The Sighs of an Oppressed People

Sisyphus Crossing

I’m not a Marxist.

I do, however, like the t-shirt put out by of the “Communist Party.”  I imagine a Marxist has to drink a lot.

But Marx, in his wisdom (and foolishness…aren’t we all of that same coin currency?) wrote in Contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophyof Right:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.  It is the opium of the people.”

The call to slough off the cubicles of the bourgeoisie, including the cubicle of religion, is the call to get sober, to get organized, to get…to get.

I took an interesting class the final semester of my seminary career.  It was entitled, “Engaging Violence through Theater” or something as equally ambiguous and enticing.  In preparation for our final practicum, the class assembled with some residents of a local retirement community to talk about the nebulous topic of “spirituality” to plumb the depths of using theater as a way to bridge gaps and rips in the societal fabric caused by factious religious tension.

In that circle of chairs were priests, Christians, Jews, agnostics, atheists, all defined broadly. With the exception of the advanced ages of all the attendees (minus the seminary students), there was quite a bit of diversity in the room in general.

Through the course of a mostly civil and enlightening discussion, there were a couple of peaks of agitation.  At one such peak a very irritated woman, a devout atheist, said something to the effect of, “I don’t need a god, and I think the implication that I do is insulting!”

Point well taken.

Directly following her statement, an elderly African American woman with a severe palsy, who had previously spoken of the faith of her parents in slavery, spoke up, “Listen.  From my tradition, we made a god because we needed a god.  If you don’t need him, don’t take him. But, leave our god alone.”

Point well taken.

Religion is the sigh of an oppressed people.

I like this notion of Marx however much I would like to divorce the opiate reference.  After all, if religion is an opiate of sorts, you’d think that “religious people” would be happier…another notch in Hitchens’ belt for pointing out that fact.

But that idea takes for granted that the point of religion, or even faith for that matter, is to impart happiness; a mistaken conclusion, I think.  For while religion or faith (not the same, mind you, but I’m not interested in dissecting each at this junction) might indeed provide for it’s adherents’ happiness, this is not the goal…at least not in the mind of the faith-laden individual writing this blog.

Kiekegaard, in Fear and Trembling, warns against looking at faith lightly.  He writes,

“But what no one has the right to do is let others suppose that faith is something inferior or that it is an easy matter, when in fact it is the greatest and most difficult of all.”

Difficult because, well, our oppressions…in their forms…cause us to scramble for the concrete: beliefs, forms, arguments.  Cause us to scramble for happiness, satiation, comfort.  Cause us to set goals that we can fill ourselves with until we get that “just full enough” feeling.

Yes, full of it.  It’s gotten.  And I do not discount the fact that many people use their beliefs in this way, whether theistic, atheistic, or somewhere in between.  It gets us that “just full enough” feeling.

But the Knight of Faith, a person whom Kierkegaard is admittedly not able to be, knows that, “faith finds its proper expression in (the person) whose life is not only the most paradoxical conceivable, but so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.  (They) act on the strength of the absurd.”

The strength of the absurd.

Why do we shy away from this word, “absurd”?

I’d like to think that it is probably the absurd that overcomes oppression in most situations.  In those situations when it appears that power, however its form, should win, we then and there find that power is in fact weakness because in the face of the absurd you are not dealing with elements of the same nature.

Like steel and fire: both powerful, but in different ways…one dissolving the other.

And yet, metaphors only go as far as they do.


Kant, in section III of the Philosophical Doctrine of Reason, relates an interesting bit on the sigh of humanity.  He notes,

“A member of the English Palriament exclaimed in the heat of debate: ‘Every man has his price, for which he sells himself.’ If this is true (and everyone can decide by himself), if nowhere is a virtue which no level of temptation can overthrow, if whether the good or evil spirit wins us over only depends on which bids the most and affords the proptest pay-off, the, what the Apostle says might indeed hold true of human beings universally, ‘There is no distinction here, they are all under sin-there is none righteous (in the spirit of the law), no, not one.”


And were religion, as an institution, meant to address this situation, to answer the moral question, we would end up looking at straw as well.  Indeed, I’m quite convinced that morality is not contingent upon organized religion.  And yet, organized religion is used by many in just this way…another way of getting full of morality, of seeking to point at the moral seed and exclaim, “I’ve found the tree of life.”

And yet.

And yet, we have never arrived at that thing that acknowledges the communal “sigh”.  You see, even with moral and emotional satisfaction being found outside of organized religion (and within), we still, as a whole, as humanity, sigh.

That seems absurd…to sigh even when it seems that all we are needing is at hand with and without systems.

And that absurdity, that, I think, is no drug.  That’s more real than anything I’ve found.  And it hints of faith…the faith that in chaos is indeed order.

Whether we are insulted by the insinuation that somehow God is necessary, or insulted by the fact that God may not be necessary, we fall under the same oppression.  We think we know.  Slavoj Zizek claims that the god we think we understand is like a Tamagotchi toy-our own creation which subsequently makes demands upon us.

Whether it is the god of Reason, like Hitchens, the god of Order, like Marx, or the God of Israel, like Swindol.

Perhaps the sigh, then, is the only appropriate response.  It is not a sigh of despair, nor a sigh of anguish, but a sigh of relief.

Relief in the fact that we don’t understand God.

That’s absurd.  Indeed.