Two Rebels – Albert Camus and Jesus Christ

I am leading a rebellion.

Jesus Christ

Matthew 26:55

One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity.  It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.

Albert Camus

The Myth of Sisyphus

This is a tale of two rebels – Jesus Christ and Albert Camus. One is thought by Christians to have been the Messiah, the son of God, who lived, taught, healed the sick, and ministered to the poor two thousand years ago.  The other was a French writer born in Algeria in 1913, a card-carrying agnostic, who was the editor of the French Resistance underground newspaper Combat in Paris during World War II and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.  Camus died in an automobile accident on 4 January 1960.  Christ was crucified in Jerusalem at the age of 33 and, according to Christian belief, arose from the dead three days later.

Belief in the virgin birth of Christ, his healing the sick, calming the storm, walking on water, feeding the thousands, and resurrection from the dead requires a strong Christian faith and a willingness to accept the possibility of supernatural behavior.  In sharp contrast to the alleged miracles surrounding the Biblical account of the life of Christ was Albert Camus’s unrelenting admonition to his readers to “live only with what you know.”

But Camus and Jesus have at least two things in common – an uncanny grasp of the human condition and an unwavering predisposition towards rebellion against it.

Throughout his life Camus struggled with Christianity with which he had a love-hate relationship.  About Jesus Christ he said, “Christ came to solve two major problems, evil and death, which are precisely the problems that preoccupy the rebel. His solution consisted, first, in experiencing them.”  He suffered and then died on the cross.

As revealed to us in the New Testament, Jesus Christ must have been one of the most radical nonviolent rebels in all history.  In his book The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder described Jesus as a “social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counterculture.”  His mission was to decipher and confront the popular culture in Judea at the time of the Roman Empire – a challenge not unlike the culture of technofascism in the American Empire. His message was threefold:

  1. Life without love and community is nothing.
  2. The preferential option for the poor.
  3. Nonviolence.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” were truly radical maxims during the time of Caesar Augustus.  These words are even more radical today in light of President Barack Obama’s bellicose speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December 2009.  In what may have been one of the most imperialistic speeches ever given by an American president, Obama opined that “War is justified when certain conditions are met.”  His predecessor George W. Bush, who was obsessed with the war on terrorism, used language like “axis of evil,” “Wanted, dead or alive,” and “You’re either with us or against us.”  Both Bush and Obama profess to be Christians.

The rebel Jesus admonished his followers to “turn the other cheek,” “go the second mile,” “store up treasures in heaven,” and serve God not money.  That was pretty heady stuff.

And as though this were not enough, in the Sermon on the Mount he singled out the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who had been wrongly persecuted for special dispensations from God.  Jesus Christ was no ordinary rebel, but he paid a high price for his acts of nonviolent rebellion –death on the cross.

In his book Power and Innocence, Christian psychotherapist Rollo May characterized a rebel as one who “does what the rest of us would like to do but don’t dare.” About Jesus he said,

Note that Christ willingly takes on Himself the sins and the scorn of men; He acts, lives, and dies, vicariously for the rest of us.  This is what makes Him a rebel. The rebel and the savior then turn out to be the same figure.  Through his rebellion the rebel saves us.  Civilization needs the rebel.

As a loving, caring, nonviolent rebel with a particularly strong penchant for the poor, Jesus Christ was without equal.

With a role model like that, how is it possible for the sheeplike Church in America to be so docile, so timid, so complacent, so accommodating, and so self-serving in the presence of the hedonism, idolatry, blasphemy, and violence of American culture?

Inspired by the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) and Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (On the Progress of Peoples) but grounded in the widespread poverty and violence in Latin America, a radical form of Christian theology emerged in the 1960s called liberation theology. The main thrust of this new theology was a “preferential option for the poor.” Within a few years after its inception liberation theology spawned thousands of small, lay-led Christian communities throughout Latin America.  Many of these so-called base communities (comunidades de base) literally had their origins in small-village Bible study groups that stressed not Catholic doctrine but community action aimed at solving very real social and economic problems. Some coalesced around very specific projects such as digging a well, building a road, negotiating with wealthy landowners, and defending the village from guerrilla attacks.  Above all, base communities were not passive.   Indeed, they were often made up of political activists who some called revolutionaries.

Many villages owned collective farms as well as collective stores, pharmacies, health clinics, and schools. In other villages families owned their own small plots of land. Base communities fostered an atmosphere of cooperation, trust, and sharing as well as a strong sense of community.

Unfortunately, Latin American base communities became victims of their own success.  Wealthy landowners, conservative Roman Catholics, and right-wing military governments found the community action and direct democracy practiced by base communities to be threatening. Under pressure form Pope John Paul II, Vatican power broker, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in Latin America, the Catholic Church withdrew its support from base communities in the 1980s and distanced itself  from liberation theology.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger was John Paul II’s hatchet man. He was responsible for leading the war against liberation theology and enforcing Catholic dogma worldwide.  Among the prominent Catholic theologians investigated and disciplined by Cardinal Ratzinger were German theologian, Hans Kung; left-wing, California, priest Matthew Fox; Belgian priest, Jacques Dupuis; Brazilian liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff; and Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, who actually coined the term “liberation theology.”

Anti-democratic John Paul II and his henchman Cardinal Ratzinger, along with their fascist-friendly allies in Opus Dei, ripped out the heart and soul of modern Christianity.  Stripped of liberation theology, Christianity becomes the religion of George W. Bush and his Christian fundamentalist and Jewish neocon friends. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger did irreparable damage to Christianity in general and to the Roman Catholic Church in particular.  “What would have happened, Guatemalans and El Salvadorians ask to this day, if Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II had regarded the Latin American call for liberation from autocratic rulers with the same force with which the European churchmen supported the Polish Solidarity revolution?” wrote journalist Mary Jo McConahay for Pacific News Service.

In spite of the efforts of the Catholic Church to snuff them out, some base communities are alive and well today. One such community located near Guatemala City consists of four hundred families who elect their own officers and governing board.  Among the assets owned by the village are a general store, a pharmacy, a school, a small hospital, a children’s nutrition program, and an agricultural development center. Through the agricultural development center, village farmers have become heavily involved in organic farming, producing their own natural fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides, which are sold in the community farm supply store. Although most of the families in the village raise vegetables, forty families help support themselves by raising cattle to produce milk, which is sold in the marketplace.

Although base communities are by no means a panacea, they do offer a mechanism whereby impoverished people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak, using a combination of grass-roots democracy and direct action.  For example, there may be a great deal that desperate inner-city neighborhoods can learn from them.     There is considerable evidence to suggest that the early Christian churches in the Roman Empire resembled Latin American base communities and subscribed to a theology remarkably similar to liberation theology.

A unique contemporary example of liberation theology can be found in a secular setting in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  Each Sunday several hundred pilgrims find their way to the performances of Our Domestic Resurrection Circus presented by the Bread and Puppet Theater in July and August in a remote abandoned gravel pit near the tiny village of Glover, Vermont.   There they are treated to a free outdoor puppet circus complete with sideshows, music, pageant, politics, and delicious free homemade German sourdough rye bread made personally by Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann.   All of the puppets are bigger-than-life human puppets, some of whom are on stilts.

The highly politicized circus skits combine art, drama, dance, music, humor, radical left wing politics, and liberation theology to confront the human condition, as well as affluenza, megalomania, Corporate America, globalization, and the American Empire.  Now in his seventies, rebel Peter Schumann appears on twelve-foot stilts dressed as Uncle Sam at the end of each circus.

Unlike Jesus Christ, who Christians believe confronted the human condition with the support of the Holy Spirit, Camus proclaimed “I don’t believe in God, that’s true.  But I am not an atheist.”  Camus’s rebellion against the human condition was thoroughly grounded in what he called the absurd – the absurdness of the human condition – the fact that we are all separated, our lives are meaningless, we are powerless to influence our fate, and we are all going to die and face nothingness. From the absurd flowed three consequences for Camus – his revolt, his freedom, and his passion.

About separation, Camus wrote an entire essay in 1944 entitled “The Tragedy of Separation.” “The meaning of life is the most urgent of questions,” he said in The Myth of Sisyphus, but “I continue to believe that this world has no ultimate meaning.” No doubt his feelings of powerlessness were influenced by his recurring bouts with tuberculosis which he first contracted in 1930 with relapses in 1936, 1942, and 1949.  As for death, “We know it ends everything,” and results in eternal nothingness. “Eternal nothingness is made up precisely of the sum of lives to come which will not be ours.”  But, “There is no freedom for man so long as he has not overcome his fear of death.  One must be able to die courageously without bitterness.”

Although it may be presumptuous to try to do so, I believe Camus’s philosophy can be summarized in one sentence.  Even though life is absurd and there is no hope, rebél against the human condition, live, and try to die happy.

“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom is living,” but “The point is to live.”

Unlike Jesus’s rebellion against the human condition which was grounded in hope, Camus’s was not. Camus frequently reminded us that his rebellion was always without hope of affecting the human condition. There was no “pie in the sky” in Camus’s world. “I share with you the same revulsion from evil.  But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

In his book Camus:  A Theological Perspective, James W. Woelfel summarized Camus’s view of the relationship between rebellion and hope:

It is only by repeatedly revolting against the absurdity of his predicament, without appeal or hope beyond it, that a human being fully expresses the absurd relationship. Only the person who sees clearly what in the final analysis is his ultimately tragic and trusting situation relative to his world and remains actively unreconciled to it can be said to “live out the absurd.”

About the absurd man Camus had this to say:

The absurd man thus catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness.  He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

And about his defiance:

The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.

In his later writings, according to James W. Woelfel, Camus “extends the concept of revolt more centrally to the ethical sphere.”  In The Plague and The Rebel,

Revolt is importantly seen as revolt against the various oppressions arising from the absurdity of the human condition, as rebellion that always either implicitly or explicitly expresses the solidarity of human beings in their common life together.

Like Jesus, Camus also expressed a preferential option for the poor.  “It is in this life of poverty, among these vain or humble people, that I have most certainly touched what I feel is the true meaning of life.”

Regardless of one’s religious preference or lack thereof, there is but one fundamental question according to Camus.  “Can one live and stand one’s ground in a state of rebellion?”

In his Notebooks 1942-1951, Camus says it all,

A salon of eight or ten persons, where all the women have had lovers, where the conversation is lively and anecdotal and a light punch is served shortly after midnight, is the one place in the world where I am most comfortable.

Rebél

Thomas H. Naylor

December 6, 2010

This piece is based on chapter 5 of a book in progress by the author entitled Rebél.