More heretics. Please. God.
groupthink on the left might actually have consequences when it comes to Russia and Ukraine.
I’m staring blankly at the screen in front of me. The denunciations, leveled 280 words at a time, come in with alarming frequency. With every opinion voiced it becomes more apparent that the feeding frenzy would not cease until the blood was drained from its deserving victim.
My blood is boiling. It had been a mere 24 hours since I had this strong of an opinion about a person who hadn’t before occupied a second’s thought in my mind. How dare they. My very useful, righteous and unimpeachable morality - nay, sense of self - had been flagrantly violated by my new ideological enemy.
But then I feel a second shock. How could this happen? After churning through the strongly-voiced opinions I come to the dangerous conclusion I can’t sign off on the collective outrage this time. What will happen to me if I decided my ideological allies were wrong? I hadn’t realized how much was at stake.
My self-imposed exile to the island of group think was starting to feel like a big mistake.
In the first act of my life I was obsessed with theology. The right kind of theology, mind you. Not to brag, but unlike many Calvinists I’ve met, I have read Calvin. At one point I had every book written by John Piper on my shelf. I had the complete works of Charles Haddon Spurgeon challenging my Target bookshelves to stay intact.
I have spent months and even years of my life contemplating whether or not Jesus was coming before, after or in lieu of, the millennial reign.
To say I was invested, knowledgeable and informed would be an understatement.
And this worked for me in my early-to-mid twenties. Part of my calling, as I understood it, was to “defend the faith once delivered to all the saints.” This meant teaching “sound doctrine” primarily.
But secondarily, in my understanding, it meant rooting out heretics.
In those days, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt were the common enemies of my camp. Their differing views on everything from the primacy of the sermonic moment to the existence of hell and the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ was reason for solemnly declaring them as heretics.
Fast-forward to the past few months. I know I’ve written about this before so feel free to click away at this point. The outrage cycle of liberal/left twitter has reached a fevered pitch.
One day we hate Dave Chappelle for a five second clip that seemed to “punch down” at the trans community. Of course, his explicit statements *during the same bit* in full support of the trans community, are not to be taken seriously. Why explicit statements of support are disregarded is perhaps a topic for another post as well.
Disagree with the verdict? You’re a transphobe.
The next day we hate Joe Rogan. He, after all, has “platformed” scientists, doctors and otherwise knowledgeable people who have the audacity to disagree with the way to handle a once in a lifetime pandemic.
Disagree with the verdict? You’re anti-science (and probably a racist).
Recently the target of our rage on the liberal/left was those dirty truckers in Canada that had the nerve to push back and protest against what they saw as problematic government policies pushing vaccine mandates and passports. The charges that this was an attempted violent overthrow by baddies is immune to the corrective that there was, in fact, an almost complete absence of injuries and acts of violence.
Even when Trudeau enacted emergency powers for the first time in Canadian history to seize the bank accounts of anyone associated with the protest, the correct stance from the liberal/left, incredibly, was to side with the crackdown (To the point of calling for a stronger police presence).
Disagree with the verdict? You’re a fascist. Also a white supremacist. Also a right-wing dupe. Also basically a degenerate.
As I write this Russia has invaded Ukraine. God only knows what will happen to the people of Ukraine. And suddenly, as Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear war it occurs to a host of pundits that perhaps another war - this time against another well-endowed nuclear power - isn’t a great option.
To that point, it’s 100 seconds till midnight on the Doomsday clock. It’s the first time since I was my daughters’ age that there is a legitimate chance of a nuclear bomb being dropped.
And what is the rhetoric as I stare down the black hole that is my chosen echochamber of thought?
Allow me to sum up:
Pray for the people of Ukraine (This is unquestionably good)
Solidarity towards protesters especially in Russia but all over the world (Ditto)
Zelenskyy is a damned hero. Look at the videos of him in a t-shirt. (Ok I’m not 100% sure but ok)
Donald Trump is to blame because he:
Tried to take us out of NATO (Are we really defending NATO at this point?)
Was subservient to/a puppet of/blackmailed by Russia (Really? Then why did he take official action against Russia 52 times in four years? In what world does that make sense?)
Is a bad person (Ok I can’t argue with the logic of that one I’m just not quite seeing the connection.)
And my favorite, separated as it is from the bullet points: If you disagree with any of these points (or other similar points), you should renounce your American citizenship and join Edward Snowden in Lenningrad.
There’s obviously something cathartic about picking a new heretic to stone, to hang or to burn at the stake. Anyone who studies religion can tell you the myriad instances of holy wars, Crusades, Witch Trials, Inquisitions and general assemblies where heretics have been rooted out and silenced. In a recent substack piece, religious historian Diana Butler Bass even links the current Russian aggression on Ukraine to differences within Christian tradition that go back centuries.
In case you were wondering, the hunt for religious heretics is as strong now as ever.
But more and more what strikes me is the danger of the hunt for political heretics.
It’s perhaps too obvious to point out that what we really want is a reality that somehow mirrors our political club. We don’t want to sort through the complexities of Chappelle’s comedy, or the diversity of Rogan’s guest list, or the salient points the Canadian truckers were making. It’s much cleaner, much more easily understood to simply close our eyes and wish that all the bad people would go away and we can live our lives without the stain of holding two things in tension.
If there is a through-line between these episodes it is the nearly total subservience to official narrative. Anyone who wants to remain in polite society must either sign on to opposing the latest chosen enemy. All the while the calculus remains the same. The obscenely wealthy are lining their pockets and millions of families are stuck in an endless cycle of poverty.
The Canadian trucker episode is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. We on the liberal/left apparently have nothing to offer but derision for workers raising hell and support for a neoliberal would-be authoritarian.
The good news about the series of episodes I’ve mentioned is that the stakes are relatively low. In Rogan and Chappelle’s cases it doesn’t really cost anybody anything to roll with the tide and denounce them as pure ciphers of evil. At the end of the day these two comedians have some of the largest followings of any public figure. They’ll be fine.
But the Canadian truckers hit a bit closer to home, for those of us in the US. Sure, we can denounce them and their undoubtedly more right-wing brethren who are headed to DC as of this writing. Because the Biden administration has already telegraphed their stance.
Dissent will simply not be tolerated. Even when it is peaceful. The consequences for those of us on the opposite pole of the political spectrum should be obvious with any sense of history. It has always been the case that people fighting for unions, peace, equality and justice have been the targets of state repression. Supporting government crackdown as long as our political enemies are the targets betrays a lack of seriousness in our agenda.
Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, though, our dialogue and action has clear consequences. Our handful of mega-media corporations and our politicians whose devotion to military budget is a point of dogma are going back to the old playbook. Anything and everything is a good reason for going to war.
Remember the weapons of mass destruction? Remember 9/11? Syria? The point is there are always reasons to go to war. There are always reasons to fly drones over cities and aim for terrorists, insurgents or oligarchs. Those of us who claim to be against imperialism and the military industrial complex can safely make our points while our many wars are out of the headlines.
The test of what we actually believe is happening now. Our nation’s insistence on pushing NATO beyond the promised boundaries all the way to Russia’s borders - among other elements no doubt - has pushed a real life authoritarian to take illegal military action.
The easy answer is to cheer on the buildup to war with a fellow nuclear superpower. This is the doctrine being offered by our church, after all. Opposing military support means you’re a closet Putin-ite. It means you don’t care about the people of Ukraine. It means you’ve bought into Trump’s America First rhetoric.
In other words, you’re a heretic if you oppose the prevailing narrative.
Take if from me, then, as a scholar of religion. Campaigns aimed at orthodoxy never end in human flourishing. They end in disaster. They end in dissident voices being silenced by those in authority. They end in scores of people dying needlessly.
The difference is that bishops and councils never had nuclear weapons.
More heretics. Please. God.
You’re not alone if you think this essay is long on critique and short on solutions. I’d recommend following Branko Marcetic, who is currently doing excellent work in this area.