The Sunday preacher is apocalyptic. A bit tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless. This is the first Sunday of advent, after all, the dawning of the Christian year; the time when traditionally Christians began to think about death. And why not? The hustle and bustle of commercial Christmas pales, indeed vanishes, in the swirling vortex of activity that is the Christian story. Here we encounter a murderous king driven mad to the point of genocide by news of an infant birth, foreign intellectuals who undertake an incredible journey in order to lavish expensive gifts on a small family, and agrarian labourers who neglect their work in an act of spontaneous celebration. Insanity and jubilation, unfeigned merriment and unspeakable horror; the enigma of Christmas. Advent is an onslaught ominous, glorious, unpredictable. Like wildfire, like storm the news of the coming Messiah spreads causing disturbance and upheaval in its wake. What is at stake is nothing less than a fundamental reshaping of reality that leaves all who encounter it profoundly unsettled. All, that is, except those closest to the narrative’s centre of gravity. Mary and Joseph, those paragons of serenity, who accept the incredible tasks thrust upon them with an unbelievable, almost infuriating, calm.
What is apocalypse? It is the lifting of the veil and revealing of secrets. It is enough to cause murderous kings to quake in their boots. It is enough to drive philosophers away from their books and farmers away from their fields. Apocalyptic knowledge is revealed knowledge; new and unforeseen. It shifts the dynamics of socio-political geography, changes the course of history, and causes all former knowledge to be called into question. Apocalypse is nothing short of an encounter with the real. Dare we name its effects a politics of encounter? And what would such a naming entail?
In a recent issue of the New Left Review Andy Merrifield, author of Magical Marxism, attempts a cursory delineation of such a politics. Unsatisfied with contemporary attempts to frame the political question in terms of a ‘right to the city’, Merrifield notes that the concept of the city has become vacuous to us, at once too vast and too narrow to mobilize contemporary city-dwellers to collective action. Though many, perhaps most of us, live in cities our political and economic realities are not tied primarily to the centrality of the city, and the diversity of urban geography makes it difficult to discern what claiming a ‘right to the city’ would actually look like. Moreover when political action does occur it frequently needs to appeal well beyond the scope of the city. Merrifield thus proposes a ‘politics of encounter. Central to this politics is James Joyce’s concept of a “collideorscape.” Encounter, suggests Merrifield, is the central motif of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and the collideorscape:
marks for Joyce something of a ‘collide and escape’, a kaleidoscope of sorts, a coincidence taking hold, shaking things up to give form to another reality; a portmanteau word for a new portmanteau politics. The spatial question will not go away; it will always be the battleground for political struggle, the centre stage of any encounter or collideorscape. But what kind of human- rather than urban- space will this be, and what kind of new social networks hold the key for a 21st- century politics of militant democracy? (Andy Merrifield “Crowd Creation” in New Left Review 71 Sept/Oct 2011,114)
Is the attention Merrifield places on the passing encounter or the coincidental merited? In the end I am unsure, a part of me is unconvinced that strong affective ties can be built in this way. Yet surely Merrifield has driven to the heart of a politics of encounter in announcing its spatial disturbances, its curious geography. The encounter is a moment, but it is a moment that lingers. And it is only from the initial touch of encounter that relationships can be built.
Tracing the journey of the Holy Family we can become aware of geographical disturbances. Not only the imperial census that drives Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, but other journeys undertaken for other reasons. Some are expansive, some local. There are echoes of the exodus, but also of diaspora and pilgrimage. There is foreshadowing, perhaps, of Jerusalem’s destruction. People are restless, they are on the move because they have encountered the apocalypse of the Messiah, a knowledge that unsettles and divides. Yet to those who can accept it this knowledge proves to be the only stability in times and places that have become unmoored. This is not triumphalism, it has to do not with strength but with faith. Thus Mary, in her Magnificat, announces the dissolution and radical rewriting of the political,social, and economic order without a trace of defiance or cynicism.
Without the storm of advent, without apocalypse, how could we come to faith at all? Yet, as we have seen, not all who encountered the Christ could believe. The grand machinations of imperial bureaucracy, the political insecurities of regional powermongers, even the daily grind of local business (i.e. the innkeeper) – these were not up to the rigors of fidelity. And here lies the key to Merrifield’s question. The kinds of social networks that will shape human space will be those that can sustain the politics of encounter with a politics of fidelity and grace.Joshua Paetkau is a father of two and a barista at The Neighbourhood Bookstore and Cafe in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a bachelor of arts in theology and social science, and is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.