One of the key pieces of Slavoj Zizek’s political theory in his foundational book The Sublime Object is his notion of “ideological cynicism.” Subjects of the first world, Zizek says, are too smart to become duped by the political ideologies of Western states. After all, we know it’s just more political spin. Instead, ideology for Zizek, takes on a different form in the so-called “first world.” Here, we are offered ideologies to appease us, to make us feel better about ourselves, so that those in privilege can keep on conserving what it is they really desire. So now, we look at the political ideologies spinning across the political process, and instead of politically observing “they do not know it, but they are doing it,” we observe “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.” In essence, we listen to all the new political speeches and new political options given the electorate and we know nothing will really change. Yet we participate in it anyway, because in essence subconsciously this is what we really want: we wish to protect our own specific pieces of the economic social pie yet feel good about doing it (there’s the classic Freudian split in the subjective consciousness). Political ideology serves a cynical function now, giving us a Big Other to participate in, making us feel better about ourselves (morally), all the while we hope for keeping the status quo in place protecting our own personal pieces of the pie.
When it comes to Christians of my evangelical tradition, I would suggest this “ideological cynicism” could work another way. We participate in National politics, its political ideologies of a more just society, even though we deeply suspect the corporate national machine insures nothing will change. We do this because it is much harder to think of the church itself as a legitimate social political force for God’s justice in the world. It is simply a lot less work to support Barak Obama for president than it is to lead our churches into being living communities of righteousness, justice and God’s Mission in the world.
I know Zizek might appear way too skeptical here for most of us. And there is always the cry “why can we not do both – vote for Obama and be missional communities for justice in our neighborhoods.” Yet (at the risk of being over provocative) I think the question is worth considering: “Are we supporting Obama because it’s easier than being God’s justice in the world ourselves?” Is our participation over here in electoral politics sapping our energy (or worse even assuaging us) from participation in the work of justice as an extension of the church?
Senator Obama is putting out a pleasing message of “Change.” “I’m asking you to believe in Change,” “the Audacity of Hope,” and “A Unified America.” Yet Zizek would call these ideas “signifiers without the signified.” Words that in the end no one knows what they mean or refer to. Zizek would say it is these “words” which allow us to consent to what we know is a lie so that we can avoid the Real: that true justice of God demands we change fundamentally the way we live in relation to each other and the world. I fear these Obama “words” take the place of pres. Bush’s words “Freedom” and “No child left behind,” words that few knew what they actually meant but morphed into a politics of multinational corporate politics the horror of which is hard to believe 8 years later. In a Zizekian way, I have often asked, did we consent to all this (vote for George Bush) as Christians 8 years ago (who by and large elected him) in order to assuage ourselves that we (through our country’s national politics) are contributing to a better world all the while staying comfortable within our protected enclaves.
Final Words: I know some expect me to get on the Obama bandwagon, especially those who know of my criticisms of the current president. Yet I continue to want to press for the church to be the primary political instrument of true justice in the world. The church must be FIRST as initiator for social justice, from which we can then push for governmental cooperation. I have always been concerned about the marginal status given the church as the foundational center for justice in society by my various spokesmen/women/friends of the Emerging Church (I hope to review Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change in this light). I know many fear fundamentalist sectarianism. I fear the democratic capitalist Symbolic Order (ala Foucault) shall subsume us all. More and more however, people like Jim Wallis are seeing the insights of a tempered vision of what is possible in national politics (see The Great Awakening). More and more, people are understanding a new possibility for a Hauerwas radical politics (see for example Mark Van Steenwyk here and here). SO GO AHEAD AND BY ALL MEANS VOTE FOR OBAMA, but do not allow false ideology to sap our energy or distract us from the task of being God’s people, his embodied Kingdom in submission to His Lordship, birthing forth His justice amidst the world that was made possible in His death and resurrection until He comes.
What do you think? Is there a work of “ideological cynicism” at work in Christians supporting Obama? Is the Obama bandwagon a positive or a negative (or neutral) for the church’s role in bringing justice to the nations? Is energy by Christians spent on Obama politics misguided, too hopeful, and misdirected? Is it too easy to just say “you should be doing both, voting for Obama and working for social justice in your local church”?
BTW I shall post a second post on the Bridge Illustration next week.