Sunday, 16 June 2013

Technology co-opted in support of moral progress

I have only just started to read Gil Bailie's Violence Unveiled and have been challenged already to rethink the role of technology in relation to moral imperatives.

Having read Jacques Ellul, I have largely accepted the thesis that technology imposes on us a drive towards a particular kind of "progress" beyond human control. In many ways we are not the master but the slave of technology. Although Bailie's book is not directly about technology, it nevertheless presents a counter-example to this "technological imperative" view.

In the passage I am referring to, on pp 17-19, Bailie identifies what he takes to be the most significant dynamic in human history: "the gradual awakening of a concern for the plight of victims."

Bailie uses the USA's involvement in Somalia in 1992 as an example of a current crisis of culture about how to understand and respond to violence. There is, he says, "a growing inability to subordinate empathy for victims to more practical political and geopolitical concerns." That is, we were once able to use practical political concerns to justify violence, but that stance is crumbling as people become more empathetic towards victims. This underscores a moral paradox: "that efforts made to fulfill the moral imperative to aid victims ... inevitably produce victims of their own."

Of course, the purpose of Bailie's book is to find a way past that dilemma by unveiling and undermining violence. But within this context he makes a fascinating observation about the role of telecommunications. Some say that what enables this current awakening and empathy for victims is the broadcasting of images of victims. In Somalia it was the images on TV. More recently, with the "Arab Spring", many have claimed that a key role was played by Twitter and other social media.

While Bailie doesn't deny the impact of telecommunications on this cultural change, he claims that what is more significant is "the moral and spiritual impulse to put this technology to work showing the world the face of the victim. ... It is this _determination_, and not the technological instruments it employs, that is the defining impulse at the heart of what we call Western culture and, in fact the true driving force of history in our world."

It is an extraordinary claim that the determination to undermine or de-legitimise violence by showing the face of the victim is the driving force of history! (Though that needs to be understood in the light of what he means by "history".) But this is also a challenge to my thinking about the relationship between technology and society and faith, because it reasserts what Ellul rejected, namely that deep and positive anthropological change can impose its agenda on technology rather than the reverse. It is not that technology will inevitably be used to expand the power of technology. In this case, a fundamental striving of humanity has been accelerated by co-opting technology to promote the cause of unveiling violence.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Towards a non-defensive faith

In a recent conversation with me, Jim Longley contrasted the Anabaptist approach to theology and ethics to what he labelled the "defensive" approach adopted by much of the church.

My experience of Christianity supports that categorisation. The institutional church, especially the Evangelical variety, and many individuals hold a position that is profoundly defensive. It is a position that assumes we have to constantly protect ourselves from the creeping immorality of society, from doctrinal error, from financial risk, from sin and the resulting guilt, from those who are not "one of us".

I am not referring to a kind of defensiveness that contrasts with offensiveness. There are, of course, parts of the church that promote a triumphalism that declares (against what they admit is evidence to the contrary!) that the battle belongs to the Lord and that victory is assured if only we have the courage (the "faith") to attack. That very offensiveness is rooted in a war metaphor that sees the church circling the wagons to separate ourselves and "defend our way of life" against the infidels.

It's not that kind of military defence that I'm picturing, but rather a stance that holds tightly rather than releasing, that is closed rather than open, confined and isolationist rather than expansive, scared rather than embracing, rigid and controlling rather than freeing.

That is not how Jesus lived. In his relationships with others he was open, inviting, accepting. He took risks, exposed himself, dis-empowered himself, allowed himself to be vulnerable, and actively drew violence against himself.

He did those things from a position of inner confidence. Jesus knew that he had all the power of God and that is why he was able to wrap a towel around himself and wash his friends' feet (John 13:3-5). This is in stark contrast to an apologetic Christianity too scared to speak the truth, and in just as stark a contrast to the the right-wing Christian political agenda that attempts to force Christian moral requirememnts on everyone via legislation.

I invite any readers to help me to understand how this has happened. Why does so much of modern Christianity takes this defensive position?

How does that stance undermine our engagement with the world? (There's the defensive assumption again, right there! As though we were this little enclave of people who feel a need to "engage" (like a gear cog?) with the big bad world around us!)

And how would we act differently if we took on the pattern of Jesus? What if the life of Jesus was normative - the exemplar of being truly human? What if I didn't have to protect my reputation? What if I really accepted that all truth is God's truth and that I didn't need to fear or protect myself against the truth wherever it may be found? What if I allowed myself to act rashly and accepted that I will make mistakes? What if I was vulnerable and allowed myself to be hurt? What if I embraced the people around me regardless of their social or perceived moral status?

Monday, 13 May 2013

Subverting the violent interpretation of Revelation

A traditional Evangelical reading of the book of John's Revelation seems to assume that the violent God of the Old Testament, after being temporarily assuaged by Jesus' death, returns with the big guns to teach evil doers who is really the most powerful. I've never really thought about the violence inherent in that framework, and never wondered whether there could be a non-violent understanding of the book's message.

So coming across Paul Nuechterlein's Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation was an eye-opener that will take some time to ponder.

I absolutely love his comments on Revelation 5:4-7: where John looks up expecting to see the Lion of Judah -- "the hoped-for warrior who devours God's enemies" -- but instead sees the Lamb that was slain. The Lion is never mentioned again and the Lamb becomes the dominant actor, subverting the dominant human hope for divine vengeance.
"The terrifying violence that we so often face in this world is decidedly not God’s violence but the violence of empires under the deception of Satan, the dragon. And God’s defeat of that violence is not one of superior firepower, of simply having more of the same kind of violence to subdue that of the empires. No, God’s defeat of violence is to expose it through the love of the Lamb slain whose self-giving love lets itself be slaughtered by the violence, and the Lamb’s resurrection shows its power of life to be victorious. Disciples of the Lamb follow not in a hope that there would be a different kind of victory someday, a victory in which the Lamb became a Lion and devoured all its enemies. But followers of the Lamb believe that his slaughter and resurrection have already won the victory, such that we wait with endurance and hope, following in the Lamb’s loving nonviolence if we must, until the day when Satan’s violence finally becomes its own defeat, collapsing in on itself."
There is still a lot of violent imagery in Revelation that I think will be difficult to reconcile with Nuechterlein's thesis, but seeing the Girardian subversion of violence implied by this verse inspires me greatly.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Sex and Social Justice

I stumbled across an article from 2008 by Bruce Wydick titled "Sex and Social Justice". Although he makes a reasonably good case for the Christian ideal of sex within marriage, a key part of his case simply doesn't match my personal experience.

From his perspective as an economist, Wydick considers the act of sex as a type of exchange.
"Seen in the simplest of terms, women are exchanging sex for commitment, and men are exchanging commitment for sex. Based on a male and female's basic biological needs, for males the price of sex is commitment and for women the price of commitment is sex."
That's a position he leads up to rather than assumes, and he emphasises that he is not implying that women don't enjoy sex or that men do not enjoy commitment. So don't take that quote as his whole case.

Wydick draws conclusions from this position mostly for men -- which is quite appropriate given his own gender. But I can't help thinking that a female perspective on this "exchange" may be significantly different.

Anyway, he does make what I think is a good point that this "exchange" has lead to an issue of justice because the prevailing social norm over-values sex and undervalues commitment. (It strikes me that there could be an equivalent issue of justice if the reverse imbalance occurred as well, but that's perhaps not the injustice we see in modern western culture.) In that case, sex becomes "cheap" and the woman in need of commitment is ripped off.
"When a man receives sex from a woman without paying the price of commitment, he takes something for which he has not paid. Put simply, he is stealing. ... Social justice requires that men fulfill their end of the exchange."

The injustice may still occur when a woman "consents", because a wide variety of social expectations may nevertheless be acting coercively on her to force her consent.

My problem with Wydick's position is that it over-generalises on two fronts. From my personal biography, it over-generalises the gender distinction. What if one party (or both parties) value sex and commitment equally? Like many males I know, I have a deep need for connection, belonging, affirmation and for someone to stand by me for the long haul. Two people's discussions about the appropriateness of sex in their relationship can be just as often about "how can we nourish each other with both pleasure and security" as about "how much of the one must I give you in order for you to give me the other."

It also over-generalises what constitutes consent and consequently diminishes personal empowerment of choice. I agree that there is a transaction inherent in sex and there is a power dynamic in the negotiation between the two parties. That happens both within marriage as much as it does without. In a wholesome relationship there could (should?) be honest discussion about what is being exchanged and a set of shared expectations that meet both parties' needs. The needs are the not same in all cases and the relative value of physical pleasure, long term commitment and numerous other "costs" and "benefits" undermine Wydick's simple model. There may be other value in the exchange for women other than commitment, and I would prefer to fully empower a woman to make a real choice than to remove their choice by applying a generalised rule.