The politics of spirit: sainthood as performing politics

In his bleak and tragic vision of human nature as corrupt and power-driven, William Golding, the author of Lord of the Flies, a book for all times, does not fail to disclose a ray of light in the character of the saintly Simon who is the only one with the profound insight that the beast is within each and every person.  The enemy we’re looking for outside is the one that is always already within. Simon – like Christ – is murdered by the other ignorant louts in the story who’re caught in their deceit and hunger for power.

Lord of the Flies is a political novel. If opportunism is the nature of the game then it’s fair that everyone is a loser in some sense. The beast does not spare anyone. In their greed for power one form of destruction will be replaced by another. Treachery will be replaced by greater treachery. History teaches us that. The saintly Simon arrives into the awareness that there is no escaping the beast. The beast within has to be confronted in the dark realms of the soul. Simon is murdered because he’s mistaken for the beast itself. The beast is the victor though that does not stop Simon from going to the tribe to tell them the truth about the beast. The beast will not allow Simon to do that. It is Simon’s knowledge of the beast that endows him with some kind of saintliness.

Saint Genet – Actor and Martyr is the title of Sartre’s book on Jean Genet, a criminal, homosexual, outcast and literary genius. The thesis of the book is that Genet is both saint and performer. Both are deeply intertwined according to Sartre. The saint is guided by the need to reveal as in the case of Simon. Genet as a great artist reveals. That’s where his “sainthood” comes from. He knows the dead-end, the bottom, the hell that others dread and the narrow road from nowhere to nothingness.

Sainthood is performing politics where the performer knows that it’s a performance. Simon’s knowledge of the beast is his knowledge of himself as performer. Socrates attributes evil to ignorance and the author of Bhagavad Gita to delusion. Says Krishna: “And that penance is described as dark, which is performed under a misguided conviction, with pain to oneself, or for the destruction of another.” The “misguided conviction” is a betrayal of the performance.

My first illustration of the performer who knows that it’s a performance is Joan of Arc. Joan is a mixture of Mirabai and the Rani of Jhansi. She has the boundless piety of a mystic such as Mira and the incredible valor of the Rani who fought British Rule of India in the 19th century. Like a man she can ride a horse and fight battles while her feminineness takes a maternal form in leading the French to defeat the English.

Of Catholic saints, apart from Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila, Saint Joan interests me the most for her revolutionary character and her relevance to radical change in the twenty-first century. The role of religion in politics is a contentious one that has no final answers. The role of the deeply religious is equally contentious. Neither is the case with Saint Joan. It’s an understanding of politics as performance that makes her unique and she is not the only one.

Sheikh Bedrettin, the revolutionary who fought the Ottoman Empire in its early years, and celebrated by the communist poet Nazim Hikmet in The Epic of Sheikh Bedrettin, combined religiosity with a sense of justice that is almost divine. Like Joan, Bedrettin identifies religion with a vision of equality for all beings and justice to the poor and downtrodden whether they are Turks, Greeks or Jews.

To be able to sing together
pulling the nets all together from the sea,
together to forge the iron like a lace,
all together to plow the soil,
to be able to eat the honey-filled figs together
and to be able to say:
everything but the cheek of the beloved
we all share together everywhere…
The Epic of Sheikh Bedrettin – Nazim Hikmet

Both Bedrettin and Joan in different ways anticipated the central theme of Liberation Theology which is that poverty is sin or morally unacceptable because it brought the worst out of a human being and that religion must take the side of oppressed humanity. This is reflected in the Vatican II under the leadership of Pope John XXIII:

Human society, as we here picture it, demands that men be guided by justice, respect the rights of others and do their duty. It demands, too, that they be animated by such love as will make them feel the needs of others as their own, and induce them to share their goods with others, and to strive in the world to make all men alike heirs to the noblest of intellectual and spiritual values. Nor is this enough; for human society thrives on freedom, namely, on the use of means which are consistent with the dignity of its individual members, who, being endowed with reason, assume responsibility for their own actions. And so, dearest sons and brothers, we must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality. (Peace on Earth)

Hinduism being a social order rather than a religion per se rarely offered itself to political liberation. Its appeal to 19th century Orientalists lay in the fact that on one hand it exuded a philosophical charm in dismissing this world as an illusion while on the other hand it perpetuated deep-seated conservatism in the oppression of so-called untouchables and women. Gandhi’s version of Hinduism stands as an exception to the rule and his eclectic mind could combine Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Ruskin’s Unto this Last, the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel according to Saint Matthew, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You and the Bhagavad Gita along with Tulsidas’s Ramayan – and put them in the same cauldron to arrive at a world-view that can broadly be considered universal to awaken the masses of rural India.

When Gandhi says, “I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion” he essentially means to say that religion as a moral discourse can be a platform of social struggle. Religion as embodied in the moral performance of resistance to evil. Such a performance is embodied in the individual person. There are no followers or leaders. There are individuals and more individuals. In the poem “You” says Borges: I speak of the unique, the single man, he who is always Alone. It is this individual person that must reflect the struggle of a people.

Someone like Gandhi with a strong sense of otherworldliness refuses to believe that he is alone in this struggle. Such is the conviction in God’s role in the struggle that at the point when he is about to be lynched by a mob in South Africa and is forced to take a rickshaw pulled by a man, Gandhi says:

I had never sat in a rickshaw before, as it was thoroughly disgusting to me to sit in a vehicle pulled by human beings. But I then felt that it was my duty to use that vehicle. I have experienced five or seven times in my life that one, whom God wishes to save, cannot fall even if he will. If I did not fall I cannot take any credit for it to myself.

It is not about God saving him from being lynched by the mob. It is more about God revealing himself in saving Gandhi from an act of unrighteousness. Gandhi, Saint Joan and Malcolm X – all three of them are in the habit of attributing to the divine a role and purpose that is greater than what can be conceived by an individual.

In George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan we see a humble, peasant girl in all innocence proclaiming that the Saints Margaret, Catherine and Michael, whom she calls “the voices” told her to drive the English out of France. At the tender age of sixteen when most girls would be lost in dreams of the future, the illiterate peasant girl went to lead an army that would eventually throw the English out of France. But the price of the “sainthood” is as political as the “voices” that inspired her to go to battle against the English. Betrayed by the very people for whom she had fought with her life, she was eventually tried for heresy and burnt at the stake.

The transcending moment of Joan’s life is not her death but the “voices” themselves that sent her to war. You see her speaking about the voices to Dunois in the following dialogue which also brings out the essential rustic in her:

Scene V

DUNOIS. Are you angry, Joan?

JOAN. Yes. [Smiling] No: not with you. I wish you were one of the village babies.

DUNOIS. Why?

JOAN. I could nurse you for awhile.

DUNOIS. You are a bit of a woman after all.

JOAN. No: not a bit: I am a soldier and nothing else. Soldiers always nurse children when they get a chance.

DUNOIS. That is true. [He laughs].

Her politics however show to the end of her life when she must denounce her enemies for murderous deceit and their attempt to kill her soul by imprisoning her body. It is a turning point in the play when she realizes that it is better to die than live like a caged animal. For one like Joan with a spirit born to be free, such a life would be meaningless anyway.

JOAN. Yes: they told me you were fools [the word gives great offence], and that I was not to listen to your fine words nor trust to your charity. You promised me my life; but you lied [indignant exclamations]. You think that life is nothing but not being stone dead. It is not the bread and water I fear: I can live on bread: when have I asked for more? It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. Bread has no sorrow for me, and water no affliction. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills; to make me breathe foul damp darkness, and keep from me everything that brings me back to the love of God when your wickedness and foolishness tempt me to hate Him: all this is worse than the furnace in the Bible that was heated seven times. I could do without my warhorse; I could drag about in a skirt; I could let the banners and the trumpets and the knights and soldiers pass me and leave me behind as they leave the other women, if only I could still hear the wind in the trees, the larks in the sunshine, the young lambs crying through the healthy frost, and the blessed blessed church bells that send my angel voices floating to me on the wind. But without these things I cannot live; and by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your counsel is of the devil, and that mine is of God.

Malcolm X like Gandhi and Joan has the tendency to attribute divine role in crucial moments of his life. All of them have the tendency to believe that they are saved by a power greater than themselves. A criminal and thief like Genet, Malcolm X rose to become the antithesis of his previous self. He threw away his last name “Little” and replaced it with “X” which is a stroke of revolutionary genius like Gandhi who threw away his western clothes for a simple loin-cloth empathizing with the poorest of the poor, because X symbolized the absence of the past for the blacks in America who were brought there as slaves.

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, rather ironically written by Alex Haley with Malcolm as a narrator and protagonist, we see the impetuous Malcolm telling the story of his life on the streets. In the chapter “Caught” we see an instance of divine intervention to save the lost criminal. In Malcolm’s own words:

“One hand was in his pocket. I knew he was a cop.

He said, quietly, ‘Step into the back.’

Just as I started back there, an innocent Negro walked into the shop…The detective, thinking he was with me, turned to him.

There I was wearing a gun, and the detective talking to that Negro with his back to me. Today I believe that Allah was with me even then. I didn’t try to shoot him. And that saved my life…They’d had me covered. One false move, I’d have been dead.”

It’s not Malcolm’s common sense at work over here. It is Allah who makes sure that Malcolm does not do the mistake of taking out his gun because that would have meant certain death and there would be no Malcolm X to fight the cause of the Black revolution in America.

All this talk of divine intervention in Joan and Gandhi and Malcolm X can be dismissed as a strategic device or way of talking or way of believing or reinforcing the belief that the cause one is fighting for is a just one and so great is the justice that it comes from God himself. But it is more than that. These are transcending moments when what Nietzsche calls the will to power of an oppressed group defines itself. In that sense Joan and Gandhi and Malcolm X tend to see themselves as vehicles through which the divine conveys its message.

In essence sainthood is a political discourse is the point I’m trying to make. I don’t mean to imply that “saints” function in the consciousness of being a saint in the existential sense of the term. No one chooses to be a saint. You can choose to be good and that can be quite arbitrary as well. What we attribute to sainthood is a definition with certain parameters. Sainthood is relative therefore. What I’m interested in is the purity of motive – the conviction that this is the way things should be done and not any other as we see in Joan, Gandhi and Malcolm. The goals are serious and the challenges enormous. The awareness of death as a reality to be embraced and the fact that you’re performing a role predestined for you in all consciousness – this is the point where saintliness becomes political. That’s what the saintly Simon understands when he’s convinced that the beast of ignorance is within us and can be overcome through radical effort.


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