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From London to Durham: A Theological Peregrination

I recently moved from London, a city in which I was born and in which I have lived all my life, to Durham, a city where I am without reference points or roots.1 London has been a key stimulus and backdrop to my intellectual work and political activism, and yet this new city, Durham, is a place where I find myself already enmeshed in a complex history of interaction between one side of the Atlantic and the other.

This move and these interactions are the subject of this essay, but first I must begin with an explanation of my subtitle, “A Theological Peregrination.” My use of the word peregrination could be put down to the usual linguistic pretensions of the British. But I assure you, my use of peregrination goes at least a little beyond that.

I could have used the word odyssey, but that would imply that, like Odysseus, I would eventually return from whence I came, unmarked in flesh and spirit by my time in Durham, simply picking up where I left off. And that would be a very sorry outcome. I thought of using the word exodus, but that would imply that London was a place of oppression from which I was liberated. To say that would not only be a misnomer, it would also deeply offend my mother, who is, as you can imagine, somewhat sensitive on these matters. Exile is another scriptural term for a journey in which a change of both place and outlook is demanded, but although I may heed the prophet Jeremiah’s advice to seek the welfare of this city, to suggest that Durham is a place of Babylonian captivity would perhaps offend my new colleagues. Thus, for the sake of theological cogency, filial duty, and collegial harmony I alighted upon the term peregrination. It is a word that denotes both the action of traveling from place to place and a sojourn in a foreign land.  In Christian parlance, it is a word used to describe not only our pilgrimage through this earthly life but also a spiritual journey of trial and transfiguration.

There is a last pair of meanings to the word peregrination that is also relevant. In the seventeenth century it was used to refer to a comprehensive or systematic investigation, and in more recent parlance, it has been used in reference to a rambling digression or literary wandering. Now, while I should offer you the systematic investigation, what I actually offer is a series of intersecting digressions and wanderings. What follows is a series of interwoven peregrinations about how particular ideas and people have traveled to and fro across the Atlantic and how these ideas and people might help us understand the conditions and possibilities of theological reflection on politics here and now. For the question of what it means for me to peregrinate from Europe to America cannot be separated from the history of those others who made this journey before me, some for reasons of exodus, fleeing political persecution, and others by means of a brutal exile, such as those who were incarcerated in the holds of the slave ships that set sail from London.

I will explore how peregrinating is a crucial dimension of theological and political reflection in the contemporary context, characterized as it is by deep religious and cultural plurality that coexists but rarely interacts in the same place. Such coexistence without interaction is perhaps even truer of Durham, where legacies of segregation set in place by slavery and Jim Crow still shape how people use public space, than it is of London, where everyone, including the rich and poor, tends to live cheek by jowl. In a context like Durham, travelingtravelling beyond what is familiar, both physically and mentally, is vital if a common life between strangers is to be possible and plausible.2 This movement beyond the limits of one’s familiar spaces, faces, and primary associations is a means by which the tight circle of what constitutes our sense of home is rendered more capacious and hospitable. I suggest that peregrinating, in the sense of a physical journey, a change of heart, and the reception of a new world, is both a vital democratic practice and a means of generating theological wisdom.

Peregrination One: Journeys through London as a World City

My first peregrination begins with a journey I undertook regularly in West London. This journey embodies and exemplifies something of what I take to be my context as a theologian who reflects on the contemporary conditions and possibilities of faithful witness. My regular ride on the number 207 bus to and from work took me from Shepherds Bush Station, which was recently rebuilt as part of the Westfield Shopping Centre, along the Uxbridge Road to my home street. The tube station and bus terminal were funded by public money as part of a public-private partnership to regenerate what is a relatively poor section of West London.

On the 207 there is always an extraordinary array of cultures, religions, and nationalities, many of which are reflected in the shops and religious institutions we pass by on the street. To take a survey along one of these bendy buses would be to encounter Poles, Ukrainians, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Ethiopians, Lebanese, Algerians, Afro-Caribbeans, and many more besides. Some are Christians, some Muslim, some Rastafarians, and some mind their own business. In among the newspapers, you will see the Bible and the Quran as well as texts from the Mind, Body, Spirit section of the bookshop. Here is the reality of a multicultural, multifaith world city in full bloom. And we travel together, whether we like it or not, through a combination of the market and the state; we are all dependent on the good offices of Transport for London, another public-private partnership.

I would get off the bus by Dordrecht Road where I lived. The road is named after the town of Dordt in the Netherlands, which has a very significant place in the history of Protestantism. In 1618, the town hosted representatives from eight European Reformed churches who deliberated over whether Calvinism or Arminianism represented the truest account of salvation—in other words, a debate about truth. I won’t bore you with the details of the controversy but the outcome of the Synod of Dordt was the restatement of the five points of Calvinism, remembered to many an earnest catechist through the acronym TULIP—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. These theological nostrums form the doctrinal backbone of contemporary Evangelicalism and those other groups from which the wellspring of the Christian Right emerges.

It was, however, a white South African builder who actually built Dordrecht Road, around 1910, and it was of course a variant of the Dutch Calvinism, reasserted at the synod, that formed the basis of the ideology of apartheid, apartheid being one kind of response to a multicultural society. And so I write these words as a Protestant theologian for whom Dordrecht Road was more than just a place where I used to live. It was an address in every sense of that word.

But the Synod of Dordt was not just theologically significant. It was part of a much broader set of changes that are related to the birth of capitalism. This is reflected in the life of Hugo Grotius, a theologian and political thinker who is one of the founding fathers of modern international law, human rights, and just-war theory. Grotius was imprisoned after the synod because of his support of the Arminians and his role in formulating the 1613 edict of toleration that aimed to make the Dutch state neutral in relation to theological disputes. Much of Grotius’s work on international relations was done in response to trade disputes and the opening up of emerging markets in the new world; in short, he was active during the first stages of globalization. One of his most important works was called the Mare Libre or Free Sea (1609), a book that formulated for the first time the principle that the sea was international territory that all were free to use. It provided support for the Dutch in their long-standing conflict with the corporate trade monopolies of the City of London. Although the Dutch eventually won what became known as the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the first round of this conflict was settled by a very formidable public-private partnership between Oliver Cromwell and the City of London, whose backing and militias were crucial in Cromwell’s domestic and foreign victories and the Calvinist interest he represented. It wasn’t so much that Britannia ruled the waves as that the dominant financial interest was able to rule the global market backed up by religious and state sanction.

This all may sound rather familiar. Indeed, the conflicts at the heart of the Synod of Dordt, and those affected by it, have reemerged as central questions in national and international politics today. How shall we deal with divergent truth claims? What is the role of the state in relation to religion? What is common and what is private and how are common or private interests to be protected? What is the relationship between religious interest, financial interest, and national interest? And how are religious differences to be negotiated by those who share the same territory? These are questions that are central to my work, questions that were born out of the context where I used to live.

But let me say a bit more about the City of London, for through it we find my first bridge from London to Durham.

Long after Britain ceased to be a global center of trade and industry, London has remained a command point in the global financial system.3 As the geographer Doreen Massey notes, “Globalization is made in places. The global is grounded. And one of the key localities where financial globalization was invented and orchestrated was London.”4 London has more foreign banks than any other financial center, and it is the world’s biggest international financial hub.5 Added to this, the City of London Corporation, which is the governing authority of the financial district, or the Square Mile, is central to creating and perpetuating a spider’s web of tax havens around the world that serve as feeders into the City. These “secrecy jurisdictions” or “states of exception” exist half in and half outside the regulatory frameworks of Europe and America; they have been crucial to the development of economic globalization, yet they are largely hidden from view.6 The basis for the City of London’s exceptional status as a kind of state within a state go back to the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the ways in which, over the centuries, the City of London has created for itself a space outside the legal and political institutions of the rest of Britain. And here I must point out how the City of London is a distinct separate entity with its own mayor and political authority apart from Greater London.

The City of London is in effect a medieval commune within London whose ancient rights, privileges, and customary practices have formed the means through which to assert and consolidate an exceptional status and to thereby form a command point for a neoliberal vision of economic globalization. All attempts to exert sovereign control over the City of London from 1066 onward have failed. Despite its manifesto commitment, the 1945 Labour Government did not interfere with the political institutions of the City, even though its Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, understood clearly the problem the City of London represented. He wrote the following:

Over and over again we have seen that there is in this country another power than that which has its seat at Westminster. The City of London, a convenient term for a collection of financial interests, is able to assert itself against the Government of the country. Those who control money can pursue a policy at home and abroad contrary to that which has been decided by the people.7

Something of the sacral nature of the status of the City is captured in an official report of a visit by the then Lord Mayor of London when he visited China in 2007. While there he met with senior officials from Tianjin, the Chinese city chosen as a pilot for national financial “reform.” An official corporation report noted that its mayor, Dai Xianglong “placed great value on deepening cooperation with the City of London, which he dubbed ‘the holy place’ of international finance and globalization.”8 This insight by an officially Communist mayor about the supposedly secular activities of finance capitalism point to how we might understand the nature of London as a world city. The term world refers to more than just the internal ethnic and religious diversity of London’s population and its role in processes of economic and cultural globalization.9 The social science usage of the term world city can be collocated with an older, theological use of the term world (kosmos) as a synonym for the universal order of things and the way in which, before the day of judgment, this order is coterminous with a worldly system opposed to God’s ordering of creation, what Augustine called the “earthly city.”10

As a world city, London as a whole is an earthly city, an instantiation of Babylon. This is an insight first articulated in the nineteenth century with the rise of London as an imperial and industrial center. For example, Benjamin Disraeli identified London as a “modern Babylon” in his 1847 novel Tancred. His account was part of a widespread nineteenth-century sentiment that viewed London elegiacally through the prism of the great biblical motif of imperial power, a prism encouraged in part by the discovery of the ruins of the original Babylon and the transport of artifacts from that ancient city to the British Museum. London, like Babylon and Rome before it, was simultaneously the center of things and a place that embodied the system as a whole, and thus, it stood apocalyptically under judgment. Like all imperial centers, London is awe-inspiring, capable of producing great beauty as well as decadence and damnation. As with the Babylon that is depicted in Revelation, London stands for and is imbricated in a whole system of production, domination, and degradation.

And it is through the status of London as a center of imperial and financial power that we find our first route across the Atlantic at the very inception of the Carolinas. The figure linking London and Durham in this instance is the political philosopher-cum-theologian John Locke.

Peregrination Two: John Locke and the Movement from London to the Carolinas

As secretary to Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke was enmeshed in the emergent “Atlantic system” of colonial capitalism. Locke’s statement “Thus in the beginning all the World was America” is more than just a quip to illustrate his concept of the state of nature11—it casts light on Locke’s personal and professional involvement in English colonialism, particularly his involvement in the Carolinas.

Through the Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke was appointed the secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations (1673–74) and was later made a member of the Board of Trade (1696–1700). The large volume of colonial reports, dispatches, and correspondence Locke had to read made him an extremely well-informed observer of the political, economic, and social interactions shaping the Atlantic world of the late seventeenth century, a world that saw the creation, destruction, and re-creation of communities across the Atlantic basin.12 But Locke did not simply observe this world; he invested in it. For example, he held shares in the Royal African Company, a key catalyst in the formation of the Atlantic slave trade. He, along with the financiers and merchants of the City of London, was heavily invested in the development of New World lands and the slave trade on which this development depended.

Intellectually, Locke’s defense of individual rights and liberties is correctly hailed as a fountainhead of liberalism. Yet his ideas were developed in the shadow of the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas. The eight Lords Proprietor of the Province of Carolina, of which the Earl of Shaftesbury was one, adopted this constitution in March 1669. On the one hand, the constitution included such liberal provisions as representative government, secret ballots, and religious freedom. On the other hand, it envisioned an essentially feudal hierarchy for the colony and gave colonial patricians virtually absolute power over the lives of their slaves. There is some dispute as to whether Locke was actually involved in writing this document, but he was certainly part of the milieu out of which it came. And, as James Tully forcefully argues, Locke’s work came to serve as an ideological justification for the expropriation of lands from America’s aboriginal peoples.13

The ambiguity of a figure such as Locke and a document like the Fundamental Constitutions of the Carolinas is emblematic of the broader ambiguity of the City of London and of liberalism and capitalism. This sense of ambiguity came home to me on a tour of the Mansion House, which is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. As part of this tour, we were shown the banqueting hall where, still to this day, the Chancellor of the Exchequer gives the annual Mansion House speech on the state of the British economy. In the banqueting hall, we were shown two stained glass windows—the only windows open to daylight in the whole room. On one window was depicted the signing of the Magna Carta, of which the mayor was a key figure and for which the Corporation’s militias provided the means of enforcement. This was a celebration of the Corporation as a pioneer and defender of civic and market freedoms. The Magna Carta granted the right to the City to elect its own mayor and it specified “That the City of London shall have all its ancient liberties by land as well as by water.” A central feature of the Magna Carta was its provision for the free movement of goods and freedom from certain kinds of centralized taxation.

Exactly opposite, on the other side of the hall, was a stained glass window depicting William Walworth, then mayor of London, slaying Wat Tyler, a leader of the 1381 Peasants Revolt, at Smithfield outside the walls of the City. Walworth raised the city militias to defend the king and archbishop against the rebels and their supporters among the citizens of London. The corporation’s self-representation in stained glass laid bare its dual role as, on the one hand, a defender of liberty, and on the other, the sovereign power best able to defend the status quo and elite interests.

To stand here as a theologian and political thinker from London means that I have to wrestle with the ambiguous legacy of Locke, liberalism, and the role of London in the formation of North Carolina and the Americas more generally. Debates in postcolonial theory, black theology, and the history of political thought are central to this process of wrestling, and it is the impact and legacy of Locke and London on the Carolinas that brings me to my third peregrination.

Peregrination Three: Faith and Citizenship in the Atlantic World of the Nineteenth Century

The emergences in the late nineteenth century of the Labour movement in Britain and the Populist movement in the United States represent two key historical precedents in my research about the relationship between faith and citizenship in the resistance to the domination of the power of money. In the American and British contexts, forms of popular, local self-organization and common action emerge within such movements as the antislavery and abolitionist movements, the chartists, the suffragists, and the temperance movement. These movements should be understood as intersecting with and growing out of what David Martin sees as the wider “unsponsored mobilizations of laissez-faire lay religion, running to and fro between Britain and North America”—a mass religious mobilization that began with Methodism.14 It is in this toing and froing across the Atlantic that we find my second bridge from London to Durham for Duke, the university where I now find myself on faculty, is a fruit of this trans-Atlantic Methodist mobilization.

But it is a fruit that has as its background the Atlantic world of which Locke observed the formation. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, famously remarked that he saw the world as his parish, but his comment is predicated on the alliance of capitalism and colonialism that made possible a world open to international travel, communication, and the production and distribution of mass media, and independent learning (setting up their own colleges, bible courses, etc.). Following Wesley, Methodist entrepreneurs embodied the possibilities of globalized capitalism with their confident transmission of faith.

However, we should not reduce our characterizations of these religious mobilizations to creatures of capitalism, as they also profoundly shape and inform countermovements to capitalism. In both the British and American contexts, whether it was Methodism, working-class Catholicism, or the Shtetl movement in Judaism, popular forms of religiosity were a key social force for generating the practices and common values that are vital for grassroots democratic politics.15

In Britain, we see this confluence of democratization and popular religion embodied in figures like Keir Hardie (as well as being founder of the Independent Labour Party, he was a keen temperance activist all his life) and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (alongside his role in the 1889 London Dockers Strike, Manning was a key figure in the development of the Catholic temperance society).16 In the United States, it is embodied most forcefully and not unproblematically in the three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, and 1908). A standard-bearer of evangelical Protestant Christianity, he was nicknamed the Great Commoner for his ardent support and championing of the “producing classes” against their exploitation by the “plutocracy,” by which was meant the east-coast financiers.17 Bryan’s critique of plutocracy combined with the language of the Methodist camp meetings and Baptist revivals to generate a powerful rhetoric with which to challenge the status quo.18

In terms of the Populists’ own frames of reference, they understood laissez-faire capitalism and an economic system that was seen to reward greed and shady dealing over honest toil as destroying the nation’s moral community and threatening it with God’s judgment. The government, as the embodiment of the will of the people, needed to act to make things right. Such a view was expressed time and again in Populist speeches and pamphlets. To quote but one example, Milford Howard writing in 1895 stated, “The spirit of avarice is devouring the great heart of this nation. The greed for gain gets such possession of men’s souls that they become demons. They rush into the maelstrom of money-getting, and soon lose all fear of God and love for their Fellow-men.”19

What the Populist and Labour movements represent is the assertion of the priority of social relationships and the upholding of a common life over and against their instrumentalization and commodification through political and economic processes. Their efforts are echoed in contemporary combinations of faith and democratic citizenship of the kind I have been studying, most notably community organizing. The intersection of popular religious movements with movements of democratization point to a need for theology to think through the ways in which democracy itself can be and has been a means through which the church responds to processes of modernization.

A striking example of exactly this kind of reflection is the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum. Issued in 1891, it was a response to the social and economic conditions produced by industrial forms of production and urbanization. It was also a reflection on practices that were already being undertaken by Catholics, such as the formation of trade unions, and the experiences of figures such as Cardinal Manning and their involvement in the Labour movement. Catholic social thought came to endorse a particular conception of democracy as a way of navigating between the Scylla of anticlerical and atheistic revolutionary ideologies and the Charybdis of reactionary and then fascist ideologies that were themselves responses to emerging forms of social relationship.

Part of my work is trying to understand the theological questions raised by contemporary social, economic, and political relations and the churches’ responses to them. I believe that through such an engagement we can better understand not only contemporary debates about the relationship between Christianity and politics but also conceptions of what it means to be church. And it is this attempt to make sense of and respond to the kinds of social movements represented by the trade unions and the Populists that brings me to my fourth unscientific peregrination. This peregrination is primarily focused on the figure of Karl Polanyi and the trans-Atlantic political debate he was immersed in.

Peregrination Four: Karl Polanyi, Social Christianity, and the Atlantic World of the Early Twentieth Century

Although Polanyi was an active figure in the left-wing Austro-Hungarian politics of the 1920s, he spent most of his adult life in either London or the United States after being forced to leave Austria in 1933 with the rise of Fascism. He eventually took a teaching position at Columbia in 1947, where he is often credited with creating the field of economic anthropology. The historical backdrop to Polanyi’s trans-Atlantic peregrinations is a vigorous trans-Atlantic political conversation that took place from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War. This conversation was driven by the sense that, as the editors of the New Republic declared in 1917, the “problems” facing Britain and the United States were “essentially the same.”20 These were the problems of industrialization, urbanization, the breakdown of traditional patterns of care and family life, and the need for political reform—what the figurehead of the Social Gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch, dubbed the “social crisis.”

For the first four decades of the twentieth century, formal and informal commissions of inquiry, along with scholarly and journalistic exchanges, continually crisscrossed the Atlantic, seeking to examine every conceivable political, social, and economic issue.21 Part of this deliberation involved reflecting on and being involved with the legacy of the Populist and Labour movements. A good example of this deliberation was the work of the guild socialists. These individuals, with whom Polanyi was directly linked, championed a non-statist democratic left-wing vision of politics. Guild socialists saw forms of self-organization, such as cooperatives and mutuals, as a better way to address the social crisis than the top-down, state-driven initiatives that were favored by progressives, such as Walter Lippman in the United States or the Fabians in Britain.

But this trans-Atlantic conversation was not only a geographic and political one. It also involved traveling across a notionally religious and secular divide as it intermingled explicitly secular and religious discourses. Jane Addams and her work with the trans-Atlantic Settlement House movement, itself part of the broader movement of social Christianity, exemplified this.22 Inspired by Toynbee Hall in East London, settlement houses were founded in New York City and other areas of urban poverty from 1886 onward. Addams helped found Hull House in 1889 in Chicago after visiting Toynbee Hall. But these houses were not restricted to areas of urban poverty. Beginning in 1894 with the Log Cabin Settlement House near Asheville, North Carolina, a string of rural settlement houses were established throughout the Appalachian Mountains. Many of these houses combined Christian mission with educational and reform efforts. Indeed, we can trace the origins of social work and a host of other forms of social welfare provision to experiments initiated by the Settlement House movement in the United States and Britain.

Polanyi stands at the intersection of these theological and political crosscurrents. His family converted from Judaism to Protestant Christianity, but as an adult, Polanyi was never a confessing Christian. Yet he was actively involved in Christian socialist circles; for example, he helped to found the Christian Auxiliary Left, a group that was “dedicated to forging a social current within Christianity and to infusing the communist and socialist movements with the Christian spirit.”23 In a 1936 essay, in a volume published under the title Christianity and the Social Revolution and which included an essay by Reinhold Niebuhr, Polanyi pointed to the inherent relationship between Christianity and socialism as the reason why Fascism must necessarily seek to destroy Christianity.

In Polanyi’s broader, theologically inflected analysis, the laissez-faire capitalism of the nineteenth century led to spontaneous countermovements. These countermovements were attempts to re-embed market relations within social and political relations. They emerged as a way in which populations and governments struggled to cope with the deleterious impact of an unregulated market on society and on nature. The introduction of regulation and statutory measures (for example, the New Deal as a response to the Great Depression) and movements such as trade unions, the Populists, and the Settlement Houses were examples of this kind of countermovement. Of course, we have just been through a parallel set of responses to the Great Recession, with legislation being enacted and new social movements ranging from the Tea Party to Occupy emerging.

Crucially for Polanyi, countermovements can either be democratic or fascistic. Indeed, one of Polanyi’s primary interests was explaining the rise of Fascism in Europe in the wake of the Great Depression. But he applied his analysis to America as well. Polanyi himself identifies the Populist figure of Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, as an example of a fascist countermove that was, in his view, an “ever given possibility” in every industrial nation since the 1930s.24 However, in my own work I have contested Polanyi’s reading of American Populism, as I think he conflates it with fascism. Yet this is not an uncommon mistake. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, whose lead character Buzz Windrip is thought to be inspired by the figure of Huey Long, similarly conflates populism and fascism. I think Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men comes closer to the truth. The central figure in the novel is Willie Stark, who is also said to be based on Huey Long. Warren captures well the democratic and authoritarian mix of Long’s manifestation of American populism. Historical forms of populism combine both democratic and authoritarian elements. This is what makes populism (as opposed to fascism) such an ambiguous political phenomenon.

In my own attempts to restate Christian political thought, I have drawn on Polanyi, Addams, and other figures from the trans-Atlantic debates of their period, as well as analyses of the interactions of faith and democratic citizenship in the Populist and Labour movements, and I have refused, like these forebears, to be bound by false binaries between sacred and profane or secular and religious. However, these earlier debates and movements addressed questions about the role and limits of the state and the market, and the role of religious belief and practice in setting these limits, in a national and largely Anglo-American context. By contrast, I attempt to address these questions in a globalized and postsecular context. Moreover, in this contemporary context, the exchange and interaction cannot simply be between those of faith and no faith. It must also be an interfaith exchange.

I have focused on the figure of Polanyi because his analysis of capitalism was a central framework used by a movement within the current Labour Party in Britain known as Blue Labour in which I was involved. The initiator of Blue Labour is my friend and research colleague Maurice Glasman, a political theorist who is Jewish yet who avidly reads and draws on Christian theology. As a political position, Blue Labour looked back to the likes of the guild socialists to develop an alternative imaginary for the Labour Party.  It is one that does not see the state as the primary or only means of addressing social and economic ills and called on the party to reconnect with the broader labor movement and its history of mutual and cooperative societies, adult education, and self-organized, locally led institutions. Despite vehement criticisms to the contrary, Blue Labour’s advocacy of a politics of the common good found fellow travelers among evangelicals, Muslims, gay activists, feminists, environmentalists, and fiercely pro-life Catholics. Difference and tensions were not avoided but named and recognized, while the protecting and tending of the common values on which the flourishing of all depended provided the point of connection.25 In all this, the experience and practices of community organizing were a key inspiration.

The challenge in moving from London to Durham is discerning whether a democratic politics of the common good is possible and plausible here. But whereas Blue Labour was focused on a party and public policy, the opportunity provided by moving to Durham is to engage at a more grassroots level with churches and faith-based organizations and to thereby reflect on how Christians can be instigators of or involved in a politics of the common good in the making and remaking of institutions and in the provision of such things as schooling, health care and social services.

The importance of this was brought home to me on a journey I undertook last August from Durham to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to hear the Reverend William Barbour of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) make a presentation about the findings of a commission on poverty in North Carolina. In the humid—and to my lily-livered London sensibilities, oppressively hot—confines of a church, the Rev. Barbour drew on the strains of the rich traditions of African American preaching to bear witness to a different experience of being American and to call us to a different vision of America. As he spoke, I was overwhelmed with the sense of entering a very different world, one in which I had few bearings, a world in which I needed friends to help me navigate.

In listening to Barbour, I was mindful that part of the challenge in moving, not from London to Durham, but from Duke to Durham, is the recovery of what Albert Dzur calls “democratic professionalism,” which envisions the role of the minister, teacher, academic, doctor, or engineer as contributing to and participating in the building up of a common life rather than the pursuit of narrowly defined technocratic, managerial, and institutionally self-interested goals.26 Democratic professionalism envisions the trained professional not as the expert who dispenses knowledge to others but as one in need of learning from as well as contributing to the wisdom and agency of those affected by a shared problem.

For a theologian, such a stance involves refusing to take up the self-appointed role of social critic, and instead, forming meaningful, reciprocal relationships with people doing important work on the ground. So it is a joy to find myself in Durham, a town that has a dense ecology of institutionally innovative and politically and socially engaged Christians, some of whom have been kind enough to welcome me into their deliberations about what to do and how to do it.


As I said at the outset, I am presenting a series of interwoven peregrinations rather than a systematic argument, with each peregrination being enfolded into and unfolded out of the others. In doing so, I hope I have evoked some sense of what it means for me to move from London to Durham and to thereby undertake intellectual and political work in this new context. But I have tried also to suggest that as someone whose work stands on the cusp between the ecclesial and the political, my work is located within a long-running conversation with a history that confounds standard narratives of secularization.


1. This essay is adapted from a lecture that was delivered on March 6, 2013, as part of the Thomas A. Langford Lecture Series at Duke University, a series that fosters interdisciplinary engagement among the university faculty.

2. As one-time Durham resident Romand Coles puts it, “Listening across difficult divides must be supplemented with broader receptive practices that develop through literal, corporeal, geographical ‘traveling.’” Coles, “Moving Democracy: Industrial Areas Foundation Social Movements and the Political Arts of Listening, Traveling, and Tabling,” Political Theory 32, no. 5 (2004): 688.

3. Peter Spufford traces how London’s continuing significance as a place for financial transactions follows a broader pattern of European development from the thirteenth century onward, whereby financial centers develop around centers of trade and industry, but when these shift elsewhere or decline, the financial sector continues to function as a major nexus of activity. London’s continuing significance echoes the experience of Venice, Bruges, Antwerp, and Amsterdam. See Spufford, “From Antwerp and Amsterdam to London: The Decline of Financial Centres in Europe,” De Economist 154, no. 2 (2006): 143–175.

4. Massey, World City (Cambridge, UK: Polity, [2007] 2010), x. An example of its significance is given by David Harvey who states that “It is worthwhile recalling that one of the conditions that broke up the whole Keynesian post-war Bretton Woods system was the formation of a Eurodollar market as US dollars escaped the discipline of its own monetry authorities” (Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005], 141). The banking sector of London was central in this development and benefited massively from it.

5. Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (London, UK: Bodley Head, 2011), 247.

6. The term state of exception is adapted from a term first used by Carl Schmitt and then developed by Giorgio Agamben; see Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005). My use of the term in relation to tax havens/secrecy jurisdictions deliberately problematizes Schmitt’s and Agamben’s use. For a parallel but somewhat different use of the term see Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 1–27.

7. Atlee, The Labour Party in Perspective (London, UK: Gollanz, 1937), 80–81.

8. Xianglong quoted in Shaxson, Treasure Islands, 253.

9. The term world city builds on the work of John Friedman. His world-city hypothesis postulates that certain cities took on the status of world cities by acting as “basing points” for global capital, allowed them to function as points of control in the organization of production and markets; by functioning as points of concentration for labor migration and resulting forms of spatial and economic polarization; and finally, by generating social costs that exceeded the fiscal capacity of the nation-state in which they were located (Friedman, “The World-City Hypothesis,” in World Cities in a World-System, eds. Paul L. Knox and Peter J. Taylor [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 317–331. Saskia Sassen has extended this work by describing four new ways that global cities function: “First, as highly concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy; second, as key locations for finance and for specialized service firms, which have replaced manufacturing as the leading economic sector; third, as sites of production, including the production of innovations, in these leading industries; and fourth, as markets for the products and innovations produced. . . . Cities concentrate control over vast resources, while finance and specialized service industries have restructured the urban social and economic order. Thus a new type of city has appeared. It is the global city. Leading examples are now New York, London, and Tokyo” (Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 3–4.

10. The term world (kosmos) draws on the use of the term in the New Testament to denote either the unified order of created things, understood as a neutral description (John 17:5 and 17:24; Rom. 1:20; 1 Cor. 4:9), or the worldly system that is hostile to God’s good order (John 15:18–19 and 17:14–16; 1 Cor. 1:20 and 5:10). In New Testament Greek, a number of variations on these two basic connotations can be discerned. For example, Paul Ellingworth identifies six variations: (1) the universe, (2) the earth, (3) human beings and angels, (4) humanity as a whole, (5) humanity as organized in opposition to God, and (6) particular groups of human beings (Ellingworth, “Translating Kosmos ‘World’ in Paul,” The Bible Translator 53, no. 4 [2002]: 414–24; see also David J. Clark, “The Word Kosmos ‘World’ in John 17,” The Bible Translator 50, no. 4 (1999): 401–406.

11. Locke, Second Treatise on Government, 5.49.

12. J. H. Elliott, “Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, eds. David Armitage and Michael Braddick (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 239. Elliott’s description follows David Armitage’s conceptualization of trans-Atlantic history as a coherent frame of reference for social, economic, and political analysis that is “especially suited to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century histories of the Atlantic world, when state formation went hand-in-hand with empire-building” (Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” in British Atlantic World, eds. Armitage and Braddick, 22).

13. Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995). There are broadly two schools of thought regarding the interpretation of Locke’s social contract theory and his understanding of property rights. The first school (what we might call the C. B. MacPherson school) considers Locke’s understanding of property to be a precursor of a capitalist hegemony with its central tenets of self-interest, individualism, alienable wage labor, robust private property rights, and an inevitable inequality of material goods. The second school (what we might call the Jeremy Waldron school) locates Locke’s theory of property within his theological worldview and a natural-law tradition. For Locke this included such premises as the inherent purposefulness of God’s design, the fundamental equality of men and the correlate obligation to preserve mankind, and the priority of the common good and the claims of charity over private property rights.

14. Martin, Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish (Oxford, UK: Blackwells, 2002), 5.

15. Contrary to the secularization thesis, processes of modernization in Europe and America did not directly correlate with the decline of the public significance of religion per se. However, modernization did coincide with a transmutation and redescription of theological categories, such as sin and charity, into more immanent and moralized ones, such as vice and altruism. For a discussion of the secularization thesis in relation to social reform movements and a redescription of seculazisation as a process of immanentization see Dominic Erdozain, “The Secularisation of Sin in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 62, no. 1 (2011): 59–88; and Mark Bevir, The Making of British Socialism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

16. It is important to distinguish this more popular and practice-driven strand from the more elite and theoretically driven forms of Christian socialism championed by figures such as Stewart Headlam, F. D. Maurice, Conrad Noel, and St. John Groser. This latter form was a predominantly Anglican strain of thought and practice.

17. From 1896 onward, Bryan took on the mantle of the farmer-labor alliance that had shaped the Populist movement (which was a significant force in North Carolina, for example), pursuing its core elements to the extent that, in Elizabeth Sanders’s evaluation, the Progressive Era reforms of the early twentieth century mostly originated with Bryan’s reform effort and his mediation of the Populist creed (Sanders, Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917 [Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1999], 157–58; see also Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan [New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2007]). Bryan is a controversial figure and much lambasted for his role in the infamous Scopes monkey trial—now perceived as the harbinger of the contemporary American culture wars. Yet rather than an atavistic fundamentalist reaction against modernity, his involvement in the trial was directly related to his reform impulse. As Sanders notes, “Bryan strongly objected to arguments that drew on the social implications of Darwinism to justify the exploitation of workers and consumers and to discourage reform movements. . . . The Antimonopoly-Greenback-Populist creed that Bryan embodied was naturally antithetical to Darwinism, whose founder, in The Descent of Man, had argued against reforms that checked the salutary processes of weeding out the weak and less fit. In addition, Bryan abhorred Nietzsche’s Darwinist defense of war as both necessary and desirable for human progress. Such ideas, he believed, were important factors in the development of German militarism leading to World War I” (Sanders, Roots of Reform, 158). The contrast between the views of someone like Bryan and the views of later evangelical Protestant political figureheads, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are striking. For an account of the “conservative capture” of Populist themes from the 1940s onward and the emergence of New Right populism see Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995).

18. Bryan stands at one end of and embodies a process of democratization in nineteenth-century America in which, as a number of scholars note, evangelicalism played a vital part. See Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989); Ted Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007); William Sutton, Journeyman for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998); and Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007), 451. Taylor notes how evangelicalism, along with a reform-minded Catholicism in Europe, was part of a broader “age of mobilization.”

19. Howard quoted in Rhys H. Williams and Susan M. Alexander, “Religious Rhetoric in American Populism: Civil Religion as Movement Ideology,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33, no. 1 (1994): 10. Given the rapid demise of the Populists after the mid-1890s, it is easy to miss the substantive nature of the threat the movement posed to global capitalism. Pegging a national currency to the gold standard was the centerpiece of an international economic consensus committed to a laissez-faire economic vision. As Jeffrey Frieden notes, “All those connected to the international financial and investing system saw the gold standard as central to its smooth functioning, and they shared a commitment to sustain it” (Frieden, Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century [New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2006], 48). Energizing and driving this commitment was the City of London, which accounted for nearly half of all international investment at the turn of the nineteenth century. And it was the City of London, spearheaded by Nathan Rothschild, then the most influential banker in the world, who pushed relentlessly from the mid-1870s for America to join the gold standard. When the United States finally put the dollar onto gold in 1879, it was Rothschild and his US associate August Belmont who provided more than half the money the US government needed to accumulate the necessary reserves (ibid., 35). Coming off gold became a central focus of the Populist movement. In their view the gold standard was a British-led scheme to “fatten usurers” at the expense of farmers and miners. A switch to silver at a depreciated exchange rate would raise farm prices and lower interest rates. Although it was controversial in the movement, the Populists voted to form an alliance with the Democrats and support the presidential campaign of Williams Jennings Bryan, who in turn adopted many parts of the Omaha platform for what became known as the Chicago platform adopted at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago. The closely fought 1896 election between the Democrat-Populist Bryan and the Republican McKinley was billed as the “battle of the standards” and can be seen as a serious democratic challenge to the dominance of finance capitalism. As Frieden summarizes it, “The financial leaders of Europe and the world watched in shock as the assault on the gold standard challenged the very structure of the international economic order. The United States was the world’s largest economy, biggest borrower, and most important international destination for capital and people alike. Now it posed the greatest threat to the global economic order. . . . If the Democrats won and implemented their platform, the gold standard everywhere would be in peril” (ibid., 15). The northeastern business and financial elites contributed massive amounts of money to the McKinley campaign, and the Democrat-Populist alliance was narrowly defeated. Despite only a narrow defeat, The Times thought the McKinley victory would “suffice to bury Bryanism, Silverism, Socialism, and all the revolutionary proposals of the Chicago platform beyond hope of resurrection in this generation” (quoted in ibid., 15). It did not, yet the electoral defeat, combined with a number of factors—such as changes in the wider global economy, which led to a lowering of gold prices and a rise in the cost of wheat—helped drain Populism of much of its energy.

20. Such a statement was no longer plausible from the end of World War II onward for various reasons, not the least of which was the divergent experiences of the war in America and Europe. One of these reasons was that America was prosperous, so issues of industrial relations receded into the background, whereas in Europe, issues of class and redistribution via the state remained salient. By contrast, in the United States, the issue of inequality came to be focused on race rather than on class. That said, the Cold War provided an ongoing sense of participating in a shared social, economic and political world, as evidenced in the formation and development of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

21. Marc Stears, Progressives, Pluralists, and the Problems of the State: Ideologies of Reform in the United States and Britain, 1909-1926 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2.

22. See Paul Phillips, A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 1880-1940 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

23. Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010), 40.

24. Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2001), 247–49. Polanyi’s conflation of American populism and fascism is strange given his own championing of populist movements in both Russia and Hungary. An early and enduring influence on Polanyi himself was the Russian Populist movement. As Michael Burawoy notes, “The influence of the Populists was surely one factor that led Polanyi to place a critique of the market at the center of his theorizing” (Burawoy, “For a Sociological Marxism: The Complementary Convergence of Antonio Gramsci and Karl Polanyi,” Politics & Society 31, no. 2 [2003]: 203). Moreover, Polanyi’s last book, The Plough and the Pen, edited with his wife Ilona Duczynska, was devoted to the Hungarian Populists. In Polanyi’s view, these Populists, together with the Reform Communists, were the key movements behind the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

25. The enemies of this kind of politics were those on the left and right who refused the possibilities of a common life and disdained democracy as the means of negotiating difference through relation. Depending on their ideological preferences, these opponents would insist on the prioritizing of a market-based mechanism, a legal procedure, or a managerial, top-down intervention as the only realistic way of addressing social, political, or economic problems. Democracy for them was a technical system of voting not a political vision for change.

26. Dzur, Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008).

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Luke Bretherton :
Luke Bretherton is an associate professor of theological ethics and a Kenan Institute for Ethics senior fellow at Duke University. Before joining Duke, he was a reader in theology and politics and a convener of the Faith & Public Policy Forum at King’s College London. His recent work has focused on faith-based organizations, the church’s involvement in social welfare provision, community organizing, the treatment of refugees, and fair trade. That work is drawn together in Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (2010).
  • Jonathan McRay

    This is pretty fantastic! The concept of peregrination is very intriguing. I’m interested in the confluence of bioregional praxis, community organizing, conflict transformation, and radical theology, and this essay is a great example of leaning in those directions.