The Dartmouth Observer
Monday, September 19, 2005
Friendships: Power and Intimacy
The weekend was a busy one in which I accomplished a fair amount. Naturally, the doing of things (at least for me) leads to the pondering of life's questions. One perennial question that continues to drive me as a person, and, to a lesser extent my theology and my scholarship is the question of the human condition and our relationships with other persons. (As a side note, these relationships need not be healthy or cooperative; oftentimes, we dialogically create our relationships in webs of conflict and rejection. The relationship itself is notable if only in opposition to thing or person being related.) I have become firmly convinced that relationships have at least two relevant bases for interaction: (circumstantial) power and intimate knowledge. I wish to limit the rest of this post to considering relationships of friendship and love.
Let us consider the first of circumstantial power. Do we all remember the Bible's injunction to care for "the widow and the oppressed." Jer. 22:3 "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place." The Bible identifies the first level of a relationship: that of circumstantial power. Here is identified those who cannot care for themselves or find themselves in situations where an outside benefactor can dramatically affect their quality of life. The orphan and the widow, in times were power and wealth concentrated in the hands of paternally-guided family, were despondent persons upon whom mercy and compassion ought to have been shown. There is also an injunction to care for "the stranger", or the one who is not normally counted as being among us. My concern here is how the Bible notes the power relationships that operate behind any potential intimacy; before a person can show compassion, or justice, to extent where a person does not let her right hand know what his left is doing, one must first account for potential power relationships.
In fact, one of the early church leaders, Ignatius, wrote to the Smyrnaeans, "But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty." Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter VI. Those who despise the grace of Christ-- also here being charitably described as "opposed they are to the will of God"-- are noted by their indifference to the material and social power relations between persons. Ignatius's opinion seems to follow in the logic of the Olivet Discourse where Christ said:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left. Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite you in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' Then they themselves will also answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' Then He will answer them, saying, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Mt. 25:31-46Why is all of this important? As a proposition concerning how we know others, and isn't that what any description of the human condition seeks to detail?, the Bible suggests that relations of power are important to that knowing and those interactions. I can't truly know you, and don't truly live with you in a robust Daesin-with way, unless I acknowledge the particular material and social circumstances of our relations and our meeting. In some ways, this reading of the human condition, my reading, justifies a neo-Foucauldian intellectual obligation, expressed in his piece entitled "Intellectuals and Power", where he exhorted intellectuals to give voice to those who have no voice, and to speak for those silenced by pernicious discourses. Now without fully buying into his passive model of the dis-empowered, hence my cheeky employment of the term neo-Foucauldian, it seems that we do have this duty to aid others in speaking for themselves. (For you more shrewd observers, yes, I did change the suggestion of speaking for to a more enabling assisting in speaking.)
That bring me to my second proposition of intimate knowledge, of which I was motivated to write this entry. Intimacy suggests both community, common experience, and an emotional-geographic proximity. Or, as Aristotle put it in the Nichomachean Ethics, "time and familiarity." Janztus knows, from my arguments with him, as well as user="urielao">that I firmly believe that living occurs with and through others. With others we experience the material and social factors of life. I don't even need a strong Marxist reading of the relative weight and ubiquity of social and material factors for this to be true. A relationship of friendship is partially the sharing of two or more lives together in deeds and words. Friends experience, and construct reality together. All of us can remember times where something happened to us that causes us to pause and search for someone to contextualize said event. Whether it is an odd look in Food Court, a potentially sketchy encounter in the basement, an enjoyable meal at Lou's (after an ungodly wait), or a fun evening among friends (watching the West Wing), the presence of others gives meaning to this otherwise unremarkable assimilation of data. Most of us don't know how we feel about that person who may be hitting on us, until that discrete moment of time is unpacked and analyzed by persons we trust.
The Bible also seems to suggest this. In the night before his Crucifiction, Christ speaks to his Disciples for some time. (Generally recorded in the Book of John from Chapter 13 to 17.) In Chapter 15 He says:
Outside of living within Christ and with other Christians, we cannot hope to produce any fruit.
So is it living with others. Outside of the relationships that we have, and this was touched on briefly by