Christian voices are again of the marginalized. They are oppressed, fearful, and they face a totalitarian enemy. The labor unions have no power; the church groups that held community have given their voice in exchange for entertainment value. The structures that have housed and protected a life force have been eroded, and the life force is diffused.
I am who I am because somebody loved and cared for me; they targeted me. I take very seriously the sources of sacredness, of piety, in our lives. The highest honor I have ever received has nothing to do with McGill University, Harvard, or Cambridge; neither with Universities in Chiang Mai, Seoul, or Tokyo. It is not any public accolade that I have received. It comes from being the sixth son and youngest child of Lydia and Peter Klassen, and the husband of my spouse of 18 years. The structures of these relationships have held the life force that I am blessed with today.
When we talk about the times we are living in, we need to return to the source. In academic language, we need a moral anthropology for our own identity. As Cornell West asks, “What kind of human beings are we really? What has gone into the shaping and molding of who we are?” Antonio Gramsci called this a historical-critical self-inventory. We should answer then, what kind of social, political, and moral resources do we have available as individuals, communities, and traditions?
A moral anthropology of identities requires that we contextualize, historicize, and pluralize our communities and our traditions, but also our existence as individuals. None of us has one identity; instead, we have a variety of identities as we choose, strive, and advocate for visions, virtues, and values. For me, yes it is an Anabaptist peace-loving community in Brandon, Manitoba; it is a group of English-speaking people of different nationalities in South Korea; it is a small missionary church of university students in Chiang Mai Thailand; it is Dr. Charles Taylor and Dr. Hannah Arendt, a group of critical theorists like Habermas, Marcuse, Eric Fromm, Horkheimer, and Adorno, highlighted to me by the late Dr. Deborah Cook at the University of Windsor. These are persons and people(s) of calling who are not CEOs. The churches and the universities have been commodified and commercialized. Theories, instead of being empowered spiritual viewpoints that changed lives, have become resources, a farmed research for instrumentalized goals; communion is no longer blood and body at the cross but is instead a taste of something that helps one get to the next consumer-oriented blessing.
Let me be even more forthcoming about where I come from. I grew up surrounded by a love of art, both performed and created. I knew of the virtuosity of the opera singer, and the aesthetic insight of painter and sculptor. Any greatness of personality could be sourced from not just great teachers, thinkers, and great books, but from living examples of magnanimity and authenticity that were love advocates rather than polished professionals. I also had “Argyle Courts”, a Brandon affordable housing project, right next to our church. It was a community whose majority constituency were persons of indigenous origins. Our churches ministries to that community were important in terms of vacation Bible School, weekly outreach, and efforts to relieve the impoverished plights of the members of Argyle Courts. Even today, so many Indigenous children live in poverty – in one of the richest countries in the world. It is still morally obscene; it is still spiritually profane. I came of age through the receiving of a gift of the entire surplus of a poor university-student church in Thailand, i.e. a gift of all they had, to help pay the medical bills of my then sick son.
I grew up with particular manifestations of people who loved goodness, beauty, and truth… and the quest for these things, rather than only people who loved status, commodities, and possessions. I have been blessed with tremendous resources for fortitude. I am reminded, as we all should be, that there is a radical difference between loving truth, beauty, and goodness
At the moment we find ourselves we need a focus on those traditions, both secular and religious, which highlight a focus on integrity and authenticity, which articulate courage and greatness. At this moment, we are dealing with a relative eclipse of integrity and authenticity, of honesty and fortitude, and this across political and ideological lines. We are not in a time where we only need a correct analysis whether that be on the political left or right; we are in a time where we need caring, compassionate, and self-critical human beings who are living and loving for the long haul.
How shall integrity face oppression? I draw from my Anabaptist roots. Oppression comes on the back of violence and death. And without death, there is no rebirth. Authentic people, filled with integrity, must die to themselves. They must let go of presuppositions, prejudices, and assumptions. An authentic person must let go of herself, must die to themselves, daily in order to ascend and grow to meet the oppression. A person who is holding on to self will fight and die at the level of violence to protect the self that is filled with presuppositions, prejudices, and assumptions; an authentic person will die to themselves in order to enter a life filled with ambiguity, not-knowing, and the experiencing of life at the moment. That’s right, it is a different way of being in the world. It is being in the world but not of the world. How shall authenticity face oppression? The first challenge is spiritual integrity.
Spiritual integrity is being fully self-invested and self-involved in understanding a situation in light of its context, its evident pathology, and the realistic consequences of its realization over time. In other words, an authentic person should understand the world and moments in the world in the light of its history, its reality, and its possibility. We could get it wrong. After all, we are only individuals. But then, aided by such an orientation toward the world, we choose a way of living to it so that we live a life and not merely form an opinion. Such an orientation leads to a life of deeds and action, all of which are imbued with risks. Having a thorough understanding of one’s own moral anthropology, an inventory of the best of one’s traditions and identities, one will be able to step into the abyss, and still land on something.
How does such a courageous authenticity, rooted in spiritual integrity, work? Let me draw again from the musical side of my Anabaptist roots, which gives a fuller understanding of an ethos of peace. I used to hear, “If you can’t sing in harmony, you might as well not sing at all.” There is a connection between one’s voice and one’s vocation. If we are to step through the crack in oppression we must understand that justice and love are not identical, but they are indivisible. Reinhold Niebuhr (a canonical author at my Mennonite Brethren Bible College) has said, “any justice that is only justice soon degenerates into something less than justice.” (ch. 10) Justice, if not grounded in love, cannot go the long haul – it runs out of gas. No peace is possible if, in our search for justice, we do not hold each other in love.
Spiritual integrity demands that if we want to claim authenticity, we must have an in-our-bones awareness that authenticity and integrity are opposed to the ubiquitous love of money, the corrupted state of being in a world where everyone and everything is for sale. Commodification is across the board: families, universities, and churches have all fallen to the mass market hegemony that it is normalized and naturalized.
A moral anthropology (which may need to be done all the way back to the ancients) can help one to realize… it doesn’t have to be this way. Contextualize, historicize, and examine the hegemony. However, the mass market hegemony washes over the distinction between the two ways of being in the world I mentioned above. The mass-market hegemony resists the moral examination of the world that could stand up to the use of arbitrary power that we have seen with our eyes and have heard with our ears. Authoritarian examples, who have used arbitrary power, are too common even to recount. We must, however, notice that they are more common now in the Western democratic world.
Corporate media: how much integrity do you see in the corporate media? The church? Well-adjusted to injustice, well-adapted to indifference. The most public of intellectuals, William James said, “Indifference is the one trait that makes the very angels weep.” Indifference is the most insidious evil itself, and that is what we are dealing with. Indifference nurtured and fostered in the mass market hegemony, is the inheritance on offer for our youth.
Thorough moral anthropology would harken back to a Socratic legacy in democratic societies, not only to the “demos” legacy. In The Apology, Socrates says “the unexamined life is not worth living” (38a) which is a result of parrhesia (frank, fearless speech) that would get you in trouble (24a). There is also a prophetic legacy of Jerusalem (Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian): the spreading acid of loving-kindness, to the orphan and widow, to the vulnerable, the weak, and the poor. We have to keep traditions alive that connect to those legacies.
The West does not have a monopoly on these legacies, given our rich history of genocide. We need not fetishize people like Donald Trump who exist on a continuum of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, spiritual emptiness, and moral vacuity. Justin Trudeau is not a special case of corruption. He comes out of a long tradition where the market forces have corrupted democratic forms of ruling ourselves. A thorough moral anthropology in Canada, for example, would see that there are traditions and legacies that can see through the false promises of neoliberalism of the mainstream Liberal Party, and the neo-fascism at home with the Conservatives at the moment. As I have argued elsewhere, the legacy of individual rights has been bound up with the mass market hegemony. I have also argued that the expansion of neo-liberalism is not innocent, as many in the West believe.
What does being spiritually integral and authentic mean? It means you are in it for the long haul; it is deeply connected to your vocation. Even at this time, when it is so easy to despair, we must recognize that a vocation is your particular place to voice or express, yourself. Your vocation and your voice are intimately connected. We must hold on to the question of John Milton, from Paradise Lost: what are the conditions in which ordinary people consent to their own servitude?
Plato long ago pointed out that the seeds of tyranny are held within the democratic form. Given our current experience of the marriage of democratic forms and an expanding (imperialist) mass market, we have fallen well short of Plato’s challenge. According to Plato, we will always give ourselves over to strongmen and oligarchic rule because of an unjustified faith in people to rule themselves.
In response to Plato, we need to answer the difference between vocation and profession, between calling and career. Unlike the many people reaching to the individualist legacy of human rights, I want us to consider going in the exact opposite direction. I want us to go toward the idea of kenosis – self-emptying. Going back to the worship music of my Anabaptist tradition. Music wasn’t sung to draw attention to ourselves in mass-market appeal; it was sung in the spirit of listening to each other and empowering listeners. Coming from a black musical heritage in the United States, James Brown used to end every concert (many of which had gone on for four hours) by saying to the audience “I am an extension of you, and you are an extension of me.” James Brown would then serve his audience by playing a song that they longed to hear. In other words, he used his vocation to serve others. It was kenosis.
Those who are committed to authentic spiritual integrity are always doing it under some resistance. In overtly Christian language, it chooses the way of the cross; it expresses an unarmed truth. The condition of that truth is to allow suffering to speak. Authentic individuals with spiritual integrity must be willing to pay a price for saying what they say. We may have to jeopardize our careers to be true to our calling. We may have to lose our profession to stay true to our vocation. We may have to empty ourselves in order to live again.
A moral anthropology might help.