August 16, 2011 / Theology
Ryan Harper muses on whether evangelicalism as we know it is hospitable to the poetic discipline.
When thinking about religious communities and progressive social justice work, many of us assume an oppositional relationship—perhaps we think of the church groups and activist organizations who protest gay pride parades or canvass neighborhoods to repeal Obamacare, or conversely, perhaps we think of activist organizations who blame Christianity for limitations on women’s reproductive rights and who assume that Christianity is synonymous with conservatism. But today, organizations like Sojourners, Progressive Christians Uniting, and Muslims for Progressive Values are challenging these perceived dichotomies. In her book All You That Labor,1 Melissa Snarr not only makes a case for the ways religious communities should have a voice in social justice work but also depicts how such communities are already making a difference, particularly in the living wage movement. In this interview, Snarr shares from these insights and reflects theologically and ethically on the role of religious activism as a response to economic injustice.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In the upcoming print edition of The Other Journal, you consider Judith Butler’s suggestion that Occupy Wall Street is a movement of embodiment, much like the living wage movement that you write about in All You That Labor. However, in Butler’s essay, she doesn’t point out how religion and activism can be a useful conversation partners.2 This seems to be a space where religious communities can play a positive role.
Melissa Snarr (MS): Butler speaks about what I would call the gospel of self-sufficiency. I think that a lot of religious traditions, Christianity among them, have strong legacies of meditation on interdependence. It is really hard to pull a self-sufficiency theme out of most of the Christian tradition. Religious communities, then, offer a deepening of what it means to function interdependently and they offer tremendous theological resources for this kind of thinking. Monya Stubbs, for example, is a New Testament scholar who has this great reflection on Paul’s concept of what she calls “indebted love,” which states that Christians have been called to see how we are always in debt to other people. Stubbs asks us to consider the forms of healthy and malformed indebtedness and to ask whether we are controlled by a kind of empire mentality or by a redeemed understanding of indebtedness.
I also think that in some traditions, like the one I come from, the notion of testimony is a very physical, embodied thing. And so in addition to the many resources within religious communities for countering self-sufficiency, there are also ways that our religious communities bring bodies into public discourse and public policy making, which is important. Some of the women who were the most powerful activists in Atlanta’s living wage movement worked at the airport. They were all trained in religious traditions where they cultivated skills related to giving their testimony—testimonies of survival, of making a way through—and that tradition of testimony has a kind of place that is rare nowadays in policy making, but it is strong within a lot of religious traditions, particularly in many marginalized communities in the United States.
TOJ: I was struck by the power of the religious community as it was depicted in your book.
MS: That depiction has been called highly naive. Maybe I should just pause right there. When I present some of these ideas in philosophy colloquiums, they are often unwelcome and highly challenged. Yet part of the reason I look at these movements is because their stories don’t get told. I grew up in a world where my imagination was dominated by the strength of the Religious Right, and then in college and graduate school, I realized there were all kind of stories, not only of the black civil rights movement but so many others that were just not part of my religious imagination. I see that as something that still persists—these stories are not told well. And I have both a scholarly and faith impetus for studying the untold stories of progressive religious activism.
Of course, there are plenty of religious communities that are deeply resistant to this kind of discussion and activism, religious communities that generate political alienation and in that way contribute to brokenness, sin, evil, or whatever term you want to use. But I don’t think we—and I’m using we here to refer to those of us who participate in religious communities that care about these issues—I don’t think we spend enough time thinking systematically about how to strengthen our voices, how we do this work, how we practice it in ways that have coherence, connections, and sustainability.
TOJ: Reading charitably and focusing on those voices who are not usually heard, not only labor movements but also in the walls of religious communities, seems like a kind of methodological move.
MS: In the last four years, as I’ve learned from Kim Bobo and others in Interfaith Worker Justice, there has been a real divide between religion and labor conversations, and this has deprived multiple communities of a richness, solidarity, accountability, and presence on worker justice issues, which has also had a dramatic economic impact on many people’s lives. Thus, thinking through what it means to talk theologically about work and the economy is a task we must pay attention to right now.
TOJ: Thinking more about the methodology of your book—how do you balance the critical distance of academic rigor requisite for scholarly work while engaging in a relationship with the movement and actively working to promote justice?4
MS: I was a participant in the movements that were happening and at the same time I was studying them. And I think of that as a decidedly feminist approach. But that means that I couldn’t pursue the project just with my own field notes and my own observations; I had to be open and accountable to activists in the movement. I had to do organizing work that I didn’t really want to do sometimes because it stretched me and held me accountable to a certain methodological vision that I had. Many different folks shaped my work—through dinner conversations, working through an idea, at different meetings. It didn’t mean that they got final veto power on my research, but they did have power in the testing and formation of ideas.
This makes me think about one of the more powerful moments of that kind of methodological work. An academic colleague asked me, “Why don’t they just use the laborer in the vineyard Scripture to frame what they’re trying to do for equal wages?” And I remember union folks responding, “We hate that parable, because, actually, the way we read the parable is that it’s the breaking of the union.” And granted, that’s not my reading of the parable, but what this discussion showed me is that you can’t just throw a scholarly idea out there without first understanding the activists’ history of engagement—the process requires a kind of accountability. This is difficult work. To be involved in this sort of activism is to also call your credentials as an academic into question because of the myth of critical distance. I do think there is necessary critical distance, but I don’t think it comes from whole abstraction; it comes from leaning into another set of narratives for a while, another set of conversation partners. My goal in doing this kind of work was to make sure that I had plenty of strong conversation partners from all perspectives and to work to synthesize and adjudicate between multiple narratives. That is where I think academic rigor comes in to play, not as an abstraction away from the movement to the extent that it becomes this kind of foreign text that you interpret. That’s a form of feminist rigor for me. It’s messy though. And it also means that you finish the book or you finish the research project, and three months later you think something completely different because you had another set of conversations. But that’s also what I think the feminist ethical method is.
And I also think that’s what liturgical practice is about—we revisit narratives from multiple perspectives, we hear the preaching from different characters, we have different readings and rituals cited in a different location, and we see something new. And it’s not because we weren’t rigorous before; it’s because there is more to see because there are other voices that were meant to break open meaning and purpose and maybe even a little bit of the divine in the midst of that.
TOJ: I want to conclude by talking about where to go with all of this. I love when you write that “resisting empire also requires escaping the reductionism that it often opposes on a religious practice. Spiritual, economic, and political solidarity found in shared commitment to the poor ultimately subverts the power of empire” (155). First, could you talk about the relationship you see between local activism and globalization, about whether and where there is power in local movements? And second, what kind of advice would you offer to a pastor or an activist or a budding religious studies academic in this political climate?
MS: One thing that is incredibly important today is that there is a loss of political capacity and moral agency among many people in the United States. Even people who are pretty high on the economic scale have a sense that they have no power in this political economy, that they can’t really change things. But one of the lessons that comes out of the living wage movement as a gateway movement is that it shows us what it means to work in a local context. Oftentimes, local municipal governments are much more responsive to local activism because it is two hundred votes that make the difference in an election, and so if seventy people show up at the Tuesday night council meeting, that’s news. Granted, maybe that’s in Nashville and not in New York City, but even in New York City this is true to a degree. This capacity to build political experience, political will, and political hope at a local level is incredibly important, and it is very hard to do at any kind of macro level. Yes, I think there are tremendous books written about how things like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) control local economies, and I think that’s really important at some point to understand, but it’s very difficult to get a sense of how one should change that.
For example, I think it is fascinating that the next stage in much of the living wage movement work has been in the direction of wage theft laws. And here in Nashville and elsewhere, that stage has really been led by young Latinas. Through their work around wage theft, they’ve learned how to lobby, how to enforce, and how to do Spanish radio and television and things of that sort. This also means that when anti-immigrant bills come in, they already have connections to mobilize at a macro level, which would be very hard if you only learn at the macro level without building a confidence of capacity and participation. It’s very hard to address the global economy, but when you do this from a smaller scale, it’s remarkable to see the kinds of innovative legislation and cross-city learning that result. That kind of success can then bloom to a realization that they have connections to some folks in Latin America who are working in this same struggle. And so they’re very active in understanding some of the violations and trying to rewrite some of the policies around international work visas, which almost resembles a version of slave labor in agricultural sectors. In this way they can begin to work toward higher-level policy changes, but only because they’ve already built some capacity.
Therefore, in light of the everyday nature of politics and this sense that political agency been wrenched from average citizens, one of the first priorities for any movement is to rebuild those capacities. And I think you see that in the success of Occupy Nashville against the Tennessee governor. Some of those folks have been involved in on-the-ground, very localized activism for years, and when all of a sudden this exploded into something that went national it was because they knew the lawyers, they knew the right ways to go about ordinances, and they also could see the larger ramifications. It was because they built local capacity first.
Also, it is interesting to note that several of the core activists involved with Occupy Nashville are members of intentional communities where they reconceived of what it means to eat together, to do daily rituals, to live, and to de-escalate in intense environments with people who may have mental health issues. They’ve translated that to life at the Nashville Plaza. But that story doesn’t get told because new monasticism is not overtly political, but it is political in terms of its everyday practice and this shows up in the capacity of Occupy Nashville to continue, whereas the movement has dissipated in some other places. So I get excited about local activism because I see tangibility there, and I see how it builds confidence, especially in younger activists, which is so necessary.
To that last question, then, about the kind of advice I might impart to budding pastors, activists, or academics in this environment—I think the question lends itself to a sense that elite academics are in a place to offer advice to others, whereas I feel like my book attempts to present a message of mutual teaching. But one thing I’ll say to those readers who may want to be involved in activism from religious perspectives is something I say toward the end of the book—do not lose your connections to an ongoing community of faith and the depth of your religious practices. There is a way in which activist and social movement communities are their own ecclesia, and I think we need to take that seriously, but we also need to realize that activism can become too much its own thing. It can spin into its own universe without being connected to ongoing communities of practice.
Activism also has a something of a liturgical nature. I think it requires liturgical sensibilities, and I don’t just mean the capacity to pray and wash feet in the public square, but actually a sense of liturgical seasons and repetition. As people of faith, we are people of hope and promise and purpose, even though we see and meditate on brokenness. As worshipping communities and activist communities I think we need to embrace the times of great expectation, victory, and great renewal, as well as the ordinary time—God is still there in the ordinary time of grant writing, in the doldrums. And in both our faith and activist lives we must maintain a sense of Sabbath and gentleness while retaining a fierce persistence. So there is a sense in which we have tremendous resources within religious traditions while we also need to listen to folks beyond our religious traditions. Religious activists do not necessarily need to think that the church is the only ecclesia, which some traditionalists may find controversial, but I do think that a commitment to an ongoing community of faith keeps activists in divine rhythms that are important to reflect upon. That may sound abstract, but I’ve noticed over time that people who consider their activist practice to be a spiritual practice have a sense of those rhythms and where God is in all of those phases.
For the second part of our interview with Melissa Snarr, please subscribe to our print edition!
1. Snarr, All You That Labor: Religion and Ethics in the Living Wage Movement (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2011). Further references to this book will be in the form of parenthetical citation in the body of the interview.
2. Butler, “For and Against Precarity,” Tidal: A Journal of Theory and Strategy for the Occupy Movement 1 (December 2011): 12–13.
3. Stubbs, “Indebted Love: Giving Because We Have Received,” Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary (Spring 2006): 3–14.
4. I’m indebted to my colleague Kyle Thompson Lambelet for this question.
Brandy is a Ph.D. candidate in theological studies and a fellow in the Theology and Practice program at Vanderbilt University. She has a M.Div. and an A.M. in comparative literature & African-American studies from Duke University. Her dissertation explores the ways teleology functions at the intersection of theological method and spiritual formation, and relies on queer temporality as a critical constructive resource to suggest a teleological shift from a logic of success to one of belonging. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, watching Jeopardy, and savoring a good microbrew amongst friends. Brandy is also under-care for ordination with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Melissa Snarr is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Her work focuses on the intersection of religion, social change, and political ethics. The author of numerous articles and books, her most recent work, All You That Labor (NYU Press, 2011), explores the role of religious activists in the living wage movement.