Is there a right way? critiquing those who critique the masada myth

More and more Christians seem to have turned towards taking the Sermon on the Mount to heart, with its plea to turn the other cheek. Yet at the same time, the (especially white) Christian turn towards the call to nonviolence of Jesus tends to promote a blanket condemnation of physical violence. Sarah Moon, for instance, has noted how nonviolence in (often white evangelical) Christian circles is a position of relative privilege. Because many of us do not face physical violence daily, it is disingenuous to police others who do face subjective (physical) and objective (ideological and symbolic) forms of violence routinely. It is not to say that I am anti-pacifist, but rather, that Christian pacifists can lose sight of other forms of violence in their blanket condemnation of physical violence. One must take into account other forms of violence that complicate the simplistic view violence is only about physical retaliation (or even whether physical forms of might be triggered through ideological or systemic violence). The support of nonviolence goes so far as to promote certain visions of the historical past, namely, Jean Vanier sees the Jesus myth as superior to the myth of Masada. Daniel Boyarin does something similar concerning rabbinic Judaism. Thus, we have three myths: the Jesus myth, the Masada myth, and the Yavne myth. Each functions as a particular response to Roman imperial hegemony. Yet, in their insistence that either the Jesus myth or Yavne myth is superior to the Masada myth, Boyarin and Vanier miss the mark concerning the violence of imperialism.

The Yavne myth recollected in Bavli Gittin 56a-b is juxtaposed against the Jewish nationalists, where Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai and his nephew (“the Father of Lies”) argue about how long the Jewish nationalists will allow Jerusalem to be shut up during siege. The idea that Jewish nationalists fought heroically against outsiders (Rome), and committed suicide rather than submitting to Roman imperial hegemony is critiqued in the Yavne myth. In trying to appease the Romans, Rabbi Yoḥanan correctly predicts that Vespasian will become the emperor of Rome. After a conversation between Rabbi Yoḥanan Vespasian, a messenger comes to tell Vespasian that the emperor has died. Because Rabbi Yoḥanan correctly predicts this, and is granted a wish, which he replies, “Give be Yavne and its sages, and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, and doctors to cure Rabbi Ẓadoq [who had been fasting in order to save Jerusalem].”

Boyarin is correct that the Yavne myth promotes a different image of Judaism than that of the Sicarii because it a) proposes abandoning Jerusalem altogether (the seat of both political and cultic power); b) Judaism’s (at least rabbinic) de-emphasis of territoriality altogether. Rabbinic Judaism advances a kind of cosmopolitanism in light of Roman imperialism. As Boyarin notes,

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s story makes nearly explicit allusion to Josephus, since according the the latter, it was he who announced to Vespasian that he had become emperor. This helps to establish an intertextual connection between the texts and promotes contrast of their values. The Babylonian Talmud’s Rabbi Yoḥanan prefers life and the possibility to serve God through the study of Torah over everything else. He is willing to abase himself, pretend to be dead—a virtual parody of the Masada suicide?—make peace with the Romans over/against the Jewish zealots, even to sacrifice Jerusalem, in order that [rabbinic] Jewish life and Torah might continue (Boyarin 2002, 52; Italics for emphasis).

While the Jewish nationalists responded to Roman imperial hegemony through physical violence, the Rabbis were willing to appease Roman imperial hegemony in order to promote the survival of their culture. Again, the Yavne myth itself suggests a critique of the Masada myth.

Although Vanier does not use the terminology of the “Masada myth,” he proposes that Jesus’ statement regarding violence is superior to that of the violence against Rome espoused by the Sicarii. In Becoming Human, Vanier juxtaposes Jewish nationalists over against the ideals of the Jesus Movement. Vanier implies that Jewish nationalists would have been considered terrorists by Rome:

For many centuries the Jewish people had been overrun by foreign powers: first by the Babylonians [sic], then by the Persians, later by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. The Jewish people, naturally, hated this foreign domination. Crushed in their dignity and freedom, they sought liberation, often through violent means. “Freedom fighters” might be the term the Jewish people would have used to describe those who recorded to violence. The Romans, of course, would have considered them terrorists (Vanier 1998, 146; italics for emphasis).

Although Vanier appears not to make a value judgment on the Jewish nationalists, I believe the statement, “The Romans, of course, would have considered them [Jewish nationalists] terrorists” indicative. Moreover, Vanier positively evaluates the ideals of the Jesus Movement (“turn the other cheek” [Matt 5:43-44; Luke 6:27-8]) against the tactics of the Jewish nationalists. As Vanier later explicates, only non-violence can break the chain of violence (ibid; 147-8). Like Boyarin, Vanier evaluates his own religious traditions positively against the Masada myth. However, both authors ignore that all three myths (the foundation of the Jesus Movement, the Masada myth, and the Yavne myth) are responses to Roman imperial hegemony. This leads me to the question in the title of the blog post, “is there a right way?” More specifically, “is there a right response to imperialism?” This leads me to other questions as well, namely, why focus only on subjective violence?

In Violence, Slavoj Žižek notes two other forms of violence, ideological violence and systemic violence. Ideological violence is the violence perpetuated by “racism, incitement, or sexual discrimination” (Žižek 2008, 10). Systemic violence, for Žižek, is the kind of violence played out under capitalism itself, it is a violence that can be no longer attributed to individuals themselves because it involves the kinds categorization that makes certain forms of life more livable than others. As Žižek later states, systemic violence is the kind that “involves the ‘automatic’ creation of excluded and dispensable individuals from the homeless to the unemployed, to the ‘ultra-subjective’ violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in short racist, ‘fundamentalisms'” (ibid., 14). Here perhaps one should replace capitalism with Roman imperial hegemony, but the notion of a kind of symbolic violence, to allude to Bourdieu, which cannot be attributed to individuals.

For instance, rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus Movement contain their own forms of violence. Rabbinic Judaism is exclusionary, particularly the exclusion of women from public forms of religiosity and participation in shaping rabbinic discourse. “Turn the other cheek” might seem immediately pacifist, but this framing of the Jesus Movement as non-violent ignores the early Jesus Movement had an ideology of eschatological violence: violence is simply deferred to a future time and enacted by God (Interestingly Žižek treats this over against “eye for an eye,” where Žižek argues that “turn the other cheek” can lead to resentment and desire for revenge leads to other modes of oppression [ibid., 190]). Because both privilege a critique of subjective violence, Boyarin and Vanier romanticize the movements that they privilege.

More importantly, Boyarin and Vanier, indicated in their ignoring the violence of Roman imperial hegemony, ignore the multiple layers of violence. Not only is there a privilege in choosing one response to imperialism as a better one, but also it ignores that the violence of Jewish nationalists pales in comparison to that of imperial Rome. This is not to say I side with Bar Kosiba and those who committed suicide at Masada. Yet, it is worth questioning, “is there a right response to imperialism?” Doesn’t this very question already obscure the violence of Roman imperial hegemony? It might be the case that the Sicarii drew upon Roman manifestations of power to critique Rome (i.e. suicide as a form of honor), as Boyarin notes. The Sicarii might have also been thugs, slaughtering those living in Ein Gedi, for instance. Nevertheless, it seems more apt to critique the violence of Roman imperial hegemony. After all, the Sicarii exist as a response to the imperial powers that be. This is neither to side with the Sicarii, nor to say that one cannot agree with Boyarin and Vanier. Rather, it is to focus more specifically the (subjective and objective) violence of imperial power. In such a way, historiographically, I want to align myself much more with Sarah’s discussion of privileged pacifism, and suggest that this privilege can frame the way that we view the past.


Fischer, Native Americans, and the “Moral Disqualification from Native Soil.”

Two days ago, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association (AFA) defended the European conquest of American soil by arguing that Native peoples were morally disqualified from sovereignty over American soil due to their refusal to assimilate into Christian culture. Fischer’s post was rightly criticized both within his organization and outside of it, leading to the deletion of the post. However, there is still a webcatched version of the blog post and who knows how long it will exist (for those of use who know about screen capture, the post will live on as jpgs on our laptops).

Fischer knows that his comments will create a firestorm from the Left and that our complaints will not advance “thoughtful reflection.”

It is baffling that anyone would claim that the Native peoples’ loss of land was due to their refusal to convert from indigenous religious practices to Christianity. Moreover, Fischer argues that while many or most have become Christian, that there are still indigenous rites practiced therefore negating many Native Christianities as legitimate (ignoring the dichotomy between religion and culture is a Western phenomena, a distinction that many ethnic and cultural groups do not make). Then again, I am hardly surprised that someone from the theocratic Right would be making such a claim. At the very least, there are those who are part of the AFA who are distancing themselves from Fischer, such as Elijah Friedman.

Many  people have already responded, such as Daniel Schultz from Religion Dispatches.  There are two points of this that I would like to discuss: the ethical framework and the consequence of believe America to be a Christian nation, at least how it is discussed in the public sphere.

First, Fischer’s ethical framework is worth discussion. From what I have gathered from his various writings, one can deduce such a framework, even if it is implicit. Fischer’s framework is roughly such: A Christian is prohibited from killing non-Christians (even though his definition of Christian is highly contentious considering he envisions Christians and homosexuals, for instance). However, the non-Christian is nevertheless immoral. As such, if the “non-Christian” is killed by a bigot, their place as immoral person legitimized their murder. In other words, they had it coming and deserve any immoral action that comes to them.

Perhaps here we need to rely on the distinction (à la Butler, Laclau, and Levinas) between the ethical, which is contentious and morals, which enforce already normative stances in society. Fischer is less concerned with ethics and more concerned with morals because Fischer is advocating for the reinforcement of normative stances and not ones that problematize a collective ethos. Of course, I think Fischer’s ethical/moral framework falls on multiple grounds. For instance Fischer’s own Biblical-moral framework advocates the immorality of ‘pagans’ and sexual minorities but at the same time advocates that lying, stealing, and murder are also immoral.

What Fischer’s logic infers is that only the (Fischerian definition of) Christian constitutes a fully human person. That supposedly immoral persons are culturally unintelligible, to use a Butlerian term and therefore, as such, they are only semi-human. A (supposedly) non-Christian death is less problematic than a Christian one.

This leads me to my discussion of Christian hegemony in the United States. I think it’s important that we begin to move away from arguing that either the United States was a Christian nation or was a secular nation. My contention with this sort of argument is that it is clear that both Catholics and Jews, for instance, have had a difficulty living in the United States. At the same time, neither the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution specify Protestant Christianity as privileged.

What we need to begin to do is start adding culture into the mix and argue that culturally, Protestant Christianity was and still is a hegemonic force in American society. Moreover, this requires that we scrap the idea that a religion is based purely on what ideals it espouses.

Christians killed native peoples and we have to accept that they did so on the premise that Fischer provides. To be sure, I do not think that Fischer’s argument is a legitimate argument in defense of what Christians did. Killing, stealing and lying are prohibited in both the Torah and the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the rules that are articulated and how those rules are actualized as a practice. I might argue that Fischer’s notion of what constitutes Christian behavior is antithetical to my interpretation of Halakha, but neither interpretation should be less privileged than the other, in the sense that Fischer’s is not Christian and mine is.

I hesitate to make this distinction primarily because I think we have instances, such as Pope Benedict’s rhetoric, who argues that Nazi Germany was atheistic and pagan. In my mind, the issue with such a logic is that given the history of Nazi Germany and the records that we have, most Germans during the Third Reich, considered themselves Christian and attendance of Christian churches rose between the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.

This is not to say that Christianity should be abandoned. Nevertheless, the people who committed atrocities in Germany were Christian. They didn’t cease to be Christian once they committed those atrocities, thus, it is our obligation to understand how they interpreted Christianity and offer a better definition.

That’s why I also think a notion of Christian cultural hegemony is important. Obviously Christians committed atrocities in the United States (and many Jews owned slaves, as well). However, there were also Christians who were abolitionists, suffragists, fought for worker’s rights, and fought against Jim Crow. What I mean to say is that religion, as a cultural force can act as both an ethical force and a moral force. In Fischer’s reading of United States History, Christianity might have been a moral force (enforcing social norms) but not an ethical one.

Perhaps at this point, my post is getting too gummed up and becoming incoherent. I’ll stop here and hope that perhaps I can clarify more, my position.

Adorno on Morals; Violence

Two elements seem especially relevant in today’s political culture: the willingness of some voices in the political sphere to engage in the emotional hyperbole and hatred that were the stock-in-trade of these German critics; and the extremist language surrounding the rejection of “liberalism” that is to be found in the airwaves today.  Today too we are confronted with a virulent rejection of many aspects of a “liberal” world, and an apparent yearning for an earlier (mythical) time when there was one defining moral-religious framework to which all of society subscribed.

via Understanding Society

This is why Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy is very important:

nothing is is more degenerate than the kind of ethics or morality that survives in the shape of collective ideas eve after the World Spirit has ceased to inhabit them—to use the Hegelian expression as a kind of shorthand. Once the state of human consciousness and the state of social forces of production have abandoned these collective ideas, these ideas require repressive and violent qualities (PMP, 17).

That is once our society has moves beyond past ideals, those ideals become repressive once those adhere to them attempt to force those ideals onto society. In particular, I am thinking of organizations such as National Organization for Marriage or Family Research Council.