Psychotic America: On divine hatred

In the afterword to the tenth anniversary edition of Nickeled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich reveals America to be a society that actively hates, torments, and criminalizes the poor.

One is reminded of Psalm 82:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement:
‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, ‘You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’

Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

The nations that come under God’s judgment, however, are simply failing to intervene on behalf of the poor — presumably the psalmist could not envision a situation in which the poor were being actively punished and humiliated on a daily basis. Another biblical author could envision such a situation, though, namely the author of Exodus, who portrays Pharaoh as forcing the Israelites into slavery, depriving them even of the necessary materials to do their slave labor, and murdering their children. Saving the Israelites from this fate is what constitutes God’s identity in the world: “I am the Lord your God, who led you out of Egypt.”

What is the reason Pharaoh did all this? He was afraid of the Israelites’ potential power. And that fear proved warranted as his nation was struck with natural disasters, his army was routed, his people suffered the deaths and losses that had been imposed on the Israelites, and his citizens were looted by the escaping poor.

All this came about in part because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to be able to punish him more — as a theological point, this has caused significant controversy. Yet when one thinks of the callousness and arrogance of our own Pharaohs, the prospect of their repentence feels appalling. Do they really deserve to get off scot-free yet again? Is there not more justice in letting them bury themselves?

And what would it even mean for our illustrious leaders to “repent”? How could they possibly make good for their crimes? Maybe they could divide up their fortunes and give them to the poor — but how much do you pay someone for a wasted, ruined life? How much do you pay for the family they lost because the strain of poverty was too much, for the wasted years trying to survive on the street, for the ruined health that results from a greedy and perverse medical system? As the Arcade Fire sings in “Intervention”: “You say it’s money that we need / Like we’re just some mouths to feed / But no matter what you say / There’s some debts you’ll never pay.”

There are some things you do, and you don’t come back from them. There are some things you do, and you deserve to die. Liberalism in its political and religious versions can’t accept this. They want to say that Hitler can repent and go to heaven and treat this as some kind of radical reversal of worldly values — but the Hitlers of the world can always repent, always go to heaven, always end things on their own terms. After what he did, we shouldn’t be challenging ourselves to envision him among the blessed — because our greatest criminals always manage to array themselves among the blessed — but should rather be furious that he got off with suicide.

There have been many debates around the blogosphere about what the left has to offer to political debate. More than any policy proposal or political strategy, I think one has to say that what the left has to offer is hatred — the right kind of hatred. And if we’re to imagine God as a comrade, we have to imagine him as a God who hates the rulers of this world. We have to imagine him as a God who hates America and has cursed it.

8 thoughts on “Psychotic America: On divine hatred

  1. I’m glad you bring up the point of hatred in politics and religion because I’ve been especially frustrated with all the bullshit going on economically in this country with the debt ceiling debacle. I’m reminded again of the media’s total confusion and willful misrepresentation of Jeremiah Wright’s famous, “God damn America!” line. At the end of the day, if God doesn’t damn America, then we have absolutely no need for that God and we have a responsibility to will that God’s death for the sake of humanity.

  2. This reminds me a bit of Negri, in his journals from his imprisonment and escape. “The advantage of my hatred is that it is articulated on, and mediate by, hope.”

  3. This is the best thing I think you’ve written Kotsko. Bravo. Would you accept the terms, righteous indignation, though? I say this because I’ve been wrestling with the place of anger in spirituality. One MUST be angry and hate injustice. If you believe Plato, it is a specfic type of anger that leads us to reform ourselves and to seek justice.

  4. Will, if you have any more info for that reference (even just a guess at the book or article), I’d greatly appreciate it. My email is mesingd at gmail.

  5. I have always found that book to be odd. Not because I disagree of find anything unfamiliar in it, but because it depicted the everyday scenes of my younger life as if they were unusual or fantastic. When I hear someone express surprise at the contents of the book, I often wonder, “where have you lived?” Coming from that side of the tracks, I can affirm that there is an active disassociation with the poor that can be likened to “hatred.”

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