“What role should the dead play in our politics?” (1) This is the provocative question Kyle Lambelet poses at the beginning of ¡Presente! Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead. In fact it is but the first of many provocative questions raised by Lambelet’s book. Does “messianism” have a legitimate place in politics? Can religious liturgy be a form of protest? Are the primary reasons for practicing nonviolence strategic, moral, or necessarily both? Does belief in a “higher law,” or the resurrection of the dead, change the nature of “practical reason”? Over the course of ¡Presente!, Lambelet insightfully engages all of these questions, and many others besides. Yet underlying them all remains the book’s first, and final, question. What role should the dead play in our politics? And what difference does it make to take that question seriously?
For Lambelet, this is no idle theoretical inquiry. To the contrary, it is a question that arises from praxis, and specifically, from the praxis of the social movement on which his book focuses, the School of the Americas Watch (“SOA Watch” for short). A transnational, nonviolent protest movement that originated on the Catholic Left, the SOA Watch first arose in response to the assassination of six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeon Cañas (UCA) in El Salvador on November 16, 1989. Among those killed was the university’s rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, a leading figure in Latin American liberation theology who was known internationally for his defense of the “crucified people” of El Salvador. Like Archbishop Óscar Romero before them, Ellacuría and the other UCA Jesuits were murdered by elite troops operating under the authority of the Salvadoran military government; for their stand against the “structures of death” sustained by the regime, they were marked for death themselves. To many Christians throughout the Americas, those slain at the UCA were not merely victims, but martyrs, prophetic Christian witnesses whose very deaths testified to the reality of the sinful structures they had criticized, while also pointing to something beyond them. The martyrs, though dead, were still ¡presente! As such, they actively called upon the living to take up their cause, and continue their witness.
The following year, in response to this call of the dead, the SOA Watch was born. By then, investigations by transnational Catholic activists and US journalists had revealed that the troops who killed the UCA martyrs, and the officers who authorized them, had been trained at the US Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), which had recently relocated from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia.1 In fact, it emerged, the same school had trained many of the Latin American military leaders who perpetrated human rights atrocities across the region during the 1970s and ’80s. To call public attention to the SOA and the complicity of the US government in Latin American death, Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois and nine others began a multiday hunger strike on Labor Day. Subsequently, on November 16, 1990, the anniversary of the UCA massacre, Bourgeois and two companions staged a prayer vigil and direct action protest on the SOA campus itself. After installing a white cross with the names and photographs of the UCA martyrs, they proceeded to enter the SOA building and pour blood from the UCA crime scene, mixed with their own, upon the School’s “Hall of Fame.”
Thereafter, this small yet dramatic act of protest grew into a massive annual event. Every year, near the anniversary of the UCA massacre, people from around the country—first tens, then hundreds, then thousands, and eventually tens of thousands—would gather at the SOA campus to participate in a prayer vigil to commemorate the martyred dead of Latin America, to affirm them as “¡presente!,” and to protest the ongoing role of the US government in abetting Latin American violence. For many of these participants, a large number of whom were young Catholics, attending the vigil was a moment of political awakening, a formative first encounter with a kind of “politics” unlike anything they had witnessed before. To some, it was also an experience suffused with theological meaning, one that made palpable, as little else had, the reality of “a communion that transcends death” (xii). Lambelet himself, who first attended the SOA Watch vigil in 2005, had an experience of this kind. It was sufficiently powerful to move him to dedicate more than a decade to understanding just what it was he and thousands of others had participated in, and unpacking its larger implications.
¡Presente! is the fruit of his labor. It is also a work of precisely the kind of theology Ignacio Ellacuría and his fellow liberation theologians modeled: a theoretically rigorous, yet faithfully engaged, reflection on praxis. As such, Lambelet’s argument advances in several directions at once. In one direction, through a careful analysis of the SOA Watch’s actual praxis, Lambelet is able to show up the inadequacy of the prevailing theoretical paradigms that might otherwise be used to interpret it. Drawing on anthropologist Michael Burawoy, Lambelet himself frames his work as an ethnographically informed “extended case study,” which uses “the empirics of the case of the SOA Watch to disrupt and challenge the theory developed by both political theologians and analysts of strategic nonviolence” (15). In particular, Lambelet challenges the tendency of recent academic scholarship on nonviolent practice to focus only on its strategic dimensions while excluding its moral and theological ones; as he demonstrates convincingly, in the “practical reasoning” of the SOA Watch, strategic reasoning, ethical reasoning, and theological reflection are thickly intertwined. Analogously, Lambelet criticizes ecclesiocentric approaches to political theology like William Cavanaugh’s, which fail to attend to the dynamic interpenetration of “church” and “world,” or liturgy and practical reason. Simultaneously, however, Lambelet also draws on his theoretical interlocutors to examine, assess, and at times critique the praxis of the SOA Watch itself. And through the dialogue he effects between theory and practice, Lambelet in turn develops his own constructive responses to the questions animating his study. Building upon Ellacuría’s theology of the “crucified people,” he argues for a nonviolent, messianic politics of radical hope that takes seriously “the agency of the dead” and the “action of God irrupting in history” (174).
In this symposium, a diverse group of interlocutors take up the questions raised by Lambelet’s work and pose some new questions of their own. Sociologist Ruth Braunstein opens the symposium with a response that focuses on the workings of “discernment” in the SOA Watch movement. Inviting Lambelet to expand upon his account in the book, Braunstein inquires about the variations he observed in the movement’s exercise of practical reasoning. She also asks Lambelet to go further in articulating his own ethical framework. Specifically, she wonders, how would he evaluate movements whose practices resemble those of SOA Watch in some ways, yet whose political goals stand opposed to it? Ethicist Aaron Stauffer, in the symposium’s next exchange, pursues questions that complement Braunstein’s. In particular, Stauffer asks, how does Lambelet understand the normative relationship between liturgy and practical reason, and between ecclesial and political practice? Moreover, Stauffer continues, does Lambelet’s account give adequate attention to the role of power dynamics within the movement, and how those dynamics might inform, or deform, its practical reasoning? Both responses afford Lambelet an opportunity to further develop his account of practical reason and its relationship to the call of the dead.
Next, in a third response, historical theologian Catherine Osborne engages Lambelet’s work from the vantage point of the “Catholic Left” and the SOA Watch’s relationship to it. As one of countless Catholic college students first exposed to the Catholic Left by the SOA Watch’s annual vigil, Osborne reflects on the impact the movement had on her and others like her. She also highlights the relevance of developments and conflicts internal to the American Catholic Church for understanding the SOA Watch. Both Osborne and Lambelet, in his reply, consider whether the movement’s nonviolent praxis might have relevance for addressing injustices within the church itself.
Lambelet’s contribution to the study of nonviolence, meanwhile, is the focus of Selina Gallo-Cruz’s response. Gallo-Cruz, herself a sociologist and scholar of the SOA Watch movement, fully supports Lambelet’s challenge to the “conceptual divorce of pragmatic and philosophical nonviolence.” At the same time, she has further questions for Lambelet about what the alternative might look like, both within academic scholarship and within the future work of the SOA Watch itself. Drawing on feminist and liberation theology, Gallo-Cruz also calls for further reflection on the nature of “agency” and “obedience,” for living and dead, within the movement—a task Lambelet takes up in his reply.
Gallo-Cruz’s concluding theological questions set the stage for the symposium’s final exchange between Lambelet and Michael Lee, a liberation theologian and leading scholar of Ellacuría. While concurring with Lambelet’s critical assessment of ecclesiocentric political theologies, Lee also seeks to complicate his way of framing the field, and raises the question of whether, in moving away from its Catholic roots (and its annual vigil at Fort Benning) in recent years, the SOA Watch may not have sacrificed something important. Encouraging Lambelet to go even further in his appropriation of Ellacuría, Lee points toward the martyred theologian’s work on prophecy and utopia as a further resource for his messianic political theology. He and Lambelet conclude by returning us to where we began, with the dead and their importance for the politics of the living. For Lee as for Lambelet, Ellacuría and the other UCA martyrs are still very much ¡presente! To what are they calling the movement they inspired, and indeed all of us, today?
The School of the Americas was located at Fort Gulick, in the Panama Canal Zone, from 1949 until 1984, when its Panama campus was closed. It was reopened in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1985 (29).↩
Church, Power, and Liturgy in the ¡Presente! Litany
¡Presente! Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead offers a politics of memory enlivened by messianism. Lambelet’s intervention in the field of strategic nonviolence is to correct an eclipse of ethics by focusing on the role of practical reason within the School of the Americas (SOA) Watch movement and the messianic political theology that motivates some of its participants. At the core of Lambelet’s argument lies a particular understanding of the relationship between religion and politics and that particular relationship is captured in Lambelet’s reading of the ¡presente! litany central to the movement’s praxis. One could imagine Lambelet’s book as a two-step argument: first, demonstrate how the ¡presente! litany is a liturgical protest that underdetermines the political work to come; then, show how the SOA Watch engages in practical reason based on the obligations of solidarity to the living and dead anamnestically present in the litany. Lambelet claims that what we have in the SOA Watch movement is “practical reasoning under a messianic sign” (172). Messianism, liturgy, and practical reason are “inextricably bound” together in this political theology (173).
The term “liturgical protest” is “an appositive phrase,” Lambelet says, “where each term in the description conditions the other” (34). His account is meant to correct the “radical orthodoxy” of William Cavanaugh, whose own political theological account of the relationship between ecclesial practices and politics Lambelet deems too “unidirectional:” for Cavanaugh, the origin of the practice (in the Church) is all that matters and practices that originate in the Church of themselves “outperform” other practices (36). Lambelet also responds to those scholars like Melissa Snarr who express concern about the “instrumentalization” of church practices for political ends (38–39). Such scholars worry that worship, when misdirected and used as an instrument for other ends, loses its true gift and meaning, becoming idolatrous, while politics, in turn, becomes deformed. In response, Lambelet sounds a note of caution: such worries, like Cavanaugh’s “unidirectional” account, tend to occlude the dialectical relationship between religion and politics in liturgical actions like the litany.
By contrast, for Lambelet, the ¡presente! litany is both theology and protest in action, simultaneously communicative, formative, and invocational. The liturgy conditions the politics and the politics conditions the liturgy. On the one hand, the litany has a touch and feel that is liturgical, using icons and puppets, including clergy and crosses, and harmonizing participants’ bodies and voices. In fact, Lambelet explains, it is “principally an act of worship, [a] locatio[n] of encounter where humans respond to the saving action of God” (38). Worship in Lambelet’s account is always a response to God’s action. The anamnestic memory (“remembering again,” 54n64) of those who died at the violence of the US military complex and the trust in their abiding presence is made possible by God’s first action of resurrecting Jesus from the dead (181). On the other hand, the (W)ord offered and the call for response from the people in the litany include distinctly political content: the dead make demands on participants, calling them to political action (38–39). Nevertheless, Lambelet emphasizes, “the messianic obligations that follow from the presence of the dead underdetermine the concomitant political actions” (11). God’s resurrecting of the dead honored in the litany makes new political actions possible, but the litany itself does not determine those actions.
This political messianism at play in “liturgical protest,” as Lambelet understands it, exceeds the simpler nomenclature of “ecclesial practice.” To call the ¡presente! litany an ecclesial practice would be to say too little about its “formative, invocational power” (34). By framing it as a liturgical protest, Lambelet wants to highlight the “transmigration between world and church, and church and world” (35) in the litany without reducing it either to mere liturgy or mere politics. The term “liturgical protest” helps hold the dialectical tension between liturgy and liberation (37).
If my account of Lambelet’s interpretation of the litany is accurate, a few questions occur. First, what is the role and nature of the church in the litany? Lambelet doesn’t say much about the church qua church in his account of liturgical protest—an odd silence, really, since what conditions SOA Watch politics is itself a practice of the church, namely, liturgy. Lambelet’s construct of “liturgical protest” highlights the dialectical relation of religion and politics as it occurs in the litany. But one could argue that our more commonplace ecclesial practices are already “political” and consist often of mundane practices that occur in our political life, too: forms of conversing (petitioning, beseeching, demanding), reading, eating, and singing, say. The litany is a mezcla of histories, movements, and contexts, Lambelet tells us—but so are ecclesial practices in general, as diverse human responses to God’s grace. In addition, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, our political traditions are already religious. Things are, as sociologist of religion Courtney Bender has aptly put it, more “entangled” than we’d like to admit. My point here is that by calling the litany a liturgical protest, Lambelet singles it out from other liturgical practices, yet—so far as I can tell—doesn’t situate the litany in relationship to the church or other ecclesial practices, or the political dimension they already possess. I couldn’t agree more with Lambelet’s critique of Cavanaugh and the other scholars who worry about instrumentalization, but I’d like to hear him reflect a bit more on the nature and role of the church in relationship to the litany. Getting clarity here would also help clarify the relationship of the litany as a liturgical protest to other church practices.
Second, what is the status of liturgy in relation to other ritual practices employed by SOA Watch? In particular, does liturgy bear some normative authority over against the movement’s “secular” practices? Another way of putting this question is: does the liturgy have the normative power to change the norms that guide other practices? As Vincent Lloyd has shown, some liturgical theologians derive the liturgy’s normative authority from its theologically privileged place as a defining practice of the church. Lambelet is duly clear on the mezcla nature of the litany, but he doesn’t explore how the liturgical aspects of the litany might relate to its other ritualistic but non-specifically ecclesial aspects. Presumably, since the litany does theological work, the liturgy does have some normative authority, but I’m left wondering what that authority amounts to, what its source is, and how it bears on other rituals present in the movement’s praxis.
This question on the normative authority of the liturgy raises a third question on the dynamics of power present in the litany. Broadly, Lambelet avoids critiquing how the litany itself goes awry as a form of worship. I don’t know enough about the litany to make the claim that it in fact does go awry, but the point is a more basic one: worship practices, as human responses to God’s grace, are still human actions, and so have the potential to be misdirected and twisted to our sinful ends. Lambelet, however, doesn’t raise this matter. My concern is not only the potential human deformation of God’s gifts but also political efficaciousness. The litany is crucial to understanding Lambelet’s larger argument regarding religion and politics in the SOA Watch. A deformation of the liturgy would also have ramifications for the practical reasoning at play in the political work that follows. Or, at the very least, Lambelet could address how the SOA Watch monitors and staves off such deformations of the liturgy, which would, in turn, require an analysis of power in the litany.
My third question on power in the litany raises the question of how power plays out in Lambelet’s account of practical reason. What is the status of the non-Christian agent in the litany and in the practice of reasoning in the SOA Watch’s political messianism? For Lambelet, practical reason is fundamentally a thinking and intellectual matter (6). He does nod to an alternative tradition that takes up questions of practical reason along with questions of power. Citing Bourdieu (but not, say, Hegel or Dewey), he quickly moves past the connection between social practices and practical reasoning, saying, “But even taking Bourdieu’s insights that practical reason is not a speculative enterprise but one that is formed through habit and power I think the classical definition of practical reason as a form of thinking is worth retaining. People who act often, but by no means always, think about and justify their actions with principles in mind” (6, emphasis in original). But the social practical account of practical reasoning is not opposed to thinking and principles; what this tradition asserts is that an agent’s reasoning is itself a social process. Let me expand upon this statement a bit—a statement that I don’t think Lambelet is wholly opposed to but which his account of practical reason underplays. The ramifications for a power analysis within practical reason will be clear shortly.
Practical reasoning as a social practice means that the values, principles, and norms that guide the practice are shared and are based in shared assumptions, patterns of behavior, and goods internal and external to the practice itself. Often, social practices become part of broader cultural institutions, which can work to cultivate the goods internal to a practice, thereby fostering and cultivating virtues that serve to realize the internal goods. Here, social structures are collections of practices. Habit and intentionality can and do go together in this account, where reasoning takes place in time and makes possible the critique of our practices based on normative analysis of that very practice. Our social practices, the institutions that hold them, and the very practice of practical reasoning are not naturally immune from criticism. A Christian practice may be racist, misogynistic, or dominating of the vulnerable, and so we can critique such a practice on its own Christian terms and norms of justice and love. The claim that theology and liturgy are socially constructed is a welcome one in this account. Theology and the liturgy are fundamentally human responses to God’s action and so liable to the sin of being twisted and deformed into dominating practices. Yet, as human responses they are also open to virtuous and right worship and praxis.
The social practical approach to practical reasoning, theology, and liturgy balances agential intentionality with habit and social identity and helps to carry forward a power analysis of the life of group and its internal structure and external boundary-making. Lambelet hints at what this sort of power analysis in the litany might look like in his account on pages 142–43, when he examines the justification given by some in the movement for which dead are honored as “martyrs” (therefore worthy of emulation) and which are honored as “heroes” (honored but not emulated) in the litany. It does seem to me that various figures in the litany are privileged or excluded due to their ecclesial role and religious identity; others due to their political identity. Take as an additional example the experience of the Jewish participant who was relegated to “crowd control” when she said she preferred to not carry a cross (35). Or, how the principle of nonviolence is used to “discipline the vigilers” (71) and as a tool to remove participants from the vigil if they find themselves unwilling to abide by the “Statement of Nonviolent Discipline” (70–17; 83–84). All groups require some boundary-making and degree of hierarchy, but the Jewish participant’s experience and the role of nonviolence unveil power dynamics within the litany and in the social practice of practical reasoning that goes on in the SOA Watch. Are Christian reasons normative in SOA Watch politics? Paying attention to power dynamics helps us to better understand various member’s roles and experience in the group—as the SOA Watch forms, disciplines, and communicates the collective identity of its participants (38).
A social practical account of practical reasoning positions agential intentionality within larger practices and social structures. Normative criticism and revision of such practices is possible within certain limits and such revision is inevitably a question of power with one’s fellow practitioners. Lambelet could argue that the litany is a Christian practice, after all, and so those who don’t identify as Christian rightly would not feel comfortable taking up particular positions in the litany. But this point leads me back to my earlier questions: it takes for granted that the Christian identity and Christian norms within the SOA Watch are dominant in regard to other religious identities and norms, suggests that practitioners are aware of right practice within the litany, and therefore, deformation of the practice (my third question). If the liturgy is a normative authority in SOA Watch’s movement praxis (my second question), then we could provide theological reasons for the exclusion of the Jewish participant. But this would also require some broader comments on the role of the church in the religiously and politically pluralist litany (my first question).
I raise these questions because I sense that Lambelet has answers ready. And, even considering my questions, Lambelet has given us a book that is quite a gift. Lambelet has deftly navigated some tricky waters in the fields of political theology and peace studies and he has courageously put forward a thesis that forces us to contend with the relationship between theology, liturgy, and politics in our social movements. I’m indebted to him for writing such a wonderful book—it has challenged my own work in ways that few other books can because few other books tread these waters. This is so because few authors have spent the time in organizing circles that allow them to ask the right sort of questions. Lambelet has done all of this. And for that, I’m thankful. I look forward to Lambelet engaging my questions and continuing to learn from him and from others in this symposium.
¡Presente! and Catholic Protest
I am not going to try to pretend that I didn’t read Kyle Lambelet’s generous and challenging new book on the School of the Americas Watch and its annual vigil (1990–2016) at Fort Benning through my own deeply personal lens. Researching the ’60s and ’70s, I have occasionally interviewed someone who was realizing that their youth was “history.” Lambelet’s book gave me my first own taste of this experience, bringing back vivid memories of my brief encounter with SOA Watch as a college sophomore in November 1998. I’d worked as a receptionist the previous summer and the phone rarely rang, so I’d spent the better part of three months alternately trying to dial in to my email account to see what my college friends were doing, and reading my first serious adult books about the civil rights movement and the theory of nonviolent protest. When my friend Ben, who unlike me had actually paid attention to his leftist Catholic upbringing, announced that October that he wanted to go to Georgia to join a big protest against US training of Latin American military officers, I was in. I had only the dimmest understanding of the scope and nature of the problem—I don’t remember ever having heard of Oscar Romero until Ben named one of the three vans we ultimately borrowed from the college after him—but I was up for the adventure. After classes ended on Friday afternoon we loaded up boxes of dining hall food and jars of peanut butter, then drove all night to arrive in Columbus, Georgia, Saturday morning. After a day of meeting people and nonviolence training and staying up half the night again, on Sunday morning we attended what was at that point the largest liturgy/protest yet. (On p. 67, Lambelet says seven thousand people were there.) Many of us “crossed the line,” but that year ultimately everyone except the recidivists who’d taken riskier actions involving coffins and blood were loaded onto buses, driven off the base, and released. After a couple more hours of celebrating, we hopped into the vans again, arriving back in Pennsylvania in time for Monday morning class.
I tell this story because it explains why my first reading of Lambelet’s work focused so intensely on its discussions of liturgical formation, the subjects of chapters 2 and 5. (OK, technically 5 is about the process of developing moral exemplars, but since this involves making, disseminating, and using what Lambelet nicely terms “technologies of iconography” , often in and through ritual, I think it counts.) The ritual evolved at Fort Benning drew on multiple sources, as Lambelet explains, but has clear antecedents in centuries-long traditions of pilgrimage; ritual cross- and candle-bearing processions outside the church (for sanctifying, exorcism, funerary, and other relevant purposes); and the litany of the saints, which invokes the holy dead as honored members of the community, summoning them into the space where the prayer is chanted to take their place in the assembly. In other words, the annual SOA Watch protest spoke in the ritual grammar of Roman Catholicism. This clearly made for an at-best deeply awkward set of encounters as the protest’s participants expanded; I winced when Roy Bourgeois told a Jewish activist who didn’t feel comfortable carrying a cross in the procession that the main role available to her was “peacemaker”—i.e., crowd control.1 But for me, then much more unfamiliar than I should have been with how the Catholic left had long drawn on its own theological and liturgical tradition to pursue radical change, the event was a revelation. And judging by the reaction of students I have since had at four different colleges to their introduction to this tradition, it would have been a revelation to most of the other students who attended too, including those far more attached to a Catholic identity than I was at age twenty.
Therefore, I want to add a small twist to what Lambelet writes about the SOA vigil as a “movement halfway house” (46). Although I wasn’t at a Catholic college, in many ways I closely resembled the students Lambelet discusses, who were meant to be “formed in movement identity” by the annual vigil at Fort Benning. And I resembled them, too, in their lack of subsequent commitment to the cause—of the tens of thousands of college students who went to Georgia during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I expect the vast majority, like me, never returned after graduation, and this raises one of Lambelet’s central questions: that of the role of “effectiveness.” He asks who is being formed—but also how it is that we can judge the effectiveness of protests and of rituals like the SOA vigil. One of Lambelet’s interlocutors therefore dismisses the one-time-protestor college students as, more or less, tourists, and he’s—obviously!—not wrong. But in one of Lambelet’s most productive moves, he points out, gently, that we perhaps should “consider effectiveness in a humbler way” because “the effect of our actions is often quite beyond the scope of our limited human agency” (42). This is due, in part, to what he calls “the instability of divine action in the liturgy itself” (40)—not because of God’s instability but because of ours. I find this point consoling, but also highly accurate. We can so rarely know what will happen in response to the choices we make. Indisputably, hardly any of the college students who trekked to Georgia became long-term SOA activists. But how many, like me, found the experience formative enough to change their lives in other ways? I mark that trip, made more or less on a whim, as a key moment in my re-conversion to Catholicism, the opening of a long path that ultimately saw me get a graduate degree in theology and teach students about nonviolence and politics for several years; enter a relationship with a Catholic Worker community; and undertake a variety of other projects. Others made more profound long-term commitments, becoming justice-focused lawyers or members of intentional communities, though I don’t know to what extent they would credit their SOA vigil experience. But even, I would venture, if the trip did nothing for many students but suggest that Catholic “life values” might extend beyond opposition to abortion—dayenu. To me, then, that it is a welcome intervention when Lambelet describes the SOA liturgy/litany/ritual as “good in a partial, piecemeal way” (49). This is a helpfully realistic standard, suggesting that we might incorporate justified criticism without defensiveness, acknowledge failings and failures and live with them, and acknowledge the inbreaking of the reign of God even as we lament loss, violence, and our own inadequacy.
My second highly personal engagement with Lambelet’s book sends me back nearly fifty years from the present moment, three decades from the day in 1998 when I climbed off a van in Georgia, to an incident I came to know through my research on Catholic thinking on space and place in the 1960s. As I was reading about the communicative, formative, and worship functions of the SOA liturgy at Fort Benning (37–38), I recalled that on January 22, 1967, a group of men and women rose to their feet during the 10 a.m. mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and held up signs protesting the Vietnam War. They were joined by picketers outside; both groups were there in response to Cardinal Spellman’s recent visit to support the troops in Vietnam. Spellman, not exactly another Oscar Romero, was Apostolic Vicar for the United States Armed Forces concurrently with his day job as Archbishop of New York, and had said, among other things, that the soldiers were “holy crusaders” fighting “Christ’s war against the Vietcong.” But while the protestors outside were a relatively familiar sight, those inside were doing something new, something that remained wildly controversial even as the tactic was reused nationally over the next several years as Black Power activists requested reparations from churches of all denominations, and then again in the 1980s as AIDS activists disrupted mass at St. Patrick’s once more.2 Given their histories and other commitments, core SOA activists of the 1990–2000 era were undoubtedly aware of these incidents. All involved Catholics and others employing their intimate knowledge of Catholicism to call the Catholic Church to account for its participation in structures of sin, and specifically for its complicity in death, whether of Vietnamese civilians, black Americans, or gay men. All directly shared Lambelet’s critique of William Cavanaugh’s assertion that the correct directionality of ecclesial liturgies is to “begin in the church and move outward into the street” (36); they insisted, in fact, that the protest rituals of “the street” ought to be employed “in the church.”
So here, then, I want to raise a topic that was largely absent from the book: internal Catholic Church dynamics. The (very powerful) strand of Roman Catholicism that not only did not join SOA Watch, but actively opposed the efforts of the Central American Solidarity Movement from within the Reagan White House and, simultaneously and relatedly, opposed liberation theology from within John Paul II’s Vatican, is little in evidence in Lambelet’s writing.3 I think the only time intra-Catholic dynamics really came into view was the brief discussion of the official separation between SOA Watch and the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which may or may not have been influenced by Roy Bourgeois’s decision to openly support the work of Roman Catholic Womenpriests (eventually resulting in his 2012 laicization), but in any case certainly represented a divergence of tactics and style between wings of the Catholic left, as Lambelet points out. But other events internal to the Catholic Church were brewing during the years Lambelet considers that go unmentioned. I’m thinking here of the Vatican’s investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (2008–15), in part because of their support of liberationist enterprises like SOA Watch. I’m also thinking, of course, of the other event that changed everything around the time of the September 11 attacks—the Boston Globe’s Spotlight report on clerical sexual abuse. September 11 gets a lot of play in the book as an event that totally changed the terms on which SOA Watch and the US military alike engaged. But I found myself wondering whether the abuse crisis, which has never really died down in the intervening twenty years (although it occasionally is out of the news for a year or three) might have affected SOA Watch’s “Catholic” character, and how. Did it continue to loosen ties to the institutional church? Or were those ties already strained beyond the breaking point by decades of tension between activist priests and nuns, their superiors, and/or their bishops? In a more ethical key, what are our responsibilities to an ecclesial body that forms us, supports us, but which also is deeply sinful and which often rejects us? And, if SOA Watch’s liturgy was directed against the US government and its patronal clients in Latin America, to what extent was it (or should it have been) directed against the church that had long supported that power structure? If it was good to go to Fort Benning, and also good to go to the border, to protest US Latin America policy, should SOA Watch also have crashed St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, and chanted the “presente!” litany before the altar, mirroring the Vietnam-era actions I mentioned above? I ask this barrage of questions not in a spirit of criticism—for this isn’t a book about ecclesiology, much less internal Catholic dynamics—but rather as, I hope, an opportunity for Lambelet to comment on an issue that wouldn’t necessarily have fit well into the trajectory of the argument he made.
This has become a long response and yet I’ve barely raised some of the most important issues the book deals with so beautifully: the role of the dead in politics, for example, and the brief but insightful discussion of how nonviolent activists navigate their relationship to “the law” in a Pauline key, regardless of their ecclesial affiliation. In fact, as I read back over what I’ve written, I’m realizing it’s a surprisingly un-theological response for a book that is so concerned to invoke the register of the messianic, and that invokes a ritual moment that so shaped my own theological commitments and convictions! I’ve also pretty much left out one of the key questions I thought I might ask in the early stages of reading: how much of this analysis might be applicable to the presence of the dead in the rituals and politics of the Black Lives Matter movement? With full awareness of everything I’m not addressing, then, I’m really grateful to be writing, here, not a review but a response, and looking forward to seeing others in the group address the many compelling facets of this beautiful book.
The benefits and issues associated with pluralistic growth are dealt with largely in chapter 3, which I’m otherwise ignoring in this reflection but which is insightful, especially about the role of nonviolence in pluralistic “communities of resistance.” I will just add briefly that I’m interested by Lambelet’s identification of 1999 and the “Battle of Seattle” as the beginning of the substantial movement of secular, or at least not Catholic, justice activists into the annual protest. I made my own second and last trip to Fort Benning as a college senior in November 2000, and noted what I read then as a diffusion of focus—I remember signs for many different causes and not just those related to the SOA, Latin America, or pacifism. I don’t know enough to know if that meant the absolute number of Catholics was already dropping, or if they were just joined by enough “others” that year to make a visible difference.↩
On the Vietnam demonstration and the Black Manifesto protests, see Catherine R. Osborne, American Catholics and the Church of Tomorrow (University of Chicago Press, 2018), 178–81; on AIDS activists and liturgical protest see Anthony Petro, After the Wrath of God: AIDS, Sexuality, and American Religion (Oxford University Press, 2015), 137–84.↩
On the 1970s–80s conflict over US foreign policy in Latin America as an intra-Catholic battle see Theresa Keeley, Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America (Cornell University Press, 2020).↩
“On Obedience and Outcome”
In ¡Presente! Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead, Kyle Lambelet performs a brilliant exegesis of the liturgical practices and meanings that infuse the longest-running protest movement against US military training in Latin America. Mimicking the musical meter of the call-and-response prayers of the renowned Sunday vigil formerly held each November at the gates of Fort Benning, Lambelet’s illuminating study moves us from Christian doctrine through pluralist engagement and ecumenical embodiment, from theological devotions to pragmatic strategies for action, and from martyrdom to transcendence. Lambelet challenges us to reconsider the potential generated in protest that carries the authority of the dead as he guides us through a historical reflection on the ways it has already affected the countless activists that have made pilgrimage to close the US Army School of the Americas.
Like Lambelet, I am also a former participant-observer of the phenomenal convergence of movements that once called the annual gathering at Ft. Benning their home. Reading ¡Presente! brought back poignant memories of the resonant emotion that wells up inside of you when you are walking among thousands, carrying the names of people who lost their lives at the hands of US Army-trained soldiers, affirming their continued presence in your life. But Lambelet’s critical exploration offers much more than feeling bridged to an intellectual understanding of movement and ritual. He leads us through a scrupulous exposition of the meaning of obedience and devotion in a messianic movement committed to nonviolent resistance, while opening a conversation about the possibility of merging both history and the afterlife into contemporary protest strategies for action.
Lambelet argues convincingly that the litany of the funeral march’s repetitive affirmations runs deeper into the somatic experiences of its participants than empty traditions. These vigil prayers do foster Durkheimian effervescence and create the social and cognitive glue that lends strength to collective action—and still, the imprint these gatherings transfer onto participants often runs deeper than the general feeling of a crowd experience. Sociologists tend to overgeneralize about the nature of such occurrences. Lambelet cautions us that this particular experience merits special attention to its authentically unique historical and cultural formulation. The vigil prayers, he tells us, carry us beyond the present, invoking the agency of the dead. Lambelet describes this as “a proleptic theological claim . . . that the dead are raised with Christ” (39), going on to explain how this claim fosters a “solidarity between the living and the dead” that makes imperative the “practical reasoning” (77) of actions at the gate and beyond, reasoning Lambelet traces from diverse deliberative considerations through patterned forms of committed nonviolent action.
I find Lambelet’s challenge to the now common conceptual divorce of pragmatic and philosophical nonviolence thrilling, in the way one who has long watched their academic peers marveling at a naked emperor’s clothes might feel when someone else finally calls out the nudity. I believe, as Lambelet argues, that “on their own account, morals are operative” and “without an adequate description of the ethical dynamics of the politics of nonviolent action, we cannot constructively engage the processes that lead to social change” (80). Rather than simply cataloging the famous “crossing of the line” that occurred each year when protesters broke trespassing laws to step over onto base property as merely another tactic of civil disobedience or nonviolent intervention, Lambelet vividly illustrates how this action reverberates on the movement’s collective consciousness, shifting understandings about the relationships between participants and the military institution, between victims and soldiers, between activists and those propelling ongoing militarization. In my own reading of case study after case study of nonviolent movements that emphasize strategy and tactics and take an avowed amoral stance on ethics, I find that an implicit embrace of morals and ethics is still easily found in any movement’s full history, even and especially those cases described by who caution against such subjective orientations. I have joined feminist critics of the Sharpian pragmatist approach, and of the male gaze of political research more generally, cautioning against the blanket assumption that all peoples gather with the same “definition of the situation” or for the same value-driven objectives, pointing out how this conceptual elision “writes out” a significant part of the story.1 More recently, Marcie Smith has provided an in-depth critical sociology of knowledge of the origins of now common rational choice theories in nonviolent studies that take a de jure agnostic approach to moral analysis of movements while forwarding a de facto neoliberalism in analytical objectives and purported findings.2 A close look at the assumptions underlying the most salient theories of the field reveals that meanings and morals do matter, significantly so, and are disregarded by scholarship at the risk of presenting skewed results. This is one reason I think the field demands greater diversity in its thinking and I am appreciative of Lambelet’s conceptual contribution on this front. In response, I’d like to pose a series of questions, from my vantage point as a sociologist, a scholar of nonviolent studies, and a feminist.
As a sociologist ever in search of the comparable qualities of patterns that carry over from one unique case to another, I want to invite Lambelet to take us a step further in applying this insight. To that end, let me address a question directly to the author. When you reexamine some of the studies of nonviolent action that have followed the reductive strategic narrative of the dominant paradigm, where and how could those missing ethics be brought back into the story? With the movement to close the School of the Americas, it is easier to maintain a holistic vision, as so many participants are professed religious pilgrims or on an openly spiritual journey. Show us how we can maintain this understanding in movements where this is not so. When you apply your perspective to thinking about movements otherwise presented as purely tactical, what “operation[s] of moral reasoning at work” (81) demand our attention?
Following this line of thinking, I want to raise another question that centers around the discussion of strategic and tactical outcomes. There are several points of strategic genius documented here that substantiate Lambelet’s praise of the tactical infused with intentionality of moral discernment. These include the shifting of the boundaries of what is seen on the frontstage of US political theater, by the movement’s pulling back the curtain to expose the backstage arena of US operations in Latin America (with the institution staking its definitive limits—when I visited the National Security Archive I was immediately told that the notorious “torture manuals” are still classified and will remain so for decades to come). In many movements that involve this boundary shifting, exposing private abuses in public, the exposure brings immediate castigation and delegitimation. It often sparks meaningful change, whether through the embrace of victimized communities in spaces of solidarity and love or in initiatives to bring justice to the perpetrators. But in my own research on the movement, I found that the institution and its allies at the Department of Defense were deft in discursively co-opting the language and professed values of the movement and then in “reinventing” the school to be protest-resistant on these grounds. With the movement having remained at a standstill in its effort to close the school down, I wonder how Lambelet weighs the work of raising consciousness and shifting it against the structures of political economy keeping the school in place. Hence a second set of questions for the author: If you were to produce a public strategic consultation statement for the movement as it contemplates its next steps, where do you see the biggest obstacles yet to transforming US relations with Latin America? What is the best-case scenario and how could we get there with or perhaps without the messianic politics of the movement?
On the topic of obedience to higher law, I especially enjoyed reading about the different lines of testimony where defendants articulated their devotion to the Nuremberg principles, the US Constitution, the Bible, and human rights as above the superficial commitments of the laws governing trespassing over the fence of the military base. I find Lambelet’s summary of the mobilizing functions of these appeals invaluable to understanding the tangible effects of spiritual devotion to higher laws: situating lower laws as relative to broader cultural contexts, strengthening fidelity to higher moral orders, and facilitating the development of new, creative opportunities for legal justice (123).
Nevertheless, I do not feel clear about how the concept of obedience is to be understood. I personally struggle to accept obedience as a complete explanation for high-risk activism while also giving space to the purported agency of the dead in solidarity with the living in a way that supersedes individualist notions of justice and advocacy (as Lambelet asks his readers to do). I appreciate Lambelet’s skillful placement of this messianic movement as one that is atypical among other messianic movements, describing the movement’s navigation beyond quietism and violence. As Lambelet insists, these activists avoid the typical “illicit behavior on the one hand [and] a creeping code fetishism on the other” (112). To the contrary, Lambelet expounds, they embrace messianism both to anchor their activism in the authority of God’s promise of eternal salvation and love and to find guidance from spiritual tradition and reflective prayer and practice. In effect, their actions are at once “communicative as well as disruptive, at times transgressing legal strictures to display the moral passion of participants and the injustice of legal systems” (104). But I still wonder how the agency of both the living and the dead relates to the activists’ obedience in responding to the call of Christ in movement. Neoinstitutional theorists have long problematized the very concept of agency, taking a hard stance that as social beings we are bound by the scripts that define our social worlds (even as we create and re-create those scripts). Here arises, therefore, my third set of questions for the author: Are you arguing that our agency is bound to the choices of whichever moral system we obey—that of the world of profit and violence or that of Christian charity and universal human rights? Or is the Christianity of anti-SOA activists itself open to social construction, made anew by their unique historical interventions that add to the ongoing narrative of the living gospel?
My last set of queries is perhaps related but is inspired by looking through the lens of feminist ethics and practice, especially as Lambelet mentions the work of Barbara Deming as formative to a nonviolence that is deeply integrative of means and ends (78). I would note Deming’s emphasis that in a balanced form of nonviolent conflict, no one side would be “the other,” and that women especially must be cognizant of preserving the righteous anger of feminism as they include themselves in the vision of liberation they fight for. Given that, I wonder how the author might enlist the insights of Deming or perhaps other feminists as they engage more directly with theological statements that explore the differences of sacrificial love on the one hand, and reciprocal, mutual love and righteous love on the other.3 This could help better discern what the movement to close the SOA adds to our understanding of messianism as manifest in our relationships with self and other. Lambelet explains that he “believe[s] the politics of sacrifice can be used without falling into the trap of valorizing suffering by universalizing the obligation to sacrifice” (162). Further, I found myself extrapolating and reframing in his descriptions of activist testimony a resistance to certain sacrifices among the many observations of activism they shared with him—his empirical work shows how activists refuse to sacrifice truth or living truthfully, as he describes their play on civil disobedience as showing deference and obedience to a higher law. On this note, I pose the following questions to the author. Would it be fair to assess that this movement evolves or adds a new voice to Christian understandings of obedience that balances loyalty to self and other? In the conjuring of the agency of the dead, what dimensions of the spiritual self are awakened from their dormancy within the activists’ own selves? Are the dead also raising the living who protest on their behalf to find new voices, agency, and empowered citizenship in envisioning and creating a better world? (Perhaps the movement to ordain women represents one example.) Would a feminist lens enhance the perspective of the historical soteriology of crucifixion of which Ellacuría wrote (chapter 6) and if so, would it alter the ways we understand authority and obedience? Another dimension of this question might be, Where and how do we locate our own crucifixion that correspondingly defines the resurrection to follow (in this movement and in our social justice work more broadly)? For many women, arguably, this has been done in ways quite differently than men. Pilar Aquino, for example, writes extensively of women’s unique human experience of finding liberation from patriarchy through their faith.4 How can we understand suffering and liberation for privileged North Americans who intently and expressly protest in solidarity with those who have suffered much more under a legacy of colonization, imperialism, and violence, and can we rectify these disparate but crossing paths of injustice and resistance, power and inequality to find mutuality and reciprocity in a shared striving for resurrection and liberation?
Cynthia Cockburn, The Space Between Us: Negotiating Gender and National Identities in Conflict (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998); Catia C. Confortini, “Galtung, Violence, and Gender: The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance,” Peace and Change 31.3 (July 2006) 333–67; Selina Gallo-Cruz, “More Powerful Forces? Women, Nonviolence, and Mobilization,” Sociology Compass 10.9 (September 2016) 823–35; Selina Gallo-Cruz, “American Mothers of Nonviolence: Action and the Politics of Erasure in Women’s Nonviolent Activism,” in 100 Years of the Nineteenth Amendment: An Appraisal of US Women’s Activism, ed. Holly J. McCammon and Lee Ann Banaszak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); Selina Gallo-Cruz, Political Invisibility and Mobilization: Women against State Violence in Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Liberia (London: Routledge, 2020); Kate McGuinness, “Gene Sharp’s Theory of Power: A Feminist Critique of Consent,” Journal of Peace Research 30.1 (1993) 101–15.↩
Marcie Smith, “Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence,” part 1, nonsite.org, issue 28 (May 10, 2019), https://nonsite.org/change-agent-gene-sharps-neoliberal-nonviolence-part-one/; Marcie Smith, “Change Agent: Gene Sharp’s Neoliberal Nonviolence,” part 2, nonsite.org, issue 30 (December 29, 2019), https://nonsite.org/change-agent-gene-sharps-neoliberal-nonviolence-part-two/.↩
For example, M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010); Christine E. Gudorf, “Parenting, Mutual Love, and Sacrifice,” in Women’s Consciousness, Women’s Conscience: A Reader in Feminist Ethics, ed. Barbara Hilkert Andolsen et al., 175–92 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985); Beverly Harrison, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love: Christian Ethics for Women and Other Strangers,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 36 (1981) 0362–1545; María Pilar Aquino, Our Cry for Life: Feminist Theology from Latin America (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1993).↩
Pilar Aquino, Our Cry for Life (1993).↩
Visions for a New Heaven and New Earth
From Occupy Wall Street and the Battle of Seattle to #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, this millennium has seen a number of movements in which young people are discovering their political consciousness and expressing their voices in protest. Often, they are compared to the Baby Boomers’ anti-Vietnam and Black Power movements. Yet, in between those generations is the overlooked awakening of another generation. (It’s no accident they’re called Generation X.) Though there are several candidates in need of further study, including the anti-apartheid, early green, and anti-sweatshop labor movements, there’s no question that protest against US intervention in Central America was a driving force of progressive (and Christian) conscientization during that time. In that context, I am grateful for Kyle Lambelet’s exploration of the SOA Watch, whose efforts to close the US Army’s School of the Americas (WHINSEC) was a signature effort against US imperialism cloaked in Cold War legitimacy.
As a product of that generation, I find this book speaking to me at two levels. Its effort to overcome an “eclipse of ethics” within nonviolence theory resonates deeply with my experience of nonviolence as a moral and ecclesial praxis. On an academic level, because my research has focused in large part on the theological witness that rooted in El Salvador, including the thought of Ignacio Ellacuría, I was fascinated by how this liberation philosopher and theologian becomes a crucial intellectual interlocutor for Lambelet in crafting a political theology centered around messianism and the presence of the resurrected dead.
Lambelet’s analysis of SOA Watch tells the history of the movement, but at the same time, it offers a theoretical exploration of strategic nonviolence and political messianism that marks this as a profound work of political theology. These strands all cohere around the ritual-symbolic heart of the SOA protests: the ¡Presente! litany in which the names of victims of human rights violations are read and declared as present. I am persuaded by Lambelet’s thesis that this invocation of the dead informs an exercise of practical reason that mediates a spectrum identified by Weber as a politics of ultimate ends and one of responsibility. Lambelet uses this faithfulness—responsibility tension to address messianic problems in regard to liturgy, pluralism, law, and leadership.
With so many interesting questions for anyone involved in resistance politics today, this book prompted one through a genealogical curiosity. Lambelet contrasts the Augustinians who “tend to downplay the salvific significance of politics” and thus emphasize effective responsibility, and the ecclesiocentrists who view the church as the “privileged location of God’s action in the world” (8). Despite this claim, he notes that William Cavanaugh is both an Augustinian and an ecclesiocentrist, making the category distinction unclear. How is it that an Augustinian can be an ecclesiocentrist? It may simply be a case, as Lambelet himself notes, of needing to see Weber’s politics of conviction and responsibility as ideal types and allowing for the natural convergences that any typology allows. However, for me it indicates different tensions and alliances at work that play important factors in evaluating the mission and work of the SOA and indeed any kind of political messianism.
With as expansive and mercurial a thinker as Augustine, from the young Manichean, to the optimistic author of Confessions, to the dour anti-Pelagianist, it is often not a question of if Augustine but which Augustine, particularly as regards the vision of the two cities. We have seen one version of Augustinianism endorse a political “realism” for the church that eschews nonviolence as impractical in a sinful world (Niebuhr, Elshtain). Here, the gift of commentators such as Cavanaugh and Michael Baxter has been to develop an Augustinian suspicion of the modern nation state and its power to place the church under its ideological and discursive trance.1 Nonviolence in this Augustinianism represents a countercultural expression of ecclesial resistance, which is precisely where the influence of the ecclesiocentrists emerges. For the position on liturgy taken up by Cavanaugh in Torture and Eucharist inherits the postliberal emphasis on the narrative and performance of Christian grammar found in George Lindbeck and Hans Frei, and bombastically performed in John Milbank. It is in distinctively Christian language, symbol, ritual, and mythos that believers are formed and truly Christian resistance is forged.
As salutary as this Augustinian ecclesiocentrism is in a moment in which Trumpism threatens to fatally distort Christian witness, it must resist two temptations. The first regards the invocation of language with privileged and monolingual assumptions. Latinx theologians, such as Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Orlando Espín, have demonstrated how problematic it can be to talk about how “the church” thinks or acts without recognizing how we negotiate multiple languages, grammars, and symbols without losing identity. We have seen this contrast vividly in the transition from the monolingual and colonial assumptions of Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address to the polyglot and decolonial opening under Pope Francis most recently embodied in the Amazonian synod. This is why Lambelet’s proposal for a practical reason to make prudential judgments that are undetermined by liturgy is important, as is his advocacy of a deep pluralism in which nonviolence builds coalitional bonds instead of remaining on sectarian islands. I am convinced with Lambelet that embracing pluralism is not merely a strategic move but one that can stem from moral and religious principles. The notion of nonviolence as a mezcla tradition is helpful in this regard.
Yet here I worry whether the coalitional possibility of deep pluralism overlooks the important formational histories that many of the actors bring with them. Yes, it was absolutely important that the SOA movement go beyond the liberal, white, male Catholicism that initiated the movement. However, as Lambelet narrated the historical split of the SOA Watch with the Ignatian Solidarity Movement, comprised primarily of Jesuit educational institutions, I began to think of those young people I see daily in my own Jesuit university classroom who do not see the church or faith as part of their meaning-making structures. They encounter the practices and beliefs of other faith traditions without any place of their own to stand. I wonder how the drive to a deep pluralism, if it is not marked by formation in a particular traditions, can avoid devolving into (borrowing from Bonhoeffer) a cheap pluralism. Also, as someone who has valued the SOA Watch precisely to introduce young people to a radical form of Catholic Christianity that they never could imagine, I felt a resonance with those in the movement who lamented a move of the vigil to Nogales as a loss of this place to stand. For as wonderful as it is to make those connections of solidarity, it remained unclear to me what the move accomplishes that the creation of a wider web of vigils and movements could not do better. Just as folks from various movements would venture to Georgia, there is no reason why those from SOA Watch could not venture to the border while still remaining grounded at Ft. Benning until WHINSEC closes.
The second temptation of the Augustinian ecclesiocentrism mentioned above is a certain triumphalism about the church. Certainly, one would never mistake the politics of Catholic neoconservatives like George Wiegel and Richard John Neuhaus and the version of Catholic radicalism evinced by Cavanaugh and Baxter, but they find a camaraderie in their suspicion, if not outright disdain, for liberal or liberationist Christianity. Where they commune is a conviction about the centrality of the church, and that church as envisioned over against the world or modern state. This church-world dichotomy then introduces dangers that range from a quietism that evades the hard task of structural change to the arrogant defiance exemplified by Rusty Reno’s proclamation of mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic a “species of cowardice.” Is there a vision that adopts the more capacious view like Augustine’s Confessions, whose Neoplatonism is conditioned by an incarnational thrust that refuses an elitism of the church? A vision where the church’s faithfulness as leaven is responsible to and part of a corporate dough that goes beyond its ecclesial borders?
Steps toward answering these questions come in the treatment of law and leadership taken up in the second half of the book. It was refreshing to see Lambelet engage with Giorgio Agamben’s thought to frame the politics of a higher law in the SOA. Key to this dynamic move in Pauline studies is the threefold claim that Paul does not reject the law but rather understands the Messiah as fulfilling the law, and thus frees the law for its improvisational use (121). To be sure, Lambelet makes a persuasive argument about the invocation of the “higher law” as permitting a wide range of legal repertoires, reformist and revolutionary, under the Johannine image of being “in the world but not of it.” Clearly, this proposal avoids an antinomianism that could usher forth in violence.
However, perhaps the fear of antinomianism is too great here. In the face of US imperialism, might a greater sense of antinomian urgency address the haunting reality that the SOA/WHINSEC still remains open? I find compelling Jacob Taubes’ reading of the Messiah as one “who was nailed to the cross by nomos.” For, as my colleague Larry Welborn has noted, “The nomos that condemned and crucified the Messiah was not the Torah of Moses . . . but the legal order of the Imperium Romanum.”2 This antinomian view could inspire resistance while still beholden to the gospel call to love the other. Contra Agamben’s The Time That Remains, Welborn brilliantly reads Romans 13:8ff. as a call to awaken to the Messianic “now time” and the love command.3 This, it seems to me, strikes at an important antinomian thrust of the SOA trials that might be lost. It also opens to the question of the leadership and example of the martyrs including the murdered president of the Jesuit university in El Salvador, Ignacio Ellacuría.
Lambelet wonderfully engages one of Ellacuría’s most well-known works from the 1970’s, “Pueblo Crucificado” (1977). This article can be seen as the great first act in Ellacuría’s messianism that correlates the figure of Isaiah’s Servant Songs, Jesus, and today’s crucified people who are the “continuation par excellence of the saving work of Jesus.” The crucified today demystify Jesus’ death and demonstrate how crucifixion itself isn’t salvific or what brings about resurrection and life—it is “won in a process of following in [Jesus’] steps.” Unfortunately, Lambelet is not able to expand on Ellacuría’s philosophy of historical reality that provides this process of following (faithfulness) its dose of responsibility. Ellacuría turns to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah to elucidate a process that must be, by definition, historical. Because Ellacuría’s notion of transcendence is one “in” history and not “away” from it, the historical forces that cause crucifixion indicate the responsibility of Christian faithfulness. For as they bear the weight of the world’s sin, a bearing that clings to life and resistance and thereby cuts through ideologizations that would hide the dynamics of domination, the crucified people represent a principle of salvation. Faithfulness means participating in the resistance to this anti-kingdom of sin and the responsibility to manifest instead the reign that Jesus preached as visible and effective in history.
In this vision, and indeed in Ellacuría’s work generally, it must be admitted, the resurrection remains underdeveloped. Ellacuría negates its direct connection to creation, which would impugn to crucifixion a “natural necessity” prevalent in many Anselmian soteriologies, of which neo-scholasticism’s was his primary target. This being the case, he offers little by way of a constructive proposal regarding the resurrection. Lambelet makes the logical move to Jon Sobrino, in many ways the inheritor of Ellacuría’s thought, who develops resurrection and the popular image of taking the crucified people down from their crosses. He also invokes Julia Esquivel’s powerful image of being threatened with resurrection. The image of being “threatened with resurrection” is a powerful one with much to commend it, but Christian history, particularly in its modern form, has demonstrated a polar opposite sense of Esquivel’s phrase. Rather than the dead being invoked as presente, resurrection’s threat has been a triumphalism ignoring the crucified because victory in resurrection is already guaranteed. This is why figures as divergent as Johann B. Metz and Hans Urs von Balthasar have invoked the importance of Holy Saturday as key for a spirituality that lives in that tensive moment between tragedy and promise, a place that demands real faith and hope. How to ensure that being threatened with resurrection is closer to Esquivel’s meaning and what Metz calls “dangerous memory” for Christianity today? A return to Ellacuría’s thought offers another route to a political messianism avoiding this triumphalism.
As has been noted, Ellacuría’s “Pueblo Crucificado,” which was subtitled, “An Essay in Historical Soteriology,” represents only a first act of his messianism. The only other essay that he identifies explicitly as historical soteriology is his masterful “Utopía y profetismo desde America Latina: Un ensayo concreto de soteriología histórica” (1989). What is notable about this latter essay for our purposes is Ellacuría’s decision to turn to the (Johannine) apocalyptic image of the “new heaven and new earth” as the messianic drive of Christian hope found in utopian vision and prophetic action. In this sprawling essay, Ellacuría links responsibility for a new earth, which is found in a new economic, social, political, and cultural order, to a faithfulness to a new heaven that is historicized by the preferential option for the poor. The apocalyptic image drives the internal connection between proclaiming Christian utopia, specifically the reign of God preached by Jesus (the root of Augustine’s City of God?), and prophetic denunciation of the civilization of wealth and empire. Thus, the preferential option for the poor serves as a guide to keep the proper sense of being threatened with resurrection.
A final note. As Lambelet recounts, Ellacuría and his fellow UCA martyrs occupy a central place in the witness of the SOA Watch; indeed, movement members even ask, “What would the Jesuits do?” Nevertheless, with a bit of sadness I must admit I saw little connection in their own praxis to what the UCA Jesuits in fact did—advance rigorous research focused on the national reality. Far exceeding the analysis building evidenced by individuals within the SOA, the Jesuits utilized the intellectual resources of the university to examine the socio-economic roots of oppression, document human rights abuses, give voice to the public opinion of those silenced, and open up dialogue in the hopes of ending a brutal civil war. In our time, when it seems that truth is a scarcer commodity than ever before and investigative journalism one of the most dangerous professions, I wonder how our author might envision how universities can connect to movements like the SOA Watch to focus their work in making the crucified ones—whose names we must continually say—presente.
For example, see Michael Baxter, “Murray’s Mistake,” America, September 23, 2013, https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/murrays-mistake.↩
Larry L. Welborn, “Jacob Taubes—Paulinist, Messianist,” in Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers: The Apostle and Contemporary Continental Philosophy, ed. Peter Frick (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 69–90.↩
Larry L. Welborn, Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).↩
7.5.21 | Ruth Braunstein
Discernment and the Politics of the Higher Law
Kyle Lambelet’s ¡Presente! Nonviolent Politics and the Resurrection of the Dead is the latest in a growing collection of “ethnographically informed” (16) works of Christian theology and ethics, and its artful synthesis of descriptive, evaluative, and constructive accounts of nonviolent politics (17) makes it a compelling and original read. While Lambelet is primarily in conversation with scholars of political theology and strategic nonviolence, the book has lessons for a much wider array of readers, including those interested in the role of religion in politics, especially on the political left; the specific case of the movement to close the School of the Americas (SOA Watch) and the broader peace movement; and the role of normativity in ethnography and theorizing. As a sociologist who uses ethnographic methods to study similar topics, I found the convergences and divergences between our questions and approaches to answering those questions deeply instructive.
In this essay, I wish to focus on a question for which these convergences and divergences in our approaches were especially generative for me—Lambelet’s rich analysis of how SOA Watch activists used the “politics of the higher law.” As part of a current project on the moral meaning of taxes, I am studying some of the same peace activists that populate Lambelet’s case study—activists who worry that paying taxes that support the US military make them complicit in violence. In defending their decision to stop paying those taxes, many of the activists I study make appeals to the same array of “higher laws”—both divine (God’s law) and immanent (“the US Constitution, the Nuremberg principles, international law, and human rights” )—that SOA Watch activists reference to justify their acts of civil disobedience.
The politics of the higher law present just the sort of ethical dilemma that Lambelet outlines at the outset of the book: such appeals are often viewed as apolitical insofar as they can justify the rejection of all law and lead to extremist violence. There are certainly myriad examples of groups using appeals to higher law—and especially divine law—to justify violence. Yet Lambelet argues that appeals to higher law do not necessarily lead to extremism or violence, but rather can be used “in the service of obligations to solidarity and justice” (124).
Such appeals can be especially useful—perhaps even necessary—when the law itself has been morally compromised by justifying “legalized violence.” Lambelet frames the challenge faced by SOA Watch in precisely these terms:
The task, as he argues, is made even more difficult by the fact that activists seek to simultaneously challenge the morality of a legal system that supports such violence, while also working within that same legal system to make piecemeal reforms. Lambelet argues, persuasively, that activists’ appeals to various higher laws, from the Nuremberg Principles to God’s law, enables them to reconcile this seeming contradiction. It does so in three ways. First, appeals to higher laws “relativize but do not outright reject lower laws”; second, these appeals “express obligations of responsibility that transcend current legal orders”; and third, “they free the law for use in the pursuit of justice through a diverse set of legal repertoires” (123). In this way, appeals to higher law help SOA Watch activists balance the demands of faithfulness and effectiveness, or, if not balance them, then at least hold these demands in tension.
And it is by holding these demands in tension that Lambelet argues activists are able to avoid being pulled toward the extremes of extremism or quietism. But what does it mean to hold these in tension, practically speaking? For Lambelet, such appeals can only be appropriate if they generate “practical reason,” or what he often refers to as a process of “discernment.” This process appears to involve activists either deliberating together or reflecting individually about what the higher law demands of them, based on their particular social location, and “in this particular place and time” (127). This discernment, he argues, must be “ongoing” (127), and it should involve consideration of a range of potential means—both extralegal and legal—to reach desired ends.
It was on this point that the sociologist and ethnographer in me wanted to know more. Although the vignette Lambelet offers at the beginning of the fourth chapter—of a handful of SOA Watch activists deliberating about an upcoming act of civil disobedience—offered a helpful glimpse into how this process of discernment can work, I wondered about variation in both the process and its outcomes. This kind of variation likely exists across different social movements, but also within movements like SOA Watch that feature high levels of internal diversity. How often, for example, did Lambelet observe such processes of discernment, and were they more likely to feature in group deliberation or an individual process of reflection? Were some activists more likely to engage in one versus the other? Moreover, do different processes or methods of discernment lead to different kinds of tactical choices? For example, while some collective processes of deliberation may lead to moderation—with voices of caution serving as checks on extreme ideas—group discussions can also generate the kind of collective effervescence and “group think” that may encourage more extreme actions. In the same vein, one could imagine individual reflection encouraging different kinds of decisions than collective deliberation.
I also wondered about different religious and cultural templates for these deliberations. Participants in social movements like SOA Watch have likely been exposed to multiple models of what practical reason should look like, including participatory decision-making processes within other social movement settings as well as religious practices and processes of discernment. For example, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) formally encourages members to engage in such a process if they feel “a leading to engage in social action or public witness” (46) in order to “assure that what is sensed by one is tested and affirmed by the worshipping community” (16).1 Quaker peace activists that I know have proceeded with civil disobedience only after achieving “clearness” through this process. Are there similar processes within, say, Catholic Worker communities or other communities that overlap in membership with SOA Watch? If so, I could imagine that these kinds of practices and processes may serve as cultural templates for how SOA Watch activists engage in practical reason, and that the internal religious diversity of the movement may manifest in disagreements about which processes of discernment are more faithful or effective.
Similarly, I wondered about the place of “conscience” in both the activists’ appeals and in their practical reasoning. The war tax resisters I study frequently reference their conscience: they describe complex processes of listening to their conscience; being unable to ignore the tug of their conscience; and following their conscience. In some cases, they reference their conscience alongside other “higher powers”; in other cases, conscience is framed as interchangeable or intertwined with these “higher powers.” Their appeals to conscience appear to play a similar role to the SOA Watch activists’ appeals to higher law—they relativize lower laws, they express alternative obligations of responsibility, and in some cases they “free the law for use in the pursuit of justice.” Yet the conscience is typically described as something “inside” of individuals rather than “above” us all. Is there something different about such appeals that make them more or less ethically sound than appeals to higher law?
Finally, because Lambelet’s approach is normative and evaluative, I wondered how he would evaluate the appeals to higher law made by a range of other social movements, including movements whose political goals he finds problematic. On one hand, his evaluation suggests that such appeals would be legitimate as long as they generate practical reason. But what if the activists gathered in a hotel lounge to deliberate about the morality and efficacy of civil disobedience were representatives not of SOA Watch but of an anti-government militia? How would Lambelet’s insights be applied to such groups? He suggests at various points that his evaluation is not based on the presence of practical reason alone, but also the underlying goals of the movement: for example, whether their critiques of law are “based on their adequacy in the service of human flourishing” (98) or whether their appeals to higher law “call the law to its fulfillment in the service of obligations to solidarity and justice” (124). While an anti-government militia may perceive themselves as oriented toward human flourishing, as well as a kind of solidarity and justice, they would of course define these ideas quite differently than the SOA Watch activists profiled in this book. I am interested in how Lambelet would approach such actors and their claims.
Overall, I am deeply grateful for Lambelet’s work. In the preface he notes that he originally attended the SOA Watch’s annual vigil because he was in search of “concrete embodiments of the radical ideas” he had encountered in his undergraduate theology courses. In his weaving together of a rich case study with political and theological analysis, he provides his readers with a similar experience. The book succeeds in both illuminating aspects of nonviolent politics that other forms of analysis miss, and demonstrating how a theology of nonviolence can be lived in practice.
See the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 2018 guide to Faith and Practice.↩
7.5.21 | Kyle B. T. Lambelet
Practical Reasoning as an Intersubjective Process
Practical reason—“the capacity to discern the goods at stake in a particular action and the means appropriate to achieve those goods” (6)—was my primary preoccupation while researching the SOA Watch. I was interested especially in how activists deliberated about tactics, came to decisions, and then acted upon those decisions. In ¡Presente! I often opted to use the gerund form, practical reasoning, to indicate the processual nature of this capacity. I found that it was a dynamic power always in motion, and furthermore that it was a social, intersubjective exercise. In her generous response, Ruth Braunstein lifts up a particular register of practical reasoning, about the higher law, and has asked me to expand on the variation, sources, and content of that discernment. I’m grateful for the invitation to do so, and in the following response I want to focus primarily on the form of that reasoning and leave the content for later responses.
Having spent several years in ethics seminars debating the fine points of moral theory, I was struck to find analogies to such deliberation in the convention centers, street corners, hotel lobbies, and church fellowship halls that convened the participants of the SOA Watch movement. The movement provided what sociologist Ann Mische has identified as “sites of hyperprojectivity” by which she means “communicative settings, somewhat removed from the flow of day-to-day activity, in which the explicit purpose of talk is to locate problems, visualize alternative pathways, and consider their consequences and desirability.”1 Movements are not the only space for such deliberation; we can think also of organizational meetings or group retreats as well as community forums of various sorts. But movements like the SOA Watch do feature distinctive forms of deliberation about social problems and their remediation. While the deliberations in ethics seminars are analogous to the deliberations in movement spaces, there is a critical difference: participants in movement conversations have skin in the game.
My field notes are full of accounts of people deliberating about what they were called to do. Reading back through one day of notes prior to the annual vigil in 2014, I can identify half a dozen such conversations: during a car ride to sign the contract for the porta-potties; in a workshop on nonviolent direct action; during a teach in on the Oak Ridge Plowshares action; overhearing a phone call with a prospective civil disobedient; and more. In some ways, these conversations stood in for the small talk you might normally expect in any large gathering. The reason for our convening was to do something, after all. Yet, these conversations were not everyday small talk, but were of significant consequence for the interlocutors. They were about whether and when to violate the law in the pursuit of justice.
One significant conversation I found in my notes that didn’t make the cut for the book was between one of the organizers of the Shut Down Stewart protest and an activist discerning whether to commit civil disobedience. After hearing the organizer (whom we’ll call Juan) speak at a plenary the night prior, the activist (whom we’ll call Jason) thought “the time might be right to do something.” Rather than pressuring Jason one way or another, Juan walked him through a process in which Jason narrated his own political journey, commitments to immigration justice, and prior arrests. Together they analyzed the present moment, the potential communicative effect of an action of civil disobedience, and the probable consequences of breaking the law. Juan stated that he “could make a strategic argument either way.” But, he concluded that “ultimately it’s an act of conscience.” And as an act of conscience Juan was clear that he couldn’t tell Jason what to do: “I can’t resolve the dilemma for you.”
I found variations of this type of interpersonal deliberation repeated again and again throughout the movement. I did not find a singular form or process, but rather I found that activists were improvising with the fragments of multiple traditions of deliberation and discernment.2 To be clear, such deliberation was not a mere rational calculation of costs and benefits, nor was the practical reasoning individual alone. Rather, drawing simultaneously on practices of democratic deliberation, Ignatian discernment, and Quaker-inflected anarchism, activists composed an intersubjective harmony out of a pluralistic cacophony of problem analysis, action planning, and prospective and retrospective justifications of those proposals.3
Yet, even a cacophony of consciences belies patterns, and it’s worth identifying some persistent features here.
These features are very schematic, but would capture something of the process used by many of the SOA Watch prisoners of conscience I spoke to. (Of course, it is worthy of note that the movement has used the phrase “prisoners of conscience” to refer to those who have committed civil disobedience.) Against some versions of conscience appeals that insulate themselves from critique and accountability, I found these aimed to create the possibility of shared intersubjective judgment, rather than mere personal morality.
While I’ve focused here on the form of practical reasoning, I take up the content more fully in my responses to Selina Gallo-Cruz and Aaron Stauffer. It is the content of the practical reasoning I witnessed that would provide a means of evaluating, say, an anti-government militia’s actions. Do these actions conduce to a faithfulness to those we claim as presentes? Do they enable the effective pursuit of just relationships in the midst of transnational structures of legalized violence? So, while a sociological lens allows us to attend to the form of reasoning, these normative questions about the right and the good push us into the realm of ethics. And I’m eager to invite Braunstein into such reasoning even as I punt here to later responses in this symposium.
To conclude, then, I wonder if Braunstein has found appeals to conscience functioning in a similar way among those social movement actors she has studied. And furthermore, how would she evaluate the normative resources she has found at work? Are they right and good?
Ann Mische, “Measuring Futures in Action: Projective Grammars in the Rio+ 20 Debates,” Theory and Society 43.3–4 (2014) 447.↩
Ann Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51 (1986) 273–86.↩
Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Dean Brackley, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola (New York: Crossroad, 2004); Chris Dixon, Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).↩
For a historical account of conscience and its emergence in the movements that precede the ones that Braunstein and I are writing about, see Peter Cajka, Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).↩