At the beginning of the first letter to the Thessalonians Paul praises his community for their ‘work produced by faith, your labor promoted by love, and you endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:3). We have mentioned that these letters were produced in the light of the question ‘now that everything is about to end we can work toward something else, so what kind of society do we want?‘ and in our mutual task we should also remind ourselves that any work in answering this question is produced by faith– we ultimately have to trust that despite the overwhelming appearance of the permanent world order we can build something else. The labor that we have whether in teaching or in food production is promoted by love for all the people and environments in our lives that apocalypses always threaten. Finally, for this community their endurance to continue their task was not built upon new legislation or a new political leader but was produced by the hope that this community had in light of their resurrected Lord. The resurrected Lord is too, our guarantee, not that we can prevent the apocalypse, or that we can postpone it, or even that we will physically survive through it. Jesus Christ is the guarantee that the society that we are working towards will out last us, and that we too will out last our own destruction. Paul then finally defines his community as chosen by God (1:4) because it is moved by the Holy spirit- or we may say, a whole-other force or air- and is evidenced in power, or in full effect, which, as we will see, is not only changed beliefs but an entire new social structure founded on this new anthropology modelled by Jesus in particular, which is founded on theology. We have up until now merely traced three alternative socio-economic and political practices to accompany this new vision but now we need to continue this task. Traces, is what is proposed here, for so much more in terms of alternative praxis can be discovered by our brothers and sisters globally who have had already lived through various apocalyptic moments then we can possibly outline here. How might then Paul’s letters be further read to address and help us through these other seven socio-economic and political issues and fears?
The fourth resultant of our socio-economic and political apocalypse is the destruction of the family with the accompanying fear of the break-up of social cohesion. The destruction of the family is not merely the reduction of the model of nuclear family for more alternative family structures, it is quite literally and more forthrightly the lack of families themselves– the loss of communities that have a sense of unconditional obligation to one another. The phrases “you’re family” or “do this for the family” appear more and more in popular culture to be phrases associated with a mafia mentality- that the only reason one could possibly have obligations or a ‘code’ between one another is for criminal activity! Chris Rock, the black American comedian, in one particular stand-up special, commented the following on the black American family and the acute crisis of the lack of fathers, in describing his comical view of the difference between black people and ‘n*ggas’
“N*ggas always want credit for some sh*t they supposed to do…”I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to…”I ain’t never been to jail!” What do you want, a cookie?! You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherf*cker!”
Low-expectations is not only prevalent throughout much of the black community in the United States but throughout much of the world as neoliberalism’s vision of the commodification of life has entrapped us into making obligations solely dependent on our whims. The fascist-esque ‘right’ sees phenomenon like abortion, divorce, and especially infidelity or divorce precipitated by alternative sexualities and gender identities, as symptoms of a culture that has abandoned the notion of unconditional obligations, resulting in the lack of families. While they may decry the loss of the nuclear family or the embrace of alternative sexualities as the cause of it, it is important to note that the destruction of the family or the lack of communities with unconditional obligations toward each other is discerned by the radical ‘left’ as well in other phenomenon such as the lack of consent in the rise of sexual assault and rape, the bystander effect, and in the treatment of 9/11 first responders or veterans. What then would the alternative vision offered in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have to say to this lack? For Paul’s community, the assembly at Thessalonica became a surrogate family, for this is why Paul constantly refers to them as ‘brothers’, employs a trans-gender metaphor about being a mother (1 Thess. 2:7), and even that Paul and his companions became ‘orphans’ when they were separated from this community (1 Thess. 2:17). So close was this surrogate family that Paul instructed this community to greet each other with a holy kiss (1 Thess. 5:26). Your obligations are no longer centred around biological familial lines but around those who sacrifice and labor for you, and who you share common mission with. Neoliberalism decimates the notion of family because one cannot have unconditional obligations, whereas for Paul and his community, the community of work becomes the surrogate family to whom are owed obligations out of mutual sacrifice.
As for our fifth consequence of neoliberalism-the secularization of spiritual realities like nature and ethnicity, and its accompanying fear of the disenchantment of life- one would think that Paul’s answer to it would be fairly simple given its theological outlook- but let’s not haste. The mere association between anything and it being ‘spiritual’ in no way implies that it would become any more ecologically or ethnically rich and honouring than other more secular endeavours- religions too can make a bore of life. Given also what we have outlined about asceticism it may be difficult to see how Paul’s letters would re-enchant life or provide what G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy called “the pleasure of paganism.” What the fascist-esque ‘right’ fears is nihilistic hedonism or as the prophet Isaiah put it millennia ago, “Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”(Isaiah 22:13). One example from popular culture of this nihilistic hedonism is Joe Budden’s song “Last Day” from his album No Love Lost (2013), the entire premise of which is
“Now when they call me to them gates and they ask me how I live
I feel I ain’t have a choice like my stomach’s to my ribs
N*ggas wanted me dead, I kept hammers in the crib
But nah, I don’t regret a f*ckin’ thing I ever did
So I spend like it’s my last day”
Jubilant hedonism in constant awareness of death, which seems to draw all the pleasure out of pleasure itself. Nihilistic hedonism is a perennial human predicament but neoliberalism makes it particularly acute because it is secular– redemption, resurrection, or conversion are impossible features of a materialistic and deterministic universe of secularism. In opposition to this pleasure pursuit in the shadow of death, Paul’s letters, while also speaking of the inevitability of suffering (1 Thess. 3:1-4) couple this experience of suffering with joy (1 Thess. 1:7, 5:16). Neoliberalism leads us to envision suffering as something that is to be avoided at all costs- is this not the real underlying message of advocacy for euthanasia? – as humanity is meant to consume the whole world and himself for pleasure. For Paul and his community however, pleasure is not found in its pursuit before the closure of never being able to pursue it again- death- rather joy is to be found in the realization that everything you are suffering and working toward leads to “a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). Furthermore, this is why understanding the resurrection of Jesus and of his followers is so important. Readings of 1 Thess. 4:16-18 that read it as Christians running away from the earth do not understand the passage. The ‘rapture‘ is a religious attempt to make this life a bore, resurrection however is the guarantee that despite the suffering, and even beyond death, this life will be a joy. One does not ‘live in the moment’ as in neoliberalism nihilistic hedonism, rather one lives for the future.
The economic exploitation of neoliberalism in free trade deals and its accompanying fear of privileged secretive conspiracies- the sixth consequence in our list- is much like sexual exploitation, for like grown men that watch pornography in darkness, so too are trade deals like the Trans-Pacfic Partnership made in secret. Free trade associations are made with the promise to bring equal opportunity to all in the name of partnership, but in practice ineffectively create unequal power relationships. The radical ‘left’ often discusses privilege and micro-aggression, while these concepts are much debated in identity politics, they are remarkably helpful in understanding what free trade deals do to world economies. When ‘privilege’ is discussed in social relationships it is meant to highlight that often certain ethnic or gender identities have implicit advantage over differing ones given the social structure- so too in world economies. When NAFTA was first composed its promotional campaign was filled with promised about cultural enrichment, alleviation of poverty, and general equality of opportunity. In smaller picture terms- a flea market decides to loosen up the regulations for having a booth so that everyone has a greater opportunity to sell things. Some of the loosened regulations include no longer having to be for the community, not paying extra fees to have a booth, and no longer having to employ people from the flea market roster. As a result, the flea market comes over run with larger retail companies that no longer have to employ the more expensive employees from the flea market roster, they no longer have to care about the community’s health interest in their products, and, to maximize the most amount of money- no longer having to pay membership fees. What looked like an opportunity to make things more fair, equal, and open, in reality made it only easier for the bigger dogs to get an even bigger share of the pie. What might the letters to the community at Thessalonica respond to this equality of opportunity for unequal relationships in resource distribution?
The first five phenomenon of our neoliberal apocalypse have specifically to do with politics, and thus we have read Thessalonians, but now that we have come to the next five we are in the realm of socio-economics, which is why the scholarship on 1 Thessalonians concerning it being a professional voluntary association is so important. What we have in Paul’s letters, in addition to providing us traces about a alternative body politic, is an alternative socio-economic arrangement. Paul instructs his community “…to aspire to live quietly [φιλοτιμεῖσθαι ἡσυχάζειν], to mind your own affairs…so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11-12). What Paul here does with the term φιλοτιμεῖσθαι is profound, for normally in other professional voluntary association this term is used to encourage competition- a neoliberal virtue is there ever was one- but Paul instead employs the term to encourage meekness. What prima facie appears to be the ultimate proclamation of the Protestant work ethic is actually the devaluation of the ideal of competition. What Paul would say to NAFTA may look something like protectionism but not in the self-interested orientation of wanting to protect communal resources. Rather, in our other-oriented anthropology, we do not impose our standards, cultures, and wealth upon others so as to not harm them or become a burden on them. Self-sufficiency and meek/humble economies are not selfish in this sense but are precisely compassionate because they do not create even the possibility of unequal power relationships- you are solely dependent on anyone, and no one is solely dependent on you. We must understand, this is not to deny the relational ontology we outlined earlier or to say that we are not interdependent- Paul just a few verses earlier promotes love in the surrogate family (1 Thess. 4:9-10)!!!- but rather that part of being interdependent is not making someone solely dependent on you, or making yourself solely dependent on others. Is this not exactly what free trade deals to do smaller economies, a neo-colonialism of sorts?
If an other-oriented protectionism is a trace of a response to the decimation by free trade, the deregulation of financial markets, and the accompanying fear of fraud and deceit are the next phenomenon to be addressed- after all, in these secret deals, someone is obviously not being told the truth. When we discuss the deregulation of financial markets we could be speaking about any variety of phenomenon, whether the use of fiat money instead of commodity or representative money, the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act, the financialization of economies, or even the credit theory of money which holds that all money is really debt. However, of more importance than monetary theories even is the increasing anxiety and differential gap between ordinary working class people’s view of the economy and the proclamations about economic recovery. How is it, as Derek Thompson at the Atlantic rightly points out, that we can have these two narratives “…produce a dissonant, but not contradictory, summary of America…”, that “…on average, everything is getting better, but for many people, nothing is going well”? Many working class people in western countries feel lied to, tricked, and feel within their gut level that the economy has not improved- but technically it has, once you understand that there are two different definitions of our economy- one from those who live in reality, and the other from those who live in a world of financial and numerical fantasy. In financial theory terms, as John Maynard Keynes popularized, this is called the money illusion, which originally referred to lay people’s lack of awareness between wealth and the nominal stated value of their money- there is an enormous difference, especially in fiat money based economies. What however has happened to economies globally, including Greece, is that entire governments have come under this very illusion. Whether its small consumer credit debt, or large governmental public spending debt- it is not real because it is all based on a fides or a trust that we no longer believe in. Our outward display of wealth and opulence is ultimately fraud and deceit, for in reality the actual wealth, while growing is concentrated, and as long as the rich’s illusory financial wealth is accepted as their credit for their lifestyles and as part of the rest of the population’s wealth- we are held under the restraint of this illusion that we too can come into such illusory wealth.
Paul’s second letter to his community at Thessalonica give us a sobering view of the power of such illusions over our imaginations and our economy. In reference most likely to a Roman Emperor during the Jewish war, Paul writes of the ‘lawless one’ that
“The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.” (2 Thess. 2:9-12)
Has not neoliberalism too, like this ‘lawless one’ for Paul’s community, brought us so many ‘signs’ and ‘lying wonders’? Have we not heard over and over again of economic ‘miracles’ such as in China or India? Paul’s testimony here about God’s actions is actually quite observable in social interaction, its called confirmation bias. We like this lie we have constructed and because we refused to accept a more reality based alternative we will be told by all our advisers what we want to hear from them- that everything is okay. What then would Paul say to this rampant mythology and delusion of neoliberalism and imaginary wealth that has taken hold of our imaginations? Paul seemingly here offers almost nothing original of what we may expect as he writes, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21)- a passage which can even be quoted verbatim from Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in his alternative ten commandments as “Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them” (pg. 299). Is Paul just offering skepticism as the remedy to our delusion? Paul further writes, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound” (1 Thess. 5:23). Paul’s alternative to neoliberalism’s illusion, fraud, and deceit of imaginary wealth facilitated by financial deregulation is not only skepticism toward all mythologies or words of prophets, but a skepticism coupled with a faith in a God who will protect you.
Our myths and ideologies like neoliberalism are things we cling to because we have a personal investment in them and believe that our very survival is dependent upon them. Faith in a God that will protect you- Paul’s encouragement and alternative to the belief of our need to be protected by myths- will actually and counter-intuitively free us to be the most skeptical towards ideologies and beliefs that claim to be permanent and set themselves “above every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Thess. 2:4), because our survival is not dependent on clinging to them. We can test neoliberalism’s claims with full skepticism, with the assurance that even if we reveal the empty idol that our survival does not depend on propping up this myth. Having come now only partially through our list, what might Paul’s letters continue to reveal for our last three phenomenon of fiscal austerity, privatization, and our public governments divestment of any ability to assert control, even for the public good, even democratically over financial institutions?