Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nein! Or, against Robert Grow and in defense of the Occupy Movement

Attentive readers will have noticed that things have been rather quiet around here. There are many reasons for this: for instance, I’ve been trying to get things together to defend my dissertation in December, teaching responsibilities have ballooned as the semester’s end approaches, etc. However, a not insignificant factor has been the Occupy Movement (hereafter referred to as #OWS), which is now in its third month. Considerable percentages of my woefully insufficient discretionary processing power (those slivers of mental capacity not taken up with aforementioned tasks and familial responsibilities) have been committed to staying abreast of the news and analysis concerning #OWS, and racking my brain in discerning how to lend it appropriate support from the theological field.

Notice that I have been concerned with thinking about “how” to support #OWS, not “whether” I should support it. Indeed, I had occasion to mention #OWS in a favorable light in a public lecture on October 15th. My ready support of this movement grew out of an increasing awareness – which had been growing throughout the previous year – of the incredibly inequitable wealth distribution in the United States, and the way in which the political process has become dominated by the sliver of the nation’s populace that controls an incredibly disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth.

So imagine my chagrin when I saw late last night a blog post from Robert Grow purporting to treat the “Theology” of #OWS, but finally constituting an entirely unhelpful retreat into what Barth would call “pious egocentricity” [1]. I decided to respond to Grow in this public and direct way not because he is a particularly evil person (he is not), nor because I dislike him (I like him a great deal), but because his post represents a strand of thinking within American Christianity that I believe needs to be sharply contested. [2]

What is Grow’s argument? He begins by locating #OWS along the trajectory of Marxism and Liberation Theology [2], and giving voice to some criticisms of such a trajectory. This material is rather unexceptional, although Grow takes his frame of reference from some unfortunate luminaries. However, the payoff of this discussion is Grow’s repudiation of “revolution,” suggesting that revolution is to be avoided because of the difficulty in articulating what state of affairs should replace current conditions. It pains me that such a blatantly conservative argument could come from an heir of the Reformation, an evangelical, much less from a theologian who has been influenced by theological work spawned by Karl Barth’s thought [3]. Indeed, this is not an argument; it is rather a conservative reflex. It is hard to see how such a reflex ought to be entirely at home in Christian theology, dependent as it is upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But this is only a caveat in Grow’s larger response. He criticizes both “the greed and money-mongering of the Capitalist elite” as well as “Marxist, Liberation Theology and its ideals” and “Social Democratism that perpetuates much of the labor movement element” [4]. While the dual repudiation is appreciated, Grow spends much more time rejecting the ideas he sees behind #OWS than he does criticizing capitalism run amok – an imbalance which, while it may be strictly topical, is woefully backwards given capitalism’s incredible influence and power across the globe when compared to alternatives. This pertains to the viability of Grow’s positioning himself at the end of his post as within the prophetic tradition – the prophetic tradition is one that speaks from the margins and against the dominant power structures. Grow’s limp-wristed attempt at criticizing both capitalism and more progressive options fails to be prophetic precisely because it is a cop-out, an unhelpful failure to take sides that always plays into the hands of the dominant power structures.

More must be said with reference to the prophetic tradition. I referred earlier to Barth’s language of “pious egocentricity.” Barth’s concept is directed primarily at those who shun the missionary vocation of the church due to a preoccupation with possessing and cultivating their own salvation. It is a way to speak of a Christianity that is focused inward rather than outward, a Christianity that occupies itself with the relatively safe examination of the inner life as opposed to shouldering the task of engagement in the world for the sake of gospel proclamation. It is hard for me to read Grow’s repudiation of both capitalism and more progressive options as anything but a similar phenomenon. He appeals to the altogether correct belief that all human systems stand under God’s judgment, but this appeal is not made in the interest of pushing society toward a relatively (not ultimately, but relatively) better society. His appeal is made ultimately in the service of the status quo precisely because he is unwilling to raise his voice with those who speak out against injustice. What is this if not an instance of Christian theology living up to Marx’s declaration that religion is an opiate of the masses, a means of control, a way of reinforcing the already established power structures of society? It is an emphasis on the “inner” as part of a strategy to avoid the “outer,” it is a commitment to love of God that excludes – at least at the structural level, I assume that Grow would advocate acts of charity – love of neighbor.

The prophets had other ideas. Let us listen to Amos chapter 5:
{21}I hate, I reject your festivals, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. {22}Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. {23}Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
God here rejects the inner, rejects purported love of God, rejects the religious. Why?
{11}because you impose heavy rent on the poor And exact a tribute of grain from them, Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, Yet you will not live in them; You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine. {12}For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great, You who distress the righteous and accept bribes And turn aside the poor in the gate.
The prophet’s message comes to Israel because Israel has forgotten, as Micah puts it, “to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God.” Israel has forgotten that the second table of the law flows ineluctably from the first, that the love of neighbor is itself a part of the love of God.[5] So, what does God recommend through his prophet Amos as the proper response to this unacceptable state of affairs? It certainly is not more burnt offerings! Nor is it an appeal to the fact that all people must make burnt offerings to be right with God and that no human social system can ever take the place of God’s redeeming work! Instead,
{15}Hate evil, love good, And establish justice in the gate!
God demands that his people address the social injustice in their midst, that they oppose it, that they hate it. Furthermore, these are not simply recommendations for an individual’s pious attitudes and charitable activities. Justice must be established at the gate, at the very heart of the structures and institutions that govern society!

This is the true prophetic tradition, and it is a tradition that stands firmly on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden. Jesus did not come to heal the healthy, but the sick (cf. Mk 2.17), he came to serve the marginal and oppressed rather than those who guarded the status quo.[6] He explicitly associates himself with this prophetic concern for justice when he proclaimed his commission in the synagogue at Nazareth by quoting from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4):
{18}The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are oppressed, {19}To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
Allow me to close with a quote from one of Barth’s most notable students, Helmut Gollwitzer. Gollwitzer wrote a very compelling set of theses under the title, “Why I Am A Christian Socialist.” It is a very powerful document, and it is also a quick read, so I commend it to you all. The following quote sums up matters rather well:
“The conversion to which the Christian community is called daily through God's word also includes turning away from its bond in the dominant system of privileges and active engagement for more just social structures no longer determined by social privileges. Therefore the important primary question today is the question about the relation of Christian existence and capitalism, not the question of the relation of Christianity and socialism. Can one as a Christian affirm and defend the present social system together with its underlying economic order or must this system be intolerable for a Christian?”


[1] CD 4.3, 568.

[2] I was particularly pained to read this blog post because I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Grow through a fairly regular and not insignificant correspondence over the last few years, spawned by theo-blogging activities – this response must be read in view of an already existing relationship, and one that is fond rather than adversarial. Also, to be entirely fair, at least Grow is talking about it. There has been a disturbing lack of attention given to #OWS by the theo-blogging community.

[3]This association is not entirely self-evident, although it does accurately describe one segment of the Occupy movement. Furthermore, I welcome this connection and wish it would become more prominent. It is high time for the cultural stigma that attaches itself to “Marxism” and “socialism” in the West, and especially the United States, to be challenged and resoundingly repudiated.

[4] Grow is, of course, more nearly a Torrancian than a Barthian, and this may well explain part of his reflexive conservatism. As George Hunsinger has written poignantly about Torrance and Barth: “it is difficult to shake a nagging feeling about the way Torrance reads Barth. Barth’s early theology has been called ‘revolutionary theology in the making’ and the ‘theology of crisis.’ From Torrance, however, one cannot help but feel that one is somehow getting revolutionary theology without the revolution, and the theology of crisis without the crisis.” Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth, 11.

[5] It is important to make a distinction: Social Democracy retains capitalism and attempts to regulate and restrain it in such a way as to promote humane conditions throughout society; Democratic Socialism has the same sort of goals, but jettisons capitalist economics in favor of socialist economics while retaining democracy as the means of regulating the relationship between government and populace.

[6] I don’t know how else to interpret Matthew 25.34-40.

[7] Before one rushes too quickly to spiritualize this saying, it is necessary to note that Jesus makes this statement in response to Pharisees criticizing him for eating with those on society’s margins – tax collectors and those the Pharisees think of as “sinners.” Jesus’ continuation – “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” must thus be read as dripping with sarcasm, and as an act of subverting prevailing thinking about who is righteous and who is a sinner.

UPDATE: Grow has responded with a post that is worthy of note. Note also my comment on this post.