This picture below depicts a curious incident, a Zizekian Event, that I witnessed Aug. 20 of this year.
The photo was taken at around 1100 that day, a Sunday. As in most years, a public mass had been arranged in this gated community of Guadarrama, a town some 50 kilometers northwest of Madrid, for the final day of an annual festival held late in the summer. As in previous occasions, there was a modest attendance given that the community includes some 160 households, but not insignificant; as you can see in the picture, many of those standing behind the priest are older people.
In the picture you can also see something completely out of place. Standing to the right of the priest, there’s a woman on a motorbike. That had never happened before, in decades of annual mass here. Using my intrepid reporter skills to interview those present and those watching, plus this and other photographic evidence, plus the part of the incident that I actually saw (being an Atheist, I didn’t attend mass, but walked past it with one of my kids), I can provide a quick summary of what happened:
Just after 1000 hours, the priest (from Guadarrama town itself, a mere two kilometers down the road) arrived to set up some things for mass: a table, folding chairs, and whatever else is needed for a quick mass. A group of the faithful gathered round. About 1030, before mass started, the door to the underground garage behind the priest opened, and a woman emerged in a motorbike. There wasn’t enough space for her to pass through, so the attendees started to give her room, by squeezing themselves to the building on the right side of the frame, the one from which the picture was taken. She grew impatient and started to complain. She said there shouldn’t be any public mass, she called the church a thing of the past and those attending mass “senile old people.” She said they all should just go home and stop bothering residents of that particular building with their useless rites. When she was urged to move along and get away, she started to rev up the engine and complained some more. Some elderly men, in turn, insulted her and one said he should just punch her in the face. Somebody called police then. She had a nasty exchange of words with the attendees and, when she started to feel threatened, she herself called police. Right then, local police showed up (because they had been called by a one of the churchies). Police came to her and urged her to get out of there, and tell them just what the problem was, but not in the middle of those gathered for mass. That’s the moment taken in the picture.
I walked past a few moments later. At that point, she was still sitting on her bike, speaking with police, obviously complaining to them about mass, the church and who else what else. The two policemen looked bored and uninterested. A man in his seventies, who lives just in front of me, approached and had another frank exchange of words with the woman, until police urged him to give her space. At some point after 1100, the woman left in her bike and police moved away. Nobody was injured or arrested.
This is an extremely interesting incident, that fulfills the Zizekian definition of Event (as described in the 2008 book Event) perfectly: an effect that seems to exceed its causes. A single woman, in her late thirties by the look of her, felt empowered to challenge dozens of people including youngish men, and to insult them in their faces, attacking their most deeply-held beliefs publicly, just because they were blocking her path for a few seconds, on a Sunday morning.
She was propagandizing, not in the sense of trying of convince anyone, since it was plain she wouldn’t and she didn’t really try, but in the sense of showing off opponents that they are helpless against the power behind her, that the boot will stamp in your face forever and there’s nothing you can do. She knew she was safe, and that nobody would lay a finger on her, and nobody did. (Just in case, her husband was taping the whold scene from a window, in any case, as several attendees noticed.)
She wasn’t pushed aside. Police had to be called just so people could hold a very silent mass (I had to approach within five meters of the priest to her him speak; this was no Black Church-style singing celebration of Christ). All of this happened in a country that until recently wasn Europe’s most Catholic, in a town that has long voted conservative.
It would be a mistake to think that we’re dealing with a brave woman. On the contrary: we’re dealing with somebody who knows the Ruling Ideology (of this day and age) is firmly behind her. What would be the point of taping everything, just in case she was attacked? Just imagine yourself standing in Mecca and saying Mohammed’s religion sucks: would you feel safer taping your beating and likely murder? Do you think any Saudi court would give your family a compensation?
She knew she held all of the cards. She was fully aware that atheism is a fundamental tenet of the Western ruling ideology, what we might call, for lack of a better name, Political Correctness. It’s clear that only those hopelessly irrelevant are now allowed to remain Christian: the sad losers that, like Barack Obama said with a mixture of condescension and true sadness, “cling to their guns and their religion.” Most of the people in this picture.
Slavoj Zizek has often described the current Ruling Ideology as a combination of deep-seated belief in capitalism, progressive social mores and Richard Gere-style Buddhism for those spiritually-inclined. In this mix, Christianism is not allowed, unless it’s in the lightest possible flavor. Most Christians in the West are disinclined to give their religion just like that, so they are being phased out with the enthusiastic help of mass media.
And yet, Zizek has often cautioned against just jettisoning Europe’s Christian legacy as an unneeded obstacle to ever more perfect globalization. Christianism was the first radical religion (here Zizek follows his beloved Chesterton, a conservative who objected to Islam on the grounds that, essentially, it’s excessively conservative) and retains a strong emancipatory potential, as Zizek again notes in Event:
Kierkegaard wrote that Christianity is the first and only religion of the event, understood as the transforming moment that illuminates the way in and out; he said that it is Christ versus Socrates: Socrates stands for remembrance, for rediscovering the higher reality of Ideas which are always already in us, while Christ announces the ‘good news’ of a radical break.
It’s fundamental to keep in mind that Zizek doesn’t mean Christianity provides a sort of return to lost innocence, the bliss of the cleaned community of believers, but the opposite:
It destroys the preceding indifference; it introduces division, pain and suffering. In Buddhist terms, a Christian event is the exact structural obverse of Enlightenment, of attaining Nirvana… Chesterton saw this very clearly and rejected the fashionable claim about the alleged spiritual identity of Buddhism and Christianity.” Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy: “all modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls.”
Christianism is, thus, a particularly poweful religion in Zizek’s view. Also, like other religions, it serves an important social function: it helps curb capitalist excesses. Zizek addresses this question in In Defense of Lost Causes, where it provides the example of China’s political use of religion to avoid a complete capitalist takeover of society (he doesn’t quote Christianism here but I, having lived three years in China, can bear witness that Christianism is also used in that manner there) and cautions against praising the ruling ideology bigots who attack religion as mere superstition:
No wonder, then, that, in order to curb the excess of social disintegration caused by the capitalist explosion, Chinese officials celebrate religions and traditional ideologies which sustain social stability, from Buddhism to Confucianism, that is, the very ideologies that were the target of the Cultural Revolution. In April 2006, Ye Xiaowen, China’s top religious official, told the Xinhua News Agency that “religion is one of the important forces from which China draws strength,” and he singled out Buddhism for its “unique role in promoting a harmonious society,” the official formula for combining economic expansion with social development and care; the same week, China hosted the World Buddhist Forum. The role of religion as a stabilizing force against capitalist turbulence is thus officially sanctioned—what bothers the Chinese authorities in the case of sects like Falun Gong is merely their independence from state control. (This is why one should also reject the argument that the Cultural Revolution strengthened socialist attitudes among the people and thus helped to curb the worst disintegrative excesses of today’s capitalist development: quite the contrary, by undermining traditional stabilizing ideologies such as Confucianism, it rendered the people all the more vulnerable to the dizzying effects of capitalism.)