The Style of Subversion Part 2: Resisting Pseudo Alterity

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 12, 2008

In part one of the Style of Subversion, I examined the rise of the “hipster” and the growing trend of easy radicalism. Rather than simply vilifying the current trend, my hope is that we can see the see it for what it is. We must resist the Powers (of consumerism, globalism, fashion, etc) even as we recognize this as a time to move towards a more faithful embodiment of the Gospel in our 21st century imperial context.

The Commodification of Counter Culture

One of the challenges in doing this is the way in which we so easily don the appearance of being counter cultural without embracing a fundamental change in our patterns of life and the way in which we engage the existing patterns of domination.

Counter cultures are not a threat to empire because the global consumer capitalist system commodifies everything. Music and language and style and anti-consumer rants can all be commodified. Practices, however, are harder to commodify. So, if you want to have a faithful witness in the midst of empire, you need to embody an alternative.

Most radical or counter cultural movements, however, reach a place where the dominant culture seems to be willing to listen…if only we could drop some of the radicalism that scares the dominant culture. And so, the radical movement compromises so that it can influence the mainstream. The desire for a platform for change, or a growing audience willing to listen to our radical message, is a profoundly seductive temptation to which we almost always unreflectively succumb.  The radical fringe drops some of its more radical elements so that it can sit at the mainstream table, thereby bringing some needed change to the system. This is a story that has been told over and over again throughout history, right? But is change something that happens?

I can’t help but wonder if the mainstream ever actually changes in any meaningful way when it absorbs counter-cultural movements. For example, if our society became flooded with Amish speakers at conferences and Amish bloggers who were willing to drop some of their extremes in order to engage us on our own turf, would the USA really become a little bit more Amish in our identity? Or would the Amish lose their distinctiveness, become commodified, and rendered irrelevant?

Mainstream society has historically declawed radical movements under the false promise of letting that movement sit at the table of mainstream influence. This is certainly true historically, and in the current situation, it is even MORE the case.  I am convinced that, though there are similarities with previous generation, with the current mainstreaming of radicalism, the stakes are higher.

Why? Because the rate of commodification is nearly instantaneous (meaning that there is very little lag between the emergence of radical movements and their being coopted. Because the level to which people at the political and economic center are employing radical sensibilities for the furthering of empire are at an all-time high. When you combine these two realities, you end up with a phenomenon wherein radical movements are quickly co-opted, assimilated, and used to further the very imperial impulses that the radical movement emerged in order to challenge. Sure, this has always happened. One can see this with monasticism. But the sheer speed with which this is currently happening should give us pause.

A Counter Culture through Consumption?

Earlier, I suggested that we need to embrace a fundamental change in our patterns of life and, at the same time, change the way in which we engage the existing patterns of domination.  One of the difficulties of the current situation is that many of those eager to speak prophetically to empire are using the tools of empire to do so.

I don’t want to sound naive here. I recognize that we are all enmeshed into empire whether we like it or not. And by “empire” I’m not talking about USAmerica, but the complex web of nationally supported consumer capitalism, globalism, militarism, and the accompanying industries that mark an affluent lifestyle: entertainment, fashion, technology, etc. When we benefit from these things, we are tied into empire. If we are a part of the massive lower economic classes that fuel these things with their labor, we are tied into empire. So I have no false sense that my hands are clean in this.

Nevertheless, the shape of our lives should challenge the powers that undergird the current imperial system. And the strategies we employ should seek to reconcile the fallen powers to Christ rather than bringing the Church into conformity to the patterns of this world.

But we have bought into a lie. We We are using imperial tools to do kingdom work. We believe that, simply by shopping for items with a particular label, we are bring about reconciliation. But the issue is deeper than whether or not coffee workers get paid $1 a day or $10 a day. That isn’t to say that such things don’t matter. Of course they do. But buying fair trade coffee is a largely superficial strategy to a profound problem. It is like putting a band-aid on an open wound.

I’m reluctant to use this as an example, because it could be misunderstood. And I fully realize that I am complicit in this by my own purchasing habits. But what does it mean when one must pay $11 for a book or $200 for a conference to hear the voices of our most radical prophets? What if much of that money goes to one of a number of religious publishers who are owned by larger companies that are directly tied into systems of oppression? For example, Zondervan is owned by Rupert Murdoch. I have a number of books (most notably The Irresistable Revolution and Jesus for President) that are published by Zondervan.

I am not saying that we should boycott Zondervan. That would be too easy. I actually recommend both books to you–they are both well worth the read. No, I bring these books up because they highlight the strange place in which many of us live. I have no place to judge someone like Shane Claiborne for publishing for Zondervan. To do so would make me a hypocrite. Rather, I share this example because he, our most visible prophet, is feeding into a system that he, like many of us, is committed to challenge.

Of Kingdom and Counter Culture

The phenomenal success of Shane’s books (and indeed the modest success of Jesus Manifesto as a website) is due, no doubt, to a move of the Spirit in stirring up the hearts of God’s people for change. But every single time there is a pure move of God, the principalities and powers conspire to lessen the potential blow. In this case, I am convinced that where there is Spirit-given zeal for change, there is also a great capacity for the co-opted use of that zeal to further empire.

Books like a Nation of Rebels show us how easily counter cultures can be co-opted. The Kingdom of God, however, cannot be co-opted. Christ’s reign is, in light of the Cross, secured forever. However, the temptation we all face as the people of God is to trade our Kingdom identity for earthly facsimiles. The most obvious example of this from the past 25 years is the way in which conservative evangelicalism has been co-opted by Republican-influenced civil religion. The left is, however, hardly exempt from this phenomenon. And among those of us who understand ourselves to be radicals, those who seek an embodied faith that conforms to the life and message of Jesus Christ (particularly his views on wealth and violence), the temptation is to align ourselves too much with other counter cultural movements.

So, we become radicals in the image of Marx more readily than in conformity to Christ. Or we become Anarchists who happen to be Christians rather than “Christarchists.” Or we find ourselves venerating violent Latin American rebels. You fill in the blank. When the Church embraces a pattern of life in conformity to the Kingdom of God, it can never be co-opted by the Powers. When we trade that pattern of life for a counter-cultural facsimile, we are in an era when we can much more easily become co-opted.

We need to ground our lives in Jesus-shaped practices, rather than in the books we read, the conferences (or festivals) we attend, or the products we buy. We must be people shaped by the vision of the New Testament who live lives that embody Christ through the work of the Spirit. I’ll talk about that more in part three.

The Sexiness of Superficial Solidarity

If you were paying attention, you may have noticed that, as of yet, the content of this article doesn’t match the stated content in the title. In other words, I haven’t yet mentioned “Pseudo-Alterity.” Alterity, as I mentioned in the first part of this series, is a fancy word for “otherness” or “difference.” It is a word used first by philosophers and later by anthropologists and sociologists. And, based upon my own reading, it doesn’t have a fixed usage. I’m using it here in a largely negative way–so perhaps there is a better word for the phenomenon I’m about to describe.

Alterity isn’t something that someone choose for themselves. Sure, we all experience being an “other.” To men, women are “other.” To women, men are “other.” To blacks, white people can be “other.” In this sense, it can simply be used to describe difference. However, “otherness” has a negative meaning. When someone is “othered” they are objectified and, as such, lose respect. Or are not granted a place at the metaphorical “table.”

Dominant culture “others” groups of people all the time. The reason Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week is that brothers and sisters in Christ separate based upon racial differences rather than finding true commonality in Christ.

One of the current irritating trends is for someone to, after reading a book or taking a class or having a conversation, they believe that they have transcended the ugly force of dolling out alterity to an “other.” Many young white evangelicals (like me) have realized that it is bad for people of color to be oppressed or poor people to be poor or homeless people to be homeless. And many have taken the next step and realized that their very young whiteness gives them a systemic premise. This trajectory, up until this point, is a largely positive one…though there is a huge potential for misstep. What OFTEN happens next is that the young white person experiences anger…and in their anger, they somehow decide that they aren’t like the BAD white people who nurture this system of forced alterity. In this process, they determine that they are somehow, mystically, in solidarity with the person of color, or the poor, or the homeless. They are, somehow, one of those special white people who are part of the solution simply on the basis of their awareness.

This phenomenon has been ridiculed often. I don’t need to ridicule it further–especially because it strikes a little close to home. :) I call this phenomenon “pseudo-alterity” because it is the process by which someone in the position of dominance takes upon his or herself the status of symbolic “other.” They claim to be in solidarity, but what they have REALLY done is escaped guilt and declared themselves exempt from judgment.

In that place, anger remains because the pseudo-altern has aborted the process before it has run its course. And so, the angry young enlightened white person (and yes, I understand that non-whites can be guilty of this too…but I want to keep this autobiographical) stays angry and points fingers of judgment at exactly those people who were just like them before they themselves read a book, took a class, or had a conversation that gave them their new solidarity.

The Road of Repentance and Lament

If we are going to be proper radicals–who live a prophetic alternative to the cycle of death that pervades our fallen world–we need to stay the course. We can’t simply be angry pseudo-alterns that rage against the machine. In such a movement of pseudo-alterity, it is easy to realize that the world is broken and that things are wrong. We can buy radical books, go to radical conferences. We may go further and change our spending habits. This at least moves us towards embodiment. We may even take the step that few take and live in a house with like-minded friends and tend a garden. But what is required of us is so much deeper. Our prophetic response needs to be profound and powerful enough to speak into the centers of imperial power.

This is why we use the tools of empire: because those are, according to our current way of thinking, the most powerful tools at our disposal. Why content ourselves with seemingly small and simple acts when we can have festivals and conferences and the rise of the new Christian left?

Before we can see the kingdom reality, we must first repent of the old order. Before we can experience the joy of the Kingdom, we must mourn over the Empire. And one can never mourn if they seek to save themselves from judgment. Instead, we must own our complicity.

The way of the true radical–the way of the prophet–is to open our eyes to the alternative reality that is the Kingdom and to grieve and mourn over the world to which we still cling. Sure, there is still room for anger. But above that rises repentance and lament.

We must mourn the old world, the old ways, and its cycle of death–he cycle of greed and violence and oppression as we move into the kingdom of God. And, as we do that, must must let go of the illusion of our own moral purity. We must not reach for an easy pseudo-alterity. We can’t render ourselves radicals because we happen to have superficially opted out of the system and donned the garb of the gutterpunk.

If we are able to live the part of the radical without mourning our own complicity and mourning for those trapped in the cycle, we are simply a clanging cymbal. If, because of some strong exercise of willpower we manage to, based upon the heat of our own anger, carve out an entire way of life that stands in contrast to the empire, but have not love, we are simply the beat of an angry drum.

Next up…The Style of Subversion Part 3: Embodying God’s Love in the Empire

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 26 Comments

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    A really great text! Thankyou for your extremely important words!
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    ( I´m a little worried about your strong separatist stance, though...) (kidding)
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    This is why I am loving sites like Stuff White People/Christians Like; they force a closer look at the idiocies/idiosyncrasies that, no matter how different I claim to be, I realize that many of my habits and behaviors are trappings of the surrounding culture.

    I think of everything, attempting to transform my own consumerism will be the hardest. We're getting to be more hospitable, bringing people into our home, seeking out ways to help those around us, but it's still not a 'default' setting for us...transformation is hard, rhetoric is easy, and I'm trying to go easier on the latter if it will aid the former.
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    I liked this - it resonates with things I have been thinking about, specifically pseudo-alterity (which I internally call ontological misidentification).

    At the risk of turning this comment into my blog (again - I need to get better about that), Christian pseudo-alterity seems to have 2 negative components that I have observed. First, those in the radical fringe too often see those as "other" (in a negative sense) as not being part of the solution. I've personally experienced some alienation because my income is too high or my house is too nice without understanding how I use my money and my house. I agree that biblical prophets often looked and acted in flagrant counter-cultural ways, but is that a necessity? In other words, how big of an issue is the "style of subversion" when doing Kingdom work?

    Second, one's solidarity in their new alterity seems to imbibe too many with a sense of false ability. Because a person understands the oppression of a group and wants to fight against said oppression does not mean they will achieve any noticeable reformation of the group being oppressed. I see this a lot, and in most cases it ends in disillusionment and burnout. Most prophets were shunned by the oppressed and killed by the oppressors. This "style of subversion" for those who do more than superficial work needs to be more recognized than it seems to be. (Course, I've never gone to a radicals conference - maybe it is...)

    All that to say, I believe this post is a great description of how the epistemic, ontological, and ethical anxieties of being a prophetic voice need to be conditioned by the Spirit rather than with attractive outward signs. You've tapped into something about which a lot more could be said. Great post.

    I look forward to the next one.
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    I think you question about the role of the radical fringe is worthwhile. How does one incorporate change across a spectrum of commitment and idealogical levels?
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    My rambling thoughts:
    I wonder, first, whether consumerism, globalism, and fashion are powers. Powers, it seems to me, ought to be limited to those influences which necessarily employ the use of force. Consumerism is gluttony, a sin, plain and simple, but I doubt whether we can label it a power. Fashion can be either more consumerism or art. As art I find it meaningful though a-moral. Globalisation seems to belong to an altogether different category, and I would not incude it in any list of evils, but perhaps among goods, like other forms of voluntary action.
    Secondly, I don't think we need to set ourselves in opposition to the empire. I prefer an attitude of indifference. When the church allows itself to be influenced by empire, then I am all for purification of the church, but empire, per say, just is. It wil always be. Pagans know no other way of living. They must and will have a state. Anarchists are the exception, and as such are ripe in the harvest fields for our submergent Jesus.
    I agree whole-heartedly that pracitce is the embodiment and thus the only meaningful context for ethics and virtue, if we even choose to retain virtue. I'd rather walk in the spirit than depend on learned forms of imitation...
    What do you mean by this term commidification? As soon as a thing possesses value to any individual it is a commodity. Is commodification in itself evil, or is it the best way to realize voluntary exchange? And isn't voluntary exchange on the level the most just way for people to get along apart from Christ?
    I think we are agreeing, but I am a stickler for these terms.
    Practices, beliefs, and interestingly, ideas (patents and copyrights) are more difficult to justly commodify. To do so does require the influence of power.
    So it is quite right that we do not belong at the table. The table is for the wolves, not the sheep.
    Instantaneous commodification rightly demonstrates that the vast majority are willing to be bought, and the effectiveness of the market.
    Again, your list of powers is too long. We need to look more carefully at where power is at play, versus where power is necessary. The market can operate completely absent of power, and ought to. Affluence need not be tied to power, though it is rare that it is not.
    The shape of our lives need not deliberately challenge power. If we adopt mere indifference to power, as a fact of life, and then act deliberately according to the Christian ethic we will generate much more frustration among the powerful.
    I am trying to be careful, as you are, I think, not to define ourselves negatively in respect to the power, but positively, in reflection of our God.
    Ayn Rand illustrates this idea well in her novels when she has her protagonists say of others, "I don't think of you at all." It comes across as conceited, but we can employ it as a singular focus on Christ. The powers are the waves which draw our attention away from Christ.
    As for fair-trade-coffee, it may be more harmful than helpful in the long run. Most artificial forms of charity are.
    Indifference allows us to buy milk at the local grocery, rather than from a Christian Cow. It also allows us to publish through Zondervan. The profit Z earns is not evil (I think this might be the crux of much confusion), but a communication to Z about how many copies to publish.
    I must admit to placing my Anarchism before Christ at times. The -ism must be subject to Him.
    Grief certainly is the best response to sin, whatever form it takes. Anger might rightly be reserved for those areas which have been delegated to our judgement: our own sin, and the purity of the church. I can only remember Jesus getting angry at those who were corrupting religion.

    Your overal message seems to say, get past superficial rebellion which really just adopts the norms of the world and creates for itself a new religion in the image of the believer, and get on with living the gospel.
    Amen to that! But living in the world, that is: working hard, earning profits, buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage -- these are the normal elements of life, and there is no evil in them. Rather, pagan religions are more likely to attempt to vilify these things due to the religion's inability to influence them indirectly.
    I'm very much looking forward to part 3.
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    I'd challenge the use of the term indifference, except I can't think of a better one. But you're right; merely fighting 'empire' is hardly a solution...and it creates the precise divisions and pride that help built the foundations for the empire-to-come

    I like the concept that we live as we feel called to live, regardless of what general culture does or does not do. If they try to mimic it, more power to them...hopefully some will get the cause that is generating the effect. Others may contest it, and that's fine too...persecution to some degree is expected. But if nothing else, it embodies an alternative.

    The process of discovery for me, then, is understanding the what and how. :)
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    First off, we are clearly told in Scripture that we are to wrestle (or struggle) with the principalities and powers. While it is certainly true that we aren't to resist the Empire (which is one point of Romans 13), that isn't to say we aren't to resist the way in which Empire exists as a nexus for the powers. Paul's language isn't particularly clear in drawing a line between embodied and spritual realities...nor should it be. But it makes it difficult to understand what particular things to resist in our world. If one were to read his writings with that question in mind, it shifts how one understands spiritual warfare.

    Regarding powers: I think your list is too small. I'm not sure where you decided that the use of coercion is a requirement for a power. Nor do I understand why you think consumerism isn't coercive. My definition of "powers" is in basic agreement with William Stringfellow who defines "principalities and powers" as "ideologies, institutions and images." The Powers aren't evil...though they are fallen. That means that they are redeemable. A Power takes on its own ensnaring force. So, while no one is physically coerced into buying, the ideological system called "consumerism" with its set of practices ensnares people into an idolatrous relationship with things and people. And it also works in league with other powers to exploit the developing world.

    The market, if left to a pure world, would be neutral. But in a world full of Powers (even though these powers are defeated in Christ) the market is fallen. And the powers use it in fallen ways towards fallen purposes. In other words, the Market is not free. Nor can it ever be free, apart from Christ.

    Before someone says "hey, not all institutions or ideologies are bad" let me assure you: no one is saying that they are ontologically "bad." Just like I can't say that I myself am "bad." But we are fallen. And every systemic force in our world is fallen. And we are exhorted to struggle with the fallen Powers as we seek to live out the kingdom reality. In the end, every Power will be reconciled to God and fulfill a righteous purpose.
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    I don't know Stringfellow, or Apollos, but I think I can go along with "ideologies, institutions, and images." I don't know how consumerism is an ideology. Who decided what consumerism would be? I think its just a nebulous label which we substitute for gluttony. In general I think we apply it to people who buy things we don't think they should buy, hence, hipsterism and every other fad.
    I don't see how globalisation or even consumption by developed nations expolits the developing world. Empirialism, yes, militarism, of course, but I see the majority of the problem with the developing world to be their poor choice of political systems and leaders and the lack of property rights.
    The market is the most difficult thing for powers to manipulate. They try all the time, and never know what they are doing. Inasmuch as we can use the market instead of the state we practice volunterism and indifference toward the state. The market also is not an institution. It has no centralized organization. It is not really an it. The market is anytime anyone voluntarily swaps anything with someone else. If it is not voluntary it is not the market.
    I suppose my understanding of power is related to how these forces come to exist. ideologies, institutions, and images cerive from a centralized organization and require the influence of coercion to conquor more space. They are implicitly involuntary. Their purpose for existing is to redistribute goodies to a particular privileged group.
    Decentralization is something that needs much more discussion here. The movement towards centralization is a movement toward control, and power. Conferences, etc. are certainly mechanisms for this force. Only when Christ is the initiator and focus of the cetralizing movement is it legitimate. This is because He is the One Center. All others are off the mark (sin) and idolatrous.
    I think it is important to keep up this contention because fighting against the market and pure capitalistic ideas is a big waste of time. These forces emerge on their own everywhere humans co-exist. They are the common grace which God has given to man apart from the gospel so that he may coexist with his common man. All other forces are aimed at eliminating some of his common men. The market creates wealth and is not a zero-sum-game.
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    I'm hoping someone else will jump in here where I leave off...because I'm short on time and can't respond as much as I'd like.

    My basic beef with your line of thinking is that your categories are too clean. To say that the market is hard for nations to control shows a level of naivete on the role of governments throughout history. I exhort you to study sociology and not just Austrian economics. Consumerism is a sociological reality that isn't just about gluttony. It points to an entire way of engaging the world and draws upon our individualism (which is also a power), materialism, greed, and our understanding of how choice works (which can never be free...the idea of voluntary engagement in the market is in itself a myth because our desires can never be truly free). I'd recommend you read William Cavanaugh's "Being Consumed" and Vincent Miller's "Consuming Religion." You may not agree with the economic particulars that clash with your own view of free markets, but I think you may find the spiritual and social dimensions of these works helpful.

    Do you really believe the market is simply a simple system of trade between two people? How can we even begin to meaningfully separate the Market from all the messy human dimensions that are entwined within it? We don't live in a world where the Market has ever been is it even meaningful to talk of a "free Market" that has no blame and is neutral, when such a thing has never existed? To talk of it so renders it holy eschatological status.
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    You might add Hardt and Negri's Empire to the recommended reading list.
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    What do you mean "our desires can never be free" or "choice can never be free?" I hear Whitney Huston somewhere in the back of my mind.
    Perhaps I am delusional in imagining the degree of freedom which I enjoy, but I like to believe that my freedom is directly proportional to the degree of responsibility which I assume.
    It is up to me (go ahead and call me an individualist) whether I allow myself to be influenced by the existing powers.
    My semantical tyrades are only worthwhile in isolating precisely which influences are powers, which are sins, and which are actually good.
    That market mechanisms are frequently grouped together with the powers or evil or sin is frustrating. The evils in the market are all, ALL, backed by coercive power. It is that black and white. I'm afraid I might have to explain the whole of economic theory to convince anyone other than self-avowing libertarians of these ideas.
    In the end, if we are to propose a way of living, we will have to incorporate markets if for no other reason than to communicate information about availability of scarce resources.
    I'm open though to learning. Being Consumed is on order from Amazon.
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    I think you two are talking opposite sides of the same coin. On the one hand, freedom (be it political, economic, spiritual, etc) is generally considered a 'good thing'. But to argue against government and for political freedom (the anarchist leaning) but to then have misgivings about free markets (the capitalist leaning) is to try and have cake and eat it too. The same arguments that fight free market rhetoric also disembowel anarchism.

    So if we're talking absolute freedom, let's try to be consistent across the board. With that said though as we understand better how we as human think and behave, we begin to realize that this construct of humanity as the great rationalist, in control of all pertaining to his or herself is an artificial one; not completely, but enough to gently but firmly push our desires for absolute freedom into imaginary realms and out of reality.

    Ellul recognized this as he discussed political freedom: it was never actually attainable, but in the striving to attain it we reach for the ideal, and attempt to close the gap between where a decision is made and a person is affected.

    I see economics the same way. The free market idea is a wonder tale, but it's a fairy tale. There is no such thing in reality, merely a myriad of attempts at reaching the ideal and perversions of. Shall we therefore not reach?

    The concerns over corporate gangsterism are more real to us, perhaps, because the political situation is such that we have to endure it; we do not have to endure, in North America, much challenge from political terrorists and lynch mobs. But both have to be acknowledged and addressed when one starts speaking openly about control and freedom. If you enemy is not free enough to threaten your own freedom, then are you really being egalitarian or is it merely a more subtle form of fascism? Freedom for those qualified...the downtrodden, minorities, etc. Corporate CEOs and suburban moms need not apply.

    I'm playing the devil's advocate here, but this is the unexpressed impasse that I'm seeing in the conversation here. Would love to hear someone else's thoughts, and thankfully, we have a respectful enough group to accommodate strong challenges from all sides.

    Peace to you all
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    dlw here:
    Mark is right.

    Markets are never "free". There is always Markets plus Frameworks and the issues usually involve the Frameworks which are entertwined with all sorts of manipulations that easily distract us from following Christ.

    Austrian Economics tends to be very individualistic and apart from us being solely self-interested bastards, presumes we act like angels in how we pursue our self-determined "interests". It has continuities with Aristotelian/Aquinas thought, but should be read along with its implied dialogue opponent of Christian Social Thought or German Historicism.
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    My issue with Consumerism is that it has seemed to me the real issue is the pervasive lack of discipline, not the fact that we face choices in how incarnate our faith or resolve our ecclesial conflicts. It also may overemph the exit threat in church polity. When you're trying to pay for a (big) building and (large) church staff then you gotta serve as many customers as possible and keep them from going to the competitors. And this can result in many Christians failing to be built up in their gifts and challenged in how they live their life. So I'd also say that Consumerism is not Missional, in the sense it is not self-critical about how we are doing home missions.

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    I'm just trying to say that it is not the market that is the problem, but the powers manipulating the market. Of course those powers will always be present, but our best hope is to work to limit those powers. We should not conflate the two. It's like saying that guns, per se, are bad.
    If we join in the effort to stifle the market we morph into another power, which I believe is the issue Mark is driving at with this post, and trying to warn us against, and which I completely agree with.
    I have quibbled over a tiny piece of semantics here, but one which I represents a serious flaw in approach. I am in full agreement with the direction here.
    As for Austrians presuming angelic behavior... perhaps they rely too much on rational expectations, though Bryan Caplan is doing much to resolve these assumptions with investigations into systematic biases. As for Christian Social Thought, German Historicism, I will have to look into these schools, as we have discussed before, for I am sure they have wonderful insights, but I am afraid my eschatology prevents me from accepting any teleological worldview, and I am thoroughly convinced that Christian social action ought to be unilateral and separate from the state.
    I am not an Austrian, but I am very sympathetic to their methodology.
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    I also agree that the so called free market is not truly free, especially in its mass-produced, nationalized, or globalized forms. A market that would cohere and would more easily embody the freedom we all want would be local and cooperative vs. distant and driven by competitive forces. The disturbing message of the "free market" is pervasive in our culture. As Walsh and Keesmaat put it in Colossians Remixed: "The average North American person is confronted every day by somewhere between five and twelve thousand corporate messages, all geared to shaping a consumer imagination...The messages are all telling the same story: a finite world can sustain infinite growth, economic growth is the driving force of history, consumer choice is what makes us human, and greed is normal. If we live in an empire, it is the empire of global consumerism" (p. 84-85). The free market seems to recommend a certain kind of optimism (in particular, technological optimism) that I find hard to believe. Perhaps more accurately, it is an optimism that I find myself resisting.

    To add another book to the reading list, I would recommend Wendell Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.
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    Using tools of the empire... reminds me of Wendell Berry's essay "Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer" ( One respondent mentioned how her computer allows her to get up-to-the-minute updates on environmental legislation. Berry probably just shook his head as she plugged in her mountain-destroying machine.
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    I don't know if the phrase "most powerful" is apropos.

    I do agree that my tendencies to obsess about politics in the past, particularly like I did in the onset of the 2004 election were not the best way to glorify God.

    I also find beauty and good in many purportedly non-Christian sources and believe these ultimately stem from God. My reading of the Bible doesn't permit a clear dividing line between the pagan and the Christian.
    If Marxism is understandable as a heretical form of Christianity then Christians shd be encouraged to dialogue with Marxists.

    I think while Xtns can get coopted by "Culture" that our ability to influence said culture in part is a way to sow seeds for the spread of the Gospel. Do you think Xty cd have spread as quickly as it did in its first centuries of existence if Hellenism had not been spread so widely by Alexander the Great? And from whence did Hellenism come but from the concepts imported into Greco-Roman culture by Pythagoras in the late 6th ctry BCE?

    I think Xty inevitably brings accomodation from others, which falls short of the Glory of God. This can be seen early on in its existence with the syncretism between middle platonism and Christianity that gave rise to the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. This may be tragic, but it did help Augustine later draw on Neo-Platonism to communicate Xty. I'd say something similar for the impact of Xty on the Wachowski Siblings' Matrix Trilogy. Even if they have sullied the story, it is an important point of contact/seed to be used for ministry.

    One cd also call the problem "entrepreneurial Xty", inasmuch as we've been too good at adapting to the prevalent culture and as it has become increasingly hyper-individualistic in the past 50 yrs, we have become likewise...
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    You say: "Before we can see the kingdom reality, we must first repent of the old order. Before we can experience the joy of the Kingdom, we must mourn over the Empire. And one can never mourn if they seek to save themselves from judgment. Instead, we must own our complicity."

    Two questions about this: one exegetical, one practical. Both are to contest your claim that we shouldn't save ourselves from judgment-on-empire.

    Exegetical: I agree that we must genuinely mourn and lament the old order -- our complicity in it, its injustices, judgment on it, everything. And I think we see Jesus doing the same, along with Paul in Romans 9 wishing he could die if the judgment upon Jerusalem could only be averted. But didn't Jesus tell his disciples in the Matt 24, Mark 13, etc, to flee the wrath that's coming on Israel? "Head for the hills when you see all this happening!" He mourns this judgment coming on Israel deeply, and even drinks the cup of that judgment in the cross, but he doesn't insist that his disciples should share in that judgment. Rather, "salvation" to them would have meant surviving the AD 70 catastrophe, not being dragged down into it!

    Granted, that kind of judgment is quite unique historically. It was God's bringing the story of Israel to its climax: inaugurating the new age, ingrafting the Gentiles, and judging once and for all the way of nationalism. Judgments on today's empires are different than that one. Still, that Jesus told his disciples to escape judgment, rather than "own [their] complicity" is telling.

    Practical -- Let's hypothesize that the Peak Oil crowd and the global warming crowd are right, and America in particular is going to suffer mightily in the years to come. Economic collapse, urban violence, water shortages, and an ever constricting food crisis. The whole nine yards -- j-u-d-g-e-m-e-n-t. Should we stay? Should we run? Do American Christians imitate the early Christians in Jerusalem around AD 70, and flee? Or do they remain in the crumbling empire, sharing in the pains of judgment on the empire? You seem to argue that we should remain and share in its fate... while that resonates with something very deep in me, I wonder how it cleaves with Jesus' warnings?
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    Jeremiah was kind of in that tension as well; preaching treason to the people and the soldiers, yet staying within the walls of the city until the last moment, at which point he and those who listened fled to Egypt.

    I guess there's something to be said for 'knocking the dust from your feet'. But on the other hand, you had the Christians who stayed with the dead and dying during the massive plague near Rome, and it became a point of renown and transformation.

    You got me thinking Brandon
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    Brandon, this is a very interesting discussion. It seems to me that a crucial question here is: Are we really in a position to talk about ‘judgment-on-empire’? What would that look like? Judgment on second temple Judaism and even on Roman paganism took concrete historical forms. What concrete historical form would judgment on these modern empires take? It seems to me that we are at a stage prior to that. In Romans 1-2 there is a progression in Paul’s thought from i) repudiation of the living God and worship of idols to ii) various forms of unjust and immoral behaviour to which God handed humanity over, and then to iii) the wrath of God against the Greek-Roman world, which I would understand as some form of historical overthrow of the system of classical paganism.

    We could take the risky step of proclaiming an end to the system of modern consumer capitalism; and if we are confident that the Western world is about to descend into political or environmental chaos, we would probably then have to talk about how the people of God might survive or perhaps escape from that catastrophe without losing its distinctive collective witness to the reality of a faithful creator God. If we lack that prophetic confidence, however, then we are dealing with stage (ii) and the emphasis should probably be on how we live in the midst of our culture in accordance with the standards of God’s justice and mercy.

    There is also an important distinction to be made between surviving judgment on Jerusalem and surviving judgment on an antipathetic pagan imperialism. In the first instance, the very existence of the people of God as heirs to the promise to Abraham was in jeopardy, hence the command to flee the city. In the case of judgment on empire the thought is perhaps a little different - the church was called to triumph over a cult of death through its consistent love and trust in the God of life. It would be interesting to explore the full implications of this distinction.

    However, while Jesus told the disciples to flee Jerusalem before the war, they only escaped judgment because he had suffered it on their behalf in advance of the war: he died so that they might live; he bore the consequences of their complicity in the sins of Israel.

    We still stand in relation to our own traditions and to empire, but we have to ask pertinent contemporary questions in the light of the biblical narrative. How do we remain true to our fundamental calling following the disintegration of Christendom? How do we determine our behaviour in relation to the dominant culture? What are the future challenges for which we need to be prepared? These are our own questions - they do not exactly replicate the circumstances faced by the early church.
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    I believe that while some will be called to flee, some will be called to stay in order to be demonstrations of God's love to those who are suffering. The important thing is that each one heed the calling of the Lord and carry out whatever we have been called to do.
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    The Commodification of Cool

    There is a scene from the movie Gandhi, when Nehru and some of Nehru’s friends come to visit Gandhi and offer support for his cause. They are all wearing fine English suits, while Gandhi himself is wearing his usual Khadi.

    Here is an excerpt of the script:

    “I try to live like an Indian, as you see . . .
    it is stupid of course, because in our country it is the British who decide how an Indian
    lives – what he may buy, what he may sell. And from their luxury in the midst of our
    terrible poverty they instruct us on what is justice and what is sedition. (He looks
    at them, a teasing but mordant grin.) So it is only natural that our best young minds
    assume an air of Eastern dignity, while greedily assimilating every Western weakness as
    quickly as they can acquire it.”

    About a year ago I drove from my home in Marin County to the mission district of San Francisco to share an evening with my Bay Area Emergent friends. When I got there the music was playing loudly, and most everyone was sipping wine. In a short while I began to feel irritated with the banal conversation that permeated the room—it seemed to me that most everyone there was trying very hard to be cool and hip.
    This was not the first time that I had the opinion that my young friends in Emergent are sometimes involved in self-conscious production of personae of cool. I even at times entertain the notion that, having removed themselves from a certain social bubble that from a mainstream cultural perspective is seen as decidedly uncool, namely mainline evangelicalism, perhaps it is only natural that they are eagerly lapping up the trappings of cool as an overcompensation for a sense of prior squareness. But what do I know.
    I, on the other hand, am truly cool.
    As I was feeling irritated and superior, a voice whispered within me; “Rick, you are not here to criticize or to judge, you are here to wash feet.”
    I am grateful to be able to say that my irritation, and my sense of superiority in the realm of the ‘truly cool,’ vanished-- and I had a very lovely evening-connecting well with my friends over many profound things, like the difficulty of growing a garden in San Francisco, where there is a paucity of sunlight, and what little sun there sometimes is will often be blocked by the close proximity of other Victorian houses.
    What matters is authentic connection, not the profundity or hipness of the subject at hand.
    As I write this I am wearing a faded jean shirt, my favorite. I just noticed that it has acquired a big tear in the elbow. It is probably irreparable. And I’ll probably continue wearing the shirt. A few months ago, a good friend mended a small tear in the shoulder, because I like this shirt so much. This shirt represents something to me, I’m not sure what. I like to wear it with jean pants and a simple tee-shirt with absolutely no designs or writings on it. Many times I have made sure I was wearing this outfit when I went to go visit my young emergent friends.
    I guess it’s my grungy version of cool.
    When I was a teenager in the 70s I wore puffy-sleeved embroidered tunics, like were seen on The Partridge Family.
    Who am I?
    I do believe that the commodification of cool presents us with a perplexing question of authenticity, but I am not so sure that the final resolution of our perplexity resides in resisting the powers of consumerism, globalism, fashion, etc.
    Did not Jesus say to resist not evil?
    And I doubt that we can embrace a fundamental change in our patterns of life and the way in which we engage the existing patterns of domination without reconsidering what it might mean to be to be born again.
    Once, Jesus was tired, and he sat down next to a well. A certain woman came by… and you know how it goes. They engaged in some conversation, the woman played it cool, and Jesus saw through her coolness, to the wounded child beneath. He saw through all her masks. He saw her better than she saw herself. He saw the wounded broken, precious child underneath her desperate act of cool. And this enabled her to see herself this way. If anyone but Jesus were to reveal to her what he revealed to her, I doubt if she could have endured it. Freak-out time indeed. When Jesus revealed her inmost self to her, what she beheld was Grace itself. He showed her how innocent she really was underneath it all. She was born again.
    Jesus did not come to show us how guilty we are. He came to show us how innocent we are. He came to help us see that underneath all the crap, all the pain and woundedness that drives us to behaviors that hurt ourselves and others, behaviors that estrange us from ourselves and from Him, underneath our masks of hipness and coolness, underneath our fear, in other words--underneath our sin-- there is an innocent, broken, hurting child who is infinitely precious to him and to the Father.
    Worth dying for.
    If we can learn to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, we will not need to play it cool anymore. We can come out of our hiding.
    He did not die for our coolness. He did not die for our masks. HE DID NOT DIE FOR OUR SINS.
    He died for us.
    And if we fabricate a hipster hiding place, he died in vain.

    There is a nice line from a Rich Mullins song that I like:
    “Though we’re strangers, still I love you,
    I love you more than your mask.”

    Let’s wash one another’s feet, shall we?
    Then perhaps our perceived need for donning masks will vanish.
    Martin Buber has written:
    Where two or more are truly present to one another, they are present in His name.

    Reverend Ricky
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    This discussion looks about three weeks old, but you guys seem to have segwayed into discussing the line between purely human coporate influence, and the influence of spiritual authorities - maybe referred to as powers. That tripped my interest switch. I will throw this in for now: We westerners find it a lot easier to recognize spiritual phenomena when it's not in our own back yard, but that doesn't make it less present. We are rationalists as a culture - we deny the existence, much more the relevance, of what the Bible refers to as "rulers and authorities" (seven examples: Col. 1:16, 2:10, 2:15, Eph. 1:21, 3:10, 6:12, 1Cor. 15:24). The Evengelical Christian culture in America is stunted at best in it's awareness of spritual dynamics, and I think it would be well worth kicking up the learning curve on this for our own spiritual health and survival.
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    Wow, great discussion, thanks Bob for pointing it out.

    My problem is that if you go too far down this road, you discover that you are a big part of the problem, and untangling yourself from the effects is a hard job. Personally, I think consumerism is a very good example. I've been talking to a group working in a slum in India. There, a reasonable factory wage is about 1/67th of the British legal minimum wage. It is inconceivable that wages will rise to the levels which would supply anything approaching a reasonable standard of living according to western standards.

    The problem is that the people working these god-awful jobs are often producing items for western markets, where 90% or more of the sale price stays in our country - in wages, taxes, profits etc. So in effect, we actually need people who are prepared to work for much lower rates than we would charge to do the same thing in order to maintain our standard of living.

    Even assuming the best possible motives for everyone involved in Shane's books, a load of people are counting on big sales for their jobs, pensions etc. I guess the problem is underlined by a Kierkegaard quote I saw today (although I accept that his writing technique is rather challenging, including exaggeration and conflicting arguments)

    "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
    Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."


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