utopian genocide

“Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building…[Genocide] was promoted as a way not to create suffering but to alleviate it.  The specter of an absolute menace that requires absolute eradication binds leader and people in a hermetic utopian embrace, and the individual–always an annoyance to totality–ceases to exist.”

Philip Gourevitch, __We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families:  Stories From Rwanda___, 95.  
It is tempting to analyze a few aspects of contemporary American politics from this perspective (post-9/11 wars, the reasoning behind torture) but I will resist.  Instead, I want to think about the role and function of utopian thinking in Christian theology.  It isn’t something I’ve thought about–and Micah D., if you read this, you should let me know what you think.
Genocide builds community in two distinct ways.  First, it brings the community together against a common enemy, a plague or parasite that must be eliminated.  Secondly, the community is brought together for the sake of a better world.  The first aspect–being against an enemy–is subordinated to the second aspect–being for a new world.  The prospect of a new life, a new community, and a new world explains the necessity of being against the enemy.  After all, the enemy is the threat to this new order.  Genocide is never an end in itself, but a means to an end.  The end–the desired goal of genocide–is a new community and a better world (or perhaps a new situation for an existing community, again, for the sake of a better world).
One can trace this genocidal logic back even before colonization (which is where H. Arendt lodges it).  The genocidal logic was built into late-medieval Christian identity, in which Spain needed to expel the Muslims and use blood purity laws to keep track of Jewish converts in order to stabilize Christian European identity.  Right during this time–late 15th century–Spanish explorers started discovering “new” worlds.  Very quickly, these “new” worlds became spaces in which (and through which) Europe could build a new world (and through this new world, express its own identity).  Europe began the process of “reinventing Eden” (to use the title of a great book on the conquest of nature and peoples).  It was this quest for a new world–a new, better, harmonic, edenic world–that justified the abuses of those deemed “native” and the land on which they dwelled.  Acquiring the land was necessary for building a better world; civilizing the natives would bring them into this new world.  Those who were lost were unfit for this new world.  Some–Africans–were fit to labor for this world but must, like Moses perhaps, remain outside of the promised land:  they are useful for but unfit to live in the new world.
Since genocide is an exercise in the quest for a better world, is there any space for the utopian in Christian theology?  What do we make of the “kingdom of God”?  How do we rethink the story of fall/redemption given the way a genocidal impulse has been operating within this story since at least the late middle ages (redemption from the fall through spreading Christian civilization)?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says (in “History and Good [1]” from the __Ethics__), “Christ did not cause the world to cease being the world, and every action that seeks to confuse the world with the kingdom of God is a denial of both Christ and the world.  By grounding responsible action in Jesus Christ we reaffirm precisely the limits of such action.  Because we are dealing with worldly action, this responsibility has a limited scope.  No one has the responsibility of turning the world into the kingdom of God” (224).
For Bonhoeffer, every dream of utopia fails Christologically, for it fails to realize that in Christ, “the world that is passing away has been claimed by God” (224).  All human reality has already been taken on in Christ.  To try to build a new community ignores the fact that Christ has loved and claimed this already existing sinful community.  The community–as it presently exists–has been claimed by Jesus, and thus there is no reason to try to create the kingdom of God on earth.
But does not this claim by Jesus reconstitute the community?  Yes!  There is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Greek!  But doesn’t this reconstitution of the community in Christ enable the utopian project to begin afresh?  No!  Why?  Because the community is reshaped and formed by Christ (through the Spirit).  It is never a human work; the formation is not mediated by our community (or any outside community) but is Christ’s work (it is this point I’ve been trying to work out in the exchanges with Nick).  The Church testifies–witnesses–to Christ’s work and urges others to see and believe it as well.  But it does not possess a form itself that it can then reproduce elsewhere (that belief lies at the very foundation of Christian imperialism, past and present).  
So, then, are utopian writings banned?  To use a Pauline expression–by no means!  But they are welcomed as judged and forgiven.  In other words, following every utopia stands Christ’s “not my will but yours be done.”  God’s work is God’s work, not ours, and our calling is to surrender our dreams and hopes to God.  Utopian thought can be valued and appreciated as long as one never forgets that any utopian scheme is sinful and must be surrendered to Christ (placed inside of Christ’s cruciform obedience).  We are not excused from wanting to see a more just, more peaceful, more loving and harmonious world; we are not freed from our longings to see a new creation, a reconstituted Eden.  But we know, and must continually remind ourselves, that these dreams are dreams to be surrendered.  They are dreams to be brought into Christ’s body, and from there, within that cruciform space, they are dreams that can be embraced.  In Christ, our dreams can be cleansed from our hidden hatred of the world (of the merely human); our hopes can be reordered by Christ’s love for the world and for humans as they exist now.  Our actions, therefore, can be organized not by the attempt to create a new world but to let the world exist as the world–to let those in the world live merely human lives.  This work is always partial, always limited, always risky, and hence always needing humility and always standing in need of grace and forgiveness.  “Ultimate ignorance of one’s own goodness or evil, together with dependence upon grace, is an essential characteristic of responsible historical action” (Bonhoeffer, 225).  “In God’s own good, human good and evil are thus overcome” (227).  
We never know if our actions coincide with God’s good (e.g., Judas’ action of betraying Christ actually coincided with God’s good…).  Far from excusing us to do evil, this fact causes us to know that even our best attempt to do the good might be horrendously evil (it certainly was for those missionaries trying to bring the natives into Christian civilization…).  We must let go of any attempt to be justified, righteous, good, beneficent, or otherwise free from blame.  But, instead of prohibiting action, the acknowledgement of our guilt frees us to act–as merely human actors striving after a merely human world (the merely human world that God has loved and reconciled to Godself in Christ).  
Utopian writings can be valuable–but only from within this perspective:  they are valued as long as one is reminded that what is hoped for is ultimately sinful and must be brought into judgment by Christ.  Therefore, they are extremely valuable–like everything else “merely” human.  But, like everything human, they must be filtered through Christ’s love for the individual as he or she is now.  That only spells the death of utopia if utopia is nothing more than the hatred of the concrete, historical human person.  But if that is all utopia is, then genocide–hatred of the concrete human for the sake of the ideal human community–will always be at the core of any utopia.  And genocide will remain the most accurate expression of utopian ideals.  
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3 Responses to utopian genocide

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nick BarrettYou might enjoy knowing that Paul’s phrase “meh ge-noito” i.e., “by no means,” is the rough equivalent to “hell no!”

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tim, I think you hit on something very important in this post: namely, how violence pervades any utopian project from its very inception. To throw out a few examples (and you’ll have to forgive these all being antiquated literary and philosophical ones—someone else, perhaps, can figure out if they still apply to the "real" world): Plato, in Book VII of the _Republic_, casually, and all the more chillingly for that reason, describes how an existing city can be reworked into a commonwealth amenable to rule by his guardians and philosopher-kings. It’s simple, Socrates says, all that needs to happen is for everyone over the age of ten to be (forcibly) sent out (exiled) into the surrounding fields so that the remaining children can be brought up in the “customs and laws” that have been elaborated across the _Republic_ (541a). Of course, neither Socrates nor Plato feel compelled to talk about the banished grandparents, parents, and siblings—or about how they’ll survive outside the city’s walls. It is apparent, however, that given their negative influence they’ll never be allowed to come back. In Thomas More’s _Utopia_, the book that sparked these discussions—or at least supplied a convenient term for describing and organizing them—, it is an often overlooked pair of facts that Utopia did not begin as island nor was it at first called Utopia. Originally, it was a flourishing kingdom called Abraxa connected to a nearby continent by means of a narrow isthmus. All that changed, however, when king Utopus conquered it, changed its name to Utopia, and as his first legislative act ordered that a fifteen mile wide channel be cut across the isthmus—transforming his newly acquired territory into an island in the act. The justification for his violence is found in the fact that Utopus “brought [Abraxa’s] crude and rustic mob to a level of culture and humanity beyond almost all other mortals” (_Utopia_, trans. C.H. Miller, New Haven, Yale UP, 2001, p. 53). Many other examples come to mind. For instance, it’s useful to contrast _Utopia_ with Tommaso Campanella’s _The City of the Sun_, where the process is reversed: instead of conquering a people, the Solarians are an oppressed group from India who, fleeing persecution, discover an uninhabited island and, immediately, erect a city characterized by its seven walls. James Harrington, in _Oceana_, on the other hand, follows in Thomas More’s and Plato’s footsteps more faithfully: his Olphaeus Megalator stages a military coup and seizes control of Oceana’s government, allowing Megalator to reform the island-commonwealth along utopian lines. In my opinion, there is always a kind of Machiavellianism that informs utopian movements and projects, insofar as, precisely, the projected end justifies the initial, often terrible, violence. To be explicitly Machiavellian, it’s similar to his point in the _Discourses on Livy_ that Romulus’ murder of his brother was warranted because it led to Rome’s extraordinary success. “It is very suitable,” Machiavelli writes, “that when the deed accuses him, the effect excuses him; and when the effect is good, as was that of Romulus, it will always excuse the deed (trans. H.C. Mansfield & N. Tarcov, Chicago: U Chicago P, 1996, p. 29). I’ll end this rambling response (sorry it’s grown so long) with a point that Kant makes in his essay an “Idea for a Universal History with Cosmopolitan Intent” because, as Christians and simply as people worried about the stained and bloody shadows utopias cast, I think it’s something we need to worry about, interrogate, and resist: “however, it remains perplexing that earlier generations seem to do their laborious work for the sake of later generations, in order to provide a foundation from which the latter can advance the building which nature has intended. Only the later generations will have the good fortune to live in the building” (_Basic Writings of Kant_, ed. Allen Wood, New York: Modern Library, 2001, p. 122). At the end of this teleological arc (which will be worked into, by the way, both Hegel’s and Marx’s ideas of history) every utopia is situated like the pot of gold at the bottom of the rainbow. Never mind then, since the gold (or the building, to use Kant’s word) is undoubtedly worth it, those who have the misfortune to be subordinated to another’s good fortune.—Micah

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nick Barrett said, Good thoughts Micah. I appreciate a diverse literary perspective. Despite the antiquated nature of your examples, I would argue, those do apply to the “real” world on the sheer basis of their poetic contribution (for better or worse). What do both of you think about Isaiah 60, as a vision of the eschatological Kingdom? -TIm, I am aware that my request violates a “proper” hermeneutic handling of Hebrew scripture; nevertheless, try to suspend that notion for this particular reading.

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