Nature bats last: Radical political theology

Politics without theology is dangerous, and we must construct a new worldview not reducible to just evidence and logic.

Rather than succumb to strictly religious or technological fundamentalism, a radical political theology ‘leaves behind fear-based protection rackets and arrogance-driven control fantasies’ [GALLO/GETTY]

[An edited version of this talk was presented to the Veterans for Peace conference in Portland, OR, on August 4, 2011]
My title is ambitious and ambiguous: revolution and resistance (which tend to be associated with left politics), revelation and redemption (typically associated with right-wing religion), all framed by a warning about ecological collapse. My goal is to connect these concepts to support an argument for a radical political theology.
First, I realise that the term “radical political theology” may be annoying. Some people will dislike “radical” and prefer a more pragmatic approach. Others will argue that theology shouldn’t be political. Still others will want nothing to do with theology of any kind. But a politics without a theology is dangerous, a theology without a politics is irrelevant, and radical is realistic.
By politics, I don’t mean we need to pretend to have a traditional political programme that will lead us to the land of milk and honey; instead, I’m merely suggesting that we always foreground the basic struggle for power. By theology, I don’t mean that we need to believe in supernatural forces that will lead us to a land of milk and honey; instead, I’m merely pointing out that we all construct a worldview that is not reducible to evidence and logic.
And all this needs to be radical – an unflinching honesty about that unjust and unsustainable nature of the systems in which we live. Whatever pragmatic steps we take in the world, they should be based on radical analysis if they are to be realistic.

Ask an audience to name the three most important revolutions in human history, and the most common answers are the American, French, and Russian. But to understand our current situation, the better answer is the agricultural, industrial, and delusional revolutions.
The agricultural revolution started about 10,000 years ago when a hunting-gathering species discovered how to cultivate plants for food and domesticate animals. Two crucial things resulted, one political and one ecological. Politically, the ability to stockpile food made possible concentrations of power and resulting hierarchies that were foreign to band-level hunting-gathering societies, which were highly egalitarian and based on cooperation. Humans were capable of doing bad things to each other prior to agriculture, but large-scale institutionalised oppression has its roots in agriculture.
Ecologically, the invention of agriculture kicked off an intensive human assault on natural systems. While hunting-gathering humans were capable of damaging a local ecosystem in limited ways, the large-scale destruction we cope with today has its origins in agriculture, in the way humans started exhausting the energy-rich carbon of the planet, first in soil.

The post-World War II “advances” in oil-based industrial agriculture have accelerated the ecological destruction. Soil from large monoculture fields drenched in petrochemicals not only continues to erode but also threatens groundwater supplies and contributes to dead zones in oceans.

The larger industrial revolution that began in the last half of the 18th century intensified the magnitude of the human assault on ecosystems and humans assaults on each other. This revolution unleashed the concentrated energy of coal, oil, and natural gas to run the new steam engine and machines in textile manufacturing that dramatically increased productivity. The energy – harnessed by the predatory capitalist economic system that was beginning to dominate the planet – not only eventually transformed all manufacturing, transportation, and communication, but disrupted social relations. The world population soared from about 1bn in 1800 to the current 7bn, far beyond the long-term carrying capacity of the planet.
The industrial processes are destroying the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain human life as we know it into the future, and in the present the material comforts produced are not distributed in a fair and just fashion. The way we live is in direct conflict with common sense and the ethical principles on which we claim to base our lives. How is that possible? Enter the third revolution.
The delusional revolution is my term for the development of sophisticated propaganda techniques in the 20th century (especially a highly emotive, image-based advertising/marketing system) that have produced in the bulk of the population (especially in First World societies) a distinctly delusional state of being. Although any person or group can employ these techniques, wealthy individuals and corporations – and their representatives in government – take advantage of their disproportionate share of resources to flood the culture with their stories that reinforce their dominance. As a culture, these delusions leave us acting as if unsustainable systems can be sustained simply because we want them to be.

Even if a revolutionary programme is not viable at the moment, strategies and tactics for resistance are crucial. To acknowledge that the social, economic, and political systems that have produced this death spiral can’t be overthrown from the revolutionary playbooks of the past does not mean there are no ways to affirm life. We face planetary problems that seem to defy solutions, but the US empire and predatory corporate capitalism remain immediate threats and should be resisted. An honest, radical assessment of our situation doesn’t mean giving up, but it requires us to be tough-minded.
The first step is recognising that certain approaches are not effective. The protests of the anti-war movement, for example, failed to stop the US invasion of Iraq. When certain resistance tactics don’t work as part of a strategy that’s not clearly articulated, it’s time to rethink. I have no grand strategy to offer, and I am sceptical about anyone who claims they have worked out such a strategy. I believe we are in a period in which the most important work is creating the organisations and networks that will be important in the future, when the political conditions change, for better or worse. Whatever is coming, we need sharper analysis, stronger vehicles for action, and more resilient connections among people.

Most discussions of revelation and apocalypse in contemporary America focus on the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning – “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity. What is the nature of this unveiling today?
Rather than thinking of revelation as divine delivery of a clear message about some fantastic future above, we can think of it as a process that requires tremendous effort on our part about our very real struggles on this planet. That notion of revelation doesn’t offer a one-way ticket to a better place, but reminds us that there are no tickets available to any other place; we humans live and die on this planet, and we have a lot of work to do if, as a species, we want to keep living.
That process begins with an honest analysis of where we stand. There is a growing realisation that we have disrupted natural forces in ways we cannot control and do not fully understand. We need not adopt an end-times theology to recognise that on our current trajectory, there will come a point when the ecosphere cannot sustain human life as we know it. As Bill McKibben puts it, “The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet”.
We can’t pretend all that’s needed is tinkering with existing systems to fix a few environmental problems; massive changes in how we live are required. This is a revelation not of a coming rapture but of a deepening rupture. The end times are not coming, they are unfolding now.

Just as revelation can be about more than explosions during the end times, redemption can be understood as about more than a saviour’s blood washing away our sin. But we shouldn’t give up on the concept of sin, for we are in fact all sinners – we all do things that fall short of the principles on which we claim to base our lives. Given that we all sin, we all should seek redemption, understood as the struggle to come back into right relation with those we have injured.
At some point in our lives we all do things that violate our own principles, which suggests the capacity to do nasty things. Equally obvious is that even though we live interdependently and our actions are conditioned by how we are socialised, we are distinct moral agents and we make choices. Responsibility for those choices must in part be ours as individuals.
But an individual focus isn’t going to solve our most pressing problems, which is why it is crucial to focus on the sins we commit that are created, not original, and solutions that are collective, not individual. These sins, which do much greater damage, are the result of political, economic, and social systems. They create war and poverty, discrimination and oppression, not simply through the freely chosen actions of individuals but because of the nature of these systems of empire and capitalism, rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy.
So, a desire to return to right relation with others in our personal lives is not enough; collectively we have to struggle for the same thing, which requires us to always be working to dismantle those hierarchical systems that define our lives. Our most important struggle for redemption concerns our most profound sin: Our willingness to destroy the larger living world of which we are a part.
Whatever the limits of our predictive capacity, we can be pretty sure we will need ways of organising ourselves to help us live in a world with less energy and fewer material goods. We have to all develop the skills needed for that world (such as gardening with fewer inputs, food preparation and storage, and basic tinkering), and we will need to recover a deep sense of community that has disappeared from many of our lives.
Nature bats last

The phrase “nature bats last” circulates these days among people who have their eye on the multiple, cascading ecological crises. The metaphor reminds us that nature is the home team and has the final word. We humans may be particularly impressed with our own achievements – all of the spectacular homeruns we have hit with science and technology – but when those achievements are at odds with how nature operates, then nature is going to bring in the ultimate designated hitter and knock the human race out of the ballpark. The point is simple: We are not as powerful as the forces that govern that larger living world. So, we need to see beyond the egotistical rhetoric of our technological fundamentalism – the claims that infinitely clever humans will solve all problems with gadgets – and end the human war on the rest of the living world.

The radical political theology I believe we need for this moment in history would acknowledge, rather than try to mask, our confusion and uncertainty. Facing that takes a new kind of courage. We usually think of courage as rooted in clarity and certainty – we act with courage when we are sure of what we know. Today, the courage we need must be rooted in the limits of what we can know and trust in something beyond human knowledge. In many times and places, that something has gone by the name “God”. Religious fundamentalism offers a God who will protect us if we follow orders. Technological fundamentalism gives us the illusion that we are God and can arrange the world as we like it. A radical political theology leaves behind fear-based protection rackets and arrogance-driven control fantasies.
The God for our journey is neither above us nor inside us but around us, a reminder of the sacredness of the living world of which we are a part. That God shares the anxiety and anguish of life in a desecrated world. With such a God we can be at peace with our powerlessness and alive in hope. With such a God, we can live in peace.

Robert Jensen is a professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin. His latest book is titled, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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