Monday, August 12, 2013

Baptized at the Folk School: Christianity and Radical Democracy

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing 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. This post begins our reflections on chapter 3.

How might we move west of Cornel West? How do we follow him down the trail he’s blazed with the intention to bushwhack beyond his surveying? Rom Coles reviews West’s Democracy Matters for the American Academy of Religion, admiring his rhetorical skills and critical mind, but he thinks West favors prophetic voicing at the expense of prophetic listening. He worries that West underemphasizes the long and slow building of receptive relationships within social movements (50-51). I also hope that Cornel West continues to listen to the “movements in the streets, on front porches, at kitchen tables” (48), as Ella Baker and the early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did. But I also hope he doesn’t stop speaking because I need to keep listening to the scarfed philosopher who inflects to the cadence of the beatbox in his head. 

I read Democracy Matters last fall and was impressed with its scope and style. West insists that we must resist the three great threats to democracy: free-market fundamentalism, aggressive militarism, and escalating authoritarianism. West knows these threats aren’t new to America, a nation born with a schizophrenic vision because the “contingent origins of American democracy and the ignoble beginnings of imperial America go hand in hand . . . The fight for democracy has ever been one against the oppressive and racist corruptions of empire.” According to West, this fight will need three traditions for energy and inspiration. The first is a Socratic commitment to questioning ourselves, authorities, and dogmas of the day. The second is a Jewish prophetic commitment to justice for all people that condemns the golden calf of wealth and the blood-soaked flag. And the third tradition is the tragicomic commitment to hope, expressed by the “painful eloquence of the blues” and the “improvisational virtuosity of jazz,” both staring “painful truths in the face” and persevering “without cynicism or pessimism.” West’s account of democracy challenges and strengthens my anarchistic tendencies.

Rom Coles says that our deepest solidarity is most profoundly expressed, not in our voices, but “in where and how and to whom we listen” (47). For this reason, I need to read people like West and I need to listen to movements like Idle No More, the SNCC, and the people working for a just and sustainable Appalachia because they all tell me about a world that I, a white educated male, know about only by listening. People like me protect our cozy chairs and full plates by ignoring or, perhaps worse, trying to speak for them. A historian friend told me he isn’t opposed to reading Foucault or voices from others around the world, but he doesn’t understand why many academics and activists run first to French theorists or people under British occupation to help us understand our situation in the American Empire. “Black and Native American thinkers have reflected in print for years, at least since 1821, about power and life in the United States,” he told me, “but academics here often want to translate another oppressive contexts to our own instead of dealing with it directly. That’s bad scholarship, bad history, and probably racist!”

I majored in English Literature and Language as an undergraduate. I wrote my senior capstone on the Israeli Separation Wall as a form of text. I claimed that the purpose of the wall is to segregate a particular group of people from another, interpreted as either colonialism or security. The graffiti spray-painted on the wall serves as a reader-response protest to the intended Israeli messages. I used Foucault to talk about power and I used Roland Barthes to redefine text, and both were helpful. But why should I rely on Europeans and not on Palestinian or Israeli activists and critics? If I rewrote that paper, I might still use Foucault and Barthes, but they would be supplementary to the Middle Eastern thinkers and to my friends who live and work there.

Coles describes the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee as a meeting ground that exposed SNCC activists to broader issues and different perspectives (71). My great-grandfather was not an activist, but he was one exposed to new experiences at Highlander. He worked on the railroads of southern Tennessee most of his life and educated himself after leaving school in eighth grade to support his family by working in the lime mines. A friend took him to lectures at the Highlander School, where this poor and unschooled white man saw differences and common goods and committed himself to racial justice. The folk school was his baptismal.

Highlander, now located eighty miles from where I grew up, focuses on popular education, participatory research, and language and cultural justice in Appalachia. These are the voices I want to listen to, the people I want to live near. I’m protecting my cozy position if I'm not receptive to the articulate voices that fire out from within the American empire about the American empire. I want to learn from the tradition of my great-grandfather listening.

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