The Pope and the Prophet

Joseph W.H. Lough

I must admit, even for me there was something strangely comforting in a mass rally led by a major religious figure – God’s representative on earth, the Pope – on behalf of peace. I found the Pope’s message comforting not only because the Pope articulated a position in God’s name from which, tragically, God is all too often missing; indeed, a position on which God all too often is made to assume the other side: war and death. And, yet, as I read on I was struck not only by the explicitly Platonic form of the Pope’s underlying rationale (he is, after all, a Jesuit), but its implicitly Hegelian form. For make no mistake. Francis was not inviting us to contemplate a diversity whose individual elements articulate with one another as benign, isolated particularities seeking understanding and concert. Rather was he contemplating a highly differentiated, yet integrated, comprehensive totality in which, as His Holiness made clear, “everyone is able to find their proper place and feel ‘at home’, because it is ‘good’” (Francis, Vigil for Peace Homily 2013.09.08). To be sure, Francis no doubt understands this unity in terms of a divine creation outside of or next to which there is no parallel “Manichean” opposition threatening to unseat the divine. And so his interpretation of Genesis – and God saw that it was good – is not out of keeping with a more traditional theology of creation.

Pope Francis met with media
Pope Francis met with media (Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales))

Nevertheless, we would be mistaken to find in Francis’ counsel only a traditional Roman Catholic, which is to say classically Stoic, reading of creation. To be sure, Francis’ homily overflows with classically Stoic imagery and, to this extent, it reproduces sound First Century rabbinic Midrash on Genesis (see Romans 1-2, and 13). But, it is precisely for this reason that the Pope’s message overlooks the central message of the Cross, even or specially when it is Francis’ intention to point to the Cross.

My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken.

What Francis sees in the Cross is GWF Hegel’s 19th century fantasy, a unity within diversity, not an overcoming of death, but a subsumption of death within life and of life within death. And it is this vision that differs fundamentally from, say, Saint Paul’s vision of the Cross recorded in the first two chapters of First Corinthians. Here, as distinguished from the passage in Romans, which is simply a rabbinic repetition of classical Stoic platitudes, we find a vision of the Cross that is more than unity within diversity, or more than a quasi-naturalistic reconciliation of death and life. Here, to the contrary, we find a militantly defiant message to the rulers of this present age:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Again, this is not a message of reconciliation. For Paul, a leader within a minority community under imperial occupation, there is no stoic ambivalence here about good and evil, light and darkness, “those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing.” And, lest we entertain any doubts over those in the first group (the saved) and those in the latter (the perishing), Paul banishes those doubts completely:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not may were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

So much for reconciliation. God has chosen some to bring to nothing – to annihilate – those things that are. And with this, Paul, the first century diaspora Jew, places on its head the classic, yet trivial, Stoic formula he merely reproduces in Romans 13:1-7. There those who possess and exercise power are counted servants and ministers of God. Here by contrast those same powers are being brought to nothing. For, according to Paul, “the rulers of this age . . . are doomed to perish.”

Why? For this simple reason that they did not and do not comprehend the wisdom of the Cross, which is therefore a wisdom that does not and cannot comprehend both the victim and the perpetrator. So that on this reading the Cross is not a place of unqualified reconciliation. For, according to Paul, had the rulers of this age understood the divine preference for the poor, foolish, weak, and powerless, they would not have crucified Jesus.

None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

To be sure, the Pope, who knows these texts as well as or even better than anyone, does not overlook God’s preference for the poor. But insofar as he interprets this preference within an overall Stoic-Hegelian totality, he is inclined to favor a pacifism absent from the Cross itself. God does reconcile the world through the Cross, according to Paul. But not without considerable struggle and even violence.

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and every power (I Cor. 15:24).

How very different this is from the Stoic-Hegelian formula according to which each being assumes its proper place – women and men, slaves and masters, children and parents, ruled and rulers – within a benevolent, yet hierarchical, systemic totality of domination and submission.

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...
Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of Image:Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which is why I am more inclined to attend to Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Syria, precisely because it is more in line with the Cross that Francis invites us to behold. For Žižek, as for Paul, we are not invited to imagine a benign and benevolent reconciliation among fundamentally disparate and hostile actors, as though al-Assad and his henchmen might assume their place benignly and benevolently next to the women, men and children whom they have gassed. No. Like Rome’s rulers and powers and authorities, al-Assad does not grasp because he cannot grasp the mystery of the Cross, God’s unconditional preference for the poor and oppressed. And so those whom God has chosen – the poor, oppressed, and weak – are destined to bring him to nothing. That much is clear.

But, Žižek’s analysis does not stop there. Rather does he, like Paul, turn the logic favoring war on its head. “The moral outrage evoked to provide a rational cover for the compulsion-to-intervene (“We cannot allow the use of poisonous gas on civil population!”) is fake.” It is fake because it really does not proceed from the vantage-point of the poor, oppressed, and weak. For did it proceed from this vantage-point, then the US and its allies would be focusing its attention less on “the struggle for freedom and democracy,” which invokes no emancipatory practice, than on “a struggle for social and economic justice.” To be absolutely clear in this regard, Žižek is not arguing against freedom and democracy. Rather is he pointing out the inadequacy of the connection we (following Hegel) may be inclined to draw between freedom, democracy and emancipation, a connection for which Žižek rightly faults Francis Fukuyama (among others). This is because, as Paul pointed out in the first century, the fundamental conflict in the Middle East is not over the institutional political or economic mechanisms that mediate social relations – the ballot box and the market place – but relationships of power, domination, authority, and subservience; relationships that are not and cannot be resolved without an actual, deliberate, redistribution of resources.

And it is precisely here that Žižek’s counsel offers a better, more accurate reproduction not only of Christian dogma, but also of the actual situation in Syria. Both His Holiness and Žižek oppose US intervention; and not on entirely dissimilar grounds. But consistent with his training in Philosophy at Frankfurt, Francis’ fallback position is a spin-off of classic Platonic and Stoic unity and Hegelian idealism. Instead it is Žižek who more accurately grasps and appreciates the mystery of the Cross and its divine resolution.

And this brings us back to Syria: the ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan. Even if Assad somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.

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