Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

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Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

Wage Slavery

3,500 words

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight the value-shift that occurs when we finally accept the fact that we live in a material universe. Fundamentally, that means eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm that remains embedded in our social structures and value judgments.

This post is the third in a series on work. It ventures into the realm occupied by economic systems, and by implication the political structures necessary to support them. If it seems radical, it’s only because of the great distance we have drifted from an acceptance of our nature as material organisms. It lays out principles of practice derived from the premises established in two posts of July of this year: “Work,” posted July 1st and “Work in a Material Universe,” posted July 14th. I hope you can read them as a whole.

I want to start by making series of propositions.

(1) The economic systems of all modern complex western societies are based on what is aptly called wage slavery.   Wage slavery is a version of the master slave relationship. Wage slavery is not a metaphor. It is slavery. People may no longer be owned as persons, but as workers they are not free. Their work is owned by someone else.

(2) All remunerated labor tends to be servile. Money paid for labor is most often equated to the purchase of non-human objects or products. Such use considers what is bought to be then owned by the buyer. The buyer in effect becomes “God” with the right to annihilate or abuse the object purchased as he sees fit. He artificially individualizes the worker by treating his labor as an object owned, extracting him from the natural survival community and its instinctive cooperative collaboration.

But human work cannot be owned by another. Labor cannot be alienated from its author and his community because it is the expression of the conatus the resident energy that imposes the obligation to continue to exist on the individual material organism in its social matrix. Work is and always remains the output of the worker’s personal survival drive in collaboration with his natural community.

Analogous to the deferential way professionals are treated in western society, an individual’s labor can only be compensated for. Payment (in money or kind) can only be the attempt to counterbalance the temporary (and voluntary) deflection of the worker’s own life energy to the survival interests of someone outside of his natural community. To claim that labor can be bought and owned by the employer is fiction; it is metaphysically impossible. To force it is enslavement; it will fatally distort the humanity and relationships of the people involved in the attempted transaction.

Notice that professionals are treated differently. They are also remunerated, but because of the high value placed on mental as opposed to physical activity in the Platonic worldview, no one considers that in paying a professional, like a doctor, that he becomes your employee and must obey your orders. You compensate him for his creative initiative on your behalf. That should be the paradigm for all labor output from all human beings.

(3) Wage slavery is culturally conditioned by two things: the mythic significance of money and the perennial existence of officially approved master-slave relationships in our western “Christian” societies.

Slavery

The fundamental division of labor is between masters and slaves. Slavery in western society originated in pre-Christian Mediterranean culture, which in turn inherited it from the earlier civilizations of the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Modern wage slavery is grounded in the ownership of labor. It is the recapitulation in commercial, contractual terms of the slavery characteristic of the ancient world and its Christianized continuation in mediaeval serfdom, indentured servitude, penal and other forms of impressed service.

The oldest form of slavery was ethnic; it was maintained by the conquest and control of people identified as “alien” and, since one’s own tribe, culture and language was assumed to be the only fully human version of humanity, conquered aliens were necessarily considered less than human and therefore similar to the animals that humans used for work, sport or pleasure.

Ancient slavery shed its ethnic roots and was given a universal and specifically spiritual justification by Platonism as the care and guidance of the less-than-human. From the time of the ascendancy of Christianity in the Mediterranean world beginning in the third century, all cultural entities, including the institution of slavery, so essential to the ancient economies, came to be evaluated and universally justified under the aegis of Platonic categories which Christianity embraced, “baptized” and carried forward. It is important to realize that, like imperial autocratic power itself to which slavery is the categorical counterpart, slavery was never repudiated by Christianity in the ancient world.

The principal Platonic tenet that was used to justify slavery was also embraced by Christianity and placed at the center of its world-view, despite the fact that Jesus never endorsed it. It was the concept of the “spiritual soul,” defined as a rational mind, separable from the body, believed to be the person itself, naturally immortal, destined to be judged at death. The soul was an immaterial substance opposed to matter and the material body’s fundamental nature as “animal,” or “carnal” and mortal.

Body and soul, constructed of diametrically opposed “substances,” matter and spirit, were mutually inimical. The spiritual soul, and by extension “spiritual people” (whose lives were relatively free of bodily domination), were considered fully human. Professors, teachers, landowners, administrators, magistrates, senators, merchants and bankers, religious elite, military commanders, etc., people who lived by the work of others and confined their activity to labor of the mind, were in this class. Slaves who lived by the work of their hands and body were deemed less than fully human — their souls were crippled by bodies which were physically controlled by others when not dehumanized by their own animal urges and survival needs. Slaves required having a master to control them, guide their daily activities and determine what they should accomplish with their lives. Slaves, women and children were the first constituents of the primary division of labor: between master and slave. Platonism gave it philosophical form: it said the division was between the fully human and the sub-human — those that worked with their mind, and those that worked with their hands.

Platonism attributed a spiritual dimension to the male body and an excess of material density to the female which supposedly accounted for what men called “women’s erratic behavior.” Thus the domination of the husband over his wife — already well-established as a function of paternal ownership — was re-presented under Platonic Christianity as a replay of the need for the mind to control the body … for spirit to dominate the flesh.

The father/owner/slave master, far from being identified as oppressor in this view, was re-conceived as protector, and it was as protectors that Christianity imposed moral obligations on the slaveholders: they were not to mistreat their slaves. But at no point did Christianity condemn slavery as an institution, or insist on the parity of the partners in marriage, or defend the full humanity of slaves, or require that masters refrain from disciplining them in any way they saw fit. These norms and standards were also applied to the father’s control of his family.

This same thinking was used to justify mediaeval serfdom and the 16th century conquest and enslavement of primitive peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas.   The supporters of slavery quoted Aristotle directly. It was all done under the aegis of a slavery-tolerant Christianity.  Christians have universally tolerated or justified slavery in one form or another in every epoch and in every place they gained ascendancy. There is evidence that even the monasteries used slave labor.

The paternal family in the west is an integral part of this picture and is both the source and the result of the Platonic-justified master-slave relationship. That an adult gives commands, and children obey, is a necessary and unavoidable practicality because adults are more knowledgeable than children. But that the right and obligation to command whether the authority has superior knowledge or not, and the moral duty to obey even though the subject knows more than the authority, claimed as justification for coercing obedience to the proprietary male from women, children and servants, deemed carnal, inferior and needing control, is an arbitrary cultural value choice, imposed for the internalization of the master-slave system. Fathers were owners of their wives and children, every bit as much as of their slaves. That convention has been justified by Platonic Christianity as a spiritual function since its birth in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Based on the value placed on mental as opposed to bodily energies in the Platonic system, the educational patterns in western society imitate and in turn reinforce the master-slave relationship by preparing students to accept the primacy of rational thought over any other human activity. Educational practices and goals are dominated by the values prioritized under the Platonic paradigm: respect for and obedience to the spiritual superior. Rationality, exemplified as mental operations ruled by logic and mathematics, was the standard of highest value set for the student. Feelings — internally experienced forces that have been traditionally ascribed to the body — were excluded as less-than-human; manual work, it goes without saying, was demeaned as subhuman; they were all to be eliminated, or at least suppressed and controlled. Historic movements of awakening — 12th century humanism, 15th century renaissance, 19th century romanticism, 20th century post-modernism — were all attempts to reassert the rights of the integral human organism against the tyranny of the Platonic exaltation of the mind over the body

Professionals in our culture are those who live by mental activity, not physical. Students are taught that professionals are a “higher” version of human being. Education prepares the educated to accept the “natural right” of mental over physical labor and therefore the control of the commanding manager who thinks, over the toiling worker who supposedly does not. In reality, it is a fiction that disguises the fundamental myths: the myths of the disembodied mind and its ownership of all things material, including “material” people..

In Plato’s world, the body does not think, only the soul thinks. The Platonic prejudice is so powerful that despite the fact that the ideal of pure rational cerebration is almost never realized, giving clear indication of the delusional nature of the belief, it has not mitigated in the least the supreme value placed on it in our dualist culture. It has justified the existence of a master class as superior thinking human beings. It encourages its devotees to denigrate and dismiss contributions to human discourse and decision-making that fall short of that ideal. It means that the uneducated, i.e., those who by definition have never been thoroughly indoctrinated in the cerebral illusion by certified “masters” during an extended period of mental submission, are pre-emptively excluded from the gatherings where directions are chosen and the means of achieving goals determined. It means the worker has no input. It divides society along educational-intellectual lines and consigns the uneducated to lives of obedient physical reflex, either entirely devoid of a rational dimension or where the rational element, which has already been determined by the educated elite, is to be applied without revision or deviation.

From this short description it should be clear that most “jobs” — what people mistakenly call work — fall into this category. Jobs, for the most part, are slave labor based on the Platonic scheme of values. From society’s perspective wage slavery is not only arbitrary and unnecessary but it is inefficient and wasteful of the creativity of those who are employed. Moreover, it risks generating sociopathic blowback for, from the worker’s perspective, it is dehumanizing.

Wage slavery tends to reduce “owned” labor to a mechanical reflex, and thus has encouraged the adoption of the “assembly-line” factory system, operational world-wide at this point in time, premised on the mind-numbing repetition of some minor procedure, as the ideal (most efficient) form of labor. But workers also think and can plan the desired outcome of community endeavors; such is their predisposition as living organisms. Their exclusion from that process is a profound injustice endorsed by the Platonic delusion. Money cannot compensate for the loss of participatory autonomy. Work is a survival function of the human organism; we are innately determined by it.

The key valence and infallible indicator of the presence of the master-slave relationship is absolute obedience on the part of the isolated individual worker whose instinct to collaborate creatively with companions in the work effort is totally frustrated. The worker is under orders to make no input of his own into the task at hand. For the successful completion of a project he is to relate to the employer alone, not to his work companions.

The ancient monks saw very clearly the power of obedience to stifle the self — in their case what they believed was a false self — and replace it with what they believed to be their “true self.” The slaveholder is equally intent on suppressing any self in the worker that would compete with his own goals. Hence he requires absolute obedience from individuals isolated from their natural community because he has bought and thinks he owns their labor. The monk used obedience as a tool to achieve his own chosen goals, one of which was the formation of a brotherhood. The isolated jobholder, however, knows very well that the only goals of his own or of his community that he will ever achieve through his job will be those he wrests from his employer by force.

Money

Money prevents workers from exercising control on two counts. The first is the myth that a private person can actually own (with the right of annihilation) the means of production of goods and services that are used and needed by the whole community. This is patently impossible.  At most the community may consign management to a private entity, but it cannot allow its survival to be held hostage to private concerns. It is a logical tautology because the “private” person survives only in and through the survival of the community.

The second myth is that employers can buy and therefore own the labor of their individual workers. Both myths are based on the more fundamental belief that money gives ownership with divine rights over what is owned.

The Latin language, which has been the source of so many helpful distinctions in our thinking, in this case does not distinguish between owner and master: the same word, dominus, is used for both. Similarly, ownership and political power have only one word: dominium.

Historians surmise that trade began with barter: the use of equivalent values for items that each trader needed. Then it seems likely that some highly desirable object became the standard of calculation. Precious metals lent themselves to being such a standard because of their association with the gods and immortality. In Egypt, gold, which was associated with the sun god, Ra, because of its yellow brilliance, was calculated at 12 times the value of silver which was thought to capture the pale light of the moon. To participate in such divine power was everyone’s desire.[1]

Money is believed to give ownership to the buyer. Even the customer momentarily becomes “master” over the corporate giant that sells the product in question because money has exchanged hands. The “customer is always right” is the acknowledgement of the supreme power that money is given in our culture.

Survival in a complex society requires money. When money is the exclusive form of compensation for every kind of labor, even the most meaningless (or dehumanizing) task can earn one his living. “Jobs” that are paid for with money pretend to own the energy immanent in the artificially individualized worker. Employment pretends to redirect that energy toward ends that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the survival needs of the worker and his community and claim that the deflection is fully justified by money.

There are no differences in the recognition provided by money except through quantity. Hence the volume of money alone becomes an index of value. This equation is so ironclad that even those who are aware of its falsifying potential are unable to extricate themselves from its illusions: everyone defers to those who have a lot of money. Many silently harbor beliefs that the rich are superior: smarter, more disciplined, more moral and “blessed” by God. The myth is reinforced by traditional religion that ascribes to divine providence the actual state of affairs in human society. If someone is wealthy, it’s because “God” willed it. The fact that this is obviously preposterous should be enough to put an end to these illusions. There is no such providence.

This blurring is especially damaging to the economic programming that these reflections are suggesting: that we can re-structure the division of labor and remuneration in such a way as to guarantee that each individual is included in the collaborative effort to survive and through that participation achieves survival and a place in society.

The first element in any analysis of how work and reward should be distributed is clarifying the distinction between survival work and other human endeavors that are directed toward the quest for life that transcends the moment, many of which are of dubious value. The second is to insure that the worker’s efforts are respected for their double significance: work achieves organismic survival in a community that acknowledges the human instinct to transcendence through social membership. The collaborative participation of the worker expresses the communitarian character that matter’s energy has used as a survival tool over and over again during the course of 14 billion years of evolutionary development. The natural human instinct is to work with known companions as part of a collaborative endeavor.

Worker Justice

From all that has been said it should clear that the exclusive focus on “bread and butter” issues (salaries, benefits and working conditions) when addressing the question of justice for working people, omits the most important: collaboration and worker control. It assumes that the worker is an isolated individual whose labor can be redirected by the master who owns it. In a material universe that is committed to eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm, the primary injustice is identified as the isolation of the individual worker and his alienation from his work — the claim to own the labor of another human being. The fundamental injury is the institutionalized frustration of the need of the human organism, embedded in its community of survival, to express its intrinsic and constitutive existential bearing in its work. It is the refusal to permit the collaborative, intelligent, autonomous participation of socialized human organisms in the communal decisions and collective labor that determine not only what work will be done but also all the associated conditions that impact the project and the workers.

Wages and benefits are not the be all and end all for working people that many labor organizations claim. In their haste to be part of the prevailing economic system and to avoid alternatives prejudicially labeled “socialist,” labor unions end up collaborating with management in the maintenance of the mindlessness and isolation of wage slavery. Worker collaboration, input and control is never part of any contract package, and it is not even part of labor unions’ declared mission statement. Workers who become union members do not join a brotherhood; each isolated individual worker performs only one collective action: he votes with other isolated individuals to hire a corporate lawyer who will defend his rights as an individual worker.

Justice for working people will never be secured until the issue of collaborative human participation is acknowledged as an essential part of any and all human endeavors, including the jobs protected by labor unions.   Human work must be the act of fully engaged human organisms, body and soul, mind and spirit. None of this can be “owned” by another.

Transition

The enormous gap between these principles of practice and the actual state of affairs in our economic system is so great that many will dismiss this vision as quixotic. But don’t be fooled. These proposals are not some new utopian innovation. They address a massive historical deformity that we have inherited from our dualist tradition: the human organism has been trapped in an ongoing cultural fiction that has destroyed its integrity in the service of exploitation by the master class. We have been living with wage slavery for more than two centuries. The consequences for working people have been catastrophic. It’s time we put an end to this mockery of the human being.

We fail to implement the reform of this system at our peril as humans. That doesn’t mean that society faces imminent collapse or that armed insurrection is inevitable. Things may very well go on just the way they are. But the human destruction to working class individuals and to community at the level of family and neighborhood will continue unabated and even intensified. It will continue the propagation of individual and social pathologies of genocidal proportions, an effect that we have been living with among the working class in our cities since the early 19th century. To change the situation a transition from the patterns that now dominate wage slavery will require a complete overhaul of the way work is planned from the very beginning.

Such a change would be a “revolution.”

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan U. Press, 1959, p. 234 ff.