Christian Theology, Destitution and Communism
Lecture on the strategy of the Jesus Movement in the summer of 2023. It was delivered before left-wing radicals at a philosophical summer school in the French province. It dealt with the attitude of early Christians, who acted as if the law no longer applied, and the resulting (strategic) retreat in early Christian communes. The lecture distinguished the Jesus’ strategy from the Zealots’ offensive strategy.
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Although the Christian churches have historically too often, i.e. almost always, taken the side of the ruling power, there has always been an undercurrent in Christianity that has referred to liberation, autonomy and egalitarianism. Christianity has never allowed itself to be completely imperialized. This began with the movement of the Nazarene Jesus, who fought against the Roman Empire but chose a different strategy from the guerrillas of the Zealots, and continued through early Christianity into the third century. After that, there were always dissident movements such as monasticism, which chose the way to the desert (beyond the world) of the monastery, the radical poverty movements of the 11th/12th century such as the Franciscans, to the apocalyptic peasant movement of Thomas Müntzer, who fought for a different world under the motto "All in common", to the theology of liberation of the last century, whose strategic alliance with the leftists of Latin America sought a liberation of Latin American countries from the "development of underdevelopment" through a Guevarist practice. The communist conception, therefore, existed longer than the communist parties. The texts of the Bible, both of the First and Second Testaments, have always been understood by many people as poetry and literature of liberation. That is why comrade Tari rightly entitled one of his last texts with the phrase of the praying communists and the fighting monks, in order to draw attention to a relationship that is more than mutual negation. On the contrary, it can be made fruitful for each other and with each other and must be made fruitful more than ever.
Destitution and transcendence
The point is to think about concepts that should set in motion our inadequate notions of how to think politics and revolution that escapes the trappings of representation, constituent and constituted power. Perhaps many of you will be surprised to learn that the term and concept of destitution is an idea deeply inscribed in the way and ideas of Christianity. I would therefore like to share my experiences with this idea (which are not my individual experiences, but collective and historical ones). In the hope that one or the other can contribute something to our common questions.
Destituion, Messianism and the Law
I will attribute you to look back into the history of the Jesus Movement and early Christianity. At its beginning was the struggle against the Roman Empire, which ended - as so often in history - with a dramatic and traumatic defeat. The rabbi from Nazareth Jesus, or Hebrew Yeshua, moved with his followers to Jerusalem to the center of the power of that time, attacking there the economic and ideological center, the Temple. It was an attack without weapons, little rebellious or militant, that ended after three days with his arrest and execution. The struggle was over, the defeat total. At least that's how it seemed. But soon a tremendous rumor spread: Jesus had risen from the dead, the common cause had not ended at all, but on the contrary had been decided in a completely different direction.
Destitution and desertion
What was this outrageous rumor? It said that the Empire was not victorious and that death did not have the last word. On the contrary, Jesus' death was interpreted as having instituted a new life. This life was characterized above all by the fact that it no longer felt bound to the ruling laws, because with the overcoming of death in the resurrection of Jesus all ruling laws had lost their validity. In the Gospel of John it is expressed in this way: "We Christians are in this world, but not of this world". The suspension of the logic, the regularities or laws, the plausibilities of this world was regarded by the first Christians as a common bond that brought together people of the most diverse origins and identities, of the most diverse gender (self-)attributions.
The first Christians (who did not see themselves as religious communities, but already called themselves Christians here) lived together in "paroikias" in communities. They were strangers to the world, homeless and wandering, without any civil rights protection, as it is described in the 2nd letter of Paul to the Ephesians. Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. (Eigenmann, 18) They had declared the empire deposed, or just opposed their own suspension from the empire, their own throwing back to the naked survival their own place of sur-vival, no: of life. Even if the philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers the following sentence to Pauline theology, it is likely to apply across Paul to wide areas of early Christianity: "The messianic vocation is not a right, nor does it produce any identity. It is a general potency ... To be messianic is to expropriate any legal-factual property in the form of as-if-not. But this expropriation does not found any new identity ..." (Agamben, The time that remains, 37)
Metropolis and Commune: The commune is everywhere
These "suspended laws" were obviously the point why early Christianity grew so fast, across classes, genders, ethnic and religious boundaries. In any case, the growth was so rapid that as early as the 2nd century, the Platonic philosopher Celsus not only insulted the Christian communities, but at the same time was already calling on them to integrate themselves into the ruling conditions of society and thus arguably contribute to their political and ideological legitimacy. "Cease to evade the discharge of civic duties and to refuse military service: take your share of public office if you must, that the laws may be saved and piety preserved." (Clevenot, History of Christianity, The Christians 81) On the one hand, Celsus is marked by incomprehension and disgust at these spreading communities of just ordinary people who don't give a damn about the ruling conditions of society, and at the same time he suspects that they represent a danger to the social order he so loves. One can perhaps say that the first Christians withdrew from society, did not really develop a program of their own and offensively carried it to the outside world. Let us take the example of the Epistle to Philemon: A slave from a Christian community does not want to return to his owner and discusses this in his community. Everyone advises him against it and says that he is, however, a freeman in the community. Incomprehensible? The astonishing end: the owner also becomes a member of the commune, the slave is now really free. One must imagine the first communes of the Christians, then, as communities which at first had declared the laws meaningless for themselves, for their community, and only from this position came into conflict with the rulers. It soon became clear to them, however, that behind the Christian communities lay an irreconcilable and fundamental rejection of the ruling Roman Empire. The Christian communities had withdrawn from society. This retreat, however, was not a geographical retreat, not a retreat from social reality. On the contrary, Christian communities existed mainly in the large cities and metropolises of the empire, in Rome, Corinth, in Jerusalem in the Syrian and Turkish cities. Their members pursued their professional activities, they did not retreat into the desert. This happened only in the fourth century with the emergence of the first monasticism and the idea of the monastery. They did not want an afterlife of the world, but another world. So different social and historical situations require very different concepts of destitution and desertion. It can very well take place in the metropolis as well as in the monastery or the desert. In any case, the commune is present wherever people gather in a spirit of irreconcilable rejection of ruling and dominating laws. Desertion and destitution are therefore not necessarily bound to the exodus from the metropolitan center.
The conviction and hope of the first Christians is determined in content by recourse to an Old Testament passage in the prophet Isaiah. For the assertion of the suspension of the laws was not a voluntaristic, content-less antinomian idea. It was rather bound to the empty spaces of life, to the limits of life itself and the monstrous idea that these limits must not have the last word: "I, John, saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, neither was the sea any more. ... He will wipe away all tears from their eyes: Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor sorrow, nor pain. For what was before is passed away, ... I make all things new...." (John Revelation 21:4). Messianic hope, which also has a time index, pushes human hope beyond what is supposedly humanly possible. It truly believes in liberation for all, it truly believes in the overcoming of death. We call this transcendence, that is, "transgression or exceeding" Transcendence is the necessary condition of destitution, because destitution is not the mere negation of reality, but the hopeful negation of reality. Destitution is real politics, all real political thought is built on such transcendence. Any politics that negates the necessity of such transcendent reference is mere administration. Administration of misery. Just as, in the words of Jean-Luc Nancy, Christianity was never about the world behind the world, about the afterlife/beyond the world, but just the other way around, to focus on the other of the world, on what is other than any existing world. (Jean-Luc Nancy, The Deconstruction of Christianity, Regensburg 2008, 13) We must also demand such transcendence from our social action, from political existence: Speaking again with Nancy, "it is a matter of opening mere reason to the limitlessness that constitutes its truth." So also a politics, and be it a politics in the form of its negation in destitution, must be oriented towards the beyond of its theoretically and practically thinkable. Otherwise, it too remains in the given and, at best, remains its reflection.