Previously, before studying matters ecclesiastical, my academic work was focused on post-Mao Marxism in China. Admittedly, it was a field without overly much attention. After all, Marxism has been effectively dismantled in China though it retains a Leninist state apparatus. There is, however, a faithful remnant that continues to apply Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought to the current affairs of China.
Deng Xiaoping redefined Chinese Marxism in order to facilitate a dramatic shift within Chinese society away from ideological excess and toward practicality. Reformers, like Deng, perceived this shift as vital and necessary for China to achieve great nation status and to revitalize a sagging sense of cultural self and national pride. Deng’s approach was to reorient ideology using historical circumstance to paint his reforms as adhering to Marxism.
One of the works I found helpful in my work was Bertell Ollman’s book “Alienation.” Ollman analyzed Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society. I am frequently reminded of my previous academic work in pastoral encounters with folks on the very margins of society – those absolutely alienated from the rest of society.
On page 134 of “Alienation,” Ollman describes man as follows, “Alienated man is an abstraction because he has lost touch with all human specificity. He has been reduced to performing undifferentiated work on humanly indistinguishable objects among people deprived of their human variety and compassion.”
How many people do we meet on a daily basis could we see as alienated? How many are estranged from the very basic definitions of modern society? How many struggle to buy a meal, pay for basic medicines, find adequate housing, pay for a laundromat, read papers sent to them by a byzantine social services bureaucracy, an so much more? The very essential things so many of us take for granted are the very tools of alienation for far too many of our fellow men and women.
These men and women are marginalized to the point where they, as Ollman puts it, lose touch with all human specificity. They become the objects of competition, charity, pity, or scorn. They become that which we keep at arm’s distance or ignore lest they intrude upon our own sense of connection to the means of success, status, and belonging. They are deprived of their human variety as we lump them together not as individuals beloved of God but as that cast off in the dispassionate clicking and whirring of the mechanics of post-industrial exchange.
Or, how many are alienated because of the very striving to get by? How many of us are driven from one another by the need to “get ahead?” How many of us have seen or known alienation?
They become They – barely capitalized but for the need to differentiate from Us.
Whether it is by active abandonment or benign neglect, much of our energy as participants in the normal activities of the quotidian running of civilized society is spent creating distance. Running, hiding, ducking, and seeking cover become the activities of the civilized as we pursue, with ferocity and skill, our own alienation. That which is the bane of the existence of those marginalized is the chief goal of too many of us as we crave distance from those who challenge, discomfort, or upend us or our notions of the good and the secure. We long to keep Them anonymous as we seek our own ends.
This is where the Incarnation breaks us open. We are forced, by the very particularity of Jesus Christ, to acknowledge that the way Christ comes among us as true God and true Man demands that we take a second look. Christ, by his coming, enobles all of the created order in such a way as to make alienation the gravest of sins. Allowing ourselves to be removed from or pursuing distance from the Other becomes not just the stuff of socio-economic reality but of the deepest sin.
We are given our own chance to say yes or no to those all around us by Mary’s “Yes” to God the Father. By her “fiat,” by her “let it be according to thy word,” we too are offered the chance to make room for the Other. We too are given the chance to be God-bearer to those around us who long for some sense of God’s movement in the world.
Men and women all about us are not an abstraction in the eyes of God. When Christ offered to us the chance to say “Father” he also commanded us, by word and deed, to say “brother” and “sister.”
The great sin of modern society is that man may be degraded to the point of being an abstraction. Each person becomes, for lack of vision, compassion, and charity, a potential placeholder for our desires or manipulation.
Ultimately, this alienation is an alienation from beauty.
Modernity, in its rush to be ever more “objective” and efficiently fact-based has lost the conception of the beautiful and concomitant with that loss has come the inability to use beauty as an epistemological tool in and of itself. When we lose the concept of a “beautiful” outcome due to our need to be ever more objective, we subordinate the “subjectively” beautiful to the “objectively” factual. In doing so, we lose the ability to define an optimal state of order that is based on a mutuality of vision and shared story – we lose the ability to be truly and fully alive in God.
Death, scarcity, competition, and avarice are the signs of a profoundly disordered society rooted in the notion that suffering and conflictive daily existence are somehow normative (and maybe even part of God’s plan). The Incarnation, however, is the very embodiment of difference as cooperative movement rather than something to be overcome. It is at once unity and a call to it. The Incarnation is not the completion, but the infinite act of ongoing completion in a harmony between divinity and humanity.
We are called to participate in that harmony – to defy alienation. Grace is measured and measurable in the infinite form of the creche and the cross and is thus a concrete act of giving in the world. This giving of Christ to and for the world is a definitive act of plenitude that opens up the human experience to grace, redemptive love, and to beauty.
For much of Protestant theology, the world is something that can be manipulated and is thus a suspect creature. Yet, the Creation is the scene of the divine-human luminous encounter and is part of God and thus not to be feared or to be an object of suspicion, but of love.
Worldly beauty is beautiful because of its specific content. The compelling content of the world which constitutes our ideal of beauty is in Jesus and the saints whose lives embody the beauty of Christ. There cannot be a Christian conception of beauty without understanding the compelling a transcendent beauty of lives lived fully in the service of Christ and the whole of humanity.
For beauty is necessarily transcendent, and fundamentally calls us out of ourselves into the world and history to greater service and purpose. Thus the Christian call is an aspect of beauty for it reflects the ongoing transcendent love of Christ in the world and through his people in the site of redemption, Creation. This is a poetic encounter that understands revelation as a poetic act of compelling content.
Part of that poetic encounter is the call of the cross. The very nature of the cross is the drama that declares the politics of the world to be false. It is the triumph of the “anti-kingdom” or the un-kingdom over the will of the state. Blind capitalism, as an end or goal, is rendered a heresy because of its dependence upon human will and desire and that is not based on the self-giving gift nor upon true beauty but upon passable facsimiles thereof.
Blind capitalism can never lead to a beautiful outcome nor an holy one for it never calls for self-sacrifice – it never esteems true beauty.
In his 1944 work, “The Altar and the World,” Bernard Iddings Bell writes, “We have organized an economic life in which our people serve not one another but each himself, each herself, each group itself, with nine-tenths of his thought, her thought, its thought, concentrated on extracting from the common wealth all ease that can be wangled in return for as little creative usefulness as many be gotten by with: having brought this monstrous perversion into being, we have had the effrontery to call the resultant scramble ‘the American way of life.’”
Bell understood, far before the manipulations of the modern corporate era, that we were being pitted against one another. We were being primed for a form of competition in which each was the raw material for another’s gain.
Ultimately, our chief form of protest is to treat one another with charity, kindness, and love. Macro-economics are not the playing field of the Christian. Each Christian is charged with living in such a way as to give lie to the very notion of alienation. No faith which has at its heart the Incarnation and as its sign the Cross can afford to devote its energies to living or dying by an economic system that has, at its heart, manipulation and competition.
Having studied Chinese Marxism, I assure you that there is no easy solution there either. There is no easy solution to be found in the economic forecasts and machinations of sinful men. Our hope rests, ultimately, in Christ. Our hope rests in an eternal destiny that has, as its nature, a transforming power that straddles time and makes of us citizens in the Kingdom of God. As we look for the Kingdom to Come we live, move, and have our being in the Kingdom about us and act with love.
By concrete act, God acted in the world in the form of abundant beauty and grace. God has not hidden the truth of our existence from us, we and those all about us are not abstractions, but he has given us the ultimate anthropology upon which to base our very existence in the form of Christ.
God has not created us for alienation from one another but for unity in Himself.