Jean Vanier, “From Brokenness to Community”

The following is adapted from a talk that Jean Vanier gave at Harvard for the Herold M. Witt lectures. The transcript was published in 1992 by Paulist Press.

jean vanierIt is my belief that in our mad world, where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality and depression, that it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, and counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals, as well as for our world…

Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain, because it is a place of truth and of growth — the revelation of our pride, our fear and our brokenness.

Jesus says to his followers: “Now go! Go out to the world and bring the good news the others; do not keep it for yourselves. Heal, liberate and bring life and hope to others, especially to the poor, the weak, the blind and the lame…

When we talk of the poor or of announcing the good news to the poor, we should never idealize the poor. Poor people are hurt; they are in pain; they can be very angry, in revolt or in depression…

When such pain becomes too much, people tend to slip into a world of dream.  Reality is just too painful. The world of dream or of psychosis can in someway be easier to bear. The greatest pain is rejection, the feeling that nobody really wants you “like that.” The feeling that you are seen as ugly, dirty, a burden, of no value…

Many people in our world today are living in deep inner pain and anguish because as children they were not valued, welcomed, and loved.  My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted, and loved as they are, and that they have a place, then we witnessed a real transformation — I would even say resurrection.  Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful, and trusting.  As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a family, the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge…

To love someone is not first of all to do things for them but to reveal to them their beauty and value. To be in communion with someone also means to walk with them… For many people in pain there is no solution…

It is a liberating experience for them to realize they do not have to conform to any preconceived idea about how they should be.  Communion in fact gives freedom to grow. It is not possessiveness. It entails a deep listening to others, helping them to become more fully themselves.

People have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish; the fear of being devalued are pushed aside; the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or a feeling helpless in front of others and pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.  I discovered something which I had never confronted before — that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart.

Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team… The important thing is to become conscious of those from brokenness...forces and us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts, not outside.

I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor — the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.

The love and support of community gives you the certitude that you are loved just as you are, with all your wounds, and that you can grow through all that. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace and compassion and love through our wounds.

When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing!

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community

What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part II: “How do we Know?”

I. According to our present culture, doubt is somehow believed to be more honest than faith, but Newbigin thinks this is nonsense. Both faith and doubt have a role — both are necessary — but faith is primary. You cannot begin to know anything without an initial act of faith.

  • Doubt is only possible on the basis of something that we believe. Why do you doubt it? Because I believe this, that, or the other… Doubt depends on faith, in other words.
  • In every society, there is a plausibility structure, and a set of normal beliefs that nobody questions. If something is proposed that seems to contradict this, it is doubted.
  • We tend to accept what everybody else believes. Anything that is different, we doubt. Doubt is a profoundly conservative move, therefore, Newbigin argues.

II. In our culture, we have separated science out as an equivalent to knowledge, as that which gives us objective facts, and as if everything else is subjective. But Newbigin points out how the idea of a purely objective knowledge is an illusion.

  1. The idea that there is a kind of knowledge that is not dependent on our thinking is a powerful and dominant notion in our culture, but it is absurd. Everything is affected by our subjectivity. There is a subject shaped by the culture to which he or she belongs.
  2. Knowing is not something that happens to us. It is a skill that we have learn! It is an achievement.
  3. We only learn by apprenticeship to a tradition — a tradition of knowing. First of all, we learn through the tradition of our language. No knowing is possible without that This is just as true with science, which is profoundly traditional! No one is accepted who has not had years of apprenticeship.

III. People have always wanted to know how we can be certain that the things that we know are really so

  • The Quest for Certainty: The famous French philosopher Descartes led us astray! He lived in a time of skepticism. He was convinced that we could have certainty, not just belief. And this has guided science ever since.
    o He thought he could start with something that he could not doubt — i.e., his own existence. With the precision and certainty of mathematics, he built from there and developed the critical principle, namely, that all claims to knowledge must be tested by those two criteria (his existence and calculations), and anything that falls short of certainty in that sense is not knowledge but belief.
    o Locke says that belief is a persuasion that falls short of knowledge. So when we say we “believe,” we are saying “we don’t know.”
    o Descartes’ critical method was bound eventually to destroy itself. it has to subject to its own critical principle.
  • The Quest for Certainty Negated: Increasing skepticism followed Descartes, via Hume and Kant, and both concluded that we cannot know ultimate reality. But of course, Newbigin points out, how one knows this we cannot know!
  • The Whole Quest Itself Called into Question: Nietzsche saw then, finally, with terrible clarity, that this aforementioned sequence of thoughts must inevitably lead us to a place where we cannot speak of truth and falsehood or good and evil. Any claim to know the truth is the exercise of dominance, and the only thing that is certain is the will (to power).

IV. Certainty in Crisis: So we have the relapse into what is now called postmodernism — into the kind of belief where people say “it may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” And even though in the realm of science there is still a great deal of trust in objective truth, that too has been increasingly eroded.

  • We have now reached the point in the so-called deconstruction movement, in literary criticism, where the idea that any text has any meaning of itself, is demolished. The ultimately development of this is to say that words are purely cultural constructs, not corresponding themselves to any reality. We are merely expressing subjective feelings when we say things like “I believe in God.”
  • Newbigin Responds: Now, of course it is true, that all truth claims are cultural products. English is just one of the languages of the world! But if we ask, what is the relationship between words and a corresponding reality, it’s obvious that the relation cannot be a matter of words. It has to be something different. This is where the profound mistake of Descartes becomes clear.
    o Descartes conceived the human mind as a disembodied “I”, as though not part of the world, looking at the world from the outside — able to take an objective view, not shaped by any personal viewpoint/interests. But we know that any knowing we have of anything arises out of our bodily engagement with the actual world! And we test our beliefs about what is the case by acting on them. (e.g., the way babies learn about objects in the world, etc.)

We are part of this world which we seek to know. The vast delusion which we have suffered since Descartes, is that we have a kind of spectators privilege, in a kind of non-committed way. This would be a “God’s-eye view” of the world, which of course we do not have.

V. But now that the subjectivity of our knowing has been emphasized, how can we know that we have any reliable relationship to the truth, making contact with reality?

  1. the first token of reality will be a sense of meaning. When a scientist has been struggling to make sense of random data and suddenly sees a coherent, beautiful picture… this indicates meaning.
  2. then he or she publishes it to invite his peers to consider it.
  3. And then if it is true, it will lead on to further truth. Any true discovery leads the searcher/scientists onto further discoveries. There will of course be some searches lead nowhere.

This is a dynamic picture of knowledge that contrasts with Descartes view. Descartes had a view of truth without doubts or uncertainties — a static picture of truth. A working scientist gives you a different picture of truth though, because he knows that there is more to be discovered, leading on into further reaches of reality. This is epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) from “below,” not from “above.”

VI. We can know things, but we can also know persons. Some languages have a distinction between these kind of knowledges! not English, unfortunately. The kind of knowledge of things is one-way in which we are in control. Knowing a person, however, is the kind where the object is a subject!

  • I am not in full control of this kind of knowledge. I must be willing to be questioned myself, to put my trust in that person, to open myself up. Faith here is being used in a second sense — which is not the same thing as being used in a separate sense! Faith has an affective sense, of showing love, for example, and receiving it.

How are these two modes of knowing related to each other?

  • Not separate, but interdependent — still distinct though! They represent different logical levels. A machine, for example, depends on the correct mechanical structure and the quality of its material (physics, chemistry, and engineering design). But if we come across a new machine and examine all of this, we won’t necessarily be able to determine its purpose! The physical provides the conditions that enable the machine to work, but the function of it is a different kind of question and logic. It’s a distinction between the “how” and the “why.”
  • There is a hierarchy of logical levels in all our knowing. If we are looking at the whole world of persons, there is a level above the physical, chemical, biological and mechanical. “Reductionism” says no to this though. But Newbigin is calling for an alternative to reducing knowledge down to the level of the physical, chemical, etc.

Plato asked, what does it mean to seek/love for truth? Is truth something we know or don’t know? If we know it, why do we seek for it? If we don’t know, how would we recognize when we found it?

  • In the passion to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things. Is it not possible that this passion is a response to something that calls out that passion? We are drawn forward by the intuition by something that is to be found, a hidden meaning, beauty, coherence in things.

VII. Conclusion: This brings us to the limits of philosophy. Because if it is true, as the Christian faith affirms, that the ultimate logical level upon which things are to be understood, is none of these hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, mechanics, etc.), but the personal, and that our whole existence can only be understood if we take this person level into account — if that were true, then everything would depend upon whether the one who is the person whose purpose governs all things has revealed that purpose to us. And that is what the gospel affirms.

  • But the Gospel affirms this not in the way that the Muslims do — that God has simply dictated the truth to us — but through a person, an action in which truth and grace go together, truth and love are one. Christians affirm that God’s self-revelation of himself is exactly what this argument would suggestion, namely, something which draws us to himself. If that is true, then we have to say that this is the secret of our knowing and our being, such that one is not separate from the other!
  • That which draws forth the whole process of evolution is not mere chance, as Darwin though, but is a response to the one who calls all creation to its proper fulfillment. So our heuristic passion is a response to God’s calling to us who alone in creation are conscious of God’s calling to seek the truth and seek it in him. And that would mean, in the end of the day, contrary to Descartes, we are not dealing with disembodied ideas. The truth can only be known through incarnation, through the actual involvement and coming of God in history, to the presence of the one who is in history who calls us with the words “follow me.” When we accept this calling, we are not then people who know everything, but we know that we are on the way — that we have the clue that will lead us into the fullness of the truth.

There will be those who say this is irrational, a leap of faith, etc., but the illusion that underlies that criticism is this:

  • If everything in this world can be understood by the hard sciences, then the way to know would simply be by observation and reason. But if the ultimate reality is personal and is grounded in the eternal love of the Triune God, then the only way we can come to know the truth is by a personal response to a personal calling.
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”: That means we have to remind our contemporaries that here is no spectator’s gallery. An objective standpoint is not available. We are called upon to a person commitment to understanding, to knowing — the limits of natural theology are at this point. It is only because we know God has revealed himself in the grace and flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ — his incarnation, life, death and resurrection — that we can recognize the illusion of the whole Cartesian project, accept our calling to the one incarnate Lord, and to know that that is the way to the truth.

Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995.  I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks.  I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at

I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.

  • The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
  • The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
  • Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.

II. Unity of the Church

  • Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
    o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
    o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
    o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.

III. Disunity in the Church

And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):

  1. The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
  2. The Great Schism (1054)
  3. The Reformation (1517)
  4. 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.

From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:

1. Catholic
2. Protestant
3. Pentecostal

1. Catholic

  • The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
  • The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
  • But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…

The Catholic Church can become lifeless.

2. Protestant

  • The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
  • The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.

The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.

3. Pentecostal

  • Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.

The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).

In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.

IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?

We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.

  • Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
  • There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
  • Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
  • We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
    o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.

About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):

1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.

  1. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
  2. Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
  3. Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.

V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:

  • Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant.  People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
    o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there.  This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
  • That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
    o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
  • The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
  • That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
    o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
  • The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

Mind, Body, Heart: Reflections on Conversion in Acts 16

[Below is the manuscript of a sermon I just gave at St. Peter's Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC, where I am now the associate pastor.  To listen to the audio, go here (]


Chapter 16 is a fairly lengthy passage, as we saw — and we didn’t even read all of it — so there are many important aspects to it that we could touch on, but we’re gonna have to focus in a little bit. Basically there’s this series of encounters between Paul and Silas and the three other people we just read about — Lydia, a slave girl, and the jailer — each one in very different circumstances, so I just want to walk through and see what we might be able to learn from each exchange.

We can gather from the outset that despite the significant setback of getting thrown in prison, Paul and Silas were used by God in an especially powerful way in this story.  Because in Antioch, in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas stayed around to encourage the Christians in the church there for about a year. In this case though, in Philippi, Paul and Silas are only there for a matter of days.  And yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it was somehow enough to start a church that Paul would later write to with great affection, presumably because they were really on the right track, at least a little more so than some of the other churches Paul was ministering to.

So in light of this fruitful effort by Paul and Silas, here’s the big picture question I want to raise that their example might be able to help us with: When it comes to our ministry to people in the Low Country, as we are striving to share the gospel, how do we as a church engage this community and this culture around us in a way that not only sustains this church but in a way that sows seeds that might even allow new churches to take root — Just as Paul and Silas did in Philippi?

I: Ok, in the story we just heard, there are three very different people are encountered by the power of the Gospel in three very different ways. Let’s take a look, starting with Lydia. That she’s a “seller of purple dyes” tells us that she’s probably a wealthy business woman. She’s described as a “God-worshiper,” so she’s someone who has rejected the many gods and many different ways of salvation that were offered by the mainstream religion of her Greek and Roman environment. She has come to have faith in the One God of Israel, even though she’s neither Jewish nor Christian.

I want to use some imagination here, and admittedly, this is somewhat speculative, but I think it’s appropriate to picture that Lydia’s the kind of person who today we might call a seeker. She really likes to think. She’s searching for meaning, purpose and truth. She’s not satisfied with the religion, values or worldview of the dominant culture around her. Maybe we could even say her main faith language is knowledge.

So the mind is the way that Lydia receives the Gospel. Now, it’s God who opens her heart and whose grace goes ahead of Paul to prepare her to hear and to understand, but the channel through which God does this is her intellect. So she listens and responds to God’s prompting, and Paul is able to reason with her and show how Jesus fulfills the divine promise of a Messiah who has brought salvation.

I want to pause here for a moment. There are some people, I think many of us could say, whose hearts seem pretty closed off or hardened to the things of God. The Bible talks about this. But there are others who, despite reservations, aren’t necessarily closed off completely. Maybe something about the Christian faith just doesn’t seem to make sense to them, or they’ve had a bad experience in church, or with Christians who are judgmental and narrow-minded.  Some people are skeptical, and sometimes for good reason. And I just want to say, if that’s you, if you’re kind of a Lydia, or someone you know is — then we want you here.

And not because you would be our next evangelism project, but because at St. Peter’s — even though I’ve been here for like three weeks — I think I’ve learned that the first thing we want to do is connect with people. This isn’t a place — and frankly I don’t think church should ever be a place — where you have to conform first in order to be accepted. Yes, there is a way of life in Jesus that we want to invite everyone into, and we have beliefs and convictions that are central, but we want to extend friendship to people, whether they’re like us or not. I think this is a church where people can bring their questions. And I believe we’re a community in which, if people have doubts, they can be honest and unashamed about that.

I emphasize this because, if there’s one character out of these three that I resonate with, it’s Lydia.  My main faith language is knowledge too. When I was in high school and college especially, I thought that if I could just answer the difficult questions with convincing arguments, my faith would be in a secure place. This partly why until literally the last month of my senior year of college, I was planning on going to law school instead of seminary. As long as I thought I could understand, I’d be in control. So I read books on apologetics. I even regularly attended the atheist and agnostic society meetings on Baylor’s campus that met weekly for several years, because I thought I had the answers they needed.

As you might guess though, I eventually learned that I didn’t have all those answers, and that some of my answers were misguided, or even flat out wrong. More than that though, as they graciously befriended me, I also began to learn how to listen. And you know, while some of them just wanted to argue and were cynical, others were genuinely open — they just had some tough questions! So knowledge is essential, and God uses our minds to reach us, just as he did with Lydia, and we can use our minds to worship and serve God — but knowledge can become idol, as it did for me, and still does.  So as we continue to welcome people and their questions, I would encourage us to remember not to confuse knowledge and faith.

II. Alright, after Lydia, we come to the Slave Girl: This is a strange and interesting story, because Paul doesn’t even initially set out to free this girl. He merely commands the spirit to come out of her because he’s annoyed. What the girl is saying seems to be a distraction to their mission. But even though Paul may not care very much about her wellbeing in this moment — we don’t know if he does — Paul’s trust in God’s authority over this Spirit allows God to nonetheless free the girl. Because liberating people from bondage is what God does. It’s one of the biggest themes in the Bible, beginning with the Exodus story. But we also find it all throughout Jesus’s ministry. I mean Jesus heals people and casts out oppressive spirits left and right. So for one thing Paul is imitating Jesus here. But the very first words of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke come from his reading of the Isaiah scroll, when he declares that he has come to bring, among other things, deliverance to the captives, good news to the poor, and to set people free.

And this girl is definitely a captive. Yes, there was a Spirit inside of her, but she had to be set free physically — probably before she could even start to understand with her mind, as Lydia does! Lydia was at the top of the social ladder, or close. The slave girl was the very bottom. The importance of this distinction is something else I had to learn.  I think God takes our social circumstances into consideration in the way that God pursues us.

I mentioned I started off in my faith journey as a Lydia. My faith was mostly in my mind and in my beliefs. And I’m still working on this, but as I matured somewhat toward the end of college and beginning of seminary, my eyes began to be opened more to God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed, and this theme throughout Scripture. I grew more sensitive to social injustices, to inequality, and to violence against vulnerable people groups in the world, as I was learning about different conflicts and so on. And in 2007, I went to Juarez, Mexico, right before the drug war got really bad, so it wasn’t too unsafe yet, but seeing the poverty in parts of that city was a wakeup call for me. I’m sure some of y’all can relate to this from when you’ve gone on mission trips to underdeveloped and developing countries. On this particular mission trip, we went there to tell them about Jesus, and it’s like I left with them having told me about their social problems, and how some of those social problems, in their view, were connected with my social privileges! This was a big moment in the shaping of my worldview. I would call it a mini-conversion of sorts.

But you know, in the past few years, God’s been teaching me another lesson. Recently I came across this quote from Gustavo Gutierrez: he says, “It might sound strange to say this, but even justice can become an idol, when it’s not placed within the context of gratuity.” Because what happens after the Israelites were brought out of the land of Egypt? Is everything smooth-sailing with God from then on? Are they totally grateful? Perfectly obedient? No way, not at all, right? After a rough journey through the wilderness, and a lot of highs and lows, they make a covenant with God, but they break it, God gets angry, forgives them, and the whole thing repeats itself.  Eventually they demand a king and establish a kingdom, and while there’s some good moments, before long Israel starts to look a lot like the very place they were delivered from in the first place: Egypt.

Because justice separated from gratitude adds something to or takes something away from the gospel.  Have y’all ever met anyone, for instance, who seems very passionate about social justice, but they’re also kind of mean? I think I was in danger of being that person sometimes.  So justice became an idol for me as well.  What’s currently helping me, and what will always be helping me overcome these idols, can be seen, finally, in what we learn from this third encounter, with the Jailer.  So let’s get there.

III. What else happens when slaves are set free? Well for one thing, the people who used to own them get upset. And that’s exactly what happens. Think of Pharaoh sending his army after the Israelites across the Red Sea. And Philippi did not have a big Jewish community.  It was populated by what we might call Roman “veterans” and their descendants — a pretty patriotic bunch.  So their reaction to some Jewish guys interfering with their commerce and promoting these beliefs and this way of life that ran contrary to the Roman culture is fairly predictable. And it lands Paul and Silas in prison after a severe and unlawful beating — even by Roman standards.

So this is not a very encouraging story so far! But it’s pretty typical in the Bible, in Acts, and especially for Paul it seems like.  The Bible is full of one story after another of men and women who faith great trials and suffering because of their faithfulness.  Why is that? Does God just want to mess with us and test us all the time? Well, that’s a big question. And I’m not going to try to answer it.  But I do think that one of the reasons this tends to happen is this:

The Gospel is counter-cultural.  It’s always subverting the status quo of our society.  And that word subvert has a very subtle meaning. It doesn’t just mean to “directly oppose.” In this instance it means something more like “undermine,” or to “expose the flaw or the deceit in whatever the dominant way of thinking or living might be.” So to subvert is tell a different version of the story, and to present an alternative faith system to live by. These Romans were trusting in Caesar, not Jesus, not the God of Israel. Their faith was in the Roman “Kingdom,” so to speak, not the Kingdom of God. So when you say to a big and powerful Empire, we’re not going to live under your rule — we’re citizens of a different Kingdom — that’s perceived as threatening! Even if you’re non-violent, as the early Christians were.  That’s the kind of thing that can get you beaten up and thrown into prison — or in Jesus’s case, crucified.

What’s incredible though, somehow, is that this didn’t seem to discourage Paul and Silas. Not only did it not discourage them, but it says they were singing! Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I have to confess, this is where some of my doubt comes in… So it helps me to imagine, whether it’s true or not, that if Paul and Silas were actually singing praise songs — maybe they were taunting praise songs, like “our God is an awesome God… and he’s better than yours.” Something like that would make me feel better! But whatever it sounded like, it left an impression on the jailer.. so let’s talk about him.

If Lydia was upper class, and the slave girl obviously in the lowest class, the jailer is somewhere in the middle. And Lydia receives the gospel through the use of her mind, and the slave girl is set free by physical liberation, through the body, then for the jailer the Spirit cuts straight to his heart. This is a guy, in all likelihood, whose dignity and worth is directly tied to his job and his loyalty to the Empire. Unlike Lydia, he’s probably a good pagan worshiper of the many Roman gods, and he calls Caesar his Lord. When it comes to his culture, he’s all in.

So, after the earthquake, we can assume that the jailer is about to kill himself either because of the disgrace he feels for having failed in his duty or out of anticipation for the punishment that was to follow. So, this is a ruthless system that he’s living in, and this is a man who’s probably never known anything different – the Romans governed with brute force and by instilling fear in people — even its own people. The jailer is probably a former soldier who’s good at instilling fear in people too!  He’s been trained to show no mercy.  So it doesn’t matter that this escape wasn’t his fault; he knows he’s not going to get any mercy either.  The sad thing is, this is the way a lot of people still live today: might makes right, competitive, keeping a record of wrongs.  So maybe you sense this too: a guy like that, or anyone living this way for that matter, I think, has to be starving for God’s grace — even if he doesn’t know it.

Paul%2520in%2520jail%2520at%2520PhilippiSo probably for the first time in his life, when Paul and Silas give him a taste of what unconditional love looks like, this leads him to literally beg for more. And even though there’s this crazy earthquake, that’s not finally what God uses to change the jailers heart. It’s Paul and Silas’ care for him. For an enemy! The guy who’s with the Romans, who just beat them and through them in jail. I mean, this doesn’t make any sense! And the jailer doesn’t know what to do with it, other than to say, I want some, I want in on this, whatever it is. I mean, there is no way he has his theology figured out yet. All he knows is that he needs forgiveness, and these guys, his enemies, just showed it to him. And here’s the most incredible thing about this story to me: because Paul and Silas love their enemy, the jailer is able to start becoming the kind of person who loves his enemies too. He washes their wounds, gives them a meal, and the text says that he is overjoyed, even though he has every reason to still suspect that his life is probably going to end soon.  This is a radical transformation.  This is how the gospel turns the world upside-down.

All three conversion stories are legitimate — mind, body and heart, rich, poor, middle class. But I would suggest the jailer’s conversion is the culminating moment and the crescendo of this sequence. New understanding, and physical liberation are vital components to the Gospel. But history and our lives remains tragic without God’s grace.  As long as we trust in our own knowledge, our own ability to achieve justice, or to justify ourselves, we deny our dependence on God’s grace.  But if we start with God’s grace, then we’ll begin to have true knowledge, and our hearts will be set free to pursue real justice.

So to close, I briefly return the big question from the beginning: what would it take for us as a church in sharing the gospel to both deepen our roots as a growing body, but also to produce fruit that yields this harvest — even in a way that starts other churches, as Paul and Silas did? The Christian faith is mysterious, and it’s a journey that never ends.  As soon as I think I’ve arrived — whether in my knowledge, with my concept of justice, or whatever — I either fall on my face, or God reveals a whole new part of me that needs some serious work.

In a word, I think this story teaches us that God’s mission is a reconciling one. It touches on all aspects of our lives — mind, body and heart.  And it’s breaking down social and cultural boundaries between rich and poor, slave and free — even for the purpose of reconciling enemies. Let’s pray.

God, we thank you for your Word, and how you speak to us through the example of the early Church, and through the boldness and faithfulness of Paul and Silas. I pray that in our lives, our jobs, our families and in neighborhoods, that’d we’d live into this picture of what it means to share your good news, in word and deed, with people who are different from us, and that we’d have the courage to do so in ways that are sometimes outside of our comfort zone. By your grace, Lord, use us to set other people free – in mind, body and heart. It’s in Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Simon Chan on Liturgy and Church between the World and God’s Kingdom

When Schmemann argues that the liturgy itself expresses a concrete, primary theology, he also specifies what the nature of that theology is. Speaking of the worship of the early church, he says, “It was born out of the Christian vision and experience of the World, the Church, and the Kingdom, of their fundamental relationship to one another. That it so say, in the very act of assembling (church) on the Lord’s Day (world) to break bread (kingdom), the church is concretely expressing its understanding of and realizing the intimate connection between church, kingdom and world. But this fundamental relationship can be maintained only if the church does not lower the eschatological tension of living in this age and in the age to come. Eschatology sustains the mission of the church. The moment it resolves the tension either by becoming totally immersed in this world or by divorcing itself from the world, it ceases to be the true hope of the world, even when it is involved in all sorts of “mission” activities and programs.

liturgicaltheoIn the liturgy, the church straddles the kingdom and the world and maintains its dual orientation toward both. Von Allmen compares this dual orientation to the heart’s pumping blood to keep the body alive. At worship the church keeps a “diastole” beat toward the world and a “systole” beat toward God. These two poles, Von Allmen further argues, are preserved in the application of two key terms to the church’s worship: Eucharist and Mass. Eucharist “connotes . . . a movement . . . of gathering together, of assembly to become an offering of praise for that which God has does in Jesus Christ for the world’s salvation.” Mass, on the other hand, is the movement of going into the world when the celebration ends.These two words describe the very movement of the Church in the world, the pulsation of her life in history.” The Supper is the “center” from which the church goes out to the world and to which it returns from the world with its “harvest” to offer to the Lord.

If we use different imagery, the liturgy may be compared to a journey – a journey from this world to the heavenly kingdom and back to this world. In the language of the liturgy, Word and sacrament are bounded by two other acts: the gathering and sending forth. As Christians leave the world to come together, they are “on their way to constitute the Church . . . to be transformed into the Church of God.” The biblical paradigm for this journey is the Mount of Transfiguration. The disciples separated themselves from the world and ascended the mountain with Jesus Christ and then returned to serve. But the basis is the ascension of Christ. In the eucharist prayer (the anaphora) the church is raised up to heaven to join in the heavenly liturgy: “We have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space.” It is from there that the mission of the church begins; from there that Jesus set the Holy Spirit to constitute the church as his Spirit-filled body; from there that, after being give spiritual food, the church returns to the world – back “time” – to love and serve the Lord. pp. 82-3

Bonnie Honig on the Promises of the Paradox of Politics, Linear Time, and Re-interpellation

I was introduced to Bonnie Honig‘s (Professor of Political Science, Brown University) work through Helene Slessarev-Jamir and the required readings for my religion and politics doctoral exam.  I’m using her writing in a presentation that I’ll be giving at AAR this year, in which I will relate her notion of paradox to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Soren Kierkegaard (see my proposal here), and will also be incorporating some of the concepts below into my final dissertation chapter on “Neighborliness and Resistance.” Here is quote from her 2011 book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy:

emergency politicsIn order for there to be a people well formed enough for good lawmaking, there must be good law, for how else will the people be well formed? The problem is: Where would that good law come from absent an already well-formed, virtuous people?  But the seeming quandary of chicken-and-egg (which comes first, good people or good law?) takes off and attaches to democratic politics more generally once we see that established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names. Every day, after all, new citizens are born, others immigrate into established regimes, still others mature into adulthood. Every day, established citizens mistake, depart from, or simply differ about their visions of democracy’s future and the commitment of democratic citizenship. Every day the traces of the traumas of the founding generation are discernible in the actions of their heirs. Every day, democracies resocialize, recapture, or reinterpellate citizens into their political institutions and culture in ways those citizens do not freely will, nor could they. Every day, in sum, new citizens are received by established regimes, and every day established citizens are reinterpellated into the laws, norms, and expectations of their regimes such that the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time.

Indeed, the first thing to go, when we face the chicken-and-egg paradox of politics, is our confidence in linear time, its normativity and its form of causality. What is linear time’s normativity? Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive (a Fall narrative) or progressive. In both regressive and progressive time, the time sequence itself is seen to be structured by causal forces that establish meaningful, orderly connections between what comes before and what comes after (Decline and Rise), such that one thing leads to another rather than forming, as plural temporalities and tempos do, a random assemblage or jumble of events. All these elements — linearity, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount.

It might seem that acknowledging the vicious circularity of the paradox of politics must be costly to a democracy, or demoralizing: If the people do not exist as a prior — or even as a post hoc — unifying force, then what will authorize or legitimate their exercises of power? But there is, as we shall see, also promise in such an acknowledgement. Besides, denial is costly too, for we can deny or disguise the paradox of politics only by suppressing or naturalizing the exclusion of those (elements of the) people whose residual, remaindered, minoritized existence might call the pure general will into question. From the perspective of the paradox of politics, unchosen, unarticulated, or minoritized alternatives — different forms of life, identities, solidarities, sexes or genders, alternative categories of justice, unfamiliar tempos — re-present themselves to us daily, in one form or another, sometimes inchoate. The paradox of politics provides a lens through which to re-enliven those alternatives. It helps us see the lengths to which we go or are driven to insulate ourselves from the remainders of our settled paths. It keeps alive both the centripetal force whereby a people is formed or maintained as a unity and the centrifugal force where its other, the multitude, asserts itself (pp. 14-15).

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama Vol. 2 Part III

We shall not get beyond the alternatives of “lyrical” and “epic,” spirituality (prayer and personal involvement) and theology (the objective discussion of facts), so long as we fail to include the dramatic dimension of revelation, in which alone they can discover their unity. [Human beings] can address God, and [address each other]; the Church, too, can speak to those within and to those without. But this tension is resolved in the context of a third dimension that embraces it: in the context of God’s action, which challenges the believer, takes him [or her] over and appoints him [or her] to be a witness. A witness, moreover, in the early Christian sense: a “martyr” – bearing witness with his whole existence. Otherwise he is no real “witness to the truth”. . (p. 57)

We too are involved in this dramatic campaign, so much so that the “evil day” leaves us no time to speculate about the necessarily favorable outcome: all of us must transform the graces we have received from God into a divine armor (Eph 6:13) and use it as such…

For now, under the God-given “Law” (in all its forms) will be put forward as the presence of the divine in the world, and people will attempt to subject [humanity's] freedoms to its abstract omnipotence. And, on the other hand, under the banner of a self-absolutizing pagan culture, people will play off the “lawless” (anomos, 1 Cor 9:21) and “godless” (atheos, Eph 2:12) freedom of the “autonomous individual” against the abstract Law… Law must prove obsolete in the person who fulfills it from within, out of the love of Christ (Gal 5:23; 1 Tim 1:9), and freedom must hand itself over as a prisoner to Christ, so that it can now truly receive itself back from him (Gal 5:1). (p. 83)

If the once-for-all drama of Christ is to be exalted as the norm of the entire dramatic dimension of human life, two things must happen simultaneously: the abyss of all tragedy must be plumbed to the very bottom (which no purely human tragedy can do); and, in it and transcending it, we must discern the element of gracious destiny that genuinely touches human existence (and not merely seems to touch it). Thus the dramatic aspect of existence yields postulates addressed to Christology, although they can only be meaningful if they have already encountered the revelation concerning Christ. First, there is the postulate that Christ’s being is of such a kind that he is able to descend into the abyss of all that is tragic – far beyond the ability of any tragic hero (who only bears his [or her] own destiny) – and hence that the tragic overstretching of his [or her] person must be absolute, that is, divine. (For “demi-gods” are self-contradictory.) The other postulate is that, precisely in this abyss of unsurpassable tragedy, the element of grace asserts itself, that grace which encompasses existence and can persist and penetrate into the conciliatory aspect of tragedy. Both together lead to the absolute christological paradox: in the horror of dissolution – under the weight of the world’s guilt and of forsakenness by God – we are delivered from the meaninglessness of the world’s suffering, and grace and reconciliation carry the day. John brings both aspects together in his concept of “exaltation” (exaltation on the Cross and exaltation to God’s presence) and “glory”. “Glory” is the manifestation of the Father’s love for the world in the Son’s bearing of the world’s sin: by an inner necessity, this pure obedience to the Father calls for the Father to glorify the Son and announces it in advance . . . (p. 84)

From this vantage point, once more, we can ask the question we asked at the beginning: Are our “eyes of faith” able to see the normative form, now unfolded into a drama, as a form? The answer can now be in the affirmative. Form is a meaningful unity in a multiplicity of organs; in its fundamental articulations – his Incarnation, his preaching of the kingdom and preparing of the Church, his suffering, his solidarity with the dead and reunion with the Father, his return at the end of history – Christ’s dramatic form is the simple self-presentation of a single attitude, which is the effective expression of God’s love for the world… (p. 87)

The New Testament relationship between heaven and earth can only be illuminated dramatically, not aesthetically or in a Gnostic and structuralist manner…

Augustine, it seems, does not entirely escape the danger of an aesthetic interpretation when, arguing against the Manichees, he addresses God in these terms in his famous prayer: O God, through whom the universe, even in its evil part, is made perfect, . . . as the lower things make harmony with the better.”: here the “lower” is applied to the earth and the “better” to heaven, and the two together – despite all the individual clashes – yield a whole, a perfect harmony, in such a way that the unity between the higher and lower is better than the higher on its own…

The danger of a Gnostic and structuralist interpretation lurks in the late Jewish Apocalyptic, which has its roots in the wisdom literature. According to this, everything that is the come forth at the end of time has already existed, hiddenly, in God (thus privileged seers were able t behold it); history consists simply in drawing back the curtain that conceals what is only provisionally veiled. In such a case anthropology would be merely the realization of a correspondence that already exists between the eternal and temporal [human]: “Living here and now in the Beyond”…

Nor is the possible to take up a standpoint (in salvation history) prior to or subsequent to the earth/heaven dichotomy, as Ephrem the Syrian attempts to do, with naïve boldness in his Hymns on Paradise . . . we cannot know in advance what the stage will look like at the end of the play… not mutilation but transformation… (pp 88-9)

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama vol. 2 Part II

Only when we have mentioned what is common can we start differentiating. In the face of death, the gesture of renouncing all that is past can have different meanings. It can be an act of homage to what is passing away, under the eye of the God who abides forever – the gesture of the departing characters in Calderon’s Theatre of the World… On the other hand, it can be the mere recognition that the minus sign of nothingness before the brackets that contain finitude robs everything within those brackets of all valued. And yet there are mysterious transitions between two extremes, particularly where the Absolute hovers, indefinably, between Nothing and Everything, as in the concept of Nirvana. Where the latter’s whole negativity is interpreted positively, the nothingness of the world’s being also acquired a twofold accent: all individual forms are leveled and extinguished as such; but between the vanishing forms a path can be found, implying something positive in the face of Absolute: a “path of instruction” leading out of the meanders and arabesques of mortal existence. Yet this path too, which already inscribes itself in the living forms, is only recognized by its negativity; it can be traced where finite form is negated and where we see through it to the Absolute that lies beyond. That is an essentially anti-dramatic principle, however, which is why no drama has arisen in India and the Islamic world comparable to Greek or Christian drama. There the epic holds pride of place. And since the Absolute does not come to meet the transitory world on its pilgrim path (for, at most, the latter is governed by the eternal law promulgated by the former), this path lies under the aegis of a “providence” that appears preeminently in the form of “fate”…

From this point on the periphery, we can go on to ask about the center: what kind of relationship must there between the world and Absolute, between humanity and God, if the leveling produced by transitoriness and death is not to cripple the dramatic dimension of existence from within? Or, in other words, if the dramatic is not to become a mere defective mode of the epic – a kind of still photograph of existence, cut out of the film which, in showing the ultimate demise of all the characters, will also relativize everything that has passed between them? Humanity cannot come up with an answer itself; it cannot do it by violently amputating all the factors which extend beyond the framework of the dramatic action – nor by point to the exemplary identity which would be required if a significant action were to be elevated into a manifestation and “deciphering” of the Absolute. At this point the Baroque theatre is right: all human drama contains the element of collapse, implying the leveling of all differences and paying homage to the indifference, impartiality, of the One God. Nonetheless, it is genuine theatre; consequently, for this to be possible, there must be some further factor in the concept of the Absolute…

But if the Greeks also had genuine theatre (leaving aside the somewhat analogous Japanese Noh plays), surely this other factor must have been present in their concept of God too? It must have been an idea of God which allowed him to take part – an inner, divine, absolute part – in the drama of mortal existence without threatening his absolute nature. Such an idea provides a link between early, mythic thought and Christian faith. But the former does not pass without a break into the latter: separating them lies philosophy, which opposes the notion that God can be moved and affected by the human drama. Even the Covenant God of the Old Testament cannot be interpreted as a direct mediation between mythos and Christian revelation; even the foreseeing, judging and compassionate God, the God who accompanies his people through history, is impassive vis-à-vis all human tragedy. Christianity alone provides a new approach: God has become human without ceasing to be God. (pp. 44-5)

Now the question must be addressed to Christianity: Can it legitimately claim to have found the trail that was lost ever since the demise of ancient tragedy? And can it really follow to the end, with its eyes open, this path along which ancient tragedy tried blindly to feel its way? For that is what it really claims to do. The tragic dimension of personal existence is not softened; in fact, it is wrenched apart to the very limit: in the Cross. In Christianity, this tragic dimension actually touches the sphere of the Divine, yet without swallowing it up (as mythology does) in the tragic destiny: Christian dogma has always rejected “Patripassionaism”, that is, the idea that God the Father suffered in the same sense as the Son, even if – in the mystery of the Trinity – it directs its attention with hair’s-breadth precision to the point of contact between the suffering of the God-man and the nonsuffering of God. Finally Christianity sees it in a Catholic light, because, as an individual and personal tragic dimension – not “typical” or “symbolic” – it brings to light the significance and change of meaning of all intramundane tragedy. Thus the dramatic level becomes ultimate, not to be surpassed; it does not point to some prior “wisdom” or “teaching” or “gnosis” or “theology” that could then be recounted in the epic mode: it remains at the center, as drama, as the action that takes place between God and man, undiminished in its contemporary relevance. Herein, too, lies the meaning of the Catholic sacraments, which continually make the one event present; herein, in a more all0embracing sense, the meaning of the Church insofar as she is the re-presentation of the “drama of salvation” once for all on each particular occasion…

Within the drama of Christ, every human fate is deprivatized so that its personal range may extend to the whole universe, depending on how far it is prepared to cooperate in being inserted in to the normative drama of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection. Not only does this gather the unimaginable plurality of human destinies into a concrete, universal point of unity: it actually maintains their plurality within the unity, but as a function of this unity… (pp. 49-50)

Globalization, NAFTA and the U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Twenty Years of Free Trade as Decolonial Struggle

This is an expanded paper based on a presentation I gave for the “NAFTA and Philosophy” conference in Mexico City at UNAM a couple of months ago, and is under review for publication in a Spanish version of a book that will also include other papers from the conference.  Some of the content is recycled from previous stuff I’ve written — especially the first half, on globalization, NAFTA and the drug war — but the second half where I use Dussel and Taylor’s work and talk about the Caravan for Peace, is new.

The first word in my title, “Globalization,” signifies the more general context of the US-Mexico drug war in particular.  While I cannot thoroughly theorize it here, I will nevertheless mention some of the key features of globalization that serve to underscore and give shape to the on-going drug-trade related violence. Secondly, I will touch on the unique dimensions of the relationship between globalization, NAFTA and the violence itself. I do not assume, however, that globalization is reducible to economic neoliberalism, nor that globalization or even NAFTA is the direct cause of increased violence, but rather that both – globalization and NAFTA – in this case, are preconditions furthering and to some extent enabling the poverty and political impunity that produces the suffering and insecurity that is being experienced. Lastly, I will try to illustrate how globalization, NAFTA and the drug war together have evoked a decolonial struggle of resistance on the part of victims by looking at one recent example and arguing that its ethos and aesthetics – not just its ethical or political theory – has been vital to its effectiveness.

Globalization as the Greater Context for the Drug Trade

Every particular political situation has its own historical location to be considered, but one can nonetheless speak today of certain globalizing tendencies with mounting planetary reach. So while the crisis in Mexico caused by the drug trade is indeed just one context among many, it is nonetheless seen here to be uniquely illustrative of the more universal context of globalization itself. Thus, it will serve to highlight some of the enduring marks of globalization, which I will now discuss.

By way of a definition, globalization is thought here to be a process or set of processes that embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions (McGrew and Held (1999), p. 16). These relations are not only economic and political in nature but also culture and environmental. This process, however, is replete with contradictions, uncertainties and unevenness.

The contemporary globalizing world has seen rapidly increasing economic and political interdependence between nations on the one hand alongside growing disparity in terms of quality of life and security between and within nations on the other hand. At the same time, globalization is not a monolithic phenomenon. Not all societies are experiencing it. Hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces alike are operative in its set of processes. Power asymmetries in zones of contact are broader and more numerous than in the past. Globalization is not a closed but open, entangled system of multiple, heterogeneous hierarchies and logics in which the natureof and relations between individuals and institutions are often conceived as hybridized.

Globalization, commercialization and criminalization together have brought about a major disjuncture between the formal reach of certain states’ military power and its effectiveness (McGrew and Held (2007), p. 28).   The drug war is proof of this. States may have a monopoly on the ability to legitimize violence but not to totally control it. The invisibility of economic power structures and their ability to develop independently of legitimate political power is a key challenge engendered by globalization. This challenge is exacerbated by the permeation and extension of economic power beyond national borders.

Just as production has been outsourced in the age of globalization, so too have many aspects of organized violence. Trans-state organized cartel networks “have been able to exploit the infrastructures [and free trade policies] of globalization for their own illicit . . . purposes” (Mcgrew and Held (2007), p. 28).   The imperialism of the industrial age, while certainly still prevalent, has been increasingly rivaled by non-state forces like the criminal insurgency of terrorists groups and drug trafficking organizations (or DTO’s). As social forces like drug abuse are selectively included or excluded from formal infrastructures, it is almost impossible to prevent the parallel formation of informal and illicit networks that conversely condone this abuse and profit from it (McGrew and Held (2007), p. 33).

Despite being increasingly challenged, unilateral U.S. hegemony does continue to dominate the globe in many important respects. At the same time, with transnational corporations exploiting and propagating an international division of labor, the supra-national nature of financial markets has demonstrated a new level of power and influence over the actions of nation-states, their central banks, and even corporations themselves. Thus, the limitations of their thesis notwithstanding, one can indeed notice today the extent to which Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2001) has formed.

To a significant degree, a transformation of the modern imperialist geography of the globe and the realization of the world market has scrambled the spatial divisions of developed and underdeveloped zones. Changing and complex regimes of differentiation and homogenization, and deterritorialization and reterritorialization, have constructed new paths and limits for global flows. So even at a time in which devising alternatives to free market capitalism has become increasingly difficult, globalization is neither coterminous with neoliberalism – as stated above – nor reducible to the field of political economy (Alcoff and Saenz (2003), p. 200). As the Mexican case confirms, non-governmental criminal trafficking organizations challenge many assumptions by wielding an enormous amount of cultural power – in addition to accounting for a substantial share of international trade and GDP in some countries.

In the midst of these acute crises, the persistence of cultural globalization portends to erode and trivialize all un-commodifiable values, leaving only the fetishized desires of individual subjects to govern from the global core. Excessive accumulation and consumption is tied closely to the alterations brought about by the media in the information age and what Manuel Castells (1996) calls a communication network society. It is beyond the scope of this paper, as my focus is on political economy, but it should be noted that cultural globalization plays an important role in this conflict as well. This is especially noticeable in the recent influence and celebration of “narcocultura,” such as in “narcocorridos,” which are musical ballads write and widely popularized in honor of the cartels and their famed leaders (Holden, 2013).

NAFTA and Neoliberalism

As already mentioned, one of the most predominant features of globalization is the increasing mobility and power of global capital flow (Soederberg (2006), p. 167). According to Queen’s University development studies professor Susanne Soederberg (2006), this change in economic and political policy has been characterized by a shift from a variety of Keynesian demand management tactics and the advancement of a welfare state to neoliberal forms of government intervention: “one of the main characteristics of competition states is that traditional policies aimed at achieving social justice through economic redistribution have been challenged and profoundly undermined by the marketization of the state’s economic activities and its focus on attracting and retaining capital flows” (p. 167). Soederberg (2006) further argues that while the Mexican state has taken on some of the defining traits of an advanced industrialized country, the assumption of neoliberal practices has neither succeeded in reducing the country’s “excessive vulnerability and dependence on external sources of capital, nor [in] bringing about conditions for sustainable economic growth” (p. 168).

Inherent to the liberalization of Mexico’s political economy were the steady belief in the trickle-down theory of wealth, the prioritization of industrialization and modernization before democratization, and the mistaken assumption that the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) corporatist structure represented the interests of the average Mexican (Soederberg (2006), p. 171). The tension between domestic and international policy imperatives has failed to be resolved or balanced. In the end it seems that efforts to restructure in accordance with international (read Western) expectations – though they have led to further integration in the world economy – have generally increased social class division between rich and financial vulnerability as a result of tenuous forms of capital accumulation such as the phenomenon of the maquiladorizacion of the economy (Soederberg (2006), p. 171).

Maquiladores (international, outsourced factories) are primarily located near the northern border of Mexico so as to as to ensure cheap transport of product to the United States. The average daily salary for workers at the maquiladores in Mexico is around seven dollars for ten hours of work (Chacon et. al. (2006), p. 118). These free trade zones are exactly where most of the more recent drug-related violence has taken place – in cities like Juarez. Furthermore, the real wages in Mexico are lower today than they were before the 1982 debt crisis (Soederberg (2006), p. 181) and the minimum wage is the same (Camp (2006), p. 262). In absolute numbers, substantially more Mexicans live without sufficient food than in the past two decades (approximately 26 million) (Camp (2006), p. 274).

As international financial markets have reached considerable levels of influence in the global political economy, daily turnovers in foreign exchange markets are often $1.3 trillion or higher (Soederberg (2006), p. 168). This number is much larger than the one trillion dollars available to those governments of advanced countries for the purposes of exchange rate stabilization (Soederberg (2006), p. 169). Moreover, the major players in the exchange rate game are no longer just big international banks but insurance and pension fund managers, as well as other portfolio investors who are mobile and less vulnerable (Soederberg (2006), p. 169). Consequently, private investment capital is a major source of financing for developing countries. Not surprisingly then, new national policy is increasingly established with both current and prospective private investor interests in mind. Such interests inevitably include low corporate taxes and fewer state-sponsored welfare programs.

Even more significantly, policy makers know that new creditors are going to want easy entry and exit investment strategy options. Therefore, the stability and growth predictability of developing countries has become increasingly tied to and proportionate with international financial markets and fluctuations of stocks on Wall Street. Countries finding themselves squarely in this dilemma have sometimes attempted to manipulate their exchange rates by devaluing currency in order to boost exports for instance, or by pegging currency value to interest-rates. Practices such as these are in part what led to the peso crisis not only in Mexico in 1994 but also in Argentina, which culminated in 2001.

The Mexican Drug War Itself

U.S. attempts to intervene in Colombian cocaine smuggling during the 1990’s coincided with the forging of NAFTA, which pushed drug trade activity to the U.S.-Mexican border.  Trans-state cartel networks in various stratifications of organization have been able to take advantage of the infrastructures and free trade policies of globalization for their own illicit purposes (Campbell, 2009). According to approximations by the Trans-border Institute at the University of San Diego, more than 120,000 people have been murdered, and another 25,000 have disappeared since 2006 in the Mexican Drug War (Schaeffer-Duffy 2014, Booth 2012). These numbers are significantly higher than what is typically reported in mainstream media, and many of these murders are torturous and public in nature.

Once a kilo of cocaine reaches the streets in the U.S., it will be worth $100,000, or about $100 a gram (Gibler (2011), p.32). In the Columbian countryside the exact same substance is worth no more than $3,000, or about three dollars a gram (Gibler (2011), p. 32). The single greatest contributor to this giant surplus value is the illegality of the production, transport and consumption of the drugs themselves (Gibler (2011), p. 32). Investigative journalist John Gibler (2011) explains that,

[i]legality also requires that one [bolster] the moral discourse of prohibition with massive infusion of funds into armies and law-enforcement agencies. These infusions in turn require the production of arrests and drug seizures. Competitors in the drug economy use this need as a way to eliminate opponents and rivals, tipping off federal authorities to the whereabouts of [enemy stashes and hideouts] (p. 35).

And in this context, illegality adds another more blatant complication: every dispute within the industry must be settled outside the law. The most common method of conflict resolution in an illegal business culture where cash is rampant is contract murder (Gibler (2011), p. 38).

As a result of the competition at the border for trade smuggling routes between the different DTO’s to secure their gain from the $60 billion worth of narcotics that cross the border every year (Trans-border Institute, 2014). While the murder rate has subsided substantially in the past few years, less than 5% of these cases have been investigated, and many more deaths and disappearances are suspected to have gone unreported (Strauss, 2011). These two facts call attention to the urgency of and justification for this analysis, for it is arguably less the sheer number of people deaths that is most extraordinary, historically speaking, and more the combination of such a concentration of rampant murder with the absence of the rule of law. Such impunity intensifies the sense of injustice and betrays the degree to which the violence has been systemically produced.

Gibler further explains: “The blood and chaos that accompany drug trafficking from Mexico into the United States are inextricably related to the simultaneous demand within the U.S. population for the [drugs], and the insistence of U.S. politicians on an ideological commitment to prohibition that seeks to veil prohibition’s use for social control” (Gibler (2011), p. 43). Consequently, U.S. policy has not stopped the flow of drugs, but it has outsourced most of the killing (Gibler (2011), p. 203). And with dozens of reporters gunned down or disappeared since 2008, the DTO’s are especially skilled at silencing those who speak out. The targets seem to be anyone with access to major media channels, or anybody who annunciates facts that could be bad for business (Gibler (2011), p. 23).

The temptation on the part of U.S. citizens is often to dismiss organized crime as outside the “clean legal system,” rather than to recognize how interwoven official government is in drug trafficking. This is what makes the U.S. government’s deployment of the phrase “war on drugs” so misleading. And despite being an illegal form of capitalist accumulation, the drug industry is a substantial part of the U.S. and Mexican economic systems. Simultaneously, however, hundreds of businesses have closed down or moved away from Juarez since the army moved in and the violence escalated. So when poverty takes its toll on the economy, as it has in border cities like Juarez, often young, uneducated and unemployed men in particular – “ni-ni’s,” as they are sometimes called, which is short for “ni estudiar ni trabajar” (those who neither study nor work) – are seemingly faced with the narrow option to either join the DTO’s or live in material deprivation (Corcoran, 2012).

As alluded to above about violence and globalization in general, however, most peculiar is the degree to which DTO’s in Mexico have generally frustrated efforts by the military and police to curb their smuggling progress and success – despite their collusion with the state in many cases, and despite the country’s U.S.-backed billion-dollar budgets. It’s acknowledged by Mexico’s own government that the cartels have bribed and infiltrated not just the municipal police forces but occasionally high-level officials (Lacey, 2008). At the same time, “[p]roducing arrests is a necessary feature of the industry, and so, like murder, arrest becomes a way of settling accounts or invading territory” (Gibler (2011), p. 23). The drug machinery employs both the cops and the robbers, as it were.

Again, clear lines between the culpable and the innocent are blurred, and the hybridity of the drug war zone is glaring.DTO’s do not represent “parallel power,” separate from those of the state, “but rather a form of economic activity connected with, tolerated, promoted or protected by various sectors of the state” (Campbell (2009), p. 18). Large-scale drug trafficking is permitted, sustained and exploited on a national-political front.

Officials in charge of enforcing anti-drug laws both in Mexico and the United States have tremendous incentive to appease the public eye by capturing major drug kingpins or seizing large amounts of illegal shipments to be self-validating: “[E]ven though the drugs confiscated constitute only a fraction of the overall quantity crossing the border, and the smugglers arrested are easily replaced, these policing practices are politically popular expressions of the state’s moral resolve” (Andreas (2009), p. 11). Indeed, victims are victimizer and visa versa, on the ground level; at another level though – on the broader and global scale – there is a blatantly sharp distinction and nearly impassable gap between those with economic or political power, and those left vulnerable without it. It is still the free trade zoning coupled with continued illegalization (U.S.) – all of which is encouraged or permitted by a corrupt legal system (Mexico) – that has created the perfectly deregulated capitalist “laboratory,” which, in the words of author Charles Bowden (2010), has become “the global economy’s new killing field.”

All in all, 1) the context of widespread poverty, which neoliberalism and NAFTA exaggerates, the political legacy of impunity and official corruption, however varied – have been the major barriers to any genuine attempt to limit the power of organized crime. What will be insinuated below is that the costs of these failures creates what Enrique Dussel calls a surplus population that is rendered a “necessary sacrifice” by the logic of what he and Walter Mignolo refer to as the modern/colonial, and now global capitalist project (Taylor, 2014). The suggestion therefore, is that, though the lineage is fragmented and always taking on new forms, the oppressive impact of NAFTA on Mexico’s subaltern/subjugated peoples and the conversely lucrative payoffs for the ruling minority locates this twenty-year free trade experiment squarely in the tradition of European and now U.S. colonialism.

Obviously, to repeat, NAFTA is not solely or even directly responsible for the spike in drug-trade-related violence. Nor are US and Mexican elites the only perpetrators. There are cartels, US consumers, the prison industry, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and others that are either complicit in the drug war or have a vested interest in the terms of NAFTA. Nonetheless, this characterization should provide a credible impression of the globalization/NAFTA/drug war matrix and the social context for the ethical response to follow.

A History of Decolonial Struggle

In light of this state of affairs, and in the midst of neoliberal economic policy and political compromise incentivized by globalization in this particular context, I will now turn to theorize what might constitute a critical movement of resistance inspired by an ethics of liberation (drawing on Dussel) and an aesthetics of decolonial struggle (taken from Mark L. Taylor). First, however, it should first be noted how Dussel’s deconstruction of modern-Enlightenment reasoning/epistemology can be used to situate this conflict historically.

While the U.S.-Mexico Drug War has a history that dates back several decades before the escalation of violence that began most noticeably in 2008, Enrique Dussel provides a much broader historical framework within which I think we can place this conflict and the political, cultural and economic forces at play within it. Dussel undertakes what is intended to be not only a systematic exploration into the epistemological and geopolitical pertinence of Latin America’s history but also a decolonial uncovering of a Eurocenctric conception of this history (Maldonado-Torres (2008), p. 11). This Eurocentric position, Dussel (2002) explains, was “first formulated at the end of the eighteenth century by the French and English ‘Enlightenment’ and the German ‘Romantics,’” and “reinterpreted all of world history, projecting Europe into the past and attempting to show that everything that happened before had led to Europe’s becoming, in Hegel’s words, ‘the end and center of world history’” (p. 201).

A basic presupposition of the myth of modernity is that European civilization has come about as a result of a fairly linear progression, which can be traced through selected cultures with respect to their historical rootedness in classical Greece and Rome. This view emerged during the Renaissance but reached its height in the philosophy of history that was formulated during the Enlightenment by Hegel but also others (Dussel (2002), p. 208). Dussel argues that the Enlightenment vision removed from its memory the disconnected and “Dark Age” Europe that lasted until the fifteenth century. In his work The Ethics of Liberation, Dussel demonstrates in a comprehensive historical genealogy of his own how even on a very generous reading, Europe was a periphery of the Islamic, Chinese and Hindustani world – “that “Oriental” world, much more “refined” and developed, from all points of view, that was the “center” of the old world, and the densest part of the world-system until the end of the eighteenth century” (Dussel (2002), pp. 231-232). Dussel (2002) goes so far as to contend that, “From Hegel, Marx and Comte to Weber – including Freud, Husserl, Heidegger, Popper, Levinas, Foucault, Lyotard, and Habermas – Eurocentrism shines unopposed,” and that “it would dominate the colonial world with the brilliance of “Western culture,” as humanity’s most developed center “since the beginning”” (pp. 231-232). The decisive case Dussel (1979) is gradually building from these observations is that modernity does not begin with the Enlightenment but with the Spanish Conquest:

“in the beginning of modernity, before Descartes discovered . . . a terrifying anthropological dualism in Europe, the Spanish conquistadors arrived in America. The phallic conception of the European-medieval world is now added to the forms of submission of the vanquished Indians” (vol. 3, p. 99).

Elsewhere Dussel develops the claim further (1995):

“The colonizing ego, subjugating the Other, the woman and the conquered male, in an alienating erotics and in a mercantile capitalist economics, follows the route of the conquering ego toward the modern ego cogito. Modernization initiates an ambiguous course by touting a rationality opposed to primitive, mythic explanations, even as it concocts a myth to conceal its own sacrificial violence against the Other” (p. 48).

Against the myth of modernity and the divorce of the Enlightenment narrative of progress from the preceding colonial conquest, however, Dussel (1979) urges that

It is now time to change skins to see through new eyes. It is now time to put off the skin and the eyes of the “I conquer” which culminates in the ego cogito or the will-to-power. One’s new hands are not those that clutch iron arms, and one’s new eyes are not those looking out from the caravels of the European intruders, who cry Land! with Columbus. The new skin is the soft, bronzed skin of Caribbeans, of the Andean people, of the Amazonians. The new eyes are those of the Indians who, with their bare feet planted on soft, warm, island sands, saw in wonderment new gods floating on the seas as they approached (p. 99).

In sum, Dussel’s philosophy of liberation challenges the myth of eurocentrism and modern/coloniality by:

  1. interrogating the links between philosophical projects and geopolitical positioning
  2. appreciating the relevance that the liberation of formerly colonized subjects has for philosophy that parallels that of other important moments such as the emancipation of the “people” and the bourgeois elites in the French Revolution
  3. taking as its horizon the struggle of the wide majority of people around the globe and seeks to elucidate the challenges they confront while listening to their demands, supporting their struggle, and aiming to give voice to their aspirations (Maldonado-Torres, 2008).

This gives an introduction to Dussel’s philosophy of liberation and his aim to restructure how Western history is conceived. Nonetheless, the increasing globalization of finance capital and the rearticulation of development theories through neoliberal policies, along with the increase of poverty in Latin America and around the planet, made it necessary for Dussel to revise his ethics of liberation for a new context.

Dussel’s Ethics of Liberation

To only speak of Eurocentism in terms of political conquest, modern vs. postmodern epistemology, or even cultural domination, however, is very misleading. For Dussel (1995) contests that

A new god ascended on the horizon of this new epoch. He began his triumphal march in the heavens, not under the sacrificial sign of Huitzilopochli, but under the auspices of modernity’s sacrificial myth. This new god was capital in its mercantilist phase, which prevailed in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and after in Holland. This new fetish metamorphosed, acquiring its industrial face in the eighteenth-century England and its transnational embodiment in the twentieth-century United States, Germany and Japan (p. 116).

After studying Marx’s most mature writings in the later editions and volumes of Kapital, Dussel, like several other contemporary Marxian economists (e.g., Wolff, 2013; Eagleton, 2012; Harvey, 2010), believes that the core philosophical and methodological insight in Marx’s work is that living labor is the fountain of value. As that which is appropriated as surplus value and gives commodities the ability to generate value accumulated in the form of capital, labor, or living corporeality, is the ultimate source from which value is extracted, not capital. Hence, a commodity is “a coagulation, a crystallization, of living labor” (Mendieta (2007), p. 131).

Dussel (2013) then notes how Marx places the material in opposition to the merely formal in Hegel:

Against Hegel, for whom the supreme human act is the thinking that produces the thinking that thinks itself (formally), now what produces human life with self-consciousness is real human life, from its corporeality”, which has needs that animals do not – because human beings distinguish themselves from their life activity in their consciousness . . . Moreover, this material criterion on which ethics is grounded, the reproduction and development of human life, is universal, and . . . not solipsistic but communitarian. It concerns a “community of life” (p. 94).

From this point, Dussel (2013) puts forth “a universal principle of all ethics, especially of critical ethics: the principle to the obligation to produce, reproduce, and develop the concrete human life of each ethical subject in community” (p. 94). In order to follow this principle, Dussel explains, one must “situate oneself from the standpoint of the alterity of the system” – that is, “in the world of everyday life of prescientific common sense” (p. 207). According to Dussel, this is what allows for is the ability to adopt the perspective of the victims of a given ethical system without ethical complicity. Whereas Eurocentric modernity in the age of globalization and exclusion has often tended to make the production and consumption of commodities, and the growth thereof the measure of progress and civilization, Dussel avers that, following Marx, the measure of political economy and wellbeing begins with human bodies and their life, which is the source of value.

Going one step further, Dussel’s ethics of liberation proposes that victims, who in this case are those who have died, suffered and lost loved ones as a result of drug-trade related violence, affirm themselves and their dignity as a community through transformative social movements (p. 291). These victims’ communities also function as a “red light” or “social alarm” for the rest of society and especially their North American neighbors, calling out those in the prevailing systems of domination (p. 652).  As called to by victims, participants in the system are “interpellated,” into solidarity with “the community of victims” in resistance to the system. As stated above, this is worked out in a corresponding material principle expressed as the obligation to produce life. And in being so interpellated, “both the material negation suffered by victims, and the affirmations of their material lives and dignity (affirmations both they and others make) constitute Dussel’s ‘material criterion of content’” (Taylor, 2014).

Dussel’s material principle is only one of three principles of co-determination in his Ethics.  Dussel argues that

the mere “material” dimension is not sufficient for the fulfillment of the “goodness” claim of the maxim, act, institution, or system of ethical life. Other criteria or ethical-moral principles will be necessary for their fulfillment, such as the areas of consensuality of moral validity [and] the feasibility of mediations, in order to effectively reach ‘goodness’ (p. 57).

The second is a formal and procedural principle, that of discourse ethics. Bearing in mind, though, that discourse here is always carried out with the voice of victims setting the terms of dialogue. This is the condition that the “within eurocentrism” cannot provide.

Third, there is the co-determining principle and criterion of feasibility.  It subsumes all the principles described before, and its theorizes what victims actually can effect strategically, thus also constituting the liberative principle.  And again, the subjects are not only the victims but also those interpellated into solidarity with them.

These three criteria together form the difference of the critical-ethical reasoning or consciousness for Dussel:

Critical-ethical reason is a more developed moment of human rationality than those already analyzed; it subsumes material reason (because it assumes it affirmatively, as a way to discover the dignity of the subject and the impossibility of reproducing the life of the victim), formal reason (because it also assumes this in its perception of the exclusion of the victim from the possibility of arguing in his or her own defense), and reason concerning feasibility (because it interprets the conceivable mediations of the dominant system of ethics as “nonefficient” management for life, which at some level produce the death of the victims) (p. 208).

Despite its occurrence on a relatively small scale, I submit that this process critical-ethical reasoning and of interpellation is exactly what was accomplished by “The Caravan for Peace” movement which I will now briefly describe.

The Caravan for Peace as a Critical Movement of Resistance

In mid-August 2012, following the protest and march that ended in Mexico City in 2011, which drew more than a hundred thousand participants, the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity — led by the family members of Mexicans murdered and disappeared during the drug war — sojourned across the United States (Global Exchange, 2013). They have since also had a second and smaller caravan as of the fall of 2013, but I’ve chosen to focus on the 2012 effort mostly because of its size and success in reaching a large US audience.

Starting from Tijuana/San Diego, the 120-person caravan traversed 5,700 miles, holding events in 26 cities and generating extensive coverage in most of the major media channels in the U.S. and Mexico. The Caravaners made an effort to transform their sufferings and losses into moral criticism and compassionate action. They were joined by some drug war victims north of the border who also sought peace and an end to the devastating consequences of drug prohibition. One of the Mexican survivors was the famous poet, Javier Sicilia, whose son and a group of friends were murdered by cartel members in 2011, and he has played a crucial role in building momentum for the peace Caravan.

Along its journey the Caravan spoke boldly and critically, and used creative non-violent actions to dramatize the issues while seeking common ground on which to build the difficult, bi-national consensus for peace. Parents of victims on both sides of the border found solidarity in their common experience of loss, anger and mourning in many candle-lit vigils held throughout the course of the Caravan.  In total the Caravaners spoke to tens of thousands of people – not including the coverage in the media. Their collective moral rhetoric of the movement was crafted to elevate popular awareness and energy around four major areas of legislative reform:

  • Drug Policy Reform (decriminalization if not legalization of marijuana)
  • Opposition to the Militarization of Drug War
  • An end to the arms trade to Mexico
  • A criticism of NAFTA policy with respect to its effects on wages, infant industries in Mexico, and job growth

It should be especially noted how, in this movement, Sicilia’s loss in particular, as well as the losses decried in the many other testimonies from people of the Caravan, served to call out and implore people, to be hailed and interpellated into social, moral, and political solidarity with the victims. To conclude, I will enumerate several critical impulses that can be identified with the ethos and aesthetic nature of this particular movement, but also of CMR’s (Critical Movement of Resistance) in general. (The word “critical” is being used in the sense of reflective, thoughtfully attentive to complexity, and including an openness to self-criticism) (Taylor (2014), p. 136).

The Ethos of Critical Movements of Resistance According to Mark Lewis Taylor

In Mark Lewis Taylor’s essay “Decolonizing Mass Incarceration: Flesh Will Wear Out Chains” (2014) in which he considers the U.S. problem of mass-incarceration — which also happens to partly be a byproduct of the drug war – Taylor states that there are three critical impulses of CMRs, and I will relate each impulse to the Peace Caravan itself. Taylor understands each of these three impulses to feature both reflexive and cultivated aspects. First, as an impulse, and much as the term already suggests, there is an immediate and fairly reactive response to the suffering and injustice that is being experienced by victims of the drug war and free trade policy. There was in the Caravan for Peace movement an owning of agonistic being, whichwas enacted in the testimonies from family members and friends of victims on the Caravan who shared their grief and rage, and functioned as that social alarm or red light for those who would listen and pay attention. Taylor (2014) here actually note how Dussel’s privileging of the victims’ perspective and the material starting point, as well as the process of interpellation, begin with precisely the cry or “el grito” that “emerges as a roar from the pain of the victims, in their work, in their daily torment, or from the midst of their torture” (p. 137).

In a similar manner to that of Dussel, Taylor (2014) explains how the cry of the victim is not just a sad or disturbing feature of the generalized human condition. It is a marker of an agonism. Like Dussel’s alarm or red light, for Taylor the victim’s cry “is a ‘bellwether’ (leader or indicator) for all humanity, a call to guard dignity of all subjects, health of all bodies, justice for all persons. In the agonistic cry a space is opened in the concentrated mass of suffering, and victims begin constituting themselves as a community to negate systems that cause their suffering” (pp. 136-137).

Again, this is how victims call to others – “interpellate” them to their side from out of the system, for the purpose of ultimately building social forms and sustainable community together to end the victimization. Friends and families, and persons of conscience throughout the society wounded by drug-trade-related violence, take the antagonism carried in rage, lament and mourning, and in Taylor’s apt wording, “chisel it into an oppositional stance.” The cry may be the rage and grief of the thousands of children who have lost parents, and parents who have lost children. It may be, Taylor suggests,

the cry of ‘I am dying too soon,’ ‘I am without dignity,’ ‘I am raped,’ ‘I am tortured!’ When agonistic cries build a sense of group suffering, and a sense of historical violation of one’s group, then there comes the querying cry of “how long,” and the deeply bruising, answering cry of “too long!” Especially among those with the sense that the violence to which they are subjected has a colonial sociality and history to it, the interpellating cry, reverberates… ‘We are violently excluded, exploited and oppressed – as laborers, as women and sexual(-zed) others, as dark affectable subjects, as those denied life and dignity consigned to the underworlds and interstices of ever-surveilling state authorities’ (Taylor (2014), pp. 137).

One way agonism is shown is through the second critical impulse of cultivating of artful reflex. This ethos of CMRs described above must also be cultivated if it is to achieve a lasting effect. Otherwise reflexive actions are honed, concentrated and channeled to grow its consciousness-raising, interpellating and liberating impact (Taylor (2014), p. 136). For example, after a number of testimonies were heard from the Caravan’s stop in San Antonio, TX, at a local Catholic parish, the Sisters of the University of the Incarnate Word, where I currently teach, with representatives from several other faith traditions, performed an interpretative, interreligious peace dance that they had choreographed, inviting members of their respective faith traditions to draw on their own sacred resources for inspiration to partner with the Caravan.

Indeed, the dramatic, the theatrical, becomes especially important in a media-saturated age wherein information technology wields images to create spectacles that assure domination, enlisting citizen fear and fascination to reinforce inaction (Taylor (2014), p. 139). Hence, there were college-student interns with the social justice advocacy group Global Exchange that helped organize the Caravan who traveled with it to photograph and film the events and post them online through their social media accounts. Most of all, the artistic reflex, thus cultivated, offers to CMRs amid their agonistic sensibility, a celebratory function, a fore-tasting of the futures they dream and for which they struggle. Friends and family members of victims without any other options taking up the paint brush, the pen to write prose or songs, and these are powerful instances of artful reflex (Alexander, 2012).

The third critical impulse according to Taylor is the fomenting of resistance through politically adversarial practices. This “fomenting” follows the first mark of critical resistant communities, the owning of agonistic being, which, Taylor stresses, “as an “owning,” is an acceptance, an acknowledgement, one made perhaps reluctantly but with a sense of resolve, a resolution to see one’s being as what it is, in struggle, labile, tense, in readiness for tasks, but first known simply as a being-so-poised in (dis)stress” (Taylor (2014), 139-140). Moreover, the spirit of CRM’s is adversarial in its very presupposition that there is an enemy – not necessarily a person or group of people, though it could be, but indeed, that there is a matrix of antagonism and adversarial forces at play that have be named and challenged with righteous indignation (though not with hate or violence). It should further be emphasized, however, that the practices are not just for liberation from victimization, but also for restorative, structural change.

Furthermore, it is with its deployment of the arts like poetry and story-telling that resistance practice marshals most directly a creative and dramatic challenge to the powers at work in the theaters of narcoterrorism, as creativity and imagination become dramatic action that rallies a public to its sense of critical ethical consciousness. It is action that evokes a theatrical uprising of sorts. This happens in ways that galvanizes audiences and set them in motion, constituting what Taylor calls a “stealing of the show” from the narco-terrorism spectacle – beating their intimidation tactics to the stage, as it were. Mimmicking them, but from a higher moral ground, and in a way that humanizes rather than dehumanizes. One could think of how the mothers of the disappeared daughter of Juarez demonstrated their defiance by publically placing pink crosses and pictures of victims around the city for all to see, and writing on the crosses, “ni un mas!” (Rodriguez, 2007). These Movements are about forming new relations and coalitions for some transformative purpose that posits a concrete alternative to dominate rule, be it through cartel violence or unjust free trade.

To reiterate, Taylor reminds in conclusion that a theatric that would really counter the powers of state-collusion and cartel violence today is not content with mere personal stances, nor with occasional actions of creative non-violent drama – of agony and art. No, it presses further, and seeks to form networks and embody, as Taylor words it,

practices that have transformative effect, [and that] even pose an “incendiary risk” to structures of global U.S. sovereignty. This is to strike right at the heart of the [punitive] practices of colonizing and imperial power. Here, antagonistic sensibility and artistic expression constitute forces of resistance and subversion to exploitative power. Organized and organizing practices give a certain forceful “hardness” to lament and artistic expression (Taylor (2014), pp. 139-40).

Finally, Critical movements of resistance seek to sustain life-renewing activity and communal work. It is this dynamic-oriented character of the critical theater that prevents resistance movements from becoming mere aestheticism as is always the danger. They are safeguarded against this end, however, not only in their qualitatively different mode of contestation– with its values and display of justice and compassion in contrast to corporate, state or cartel violence – but also by the fact that its aesthetics is situated in a movement that identifies its opponent, namely, poverty-sustaining and/or producing political economic policy that imposes conditions of radically deregulated and therefore violent market competition that is part and parcel to the negative externalities of globalization. For this competition issues in the impossibility of ensuring life and well-being for large segments of the population, which fails to meet the fundamental criterion of Dussel’s ethics of liberation.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2008) argues that there can be another kind of globalization, a decolonial globalization, one that is counter-hegemonic, and that grows from below, from the global periphery – not the center. Perhaps CRMs like the Caravan for Peace can give birth to this kind of globalization, one that shifts the tides of culture and knowledge, and that raises consciousness and a sense of responsibility in both countries, but especially in the U.S., where the costs are too often rendered out of sight, out of mind, as it were, and where illegal drugs are continually demanded and consumed at an insatiable rate.


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