The Apocalypse Part II

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many 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. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

In Apocalypse Part I, I invited readers to consider Professor Eric Olin Wright’s four responses to capitalism: smash, tame, escape, and erode. I asked that we consider these four possibilities in their social and historical specificity, immanently. Though each displayed emancipatory potential, they all suffered from a deficit in immanently identifying the mechanisms and agencies of substantive transformation. But, on some level this begs the question, what do we mean by emancipatory potential? What is emancipation? What does it look like?

Within the classical world, emancipation was clear enough. If you worked in another’s household, irrespective of whether or not you were compensated, you were by definition not emancipated. Rather, as Aristotle made clear, you were a δοῦλος, a slave. Emancipation entailed owning your own household, your own οἶκος, where you would be δεσπότης, a despot or master, over your own δοῦλοι. The composition of the classical household and the codes governing household economies (οἰκονομία; thence “economics,” the study of private enterprise), are familiar to Christians from the pseudepigraphical writings once attributed to the Apostle Paul: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. While in all likelihood faithfully transmitting some authentic Pauline utterances, these texts are devoid of the signature Pauline critique of the households codes displayed in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. This critique, in turn, was grounded in Paul’s conviction that God through Christ was emancipating those deemed weak, ignorant, and lowly by the wise, strong, and noble. In essence, through Christ God was redeeming individuals from their domination under the household codes.

In the late Middle Ages, these codes of domestic domination were graphically epitomized by the beast of the apocalypse consuming the bodies and souls of the damned. Frequently, however, since these works were commissioned by the only families notable for their wealth for installation in institutions similarly dependent on the same wealth, the classical context of emancipation/enslavement within the private enterprise was elided. It appears briefly — ever so briefly — in the texts of the radical reformers, in Dante, in Dürer, in Erasmus; but then retreats again into the transcendentally inflected mythos of the high Reformation.


Still, it is important to note how, at least in Paul’s authentic letters, the constraints imposed by the domestic household provide the leading organizing principle for conceptualizing emancipation/bondage. And, since this is so, Paul holds that those who crucified the Palestinian Jew Jesus did so because they had naturalized and ontologized their privileged status. Rather than appreciating the material conditions for this status, the wealthy, powerful, educated and noble-born had mistaken their conditions as naturally given and fixed. In other words, they had mistaken Stoic teachings on social being and law for eternal cosmic law. And in this they failed to recognize the divine intention to emancipate those enslaved in their households.

“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.”

Why did God choose the foolish, the weak, the low and despised, things that are not [τὰ µὴ ὄντα]? Within the dominant Stoic frame, it is this τὰ µὴ ὄντα that is the most damning. The dominant members of society, those who own and manage their own households — δεσπότες, despots — believe that they occupy the positions they do because in a well ordered universe relations of domination and submission are as necessary as light and heavy, dry and wet, high and low. Such hierarchical relationships define the universe as it is. So Paul, in Romans 13:1-7, accurately describes the ontology behind secular, pagan governing power in the Roman Empire:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Here it does not matter if the authorities, Nero and his staff, use your taxes to support temple prostitution or to finance the very soldiers who are decimating your community. It does not matter that Nero raped and then killed his mother. In Stoic terms, insofar as he exists and exercises power — since there is no power except from God — it follows that Nero is a servant of God, appointed to uphold the order of the universe.

When, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 2 Paul discloses that God’s secret intention is to take τὰ µὴ ὄντα, that which is not — that which has no being, no power, no existence — and use τὰ µὴ ὄντα to bring to nothing those things that are, it is as though Paul were saying: yes, the Stoic universe appears solid, immovable, eternal, and stable. But God chose you “who are not” to bring to nothing those things that appear to be. Even more remarkably, however, is how God intends to perform this emancipation: not by transferring power from the οἶκος, the private household, or its δεσπότες, its masters, to their δοῦλοι, their household staff, their employees, but by overturning the very principle of domination and subordination itself. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This is the apocalypse — the revelation, the disclosure, the uncovering — that cannot be seen from the vantage point of those who have naturalized and ontologized their position of privilege.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

That is to say, the hidden, secret wisdom of God — God’s emancipatory intention to eliminate relationships of power and domination — is virtually impossible to appreciate from within a world in which such relationships of domination and submission mediate all objective social relations and all social subjectivity. For, clearly, had the rulers of this age understood this emancipatory intention, they would not have crucified the Palestinian Jew. Nor is this emancipatory intention a mere side show or good idea. It is not a good rule of thumb for other purposes; i.e., to be a good leader or manager. Rather is it the mystery of the entire world.

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

God’s emancipatory intention is to destroy every ruler and every authority and power. That is why God reigns. This intention also sheds light on the limits of divine power: “until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Who are God’s enemies? Those who reproduce relationships of domination and submission. When will God abdicate? When these relationships no longer mediate social action and subjectivity. In the mean time, within the community of faith, immanently, there is emerging a better way. Or, at least, this is Paul’s hope.

Of course, on some level it matters deeply and therefore contingently whether the community of faith understands and embodies this message. On another level, however, whether the Church gets this message or not is somewhat beside the point. For as Theodor Adorno correctly observes in the “Finale” to his Minima Moralia:

Finale. – The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects — this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape. The more passionately thought denies its conditionality for the sake of the unconditional, the more unconsciously, and so calamitously, it is delivered up to the world. Even its own impossibility it must at last comprehend for the sake of the possible. But beside the demand thus placed on thought, the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.