Embedded Violence: President Duterte and the Evangelical Violent Formation

by Nestor Ravilas

In recent exchange between two of prominent public intellectuals, Catherine Mills questioned Judith Butler’s positive stance on non-violence debate. Mills’ pessimism stems from the assumption that there is violence through which a subject is formed, an idea which Butler herself shared with Mills. In a similar vein, Slavoj Zizek, a prolific philosopher, asks how one can repudiate violence since struggle and aggression are part of life. Butler sees a possible break out from this iterable cycle of violence, while Mills and Zizek on the other hand are both skeptics of this “breaking out” since violence is part of humanity’s “constitutive possibilities” and they would naturally conduct themselves in violence that formed and produced them.

Tension prompts various implications that are in need of further delineation. The seeming inescapability of violence, I supposed, is in need of immediate attention. But due to some dogging factors, let me consign it rather to future discussion, and allow me instead to engage the seeming relocation of violence inside or internal to humans. This assumption is based on the idea that we are social beings formed and crafted by social and political locations we inhabit. Christian theology on human nature may not completely agree with this idea since it posits on something that is inherently given, something coextensive with human birth. This notion of natural and given, however, would not completely repudiate the idea that humans are generally created and produced by political and social norms, including structures and organizations. So, let me proceed just the same and take the idea of sociality as our general condition.
What is disturbing about this social formation of humans is the idea that there are violent norms that addressed and produced the human subject; that we are violently impinged and thus we are violently formed. On her effort to illustrate this, Butler claimed that since the dawn of modernity, humans were forcibly categorized between two gender divide of male and female. Regina Schwartz, on her part, has a very exquisite but poignant discussion on how this categorization or pattern of “exclusion” has violently impinged us. All of these, however, are indirect impingement, and those direct, blatant, and aggressive violent norms were not yet considered here. Having said this, there might be truth in what these social thinkers are musing all along that we are violently formed and, therefore, we are predisposed to violence. We conduct ourselves according to our production; the human predicament Zizek and Mills have rued about.
Is this anthropological analysis also true for Evangelical Christians? Could we possibly trace to this “violent formation” the reason why all the imputed violence of President Rodrigo Duterte fell on deaf ears and eventually dismissed as a non-factor for Evangelical Christians who still campaigned and voted him to power? Are we violently produced that violence itself has lost its nauseating power to scandalize and offend us? To postulate on this is to say in effect that we, Evangelicals, inhabit a violent religious culture that shapes and nurtures our very formation as social beings.
I have to stress the point that this genealogical inquiry has nothing to do with President Duterte. The Elections are over and any murmuring would go non-bearing to his climb to power. This is about us, Evangelical Christians. This initiative is done in the hope that this might pave the way to create a political theology that would address the problem of violence within our folds. This primarily problematizes our seeming indifference to violence I underscored above. What follow, therefore, is a rough survey of embedded violence within our Judeo-Christian tradition that might have unconsciously predisposed our very constitution as Evangelical Christians.
Let me begin with the scholarly work of Susan Niditch who surveyed different war practices in the Bible. Among those she surveyed pertain to the practice of Herem or Ban. She classifies Herem into two: the war with no clear reason but to sow terror and the one pursued in order to implement God’s justice or to restore the supposed disruptive cosmic order. What is disturbing about the first war principle is the idea that people, animals, and things could be “devoted to destruction”. It was a form of sacrifice, a vow in exchange of divine favor, once granted everything and everyone will be destroyed as offering to the divine. The second one is related to Regina Schwartz’s idea of “exclusion” where in pursuit of God’s justice was used as mere pretext to wreak havoc to the excluded, outcasts, outsiders, and heretics.
Since the idea of “exclusion” was mentioned, let us proceed to Regina Schwartz’s scholarly work on the “Violent Legacy of Monotheism” that primarily explored this topic. The very source of violence in monotheism is the particular practice of “favoring and excluding”. Regina simply asked question: If God favored both offerings of brothers, Cain and Abel, rather than favoring only one, could there be violence that ensued right after? If there are two divine/father blessings rather than one, would Esau persecute Jacob and plot his death? The pattern of “favoring and excluding” resulted in violence, violence that haunts us because the virus of “elitist religion” remains with us and keeps on producing us.
The Binding of Isaac is worth mentioning here. I have been hearing sermons crafted out of this narrative exalting the virtue of sacrifice and veneration. But the narrative is enigmatic on its moral implications. Did God really ask for human sacrifice? The offering indeed was stalled and we regarded it therefore as a mere test of faith. Nonetheless, the narrator was silent about that. It was even silent on whether offering of humans, children in particular, is evil. Spilling of blood, however, commenced through the replacement victim. Indeed, God could not be appeased until blood is spilled. But, as Rene Girard would say in this economy of sacrificial rite, the intended sacrifice saved by the scapegoat is viewed still as the one who really suffered death in this practice of scapegoating. Thus, from this principle was probably born the idea pertinent to some rabbinic faction that it was Isaac who really died in the mountain.
In this idea of sacrifice, it is a little intriguing how God was presented as one finds pleasure in spilling of blood and burning of flesh. I was a little fascinated by many instances when an angered God would suddenly be appeased by the aroma of burnt meat and in view of spilt blood. Rene Girard has a very interesting study of the relation of this divine fascination with blood and of the problem of violence in that particular chapter in his magnum opus, Violence and the Sacred. Sociologically, in primitive time, the practice of sacrifice functioned as way of containing violence from escalating. Rather than unleashing this retributive impulse to its object and might result to multiplication of violence, a sacrificial victim was called out to bear all the unleashed violence of the injured party. It is a commendable device, but violent just the same. Michel Foucault called this out and criticized its virulent effects by insidiously “ritualizing violence” – justifying and normalizing it as part of quotidian life.
In our non-violent advocacy, we are often confronted by Evangelicals throwing in our face the Bible passage that describes Jesus as bringer of sword rather than of peace. And I wonder how this has easily disarmed us of our hermeneutical prowess and accepted it easily without calling on the battery of critical methods we learned in our seminary days. How easily it puts into oblivion Jesus’ repudiation of the retributive spirit of Lex Taliones in the Gospel of Matthew and of the utilitarian ethics of the Golden Rule in the Gospel of Luke, and leads us thereafter to what Paul Ricoeur describes as the “superabundance” of the ethical injunction, “Love your enemy”. Is the incitement for violence so compelling that we ignored the more salient command to love our enemies, and hence never bothered to resolve the tension of these two contrasting ideas we found in the gospels? That the justification it provides to our animosity against our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and neighbors is more consoling, than to go through the process of mending our broken relationships with them as a proper response to the injunction of loving our enemies?
Paul in his own contribution is a little subtle in providing us norms that are violent and competitive in nature. In his attempt to be a little passionate in egging his friends to remain faithful in the faith in the midst of troubled days, he used the metaphor of marathon and the garbing of battle armor as analogy of spiritual gifts and virtues as preparation for battles ahead. I wonder how Paul came to use those metaphors that incite violence and competition when there are other human activities that are less violent or innocuous. Was Paul also regaled and amused by two of man’s favorite pastimes – sports and war? I am not sure of this. What I know is that in analogy, the comparison works within the limit of points the author wanted to highlight. However, since the author is also silent on the possible excesses of the comparison made, over-application is not far from occurring. Thus, violence as implied by donning war garments, and individualism and competition invoked by the game of marathon are not all impossible to be absorbed by us in reading those metaphors.
Let me end this with the final war. When I was converted in this religious persuasion in 1984, the War of Armageddon is a war that was welcomed and earnestly waited rather than feared in our tradition. We hoped and we prayed for it to occur sooner in order to announce the transition from old epoch to the new one. I remember that the only debate that ensued out of this was whether we, mortals, will participate in the war or it was completely a spiritual battle. But we wish for the first for it created excitement, knowing we will actively participate in the final war of God. I don’t have to further elaborate how this yearning for final war shapes and forms us as people of violence.
What I have written is selective and brief with clear shortcomings. But, as I have mentioned, the goal of this inquiry is to problematize our violent formation in the hope that this might spark interest among our theologians, professionals and non-professionals alike, to start treading the path of creating political theology on violence and peace. The Duterte phenomenon is a good place to start from, and his ongoing incitement of violence along side his promises of reforms compels us to urgently draw such theology.
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