A Brief Reflection on
Slavoj Žižek’s use of John Howard Yoder
In his New Book:
Living in the End Times.
Hardback: Verso Books, 2010.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
By Chris Smith
This will not be a full review, as I am taking my time working through Slavoj Žižek’s new book Living in the End Times; I’m only about a third of the way through the book and savoring every word as I go. However, since the book has been out for a few months, I thought that a reflection on Žižek’s brief reference to the work of John Howard Yoder in this new volume might fit well with the content of the current issue. Before I get to Yoder, however, allow me first to summarize the project that Žižek is undertaking here. Starting with the premise that global capitalism is in the last days before its collapse (a premise based on the evidence of ecological crisis, widening social and economic divides and the biogenetic revolution), Žižek makes a pointed and convincing case that humankind’s collective response to the reality of the imminent collapse of capitalism parallels the traditional five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, withdrawal and finally, acceptance. His work here demonstrates as clearly as any of his previous works that he is – as I have argues before in these pages – one of the keenest critics of global capitalism, to whom the Church must lend an ear as we seek to discern the signs of the times.
Žižek uses Yoder to critique some of the “anger” response to the collapsing of capitalism, the (very) basic line of his argument is that such anger is rooted in despair, but he offers Yoder’s work as a counter-example of hope that a different non-capitalist form of society is possible: i.e., the Church. He offers a sympathetic reading of Yoder, saying:
Yoder did not reject Constantinianism on behalf of an ascetic withdrawal of believers from social life: aware of the limitations of democracy, he understood “being Christian” as involving a non-reconciled political standpoint. The primary responsibility of Christians is not to take over society and impose their convictions and values on people who do not share their faith, but to “be the church.” By refusing to repay evil with evil, by living in peace and sharing goods, the church bears witness to the fact that there is an alternative to a society based on violence or the threat of violence (129).
Žižek goes on to imply that Yoder’s work reminds us of the fundamentally religious nature of capitalism ( e.g., faith in “the institution of money”). It is curious here that Žižek, the avowed atheist, reads Yoder more faithfully than most Christians (e.g., see our review of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine above). If we believe that God is sovereign over all history, and if we believe with Yoder that the cruciform people of God do offer a real social (and economic) alternative, then we have no reason to be distraught as capitalism crumbles. Of course, I should be quick to add that on the other hand, Yoder would not have wanted us to employ violence to speed up capitalism’s demise either. Žižek is important for us because he is not afraid to speak truths that are hard to the capitalists to hear, and in so doing, he reminds us that our hope lies in God’s coming Kingdom and not in the systems of this world. And Yoder, perhaps more than any other theologian, ignites our imaginations with this hope, calling us to “be the church,” and to embody faithfully the alternative ways of God’s Kingdom – denying self, loving enemies, having all things in common. May we attentive to the signs of the times, and may our hearts be transformed by the timeless Reign of God.