is actively obscuring what is in fact going on.
Similar is the liberal “hypocrisy attack” against the Ferguson PD’s calls for peace while they were clearly planning on committing violence. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? Well, here’s a news flash: the powerful always define peace as the status quo that empowers them. They regard their power as stemming from the natural order of things, so that any challenge to that power is a violation of that order — hence protestors we recognize as not engaged in any significant literal violence can appear to the powers as “violent.” Meanwhile, for the oppressed, the day-to-day reality of the status quo is the real violence. The implicit claim of the hypocrisy attack is that there is some neutral concept of “peace” that both sides can abide by. There is not. The battle is, in part, over the very meaning of peace and violence.
This weekend, a lurker e-mailed asking why I do theology, given that I am not a traditional believer or pious person. It is a question that used to come up a lot here, back when we were more engaged with the theology blogosphere (during a time when it was itself more active, and on balance probably more conservative, than it currently is). The sticking point seemed to be my claim that I was doing theology, rather than simply doing scholarly work about theology.
I maintained, and still do, that there is no magic handshake called “belief” that allows one to engage in the intellectual game attached to the specific system of thought known as “Christian theology.” This is all the more the case given that Christian theology conceives of itself as addressing all of humanity — so why not take them at their word? Further, historically the boundaries between philosophy and theology have always been porous, so why should there be special restrictions on starting from within the “theological” aspect of that blended tradition of thought, while there are no qualifications attached to entering in through the “philosophical” side?
The very fact that this question, which to me fundamentally is a non-question or at least a boring question, keeps coming up seems to me to go back to a lot of tired cliches about the boundaries between the “secular” and the “religious.” I try to practice what Dan Barber or Anthony Paul Smith might call a “generic secularity” in my theological work, a secularity without secularism.
All that being said, I personally do theology because Christian theology is a system of thought in which I have invested a great deal and which has profoundly shaped my life (for good and for ill). It is the place where I feel most able to make a significant creative contribution, in contrast to closely related fields where I’ve invested considerable time, like philosophy or the theologies of other monotheistic religions.
For the near term, most of my work will be in a critical or genealogical rather than constructive vein, but I have done work that I take to be undeniably “constructive theology” (e.g., Politics of Redemption), and I reserve the right to do so again without warning or hesitation.
One year ago today, I went on one of my Twitter rants about higher education in America. Along the way, it morphed into a rant about the disproportionate burdens we put on young people, as crystallized in the following tweet:
I’m not sure how it happened, but this tweet “went viral.” Within a day or two, it had over 10,000 retweets — unimaginably more than any tweet I’ve done, before or since. After a couple weeks, I was hearing from my students that a screen capture of the tweet had been posted on Tumblr and Imgur, with hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Since then, people have developed more elegant images with the quote. There are also slight variants from people who preferred not to use the retweet function, as well as many plagiarized versions.
Clearly nothing I ever write will have such widespread impact as this tweet. Not even close. And that feels very strange to me, because in my mind, it’s not a particularly good tweet. Certainly good for a brief chuckle, but if I were to compile a “greatest hits” list, it wouldn’t make my personal top ten by far. Of course, part of that might stem from the experience of virality itself. Within a couple days, I went from being excited to being profoundly sick of having this tweet thrown back at me every few seconds. When it comes up in conversation, I find that I can’t actually make myself recite the tweet out loud, opting instead to get out my phone and show them (an easy task since it’s almost always been retweeted or favorited within the last day or so).
I’m also not sure if I’ve received any benefit from this. Blog traffic has been flat this year, my book sales appear to be unaffected, and there hasn’t been a flood of applicants to Shimer College begging to study with the bathroom tweet guy. I did get a huge boost in Twitter followers, doubling my count within a few weeks — but after that initial burst, I returned to the same “slow and steady” growth curve I had experienced before. I’m not sure if any subsequent tweet I’ve written has even broken 100 retweets.
It’s all very inscrutable.