Humanism of Confucius and Jesus

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Confucius and Jesus: Humanism Took Different Pathways in Chinese and Western History
By You-Sheng Li

 

(for the book titled A Nevw Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy)

 

Chinese government first named Confucianism as its official ideology in the second century BC. Since then Confucianism remained as the mainstream culture to shape society and the way of life for more than two thousand years until the early twenty century when the first republic of China was founded. As the influence of Western culture entered China and it was followed by the subsequent revolutions, the fading out of Confucianism in the Chinese life occurred in a relatively short time between 1840 and 1919. The Roman Emperor Theodoisius made Christianity, based on Jesus’ teaching, the official religion in the late fourth century, and since then Christianity remained the dominant ideology to shape society and the way of life in Europe for more than a thousand years until recently. The fading out of Christianity as the main ideology in the Western society was a gradual process. The underlying reason was the social movement of secularization started by the Renaissance.

If we see a culture and its people as a man, the two giant men firmly stood, one in China and the other in Europe, for thousand years, unmoved by the strong winds of various cultures and ideologies. Their brains were nothing but the teachings of two real men, Confucius and Jesus. Their successes were due to the humanist soul in their teachings, which represent the peak humanism ever reached during ancient time. It is most interesting and revealing to compare the two men, their ideas, and their influence on subsequent history.

 

1. Definition of Humanism and its History in China and the West

Humanism is the tendency to emphasize man and his status, importance, achievements, and interests. The definition of humanism varies within a broad category of ethical philosophies that support the dignity and worth of all people. Furthermore, humansim can be a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems and is incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth, morality, social justice, and an ideal society through human means.

It is worth noting that humanism here is not in the narrow meaning in contrast to faith in supernatural being, and that humanism in relative terms includes any ideology that directs towards the improvement of human conditions, physically or spiritually. For example, human sacrifice was considered to be running against humanism, but its complete disappearance in China was only witnessed about a hundred years ago. Confucius was so opposed to human sacrifice that he even cursed those who started to use artificial figures to replace real men, as Confucius thought, the dignity of man was buried with those figures that looked so real. Such an idea of Confucius falls in the broad category of humanism as it contributed to the disappearance of human sacrifice in China. For similar considerations, Jesus’ teachings and Christianity fall in too, though it is not a popular topic to write about Jesus’ humanist contribution.

 

Early Greek people began their thought by studying nature, and those are called the natural philosophers. Since Socrates and other sophists, attention was shifted to social, political, and moral issues. This shift is regarded as the beginning of Western humanism. The next important time in humanist history was when Stoicism appeared as a school of thought. Seneca’s (2 BC- 65 AD) aphorism, “To man, a man is sacred”, remains as a powerful slogan for humanists today.

In spite of the remarkable development of human thought along the line of humanism, the Roman Empire was still built on slavery. Millions of slaves lived inhumane lives. It was the emergence of Christianity and the collapse of the Roman Empire brought an end to the slavery system, and many thought that Christianity contributed to the Roman collapse. Christian teachings reached the bottom of the social stratification, and warmed their hearts when they say that God loves every man on earth. Christian bishops fulminated against the entertainments of the theater and amphitheater, and the baths. The baths were thought to be responsible for sexual depravity. Christian aristocrats gradually redirected their funding money to churches, which were constructed in great numbers in the 400s and 500s. They also funded hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged, which was for the first time in Roman history.

For a thousand years or so, Christianity remained as the mainstream culture to unite Europe and keep the social order. The Renaissance was a much broader social campaign to stress the value of mankind and the value of a man in front of society and or in front of nature. The Renaissance however denoted a move away from God to man as the centre of interest. The Renaissance encouraged on the ability of man to find about the universe through his own efforts, and more and more to control it. The official separation of governments and religion gradually led the way that Christianity is no longer relevant in many aspects in our society and in our life.

 

Chinese Humanism developed along a quite different historic pathway. Lao Tzu, Confucius, and other early Chinese thinkers all took the ancient society as the ideal model. Chinese records painted a clear picture of those peaceful yet humanist society. Here I called it the natural humanism in contrast to the later developments of humanism that is one of many creations by man. The natural humanism was a product of the human heart and human nature. As a result, Chinese humanist thought appeared in a much earlier stage of civilization than in the West. Chinese scholars think there was shift of attention from gods, ghosts, and other spiritual beings to man in the early years of the Chou dynasty (1122-256 BC), a few hundred years before any philosophical thinkers were born. Such a shift was due to the careful thinking over why their new dynasty was able to replace the old one, and they concluded that human hearts were behind the change of dynasty. As discussed in Chapter 15.3, the social structure during that time allowed all people to live in primary or quasi-primary society, and human nature remained as the major force to keep the society stable. Such a shift was directed both by observation and by human nature. Rational thinking was present in primary society but was not able to set up a leading ideology other than human nature.

This shift from gods to man covered such changes in ancient China: The impersonal sky or heaven replaced the original personal God (shangdi) as the new super god; divination used eight trigrams to replace oracle bones; a whole set of rituals tuned with music was used to buttress the social ranking system, and make it less inhumane. Humanism as a social movement affecting all levels of the society appeared only during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-222 BC), and with Confucius as its leader. Both Confucius and Jesus were criticized in modern history, but such criticism cannot erase their tremendous contribution in the humanist history.

 

  1. The Fundamental Difference Between Confucius and Jesus: Jesus was More Like Mo Tzu

 

The following, though brief, is enough to show the fundamental difference between Confucianism and Christianity :

 

1). Confucianism relied on the government, but Christianity started as a movement against the governmental authority;

2). Confucius and his followers kept a distance from gods and spirits, but Jesus and his followers relied heavily on miracles and mysterious phenomena to preach;

3). Confucius held that gentlemen should not form parties and should not compete with each other, but Jesus painted his group as a unique one by criticizing others, and struggled to get a larger social space for his Christianity;

4). Christianity had strict organization, going out to preach, but Confucianism remained at the level of academic thought and self-cultivation.

 

Confucius was from a family of the low level of the ruling class, equal to the intellectuals or scholars who worked in the government in later times. Jesus’ father was a carpenter, and Jesus himself also used to work as a carpenter. Confucius said, “The inferior men were not afraid of heaven as they do not know the decree of heaven; they also take great men lightly, and laugh at the words of the sages.” (Analects 16.8) Jesus was exactly such an inferior man who did not obey the local authority and laughed at their words. Jesus preached his religion, but he was not an official religious staff who was entitled to preach. This eventually led to Jesus’ execution. Thus Jesus was a rebel under the name of God. Christianity was oppressed by the official religious organization, Judaism, and by the government so that they left their country to preach abroad. Since Jesus’ followers were all law-abiding, they were not noticed by the Roman Government for years. But they were still not tolerated by the government, and large numbers of Christians were executed.

Confucius preached his ideology of benevolence and righteousness that was based on loving people, but he did not go to the bottom level of the society to be friends with them. Those uneducated people lacked the rational thinking and believed in miracles and mysterious phenomena. Educated people or people of the ruling class did not care much about those people except for exploiting them. They were particularly vulnerable to Jesus’ preaching.

The Chinese ruling class had long got rid of irrational thinking of miracles and mysterious phenomena from the early years of the Chou dynasty and adapted a rational thinking to manage the national affairs. But this was only limited to the ruling class and educated people. The massive peasants in the rural areas were still in the grip of irrational thinking.

Irrational thinking was partially due to lack of knowledge, but it was based on the intuition. Our born way of thinking is not rational, which is supported by our daydreams and dreams at night. In the primitive primary society, rational thinking was possible only at times such as when they faced a task to be done. Systemic rational thinking on a large scale is part of our civilized culture.

Jesus’ time was after the Axial Age, and without any doubt, the Roman authority in Israel adapted to rational thinking for their administration. According to the New Testament, Jesus’ preaching was full of miracles and mysterious phenomena. Such stories spread rapidly in the people of low classes but raised the suspicion from the authority. Contrary to Jesus, Confucius distanced himself from the low classes and also from miracles and mysterious phenomena. He promoted such attitudes towards gods and spirits: Be respectful to Gods and spirits but keep a distance from them. Confucius had the principle of Four No-Comments in his teaching and counseling practice: He never talked about parapsychology, psychic power, mental distance, and ghosts. More than two thousand years later today, the attitudes towards religion, gods and ghosts are largely the same in the circle of Chinese intellectuals, who can be called the loyal followers of Confucius.

Confucius said, “Gentlemen have nothing to compete for. If they have to, they do it like in an archery match, where they ascend to their positions, bowing in deference toward other people who take part in the match. When done, they descend, and drink the ritual cup. This is the competition of gentlemen.” Thus Confucians do not form any parties and do not usually compete. In the modern Western politics, clerks and other staff in the government offices are often discouraged to join the competitive parties in the parliament system. Most of Confucius’ followers did take positions similar to today’s clerks and other minor officials during Confucius’ time.

 

From the very beginning, Jesus competed vigorously with the local authority for support of the people. It was well justified for the official religious staff to interpret the contemporary version of the Bible in certain way in order to keep the society stable. Jesus ridiculed their interpretation of the Bible, and preached his own belief. Acting as the representative of God on earth, he sent his love to every body he met. In doing so, I believe, Jesus challenged the authority of the local government, and on behalf of the poor people, he was in a rebellious position against the rich classes. But this rebellion was not one of violence but one of honesty, will, and commitment to social justice and love. Once Jesus suggested to a rich man that he sell his belongings and give to the poor, and doing so, he would have treasure kept in heaven. When the rich man was reluctant to do so, Jesus said to his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) The early Christians were such well organized groups that they formed more than egalitarian society but literally communist society. Such teachings and organizations had a great appeal to the people of low classes especially when the economy was poorly developed and people lived on meager supplies. It is no wonder why Christianity met such a rapid success in Europe.

Christianity followed Judaism as a monotheist religion. Judaism kept saying that their God was the only God, all other gods were only idols. Such statement kept Israel people from being attracted by gods from the neighbouring cultures. When Christians preached within the Roman Empire, it had the effects to discriminate against other religions and their gods. Romans were typically polytheist believers, and they worshiped any gods which happened to have worked to them, namely, materialized their wishes such as curing an illness. Therefore, there was no another god who was claimed as the only god except for the Christian God. Christian monotheist explanation of God was more philosophical, though the bible describes God only as one god among many others. No competition with Christian monotheist theory was another reason for its rapid success.

Among the various schools of thought in ancient China, only the Mohism was most close to Jesus and his teachings. Mo Tzu (476-390 BC) was also from a handcraft family, and may be a carpenter himself. Mohism represented the voice of the people of low classes. Both Confucianism and Mohism were most popular during the Warring States Period (475-222 BC). Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals says, Mo Tzu had “massive followers, abundant disciples, filling up all areas under heaven.” Like the early Christianity, Mohism had strict organization. Their members were well disciplined, dedicated, frugal, and hard working, so brave that “they all could jump into fire and run on edges of swords and would not look back for a moment until death” (Huainan Tzu: Chapter 20). Once one of their leaders committed suicide for faith, and 183 disciples killed themselves to be buried with him. It is beyond doubt that if there had been a good leadership, they would have been a ever-victorious and unbreakable force in all social conflicts.

Mo Tzu said, “If all people in the world love each other, states do not attack on each other, families do not interfere with each other, no robbers and no thieves, kings and fathers are kind to their court officials and sons while court officials and sons are filial to their kings and fathers, if so, the whole world will be orderly.” Thus Mohists promoted universal love more than two thousand years ago in China. It carries the same message as Jesus’s call for loving your enemies. If Mohism had been put into serious practice, Chinese history would have been different. Mohists would have been able to form a religious organization similar to Christianity functioning as an internal restricting power to the centralized government, and this power like the early Christianity was unbreakable. Since the first centralized government appeared in the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC), only the emperor had the space for free thinking, what the people wished could only be a peace for them to live their lives without interruption, it was no longer possible to harbour the rapid pace of social changes of the Spring Autumn and Warring States Period (770-221 BC).

 

3. From Confucianism and Christianity to the Chinese and Western Pathways of Humanism

 

In contrast to Jesus’ Christianity, Confucius fitted his Confucianism into the established frame of “king is a king, minister is a minister, father is a father, and son is a son”(Analects, 12.11), and then set up the standards for the spiritual characters and morals of Confucian scholars. Thus Confucian humanism could only be put into practice inside the established frame of social order. Unfortunately, there was apparently not always an easily operable mechanism to push forward humanist policy within the established frame of order in Chinese history. In the Book of Rites, Confucius says,

 

Use rituals to decide it is right or wrong, use rituals to determine whether a man was sincere or not, use rituals to point out the mistakes, use rituals to set up good examples of benevolence and morals, use rituals to show the benefits of being modesty and conciliatory, use rituals to show the regulations the people have to follow. If someone does not follow the rituals and regulations, he has to give up his position as a ruler, since people regard him as the cause of disaster. This is called the moderate means.

 

Here Confucius makes it clear that a ruler has to behave like a ruler, and follow the rituals and regulations. The ideology behind those rituals and regulations is Confucianism or humanism, since there are such words: sincere, benevolence, modesty and conciliatory and so on. As how to have the ruler who runs against Confucian humanist policy removed from his position, there is no easily operable mechanism. From the last sentence “he has to give up his position as a ruler, since people regard him as the cause of disaster”, it is clear that Confucius gave this important yet difficult task to heaven and to the people who did not have their representatives inside the government. If Confucius did not want massive peasant uprisings to serve as a checking system to make sure that the ruler carry on the Confucian humanist policy, those are only beautiful yet hollow words. Contrary to Confucianism, Jesus’ Christianity combined Confucius’ heaven (God) and people to form an unbreakable social force as an internal restricting mechanism to make sure that the government was on the right track of humanism.

Meng Tzu (372-289 BC), a famous Confucian scholar only second to Confucius, developed Confucius’ idea further, and proposed some practical measures in a sequence. What could be done when a ruler refused repeatedly the right advice of humanism by a Confucian minister? Meng Tzu said: 1). The minister had the option to leave; 2). The ruler could be replaced by another one through the ruler’s clan. In cooperation of the royal clan, ministers did sometimes change the emperor in the subsequent history. This first measure in line certainly helped to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy. Such changes of rulers were often violent but usually on small scale in Chinese history.

Meng Tzu further confirmed the actions of vassal states that overthrew the national ruler when the latter departed from the right track of humanist policy in early Chinese history. Thus when a national ruler departed from humanist policy and his court and clan failed to replace him by another one, a local state could replace the unfitted ruler by means of revolution or usurpation. This is the second measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy. Reminded by this theory of Meng Tzu, Chinese emperors took preemptive action to demolish all vassal states during the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC -220 AD) and dismiss all local military governors in the Song dynasty (960-1279). Thus no more local military powers to compete with the central government even when the latter was weakened by its departure from humanist policy.

Meng Tzu did not mention the third measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy. Confucius and Meng Tzu could not be blamed for the negative effects of the third measure directly, but they were partially responsible. Confucianism did not design an operable mechanism to restrict the emperor’s power. As result, the emperor’s power was expanded so that the second measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy by usurpation of local military powers was eliminated completely by the emperor from the root. In Chinese history there were plenty of loyal ministers gave up their lives to admonish the emperor. Those ministers were like Christians who gave up their lives for their faith. I think the above quotation from Confucius has the connotation that massive peasant uprisings were the third measure in line to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy.

It was not an easy job for an ordinary peasant to run a county or a province. How could he all of sudden come to run a huge country? This means that it was harder than climbing up the blue sky. This may stop some peasants from trying to rebel. Confucians were often lacking the wish to go to the bottom of the society like Mohists and Christians did. In Chinese history, peasants were often stranded in situations where they were going to die whether they rebelled or not. In most of such cases, the peasants accepted their fate, uttering no sound. But quite a few chose to up-rise against their fate. Chinese peasant uprisings were so often, so massive on scale, like the waves in the Yangtze river one after another. This is the negative effects of less-well-designed Confucian humanism. Another presentation of the same negative effects is the impression on Western historians who study Chinese history: Magnificent imperial culture was well in contrast to the primitive poverty of millions of peasants. One of the protagonists in the classic novel The Scholars raises a proposal to restrict the number of wives one could take in order to improve the situation that too many single men were in the countryside. People say, there were three thousand beautiful women in the palaces surrounding one man the emperor. If the Confucian ministers had had the spirit of rebellion of Christians and Mohists, and had led those women to the countryside to marry those single men, it must have been the unique tale of humanism in Chinese history on everyone’s lips.

Massive uprisings of peasants did climb up the blue sky by bare hands. There were two dynasties that were founded by the commoners in Chinese history, and their dynasties were stamped with the brand of Chinese peasants. These are the Han (206 BC-220 AD) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. In many aspects, they are worse than the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties that were founded by bureaucrats. After all military power was in the hands of the emperor after the Song dynasty, the only power source to overthrow the emperor and its court when they were weakened by departure from humanist policy was either from peasant uprising or foreign invaders, which was exactly what happened in the subsequent history. It is impossible to determine whether Confucius and Meng Tzu considered the foreign powers next door as part of their third measurement to keep the country and its administration on the right track of humanist policy, though foreign invaders did indeed enter in Chinese politics along peasant uprising as part of the third measurement. That is the Yuan(1272-1368) and Qing(1644-1911) dynasties, which had the cruel blood shedding of foreign invasion in addition to the much lower cultural level.

One of the reasons for the orderly prosperity during Emperors Literate and Scenery was the present of large vassal states inside their empire, which apparently served as a restricting factor to keep the country and its administration on the track of humanist policy. Both Emperors Literate and Scenery were remarkably modesty and self-refrained to stay away from excess ambitions. During the rebellion of seven vassal states, Emperor Scenery executed his prime minister in the request of those vassal states. The general who led the army to put down the rebellion refused repeatedly the orders from the Emperor who asked the general to rescue his brother , whose capital was attacks by those rebel vassal states. Those two incidents indicate that the Chinese government was far from totalitarianism because of the present of vassal states at that time.

During the reign of King Rigid of Chou (Zhouliwang ?-841 BC), the people of the capital rose to a rebellion. They swamped into the palace with sticks and farm tools in hands. King Rigid ran away and never dared to come back. The lord of a vassal state came to the capital as the temporary king for fourteen years, and then returned the throne to the royal family of Chou. In contrast, it usually took millions of lives to overthrow an unfitted government or to put down a massive peasant rebellion when the totalitarian government was well established later on in China. One of examples was the Taiping rebellion (1850-1864) that also lasted fourteen years, occupied almost half of China, and resulted more than twenty million deaths. From the records, the policies of the Taiping rebellion were much more humanist than the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They even advocated equal rights of men and women and public ownership of land.

 

  1. The Two Levels of Society and the Different Pathways of Chinese and Western Humanism

 

The genetically coded primary Society was the basic social organization of man immediately above families in ancient time. The ideal number of people in this primary society is believed to be around 150. Bands and tribes are regarded as primary societies. Human nature or intuition was the major force to keep primary society stable and functioning. Any social organizations or societies above or far larger than the primary society are secondary society. The introduction of social stratification and other institutions against human nature is often necessary to keep a secondary society stable.

Secondary society is a creation of human culture and has nothing to do with human genetics and human nature. Secondary society has limitless possible types, and each one may have its own evolutionary pathway. Modern secondary societies become similar, but ancient societies were much more diversified. According to Aristotle, ancient Greece had 158 political systems worth description.

Our present secondary society is a strictly rational system that does not tolerate irrational thinking. We need rational thinking if we are aiming at social achievements such as a well paid high position or if we are materializing a goal in the physical world such as building a house. Rational thinking enables us to reach our goals. But if we are relaxing in sofa with our family and are aiming to enjoy ourselves, rational think does not do us any good. Under such circumstances, it is quite okay if we talk nonsense or allow ourselves enter weird daydreams. Only primary society tolerates both irrational and rational thinking. An’ it harm none, do what thou wilt.

Once Jesus’ Christianity entered the centre of secular social power, they too stressed the value of rational thinking. In history, some witches were in a state of irrational thinking and kept saying weird things and bizarre ideas, and many of them were tried and burned to death in so-called witch-hunt of many Christian countries. Nowadays, pastors and priests are graduates of theological schools, and a son of an ordinary carpenter was not allowed to preach unless he has the qualification. In many ways, ancient primary society was more humanist than modern secondary society.

 

In the West, the first secondary society was city states seen both in the Middle East and in ancient Greece. Primary society was disintegrated to form secondary society of free individuals. Secondary society, as a creation by man, has numerous pathways to take, and each one needs a set of ideology and corresponding social structure, often stratification, to support the ideology. As different individuals had different ideas as what direction the society should go, political instability and violent conflicts were inevitable. In the Middle East, it was documented that the appearance of states was associated with shortened life spans. It was a chaotic nightmare to the people who was used to much more humanist primary society. The only hope they had in mind was God and other superpowers. On the other hand, no ruler could restore order overnight in a population that knew nothing about the discipline and obedience. It was thus inevitable to worship supernatural powers and to put supernatural powers before people. Various magnificent constructions dedicated to gods appeared in the Middle East, Ancient Greece, and in Latin and South America. The master of such secondary society was God, and people were only the servicemen to God. In the service of God, man was easily put up with inhumane living conditions.

After such an unusual start, human civilization is a process in which secondary society is improved to better harbour human nature, emphasis is shifting from God to man, and man further his self realization and self emancipation. In spite of the dramatic changes our secondary society has taken, human nature remains the same. Thus it is also a process in which man lost his way and then looked for his origin, and found back himself.

As mentioned in Chapter 15.2, the last five thousand years of human civilization of war was an upward spiral with an continuing increase in battles and imperial sizes and in social inequality. The increase in battles, social inequality, imperial sizes are all negative factors for humanism, and hindered the social movement of humanism. But the human conditions was improved during the last few thousand years, and shift from God to man did take place over a long time.

 

The process of Chinese humanism was quite different from the West. Both Lao Tzu and Confucius admired ancient society and regarded it as their ideal society. Lao Tzu says, “Heaven and earth coalesce and it rains sweet dew. The people, no one ordering them, self balance to equality.” “The Tao of nature is to pare back abundance and add to the insufficient.”(Tao Te Ching, Chapters 32, 77). According to Taoist philosophy, the ancient primary society was close to the ideal of humanism, and the following social structure in Chinese early civilization enabled people to remain in primary or quasi-primary society:

 

The King and his clan + Intellectuals Quasi-primary society

The vassals and their clans + Intellectuals Quasi-primary society

Villages and tribes Primary society

 

Under such a social structure in their early years of civilization, Chinese people were able to build their social network based on face to face interaction, which was not distorted by external force other than human nature (see Chapter 15.3 for reference). The above social structure covers nearly two thousand years and three dynasties. Ancient records though regard the three dynasties, Hsia, Shang, and Chou, as a continuous cultural tradition but outline the differences among the three dynasties. The following is my translated summary fromThe Book of Rites comparing the three dynasties:

 

Hsia (2200-1766 BC): The culture of Hia respects fate, pays respect to gods and ghosts but keeps a distance from them, is close to human nature and loyal, delivers rewards and emoluments before punishment and power, is intimate but no respect. The people are primitive, foolish, proud and wild, simple and ill-posed. The culture of Hsia does not take words lightly, does not require perfection, does not ask a lot from people, its people are not bored with their family and relatives, and its people have little to complain.

Shang (1765-1123 BC): The culture of Shang respects gods, leads its people in service to gods, puts ghosts before rituals, delivers punishments before rewards, and its people are respectful but not close. Its people are boundless and shameless. The culture of Shang does not take rituals lightly, expects a lot from the people.

Chou (1122-256 BC): The culture of Chou respects rituals and charity, pays respect to gods and ghosts but keeps a distance from them, is close to human nature and loyal, rewards and punishes with ranking system. Its people are close but no respects, clever, posed, cheating without shame. The culture of Chou forces people to meet its need, does not take gods lightly, exhausts the system of rewards and punishments.

 

From the above records, we can see the difference among the three dynasties: Both Hsia and Chou paid due respect to gods and ghosts but kept a distance from them. Shang stressed the service to gods and ghosts while relied heavily on force and punishment. More than a hundred thousand of oracle bones were recovered, and they showed that Shang often waged military attacks on its neighbours, and human sacrifices numbered to more than ten thousands. A notable Chinese historian (Wang 2004) held such view that class polarization first appeared during the Shang dynasty, and Hsia dynasty was therefore a classless primitive society.

With the above social structure, the society was mainly stabilized on human nature. There was no need to rely on forceful gods or ghosts such as those that cost Socrates’ life except for if they had unnatural goals and lacked the social mechanism to motivate the people to reach their goals. During the Shang dynasty, there might be such goals such as attacking peaceful neighbours and the appearance of class stratification for the first time. The Chou dynasty abandoned the Shang’s culture of gods and ghosts but used a more humanist way to stabilize a society of class polarization, the ritual system(see Chapter 6.3 for reference). Here I call the humanist policy in the Hsia dynasty the natural humanism. The shift from gods to man in the early years of the Chou dynasty is comparable to the shift from nature to human society in the ancient Greek thinkers, the beginning of humanist social movement by man.

 

In the Middle East , paralleled to the huge constructions dedicated to gods, the first centre of social power was concentrated among religious staff, priests and witches. Even when secular kings were separated and had their own social networks to control the population, religious centres remained powerful entities that owned vast areas of land and employed massive numbers of people. In many ways, religious centres shared power with the government. Even the priests and priestesses of the Apollo Temple at Delphi of ancient Greece served as influential consultants to the local kings.

When Israeli people developed their monotheist religion, they had a bible that lists out the major laws and moral norms for the society as dictated by God. The priests (prophets) had the power to interpret and preach those laws and norms, and the government was only responsible to carry out those laws and norms. Thus those religious centres functioned very much like today’s parliaments in the Western democratic governments. This contrasts well to the religious centres in ancient China.

 

For nearly two thousand years, the dominating religions in Chinese history were Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The function of those religions were at most like the Minister of Culture of the imperial government, and had no power to interfere any laws. The Minister of Culture could of course be dismissed at the emperor’s will. Closing down of temples and ban of religion occurred frequently in Chinese history.

Unlike Taoism and Buddhism, Confucianism was involved in politics. Such involvement was through the employment of Confucian scholars as government officials. Confucianism was never part of the imperial government. Nevertheless, the imperial government had the power to modify Confucianism at will. According to John King Fairbank (1994), it was the emperor (Hanwudi, 140-87 BC) who created the first official version of Confucianism by hybridizing Confucianism with Legalism to suit his needs for a centralized government. Fairbank called it the Imperial Confucianism, which was fundamentally different from the Confucianism founded by Confucius and Meng Tzu. The imperialist system with absolute power was a major setback for humanism in Chines history, though it also kept local lords in check.

With the government pressured by the continuous uprising of the peasants and influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, Humanism did achieve some major progresses in Chinese history against the increased social inequality and the further concentrated power on the emperor and his court. The following is what came to my mind while I was writing:

 

1). Taoist religion and Buddhism, first appeared during the late Han dynasty(25-220), provided a place of retreat from the inhumane secondary society. Although no place was immune to the imperial power, religious temples were safer shelters to many, who offended the government.

2). Taoist philosophy provided from theory to practical techniques a whole set of tools to treat the mental injuries inflicted by secondary society.

3). Confucianism developed into so called the Idealist Philosophy during the Song and Ming dynasties (960-1644), which further separated the spiritual cultivation of individual people from politics and the reality of secondary society. This provided an easily accessible and largely available spiritual retreat for those in need.

4). Human sacrifices were down significantly since the beginning of the social moment of Humanism, though foot-binding and other customs against women appeared, cruel punishments such as “ten thousand cuts” and “striping the skin off” remained.

5). Shaped and influenced by the ideal egalitarian society of Taoist philosophy, the class polarization in the countryside was much less in comparison with the West.

6). Absolute poverty of lacking food, clothes, shelters and other basic requirements for living was never eliminated in Chinese history, and even worse than the early years of the Chou dynasty. The number of deaths in war increased significantly.

 

5. Epilogue: The Spiritual Characters of Confucian Scholars

 

Both Christianity and Confucianism emphasize the spiritual characters of their followers, though Confucianism does not rely on God to consecrate its followers’ spirit. Confucius spoke in such great detail and explained the ideal image of a Confucian gentleman, but was reluctant to name anyone who met the criteria of benevolence. He apparently idealized and consecrated the spiritual characters of a Confucian gentleman. Thus Confucian scholars’ spiritual cultivation became artistic pursuit, and the spiritual characters were like a piece of art that was detached from any social power or godly power. Like the early Christians found joy in poverty while willing to die for their faith, Confucian scholars displayed unmatched courage and spiritual characters in spite of their poverty.

One of those scholars was Square (Fang Xiaoru or Square Filial-Confucianism, 1357-1402), who refused to cooperate with the new emperor in spite of a total of 873 people including himself, his family, his relatives, and his friends were executed. As he kept criticizing and even cursing the emperor to his majesty’s face, his mouth was ripped to the ear on both sides that failed to stop him. He was made to watch his brother’s execution, and tears welling out his eyes. The brother chanted a lofty and heroic poem to condole Square:

 

My dear brother, you need not wash your face with tears,

Die of benevolence and righteousness, and here’s.

From the royal ornamental column and a thousand years,

We then travel home together, chanting to our ears.

 

 

After Square was cut into two at the waist as the execution required, he managed to write ten and a half Chinese characters with his own blood to show his faith.

On the other hand, the new emperor was the uncle who dethroned his nephew. What a difference was there as to which one of their family became the emperor? Was there any need to be so serious? It was at most a ritual issue but far from the issue of Confucian humanist policy. In the above quotation(15.3), Confucius did set up rituals as the criteria to judge a ruler’s behaviour, but he clearly used rituals to promote his humanist policy. In fact, the nephew emperor violated the rituals first trying to undermine his uncle’s vassal state, and Confucian court officials including Square did not stop him. Paradoxically, the nephew’s wish to substantially reduce the power of vassal states was only accomplished by his uncle. To ascend the throne, wasn’t the same whoever drafted the imperial edict? Why did the emperor have to force Square to draft while the latter determined not to? This was the extremity of the development of rational thinking in secondary society that never occurred in primary society. If Square was the lord of a vassal state, how did the emperor dare to ask a rebuff to come to Square for the draft?

Therefore, those 873 deaths are not for such rubbish issue who was the right man for the throne from the same family, and they are to defend the sacred nature of the spiritual characters of Confucian scholars that Confucius and Meng Tzu outlined some two thousand years ago. It is like Pygmalion in the Greek mythology who loves the ivory figurine he has sculptured so that he gives up the happiness of sexual love and family. He thinks his figurine is the most beautiful in the whole world, and he is willing to sacrifice for the beauty he has created. Such sacrifice is radiating with beauty of the spiritual realm, far above the secular pursuit such as the size and power of an empire that increased in the last five thousand years against human nature. Whenever I feel heartache after reading about the dedication of lives of Confucian scholars to their faith, I rely on my above interpretation to make me feel better.

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Ernesto Sabato

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Chau, maestro… hace muchos dias, semanas, que estaba pensando en esa unica palabra y recordaba, constantemente, este epitafio que vos mismo pusiste en tu ultima novela:

“Ernesto Sábato

Quiso ser enterrado en esta tierra

Con una sola palabra en su tumba:

PAZ”

 de Abaddon, el Exterminador (1974)

The Jesus the Emperors Kidnapped

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Image via Wikipedia

El Jesús que secuestraron los emperadores (Spanish)

 

The Jesus the Emperors Kidnapped

 

Who will lend me a ladder

to climb up the timbering,

to remove the nails from

Jesus the Nazarene?

(Antonio Machado)

 

Jorge Majfud

 

 

A few days ago the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, referred to Jesus as the greatest socialist in history. I am not interested here in making a defense or an attack on his person. I would only like to make a few observations about a typical reaction caused by his words throughout different parts of the world.

Perhaps saying that Jesus was a socialist is like saying that Tutankhamen was Egyptian or Seneca was Spanish. It remains a semantic imprecision. Nevertheless, those who recently have approached me with a look of horror on their faces as a result of the words of the “bad boy,” did they do so on the basis of some reasoning or simply on the basis of the codes imposed by a dominant discourse?

Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with power accumulated in just one man. But although Mr. Chávez is a powerful man in his country, he is not the one responsible for the current state of the world. For an elite few, the best state possible. For most, the source of physical and, above all, moral violence.

If it is a scandal to imagine Jesus to be socialist, why is it not, then, to associate him and compromise him with capitalist culture and ethics? If it is a scandal to associate Jesus with the eternal rebel, why is it not, in contrast, to associate him with the interests of successive empires – with the exception of the ancient Roman empire? Those who do not argue the sacrality of capitalism are, in large number, fervent followers of Jesus. Better said, of a particular and convenient image of Jesus. In certain cases not only followers of his word, but administrators of his message.

All of us, or almost all of us, are in favor of certain economic development. Nonetheless, why is social justice always confused with economic development? Why is that Christian theology that considers economic success, wealth, to be the divine sign of having been chosen to enter Paradise, even if through the eye of a needle, so widely disseminated?

Conservatives are right: it is a simplification to reduce Jesus to his political dimension. But their reasoning becomes manipulation when it denies categorically any political value in his action, at the same time that his image is used and his values are invoked to justify a determined politics. It is political to deny politics in any church. It is political to presume political neutrality. An observer who passively witnesses the torture or rape of another person is not neutral. Even less neutral is he who does not even want to watch and turns his head to pray. Because if he who remains silent concedes, he who is indifferent legitimates.

The confirmation of a status quo that benefits one social class and keeps others submerged is political. The sermon that favors the power of men and keeps women under their will and convenience is political. The mere mention of Jesus or Mohammed before, during and after justifying a war, a killing, a dictatorship, the extermination of a people or of a lone individual is terribly political.

Lamentably, although politics is not everything, everything is political. Therefore, one of the most hypocritical forms of politics is to assert that some social action exists in this world that might be apolitical. We might attribute to animals this marvelous innocence, if we did not know that even communities of monkies and of other mammals are governed not only by a clear negotiation of powers but, even, by a history that establishes ranks and privileges. Which ought to be sufficient to diminish somewhat the pride of those oppressors who consider themselves different from orangutangs because of the sophisticated technology of their power.

Many months ago we wrote about the political factor in the death of Jesus. That his death was contaminated by politics does not take away from his religious value but quite the contrary. If the son of God descended to the imperfect world of men and immersed himself in a concrete society, an oppressed society, acquiring all of the human limitations, why would he have to do so ignoring one of the principle factors of that society which was, precisely, a political factor of resistance?

Why was Jesus born in a poor home and one of scarce religious orientation? Why was he not born in the home of a rich and educated pharisee? Why did he live almost his entire life in a small, peripheral town, as was Nazareth, and not in the capital of the Roman Empire or in the religious capital, Jerusalem? Why did he go to Jerusalem, the center of political power at the time, to bother, to challenge power in the name of the most universal human salvation and dignity? As a xenophobe from today would say: if he didn’t like the order of things in the center of the world, he shouldn’t have gone there to cause trouble.

We must remember that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus but the Romans. Those Romans who have nothing to do with the present day inhabitants of Italy, other than the name. Someone might argue that the Jews condemned him for religious reasons. I am not saying that religious reasons did not exist, but that these do not exlude other, political, reasons: the Jewish upper class, like almost all the upper classes of peoples dominated by foreign empires, found itself in a relationship of privilege that led it to a complacent diplomacy with the Roman Empire. This is what happened also in America, in the times of the Conquest. The Romans, in contrast, had no religious reason for taking care of the problem of that rebel from Nazareth. Their reasons were eminently political: Jesus represented a grave threat to the peaceful order established by the empire.

Now, if we are going to discuss Jesus’ political options, we might refer to the texts canonized after the first Council of Nicea, nearly three hundred years after his death. The theological and political result of this founding Council may be questionable. That is to say, if the life of Jesus developed in the conflict against the political power of his time, if the writers of the Gospels, somewhat later, suffered similar persecutions, we cannot say the same about those religious men who gathered in the year 325 by order of an emperor, Constantine, who sought to stabilize and unify his empire, without leaving aside for this purpose other means, like the assassination of his political adversaries.

Let us suppose that all of this is not important. Besides there are very debatable points. Let us take the facts of the religious documents that remain to us from that historical moment. What do we see there?

The son of God being born in an animal stable. The son of God working in the modest carpintery trade of his father. The son of God surrounded by poor people, by women of ill repute, by sick people, by marginalized beings of every type. The son of God expelling the merchants from the temple. The son of God asserting that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to ascend to the kingdom of heaven (probably the Greek word kamel did not mean camel but an enormous rope that was used in the ports to tie up the boats, but the translation error has not altered the idea of the metaphor). The son of God questioning, denying the alleged nationalism of God. The son of God surpassing the old and cruel laws, like the penalty of death by stoning of an adulterous woman. The son of God separating the things of Ceasar from the things of the Father. The son of God valuing the coin of a widow above the traditional donations of the rich and famous. The son of God condemning religious pride, the economic and moral ostentation of men. The son of God entering into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. The son of God confronting religious and political power, the pharisees of the Law and the imperial hells of the moment. The son of God defamed and humiliated, dying under military torture, surrounded by a few followers, mostly women. The son of God making an unquestionable option for the poor, for the weak and the marginalized by power, for the universalization of the human condition, on earth as much as in heaven.

A difficult profile for a capitalist who dedicates six days of the week to the accumulation of money and half a day to clean his conscience in church; who exercises a strange compassion (so different from solidarity) that consists in helping the world by imposing his reasons like it or not.

Even though Jesus may be today the principal instrument of conservatives who grasp at power, it is still difficult to sustain that he was not a revolutionary. To be precise he did not die for having been complacent with the political power of the moment. Power does not kill or torture its bootlickers; it rewards them. For the others remains the greater prize: dignity. And I believe that few if any figures in history show more dignity and commitment with all of humanity than Jesus of Nazareth, who one day will have to be brought down from the cross.

 

Translated by Bruce Campbell

 

Do You Believe in God? Yes or No.

Major religions distribution.

Image via Wikipedia

 

Do You Believe in God? Yes or No.


Jorge Majfud

Lincoln University

Someone asks me whether I believe in God and indicates that a one sentence answer will do. Two at the most. It’s easy, yes or no.

I’m sorry, but why do you insist on subjecting me to the tyranny of such a question? If you are truly interested in my response, you will have to hear me out. If not, good day to you. Nothing is lost.

The question, like so many others, is tricky. It demands of me a clear yes or a clear no. I would have one of those very clear answers if the god about which I am being asked were so clear and well-defined. Do you like Santiago? Excuse me, which Santiago? Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Santiago, Chile? Santiago del Estero in Argentina or Santiago Matamoros?

Okay, look, my greatest desire is for God to exist. It’s the only thing I ask of him. But not just any god. It seems like almost everyone agrees that there is only one God, but if that is true then one must recognize that this is a god with multiple personalities, from multiple religions and with mutual hatred for one another.

The truth is that I cannot believe in a god who inflames the heart for war and who inspires such fear that nobody is capable of making even the slightest change. Which is why dying and killing for that lie is common practice; questioning it a rare heresy. I cannot believe, and much less support, a god who orders people massacred, who is made to the measure and convenience of some nations above others, of some social classes above others, of some genders above others, of some races above others. A god who for his own entertainment has created some men to be condemned from birth and others to be the select few until death, and a god who, at the same time, is praised for his universality and infinite love.

How does one believe in such a selfish, such a mean-spirited god? A criminal god who condemns greed and the accumulation of money and rewards the chosen greedy ones with greater material wealth. How does one believe in a god of neckties on Sunday, who shouts and swells with blood condemning those who don’t believe in such an apparatus of war and domination? How does one believe in a god who instead of liberating subjugates, punishes, and condemns? How does one believe in a small-minded god who needs the minor politics of a few of the faithful in order to gain votes? How does one believe in a mediocre god who must use bureaucracy on Earth to administer his business in Heaven? How does one believe in a god who allows himself to be manipulated like a child frightened in the night and who every day serves the most repugnant interests on Earth? How does one believe in a god who draws mysterious images on dank walls in order to announce to humanity that we are living in a time of hatreds and wars? How does one believe in a god who communicates through street-corner charlatans who promise Heaven and threaten Hell to passersby, as if they were real estate agents?

Which god are we talking about when we talk about the One and All Powerful God? Is this the same God who sends fanatics to immolate themselves in a market, the same God who sends planes to discharge Hell on children and innocents in his name? Perhaps so. Then, I don’t believe in that god. Rather, I don’t want to believe that such a criminal could be a supernatural force. Because we already have our hands full with our own human wickedness. It’s just that human evil would not be so hypocritical if it were to focus on oppressing and killing in its own name and not in the name of a kind and creative god.

A God who allows his manipulators – who have no peace in their hearts – to speak of the infinite peace of God while they go around condemning those without faith. Condemning those who have no faith in that tragic madness attributed every day to God. Men and women without peace who claim to be chosen by God and who go around proclaiming this because it’s not enough for them that God would have chosen them for their doubtful virtues. Those terrorists of the soul who go about threatening with Hell – sometimes softly and sometimes shouting – anybody who dares to doubt so much madness.

A God, creator of the Universe, who must fit between the narrow walls of consecrated homes and buildings uncursed by man, not so that God has a place but so that God can be put in a place. In a proper place, which is to say, privatized, controlled, circumscribed to a few ideas, a few paragraphs, and at the service of a sect of the self-chosen.

Of course, the classic accusation, established by tradition, for all those who would doubt the real attributes of God is arrogance. The furious preachers, in contrast, do not stop for an instant to reflect upon the infinite arrogance of their claim to belong to, and even guide and administer, the select club of those chosen by the Creator.

The only thing I ask of God is that he exist. But every time I see these celestial hordes I am reminded of the story, true or fictitious, of the indigenous chieftain Hatuey, condemned to be burned alive by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez. According to father Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest was present for Hatuey’s final hours, offering him Heaven if he converted to Christianity. The chieftain asked if white men could be found there. “Yes,” responded the priest, “because they believe in God.” Which was sufficient reason for the rebel chief to refuse to accept the new truth.

Then, if God is that being who walks behind his followers in a trance, in all truthfulness, I cannot believe in him. Why would the Creator confer critical reason on his creatures and then demand of them blind obedience, hallucinatory trembling, uncontrollable hatreds? Why would God prefer believers to thinkers? Why would enlightenment mean the loss of consciousness? Could it be that innocence and obedience get along well?

El Jesús que secuestraron los emperadores

An ivory plaque representing Christ crowning C...

The Jesus the Emperors Kidnapped (English)

El Jesús que secuestraron los emperadores

 


¿Quien me presta una escalera

para subir al madero,

para quitarle los clavos

a Jesús el Nazareno?

(Antonio Machado)

Hace unos días el presidente de Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, se refirió a Jesús como el más grande socialista de la historia. No me interesa aquí hacer una defensa o un ataque de su persona. Sólo quisiera hacer algunas observaciones sobre una típica reacción que causaron sus palabras por diversas partes del mundo.

Tal vez decir que Jesús era socialista es como decir que Tutankamón era egipcio o Séneca era español. No deja de ser una imprecisión semántica. Sin embargo, aquellos que en este tiempo se han acercado a mí con cara de espantados por las palabras del “chico malo” ¿lo hacían en función de algún razonamiento o simplemente en función de los códigos impuestos por un discurso dominante?

En lo personal, siempre me ha incomodado el poder acumulado en un solo hombre. Pero si el señor Chávez es un hombre poderoso en su país, en cambio no es él el responsable del actual orden que rige en el mundo. Para unos pocos, el mejor orden posible. Para la mayoría, la fuente de la violencia física y, sobre todo, moral.

Si es un escándalo imaginar a un Jesús socialista, ¿por qué no lo es, entonces, asociarlo y comprometerlo con la cultura y la ética capitalista? Si es un escándalo asociar a Jesús con el eterno rebelde, ¿por qué no lo es, en cambio, asociarlo a los intereses de los sucesivos imperios —exceptuando el más antiguo imperio romano? Aquellos que no discuten la sacralizad del capitalismo son, en gran número, fervientes seguidores de Jesús. Mejor dicho, de una imagen particular y conveniente de Jesús. En ciertos casos no sólo seguidores de su palabra, sino administradores de su mensaje.

Todos, o casi todos, estamos a favor de cierto desarrollo económico. Sin embargo, ¿por qué siempre se confunde justicia social con desarrollo económico? ¿Por qué es tan difundida aquella teología cristiana que considera el éxito económico, la riqueza, como el signo divino de haber sido elegido para entrar al Paraíso, aunque sea por el ojo de una aguja?

Tienen razón los conservadores: es una simplificación reducir a Jesús a su dimensión política. Pero esta razón se convierte en manipulación cuando se niega de plano cualquier valor político en su acción, al mismo tiempo que se usa su imagen y se invocan sus valores para justificar una determinada política. Es política negar la política en cualquier iglesia. Es política presumir de neutralidad política. No es neutral un observador que presencia pasivo la tortura o la violación de otra persona. Menos neutral es aquel que ni siquiera quiere mirar y da vuelta la cabeza para rezar. Porque si el que calla otorga, el indiferente legitima.

Es política la confirmación de un statu quo que beneficia a una clase social y mantiene sumergida otras. Es político el sermón que favorece el poder del hombre y mantiene bajo su voluntad y conveniencia a la mujer. Es terriblemente política la sola mención de Jesús o de Mahoma antes, durante y después de justificar una guerra, una matanza, una dictadura, el exterminio de un pueblo o de un solo individuo.

Lamentablemente, aunque la política no lo es todo, todo es política. Por lo cual, una de las políticas más hipócritas es afirmar que existe alguna acción social en este mundo que pueda ser apolítica. Podríamos atribuir a los animales esta maravillosa inocencia, si no supiésemos que aún las comunidades de monos y de otros mamíferos están regidas no sólo por un aclaro negocio de poderes sino, incluso, por una historia que establece categorías y privilegios. Lo cual debería ser suficiente para menguar en algo el orgullo de aquellos opresores que se consideran diferentes a los orangutanes por la sofisticada tecnología de su poder.

Hace muchos meses escribimos sobre el factor político en la muerte de Jesús. Que su muerte estuviese contaminada de política no desmerece su valor religioso sino todo lo contrario. Si el hijo de Dios bajó al mundo imperfecto de los hombres y se sumergió en una sociedad concreta, una sociedad oprimida, adquiriendo todas las limitaciones humanas, ¿por qué habría de hacerlo ignorando uno de los factores principales de esa sociedad que era, precisamente, un factor político de resistencia?

¿Por qué Jesús nació en un hogar pobre y de escasa gravitación religiosa? ¿Por qué no nació en el hogar de un rico y culto fariseo? ¿Por qué vivió casi toda su vida en un pueblito periférico, como lo era Nazareth, y no en la capital del imperio romano o en la capital religiosa, Jerusalén? ¿Por qué fue hasta Jerusalén, centro del poder político de entonces, a molestar, a desafiar al poder en nombre de la salvación y la dignidad humana más universal? Como diría un xenófobo de hoy: si no le gustaba el orden de las cosas en el centro del mundo, no debió dirigirse allí a molestar.

Recordemos que no fueron los judíos quienes mataron a Jesús sino los romanos. Aquellos romanos que nada tienen que ver con los actuales habitantes de Italia, aparte del nombre. Alguien podría argumentar que los judíos lo condenaron por razones religiosas. No digo que las razones religiosas no existieran, sino que éstas no excluyen otras razones políticas: la case alta judía, como casi todas las clases altas de los pueblos dominados por los imperios ajenos, se encontraba en una relación de privilegio que las conducía a una diplomacia complaciente con el imperio romano. Así también ocurrió en América, en tiempos de la conquista. Los romanos, en cambio, no tenían ninguna razón religiosa para sacarse de encima el problema de aquel rebelde de Nazareth. Sus razones eran, eminentemente, políticas: Jesús representaba una grave amenaza al pacífico orden establecido por el imperio.

Ahora, si vamos a discutir las opciones políticas de Jesús, podríamos referirnos a los textos canonizados después del concilio de Nicea, casi trescientos años después de su muerte. El resultado teológico y político de este concilio fundacional podría ser cuestionable. Es decir, si la vida de Jesús se desarrolló en el conflicto contra el poder político de su tiempo, si los escritores de los Evangelios, algo posteriores, sufrieron de persecuciones semejantes, no podemos decir lo mismo de aquellos religiosos que se reunieron en el año 325 por orden de un emperador, Constantino, que buscaba estabilizar y unificar su imperio, sin por ello dejar de lado otros recursos, como el asesinato de sus adversarios políticos.

Supongamos que todo esto no importa. Además hay puntos muy discutibles. Tomemos los hechos de los documentos religiosos que nos quedaron a partir de ese momento histórico. ¿Qué vemos allí?

El hijo de Dios naciendo en un establo de animales. El hijo de Dios trabajando en la modesta carpintería de su padre. El hijo de Dios rodeado de pobres, de mujeres de mala reputación, de enfermos, de seres marginados de todo tipo. El hijo de Dios expulsando a los mercaderes del templo. El hijo de Dios afirmando que más fácil sería para un camello pasar por el ojo de una aguja que un rico subiese al reino de los cielos (probablemente la voz griega kamel no significaba camello sino una soga enorme que usaban en los puertos para amarrar barcos, pero el error en la traducción no ha alterado la idea de la metáfora). El hijo de Dios cuestionando, negando el pretendido nacionalismo de Dios. El hijo de Dios superando leyes antiguas y crueles, como la pena de muerte a pedradas de una mujer adúltera. El hijo de Dios separando los asuntos del César de los asuntos de su Padre. El hijo de Dios valorando la moneda de una viuda sobre las clásicas donaciones de ricos y famosos. El hijo de Dios condenando el orgullo religioso, la ostentación económica y moral de los hombres. El hijo de Dios entrando en Jerusalén sobre un humilde burro. El hijo de Dios enfrentándose al poder religioso y político, a los fariseos de la Ley y a los infiernos imperiales del momento. El hijo de Dios difamado y humillado, muriendo bajo tortura militar, rodeado de pocos seguidores, mujeres en su mayoría. El hijo de Dios haciendo una incuestionable opción por los pobres, por los débiles y marginados por el poder, por la universalización de la condición humana, tanto en la tierra como en el cielo.

Difícil perfil para un capitalista que dedica seis días de la semana a la acumulación de dinero y medio día a lavar su conciencia en la iglesia; que ejercita una extraña compasión (tan diferente a la solidaridad) que consiste en ayudar al mundo imponiéndole sus razones por las buenas o por las malas.

Aunque Jesús sea hoy el principal instrumento de los conservadores que se aferran al poder, todavía es difícil sostener que no fuera un revolucionario. Precisamente no murió por haber sido complaciente con el poder político de turno. El poder no mata ni tortura a sus adulones; los premia. Queda para los otros el premio mayor: la dignidad. Y creo que pocas figuras en la historia, sino ninguna otra, enseña más dignidad y compromiso con la humanidad toda que Jesús de Nazaret, a quien un día habrá que descolgar de la cruz.

© Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, enero de 2007

The Jesus the Emperors Kidnapped

Who will lend me a ladder

to climb up the timbering,

to remove the nails from

Jesus the Nazarene?

(Antonio Machado)

A few days ago the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, referred to Jesus as the greatest socialist in history. I am not interested here in making a defense or an attack on his person. I would only like to make a few observations about a typical reaction caused by his words throughout different parts of the world.

Perhaps saying that Jesus was a socialist is like saying that Tutankhamen was Egyptian or Seneca was Spanish. It remains a semantic imprecision. Nevertheless, those who recently have approached me with a look of horror on their faces as a result of the words of the “bad boy,” did they do so on the basis of some reasoning or simply on the basis of the codes imposed by a dominant discourse?

Personally, I have always been uncomfortable with power accumulated in just one man. But although Mr. Chávez is a powerful man in his country, he is not the one responsible for the current state of the world. For an elite few, the best state possible. For most, the source of physical and, above all, moral violence.

If it is a scandal to imagine Jesus to be socialist, why is it not, then, to associate him and compromise him with capitalist culture and ethics? If it is a scandal to associate Jesus with the eternal rebel, why is it not, in contrast, to associate him with the interests of successive empires – with the exception of the ancient Roman empire? Those who do not argue the sacrality of capitalism are, in large number, fervent followers of Jesus. Better said, of a particular and convenient image of Jesus. In certain cases not only followers of his word, but administrators of his message.

All of us, or almost all of us, are in favor of certain economic development. Nonetheless, why is social justice always confused with economic development? Why is that Christian theology that considers economic success, wealth, to be the divine sign of having been chosen to enter Paradise, even if through the eye of a needle, so widely disseminated?

Conservatives are right: it is a simplification to reduce Jesus to his political dimension. But their reasoning becomes manipulation when it denies categorically any political value in his action, at the same time that his image is used and his values are invoked to justify a determined politics. It is political to deny politics in any church. It is political to presume political neutrality. An observer who passively witnesses the torture or rape of another person is not neutral. Even less neutral is he who does not even want to watch and turns his head to pray. Because if he who remains silent concedes, he who is indifferent legitimates.

The confirmation of a status quo that benefits one social class and keeps others submerged is political. The sermon that favors the power of men and keeps women under their will and convenience is political. The mere mention of Jesus or Mohammed before, during and after justifying a war, a killing, a dictatorship, the extermination of a people or of a lone individual is terribly political.

Lamentably, although politics is not everything, everything is political. Therefore, one of the most hypocritical forms of politics is to assert that some social action exists in this world that might be apolitical. We might attribute to animals this marvelous innocence, if we did not know that even communities of monkies and of other mammals are governed not only by a clear negotiation of powers but, even, by a history that establishes ranks and privileges. Which ought to be sufficient to diminish somewhat the pride of those oppressors who consider themselves different from orangutangs because of the sophisticated technology of their power.

Many months ago we wrote about the political factor in the death of Jesus. That his death was contaminated by politics does not take away from his religious value but quite the contrary. If the son of God descended to the imperfect world of men and immersed himself in a concrete society, an oppressed society, acquiring all of the human limitations, why would he have to do so ignoring one of the principle factors of that society which was, precisely, a political factor of resistance?

Why was Jesus born in a poor home and one of scarce religious orientation? Why was he not born in the home of a rich and educated pharisee? Why did he live almost his entire life in a small, peripheral town, as was Nazareth, and not in the capital of the Roman Empire or in the religious capital, Jerusalem? Why did he go to Jerusalem, the center of political power at the time, to bother, to challenge power in the name of the most universal human salvation and dignity? As a xenophobe from today would say: if he didn’t like the order of things in the center of the world, he shouldn’t have gone there to cause trouble.

We must remember that it was not the Jews who killed Jesus but the Romans. Those Romans who have nothing to do with the present day inhabitants of Italy, other than the name. Someone might argue that the Jews condemned him for religious reasons. I am not saying that religious reasons did not exist, but that these do not exlude other, political, reasons: the Jewish upper class, like almost all the upper classes of peoples dominated by foreign empires, found itself in a relationship of privilege that led it to a complacent diplomacy with the Roman Empire. This is what happened also in America, in the times of the Conquest. The Romans, in contrast, had no religious reason for taking care of the problem of that rebel from Nazareth. Their reasons were eminently political: Jesus represented a grave threat to the peaceful order established by the empire.

Now, if we are going to discuss Jesus’ political options, we might refer to the texts canonized after the first Council of Nicea, nearly three hundred years after his death. The theological and political result of this founding Council may be questionable. That is to say, if the life of Jesus developed in the conflict against the political power of his time, if the writers of the Gospels, somewhat later, suffered similar persecutions, we cannot say the same about those religious men who gathered in the year 325 by order of an emperor, Constantine, who sought to stabilize and unify his empire, without leaving aside for this purpose other means, like the assassination of his political adversaries.

Let us suppose that all of this is not important. Besides there are very debatable points. Let us take the facts of the religious documents that remain to us from that historical moment. What do we see there?

The son of God being born in an animal stable. The son of God working in the modest carpenter trade of his father. The son of God surrounded by poor people, by women of ill repute, by sick people, by marginalized beings of every type. The son of God expelling the merchants from the temple. The son of God asserting that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to ascend to the kingdom of heaven (probably the Greek word kamel did not mean camel but an enormous rope that was used in the ports to tie up the boats, but the translation error has not altered the idea of the metaphor). The son of God questioning, denying the alleged nationalism of God. The son of God surpassing the old and cruel laws, like the penalty of death by stoning of an adulterous woman. The son of God separating the things of Ceasar from the things of the Father. The son of God valuing the coin of a widow above the traditional donations of the rich and famous. The son of God condemning religious pride, the economic and moral ostentation of men. The son of God entering into Jerusalem on a humble donkey. The son of God confronting religious and political power, the pharisees of the Law and the imperial hells of the moment. The son of God defamed and humiliated, dying under military torture, surrounded by a few followers, mostly women. The son of God making an unquestionable option for the poor, for the weak and the marginalized by power, for the universalization of the human condition, on earth as much as in heaven.

A difficult profile for a capitalist who dedicates six days of the week to the accumulation of money and half a day to clean his conscience in church; who exercises a strange compassion (so different from solidarity) that consists in helping the world by imposing his reasons like it or not.

Even though Jesus may be today the principal instrument of conservatives who grasp at power, it is still difficult to sustain that he was not a revolutionary. To be precise he did not die for having been complacent with the political power of the moment. Power does not kill or torture its bootlickers; it rewards them. For the others remains the greater prize: dignity. And I believe that few if any figures in history show more dignity and commitment with all of humanity than Jesus of Nazareth, who one day will have to be brought down from the cross.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

La privatización de Dios

A la medida del consumidor

En el siglo XVII, el genial matemático Blaise Pascal escribió que los hombres nunca hacen el mal con tanto placer como cuando lo hacen por convicciones religiosas. Esta idea —de un hombre profundamente religioso— tuvo diferentes variaciones desde entonces. Durante el siglo pasado, los mayores crímenes contra la humanidad fueron promovidos, con orgullo y pasión, en nombre del Progreso, de la Justicia y de la Libertad. En nombre del Amor, puritanos y moralistas organizaron el odio, la opresión y la humillación; en nombre de la vida, los líderes y profetas derramaron la muerte por vastas regiones del planeta. Actualmente, Dios ha vuelto a ser la principal excusa para ejercitar el odio y la muerte, ocultando las ambiciones de poder, los intereses terrenales y subterrenales tras sagradas invocaciones. De esta forma, reduciendo cada tragedia en el planeta a la milenaria y simplificada tradición de la lucha del Bien contra el Mal, de Dios contra el Demonio, se legitima el odio, la violencia y la muerte. De otra forma, no podríamos entender cómo hombres y mujeres se inclinan para rezar con orgullo y fanatismo, con hipócrita humildad, como si fuesen ángeles puros, modelos de moralidad, al tiempo que esconden entre sus ropas la pólvora o el cheque extendido para la muerte. Y si sus líderes son conscientes del fraude, sus súbditos no son menos responsables por estúpidos, no son menos responsables de tantos crímenes y matanzas que explotan cada día, promovidos por criminales convicciones metafísicas, en nombre de Dios y la Moral —cuando no en nombre de una raza, de una cultura y de una larga tradición recién estrenada, hecha a medida de la ambición y los odios presentes.

El imperio de las simplificaciones

Sí, podemos creer en los pueblos. Podemos creer que son capaces de las creaciones más asombrosas —como será un día su propia liberación—; y de estupideces inconmensurables también, disimuladas siempre por un interesado discurso complaciente que procura anular la crítica y la provocación a la mala conciencia. Pero, ¿cómo llegamos a tantas negligencias criminales? ¿De dónde sale tanto orgullo en este mundo donde la violencia aumenta cada vez más y cada vez más gente dice haber escuchado a Dios?

La historia política nos demuestra que una simplificación es más poderosa y es mejor aceptada por la vasta mayoría de una sociedad que una problematización. Para un político o para un líder espiritual, por ejemplo, es una muestra de debilidad admitir que la realidad es compleja. Si su adversario procede despojando el problema de sus contradicciones y lo presenta ante el público como una lucha del Bien contra el Mal, sin duda tendrá más posibilidades de triunfar. Al fin y al cabo la educación básica y primaria de nuestro tiempo está basada en la publicidad del consumo o en la sumisión permisiva; elegimos y compramos aquello que nos soluciona los problemas, rápido y barato, aunque el problema sea creado por la solución, aunque el problema continúe siendo real y la solución siga siendo virtual. Sin embargo, una simplificación no elimina la complejidad del problema analizado sino que, por el contrario, produce mayores y a veces trágicas consecuencias. Negar una enfermedad no la cura; la empeora.

¿Por qué no hablamos de los por qué?

Tratemos ahora de problematizar un fenómeno social cualquiera. Sin duda, no llegaremos al fondo de su complejidad, pero podemos tener una idea del grado de simplificación con el que es tratado diariamente, no siempre de forma inocente.

Comencemos con un breve ejemplo. Consideremos el caso de un hombre que viola y mata a una niña. Tomo este ejemplo no sólo por ser uno de los crímenes más aborrecibles que podemos considerar, junto con la tortura, sino porque representa una maldita costumbre criminal en todas nuestras sociedades, aún en aquellas que se jactan de su virtuosismo moral.

En primer lugar, tenemos un crimen. Más allá de los significados de “crimen” y de “castigo”, podemos valorar el acto en sí mismo, es decir, no necesitamos recurrir a la genealogía del criminal y de su víctima, no necesitamos investigar sobre los orígenes de la conducta del criminal para valorar el lecho en sí. Tanto la violación como el asesinato deben ser castigados por la ley, por el resto de la sociedad. Y punto. Desde este punto de vista, no hay discusiones.

Muy bien. Ahora imaginemos que en un país determinado la cantidad de violaciones y asesinatos se duplica en un año y luego vuelve a duplicarse al año siguiente. Una simplificación sería reducir el nuevo fenómeno al hecho criminal antes descrito. Es decir, una simplificación sería entender que la solución al problema sería no dejar ni uno solo de los crímenes impunes. Dicho de una tercer forma, una simplificación sería no reconocer el fenómeno social  detrás de un hecho delictivo individual. Un análisis más a fondo del primer caso podría revelarnos una infancia dolorosa, marcada por los abusos sexuales contra el futuro abusador, contra el futuro criminal. Esta observación, de ningún modo quitaría valoración criminal al hecho en sí, tal como lo anotamos más arriba, pero serviría para comenzar a ver la complejidad de un problema que amenaza con ser simplificado al extremo de perpetuarlo. A partir de este análisis psicológico del individuo, seguramente pasaríamos a advertir otro tipo de implicaciones referidas a su propio contexto, como por ejemplo las condiciones económicas de una determinada clase social sumergida, su explotación o su estigmatización moral a través del resto de la sociedad, la violencia moral y la humillación de la miseria, sus escalas de valores construidas según un aparato de producción, reproducción y consumo contradictorio, por instituciones sociales como una educación pública que no los ayuda más de lo que los humilla, ciertas organizaciones religiosas que han creado el pecado para los pobres al tiempo que los usan para ganarse el Paraíso, los medios de comunicación, la publicidad, las contradicciones laborales… y así sucesivamente.

De la misma forma podemos entender el terrorismo de nuestro tiempo. Está fuera de discusión (o debería estarlo) el valor criminal de un acto terrorista en sí mismo. Matar es siempre una desgracia, una maldición histórica. Pero matar inocentes y a gran escala no tiene justificación ni perdón de ningún tipo. Por lo tanto, renunciar al castigo de quienes lo promueven sería a su vez un acto de cobardía y una flagrante concesión a la impunidad.

No obstante, también aquí debemos recordar la advertencia inicial. Entender un fenómeno histórico y social como la consecuencia de la existencia de “malos” en la Tierra, es una simplificación excesivamente ingenua o, de lo contrario, es una simplificación astutamente ideológica que, al evitar un análisis integral —histórico, económico, de poder— excluye a los administradores del significado: los buenos.

No vamos a entrar a analizar, en estas breves reflexiones, cómo se llega a identificar a un determinado grupo y no a otros con el calificativo de “terroristas”. Para ello bastaría con recomendar la lectura de Roland Barthes —por mencionar sólo un clásico. Vamos a asumir el significado restringido del término, que es el que han consolidado los medios de prensa y el resto de las narraciones políticas.

No obstante, aún así, si recurriésemos a la idea de que el terrorismo existe porque existen criminales en el mundo, tendríamos que pensar que en los últimos tiempos ha habido una cosecha excesiva de seres malvados. Lo cual se encuentra explícito en el discurso de todos los gobiernos de los países afectados por el fenómeno. Pero si fuera verdad que hoy en nuestro mundo hay más malos que antes, seguramente no será por gracia de Dios sino por un devenir histórico que ha producido tal fenómeno. Ningún fenómeno histórico se produce por azar y, por lo tanto, creer que matando a los terroristas se eliminará el terrorismo en el mundo no sólo es una simplificación necia, sino que, al negar un origen histórico al problema, al presentarlo como ahistórico, como producto puro del Mal, incluso como la lucha entre dos “esencias” teológicas apartadas de cualquier contexto político, económico y social provocan un agravamiento trágico. Es una forma de no enfrentar el problema, de no atacar sus profundas raíces.

En muchas ocasiones no se puede prescindir de la violencia. Por ejemplo, si alguien nos ataca parecería lícito que nos defendamos con el mismo grado de violencia. Seguramente un verdadero cristiano ofrecería la otra mejilla antes que promover una reacción violenta; no obstante, si reaccionara con violencia ante una agresión no se le podría negar el derecho, aunque esté en contradicción con uno de los mandamientos de Cristo. Pero si una persona o un gobierno nos dice que la violencia se reducirá derramando más violencia sobre los malos —y afectando de paso a inocentes—, no sólo está negando la búsqueda del origen de ese fenómeno, sino que además estará consolidándolo o, al menos, legitimándolo ante la vista de quienes sufren las consecuencias.

Castigar a los culpables de la violencia es un acto de justicia. Sostener que la violencia existe sólo porque existen los violentos es un acto de ignorancia o de manipulación ideológica.

Si se continúa simplificando el problema, sosteniendo que se trata de un conflicto producido por la “incompatibilidad” de dos concepciones religiosas —como si alguna de ellas no hubiese estado ahí desde hace siglos—, como si se tratase de una simple guerra donde el triunfo se deduce de la derrota final del enemigo, se llevará al mundo a una guerra intercontinental. Si se busca seriamente el origen y la motivación del problema —el “por qué”— y se actúa eliminándolo o atenuándolo, seguramente asistiremos al relajamiento de una tensión que cada día es mayor. No al final de la violencia y la injusticia del mundo, pero al menos se evitará una desgracia de proporciones inimaginables.

El análisis del “origen de la violencia” no tendría mucho valor si se produjese y se consumiese dentro de una universidad. Deberá ser un problema de titulares, un problema a discutir desapasionadamente en los bares y en las calles. Simultáneamente, habrá que reconocer, una vez más, que necesitamos un verdadero diálogo. No reiniciar la farsa diplomática, sino un diálogo entre pueblos que comienzan peligrosamente a verse como enemigos, como amenazas, unos de otros —una discusión, más bien, basada en una profunda y aplastante ignorancia del otro y de sí mismo—. Es urgente un diálogo doloroso pero valiente, donde cada uno de nosotros reconozcamos nuestros prejuicios y nuestros egoísmos. Un diálogo que prescinda del fanatismo religioso —islámico y cristiano— tan de moda en estos días, con pretensiones de mesianismo y purismo moral. Un diálogo, en fin, aunque le pese a los sordos que no quieren oír.

El Dios verdadero

Según los verdaderos fieles y la religión verdadera, sólo puede haber un Dios verdadero, Dios. Algunos afirman que el verdadero Dios es Uno y es Tres al mismo tiempo, pero a juzgar por las evidencias Dios es Uno y es Muchos más. El verdadero Dios es único pero con políticas diferentes según los intereses de los verdaderos fieles. Cada uno es el Dios verdadero, cada uno mueve a sus fieles contra los fieles de los otros dioses que son siempre dioses falsos aunque cada uno sea el Dios verdadero. Cada Dios verdadero organiza la virtud de cada pueblo virtuoso sobre la base de las verdaderas costumbres y la verdadera Moral. Existe una sola Moral basada en el Dios verdadero, pero como existen múltiples Dios verdadero también existen múltiples Moral verdadera, una sola de la cual es verdaderamente verdadera.

Pero ¿cómo saber cuál es la verdadera verdad? Los métodos de prueba son discutibles; lo que no se discute es la praxis probatoria: el desprecio, la amenaza, la opresión y, por las dudas, la muerte. La muerte verdadera siempre es el recurso final e inevitable de la verdad verdadera, que procede del Dios verdadero, para salvar a la verdadera Moral y, sobre todo, a los verdaderos fieles.

Sí, a veces dudo de lo verdadero y sé que la duda ha sido maldecida por todas las religiones, por todas las teologías y por todos los discursos políticos. A veces dudo, pero es probable que Dios no desprecie mi duda. Debe estar muy ocupado entre tanta obviedad, ante tanto orgullo, entre tanta moralidad, detrás de tantos ministros que se han apropiado de su palabra, secuestrándolo en un edificio cualquiera para actuar puertas afuera sin obstáculos.

© Jorge Majfud

Athens, diciembre 2004

The Privatization of God

Custom-made for the consumer

In the 17th century, the mathematics genius Blaise Pascal wrote that men never do evil with greater pleasure than when they do it with religious conviction. This idea – from a deeply religious man – has taken a variety of different forms since. During the last century, the greatest crimes against humanity were promoted, with pride and passion, in the name of Progress, of Justice and of Freedom. In the name of Love, Puritans and moralists organized hatred, oppression and humiliation; in the name of Life, leaders and prophets spilled death over vast regions of the planet. Presently, God has come to be the main excuse for excercises in hate and death, hiding political ambitions, earthly and infernal interests behind sacred invocations. In this way, by reducing each tragedy on the planet to the millenarian and simplified tradition of the struggle between Good and Evil, of God against the Devil, hatred, violence and death are legitimated. There is no other way to explain how men and women are inclined to pray with fanatical pride and hypocritical humility, as if they were pure angels, models of morality, all the while hiding gunpowder in their clothing, or a check made out to death. And if the leaders are aware of the fraud, their subjects are no less responsible for being stupid, no less culpable for their criminal metaphysical convictions, in the name of God and Morality – when not in the name of a race, of a culture – and from a long tradition, recently on exhibit, custom-fit to the latest in hatred and ambition.

Empire of the simplifications

Yes, we can believe in the people. We can believe that they are capable of the most astounding creations – as will be one day their own liberation – and also of incommensurable stupidities, these latter always concealed by a complacent and self-interested discourse that manages to nullify criticism and any challenge to bad conscience. But, how did we come to such criminal negligence? Where does so much pride come from in a world where violence grows daily and more and more people claim to have heard the voice of God?

Political history demonstrates that a simplification is more powerful and better received by the vast majority of a society than is a problematization. For a politician or for a spiritual leader, for example, it is a show of weakness to admit that reality is complex. If one’s adversary expunges from a problem all of its contradictions and presents it to the public as a struggle between Good and Evil, the adversary undoubtedly is more likely to triumph. In the final analysis, the primary lesson of our time is grounded in commercial advertising or in permissive submission: we elect and we buy that which solves our problems for us, quickly and cheaply, even though the problem might be created by the solution, and even though the problem might continue to be real while the solution is never more than virtual. Nonetheless, a simplification does not eliminate the complexity of the problem in question, but rather, on the contrary, produces greater problems, and sometimes tragic consequences. Denying a disease does not cure it; it makes it worse.

Why don’t we talk about why?

Let’s try now to problematize some social phenomenon. Undoubtedly, we will not plumb the full depths of its complexity, but we can get an idea of the degree of simplification with which it is treated on a daily basis, and not always innocently.

Let’s start with a brief example. Consider the case of a man who rapes and kills a young girl. I take this example not only because it is, along with torture, one of the most abhorrent crimes imaginable, but because it represents a common criminal practice in all societies, even those that boast of their special moral virtues.

First of all, we have a crime. Beyond the semantics of “crime” and “punishment,” we can evaluate the act on its own merits, without, that is, needing to recur to a genealogy of the criminal and of his victim, or needing to research the origins of the criminal’s conduct. Both the rape and the murder should be punished by the law, and by the rest of society. And period. On this view, there is no room for discussion.

Very well. Now let’s imagine that in a given country the number of rapes and murders doubles in a particular year and then doubles again the year after that. A simplification would be to reduce the new phenomenon to the criminal deed described above. That is to say, a simplification would be to understand that the solution to the problem would be to not let a single one of these crimes go unpunished. Stated in a third way, a simplification would be to not recognize the social realities behind the individual criminal act. A more in-depth analysis of the first case could reveal to us a painful childhood, marked by the sexual abuse of the future abuser, of the future criminal. This observation would not in any way overturn the criminality of the deed itself, just as evaluated above, but it would allow us to begin to see the complexity of a problem that a simplification threatens to perpetuate. Starting from this psychological analysis of the individual, we could certainly continue on to observe other kinds of implications arising from the same criminal’s circumstances, such as, for example, the economic conditions of a specific social underclass, its exploitation and moral stigmatization by the rest of society, the moral violence and humiliation of its misery, its scales of moral value constructed in accordance with an apparatus of production, reproduction and contradictory consumption, by social institutions like a public education system that helps the poor less than it humiliates them, certain religious organizations that have created sin for the poor while using the latter to earn Paradise for themselves, the mass media, advertising, labor contradictions… and so on.

We can understand terrorism in our time in the same way. The criminality of an act of terrorism is not open to discussion (or it shouldn’t be). Killing is always a disgrace, a historical curse. But killing innocents and on a grand scale can have no justification or pardon of any kind. Therefore, to renounce punishment for those who promote terrorism is an act of cowardice and a flagrant concession to impunity.

Nevertheless, we should also remember here our initial caveat. Understanding a social and historical phenomenon as a consequence of the existence of “bad guys” on Earth is an extremely naive simplification or, to the contrary, an ideologically astute simplification that, by avoiding integrated analysis – historical, economic, political – exempts the administrators of the meaning of “bad”: the good guys.

We will not even begin to analyze, in these brief reflections, how one comes to identify one particular group and not others with the qualifier “terrorist.” For that let it suffice to recommend a reading of Roland Barthes – to mention just one classic source. We will assume the restricted meaning of the term, which is the one assumed by the press and the mainstream political narratives.

Even so, if we resort to the idea that terrorism exists because criminals exist in the world, we would have to think that in recent times there has been an especially abundant harvest of wicked people. (An idea explicitly present in the official discourse of all the governments of countries affected by the phenomenon.) But if it were true that in our world today there are more bad people than before, surely it isn’t by the grace of God but via historical developments that such a phenomenon has come to be. No historical circumstance is produced by chance, and therefore, to believe that killing terrorists will eliminate terrorism from the world is not only a foolish simplification but, by denying a historical origin for the problem, by presenting it as ahistorical, as purely a product of Evil, even as a struggle between two theological “essences” removed from any social, economic and political context, provokes a tragic worsening of the situation. It is a way of not confronting the problem, of not attacking its deep roots.

On many occasions violence is unavoidable. For example, if someone attacks us it would seem legitimate to defend ourselves with an equal degree of violence. Certainly a true Christian would offer the other cheek before instigating a violent reaction; however, if he were to respond violently to an act of aggression no one could deny him the right, even though he might be contradicting one of the commandments of Christ. But if a person or a government tells us that violence will be diminished by unleashing violence against the bad guys – affecting the innocent in the process – not only does this deny the search for a cause for the violence, it also will serve to strengthen it, or at least legitimate it, in the eyes of those who suffer the consequences.

Punishing those responsible for the violence is an act of justice. Claiming that violence exists only because violent people exist is an act of ignorance or of ideological manipulation.

If one continues to simplify the problem, insisting that it consists of a conflict produced by the “incompatibility” of two religious views – as if one of them had not been present for centuries – as if it were a matter of a simple kind of war where victory is achieved only with the total defeat of the enemy, one will drag the entire world into an intercontinental war. If one genuinely seeks the social origin and motivation of the problem – the “why” – and acts to eliminate and attenuate it, we will most assuredly witness a relaxing of the tension that is currently escalating. We will not see the end of violence and injustice in the world, but at least misfortune of unimaginable proportions will be avoided.

The analysis of the “origin of violence” would be useless if it were produced and consumed only within a university. It should be a problem for the headlines, a problem to be discussed dispassionately in the bars and in the streets. At the same time, we will have to recognize, once again, that we need a genuine dialogue. Not a return to the diplomatic farce, but a dialogue between peoples who have begun dangerously to see one another as enemies, as threats – a disagreement, really, based on a profound and crushing ignorance of the other and of oneself. What is urgent is a painful but courageous dialogue, where each one of us might recognize our prejudice and our self-centeredness. A dialogue that dispenses with the religious fanaticism – both Muslim and Christian – so in vogue these days, with its messianic and moralizing pretensions. A dialogue, in short, to spite the deaf who refuse to hear.

The True God

According to the true believers and the true religion, there can be only one true God, God. Some claim that the true God is One and he is Three at the same time, but judging by the evidence, God is One and Many more. The true God is unique but with different politics according to the interests of the true believers. Each one is the true God, each one moves the faithful against the faithful of other gods, which are always false gods even though each one is someone’s true God. Each true God organizes the virtue of each virtuous people on the basis of true customs and the true Morality. There is only one Morality based on the true God, but since there is more than one true God there is also more than one true Morality, only one of which is truly true.

But, how do we know which one is the true truth? The proper methods for proof are disputable; what is not disputed is the current practice: scorn, threats, oppression and, when in doubt, death. True death is always the final and inevitable recourse of the true truth, which comes from the true God, in order to save the true Morality and, above all, the true believers.

Yes, at times I have my doubts about what is true, and I know that doubt has been condemned by all religions, by all theologies, and by all political discourses. At times I have my doubts, but it is likely that God does not hold my doubt in contempt. He must be very busy concerning himself with so much certainty, so much pride, so much morality, behind so many ministers who have taken control of his word, holding Him hostage in a building somewhere so as to be able to conduct their business in public without obstacles.

Translated by Bruce Campbell.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer. His most recent novel is La Reina de América (Baile de Sol, 2002).

¿Para qué sirve la literatura?

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cine pilitico

don quijote

À quoi sert la littérature ? (French)

What good is literature, anyway? (English)

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (II)

¿Para qué sirve la literatura?

Estoy seguro que muchas veces habrán escuchado esa demoledora inquisición “¿Bueno, y para qué sirve la literatura?”, casi siempre en boca de algún pragmático hombre de negocios; o, peor, de algún Goering de turno, de esos semidioses que siempre esperan agazapados en los rincones de la historia, para en los momentos de mayor debilidad salvar a la patria y a la humanidad quemando libros y enseñando a ser hombres a los hombres. Y si uno es escritor, palo, ya que nada peor para una persona con complejos de inferioridad que la presencia cercana de alguien que escribe. Porque si bien es cierto que nuestro financial time ha hecho de la mayor parte de la literatura una competencia odiosa con la industria del divertimento, todavía queda en el inconsciente colectivo la idea de que un escritor es un subversivo, un aprendiz de brujo que anda por aquí y por allá metiendo el dedo en la llaga, diciendo inconveniencias, molestando como un niño travieso a la hora de la siesta. Y si algún valor tiene, de hecho lo es. ¿No ha sido ésa, acaso, la misión más profunda de toda la literatura de los últimos quinientos años? Por no remontarme a los antiguos griegos, ya a esta altura inalcanzables por un espíritu humano que, como un perro, finalmente se ha cansado de correr detrás del auto de su amo y ahora se deja arrastrar por la soga que lo une por el pescuezo.

Sin embargo, la literatura aún está ahí; molestando desde el arranque, ya que para decir sus verdades le basta con un lápiz y un papel. Su mayor valor seguirá siendo el mismo: el de no resignarse a la complacencia del pueblo ni a la tentación de la barbarie. Para todo eso están la política y la televisión. Por lo tanto, sí, podríamos decir que la literatura sirve para muchas cosas. Pero como sabemos que a nuestros inquisidores de turno los preocupa especialmente las utilidades y los beneficios, deberíamos recordarles que difícilmente un espíritu estrecho albergue una gran inteligencia. Una gran inteligencia en un espíritu estrecho tarde o temprano termina ahogándose. O se vuelve rencorosa y perversa. Pero, claro, una gran inteligencia, perversa y rencorosa, difícilmente pueda comprender esto. Mucho menos, entonces, cuando ni siquiera se trata de una gran inteligencia.

© Jorge Majfud

Montevideo

Diciembre de 2000

Litterae (Chile)


What good is literature, anyway?

I am sure that you have heard many times this loaded query: “Well, what good is literature, anyway?” almost always from a pragmatic businessman or, at worst, from a Goering of the day, one of those pseudo-demigods that are always hunched down in a corner of history, waiting for the worst moments of weakness in order to “save” the country and humankind by burning books and teaching men how to be “real” men. And, if one is a freethinking writer during such times, one gets a beating, because nothing is worse for a domineering man with an inferiority complex than being close to somebody who writes. Because if it is true that our financial times have turned most literature into a hateful contest with the leisure industry, the collective unconscious still retains the idea that a writer is an apprentice sorcerer going around touching sore spots, saying inconvenient truths, being a naughty child at naptime. And if his/her work has some value, in fact he/she is all that. Perhaps the deeper mission of literature during the last five centuries has been precisely those things. Not to mention the ancient Greeks, now unreachable for a contemporary human spirit that, as a running dog, has finally gotten exhausted and simply hangs by its neck behind its owner’s moving car.

However, literature is still there; being troublesome from the beginning, because to say its own truths it only needs a modest pen and a piece of paper. Its greatest value will continue to be the same: not to resign itself to the complacency of the people nor to the temptation of barbarism. Politics and television are for that.

Then, yes, we can say literature is good for many things. But, because we know that our inquisitors of the day are most interested in profits and benefits, we should remind them that a narrow spirit can hardly shelter a great intelligence. A great intelligence trapped within a narrow spirit sooner or later chokes. Or it becomes spiteful and vicious. But, of course, a great intelligence, spiteful and vicious, can hardly understand this. Much less, then, when it is not even a great intelligence.

© Jorge Majfud