On Why “The Impossible Will Take a Little While”1
Democracy is hard. The fact of human nature, diverse population groups, and complex intersectional interests make it seem all but impossible. Luke Bretherton, in Resurrecting Democracy, argues that community organizing—broad based community organizing (BBCO) to be more specific, modeled on Saul Alinksy and the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—has normative significance for religious groups, faith communities, and their various political theologies of society. His normative argument has an empirical center; that is, ethnography is its theoretical frame, IAF and other BBCO groups, its descriptive basis. Bretherton turns to their version of ‘consociational democracy’: “a mutual fellowship between distinct institutions or groups who are federated together for a common purpose” (6). If theology or political theory is listening and wants to know, this is what democracy looks like.
This week, we are excited to feature four excellent essays on Bretherton’s book. They all recognize the values of this book: the ways it breaks barriers, raises critical methodological and substantive questions and creates opportunities for new conversations and restarts old ways in a fresh way. But the essays often, as they wind through the complex and loquacious arguments of Resurrecting Democracy, stretch beyond the book itself, turning to not just to Bretherton’s theory of organizing, or his theological ethics of democracy, (a debatable characterization, to be sure), but also to fundamental questions of power, sin, and justice. Indeed, Bretherton’s work asks us to reconsider the nature and tasks of Christian social ethics. These essays bring us both to foundational questions (the role of faith communities and religious groups in participative forms of democracy) and emerging issues (professionalization of organizing and activism), while also giving us a chance to analyze Bretherton’s actual positions, which merit careful consideration.
In Resurrecting Democracy, Bretherton gives a theological-ethical account of community organizing that, in turn, generates a full theory of civil society and pluralist democracy. Broad-based models of community organizing, argues Bretherton, help us chart a return to Aristotelian modes of civic life aimed at deliberating about and forming the requisite associations for the life we collectively desire, the kind that generates conditions of freedom and well-being for all while remaining “faithfully secular.” And yet, contemporary society suffers from a severe paucity of collective belonging, of shared traditions. This is precisely the problem, as Bretherton sees it: his work points to a lack of shared traditions and values in civil society as the problem which plagues democracy and which consociational theories, as practiced by BBCO, try to address. There is not enough agreement about shared interests within very diverse populations, and any coalitions that may develop in response to immediate problems break apart once the issues become less localized. The benefits of BBCO in this regard is its ability to generate virtues and values for the politics of the common life, a politics that is both institutionally focused and relationally generated, even if it stands in adversarial relation to the state and the market. Admittedly, this description is cursory at best, but hopefully it provides an entry point into the featured essays, all of which give far more adequate accounts of Bretherton’s complex positions.
The four essays in this symposium offer both critical and constructive readings of Resurrecting Democracy. Preeminent Christian social ethicist Robin Lovin commends Bretherton for his significant contributions to the growing discussion on the relationship between community organizing, Christian social ethics, and political theory, but wonders aloud whether BBCO will able to sustain its openness to the contributions of faith communities, religious groups, and their theologies, and whether these communities and groups have the requisite theologies to position them well within the sensus communis as described by Bretherton. Vincent Lloyd is less convinced that Bretherton (and the model of BBCO for which he advocates) properly appreciates the burden that sin places on the social order. The problem with the world, as Lloyd sees it, is not that of a puzzle broken apart, but rather of an idol who reproduces a world that is systemically distorted, an idol that speaks the language of capital’s inner logic. The social world as imagined by Bretherton cannot come into view unless this idol is smashed—and this requires a prophetic and iconoclastic model of ideology critique that can only come from the very economic classes (and their political epistemologies) left out of Bretherton’s book: the ordinary poor. C. Melissa Snarr registers a similar concern by pointing to her own research and experiences concerning the complex role that gender plays in the inner workings and dynamics of BBCO networks in general. What kinds of work are women doing—and does Bretherton pay adequate attention to the gendered structures and dynamics at play in community organizing? Furthermore, there are particular concerns, both theological and ethical, with BBCO models of organizing and activism, both with regard to how they interact with other forms of political engagement and activity. Does their call to pluralist pragmatism cover over a latent allergy to intersectional variety, or what Snarr calls “an ecology of accountability and democratic development?” Gary Dorrien’s essay highlights perhaps the most endearing—and enduring—aspect of Bretherton’s work: the interdisciplinary character of his research and integrative spirit of his positions, both of which present a political theory of democracy that is thoroughly realist and gradualist, all the while fixed to its Social Gospel roots. And yet, Dorrien continues, Bretherton does not engage economic democracy theory itself, and makes little mention of the Christian ethics tradition of social justice. Dorrien eagerly makes this case to Bretherton, both historically and theologically, arguing, among other things, that both can help leverage faith communities and religious groups into cooperative relationships in various sectors and across interests, particularly in service to emancipatory social movements that are committing to taking on structural privilege and institutionalized forms of oppression.
These four essays are rich, complex, and can only be treated fairly by conversations between the contributors themselves, complete with responses from Bretherton. This symposium will further clarify the value of long-standing debates about community organizing within political theory, its relationship to social activism, and its place in theological inquiry and ethical engagement.
C. Melissa Snarr
About the Author
Luke Bretherton is Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. Before joining the Duke faculty, he was Reader in Theology & Politics and Convener of the Faith & Public Policy Forum at King’s College London. His books include Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity (2006) and Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (2010), winner of the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing.
Billie Holiday’s “Crazy He Calls Me”↩