Revolutionary Messianic Thought for the Day

Mondoweiss founder Philip Weiss has been insisting on the revolutionary significance of the Egyptian events for the entire world, but he finds himself turning, I think inevitably, to explicitly messianic rather than merely political language:

Let Egypt be a light unto the nations. Let us climb down from suspicion of other races. Let us imagine a peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt’s neighbors too.

It’s not merely ironic that he had Israel very much in mind with that statement.  When I pointed out and affirmed Weiss’s messianism, he asked whether it was messianic also to bring Obama and America into this context.  My further affirmation of the sentiment brought negative reactions from commenters who are, apparently, not used to speaking of the American idea, or of Judaism, in positive terms.

It may seem like an ensuing discussion of the American Founding and its philosophical and religious origins moved a great distance from what’s on our television screens today, but my argument is that they’re all one. My revolutionary messianic thought for this joyous day therefore turns naturally to… John Locke and his influence on what another commenter pointed out was one of the most famous sentences in the English language, the one that begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

The influence of Locke on that sentence is indelible, but the commenter wanted to credit Locke further, citing authorities, for the “beginning of the modern Western conception of the self.” I tend to be wary of such statements. A “beginning of the modern conception” would be the furthest limit of the prior conception, and the beginning of the prior conception would be whatever preceded that, and so on – which observation is not meant to discount Locke, but rather to give him his deserved place of honor in a much greater tradition and the greatest story ever told.  Locke is often associated with a defense of personal property rights, and has even been condemned on that basis, but the twin argument for the absolute moral necessity of freedom of conscience, though seemingly more obscure because, for us, unfashionably theological, is at least as important, and is directly expressed both in the Declaration of 1776 and the Bill of Rights of 1789 (1st Amendment especially), and is kin to the contemporaneous Declaration of the Rights of Man – all in turn the bases for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for the consensual objectives of Egypt’s “popular coup.”

It’s not trivial in this context that Locke’s thought was grounded in theology – in a logic of salvation: For Locke, without freedom of conscience there is no authentic salvation. A state or religion that denies individual freedom robs people of the most important thing of all – moral redemption that is authentic because freely chosen. This logic is also present, and arguably originates, in prophecy – and can be seen as the proper realm of religion. It fully complies with the Deism – idealized monotheism – popular among the Founders.

It also joins the expressed aspirations of the Egyptians, whose joy we’re today witnessing and sympathetically participating in, to the ideals of the American Revolution – among other revolutions. That it goes back to the sources of monotheism is important not because the sources automatically validate it, or even less because the recognition might boost Jewish pride (almost a contradiction in terms given the status of humility in Judaism), or American patriotism (whose proper object is an idea, not a land or a dead history), but because the prophetic sources of Judaism and Americanism are also the prophetic sources of Christianity and Islam, and make the same logic available, as it is grasped, to all Jews, all Christians, all Muslims, and to all those who, like the first recipients of the prophecy, come into contact with it from non-monotheistic orientations. That also means that all of the religions of the East can be re-articulated in relationship to this dialectic of the free individual and the society of freedom. Even the origins of dialectical materialism and the atheist impulse, and the correction of their application, can be found here. It has nothing to do with, is the necessary contradiction of, any forced acceptance of particular mythology, religious or national, or with any particular image of the divine.


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17 comments on “Revolutionary Messianic Thought for the Day

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  1. If I understand you correctly, you’re declaring that we are all one not only beneath a particular God, but in connection with liberty itself. Freedom and justice for all all, means freedom and justice for all.

  2. The difference is that between Lockean and Rousseauan revolutions,
    the former meant to amplify the institutional bases, along Bourgeois
    elements, and this transformative notion that foundered in France,
    Russia, Cuba, et al, which tries to create a ‘new man’ that doesn’t work, it more often than not leads to bloodshed. The only way, the
    Egypt example is operative, is if their was a third force that challenged
    both Fatah and Hamas, that is yet to be seen,

  3. miguel cervantes wrote:

    The only way, the
    Egypt example is operative, is if their was a third force that challenged
    both Fatah and Hamas, that is yet to be seen,

    A bit elliptical, as is your habit – but you appear to have stumbled part of the way at least into the truth. There is a third force acting upon that polity – mainly emanating from the state of Israel. The problem is what it’s a third force for.

  4. @ Scott Miller:
    That would be, broadly speaking, the monotheistic system as I understand it, yes. Also: Freedom to seek justice for all, freedom in seeking freedom and justice for all, justice in realizing freedom for all, etc. Which goes to what’s missing between the opposition between revolutions of liberty vs. revolutions of justice – sometimes also revolutions of desire vs. revolutions of need, revolutions of the brain vs. revolutions of the empty stomach (or total disposession, as in peasant and slave revolts).

    The basic distinction is one that Hannah Arendt emphasized, and that miguel is invoking. Arendt’s reading lends itself to the conservative notion that the second kind of revolution is to be feared and resisted at all costs, while the first may have its place – that would enable you to adopt the position of Edmund Burke, who supported the American Revolution and condemned the French. Marxism makes the same distinction, but reaches a different judgment: It asserts that the revolutions that take as their cause and end the re-creation of the whole human being and all of societal relations are the final, necessary, and ultimate historical task. The other kind of revolution, bourgeois revolution of the American type, is in this framework an advance, but not the final advance.

    I would argue that the distinction or opposition is faulty in a number of ways, especially where it leads to the false conclusion that societal relations and in particular the plight of the poor, the wretched, the dispossessed, the slave can be only indirectly addressed – that the revolution of liberty doesn’t or, as American conservatives seem to believe, can’t take social justice into account. The two terms remain interdependent: Liberty goes wrong without justice as much as justice goes wrong without liberty. I have support from the prophetic sources here, too. The Hebrew prophets, the Gospels, and Mohammed were all clear on this subject, and their commandments are unambiguous.

    They are also clear on the need to re-make oneself – to re-create the human being in accordance with the dictates of faith. That correction of dialectical materialism via Locke to which I alluded would be in comprehension of rather than the more common, typically modern peremptory rejection of the religious insight. Messianic religion understands this project of re-making the soul better than physical science, and better than political science or ethics. Arguably, physical science and ethics cannot understand it at all, because they cannot understand the human being or the concept of the divine except as particular examples, specimens, belonging to categories, rather than as unique beings and ends in themselves. They have been since the Enlightenment so determined to unburden us of myth and all of the social strictures associated with it that they have threatened to replace one form of ignorance with another. Given absolute power, they work to erase the human absolutely, because they cannot recognize it, and never knew it, though cannot escape it.

  5. So tell us, Colin, is the ‘wonderful democratic revolution’ just around the corner, what Mark Lloyd espouses in the best tradition of Zinoviev.
    This time we’ll get it right, I do agree on your final point, however the
    desire to quantify everything, leaves out the spiritual (or non corporeal
    realm) as it were, Marx, Freud, and Darwin, turns us to just the primal
    animal nature, and leaves not room for that other element, the soul

  6. miguel cervantes wrote:

    So tell us, Colin, is the ‘wonderful democratic revolution’ just around the corner,

    (K)no(w)!(:) It’s coming up right behind you! Look out!
    miguel cervantes wrote:

    I do agree on your final point,

    Nah – you only think you agree on the final point. If you actually agreed, you’d be compelled to accept – and expand upon and improve – the entire system. If you understood, you wouldn’t, as a patriotic American – you think of yourself as an American patriot, right? – speak so derisively of democracy and revolution. The messianic insight requires and commands the social and universal teaching.

  7. Thanks, Colin, for your response to my comment. I went to see a documentary about Harlan Ellison. Kind of made me want to throw up–especially the parts taken from a cameo appearance in something he wrote, where he’s made up with this huge, alien type goiter. He really was playing an old Jewish alien. Anyway, I like what you wrote, especially the “typically modern peremptory rejection of the religious insight” part. I think Curtis White would like it too and argue that your solution (though you wouldn’t call it that and you do frame it as something else, but too bad) is similar to the one he came up with–the one that left you unsatisfied. Satisfies me.

  8. Oh, and I also watched the Clippers lose to the Cavs. One of the best games of the year. Overtime and very remarkable on lots of levels. Cavs played their hearts out, as did the Clippers really. It connected with what I wrote about awhile back in respect to how much teams don’t like to lose to teams that are the worst of the worst. But on this night the Cavs weren’t that. They got Mo Williams back, and the rest of the Cavs showed a lot of grit. If you watched it, I bet you could wax eloquent about it in respect to losers and winners and how the Clippers don’t have goiters anymore, but they still find ways to relate to that damaged reality in an amazing way.

  9. Scott Miller wrote:

    Oh, and I also watched the Clippers lose to the Cavs.

    Nah – Curtis White falls into Nietzschean polytheism (with a pantheistic face), and he also doesn’t know anything about nuclear materials. But I’ll think some more about deep ecologism in this framework.

    I was avoiding mentioning the Clippers. Didn’t watch the game, but was told about it by someone who saw true Clipper-ness in the bald fact of it. “Did you hear the Cavs losing streak is over?”
    “No.”
    “Guess who they beat!”
    Took me three guesses to get to the Clips. If I hadn’t been distracted by Egypt I might have gotten it on the first try.
    But they have you well-trained indeed to love your suffering.

  10. We have the Heat down here, which is kind of primer in existencialism, why for the love of god, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’

  11. miguel cervantes wrote:

    ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’

    I always loved that one. Also, nice Mars rebellion reference earlier, Miggs.
    miguel cervantes wrote:

    Nah – Curtis White falls into Nietzschean polytheism

    Okay. But I meant it very loosely, in the positive sense that you were letting yourself experience resolution on a collective, Liberty itself, maybe (maybe, maybe) Spirituality (to the rescue) sense. I didn’t want to actually go there, because then you’d take it back, which you probably will.
    CK MacLeod wrote:

    But they have you well-trained indeed to love your suffering

    But it wasn’t suffering. I swear. It was a kind of love. It like if the Clippers were playing a team from Egypt right now. The Clips tried really hard and didn’t shame the Cavs at all, with pity. They played their best, actually won (because Baron Davis’ shot at the buzzer in regulation was goal-tended), and then lost with love.

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