Social change does not happen in a vacuum. Nor is social change the effect of crises, of those extreme moments in which the status quo is radically disrupted by, for example, mass protests (or riots) in response to state violence against civilians, flagrant judicial malfeasance, or governmental monetary misappropriation. Although crises may historically mark a shift in the social order, true social change does not occur in one temporal instance. Thus, whereas riots, marches, protests, and mass political demonstrations are highly visible, emotionally charged, and seemingly spontaneous responses to social nadirs, lasting social change percolates and extends well beyond such crises. It is the labor of people with shared practices (e.g., Christian congregations) and radical dispositions, people whose inclinations or characteristic attitudes are counter to the mainstream.

In the spring of 2015, I observed a longstanding group of moderate and liberal black clergy members in Atlanta, Georgia, whose mission is to “provide leadership, advocacy and service to the homeless, helpless and hopeless in our community.”[1] Every Monday morning, this coalition hosts a community forum to move their agenda along. With this sustained practice, the coalition prepares and situates itself to participate in direct-action campaigns and to take on issues of mass incarceration, a livable minimum wage, and voter mobilization. I contend that this Monday community forum is a religious practice that is grounded in a belief in spiritual, physical, and social freedom. It is a habitus of resistance, a religious practice that week by week creates and sustains the secular social change that we sometimes only notice in times of crisis.

Weekly Forums as Religious Practice

The coalition’s community forum is held in a church-owned community center. There are fifteen or so plainly dressed tables, adorned with a dollar-store vase and a single tulip. The room is anchored by a small stage, which is surrounded by cream-painted walls and blue carpet. The room has little aesthetic appeal. There is no appeal to the religious or liturgical either—there are no crucifixes, Bibles, or stained-glass windows. On Mondays, when I’m there for the community forum, the room is filled with male and female clergy from several Christian denominations and, in a few cases, the Nation of Islam.

No one in the room wears a collar or a robe—just suits and ties, skirts and jackets—yet the community forum mirrors the liturgy of a Protestant church service. The forum is bookended by a morning prayer and a benediction. Some of the prayers are short, some too long. They vary in tone and cadence, but they always press on matters of justice and liberation. In between these prayers, various committees report on their efforts to work toward equality, freedom from oppression, and basic human flourishing.[2] Before the closing prayer, there is often a membership “altar call” given by a senior member to inspire visitors to join the coalition. Despite the liturgical imitation of the forum, however, the emphasis here is not on praise and worship or evangelical proselytizing. Rather, the objective of the forum is to invoke participation in God’s liberating work.

During my time of observation, the controversial House Bill 243 was at the forefront of the coalition’s agenda. The coalition found the legislation problematic because of its proposition to reallocate tax dollars intended for public schools to home schools without accountability. As clergy often do, the members framed this issue allegorically using biblical narratives. Most pronouncedly, this particular issue was framed in terms of the Hebrew exodus out of Egypt. Coalition members painted the “gold dome”—the state’s capital—as the home of “Pharaoh,” and one committee member, evoking Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, remarked, “These are, as the Bible says, the powers and principalities we deal with.” Those who favored the house bill are “the enemy” (see Exodus 1–18 and Ephesians 6:10–20 NRSV).

The analogy of Hebrew enslavement under Pharaoh and the racial oppression of African Americans is a familiar one in the black church. As descendants of enslaved Africans, black preachers have often paralleled their struggle out of physical, social, and spiritual bondage to that of the Hebrews. It is no coincidence, for example, that “Black Moses” is the moniker given to Harriet Tubman, who freed over 300 enslaved Africans through the Underground Railroad. In identifying with Hebrew slavery, African Americans have also identified with the Hebrews’ liberation. In naming their oppression, they acknowledge their imminent liberation from it.

This emphasis on freedom in the midst of bondage or oppression by black clergy evokes what Albert J. Raboteau calls the “Invisible Institution.”[3] The Invisible Institution characterizes the black church during North American slavery in the antebellum south, when many enslaved Africans who were forbidden to practice Christianity did so in secret “hush harbors” where there was preaching, singing, and fellowship. The Invisible Institution was the temporal and metaphysical space in which enslaved and freed Africans reclaimed Christianity from, in spite of, and in opposition to white supremacist theology. The Invisible Institution’s Christianity meant freedom—whether spiritual or physical. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya describe the enduring ontological worldview of Raboteau’s Invisible Institution as the black sacred cosmos. They claim: “In song, word, and deed, freedom has always been the superlative value of the black sacred cosmos. The ethos of the Invisible Church was, however articulated, God wants you free!”[4]

During closing prayer, sometimes thirty or more clergy members gather in a circle and hold one another’s hands. Before one of the ministers offers the closing prayer, each person around the circle has an opportunity to give a community announcement. “Date, time, and place,” says the president as he moves inside of the circle, pointing to each person, one by one. On a Monday in February, Dr. Nelson, the chair of the education committee, had no community updates but told us that a member asked her to sing in honor of black history month. After we finished the other announcements, Dr. Nelson sang an a capella medley of Negro spirituals. From memory, she belted out “The New Jerusalem,” “Ride on King Jesus,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Martha and Mary.” That morning, the God of the black cosmos, the God of freedom, the “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears—thou who has brought us this far along the way” was invoked as we participated in our own hush harbor.[5]

Dr. Nelson’s stirring rendition of these spirituals and freedom songs during black history month was not merely performance. It was a ritual observance. As W. E. B. DuBois wrote of the sorrow songs, “The true negro folk-song still lives in the hearts of those who have truly heard them sung and in the hearts of the negro people.”[6] To truly hear the sorrow song is to acknowledge and affirm one’s belief in the black sacred cosmos—the belief that God desires God’s people to be free. The singing of the spirituals was and is an expression and affirmation of the black sacred cosmos. So too are the forum’s prayers, calls for mobilization, and the indictment of Pharaoh and his attacks on black children. The forum is the embodied practice of the black sacred cosmos.

The Religious Practice of Resistance

The coalition, however, is not representative of all African Americans; not all descendants of the Invisible Institution commemorate its legacy in the same way. Lincoln and Mamiya observe that the black church has often taken different positions on how to tactically secure freedom: “Black churches are institutions that are involved in a constant series of dialectical tensions. The dialectic holds polar opposites in tension, constantly shifting between the polarities in historical time.”[7] There are six dialectical tensions that Mamiya and Lincoln propose, one of which seems particularly relevant to the coalition: the tension between accommodation and resistance.

The pole of accommodation speaks to the role the church plays as “major cultural brokers of the norms, values, and expectations of white society.”[8] Respectability politics, that is, the minority assimilating into to the dominant culture as a social reform tactic, for example, would fit in this category.[9] Its opposite, resistance, then, is to “resist the accommodative forces and pressures of the American mainstream” and “politically, resistance has included both self-determination and self-affirmation.”[10] Resistance, self-determination, and self-affirmation direct not only the agenda of the weekly forum but also the minutiae of the members’ black religious activist lives.[11]

On the west side of town in a plain-Jane community center, surrounded by boarded-up buildings and poorly paved streets, they strategize get-out-the-vote campaigns. In between morning invocations and afternoon benedictions, they plan their protests, rallies, and occupations. Week after week, imploring God for help, the coalition practices resistance to the American status quo of economic oppression, political injustice, and negative racial stereotypes. Every Monday morning they resist, because God wants you free.

A Habitus of Resistance

In his paper “From Reproduction to Transformation: Social Movement Fields and the Radical Habitus,” social movement theorist Nick Crossley asks, “Can we analyze . . . social movements and more durable structures of radicalism from the point of view of [Pierre] Bourdieu’s theory of practice or are they his Achilles’ heel?”[12] Crossley begins with this question because, in his interpretation, Bourdieu’s theory only allows for radical social change to occur as the derivative of spontaneous crises. Thus, Bourdieu’s theory of practice does not account for the ongoing and sustained efforts of activists, like the coalition. This is important and rather problematic. If it were the case that radical social change happened only spontaneously, quite possibly the work of the activist would be in vain or irrelevant. Or at the very least, the catalyst for crises would be so obscure that our best attempts at understanding and replicating such catalysts would be futile. Thus, the question boils down to this: what causes people to revolt against the status quo?

Crossley proposes that society changes because of people with a radical habitus. Habitus, for Bourdieu, is a tendency or powerful inclination that is best seen in one’s embodied dispositions (or practice). These dispositions are informed by material conditions (particularly economics) and are durable and not easily malleable. Furthermore, one’s habitus is regulated and regular according to the rules or norms of society, or what Bourdieu calls the doxa. However, one’s habitus is not wholly determined by doxa. For example, if society is imagined as a game of chess, where the rules of the game are predefined, a player is required to play by the rules of the game. However, even within such a game there is room for spontaneous innovation and creative response on the part of each player.[13]

Bourdieu’s schema has trouble accounting for the ways in which some players radically change the rules of the game. Specifically, Crossley surmises,

At a number of points in his work, Bourdieu has offered an outline of a theory of “crisis”; that is, of periods in which habitus fall out of alignment with the fields in which they operate, creating a situation in which “belief in the game” (illusio) is temporarily suspended and doxic assumptions are raised to the level of discourse, where they can be contested. But his conception tends to focus upon the temporary nature of these moments.[14]

Crossley suggests, instead, that for activists “both during crisis and during periods of social stability [reflexivity and habitus] are mutually reinforcing aspects of practice.”[15] So, whereas, Bourdieu suggests that habitus is suspended in times of crisis and replaced with reflexivity, Crossley proposes that reflexivity and habitus happen simultaneously.

It is worth noting an important caveat that provides a charitable reading of Bourdieu but still highlights his theory’s shortcoming. Crossley acknowledges that Bourdieu grants limited social change within fields through “normal struggle” (vis-à-vis crisis) because, for Bourdieu, the games in each field are about power. In this respect, says Crossley, “even ‘revolt’ is a common feature of some fields: e.g., the artistic field, wherein successive generations reject the (surface-level) forms and criteria of their predecessors, striving to establish their own as superior and authoritative.”[16] So, for example, as new generations of artists hope to establish their authority, they introduce new techniques, subjects, materials, or mediums, over and against the previous generations. In situating themselves as better than or in contest with the previous generation, they actually reify the importance of the work that came before them. To say that you are better than Leonardo Da Vinci is to lay claim to his perceived greatness.

This struggle for power and authority is normal and does not disrupt the rules of the game. However, it is unclear how Bourdieu accounts for radical struggle (crises) that transcend normal struggle within a specific field. Or in regards to our previous example, how does one account for Pablo Picasso’s cubism and his avant-garde contemporaries, who effectively changed the field of art forever? After Picasso, was the world of art never to be the same again thanks to spontaneous innovation? Is spontaneous innovation a sufficient explanation for social change?

No, it is not. For Crossley, social change happens because there are members of society who are disposed toward changing society. Social change happens because there are members of society who practice changing society. And if we allow that reflexivity and habitus coexist, these persons are perpetually reflective and critical of the status quo. In other words, radical reflexivity is itself a habitus. Thus, radical habitus, and not spontaneous innovation, is responsible for radical social change.[17]

Moreover, the radical habitus is a “habit-busting habit” that is cultivated and acquired over time, just like I observed in the coalition’s weekly community forums. The habit being busted by the coalition’s practice is the illusion of liberty and justice for all in a nation that runs on systemic oppression. From the hush harbors of the antebellum south to those ongoing Monday meetings in Atlanta, Georgia, resistance to the status quo of racial (and economic) injustice has been a cultivated, acquired, and embodied disposition of many within the black church. It is radical force for social change because its primary disposition is toward a theologically informed resistance to the norms of oppression, and yet—and this is key—the radical habitus, or the coalition’s habitus of resistance, is a critical element for social change not just because it is reflexive but also because it fosters the situations necessary for crisis to happen.[18]

Case in point: On the evening of April 7, a rally was held in defense of the Atlanta Public Schools teachers who were convicted of racketeering for erasing and changing answers on their students’ standardized tests and were facing up to twenty years in prison. The event, hosted at a coalition member’s church in East Atlanta, was organized to incite the community to oppose the perceived unfair sentencing. The sidewalks in front of the church were lined with news camera vans and each pew of the church was full. Unofficial reports ranged from 400 to 700 attendees. I was there because of the weekly community forums, and so were many others.

We rallied that day because the teachers were given sentences that are normally reserved for drug traffickers. Furthermore, this was a high-stakes initiative for the coalition and its partner organizations. The teachers were egregiously sentenced to teach a lesson—that cheating the system on standardized tests is wrong. Members of the coalition didn’t disagree on this point, but they also knew the ways in which this sentencing was significant in the larger drama of standardized testing under the No Child Left Behind Act. Given the high visibility (i.e., the news story reverberated nationally), the complexity of the issue, and the judge’s inertia in lessening the sentences, the rally was not just an opportunity to voice anger; it was a coordinated effort to mobilize people to change the mind of the court.

To be efficient, the rally needed to be highly strategized. There was a direct ask of all participants to sign a petition and call the presiding judge. There was a formal agenda with prepared speakers. The music, too, was intentionally themed around deliverance for the teachers and war against the unfair sentences. The location, the theme (mercy for the educators), the positioning of the speakers, and the seating arrangements for the families of the jailed teachers were all coordinated to better mobilize citizens.

And if the rally was showtime, the coalition’s weekly forums were the rehearsal. This rally did not happen in a vacuum. This crisis, this moment in which the “doxic assumptions [were] raised to the level of discourse” occurred because of the coalition’s habitus of resistance. Without the ongoing radical reflexivity that the coalition practiced weekly, every Monday morning from 9:30 to 11:30, and the similar commitments of their partner organizations, the harsh sentencing of the schoolteachers may not have been interpreted as such.

The weekly forums—these religious practices of resistance—have value in between moments of crisis because they help facilitate crises and sustain the subsequent changes that such crises bring about. The unfair sentencing of those teachers became a crisis because of the ongoing practice of activists whose disposition is to always challenge perceived injustices against the black community.

Lastly, the coalition’s practice gives us food for thought in regard to the recruitment and fostering of social justice advocates. Since habitus is an acquired disposition, it follows that habitus is reproducible. Revolutionaries, it is said, are not born—they are made. In the black church, many of our revolutionaries are trained to be the leaders of centralized organizations, and they usually fit the stereotype of the older, charismatic, male leader. Yet in the age of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and other decentralized and youth-led social justice movements, this mode of organizing is becoming outdated and perhaps less effective. Thus, it is imperative that we continue to interrogate ways in which practices of resistance (particularly religious) are reproduced, nurtured, and sustained over time.

Thoughts Toward Praxis

I have engaged the grounded and analytical theories of Lincoln and Mamiya, as well as Crossley’s application of Bourdieu, to hypothesize what many progressive activists already know: faith communities are effective partners in social change. For example, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) works with faith communities and congregations like the Atlanta coalition to bring about progressive change. IAF and similar networks value their religious partners because those religious partners are able to proclaim freedom and liberation in the midst of oppression. People with shared religious practices and radical dispositions are able to articulate what the world should be in contrast to what the world is. It is this radical reflexivity, the theological belief that God wants us free, that drives social change.

The coalition’s community forum adds pragmatic flesh to theoretical bones. The forum is an example of Lincoln and Mamiya’s black sacred cosmos and Raboteau’s Invisible Institution. And within the framework of Bourdieu’s theory of social practice, the weekly forum—a religious practice grounded in a belief in spiritual, physical, and social freedom—can be said to be a habitus of resistance. When paired with Crossley’s work regarding social movement theory, the coalition’s practice conceptualized as a radical habitus helps us to imagine how social change might happen in society outside of crisis. It is only through such forms of ongoing religious practices of resistance that social changes become catalyzed and sustainable.

[1] Coalition is a moniker for the actual organization I observed, with permission from the organization’s president, during the spring semester of 2015. The study, and subsequent paper, was a project for the Religious Practices seminar, taught by Ed Phillips at Emory University. I was informed that consideration by an institutional review board was unnecessary for this work. For the sake of the coalition’s anonymity, I’ve left out the source of this mission statement.

[2] Some committees that comprise the coalition, for example, are Education, Juvenile Justice, Public Policy/Safety, and Veteran Affairs.

[3] See Raboteau, The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 2–7 and 5 (emphasis in the original).

[5] James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal, ed. Robert O. Hoffelt (Nashville, TN: African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2000), 571.

[6] DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2005), 179.

[7] Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 11.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] This working definition is in reference to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s phrase “the Politics of Respectability,” which she coins in Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church. 1880 – 1920 (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). It is important to note, of course, that a religious group may exist in political, religious, and economic fields, and thus resistance may at times appear to be otherwise. For example, the coalition runs financial literacy workshops that, given the disparity in wealth between black and white communities, may signify a radical practice, yet thanks in part to the free market, the coalition’s support of capitalism, and the existence of these very same disparities, the coalition’s financial literacy workshops also might be considered an instance of respectability politics.

[10] Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, 15.

[11] Once during an education committee meeting, Minister Thomas and Dr. Nelson held a five-minute sidebar conversation about where the next meeting should take place. For convenience, Dr. Nelson made reservations at a Chinese restaurant down the street, yet Minister Thomas implored that the meeting take place in a black-owned business, arguing that it was imperative that we practiced what we preached. (The conversation was contentious not because Dr. Nelson disagreed but because she was frustrated that her earlier calls for suggestions went unheard.) This is an example of the coalition’s resistance as self-determination and self-affirmation, the positive inverse of resistance. This is also an example of the holistic nature this resistance takes on in the lives of the members, where they consider where to eat based on their moral convictions.

[12] Crossley, “From Reproduction to Transformation: Social Movement Fields and the Radical Habitus,” Theory, Culture, and Society 20, no. 6 (2003): 45.

[13] Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[14] Crossley, “From Reproduction to Transformation,” 44.

[15] Ibid., 47 and 48, emphasis added.

[16] Ibid., 44.

[17] Ibid., 55. However, even as Crossley proposes a radical habitus to transcend normal struggle, this sort of habitus alone is insufficient for radical social change within a field. Activists must also have enough economic, social, or cultural capital (e.g., money and prestige) to accrue the power necessary to disrupt the doxa. In an extended analysis of the black church, one could very well argue that cultural capital has been its primary strength. Mary Pattillo-McCoy partly makes this argument in her observation of a black, middle-class neighborhood of Chicago (see “Church Culture as a Strategy of Action in the Black Community,” American Sociological Review 63 [1998]: 767–84). She concludes that cultural forms of black church worship—for example, “call and response,” “the preacher and the congregation,” “musical and verbal cooperation”—help sustain social movements (770). Furthermore, she holds that the cultural form (versus the content) of black church worship applied to social justice movements is what’s important when these practices (forms) are employed in secular fields. I argue that the content—the worldview of the black cosmos centered on freedom—is just as important (or even more so) than form.

[18] Ibid., 56.