A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land (and Other Tales of Exile)

I think it was Emerson who said that sometimes a scream is better than a thesis. This passage from a New York Times Op-Ed by Peter Wehner (yes, one and the same) suggests that sometimes an inward scream is better than a worked-out blog post.

At its core, Christianity teaches that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season in life, has inherent dignity and worth. “Follow justice and justice alone,” Deuteronomy says, “so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.” The attitude of Thrasymachus is foreign to biblical Christianity. So is Trumpism. In embracing it, evangelical Christians are doing incalculable damage to their witness.

“So that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.” No questions to be asked on what was required to get it.

It may seem incongruous to be quoting Deuteronomy to explicate the teachings of “Christianity.” But recall the Gospel of St Matthew: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Matthew, 5:17.

I sometimes wonder whether I overdo things here, harping over and over on the same themes. But then I wonder whether anyone notices things like this: we’ve gotten so used to hearing accolades for “Western Civilization” that no one seems to notice that the accolades continue when genocide, expropriation, and conquest are praised as the epitome of justice.

It sounds unrelated, but I don’t think it is: A colleague of mine in the counseling psychology program here at Felician just left the program to do a two-year stint for the Peace Corps job in the Ukraine. “It’s a two-year thing,” he said, “but I really don’t intend to come back. I can’t take it here anymore. I’ll just find a way to stay there, even after the Peace Corps job is over. I’m not coming back to Jersey. I just can’t do it. I can’t live here anymore.”

This isn’t some granola-eating leftist, by the way. My colleague is an ex-Marine, a veteran from the Iraq War who saw front-line combat there. I don’t want to put words in his mouth (he’s a man of very few words) but it sounded like he was saying that he’d fought for a country he could no longer bear to live in.

I don’t fucking blame him. Few people have the courage to live their disgust. In a milieu that leaves little to admire, I doff my cap to someone who does.

4 thoughts on “A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land (and Other Tales of Exile)

  1. I think the biblical quotation bit might be a little more complicated than you allow, but not much. Figurative interpretation of the violent bits of the Old Testament has been part of the mainstream in Christianity since the early centuries; thinkers like the Cappadocians and Augustine could see that, taken literally, the texts were simply incompatible with the conception of God that they held in part on the basis of Greek metaphysics but in part on the basis of a not implausible reading of the New Testament. I say this not because I find that sort of figurative interpretation defensible, but because as a matter of what the mainstream of Christian doctrine is and has been for much of its history, Wehner is right that it affirms the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. Yes, it’s often failed to be consistent with itself on this point, and yes, particular Christian thinkers have often found rationalizations for large scale, systematic injustice. But unless we side with the fundamentalists who insist that true Christianity is to be found in a literal interpretation of the Bible, the genocidal mania apparent in the Torah does not pose a real counter-example to Wehner’s claim. Nor do I think that Jesus’ claim about fulfilling the law makes it a counter-example; whatever that’s supposed to mean, it obviously doesn’t mean adhering strictly to the letter of the Mosaic law, since Jesus and his followers were constantly violating the letter of the Mosaic law. For these reasons, I think it’s a bit unfair to describe Wehner as celebrating conquest, expropriation, and genocide as the epitome of justice.

    So far as your larger point is concerned, though, I’m with you. That Wehner can quote those lines without so much as a hint of discomfort about their context does, I think, suggest a willingness to ignore the ugly and horrendous parts of the Christian (and, of course, Jewish) tradition simply because it is, well, “ours.” Much the same attitude is not uncommon among champions of “Western civilization,” as you note. What I find most infuriating about this tendency, though, is that it feeds the fire of the opposite attitude, one that dismisses “Western civilization” and even Christianity as nothing more than evil superstition, as though the only thing in the Bible or Western civilization were conquest, expropriation, and genocide. This is one reason why a whole generation of Classicists have been too embarrassed to say generally positive things about Greek and Roman culture, because to do so runs the risk of seeming to side with the people who neglect what was awful about it; and this generation of Classicists may well kill the tradition of Classical education by presenting it in mostly negative terms and allowing appreciation and love of classical literature to become the ideological property of conservatives. I know full well that you don’t endorse the equally simpleminded negative view, but objecting to the simple pro-Judaeo-Christian-West mindset in the terms you do here points in that direction.

    As I watch these election results and find myself simultaneously horrified that someone like Trump could have such success and uncomfortably relieved that Clinton is trouncing Sanders, I find it difficult to be optimistic about the future of our country. But I’m not so sure that that particular bit of pessimism isn’t just presentist bias. I don’t think we can deny that Trump represents something more sinister and disgusting than has been allowed to enter mainstream political discourse in our lifetimes, but I’m not so sure America is any stupider or simpleminded than it’s ever been. That’s not to say that I think it’s any better than you suggest; it’s just to say that I am a pessimist and I don’t romanticize the past, and so I’m not inclined to despair.

    Your colleague’s decision might be the right one for him, and there may be a lot to be said for living as an outsider in a foreign community when you can’t feel at home in your own anymore. But I don’t think he’s likely to find many places that are really better overall. Even if we restrict ourselves to the problem of rising crypto-fascism in the U.S., it’s worth remembering that it’s not so crypto in France, Germany, the UK, Greece, or many other places. But on the whole, I think moving elsewhere will just be exchanging one set of problems for another. For any given individual, one of those sets may be decisively preferable. We do, after all, suffer from our own special problems. But the notion that we are distinctive among developed countries in suffering from serious social, cultural, and political problems is, I think, just a pious leftist myth (oh, if only we were like Scandinavia!).

    Then again, if your colleague is just talking about getting out of New Jersey, then I can’t blame him at all.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t agree on the issue of Wehner’s use of the text from Deuteronomy. You say,

      Figurative interpretation of the violent bits of the Old Testament has been part of the mainstream in Christianity since the early centuries; thinkers like the Cappadocians and Augustine could see that, taken literally, the texts were simply incompatible with the conception of God that they held in part on the basis of Greek metaphysics but in part on the basis of a not implausible reading of the New Testament.

      I would just insist that Deuteronomy is a text within the Hebrew Bible, and reading of it I’ve given is consistent with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and is a plausible reading of the Hebrew Bible. As far as I can see, figurative readings of God’s command to subjugate the Promised Land flout that text in a transparent way–and that’s the relevant text. The Israelites weren’t metaphorically in Egypt, and couldn’t metaphorically have escaped it. They couldn’t metaphorically enter a physical location metaphorically filled with other people, and couldn’t metaphorically kill or dispossess them. Parts of the text are no doubt amenable to a figurative reading, but not the essential plot line as such.

      If we read the text for what it actually says, its meaning is clear enough: the Israelites are commanded to flee Egypt,to move eastward, conquer the land, subjugate its inhabitants, and in many cases to kill them all. I don’t there’s any intelligible way to read these passages as saying anything but that. I also think it’s an understatement to say that there are violent “bits” in the Hebrew Bible. Whole books of the Hebrew Bible are devoted to practically nothing but violence on a scale and intensity that outstrips the Iliad and far outstrips anything in the Qur’an. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua by themselves constitute a bloodbath about the length of the whole of the Qur’an.

      As far as I can see, figurative readings of the text arise from a motivation that amounts to transparent question-begging and special pleading. They amount to saying:

      In reading the text before me, I start with the assumption that whatever the words actually say, they must somehow end up being compatible with substantive beliefs p, q, and r that I bring to the text, but that are entirely extraneous to it, and seem flatly to be denied by it. So when the words say something I can’t stomach, I’ll read them so that they say something I can stomach.

      I don’t think that a view like the preceding is a legitimate response to someone who says, “Actually, when you endorse the claims of the text, it’s perfectly fair to saddle you with what it actually says, not with what would be required to make it compatible with the New Testament or extraneous metaphysical commitments.”

      You don’t have to be a fundamentalist to insist on textual fidelity. After all, how many Christians would be content to offer or accept a “figurative” reading of the Crucifixion which suggests that Jesus didn’t really walk down a physical path called the Via Dolorosa and wasn’t physically crucified on a wooden cross–he just had a panic attack that he experienced as subjectively excruciating? Even if there had been a two thousand year tradition of reading the text that way, it’s a patently absurd reading, and can’t rule out more plausible readings.

      I don’t agree with this, either:

      Nor do I think that Jesus’ claim about fulfilling the law makes it a counter-example; whatever that’s supposed to mean, it obviously doesn’t mean adhering strictly to the letter of the Mosaic law, since Jesus and his followers were constantly violating the letter of the Mosaic law.

      I don’t think Jesus and his followers ever violate the letter of the Mosaic law. I think Jesus meant what he said: He came to complete the law, not to overturn it or violate it. In other words, Jesus’s claim in the Sermon on the Mount is not that his commandments retrospectively reach backward in time and repeal the Mosaic law for the followers of Moses and Joshua (etc.). His commandments leave the legitimacy of those commandments in tact for those for whom God intended them. But now a new law has been revealed to a new set of addressees, so that the new law supersedes the old law for the new addressees, saying nothing about the legitimacy of the old law with respect to those for whom it was intended.

      So the new addressees are not violating the Mosaic law at all. The Mosaic law no longer applies to them; so insofar as they’ve heard the gospel, they’re not in a position to violate old law. It has, by virtue of the gospel, been repealed (or amended) in favor of God’s Law 2.0. The new followers follow a new law that is (from Jesus’s perspective) not in the least incompatible with the old; the circumstances of the new addressees are simply different from those of the old, and therefore call for a new law.

      It’s notable that Jesus doesn’t say a word about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the Israelite conquests. He merely says that his followers ought to turn the other cheek rather than taking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc. But that is perfectly consistent with saying–and I think intentionally consistent with saying–that the followers of Moses and Joshua ought to have killed and dispossessed the inhabitants of ancient Palestine. It really is not open to Jesus to make the ethico-historical judgment that God the Father erred in commanding the Israelites as he did. If questioned, he would have to affirm that conquest was good and right for the Israelites, but is no longer a necessary part of God’s plan. Were Jesus to repudiate or criticize God’s commands to Moses and Joshua, he would be destroying the old law. But he does no such thing.

      I don’t dispute that Christianity “affirms the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.” But given its tortured relationship with the Hebrew Bible (along with the tortured things in it), its doing so is entangled in claims that flout that commitment. The point is not merely that the Church has flouted the quoted commitment, or that Christians have (though that’s true enough), but that there are tensions internal to Christianity itself that jeopardize a consistent commitment to it. Figurative readings of the Hebrew Bible really don’t resolve that problem. They just muddy the waters.

      This is not a comment on your view, but just a separate thought: I find particularly offensive that the same Jews and Christians who insist on figurative readings of the violent bits of the Hebrew Bible express great indignation when Muslims Muslims emulate them and come up with (equally ridiculous) figurative readings of the Qur’an. Figurative readings of Israelite conquest are typically considered “our” post-Enlightenment dispensation, the thing that makes “us” the civilized people “we” are–but similar readings of martyrdom in the Qur’an are considered a form of dishonesty, “stealth jihad” by dissimulation. Actually, I regard figurative readings of Scripture as nonsense and special pleading all ways round.

      My endorsement of my colleague’s decision was admittedly a little oblique, and could probably use some elaboration, but you and I are not really disagreeing much here. For one thing, I should reiterate that the conversation I had with him was brief, and there’s a danger here of my ascribing motivations to him that are really mine, not his. Also, I hadn’t meant to suggest that either of us were inclined to despair; what I meant was that both of us were inclined to disgust.

      It may well be that what he was reacting to was something specific to New Jersey. (He specifically said, “I can’t come back to Jersey.”) There is, I think, something particularly and distinctively nauseating about life in New Jersey, epitomized by our (mercifully absent) governor–a boorishness, brutishness, and vacuity that is sui generis, and motivates a desire to flee.

      I didn’t mean to suggest that our Trumpian moment was sui generis. After all, my view is that Trump’s ascendancy has been a long time in coming, and is ultimately, a kind of reductio ab absurdum of Republican politics. In my view, the attitudes in question have built up gradually over decades. Republicans lionize Reagan, but Reagan was in many ways a proto-Trump. So were Goldwater, J. Edgar Hoover, and Joseph McCarthy. Though he was a Democrat, so was George Wallace. Trump is just the most ridiculous member of this set. He may not be the most sinister; he’s just the most sinister I’ve had to experience as an adult. (I experienced Wallace and Reagan when I was a kid, but not the others.) But the point is, he is a reductio ad absurdum of the trend, and the trend has reached its reductio in real time, right before our eyes. In my case that unavoidably gives rise to contempt for his followers in the here and now. There may not be much of a difference between McCarthy and Trump, but McCarthy is long gone, and Trump is alive now. So he naturally elicits a more immediate reaction.

      Same point put another way: I heard someone say (in my presence), “I know Trump is a racist, but I’m going to vote for him anyway, because he’s a man of strength, and I like that.” This is exactly the conception of “strength” that Thrasymachus appeals to in Republic I (Wehner gets that right), and we now have solid empirical evidence of something that many of us have long suspected. It’s not an illusion: we really are surrounded by Thrasmachuses; at some level, they dot the landscape. And these are not people from the barrios of Managua, or the mean streets of Hebron, or people languishing in poverty in inner city Lahore or Mumbai. They’re our neighbors. They live under the same socio-economic conditions that we do. They’ve been educated in the same schools that we have. They just happen to lack any commitment whatsoever to anything that looks like epistemic virtue or justice. And yet it’s our fate to be saddled with them as fellow citizens. One wants to turn one’s back on such people and leave them behind.*

      I agree that if you go abroad, things aren’t necessarily better, and in many ways, they’re worse. I encountered more homophobia, more anti-Semitism, more pro-Soviet and pro-fascist propaganda, more anger, vengefulness and spite, and more overt sexism in two months spent among Palestinians and Jewish settlers than I do living in suburban New Jersey. (I also encountered more moral heroism and more virtue there–in different people, of course.) But whatever my commitments to peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, those people are not my fellow citizens. I don’t share a polity with them. Since I don’t, their sins don’t jeopardize what it means for me to be a politikon animal. Their sins are not a betrayal of my legitimate hopes, even when they’re worse than the sins of my fellow citizens. But the sins of my fellow citizens affect my flourishing in a psychologically deeper way. They’re not just an offense, but a betrayal.

      I’m sure this feeling is more intense in the case of a combat veteran than it can be in the case of an educator, but it exists in both cases. A Marine is sent to Iraq to fight “for his country.” It’s only when he gets back that he realizes what “for his country” really means. It means having fought–having put his life on hold and on the line–for many utterly unworthy “beneficiaries.” In an infernal irony, the war didn’t turn out to be clearly beneficial to anyone at home, and frankly, no one seems to have cared much about it. They just want to start a new one! In a case like that, going to Ukraine can make sense even if the Ukranians have their vices, simply because one doesn’t stand in the same relation to them as one’s fellow citizens. Whatever is wrong with them, they aren’t the vacuous idiots that one has fought for, who have forgotten the war, but who now demand that a new version of it be fought all over again.

      In my own case, I have to say that I really long to leave this country. It’s not practically feasible to do (I’d lose the investment I’ve made in my psychology degree if I did), but if it were feasible, I would do it. This is not because conditions abroad are necessarily better, but simply because they’re different, and going would get me away from the conditions that obtain here. If I lived in, say, Palestine, I would live under a military occupation. To get access to simple commodities that I take for granted (e.g., Mack’s ear plugs), I’d have to cross the Green Line and go shopping in Israel. I’ve already mentioned that many problematic attitudes prevail among Palestinians (as well as among Israelis), and the political climate is repressive where the Palestinian Authority has control. I would suffer a diminution of freedom. Open atheism would be impossible. So would the sexual freedom I take for granted (not that I have much use for sexual freedom). The authorities–Israeli or Palestinian–could close the blog down at will.

      The attraction of going is simply that I would get some distance on a pathology I’ve come to regard as distinctively American, and a kind of moral pollution that I find suffocating. I think of it as the civilizational variant of circumstantial moral luck. Circumstantial moral luck is luck in the circumstances in which one finds oneself. The civilizational variant goes like this: you find yourself born to a civilization which can in some sense be regarded as objectively superior to others; you then conclude that having been born into an objectively superior civilization, you, too, are objectively superior to others, where the superiority arises not by your having done anything to earn the title, but by a form of inherited civilizational aristocracy. Put in that stark form, the culpability may seem absurdly unsubtle, but I’ve come to realize that it comes in millions of variants, and after decades of immersion in it, I’ve come to find it unbearable, especially in fellow citizens with whom I supposedly share a common good. Americans really seem to believe that because the United States is a great place to live, Americans are, by virtue of that fact, morally virtuous people.

      My desire to leave the country is a desire to get some distance on that attitude, and in effect, to wash it off of me by dint of distance from it. I don’t deny that having landed somewhere else, I’ll encounter other unsavory attitudes. But they won’t have affected me for two or three decades, and they won’t be the attitudes of my fellow citizens. Keeping them at a distance is psychologically speaking an easier task.

      I don’t know how clear that all is. It’s a complex thought and I may not have done justice to it. But as you know, I’m on blogcation.



      *Just to give you a taste of who they are, read all the way through this item from the Guardian.

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      • I’m not quite sure where the root of our disagreement is here, but it may be that I’m misunderstanding the force of your original complaint. If the complaint is just that Christianity is incoherent and that the failure of many people even to confront the incoherence betokens a peculiarly infuriating sort of intellectual blindness and complacency, I agree. But I took you to be claiming that Christianity simply does not affirm the equal dignity of all human beings because of some texts in the Old Testament. When it comes to determining what the central doctrines of a religion are, your interpretation of their texts is frankly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if your reading can be shown to be objectively superior in every way, because the question isn’t whether the religion’s beliefs are true or justified or even coherent, but what they are. I think it is a peculiarly fundamentalist inclination to go read the text without any consideration of its history of interpretation and suppose that you can thereby determine what the religion’s central doctrines are now, or what it is committed to, etc. I also think that your interpretation of the texts is only marginally relevant to whether those doctrines are consistent or whether the texts jeopardize a consistent commitment to the doctrines; that depends on how adherents of that religion read those texts. Of course their interpretations might be utterly implausible, as I think figurative interpretations often are, and may leave all sorts of tensions that we rightly judge to render adherence to the religion irrational. But so long as what we mean by “jeopardizing a consistent commitment” is that the adherents themselves take themselves to have reasons that, as a matter of fact, push them in directions inconsistent with their other doctrinal commitments, then I don’t think Christianity as such faces this problem. Fundamentalists do, but biblical fundamentalism is very far from a dominant force in traditional Christian doctrine (as fundamentalists tirelessly complain with regard to traditional Christian doctrine!). If the question is about what is central to Christian doctrine and whether Christian doctrine inconsistently affirms the equal dignity of all human beings and the righteousness of genocide, then your reading of the texts doesn’t matter. If the question is whether the reading of the texts that Christians give in order to avoid taking on inconsistent commitments to genocide and human dignity is a plausible or even coherent reading of the texts, then I’m with you. But they’re different questions, and though it’s clear to me now that you weren’t out to deny that Christian doctrine affirms the equal dignity of all human beings, I’m not entirely sure whether you’re managing to avoid conflating questions about what the beliefs and commitments are and whether they are ultimately coherent or defensible.

        Alright, out of time and energy. Sorry to emphasize the disagreements, but we so rarely have them! But yes, #theproblemsofapoliticalanimal. Also, #besttitleofabookaboutAristotleever.


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