Seek Ye First: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History IV
Seek for food and clothing first, then
the Kingdom of God shall be added unto you. – Hegel, 1807
The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. Nevertheless, it si not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As Flower turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. A historical materliast must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations. – Walter Bejamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, pp. 245-255
The quote from Hegel that serves as an epigram is a very conscious reversal of the famous saying from Matthew 6:33: “But strive first for the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you as well.”(NRSV) Hegel, a trained Reformed clergyman, religious tutor to the wealthy before serving as professor serving a professorate at Jena, where he witnessed Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussians and quipped, “History is a slaughter bench.” After Napoleon’s defeat he was made first professor of philosophy at the newly created University of Berlin, where he taught a Christianized pantheism, in which the World Spirit (no longer a part of the Holy Trinity) worked itself into greater and greater being in and through human history, having reached its peak with the recreation of the Prussian State, the merger of the Reformed and Lutheran (Evangelical) Churches in the state Evangelical Reformed Church, for which Hegel desired to create a philosophical basis. He is most well known by the casual for his thesis-synthesis-antithesis system through which History brings about the total realization of the World Spirit. In the quote above, he purposely reverses part of the Sermon on the Mount, in an effort, perhaps, to demonstrate that the quest for human life is the desire of the World Spirit; all those things that matter most will follow once our bellies are full and our lives fulfilled by the basic necessities.
Benjamin uses this quote as a jumping-off point to note that the heart of Marxist historical thought is the class struggle, of which the quest for bread, for sustenance in the face of oppression, sits front and center. Yet Benjamin is not quite willing to write off “these other things”; even more, he refuses to grant to the basic sustenance the sole goal of the class struggle. Nor is he willing to concede that it is power the proletariat seeks in its struggle with the ruling class. Neither bread nor power make us human, and it is precisely the realization of a fully human life that is the real goal of the class struggle. Thus, Benjamin insists that even in the midst of the struggle for those most basic necessities of life are added the classic virtues of social life – courage. cunning, fortitude, and he adds humor as well, showing that he understands the need for a fully rounded human life. Furthermore, Benjamin insists that it is in the struggle itself not only that the proletariat discover their full humanity. In examining each and every declared victory by the ruling class, the historical materialist must pay attention for all the signs that make of the declaration a lie.
We Christians, in our dedication to the Kingdom of God, differ little from the struggling masses against their bourgeois masters. Yet adherence to the command of the living Jesus to seek first the Kingdom, then expect additional blessings including the sustenance for life, solidarity, and even victory, has always been one with which Christians struggle. Liberation Theologians, in particular those working in poverty-stricken areas of Central and South America, have always insisted that the quest for bread – for their own bread (one of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s last works was entitled We Drink From Our Own Wells, a title with the double meaning that local communities find their strength and wisdom within themselves, and that they wish only to be self-sustaining in the face of official exploitation) – is, indeed, seeking first the Kingdom, at least in those contexts where such becomes nearly impossible. First World, western Christians, Catholic and Protestant, have tended to spiritualize this command of the living Jesus, insisting it is more about the spiritual disciplines both of the individual and community, upon which follow the blessings of bread and the ability to serve. Yet, isn’t our dematerializing of this commandment an affront to the understanding of the Gospel of those who are forced through official violence to live as if the Kingdom is one’s own bread?
Finally, Benjamin insists that historical materialists should be like those flowers who follow the sun, seeking the light even when it seems there is no light to find. We contemporary Christians – particularly the United Methodist Church with its emphasis on mission and ministry for, as it states in its mission statement, “the transformation of the world” – are little different. We, too, look for the signs of the Kingdom breaking forth in this world. We declare the offering of quilts and blankets made by church members to the poor, the cold, and the homeless, a sign of the Kingdom. We declare our effort to eradicate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa a sign of the Kingdom; we declare the successes we’ve already achieved, cutting the death-rate in half in just a few years, a sign of the Kingdom. Everywhere we look, if we have eyes to see, the Kingdom shines forth, like that single candle in the darkness that the darkness cannot overwhelm. So, too, for Walter Benjamin, historical materialists must be looking, must be willing to see the victories, small and large, that give courage and hope that the class struggle is not in vain, that the final victory of the oppressed is still on its way. Far from adhering to Hegel’s reversal of Jesus’s insistence on seeking the Kingdom, it would seem both Benjamin and Christians who work for the transformation of the world would indeed seek first that kingdom – or classless society – and discover they have already been blessed by all the things needed for a fully human life even in the midst of the struggle.