Jesus, the trainee and televisions in wheelbarrows and prams—non-doing and juxtaposition, two ways to push back against post-truth politics and religion

Television in a pram
Readings: The story of the woman caught in adultery often placed at the beginning of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John (Scholars Version): 

Then everybody returned home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he showed up again in the temple area and everybody gathered around him. He sat down and began to teach them.
     The scholars and Pharisees bring him a woman who was caught committing adultery. They make her stand there in front of everybody, and they address him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” (They said this to trap him, so they would have something to accuse him of.)
     Jesus stooped down and began drawing on the ground with his finger. When they insisted on an answer, he stood up and replied, “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone at her.” Once again he squatted down and continued writing on the ground.
     His audience began to drift away, one by one — the elders were the first to go — until Jesus was the only one left, with the woman there in front of him.
     Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where is everybody? Hasn't anyone condemned you?”
     She replied, “No one, sir.”
     “I don't condemn you either,” Jesus said. “You’re free to go; but from now on, no more sinning.”


An extract from “And: Phenomenology of the End” (MIT Press, 2015, pp. 51-52) by Franco “Bifo" Berardi:

Throughout the late modern age, artists have been the harbingers of precariousness, which they internalized into an aesthetic of uncertainty, randomness, and excess. But in the first decade of the new century precariousness became a social condition, pervading the labour market and the workers’ perception of themselves.
      Precarious art is an attempt to mitigate social pain and political impotence with a kind of dystopian irony.
     At the Exhibition of Visual Art of Limerick 2012, I saw The Trainee, a distressing work by the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala produced in collaboration with Deloitte, a global network of consulting firms, and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. To realize the work, the artist spent a month as a trainee in the marketing department of Deloitte, where only few people knew the true nature of her project. She began as a seemingly normal marketing trainee, but eventually she starts to engage in peculiar working methods. For example, at times, she would sit doing nothing all day at her workstation in the consultants’ open plan office space, or in the tax department library. One video shows her spending an entire day in an elevator. These acts, or rather her absence of visible action slowly make the atmosphere around the trainee unbearable, and force her colleagues to search for solutions and to come up with explanations for the situation. Little by little, she becomes an object of avoidance and speculation. Her colleagues start asking her embarrassing questions, half-way between sincere interest and bewildered amusement. They address inquiries to their supervisor regarding this worker and her strange behaviour. Masking laziness in apparent activity and browsing Facebook during working hours are part of the acceptable behavioural patterns of a work community. However, sitting silently, immobile in front of an empty desk, thinking, smiling and gazing at the wall threatens the peace of the community and disrupts the concentration of the other workers. The person who is not doing anything isn’t committed to any activity, so she has the potential for anything. Since non-doing lacks a place in the general order of things, it becomes a threat to order. The degrading religion of labour is exposed here together with uselessness of contemporary work.


Click on this link to see Takala's film. But, be warned, as Bifo says, it is (in its own quiet way) a distressing work.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

Following last week’s address two people independently came up to me to agree in general with what I had said but they also wanted to ask how, in these post-truth times when reasoned discourse seems increasingly to be losing its suasion, I thought we could engage in some kind of meaningful encounter with people without the use of reasoned discourse to persuade them to stand on the side of justice and caritas/love for all — a side that, not surprisingly, our own radical, liberal Christian tradition has always stood.


Remember that I suggested a good summary of what post-truth rhetoric was could be found in the brilliant cartoon by Dan Piraro that I reproduce again on the right. (I think it is well worth visiting Piraro's site — just click this link to go there.)

I can most simply introduce my answer to you through a well-known teaching of Jesus concerning the woman caught in adultery — a story that has no fixed place in the New Testament text. Remember throughout that this story is an idealised one — i.e. it may never have happened exactly (if at all) like this but, nevertheless, it remains a story that contains some powerful lessons. 

The first thing to observe is that, after a night spent on the nearby Mount of Olives, Jesus goes down to the temple area, a place where, given his reputation as a radical reformer, he is in danger of being quickly surrounded by religious ideologues, that is to say the kind of people who are tempted to use something akin to post-truth rhetoric in their encounters. To idealogues it matters not a jot what the evidence says because God, or the tradition (which often amounts to the same thing), says X and so X is what will be done, for ever and ever, world without end, Amen. As anyone who has ever engaged with an ideologue, whether of a religious or political kind, will know, reasoned discourse here loses its suasion. We might say that the wheels of reasoned discourse begin to slip on ideological ice and eventually just start to spin uselessly around. Assuming one doesn’t choose to give up and walk away, one seems forced merely to swap with them opposing ideological assertions about this or that because the necessarily slow, unfolding shared process of critical analysis and interpretation simply cannot get going. As we all know too well many of our public political, philosophical and religious debates are today, sadly, all like this.

When the scholars and Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman who was caught committing adultery there is a high degree of probability that at least some of them were fully prepared to trigger such an un-illuminating encounter. The writer of this story certainly thinks this was the case, hence their note to the effect that “this was done to trap [Jesus], so they would have something to accuse him of.”

So, they make the woman stand there in front of everybody, and then play their opening gambit by asking Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” Here we find a classic attempt to create truth by the repetition of a lie, in this case the idea that the common good is going to be best served served by stoning anyone to death.

We may presume that the scholars and Pharisees would have been well aware of the kind of radical teaching Jesus promulgated, one which centred on forgiveness and which, as I noted last week, strongly suggested that henceforth and forever God is present only in and as one’s neighbour and where everything is dissolved into the call to justice and charity to one’s neighbour. The scholars and Pharisees all knew Jesus would not want, under any circumstances, to see the woman stoned to death but, to do this, he would seemingly have to “break the law” and that would give them the excuse to arrest him. 

Now, before we continue it is important to realise that not every scholar and Pharisee present may have been keen to find Jesus guilty but were there genuinely to find out how to stop such a stoning. As an historical note it is vitally important to realise that Jesus’ horror at stoning was part of a wider debate occurring within Judaism at the time — remember Jesus was known as a rabbi and faithful, if radical, reforming Jew. Something of this wider first-century CE debate can be glimpsed in a passage from the third-century CE Jewish text called the Mishnah:

“A Sanhedrin [a rabbinic council] that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says that this extends to a Sanhedrin that puts a man to death even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: Had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel” (Makkot 1:10).

It's really important to understand Jesus as part of liberalising, reforming tradition within Judaism that was in the business of challenging a more hard-line, ideologically orientated one.

So, how does Jesus make his case? How does he persuade those present to desist from stoning the woman when he knows he is in a highly charged, post-truth context where reasoned discourse has lost its suasion? I have no doubt that Jesus was exceptionally well-versed in scripture and fully able to construct a rational argument that could produce powerful propositions about the evil of stoning. However, despite this ability he doesn’t pursue this route and, instead, simply “stooped down and began drawing on the ground with his finger.”

It is here that I think we find the first lesson from this story and it helps inform the first part of my answer. It is the need to stop, to disentangle ourselves from public contexts that require instant, unreflective judgement and to give ourselves and others time to ponder, think, reflect, consider, wonder and perhaps even drift-off into a thoughtless, quiet, non-cognitive, creative space.

This kind of space was going to be hard to find or create in the rowdy temple area on that day some two millennia ago but, today, it’s far, far worse because in our own digital age of 24/7 rolling-news and never-ending social media streams (torrents really) flowing from Facebook, Twitter and Reddit and many other platforms, the kind of quiet, provocative space Jesus creates by doodling on the ground is rare indeed, and vanishingly so.

As a matter of quiet urgency I think we need to disentangle ourselves from this speeding, non-stop abstract info-machine and find ways to re-entangle ourselves with our bodies, with real people in real space and a slow time. The speed of abstract information flow in our own age is now so fast that it is beyond the ability of any human body/brain to decide what is relevant and to process or reflect upon information so as to interpret it in creative ways so that together, we are able to reveal important truths by which we might wish to live-out just and loving lives. Unless we want simply to become observers of, or mindless cogs in the mere passing flow of information — and whether that is the information of the neoliberal finacialisation machine or the quick-fire, post-truth rhetoric machine of religious and political ideologues — then we need to STOP. STOP, STOP, STOP — and doodle on the ground together. But, and this is very important, we need to be seen to be doing this stopping, this doing nothing.

(For those interested, Franco "Bifo" Berardi has spoken himself about the need to stop and you can see him do this in twenty-four minute long interview about his book, "After the Future." Just click on this link to see that.)

My favourite example of showing that someone is not doing something comes from Poland in 1982 at the time of the demonstrations organized by the underground movement, Solidarity, commemorating the second anniversary of the Gdańsk Agreement. The government would only show official news broadcasts that everyone was supposed to watch. Well people were not having that so they took to walking in the streets at the time of the news broadcasts. The trouble was that this didn't make it absolutely clear that they were NOT watching television and were simply out for a walk. So some enterprising people started bringing their televisions out into the street putting them in prams or wheelbarrows and then walking around with them on full display. It caught on because people no most assuredly could be seen NOT to be watching their televisions. (Click on this link to read a recollection of this doing by not-doing.)

Anyway, in the temple area that day two-thousand years ago I think Jesus was doing something as radical as the piece of performance art made by the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala we heard about earlier. To paraphrase Bifo’s words about the Takala’s piece, Jesus’ silent doodling, thinking and gazing at the ground threatens the peace of the (ideological) community and this disrupts the scholars’ and Pharisees’ concentration. The non-doing Jesus isn’t committed to any activity, so he has the potential for anything. His non-doing lacks a place in the general order of things, and thus it is a threat to order, an order that, of course, we want to see undone for we do not want to live under an order of being that will stone any person, for any crime.   

I think a church community such as our own can, and should be such a place where a certain kind of self-conscious radical non-doing can becomes a real threat to the post-truth political and religious order of our own age, an order many of us here want to see thoroughly undone.

It is also important to see that such a open, slow and quiet space is also required if reasoned discourse, which needs space and slowness to develop, is to begin to get some real traction again.

Of course, the scholars and the Pharisees, and the religious and political ideologues of our own time, aren’t going to like this kind of approach one bit and, now as then, they are constantly going to press us, as they did Jesus, for a different kind answer, one that they can more easily use and manipulate for their own ends.

Like Jesus, however, I think we mustn’t succumb to the temptation to move onto their ground but, instead, to find ways to capitalise on any disruption of their concentration we can achieve so as to get them (or at least some of them) to begin to notice something else other than their own ideological obsessions and to affect some kind of change of heart (repentance—metanoia. Let's not forget in all this John the Baptist and Jesus' call to repent for the kingdom of God is nigh).

Jesus does this by adopting a method similar to that recommended to us by the contemporary Cambridge philosopher, Raymond Geuss — a method that I first brought before you just before going away on sabbatical. It is the invitation to observe, look at, or consider something. As Geuss (in an essay called "A World Without Why") says,

“One kind of thing one can be invited to consider is a juxtaposition; masses of anonymous people storming the Winter Palace and two stone lions standing up on their pedestals, or the prime minister oleaginously addressing the House of Commons and a pile of bodies in a ditch in Iraq. By putting two (or more) separate “things” next to each other and inviting people to look at them together, one is not necessarily asking or trying to answer the question “why.” A poem may cause someone to ask a question or to initiate a line of reflection, or even to develop some hypothesis or theory, but then a clap of thunder or a sudden pain in the chest may do the same; that does not make either the pain or the poem a theory or a “line of argument.” A word in a good poem is not a concept. Since neither a picture nor a poem is an argument, neither is a suitable object for counterargument.”

So when, with their concentration broken, the scholars and Pharisees press Jesus he answers with an invitation to consider the idea that, “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone at her.” Following this, he returns to his provocative, disconcerting, non-doing by doodling on the ground.

It seems that the scholars and Pharisees, with their ideological concentration utterly distracted, are finally able existentially to consider the juxtaposition of their own imagined state of purity with the assumed sinfulness of the woman before them. Notice that at no point does Jesus put up a theory or a “line of argument”, this is because he knows that in this context reasoned discourse has lost its suasion. Despite this his interventions (his non-doing and his related invitation to consider a juxtaposition) has a powerful effect on them similar to that of a clap of thunder or a sudden pain and they slowly began to drift away, one by one, until Jesus was the only one left, with the woman there in front of him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where is everybody? Hasn't anyone condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.”

Jesus then concludes by saying “I don't condemn you either. You’re free to go" and, perhaps with a mischievous twinkle in his eye (after all he has revealed we are all sinners—and that includes himself), he concludes by saying to her "from now on, no more sinning.”

We can see that, in this moment at least, Jesus succeeded in persuading a change of heart in the scholars, Pharisees, the woman and, we hope, ourselves and he did this without the need of reasoned discourse.

I think that, in these strange post-truth times we need to do something similar, to engage consistently in the insurrectionary activities of stopping and doing "nothing", disentangling ourselves from the info-machine and to find provocative juxtapositions to place before those we meet as invitations to create together a better, fairer, more just world that the one we are currently inhabiting.

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