Many of us think of ideology as something that afflicts other people. To call a person or group ideological often means they are operating under the powers of a delusional system of thought that is distorting their perception of reality.
This notion of ideology as distortion goes back to Karl Marx, who treated ideology as a kind of false consciousness that warps our grasp of social and material reality. For Marx, ideology functions to keep people in their place within the capitalist system, preventing them from viewing relations of production as they really are. This is what he meant when he called religion “the opiate of the masses.” For him religion was fundamentally ideological, keeping the masses from rebelling against oppressive systems in this vale of tears by promising a future reward for their suffering in the afterlife.
But is it actually possible to be non-ideological? Can we transcend ideology and see all of reality as it really is, lossless and unmediated? Many post-Marxist thinkers have argued that it is naïve, if not downright dangerous, to think so. One’s relationship with the world and others is always ideological, inescapably rendered within particular frames of meaning and interpretation. In this sense, ideology is what Frederic Jameson calls a “strategy of containment”—that is, a system of representation that is needed in order to structure and limit the entirety of reality, which is beyond our capacity to comprehend. We don’t choose to be ideological; we come into being as acting, thinking, speaking subjects having already been conscripted, indeed subjected, within particular ideological frameworks or strategies of containment. Ideology frames and informs our understanding of others and the world around us long before we are even conscious of its doing so.
This understanding of ideology as a framework of seeing and being in the world is what Reinhold Niebuhr called systemic evil. Whereas we may use the term “sin” for individual wrongdoing, evil here is understood to be fundamentally systemic. Systemic evil refers to the unjust ideological and institutional structures that we inhabit and that shape our individual and collective thoughts and actions, forming an immoral, unjust society from a collection of more or less moral individuals. It is what theologian Emilie M. Townes has aptly described in terms of the “cultural production of evil,” which in turn constructs and maintains social inequities in everything from housing patterns to lending policies to health-care and education systems.
Does this mean we are hopelessly bound to unjust systems, caught inside the strategies of containment in which we find ourselves? By no means. But the critique has to happen from the inside. “The prisons precede me,” writes the philosopher-poet Hélène Cixous. “When I have escaped them, I discover them: when they have cracked and split open beneath my feet.” To critique from the inside means attending to the cracks and fissures in the walls of the ideological prisons, the strategies of containment, in which we come to consciousness while we remain inside them. It means trying to stay open to the anomalies, the people and things and ideas that don’t fit, the othernesses within that resist ideology’s drive to contain them, especially particular others who are at risk of being reduced, often violently, to sameness.
My teacher Walter Brueggemann describes ideology’s ambition to contain and control everything and everyone in terms of totalism. A totalism is a construction of the world that is literally totalitarian, a totalizing strategy of containment that aims to be the only possible reality. Brueggemann is thinking especially of the totalism of the ancient Israelite empire of Solomon, but also the contemporary totalism of technological military consumerism. The task of people of faith, he believes, is to find creative ways, in our worship and preaching and teaching, to expose that totalism as an ideology, to grieve its brokenness, and to offer the gospel as an alternative reality to it.
Prophetic tradition provides the biblical model for an anti-totalizing theological imagination. The prophets were poets who invited their community to imagine an alternative world to the totalism of the Solomonic empire. Brueggemann characterizes this prophetic alternative in terms of a movement from reality to grief to hope. Over against the empire’s ideology of Israelite exceptionalism and special blessing, they expose the reality of injustice and exploitation. Over against the empire’s death-dealing denial of real consequences, they give voice to grief in the face of loss and pain. And over against the empire’s despair when the denial no longer holds and it all falls apart, they offer hope, which can only be found in the midst of reality and grief. This imaginative prophetic alternative reality exposes the totalism as an ideological construction, funded by power and privilege, ultimately unsustainable and far from the only possible way of seeing and being in the world.
Consider, for example, the astonishing prophetic image of the earth grieving the injustices and violences of its human inhabitants. Biblical tradition often personifies the earth and ground, imagining them as living beings, in intimate relationship with the divine, whose own well-being is impinged on by human actions, and vice versa. In the prophets, this personification is elaborated in visions of the land grieving and mourning the unjust actions of its inhabitants, even as they remain in denial.
The prophet Joel, for example, imagines the ground mourning the impending doom while the people lie about in sleepy, drunken stupefaction. “Wake up, you drunkards, and weep!” (Joel 1:5; all biblical translations mine). Indeed, human denial stands in stark contrast to the fully conscious grief of the land itself: “The fields are devastated; the ground mourns. For grain is devastated, new wine is dried up, oil languishes” (1:10). The ground and its fruits (grain, wine, oil) have collapsed in sorrow and desolation, even as its human inhabitants have yet to realize the woeful state into which they have already fallen.
This prophetic poetics of the grieving land demonstrates an intuitive understanding that social justice and environmental justice are inextricably intertwined. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, envisions creation itself coming undone as a result of human injustice. “I looked on the earth,” he declares, and “behold, it was a formless void” (4:23). This “formless void” (the Hebrew is tohu vabohu) recalls the primordial chaos from which the world in all its complexity and diversity was created in the first lines of Genesis. Here, then, is a vision of anti-creation, the return of creation to chaos. All is darkness as the mountains tremble and the hills bounce about. The land no longer bursts forth in fruitfulness. There is no vegetation, no animal life. Even the birds of the air are gone—an ominous image of ecological breakdown. Once-great cities lie in ruins. And, Jeremiah laments, “there is no human.” In response, “the earth mourns” (4:28).
Notice, moreover, that Jeremiah is not so much imagining the end of the world but the end of the human. Although this vision of ecological chaos and mass extinction means the end of creation as we know it, the earth and skies survive. They will remain, having returned to their primordial state, even as they mourn. They were there before creation, and they will be there after.
In their own creative way, these prophetic visions recognize what we often struggle to acknowledge. Despite our strategies of containment and compartmentalization, there can be no social justice and well-being without ecological justice and well-being, and vice versa. These poetic visions of the earth and the ground mourning, languishing, tottering, and shaking with grief serve to break through our totalism-driven lack of acknowledgement and denial—to move the poet’s human audiences to recognize the reality of their situation and to open themselves to a grief that can interrupt denial.
When we think about what it means to confront ideology, especially imperial ideology, the image that comes to mind is often a combative one: angry protestors shouting in the streets or guerilla fighters moving through the jungle under the cover of dark. Yet the prophetic model is perhaps closer to that of the artist—confronting and exposing through her art the great and powerful totalism for the Oz that it is calls for creativity and imagination, conjuring an alternative world that is open to otherness, to what does not fit, to the cracks and fissures along the walls and beneath our feet.
The Gospel Against Totalism
The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels stand squarely within this subversively creative prophetic tradition, inviting and provoking ancient and contemporary audiences to imagine alternatives to the totalizing ideologies that work to contain them. Here we will look at three examples: his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, his Beatitudes, and his signature teaching method, the parables.
We begin with Jesus in his hometown synagogue, which begins his public ministry in the Gospel of Luke.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and entered the synagogue, in keeping with his custom on the day of Sabbath, and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him and, after unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim gospel [“good news”] to the poor.
He has sent me out
to herald release to captives and sight to the blind,
to send out the oppressed in freedom,
to herald the favoured year of the Lord. (Luke 4:16–19)
How remarkable that Jesus’s first words in his public ministry in Luke are not his own but those of the prophet Isaiah envisioning the arrival of the long-awaited year of the Lord as an alternative to the world of poverty, mass incarceration, and marginalization.
And all the more astonishing is what comes next: after rolling up the scroll, he boldly declares to the still-transfixed congregation that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). “Fulfilled,” from the Greek verb plēroō: filled out, completed, come to fullness, realized. In his proclaiming and their hearing of this vision of an alternative world of liberation and transformational justice, they—and we—are invited to realize it, to live into it.
When we hear Jesus’s Beatitudes in the context of this first sermon in the synagogue, we can recognize the anti-totalizing prophetic imagination that drives them as well. Like the Isaianic vision of social reversals proclaimed by Jesus in the synagogue, the Beatitudes offer a series of blessings that attend to the cracks and fissures in the social order of the Roman Empire—an order his audiences had come to take for granted as the only possible reality. They comprise a series of blessings that lift up precisely those whom the totalism curses to lives of suffering, violence, marginalization, and disenfranchisement: the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the reviled, the excluded, the humiliated. Echoing the passage from Isaiah, he declares that these will be filled, freed, and empowered. This vision counters the dominant ideology that we live in a moral universe of just deserts in which the good are blessed and the wicked are cursed.
We would be mistaken, moreover, to read the Beatitudes as an illustration of Marx’s understanding of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Jesus is not telling those he blesses to be patient sufferers, waiting for their eternal reward in heaven. Far from it. This is an unpacking of the “favourable year of the Lord,” a revolutionary, this-worldly, socioeconomic vision of transformative justice in the here and now.
Jesus’s parables likewise serve as a creative means to awaken theological imaginations against imperial totalism. A parable is a kind of story-shaped metaphor, in which a surprising and often confounding comparison is made between an unfamiliar idea and a story drawn from everyday experience, like planting seeds. As is the case with all metaphorical thinking, the parable offers poetic meaning that is not easily nailed down in a simple equation of this-equals-that. In fact, Jesus’s parables often seem to confuse and complicate rather than clarify and simplify, even for his disciples. They put two things together that create a sense of incongruence in our minds, requiring us to navigate and negotiate the tension in order to arrive at some kind of meaning. They are more like Zen koans than theological propositions.
The unfamiliar idea central to all of Jesus’s parables is “the kingdom of God” (or, in Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven”). “The kingdom of God is like,” he characteristically begins, and then tells a little story: about planting seeds, or finding a hidden treasure, or baking bread, or working as a day labourer. Usually the story has a surprising ending—surprising because it contradicts the way things are supposed to work in the economy of the totalism. The labourer who shows up at the end of the day should not be paid as much as the one who started at the crack of dawn. Not fair! The mustard seed that the farmer plants grows into a giant weed that takes over the field, encroaching on his crops while providing a home for do-nothing birds. Not productive!
As he tells these parables, moreover, sometimes rapid-fire, one after another, the metaphors pile on top of each other, not so much zeroing in as multiplying and complexifying. In the process, we are left with a sense of this kingdom of God, not unlike the “favoured year of the Lord,” as something both “at hand” and beyond our grasp, other than the world we know. The parables themselves plant seeds and take root in ways that push up and crack open the ground beneath us, making us aware of fissures and fault lines in the totalism, inviting us to imagine other ways of being in the world, beyond the prisons that precede us.
In all its rich diversity and many-voicedness, the prophetic imagination from Isaiah to Jesus offers a creative alternative to the ideologies that contain us, one that privileges justice, grace, and fidelity, one that counters dreams of self-sufficiency with a vision of interdependence, what Brueggemann calls neighbourliness, which is about living with and for the other who does not fit and cannot thrive within the totalism.
Few if any of us live fully into that alternative narrative. Indeed, like those Jesus was addressing, most of us stand squarely in the dominant one. So where does that leave us? Hopefully it leaves us feeling along the floors and walls for the cracks and vulnerabilities, open and listening for those counter-voices, working to amplify them by whatever creative means we can muster.