Zizek, and the danger of Obama for the American church

June 11, 2008 at 1:31 am (God, Missional Living, Politics, Prayer, The Gospel)

Upon browsing the web for discussions on politics and the missional church, I came across this article.  Read and let me know what you think…How does politics, specifically Obama, affect the missional church? 

One piece of Slavoj Zizek’s political theory in his foundational book “The Sublime Object” is his notion of “ideological cynicism.” Subjects of the first world, Zizek says, are too smart to become duped by the political ideologies of Western states. We know it’s all just more political spin. Instead, ideology for Zizek, takes on a different form in the so-called “first world.” Here, we are offered ideologies to appease us, to make us feel better about ourselves, so that those in privilege can keep on conserving what it is they really desire. So now, we look at the political ideologies spinning across the political process, and instead of politically observing “they do not know it, but they are doing it,” we observe “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.” In essence, we listen to all the new political speeches and new political options given the electorate and we know nothing will really change. Yet we participate in it anyway, because in essence subconsciously this is what we really want: we wish to protect our own specific pieces of the economic social pie yet feel good about doing it (there’s the classic Freudian split in the subjective consciousness).

 Zizek suggests that political ideology serves a cynical function now, giving us a Big Other to believe in, making us feel better about ourselves (morally), all the while we hope for keeping the status quo in place protecting our own personal pieces of the pie.

When it comes to Christians, I would suggest Zizek’s “ideological cynicism” could work another way. We participate in National politics, its political ideologies of a more just/moral society, even though we deeply suspect the corporate national machine insures nothing will change. We do this because it is much harder to think of the church itself as a legitimate social political force for God’s justice in the world. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority did this for the evangelicals in the 80’s. He allowed us to think we were working for a better society thereby granting us a reprieve from examining our own churches’ life for moral vigor. Today, perhaps it is the same, as many of us jump onto the Obama bandwagon. It is simply a lot less work to support Barak Obama for president than it is to lead our churches into being living communities of righteousness, justice and God’s Mission in the world. 

I know Zizek might appear too skeptical for most of us. And there is always the cry “why can we not do both – vote for Obama and be missional communities for justice in our neighborhoods.” Yet I think the question is worth considering: “Are we supporting Obama because it’s easier than being God’s justice in the world ourselves?”

Senator Obama is putting out a pleasing message of “Change.” “I’m asking you to believe in Change,” “the Audacity of Hope,” and “A Unified America.”  Yet Zizek would call these ideas  “signifiers without the signified.” Words that in the end no one knows what they mean or refer to. Zizek would say it is these “words” which allow us to consent to what we know is a lie so that we can avoid the Real: that true justice of God demands fundamentally the way we live in relation to each other and the world. I fear these “words” take the place of pres. Bush’s words “Freedom” and “No child left behind,” words that few knew what they actually meant but morphed into a politics of multinational corporate politics the horror of which is hard to believe 8 years later. In a Zizekian way, I have often asked, did we consent to all this (vote for George Bush) as evangelical Christians 8 years ago (who by and large elected him) in order to assuage ourselves that we (through our country’s national politics) are contributing to a better world all the while staying comfortable within our protected enclaves.

Obama has shown signs of not caving in to the ideological production machine. He has dared come close to making particularist commitments. He did not shrink back from his infamous “they cling to guns or religion” guffaw.  He did not pander to the production of ideology (concerning gas prices) by proposing an end to the gas tax as Hillary did. Yet when it came time most recently to defend his pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, Obama backed off (after defending him other times). Wright’s particularist ethnic claims evidently came too close to puncturing the dominant ideology of race relations that allows us all to keep things going as they already are. Let me explain. In Detroit, on Apr 27, Wright made statements about differences among ethnic groupings in America. He detailed how the black culture is “different” but not “deficient.” He was continuing along his previous line of thought describing how American culture, politics and justice is really a white man’s system. It is was the kind of accusation which exposed the power structures of the existing system of which Barak seeks to become president of.  In so doing, Wright came too close to upsetting the ideology which enables us all to be comfortable with the status quo concerning race relations in America. I know Wright has been extreme. I know he has been incendiary. He has been inopportune and self aggrandizing. Nonetheless, isn’t his line of reasoning the very stuff of which the ideology of American democracy cannot handle for the reasons Zizek cites above? So Obama has to publicly disavow Wright. It is an irruption of the Real for those of us who think justice can somehow emerge from the current structures and signification systems of the American State. It’s a wake up call to the fact that Obama must cover over the realities of exclusion that occur within America’s system towards black culture in order to persist in the illusion of  “Change” and “Belief” that Obama is selling. Wright is too dangerous because he reveals that anyone who wishes to be insistent on his or her particular commitments culturally and religiously (after all Wright says he is “running for Jesus”) cannot fit in to the American system of justice.

I must confess my own proclivity was to vote for Obama this fall. Yet Zizek helps us see that if we seek a revolution of justice, we need counter movements that can reveal the lack in the System. To me this points to the church. And so I continue to want to press for the church to be the primary instrument of true justice in the world. The church must be FIRST as the initiator for social justice, from which we can then push for governmental cooperation. I am concerned that the new energy for justice on the local level by emerging and missional church movements might be dissipated by the Obama hope. I have always been concerned about the marginal status given the church as the foundational center for justice in society by my various spokesmen/women/friends of the Emerging Church. I know many fear fundamentalist sectarianism. I fear the democratic capitalist Symbolic Order shall subsume us all..  More and more however, people like Jim Wallis are seeing the insights of a tempered vision of what is possible in national politics (see The Great Awakening). More and more, people understand a new possibility for a Hauerwasian radical politics (see Shane Claiborne and his Jesus For President campaign). So, this is not to say not to vote for Obama, but this is to say, do not allow false ideology to sap our energy or distract us from the task of being God’s people, his embodied Kingdom in submission to His Lordship, birthing forth His justice made possible in His death and resurrection until He comes.    

What do you think? Is there a work of “ideological cynicism” at work in Christians supporting Obama? Is the Obama bandwagon a positive or a negative (or neutral) for the church’s role in bringing justice to the nations? Is energy by Christians spent on Obama politics misguided, too hopeful, and misdirected? Is it too easy to just say “you should be doing both, voting for Obama and working for social justice in your local church”?




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