[Delivered at Bard College on November 15th 1999.]
Thank you for the kind invitation.
Let me go directly to the point: It is a well-known fact that the close-the-door button in most elevators is a totally dysfunctional placebo which is placed there just to give individuals the impression that they are somehow participating, contributing to the speed of the elevator journey. When we push this button the door closes in exactly the same time as when we just press the floor button without speeding up the process by pressing also the close-the-door button. This extreme and clear case of fake participation is, I claim, an appropriate metaphor [for] the participation of individuals in our post-modern political process. We are all the time asked by politicians to press such buttons. But some things are excluded. What is excluded from this participatory, multiculturalist, tolerant democracy?
In today’s predominant ideological perception, I’m tempted to claim work itself – that is to say manual labor as opposed to so-called symbolic activity – work, not sex is more and more becoming the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye. The tradition which goes back to Wagner’s opera, Rhinegold, or to Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, the tradition in which the working process takes place underground, in dark caves, today culminates in the millions of anonymous workers sweating in the Third World factories, from Chinese gulags to Indonesian assembly lines. In their invisibility the West can afford itself to babble about the so-called disappearing working class. Of course, it’s disappearing from here.
But what is crucial in this tradition is the equation of labor with crime, the idea that labor, hard work, is originally an indecent criminal activity to be hidden from the public eye. Significantly, we ask ourselves a simple question: Where in Hollywood films do we see still today the production process in all its intensity? I claim, as far as I remember, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, only at one place: in James Bond or similar films when the good guy, James Bond the agent, penetrates the fortress of the master criminal. And then you see it’s either the drug processing or putting together of some lethal weapon. That’s the only place where you see the production process. Of course, the function of the agent is then to explode, to destroy, to repress again this sight of production.
This, I think, is the necessary background if we want to approach properly the problematic of human rights today. So how are we to approach this problematic? I want to do something which may be a surprise to some of you. It’s no irony intended. I think the Christian legacy is all too precious to be left to, well, Christians themselves. So what I want to do is, in the first part of my talk, to propose a certain reading of Christianity, aiming to demonstrate how Christianity effectively provides the foundation to human rights and freedoms.
To put it in a somewhat simplified way – I simplify it very much, I know – there are two basic attitudes discernible in the history of religions along the axis of the opposition between the global and the universal: On the one hand, there is the pre-Christian pagan cosmos, the divine hierarchical order of cosmic principles which, when copied on the society, gives the image of a congruent edifice in which each member is at each/his/her own place. The supreme good is here the global balance of principles, while the evil stands for their derailment or derangement, for the excessive assertion of one principle to the detriment of other principles, of the masculine principle to the detriment of the feminine one, of reason to the detriment of feeling, and so on and so on. The cosmic balance is then reestablished through the work of justice which, with its inexorable necessity, sets things straight again by crushing the derailed element. With regard to the social body, an individual is good when he or she acts in accordance with his/her special place within the social edifice, when he respects nature which provides food and shelter, when he shows respect for his superiors who take care of him in a fatherly way, and so on and so on. And evil occurs when some particular strata or individuals are no longer satisfied with their proper place within the global order, when children no longer obey parents, when servants no longer obey their masters, when the wise ruler turns into a capricious, cruel tyrant, and so on.
So the very core of the pagan wisdom resides in the insight into this cosmic balance of hierarchically ordered principles, more precisely, the insight into the eternal circuit of the cosmic catastrophe, derailment, and the restoration of order through just punishment. Perhaps the most elaborated case of such a cosmic order is the ancient Hindu cosmology first copied onto the social order in the guise of the system of castes, and then onto the individual organism itself in the guise of the harmonious hierarchy of its organs: head, hands, abdomen, and so on. Today such an attitude is artificially resuscitated in the multitude of New Age approaches to nature, society, and so on and so on. So that’s the standard, traditional, pagan order. Again, being good means that you fully assume your proper place within some global order. But Christianity, and in its own way already – maybe, I’m not sure, I don’t know enough about it – Buddhism, introduce into this global balance, cosmic order, a principle totally foreign to it, a principle that, measured by the standards of the pagan cosmology, cannot but appear as a monstrous distortion, the principle according to which each individual has an immediate access to the universality of nirvana, or the Holy Spirit, or today, of human rights and freedoms. The idea is that I can participate in this universal dimension directly, irrespective of my specific particular place within the global order. For that reason, Buddha’s followers form a community of people who in one way or another have broken with the hierarchy of the social order, who started to treat this order as something fundamentally irrelevant. In his choice of disciples, Buddha pointedly ignored castes and, after some hesitation, true, even sexual difference. And do Christ’s scandalous words from Luke (14:26) look, not point, in the same direction? “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Here, of course, I claim we are not dealing with a simple brutal hatred demanded by a cruel and jealous god. Family relations stand here metaphorically for the entire social network, for any particular ethnic substance that determines my place in the global order of things. The hatred enjoined by Christ is therefore not any kind of dialectical opposite of love, but the direct expression of love. It is love itself that enjoins me to unplug, as it were, from my organic community into which I was born, or, as St. Paul put it, “There are neither men nor women, neither Jews nor Greeks.”