Ideology and Power


After the school of the theology’s town hall meeting, I am thinking a lot about how our ideals can be used in a process of domination. The particular instance was quoting Matthew on reconciliation, namely that you should reconcile with someone in which you have a conflict before you go before a judge (Matt 5.23b-26). This particular instance is something I have been reflecting on for a few days now, specifically. However, I have been interested in how discourse is used for quite some time.

On the surface level, we can say that the quote was being alluded to in order to discipline: our community has these standards, so we should live by them. It is likely that this is the case and I am saying this because I do think that when most people speak, they do so less out of malice and more so out of concern. However, one can also argue that the quote is asserting the power of the person making allusion over the person in question. In other words, scripture is cited in disagreement not in order to discipline but in order to shame in a way that promotes the authority of one person over another.

Now, there are several forms of power at play when we read and attempt to embody a Biblical text. On one level, this text is authoritative because it’s supposed to have been written by Matthew Levi, who was a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, as such the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to be the very words of Jesus of Nazareth, who the community believes is the messiah (or in Matthew’s case, the revived Moses coming to clarify the Torah). In other words, before we assign any meaning to the text, we have to give said text authority (and therefore power) in some way shape or form. Matthew’s discourse, although I am fully cognizant of the fact that Matthew Levi did not write the Gospel, is also subverting power in some way because in the 1st century Levant, there were a plurality of competing discourses. Matthew’s discourse is working both within and against Jewish traditions. When discourse is given power, meaning comes afterwards. Or to use Stanley Hauerwas’ thinking, one has to be a part of a Christian community, the Church, and be disciplined in that community before one can understand the Bible. In other words, you have accept Jesus as Messiah before you can assign meaning to the Gospel.

To use my own tradition, I have to accept Halakha as authoritative, in some way, before I can assign meaning to it. Meaning, in my mind, is always secondary to power. Accepting something as disciplinary works in a series of complex ways. For instance, I like ritual a lot, which is what draws me to Halakhic observance. That preference for aesthetics is something that was engrained in me by my parents: not the ritual itself, but the preference for the aesthetic. I transfered the aesthetic to a cultural sphere, namely, Judaism. The point that I am trying to make is that while we live in a fairly individualistic society (although, I would argue that this is more complex than most people think), we are shaped by the institutions in which we are raised.

This digression is to say that persons A and B are part of a community that shares values and discourses (either the school of theology, or the United Methodist Church, or the Church as a universal body), which discipline them. Both persons accept Matthew’s discourse as a legitimate discourse to guide the community. By giving it power, both are willing to assign it as meaningful. Nevertheless, discourse can also be abused, or to use Chomskian terminology, power can be coercive. I think this is where we can, in fact, say that knowledge is power. When person A asserts discourse over person B, they are not simply asserting the knowledge of discourse over them, they are asserting power over person B: to have knowledge is power and to have power is to have knowledge. In this way, knowledge is abused in order to assert the authority of one person over the other.

In fact, this leads me to a larger point of why I am hesitant to use Scripture in debate or dialogue. This hesitancy does come from my concrete experiences as homosexual in a largely Christian culture. Biblical verses cited to condemn homosexuality are not done so simply to discipline, but to express ideological violence against the homosexual person. We must have power over the homosexuals within our various communities of meaning. A large part of scripture citation and homophobia is as a performance. It masks the homosexual desires repressed within heterosexuals. Proof of this is everywhere in our culture: Eddie Long, Ted Haggard, George Allen Rekers.

I guess what I wonder is if this is used in other cases when we talk about scripture? Does person A cite scripture in order to disavow responsibility, or rather, to hide their discontentment with the ideas of person B? I am not quite sure. I think this would be something to analyze more in depth, however. Or at the very least, in what ways are scripture cite in order to silence, rather than as a framework for conversation?


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