Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From the farm to the (unstable) table: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Harrisonburg, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. Jon's post today opens up our discussion on the first chapter, "A Haunting Possibility: Christianity and Radical Democracy," by Hauerwas.

First this connection to Brian’s post and the events of the last week moving towards a discussion of our book. Note: this is from bell hooks’ 2001 book All About Love and as such is not specifically discussing the Zimmerman case, but as you’ll see I think it relates (with thanks to Paulette Moore).

White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat. " This is what the worship of death looks like.
That last sentence. Connections between glory, security, violence, and fear/worship of death. Germane to our conversation here for sure.

Now on to the content of Chapter 1...

Coles is haunted by John Howard Yoder, and Hauerwas is in turn haunted by Coles. (Yes John it appears that the halls of Duke University are haunted by things other than Christian Laettner). 

Yoder haunts me as well, in positive and negative ways. Many readers will be aware of Yoder's troubling history of inappropriate sexual behavior and abuse of power during the 1970s and 80s. While some of what appears in this blog entry will reflect the positive ways that Yoder haunts me (really, I should say us; John and Brian are with me on this), this abuse of intellectual and positional power haunts me in an adverse, painful way. It speaks of the dangers of powerful authority, charismatic influence, failing our own expectations, and sheds light on the self-deceptive capacity of those of us in positions of influence and power. I have no desire to collapse the contradictions that this history forces us to examine: what Yoder did was wrong, and should not be brushed away. For more in-depth exploration of this history see Ted Grimsrud's blog posts here and here as well as Andy Alexis-Baker's reflections here. Hauerwas himself also writes briefly of this troubling history in his memoir: Hannah's Child. (And right after hitting "publish" on this post, John found this post on Barbara Graber's site: What's to be done about John Howard Yoder. -BRG)

The haunting that Hauerwas speaks of in Chapter 1 congeals around Yoder’s account of Jesus and the claim of the New Testament church: Jesus is Lord. Coles is concerned that Yoder’s “jealousy” about Jesus – and the subsequent claim regarding the lordship of Jesus; serves to create an ecclesiology that “might constitute a radical deafness to nonbelievers and a confinement of prophesy to those within the church, so that the dialogic conditions of agape within give way to monological practices toward others outside in a manner likely to proliferate blindness and violence.” (21) I think he’s on to something here that might not be directly present in Yoder but is present in different segments of the church today. “Jesus is Lord” is a convictional statement, and a good one at that, but is it one that creates a space for conversation that doesn’t automatically move towards defensiveness and closed hearts and minds? I suppose it depends on how the statement is made. If “Jesus is Lord” is a humble (in so far as we are capable of humility) confession it might perhaps begin to point us towards the humility that is necessary to sustain a community that resists the allure of significance that carries with it the potential for violence. At least it seems that is what Hauerwas suggests. Coles quite rightly asks if the pre-Constantinian proclamation of Jesus’ lordship might actually be complicit in the rise of Constantinianism itself. If the claim is that Jesus is lord, who wouldn’t want someone to make that lordship real (as in tangible, a political reality of a certain sort)? That pesky allure of significance!

“Tension dwelling” emerges as an essential characteristic of radical democracy, for if democracy is a practice rather than a possession communities will need to develop the capacity to actually practice it – which will of necessity require the refusal to collapse tensions. (it would also require the recognition that perhaps what exists ISN'T democracy, rather than assuming it is) Is the collapsing of tensions the very essence of Constantinianism? Hauerwas suggests that the lack of a stable “table” around which differences can be gathered is what makes radical democracy radical. There is a table, but the table moves and is transformed so that the lines of separation and relation change in unusual and unexpected ways. This does not pretend that the lines of separation do not exist, but rather expects and welcomes a generous engagement with those lines. Could interfaith dialogues be transformed by this kind of approach? I think that is at least in part what Yoder suggests in “The Disavowal of Constantine.”

Hauerwas writes that “what the church contributes to radical democracy is therefore a people who seek not glory but justice” (26) and then admits that people who seek justice and not glory are not only found in the church. Is this where the “and” of Radical Democracy and Christianity bears some fruit? The work of justice and not glory is slow, hard work especially if it is ad hoc, refuses systemization, strategery and the promise of quick results. (What does this mean for our studies at CJP and Seminary?!)

Finally, and I mean finally (it seems like it took a while to get there), Hauerwas begins to address what he originally set out to address: Can the church be radically democratic? Honestly, this is where I got kind of lost. I couldn’t figure out how he was actually answering the question. Dula and Sider’s question for Hauerwas gets at it: Is a radical democracy really compatible with an orthodox theology? Can orthodoxy sit at the unstable table of radical democracy? Hauerwas suggests that starting points are important and seems to argue that he has not been capable of being like Yoder because he didn’t start from the place that Yoder started, the margins. My first thought was this: So starting in a different place gives you a free pass? Yoder was so marginal anyway that really he had nothing to lose by making the arguments he did about the church, but you have much to lose and so you can’t quite do it? (Personal note: I’m hard on Hauerwas because I respect him. Hopefully my questions for Hauerwas can be read in the generous spirit with which I intend them… closer to home, I suppose these are questions for myself that I am asking through Hauerwas).

Can you guys help me make sense of how Hauerwas answers these questions? In the final paragraphs of the chapter he suggests that his assumption is that orthodoxy names the developments across time that the church has found necessary for keeping the story of Jesus straight and that “orthodoxy is the exemplification of the training necessary for the formation of a people who are not only capable of working for justice, but who are themselves just.” (30) I suppose much hinges on how one defines “orthodoxy.” Hauerwas seems to want it to be fluid and used as training whereas I think many people define it as anything but fluid and see it as the culmination of training (or the object of training, again more like a possession than a practice), not training in itself. Is orthodoxy a conversation partner or a possession?

Perhaps Hauerwas’ own attempts to answer these questions are why Rom Coles haunts him.

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