Report From Paris: Who Is Naomi Klein, Religiously?

Thank God I got to hear Naomi Klein speak before floating home. I am officially religious; she is not. She helps me.

Klein’s links between the “zone of sacrifice” and the way the rich use that zone make the Pope’s encyclical look dated, especially religiously. Otherizing has run amok. She talks about our collective recklessness as masculinity run amok. She rarely speaks with out quoting a woman or man of color or an abrupt reminder of worlds normally forgotten. She knows the power of pattern observation and the pattern of thinking. She even makes fun of the big words like “anthropocene,” deftly showing us a serious moral quandary.

Whether it is in the left’s obsession with fixing the problem or the right’s obsession with denying it, we have canny ways of keeping the human—meaning the man—front and center. Alternatively, she says, “We are not the boss of nature, we are part of nature.”

What I want to know is how such an interestingly secular humanist got so much religion. Her fundamental contention is that we need a new meta-narrative, one with the power that the right has in its passionate and well-funded defense of individualism. What, she asks, if there was an alternative narrative of communal reciprocity or participation or linkages? What if our relationships mattered?

This feminist alternative to the story that is killing us is fundamentally a religious problem. Where did religions go? Why did a more communal narrative not prevail? And where did Klein get the spiritual oomph to try to find one?

I think most pastors know the answer to that. We “let” our offspring find their own (individual) way instead of surrounding them with a great human story about creation, redemption, life and death, the other and ourselves.

The Golden Rule comes to mind as an alternative story of great reciprocity – love your neighbor as you love yourself. We just decided in the last and lost generations to not require that people learn it, in community, any more. We have good excuses. We were not able to get over our pallid ecumenism, the kind that says there are many Gods, so why push one? We lost our way to be theological pluralists and so just forgot to build storied communities at all.

Responding to Larry Wilmore’s question on the Nightly Show earlier this fall about why the pope has become such a celebrity, Klein said,

I don’t think it’s about religion. I don’t think it’s that suddenly people are converting to Catholicism. I think basically he’s kind of like [Senator] Bernie Sanders in a white dress, and people are psyched about it.

She went on to argue her somewhat Protestant theology of religion. “It’s not about magic, God is not coming to fix it and neither is Mommy.”

I’m on a search to find out who she is religiously. I know she is Jewish. I know she is a red diaper baby. I know her grandparents were passionately atheist and communist. I know her mother had a stroke when Klein was 17 and that she got over being embarrassed at her mother’s passionate feminism. She honored the caretaking her family did of their mother. I know her father was a doctor and that her parents immigrated to Canada in 1967, in one of the great American moral passages north. How did they and she know how to care about the people most people think are expendable? Like the Vietnamese then or the Pacific Islanders now? Exile? Neighbors?

Interestingly, the Communists enjoyed no such amnesia about the other. Klein is powerfully moral in a theological way. Use of the words “sacrifice” and “story” marks one theologically. The Vatican has figured out how to use her. I wonder if she has figured out how to use them/us. Her visit to the Vatican, at the invitation of Cardinal Turkson of Ghana, perhaps the next Pope, was a welcome surprise to her. Klein approaches the climate crisis morally; the Pope approaches them sacramentally. The two foundations need each other, or so I learned in seminary.

Klein listens well to what happened in Copenhagen. The African nations walked out en mass. They were chanting, “2% is mass suicide. We will not die quietly.” She seems to actually care about the neighbors she doesn’t forget and doesn’t know. She knows that the continents are neighbored.

“Beijing’s smog is California’s drought and people of color are closer to the hole on the sinking ship.”

Whether she is arguing for municipalizing energy or rebuilding the story of humanity, she is arguing matters religious and politically, simultaneously, without mentioning God. What if we keep God in it while leaving God out of it? Or stick with the second part of the golden rule and leave the rest out of it?

The Golden Rule, by the way, says love God first and then neighbor as self. I am going to go to seminary, again—with Naomi Klein.