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Sparrows sold for a penny. Some Jewish-Christian concepts on emancipatory political subject

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These thoughts were brought together for the 2016 edition of May Day School, Ljubljana, entitled Religion and Capitalism. Back then, we were following the campaign for the US presidency, before the public acknowledgment of the possibility of Donald Trump’s victory, but after the resignation related to Bernie Sanders’ loss in the Democratic primaries. Fracturing entered the political agenda in every scale of life. Social, political, hydraulic fracturing as the logic of consumerism depends on dividing people, depriving them of self-confidence, serving targets to put the blame on. Different governmental and religious institutions – reliant upon the ‘benevolence’ of corporations, of course – joined the discourse of discrimination, exclusion and ignorance about the real ecological condition of our planet. It’s not for the first time, we could say, especially from an East European point of view, that the church has served an accomplice of dictatorial power. New are only the ’collateral damages’ of these hate-discourses which cannot be stopped by the shallow sentimentalism fueled by the entertainment sector of our societies. Sentimentalism only makes people weaker, more self-indulgent and more easily conned (and left aside by the progressive leftists firm as a rock). So I try in this essay to contextualize in present time three, seemingly soft, but in fact stone-hard Judeo-Christian concepts that can empower people to resist hate speech (1) and to remind the contemporary mainstream light religious thought its repressed tradition (2).


“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew, 10, 28-31)


Moishe Postone criticized Nietzsche and his followers for their focusing on the contingency of history. They did so, he argues, because they were aware of the fact that the idea of logic to history really signifies a form of heteronomy. In order to save the possibility of agency, however, they denied the kind of real constrains on agency that the logic of capital actually represents. They declare it non-existent. As a result, the workings of capital are obscured. In the name of empowering people, then, it disempowers them because it obfuscates the logic of capital. What Marx does, with his concept of capital is to make history, in the sense of the unfolding of a historical logic, historically specific. Because it is historically specific, it has a beginning and it might have an end.[1]

The consensus of today considers rationality the short-termed rationality and the overconsumption a necessity. The most elementary logic seems to be eerie, dubious particularity, exodus from the so-called ‘normal’ society. But what kind of absurd rationality can be that one which selects only a few easy aspects among the consequences of a certain phenomenon, according to her thoroughly simplified emotions (i.e. his cowardice). What kind of absurd materialism is that one which renounces the joys of life, disinterested coming together for the sake of commodities. This ascetic materialism and simpleton rationality could be funny, and so, liberating, but they are not, they are denunciatory, oppressive and bloated instead. They claim being without alternatives. One of their representative formations is infotainment, that admits unscrupulously to have in mind nothing else than to be amusing, distracting when reports about the sufferance of our fellow-creatures. Infotainment chases mankind toward such a condition in which bare life has no value at all not only in extreme situations, not only for gangsters and war criminals, but this would be the most trivial cliché shared between two distant acquaintances on a bus in an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. Accepting this verdict of the ruling power, interiorizing the worthlessness of human life makes us unable to change these silly precepts and we will end to admit that each revolution is a terrible utopia resulting frantic bloodshed, measureless destruction and more misery.

Only that this verdict is wrong.

I will interpret in the contemporary political context three Jewish-Christian concepts which, in my view, have so emancipatory function that the official religious institutions tried to hide them through centuries, or, if this was not possible, then restrict their influence, or, if this did not work either, then to speak so much about them till they lost all their significance.

  1. Universalism

The novelty of Jesus’ teaching was that unlike other religions in those times, he was addressing everyone, without conditions. More precisely, as teaching in itself has two restrictive conditions: place and linguistic competence, we could say that he performed on streets, public squares or in the home of randomly chosen people. Performances are accessible for everybody; one has not to speak Aramaic to understand what is at stake when somebody turns up the money-changers’ table or is speaking in public with a prostitute. It is easily grasped the significance of the action in which somebody is sharing among the multitude the five breads and two fishes of a child so that everyone is fulfilled and more, there are some food left.

The universalism of the Enlightenment was criticized rightly stating that it overgeneralized the particular conditions of the white, middleclass, European male, and this overgeneralization concluded in violent assimilations and self-contradictory conception of universalism, from which ‘universe’ some people and all nonhuman living beings are excluded.

Universalism cannot be defined positively, as its definition would not contain the unknown or the momentarily non-existent. To avoid self-contradictions, it has to be open. In Jesus’ bread-and-fish performance the guarantee of universalism is not that no one remained hungry, but that there was some food left. The prefiguration of this leftover can be found in the Book of Leviticus: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning from your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger” (Lev, 23,22)[2]

The leftover is for the not-expected, it is accessible for everyone, even for those, who did not come yet.

The logic of capitalism works quite in the opposite direction his mantra being “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Indeed, capitalism reaps all the corners of the field, gathers every piece of the harvest, the employees has to spend even their free time with team buildings, business parties, home works etc. Capitalism is exhausting.

It is telling how it is handling the refugee-crisis: people fleeing from wars and extreme poverty are presented by conservative, Christian, wealthy European media in a way that enforces on their spectators the emotions of fear, suspicion, stigmatization and selfishness. By these emotions the dear electors think that they are dependent upon the military strength of their government, and they do not wish to know more about the world and social justice any more, that is to say, they do not want a good life any more, but they indulge themselves with protection, individual safety, commodities on promotional price, ordered on internet and put down on their doorstep without being in the risky situation to encounter somebody. It’s not a question if this attitude has something to do with the so called European Christian values.

Alain Badiou saw apostle Paul as the founder of universalism who has created the theory of such a subject who – as Nietzsche disgustedly but correctly said – revolted against every privilege.[3] What is at stake is the truth that cannot be appropriated by any particular collectivity. Today we could say: instead of the market’s abstract homogenization the universal, not exchangeable, free subject has to be created.

Indeed, Jesus spoke about the universal singularity of a free subject on the terms of the market: “you are worth more than many sparrows.” Sparrows were cheap in those days, they would give you two sparrows for a penny, but – and here comes the language-shift – the Father cares each one of them. (The sparrows are cared; he says nothing about the amount of the pennies). Sparrow and money are incommensurable and, in addition, the leftover-principle comes: he does not specify the changing rate between humans and sparrows. He only says, not reaping his harvest wholly, you are worth more than many sparrows.

Money represents in Badiou’s philosophy the fake universality. Money homogenizes incommensurable things and on the ground of this inevitably arbitrary homogenization it divides people creating different cages for each category. People tend to have no connections outside their clubs. For the market, people are particular consumers, sensing only that part of reality which was created especially for their category, so they are unable to change anything on this unwanted and unknown structure.

The feelings of powerlessness, frustration and depression are also universal, but they are good for nothing. Those in power, possessor of capital and technology have the means to unscrupulously shift these feelings away (in most of the cases unto the poor, concerning precariat). Moishe Postone says that the contradiction of capitalism is not between capital and labor (labor being a form of capital in Marx’s analysis), but between the potential that capital generates and the inability of capital to let that potential be realized.

Not one of the sparrows will fall to the ground for money, but will fall because of money. The owners of technologies do not understand and even they are not curious how their rockets work. The market chasing into particularities only uses and exhausts the inventions, than it turns them into garbage. It is not capable of transformation, it is repeating until death. Shoots again, wars again, exterminates again, and uses culture to institutionalize these repetitions with species, genres, and remakes. Badiou says that Paul’s concept of ‘sin’ could be translated to contemporary experiences as ‘automatism of repetitions’ and ‘the cult of particularities’. And, I would like to add, the cultural training them by the educational system.

Mainstream Christian culture trained people to consider body as the source of sins. But Paul in his Epistle to the Romans does not speak about the platonic duality of body and soul; he speaks about flesh (σαρξ) and spirit (πνευμα). The dogma about the sinner body is a false attribution, not the body sins, but the flesh missing ideas and creativity, the subservient, repetitive flesh. The cool occidental world is sinning ignorantly pecking at distant countries and trying to grab their goods.

The story of Christian Church can be told in the terms of exclusions, particularization of the universal invitation. The routine of the separation of body and soul enforces the ruling logic, an abstract system laying down different conditions to being able to receive the originally universal message. Any separation concludes in exclusion. The catholic communist Pier Paolo Pasolini was excluded – by chance, not from the church, but – from the communist party because of his homosexuality (even today the catholic church would refuse him, if he would ask for it at all, to have the same rights as everybody).

Alain Badiou writes in his forward to Pasolini’s script about Saint Paul: “He saw him, in fact, as the first embodiment of the conflict between political truth (communist emancipation being the contemporary form of salvation), and the meaning this could assume in the weight of the world. In our world, in fact, truth can only make its way by protecting itself from the corrupted outside, and establishing, within this protection, an iron discipline that enables it to ‘come out’, to turn actively towards the exterior, without fearing to lose itself in this. The whole problem is that this discipline (of which Paul is here the inventor under the name of the Church, like Lenin for communism under the name of the Party), although totally necessary, is also tendentially incompatible with the pureness of the True. Rivalries, betrayals, struggles for power, routine, silent acceptance of the external corruption under the cover of practical ‘realism’: all this means that the spirit which created the Church no longer recognizes in it, or only with great difficulty, that in the name of which this was created.”[4]

The idea of Pasolini’s film project was that Paul’s message had been so universal that in the actualized, changed scenes, characters and situations Paul’s words would be the same as he had written them a few thousand years ago in his epistles. The oppressive structures get new masks, but they work without break. Pasolini writes: “it is clear that Saint Paul revolutionarily crushed, with the simple power of his religious message, a kind of society founded on the violence of class, imperialism, and above all slavery; and therefore, as a consequence, it is clear that the Roman aristocracy and the various collaborationist ruling classes will be replaced by analogy with the modern bourgeois class that holds capital in its hands, while the humble and the downtrodden will be replaced by analogy with the bourgeoisie/liberals, the workers, the subproletariat of today.”[5]

Universal subject – as we read in Paul’s epistles – comes into existence in the process of fidelity to an event that has no preconditions (ethnical, gender, prestige or other preconditions); cannot be described by any rule as it is subjective; it is not a momentarily enlightenment but it is a process; and it is not a mere opinion, but an assumed truth.

  1. Resurrection

– an embarrassing concept. Even Christian tradition pushes forward the easily visualizable idea of the Death on the Cross, the cross being a victorious symbol of power politics and systematic massacre. Resurrection would look silly on the canvas. Back in those days, Paul had a difficult task when tried to spread the good news about a totally trivial device of justice, on which anyone could and actually did die. But this is quite the point. According to the Acts, considered by Badiou a nauseous, fake and afterwards patched book by Luke, Paul has seen a whole blinding celestial parade on the road to Damascus. That’s all eyewash, of course, Paul’s authentic letters do not mention it, in contrary, he tries to underestimate his role: “and last of all appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (1Cor, 15,8)

Badiou calls the resurrection, the basic event of Paul’s life a fairy tale, than he succeeds to find to it some reasonable meaning: resurrection according to Badiou is overcoming the automatism of repetitions, the cult of particularities and the everyday obligations of the human animal.

Resurrection is emancipatory in the sense that it opposes power structure and economical system mediatized to be as inevitable as the laws of physics. Resurrection is a new beginning, is a logout from the depressive routine. If someone has an idea resulting change in the exhausting process of work, resurrection is happening.

Due to the overwhelming visible obscenities the good news, that human animals do not have only obligations, cannot be noticed. In his 13th theses on contemporary arts Badiou says: “Today art can only be made from the starting point of that which, as far as Empire is concerned, doesn’t exist. Through its abstraction, art renders this inexistence visible. This is what governs the formal principle of every art: the effort to render visible to everyone that which for Empire (and so by extension for everyone, though from a different point of view), doesn’t exist.”

Resurrection in religious sense is a miracle, transcending any rationality or any human experience, in front of which people’s self-confidence has to perish. To arrive to such a conclusion one has only to deal with a restricted rationality, to omit Gödel’s law about the general qualities of every system (that either it is not complete, or it is self-contradictory, but never succeeds to be both.)The imperial power logic pretends to be complete (without any leftovers) and for this reason, it has to construct phantasies about another world. This way the subject of subaltern comes to existence and imperial power has only one thing to do: to turn to its profit the worldly hopelessness and the phantasies about the pleasures of heaven.

As Eric L. Santner observes it, for Franz Rosenzweig and Walter Benjamin “the miracle is precisely the interruption of the exceptionality of sovereignty”[6], it breaks the unconsciously transmitted infinite chain of subordinations. Santner considers these patterns of subordination as results of the ‘signifying stress’, the fear of to be caught up in the endless work of translation and failure of which best example is The Trial by Franz Kafka. K. considers every situation as given, tries to understands well and fit them, and it does not occur to him that the situations themselves are stupid and without any meaning.

Resurrection is refusing these stupid, trivial situations – I hardly can imagine a more rational act for a human animal.

  1. Love

Kenneth Reinhard mentions that for Walter Benjamin “redemption is finally the only theological category that has real significance for politics.”[7] Rosenzweig says that redemption enters into the world through the act of neighbor love. It is not the first step, it is quite the redemption. Santner adds that neighbor love suspends the kafkan signifying stress; it dissolves the frustrating culpabilization of the other one, or, in terms of Nietzsche, the ressentiment. Its emancipatory effect is that it unhangs from the fixation on unfair profits, it prevents the death of any intention to change on the ground that this intention could imagine and do – even if with opposite sign – only the phantasies and deeds provided by the ruling order.

Everyone has neighbors; even the modern god of tourism and colonialism, Robinson Crusoe had a neighbor. Interpreting Rosenzweig, Santner says that “the human in the neighborhood of zero”, der Muselmann is the ultimate embodiment of the neighbor. She is excluded from everywhere; she stays among people as the mere absence of symbolic representation. She is outside any privileges or preferences. Accepting her suspends the logic of privileges, a rational thing to do when one tries to elaborate on equity. In The Star of Redemption Rosenzweig says that “The effect of the love of ‘neighbor’ is that ‘Anyone’ and ‘all the world’ . . . belong together. . . . whoever be momentarily my neighbor represents all the world for me in full validity”.[8]

No misunderstandings, no specters of absurdity, no fate or stupid accidental killing, on the triple crossroad everyone is Oedipus’ father, everyone entering Camus’s The Misunderstanding is the son of the mother and brother of Martha. This would mean neighbor love. It is a catastrophe, isn’t it? But the time has come to prepare ourselves for catastrophes.



Zsuzsa Selyem is a writer and an assistant professor of Contemporary Literature at Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania. Her two recent books are Fictitious Animals. About the literary forms of resistance (essays, 2014- in Hungarian) and It’s Raining in Moscow (novel, 2016 – in Hungarian)


[1] Moishe Postone: History and Heteronomy. Critical essays. Tokyo, UTCP, 2009.

[2] I do not propose here to change the Enlightenment’s concept of universalism for the Judeo-Christian’s one, I speak about a matter of perspective: instead of totalization an open attitude, instead of doctrine performative acts. In this respect Jesus’ inclusiveness is an example, the leftover issue in the Book of Leviticus is another, not meant to legitimize any exclusivist actions that were made in their name.

[3] Alain Badiou: Saint Paul. La fondation de l’universalisme. Presse Universitaire de France, Paris, 1997.

[4] Pier Paolo Pasolini: Plan for a film about Saint Paul. Forward by Alain Badiou. Verso, London –New York, 2014. 6.

[5] Pasolini, ibid. 33.

[6] Eric L. Santner: Miracle Happens. Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Freud and the Matter of the Neighbor. In: Slavoj Zizek, Eric L. Santner, Kenneth Reinhard (eds.): The Neighbor. Three Inquiries in Political Theology. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.89-90; 102.

[7] Kenneth Reinhard: Psychoanalysis and the Neighbor. In: Slavoj Zizek, Eric L. Santner, Kenneth Reinhard (eds.): The Neighbor. Three Inquiries in Political Theology. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.

[8] (Franz Rosenzweig: The Star of Redemption, trans. William Hallo. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985,236) – idézi Eric L. Santner, i.m. 109.