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.