Apocalypse Now small group – Section 4 – The War of the Lamb

Apocalypse Now Small Group
For Lent — from February 25 (Ash Wednesday) to April 11 (Easter is the 12th)
All Saints United Methodist Church


Apocalypse Now Links:
Part One – Volcano
Part Two – 28 Days Later
Part Three – Children of Men
Part Four – The War of the Lamb
Part Five – Revelation

Part Four The War of the Lamb

Notes on The War of the Lamb

One rendition of historical Jesus (long hair was not the custom of the day for men, and Jesus is here portrayed as a fairly typical Palestinian Jew, circa 30 AD)

Note (1)

In the section for Week 5, when we are reading the Book of the Revelation of John, we will spend a fair amount of time unpacking the historical context, and interpreting both Greek language nuances and genre-specific symbolism for Jewish apocalyptic writing. Chapter 12 of John Howard Yoders book, The Politics of Jesus, the chapter entitled The War of the Lamb (reprinted below, Note 7), will not prepare us for that kind of scholarly investigation, but will deal in advance with the modern ideas with which we are more familiar treating the series of visions described in Johns Apocalypse as if we have already accomplished the scholarship.

Yoders chapter will look into John of Patmos (the seer of Patmos one who sees visions) visions for what they mean to us now.

This reversal of the usual academic sequence working out from the original source and finally into our own experience we are doing the opposite is a reversal of that method. Instead of jumping into the deep end and swimming back to shore, so to speak, we have been wading into the shallow end and taking steps toward the deeper water, getting used to the water as we go.

First, we used a B-movie, an entertainment commodity, that attaches itself to certain familiar cultural conventions, and which we normally consume passively light-mindedly, participating in the story uncritically; and we tried to become critical about the film Volcano as a way of practicing critical thinking about these cultural conventions. We were knee-deep.

Then we studied a film that was more innovative an independent film and one that was a good deal less light-minded: 28 Days Later. Character development was more nuanced. The imagery (as we will see in Revelation, too) is more violent and disturbing. The direction and editing is edgier. The moral dilemmas are more stark (Selena killing Mark, for example). The intermediate themes are more controversial (military as rape culture, for example, or science and the attempt to control nature, as far less benign than Volcanos portrayal of the Man-conquers-Nature trope).

By the time we studied this film, we had already begun to familiarize ourselves with some epistemological questions. Those questions bear on the ethical dilemmas raised in these conditions of extremity; and we had already practiced looking through our heuristic device of the Ecology-Culture-Personhood Triangle, as a way of giving ourselves a dislocative jolt out of the passive acceptance of our day-to-day, 21st Century way-of-knowing. By now, we were waist-deep in the water.

Finally, we watched Children of Men, a film based on a dystopian novel written by a Christian author, a film with very original production values, and a film with cristological overtones that were very apparent, beginning with the title (a play on Jesus title, the Son of Man meaning the human one in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and ending with a miraculous birth (of hope) in the midst of an extremely broken and seemingly hopeless world.

Here we stepped further away from the familiar shore. We are in the water to our chests.

Yoder will hold our hand as we wade out to our necks, and we begin to let our feet release the bottom a bit as we experience our own buoyancy.


Note (2)

Theologian Ivan Illich who we have also followed in this study said that modernity (and its stepchild, postmodernity) and its vagaries were not anti-Christian, but that they are the outgrowth of a perversion of Christianity a distortion of the call to discipleship exemplified by the Samaritan as friendship across social boundaries (in the case of the Samaritan, a member of an enemy people) and a constant choice of fidelity or infidelity to that friendship.

This distortion of the message of the Samaritan began with the Constantinianiztion of the church (an alliance with the Powers) and the criminalization of sin. It culminated in the depersonalization of service, and the creation of a new personhood one characterized by alienation from ones own body, and by incessant attention to our own needs with respect to that divorced body.

This loss of the sense of our own carnality (fleshiness) is reflected in an idea of Christ that is no longer incarnational no longer wet, warm, throbbing, alive, centered in our skins, experiencing suffering and joy that is physical and in the world. This depersonalization corresponds to an instrumental and objectifying approach to both culture and ecology. We stand apart from ourselves, looking in from the outside; and we stand apart from our dis-enchanted environment (reducing it to a supply of resources), and we stand apart as a culture. We become a culture of abstraction, of general laws, of categorical imperatives, of conformity, and all the boundaries that were effaced by love when the Samaritan took the beaten Jew off the road and into his home all these boundaries that were broken on the cross, are redrawn. We begin to talk about values (a rather abstract concept) in place of right and wrong good and evil. We go down the endless and pointless path of relativism (relativistic being far different from relational).

[Illich also said that we have entered a new period, post-instrumentalist, wherein we conceive of everything including our own selves and bodies as systems an array of feedback loops, or an immune system. Treating others instrumentally, however, seems not to have passed, but become more and more normative and malignant. All others are seen as a means to some self-serving end in the medicalized language of psychoanalysis, narcissism.]

Yoder takes on the same subject Christianity versus Christendom the latter being that alliance of the church (and its perversion) with the Powers (e.g., the state and-or its dominant classes) and with the instrumentality that plays the chicken to the Powers egg.

In Stanely Haeurwas book, After Christendom?, in an essay entitled Why There Is No Salvation Outside the Church, he notes, anticipating our reading of the visions of the seer of Patmos:

God in Jesus has defeated the powers so that as disciples we can confidently live as a cruciform community in a world that has chosen not to be ruled by such love. Thus as John Howard Yoder suggests, The Church precedes the world epistemologically. We know more fully from Jesus Christ and in the context of the confessed faith than we know in other ways. The meaning and validity, and limits, of concepts like nature or a science are not best seen when looked at alone but in the light of the confession of the lordship of Christ. The church precedes the world as well axiologically, in that the lordship of Christ is the center which must guide critical value choices, so that we may be called to subordinate or even to reject those values which contradict Jesus.

If we say, outside the church there is no salvation we make a claim about the very nature of salvation namely that salvation is Gods work to restore all creation to the Lordship of Christ. Such a salvation is about the defeat of powers that presume to rule outside Gods providential care. Such salvation is not meant to confirm what we already know and/or experience. It is meant to make us part of a story that could not be known apart from exemplification in the lives of people in a concrete community.

(emphasis added)

Something to ponder: the word sovereignty. An exclusive right to control. What Yoder and Illich emphasize in their writings, that comes directly from the scriptures, is that God alone is sovereign. To claim, as Rome does (as the United States of America does), sovereignty, sets us up to recognize that claim, and therein become idolatrous. To claim, as classical liberalism does, that the lone individual (the self) is sovereign is idolatry.


Note (3)

Leo Hartshorn has written a nice summary of key points from The Politics of Jesus, reprinted here to help us understand what preceded Chapter 12, The War of the Lamb:

John Howard Yoders classic book The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans,1972; reissued 1994) has had a profound impact on how many Christians read the Bible and understand Jesus. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., a theologian within the Anabaptist tradition, was highly influenced by the book. McClendon describes its impact as being like a second conversion. In turn, as Jims friend and pastor, I was influenced by his passion for Anabaptism and subsequently became a Mennonite.

The Politics of Jesus taught Christians how to read the Bible and Jesus politically. By that I mean it opened up a way to read Jesus as a nonviolent revolutionary who confronted the religious and political powers of his day and had an explicit social agenda grounded in a vision of Gods reign [emphasis added that agenda was jubilary -SG].

Since The Politics of Jesus was published, many others have read the Bible through the lens of the social sciences, political theory and new understandings of the social situation of first-century Palestine under Roman occupation. New studies have brought to the foreground even more political implications of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I have tried to compile and simplify a number of the implications of these political readings of the Gospels. These readings make it difficult to deny that Jesus and the Gospels have a social and political vision. These insights into the Gospels and Jesus provide the peacemaker and justice-seeker with a vision and model of social and political engagement.

The birth of Jesus

* Jesus birth is presented in royal images to intentionally contrast with the violent rule of Roman political leaders (Matt. 2).
* Jesus mother, Mary, proclaims his coming in the Magnificat as subverting and inverting the politics of injustice (Luke 1:46-56; a song of the anawim or poor ones).
* Jesus birth is heralded as the reign of peace and witnessed by shepherds, social outcasts (Luke 2:8-14).

The life and teachings of Jesus

* Jesus temptations in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11)

Jesus resisted the devils temptation to rule the nations, which in the context of first-century Palestine under Roman colonial domination could only be practically and politically achieved by means of violent revolution (insights from Yoder).

* Jesus preaching/teaching ministry

Jesus first hometown sermon was a definitive moment for his continuing mission (Luke 4:16-30). It was based upon Isaiah 42: 1ff. The Spirit was upon Jesus for the purpose of proclaiming good news to the poor (i.e., a suggestion of economic transformation, not simply pie in the sky), release to the captives (such as those in debtors prison), recovery of sight to the blind (i.e., resulting in the restoration of the dependent and marginalized to economic self-sufficiency and community [emphasis added]), freedom for the oppressed (i.e., the victims of injustice), and to proclaim the year of the Lords favor. Scholars suggest this last may be an allusion to the year of Jubilee, a time of restorative economic justice; see Lev. 25. Jesus ends his sermon with a prophetic challenge to ethnocentricity that almost gets him killed!

In Matthews Sermon on the Mount, which reveals some of Jesus core teachings, Jesus blessed the peacemakers (5:9) and taught love of enemies (5:43-48), as well as a way of nonviolent challenge to injustice over retaliation (5:38-42).

Jesus central teaching was the reign or kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17). This was a social and political metaphor that spoke to, among other things, a covenant, or faithful way of life among Gods people.

Jesus parables, which reflect the unjust social conditions of first century Palestine, frequently served as social commentary and critique (e.g., The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16, or The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, which uses a person from a despised social group as its hero).

Jesus taught the way of nonviolence and peace (e.g., Jesus rebuked James and Johns desire for revenge and the violent destruction of a Samaritan village, in Luke 9:51-55).

* Jesus healing ministry

Jesus made healing contact with the unclean and social outcasts (e.g., lepers). The Temple purity system kept the unclean from social interaction and in economic dependence. In his healing acts Jesus brought back into the community the socially marginalized. His healings had wider social implications.

Jesus healing freed many from financial dependence.

Jesus offered healing free from its brokerage by an unjust Temple system.

Jesus exorcism, in the symbolism of Marks gospel (5:21), points to an overcoming of Roman political oppression (i.e., pigs=the unclean; possession=physical occupation; demon=Legion=Roman military unit).

* Jesus prophetic ministry

Jesus challenged the religious and social boundaries of his society, which defined holiness as separation, by having table fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners (labels for a distinct social group of outcasts deprived of certain civil rights). This prophetic act got Jesus labeled as a social deviant, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners. Meals can be seen as a microcosm of the larger cultures views on social boundaries (whos in and whos out). Jesus act of table fellowship was a form of social protest, symbolically proclaiming that the Reign of God included the disenfranchised (Matt. 9:11-13).

Jesus challenged the purity/holiness system of his society, which ostracized those who could not observe its detailed regulations.

Jesus juxtaposed justice, mercy and faith(fulness) over against meticulous observance of ritual law (Matt. 23:23).

Jesus broke down socially constructed gender barriers by associating with women (e.g., the Samaritan woman in John 4) and having women as disciples (e.g., Mary in Luke 10:38-42).

Jesus challenged Roman occupation and tribute/allegiance to Caesar and Rome with the bigger issue of tribute/allegiance to God (Matt. 17:24-27).

Jesus prophetically critiqued the injustices of the Temple system and its elite leaders (e.g., the story of the widows mite, which must be understood in its immediate context of Jesus critique of Temple officials, who devour widows houses, and his saying on the destruction of the Temple; see Mark 12:38-13:2). Jesus questioned the Temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). He carried out a public protest, or political street theater, in the tradition of the symbolic acts of the prophets, by overturning the tables of the moneychangers, which represented the economic injustices of the Temple system (Matt. 21:12-13). This act may have been the precipitating event of his crucifixion.

The death and resurrection of Jesus

* Jesus intentionally headed for Jerusalem, the seat of the coalition of religious and political power, to confront the injustice of the system and its leaders (Matt. 20:17-19).
* Jesus entered Jerusalem with political theater lampooning the peoples expectations of a violent, military messianic kingship by riding in on a donkey instead of a warhorse (i.e., re-enacting Zechariahs vision of a coming king who would bring peace among nations; see Zech. 9:9-10).
* When he was arrested, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, for those who live by the sword will die by the sword (Matt. 26:51-53). Jesus could have called upon a heavenly army to protect him, but violent resistance to Rome was not on Jesus political agenda.
* Jesus was crucified as a political criminal, as an enemy of the state, between two bandits (most likely social bandits, who violently resisted economic injustices; Matt. 27:38). He was accused of political subversion: 1) refusing to pay taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2; if we are to give to God what is Gods, as in Matt. 22:17-21, what is the implication for Caesars tribute?); 2) threatening to destroy the Temple (Matt. 26:61 and Mark13:1-2); and 3) claiming to be a messianic king (Matt. 26:63-64).
* At Jesus trial, the people are given a choice between Jesus bar Joseph, the nonviolent revolutionary, and Jesus bar Abbas, the violent revolutionary (Matt. 27:16-17).
* On the cross, a Roman political instrument of torture for revolutionaries and insurgents, Jesus identifies with the forsaken and abandoned.
* Gods resurrection of Jesus is a vindication of his life, including his way of peace and social justice.
* In Johns gospel (14:26), the resurrected Christ leaves his disciples with his way of peace, unlike the world gives (e.g., the Pax Romana, the Roman peace through violent suppression). Finally, Jesus offers his peace and breathes his Spirit, his way of life, forgiveness and peace, upon the group of disciples, the prototypical Church (John 20:19-23).


Note (4)

In preparation for Good Friday and Easter, as we go through Lent, we have pointed to the subject of renunciation, and we have made the claim through Illich first that renunciation is an exercise of freedom.

A while ago, I wanted my dog to go outside. My dog is a sensible being, like us. But if he is reluctant to go outside (its cold today), all I have to do is wave a biscuit in front of his face, then throw it outside, and he will follow. He is powerless to choose, moreso because he doesnt recognize he has a choice. The difference between that dog and us is that we can choose, and we are therefore inescapably moral beings.

The degree to which we are controlled by fears or by appetites once we have been shown that we can renounce them is the degree to which we might fail morally.

Everything in modern society tells us differently, because fears and appetites are marketable and we live in a society that has raised the market as an idol, from be all that you can be, to Pantene, because Im worth it, to a popular magazine entitled Self. This ideology has led to a culture, an ecology, and a personhood characterized not by choice, but by addiction. Addictions are our new rulers. The market throws a biscuit out the door, and we run outside after it.

What Yoder explains in The War of the Lamb is that Jesus three times in a row renounced the temptation to dictate and dominate. When he goes to be tempted, the temptation is political power. When the crowd cheers his entry into Jerusalem, he could have taken power, but he didnt. When he again whips up the crowd by running the bulls through the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple, he stands down. Then Jesus shows us what the renunciation of power looks like on the cross. He renounces the appetite for power; and he renounces the fear of death.

Here is Yoder from The War of the Lamb, referring to the visions of Revelation and meaning:

What Jesus renounced was thus not simply the metaphysical status of sonship but rather the untrammeled sovereign exercise of power in the affairs of that humanity amid which he came to dwell. His emptying of himself, his accepting of the form of servanthood and obedience unto death, is precisely his renunciation of lordship, his apparent abandonment of any obligation to be effective in making history move down the right track.

But the judgment of God upon this renunciation and acceptance of defeat is the declaration that this is victory. Therefore God has greatly exalted him and given him the title, which every creature will have to confess, the Lord. Lord in the earliest Christian confessions was not (as it is in so much modern piety) a label to state a believers humility or affection or devotion; it is an affirmation of his victorious relation to the powers of the cosmos [italics added]

this text affirms a philosophy of history in which renunciation and suffering are meaningful

The renunciation of the claim to govern history was not made only by the second person of the Trinity taking upon himself the demand of an eternal divine decree; it was also made by a poor, tired rabbi when he came from Galilee to Jerusalem to be rejected.

Jesus did not show us the freedom of God in his renunciation. He showed us the possibility of our own freedom, and in that showing He gave us a new being.

A question to provoke a closer reading of Yoder here: How does this explanation of renunciation relate to Yoders pacifism, his renunciation of violence?


Note (5)

In the first section of The War of the Lamb, Yoder critiques the idea of a thread or handle on history, by calling into question three assumptions:

1. It is assumed that the relationship of cause and effect is visible, understandable, and manageable, so that if we make our choices on the basis of how we hope society will be moved, it will be moved in that direction.

2. It is assumed that we are adequately informed to be able to set for ourselves and for all society the goal toward which we seek to move it.

3. Interlocked with these two assumptions and dependent upon them for its applicability is the further postulate that effectiveness in moving toward these goals which have been set is itself a moral yardstick.

If we look critically at these assumptions we discover that they are my no means as self-evident as they seem to be at first.

Another question to ponder: What is the significance here of the term effectiveness? Does that mean Yoder eschewed taking action in the world?

Talk given at Wake Forest University

My thanks to Patricia Willis, who has been tireless in putting together this series, who has been a detailed coordinator, an inspired and thoughtful teacher, an engaged activist, and a friendly voice on the telephone until I had the pleasure of spending a little time with her in person this afternoon.

Gratitude also to Wake Forest University, and to all of you who have taken time out of your schedules to be here tonight. My thanks as well to the other speakers in this series, Catharine MacKinnon – who preceded me, and whose critique of liberal law and its relation to gender is a pivotal work in the larger critique of modern society – and Ann Wright, a personal friend and collaborator in the effort to expose militarism and mobilize resistance against the obscene resource wars that our government is waging against the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.

When Dr. Willis asked me to do it, she said she wanted me to talk about the relations between militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, and pornography… which sounds like a socio-political salad. In eating this salad, we have access to a lot of different dressings, or idea factions with names like liberal feminism, radical feminism, womanism, post-constructionism, anti-feminism, Marxist-feminism, ecofeminism, third-world feminism, and on and on.

A point that has to be made, however, is that these ideological dressings and this salad of categories – militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and pornography – are haut cuisine, served almost exclusively in universities. This taxonomy is not part of the lexicon of most people. It’s the language of high-order thinking that is part of the social ecology of the university – and I’ll acknowledge here and now that calling it “high-order” thinking is an assumption within that same university culture. The university is predicated upon this assumption.

Its a useful assumption, as long as we recognize the limits of its utility, and the taxonomies of social phenomena like militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, and pornography are also useful. We just need to put them back together when were done.

This freezing and disassembly of a reality that constantly emerges in a far more complex way is one of the main standpoints of the Academy. Universities subdivide reality as a matter of course, and so people take a course in psychology, or business management, or anthropology, or horticulture, or geography, or physics. This is both a reflection of and reproduction of specialization in the division of labor. And the university itself represents a cultural division of intellectual labor, which is enforced by credentialing, and mid-wived by the rituals of higher education.

Nonetheless, this is a useful taxonomy as long as we understand its limitations and dangers. The greatest difficulty with it is that each of the categories listed patriarchy, militarism, capitalism, and pornography is itself contested by the very people who spend a lot of time studying it, those being students, teachers, writers, and activists.

Before I do that, I need to make reference to some polarities, or unified opposites: the polarity of abstract versus concrete, of universal versus local, of public versus private, and of covenental relationships versus contractual relationships.

If I describe pornography, for example, as sexually explicit media, then I have abstracted, or universalized, the category. If I describe it as an industry, then I am somewhat less abstract or universal. If I describe a production process in a specific building and time, with specific people who have specific histories, then I am more local and specific; as I am local and specific if I describe a specific pornographic genre being consumed by a specific 40-year-old man sitting at a specific address on his computer, masturbating.

In fact, an enormous number of men from teens to late middle age do predominantly two things during personal, private time on computers: they watch (and masturbate to) pornography, and they play war games. Ill come back to that in a moment, because its a somewhat-abstract, yet somewhat-concrete example of a connection between militarism and pornography.

The instant gratification as a sense of control and power that connects both these online activities is so obvious that Im surprised there havent been multiple books written about that connection.

On the question of public versus private, we need some historical perspective to denaturalize this duality, since it has only fairly recently in the sweep of history been enshrined as a neutral abstraction by liberal law. Historically, this division between the public sphere and the private sphere was a highly gendered cultural norm, wherein men occupied public spaces in male-hierarchies or as abstract equals, and where women were consigned to the private sphere which was a male-over-female domain. The irony that privacy rights law can be used by some women to protect themselves from some men is as inescapable as the fact that the abstraction of the law, pretending that men and women are equal, generally favors the status quo or male social power over women. Dr. MacKinnons book, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, has laid out this contradiction very well.

The distinction between covenental and contractual relationships is even more obscure to us because the notion of contract is so completely embedded in modern culture.

Wambdi Wicasa wrote in 1974, A CONTRACT is an agreement made in suspicion. The parties do not trust each other, and they set limits to their own responsibility. A COVENANT is an agreement made in trust. The parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility. Indian Leaders made Treaties with the Great White Father and called them Covenants, sealing them with the smoke of the Sacred Pipe. The trouble began when the Great White Father, his Lieutenants and Merchants, looked on the Treaties and called them Contracts. Thus began in the basic religious difference the conflict between Cultures.

Carole Patemans book, The Sexual Contract, is canonical on this topic, in particular the implicit contract between male and female sexual partners that traditionally means one woman is protected from all other men by one man, in exchange for fealty to that one man. In contractual relations there is always the expectation that one has to hold up his or her side of the bargain.

Its not surprising that capitalism sprang from the same modernist impulse, with its philosophical axiom being something called a social contract. What Pateman points out is that with the waning of the medieval age in the now-dominant culture, and with the rise of modernism, patriarchy changed, too. Women were ruled by fathers in medieval society what Pateman calles paternal patriarchy. With the entrance of contract theory and abstract equality, patriarchy became fraternal that is, each woman was potentially available abstractly to all men. The shift from paternal patriarchy to fraternal patriarchy was accompanied by the development of liberal law, the notion of privacy rights, the contractualization of human relations, a global surge in colonization to underwrite capitalist expansion, and with consequences that are frighteningly apparent nowadays the commodification of the biosphere.

The philosophical corollary to this cultural tapestry was Cartesian dualism, with its separation between a so-called objective reality and intellectual or cultural constructions. Modernism was defined by the belief that the objective is the last word and with this word, the apotheosis of science; and post-modernism, which I consider just the latest instantiation of modernism, was a reaction against this objectivist dogma, an instantiation that has drifted into claims that the cultural construction is the last word. This flipped the hierarchy, but it re-embraced the dualism.

Alf Hornborg wrote, as an academic, It is not a coincidence that postmodern paralysis is a condition that mainly afflicts academics, for it is only at a distance that human meanings assume the appearance of constructions.

In his book, The Power of the Machine – Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment, Hornborg also points out that knowledge is never simply the apprehension of objective facts. [M]aterial conditions he writes never directly determine human behavior, for humans can relate to those conditions only through a specific system of meanings.”

As he suggests, knowledge is constructed within the limits of those meanings, yet upon a so-called objective environment.

Maria Mies noted that the social constructionists had simply re-appointed the same old dualism.

In her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, Mies also identifies a common thread between male domination of women, colonialism, and the destruction-through-commodification of the biosphere. That same common thread appears in the phenomenon of men playing war games on their computers and jacking off to the most overtly woman-humiliating genres of pornography: that common thread between male domination of women, colonialism, and ecocide is the conquest-ideal.

The conquest of women. The conquest of colonies. The conquest of nature. Women are called children; colonies are called children in the same spirit; and nature is seen as a woman to be, as Francis Bacon said, plundered for her secrets.

So with that preface Ill take note that I am a man. For that reason, I am disqualified from speaking personally about the experience of being female; and for that same reason, I want to focus my talk on the experience of being a male. I cannot speak to or judge too harshly the accommodations that women make in their actual lives to the manifest reality of late capitalist and still white dominant patriarchy. I can, however, say what I think men should be doing differently; and I will.

Ill say it now, in my best Romper Room vocabulary. Remember the DO-bees and DONT-bees oh well, Ive seriously dated myself. Here is the Dont List for men. Do not dominate. Do not humiliate. Do not retaliate.

Thats a hard dont list for men, when the culture tells us incessantly and forcefully that to be a man means to dominate, to humiliate, and to retaliate. These are equated with strength; and they are counterposed to all things quote-feminine-unquote. This male norm of masculinity-as-conquest is ruthlessly policed in male culture, which is also a hotbox of probative escalation.

I could ask everyone in this room if you fear unknown men to raise your hand. You see Im raising mine. Men proving themselves to other men can be the most terrifying thing youll ever see. I say that as a military veteran who worked in eight conflict areas, in Vietnam, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Men proving themselves to other men is as dangerous as it gets. There are people right here in this room who would be alarmed by the sudden sound of multiple male voices laughing nearby, because that sound can be so pregnant with mischief. Males are bonding. Escalations are possible.

This is male culture that idealizes the conquest of women, the conquest of colonies, and the conquest of nature. It is probative conquest, too; and it requires trophies for the other men to whom you are proving yourself, and as proof of masculinity to display for women.

If you can think back to the time in this terrible occupation of Iraq when Abu Masab al-Zarqawi was the boogy-man when the media propagated the lie that every attack and every bomb was being made by this one wicked being and if you can remember when Zarqawi was killed, the Central Command Public Affairs Officer who stood before the breathless media in the Green Zone was backgrounded by a giant photograph of the obviously dead face of Zarqawi.

This was a hunting trophy.

In displaying this most dangerous game, the Central Command was demonstrating its prowess in a war story that has been a social convention for so long that it has become a cultural memory, an axiomatic belief accompanied by deeply enculturated emotional resonance.

The idealization of the military, of the warrior, of the armed defender is so sacrosanct that every politician in the country feels obliged to genuflect as they talk about heroes in uniform, and our brave men and women in the military. The addition of women to that idealization has not fundamentally changed the fact that warfare is still the testing ground for masculinity; but it is a cultural advance albeit a contradictory one by liberal feminism, that public figures have to include women in this sinister idealization at all.

The realities of war are never abstract, no matter how many times pontificating generals announce how much they abhor the reality of war, or no matter how many times sycophant journalists make the idiotic claim that no one dislikes war more than those who fight them this in reference to officers who sought out every combat opportunity they could find as a means of personal career advancement. While we are taught to praise them for their service-ethic, the reality is much more about naked ambitions combined with a deep desire for male-recognition in the role of conqueror.

The war in Southwest Asia right now is characterized by destabilization of culture and vicious bullying of the local populations, combined with terror attacks from helicopter gunships, bombers, and armed unmanned aerial drones. Our heroes are still mostly non-combatants; and our combatants are obliged by their mission statements to control a population which translates into dominate, humiliate, and retaliate. Think of Iraq and Afghanistan, and very soon now Pakistan as Obama goes east to get his bones, as captive populations, with our heroes in uniform acting as jailers, and we can make sense yet again of the discoveries of the Stanford Prison Experiment where playacting the role of prison guard turned average college students into pain-inflicting sadists within a week.

We live into stories. I know thats not how most sociologists or psychologists explain our meaning-making behavior; only religions seem to have held onto this idea which goes some way to explaining their persistence, for ill and for good. The fact is, human beings are storied. We receive stories, then we live into them. There is a story about America that weve all heard, and the living into that story is called citizenship, because it is a national story, and the protagonist is the citizen. And while the ideal is portrayed as Washington crossing the Delaware or Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation or Rambo fighting the politicians who supposedly stabbed the Vietnam heroes in the back most of us cannot live directly into the big story that is the idealization of the citizen, so we behave as something called good citizens as our way of living into the story that the ideals construct for us.

Stories tell us how we are to be and how we are to know.

Even a one-minute television ad is a story, telling us who we are and how to be and how to know.

Pantene, because youre worth it; or mobilizing simultaneous attraction and repulsion Preparation H, gives relief and doesnt require surgery. Advertisers know more about the material power of the narrative than most cultural constuctionists. All people in all times and all places are storied people.

Coming back to the issue of capitalism, and being more concrete than that one word – capitalism can be, Ill say coming back to imperial-core, late capitalist consumerism; US culture reflects the globally generalized financial architecture, within which the US has been for several decades until now the global consumer of last instance, ensuring the so-called virtuous cycle of capital. The fact that it was built on a house of credit cards at home, and the hegemony of a too-big-to-fail US dollar abroad, is not my subject tonight. In our de-localized, ever-more-monocultural, technology-dependent world, we are experiencing a surfeit of stories most designed to correct the capitalist nightmare of people having enough. When people have enough, capitalism has a crisis. That crisis is held back by demand production. Advertisers create new needs, and sell them into the psychic spaces of our own alienations and anxieties.

Postmodernist recognition of these very-plural narratives is an important challenge to the self-assuredness of a highly technologized society, but postmodernism became too clever by half in its critiques of modernist assumptions. In challenging the metanarratives of capitalist science and development, the critique was aimed at an older, more stable form of modernism.

This widening anachronism left postmodernism vulnerable to the episteme of plain, garden-variety consumerism: the ideology that says choice is freedom, and now even something called identity is available for a kind of shopping aisle selection.

I still prefer the term personhood to identity, because personhood for me embraces the whole phenomenon of experience without reducing it to identity, and in a way that is more permeable to all the influences of culture and our ecology.

The abstraction and atomization of core-nation consumer culture pretends that is has escaped the inextricable relation between our physical ecology, our culture, and personhood. By that I mean that the ideology of self, of the ever-choosing individual, whether that is Homo economicus or the selection of de-localized, shopping cart identities. Its liberalism in its slyest form.

It fails to come to grips with issues of real power and privilege, and it fails to acknowledge how our de-localization is tearing down the complexity of a bioshpere that has taken billions of years to develop. Liberalism tells us a story about the abstract equality equality before the law of white, black, brown, of native and foreign, of male and female, of rich and poor, gay and straight, and yet we know that concretely that these equalities just aint so.

Being more specific still, liberalism tells us that men and women are equal. What does that mean? What do we mean by this equality? We are not the same morphologically and I dont mean to exclude those few who fall into neither category. By and large, we are overwhelmingly a sexually dimorphous species, so the equality cant be physical. I cant give birth, and I cant nurse, and I have experienced neither menarche or menopause.

This is an embarrassment to liberalism to say this, because the equality of liberalism is disembodied; so the liberal reply is that we are all equal before the law, or that we are all morally valued equally. But, of course, thats not true either except as an abstraction. When we point this out, then liberalism shifts premises on us, and says that it means equal opportunity.

Game over. Accountability canceled. Its about something called opportunity, disembodied, floating, ahistorical, waiting to be breathed in out of the ether.

Abstract equality legitimates concrete-power and ends up preserving and even reproducing hierarchies that devalue people.

Patriarchy is a practice and an ideology based on the devaluation of women.

What the great radical feminists pointed out, which seems clear to me at least, is that women-as-a-group are different from men-as-a-group, culturally but also physiologically and culture and physiology never ever exist apart in the concrete world but that difference is not grounds for the establishment of oppressive hierarchies. Now we know that these hierarchies exist, and have existed. Basic to those social hierarchies is the male-conquest-ideal control of women, control of colonies, and control of nature.

We may not like them, but we swim in the actual soup of this system, doing the best we can with what we know and have. Like it or not, our personhood always being permeated by culture-as-it-is, which is in turn always permeated by the ecology, which in turn shapes personhood, and so forth.

Being in the hierarchies means it is difficult – sometimes impossible – to see these big pictures, because life is lived in little pictures.

So the hierarchies themselves are formative of our personhood. This questioning of sexual hierarchy imposed on difference required historical subjects women themselves to pose the question; and posing the question was itself a radical political practice carried directly into that ecology where patriarchy was and is practiced with the least mediation the private sphere.

Let me stop and take a quick survey. How many of you have ever felt humiliated by your own chosen actions while applying for a job, or a scholarship, or a school, or in managing a relationship?

Folks, we make compromises with power every single day. Does that mean we have to come up with some abstract principle that conceals the contingent necessity for compromise?

I bring this up, because I want to inoculate us against the First Amendment.

That got some head-scratching started.

I want to talk about pornography before Im through tonight; but I have to say this right out of the gate: I am not proposing the criminalization of anything, and the First Amendment falls into that abstract liberal law category. I dont want to talk about pornography in general; and I havent the least intention of raising hypothetical questions about pornography. I am going to critique actually-existing pornography. The First Amendment cannot be used to immunize pornography from critique, any more than it can immunize perfectly-legal Nazi propaganda from critique. What the First Amendment is, is a big red herring.

Three very prominent themes in commercially produced pornography are are you ready? Can you guess?

Domination. Humiliation. Revenge.

There is such a thing, concretely, in every society, as male-culture. That it is male culture is not disproved by the fact that women can and do sometimes act in ways that are similar to male-cultural norms. These are cultural norms, not laws of physics.

Domination. Humiliation. Revenge.

Folks, this is male-culture ideology; and it is part and parcel of the social hierarchy of men-over-women. These are not merely ideas. These are deeply emotionally resonant norms embedded in patriarchy, and they are highly, highly eroticized.

Now theres something I hear all the time, and I think its silly as hell: Rape is not about sex; its about power. Who thought that up? When in knowable history has sex ever been independent of or innocent of power? Of course rape is sexual. It is sexualized force; and it is forcible sex.

The abstraction of sex out of its actual cultural and historical context is a liberal stunt in reaction to conservative prudery. Conservatives say sex is bad; so we say sex is good. Neither of these notions is tenable, because both are uncritically simplified, and each makes a straw man out of the otheer.

People enjoy sex well, some people do and some dont. The critique on the table is not whether sex feels good or not.

People like to eat McDonalds and smoke cigarettes; but that doesnt mean its good. And asserting someones rights in these regards when we are simply critiquing it is a red herring.

I said earlier that If I describe pornography as sexually explicit media a very abstract way of describing it, then I have drained the content of the category of any tangible reality. The reaction of paternalist patriarchal conservatives, male and female those who we identify with the religious right, for example does not challenge the abstraction of the category, sex, but puts a minus-sign next to it. A straw man, of course, because the conservative position is not that simple either.

The liberal reaction to the straw-man conservative reaction has been to put a plus-sign alongside the category, arguing from the rootless, placeless, ahistorical position that – quote – sex is good – unquote.

Both these positions accept the unstated premise that sex can be generalized thus, that it can be abstracted out of history, out of our specific social ecologies, and out of real systems of social power.

Combine this tendency to treat all issues as if history is simply a playground of abstract ideas combine that tendency with another unexamined two-stage premise that we must be effective in pursuing political agendas, and that that efficacy is possible only in the arena of public policy and we have a situation wherein the tail of the political agenda begins to wag the dog of honest criticism.

We have intellectual dishonesty on both sides of a debate.

The debate about abortion is a classic example, where each side of the barricades is driven to simplify, obfuscate, and employ disingenuousness in order to strengthen its own half of the public controversy. A decision that is, in fact, for real people, complicated, situated, unique, and often very momentous, is reduced to two words: life and choice, both polemical simplifications that try to squeeze this visceral, often painful, and always extremely complicated circumstance with real people into some universal principle that is forced to externalize complexity that is, the specific realities of real people. So, instead of a critical account one that takes a fearless look at these complexities without the distortions of a long standing policy agenda we get this polarized and mutually dishonest one. And, of course, we also get an impasse.

Pornography is just as contentious, although the critical debates over it havent filtered into the kind of all-consuming policy-agenda struggle as the question of abortion. It has turned into a struggle over an abstract principle enshrined as the First Amendment. The result has been the exclusion of one of the most important critical voices in my opinion with regard to actually-existing pornography not the abstract pornography that is contested in the narrow debate about what is abstractly called protected speech. That critical voice has been radical feminism, a standpoint quite distinct from liberal feminism because it has refused to accept the tendency to compartmentalize public discourse in categories that implicitly privilege public policy struggles as the touchstone of critical discourse. Not least, because public policy, and all the dominant ideas about it, are still man-world.

Radical feminism put the challenge out there that made it the skunk at the party. It asked the question whether real sex in all its manifestations has ever existed, or can ever exist, in a universe apart from actually-existing social power. This refusal to subordinate critical questions to the unexamined premise of the primacy of public-policy debates created embarrassment on both sides of the pornography debate between conservatives and liberals.

Instead, radical feminists focused on the most direct and sexual form of domination in actual practice: rape also a favorite porn story convention (as well as being one aspect of the industrys actual practice).

As it turns out, the stark and disturbing lens of rape reveals several dimensions of our social relations. The domination of women-as-women by men-as-men has long served as a metaphor, and therefore a model, for other forms of domination. And this is the juncture at which I need to take notice of something Ive left unsaid so far.

Our standpoint now, in this talk, is eurocentric, core-nation imperial. Ive already made several references to the conquest of women corresponding in our minds to the conquest of nature. And Ive already made reference to the construction of masculinity being centered on the conquest ideal. Now I have to fess up, that this is not the whole story. While emulated within the 20th Century by non-Europeans during the heyday of development, the conquest of nature notion has its deepest historical roots in the Atlantic, where hydrocarbon industrialism took off and facilitated European, then American, colonialism.

The conquest-ideal Ive described is something available only to males in the imperium. The men in the periphery, in the colonies, formulate masculinities, even oppressive masculinities; but they are not identical with masculinity that is constructed from a standpoint near the apex of the inter-national pyramid. Concomitantly, femininity is constructed differently in colonized communities. These differences are not an outcome of chosen identities in a diffuse social plurality, but determined to a significant extent by the relations between the colonizer and the colonized.

And colonization is always racialized.

We neednt go across the ocean to find our examples. We live in North Carolina, where we are still largely segregated by race separated spatially with, of course, consumer spaces as our primary cross-racial shared space and separated residentially, culturally, socio-economically, and ecologically.

If we want to see a snapshot of the racial divide, one that has been layered over with new contradictions since the 1991 peso collapse and the wave of immigration from Latin America, we can simply think back on the variant reactions between white and Black, as well as between white and Black women, to the OJ Simpson murder trial.

That difference is accounted for by two dramatically different standpoints: one group with colonial privilege, and one living as the colonized. White women share Black womens fear of men; but Black women also fear the police because Black people have good reason to fear the police. So white folk put the burden of proof on OJ; but Black folk put the burden of proof on the police. History matters; and so does standpoint.

Another lens though which we can explore this standpoint variance is through rape. Its a dense, complicated intersection, this race and rape; so Ill only sketch it here and leave you to reflections on your experience. Ill start with prison figures, just to reiterate the coloniality of the white-Black and more and more white-Brown relation… Barack Obama’s presidency notwithstanding.

More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. Until the economic collapse hit and forced states to halt increasing prison population which they are just trying to figure out now, for fiscal reasons one out of every three Black males could expect to spend time incarcerated in his lifetime. Its a stunning figure, and it is based on laws adopted to end-run the abolition of Jim Crow, as well as huge sentencing disparities.

The interesting thing about prison, in this context however, is how we – white, non-incarcerated men in particular think about prison. In any all-white-male gathering, when the topic of prison comes up, the topic of rape nearly always comes up too usually as a form of humor that has the character of someone whistling past the graveyard.

Mens concern about rape a source of constant threat and subliminal fear for women is generally not very acute; but when the possibility of being raped themselves is brought forward, then it becomes scandalous and terrifying.

Part of that white-male terror is associated with the dread-laden fantasy of being raped by Black men, which maps directly onto an old Southern colonial standby meme: the notion of the Black satyr, of Black men as predisposed moreso than other men to commit rape. This notion has been trotted out by every demagogue in the South during the most vicious anti-Black pograms; and it is still central to the world-view of the white-male conservative political base in the South, but also now more generally.

It was a proprietary standpoint, with women as property and men as embodying the actual people, wherein the dominant male was protecting His women from contamination by the male Other.

Black men have historical experience of being persecuted, using the feared or alleged rape of white women; and Black women have been involved as the sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, friends, and spouses of the very Black men who were persecuted using trumped-up rape charges. As Andrea Dworkin wrote:

In the United States, with its distinctly racist character, the very fear of the dark is manipulated, often subliminally, into fear of black, of black men in particular, so that the traditional association between rape and black men that is our national heritage is fortified. In this context, the imagery of black night suggests that black is inherently dangerous. In this context, the association of night, black men, and rape becomes an article of faith. Night, the time of sex, becomes also the time of raceracial fear and racial hatred. The black male, in the South hunted at night to be castrated and/or lynched, becomes in the racist United States the carrier of danger, the carrier of rape. The use of a racially despised type of male as a scapegoat, a symbolic figure embodying the sexuality of all men, is a common male-supremacist strategy. Hitler did the same to the Jewish male. In the urban United States, the prostitute population is disproportionately made up of black women, streetwalkers who inhabit the night, prototypical female figures, again scapegoats, symbols carrying the burden of male-defined female sexuality, of woman as commodity. And so, among the women, night is the time of sex and also of race: racial exploitation and sexual exploitation are fused, indivisible. Night and black: sex and race: the black men are blamed for what all men do; the black women are used as all women are used, but they are singularly and intensely punished by law and social mores; and to untangle this cruel knot, so much a part of each and every night, we will have to take back the night so that it cannot be used to destroy us by race or by sex. END QUOTE

Colonizers always racialize the colonized, which is to say, subtract an element of the colonized person’s basic humanity.

What white men fear in their fantasies about prison is that the tables will be turned. They already have been taught as men that sex has an aspect of domination and vengeance. The language we hear in pornographic conventions, language that has been tested for its marketability, includes Take that, you bitch, or Im gonna make you squeal.

It drips with aggression, no pun intended.

We all know that many men see having sex with a despised mans wife, daughter, mother is seen as pure vengeance. We are all familiar with the use of sexual language to describe extreme aggression. part of the will to dominate. Men already see this, and we have already internalized it, and white men who havent been to prison, but who fantasize their dread of prison, also already see prison as a place where the protection of their privilege will disappear, and where the Black rapist of the white imagination will have the opportunity to get revenge.

This notion of a frontier between safe-world and dark-dangerous-world – a frontier that has to be guarded and policed – is fundamental to the narrative of every prison, and of every war.

One of the major difficulties of reforming prisons is that many people see the possibility of rape in prison to be a legitimate part of the convicted persons comeuppance. We, as a society, have legitimized sexual revenge, rape as revenge and domination, every time we celebrate the notion that one of the bad guys however we define that will get whats coming to him in prison.

If you misbehave, this trope tells us, your comeuppance will be that you will become like a woman. You will become subject to rape.

Sexual humiliation is understood very well for its power. We saw that in the photos from Abu Ghraib. We see it in our literature and films. It is acted out explicitly in much pornography.

The intersection of race and sex brings two taxonomies of power together; and the mix has proven volatile in more ways than one. The Black man-white woman pair in reality or imagination is still the trigger for white masculine insecurity and rage. Proprietary rage, fueld by the fear of contamination spilling across one of those sealed frontiers.

One of the ways that rage is eroticized and made manageable is in a pornographic film convention that features a white woman with one or more Black men.

As culture has evolved in the US, younger folks have become less scandalized by interracial pairing, not surprisingly at the same time that younger people tend to get less exercised by same-sex erotic affinities; and many of us are tempted to see this as progress of a sort. I am. It is.

But this hasnt been the whole story of our newfound tolerance of sexual diversities; and let me say for the record that I celebrate that the world has become a somewhat less hostile place for many members of our human family.

A critical concern with the actual culture of tolerance described here is that the tolerance is embraced not for its political content which is potentially subversive of power but because this tolerance is part of a live-and-let-live attitude of disengagement or rather, I might call it a permanent state of irony, a flirtation with meaninglessness, or what Richard Rorty called approvingly light-minded aestheticism.

If that light-mindedness, and the un-named imperial privilege that is its precondition, is challenged critically, that challenge has met with defensive rationalizations, the most pernicious of which is that the mere act of transgressing norms is somehow and magically subversive.

On the contrary, the transgression of boundaries and this applies erotically as well as counter-culturally validates the boundaries themselves; because the crossing of the boundary is the kick. Nancy Hartsock writes, in her book, Money, Sex, and Power:

In pornography, the body usually a womans body is presented as something that arouses shame, even humiliation, and the opposition of the spirit or mind to the body the latter sometimes referred to as representing something bestial or non-human generates a series of dualities Pornography is built around, plays on, and obsessively recreates these dualities. The dichotomy between spiritual love and carnal knowledge is re-created in the persistent fantasy of transforming the virgin into the whore. She begins pure, innocent, fresh, even in a sense disembodied, and is degraded and defiled in sometimes imaginative and bizarre ways.

Transgression is important here: Forbidden practices are being engaged in. The violation of the boundaries of society breaks its taboos. Yet the act of violating a taboo, of seeing or doing something forbidden, does not do away with the forbidden status. Indeed, the way womens bodies are degraded and defiled in the transformation of the virgin into the whore simply crosses over and over again the boundary between them. Without the boundary, there could be no transformation. And without the boundary to violate, the thrill of transgression would disappear.

I tend to agree with Dr. Hartsock that transgression, then, as a value in and of itself, ends up promoting self-indulgence and self-involvement as magical antidotes to social boundaries, while having the opposite, or at least no, effect on the structural conditions that constituted the boundaries in the first place.

It has the character of trying to shock one’s parents to get noticed.

Without an analysis of power, we might fail to see that dominant groups always transgress boundaries that this transgression is a prerogative of power.

Now let me remind us that in this respect, especially imperial militarism IN PRACTICE is the same as the aspect of pornography that Hartsock describes, and moreso now in the information age.

Near the beginning of this talk, I painted the picture of a core-nation, middle-class male, sitting at a computer. This male was either watching porn and masturbating, or he was playing war games that is, entertaining himself by pretending he was killing human beings. In both cases, this man at the monitor was engaged in a kind of voyeurism, the voyeurism of sex and the voyeurism of war.

In some ways, our zeitgeist might be characterized as voyeurism as participation from an anonymous distance in transgressive-thrills.

Our man at the monitor can participate at a safe distance in a gang-bang or a firefight. Anyone who might happen to see him and not his monitor and maybe not his lap would see a man sitting at a computer, who is outwardly very different from the intra-psychic imaginings of that same man.

A liberal political description of this empirical picture the man sitting in front of the monitor is that he is not bothering anyone, and that whatever he is doing on that computer is his choice. Fair enough.

But a critical political description requires us to ask questions about that intra-psychic space, about the physical ecology and the ideational ecology and the historicized culture that all impinge upon and constantly re-determine the whole gestalt of this man at the computer. Who are the real people caricatured in the porn flick? What happens in real wars? When the game is over, what real lives are resumed, and how have those real lives been affected?

Near the beginning, I posed a few polarities: abstract versus concrete, universal versus local, public versus private, and covenental relationships versus contractual relationships. Now I want to come back to these polarities to close.

Men who are trapped in the mind-numbing and anodyne grid of core-nation middle-class existence, and simultaneously trapped in the expectations of male personhood based still on the idealization of conquest live into stories or recreations of that conquest vicariously. Concretely, there are billions of dollars being made to satisfy the market for vicarious fucking and killing, and the development of these vicarious-thrill commodities uses real people for their development. Porn uses so-called models or actors, but also producers and directors and pimps. War game developers rely heavily on the experience of people who have actively participated in killing people in actual wars still extant.

The objectification of women and enemies, one to reduce her to a sex toy and one to reduce him or her to a corpse, is abstract to the imaginary person watching the man at the monitor. The actual consequences of objectification that is part of the everyday experience of women and so-called enemies is not abstract in the least. These objectifying consequences involve rape kits, body bags, funerals, addiction, captivity, and fear. Plenty of fear.

Enemies are always feminized and racialized. The American soldier calls the Iraqi a hadji when the Iraqi is at a distance, and bitch when the soldier has a boot on the Iraqis neck.

When women told us that the personal is the political, they were telling us that we as men were pretending that power was an issue only in the polis, in the town square or work site where men pontificated.

Women told us that there was a power dynamic at home, too, where the violations of good will and good faith are deep and hurtful because this is where we men most liked to pretend that we were in covenental, not contractual, relationships.

Our violations of good will and good faith in the private sphere were not contract violations, but betrayal of a covenent of friendship, again as Wambdi Wicasa said, an agreement made in trust [wherein] the parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility.

Militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, pornography. these are the tendencies of power in one-single emergent reality; and we have our day-to-day, concrete, local, and even private practices to negotiate a system that holds us all within it. And the best I can offer is that simple challenge to men, that might give our sisters, all members of the human family, and ourselves a breathing space to figure out how to move toward a story and a world of covenants, not contracts. That challenge is the dont-list.

We can do this a day at a time, so it isnt overwhelming. Today, we can say as men, I will pay attention. Today, I will not dominate. Today, I will not humiliate. Today, I will not retaliate. Not even vicariously.

Thank you, and God bless you for your patience and attention.

Apocalypse Now small group – Part Three – Children of Men

“Apocalypse Now” Small Group
For Lent — from February 25 (Ash Wednesday) to April 11 (Easter is the 12th)
All Saints United Methodist Church


Apocalypse Now Links:
Part One – Volcano
Part Two – 28 Days Later
Part Three – Children of Men
Part Four – The War of the Lamb
Part Five – Revelation

Part Three — Children of Men
Showing at the All Saints UMC Ministry Center, 7 PM, Friday, March 20

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Produced by Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Iain Smith, Hilary Shor, Tony Smith, Thomas Bliss, Armyan Bernstein

Written by Novel: P. D. James, Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Clive Owen (uncredited)

Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, and Michael Caine

[All quotes and images are employed under Title 17, “Fair Use” law, and no portion of this study is for profit.]


Note (1)

Before reviewing the film itself, lets hear what Ivan Illich (from The Rivers North of the Future) had to say about renunciation, a key theme for Lent as we prepare ourselves at the end of Lent to re-live into the story of the Passion.

I think I would start a little bit too high if I began now to speak about Jesus absolute request that, if you come from the solid, middle-of-the-road, practicable Judaism into this little sect, you renounced the freedom to separate from your wife. You renounced an opportunity which the Jew had [in the parable of the Samaritan]. You renounced the need to belong to the we in order to fine your I. The place outside of Jerusalem, Golgotha, where the cross was put up, became the symbol of this renunciation. As in the Temptation, he renounced changing the world through power. Christians who imitate him soon discover that little practices of renunciation, of what I wont do, even though its legitimate, are a necessary habit I have to form in order to practice freedom.

What a beautiful, innocent world it was when people could still practice this renunciation by not eating chicken soup on Friday. I still remember that world. It made no sense in Europe during the Second World War when meat was rationed anyway, and I forgot about it. But when I came to New York, I found that people really were concerned about not eating meat on Friday. And, during the six weeks of Lent, they would give up something that was hard for them in order to learn how to give up other things. I remember my boss on the first days of the first Lent which I spent in the United States. When we sat down for breakfast, and he was grouchy as anything. And I asked him twice, Sir, did I do something wrong? No! Did I offend you? No! Do you feel badly? Yes, its Lent, and Ive given up my cigar. Well, punishing me was a funny way of going about his renunciation, but I love to think of it because it reminds me of the things which, in the modern world, we can give up not because we want a more beautiful life, but because we want to become more aware of how much we are attached to the world as it is and how much we can get along without it. These unnecessary tings have now multiplied to such an extent that you cant easily give a social shape to them. Some people will give up writing letters on a computer not because its bad, and not because they dont like to have to answer letters at the speed of email. Others will give up the services of physicians or, as somebody whom I know has done, guaranteeing that each of his children will get a college degree.

The certainty that you can do without is one of the most efficacious ways of convincing yourself, no matter where you stand on the intellectual or emotional ladder, that you are free. Self-imposed limits provide a basis and a preparation for discussion of what we can renounce as a group of friends or a neighborhood. I have seen it, and I can witness to it. For many people who suffer from great fears and a sense of impotence and depersonalization, renunciation provides a very simple way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world.

And such renunciation is especially necessary in the world in which we live. Tyranny of old was exercised over people who still knew how to subsist. They could lose their means of subsistence, and be enslaved, but they could not be made needy. With the beginning of capitalist production in the spinning and weaving shops of the Medicis, a new type of human being was being engendered: needy man, who has to organize a society, the principle function of which is to satisfy human needs. And needs are much more cruel than tyrants.


Note (2)

Movie Review

By Gregg Tubbs (for the United Methodist Church – link here)

(UMC.org)—The Bible says, faith is the assurance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV). But what is left to believe in when you remove all hope? What is there to strive for when there is no future ahead? In director Alfonso Cuaróns dark and dazzling futuristic thriller, Children of Men, we see the results of a world stripped of hope. Here, the death of a single 18-year-old is devastating world news, not because he was a prince or pop star, but because he was the youngest person on the planet. The film introduces us to a future without children or the hope of children in a world where all women are infertile and where just one birth could change everything—even the soul of man. This is definitely a nativity story of a different kind.

Based on P. D. James dystopian novel, and directed and co-written by celebrated filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Children of Men transports us one generation into the future when mass infertility has plunged the world into despair, paranoia and chaos. Rioting and anarchy have overtaken the globe, with the exception of England. Although wracked by violence between warring political and racial factions, Britain has marshaled on by instituting a series of progressively repressive measures. The government installs a brutal Homeland Security force, closing borders and detaining foreign refugees (derisively called fugees) in squalid, dangerous compounds.

As the film opens, disillusioned political activist Theo (a beautifully understated Clive Owen) is in a London coffee house watching the news of the death of the earths youngest person at only 18. News of this unexpected death sends a grim ripple throughout the world, adding a final punctuation mark to humankinds death sentence. Theo, like millions in England, sleepwalks through a hopeless, meaningless existence. As one character eloquently put it, Once the sounds of the playground faded, the despair set in.

Then Theo is confronted with the one thing he could never have expected—a lone pregnant woman named Kee (newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey).

Kee is a wanted woman, pursued by groups determined to claim her and the miraculous child for their own political purposes. Shes also a hated fugee from Africa, and Theo knows that the wildly nationalistic government would never accept that the child who could restore meaning and hope to the world could be anything but British. Theo and his aging, hippie friend Jasper (Michael Cane) must wage a desperate race against the clock, and perhaps even fate, to deliver Kee to safety with the mysterious Human Project.

Despite its sci-fi trappings, Children of Men succeeds by portraying a fully realized and completely believably alternate reality, one that echoes current reality. Cuarón eschews Hollywoods current penchant for frenetic editing and instead builds his action around intricately staged, extended shots where the camera never cuts, weaving in and out among the characters, putting the audience in the center of the action. Far from empty showmanship meant to impress film buffs, this technique has a startling, visceral impact and helps add to the storys almost overpowering emotional wallop.

No empty-headed action flick, this film is rife with social and spiritual subtext. Its theme is hope: how we thrive in its presence and wither in its absence. Theo undergoes rejuvenation—even redemption—when his hope is restored through the promised new birth. The change in his character is powerful, as is the change in everyone who encounters the pregnant woman, Kee. Her very presence-the tangible symbol of a future—restores their faith and inspires them to kindness, courage and sacrifice. The symbolism is not lost, as she walks, Christ-like, through a crowd and the people clamor to touch even the hem of her garment.

The film explores a number of societal and social ills. Mass infertility functions as a catalyst for the story, representing any cataclysmic event that shakes a society loose from its principles and shared humanity. We see how a climate of fear and despair can drive a society (and individuals) inward, erecting walls in its desperation for protection and sacrificing true freedom for perceived security. We are shown how easy it is to slip into us and them thinking-dehumanizing and demonizing those who are different in appearance, speech or beliefs. Issues of immigration, racism, terrorism, the environment and rampant nationalism all come into play.

It was fitting that this film opened on Christmas day because it represents a kind of post-apocalyptic nativity story—a rebirth of hope and new life for a lost people. And although it focuses on the birth of one miraculous human child, Children of Men also powerfully reminds us that we are all children of God.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.


Note (3)

The ECP Triangle, ecology-culture-personhood, is on stark display in this film. In the human ecology of fascism and civil war, we see how each of the characters has her or his personhood bent or broken, how each person has adapted within the cultural role available or assigned or chosen out of this milieu. As a mental exercise, choose three characters, and for each of them imagine what they might have been like had the infertility and social chaos not happened. How is each affected by the impending extinction of humanity? Is this condition of extremity re-creating them into something they were not, or is it magnifying something that was latent in each personality?

What about that dissipated character, Nigel, Theos cousin the bureaucrat, who arranges for the travel papers? What do you make of the scene in which is ensconced in a palatial suite, with his pharmaco-cyborg son, surrounding himself with iconic world-renowned art, exotic animals, and extravagant furnishings? Does his character say anything pertinent to our own actual condition? Are there Nigels among us? What makes them?

Try another mental exercise. Describe the culture, as culture: what is the music, the economic activity, the religion(s), the fashion, the media, etc.? Then, describe the ecology, as a physical surrounding objectifying and externalizing it describing other people as simply another species that has behaviors. How does this kind of dissociation, this objectifying detachment, do to you as you practice it? Does it give you some relief, some distance from the implication of responsibility that resides in empathy? Some rest from the effort of concern?


Note (4)

The original author of the novel upon which the movie is based is Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, P. D. James being her nom de plume. The Wiki entry for her says:

James began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was published in 1962.

Many of Jamess mystery novels take place against the backdrop of the UKs vast bureaucracies such as the criminal justice system and the health services, arenas in which James honed her skills for decades starting in the 1940s when she went to work in hospital administration to help support her ailing husband and two children. Two years after the publication of Cover Her Face, Jamess husband died and she took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Department of Home Affairs.

James worked in government service until her retirement in 1979, and her experiences within these bureaucracies add a complex stratum of insiders knowledge to her writing. Her 2001 work, Death in Holy Orders, displays a grasp of the inner workings of church hierarchy: she is an Anglican and a Lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society. Her later novels are often set in a community closed in some way, be this in a publishing house or barristers chambers, a theological college, an island or a private clinic as with her latest work. Her prose is very clear and precise. Her new Adam Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, was published in August 2008 in the U.K. by Faber Faber and in November 2008 in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf.

During the 1980s, many of Jamess mystery novels were adapted for television by Anglia Television for the ITV network in the United Kingdom. These productions have been broadcast in other countries, including the USA on its PBS channel. These productions featured Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh. In 2003, the BBC adapted Death in Holy Orders for a one-off drama with Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh.

Her 1992 novel The Children of Men served as the inspiration for Children of Men, a feature film released in 2006, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. Despite its substantial changes from the book, James was reportedly pleased with the adaptation and proud to be associated with the film.

James once said of writing Children of Men, When I began The Children of Men, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book. I set out to deal with the idea I had. What would happen to society with the end of the human race? At the end of it, I realized I had written a Christian fable. It was quite a traumatic book to write.


Note (5)

Ralph Wood, writing for Theology Today, said:

The key to P. D. Jamess fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. . . . James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky


Note (6)

In director Alfonso Cuarons words:

[I]nfertility we use just as a metaphor. In a science fiction movie you would have gone into the whys and the mystery of infertility. We decided to not even care about it and just take it as a point of departure. So based upon that, taking that as a point of departure, to try to make an observation about the state of things. [Someone mentioned the story in terms of its connection to] Homeland Security and stuff, but the movie is not about that. That is part of the observation of the reality that we are living. The whole idea with that is to try to bring the state of things, what is happening outside the green zones that we happily live in and what happens if we bring the world into the green zones. We experience for an hour and a half the state of things, and then try to make our own conclusions about the possibility of hope.

What does Cuaron mean by Green Zones?

Here is an article I wrote two years ago about Suburbia as Green Zone, though not in those terms, but as Dark World and Safe World. This was before my conversion, but definitely well down this present path. A short excerpt:

The media have assumed a totalizing role in our lives. Evidence of how effective this role has been is the fact that most of us still believe that the “reputable” media (NYT, Washington Post, CNN, etc.) merely reflect (imperfectly) the realities about which they “report.” Yet the Finkel hagiography is a perfect example of fitting a narrative to cultural conventions (especially the conventions of the film script) in ways that actively participate, and invite the audience to participate, in the reproduction of the racism and patriarchy inherent in those conventions. The Safe-World is somewhere in the suburbs, ringed with layers of defense: lawns, fences, homeowners associations, bands of strip malls, interstate highways, contract security, cops, the oceans, the aircraft carriers and nuclear armed submarines….

Outside the layered defenses of Safe-World, surrounding it, are dark, unpredictable, primitive Others. Inside Safe-World, when stability reigns, men can provide and rest at the hearth. But the real rite of passage for Men is to leave the safety of the hearth to confront this Dark Otherness outside Safe-World. Having done their duty disciplining the teeming periphery, they can return to the hearth, where Woman stands by, waiting, appropriately grateful for her security to this bloodied Man. In exchange for his security (also against other men), she is dutiful.

And one more excerpt for the media who still feign surprise at our current financial debacle (remember, this was written two years ago when reputable economists still denied the existence of a housing bubble):

As our cultural distinctions have collapsed under the onslaught of megamerger monoculture, we have seen wholesale uniformity imposed on our constructed environment. All the distinct cultural meanings of past communities have gone under the wheels. But human beings cannot live without meaning.

Meaning-making is a distinctly human need. We are the only species that can see the cosmic abyss that surrounds our incandescent islets of awareness. With the enclosure of Middle America™ into the constructed spaces of the work cubicle, the strip mall and the suburban living room, meaning-hunger is being answered in exactly the same commodified way as actual hunger: with taylorized, mass-produced cultural meanings, disseminated as “entertainment.” Journalism has been swept up in this process, now obliged by The Market™ to be “entertaining.” (Big-money journalism has always been generally obedient; it’s the adoption of glitz that has changed it.)

Life, at last, must imitate art. And with only one monocultural art, we will be truly one in our imitation.

That’s the danger to stability of cultural criticism. It identifies the patterns, mapping and deconstructing them until they are drained of their authority.

The durability of these norms and conventions is the constant Nemesis of social change agents. They still think a simple, well-constructed argument should be enough to “change one’s mind,” such a pale linguistic marker for what this proposes. Enough to begin demolishing the foundational structures of one’s entire worldview, and with it every decision taken on behalf of that worldview, every emotional attachment developed within its framework, and every single thing that gives them meaning as a safety rail along the Abyss. The Big Dark-World. Infinity that swallows us up. This is always the preoccupation of those who understand themselves as simply individuals

The beauty of this new Panopticon is not that it simply takes our eyes off the real war, the real plunder, the real system; it is that it stations a pernicious little watcher inside our individual brains. We become aware that we are under surveillance all the time, and this surveillance constitutes not the one discipline of the edict, but the implanted discipline that a complex society requires of its subjects to police themselves.

Finkel is not a dupe, any more than Judith Miller or Wolf Blitzer. They are all active agents of the war establishment. They are collaborators. It is this disciplinary process with which they collaborate. They teach us that Dark-World is real, and there we might be, but for our protectors: the cop, the soldier, the mercenary, the prison guard, the surveillance camera—the rat mentality that urges some of us to police others for conformity.

But suburbia is not safe. This is the central illusion.

While suburbia has had its eyes fixed on threatening images of Arabs and Persians and Latinos and deepest, darkest African America, the same establishment that makes war and builds prisons and gazes into our lives has picked suburban pockets with one hand and gripped the �?burbs as loan sharks with the other.

Suburbia is not being protected; it is being saved for dessert.

It is this sector with its fragile, technological, disembodied living standard that will now come under attack. In the short term, that is already happening through financial manipulation and the further disappearance of living-wage jobs. The tremendous personal debt burden that is mounting in the American “middle class,” fueled by past low interest rates and cash-out equity loans, was the latest maneuver to prop up this sector’s role as global consumer—a time bomb that will explode directly under Suburbia’s feet.

Meanwhile, the liquidation of the commons—from Medicare to Social Security to public services—constitutes a massive transfer of wealth saved by these working people directly into the speculative money pit that is Wall Street. Suburbanites are workers in the truest sense, even though they seldom stand on the factory floor now. They don’t know it, but they are weak, dependent, high-maintenance workers in a consumer mill.

The bill for the United States from Treasury loans to other nations—already impossible to pay—grows exponentially to support the cost of the military now conducting the war, those we see as the guardians of civilization. Our children are inheriting this impasse. We have witnessed what happens when the suburbanites are fleeced; with the taxpayer bailout of the savings and loan criminals, the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund, these burdens will invoke the “too big to fail” principle. From Chrysler to Enron, the so-called middle class will pick up the tab.

The real threat will not appear as an Arab with a bomb or a 16-year-old with brown skin and a Glock. It is already present. It has appeared as pension funds disappearing in strategic bankruptcies. It has appeared as sub-prime lending and subsequent foreclosures.

“Thank you for buying all these houses,” the banks are already saying. “Now we can take them back and rent them to you.” [and the government will bail us out, because we are too big to fail]

As Suburbia works harder and faster to keep up with the mounting debt, as it is forced to further ingratiate itself to Suburbia’s employers, as it learns to kiss more ass, get personality makeovers to fit itself heart-and-soul to the boss, it is obliged first and foremost to purchase the bare minimum of status markers (like stage props) that validate this new personality. To call narcissism in this age a “disorder” is a cruel pun. It is a cultural mandate—the norm.

Outside the �?burbs, the treatment of the others as Dark-World has become a kind of local self-fulfilling prophecy. Blending of police and military functions corresponds to an increasingly uniform (urban, unemployed, young) and crisis-ridden global human ecology. Nonetheless, the imposition of a garrison state on people who have been previously privileged as a core political base (like Suburbia) is no simple matter.

If an openly warlike state is to impose control without the middlemen, it requires Spectacle as camouflage.

Soldier and SWAT spectacle soldier and SWAT reality. They are not the same, the spectacle and the reality.

Spectacle conceals reality.

Spectacle requires publicity and amplification.

What better publicity, what better amplifier, than Finkel’s crude reduction of this war to an adolescent docudrama for The Washington Post? Ever since the neocons came to power, most of the so-called reputable press has been so craven in its collaboration with our government that it might as well be assigned a formal position on the Pentagon staff.

The Dark-World set of establishment publicists like David Finkel and political consultants like Karl Rove is like a movie in one other respect. The light you see is on the screen. The story you see is framed in shadow. Remain passive. All will be well.


Note (7)

Since the financial crisis hit this year, calls to suicide prevention centers have risen by 40%. In Children of Men, there is a ubiquitous ad in the background with a Madison Avenue-style ad campaign for Quietus, a pharma-corp engineered suicide pill, available on demand. How might the very original (in two senses) story of Children of Men be an aspect of new (and very old) cultural conventions that simultaneously (1) look fearlessly at the depth of brokenness of the world and (2) maintain a disciplined hope in the midst of it?


Note (8)

In our last biological apocalypse film, 28 Days Later, there was a small band surviving in a world where society disappeared in very short order. Tempo tasks drive the films action from the very beginning. In Children of Men, humanity remains by the billions, now to slowly die off into a hopeless future. Protagonist Theo (played by Clive Owen) is not involved in any tempo task at all. On the contrary, he seems a resigned, cynical bureaucrat riding out the end time with a bottle in his pocket (and some good ganja from his friend) and a caustically foul mouth. His involvement in the intrigue of the plot comes only when he is offered money. His emotional investment an investment he has avoided since the death of his own child happens only when he finds out the shocking truth that a woman has been discovered who is pregnant.

It is interesting that Theo does not display courage as Jim did in 28 Days Later through some form of redemptive violence. In fact, the fishies, the revolutionaries who are harboring Kee (the pregnant women), are devotees of redemptive violence (even as absurd as it seems in the face of human extinction) and will become his hostile pursuers.

Remember the scene where Theo uses the contents of his precious bottle of booze to sterilize his hands for the babys delivery? This is one of those turning points (Theo has several). How does this compare with Jims turning point in 28 Days Later, where he resorts to the violence he had heretofore eschewed?

When we read Revelation critically, we will find that the core message of that series of visions is for Christians then a persecuted sect to hold fast to their non-violent mission of proclamation in the face of a hostile world.

Yet the images in Revelation are brutally violent thousands of corpses being eaten by vultures in the fields and the like.

How does Children of Men compare to this message of proclamation (of the sole sovereignty of God)? Does the violence of Children of Men serve to contextualize any such message? Is Theo in the end a saint?

In the stories of saints, it is quite common for them to be extremely dysfunctional and broken characters who are called by extremity to perform a service for God. Martyrdom is frequently part of those stories.


Note (9)

Jasper (played by Michael Caine) develops a touching relationship with Kee in a very short time. What does each of them see in the other that makes this a credible relationship inn the story? Is Jasper himself a kind of saint? After all, he grows and smokes weed and farts after having people pull his finger.

He also cares lovingly for his catatonic wife.

What is a saint? We belong to a church called All Saints. Our pastor frequently calls members of the congregation saints. Is this hyperbole?

What if we define saint simply as a human being who has been called to holiness?

What can we possibly mean by the word holy?