Monday, August 5, 2013

Preventing Re-Murder: Christianity and Radical Democracy

From Keezletown, VA
This is 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 continues our reflections on ch. 2, a letter to Hauerwas from Coles.

Soon after I graduated from college, several friends and I started a reading group called The 451, in honor of Ray Bradbury’s novel. We each nominated several books to a shortlist and decided together which ones to read. Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, in many ways a poetic anti-theodicy, was one of the finalists. As Brian pointed out in the previous post, Coles references the unbearable theme of suffering throughout Dillard’s book that reminds us of our responsibility to the dead. “Under emperor’s orders,” says Dillard, “living workers crushed their fellows’ dead bones and stuck them into the Great Wall as fill.” Coles wonders out loud how we might live haunted by these disasters that have already happened, because responsibility to the dead can’t mean preventing physical violence because the “disaster has already occurred” (33).

Burning olive groves at Ni'lin to clear a path for the wall.
Photo by Jonathan McRay
During my time in Palestine I occasionally worked in a small village called Ni’lin. Three Israeli settlements on hilltops surround Ni’lin. In 2008, Israel began constructing the Separation Wall through the outskirts of the village. Like many Palestinian villages, Ni’lin depends on its olive and citrus groves and livestock. But the wall annexed or destroyed 6,000 trees, many of which were the oldest and most productive. The wall also impeded Ni’lin’s access to neighboring towns and cities, schools, and healthcare facilities. In response to construction, Ni’lin residents launched a grassroots nonviolent campaign to resist the seizure of land. I was in the village the day the bulldozer came to begin construction and when the nonviolent protests started.

In 2009, Ni’lin residents organized a tribute to Holocaust victims through a village memorial exhibition held at their municipality. Most of the villagers had read about the genocide but this event was the first time many of them had seen pictures. The exhibit tried to remember and lament this disaster, to express that Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and to acknowledge that fate has now put these people together on the same land. These villagers give one response to Coles’ question. We need more responses like this. We need litanies for those who died and survived like Against Forgetting, an anthology of poetry from the 20th century’s wars and conflicts.

Brian says that memory is crucial in redeeming history. Whether or not redemption is possible, Ni’lin and Coles argue that memory is necessary for responsibility to the dead. Memory is notoriously unreliable, which is why storytelling with friends and enemies should be an integral part of remembering. We can’t always remember well when sitting alone. Other voices, living and dead, help us interpret and recreate past encounters so that they might influence us now.

Charles Pinches wrote an excellent essay critiquing Jeffrey Stout and Stanley Hauerwas for their insufficient accounts of the body of America. According to Pinches, Stout’s defense of the democratic tradition doesn’t help us discern what we owe to those who came before us; his description of memory lacks specificity and is therefore emaciated. According to Pinches, Hauerwas’ critique of the democratic tradition, while often prescient, is theoretical and abstract because Hauerwas seems to forget that his body is part of the body of America. Because Hauerwas is American, says Pinches, which means that he considers himself from and lives within these arbitrary and problematic borders, then he should explain to his neighbors how his work contributes to their common life, goods, and differences. Hauerwas seems to have taken such challenges seriously, evidenced by this book written with Coles.

Pinches suggests that Wendell Berry corrects these insufficient accounts by tying memory to community, the body, and the earth. In his essay “People, Land, and Community,” Berry writes:
In its cultural aspect, the community is an order of memories preserved consciously in instructions, songs, and stories, and both consciously and unconsciously in ways. A healthy culture holds preserving knowledge in place for a long time. That is, the essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the soil. In both, death becomes potentiality.
Nostalgia is generalized memory, which is Pinches’ complaint about both Stout and Hauerwas. Bodies and earth are diverse and evolving and memories must be particular enough to embrace these currents. Berry sees soil as “a graveyard, a place of resurrection, and a community of living creatures.” Memory could have a similar description.

Coles thinks the deepest connection he has with Hauerwas is a passion to remember stories that remind us of the holy ghosts that haunt us and the holy spirits that inspire us. But Coles is confused about what Hauerwas means when he says that Rom Coles haunts him. In fact, he’s not entirely sure what and how Hauerwas learns from radical democrats because Hauerwas seems to think “that Christians have always been, insofar as they were Christians, what could be called radical democrats, if that is useful” (35). Hauerwas thinks that Christian practices provide the patience necessary for radical democracy, and Coles sees merit in that perspective. But he doesn’t think that’s the only way to read the past.

Coles offers two other haunting possibilities for the relationship between Christianity and radical democracy. The first is that there might be radical democratic practices and traditions that, while owing gratitude to certain theological visions, are developing their own capacities to engage the world. The second interpretation is more interesting to me, partly because Coles implicitly evokes the ecotone again. As a reminder, an ecotone is the overlapping edge between two ecosystems that results in greater biodiversity than either side. In this second possibility, a radical democratic syncretism might be forming between previous modes of Christianity and non-Christian democracies (37). Coles depicts this syncretism with the “and” in between:
What if you’re right, from the Black Church they inherited modes of patience, time dwelling, virtues and vision of beloved community, and so forth, that greatly enabled a struggle of nonviolent vulnerability and enemy love that is very difficult to imagine having been born in the absence of this tradition? AND, what if the distinctive “experimentalism,” “openness to experience,” “a profoundly antihierarchical ethos,” “generous . . . pluralism” in relation to atheists, Jews, mystics, and others who were profoundly invested in the struggle, and so forth, were engendered very significantly by streams of radical-democratic tradition that were irreducible to Christian debts and nevertheless crucial to much of what is admirable in early SNCC and current IAF practices? (37)
Would Stanley Hauerwas be haunted by this possibility, which doesn’t say that Christianity can’t be experimental or open or horizontal, only that radical democracy may not be reducible to only Christian heritage? I hope he responds in some fashion to this question.

Sometime last year I attended a screening of The Imam and the Pastor, a documentary that follows two former enemy militiamen, one Muslim and one Christian, who now conduct interfaith peacebuilding in Nigeria. After the film, the audience divided into two circles to discuss the dramatic conversions of these men, conversions that didn’t send them to different religious traditions but instead to different interpretations within their own traditions. One viewer was disturbed, perhaps even haunted, by the imam and the pastor. He noted that the pastor never clearly proclaims “Jesus is Lord” to make his approach distinctive from his Muslim colleagues. He worried that this Christianity might be watered-down. (I’ll add that this viewer was extremely genuine and curious; he and I had a meaningful conversation during that circle.)

Does Hauerwas also want to protect a pure Christianity? He doesn’t doubt that the church has betrayed itself by imitating liberalism’s politics of fear, but Coles worries that this is an attempt to always situate Christianity’s failings outside of its story (38). Does Christianity ever produce a politics of fear on its own? My experience and relationships indicate that it very well might. Is there such a thing as pure Christianity prior to living in the world? Maybe the watered-down version is sometimes the better drink because the undiluted version can be too bitter.

Hauerwas’ attempt to excuse Christianity of the politics of fear seems related to his willingness to rule, albeit nonviolently. Coles is nervous about what that means for radical receptivity when someone puts “will” and “rule” next to one another (39). Are we going to generously listen if we think we know enough to be in charge or have the superior narrative? The willingness to rule is one reason (among many) why I’ve never been attracted to radical orthodoxy, which borrows a postmodern critique of modern pluralism in service of making their particularity a universal metanarrative. I’ve wondered if radical orthodoxy is an attempt at cohesive identity by white Western men who feel unstable in the wake of poststructural and postcolonial thought. I haven’t heard of many women or people of color subscribing to radical orthodoxy. We can remain committed to our particular traditions and also be vulnerable and receptive to others, but not if we still secretly think everyone should migrate to our province. I respect Stanley Hauerwas much more than radical orthodoxy, so I would be interested to hear him respond to Coles’ questions.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if a Christian like Hauerwas suggested that the Eucharist could help us recover the insufficiency of our own stories. Some theologians have exaggerated the ability of bread and wine to mediate the world’s problems, but this meal does invoke dangerous memories about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (to borrow a phrase from Hauerwas). Early in his letter, Coles asks, “What does it mean to be responsible to the murdered (or, less dramatically, to the otherwise dead) so that they might not be killed yet again—or for the first time murdered?” (32) He thinks one way to be “responsible for preventing re-murder is to be responsible to the memory of this hope,” the hope of reclaiming a peacemaking that exceeds violence (33). The Eucharist, or communion, or Lord’s Supper means many things but it should also mean preventing re-murder. This embodied memory of a murdered body should remind us that we get it wrong too often. The capacity to kill and stick crushed bones into walls is not foreign to us. Eucharist means we can’t smugly declare that “if we had lived in the time of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have killed the prophets.” The holy ghostly memories of the dead haunt us too.

This ritual isn’t a direct answer to Coles’ question, but might be a way, for those within Christian traditions, to continually ask that same question. Even though I’m allergic to metaphysics and squirm at orthodoxy, I still take Eucharist seriously.

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