fragments of an attempted writing.
Of all the Christian responses to the current economic crises that I have read in the last couple of years, I think this one has disgusted me the most, perhaps because I naïvely expect more from Benedictines than from, say, fundamentalist Baptists.  There is nothing new here in terms of "argumentation" or the simplistic spiritualisms, but the monk managed to get the litany of truisms down pat and the tone, uh, just right.  It's clear from the literature this outfit sends out that they have some very wealthy backers.  This "keep the proletariat in line" message is exactly what their target donor demographic would like the Church to focus on, no doubt.  How utterly nauseating.  Of all the things that need to be said, now.  

I shouldn't be surprised, I know.  These forms of Christianity, whatever they say of themselves and despite all desperate appeals to the contrary, are essentially by the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois and for the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois, a few anomalous stragglers notwithstanding.  


  1. Of course you shouldn't be disappointed by this reactionary claptrap. And from a theological point of view, they have a very good argument (the whole, "the poor will always be with you" and all). That is why Catholic social teaching has always been a cruel joke to me, in the sense that it is the hierarchy saying: "we care, but not that much".

    The more fascinating element is the "either/or" scenario that is posed in the article. Either the rich have the money, or the State has it, what difference does it make, money is not what matters, etc? This betrays a fundamental weakness of the Left in Western discourse now. Right-wing discourse in this country also seems to mimic this bad dichotomy: either the "free market" or Keynesianism. The real solution is for the people to have "the money", or complete democratic control of the means of production, leading to the dissolution of the State entirely. Or rather, it is not that the bourgeois societal apparatus or the State would make a better Mammon, it is that the people must seize power in order to govern themselves. Leave it to a bunch of spoiled petty bourgeois monks to attribute power to a fetishized Other: whether it be the capitalist system or the "socialist" State, thus robbing people altogether of their agency.

  2. Love Meets Wisdom by Aloysius Pieris S.J. should be read.

    It's a collection of articles on Sri Lankan Buddhist monasticism which explores the relationship between the monks and the general, ( poor), population.

    There's some interesting views regarding money, wealth and power.

    Obviously, these Benedictines have powerful patrons, Benny XVI being one of them. They're a counter to most of the Benedictine monasteries that are more like the ones in Sri Lanka.

  3. yeah, bourgeois political thought is about maintaining the status quo of comfort and apathy that they have in the current order. They want to live in a protected bubble (gated communities, self contained high rise condos, etc., spiritual systems of interiority and pietism, a moving tank/living room SUV) and have everything managed by others so they can be kept to themselves and their comfortable consumer lifestyles... and contemporary American conservative populist demagoguery comes from this bourgeois or aspirant position of fear of losing your comfort, a paranoia and a demonization of some seemingly external threat to the status quo, or the imaginary order, be that Mexicans, gays, drug users, commies, poor people, Muslims, what have you..., a way of glossing over the underlying structural causes of the current crisis - that their way of life in supporting an unsustainable and exploitative consumption/profit driven global economy threatens life on earth, a system fueled by high dollar speculation and expropriation.

    It's a lot easier to be comfortably pious in your idyllic monastery being visited by friendly rich people who buy you nice espresso machines, wine, cars, and renovate your cells to make them LEED certified, than to actually confront the true material/spiritual causes of sin.

  4. El P,

    I guess when I think of all the "good theology" options that are out there it strikes me as full bore reactionary when the monks choose to go with that theological option over others. Some "faithful to the magisterium" types don't use this kind of language. Christ, when talking about money and wealth castigates the rich a hell of a lot more than he warns the poor. There is plenty of "you naughty rich people" language in literature from the saints, etc. But no, the monks want to go the overt reactionary route, in this of all times.

    But in a sense I guess this language the monks use is a relief and I suppose I should be thankful for their forthrightness. They make it very clear what side of things they stand on. Would more conservative Catholics speak that way perhaps some of those romantic third way wanna-be options would be seen for what they are.

    I was reading about the role of clerics in the Spanish Civil War recently and the writer was discussing the fact that while, yes, a large number of clerics (25% or so) who were in bed with Franco were killed (and the vast majority of clerics supported Franco), there were a number of clerics who served as chaplains supporting the Republicans. When the war ended, a higher percentage of pro-Republican clerics had been executed than pro-nationalist clerics. Anyway, I guess the point I mean to get to is that in the end, class trumps theology. These Norcia monks are acting in the interest of their class (or the class they aspire to in some cases, perhaps). Other monks may well align themselves differently.


    I'll look the book up. I've been trying to follow Sri Lankan politics, particularly the United People's Freedom Alliance (with which the CP of Sri Lanka now participates). And yes, I've known some Benedictines who would not at all get behind the spirit of the homily in question here.

  5. Andrew,

    When I consider the lives of most monks/religious I have known (Catholic and Orthodox), the use of the term "asceticism" to describe their lives is a complete and utter joke. I suppose in those cases where they actually manage to remain chaste there is at least sexual asceticism, but aside from that, they are living the good life. Even those monastics/religious that do manual labor usually don't work that many hours a day (they hire people to do the real work, in most cases) and work in nice conditions, and get access to a very comfortable life. But I'm speaking of the monasticism I've seen in the U.S. and U.K. and Russia mostly. Things may well be different in other locales.

  6. Owen, on the issue of "class trumps theology," what do you think or know of Palamas' support for the Byzantine elite against the popular uprising of the Zealots (who instituted a people's democracy in Thessaloniki and redistributed the wealth of the nobility) in the Byzantine Civil War? I don't know a whole lot about it but when I first read that as an Orthodox person I was bummed with the side that Palamas took.

  7. Andrew,

    Setting aside the issue of what democracy meant and how it functioned for the Zealots, and acknowledging the brutalities associated with most social and political changes at that time and place, and the instabilities that occur with any substantial change in leadership and redistribution of wealth, yeah, Palamas was on the wrong side of history, and I have no patience with the interpretation of Byzantine and Christian Greek history that paints a rosy "liberal" or proto-liberal view of the overall arc of the Byzantine state. The Zealots represented a struggle toward greater freedom in the Hegelian sense and Palamas was, sorta-kinda, a proto-reactionary. May his memory be forgotten and his images spat upon.

    Part of me thinks "If only more American Orthodox knew of the political side of the Hesychast movement and what it stood for!" But then I remind myself that a good number of American Orthodox would be perfectly happy with what they stood for.

  8. Do you really think Palamas, an aristocrat, was going to back any change in the "God-given" order of things?

    This brings up something I've wondered about;

    are there any theological works which examine the "class" structure of theology?

    After all, when one examines the history of Christian theology, it's interesting to note how many of the Fathers belonged to the aristocracy, whether minor or major.

  9. Anonymous,

    I took the liberty of doing a keyword search for "theology and class" in the university library and found a few works that might interest you. In alphabetical order, they are:

    Lancaster, Roger N. Thanks to God and the Revolution: Popular Religion and Class Consciousness in the New Nicaragua. Columbia University Press, 1988.

    Lopez Trujillo, Alfonso. Liberation or Revolution? : An Examination of the Priest's Role in the Socioeconomic Class Struggle in Latin America. Our Sunday Visitor, 1977.

    McCloud, Sean. Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies. University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

    ---. Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics. Brill, 2008.

    McLeod, Hugh. Piety and Poverty : Working-Class Religion in Berlin, London, and New York, 1870-1914. Holmes & Meier, 1996.

    They may help or they may not.

  10. Palamas doesn't seem to have had much to do one way or the other with the Zealot uprising in Thessaloniki. He had lived in Thessaloniki for three years and left a year before the Zealots took over in 1342. In 1341, he was busy defending his doctrines and there was no particular occasion for taking sides in a civil war that hadn't erupted yet and wasn't even brewing. When the civil war broke out, Palamas didn't really choose a side, he tried to broker an peaceful resolution. But Patriarch John, who had supported Barlaam and later sponsored Akyndinos, already had an ax to grind with Palamas for theological reasons and then for political reasons when Palamas didn't support his coup plans (probably smart when you consider how the patriarch was wont to backstab his allies). Of course, Cantacuzene supported Palamas' hesychasm, and the aristocrats supported Cantacuzene, and thus you get the idea that Palamas supported the aristocrats and, by extension, the wealthy of Thessaloniki against the popular uprising there. But Palamas was too occupied in and around Constantinople to be particularly involved with the goings-on in Thessaloniki, and then he was in prison for four of the eight years that the Zealots were in charge. When Palamas was later appointed bishop of Thessaloniki, he was prevented by the Zealots from entering the city because they associated him with Cantacuzene, not because of any direct connection Palamas had with them (except, perhaps, for his failure to reject Cantacuzene). In the end, though, Palamas did condemn the Zealots' violence, but one of the Zealots' leaders was able to find refuge on Mount Athos.

    It seems that it might not be accurate to simply state that Palamas supported the Byzantine elite against the popular uprising of the Zealots. He appears not to have a direct connection at all with the uprising and to have taken pains not to have taken sides in the larger civil war (and some might fault him for not taking sides). Anyway, both sides in that civil war were members of the Byzantine elite.

  11. Anon,

    Yeah I'm not buyin'.

    The aspersion cast on pre-modern rebellions such as we see in Thessaloniki, when noting that it was essentially elite vs. elite, reminds me of the complaint that a communist would use a corporate made computer to express his anti-corporatism. Of course the elite were involved in virtually all pre-modern rebellions. There was essentially no other way at that time.

    Thessaloniki's Zealots were not democratic in any modern sense, they were not engaged in a developed form of class consciousness, and their aims seem to be rather inchoate. But these are the characteristics of virtually every pre-modern rebellion of this time, and to focus on these aspects of the Zealots (and other pre-moderns like them) is to discount the social and historical development seen in their actions. There were in Thessaloniki slaves killing their masters, and, more importantly, the reports of this came to be a part of the characterization of the rebellion. There was an attempt at something akin to a democratic movement, and as primitive as it was, and as much as elite vs. elite were behind the social antagonisms leading up to that primitive, half-assed (by modern standards) attempt, it is still significant that the rebellion in Thessaloniki is characterized as some sort of attempt towards democracy. History moves forward here because, despite the actual political contingencies on the ground and the irrational violence, the movement becomes characterized and enters human consciousness as something associated with a rejection of aristocracy and a move toward democracy. One sees any number of similar rebellions across Europe in the late middle ages and Renaissance. Despite all of the problems these movements had, they still represent the growth of human consciousness with regard to the struggle against exploitation, oppression, and tyranny. Plus some rich people were killed and that's always a good thing.

    As for Palamas, his pie-in-the-sky spiritual quietism is no excuse. To be "holy" to the extent that one does not engage in struggle against the aristocracy when given a chance is to be a reactionary who provides support to oppressors. Reading Palamas' sermons last year, despite occasional rants against the rich, it is very clear that he wants to keep the poor and servant classes in their place, and in doing so he serves as an agent of the aristocracy. Sure, it's anachronistic to expect a pre-modern figure to act in a modern manner, but when there is a movement toward greater freedom for humanity in his midst and he ends up on the reactionary side of things, then, well, to hell with him. Not to mention the role of the Hesychasts in the reaction to the rebellion in Thessaloniki and the clean-up afterwards. Guilt by association is fair enough.

  12. Other Anon,

    are there any theological works which examine the "class" structure of theology?

    With the classic liberation theologians you get some analysis of the class structures of the Church, and this sometimes deals (as an aside more often than not) with theological concepts as used by the Church, etc., but you don't really get what you are suggesting.

    Some biblical scholars such as the Marxist Richard A. Horsely have looked at the changes in theological structures during and immediately after the first century, but Horsely only touches upon this - he and most of his ilk keep their class reading of scripture to scripture itself.

    What I think you are suggesting, and what I have long wanted to read, is a study which notes the relationship of the aristocratic/elite origins of most early Christian (say first through seventh centuries) theologians to the content of their theological work - noting correspondences between their class association and their theological argumentation. I think that the (now beginning to fade) recent interest in the theme of paideia and Hellenistic models of socialization/education and their influence upon Christian thinking could have been an avenue into this sort of analysis, but all of the writers I have read on that subject miss the boat and spend little time dwelling on how class structures as class structures effected Christian teaching, instead usually just merely noting that paideia was an intellectual tradition for the upper classes and giving a basic outline of what this meant practically.

    He's not a Christian theologian, but have you read Ernst Bloch, specifically: ? I'd like to see a similar analysis of Christian theology proper. I'd like to explore the idea that the entire Christian tradition is built upon texts which assume self-critique and dissent existing inside the official community, and the inference that growth in theological structures comes about via cycles that follow something akin to Kuhnian paradigm shifts made possible by this innate "tradition" of self-critique, and the sense that this involves no small degree of irony. It seems that when considering all of the various manifestations of the self-critique mechanisms at work in various Christian traditions, only occasionally (rarely?) does one see the critique oriented toward class consciousness and so forth. Even among "liberal" churches today, who moan and wail on behalf of the poor and exploited, there seems to be little self-critique awareness or attempt at awareness with regard to how their own appropriation of the terms of poverty and exploitation reflect their own liberal petit-bourgeois ethos. There is nothing more surreal than walking into a wealthy ECUSA or PCUSA church and hearing a sermon on the Lord hearing the cry of the poor. In my experience it is usually done in that patronizing and condescending manner typical of petit-bourgeois liberals.

  13. Owen,

    I was unclear. I treat the civil war and the Thessaloniki uprising as separate matters. Of course there is a relation between them. The civil war helped create an opening for the uprising, and the patriarch and empress may have appeared sympathetic to the Zealots' cause, but this was likely a temporary opportunism on the patriarch's part, given his penchant for expediency (the Zealots hated Cantacuzene, and the enemies of my enemies are my friends) and turning on those who were no longer useful to him. But when I said that both sides were members of the Byzantine elite, I was referring to both sides in the larger civil war, I was not considering the Zealots as one of the two sides. I was not referring to their uprising as an undertaking of the elite, and so I don't dispute much of your response to me.

    On Palamas, I would not characterize him (or even his spirituality, despite the name "hesychasm") as a quietist. His peacemaking attempts were not directly connected with what was going on in Thessaloniki but with the sides vying for leadership of the empire, and that's why I said that, for him, taking sides either way would be a choice between members of the elite. He was in and around Constantinople the whole time of the uprising, and he was kept on the defensive most of the time of the uprising by the patriarch who hounded him on doctrinal issues and then had him thrown into prison for four years. I could be mistaken, but I think he never criticized the Zealots, even when he couldn't get into Thessaloniki, except perhaps obliquely when lamenting the bloodshed of rebellion. As I understand it, there were a lot of monks among the Zealots.

    As for whether Palamas "wants" to keep the poor and servant classes in their place and serves as an agent of the aristocracy, I don't see it quite that way. His sermons are not political but pastoral, looking after the souls of his flock. I sense that in your view, however, nothing trumps class struggle and any reluctance to engage in it is damning, so "peacemakers" cannot be blessed. I won't say anymore on this topic except to point out your acknowledgement of the inchoateness and the irrational violence of the Zealot rebellion and to suggest that the uprising, notwithstanding any role it played in history's great march forward, probably left a lot of deep wounds in all classes of the city, and perhaps it was forbearance that kept Palamas from picking at their scabs.

  14. Anon,

    My bad, I thought you were working with Michael Palaiologos as elite, and/or referencing the fact that the Zealots set up hierarchical structures that could also be said to have an elite, even if that elite was of a different quality than the imperial elite.

    I no longer see much benefit in the peacemaker role in these sorts of situations, as it so often ends up acting in the interests of the ruling classes, even when it intends not to.

  15. cont'd

    I'm not sure I see class as a universal trump card in all human affairs, though I think it the normative condition which explains most meta phenomena in social affairs in nearly all human societies. I think for certain that when a person uses any authority, including religious authority, to encourage servile peoples to be demure, obedient, subservient, kind, and well-pleasing to their masters, they are doing a disservice to those servile persons and acting in a manner contra to the humanity and the spiritual and social integrity of those persons, with the exception of when this is recommended as a "wise as serpents" approach intended only to "buy time" for prudential reasons. But it is clear that a great deal of patristic language, including language found in Palamas, is such that the subservience and obedience of the servile classes to their oppressors is considered a spiritual good. I find this heinous and erroneous in the extreme. I find the excuse that these fathers should not be expected to have social expectations unusual to their age unconvincing - they spend a great deal of time telling servile workers to be obedient to their masters and to comply with the authorities over them. This implies that there were instances in which servant class persons were not thus behaving. By the 14th century you have plenty of instances of rebellions and revolts that were of a proto-class nature, and from some of the things Church authorities preach against it is clear that there must have been activities among workers that were along the lines of work slowdowns and work stoppages and what we might call loosely coordinated grumblings and mild actions. These things should have been encouraged when prudent, and when not prudent those servants should have been encouraged to believe that their inclinations toward disobedience and noncompliance were right before God and man. To believe otherwise is to release Christianity as nothing more than an agent of those structures associated with imperial and aristocratic (and later wealthy merchant elite) classes. That there is so little of this sort of witness among Christian writers and thinkers and leaders reveals a massive fail, and a contradiction inherent in the Christian traditions. That said, there are indications that on local levels monks and priests did not always side with the "elite," and there has always been within Christianity an interior critique of Christianity's own propensity toward collusion with the master classes.

  16. cont'd

    When there is an uprising that involves senseless violence and a lack of effective social cohesion and discipline, I see no reason why this must be treated, as it so often was, as a "proof" of the divine regard for the "old" order. The rebels should be encouraged to do better next time. Hell, how many times in Church history did some ruler get chastised a bit by a saint after committing some atrocity, and did his penance, but then maintained power with that saint demanding that the people obey that ruler "as God requires?" That the ruling classes would be "forgiven" time and time again but servile revolts treated as if they are insufferable deviations from human affairs - of the sort that cannot receive some sort of restoration in which the Church accepts the overall revolt but rejects the excess, well, that is quite telling. We see this same posture today - the excesses of working class violence are remembered in great detail and act as proofs of the inevitable pointlessness of revolt, but all manner of forgiveness is offered to the systemic violence and inhuman processes of coercion which the ruling classes use to maintain their power. The modern awareness of this contradiction is one of the leading reasons that Christianity is and will remain impotent with regard to having any serious direct influence upon human affairs, broadly speaking, though as we see in the American conservative movement and other reactionary movements bent on protecting the interests of the elite worldwide, the various Christian power structures still have an indirect influence by way of their adherents gaining positions of power, etc.


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