Thank you George Floyd for sacrificing your life for justice. For being there to call out to your mom—how heartbreaking was that?—call out for your mom, “I can’t breathe.” But because of you and because of thousands—millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.
Nancy Pelosi, April 21, 2021
Nancy Pelosi is third in line for the US Presidency. She is also a member, as far as I know, of the Catholic Church.
When after the 2015 killing of nine in a black church in Charleston SC, Felicia Sanders, the mother of one of the victims, offered her forgiveness to the unrepentant killer, Dylan Roof, she provided an admirable example of authentic Christianity: forgiving, not worshiping one’s enemies, giving love in response to hate.
Pelosi’s eulogy is not for one who “sacrificed” anything, but whose unfortunate death permitted a vast outpouring of hatred, which for today’s Left is “synonymous with justice.” Those millions who “came out for justice” were expressing outrage at an incident specifically chosen for its outrageousness in order to illustrate a spurious norm of racial persecution that, as our Woke Critical Race Theorists tell us, defines the essence of “white” American, and by extension, Western society.
Christians supposedly believe that when God let Jesus be crucified, this was the defining sacrifice that freed us from strict reliance on “the Law” and permitted us all to love one another in him. But today Jesus needs an update.
As George Floyd’s fellow human being, I am embarrassed in his name at this eulogy. Whether or not his death could have been prevented, whether or not Derek Chauvin was guilty of any of the counts of his indictment, it was not a sacrifice. It was an unfortunate event, for which Floyd himself was largely but not wholly responsible, and he should be allowed to rest in peace, having inadvertently brought great fortune to his family. Pelosi’s saying that he died “for justice” is of the same stripe as her tearing up President Trump’s State of the Union speech; it is an expression of a politics of hate far more than of love, the key trope of which is condemning “white” America.
Today’s world is dominated by three contending ideologies, all examples of the epistemology of resentment, and all of originally Judeo-Christian origin.
The formerly Christian West may still be called “liberal,” but we can simplify matters, given what remains of American hegemony, by calling it Woke. Pelosi’s eulogy is an example of Wokeness at its least explicitly resentful; the thrice-repeated word “justice” must do business for all the resentment expressed in the chant, “No justice, no peace!”
The other two ideologies are Communism, a 19th-century conception that seemed dead in 1989, but whose variant “with Chinese characteristics” seems to be flourishing; and Islam, which arose in the seventh century on the outskirts of the Eastern Roman Empire. Islam takes its resentment seriously, and has maintained and/or revived its fundamental principles as a rival to the Christian West. Yet as an “Abrahamic” religion it does not deny its links to the other two, and the recent rapprochement of Arab states with Israel gives hope of a real possibility of brotherhood—a possibility that, despite hostilities, I always felt in Israel on my visits there.
The origin of religion is in the deferral of conflict—which is at the same time the origin of resentment. Animals exhibit hostility, but resentment is a purely human passion that depends upon our faculty of (scenic) representation. We conceive the originary event as a reaction to the crisis in the Alpha-Beta ape hierarchy, in which the hostilities within the group over possession of a central source of nourishment are deferred in favor of a shared originary resentment toward the sacred force that interdicts this source, a resentment ultimately resolved by the sharing of food in a communal feast.
The mark of modern religions, in contrast to the “compact” belief-systems of the archaic era, is the separation of the realm of the sacred from the worldly order of things. The Hebrews as slaves in Egypt were presumably not forced to worship the local gods, merely to obey their overseers. But the consideration of how their own god(s) exercised power before and after their liberation from servitude inspired in them a revolutionary notion, perhaps suggested by Akhenaton’s “monotheist” worship of Ra, that the sacred will could be exercised not only locally but trans-historically.
In contrast to Egyptian as well as Greco-Roman polytheism, whose constituent gods did not reveal themselves as a group but were taken from different peoples and amalgamated in a pantheon, the Hebrews, uniquely in the West and perhaps in all human history, had the chutzpah to presume that their intuition of a universal sacred was the one that humans had always had—but without realizing it because their perspective had been tribal and conflictive: our god against your god.
If we experience the sacred as a transcendent will acting on us, why must we assume that “other” sacreds exist? Why not assume that the God to whom we remained faithful under bondage, and who finally allowed us to depart from slavery in Egypt, is the One God whose will has always reigned over all things?
As Adam Katz and I tried to make clear in The First Shall Be the Last (Brill, 2015), this discovery explains, on the one hand, the universal success of monotheism in the West, and on the other, the parallel success of antisemitism, the unending resentment of the discoverers of this principle, “whose” God became willy-nilly that of everyone. I bring this up here because it explains the anomalous centrality of the Jews in Western and indeed in world history, from the birth of Christianity to the Holocaust and on to the endless condemnations of Israel in the United Nations—and on university campuses.
Yet it is no coincidence that Israel, the restored nation of the founders of Western religion, is the only Western country with a positive demography and a truly vital sense of patriotism. To live in Israel is to defend it against its enemies, and this is true even of the Israeli left.
Whereas the rest of the West is being absorbed by the Woke movement, which is most simply described as the extension of the hostility to firstness, of which antisemitism is the archetype, to the entire “white” race. Christianity has at its core the idea, expressed by Jesus himself, that the First shall be the Last. In the domain of monotheism, the Hebrews/Jews were “the first,” so that the One God of all is indelibly marked as “their” God. Similarly, the West’s One World of modernity—market exchange, science, technology, and now digital “intelligence”—has been extended to, and in many cases imposed on, the entire rest of humanity.
In France, and to a lesser extent in the rest of Western Europe, where the Muslim population is both considerably more numerous and less assimilated than in the US, wokeness is associated more clearly than here with a phenomenon called Islamo-gauchisme, Islamo-leftism, visible here in occasional outbursts from Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Europe experiences Woke antisemitism (as well as anti-police Islamic violence) of a more murderous kind, such that many French Jews have moved to Israel or are contemplating doing so. The point of the neologism is that the Woke Left, while well aware that Islamic culture does not share its positive view of feminism, homosexuality, and denial of biological gender, nonetheless shows a respect for Islam that it emphatically denies to Christianity.
I do not consider this respect a merely cynical ploy in order to maintain an alliance against Europe’s “white” majority. The fact is that in recent generations, Muslims have been much more constant and fervent in their religious beliefs than Christians, such that even the most benighted of their traditions, such as genital mutilation or “honor killings,” are understood not as acts of personal self-indulgence but of obedience to a sacred law of a kind that few Westerners any longer respect.
Atheistic but ideologically fanatical Western leftists cannot repress a nostalgia for the sacred order they reject in “secular” Western society, where traditional obedience of any kind has been “deconstructed” as submission to oppression. For this is a sacred that has its origin in victimage. Islam, like Wokeness, embodies the resentment of the victims of the West. The oldest religion of these victims, whose God is both the same yet “greater” (Akbar) than the One God of the Jews and Christians, obeys a sacred will invulnerable to Western secularism.
Communism is a Western idea, but strangely more at home today in East Asia than in its lands of origin. The spirituality of the Chinese empire, from the little I know about it, is devoid of the great drama of transcendence. Although the racial unity of China has suffered from invasions, the Empire’s concern for worldly order outweighs any concern with individual communion with the sacred. Communism, although pretending to be a worldly sacred that will free humanity from the firstness it defines as exploitation, is in effect a top-down authoritarian system whose success is measured solely by worldly accomplishments. Functioning productively in the global economy, unlike the old USSR, the Chinese version of this system has demonstrated its ability to generate political and military power, and a promise of eventual world hegemony.
Unlike Western Marxism, Chinese Communism carries with it no Hegelian baggage of metaphysical transcendence. Operating within the “capitalist” market is not in contradiction with “Communism with Chinese characteristics,” so long as the ultimate decision-making power remains with the central government. China, at least so far, has shown itself to be a totalitarianism that works—which makes it at least conceivable that the West’s dream of a “bourgeois” China will eventually be realized, at least to the extent that, by continuing to function, it will make radical opposition not only impossible but unnecessary.
None of this, of course, lessens the medium-term possibility of, for example, a showdown over Taiwan, followed by a likely humiliation of the West far more significant than the 1975 departure from Saigon.
China is less 1984 than Brave New World, with its Alpha-Epsilon classes being not genetically assigned but attributed by examination (not preventing the widespread cheating on examination scores destined for foreign universities).
In the US, today’s Chinese and other East Asian immigrant families are often compared with the Jews of my own and my parents’ generation; in both cases, family tradition leads to well-nourished minds and good grades. While meritocracy still rules in places like the Bronx High School of Science, the 80+ Jewish percentage of the 1950s has been replaced by a similar percentage of Asians.
Can the melding of the world’s two prime examples of cultural firstness, the Judeo-Christian and the Chinese, reunite the human species before their conflict destroys it?
I have several times quoted (see Chronicle 519) Michael Tomasello’s embarrassing account of the origin of religion, which naively repeats the same basic error as the far more sophisticated Jacques Derrida: that language/religion/culture—that is, the human itself—is ultimately a pretext for the exploitation of the weak by the strong:
One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way.
A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard, 2016): 131
If anything can save us from the tyranny of wokeness, it is the understanding that, whether or not imposed by the sacred, firstness is not oppression. The sacred intention that stands behind language and religion was not conceived by sinister forces like the “Elders of Zion” as means of control.
Or perhaps we should judge, with less bitterness, that the woke critique of Western civilization is in fact a gesture of historical modesty: an acknowledgement of the ultimate failure of the glorious dialectic of Jew and Greek, Christian and Muslim, after having provided the basis for the human society of the future, to embody this society in its final form?