The debt of shame

How does a system of domination maintain its hold? If it wants to stand the test of time, it will need to use multiple strategies. For those who are expected to implement and enforce it, a system of domination will use some combination of rewards and moralism — the latter to make sure that the elites believe that they and their subordinates all deserve what they get (or don’t). For the bottom rungs of society, it will rely on force and the ever-present threat of deprivation, sometimes seasoned with a discourse of victim-blaming.

Yet these methods are not sufficient, because no system of domination that was so starkly divided into oppressor and oppressed would long endure. A buffer group is necessary, a vast middle that can simply “go with the flow.” The most durable orders of domination have controlled this middle group through a combination of impotence and guilt. These two ingredients will be apportioned differently to each individual. For some, the sense of impotence will be so strong as to completely eradicate any sense of moral responsibility — all we can do is try to provide for ourselves and our families. For others, guilt will lead to a ritual of self-sacrifice, morally distancing the protestor from the current order while also rendering unthinkable the idea of actually exercising power. Most of the middle is, suitably, stuck between these two extremes, or rather, constantly bouncing between the two as the occasion demands.

In any case, the combination of impotence and guilt leads to shame: the sense of being morally stained by something one cannot help. It feels like guilt because it is reflected in what we choose to do or omit — to turn a blind eye to that homeless person, to show a “reasonable” skepticism about accusations of sexual harassment or assault, or more generally to go along with something that you can’t feel good about. It feels like shame because the magnitude of the problem expressed in each particular instance is overwhelming and debilitating — it’s not as though I can end homelessness, or stop all future sexual harassment or assault, or make the world a better place.

Every time we make that compromise, a debt of guilt builds up inside us. We know we are not merely passive observers or victims, that we do make choices and could have done otherwise. We feel shitty, and we get tired of feeling shitty, and that makes it harder to do the right thing the next time — because doing the right thing would be a tacit admission that we had been wrong all those many times before.

And so guilt shades into impotence, as the system paints us ever further into a corner of moral complicity. We come to resent those who do the right thing as hypocrites — because doing the right thing is impossible — and scolds — because the only function of moral discourse is to make people feel bad and assert superiority. We become defensive, whether we cringe in anticipation of a punishment that we believe, at some level, that we deserve or whether we lash out preemptively in order to redirect that punishment onto someone else (someone equally deserving, if not more so).

The burden of shame can become so great that the only way to alleviate it is to lean into it and do something truly shameful — but such gestures always carry a ring of patheticness, as we quickly realize that we’re such fuckups we can’t even transgress properly. Or we claim to be the “real victims,” to draw attention to ourselves and our plight — but our obsession with ourselves and our plight is precisely the problem we’re trying to escape. Or we make it our occupation to say all the right things and hold all the right opinions, so that our Father who sees in secret can judge our pure intentions and reward them — paradoxically tainting the very intentions that we are relying on to save us.

The problem is that we can’t recognize that the problem is not each of us individually, but all of us in our concrete relationships to one another — or rather, in the complex articulation of those relationships that we call society, which has become a machine for making the vast majority of us hate each other because we hate ourselves.

The Bible will not save us

The Hebrew Bible and New Testament both say very unequivocal things in favor of helping the poor and excluded, welcoming the stranger, and a host of other topics immediately relevant to our political environment. But unfortunately, all of the people who should be receptive to those teachings have been systematically inoculated against them. The Bible is not a challenging word for any mainstream Christian, but rather a license for conformism. The existence of a few oddball radicals who actually take the biblical demand for justice seriously only serves to highlight the inert mass of Christians counting on a fix of cheap grace.

The situation is much worse on the conservative side. I grew up in that environment and remained in it as an alienated college student, and there is one thing about conservative Christian culture that is absolutely certain: if you mention the moral teachings of Jesus, they will literally laugh at you. I have seen it a hundred times. Presenting Jesus’s teachings as an actual guideline to what you should actually do is the mark of a theologically naive rube — all the more so if you believe it’s a guide to specifically political action. On issues of social justice, the guiding concept is the “necessary evil.” Oh sure, it would be nice to be able to welcome everyone into our country, but in this fallen world, etc., etc. By contrast, on issues of sexual morality (and here I include abortion), no compromise is possible — no one talks about managing the abortion rate or trying to support the less promiscuous and risky forms of homoerotic practice as lesser evils. Anything that enables me to judge and lord over others is non-negotiable, whereas anything that might challenge my right to seek the maximum for myself and my family is hand-waved away.

On the liberal side, I think they are closer to the truth. The problem comes when the radical demand for justice in the Bible is simply collapsed into a traditional liberal-progressive laundry list. This produces a complacent conformism of a different kind — a less toxic and destructive kind, but still a problematic one. My complaint isn’t so much on the level of content, because it is clear to me that many of these biblical precepts really do sound a lot like liberal-progressive priorities, while the conservative position is obviously a convoluted perversion of the plain demand of scripture.

What the liberal Christian position is missing is precisely the sense of judgment that is so toxic in the hands of the conservative Christian. When you equate the gospel to what you hear on NPR, you’re missing the sense that this is a divine mandate that may be dangerous — indeed, that you might go to hell for failing to live up to. Saying that Jesus wants us to be nice and tolerant to each other is laughably thin — here I do maintain the instincts my conservative upbringing inculcated in me — but saying that, for example, Donald Trump is an Antichrist whose followers will be joining him in hell might be something worth taking seriously.

In typical liberal fashion, though, the liberal Christians lodge their objection to the conservative Christians on the formal level — conservative Christians are too judgmental, too hung up on sin, etc., so we should cast that stuff aside. But the real problem with conservative Christians is that they are perverting the divine demand for justice and thereby calling God’s judgment down upon themselves. They are exchanging the truth of God for a lie and holding God’s truth captive. The problem with James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and all the rest of them isn’t that they’re too intolerant or too mean, it’s that they are preaching a demonic doctrine. And from a theological perspective, maybe God really is using Donald Trump — to show all the world their absolute theological and moral bankruptcy, to show that their only real value is cruelty and spite, to make them a byword and a curse among the nations.

But in American Christianity, that is a message without a messenger and without a community ready to receive it.

A brief thought on Aulén’s atonement typology

I’ve had occasion to return to the topic of atonement, and specifically Aulén lately, and a thought occurred to me: Aulén’s typology of the three main atonement theories is strikingly similar to the commonplace typology of philosophical ethics.

The “Christus Victor” or “ransom” theory is utilitarian — God gets the job done elegantly, with some ethically questionable actions, to bring about the greatest possible benefit to humanity.

Anselm’s theory (both in reality and in Aulén’s reading, a somewhat rare overlap) would be the deontological theory where the overriding priority is making sure that all the rules are followed to the letter.

Finally, the moral influence theory (which Aulén wrongly attributes to Abelard) is a virtue ethics approach where Jesus’s main contribution is just to be the amazingly excellent person he is.

In short, it’s questionable typologies all the way down.

The ethics of voting

In the field of theology, one sometimes finds a job listing that requires the successful applicant to sign a statement of faith. I am most likely past the point of applying for such jobs, so it is safe for me to reveal that I have always maintained that, if confronted with such a statement of faith, I would sign it, literally no matter what it says.

There are several reasons for this. One is that if I were in that situation, it would not be a question of choosing between a job demanding a statement of faith and one without — I would only consider the former if it were my only option for continuing my academic career. Signing would increase my personal survivability and enable me to reach students who might desperately need an alternative perspective. As for the dishonesty involved, I regard the entire system of demanding a statement of faith from faculty members as deeply fraudulent. Signing it dishonestly shows the appropriate level of respect for their ham-handed attempt at uniformity of thought. Refusing to do so out of protest would actually grant the whole thing too much legitimacy.

It occurs to me that we could view voting under a bourgeois democracy similarly. We all know that the system is fraudulent at many levels. The most important and destructive policies are a bipartisan consensus, meaning there is no way to vote against them. All candidates are fake in the sense of being media phenomena, and they all represent a front for the power of moneyed interests. Yet there is a difference between the candidates, and in a big powerful system, a small difference can make a big difference. One choice really is more survivable than the other.

Refusing to vote out of principle or voting for a third-party candidate who supposedly reflects your “real” views grants the system too much legitimacy. It gives the impression that the system could and should give us a positively good option, when we know that it cannot and never wanted to. Holding your nose to vote for the less destructive class enemy is in a way as dishonest as signing the statement of faith, but as a gesture, voting cynically shows the appropriate level of respect for a corrupt system.

“Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics

This Jezebel piece by Jia Tolentino on David Bowie’s sexual encounters with underage girls is a fully considered, nuanced discussion of a complex issue. On the one hand, Tolentino takes Lori Maddox’s account of the incident seriously and respects the fact that she doesn’t understand it as rape, but on the other hand, she is clearly glad that social mores have changed such that a similar situation would definitely be condemned by mainstream culture today. And a big part of the shift in sexual ethics is a direct reaction to the simplistic and destructive reception of the “sexual revolution” that knocked down the existing sexual regulations — which really were restrictive and worthy of being knocked down — but left the gender hierarchy and its attendant power dynamics in place. The author quotes Rebecca Solnit:

The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls (and the illegal argument doesn’t carry that much weight; smoking pot is also illegal; it’s about the immorality of power imbalance and rape culture). It was completely normalized. Like child marriage in some times and places. Which doesn’t make it okay, but means that, unlike a man engaged in the pursuit of a minor today, there was virtually no discourse about why this might be wrong. It’s also the context for what’s widely regarded as the anti-sex feminism of the 1980s: those women were finally formulating a post-sexual-revolution ideology of sex as another arena of power and power as liable to be abused; we owe them so much.

In discussions of contemporary sexual ethics, a lot of focus lands on the question of “consent,” and there is considerable anxiety about losing the spontaneity of authentic sexuality amid all the bureaucratic red tape (or something). This article reminds us that a lot of what might have seemed like spontaneity was deeply conditioned by power relations of which the participants were not fully aware (though we have to assume that an adult man like David Bowie was, or should have been, more aware of them than a star-struck 15-year-old).

The emphasis on explicit consent has to be situated in a larger concern to eliminate borderline situations where power dynamics can creep in unannounced. Continue reading ““Building a hedge around the law” in contemporary sexual ethics”

The Hypocrisy of Christianity: Or, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”

Christianity promotes an extremely demanding ethic in principle. The problem is that it also provides unlimited, unconditional forgiveness for failing to live up to that ethic.

The history of mainstream Christianity is the story of embracing the latter principle until the former is a vestigial organ. The end result is a situation like today, where conservative Christians never see a “necessary evil” they don’t love.

It’s more complicated than pointing out Bible verses. Conservative Christians are not being “hypocritical” by failing to live up to the challenging ethical teachings — hypocrisy *is* the ethic of mainstream Christianity.

Hence the scorn that conservative Christians reserve for those naive fools who think we’re supposed to live according to Jesus’ teachings. If you quote a liberal-sounding Bible verse at them, that just shows you’re not in on the joke.

Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.