I’ve been thinking about the word “redemption”. Since utopian political ideologies are currently out of style (as we discussed last weekend), “redemptive ideologies” might be a less off-putting term for similar ideas. The term does not carry the same sense of overreach, the connotation of a naive attempt to build a transcendent and perfect Platonic society. Few people will admit to being a utopian, but perhaps many people will admit to believing in redemptive ideologies?
Well, wait a minute. Something is going wrong here, because I searched Wikipedia for “redemptive ideology” and got sent to the Ideology page, only to find this slap in the face awaiting me:
Today, many commentators claim that we are living in a post-ideological age, in which redemptive, all-encompassing ideologies have failed, and this is often associated with Francis Fukuyama’s writings on “the end of history”.
So redemptive ideologies are out of style too — and this is a funny thing, because I know for sure that redemptive ideologies are wildly popular today. They drive our beliefs, our practices and, every election day, our votes. So what’s this denial all about?
Actually, the fact that redemptive ideology is out of style only masks the fact that many of us hold these ideologies privately close. This is true on all sides of the political spectrum: left or right, anarchist or fundamentalist, liberal or conservative, Occupy or Tea Party, Democrat or Republican. It shows how potent these redemptive ideologies are, because we are clearly ashamed to admit we hold them. Like the secret Jews in Spain following the Spanish Inquisition, we conceal our redemptive beliefs deep inside our hearts, and only talk about them openly with our trusted friends.
How do I know this? Well, first of all, I know it because I talk to a lot of people about their political beliefs. and I always make an effort to dig beneath surfaces when I do. When I ask people directly if society will ever improve, they often brush off the idea: “nothing will ever change”. But if I insist on talking further, and examine the way they vote, and study the causes they care about, and read the bumper stickers on their cars, I see a different story.
Last weekend I pointed out how two controversial topics of the day reveal widespread utopian or redemptive tendencies, and the point is so revealing as to be worth mentioning again. First, there is an active campaign throughout the United States of America to make abortion illegal. I do not support this at all. I’m sure a law against abortion would only drive the practice underground, and that the only practical result of the law would be to empower the police and the government to put doctors and pregnant women in jail.
When I confront anti-abortion activists with this problem and persist in seeking a direct response, I eventually discover that they do not wish to put doctors and women in jail, and they are sincere in their beliefs that laws against abortion will help society by gradually changing our culture and improving our souls. It’s only the belief in the possibility of a broad societal redemption that makes the anti-abortion position coherent.
The second controversial topic of the day is gun control, and in this case I do support the proposed change, which is to make it more difficult to buy guns in the United States of America. But here the campaign I support has the same problem as the anti-abortion campaign I don’t support. New laws against gun ownership will only drive gun sales underground, and the only practical result of the law would be to empower the police and the government to put hunters and sportsmen and earnest survivalists in jail. So, then, why do I support new gun control laws?
In this case, I’m the one clinging to a redemptive ideology. I believe gun control laws would help society by gradually changing our culture and improving our souls. It’s only the belief in the possibility of a broad social redemption that makes the gun control position coherent.
Maybe we all need to embrace our inner utopians, and stop pretending to be too cool to care about healing our society. Even though we often disagree about how to heal our society, it might be a step forward if we all admit that this is, in fact, what all political activists are trying to do. It’s what political activism is all about, regardless of what causes you support. We may agree or disagree with any proposal for change, but we should at least be honest and straightforward about the transformative nature of the changes we support. This will help us to have clearer and better discussions and debates.
In this light, here’s a great song by Bob Marley — and an unusual item in his catalog, because it’s not a reggae song at all. “Redemption Song” is just straight folk chords, and the quiet simplicity adds to the song’s eerie power. This is Marley’s “Imagine”, his “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
Sing along, if you dare. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery …”. And, as 2012 ends and 2013 begins, let’s all see if we can find the courage to hope for a better world next year.