Monthly Archives: October 2018
I’ve just now completed the two books: Born a Crime and Eli Wiesel’s book Night. I’ve also started a third, the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and now I’m ready, ready to be done once and for all with this foolish notion that the human race is fundamentally good. Where does this absurd idea come from? Certainly not from the pages of history. We are not good, not even close. Even in our best and most civilized moments, we are but tiny steps from great evil.
Innocence and Ignorance
Somehow in 1944 in a tiny town tucked away in northern Romania the Jew consuming death machine that was the Third Reich still managed to be mostly unknown. The reports were in, the Germans were losing the war, whatever trouble they had caused for Jews elsewhere would not happen here. Even when a survivor of the death camps stumbled into town, describing the horrors and warning all to flee, they did not listen. This is madness, not the truth they thought. When the Germans arrived, they were calm, hopeful even. After they were put in ghetto’s the positivity remained, sure this isn’t ideal, but it could be worse. At the deportations, some began to worry in earnest, but when Eli’s family was given a chance to split up and escape deportation they didn’t, they chose to be deported together. They had no idea what was before them.
From human to animal
Death camps are built in such a way that one must kill, steal, cheat, and lie just to survive. The dehumanizing pressure of such an environment is probably the worst part about it. If you are not acting like a wild animal willing to sacrifice all morality to survive you don’t make it. When his father was close to death, other inmates beat him mercilessly because he was unable to relieve himself outside. They stole the dying man’s food. A veteran prisoner pulled Eli aside and told him to stop making up for the loss of his father’s rations with his own. No sense in both dying was the thinking. Prisoners would almost gleefully anticipate the death of another inmate, and in some cases, they would help it along especially if there was bread or boots to be gained. There was no friendship in the camps, only shaky alliances, violence and betrayal. On the final cattle car ride before liberation, German civilians would throw bread into the cars and watch with sickening pleasure battles to the death for these tiny morsels of food.
Eli was with his father when he died, sort of. He was two bunks away when the S.S. guard was beating his dad to death. Eli’s dad called desperately for his son to be at his side, but Eli remained in his bunk, he had neither the strength nor the courage to endure the blows that would be his if he came. The enduring guilt springing from this circumstance and hundreds of others just like it are infinitely worse than any suffering caused by the boot or cudgel of a prison guard.
The tragedy of loyalty
By 1944 the war was for all practical purposes over. Why all of this German effort to capture and kill more Jews? Even as the Red Army in the East had the German army in full retreat, those in charge of the prison camps doggedly followed their orders, to get their prisoners back to Germany. They were death camps for crying out loud! What would it matter to abandon them? Germans left guns on the field of battle as they fled, but they would not leave their Jews behind! The forced retreat in the winter of 1945 left extinguished the lives of thousands of inmates. Cattle car retreats with one-hundred prisoners per car were even more deadly. Of the 100 in Eli’s car, only 12 remained alive to touch the German soil. It’s good to take orders and obey, but it’s even better to consider what those orders are and let the higher moral power of divinity determine whether you should abide by them or not. Blind loyalty to any human will always be a massive mistake.
The Moral responsibility to step in and speak up.
Eli Weisel’s big message is to speak up and step in when the abuse of humans is happening. Borders, customs, convictions, or religious dogma should not prevent any country that has a conscience from doing whatever they can to stop abuse wherever they find it. Admittedly, this is complicated. Would it be okay to start a regional war, or perhaps even another world war to stop a genocide going on in one country?
Remembering helps keep away the darkness.
Eli’s other big message is to remember. If we keep the wickedness and horror of past sins regularly before us, we won’t be able to forget them as quickly. It’s in the forgetting that evil reinvents itself.
If my worldview allows me to decrease the value of humans, I need to throw it out.
Hitler referred to the Jews as rats, Lenin referred to anyone who disagreed with him as insects. American propagandists categorized the Japanese as sub-human how else could they proceed with the firestorm bombings and finally the atomic bomb? Horrific acts always require some system of justification before they can be successfully carried out. There is no better system of justification than to believe that the people one crushes are not really human. A beetle squashed beneath my shoe is one thing a human quite another. Whatever worldview or decision making process one embraces, it is only good to the degree that it values human life.
What can be done about our black hearts?
Weisel does not speak to this. We can remember the Holocaust and vow never to repeat it, we can step in as best we can and help the one who is abused, but what of our own wickedness? What about the blackness that is lodged in everyone’s heart? As long as that remains so to will be the possibility of great atrocity. Its the little daily cruelties that reveal who we are, the middle finger, the honk, the passive aggressive comment, the guilt trip, the rolling of the eyes, the condescension and the cursing under one’s breath at the incompetence of another. All of this is dry kindling. The match to set it off is a clever leader who packages hate just well enough. His remarks spark the smouldering hatred inside all of us and soon the forest burns again. This danger is real, and what blinds us to it more than all else is the conviction that we are all good — we are not.
“Look on the bright side,” she said to her dear son Trevor. The bullet had entered at the base of her neck sliced through the bottom of her skull, ricocheted off the inside of her cheekbone and exited through her nose. “You are now the best looking member of our family.” Really? Humour at a time like this? Yes, it was her way. Humour, faith, hard work, and an independent, indomitable spirit characterized the life of this most remarkable woman. The book is a biography of Trever Noah famed comedian, but it’s evident from the very beginning that the book is a tribute to the real hero of the story, Trevor’s mother.
Pride kills — Every case of dysfunction and abuse recounted in this book has at its epicentre pride. Apartheid is the pride of race. Able, Trevor’s stepfather, refused to utilize the needed business help of Trevor’s mom, because a customer commented that “his business was much better now that his wife was running the company” This comment hurt his pride. He would rather lose the company than credit his wife with success over himself. The African tribes all stereotyped each other and regularly and violently acted out against those negative stereotypes in self-righteous pride. It was precisely such an occasion that forced Trevor’s mom to shove him from a moving vehicle. The Mini Bus driver discovered her tribal heritage and concluded that she must be taught a lesson. Their only escape was to jump.
It’s ok to hit your woman — In Africa, it’s ok to beat your wife. It’s just how it is. Able beat up Trevors mom, many times and many times she marched off to the police station to bring a charge against her husband, each time the police refused to do so, saying that the two of them needed to work things out on their own. When he finally shot her after years of abuse, he was able to avoid prison time because he had no previous criminal record. Madness!
The confusing mess of poverty and crime — If you break a few rules to make some money or get some good food so that you don’t have to eat dog bone soup and Mopani worms every night how is that wrong? If rules just protect the interests of the wealthy while at the same time guaranteeing the poverty of the poor how are they good? They weren’t, so Trevor broke them. Regular beatings from a concerned mother at home, and fiery sermons at church meetings multiple times per week, did little to prevent him from lying, cheating, and stealing. “White people have insurance, so if we take their stuff they get paid, we are helping them and us, so it’s ok” is what he was told, and he believed it.
Weed over alcohol? — Before Abel met Trevor’s mom, he had a weed addiction. The addiction mellowed him out for the most part. After Trevor’s mom and he were married, she demanded that he give up weed for religious reasons. He complied with her request and stopped taking pot switching to the more culturally acceptable drug of alcohol instead. This switch turned him into the violent monster he became.
Defiant mission schools — When Apartheid took its stranglehold on the country of South Africa, one of its dirtiest tricks was the Bantu educational system. The government took over the education of blacks and instead of teaching them to read, write, and think they taught them how to cook and clean and farm. It was an educational sham intended to keep black people uneducated and thus easier to oppress. In the black areas, there were all sorts of mission schools that were doing what they could to educate black people properly, most were forced to shutter their doors, but a few struggled on in defiance of the government. One such school reached out to Trevor’s mom and educated her. It’s a good thing sometimes for Christians to defy governments.
Hitler wasn’t so bad — One of the craziest stories in the book is when Trevor took his DJ skills and his troupe of dancers to perform at a Jewish cultural centre. Trevor and his group had been having great success in the townships, and now they were getting gigs in white areas as well. At the centre, Trevor managed to whip up the crowd Jewish young people into a frenzy, at the right moment he brought out his best dancer. The troupe chanted “Go Hitler, Go Hitler, Go Hitler” in time with the pounding beat, to get their number one dancer into his grove. It never occurred to any of them, that the name Hitler might be offensive to their audience. The event was cut short, there was a fiery exchange full of misunderstanding, and they were sent packing. Turns out Hitler is not an uncommon name among Black people. Every black person needed a white name as well as a traditional name, people had heard about this Hitler person, who was so powerful, that white people even required black people to help defeat him. Knowing nothing of the history of Hitler, many blacks concluded that Hitler was a strong name, a mighty name, and thus a good name! Noah mentions several genocides that happened in Africa that no one really knows about. The Jewish genocide is recognized because the Germans kept records and because it happened in the middle of a high profile war. No one cared or kept records of what happened in the dark continent, even though atrocities were committed there on par with Hitler’s madness. Was Hitler the worst? From an African point of view, not even close.
Prayer as bargaining — All of Trevor’s family members wanted him to pray, Why? First, he was a child, God likes that. He also spoke English, God really loves that, from an African point of view, God came in English and so if you want to get something from God it is much better to ask it of him in his native tongue. Finally, Trevor was more white than all his relatives. God was clearly with the whites, look how rich they all were! Trevor was the best bargaining chip they had. How could God refuse an English speaking boy who looked white? So Trevor prayed at all the prayer meetings. Is that what prayer is? Trevor rejected this notion, and so do I.
Trevor doesn’t really mock Christianity or Jesus too much. The crazy expectant faith that his mother had, he respects, it’s just not for him. Deep down Trevor, I think, has seen too much pain and suffering to have a robust faith in a good God. However, I don’t think he is quite ready to accept the alternative either.
Ellul may often be wrong, but he is never dull…when one engages the thought of Ellul, there is no such thing as a casual reading followed by mild acceptance or bland rejection.
And so it is with this eccentric French philosopher turned Christian. This book is an excellent, introduction to this man of many thoughts. In the review below I have laid out for you some of his bigger ideas.
The Danger of Technology/Technique and Efficiency
Technique tolerates no judgement from without and accepts no limitations… Since it has put itself beyond good and evil, it need fear no limitations whatever. In a technological society, efficiency, rather than goodness, truth, beauty or justice becomes the norm for social relations.
If we can build it, invent it, make it or do it, we should, especially if it makes us more efficient. Efficiency becomes the anchor point for our morality. For Ellul, this is the most “anti-human” way to go about life. For many Ellul is dismissed as a Luddite crank, a grumpy old man who refuses to get with the times. A future hater and a technophobe. I wonder if Ellul would have “tisk-tisked” the invention of the wheel or printing press had he been alive in those days. He may well have!
I also question Ellul’s contention that efficiency supplants goodness, truth and beauty as we develop and grow. Much modern architecture would suggest otherwise, besides what can be said of the worldwide movement to take care of our planet? Undoubtedly, the rise of our environmental consciousness has altered the way we go about living? If technology and technique are poured into making our planet flourish as it was meant to flourish, how is that bad?
At the same time that I raise a skeptical eyebrow in his direction, I also begin to feel like he is on to something. The human race today is rocketing forward with one paradigm breaking invention after another. If the “pace of progress” is swallowing up the souls of men than technology and the worship of efficiency are implicated.
Propaganda and the Church
Propaganda is the use of words, methods and psychological technique’s to sway individuals and groups of people into participation with an organization. Christianity is to have none of this. Instead, our faith is to spread slowly, relationally, from person to person focusing only on the person of Jesus. “We do not bring non-Christians into Church we carry the church to them” Unfortunately, Churches prefer to engage in the full constellation of propaganda techniques instead. When propaganda is used truth is exchanged for power. This trade utterly de-Christianizes the church. Is he right? What exactly does Ellul mean when he talks about propaganda? Social media? Catchy Christian sounds bites? Shiny new buildings? Christian radio? Mass advertising campaigns? State of the art sound and lighting? Mr. Ellul what exactly are you against here??? He doesn’t say! But you get the sinking suspicion that he is probably thinking of all of I’ve just mentioned and more. The church is not a burger joint out to manipulate people into buying burgers, so anything the burger joint might do to get people eating their burgers, the Christian church probably shouldn’t. Again he is on to something here, but what would a propaganda free church look like? Does such a church even exist?
The Supremacy of Words & Hearing
When I read this chapter for the first time, I dismissed it as garbage. Now I’m picking through the trash bag one more time to see if I missed anything. Ellul says that since speech is the one thing the distinguishes humans from non-humans, it’s the most important thing. Words are supreme; God has made it so. He puts his conviction succinctly “In the sphere of truth everything is related to the word, nothing to sight” He quotes Jesus for support. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Our image-saturated society has created nonthinking emotional spectators who must only believe whatever flashes in front of their eyes. In our day words live in total submission to images. They only exist as slogans for visually charged propaganda. Images bring about less and less thought and reason. Again, as I think about what Ellul is saying, I begin to wonder if he is on to something. But immediately I revolt, the Psalmist says the heavens declare the glory of God. Those heavens have to be seen! God did create all the senses, and they are all good, not just the ears! Police wear body camera’s now because video tells more of the truth than words do. Would Ellul dispute this? What is visual is not some dirty bit of business designed by the devil.
Even still, his writing stirs something in me. It does seem correct that we are not able to properly think about things when they come to us visually. Images always create immediate visceral reactions it’s what they do. Ellul laments that “Images are considered trustworthy while words are suspect” In today’s era of “Fake News” I think everything has become suspect both audio and visual. So maybe Ellul has become dated? We have entered into an era of skepticism and narcissism are images to blame? Ellul says yes.
Reality and Truth
Reality is what is seen, counted and quantified. Realities world is the material world, and it can be known through the accumulation of data. Truth is different; truth pertains to questions of purpose or meaning. Images are helpful in determining reality; they are not helpful in determining the truth. Because the world has become image based we have become “utterly indifferent to the question of truth” says Ellul. In the modern mind, reality has become truth, and nothing exists beyond reality. When Christians use images to help them discover the truth, reality and truth get confused, and we are worse off for it. He doesn’t quite take us back to the Iconoclastic debate which helped to weaken the Byzantine empire. See my review of that crazy time in Church history, but he warns us through Augustine “Images can be used, but they should never be loved.” Is there actually a difference between truth and reality, or is this just Ellul doing his thing? I don’t know. This distinction is a more sensible way to attack images and put them in their proper place I suppose. I’m just not ready to say that there is no “truth” from anything that we happen to take in through our eyes. That’s nonsense to me.
The City is the Devils Playground
Ellul’s work on the city is easily his most unpopular. Its English title was The Meaning of the City, but Ellul’s critics all insist that it should be renamed The Demeaning of the City. Ellul believes that the first city was built by Cain as an act of rebellion against God. Therefore all cities have in their DNA a rebellious rejection of God. From Babel onward cities have a bad rap in the Bible When humans come together God gets pushed out; it is as simple as that. Ellul doesn’t hate cities totally, he believes Jesus will one day redeem them, but he holds out no hope for Christians having success in cities before the return of Christ. Thus he is critical of city planning and technological advancements to make cities better. To Ellul, this is just putting a band-aid on a systemic problem. Beautiful walkways and rapid transit, won’t free the city from evil. If a Christian finds himself in the unenviable position of living in an urban environment, he should focus in on practicing faithfulness to God through varying degrees of martyrdom, for that is all the city brings to the Christian who call it home. I have to admit this is pretty depressing and I would like to reject Ellul thoughts on the city, all through my last eight years in our city match up nicely with what he has said. So there is that.
Politics, Economics, and Work
I read somewhere that Ellul was a Christian anarchist. I can see why now. People worship their systems whether it be communism, fascism, or capitalism. Ellul loves to profane all three. Capitalism’s god is money. How can a Christian revolt against the idolatry of this system? By giving his money away. The God of fascism and communism is the ruler and loyalty to “The Fatherland” or the “collective system” a Christian can resist this idolatry by affirming the liberty of the individual person. When it comes to politics a Christian’s job is to desacralize it all. This doesn’t mean non-involvement, but it does mean having the conviction that every system is fundamentally flawed. We work within our various systems, but we don’t get hopeful about them.
Working for joy and working for beauty is part of God’s gift. However, work out of necessity to gather a surplus, to make a living or to produce is all part of the curse. That whole Protestant work ethic thing, Ellul wouldn’t subscribe to I don’t think. For him, It’s just a convenient excuse to justify ruthless capitalism.
The Authority of Scripture
“Scripture is God speaking to humanity through the text…It is clear that every living word of God cannot be different from that which is attested precisely in the Bible…It turns out that the God who spoke to men in the Bible is also our God, and directly ours, thanks to their witness.”
He acknowledges that faith is ultimately the only way anyone can arrive at the above conviction.
Regarding interpretation, Ellul thought it best to stay away from overly literal and historical investigation. The Scripture’s were not intended to be picked apart into little pieces with all details analyzed. What mattered was to keep the big ideas of Scripture in the forefront. So for example, a detailed look at Genesis as the historical, objective account of how we came to be would be a mistake. The big idea of the first part of Genesis is learning how God relates to man.
Finally for Elull love is the centrepiece of the image of God in each human. Love only exists if there is freedom. So God’s gift of freedom to humanity means that “God submits himself to human initiatives…God withdraws in order to leave the field free for humanity…God does not step by step, minute by minute, dictate what is to happen in the world, thereby establishing the reality of that world, as it were.” With this view, sovereignty and even divine providence get shoved aside. Anything that smacks of “fate” has to bow the knee to freedom. The age-old paradox that has the free will of man in tension with the sovereignty of God is solved for Ellul — but not for me.
We don’t know it all — Christian Ethics should be a temporary guide that is continually revised, reexamined, and reshaped by the combined effort of the church as a whole
We shouldn’t be pushy — One of the essential rules of the Christian like is never to ask a non-Christian to conduct himself like a Christian.
Christians are not about rules — Gods revelation has nothing whatever to do with morality. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He goes on to say that Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with Jesus Christ, to which no Christian would disagree. However, such a statement is a bit misleading; one need only read the Bible to see that morals are kind of a big deal to God.
Absolute Freedom — Love pre-supposes freedom, the Christian is free to do what he wants; there are no lists. How then does the Christian not disintegrate into subjectivism and relativism? Ellul hints at three answers. The Holy Spirit will guide us, freedom is not a revolt against order, and love is a good guide. Living out Christian freedom is exhausting work! It’s much easier to follow a list. But Ellul is certain the easier path is not, the better path when it comes to ethics.