George Saunders may not be naive, but his graduation speech was. The NY Times reprinted it and lauded it for its sunny optimism festively decorated with a bit of grit to give it a sense of authenticity. It’s like taking that old dresser and “distressing” it so it looks cool and kitsch. It is in your bedroom because after all, the pulls still work and the bottoms don’t fall out of the drawers. This is the “authenticity” that contemporary fashion craves. It is sometimes an escape from the real authenticity of life, the kind you can’t escape from because it comes up and tears up your life in the most terrible ways.
George and Walter
Because Breaking Bad is entering it’s last season it’s getting some well deserved critical acclaim both from the secular media and Christian writers. Why would Christian writers applaud a show with drug use and violence? Because the show tells a dark truth about ourselves, a truth that is not simply dispelled by good intentions or trying a little harder.
George admonishes his graduates to be kinder, but he doesn’t talk about why we are not kind and why we justify the cruelties we feel we need and are entitled to. Walter White’s story is a lesson in why we do what we do, it is a lesson in what the gospel of John calls “the world”. It is the reason why a room full of Bible believing, tithe paying, “double down for Jesus” Christians inwardly roll their inner eyes when they hear “turn the other cheek”. Jesus may save, but violence, anger, fear and vengeance work, and we all know it.
Would You Rather Be Kind, Or Eat
The flaw in Saunder’s presentation is his refusal to recognize that kindness in “the world” is a luxury good. It is something that a context may afford, or may not.
It is safe to assume that despite some hand wringing about the economy the graduates of Syracuse University are among the most fortunate and affluent 20 somethings in the world today. Few will be featured among the people of Walmart. For many of them, just trying to be kind for a while might yield good results. In time, however, usually behind closed doors where fissures beneath their relationships are exposed, when their partners fail to mirror the delightful self they imagined themselves to be, when the co-worker’s incompetence or pettiness invite them to gossip and politic in the office, when the neighbor’s neglected lawn seeds weeds in the new sod they just laid down, when the other political parties wins the next election, kindness will seem unwarranted and unjustified. Correction is required and verbal attacks must be employed to save the world. This is the kindness economy that Saunder’s isn’t fessing up to.
In the book of Galatians the Apostle Paul lists “the fruit of the Spirit” which includes kindness, along with a number of other words most people regardless of their religious background can embrace. A few verses before he also lists “the deeds of the flesh” which seem very much against the kindness George Saunders is promoting.
Isn’t it self-evident that the one list is better than the other? Why are the “deeds of the flesh” so pervasive and seductive? Because the “deeds of the flesh” make life in a broken world work. They are the ways we escape our sorrows or get what we want and we justify them because of the things we feel we need. Is George here echoing Paul? Sort of, but not really.
What Kindness Costs
Paul asserts that the “fruit of the spirit” and the “deeds of the flesh” aren’t simply two alternative lifestyle choices, which seems to be what George Saunders asserts. Paul asserts that in fact it is our slavery to the “deeds of the flesh” that keeps us there. Slavery is a strong word.
Slaves can’t just choose freedom because they want it. A system of culture and law maintain their status as slaves and simply choosing otherwise will bring upon them the wrath of the law and its protectors in the land. The slave who walks off the plantation because he hears there is freedom up north with be captured, put in chains and whipped until the slave learns to stay where his choices “make life work”, which is in the field of his master.
Is it really any different with kindness in this world?
Oh sure, you can be kind to other affluent people with whom you share an economy of reciprocal kindness. I’ll be kind to you if you are kind to me. I may even flex a bit, feel the strain a bit if you have crossed me, or disrespected me, or broken a rule that I think is important about politics, people or protocol, and when I extend a smile when inside of me I want to smack you, I will congratulate myself for being “big enough” to be kind. I will also feel myself superior to you because of it. Kindness has an economy and we all know how it works. In the kindness economy kindness within relationship invites reciprocity and is rewarded with kindness in return.
If we watch a TV show or a movie about slave days, and we see a slave that is kind to his master we often despise that slave and maybe call him an “Uncle Tom”. We cheer if that slave is duplicitous, cautiously working the dull master into his sweet trap of kindness only to one day spring forward at the right time to reveal that the kindness has been a ruse to trap the evil master, to make him vulnerable to the retributive pain and vengeance that the slave owner’s position deserves. What of kindness then?
On one hand we say “kindness is great” but in the next we recognize that “in the real world” kindness is often something we either can’t afford or can’t justify when it comes to certain lists of evil people, people who need unkindness to correct or to educate or to banish or to exterminate. In such a situation kindness pay prove a manipulative tool to gain power over an adversary. Kindness can be handy.
The “fruit of the spirit” and the “deeds of the flesh” co-exist in a relational economy and we believe that they are called for when appropriate. “Fruit of the spirit” are luxury goods when security and order are maintained by a select list from the “deeds of the flesh”. This is the kindness economy.
Zealot and the “Jesus of Faith”
Reza Aslan is making the rounds this week with his book Zealot which in many ways is another installment of the search for the “historical Jesus”. In this installment Jesus is an illiterate revolutionary rabbi who advocates for the poor and the downfall of the oppressive religious and political regime. John Oliver loves this vision of Jesus. , he’s so much different from the one that John has heard of before.
Stephen Prothero in his Washington Post piece notes, however, that Aslan’s Jesus doesn’t break the “kindness” economy, he simply succumbs to it.
In “Zealot,” Aslan gives us a Jesus who fights back, and not in the manner of Gandhi. But his rebellion fails. Roman authorities crucify him for sedition. His followers scatter. And those who return in his name reinvent him as a pacifist lording over a purely spiritual kingdom.
So then the question remains, is the kindness economy broken which keeps this “pacifist lording” as a nice idea for those who can afford it?
The question of Jesus keeps coming down to the resurrection. If Jesus is raised then the “kindness economy” is broken and people are justified to turn the other cheek and die praying for the welfare of their abusers. Isn’t this the Jesus that Marx calls the “opiate of the people” keeping the slaves happy on the farm hoping for kingdom come?
I’d like George Saunders to shake hands with Walter White and admit what we all believe about the world, that kindness is a luxury good but for the real things of this world we believe in power and violence and rebellion against those we believe to be evil. Reza Aslan saves Jesus by keeping him within the kindness economy and having him live by the sword, and die by the sword.
The End of the Kindness Economy
There is no significant difference between Walter White and the Roman Empire when it comes to the kindness economy. They are all on the same page.
I can enjoy being kind to people who are sufficiently aligned with me so that kindness indulges my sense of being a good person. When people cross me, or threaten me, or break the way I think the world should be the “deeds of the flesh” come out to make things right. This is why in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome when Herod hears that Jesus is raising the dead he cries “I forbid him to raise the dead. This man must be found and told I don’t allow people to raise the dead.”
Resurrection breaks the kindness economy. Resurrection floods the kindness market with kindness not bartered in hopes of reciprocity. This is kindness flowing from the Federal Reserve of the Father who based on Jesus’ death “prints kindness” where it starts to lose its value as a coin of manipulation and reciprocal kindness assurance.
This is why Paul tells the Galation that they have been set free. Jesus’ death and resurrection break the kindness economy and now kindness can be spent freely, even if not reciprocated. The deeds of the flesh are no longer needed to make life work, because a new working life has dawned in the resurrected flesh of Jesus.
If you listen to Reza Aslan and others this is, however, only available from “the Jesus of faith”, not the Jesus of history. You get to decide. Are you a slave to the kindness economy, or are you free.