How might democratic politics be “a work of love”—and a crucial, if not necessary, practice of faith for Christians? At a moment when many despair of the viability, even the possibility, of democracy, theologian Luke Bretherton not only rises to its defense but raises its stakes. This much is clear from the title of his latest book, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy. The work is both a drawing together of many strands from Bretherton’s prior work, and his clearest articulation yet of the character and content of Christian “political theology.” As he seeks to demonstrate, the latter cannot remain indifferent to democratic politics. For theological no less than historical and political reasons, the two are closely bound together.
In this programmatic sense, Christ and the Common Life is evidently a work of democratic theology. But it is also a book that aims to invite, perform, and embody the kind of democracy it advocates. As Bretherton understands it, “democratic politics”—as distinct from the governmental structures and electoral procedures with which it is often conflated—is a set of constitutive practices for weaving together a “common life,” and discerning “goods in common,” across many vectors of difference. Broad-based community organizing in the Alinsky tradition, the subject of Bretherton’s previous book Resurrecting Democracy, is an exemplary praxis of democratic politics in this sense. Democratic politics in general, like organizing in particular, aims to distribute political agency as widely as possible, and works to enable the formation of shared (though always fallible) judgments, the performance of shared action, and the conversion of possible enemies into friends (445). And this is just what Bretherton himself attempts to do via the avowedly “stitched together” character of his book (7). After an opening chapter that surveys the field and maps the features of “political theology,” he proceeds not by directly laying out his own account political vision, but by engaging and interrelating five distinct traditions of Christian political theology (some explicit, some “implicit”): humanitarianism, Black Power, Pentecostalism, Catholic social teaching, and Anglican political theology. (The third and fifth of these are traditions with which Bretherton himself confessionally identifies.) Having drawn these traditions into conversation, he then proceeds to analyze the characteristic challenges that confront any attempt to form a “common life,” and to provide the core conceptual frameworks requisite for undertaking that project. The book’s ensuing topical chapters focus on class division and worship; religious plurality and secularism; hospitality and moral disagreement; theological anthropology; economy; sovereignty and “statecraft”; peoplehood and “populism”; and, finally, “democratic politics” itself. All the while, Bretherton draws on a wide variety of disciplines, genres, and theoretical resources. Though the book’s persistent pluriformity can make it challenging, in any given moment, to grasp how the whole fits together, it is also what enables it to be at once “a collection of essays, a companion, and an introduction” to political theology (12). It is all those things, because it is itself a work of democratic politics, as Bretherton understands it.
But Christ and the Common Life is also, just as much, a work of ecclesial politics. For Bretherton’s provocative thesis that talk of God and talk of politics are “coemergent and mutually constitutive” has significant implications for the church, the body of all those who confess Christ’s lordship. The church itself, on his account, is constituted by human politics, even as the latter is always also inflected by the unexpected and uncontrollable activity of the Spirit—or its demonic parodies. (The Spirit’s activity within and without the church is a recurring theme, since Christ and the Common Life is also, to date, Bretherton’s most pneumatological work.) (Democratic) politics is no less necessary to weave together the “people of God” across its own diverse lines of tradition and social division than it is to weave together the “secular” body politic. Furthermore, the political and theological relations between “church” and “world” turn out to be far less obvious, and far more porous and dynamic, than many Christians and non-Christians might assume. Bretherton’s book is thus a summons for Christians to engage in democratic politics with others who include themselves. And, as companion and introduction, it aspires to provide the conceptual tools and the model to do so.
In the essays which follow, five contributors of diverse backgrounds, traditions, disciplines, and perspectives offer their own responses to Bretherton’s summons. Sarah Azaransky opens our symposium with an appreciative reading that highlights the close parallels between Sheldon Wolin’s approach to political theory and Bretherton’s account of political theology, whose character she describes (adopting one of Bretherton’s terms) as “consociational.” Sympathetic to Bretherton’s argument, and specifically its commitment to expanding and enabling political agency, she invites him into further dialogue about two issues central to her own current work, namely, the place of “motherwork” and of children in democratic politics. In his reply, Bretherton takes up her invitation wholeheartedly.
Gustavo Maya offers the next response, which focuses on the related themes of social practice, social relations, and practical reason. Using these concepts as his frame, Maya first draws out the theoretical and methodological moves that set Bretherton’s work apart from other approaches to political theology in valuable and constructive ways. Alongside the book’s emphasis on practical reason and social power, he finds particularly useful Bretherton’s treatment of the church/world relationship, which he contrasts with unduly ecclesiocentric construals thereof. At the same time, Maya also calls on Bretherton to address several substantive critical concerns. One regards the coherence of Bretherton’s account of the church/world distinction with his apparent “Augustinianism.” Others include his failure to treat the War on Terror, and the reality of American empire; the lack of definition in his account of “domination”; the apparent ambiguity inherent in his concept of “common life”; and the irresolvable uncertainty in which Bretherton appears to leave moral reasoning. Bretherton’s replies to Maya’s critiques, in turn, offer clarifications not only of his arguments in Christ and the Common Life, but of his larger political and theological project.
Lisa Sowle Cahill’s response, which follows Maya’s, draws in a different set of themes, this time of a more overtly theological kind. Like Maya, Cahill finds many elements of Bretherton’s political theology congenial, yet is left with significant unresolved concerns. While especially appreciative of Bretherton’s pneumatology, Cahill is less satisfied with his account of Catholic social teaching—her own tradition—and not wholly clear on the place Bretherton leaves for the state in political life. More fundamentally, however, Cahill is not convinced that Bretherton’s theology succeeds in coherently holding together the theological and historical reasons for hope in transformational social change, and the countervailing reasons for pessimism about it, that any viable political theology—and political praxis—must balance. At the same time, Cahill admits, the vexing challenge Bretherton faces in weaving these dimensions together convincingly is not unique to his project, but endemic to political theology itself. Bretherton’s reply to Cahill represents both a further attempt to face this challenge and a proposed revision to Cahill’s way of framing it. It also provides him an opportunity to draw out the specific Left political traditions with which his theological vision is in dialogue.
With Megan Black’s response, the terrain of conversation shifts still closer to the ground of political praxis. Black, herself an interfaith community organizer, finds in Christ and the Common Life a welcome stimulus to theopolitical imagination. Concerning the project of “democracy” in particular, she laments, participants in community organizing often evince either a skepticism or a distinct lack of imagination—a point Black illustrates all too well with an anecdote from her own experience. In Bretherton’s work, she discerns useful conceptual resources for addressing this problem, though she also identifies further challenges from the field which, in her judgment, he leaves unaddressed. Black’s essay creates a natural opening for discussing the place of “popular education” within community organizing, an opportunity Bretherton takes up in his response.
Finally, in his concluding essay, Nimi Wariboko expands the conversation—geographically, theologically, and politically. Wariboko engages Bretherton’s book from the vantage point of Nigerian Pentecostalism, his own theopolitical context, which contrasts, as he emphasizes, with Bretherton’s intentionally “Western” or “North Atlantic” center of gravity. Even while lauding Bretherton’s inclusive, dialogical, and pluralistic approach to political theology—a great improvement on many Euro-American works in the field—Wariboko contends that it betrays the limitations of its originating context by over-privileging order and failing to reckon adequately with chaos. Bretherton’s account of democracy, on Wariboko’s take, frames the task of politics as creating political order across difference. For Nigerian Pentecostals, on the other hand, as for many others in Africa, radical disorder—chaosmos, not cosmos—is the order of the day, and the reality with which both politics and theology must cope. How does this change in context transform the content of political theology? Among other things, Wariboko suggests, it necessarily expands the constitutive task of politics beyond the weaving together of commonality into the territory of emancipatory struggle. In his concluding reply, Bretherton responds to Wariboko’s challenge by reflecting on the relations between their contexts, between order and chaos, and between politics and violence.
Transformational Politics and Interminable Injustice
How Can Political Theology Account for Both?
Luke Bretherton offers an intriguing and timely book—in an era when the relations between theory and practice, theology and the life of the churches, social ethics and sociopolitical facts, are ever more salient, yet vexing to the analyst. As captured by its title, Christ and the Common Life leads readers through a series of complex investigations of these same relationships. Bretherton’s work is an occasion to confront and to examine—though perhaps not ultimately to resolve—three related issues that should command the attention of all political theologians and theological ethicists. First is that political realities, and the participation in them by Christians and churches, furnish a practical, existential test of some theological convictions that seem to flow, systematically and compellingly, from the logic of the gospel and of Christian faith. For example, Christian doctrines of incarnation, resurrection, and the sending of the Spirit may inspire a Christian eschatology of God’s inbreaking reign, yet historical realities test it harshly against continuing exploitation and violence. Second is that theology and practices exercise de facto a mutual authority, presenting the problem of where to strike the normative balance in any given case. For example, theologies of atonement through Christ’s sacrificial death (and even penal substitution) are biblically defensible, and dominate Western soteriology, yet liberation movements contest a God who inflicts violence, and a savior who sacralizes submission to it. Third is the diversity of Christian communities and practices, and therefore of their theologies, although Christians have always proclaimed one gospel and one faith. Global Christianity is an obvious illustration, but even in this book, Pentecostalism, Anglicanism, and Augustinianism (resources for Bretherton) are shown to have different points of origin and different implications for Christian political theologies.
In successive chapters, Bretherton gives us an array of angles on the relationships among Christian faith and theology and the political interventions by which Christians try to generate greater justice in society. Among his additional sources are African American nationalism and other liberation movements; the virtues of toleration and hospitality; Christian liturgical practices, especially the Eucharist; populism, democratic politics and community organizing; and the ideal of a common life. Yet the positions implied in different chapters can lead in different directions, as Bretherton weaves together variant political theologies, making his own insights from each. For me, the book’s central tension is between Bretherton’s commitment to popular democracy and transformational community organizing inspired by the Spirit; and his acknowledgment of the deep, strong, and interminable nature of conflict, along with his invocation of Augustine as a model public theologian. One must admire so hospitable an author, who so relentlessly subjects his own claims to cross-examination. This very strength makes it hard to summarize the book fairly; and hard to determine where its argument finally leads. Perhaps Luke Bretherton’s ultimate gift to his fellow theologians is to make it clear just how difficult it is to specify the relations among Christian theology, the Christian life, and politics in a theologically coherent way. I will return to this possibility later.
First and more centrally, I want to display the power of Christ and the Common Life to inspire hopeful Christian commitment to social change, backed by a theology that is biblically based, and politically accountable to “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). Only somewhat apologetically, I will identify a center of gravity that may not be demanded by what Bretherton has actually written here, but that I think makes most sense of his work as a community organizer (treated more extensively in his earlier Resurrecting Democracy).1 Not coincidentally, it also coheres with my own related experience (in peacebuilding and its theologies),2 my perception of God (as healing Holy Spirit), my ecclesial location (a “Pope Francis” Roman Catholic indebted to the social encyclical tradition, yet critical of gender teachings), and my political proclivities (“progressive,” leaning left).
Bretherton tells us that he was raised in a Charismatic home, within the broader Anglican tradition, and that his parents were socially and civically very engaged. His version of Pentecostalism is not the more typical (or stereotypical) and often fundamentalist kind that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through baptism with the Holy Spirit, personal moral asceticism, and charisms such as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and exorcism. Bretherton recognizes that Pentecostalism is prone to dualisms, and can emphasize the individual’s “spiritual warfare, living righteously, and proselytizing,” while short-circuiting “political spirituality” and collective action (144–45). Pentecostalism binds socially marginal groups into a new community of support, but too rarely, Bretherton believes, challenges the larger institutions that exclude them.
Bretherton’s own revised Pentecostalism is socially committed and politically engaged. Pentecostal churches have always functioned as counterweights to capitalism by creating enclaves of mutual care (150–51). Bretherton takes the socially radical nature of the church further, arguing that the church’s work for justice is a necessary correlate of personal conversion and ecclesial formation. He is quite confident that Christian action can produce significant transformations, even if it cannot be argued that history on the whole is on a course of progress. Bretherton backs Christian social activism with an eloquent theology of the Holy Spirit, who brings “eschatological transformation and consummation of creation as a new creation.” The Spirit’s work reconfigures “social, political and economic life to become disruptive, proleptic disclosures of eschatological patterns of human sociality” (156–57). Politics and economics are themselves “crucibles of divine activity,” where “the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is animating, healing, delivering, and generating new life” (157). In Bretherton’s Pentecostalism, “all may now participate in the work of healing,” since “the Spirit is poured out on all flesh.” Thus, the church at times can “look very much like the world or the world can look and feel more church-like than the church” (130). Community organizing comes in as a historical vehicle of the Spirit’s eschatological action, seen as a component of democratic politics that empowers groups with different identities and agendas to unite in the name of common interest (449–50). Democratic politics forges “a shared political space,” cultivates local leaders, accepts compromise, and invests in long-term organization and education (436). Its ultimate aim is a “common life” in which shared goods are pursued despite “conflicting visions of the good” (463).
I see this depiction of political theology and Christian political activity as cohering well with Catholic social teaching (CST), particularly in its more solidaristic and liberationist streams. Among these are Paul VI’s Octogesima Adveniens and Populorum Progressio, John Paul II’s Sollicitudo rei Socialis, and Francis’s Laudato Si’. These see human beings as inherently and naturally social, so that individual dignity and rights are inseparable from the equitable participation of all in the common good. Most important is the priority in CST of the past fifty years on what is often captured as “the preferential option for the poor,” a responsibility not only of individuals, churches, and local communities, but of national and international governments.
While from its inception (Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, 1893), CST has always emphasized social reform in defense of workers and the poor, its original framework placed authority and responsibility for ensuring their rights and welfare in the hands of economic and political elites, to whom appeal was likewise made by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), greater emphasis has been placed on learning from, as well as cooperation with, other religions, social institutions and disciplines of knowledge. More recently, CST has begun to locate capacity and accountability for change in civil society, and in local-to-global collective action. A more “grassroots” manifestation is evident in local churches’ active resistance to injustice, including their advocacy for structural change recognized and protected by legislation and policy.
Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on ecology (Laudato Si’),3 whose refrain is “everything is connected,” takes this tradition significant strides ahead. Issued six months before the 2015 United Nations Paris Climate Accord talks, it calls out the powerful interests that invariably have made international climate agreements “ineffectual.”4 Throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis prioritizes the effects of environmental degradation on the poor. Citing at least seventeen national bishops’ conferences, he calls upon the local churches to mobilize popular support for climate control through education and political action. Francis recognizes the importance of local expertise, organization, and solutions, connected to higher levels of government agency.5 Finally, the encyclical appeals for international and interreligious cooperation, concluding with two prayers, one uniting Christians, another inviting all who believe in a divine Creator.
Bretherton does see CST as congenial to his project, but has another take on what CST is and means. As he tries to align CST with a “consociational” political model, he constructs an interpretation that in large part relies on Jacques Maritain, Russell Hittinger, and John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. In contrast to what Bretherton conceives as a unitary, “top-down,” sovereign state, a consociational polity “is made up of a plurality of interdependent, self-organized associations” to which “freedom of association” is essential, and that through it achieve “self-rule” (168–70, 183). In my view, Bretherton seems to endorse a minority interpretation of CST that is out of line with the trajectory of recent papal encyclicals, insofar as they stress that the common good and justice for the marginalized place severe moral constraints on liberty and especially on the free market. A consociational polity as he envisions it bears affinity with another model of politics of which Bretherton speaks approvingly, “civic republicanism” (428–29). Civic republicanism is defined (following Michael Sandel) not in terms of legal protections of rights, but as upholding “a shared political project of collective self-rule and pursuit of the virtues required to sustain that project, that best guarantee and secure individual liberty” (428).
One sort of civic republicanism is American and Madisonian, a version which—arguably influenced by Locke—makes the common good and the associations that comprise it secondary to individual freedom, focused on the pursuit of individual interests.6 This type does not comport well with CST, nor with the social vision that I see in Bretherton’s Pentecostalism chapter. Bretherton grants that “we are always already constituted through relationship with others” (429). While his preference for consociationalism need not be jettisoned, it should be interpreted in a way that clearly furthers progressive social justice goals. Keeping in mind community organizing, it might be possible to see consociationalism as more like a local and more solidaristic version of the “disaggregated” and networked forms of governance that Anne Marie Slaughter (and others) have described as the “new world order.”7 Here governance consists in many cross-cutting institutions, organizations, legislation, as well as higher and lower forms of international, regional, national, and local government. Community organizing likewise produces collective action that networks across public and private sectors to achieve sustainable change.8 I wonder whether Bretherton would be open to a model more like social democracy (sometimes conflated with democratic socialism),9 which along with civic virtue and popular politics, preserves a role for both the market and the state, if accountable to the people. Governmental regulation and programs, from local to national and international, can help control capitalism, reduce inequality, ensure that basic needs are met, and protect public goods like earth’s oceans and the ozone layer.
Let me conclude briefly with two further difficulties that all political theologians must face. The first is the reality that imperfect justice and enduring conflict will always be part of democratic politics and any “common life” they are able to produce. The second is the prospect that, given this reality, a Christian eschatology of the politically inbreaking reign of God cannot be securely warranted. The challenge to deal theologically with ongoing sin and conflict, while still affirming Christian political action as a significant change agent, confronts CST as much as it does Bretherton’s Pentecostalism and his vision of democratic politics as a “work of love” (464).
The problems of injustice and conflict receive their due in Bretherton’s chapter on “Black Power.” Bretherton credits “the constructive role of power, anger, and conflict” (105) as necessary to “black self-determination” (106). But after recognizing black nationalism as a valid form of anti-racist community organizing, he does not fully develop the consequences for Christian democratic action for “the common life.” Instead he grounds theological approval of black nationalism in God’s formation of “a people” through the exodus (108), while passing over the facts that exodus does not empower the people to advocate in their own interests, and that the people’s God sends plagues indiscriminately on the Egyptians, then commands the annihilation of the Canaanites. These aspects raise precisely the question of whether God necessarily provides that vindication of the oppressed will result in “the formation of a common life in which the thriving of all is the aim” (453). This question raised by Scripture is also raised by contemporary reality. Continuing anti-black racism in the United States is currently and shockingly manifest in killings of unarmed black men and boys by police officers. The political theologian is forced to ask, not only what levels and forms of continuing resistance are warranted, but whether racism—nationally and globally—will ever be defeated. What exactly is the theology that is honest to reality, but offers realistic hope that change will come?
Bretherton’s answer to this question is uncertain because, along with Pentecostalism, he endorses forms of Anglicanism and Augustinianism. Anglican politics aspires to “the right ordering of church, nation, and state,” envisioned for a church with a particular location and history, by those who take their own power as a given (177–78). Bretherton is drawn to Augustine to transcend both conservative and progressive varieties of Anglican “providentialism.” He argues (against John Milbank) that Christians can seek “just and loving forms of life” in the earthly city of the modern world. But whether Augustine himself would go so far is open to dispute. Augustine did enjoin Christians to take on political responsibility in the name of Christian virtue; and similarly to Anglicanism, portrayed the social ideal in terms of “tranquility of order” and “well-ordered concord.” Yet the libido dominandi that corrupts all earthly cities at the core is overcome only by divine love and grace, and that grace does not in fact, for Augustine, transform historical polities into a “new creation.” An Augustinian caveat counsels caution even to political theologians who ultimately dissent from it, as I do. Yet the work of religious peacebuilders in conflict zones, who bridge lethal divisions to take up risky work for common goals, shows grace at work within and without the church. In a practical rejoinder to Augustine, they nurture realistic hope for sustainable changes, despite the reality that violence will never be historically abolished.
In order to demonstrate concretely what he means by democratic populism, and how it deals with conflicts and injustices, Bretherton turns to historical examples, the most recent of which is the formation of the United States People’s Party in the 1890s. In a work written in the era of Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populist, nationalist, right-leaning, and white supremacist politics internationally, I would have appreciated a contemporary case study. Bretherton rejects expressions of popular politics such as the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthyism, and “the Trump campaigns” as “antipolitical” and undemocratic (442). But how should political theology and democratic politics contend with these, and what do they signify for political theology going forward? Bretherton’s transformationist pneumatology and Augustine’s historical pessimism need to be brought into more direct confrontation in reply.
In sum, Bretherton’s theology of the Holy Spirit is most coherent with his Christian political agenda. I concur in the theology and the politics. Yet in chapter after chapter, Bretherton exposes the theological, historical, and practical counterarguments. I share his apparent perplexity over how exactly to answer them. Maybe the book’s final message is that, speaking theologically, it is virtually impossible to do so. Perhaps we theologians need to give more weight to the life of the churches, where the efficacy of the Spirit is attested in courageous work for justice that brings “resurrection joy and the birthing of new ways of being alive” (119).
Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).↩
Since 2005, I have been a theological advisor to the Catholic Peacebuilding Network (https://cpn.nd.edu/); have twice participated in conferences related to peacebuilding in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina; recently published Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Just War, Pacifism and Peacebuilding, Georgetown, 2019), and teach courses on just war, pacifism and peacebuilding.↩
Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html; accessed June 26, 2019.↩
Francis, Laudato Si’, no. 169.↩
Francis, Laudato Si’, nos. 142–45, 179–83.↩
Andrew Peterson, Civic Republicanism and Civic Education: The Education of Citizens (New York: Palgrave Macmilllan, 2011), 52–55.↩
Anne Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).↩
I discern a similar idea in Luke Bretherton, “State, Democracy & Community Organizing,” in A Companion to Public Theology, ed. Sebastian Kim and Katie Day (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 95–118.↩
US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has attracted attention and a significant following by calling himself a “democratic socialist.” Yet democratic socialism places all ownership of production in the hands of the workers, whereas social democrats still see a place for a regulated market. On definitions, see Maggie Astor, “What Is Democratic Socialism? Whose Version Are We Talking About?,” New York Times, June 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/us/politics/democratic-socialism-facts-history.html.↩
Organizing Our Common Life (Burn the White Picket Fences)
A few years ago I was in Baltimore for a gathering of community organizers, community leaders, and clergy, all of whom were affiliated with Faith in Action—the nation’s largest network of federated community organizations and congregations advancing political and social change at the local, state, regional and federal levels. This meeting brought together staff and key members of our leadership from across the country to strengthen relationships and strategize together on a way forward for the whole network. We began the three-day convening arranged around tables in groups of eight, with a handful of colorful markers and a big white piece of chart paper in the middle of the table. Our facilitator invited us to take the next twenty minutes to imagine together and then illustrate our vision of the world as it should be—the promised land, the mountaintop, the land of milk and honey—that we were working to realize for and in our communities. Six different tables leaned into the task, loudly negotiating the particularities of the prompt and attempting to navigate the diversity in the room; racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, religious, language, and generational difference were all well-represented.
At the end of the twenty minutes each table presented their illustration to the group. As the tables reported, I was astounded to see a very familiar trope emerge from this remarkably diverse group of visionary clergy and justice leaders. With scarcely a single exception, each illustration was dominated by a two-story colonial house with a tree in the front yard, a dog frolicking nearby, and a white picket fence. Some of the illustrations featured additional context (like a church spire and the dome of a masjid in the background, or children of different races playing in the yard), but the central image of nearly every single illustration was a traditional American colonial family home and the iconic white picket fence.
There is something to be said for being united behind a common vision, but I found myself disappointed by the lack of imagination in our group that this activity revealed. There are many possible rationales for how such a diverse cohort oriented toward radical politics could end up toeing the company line so reliably, but I remain the most interested in my initial gut analysis: that we are constrained by the absence of a theologically-informed and socially relevant political imagination. (A quick point of clarification: I write this from my perspective as an organizer currently employed by Faith in Action, formerly PICO National Network. The “we” to which I refer, then, is the community of social change practitioners with whom I spend my days: congregational and denominational clergy, lay community leaders, community organizers, movement leaders, organizational allies, funders, political and social movement consultants, and elected officials who together enact democracy on a daily basis at its most grassroots level.)
Christ and the Common Life steps very nicely into this political imagination breach, offering context and insights into both this particular anecdote and other challenges the organizing field is encountering, while also posing a compelling series of questions for theologians, organizers and political practitioners. The root argument of the text is not, at first blush, all that remarkable. That forming and sustaining democratic politics is a work of Christian faith does not come across as a radical notion to the informed contemporary observer, especially given the degree to which American democracy (and democracy globally) is threatened today, and the oppressive origins of this threat in patriarchy, white supremacy, Christian imperialism, and exploitative capitalism.
Certainly community organizers working with faith communities are convinced of this argument. Indeed, much of our organizing is predicated on the notion that faith communities have an obligation to be present in the public square to provide moral reason, spiritual authority, and prophetic clarity to our collective social and political projects. But fundamental tensions have emerged in the world of broad-based community organizing as the effort to dismantle the power structures that maintain white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonial Christianity comes face-to-face with the historical role of Western democracy in erecting, enshrining, and sustaining structural inequality, prejudiced power, and violent racialized, sexualized, and gendered xenophobia. The 2016 democratic election of Donald Trump serves as both the clearest recent example of this tension and a cause for renewed urgency and intensity among progressive grassroots organizers.
These tensions have left the grassroots rhetoric on the future of our democracy unclear. Though enthusiastic “This is what democracy looks like!” chants are still common at rallies and marches, my anecdotal experience in progressive faith-based organizing spaces is that democracy as an ideal is rarely named. It is more common these days to hear the aspirational (and vague) term “liberation” than the more specific “egalitarian democracy” when discussing organizing objectives. This is especially true in communities and organizations oriented toward racial justice and racial equity, which see in the complicated legacy of American democracy a reason to be pessimistic about the utility of democracy as a just and sustainable political system.
In this context, Luke Bretherton’s contribution becomes a welcome agitation. Grassroots organizers—especially those of us who work within the faith community—must get clearer about the aims of our organizing, the role of democratic politics in achieving those aims, and the consequences for the prevailing forms of democracy in the world today. Helpfully, Bretherton distinguishes between democracy as a system of governance and democratic politics as a political endeavor, a distinction that allows for criticism of Western democratic systems while firing up the political imagination. Democracy may not be a given but neither is its dismissal, and Christ and the Common Life reassures us that politics rooted in democratic ideals offers the potential to serve not just civic and social flourishing, but religious and theological ends as well.
This potential comes through clearly in the text, and in doing so highlights and gives language to multiple realities currently unfurling in my organization and in the field of faith-based organizing. For one, developing the skills and insights to meaningfully navigate plurality has become a central feature of organizing in an era when oppositional power is now traced back not to an obstinate county sheriff or over-stepping local business entity, but to the vast corporate and political interests that conspire to maintain global supremacist power structures. Our allies and partners are no longer just our neighbors inside four square miles. They are all people who experience oppression and marginalization—especially the kinds promulgated by the West—anywhere in the world.
This may be a remarkable development in the concept of solidarity, but it also leads to painful and digressive clashes within the justice movement as awareness builds that an overarching unifying experience or analysis—no matter how high the stakes—cannot smooth away power differentials that persist even where there is broad ideological and political alignment. Consider, for example, the disruption inside the social justice community over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Or consider a very different but related conundrum: what does “loyalty to the collective struggle”—to borrow Tommie Shelby’s quote from the chapter on Black Power—mean to the black women organizers who find themselves systematically disenfranchised and exploited by their allies, funders, and leaders in the movement? The “Jacuzzi of modern life” that Bretherton describes bubbles up far more than belief and unbelief: ethnic, racial, and religious allegiances all surface to contend for our spiritual and social identity (249). The shift into religious and racial/ethnic plurality in progressive faith-based organizing has brought with it not only theological squabbles and misunderstandings, but an as-yet-unfolding internal reckoning with the impact of racialized religious power on specific marginalized peoples (i.e., racial, gender, and sexual communities, as well as particular ethnic and national identities—the Cherokee nation, for example) even as these same communities/peoples seek to align against a global supremacist power (el pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!). The means by which this patchwork coalition holds itself together is messy and plagued by power clashes that pit traditional instincts for hegemony and self-preservation against an emerging understanding of relational, liberatory power practices. These clashes sorely test the resolve of community organizers and political strategists.
Consequently, I think Bretherton could say more about the practice of power—as a tool of oppression and means of liberation—in the forming of a common life. There is still much work to be done to reconcile how gendered and racialized oppression create power and energy imbalances that disrupt democratic politics. On a related note, I worry that Bretherton does not adequately grapple with the costs of organizing on those who engage in it from marginalized communities (refer to my comment about black women organizers, above). The idea that “through acting in concert, the weak can resist the unilateral actions of money power and state power to establish goods in common” (448) does not account for the amount of effort and the cost to oppressed communities to organize and win against money power and state power. This is a toll that needs to be reckoned with theologically, socially, economically, psychologically, physiologically, etc.
To this end, the “impatient endurance” virtue that Bretherton identifies in his chapter on toleration with hospitality (269) stands out as a potential offering to the narratives of healing and spiritual resilience that are currently sustaining justice-minded organizing communities. The work of building a common life inevitably begins in the past, as organizers, clergy, and leaders attempt to redress the past to enable a different future. Often lost in this process is the means by which we make sense of our location in the present. “Impatient endurance” offers a useful conceptual framework for how to occupy the present in order to usher in a better shared future, though I would be interested to know if and how this concept resonates with the growing community of “movement chaplains” who—with public awareness of the personal cost to activists and organizers growing—seek to bring a healing and resilience sensibility to the work of community organizing.
The emphasis on the present and the process by which we form a common life may shed some light on that profusion of white picket fences at the meeting in Baltimore. My initial disappointment was not only with how boring the results turned out to be, but what they revealed about how colonized our notions of the Mountaintop have become: The traditional American family home is undoubtedly a symbol of prosperity, well-being, and security, but it is also designed around the concept of a singular, defined family unit, usually isolated from other members of their own extended family and meaningful nonfamilial relationships. The white picket fence is charming and quaint, on one level signifying the achievement of the American dream. But fences also circumscribe land, cutting it up into pieces and reducing our natural resources to property that can be claimed. And fences easily become borders, literally dividing us from each other. Bretherton’s chapters on class and economy were helpful for understanding the contrast between these legacies of our inherited American ideal and the rich economic and social alternatives that “the commons” might provide.
I suspect, informed now by Bretherton’s argument regarding the task of democracy for Christians, that the fault was not with our representative room of participants but with the prompt we provided, which bypassed any acknowledgment of our role as faith-based organizers in the penultimate endeavor of politics that Bretherton articulates, and flung us headlong into the eschaton itself. A more grounded approach would have been to ask the room to imagine what, from our faith-based perspective, needs to be different about our democracy. This question, I believe, would have generated a broad and fascinating range of responses and opinions and meaningfully contributed to the work of creating a sustainable democracy.
I am grateful to Luke Bretherton for this timely and relevant political theology, which is much needed in the grassroots organizing world as we grapple on the ground with the same fears, hurts, and pessimism that afflicts our society today.
The Pentecostal Incredible in Nigeria
Luke Bretherton has made a solid, incisive case for democracy as a key concept and veritable vision under Christian political theology. He brings together democracy (that affirms plurality and distinct identities and traditions) and Christian theology under the rubric of what he calls a common-life framework, which is a methodology, a form of discipline, and a vision for life in Christ (54). “The common-life framework is distinct from either identity politics or multicultural approaches because recognition and respect are not given simply by dint of having a different culture or identity; recognition is conditional upon contributing to and participating in shared, reciprocal, common work” (455).
The book is crafted as a discursive site of multiple voices, some sort of a complex diptych painting with several hinges and panels. In its deep structure it conveys the sense of an African-Cubist artwork. “The deliberately stitched-together character of the book reflects something of the kind of creatures we are, namely the sort who must find ways of coming to and making shared judgments if common action is to be possible” (7). Indeed, the book is constituted as fundamentally polyphonic, dialogical, and unfinalizable in the Bakhtinian sense.1 The cubist methodology of the book is integrally related to or is summoned by his fundamental understanding of politics as human endeavor to create “a common world of meaning for human flourishing, a world where actions and relations are possible despite manifold differences” (36; see also 6, 12). He draws from diverse schools of thought and Christian traditions to weave a story of how Christianity forms, norms and sustains a common life.
Part of the intellectual achievement of this book is rendering political theology more understandable for everyday Christians. For the theological academy, it even does something greater by shifting the focus of the discipline of political theology away from the rarefied and provincial frameworks of most Western scholars’ staples of “usual suspects.” He avoids the “sin” of most political theologians and political philosophers in the Western academy who egregiously only legitimize forms of knowledge coming from their narrow enclaves and marginalize others to the benefit of Western hegemony or (unconscious) white supremacy (27). His book in over 460 pages relentlessly shows us what kind of scholarship or politics can generate a common life as against a sociality dominated by a few powerful interests or groups. His brilliant scholarship, on display in this book, his deliberate choice of interlocutors, and his astute selection of spheres of social life for analysis are a demonstration of what the common life in Christ looks like in theologizing. The ethos of the common life he advocates in the world of concrete lived experiences is the ethos of the abstract book-world of his scholarship. Bretherton opens things up to multiple voices not as a politically correct ploy, but as a genuine and rigorous engagement with others.
Indeed, the core achievement of the book is to contest the received meaning of political theology and to successfully launch an expanded, inclusive, accessible—yet rigorous—definition and meaning of Christian political theology. In this way, Bretherton’s book generates a richer sense of what political theology is and the good that it can do toward advancing human flourishing.
Does this all mean that Bretherton’s political theology is without place? We can locate it in a historical space and time. His work is sustained by a depth of Western reality and as such it is not a decontextualized appearance of political theology. Not by any stretch of imagination will anyone argue that his political theology fully coincides with the real being of Christian political theology. Bretherton is beholden to Western social sciences and philosophy in a very hereditary, reproductive, and extensional way. Western scholarship in these fields are too orientated to order, how to create order and sustain order. Now there is nothing fatally flawed with this orientation to academic inquiry. My only concern is that it often takes our eyes away from the irruptions and disruptions that are part of every order, from the disorders that sustain orders, and from places and peoples who have only perpetual disorder, ruptures, and fragility to contend with 24/7 as their form of common life. This concern compels me to make not only a geographic shift, but also a parallax shift from his analytical focus. His book is an attempt to describe, analyze how the order of common life in Europe and America can be sustained or understood in the light of Christian theology. My interest in this essay is to make sense of the disorder that is the common life in Africa and explore how to understand it in the light of Pentecostal Christian experiences.
Trinity of Disordering Powers
Instead of talking about Christ and the common life, let us talk about Christ and the chaosmosic life. Is Christ only God of the cosmos (common life, organized life) or is he also Lord of the life at the verge of chaos and cosmos? Please note that I am not championing disorder as the locus classicus of political theology, but aiming to draw our attention to places in the world where theology cannot proceed from the presupposition of preexisting order which needs to be Christically transformed. I only want us to think with those who live in disordered situations, which are the order and command of their precarious life-worlds. I am also not here to celebrate those radical theologians and philosophers who live in ordered, manicured societies and dream of exploding their inherited order of being and privileges to initiate something new. I am thinking of radical thoughts, new ways of relating Christ to the common life in societies that are already uprooted and always uprooting—radical in the old sense of life, a lifeworld whose roots are upended. I am thinking of infusing Christian political theology with the kind of radical energy that will upend its theorized foundations.
This is why I want to take Bretherton’s thought to places in Africa where chaosmos reigns rather than order, to sites where his theology is put at risk and all theologies that take order for granted are vulnerable to a merciless becoming that never comes, to intersections where we might pretend to map out order where incipient order and chaos intersect and riff off each other. To begin to flesh all this out, let me turn to a colorful Nigerian politician who was gifted rhetorically. I am going to riff off on late Kenneth O. Mbadiwe’s enigmatic saying, “When the come comes to become and we all come to close combat, we shall come out.”2 How do we think or what do we do when existing order has been unraveled, only perpetually becoming such that things are constantly falling apart and no center can hold? The option is to come out and give fight to secure a place to stand amid turmoil and to think of possible deep transformation. When there is no preexisting order and all decisions have to be based on the actor’s (or concert of actors’) own abyssal freedom for which he or she has to take full responsibility, then thinking of common life in Christ as the fundamental basis of political theology becomes very tricky. I struggled to fit Bretherton’s book to the rupturous, disjunctive process philosophy of Mbadiwe’s statement, which profoundly urges us to think political philosophy at sites where worlds come undone, at sites of perpetual uncertainty, where we must always put a fight of Wolinesque “politicalness” just to survive, just to create workable, livable order. Indeed, Bretherton’s book does not take us far enough into “the tears, blood and shit that ground and suffuse . . . political orders” (28) so as to reach the spaces where tears, blood, shit, and death is the order itself. At these necropolitical sites, common life looks vastly different. Let me parse Mbadiwe’s statement to give a sense of what this vastly different common looks like or demands from those of us from Africa. I will say that when the common comes to be-common and we all come to close to death, we shall cast out. This bizarre be-common, the common that is ever coming, that is perennially becoming but always deformed enough not to come to form, is connected with the trinity of governance-as-trauma, the Postcolonial Incredible, and the Pentecostal Incredible. This connection must be cast out of social life to make space for meaningful common life in Christ.
Governance-as-trauma is the ground, the common indeed, of Christian life in Nigeria. Governance, just like the daily existential condition, is an incredible phenomenon, a situation of perpetual crisis, crisis-as-norm.3 Governance in Nigeria is a state of government autosuspension. Government is in force only in the form of its absence, nonpresence, suspension. Governance is a civil war within the body politic, holding the people into a life consecrated to death. Governance is a source of traumatic events or as the prime unyielding traumatic event on Nigerians. This trauma is not a result of a single event of magnitude and horror, but relentless micro daily events that produce anxiety related to the potential for shattering cessation of existence quite possibly from sudden devastating illness, increased poverty, terror, vulgarity of power, or death. This is daily, constant, ongoing exposure to heightened vulnerability to disable or terminate physical, psychic, or social lives. The vulnerability, contingent, dispersed, all-pervading can suddenly become materialized absolute disaster “anytime, anywhere, by any means, and for any reason.”4
Pentecostal Christianity in the country is a struggle to survive the perpetual trauma of national political governance. Caught in this agonistic struggle, Pentecostalism has become part of what the Nigerian scholar, Tejumola Olaniyan calls the postcolonial incredible. “The incredible is not simply a breach but an outlandish infraction of ‘normality’ and its limits.”5 I will transform Olaniyan’s Postcolonial Incredible into the pentecostal incredible. There are many Pentecostals—certainly not all of Nigerian Pentecostals—who claim to have direct insight into God’s mind with the idea that this divinity demands critical resistance to today’s society’s knowledge systems and habitus. This God they believe often asks his followers to perform psychotic-delirious actions to prove their faith. The pentecostal incredible is not simply a breach but an outlandish infraction of “reason” and Christian “normativity” and their limits. If the postcolonial incredible is the reality of the everyday actual existence of Pentecostals, then the pentecostal incredible is the “abstract” spectral logic of Nigerian Pentecostals that determines their interpretation, engagement/confrontation with, and adaptation to the postcolonial incredible.
One of the ways Pentecostals perform the postcolonial incredible is the enactment of an epistemological guide to everyday life, which is formulaically stated as, “It does not make sense, but it makes spirit.” They take decisions that might not make sense to you and me, but they are explained away with this formula. In this way they are able to “explain” the unexplainable or affirm what a preexisting community fund of knowledge, justificatory system, and cultural logic will not accept. This seems a yielding to the loss of meaningful rationality or intelligibility, provoked by the daily assaults from governance-as-trauma.
Jesus and the Common Life and the Pentecostal Incredible
Let me conclude by stating that I know that Bretherton wrote his book for communities in North America and Europe. But I want to examine the applicability of its ideas to the Nigerian situation I have described. The great solution that Bretherton’s scintillating book suggest for Nigeria amid the triumvirate of governance-as-trauma, the postcolonial incredible, and the pentecostal incredible is the combination of the virtue of tolerance and efficient administration and coordination of interests, all as undergirded by a Christian commitment to democracy. Alas, something does not quite fit. Democracy is not big enough; there just ain’t enough material in it, in the Western capitalo-parliamentary size-five democratic dress to fit the Nigerian body of size twenty.6 It is emancipatory politics that can only provide the ample material to sew a dress that will cover the nakedness of the current extensive necropolitical “democratic” flesh of Nigeria. Alas, Bretherton’s book evades discussing emancipation, political struggle, armed revolutionary struggle to overturn a ruling, oppressive class. Can the common life in Christ not be engendered by emancipatory violence (divine violence as per Walter Benjamin)? The reader may be bristling at this question.
I agree with her that this question is a wrong one to ask because it is not within the purview of the book. At the heart of the book is a conception of politics as a problem of intolerance and quest for human flourishing, not the problem of the absence of the egalitarian logic in the distribution of places and roles, fundamental wrong and capitalist exploitation, and the relevant quest for human flourishing. To think politics in the way Bretherton has done is to engage in culturalization of political theology; political theology as a theorization of harmonious living into different ways of life. We need to a politicization of political theology; that is, political theology as a theorization of emancipatory politics.7 What Nigeria needs today is a political theology that is “creatively destructive and constructive.” At the dimension of the creative destruction it must accent the politics of emancipation (rupture, radical politics of equalitarianism) as new foundation for human flourishing. At the dimension of construction, it must show us what kind of radical social ethics can prepare the citizenry to disrupt the transfer of fragility from capitalist markets and other devastating social forces to them and make themselves antifragile.8
Christian political theology needs the ethics of antifragility. Antifragility is not the opposite of fragility; it goes beyond resilience or robustness. A fragile system breaks under stress, disorders, or volatility. An antifragile system not only withstands shocks, stress, disorder, uncertainty, and volatility, but also benefits from them. The ethics of antifragility is about developing the capability in the citizenry to resist the fragility of socio-economic life imposed upon them, even as they learn to deploy their resistance toward their own human flourishing. The combined weight of governance-as-trauma, postcolonial incredible, and pentecostal incredible has rendered the life and livelihood of ordinary citizens fragile. Nigeria needs a political theology that can demonstrate how ordinary citizens can build an antifragile social ethics capable of resisting these triune powers and promoting freedom and human flourishing. The good news is that Nigerian Christians, after years of relentless bombardments by the triumvirate of powers, have fashioned out in pragmatic terms just such a political theology.9 How else do you think they have been surviving the bombardments?
What we need now are scholars to investigate and properly articulate it, theologize their experiences. This is a task suitable to only those who can craft a political theology within the framework of disruptive grace, virtue as irruptive actualization of human potentialities, and unfinishable commons.10 Among other things, this will be a theology that seriously considers the possibility of the impossible in the way life hangs together in the common. Those Christians living in abyss of governance-as-trauma requires an impossible theology that can conceptualize a common that allows human creativity and freedom to manifest, disrupts hierarchical distribution of places, and makes spaces for persons to creatively resist obstacles to human flourishing. We need to liberate political theology from its excessive concern with order and good citizenry to serve as a liberatory principle for interrogating all extant social organizations in the name of a better future. This will be a nice way to appropriate the Bakhtinian unfinalizability of Bretherton’s political theology.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxxiv.↩
Emmanuel Obiechina, A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 79.↩
See Nimi Wariboko, Ethics and Society: Identity, History, and Political Theory (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2019), 73–97.↩
Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 13.↩
Tejumola Olaniyan, Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 2.↩
Here I am making an allusion to Delores S. Williams, “The Color of Feminism or Speaking the Black Woman Tongue,” in Feminist Theological Ethics: A Reader, ed. Lois K. Daly (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 42–58.↩
Slavoj Žižek, Violence, 140.↩
See Nimi Wariboko, Economics in Spirit and Truth: A Moral Philosophy of Finance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), for detailed explanation of this ethics.↩
This is not to say that the version they have worked out is exactly benefiting them; nonetheless it is a starting point for academic study.↩
Nimi Wariboko, The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 3–4, 25–26, 151–54; and Wariboko, Economics in Spirit and Truth, xvi, 166.↩
Political Theology as Vocation
In 1969, Sheldon Wolin called for political theory to recover its voice and purpose. His seminal essay “Political Theory as Vocation” noted a turn toward “methodism,” his term for data analysis and what purported to be scientific knowledge.1 This emphasis on technique meant, according to Wolin, that political theory was no longer able to address—or even perceive—root problems and provide imaginative and creative solutions to civic questions. Technical approaches to political analysis and focus on method, Wolin suggested, had limited the kinds of questions political theorists were asking and, as a result, diminished their capacities to offer visionary and prescriptive ways to broaden and deepen democracy. Method had superseded theory, and as a result political theory had cut itself off from what had been its lifeblood, “summarized as cultural resources and itemized as metaphysics, faith, historical sensibility, or more, broadly, as tacit knowledge” (1074). Wolin asserted that political theory was a vocation: this calling was academic, but more importantly it was a call to civic life. He championed “the tacit political knowledge which is so vital to making judgments, not only judgments about the adequacy and value of theories and methods, but about the nature and perplexities of politics as well” (1069). A political theorist’s vocation is to draw from the best cultural and intellectual sources to give an account of public life that can provide hope and resources for better living.
Wolin was especially concerned with intellectual history and in this essay—and much of his other work—he appealed to historical sources. He did not employ ideas and vocabulary from the ancients through to his contemporary period as mere antecedents (e.g., Aristotle was the first behaviorist); rather he studied ancient, medieval, and modern theorists’ accounts of political dilemmas to help him better understand and analyze contemporary political crises. Indeed, the history of political theory shows that for millennia theorists were informed by what Wolin called “public concern”: they were interested and invested in the civic health of their communities. They were not principally concerned with being correct or winning an ideological contest, but rather they worked for their communities to be more whole, for there to be more flourishing for more people.
I was reminded of Wolin’s essay because Bretherton appeals to Wolin’s conviction in local politics, in the possibilities of people engaging in multiple publics. But more than this, Bretherton evinces Wolin’s urgency that his discipline has an important contribution to make: Christ and the Common Culture is political theology as vocation. Whereas Wolin bemoans methodism as undermining the civic-generating potential of political theory, Bretherton does not conjure an ism against which he argues. And yet just as Wolin calls political theorists to task, so does Bretherton seem to grab political theologians by the lapels to insist they do work that is constructive, dialogical, and attentive to many different moral, theological, and political sources. Like Wolin, Bretherton imagines his academic discipline as having something important to say about and to contribute to “forging a good or flourishing life” (17). Like Wolin, Bretherton believes something is at stake in imagining new ways of being together that are also and necessarily realistic about asymmetries of power. Like Wolin, Bretherton wants to nourish creativity and playfulness, as he notices the interconnectedness of human beings and the created world.
The book itself, more than 450 pages, has the breadth of topics and depth of analysis to serve as an excellent account of “political theology.” Part 1 describes different approaches to address suffering and injustice (e.g., humanitarianism, Black Power, Catholic Social Teaching, among others). Part 2 outlines challenges that corrode common life over time (e.g., class, secularism, toleration, among others). Part 3 proposes “concepts for thinking about democracy as a means for generating patterns of common life characterized by mutual flourishing” (e.g., humanity, economics, and democratic politics, among others) (11). There is much to say about each section, indeed about each chapter, but I’ll underscore that throughout Bretherton communicates a compelling anthropology, premised on interdependence and mutual care. Humans are political animals, “whose temporal and eschatological fulfillment requires the formation of a common life” (26). And we are not alone. In one of my favorite sentences, Bretherton describes how “lung-like, the church breathes the works of the Spirit within any given spatiotemporal order, thereby oxygenating the work of being human” (389).
The form of the book is essential to the argument—it is inherently pedagogical, carefully defining terms, repeating key phrases such as “with these people, in this time, in this place,” in a way that equips a reader with a rich, and yet realistically circumscribed, sense of her field of action. He repeatedly calls for listening as key to cultivating conditions for common life. And his book models it. He draws from actually diverse sources and thinks with a range of authors (across eras, geographies, and methods). Bretherton’s analysis is careful and specific, but he does not rely on easy distinctions. For example, he avoids setting up binaries (e.g., traditional/radical; conservative/progressive; Western/decolonial), for “too often they are reductive attempts to stabilize and simplify what are inherently dynamic and often paradoxical relations” (27). In so doing, Christ and the Common Life demonstrates new ways of being in conversation that are not merely polemical or defending ideological terrain. Rather the book exemplifies constructive work: it is a consociational book.
Throughout Bretherton calls attention to asymmetries of power that demand acknowledgment, analysis, and collective efforts to overcome. He contends that “all political formations and structures are provisional and tend toward oppression,” yet he is not defeatist (193; 389). On the contrary, he reminds us that “theologically, friend-enemy relations ought to be relativized, but cannot be wholly superseded, at least not until Jesus returns” (40).
The book’s affirmation of moral community struck a rhetorical chord in this reader. Bretherton’s constructive tone invited me to think with him. I admit that too often when I read I bring my “what abouts” with me. In this case, I read with a series of questions for the author that are not challenges about what he missed. Rather, I am curious to hear more so that he can help me think through concerns in my own work. Three examples relate to questions about children as political actors, motherwork in light of labor and class, and spiritual practices to foster listening.
In research about 1950s campaigns to integrate and reform New York City public schools, I’ve come across examples of middle school students petitioning and protesting for safer school buildings and better trained teachers. These children articulated striking accounts of moral agency, vulnerability, and struggle (I underscore “children,” because these middle schoolers were importantly younger than late teens who have been recently organizing in Chicago and suburban Miami against gun violence). Children are one-third of humanity, yet they rarely feature in conversations about “forming a people.” When Bretherton calls “the negotiation of a common life through shared speech and action by a board cross-section of an entire polity,” I am curious about whether and how he imagines children as interdependent agents in our common life—how kids are part of the polity (404).
To help me analyze children and parents’ activism in midcentury school protests, I have been thinking with sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of motherwork, which describes efforts that go beyond ensuring the survival of one’s biological children and one’s chosen family.2 For racial ethnic women, mothering as motherwork “recognizes that individual survival, empowerment, and identity require group survival, empowerment, and identity” (47). Economically elite white women like me presume, and dominant culture all but guarantees, the physical survival of our children. Hill Collins attests that while my two white children “can be prepared to fight racial oppression, their survival does not depend on gaining these skills. Their racial identity is validated by their schools, the media, and other social institutions” (57). I am interested in the kind of work that rarely counts as labor (in terms of labor vs. capital, communion and class), but that entails most of the work of our common life, including cooking, cleaning, and caretaking of sick, elderly, and children. For women of color this includes advocating that their children have teachers and textbooks that affirm their humanity. As Bretherton points to bell hooks’s work as a model for “holistic vision of change,” I wonder what resources political theologians have to make phenomena like motherwork even more visible and therefore accountable (225, 203).
Underscoring both these issues—paying attention to children’s moral agency and to motherwork—is what Bretherton recognizes as “the challenge [of] how to listen to those who are without an archive and increase the range of figures who count as doing political theology” (27). I hope that other political theologians consider what kinds of contemplative practices will cultivate our capacities to listen as Bretherton does, and so to communicate given our differences (not in spite of them). Christ and the Common Life can be an invitation for political theologians to heed the call for actions and practices that move political theology in the direction of a practical political theology. As we do, we will be living into political theology as vocation, that can include “telling stories, creating rituals, imagining other possibilities” so that we may live and work together in the shared work of justice, of building a common life.
Sheldon Wolin, “Political Theory as Vocation,” American Political Science Review 63.4 (1969) 1062–82.↩
Patricia Hill Collins, “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, ed. Evelyn Nanko Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (New York: Routledge, 1994), 45–66.↩
11.4.19 | Luke Bretherton
The Political Agency of Children and Motherwork: A Response to Sarah Azaransky
It is an enormous delight to respond to Sarah Azaransky, whose work I greatly admire. That she locates Christ and the Common Life in direct relation to Sheldon Wolin’s account of the nature and purpose of political theory demonstrates her usual perspicuity. Although not explicit in the book, his work is a key inspiration, and his account of an agonistic and populist democracy informs my own constructive account of democratic politics. Azaransky is exactly right that my conception of political theology parallels his conception of political theory as contributing to the formation of judgments attuned to the “nature and perplexities of politics.”
Provoked by the book, Azaransky invites me to consider a compelling a set of concerns around the political status of children and the role of “motherwork” in democratic politics. Both relate to fundamental questions about what does and does not count as political and who is counted as having political agency. As concerns they present the challenge of how, on the one hand, to resist defining what is political over and against what is deemed private or prepolitical, without, on the other, falling into the equal and opposite trap of rendering everything political, thereby making nothing distinctive of politics. As a way of charting a pathway through the horns of this dilemma, I will explore here the proposition that children may at times act politically but not all acts of children are political.
The division between public and private is central to liberalism, while that between what is prepolitical and political is arguably one central to civic republicanism. Rather than view these distinctions in positive terms, feminist political thought points to how what is marked private or prepolitical is thereby depoliticized. When consigned to the private realm women and children do not appear in public and so lack voice, or rights, or political status. Those whose lives and bodies are judged private can be acted upon but never act in public, so are vulnerable to exploitation. Likewise, those aspects of life—sexuality, gender, etc.—judged prepolitical are thereby rendered nonnegotiable or simply don’t appear as subjects of public concern.
Conversely, as black feminists and womanists contend, there is a parallel but distinct problem of one’s very existence being denigrated, so that how one exists socially is inherently rendered a political act; for example, even how you wear your hair or dress is seen as seditious. One’s way of being in the world becomes a political struggle, but the struggle is to restore to oneself and others the freedom for much of one’s life to be simply social again—one can walk down the street without the fear of being arrested for being black—or to create enclaves where one is free to be social without being harassed, surveilled, criminalized, or brutalized on the basis of one’s skin color. This is the struggle Patricia Hill Collins invokes in her conception of “motherwork” in the essay Azaransky cites. As Hill Collins points out, for racialized ethnic mothers and their children, there is often no dichotomized existence between a public and private sphere; work and family life are interwoven. Moreover, it is the struggle of the group for power and autonomy rather than the individual that is a primary concern.1 In a different vein, also instructive is Danielle Allen’s critique of Hannah Arendt’s argument that children should be sheltered from the public sphere, which Arendt developed in response to the role of children in the desegregation of schools at Little Rock.2
In short, given the limitations of rigid distinctions between public and private, we should expect that neither childhood nor motherwork are a solely private or prepolitical matter and that both can be sites of political struggle depending on one’s institutional and structural location. I will unpack this statement further through examining the various ways in which childhood in particular can be a political matter. Let me note at the outset that I am folding adolescence into childhood, while recognizing that as a transitional period between childhood and adulthood, adolescence is a necessarily contested and ambiguous season that exists on the penumbra of full citizenship.
Childhood is a social phenomenon that is constructed through an array of social norms, institutions, and practices—parenting, schooling, diet, games, healthcare, etc.—that are also shaped in part by structural locations of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class. Changes to conventional norms, institutions, and practices through which childhood is assembled often drive societal change and so become sites of political negotiation as they inherently relate to the good of the whole and to broader conceptions of human flourishing. In other words, childhood is not a private matter. But saying this in no way necessitates seeing children themselves as possessing political agency.
Part of the Western construction of childhood that reflects a broader way of conceptualizing social and political life is the notion that children have rights. Saying children have rights makes childhood a public matter, but again, that does not necessarily enfranchise children. While the rights of children are enshrined in the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the document does not necessitate seeing children as political agents.3 The rights-based discourse it draws on depends on an anthropology that emphasizes self-reflexive rational autonomy as the criteria for political agency. Such a framework must necessarily see children as prepolitical or private, as they are either prerational or dependent. John Rawls exemplifies such a view.4 This kind of anthropology is more often than not combined with a reduction of democracy to the formal institutions and processes of a liberal constitutional order: voting, parties, division of powers, etc. But a relational anthropology opens the way to a very different conceptualization of the political status of children, especially one that moves beyond a dialogic and intersubjective framework (think Buber’s account of I-Thou relations) to the kind of anthropology I work with in the book, whereby we are constituted through a meshwork of relations with human, nonhuman, and divine ways of being alive, along with material and nonmaterial forces. In such a view, agency is not indexed to either autonomy or rationality. Rather, humans are always already enmeshed in a series of interdependent relations that enable or disable different kinds of purposeful human political, social, and economic agency. When such an anthropology is combined with a view of democracy as about negotiating a common life and solving shared problems then children can be seen as exercising political agency in certain situations or institutional configurations (the school, the home, the skate park, etc.). The distinction to work with is not then between public and private or between political and prepolitical, but between political and social. And here we may desire that children can be free to enjoy a social life untroubled by political struggles, but given that the social is always latently political, it may happen at times that children, even elementary school children, become political agents as part of a fight for the ability to enjoy certain public and common goods they are being denied: e.g., decent education, housing, or somewhere to play.
A relational, meshwork anthropology also allows for attention to how children practice “intramural” forms of small “p” politics among themselves that can and do feed into wider patterns of social and political life. They cultivate or fail to cultivate a common life in schoolyards, malls, and increasingly online, and this common life both refracts and feeds into other forms of life together in which children are enmeshed. What comes into view in such an account is how children are not simply subjects of governmentality in (say) schools, or wholly subject to processes of cultural reproduction. Children can exercise agency within systems and institutions and produce their own culture (e.g., children’s games, rhymes, songs, jokes, etc.) and their own spirituality. As per the work of Ada María Isasi-Diaz that I discuss in the book, this quotidian, ordinary and everyday life can become a ground of political reflection and agency—although this is probably more likely between adolescence than younger children.
Children are not simply future citizens but are already active agents in the production of forms of social and political life that contribute to the wider meshwork of life together. But does such a view demand we see children as fully-fledged political agents who must have a say in issues that directly affect them: i.e., nothing about them without them? I think we can reject a view of children as prepolitical or private without then having to see their agency as equivalent to or the same as that of adults. But this raises the vexed question of how to conceive patterns of social authority. Unpopular as it is to say so, surviving and thriving necessarily has need, at times, of hierarchies of social authority—even if these are contingent in form and vary enormously across cultures. Examples include the doctor-patient, teacher-student, master-apprentice, and of course, parent-child relation. While necessitating a certain vulnerability that makes them always open to abuse, and fraught with misapplication by false analogy (e.g., paternalism and patriarchy), such structures are essential to the material conditions and formation in the kinds of practical reasoning through which we come to judgments about what to do and how to do it. The problem of making children of equal authority to parents (or adults in general) is that it undermines the very structures and material conditions through which children gain access to and formation within that which makes parity possible given the inherent asymmetries of agency. The parallel is saying students or patients are of equal authority to teachers or doctors: while students and patients should have agency, making them of equal authority inhibits learning and access to health. That said, such structures of authority are rightly always under renegotiation and contestation and need means of accountability: something is wrong and oppressive in the parent-child relationship when a teenager is treated the same as an eight-year-old. Or when the treatment prescribed leads to addiction yet is prescribed anyway.
One fruit of an array of hierarchies of social authority—when they are functioning in just and loving ways—is that children have the freedom just to be children. But this then begs the question of what we think the meaning and purpose of childhood is—which in addition to being a theological and philosophical question is also in part a political question. Part of what is at stake here is the specifically modern way childhood came to be understood as a domain divorced from the world of work and economic production (even as childhood increasingly became a key site of consumption). This is not to say childhood is a solely modern phenomenon—Nicholas Orme’s wonderful book on medieval children makes that clear—but there are specifically modern constructions of childhood.5 The ways modern childhood is separated from the world of work is the fruit of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but also of the struggles to free children from industrial labor: i.e., children did not have to work plantation fields, or be sent down the mines or up chimneys. The freedom of all children—not just those of the elite—to be nonproductive members of a household is an ongoing political struggle that at times involves children.
Alongside the ongoing need to free children from the Moloch-like grip of capitalist modes of production, there is a need to uphold the freedom of children to enjoy the common good of childhood over and against their conscription into various state-driven ideological programs. As exemplified in Soviet, Fascist, and Maoist regimes and that of the Khmer Rouge, state- and party-driven deployments of children as agents of revolutionary change were part of a wider politicization of every area of life within totalitarian systems, and the destruction of social life through making it wholly subject to state or party imperatives.
We may not live in a totalitarian system, but one way childhood is politicized problematically in contemporary Western societies is through its romanticization and instrumentalization as a site of innocence to hold the adult world accountable. (One could interpret the reception of Greta Thunberg in this way.) Here children are no longer members of a shared body politic. Instead, they become an “other” or a collective identity, or, at worst, enemies deployed to shrive the adult world for their sins. On my account, childhood should be characterized as both part of and a distinct experience within a shared realm of meaning and action that helps constitute the body politic. But for this to be possible, the political and economic conditions necessary for the good of a childhood—e.g., clean air to breathe, roads that are safe to cross, not being shot at, food that will not poison you, parks to play in, schools that teach rather than act as a pipeline to prison—must be secured through politics. As part of creating the conditions that ensure our common life is a realm of mutual flourishing, children (particularly adolescents) can become mobilized. But their mobilization cannot be required or expected of them (as it can say of mothers) and like adults, they should never be exploited and instrumentalized as tools of social control. Nevertheless, while the condition of being a child should not have to entail politics, if it does, then this is not always a deformation of politics. Rather, it can reflect a deformation of society when childhood is, of necessity, a realm of political struggle. This contrasts with motherhood, which on the logic Patricia Hill Collins’s argument, always entails a certain political obligation. I would also point to the work of Jane Addams and her emphasis on the political obligations entailed by motherhood in democratic societies.6
If the freedom to enjoy childhood as a common good requires resistance to certain political and economic forces “from above,” it can also entail resistance to forces “from below.” Hill Collins conception of motherwork is directly relevant here, as is bell hooks’s conception of “homeplace,” and Iris Marion Young’s argument for a positive, feminist valuation of home as a site for the “materialization of identity” and “homemaking” as a means of building and preserving the kinds of meaning vital to generating agency, sustaining dignity and fostering resistance.7
Extending these arguments, I contend that under certain conditions the home becomes a site of formation in a form of political subjectivity to fit children for the ability to enjoy some measure of childhood in a world that refuses to recognize them as persons either capable of or in need of simply being children. They are harassed by one set of forces as putative criminals or delinquents (e.g., by the police), and by another as recruits for gangs or sex workers. Both are refusals of childhood, while the latter exploits the condition of childhood for brutal ends.
This is a rather longwinded way of saying we should put people before programs and, yes, the kids are part of the polity. But the focus on how to conceive the political agency of children also lays out more directly some of the logic of my underlying position. I am very grateful to Azaransky for the provocation to do so.
Patricia Hill Collins, “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood,” in Mothering: Ideology, Experience, and Agency, ed. Evelyn Nanko Glenn, Grace Chang, and Linda Rennie Forcey (New York: Routledge, 1994), 45–65.↩
Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 25–36.↩
It comes to be interpreted in this way so that the 2005 United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child states that “children, including the very youngest children, [are to] be respected as persons in their own right,” thereby implying that children have a right to be heard and take an active part in matters concerning them.↩
See, for example, John Rawls’s discussion of children in A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1999), 405–11.↩
Nicholas Orme, Medieval Children (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).↩
See in particular her Democracy and Social Ethics (1902), and the “Utilization of Women in City Government,” in Newer Ideals of Peace (London: MacMillan, 1907), 180–208.↩
As hooks puts it: