The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?


I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Continue reading “The White Christian’s Burden”

The story of the first Black Friday

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should enjoy unprecedented savings on all their favorite brands. This was the first Black Friday and took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to find their discounts. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he had his eye on a new laptop. He went to be registered at Target with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in the latest styles from Old Navy, and laid him in a shopping cart, because they were waiting in line to get into Walmart.

Uncontacted tribes and imperialism

The New York Review of Books is running an article on “uncontacted tribes” (warning: link includes National Geographic-style nudity). When one hears about such groups, it seems amazing that such pockets of isolation could exist in our globalized economy, etc. — that is, until you realize that they’ve (justifiably!) constructed their entire lives around avoiding white people:

In the Amazon, remaining uncontacted groups are isolated by a third barrier [i.e., other than geographical and linguistic isolation], that of abject fear stemming from the horrendous atrocities of the rubber boom. Those events of a hundred years ago remain very much a living memory that is indelibly inscribed into the consciousness of every child living in isolation. Uncontacted Amazonians live a fugitive existence in the farthest headwaters of tributary streams, often above cataracts and beyond where even a small dugout canoe can pass. Here they live in perpetual fear of being detected and enslaved or killed by the white man.

One starry evening, after we had both had a few beers, an Amazonian acquaintance of mine loosened up and recounted to me the life he had led as a child before his extended family established contact with the outside world. They moved their camps frequently, and when they did, they took pains to cover up the evidence of their presence, especially the fireplace. The ground was smoothed out, the ashes were scattered widely, and the charred spot was hidden under a cloak of dead leaves. When the family crossed a stream, they erased their footprints behind them to leave no trace. Anyone they might chance to meet who wasn’t one of their little group was assumed to be a mortal enemy.

And so it is with the Flecheiros (the Arrow People), a group of uncontacted Amazonians living in the headwaters of the Itaquaí and Jutaí rivers on the Brazilian side of the Perú–Brazil border. Feared by their Amazonian neighbors and possessing a reputation among outsiders for unprovoked ferocity, they had resided in isolation in their headwater redoubt since the collapse of the rubber boom.

Although they’ve certainly chosen a radical path, it seems hard to blame them — seeing how other related groups were being exploited by outsiders, they basically opted out of the world. To the extent that this isolation impoverishes their lives — and I think it clearly does — I think we should regard this phenomenon as yet another of the brutal consequences of colonialism and imperialism.

Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

Like many of our readers I’ve watched the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt unfold with a mixture of hopeful expectation and anxious trepidation. It has been a long time since something called a revolution has actually been one. Still, I am one of those on the Left who celebrate every act of resistance, regardless of its subsequent failure, because they serve to remind all of us that the state we are in is always contingent. That there are fissures and cracks dotting the seemingly monolithic entity that is Empire. And so with the same expectation I have watched and tried to understand. I don’t think that I do completely understand, as I’m sure most of us feel, but I felt the need to write down some thoughts on the matter especially since the other big theology blogs yet again remain silent in the face of massive political and social unrest. Preferring instead to continue their usual self-flagellation about their chosen career path or posting links to lectures by yet another conservative theologian espousing a sophisticated form of apologetics. Continue reading “Some Philosophical Fragments on the Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt”

Mondzain and Agamben

I am about halfway through Marie-José Mondzain’s Image, Icon, Economy, initially brought to my attention by J. Kameron Carter’s post about it. Already it is clear that one of the primary objections made in comments to Halden’s post responding to Carter (which, to be fair, does seem to have been motivated primarily by contrarianism about icons, leading others to be defensive) is easily disproven — commenters remarked that it was an emperor who first embraced iconoclasm, meaning the link between icon and empire is questionable, but Mondzain is clear throughout that the emperor’s purpose was to reserve the power of the icon solely for the empire and deprive the church of that power. At the same time he was destroying religious icons, he was putting out plenty of imperial icons.

That’s not my main point in writing this post, though — what I’d like to discuss is the potential connection between Mondzain’s book and Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory (which I have studied closely). The overlap between the two is considerable, but it seems to me that Mondzain achieves, in a much shorter work, what Agamben struggles to articulate, namely the relationship between “kingdom” (or rule) and “glory” (or spectacle). Continue reading “Mondzain and Agamben”

I wish I could quit you

For those hungry for more Milbankian outrage, X-Cathedra has a very thorough post detailing some of Milbank’s previous arguments in favor of Western imperialism, along with a few scholarly responses thereto. A highlight:

He also includes an odd and manifestly reductive genealogy of the fundamental difference that makes “the West” and “the East” culturally incommensurable (all in three pages!). This of course translates into two different views of religio-political power and thus two different kinds of empire: because the East has an essentially arbitrary understanding of divine and regal power, it has no resources within itself to regulate or redeem its imperial strain; but for the West, justice and the Good “are themselves the vehicles of Western imperialism.” And while the latter may occasionally don the mask of domination, at the very least the Western type can (theoretically) produce an internal cultural critique (295). Hence, the antidote to the Western abuse of power can only come from within Western culture itself. Further, because the idea of an “essential Christianity” free from all cultural attachments is a myth, a non-Western cultural expression of Christianity “is just nonsensical” (292).

Sounds like Milbank needs to take my Global Christianity course this fall!