Thursday, August 30, 2018

The meek shall inherit suffering

Daniel Bell's book “Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering” is a difficult book to comprehensively review, since it covers a lot of philosophical and theological ground. Bell is a Lutheran, but sounds like a Catholic and supports the Radical Orthodoxy current within the Anglican Communion. He mobilizes Bernhard de Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucalt to bolster his case. And, I suppose, John Milbank. Let me also say already at the outset that I disagree with Bell, in fact, “disagreement” is too weak a word. Bell is something as amazing as a stereotyped hypocritical black-coat telling the poor and the oppressed to stop their resistance against the oppressors, until the Second Coming, when the oppressors will be…forgiven by God! And this in a book published in 2001! If this is the much-vaunted social and political program of Radical Orthodoxy, I'll rather take my chances with some colour revolution. A slightly “pink” one, perhaps?

Bell's book is to a large extent a criticism of liberation theology, a leftist and Marxist-inspired form of Catholic theology (although one the Catholic hierarchy opposes), popular in Latin America. Although Bell is actually more conservative than the liberation theologians, he constantly attempts to portray himself as more “radical” and “anti-capitalist”. Bell doesn't believe that liberation theology can effectively challenge capitalism, but his alternative isn't socialism or even social liberalism. Rather, he sees the Church polity as a political and social formation in its own right. Does this mean that the Church should take political power over society? Apparently not, since Bell's ideal are the Cistercian monastic communities of the Middle Ages. This would have made sense if Bell was actively calling on Christians to leave the sinful world and isolate themselves in communes. In practice, he wants the Church to become less political and activist, while staying put inside society, supposedly spreading love, charity and communion all around itself, thereby healing society from class conflict. He even refers to this as “therapy”. I'm not a Marxist, but I'm tempted to quote Marx on this: “Religion is the heart of a heartless world, it is the opium of the people”. Bell's “anti-capitalist” alternative to liberation theology is for the Church to play precisely this role, and to administer more “opium”. But, of course, this is simply the traditional function of certain Churches throughout history. They never abolished capitalism, not even in favour of medievalist “feudal socialism” (the traditional Catholic position). Radical Orthodoxy turns out to be “orthodoxy” with more radical-sounding rhetoric.

Bell criticizes the liberation theologians for having (in practice) a purely distributive view of “justice”. He also criticizes them for having a liberal and too individualist view of “rights”. Indeed, Bell believes that all of modern Catholic social teaching, the official versions included, is based on erroneous conceptions of “rights” and “justice”. These concepts are easily co-opted by free market or welfare state capitalism. To Bell, the correct view of right and justice was laid down by Bernhard and Thomas. Justice has little or nothing to do with giving people “what is their due” on the basis of “rights”. Rather, it’s a unitive force bringing society together in love in a quest for perfection, ultimately the beatific vision of God. This is a “thick” conception of the common good. Capitalism, by contrast, has a much thinner vision of the common good, where “justice” is an external arbiter between acquisitive and competitive individuals, who each claim a “right” to existing resources. While the preferred way of arbitration is through the legal enshrinement of free market relations, the same idea is also compatible with a welfare state (and, of course, with socialism). “Justice” as an arbiter between competing claims to get “what is their due”, will at best be an external pacifying force in a deeply divided society. The social peace will sooner or later break down, since society isn't based on love and a common quest for perfection in God. Bell constantly uses the term “terror of justice”, and I get the impression that he really means it literally. Since “justice” in the liberal/welfarist/socialist sense is ultimately impossible, a consistent attempt to enforce it would presumably lead to a terrorist regime. Like the Jacobins, perhaps? Once again, Bell's criticism of “capitalism” turns out, on closer inspection, to be an attack on social liberal, Social Democratic and Communist *alternatives* to free market capitalism!

Bell spends considerable time discussing “desire”. On his interpretation, Christianity doesn't reject desire as such, only fallen or distorted desire. (This sounds correct, but could be influenced by Radical Orthodoxy's somewhat beer-swilling perspective on the Christian life.) Without healing desire and restoring it to its proper place, as a desire for mutual love and God, “justice” will simply degenerate into terror, as various groups in society will demand satisfaction of their respective warped desires for more worldly goods. Liberation theology is incapable of doing this, presumably because it simply reverses the roles of the rich and the poor. And since most people are poor, even the abolition of the rich won't put an end to social strife, since various sub-groups among the poor will continue the perpetual war of all against all, attempting to satisfy their worldly desires. At least according to the author!

Daniel Bell's book is subtitled “the refusal to cease suffering”. A strange subtitle, but the author seems to mean this quite literally, as well. For what is his alternative to left-wing liberation theology? It turns out to be a kind of voluntary self-crucifixion of the oppressed, where the poor relinquish “what is their due” and the “terror of justice”, instead offering conciliation, forgiveness and healing to the oppressors. In this way, the poor and oppressed can start to heal their own desires in mutual love, and by extending the offer of forgiveness to their enemies, they are giving them, too, the chance to participate in the process. Bell writes about poor peasant communities in El Salvador who supposedly prayed for their persecutors during the civil war, etc. But what if the oppressors reject the offer? Indeed, what if they use the meek attitude of their victims to simply continue the oppression?

Here, Bell has no response. Indeed, he even admits it himself. He calls “the refusal to cease suffering” a “wager on God”, since there are absolutely no guarantees that the strategy will work in the here and now (i.e. in the real world). Perhaps it actually won't work at all. Perhaps the problem of the suffering of the poor and oppressed only has an eschatological solution. In plain English: let's wait until the Second Coming of Christ! Interestingly, Bell doesn't tell us how Jesus will solve the problem at the end of time. Will he throw Pinochet, Videla and the Salvadorean death squads into the lake of fire and brimstone? Somehow, I get the impression that's not the kind of God Bell believes in. Perhaps Christ will simply forgive his enemies, too…

Of course, in the real world, Bell's bizarre admonitions won't be heeded. If history is any guide, the poor and oppressed (or even the slightly crossed) do refuse to suffer, and that's how it should be. The real response to the “end of history” is to boldly declare “I am Spartacus”.

Final point. Although I don't consider myself a conservative, I happen to agree with some of Bell's criticisms of the modern conceptions of “justice”, “right” and “common good”. Yes, the ideal society would indeed be based on mutual love, a quest for perfection, and so on. It would also have to become less acquisitive. Indeed, even for pragmatic reasons (peak oil, climate change etc) a “healing of desire” would be in order. However, it's unlikely – to put it mildly – that such a society could emerge as the result of the slaves, the serfs, or the sweat-shop labourers simply laying down their arms and hoping for the best. As long as the oppressors refuse to cease causing suffering, the only way to reach the perfection craved by the author is…the terror of justice.

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