if anyone still follows (or subscribes to) this mostly defunct blog, you can check out mattshafer.tumblr.com, where i’ll be writing throughout the next two months about an independent study project i’m carrying out in Cape Town, South Africa. I’m examining issues related to political nonviolence and its relationship to transitional justice after the ned of apartheid.
Ironically enough, the belief systems most susceptible to self-destruction are those most coherent, self-consistent, and easily-defensible. The vulnerability of such systems arises from a fundamental part of human psychology. Because such belief systems appear to their adherents to be problem-free, all-explanatory, and equally convincing in all their components, any actual objective weakness in their explanations potentially poses a threat to their entire validity. When one’s ideas hang together perfectly and without need for re-examination or self-doubt, a challenge to any component belief can domino into every other aspect of the system. The sense of certainty and psychological security fostered by coherency puts all aspects of a worldview at risk when any part of it is challenged.
Consider Christian fundamentalism. This religious system comes packaged with extensive apologetics that render it almost entirely self-consistent and apparently coherent. Fundamentalism offers an answer to every challenge. But though Christian fundamentalism does contain some ideas that are meaningful and true, its contains many significant flaws that represent neither the true message of Jesus nor the nature of broader reality. Awareness of these flaws does more than cause an adherent to change specific beliefs; rather, such awareness can challenge the entire coherency of the fundamentalist system and by implication cause the former adherent to reject all aspects of his or her religion, both the good and the bad.
Thus, because virtually every human belief system is flawed in some way, the very coherency of such a system can in the end lead to the rejection of all its components, regardless of their individual merit — a sort of “guilt by association” of beliefs. Anecdotal evidence for this claim is found in the many stories of Christian fundamentalists who eventually become atheists, rather than, say, moderate or liberal Christians, after they are forced to recognize the error of some component of their fundamentalism.
What we need most then in our worldviews is not total coherency and self-consistency, with the resultant false security of certainty. Rather, we should be willing to let paradox, mystery, and doubt break into our faith, lending us humility and the willingness to not have it all figured out at once. The willingness to accept uncertainty or even apparent contradiction will give our faith a different sort of coherence, a fluid coherence that allows our ideas to adapt to our changing experiences of God and of people. When we accept paradox as a means to the end of truth, our religious worldviews will be more mature, more resilient, and more effective as methodologies for understanding and knowing God.
This short text (>40 pages) is a quick read, but is well worth it. Published by Wide Margin, “a new Christian publishing house focusing on books on Christian living particularly from first-time and non-Western authors,” the essay examines the “climate of crisis” — economic, environmental, and otherwise — that characterizes the contemporary world.
I highly recommend this essay as a manifesto for the necessity for radical political, social, and cultural action by Christians. The author, a former missionary, combines down-to-earth Christian experience with academic acumen, and did a good job shattering my own stereotypes about what sorts of things people doing missionary work believe. Drawing from such diverse authors as C. S. Lewis, Walter Wink, Naomi Klein, Walter Benjamin, and Slavoj Žižek (who is cited the most frequently), Ingleby unapologetically calls for very left-wing solutions to the crises that face the world.
Ingleby does a good job of critiquing several inadequate Christian approaches to environmental and economic crisis in the world, dispelling the myth that “this world is not our home” and that therefore we should ignore its problems. The author’s admirable goal is to contextualize the message of the Gospel to the real-world circumstances that face twenty-first-century humanity, and thus he is unashamed to see Christianity as being inherently environmentalist, anti-capitalist, and justice-oriented.
Two insights struck me as particularly valuable. Ingleby makes the much-needed point that “because relationships are at the heart of all this, we can say that even more important than survival is justice.” Borrowing from Walter Wink, Ingleby straightforwardly describes systems that privilege survival over justice as demonic, and correctly notes that sacrifice will be needed for justice. Though easily (and, I feel, wrongly) critiqued as naïve, this moral clarity is a much-needed reminder in the current political climate.
Ingleby’s other key insight is his appropriation of Žižek’s call for an alliance between political radicals (particularly in the environmentalist movement) and proponents of Christian apocalypticism for the creation of a “radical emancipatory politics.” Ingleby is correct in his assertion that these two groups (often viewed as polar opposites in popular discourse) share many of the same goals. It is tempting to imagine what American politics would have looked like over the past few decades if this call for a leftist Christianity had been heeded earlier.
Constrained by the shortness of his essay, Ingleby presents few solutions to the crises he trumpets. But Christians and Catastrophe effectively presents the Biblical case for a renewed and contextualized Christian apocalypticism, and, perhaps most importantly, reclaims apocalyptic rhetoric and vision as a tool of radical hope rather than destructive despair. For this vision of Christianity as a call for action in crisis, I recommend this short book as a basic, coherent introduction to its topic — and even as a manifesto for a differently-politicized Church of the third millennium.
Adapted from Luke 10, NRSV.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was driving down from Tempe to Flagstaff, and fell into the hands of a militia, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a pastor was driving in his Cadillac down that road; and when he saw him, he switched lanes and passed by. So likewise a businessman, when he drove through the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But an undocumented Mexican while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having cleaned them with soap and water. Then he helped him up, brought him to a hotel, and took care of him. The next day he took out what little money he had and gave it to to the hotel manager, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the militia?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
[See also: "Arizona and the Least of These"]
There are many questions to be asked about SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial new immigration law: questions of constitutionality, of enforcement, of specific provisions, of racial bias. These issues are certainly important and require much thought and discussion. But for the follower of Jesus they must take backseat to a much more important question: how does SB 1070 impact the “least of these”?
Matthew 25 contains some of Jesus’ most famous stories. Jesus speaks in the parable both to the righteous and the wicked, and to the latter he says, “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. … Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” This passage has long stood as a perennial call to Christians to stand with the oppressed, with the “least of these,” with those at the bottom of society, those most marginalized by “the system.” I believe that it is this passage which must frame Christian discussion of Arizona’s immigration law.
I submit that Christians must regard undocumented immigrants as “the least of these” in the context of the American immigration debate. Every year, millions of people around the world struggle to make enough money to live, to feed their children, to be able to go through their day-to-day lives with some semblance of security. Many of these people find that they are unable to find work in their own country, and so they seek to emigrate and establish a new life somewhere else to provide for themselves and their families. Pushed out by broken systems and broken circumstances, marginalized by greedy economic structures and ineffective governments, many look towards the United States and its relatively strong economy as offering hope for the future of themselves and their children.
Unfortunately for most of these people, it is incredibly difficult to immigrate legally to the United States. The process is time-consuming, costly, and uncertain, and can thus leave a potential immigrant who is denied a visa worse off at the end of the attempt than at its beginning. Daunted by the difficulty of this long-term process, with fears compounded in many cases by immediate economic uncertainties, many people are put into a situation where they see no other option to provide for their themselves and their families than to enter the country illegally. With no realistic alternatives, they live at the margins of American society.
These undocumented immigrants, truly the “least of these,” are the targets of Arizona’s new law. SB 1070 is manifestly designed to further marginalize these people and those who help them, to make it easier to arrest and prosecute them, to interrupt their day-to-day lives as they work (often in below-minimum-wage-jobs) to set food on the table every night. Rather than try to fix the broken systems that put these people in the situations they are in, Arizona has decided to punish them and ostracize them. Arizona has cracked down on the victims of America’s broken immigration system rather than try to address the underlying problems with the system itself.
I believe that a straightforward application of the message of Jesus Christ condemns Arizona’s immigration law. The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of grace not legalism, of inclusion not exclusion, of welcome not hostility. The Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is a proclamation of justice in the face of oppression, of liberation from bondage, of love for the marginalized. With this in mind, I ask Christians across America to remember that as they do to the least of these, so do they do to Jesus himself.
[This post was originally published at YourPerspective.org]