Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Occupy Movement, Sin and the Monastery

This article from The Nation about the Occupy movement got me to thinking. Why do attempts at creating progressive utopias always fail? I don't mean merely the grand disasters like Bolshevism, but also the micro attempts like hippie communes and, recently, the Occupy encampments. It occurs to me that the utopian communities of the progressive dream do actually exist and have survived for centuries: They are the monasteries; communities where everyone is equal, goods are shared in common, and there is no "income inequality".

Why does the monastery work but the progressive commune fail? Because the monks have self-consciously embraced the cross. That is, rather than grasping after justice, they have embraced injustice. Not injustice for others, but injustice for themselves. Every monk understands that life in the monastery will not be "fair." Rather than fairness, the monastery demands obedience, piety, chastity and humility. The modern world, of course, sees in this nothing but the purest form of oppression. It pursues fairness through the assertion of rights and demands, the louder and more uncompromising the better. The active embrace of meekness and submission can only be understood by it as an invitation to slavery.

And yet the monastery produces in fact the ideal society the progressive movement has repeatedly tried and failed to create. At least, it produces a society as close to ideal as we are likely to get in this broken world. The irony of the monastic movement is that it has produced just communities through the embrace of injustice, when the progressive movement has only produced tyrannies through the pursuit of justice.

The reason is that monasteries are based on a true understanding of the reality of sin, and progressive movements aren't. One of the manifestations of sin is that we overestimate the injustice done to ourselves, and underestimate the injustice we do to others. The monastery corrects for this by demanding that justice for oneself be forgotten, and only justice for others pursued. It is the practical application of the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, which performs a jiu-jitsu move on sin: it demands that we apply to others the justice that we, in our sinful state, demand for ourselves.

Life in the monastery is not perfect, of course, because sin always remains despite the discipline of the Rule of St. Benedict. But the monasteries have survived for millennia, when utopian communes unfailingly collapse after a few years, because the monastery is founded on the only true basis such a community could have.

The sin that the progressive movement recognizes is not located in the human heart, but in external forces and systems - "sinful structures." Every falsehood is based on some truth, a truth that leads to error when it eclipses other truths. In the case of progressivism, it is true that there are systems and structures that are inherently oppressive and cruel; but it is also true that any system may become oppressive and cruel because people, of any station and at any time and under any system, may become oppressive and cruel. This is the reason for the monastic emphasis on a routine of prayer and confession. Only by keeping the specter of sin - one's own sin - ever present before our eyes, and petitioning God for the grace to avoid it, does such a community have any hope of survival.

The progressive conceit is that by getting the processes right, and without any concomitant change in the human heart (for it is the system that is sinful, not human nature, thinks progressivism), the ideal world can be brought  into being. Or if not the ideal world, then one far more just and equitable than the one we experience now. Thus the fascination with, and near fetishization of, process in the Nation article. They are sincerely and logically consistent: Since it is process that makes the world, creating a novel process should bring a new world into being. The Nation writers approach the Occupy movement like shepherds approaching the Manger, looking for the signs and portents of the new world aborning in the various Working Groups and General Assemblies. Alas, the Occupy movement, built as it must be from the "crooked timber" of humanity, is already accelerating to it's predictable end. The Oakland chapter has turned violent, rapes and various sexual assaults are occurring at many chapters (even as the organizers try to hide them from police), the garbage starts to pile up as the Trash Pickup Squad proves to be, not surprisingly, less popular than the film-making crew or the drum group. It's the speed with which the camps have degenerated that is surprising, as it is the persistence of monasteries that is amazing.

1 comment:

EdT said...

These are great insights. Thanks for sharing them.