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Day 17

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Christianity and the Left

The Latin American Experience

by JUSTIN E.H. SMITH

In my last piece in Counterpunch, I discussed the role of Christianity in American politics, and argued that the progressives would do best not to ridicule the right for its constant invocation of Christ, but instead to reclaim the legacy of Christ for its own righteous ends. I would like to follow this piece up with a consideration of the role of Christianity in progressive politics beyond the borders of the U.S., in a part of the world where –refreshingly, to my mind– political debate is not circumscribed by the junior-high-debate-club inanity that on CNN and its equivalents passes for the fullest and most glorious exercise of our First Amendment rights.

Ever since Marx and Engels denounced religion as the opium of the masses, socialism has commonly been perceived as synonymous with godlessness, and not just by Pat Robertson and his ilk, but by the left itself. But socialism did not begin with Marx and Engels. Its full history extends back, at least, to the very earliest phase of modernity, when the desire for a utopia-to-come could as yet only be articulated in terms of the fulfillment of scripture.

For instance, in 1534 the Anabaptist Jan Matthijs declared the city of Münster in Westphalia to be the new Jerusalem. Money was outlawed, the wealth of the local elite was seized and redistributed as communal property. Matthijs was soon killed, and his brother in arms, Jan van Leyden, rose to power in the defense of the Lord’s new earthly kingdom, soon declaring himself “King David,” and introducing the Old Testament practice of polygamy. The fun didn’t last long. Soon enough, the forces of reaction took the city back, and raised the Anabaptist radicals to the top of the cathedral in cages, where they died of exposure. The cages are still there, though one may wonder whom they are meant to serve as a warning.

For some reason, it remains necessary to point out at every occasion that the history of socialism didn’t end with Marx and Engels and their atheist acolytes either. In the end, it may turn out that the chapter of socialist history that extends from 1848 to 1989 was only as atheist as the times required it to be, no more and no less than were Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche, Orwell, and countless other, overly hopeful yet resolutely non-socialist despisers of medieval benightedness.

Even during this period, socialism was not uniformly atheist, either. Outside of the immediate sphere of influence of the Soviets, adherents to socialist principles continued to recognize the deeper roots of their tradition, which extend back not just through movements like that of the Anabaptists, but indeed all the way to the Gospels themselves. In Latin America in particular, though the Soviet puncture of the Monroe Doctrine in places like Cuba and Nicaragua is what captured the attention of the American public, many saw Christianity and socialism, sometimes even that strain of socialism that takes Marx as one of its founding fathers, to be naturally suited to one another.

The Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel (born in Argentina and residing for a number of decades in Mexico), and other theoreticians of Liberation Theology, while decidedly rejecting the Catholic Church as a powerful and oppressive social institution, built a movement based on the understanding of Christ himself as a fighter against powerful worldly institutions in the name of the oppressed. This movement continues to thrive today.

In the new book, Beyond Philosophy: Ethics, History, Marxism, and Liberation Theology (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), Eduardo Mendieta has done a fine job of collecting together a wide variety of Dussel’s writings, translated into English and spanning the course of several decades, which together may help the Anglophone reader unfamiliar with Liberation Theology to understand how these two movements, Christianity and socialism —so at odds with one another in a society (American) that increasingly seems to take free-market capitalism as itself the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy— at least on one interpretation may be thought to be ideally suited to one another.

In Dussel’s view, the shared fundamental concerns of socialism and Christianity arise from the shared conviction in each tradition that, to paraphrase the Sermon on the Mount, the future looks bright for the poor, while the rich are doomed. Marx says doomed and Christ says damned, but their loyalties are in the same place. Dussel, however, does what Marx certainly could not in offering a distinctly Biblical interpretation of the concept of poverty. For Dussel, to sin is just to take on the role of the “Prince of this world,” of someone who possesses power and exercises it in the spheres of politics and economics. The poor, in turn, are those over whom this power is exercised. Christ, Dussel points out, in taking on human likeness, “made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). With Christ on their side, the poor are the righteous pole of a dialectical opposition that is sustained not by the poor’s own, pure lack, but rather by the perpetual deprivation they suffer through the appropriation of what is rightfully theirs by the rich. Precisely because they are deprived in this way, Dussel thinks, it is the poor who are also the most open and spiritually available to God, and this is for him the full meaning of the claim in the Sermon on the Mount that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit.

Another important dichotomy that informs Dussel’s work is that between the global periphery and the global center. The former of these Dussel sees as being constituted in different respects by Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, and by women and children. It would be a mistake to detect here an incoherence arising from the marriage of postcolonial critique of Eurocentrism with Christianity. Of course, it is true that Christianity came to the New World by force, and for this reason it is customary for anti-imperialists, particularly those less resistant to the plague of vapid new-agery, to see Christianity as part of the legacy of oppression and so to elect instead to ‘celebrate’ supposedly more deeply rooted, native belief systems. But Dussel seeks to inscribe himself into a long tradition within Catholicism that faces up to the generally oppressive character of the Church without for that thinking that fighting oppression requires rejection of the Church tout court. For he distinguishes between Christianity and Christendom. The former is the ethical core of the Church, concerned first and foremost with the corporeal suffering of its subjects, while the latter is, in Mendieta’s words, “a moralistic perspective, concerned with dogmas, laws, ontologies of war and order, epistemologies of certitude and univocity.”

For Dussel, it is important that the evangelizing activity associated with colonial expansion in the modern period occurred concomitantly with the ultimate rise of what he sees as an idolatrous secularism in the center the exaltation of the self as an object of worship characteristic of western modernity. “To be able to say with Nietzsche ‘God is dead,’ he writes, it was necessary first of all to kill his manifestation of himself to the Indian, the African, the Asian” (26). Missionary imperialism, then, did not bring God to the people inhabiting the periphery; it took God away.

Ever since then, the Church has been two different things in the center and in the periphery. The death of the ‘divine’ in Europe, though, simultaneously opened up the new possibility for the true Church, rooted in faith in God as mediated by the poor, to grow up in precisely those parts of the world upon which early modern Europe had earlier imposed its will under the false pretense of saving souls. In short, souls were not saved in the mass conversions of Europe’s early modern colonial expansion, but the Church may be saved if its essential nature, as a “liberating community” that “identif[ies] itself with the oppressed so as to ‘break down the barriers’ of the system that have been closed by the work of sin” (29) is able to come through in the peripheral countries of the world in which Christianity was once a soul-killing burden imposed from the outside by a civilization whose own soul was itself already moribund.

Dussel, then, is very critical of reformist theologians of the center, such as Niebuhr and Barth, who no longer concern themselves with the possibility of radically changing the system, and see the plight of the Christian as cultivating individual goodness while accepting the inescapable flaws and injustices of one’s social world. For Dussel, imagining every Christian theologian in the predicament of Moses, reformist theology seeks to answer the question, How can we survive in Egypt? while liberation, in contrast, is to get out of Egypt. In other words, as Dussel writes, “the ethics of liberation… starts by describing the system within which the subject always starts… Today in Latin America, without making invalid connections, we can say that ‘the system’ is Anglo-Saxon capitalism in society, machismo in sexual attitudes, ideological domination in education: idolatry on every level” (138f.).

Dussel’s predecessor and inspiration in the defense of the Catholic Church against its modern descent into idolatry is the 16th-century Spanish priest, Bartolomé de las Casas, a great defender of the integrity of the life and cultures of the New World, whose most notable written work is the Brevísima relación de la destruición de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies) of 1552. There is nothing heretical about Las Casas’ views. He believed that the Gospel had to be brought to the Native Americans, but did not believe that the gold-hungry conquistadors were in any position to spread it. As Las Casas writes in the Brevísima relación:

The common ways mainly employed by the Spaniards who call themselves Christian and who have gone there [to the New World] to extirpate those pitiful nations and wipe them off the earth is unjustly waging cruel and bloody wars… Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus to rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits (cited in Dussel, 64).

Liberation theology in the periphery, then, goes back almost as far as the utopian Christian social movements in Europe, such as Anabaptism. The difference, for Dussel, is that those in the periphery literally occupy a different theological position, and thus a different theology is needed to respond to their spiritual plight. As the global poor, those in the periphery are alone capable of playing a mediating role for God on earth.

Dussel’s account of the history of modern western philosophy as a product of the civilization that was simultaneously plundering the globe is insightful, yet in places heavy-handed. Mendieta has suggested to me that, for Dussel, the sovereign subject who appears as the protagonist of the Meditations represents the assimilation into an epistemological stance of an attitude that is in its origins imperial. Now, a lot of different meanings may be packed into the “I think,” that serves as the cornerstone of Cartesian epistemology; it doesn’t seem to me, anyway, that “I conquer” is one of them. Of course, in general it is a sound approach to the history of thought to consider its deeper roots in the social and economic circumstances of its era. Engels’ take on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, for example, that it is the theological counterpart to the emerging capitalist system, in which success or failure in fact have nothing to do with how hard you work, but with the vicissitudes of the omnipotent market, says a lot about capitalism and Calvinism (and Engels), and may actually be picking out a true connection between base and superstructure. But I fail to see how the sovereignty of the thinking subject can be cast as a transposition into the epistemological realm of the conquering subject represented near-simultaneously by Pizarro and Cortes.

Descartes, for all his shortcomings, was for the most part interested in sitting in his armchair by his fireplace and, well, true to his nature as a res cogitans, just sort of thinking about things. This may be a foreshadowing of the shameful idleness that comes with the high standard of living the developed world continues to enjoy as a result of its perpetual plundering of the rest of the world, but it is not itself an act of plundering.

If anything, Descartes’ greatest failure is not that he would justify the oppression of others, but that his philosophy has nothing at all to say about others. In this connection, Dussel is justly dissatisfied with the Cartesian tradition for its failure to take on what some have impotently called ‘the other-minds problem’. Descartes worries early on in his Meditations on First Philosophy that all those people he sees through his window may just be so many automata in coats and hats. He then goes on to establish his own existence by appeal to the cogito, God’s existence through a few more clever arguments, and the existence of the external world through the revelation that God is no deceiver and so would not make us wrongly believe we exist in a world that does not depend on us. All those automata he worried about earlier, it would appear, are just so many things in the external world, like the clouds and the rivers. Descartes does not need others to exist in the same way that he himself does in order for him to accomplish his primary philosophical goals.

There is another philosophical tradition from which Dussel draws inspiration, of which Emmanuel Levinas is a prominent representative, according to which the existence of others is the very starting point of philosophy. Or, to put it in Levinasian terms, ethics is first philosophy. This starting point is deeply rooted in the tradition of Judeo-Christian religious thought, a tradition in which Dussel, of course, is happy to inscribe himself. Christian love, as Simone Weil put it, is nothing but the true apprehension of the other’s full being.

On Dussel’s understanding, this ethics-as-first-philosophy is best pursued by a method he calls ‘analectics’, which is for him the practice of ‘listening to the transontological voice of the other’. And it is the poor, in the theological sense sketched above, who, being locked out of the system, are perpetually other. As Dussel explains:

The ‘other’ (‘the widow, the orphan, the foreigner,’ in the prophets’ formulation, or under the universal name of ‘the poor person’) confronting the system is the metaphysical reality beyond the ontological being of the system. As a result he or she is ‘exteriority’, what is most alien to the system as a totality… Jesus’ identification with the poor (Matt. 25) is not a metaphor; it is a logic (139).

If Marx’s dialectics promises the inevitable war of the poor against the sinners who dominate them, which would also inevitably lead to the production of a new totality, Dussel’s analectics seeks to elevate the poor to their rightful, central place, the place that Christ designated for them as the mediators of God on earth, without in so doing creating from the poor a new totality. Orwell’s pigs, in other words, will not start walking on their hind legs. Of course, many would-be members of the flock have found the tremendous delay the meek and humble have to put up with before they get their reward —that is, the rest of their natural lives— downright prohibitive, and have instead sought power and magnanimity in this life. They have either learned to bear, or have never heard, Christ’s portentous dismissal: Verily, they have their reward (Matt. 6:2).

One may face, in this connection, no small difficulty understanding what sort of social order Dussel realistically expects to attain. The great Brazilian leftist leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has recently been very frank about the difficulties any elected leader faces in representing the will of the poor masses. If too much opposition to the standard list of status quo injustices is detected, foreign investors will inevitably pull out and economies will surely collapse, at which point not even incremental progress, let alone substantial change, will be possible. But here again it is important to emphasize that Dussel does not seek to replace one totality with another.

While Fidel and Lula may represent impressive instances of the people’s will making itself felt, on my understanding of Dussel’s view, the hope for liberation does not rest with earthly princes. Analectics, in contrast with dialectics, is concerned with compassionate solidarity among the poor in the face of domination. In the experience of this solidarity, even if the domination is not thereby diminished, its totalizing power is. Here, of course, one may wonder if Dussel is not being accommodationist, as he elsewhere accuses Niebuhr and Barth of being; that is, whether he is casting theology as a way for communities of believers to become a genuine alternative, but never a real threat, to the existing social order.

It might be suggested in response to this concern that Dussel distinguishes himself from Niebuhr and Barth in the same way that Las Casas’s rejection of the Catholic Church that created him was distinct from the contrarian gestures of groups like the radical Anabaptists. In the global center, there is a range of positions that one can take up on the spectrum from sheer apologism for the existing social order on the one end to radical rejection of this order on the other. The latter position all too often ends, though, in what looks like a farcical recrudescence of precisely what the contrarians would have hoped to do away with, which is why even the most committed socialist must face up to the lesson of Animal Farm and proceed with some caution and a healthy dose of skepticism about just how radiant the future, as a result of our actions, can really ever be. Las Casas, for his part, was not staging a grand bit of street theater motivated by ecstatic visions of some better world. He was broken down and sickened by the brutality of the Catholic conquistadors against the Native Americans.

Outside of Europe and North America, Dussel might affirm, there is no such spectrum of accommodationism and contrarianism as the one on which we may justly place Barth and Niebuhr. Being since the 16th century nothing more than a source of raw material and labor for the countries of the center, and being by definition less powerful in an economic and military sense, the countries of the periphery cannot even pretend to play around with overturning the global social order. Through compassionate solidarity and the other virtues of analectics, though, they can create an alternative moral pole in the world— an alternative moral center, if you will. And that, Christianity tells us, is a force that’s always stronger than all the money and weapons concentrated in whatever plot of land enjoys the mixed blessing of being, for its time, at the global center of things.

Justin E. H. Smith teaches philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca