Thursday, July 11, 2013

The "And" In Between: Hauerwas and Coles' Introduction

From Keezletown, VA
This is the first post in a series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. For a bit of context, see the intro post.

[Originally an email to Brian and Jon]

Well my friends, I think I’ll like this book. It may not be the best dialogue on the subject or include all my desired themes or case studies, but it sounds like a good conversation, which always holds open the possibility for mutual conversion. Hauerwas and Coles hint that this is a commonality between Christianity and radical democracy: both are stories and traditions about conversions in our lives. John Caputo says that the most interesting word in the phrase “philosophy and theology” is the and, and the same might be true for “Christianity and radical democracy.” The and is where all the tension, possibility, and pollination is located.

And that’s why I got excited at the mention of ecotones! Permaculturist Toby Hemenway says that ecotones are where things happen, sites of transition and translation with blurred boundaries. This whole book is about that fertile margin, that and. Maybe that’s what convinced me that I’ll like this tag-team, especially because to them “collecting and retelling stories of radical ordinary political initiatives” is the best way to explore this ecotone. Unsurprisingly, a long opening quote from Wendell Berry also convinced me. Judging from the index, he doesn’t feature prominently in the book but his life and writing weave together the three titular themes.

I’m also impressed that these Duke dons emphasize open-ended questions exposing us to life and death. I can endorse that interpretation of Christianity and radical democracy, which should then be about the set of practices that take seriously our vulnerable materiality. Like Baby Suggs in Beloved:
in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it . . . Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! . . .This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck . . . The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too.
Her lyrical sermon is the and between Christianity and radical democracy: our bodies and our common lives, the wreck and gift of the beautiful risk of life.

The book’s non-statist democratic vision resonates with my anarchist inclinations. Radical democracy and anarchism are cousins, or at least grow on the same family tree; David Graeber claims that anarchism is really just direct democracy. Hauerwas and Coles are tired of reducing democracy to state politics and so am I, especially after working in Palestine [as a journalist, a writer for a reconciliation organization, an assistant at a center for developmentally disabled youth, and in nonviolent direct action]. Democracy is apparently only democracy if it’s an institutionalized form of liberal representation, which smells like Eurocentrism. Graeber quips that Western states didn’t invent democracy but they’ve spent “several hundred years invading and spreading democracy to people who were practicing democracy for thousands of years and were told to cut it out.” The word sags with heavy imperialistic baggage, so maybe the adjective democratic (or anarchist) should be used more than the noun.

I’m glad Hauerwas and Coles refrain from framing the conversation around being for or against the state, as if that entity is the sole cause of our problems. Both tendencies confuse the United States of America with the ecosocial body of America. Hauerwas and Coles are right to note that we can’t ignore the reality of the corporate megastate. We need alternative experiments in the radical ordinary, but the Leviathon will bite back: the state, whether you acknowledge it or not, can build a wall through your orchards, as I saw in Palestinian villages. Neoliberalism and the NSA reveal that there are no unoccupied spaces. Which is why resistance has to include more than just alternatives: direct challenges, prefigurative politics, and tactical collaborations are all necessary, as Andrew Woolford importantly argues in The Politics of Restorative Justice.

Halfway through the introduction, Coles and Hauerwas compare holding positions of great power to wearing the One Ring in Tolkien’s myth. I love a good Middle-earth analogy, but prior to this reference they discuss lending support to certain leaders and after this reference they observe that good people are called to serve in halls of power. But the Ring couldn't be made to serve good. It had to be resisted and destroyed, and these authors don’t necessarily suggest the same for halls of power. Even so, the analogy recognizes the centripetal force of power, whereas radical democracy is about the centrifugal flow of the decentralized and ordinary. Samwise Gamgee exorcises the Ring’s power when he remembers his place on earth: “The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

Radical democracy eventually has to talk about bioregional praxis. Coles and Hauerwas say that the kingdom of God isn’t about human territoriality, but territoriality isn’t the same thing as place. If we want sustainable cultures we have to choose between cultures of occupation and cultures of reinhabitation in this only world we have. Radical democracy is "tending to common goods and differences," and this book is a conversation about "concrete practices of tending to one another." But if we want a common life like that, with “receptive and generous practices of coexistence,” then we’ll act like context matters: where we live, who we live there with, and how we live there.

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