A close relative who is not a Christian but is very politically blue, is baffled by my interest in post-modernism. He sees our current political climate as one where a sort of extreme post-modern fascist nexus controls our vertical and horizontal. This is, he says, exemplified by (as just one example) the blithe approach to reasons our government gave for invading Iraq. WMDs were, it was said over and over again, that reason. When they turned out not to be there, the administration simply ignored the fact, or started appealing to 9/11, which has no verifiable connection to Iraq or Saddam Hussein.
These examples offer a picture of how an extreme post modernism becomes politically dangerous; the story is all that matters, not the truth. There is, it seems, no truth but the one constructed and deconstructed/reconstructed at will, using our collective anxiety and apathy toward those we do not know as its basis.
Yet in reality, the post-moderns are invariably blue, despite my relative's complaints otherwise. Richard Rorty, for instance, roots his entire framework in the idea of identifying with the "strange" or Other via the common language of our human suffering. This is a cardinally liberal approach, not a conservative one.
It is also, I would argue, a quintessentially Christian approach. And I would hope that the many streams of post-modernism in its moderate forms that currently are flowing through the church would bring into being a politically informed love. That is, I would hope that "emergent" individuals and communities / churches would discover the most profound elements of post-modern thought, namely, that common thread between the suffering Christ and the suffering Other.
A year ago, I was asked to present a paper along these lines as a respondent to the thoughtful post-modern / emergent voice of Rick Richardson. (See his paper I was responding to here.) Truth is, I basically pulled a Trott and talked about what I wanted to talk about. Here is that paper in its entirety below, but I would end this introduction to it by saying that it may also give a reader more understanding why I lean so far blue rather than red.
Suffering and the Other
A Response to Rick Richardson’s “The Perceptions We Face”
Evangelism Round Table
April 22nd to 24th 2004
By Jon Trott
Forgive me, as my response to Rick’s excellent paper barely scratches the surface of much he offers there. What follows focuses mainly on just a few aspects of Rick’s analysis, adding in my own inner-city communalist slant.
Paul Robeson – African-American musician, scholar, and athlete – has long been a personal hero of mine. His renditions of black spirituals and folk songs haunt me. Like the mythical John Henry he sang about, he swung a mighty steel hammer against the mountainous rock of American racism. And, after decades of persecution by America’s government, like his John Henry, it was he and not the granite that broke. That stony metanarrative – or “Grand Story” – had to do with survival of the fittest and the upward journey of man. The white man, of course. Someone as beautiful, powerful, and gifted as Robeson had no choice but to hammer himself against that metanarrative and be destroyed by it. Who says that a story cannot kill?
Anyone willing to take a hammer to such stories is welcome in my book, and that includes the post-moderns. But of course one mustn’t swing so far the other direction as Richard Rorty, in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity seems to do. If Rorty’s correct, when I say “I know Jesus,” God is part of the irony-laced language game I’m involved in playing. We’re like the character in a recent movie who, when caught repeatedly smelling his own armpit, replies “It comforts me.” Is that all any honestly intellectual one of us can say about belief in Jesus? Why not admit what we privately know – that we’re making it up – and flush both God and all concepts of so-called “morality” (including social justice) down the metaphysical toilet? That is certainly an intellectual possibility. Yet I believe truly that Jesus is Truth, capital “T” and all. His Words are revealed in a book of books He’s given us. In what is a mystery, I met Him. He knows me and through His Spirit is in union with me. I am loved. That is my story, our story.
But what I also believe is that without the double-visioning that Rick Richardson (via Miroslav Volf) offers us, we continue to fail to see the Other. To cite Rorty on something along those same lines, human solidarity is “to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers.” That sounds noble, but is it possible? And for the Christian, there’s a whole second layer in this process. That is, Jesus identifies himself with that other. “As you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” [Matt 25:40 NRSV].
How do I imagine Jesus as the suffering other, seeing Him in that one and that one as Him? He is the Thing that is not that confounds the things that are. He is the disinherited one, not a handsome African-American intellectual like Robeson – who would be a star today – but the urine-soaked, coke-addicted homeless black woman of some gawd-awful age rattling on to herself about something not even she cares about. Jesus is, in short, to be avoided. That natural human tendency to avoid the unpleasant, the uncomfortable, and the so-called “abnormal” plays, I think, against any post modern project aimed at loving, or even tolerating, others. Without agape, which comes from God as a gift, after all, we cannot do this double-visioning thing.
In this talk of post-modernism I find myself puzzled, as we – myself included – are not the disinherited ones. We are well off. We have. We are somebody, not nobody, not like Him. So we can talk about modernism, post-modernism, existentialism (my favorite, actually), or even good old secular humanism. But how do we tell people about what we really know, what we say we know, anyway. How do we tell them about Jesus? And how do we tell them, who have nothing, when we have so much?
We can love our neighbor who lives in Africa while despising the homeless shelter and its residents next door. Our African neighbor suffers from AIDS, and I wonder how we’d do if she and her AIDS-infected children lived next door to us instead of half a world away, their skin-and-bones dying and smelling and crying going on not on TV but right outside our doors? I wonder if too many moderns and post-moderns are just sentimentalists, that is, feeling good about being both clever (that is, ironic) and socially aware simultaneously? For myself, who suffers often from the temptation to believe in nothing (the very ironic view that Rorty urges me to adopt), I can’t imagine trying to harmonize “love” and relativism. I believe despite being a doubting Thomas because I see Jesus in those around me.
Another wonderment: are we evangelicals really interested in the radical (and in my opinion, often accurate) attack post-modern thinking makes on our status quo? Rick’s paper touches quite effectively on the unholy alliance between this nation’s power structures and the evangelical Christian community. I recently viewed a video – allegedly about post-modern “emerging” churches – put together by one of Protestantism’s largest denominations. That same denomination has made giant strides backward in its approach to gender equality and inclusion; what are we to conclude? It appeared to me more an attempt to co-opt that movement much as software giant Microsoft has used the so-called “embrace and extend” technology model to co-opt open source programming so that same programming runs only on Microsoft Windows based computers. Using language to further private agendas rather than disinterested agape love is, alas, the rule rather than the exception amongst us all.
But back to imagining. What does Jesus look like? That’s the question. Rick is right, I believe, to suggest that we’re to leave our world, enter the other’s world, and take them into our inner world. But what, not just conceptually but in the three-dimensional daily warp and woof of things, will happen then?
I enter the world of another, which sounds romantic. But what if that world reveals my own luck, my own good fortune in the face of their woundedness and terror and pain and rage and broken sorrow? Now what? And what if it reveals my own brokenness? A bunch of us in Chicago have been trying to do this, with varying success, for the past thirty two years. And as fellow communard, Catholic servant of the poor Jean Vanier, once laughingly asked us, “Community… isn’t it terrible!?” Community, this thing that post modern believers talk a lot about, is I assure you going to be where one meets pain in others and unburies the hidden pain and woundedness of one’s self. I hope the emerging church is serious about living such lives, not using any prefab blueprint but certainly depending upon their Lord to work in them and through them to transform the surrounding world.
The Other – Jesus – is not only disreputable and disquieting. He’s a clown. He won’t take me seriously. Me and all my questions, me and all my wants. He has his own questions. Like he asked poor, wonderful, soaked Peter on that long-ago lake shore: “Do you love me?” Three times he asked it. Poor, poor Peter. Jesus, the confuser, the de-centering center indeed, the perplexer of people preoccupied with themselves! This holy clown is the true eternal self who always dances but never changes from being what He has always been – Love.
And so, dragged by this relentless God off center, out of myself, I enter into another’s world because, like Peter, Jesus asks me to feed his sheep. And Jesus warns Peter then that he will suffer, even die, because he loves Jesus enough to obey and feed His sheep. Yes, it is a terrible thing to enter another’s world—the great first reason evangelical white folk don’t like this post-modern talk—but I’m now vulnerable to the edges and pain another carries. Will I allow this? Will I then respond to this? If I do, I haltingly begin to look a little like Jesus, and maybe even draw others to him. And I begin to suffer.