Sunday, June 30, 2013

“Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes”

Richard Rorty was an American philosopher who is not well known outside of academic circles. I certainly have not read him extensively and do not know a lot about him. But I have recently read, and have been impressed with, his 1998 essay titled “Failed Prophecies, Glorious Hopes.”
Rorty, who died six years ago this month (in 6/07) at the age of 75, was the grandson of the noted German-American theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, the son of the latter’s oldest child. But unlike his grandfather and mother, Rorty was a secular humanist rather than a Christian believer.

Still, Rorty had great appreciation for his grandfather. That is evident from the afterword he wrote for “Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century,” the centennial re-issue of Rauschenbusch’s classic work “Christianity and the Social Crisis” (1907).
From his secular humanist viewpoint, Rorty compares the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto in the 1998 essay. He avers that

both documents are expressions of the same hope: that some day we shall be willing and able to treat the needs of all human beings with the respect and consideration with which we treat the needs of those closest to us, those whom we love.
That glorious “hope for social justice,” says Rorty, is “the only basis for a worthwhile human life.” And, according to Rorty, the idea of social justice includes the hope that “the world might be changed so as to ensure that no one goes hungry while others have a surfeit.
Rorty realized that if social justice is to be achieved there will have to be some redistribution of wealth. Echoing the emphasis of his grandfather on the “social gospel,” non-Christian Rorty declares, “There is no way to take the New Testament seriously as a moral imperative . . . without taking the need for such redistribution equally seriously.”
Then, alluding to the Communist Manifesto, Rorty writes,
To say that history is the history of class struggle is still true, if it is interpreted to mean that in every culture, under every form of government, and in every imaginable situation . . . the people who have already got their hands on money and power will lie, cheat and steal in order to make sure that they and their descendants monopolize both for ever.
But, alas, both the New Testament and the Manifesto of Marx and Engels have to this point been “failed prophecies.” We in the United States have no trouble seeing the miserable failure of Marxism in most of the countries where it became dominant.
Cambodia is a good example. The Khmer Rouge was the Communist Party of Cambodia under the despotic rule of Pol Pot. It may have embraced a glorious hope for social justice in the beginning, but it is hard to imagine a more dismal failure. More than 2,000,000 Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
Certainly the New Testament has not failed so miserably, especially in recent decades. And yet, from the time of Charlemagne through the era of European colonialism to rather recently, political and military rulers who have claimed to be Christians have led to the slaughter, enslavement, and oppression of people around the world.
I am not as pessimistic as Rorty was. Many Christians are still seeking social justice based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. But, sadly, there are many others who are not. Rorty’s pessimism was not completely unfounded.
Things would have been much different, though, if the ideas of Rorty’s grandfather had been implemented more widely, rather than being largely rejected by the fundamentalists of the 1920s and afterward.


  1. Leroy. I'm a fan of Richard Rorty, and on several occasions I've used one of those quotations you cite. And I thank you for writing this essay for us. I'm also a fan of his grandfather who, in my view, expressed very clearly the Christian call for economic justice.

    I'm not so sure we can draw the evaluative conclusions that you have, at least not yet. We're comparing here the ideas of a 170-year-old document with those of one almost 2,000 years old, both of which have been active in complicated historical circumstances. I also think Cambodia is not a good example of Marxist ideas, anymore than the Inquisition is a good example of New Testament ideas.

    Would thoughtful people have judged the New Testament a great success 170 years after its completion? You acknowledge the subsequent brutal history of Christianity. And one could easily note -- as have many -- that Christianity's ideas have had 2,000 years to work, and it's still far from making a just or loving world.

    It could also be argued that the threat of Marxist ideas did a great deal to influence the modern world to institute the welfare state and to regulate capitalism for greater stability and for whatever degree of re-distribution has been accomplished. Would we have the developed world we do, had there not been Marxist/socialist/communist threats of revolution during the decades between 1848 and 1989?

    Is it merely accidental that, since the demise of socialism/Marxism/communism in the West, we've been drifting towards greater and greater inequality?

    I don't mean to be contentious. I do appreciate your blogs. I suppose, I need to ask what you mean when you claim that "the New Testament has not failed so miserably, especially in recent decades"?

    1. Anton, it was good to have you post your thoughtful comments again.
      The comparison of the New Testament and the Communist Manifesto was Rorty's, not mine (except in response to his essay).

      I think Cambodia and the Inquisition are both good examples of the type of failure that Rorty was talking about.

      Concerning the "claim" that you referred to last, I guess I was thinking of such things as liberation theology in the Catholic Church (primarily), the strong social justice emphases among some evangelicals such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo (both of whom have essays in the centennial re-issue of Rauschenbusch’s book), the resurgence of the Anabaptist emphasis on peace and justice, etc.

      While these latter are still in the minority, they are good, strong emphases that are growing in influence (it seems to me) and that stand in opposition to the still majority voices of conservative Christianity (at least in the U.S.).

  2. From time to time I receive responses to my blog postings from my son-in-law (and Thinking Friend) Tim Laffoon, who lived for many years as an MK (missionary kid) in East Africa. I thought the following comments I received yesterday were especially worth making available for others to read, so here they are:

    "This comparison needs to be heard, especially by the Church. It should be received as a goad from an outside prophet to return to our mandates given by God to His people throughout history. We are to GIVE generously and cheerfully to support those in need. This part of the concept of orthodox theosis. One does not see that much in the Church as a whole, especially in the American churches. (The reformed sects of Christianity seem to be appalled at this concept serving Christ, and focus rather on “knowing” Christ – or at least making an initial confession to that which is viewed to be sufficient for eternal salvation.) Details of this are laid out in the holy scriptures from beginning to end. It is my prayer that the new Bishop of Rome, Francis can begin to unify Christians into the holy catholic Church with a restored mission of generous service in the name of Christ our Lord. Those together must be the Church's apologetic to the world. David Platt tried to get the Southern Baptists back on track, but his prophetic message was just another fleeting curiosity.

    "I have misplaced my copy of the Communist Manifesto, but as I remember from reading it, the foundation seemed off base. It is a forced redistribution which is militant in its means. I have seen this when I was growing up – Ujamaa (which expatriots called UjaMao). It was a complete failure which cost innocent people there lives by corralling them into communes at gunpoint, where they could not support their families. It was short-lived, thankfully, as Mwalimu Nyrere saw his mistake and abandoned the practice. When forced on those not like-minded, it just builds animosity (or poverty and death) in its means of forced taking of resources from one party to give to another. Redistribution does not work except in isolated instances where all members are committed to the well-being of the others - a family, a monastic religious order, or a like-minded group of individuals committed to a common philosophy. (Some socialism does seem to work among those who desire it, but it has limits as well.)

    "Christianity on the other hand is built on hope - which should lead to generous giving to support and build up those in need. Sadly, the American churches seem to be built on Capitalism (sometimes as corrupt as Communism). Some of the worst excesses are viewed in the extravagant incomes of those leaders who fleece the flock while tickling itching ears, “Christian” summer camps costing hundreds, even thousands of dollars for children to find and “grow” in Christ, even "mission" trips - which really appear to be costly "Christian" vacations to go preach at the world and do a small project and some touristy things, when God has already sent the world to us (just check the number languages represented in our local, metropolitan school districts.)"

  3. Canadian Thinking Friend Davis also send important comments by email:

    "Leroy, I don't have any insightful response to your posting, but it occured to me that while you and I and Rorty and his grandfather might agree that social justice means a redistribution of wealth so that none go hungry (or unsheltered or unemployed or uncared for or un-oppressed...), there are many social and theological conservatives who claim the name "Christian" but who, nevertheless, buy into the unfettered capitalism that preaches the gospel of limitless economic growth in a free market which will lead to the trickle-down of wealth to the poor if they (the poor) will just get off their butts and get a job. Their notion of social action (rarely referred to as social justice) is narrowly defined as making donations to the food bank and protecting society from the scourge of abominations like equality for homosexuals, abortion, gun control and socialized medical care. I think we need a way to find a common agreement on what social justice means, especially as it is portrayed in the Bible."

  4. Very insightful! I sometimes wonder if Mr. Marx was introduced to the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25.)when his family was still Jewish. There is much similarity in that approach to economic justice - not to mention the promise (Lev. 26.)of domestic, and international, peace for Israel if they would do right and truly become A Light Unto the Nations. (There is also the other side of the promise - which has unfolded for all nations that allow the top of society to dictate all policy.)

    It seems even in ancient times the everyday reality of trickle up was recognized for what it was - the rich-powerful actually riding on the backs of the poor AND DEMANDING THAT THE POOR PAY FOR THE RIDE!

    That has been my take on the NeoConservative movement since I researched the structure of wealth-power (Or, P$W$R.) in our society. That structure has gotten even worse and now resembles feudal societies: Massive P$W$R at the tiptop, and little below that for all else to compete for.

    About 20 years ago, Gore Vidal - when a guest on a talk show - commented "After 350 years of struggle, America has finally achieved socialism for the very rich - and market capitalism for all others."

    Last Saturday, on NPR's Weekend Edition, there was a discussion of this situation. Our present economy, work environment, political culture - are all nearly exactly the same as the Guilded Age. The hope expressed was that a new Progressive Party, by any name, and others similar will rise up and throw off the yoke.

    I sure hope the Occupy Movement is a sign of that process beginning!

    And I hope to learn of a rise of interest in Ezekiel 16:49 in American pulpits - as a balance to "marriage equality will bring God's wrath on America!!" NeoConservatism's ideals are just like Israel's sister Sodom: Coddling the overfed rich, oppressing the poor and needy, abusing the foreigners within, and boasting of all that.

    Hope this helps!

  5. We progressive bourgeois Christians love the idea of persuasive change. That's why we keep talking, writing, talking, writing...

    However, in every or almost every age, the reactionary and conservative Christians (i.e., those who have identified with the status quo [king, feudalism, country, mercantilism, and now capitalism]) have typically out shouted those who would take more seriously the economic justice theme implied by the N.T..

    I once heard the founder of the Grey Panthers, whose name I can't think of at the moment, identify Marx as the last Christian prophet.

    Whether through the laws of the Torah, modern taxation, or some other means--all redistribution is coercive. I'm sure many, maybe most, of the early Israelites did not joyfully leave their fields accessible to the poor every seventh year. Great inequality has always been welcomed and justified by the winners; that's Rorty's point. There are, I'm sure, wiser ways to redistribute wealth (and work) than have been tried by some tyrannical communist governments, but the ruling classes are unlikely to ever accede to such voluntarily.

    I'd recommend, as a beginning, the principle from John Rawls that no policy be adopted that would make life harder for the poor.

    After that, then, we need to develop progressive ways to redistribute both wealth and work. Let's not be naive, though, as Reinhold Niebuhr, before Rorty, pointed out: the ruling classes will not go in that direction willingly, And so we must fight.

    1. "Maggie Kuhn" is the name you "can't think of at the moment."

      And, an insightful comment!

      One of the ways to nudge change - is well spelled by Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals. That could be why the NeoCon-artists constantly vilify him and it. Their base believes all their claptrap w/out question. It is actually far more, and worse, than claptrap - but I won't use that sort of language here!

      Hope that helps!

  6. Local Thinking Friend Ed Chasteen gave me permission to post his comments:

    "Leroy, rich and powerful people have always done pretty much as they pleased. They got Karl Marx kicked out of the German university when he wrote a defense of the wood cutters who cut wood on rich owner's land. He went to France to study. Wrote a student paper sympathetic to the working poor and was kicked out of France.

    "He went to England, where he spent years in the library reading history and writing, supported by his friend, Frederick Engles, whom he had met in France. Mark was never granted a teaching position. His family was poor and sickly. He was never well known or widely read during his lifetime. He died a failure in his own eyes. And we know what the rich and powerful did to Jesus.

    "Those of us who are not rich and powerful and have sympathy for the poor and oppressed must live with this tension: the rich are fearsome adversaries; the poor are undependable allies."