Subsistence Farming and the Gospel: An Advent Reflection

urbanfarming

Over the Advent season my congregation of Park Place Church of God is engaging in a series that highlights “the Jesus who was cradled in a feeding trough coming to a world in great need of food security.”

The following is my contribution.

Globally, women feed the world. Western economists have often obscured this fact by failing to include unpaid agricultural work in reports. Yet in most societies in most of the world, subsistence farming is necessary to supplement waged work, and frequently it is women who are growing, threshing, processing, and/or rearing the food that feeds the community. Often, this takes place on communal or else illegally occupied land (guerrilla farming in rural areas, guerrilla gardening in urban ones). This work, though essential and lifesaving, is rendered invisible and marginal within the systems of global capital.

Of course, the scriptures attest that the essential and lifesaving are often invisible and marginal according to the systems of the world. The land awaiting a messiah was of little account to the empires that passed it back and forth across the centuries. The Messiah was born to a tiny agrarian community forced to pay a percentage of its harvest to the military dictatorship that simultaneously ruled and ignored it. Yet that birth was both a reminder and a sign that God “has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” We thus see in the birth of the Messiah God’s solidarity with the invisible work tucked away in kitchens, gardens, farms, and fields all over the world.

The Capitalist Worldview – A Moral Critique

The metanarrative of capitalism

In an insightful 1956 essay, Wilfred Beckerman compares the social role of economists with that of colonial missionaries and tribal “witch doctors.” He writes that “the economist not only fulfils the invaluable social function of creating a sense of security and harmony with the economic elements, but fulfils it with an élan, an inventiveness and an array of impressive rites which is a credit to the profession.” This may seem unfair to professional economists, who after all study a great deal of math, yet Beckerman presciently observes that “in an economy, such as that of the United States of America, where leisure is barely moral, the problem of creating sufficient wants…to absorb productive capacity may become chronic in the not too distant future. In such a situation the economist begins to lead a furtive existence.” Writing not long afterward, John Kenneth Galbraith has his finger on the same pulse, and diagnoses “an elaborate and ingenious defense of the importance of production as such.” Continued and indeed escalating production is essential in Galbraith’s view in order to provide economic security. A society will not tolerate production for its own sake, and so desire for products must be manufactured along with those products themselves. Galbraith, in his usual moral authoritarian mode, elaborates, “In this way, economic theory has managed to transfer the sense of urgency in meeting consumer need that once was felt in a world where more production meant more food for the hungry, more clothing for the cold, and more houses for the homeless.” This has transitioned into “a world where increased output satisfied the craving for more elegant automobiles, more exotic food, more erotic clothing, more elaborate entertainment—indeed, for the entire modern range of sensuous, edifying and lethal desires.” In other words, the desire for production of luxury consumer goods is created not by society, nor yet by consumers, but by economic “science.” Galbraith supports this claim through a lengthy genealogy of production, but not before making the commonsense observation that new consumer desire suspiciously never deviates from products becoming available.

The prescience of Beckerman and Galbraith’s post-war comments is striking. Crucially, their analysis indicates that consumerism is not an aberration, but is the necessary condition for a capitalist economy to subsist. Without directly citing either, Cavanaugh interacts with contemporary accounts that summarize the same effect ongoing today, noting that “in the absence of any objective concept of the good, sheer power remains.” The context for Cavanaugh’s discussion is an examination of the claims of the market to offer freedom, an essential component of the larger market metanarrative, which undergirds the assumptions within which economics as a discipline functions.

The market story assumes, first of all, conditions of scarcity. Without scarcity there is no necessary impetus toward exchange. Because exchange occurs within conditions of scarcity, moreover, inefficiencies present themselves. The goal of economics is the study of such exchanges with a view toward recommendations for minimizing inefficiencies. Among other things, this leads to casting people within the market story as purely economic agents. As economist Nancy Ruth Fox admits, “Neoclassical economists tend to compartmentalize people, viewing them as economic agents who supply labor and demand goods and services. This allows their disparate practices, desires, needs, and wants to be commodified. In fact, for neoclassical economists, essentially anything can be commodified.” In a critique of this totalizing perspective, Long writes,

Economics claims to see the total whole, which is embodied…in the natural workings of the market; and then it requires some people to sacrifice for the sake of this totality. Those sacrifices are then justified on the basis of the natural truth of the totality. They are necessary phases toward the best possible outcome assessment, whether they are willed or not.

Crucial in this statement is the use of the word natural. Within the narrative, economics as such is not fundamentally prescriptive but descriptive (hence, neoclassical economists would object to Galbraith ascribing agency to economic “science” above). Though policy recommendations are an aspect of what economists do, they depend upon a brutal reliance on the mechanisms provided by the market itself, which like the wind for a sailor can be utilized but not directed. (It is for this reason, Fox insists, that economists necessarily appear “cold-hearted” to those who do not “understand.” We are venturing near to Beckerman’s shamanistic description of the economist again.)

Because market conditions are taken as an ontological given, the verity of economic perspectives functions on the same plane as—if not a higher one than—Christian theological perspectives. Whereas a Christian may, for instance, perceive justice as a higher end than profit or efficiency, the economist must reply that that simply is not the case. Such theological commitments are not merely relegated to the realm of the private, but are deemed positively harmful. The central tenets of capitalism demand that only a pursuit of personal gain will lead (through no intention of the pursuer) to increased gain and freedom for all. For neoclassical economists like Milton Friedman, freedom (from outside interference, whether moral or legislative) is both the necessary condition for the market to function as well as the outcome of a free market in the lives of individuals. He writes,

So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another with respect to most of his activities. The consumer is protected from coercion by the seller because of the presence of other sellers with whom he can deal; the seller is protected from coercion by the consumer because of other consumers with whom she can sell; the employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work, and so on. And the market does this impersonally and without centralized authority.

Again, this is all accepted on the level of ontological fact, guided by Smith’s invisible hand. Of those who express skepticism toward the market’s transmutation of self-interest, Friedman writes that “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

Here is where we pick up again Cavanaugh’s argument from before. Cavanaugh, as a theologian, distinguishes between Friedman’s negative account of freedom as freedom from outside interference and the Augustinian portrayal of freedom as freedom to return to God in love. While a market wholly free from outside interference may conceivably contribute to a freedom in the negative sense, it cannot possibly contribute to that positive freedom, which necessarily includes some telos, some account of individual or social flourishing, toward which that freedom might be oriented.

The implicit theology of the market

What does this market metanarrative mean for a Christian political imagination and morality more generally? Daniel Bell identifies several aspects of an implicit theology expressed by the global capitalist market. Basic to any understanding of capitalism is its anthropology. For Bell, “Capitalism does not simply act on a pregiven human subject; rather, it forms a particular kind of human subject, one that relates to its environment in a certain way.” Referring to this construct by pseudo-Linnaean nomenclature, Bell describes several characteristics of homo economicus.

Homo economicus is sheerly individual, indeed, “sovereign…not dependent on or subject to others except to the extent that she voluntarily enters into relations with a view to her own interests.” (This accords with Hauerwas’s indictment of liberalism, in which “the individual is the sole source of authority.”) There is no possibility here for tribal identity or any other so-called “oppressive traditionalist and collectivist economies and societies.” Naturally, this understanding comes into conflict with the unity of church. While homo economicus can sovereignly enter into a church body if the cost-benefit analysis justifies such a decision, one cannot at the same time say that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4).

The capitalist individual is characterized by a self-determining freedom to choose. Bell further observes that this negative freedom cannot be simply supplemented by an added-on concept of positive freedom, because to do so would be to work at odds with the guidance of the invisible hand: this is why pure free market advocates argue against benevolent campaigns such as Fair Trade. Additionally, the capitalist individual is a self-interested “interest maximizer” with an “insatiable desire.” Within the market metanarrative, not only is this self-interested acquisitiveness not a vice (as in the Christian conception of greed), it is salvific. Friedman describes it as “one of the strongest and most creative forces known to [humans], the attempt by millions of individuals to promote their own interests, to live their lives by their own values.” This is troubling to Bell, as “the emphasis on self-interest entails a rejection of any substantive notion of a shared purpose or common good that unites humanity.” This acquisitiveness must be troubling to pastors, theologians, and liturgists as well, as it indicates that the market-formed individual coming to the communion table has been disciplined never to feel satisfied.  

Finally, Bell observes the effects that the existence of such individuals has on society at large. Given the conditions of scarcity that the market economy assumes, any number of acquisitive individuals are necessarily in competition with one another for finite resources. Simply put, “Capitalism orders human relations as struggle and conflict.” Aspects of this competition afflict even the “winners,” as marriages in bourgeois societies transmute into “(short-term) contracts subject to a cost/benefit analysis, children become consumer goods or accessories, family bonds are weakened, and our bodies are treated like so many raw materials to be mined and exploited for manufacture and pleasure.” Much more devastating, however, is the effect of economic competition on the “losers,” the poor who live in rich societies, as well as whole nations and people-groups exploited to the benefit of richer nations. As Bolivian indigenous leader Nilda Rojas Huanca has put it, “The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding.” Huanca refers in part to the impoverished working class, but also to the veins of the earth, as resources are extracted from colonized and post-colonial territories to create consumer goods for the colonizers—a process Naomi Klein refers to as “extractivism.” It is increasingly accepted both by scientists and concerned theologians that creation is also “losing” amidst this economic competition. As Pope Francis writes in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si, climate change “represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” Francis also recognizes that “its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”

Yet capitalism is not structured to recognize these bare facts as unjust. From the perspective of the market, justice is “solely a matter of enforcing the terms of voluntary, contractual exchanges. Justice does not mandate that those exchanges result in a particular outcome or even that exchanges be made possible in the first place.” Like its account of freedom, the market’s account of justice is purely negative. This is in bald contrast to Paul’s logic in 1 Cor 11, where he censures the privileged believers for leaving too little of the “one bread” for the rest. Paul did not diagnose a scarcity, but a greed proceeding from a lack of recognition of the body.

Just as the market offers an implicit account of the human, it offers an implicit account of God. If the individual under capitalism is homo economicus, God is Deus absconditus, an absentee god. The clearest substitute for the Christian God in capitalist thought is the invisible hand, which providentially transforms individual pursuit of self-interest into common benefit. Yet according to Adam Smith and his inheritors, the invisible hand can do this only by unintended consequence. Altruism will proceed through self-interest, but conscious attempts at altruism—a mandated living wage, for example—will interfere with the machinations of the system, hurting rather than helping. Hence, not only are compassion and other virtues unnecessary, they are positively disincentivized.

Concomitantly, Bell recognizes the market’s conception of God as one who explicitly “is not redeeming.” While the market narrative itself does not recognize sin, Christian capitalists may. They must, however, understand sin as an “ineradicable given,” in Michael Novak’s terms, the harm of which can only be minimized through efficient economic arrangement. Christian defenses of the market thus maintain their intelligibility only by resolving prematurely the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the eschatological reign of God. For Bell, this non-redeeming quality reduces the capitalist conception of God to an idolatrous vision that is atheistic, deistic, or Stoic. This vision is atheistic in that it necessarily operates as though God were not, deistic in its reliance on self-operating and -maintaining principles (Smith, like most of the intelligentsia of his day, was a Deist), and Stoic in its vision “of sovereign individuals, proprietors of their own bodies, who move through the trials and tribulations of this life, making the most of their capacities and endowments, hoping thereby only to endure, to survive, expecting no redemption.” Further, the God of capitalist logic is necessarily one who never creates or provides enough. The agony of competition described above does not proceed from improper human selfishness, but is called forth by the very qualities imbued in creation: “Humanity is created with desires that cannot be sated, and then humanity is set in a natural order that is incomplete and lacking.”

The result of this maladjusted view, incompatible with scriptural depictions of God, humanity and the life of virtue and discipleship, is that capitalism results in great destruction not only to those it harms, but distorts the way everyone involved in the system understand and approach the world.

David Gushee’s LGBT articles

Over the course of a few weeks, David Gushee published a series of articles examining in-depth “the LGBT issue.” David Gushee is a prominent Christian ethicist who has been well respected among evangelicals for many years. He co-authored with Glen Stassen the text Kingdom Ethics, which remains a masterpiece of ethical reflection, used in many introductory courses to Christian ethics. Hence, his somewhat unexpected shift from a traditional ethic to an affirmation of same-sex love surprised many and signaled a sea change in the evangelical world. His articles were subsequently developed and reformatted for publication as the book Changing Our Minds.

Unfortunately, many of the internal links from his articles to one another have fallen into disrepair, making the online version of his work far less accessible. As such, I offer an index to the updated links to the series here, in the hope that they will be found helpful.

Starting a conversation: The LGBT Issue, part 1

What exactly is the issue? The LGBT issue, part 2

Change we can all support: The LGBT issue, part 3

Gay Christians exist: The LGBT issue, part 4

Six options for the churches: The LGBT issue, part 5

If this is where you get off the bus: The LGBT issue, part 6

Biblical inspiration, human interpretation: The LGBT issue, part 7

How traditionalists connect the biblical dots: The LGBT issue, part 8

The sins of Sodom (and Gibeah): The LGBT issue, part 9

Leviticus, abomination and Jesus: The LGBT issue, part 10

Two odd little words: the LGBT issue, part 11 (revised)

God made them male and female: The LGBT issue, part 12

Creation, sexual orientation, and God’s will: The LGBT issue, part 13

Toward covenant: The LGBT issue, part 14

Transformative encounters and paradigm leaps: The LGBT issue, part 15

A dual-narrative tour: The LGBT issue, part 16

What I have learned: The LGBT issue, conclusion

I hope that this index proves useful to those researching the issue in good faith. David Gushee’s research is by no means by the final word on the subject, but if it is more than you have ever read, you owe it to yourself and to conversation partners to read at least this much before entering into the discussion.

Away From “Sexual Purity”

“Purity” is a poor and abusive framework for sexual ethics. The notion of “sexual purity” has been weaponized against women while “purity culture,” most prototypically captured in Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has been made into a tool of patriarchal and heterosexist dominance. While Harris has recently revisited the tone of the book, he remains committed to its basic thesis. His hemi-demi-semi retraction has led to the recent emergence of #stillpurityculture, a hashtag co-created by Emily Joy and Bethany Suckrow that proceeds from the observation that a kinder, gentler purity culture is still purity culture, and still embodies the same kinds of structural harm as more clearly repugnant presentations.

A rejection of “purity” as a concept, however, raises the question of what else sexual ethics might look like, particularly in a Christian key. If not purity, what are we aiming for in our sexual lives? I would like to suggest, following the dependency ethics introduced to me by Alasdair MacIntyre, that the notions of generosity, truthfulness, and acknowledged mutual vulnerability are more central to the core of Christian morality than the concept of purity, particularly as Jesus specifically repudiated “purity” as a category in his own ministry. These goals, I suggest, are more instructive than purity as a goal, without falling into the libertine hedonism that some conservative Christians fear may accompany a move away from “sexual purity” as a moral paradigm.

Moral reasoning based on the norms of the natural order has traditionally been referred to as natural theology or natural law thought. On the other hand, thinking that privileges the experiences of the individual or of the community that seeks to interpret the world has been labeled as “narrative theology.” We cannot, however, sharply divide these areas of thought. Because natural law seeks the conditions for human flourishing, it must accord with the experiences of actual humans. We must therefore take a phenomenological approach to understanding romantic love and sexuality: what they are for and when they are disordered.

Why do romantic love and sexuality emerge in humans in the first place? Many theorists suggest reproduction or social constructionism as evolutionary foundations of romantic love, but James Giles proposes a vulnerability and care theory that I find very persuasive and also compatible with the main themes of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For Giles, “The experience of being in love involves a complex of desires for reciprocal vulnerability in order to care and be cared for.” Accordingly, sexual desire involves “the physical expression of these [romantic] desires in the form of desires for mutual baring in order to caress and be caressed.”

Vulnerability, dependence, and care are themes that have become central to Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of the moral life. For some time, MacIntyre had worked to establish an account of morality that was purely sociological, based in communal practices and tradition. In the introduction to his 2001 Dependent Rational Animals, he writes, “I now judge that I was in error in supposing an ethics independent of biology to be possible.” MacIntyre thus seeks to reunite nature and narrative in his work.

Virtue always requires a telos, an end, a concrete conception of the good toward which actions should be oriented. Living morally as an embodied human, for MacIntyre, requires an awareness of two sets of irreducible biological facts: “Those concerning our vulnerabilities and afflictions and those concerning the extent of our dependence on particular others.” The most basic fact of human life is that each one of us is born and maintained alive in a state of moral debt. Within such a natural order, the fundamental virtues are ones of “acknowledged dependence,” of which MacIntyre emphasizes “just generosity” and “elementary truthfulness.”

Just generosity consists of three patterns of giving and receiving: affective/emotional relationships, hospitality, and openness to urgent need. Elementary truthfulness demands that we allow the other in any relationship to learn what they need to know, not concealing our own need to learn (that is, admitting our vulnerability), and not withdrawing from the circle of learning in some kind of “ironic detachment.” Just generosity and elementary truthfulness are at the same time obligations that we as humans owe to one another and skills in which we strive to grow.

What does this mean for our sexual lives in particular?  What does it mean to be justly generous in our sexual lives, or to exercise truthfulness? It means, for instance, that sexual exploitation is unacceptable. It means that consent is respected and, indeed, prioritized. Generosity means that our sexual relationships cannot be only about taking, but must also be characterized by self-giving. Generosity also means that we will take steps to ensure that we are prepared to be parents, or else take steps to prevent it. Truthfulness means that we will self-disclose medical conditions that might affect our partners. Truthfulness also means that we will communicate clearly and honestly about our intentions, our hopes, our expectations. Additionally, we will recognize our mutual vulnerabilities. To be human is to be vulnerable, but the sexual relationship is among the most intentionally vulnerable we will ever be with another. To embrace this is to recognize the moral stakes involved.

It is important to note that this account of the meaning inherent in human embodiment does not rely on strict gender binary or gender subordination. All human beings are infinitely indebted. As MacIntyre notes, some debts are measurable, but every parent’s “initial commitments” are in “in important respects unconditional,” because we never know what becoming a parent will end up demanding of us, and the human race could not carry on without such unconditional commitment. Because all are infinitely indebted, all are equally bound to embrace the virtues of generosity and truthfulness, virtues that can only be established in relationship to particular others, that is, specific people as opposed to “humankind in general.” The reciprocal vulnerability of romantic relationships makes them a key institution for the cultivation of such virtues, and there is no compelling reason to presume that the genders of the individuals involved undoes that. Same-sex partners are as capable of generosity and truthfulness as opposite-sex partners, as these virtues do not rely on the natural subordination of one gender to another. Not only does gender subordination not figure into the virtues of acknowledged dependence, certain accounts of masculinity are toxic to them.

Indeed, given the configuration of our patriarchal culture, it is incumbent on men to recognize that the risks associated with being sexually active fall primarily on women. Cat-calling, domestic abuse, pregnancy, reputation are all areas that disproportionately affect women. Much of this is the direct result of the purity-culture mindset, but it is certainly the responsibility of men to understand this dynamic, to adapt themselves to it, and to work to correct it.

Ultimately, there is much left to be sketched out. This is a very small gesture toward a sexual ethic based in human dependency, truthfulness, generosity and mutual vulnerability. Still, I believe that this is a positive move away from purity culture, and I welcome thoughts, suggestions and critiques.

Same-Sex Love and the Trajectory of Scripture

In 2001, William Webb wrote an influential book called Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. In it, he argues that the Bible has a trajectory toward the abolition of slavery and the equality of men and  women, but not the acceptability of same-sex love. And thus he argues that if we follow the trajectory set by the Bible, we are wrong to compare LGBT issues to these other emancipatory issues.

What Webb’s argument fails to see is that the Bible’s warrants against same-sex love are primarily based on the inequality of men and women. The understanding of nature/phusis presented in Leviticus and drawn on by Paul and other NT writers is a natural hierarchy, with men above women. (On this, see the fuller treatment here.) Webb is quite right that the trajectory of scripture moves away from that hierarchy, but misses what this means for same-sex love.

If the trajectory points away from the subjugation of women, it also points away from the parallel “proper sexual roles” of men and women. The emancipation of same-sex love (indeed, queer love in general) is thus as much a part of the liberation that Christ proclaimed in the Reign of God as the breaking of chains and the recognition of the equality of men and women in the image of God.

Thinking Theologically About Race and Racism

The disjunction between racism and the communion table is clear. Racism and the eucharist “signify opposing horizons of meaning.”[1] Both implicate bodies, but whereas the eucharist incorporates individual bodies into the one body of Christ, racism “focuses on and interprets the [individual] body through an aesthetic scale that hypostatizes phenotype; it rests on the separation of humanness from the body.”[2] Moreover, as the eucharist disrupts our individualistic lives, it also prompts us to deconstruct our individualistic readings of the world. As the one cup and one bread bespeak unity, in which distinctions of gender, race, and class are overcome, such distinctions established in society become increasingly problematic. As we commune, we are disciplined into an imagination of unity, and are accordingly driven to work toward radical reconciliation in our social worlds.

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However, a misunderstanding of the level at which racism functions remains one of the major obstacles on the path to reconciliation. In common parlance, most individuals use “racist” and “prejudiced” interchangeably, to indicate any kind of distinction an individual makes toward another individual along perceived racial lines. This enables individuals to object to broad accounts of racism on the grounds that they personally do not hold animosity toward people of another race. Collapsing racism into personal prejudice permits those who benefit from present arrangements of the social order to object to structural critiques with charges of “reverse racism.” Because this conflation of ideas cannot yield an accurate critique of structural racism in society, it cannot begin to address it. Consequently, Christians who reduce racism to personal animosity are left with few options to combat the structural racism embedded in American social, political, economic, legal, and ecclesial life.

Such insipid responses tend to take one of two forms. The first is a pietistic appeal, in the form of the claim that, in the words of youth evangelist Greg Stier, “Only the gospel can obliterate racism,” because “only the gospel can conquer evil in the human heart.”[3] In anticipation of the grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, Stier wrote an article addressed to Christians of Ferguson and St. Louis, in which he offered five pieces of advice: pray, speak gently, “obliterate racism in your own heart first,” offer healing rather than hatred, and ultimately, evangelize.[4] Likewise, popular preacher Perry Noble wrote in the aftermath of the same decision,

You are free to have an opinion about what’s happened and what is happening in Ferguson and all over. But what matters is not our opinions, but God’s perspective. It’s not about what we think should happen, but about what God wants to happen. What Is The Answer? The Gospel—period![5]

Neither of these writers clarifies exactly what is meant by “the gospel,” unless it is simply a synonym for evangelism. The implication seems to be that Christians are not racist and that racism is the direct byproduct of there being too many non-Christians in a given population. Neither writer states this in so many words, and probably would not, because when made explicit the claim is absurd. Nevertheless, while prayer, gentleness of speech, and evangelism are laudable acts, advocating them alone is a vacuous response to such complex social issues. A second solution that follows from the individualistic understanding of racism is recorded by Harvey. She writes that “for many justice-oriented Christians, our lack of racial mixing on Sunday mornings is a problem. For some it is even ‘the problem’ when it comes to the continuing presence of racism in the church.”[6] Accordingly, the language of “reconciliation” often means no more than achieving numerical parity within individual congregations.[7]

The significant divide for those advocating for multiracial congregations is between predominantly African-American congregations and predominantly white ones. The majority of historically black churches were established out of the sinful legacy of white churches, whether during the era of antebellum slavery or the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.[8] Harvey is thus skeptical of reconciliation paradigms that seek numerical parity without redressing the history of relationship between white and black churches. In particular, she is concerned with white churches who want to become more diverse without changing their current power structure or culture. She cites with approval the comments of Chris Lahr to a white audience, “Most people of color don’t want to go where whites are in charge. If you want to be part of a diverse congregation, go to an African American congregation or a Hispanic congregation, lay down your power, and learn from them.”[9] Given the power and privilege that whiteness carries with it in American life, Harvey does not believe that mere diversity within congregations, even where it is achievable, sufficiently addresses the underlying issue of racism.[10] She calls instead for a reparations model, following the pattern of the Black Manifesto.[11]

The Black Manifesto was the product of the National Black Economic Development Conference (NBEDC), which met from April 25-27, 1969.[12] The following Sunday, James Forman, one of the principal authors, disrupted worship at Riverside Church in New York City. Though the minister, choir, and the majority of the congregation walked out in protest, Forman read the short manifesto and its demands.

We the black people assembled in Detroit, Michigan, for the National Black Economic Development Conference are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor….We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and the Jewish synagogues. This…is not a large sum of money, and we know that the churches and synagogues have a tremendous wealth and its membership, white America, has profited and still exploits black people. We are also not unaware that the exploitation of colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by the white Christian churches and synagogues…Fifteen dollars for every black brother and sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as a people who has been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted.[13]

The Manifesto specifies the allocation of the $500 million, including a southern land bank, a publishing industry, a skills training center for African Americans, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund, a black university, the establishment of an International Black Appeal to raise money for cooperative businesses in both the United States and Africa, and more.[14] The demands were extremely specific, and starkly material. Several denominations and institutions were willing to pay out large sums of money, but not to the NBEDC itself, and not under the label of reparation. Instead, they worked to establish their own, white-controlled agencies for poverty relief or charities directed toward African Americans or poverty in general.[15] The National Council of Churches (NCC) proposed a committee of its own members as well as members from the National Council of Black Churchmen (NCBC) to determine program recommendations before it was willing to pay. The NCBC supported the terms of the Manifesto and pointed out to the NCC that it was very clear on its program recommendations, and thus refused to be part of any such committee. Incredibly, the NCC simply opted to create its own committee without NCBC members.[16] Harvey writes, “It cannot be understated what a morally convoluted and racially offensive and alienating choice that was.”[17]

The Black Manifesto was largely rejected by white church organizations. For Harvey, the Manifesto is an instance of a larger paradigm that remains valid today. Reparation requires remembering together by victim and oppressor, truthful confession, and material redress of material injustice: reparation is the necessary first step toward reconciliation, in Harvey’s view. She recognizes the challenge to white churches of such self-searching, but asserts that the hope for transformation offered “exists in equal measure to the depth of the challenge…laid down to white Christians.”[18]

The differences between Harvey’s challenge and the calls of Stier and Noble are striking. Reparation forces us to confront the reality of racism’s effects on the bodies that comprise the body of Christ. Reparation admits as real the effects of racism on concrete human lives. Conversely, individualistic understandings locate the only reality of racism’s existence within the interior self. It is in that sense a quasi-gnostic approach to the situation. At the communion table, believers share not merely in abstract, interior notions of love, but in one cup and one loaf, joined together in one Lord, who breaks down dividing walls between peoples in real, measurable ways. Perhaps the Black Manifesto is not the correct model for intra-ecclesial reparations (though I am inclined to say that it is a good starting point), but the material nature of its demands is fitting given the real unity the table would make of us. Moreover, it recognizes the same moral logic in discerning the body that Paul applied to the Corinthians. The privileged wealthy were at fault, perpetuating disunity as they failed to perceive the way that social structures had intruded upon the eucharist. It was incumbent on them, not the laborers, to redress the disunity. Likewise, whiteness is particularly implicated in the racial divisions that plague the church, and the moral charge is on white Christians to redress our racial disunity. The unity envisioned in the eucharist stands at odds with the racism that structures American life. Each time the table is set, we are being invited and challenged to reconciliation, but not without reparation.

 

[1] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Meaning (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 107.

[2] Copeland, 107-8.

[3] Greg Stier, “Only the Gospel can Obliterate Racism,” Gregstier.org, 26 November, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015, http://www.gregstier.org/rants/only-the-gospel-can-obliterate-racism/.

[4] Greg Stier, “My 5 Encouragements to the Christians of St. Louis and Ferguson,” Gregstier.org, 24 November, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015, http://www.gregstier.org/rants/my-5-encouragements-to-the-youth-leaders-and-teenagers-of-st-louis-and-ferguson/.

[5] Perry Noble, “Racism, Ferguson and the Solution,” Perrynoble.com 4 December, 2014, accessed 23 July, 2015, https://perrynoble.com/blog/racism-ferguson-and-the-solution.

[6] Harvey, 19.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid., 132-44. Similar stories can be told of many other predominantly ethnic churches in the United States as well, particularly Native and Hispanic congregations.

[9] David Janzen, The Intentional Community Handbook: For Idealists, Hypocrites and Wannabe Disciples of Jesus (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013), 143, quoted in Harvey, 70.

[10] Harvey, 70. I am not arguing directly against congregations pursuing multiracial composition, or against the intentional establishment of “mosaic” churches and church plants. I do, however, share Harvey’s skepticism that multiracial congregations can become the norm without addressing directly the social conditions that give rise to predominantly single-race congregations as well as confession of the sinful legacy of white church bodies that has given rise to the establishment of “non-white” worshiping bodies. A recent joint study from Baylor University, the University of Southern California, and the University of Chicago shows that attitudes toward racism and explanations for racial inequality among congregants in multiracial churches are statistically indistinguishable from those in white churches, while remaining markedly different from those among black, Asian, and  Hispanic churches. This strongly suggests that assimilation and “Anglo-conformity” are substituting for true reconciliation in these multiracial congregations. See Ryon J. Cobb, Samuel L. Perry, and Kevin D. Dougherty, “United by Faith? Race/Ethnicity, Congregational Diversity, and Explanations of Racial Inequality,” Sociology of Religion 76, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 177-98, accessed August 21, 2015, http://socrel.oxfordjournals.org/content/76/2/177.full.

[11] Harvey, 106.

[12] Ibid., 118.

[13] Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations, ed. Robert S. Lecky and H. Elliot Wright (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 120.

[14] Ibid., 121-2.

[15] Harvey, 122-3.

[16] Ibid., 125.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 108.

Bathroom Bills and the Panopticon

One of the most prescient elements of George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four is the ubiquity of surveillance—rather, of the possibility of surveillance. No one in Orwell’s novel is certain whether they are being observed through telescreens at any given moment, and thus they conform themselves to social expectations even in their private lives.[1] Indeed, the constant possibility of surveillance leads citizens to constantly surveil one another, effectively doing the authority’s job for them and internalizing the authority’s values. This is ultimate ideological victory. Permanent visibility becomes a form of power and control, what Foucault called “panopticism;” telescreens functioning as the panopticon.[2]

The recent passing of the “Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” more broadly known as the “Bathroom Bill,” in North Carolina is intended by its supporters to protect the safety and privacy of users of public restrooms. The law

directs all public schools, government agencies and public college campuses to require that multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities, such as locker rooms, be designated for use only by people based on their “biological sex” stated on their birth certificate. Transgender people can use the bathrooms and changing facilities that correspond to their gender identity only if they get the biological sex on their birth certificate changed.[3]

This is only one example of such laws, which are appearing in increasing number in recent months. Supporters of the law see this is a commonsense protection, for young girls in particular. Many clarify that they are not worried about transgender women attacking cisgender women,[4] but about cis men taking advantage of trans-inclusive policies to gain access to bathrooms or changing rooms for the purposes of viewing or assaulting women. While I find this scenario implausible,[5] my primary objections to this law pertain rather to enforcement and surveillance.

If someone suspects that I am a trans man (many trans men indeed appear more masculine than I do), and thus that I am in the “wrong” bathroom, what is their recourse? Presumably to contact management of the establishment who will contact either police or their own security. What is my recourse? Even if I have state-issued ID on me, this does not settle the matter legally, as the law explicitly refers to birth certificates. I do not carry my birth certificate with me, and of course many trans people have ID that does not match their birth certificates. (In any event, a law that requires a person to have identification in order to use the bathroom is inherently classist and draconian.) Indeed, video emerged on Facebook in December 2015 of a biologically female woman being physically ejected from a restaurant bathroom because she didn’t seem feminine enough to security, despite a small crowd of women attesting to their mistake. In this absurd encounter, male security forces attempt to protect the privacy and security of a woman’s space but are themselves the ones violating it.[6]

And this is one of the central problems with these kinds of laws. Supporters wish to make spaces safer, but in fact establish a virtual panopticon, as the public surveils and polices each individual of the public to ensure that they are performing their gender well enough. Moreover, this applies to both cis and trans individuals. Trans people who “pass”—that is, are not generally perceived to be transgender—are effectively immune to such laws. (See, for example, the top submissions to the “Transpassing” subreddit, many of whom are likely to remain unaffected by these laws one way or the other.)[7] Trans people who do not pass, as well as cis people whose appearance or behavior calls attention, are at the mercy of public scrutiny.

These laws thus reinforce strict gender roles—not only the gender essentialism that believes a person’s chromosomes (or genitals, or internal reproductive organs, etc.) dictate their gender, but also the expectations that society has for men as such and women as such. These laws contribute to the social atmosphere in which all people, whether gay, bisexual, straight, cis or trans, are constantly having their gender performance observed and judged, and add a penalty for failure to conform. Bathrooms—one of the most common and necessary public utilities—thus function precisely as Orwell’s telescreens: sites of surveillance, mechanisms that discipline us through daily scrutiny into internalizing a particular account of what it means to be man or woman.

                [1] “There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… you had to live…in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

                [2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.

                [3] Avianne Tan, “North Carolina’s Controversial  ‘Anti-LGBT’ Bill Explained,” ABC News, 24 March, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/US/north-carolinas-controversial-anti-lgbt-bill-explained/story?id=37898153.

                [4] The term “cisgender” was recently added  to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. For definition, see http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cisgender-meaning.

                [5] Most sexual assault is not perpetuated by strangers, but by relatives and acquaintances. Those few who do assault strangers in public rely on stealth and moments of isolation and opportunity—in which law becomes irrelevant—rather than drawing attention to themselves, as any masculine-presenting person entering a women’s bathroom or changing room does, whether they wish to or not. As many detractors of these laws have already pointed out, trans people (and I suppose this would include cis men imitating trans people?) are far more at risk in public spaces as it is.

                [6] Matthew Tharrett, “Aggressive Cop Forces Gay Woman Out Of Ladies Room For Not Having ID,” New Now Next, 20 April, 2016, http://www.newnownext.com/aggressive-cop-forces-gay-woman-out-of-womens-bathroom-for-not-having-id/04/2016/.

                [7] The issue of “passing” and its desirability or not in the trans community is highly individual and politically charged. For discussion, see Chris Godfrey, “Transgender Men and Women Discuss the Politics of ‘Passing,’” Vice, 25 March, 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/ passing-when-youre-transgender as well as Princess Harmony Rodriguez, “5 Ways to Support Trans People who Don’t ‘Pass’ for Cis,” Black Girl Dangerous, 6 August, 2015, http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2015/08/5-ways-to-support-trans-people-who-dont-pass-for-cis/.