In Praise of Piracy

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In Praise of Piracy

Now that the very fast-moving debate prompted by Kester Brewin's series of blog posts, which accompanied an article in third way magazine and a talk at greenbelt festival, all entitled “A Plea for Christian Piracy” has died down, I want to take a moment to reflect on what we might learn from what Kester said.

In my initial response, I attacked the 'valorisation of heresy' as lacking a substantive vision of justice, partly in response to the fact that thought such as Brewin's has been used as a sort of foil for those who leave the established church to do something new, despite that not being his stated intention, nor that of many others who aim to speak to the established church in a way which might help it to understand and embrace new movements among Christians.

In that article I proposed that the attempt to enact justice depends on a kind of collaborative vision which holds differences in tension rather than resolving them in a break (the pirates' self-initiated withdrawal from society) but which nevertheless holds itself open to questioning, growth, change, and which values service over power in relation to others.

I want to speak now in defence of the piratical, in an attempt to draw out some of the more interesting aspects of this debate. The valorisation of piracy is paradoxical, and liable to be misunderstood, because in the conditions of modern capitalism heresy is the orthodoxy; that is to say 'opting out' of a shared vision is the normal way of things.

As Michael Sandel showed in his Radio 4 Reith lectures earlier this year, the Aristotelian understanding of justice as a shared and common good has lost ground to conceptions of ethics which depend on a kind of moral calculus that suspends the question of concrete goods and appeals to some abstract good (utility or freedom), which leads to an insubstantial conception of justice, and so to the subordination of questions of morality to market forces.

The pirate is the one who operates in international space, outside of any national conception of what is good and its attendant legislative and executive structures, taking advantage of the lawlessness of the seas, of a space which is unpoliceable, making himself the arbiter of what is good, the lawless 'army' of wherever he happens to be.

This is exactly the modus operandi of transnational corporations under conditions which allow the free movement of capital. Such organisations make profit by exempting themselves from the laws which ensure equity within any particular nation-state, buying natural resources from nations forced to sell for foreign currency needed to service debts, manufacturing where the workforce is cheapest and easiest to exploit, and selling where the highest price is offered.

The pirates now hold the power, extracting wealth from its circulation in centres of population and concentrating it in mobile form on 'the high seas' – in tax havens and bank accounts not subject to national regulation. Combined with the use of 'free trade zones' which allow multinationals to flout employment law and fair conditions in developing countries, this situation in effect allows 'international waters' to encroach on to dry land, for the pirates' deterritorialised colonisation.

So, if we wish to operate in the spirit of the old piracy, the piracy which fights unjust trade and illegitimate colonial empires, how are we to respond? How do we operate a piracy against the new, all-powerful pirates? We must first get beyond the opposition between the insitution and the rebel, the Navies and the Pirates, since the corporate pirates depend on this construction to maintain their power, on the myth that they are the forces that protect freedom and justice.

Second, we must get beyond the liberal individualism which isolates us from shared goods, which sells us jeans as if they were a symbol that we refuse to be told what to do, and that it is only by rebelling against the 'mainstream' that we may find our true selves.

Beyond navy and pirate, beyond institution and rebel, what is there? What can we see without reducing the remainder to the fiction of the free individual? I cannot claim to have the answer to these questions, but I want to propose two significant concepts for taking this forward, that of the person as against the individual, and that of place.

First, I want to propose, we need to take seriously the fact that we are not individuals but persons. We are made in the image of God who is three persons, and no 'individuals'; our identity (in both the psychological and philosophical senses) is constituted by our relations to others.

There are no persons without a community to grant them personhood; that personhood may be granted in terms of 'conformist' or 'rebel', but it seems that much healthier and more interesting persons are (re)born as 'disciples', affirming the best in their inherited tradtions and the culture of which they are a part, whilst refusing compromise with their culture, and not just preserving what is handed down to them as a relic but living it, allowing it to change and grow in and through them, with a fundamental commitment to observe the ancient ways of Christ as the bearers of his image in a fast-changing world.

Persons are literally impossible without communities, and communities are impossible without places. The deterritoralisation of the modern pirates denies the fundamental human need to be attached to a place, and so do the kinds of utopian responses it proves. U-topos, being without place, is a denial of the reality of human life; though the dream is one of removing all hardship from human life (the discomfort of broken relationships, the absurdity of outmoded practices, our dependence on land to eat), it would also unwittingly remove all that is good (the conviviality of shared life, the preservation of wisdom, the joy of work and the alimentation of food).

The concepts of person and community run counter to some of the excesses of evangelicalism, when it has emphasised the individual's standing before God rather than the communities' role in the land; of course some of those who apply to themselves the term 'emerging church' simply carry these excesses to their logical conclusion, completing the movement of jettisoning of authority and of community with the total rejection of traditions and of Christian cultural distinctiveness.

It seems to me that the moral muscle which has most atrophied in the recent part of our history is that of obedience. Increasingly people crave obedience, as displayed by the marginal but strong appeal of authoritarian religions and sects to converts from the rich west, by the fads of subjecting the body to strict regimes of diet and exercise, or by the obedience to ecological demands demanded by the green movement.

Obedience (Ob-Audiens, listening hard) to Christ, to the community of his church, and to the concrete places on which it depends, must be a deep concern for all of us as we go about the work of shaping, sharing, and being the church. When that obedience often demands that we tear down the high places of our culture, starting in our own lives, and try to show that a radical, truly liberal alternative is possible, by living it, then we will be affirming all that is good in the model of the Pirate.