Revolutionary Love, and the Colonization of a Critical Voice: An Outsider’s Reflections

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by Laura Levitt

I attended a recent plenary session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) national meeting in San Antonio where I heard Michelle Alexander, the 2016 recipient of the Heinz Award for Public Policy, civil rights attorney and professor of law talk about her astonishing work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). In this session, she revealed the full extent of what she has named “the New Jim Crow,” the radical degradation of people of color, of especially Black men in the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex that institutionalized these enactments and perpetuates them. She spoke eloquently about how she came to this work telling a number of powerful, piercing stories. These were stories of just a few of the myriad of young Black men who have been brutalized by this system.

The session was billed as part of the AAR president’s vision for the conference. This session was a part of something she called “Revolutionary Love.” This theme was, from the start, a decidedly Christian vision of social justice. It was proclaimed by the president, the president of not only this scholarly organization (the AAR) but also, at the same time, the president of Union Seminary, a progressive Christian bastion. Although, as a scholar of Jewish studies, I was a bit unnerved by this enactment of a Christian social justice ministry at the AAR this year, I chose not to publicly challenge this vision. I gave this president and the AAR the benefit of my doubt.

When I arrived at the conference I was eager to hear Michelle Alexander, and I entered this session without prior knowledge of Alexander’s new position as a visiting professor at Union Seminary nor her identification as a progressive Christian. I knew none of this prior to this session.

As I entered the darkened room, a vast ballroom, I joined hundreds of my colleagues for this brief session, just an hour. The podium stood high above the audience. There was a huge screen off to one side projecting close ups of the speakers. On the other side of the stage behind a large draped dais was the president, a petite blonde woman. On the other side of the dais were Michelle Alexander and Kelly Brown Douglas. Brown Douglas is a professor of religion at Goucher College and Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral. I was not aware of Brown Douglas’s work before this session or the book that brought her to this stage, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis Press, 2015). Little did I know what her presence and that of the president of Union Seminary and the AAR would mean for the conversation that ensued.

Perhaps I was naive. In retrospect, that seems quite likely. I should have known this would become a Christian theological conversation. As the president/presider made clear, the format of the session would be a dialogue between these two formidable Black women, a dialogue focused primarily on Alexander and her extraordinary work.

For much of the hour-long conversation, Alexander told the story behind her book The New Jim Crow. She spoke of the people and events that led to her radical position on the need for revolutionary change in our criminal justice system. I want to be quite clear about this. I was deeply moved by every moment of this portion of the session.

And then the conversation took, what was for me, an unexpected turn. All of a sudden the revolutionary who had sung the praises of the Black Panthers, shifted gears. The revolution became spiritual, and, more specifically, a proclamation of the power of “the Church,” of Jesus’s suffering on the cross, on the brother/sisterhood of humanity, all of us “children of God.” This was a decidedly Christian universal message. Just as Alexander proclaimed the bankruptcy of American democracy she proclaimed the revolutionary power of the Church. I could not help but hear a call to crusade, a sacred revolution in the name of Jesus Christ and I was no longer a part of this story. The discourse had shifted, profoundly. I was in a different universe.

My scholarly organization has become an arm of Union Seminary. As that institution had brought Alexander into its embrace making her revolutionary message a part of its Christian repertoire, so too the AAR was becoming a part of this grand Protestant narrative. All of a sudden I was witnessing the conflation of so many stories into something called “the Church.” That act felt to me like a repetition, another instantiation of the appropriation of a radical, a revolutionary political voice in America into a progressive Protestant Christian vision. And with her, in this iteration, the whole AAR seemed to follow suit.

If this is radical love, I want no part. Here in the words of this most compelling social critic, I no longer felt welcome. The universal proclamation of this session and its revolutionary love had no place for Jews or Muslims, for Hindus or Buddhists, and certainly not for the many atheists and agnostics of any and all stripes who are part of this scholarly organization. In our bounded differences from these well-meaning and progressive Christians, we were, it seems no longer welcome.

What troubled me most was that there was not an inkling of recognition of what it might have possibly meant to so many of us in that room to hear that “the Church” is the revolutionary answer. There was no sense that, in fact, “the Church” in some of its other guises had galvanized support for a very different vision of America as a Christian nation, perhaps a different kind of revolutionary love. But either way, Christian hegemony reigns supreme. Recent public discourse has brought us one vision of a Christian nation while the AAR president and her seminary faculty brought us another. In both cases, albeit differently, Christianity is triumphant and those of us who insist on our difference from that universal vision have no place.

Laura S. Levitt is a Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University where she has chaired the department of Religion and served as director of both the Women’s Studies and the Jewish Studies Programs. She is the author of American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (2007) and Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (1997). She is an editor of Judaism Since Gender (1997) and Impossible Images: Contemporary Art after the Holocaust (2003). Her current project, “Evidence as Archive” builds on her prior work in feminist theory and Holocaust studies to ask what material evidence held in police storage can teach us about the role of all those other objects collected in the Holocaust museums, libraries, and archives. This project is a meditation on what it means to do justice to traumatic legacies through an engagement with such objects.

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17 Responses to Revolutionary Love, and the Colonization of a Critical Voice: An Outsider’s Reflections

  1. Thank you, Laura Levitt.

    I might add that as an Irish-American Catholic, I also have never felt at home in Union’s liberal Protestant Christianity. Because of this, I chose to attend a Black, low church Protestant seminary in New York when I began my graduate studies. And even many of the nationally-known African American faculty at Union treated our distinctly non-Ivy League night school with contempt. The dominant liberal U.S. Protestant discourse gives a wide range of us something in common!

  2. Dr. Susan M. (Elli) Elliott says:

    Thank you for this statement. I did not attend the meetings in San Antonio, but the self-congratulatory perspective you describe is pervasive among progressive Christians and poses serious issues. “Inclusion” is still equated with a conception of Christianity as the universal “includer.” The mission is still imperial, no matter how progressive.

  3. Melanie Webb says:

    Dear Laura,

    Thank you so much for articulating your experience in those sessions. I was at both of them and, just before coming across your post, I finished writing an AAR survey response that comments on some of the same dynamics. I was deeply unsettled by the focus on a theological response to the recent election results that enacted a form of Christian supremacy, particularly since Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism have been such strong features of the president-elect’s campaign and appointments.

    At this year’s AAR, we missed the chance to center how religious and theological discourses besides Christian ones are thoroughly a part of American experience and identity, and are resources for responding to gross injustices that have been made ever more plain through the election results and their aftermath. While Christian theologies are also a resource, we need to avoid re-enacting their primacy, and exclusivity, within our politics and communities.

    Again, thank you for writing so eloquently and powerfully.

    Melanie Webb

  4. Brandon Frick says:

    AAR undoubtedly needs to be an open a collegial atmosphere for all its participants.I’m sad to see that didn’t happen for you or many of the commenters. I’m a Protestant pastor who never wants inter-religious dialogue partners to feel unwelcome, especially in matters of social justice, where pursuit of a common good can serve as a bridge between faith communities. Would you mind sharing the heart of the issue? Was it whatAlexander said? Was it the “crusading” effect it had on many in the audience? Was it that she was invited to speak in a plenary session? All the above?

    • Chris Haskett says:

      Aside from the unabashed sectarianism of proclaiming one’s own Church as the answer, there is the problem that inter-religious dialogue is DOING religion, and at least some of us want to maintain a distinction between participation in the activity we study and our study of it. They are not the same thing. For scholars, inter-religious dialogue is data, and we are the interpreters of it.

      To that end, I think many of us were similarly disheartened by the inclusion of HH the 14th Dalai Lama as a participant in a similar session some years back.

    • Melanie Webb says:

      As someone else who was at these sessions and who shares the concerns that Laura is raising, I would like to venture a reply to your question(s).

      The issues that Laura details above arose in Serene Jones’ plenary session on Revolutionary Love and in the plenary conversation between Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander. The questions of spirituality were raised somewhat suddenly near the end of Douglas and Alexander’s conversation, and the cross was centered as the only way to make sense of the current situation. The tone was exclusionary, though everyone was acknowledged to be a “child of God.” I think this was the colonizing element — whether you yourself believe in God or not, we will interpret you through your relationship to the Christian God. As a Christian, I felt very uncomfortable and disappointed.

      I am also confident that, given opportunity, each person on the stage during those sessions would say things differently. In the way that they did word things, though, there really wasn’t room to have something to offer that wasn’t Christian. The motivational language was for Christians to engage people of other faiths, and I did not hear language through which people of other faiths or no faith were invited to recognize themselves as equally valuable collaborators or, even more important, leaders. Most strikingly, people of other faiths, particularly those faiths targeted during the presidential campaign, were not invited to the stage. While the words “only Christians” were never used, the conversation was animated by only Christian theologies. And, as another commenter mentioned, to be inclusive is still to make Christianity the “includer.”

      While interfaith dialogue is vital for some within our communities, it was not what was taking place during these sessions. They could have placed the revolutionary insights from within Christian traditions in conversation with those from other faith traditions or no faith, and from scholarly insights forged in distinction from affiliation with any faith. That’s also not what happened.

      I am excited by Michelle Alexander’s somewhat recent recognition that we need spiritual and moral resources for responding to an injustice as overwhelming and extensive as mass incarceration (and the racism and classism that sustain it), but we need the spiritual and moral resources and insights of all members of our society in order to mount responses that do not re-enact (universalizing) hierarchies that diminish and damage one another.

      In my view, in the aftermath of our nation’s white, Christian supremacist election results, the AAR’s admirable initiative to promote justice in the face of such blatant injustices had the unintended consequence of re-enacting Christian exceptionalism. We missed the opportunity to decenter Christian theologies and create space for a constructive response led by scholars whose approaches to faith and religion are treated in the prevailing rhetoric as “not really American.” The membership of the American Academy of Religion proves that rhetoric wrong, but the plenary sessions at the 2016 annual meeting did not.

  5. I did not attend this session, but I too was taken aback when in the introductory remarks at the session to talk and think about responding to the election, the speaker spoke of a “prophetic moment” and the need for a “prophetic voice.” I felt totally excluded at that moment, as I do not consider the prophets of Israel to be my voice for social justice–since I read the God of the prophets as a God of War who threatens to punish his people violently if they do not conform to his will.

  6. What an irrelevant and useless organization the American Academy of Religion has become.

  7. Eliza says:

    Thank you Laura! I was/am there with you “in spirit”/word. OMG can’t escape religion!

  8. laura levitt says:

    I am humbled and so appreciate these thoughtful comments and reflections.

  9. This has a been a long-standing problem in the AAR, though the description here seems mind-numbingly egregious. One ameliorating consideration, at least in my opinion, is that despite what appears to us outsiders as the dominance of Christianity, liberal Protestant theologians no doubt feel under increasing attack, and are therefore “circling the wagons” by equating the study of religion with theology, and religion as a general category with Christianity. Inappropriate in the context, but perhaps understandable, and hopefully a passing trend. Perhaps a political strategy of supporting candidates to AAR positions who actively promote a true inclusivity would be one way to respond constructively.

  10. Russell McCutcheon says:

    I find the above comments very interesting, as well as those that have appeared with the many re-posts of this article on social media. For it now seems evident that one does not have to be an ardent supporter of a rigorously reductionistic, naturalistic, or social scientific approach to find some very real dissatisfaction with the direction the Academy has gone in recent years. The question, to my mind, is whether it will continue to go in that so-called big tent direction or steer back to focusing rather more tightly on the study of religion as a human phenomenon. As a long-time member, my hope is for the latter.

  11. Amy Hollywood says:

    Laura, your words here are much appreciated. I wasn’t at this plenary, but I think I would have been in complete sympathy with you. My sense, though, is that at least some of the responses to your column think the answer is for the AAR to focus solely on, to pull out the old and somewhat tired phrase, “the academic study of religion.” This seems to suggest that the normative has no place, that social criticism belongs elsewhere, that attention to issues of justice belong to other specialists with other degrees. I think that this js an irresponsible and impossible attempt to separate out some kind of neutral study of religion from what are seen as partisan squabbles.

    But as I read you, the problem with the plenary session was not its emphasis on revolutionary love and the various things that phrase might imply, but the insistence that one tradition – what is ‘the church’ anyway, as if there were just one? – is its sole source. And it also matters that the tradition in question is christianity,
    whose imperialistic, faux-universalizing agenda has been a primary source of many of the political and ethical problems under discussion. My own particular addition to that, as a scholar of Christianity, would be that Christian love almost always — perhaps necessarily — involves Christian hate. It’s precisely for this reason that the rejection of political, normative, even broadly theological work by the AAR is not the answer to the affective and intellectual challenge you pose.

    Am I readkng you rightly? How do we get more and different critical voices at the table, rather than reverting to some supposedly neutral site of intellectual detachment? Is this the way to make the AAR relevant?

    • Amy Hollywood says:

      Please excuse the typos. And a correction: it’s the revolutionary that need not be read as solely Christian. Love, at least as here deployed, may be inseparable from that particular tradition.

      • laura levitt says:

        Amy, thank you. I think much of what you say, especially your haunting reference to the pairing of Christian love and hate is especially troubling. In part, I think that my response was to the presumption of this normative Protestant universal vision of revolutionary love. But, in raising those concerns, the fully range of those such a discourse others was made deeply and profoundly apparent. For some, as you note there is a neutral. I am not sure there is a way to keep the affective, the normative out, but I think there are ways to make space for a range of difference that does not deny the normative. There have been many sectarian Protestants who found this grand gesture problematic. But right now this enactment has forged a rather diverse and engaged community of folks who are now at least attempting to talk to each other. Thank you.

  12. What’s amazing about the AAR is that everyone thinks it’s broken but no one agrees just what that problem is.

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