Sunday, January 3, 2016

The hammer and the nail: A lenten reflection

A nail that sticks out will be hammered down. The basic idea of this Japanese proverb is that the person who stands out in any way is going to be pummeled back into place, usually by a crowd who cannot handle any kind of nonconformity. It’s the kind of idea that reinforces Kierkegaard’s contention that the “crowd is the lie” because in the end the central impetus of the hammer is not truth at all, but uniformity and conformity, which apart from truth are ultimately a kind of deformity.

Of course, the proverb can be taken as a complement alongside another Japanese proverb, which says that envy is the companion of honour: if you stand out you’re bound to be met with criticism and resistance; and some of that criticism and resistance may be thoroughly unpleasant, or even violent. But this is ultimately not because you’re simply a loser in the eyes of the critics. Rather, the chances are that you’re on the side of the extraordinary. You’re doing something few others would dare to do. The hammer tries to degrade the nail because it finds the nail threatening.

This is not to say that the hammer that comes down on the nail is always wrong. Criminals who get punished for crimes have been met with the hammer of justice precisely because they have stepped outide of what is legal. The hammer in this instance can be very right, unless the law is wrong that is. And, yes, the law can be wrong. This is why we must call the law into question as often as we can, not to rebel against it but to check that it still serves justice. Nevertheless, it is not this kind of critical, careful legal hammering that I am primarily concerned with here. My concern is with the kind of hammer that comes down unreasonably, hastily, angrily and vindictively. This is the kind of hammering I have a problem with.

And to help to express my problem with this kind of hammering, I have my own proverb to go with the original Japanese proverb above: The hammer usually misses the nail. What I mean is not that the critics of the nail sticking out don’t wound their target, for there are a great many people who have been deeply wounded by blow of the hammer. Rather, what I mean is that the criticism — that is, hot, violent, hasty criticism — is so often misplaced. It doesn’t hit the nail on the head. Again, I’m not talking about deliberate, careful or thoughtful criticism here. Unthinking criticism misses the most fundamental fact of the nail’s sticking out. It’s actually not about a moral position or even one person’s rightness and another’s wrongness. It’s just about the fact that the nail is sticking out; that it is not, by definition, on the side of the hammer. That is all. That is why the hammer (the untruth of the crowd) misses the nail (the truth of the individual human subject).

Most of all, my point here is that people’s biases and reactions mostly have very little to do with some or other so-called rationality or reasonability. People’s biases, especially their in-group/out-group biases, are simply driven my mimetic desire: that shared desire that, in collective flashes of automatic mirror neurons, brings people together. It’s not generally about what is better or worse, but about allegiance and that age-old mimetic question: Are you with us or against us? If we fail to see the mimetic drive of the crowd, we are likely to get caught up in it; we are likely to live in the untruth of the way of the hammer.

One philosopher who came so close to recognizing the untruth of the hammer was a philosopher who used the hammer (albeit the literal one this time) as his primary example for how we live in the world. Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, said that normally we have a posture towards things that is ready-to-hand rather than present-at-hand. What he meant was that in picking up the hammer, we do so with a kind of ready sense of what it is for and how it is used. We are not, in other words, concentrating on its presence and its hammerish attributes — it’s handle and the metal bit at the top. But this same Heidegger, who recognized this ready-to-hand quality of our posture towards being, saw the untruth of the crowd as something utterly removed from the experience of the individual so much so that he saw the crowd as the quintessential example of living unauthentically. Nevertheless, failing to see that he too could be influenced by the crowd, he embraced, to an alarming degree, the ideology of Germany’s Nazi party. He failed to see all the ways that the hammer was actually broken.

But, alas, the failure of people to see the mimetic nature of crowds and their tendency to fall in unthinkingly with the grove of the masses is as common today as it was back then. There will be millions of examples out there from every corner of the globe, every tribe, religion and language; but I thought I’d pick one out that suits the season of Lent (in the Christian calendar) that we are now in. It will probably a contentious example for many of my religious, evangelical Christian friends, but that is precisely what makes it a helpful example. Just a week or two ago, the author Rob Bell when discussing a book that he and his wife Kristen had written with Oprah Winfrey, claimed that he thinks that the Christian Church is moments away from embracing gay marriage.

The liberals must have cheered, but the conservatives cringed before proceeding to freak the hell out about Bell’s audacity and (so-called) heresy. Never before, by the way, has this kind of sexual politics been a matter of religious orthodoxy in this way. Anyway, I don’t know how it happened that I got there — I think someone posted a link on Facebook — but I visited the site of a particular Christian magazine and the labels that were thrown at Bell in the comments section were fairly astonishing. He was called a false prophet more times than I could count, as well as an apostate and even servant of Satan. The first thing that occurred to me was that Bell is in good company. The Jesus that Bell aligns himself with was criticised, among other things, for being a drunkard, blasphemer, friend of reprobates, and a prophet in league with the devil (Luke 5.21, 7.34, 11.15). 

Actually, Bell has gotten off rather lightly, I think, if you think of what Jesus went through. One of the great culprits in this massive upheaval is found in what can be called commonsense morality. What I mean is that all of us have a sense, based on where we come from, of what is obviously right. But that doesn’t mean we have good or even legitimate reason for thinking so (“The bible tells me so” is not a reason, by the way, just an appeal to an authority that happens also to be throughly complex and even confusing, as those who have actually read it will understand). Still, the main culprit is not what people think but how they interact, always caught in the vortex of mimetic desire.

I have no doubt that there are some responses to Bell worth looking at somewhere on the internet, but they were not to be found in that article or in the comments that followed. It was all just anger and fury, hellfire and brimstone. No one on that forum asked how Bell, as a guy with quite impressive theological training and who openly affirms the truth of every item on the Apostle’s creed, as well as many other aspects of orthodox Christianity, could arrive at a conclusion that challenges a norm that people hold as somehow sacred. No one stopped to wonder if same sex relationships are really as big a deal in the Christian bible as people are making it out to be (they’re not) or if the kind of same sex relationships written about in the bible are precisely what we have today (again, they’re really not, if you take historical context seriously). No one in the mob did their homework, because that’s not what mobs do. They just jumped in and hurled insults and hatred at a man who, to me at least, seems like a pretty decent guy; a guy who comes across as thoroughly kind and generous-spirited even when he is being attacked so viciously by people who call themselves Christians. The hammer just came down because a nail happened to be sticking out. And, of course, as it so often does, the hammer missed completely.

It missed something that is so fundamental that it’s actually surprising just how often it is overlooked: that the central and most important contribution of Christian theology to ethics in general in the world today is its stance against the mindless, angry mob. Christianity, if it is to be read through the teachings of the figure at the centre of its epistemology, must be understood as a critique of the hammer. As a corollary, it is also a defense of the nail that has found itself sticking out. Whenever Jesus is confronted with a mob, he resists the urge to join in their hammering, even when that means utterly contravening the laws that they believe in. Take, for instance, John 8, which describes a scene in which a bunch of people are about to execute a woman by stoning because she had been caught in adultery. What people tend to overlook is that there is no precedent in the entire Jewish law that would allow him to step out in the way that he did (see Deuteronomy 22.22 and Leviticus 20.10). As far as the law was concerned, forgiveness was only reserved for minor offenses, not major ones like adultery. But here Jesus quite brazenly broke the law. He effectively, actively, denounced some of what the bible agrees with. (See, I told you, “The bible tells me so” isn’t an argument; the bible is, quite deliberately so, not a monolithic text).

In the process of dealing with that mob in John 8, Jesus says something pretty impressive. He says, “The person who is without sin should be the one to cast the first stone”. Now, it looks on the surface to be a fairly simple thing to say, but it’s really ingenious. In essence, he forces each person present to step outside of their mob mimeticism and their hive-mind stoning mentality and examine themselves as individuals. And the result is: no one can cast the first stone. Because they all realize that they, too, are far from perfect. You see, in that culture, one sin was not worse than another. Every sin — Francis Spufford in his amazing book Unapologetic: Why Christianity Still Makes Emotional Sense defines sin so accurately and colourfully as the “Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up” — every sin was an indication of being disconnected from Goodness Itself, which was condemnation enough. In that moment that Jesus calls everyone to be present to themselves, they are forced to think of themselves outside the hammer of culture, as individual nails. And in that moment, there is peace. Mob violence is averted.

But the thing is, it wasn’t a peace that would last for the Prince of Peace. Because Jesus did this sort of extremely bold thing so often that he stuck out a little too much. Actually, he stuck out a lot. And the result, we know, was his crucifixion. The hammer wanted a few nails to hammer down, so it did this right through his wrists and feet after one of the most brutal torturing sessions recorded in history. If there is powerful and significant critique against mimetic violence (even in its verbal and symbolic forms), or any kind of mob aggression, like the kind that has ganged up against people like Rob Bell or the gay people he is defending, it is must be the crucifixion of Jesus. The story makes it obvious: an innocent man is put to death because he sticks out, not because he is wrong. In fact, again, his guilt or innocence on the crimes he is accused of have nothing to do with his execution. He is killed by a mob because he is on the side of the minority.

Jesus said some words that discredit pretty much every person who buys into the mob mentality that picks on one person in the name of the crowd. Jesus said that people will know who his disciples are by the way they love each other. He certainly didn’t say that they’ll know who his disciples are by their perfect adherence to heteronormativity. And, anyway, this is the same man who said that we should love our enemies; that is, we should love even those who don’t fit with our agenda. That sort of wisdom, to me, seems sorely needed today, especially by those who think that the point of believing in the Transcendent is to have some big Other (to borrow Lacan’s name for that false god who is really just a projection of human legalism) to support their own expanding egos. To me it seems that this season of Lent is about something else. It’s about the fact that the Transcendent is the absence of ego, the denial of self and even a surrender. It is a surrender that is expressed in simple actions like giving up chocolate or coffee or some digital addiction; the Divine affects, by definition, a glorious, loving, life-giving freedom from the lie of the crowd. But it does this by revealing the truth of our natural imitation of the desires of others. In other words, freedom from the crowd arrives only in the paradox of seeing that we are the hammer and those who disagree with us may be our next victim-nails. It is only when we discover how we have been complicit in the crowd, that we are free to genuinely love and care for those who have been shunned by the crowd.

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