The Sermon on the Mount: Continuing the conversation

The conversation continues apace on my two posts, and I’ve also corresponded with Ted Jennings about them. With all that in mind, I’d like to try to present things in a different way, while simultaneously expanding them — all based on the premise that Jesus’s ethics (or, as Ted would prefer it, politics) are an attempt to do everything at once.

  1. They are an attempt to form a new kind of community and a new type of individual in such a way that the two are dialectically related — neither becomes the foundation for the other. The improvisational nature of these practices challenges the stable self-identity of both community and individual, so that the community is not a substantial self-perpetuating “institution” nor is it simply the juxtaposition of ethical individuals.
  2. They are an attempt to create practices that both shape the community and provoke those “outside” the community — the same practice of “giving people what they want” acts as a kind of provocation or shaming for an “outsider” and as a principle for intra-community communism. The very fact that the same practices are used in both cases, however, reflects the fact that this is a community that is always oriented toward the outside. It is simultaneously an attempt to create a “liberated zone” within actual existing society and an attempt to transform that society, in such a way that both “prongs” operate completely in parallel and are ultimately indistinguishable.
  3. Looking at the previous point from a different angle, they are an attempt to create practices that simultaneously undermine the present order of things and prepare us for the desired future order of things — rebelling by doing precisely the things that will characterize the new society you’re seeking to bring about.
  4. Finally, it is an attempt to short-circuit deliberation while nonetheless remaining open. The order that is to result from these practices is not pre-given in any detail, given the extremely capacious core commitment of “love your neighbor” — we learn more and more about what it means to love our neighbor as we practice loving our neighbor. We don’t just learn by doing in the sense of acquiring a known skillset, we learn what it is we’re doing by doing.

We could perhaps think of this ethics or politics as an elegant, polyvalent gesture that changes everything, all at once — the “slight shift” that, according to one of my favorite quotes from Benjamin, is the work of the messiah, so that in the messianic era, “Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

12 thoughts on “The Sermon on the Mount: Continuing the conversation

  1. I haven’t come across that Benjamin quote. Where’s it from?
    With all the recent buzz around “apocalyptic” I have really come to appreciate Benjamin. Especially your quote, urges us to think of apocalyptic differently. One of my favourite notions from “Critique of Violence” was something along the lines of divine violence being lethal without being bloody.

  2. Ok, Adam, I’ll bite. Here’s my question: What difference does it make if we take the rebellion of the Jesus community to be against the Temple and its supporting power structure (Sanhedrin, Herod, Sadducees) or against Rome? Are both attacked at once? I guess the question could be rephrased: Is the new community a new Israel or a new Rome? Or is the new Israel supposed to be the vehicle for rebelling against Rome? Would it be possible to imagine your ethics/politics emerging in Rome, completely apart from Israel?

  3. “The order that is to result from these practices is not pre-given in any detail, given the extremely capacious core commitment of “love your neighbor” — we learn more and more about what it means to love our neighbor as we practice loving our neighbor. We don’t just learn by doing in the sense of acquiring a known skillset, we learn what it is we’re doing by doing.”

    This still seems to me to not sit well with your (Jesus’s) idea about breaking down ethical behavior into “a few basic practices”. If we can’t tell at the outset what we’re going to end up doing (because we can only learn that by doing it), then how can we know what the right “basic practices” to practice will be? Whatever “basic practices” we set out, they might turn out to be useless, or even counterproductive, depending on what “love your neighbor” turns out to mean in the future. So why shouldn’t we just not set up “basic practices” at all, and just let whatever happens happen?

    A second (and I think independent) line of thought: If we can’t tell what “loving our neighbor” means (in any detail) until we’re doing it (doing *IT*), how can we tell if we’re loving our neighbor or not (succeeding or failing)? For presumably we could try to “love our neighbor”, instead do something else, and mistakenly think that this something else we’re doing is what “loving our neighbor” amounts to; it can’t be the case that so long as we *try* to love our neighbor, we automatically succeed, *whatever* we go on to do — this would empty the notion of “loving your neighbor” of all content whatsoever (even a thin one, unless it’s so thin that all it means is “try to do something and call it by this name”).

    Basically, I can’t see how you can have a command that is simultaneously “thin” enough that you don’t need to worry about dogmatism, but determinate enough that you can distinguish improvising at it from just doing things at random.

    Rereading your last comment on the previous post, I’m wondering if the problem isn’t with the “essence of the law which is communicable across cultural traditions”. If you’re willing to bite the bullet and affirm a thick enough cross-cultural-valid understanding to what “love your neighbor” means, then that could be sufficiently weighty to figure out (some) basic practices to start doing and to begin to figure out whether we’re loving our neighbors or merely claiming to. And maybe the worry about dogmatism just doesn’t bother you because you can just *see* that this essence is a good place to start. But then I’m not sure how far the improv metaphor really gets you, because this invariant core is suddenly doing a lot of work.

    On the other hand, Rosenstock’s last question seems more interesting than anything I have to say, and this comment is quite a bit longer than his. So that’s embarassing.

  4. Bruce, I actually read your comment when getting up in the middle of the night and had trouble getting back to sleep, thinking of how I could answer. My hope is that we’d be constrained to say that it couldn’t arise in Rome independently of Israel — and that it isn’t so much a “new Israel” as an attempt to engraft the Gentiles onto Israel, not so much directly the Jewish way of life in all its details but the Jewish methods for developing that way of life and the Jewish stance toward it. The greatest contrast would be the refusal of coercion as a way of motivating obedience to the law. It is difficult for me to imagine that Rome (or America for that matter) would picture its own best self along those lines. This is probably inadequate, but perhaps it’s a start.

    Daniel, It’s thin, but not contentless. You could develop practices based on your initial broad intuitions about what loving your neighbor looks like and then, as a result of practicing that, you’d gain more reliable intuitions that could be used to change the practices. There are many examples where in order to learn a skill, you have to start with something that will finally be “wrong” but is still a necessary way in. Sure, you’ll say that we know what those skills are in advance, etc., so maybe we could think of it in terms of an invention — if the invention was pre-given, it wouldn’t be an invention, but you nonetheless have some idea of what it will look like that informs your initial investigation.

  5. Adam, I like your approach, using the idea of non-coercion to separate Israel and Rome, but I think that non-coercion is not quite the right, or the most precise, way to divide Israel from Rome. Couldn’t one argue that Plato’s Republic is based on the idea that law, if it is just, will not be coercive, that is, based on the promise of rewards (afterlife) or the threat of punishments. I think maybe we need to distinguish Israel from Rome on the basis of what justice means for each. For Israel, justice is directed toward the marginal and defenseless (widow, orphan, and Levite); for Rome (and the Greek philosophic tradition), justice is about right order, each doing his/her part within the whole. In Israel, loving the neighbor as oneself is supposed to support justice, but love is not the only motive, there is also the experience of marginality (“do not oppress the alien for you know the life — nefesh — of the alien, you were aliens in Egypt”). Your idea that the ethical act should be non-reflective seems to require a new view of the self, namely, as alien and oppressed, and a view of the task of justice as precisely going beyond the law (as when a farmer leaves unharvested the margins of the field, not because it is enjoined in the law and therefore its breach would be a punishable deed, but because one “knows the life of the alien”, the actual reason given for obeying the law). The idea that fulfilling the law is the task of love (for love of neighbor is based on love of self, and the critical question therefore is, who am I and what is my nefesh?, and the answer must be, an alien) seems like something Jesus would say. Might we therefore say that the Jesus community is rebelling against the injustice of actual Israel (its failure to fulfill the law through love) and the *justice* of Rome?

  6. Bruce, I was also thinking in terms of the subaltern status of Israel in formulating my response, but couldn’t figure out how to bring it together — I think the direction you’re taking it is exactly right, and I especially like the last line (including because it’s such a perfect reversal of Christian anti-Judaism/Marcionism). This idea would also tie in the fact that Jesus exhorts his disciples to make themselves vulnerable as they go on their mission, along with a lot of other things — most famously the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the really scandalous thing isn’t that a Samaritan is your neighbor, but that the location from which you can identify your neighbor is when you’ve just been beaten to within an inch of your life.

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