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Jul 24, 2019

The New French Right: a Conversation with Pascale Tournier

Last December Mark Lilla published an article in the New York Review of Books titled “Two Roads for the New French Right.” It discusses intellectual currents in French amongst the Right, specifically amongst people about my age or younger. According to Lilla, they represent something new. They are more concerned with climate change and more critical of capitalism than their elders. Some of them are genuinely anti-capitalist.

Lilla drew extensively from Pascale Tournier’s book “Le vieux monde est de retour, Enquête sur les nouveaux conservateurs” for the article. Pascale is a French journalist who writes for La Vie, a left-leaning humanist oriented Roman Catholic magazine. The title of her book roughly translates to “The Old World is Returning, A Study of the New Conservatives.” Since I study conservative thought and right-wing movements in the United States, I thought it would be interesting to get a sense of what’s going on with the French Right. I sent Tournier an email and she graciously agreed to meet with me.

Most of our conversation covered the ground she touched upon in her book. I read French quite slowly and since buying it in Arles last week have managed to make my way through the first couple of chapters. What she, and Lilla, argue is that conservatism is a new idea in France. Historically, the main currents amongst the French Right have been divided into the Orléanists, Bonapartists, and Legitimists. Each current aligned itself with a different royal house that claimed the French throne. The Orléanists supported the Orleans cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, the Bonapartists supported the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Legitimists supported the elder branch of the House of Bourbon. Without getting into the details, each current holds distinctive political positions about the role of the state in French politics as well as democracy. In the 1970s right-wing populism started to emerge as another current in the form of the National Front led by the Le Pen family. And within the last few years conservatism has begun to emerge as a fifth current.

Taken as a whole the conservatism of the French Right is quite distinct from the conservatism of the Right in the United States. Conservatism in the English-speaking world dates to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. Conservatism in France is primarily rooted in French and Catholic sources. In some ways, Tournier’s description of it made it appear as having little in common with conservatism in the United States. American conservatism is organized around the maintenance and restoration of white supremacy. It promulgates climate change denial and is closely tied to white evangelical Christianity. It celebrates capitalism and business and is anti-intellectual enough in its orientation that intellectual historians, climate scientists, and mainstream economists often state, in some form or another, that it has no genuine intellectual tradition.

The French conservatives that Tournier describes are deeply concerned with climate change. The flagship publication is called Limite and bills itself as a “revue d'écologie intégrale,” a magazine of integrated ecology. They are Catholic and have been deeply influenced by Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which argues that climate change is real, and that Catholics must take it seriously. They link their ecological concerns with an analysis that says humanity has overstepped the limits of the natural order, which is how they end up as recognizably conservative. They are for heteronormative nuclear families and opposed to gay marriage. They reject the animating slogan of the May 1968 movement, “It is forbidden to forbid” and instead claim that limits must be sought in all aspects of human life if climate change is to be confronted. Interestingly, this leads them to be critical of capitalism as they fear it is both damaging to the planet and undermines what they imagine to be traditional social arrangements.

According to Tournier, they have turned away from the antisemitism of older generations of the French Right. Instead, they are anti-Islamic. When I asked Tournier if this meant that there were either Jews or Protestants among their members, she told me that Jews and Protestants largely supported Macron. She didn’t know of any of them who were either Jewish or Protestant.

Overall, Catholicism seems to be the conservatives central animating concern. Unlike the older French Right, for whom Catholicism is largely a cultural and political orientation, Tournier thinks that the New French Right was deeply influenced by their faith. It is their faith, she thinks, that has led them to take climate change so seriously. It is their faith, also, which seems have to pushed them outside many of the old Right-Left dichotomies.

Tournier and I ended our conservation not with a discussion of the Right in the United States but with a discussion of the reemergence of the Religious Left. I described for her the work of William Barber II, the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work of my own Unitarian Universalist Association under the leadership of Susan Frederick-Gray. My own takeaway from our time together was that there is energy for new ideas on the Right in France in a similar way that there is energy for new ideas on the Left in the United States. I have no idea the significance of this confluence other than it suggests that political ideologies, like the rest of human culture, are fluid, ever changing, and, at the same time, built upon what has come before.

However appealing I might find some aspects of New French Right’s religious based approach to climate change, it makes more than a little nervous to take a friendly interest in political currents that, whatever their other appeals, routinely inhabit the same space as reactionary, historically anti-semitic, movements like the National Front (now the National Rally). My own nervousness was heightened when I discussed Limite with a friend who is not a scholar or a journalist but a climate change activist. She told me, “they dress up their right-wing politics in an ecological package. They are not serious about ecology but they are serious about opposing gay rights, feminism, and other cultural issues dear to the Left.” Not being immersed in French politics, I am in no position to judge her assessment. But it does make me cautious.

CommentsCategories Climate Change Contemporary Politics News Research Notes Tags New York Review of Books Mark Lilla Conservatism Pascale Tournier La Vie France Paris Le vieux monde est de retour The Old World is Returning Arles Le Pen Family National Front National Rally Edmund Burke May 1968 Limite Climate Change LGBT Rights Catholicism Pope Francis Islam antisemitism Judaism Protestantism Susan Frederick-Gray Unitarian Universalist Association William Barber II The Poor People's Campaign

Jul 20, 2019

Rue de Turenne (or some thoughts on champagne socialism)

Like a lot of other people, I enjoy shopping in Paris. Unlike the United States, there are only big sales twice a year—in July and January. I have learned that if you know where to go you can get some pretty extraordinary deals. As a minister and an academic I routinely show up in all sorts of circumstances wearing a suit and tie—or at the very least a sports jacket and nice slacks–and professional clothes cost a lot of money. A nice suit can easily set me back several hundred dollars.

The summer sales in Paris are good enough that it is possible to actually save a fair bit of money. The place I like to go is Rue de Turenne. It is a famous area for men’s shops in the Marais, a neighborhood in Paris that is a center for Paris’s Jewish and LGBT communities, fashion, and art. A lot of the men’s shops are small boutique designers or custom tailors. When the fashion seasons turn over they dramatically reduce their prices.

Three places I like to go are Johann, where I have bought several suits, Sam Daniel, which has wonderful light weight slacks, and Danyberd, where I have bought some nice shirts. The real deals are generally to be found on the suits. Both Sam Daniel and Johann typically have summer sales where they sell their suits for significantly less than I might be able to get them in the United States. Johann, for instance, sells Ermenegildo Zegna for about 25% of the price it would cost in the United States. This year I got a couple of nice suits from them and a really fantastic sports jacket. The pants and suit I got at Sam Daniel would have cost probably two or three times as much in the United States.

This brief rundown of my favorite men’s shops in Paris might come as a bit of a surprise to some people who know me well. An interest in high end men’s fashion and a commitment to Left radicalism don’t usually go together. In fact, there’s a variety of pejoratives that are sometimes hurled at people like me for the hypocrisy often supposed to be found in enjoying quality things and partaking of a privileged life—radical chic or champagne socialist to offer two. There is truth in those critiques, but hypocrisy is a fundamental condition that anyone with a moral compass must suffer under capitalism. Though Marx was thinking of the labor process when he wrote about alienation, I think that his insight that alienation is central to capitalism was a crucial one. In a capitalist system, based on consumerism and the exploitation of labor, we are all, in some way, alienated.

One example of this is the way in which churches have to function. Many religious communities aspire to be outside of the capitalist system. Many Unitarian Universalists are to some extent anti-capitalist. Yet in order to run a congregation of any scale, congregations have to hire employees—administrators, sextons, religious educators, musicians, ministers, and the like. As soon as they do this, they become employers and are forced to operate within the logic of capitalist employment schemes. Productive workers—those who further the mission of the congregation—need to be kept happy so that they won’t go somewhere else. Unproductive workers—those who don’t further the mission—have to be encouraged towards greater productivity or fired. But as all of this is happening congregations espouse, struggle to uphold, and advocate for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Except, when it comes to an employment situation under capitalism, they can’t. The logic of the system requires that workers in a church be treated by the church like workers in any other industry—as a means to an end. This a fundamental contradiction that cannot be overcome and it creates an alienation, a distance, between the values of the religious community and the community’s actions.

This brings me back to the question of men’s clothes. My choice is ultimately how I am going to position myself to best advocate for the transformation of the system. As I have written about in the past, I have a certain amount of privilege. One way I can leverage this privilege is by dressing a certain way—wearing a suit and tie for instance. Over the years, I have found that a lot of upper middle-income white people will be more accepting of radical ideas—and might even begin to adopt them—if I present myself as well educated, integrated into upper middle-income culture, and well dressed. My Minns lectures, for instance, both offer a blistering critique of progressivism and liberalism while advocating for Unitarian Universalism to draw more from anarchist, anti-fascist, and radical sources in articulating a theology to oppose the rising neo-Confederate totalitarianism of the current President. So, I buy nice cloths knowing that by putting on a certain persona I can better reach a certain segment of the population. Is this hypocritical or manipulative? Probably, but no more so than anyone else—be they performer, banker, or organizer--who adopts, consciously or not, a persona—a set of cloths, a particular aesthetic—to communicate that they are part of a particular community or advocate for a certain set of politics. Call it champagne socialism, if you like, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment and it seems to make me more effective.

CommentsCategories Anarchism Climate Change Contemporary Politics Food Human Rights IWW Ministry News Poetry and Creative Writing Research Notes Sermon Techno Tags Marais Paris France Fashion Mens Clothes Johann Sam Daniel Danyberd Ermenegildo Zegna Karl Marx Alienation Unitarian Universalism Anarchism Champagne Socialism

Apr 22, 2019

Ethelred Brown (and Langston Hughes!) on Unitarianism

As part of my research for the Minns Lectures on American Populism and Unitarian Universalism I recently stumbled across the following description of Unitarianism by the Rev. Ethelred Brown in Langston Hughes's column "Week by Week," which Hughes wrote regularly for the Chicago Defender. This was published in 1960, about four years after Brown died. I am not certain when Brown wrote his portion of the text. 

The Meaning of Faith: Unitarians

Unitarians in the United States number about 100,000. Some of their congregations in the larger urban centers have a number of Negro members. Ethelred Brown, the late minister of Harlem Unitarian Church in New York City, wrote especially for the readers of this column, the following concise statement on the meaning of his faith:

Unitarians are not Trinitarians—that is, they reject the doctrine of the Trinity which states that God is three persons in one. This denial in itself justifies their name. But they also reject every doctrine or teaching claimed by Trinitarians to be "fundamental"—namely, the miraculous birth and deity of Jesus, the Resurrection, the Atonement, a material hell and a personal devil, and infallible Bible. But it is important to note that Unitarians deny what they deny because they believe what they believe, and because they are what they are.

Unitarians believe in the reliability of Reason as contrasted with Revelation and Intuition. And a distinctive and significant result growing out of this belief is that the Unitarian Church of is a creedless church. Unitarians are united not by intellectual agreement but by an ethical and spiritual purpose. Therefore they are not to be approached or presented as persons who deny certain things and believe certain other things, but rather as persons with a certain attitude to reality—persons dedicated to a certain form of life. From this attitude there stem the following distinctive characteristics:

1. Unitarians believe that Religion and Science are not contradictory but complementary.

2. They talk Sense and Religion at the same time. Any proposition that insults their intelligence is rejected.

3. They believe that theological statements must square themselves with established truths. Facts must never be tampered with to accommodate our theories—but our theories must be corrected to agree with the facts.

4. Unitarians do not believe in a static but in a progressive mind. Knowledge grows from more to more.

5. They believe in the right of the individual to seek truth for himself. They take Truth for authority and not authority for truth.

6. Climaxing all, and inclusive of all, Unitarians do interpret or present Religion in terms of church and creeds and ceremonies, but as Life — as character and service. This was aptly stated by Dr. George D. Stoddard, former President of the University of Chicago, when he spoke at a corner stone laying of the $200,000 North Shore Unitarian church. "Unitarianism is nothing radical, but quite simply a return to the sense of honesty, directness, fearlessness and self-reliance that characterized the behavior of our forefathers."

This then is the distinctive trait of Unitarianism — it places life and character above forms and ceremonies, and its churches honestly strive to bring together thought and reverence, the fearless mind and the uplifted heart — "That mind and soul according well may make one music as before — but vaster." This explains why Unitarians feel as did Dr. Charles W. Eliot, late president of Harvard University, "To propagate the simple fundamental convictions of our Unitarian Faith is a holy thing, and a sacred duty."

CommentsCategories Research Notes Tags Minns Lectures Langston Hughes Ethelred Brown Unitarianism Chicago Defender Harlem Unitarian Church George Stoddard University of Chicago Harvard University Charles W. Eliot North Shore Unitarian Church

Jun 6, 2018


I have placed an embargo on my dissertation to aid in my chances of finding a publisher for the book that will come from it in the next few years. However, I have decided to publish the acknowledgements here so that the many people and institutions to whom I owe a debt a gratitude will not have to wait until the book is published to see them.

The genre of acknowledgements appears to require that the author thanks their family last. I wish to break with form and instead indicate that my biggest debt is to my children, Asa and Emma. The two of you have inspired me to keep working for a better world and to continue to pursue scholarship that I hope will help bring it about even during my most difficult moments. You remind me that the future is always worth struggling for. I am incredibly blessed to have you both in my life and I hope that this dissertation, written as it was in the midst of the tasks of parenting, has not detracted too much from our time together.

My parents, Howard and Kathy Bossen, have been an essential source of support as I have worked to complete this dissertation. Your willingness to travel to Massachusetts so I could travel elsewhere for research trips and conferences enabled me to discuss my work with colleagues and uncover vital archival sources. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, you told me that you objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets.

Being a single parent and a graduate student has been a challenge and I offer thanks to all of those who have helped with Asa and encouraged me over the last several years. Shatha Almutawa, Age and Jim Austin, Jorin Bossen and Liat Shore, Noah and Sara Irwin-Evans, Roxanne Rivas, Wendy Salkin, Nate Silver and Robert Gauldin, Rebecca Silver, Wedstanley Thomas, Sarah Stewart and Andrew Morrow, Kristi Stone, this project would not have been possible without you. Special thanks must be given to Brian, Henry, and Susan Frederick-Gray. I could not ask for better friends or truer comrades. My world is better for having you in it. The world is better because of your leadership.

My dissertation would not have been possible without my incredible committee. Dan McKanan and Mayra Rivera Rivera have been the most generous advisors that I could have hoped for. Mayra, I am deeply appreciative of your willingness to step into the co-chair roll last autumn. Your insights into theology, the Bible, the social and religious construction of race, and the connections between UNIA and the Caribbean have been crucial. Your consistent attention to my text paired with your requests for greater clarification of my claims have made me both a better scholar and a better writer. Dan, thank you for helping me make the transition back into the academy from the parish ministry. You have been a steady companion on my journey. I have benefited greatly from your encyclopedic knowledge of social movements and American religion. And I am thankful for your willingness read to versions of this project in all states, from fragments of rough drafts to final product. Lisa McGirr, as my third reader you have pushed me to more clearly articulate my contributions to the historical discipline and explain why the study of religion matters to the analysis of social movements. Your occasional skepticism has prompted me to dig deeper and read more closely than I might have been inclined to do otherwise. As a result, I think my analysis is that much the better. Sylvester Johnson, thank you for your willingness to serve as an outside reader. I will bring your excellent questions with me as this project moves from dissertation to book.

I owe thanks as well to the many friends, colleagues, and mentors who commented on drafts: Chris Allison, John Bell, Carleigh Beriont, Andrew Block, Ann Braude, Catherine Brekus, Carla Cevasco, Kate Coyer, Bradley Craig, Marissa Egerstrom, Amy Fish, Healan Gaston, John Gee, Balraj Gill, David Hempton, David Holland, Cassie Houtz, Andrew Jewett, Michael King, James Kloppenberg, Adelaide Mandeville, Rosemarie Bray McNatt, Mary McNeil, Laura Nelson, Zachary Nowack, Eva Payne, Catie Peters, Charles Peterson, Andrew Pope, Evan Price, Cori Price, Allison Puglisi, and Simon Sun. Special thanks goes to John Stauffer who encouraged me to include the IWW in my dissertation in the first place. Another one goes to Arthur Patton-Hock. I know you didn’t read the dissertation but your hard work as Administrative Director of the American Studies Program certainly made it possible.

I was lucky enough to present drafts of this dissertation to several different workshops and audiences. At Harvard, members of the North American Religions Colloquium and the Twentieth Century History Dissertation Group read some form of almost all of the chapters. The American Studies Workshop was also very useful. Further afield, the Religion and Violence Group of the American Academy of Religion, Collegium: Scholarship Serving Unitarian Universalism, the Unitarian Universalist Emerging Scholars, L’Association Française d’Etudes Américaines, and Starr King School for the Ministry all provided venues for me to present my work.

Financial support for my research and writing came from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the form of a Merit and Term-Time Fellowship, a Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and three of Winkler Fellowships. I also received a Graduate Seed Grant from Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and several years of support from the American Studies Program. Support from the Fund for Nurturing Unitarian Universalist Scholarship, the Living Tradition Fund, the Joseph Sumner Smith Scholarship, and Joseph Gitler Fund for Religion and Ethics, all administered by the Unitarian Universalist Association, was vital. So too was support from the Biosophical Institute in the form of a Frederick Kettner Scholarship.

Thanks as well to all of the archives and libraries whose staff welcomed and worked with me. Material for the dissertation came from Washington State Historical Society, the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan, the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia, the Indiana State Library, the Indiana State Historical Society, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University, and Houghton Library of Harvard University. I suspect Morgan Miller is the unofficial archivist of the American left. Thank you for providing me with IWW materials long thought destroyed. I have no idea how you collect everything you do.

Some final thanks are owed to the congregations that I served while studying in graduate school. My summer ministries at the First Parish Lexington and the First Parish Milton, my sabbatical ministry at the First Religious Society of Carlisle, and my year as minister of the First Parish Church, Ashby, all reminded me that religion can play a powerful role in creating movements for justice. The members of those congregations helped me to clarify my voice as an abolitionist and urged me to conduct scholarship that was relevant to the task of collective liberation. It is my sincerest hope that this dissertation is in that vein.

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags Harvard Graduate School

Jun 21, 2017

Paper Presentation: Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theological Imaginary

I will be presenting a paper entitled "Unitarian Universalism and the White Supremacist Theoligical Imaginary" at the 2017 meeting of Collegium. Here's the text of the accepted paper proposal: 

This exercise in comparative theology will contrast the white supremacist theological imaginary with the theological imaginaries of two Unitarian Universalism’s foundational figures: Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing. The paper will begin with an analysis of the white supremacist theological imaginary as crystalized in one of the most explicitly religious and powerful white supremacist organizations in the history of the United States, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The Klan was vocally Protestant and attracted modest support from some Unitarians and Universalists. The Klan’s founder held Unitarianism in esteem and Klan publications frequently quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. This suggests a certain resonance between some aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism and individuals within them and the white supremacist theological imaginary.

After summarizing the Klan’s theological anthropology, eschatology, ecclesiology, and understanding of the history and place of the United States in the world, the paper will then turn to examinations of the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing to attempt to answer the questions: What was it about liberal theology that appealed to members of the Klan? To what extent should the theological imaginaries of Ballou and Channing be understood as inherently white supremacist?

The paper will conclude with a reflection on the theological imaginaries of figures contemporary to Ballou and Channing who articulated unitarian and universalist theologies but have not been incorporated into the institutional history of Unitarian Universalism. It will argue that while elements of white supremacy can be found within the writings of both Ballou and Channing they are not found in the works of figures such as Olaudah Equiano and Constantin Francois Volney. These figures formed a part of a Trans-Atlantic multiracial revolutionary abolitionist antinomian tradition which included significant numbers of individuals who held universalist and/or unitarian theologies. Incorporating their theological imaginaries into the theological imaginaries of contemporary Unitarian Universalists might prove to be a helpful antidote to whatever aspects of the white supremacist theological imaginary contemporary Unitarian Universalists have inherited from the movement’s foundational figures.

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags Unitarian Universalism Collegium White Supremacy William Ellery Channing Hosea Ballou

Jun 26, 2016

Psalm "23," Modern Version

I found this gem by Covington Hall today while reading through the old IWW newspaper The Lumberjack. It's from the January 9, 1913 edition:

The politician is my shepherd, I shall not want anything during any campaign. He leadeth me into the saloon for my vote's sake. He filleth my pocket with good cigars; my cup of beer runneth over. He inquireth concerning my family, even unto the fourth generation. Yea, though I walk through the mud and rain to vote for him, and shout myself hoarse when he is elected, yet straightway he forgeteth me. Although I meet him in his own house he knoweth me not. Surely, the wool has been pulled over mine eyes all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of a chump forever.

CommentsCategories IWW Research Notes Tags Covington Hall Prayers Satire

Jun 9, 2016

To Grow Our Souls: Grace Lee Boggs's Conceptions of Class

I am presenting a paper today, June 9, at the How Class Works conference at the State University of New York Stony Brook titled "To Grow Our Souls: Grace Lee Boggs's Conceptions of Class." The paper will hopefully soon be turned into a journal article. In the meantime, here's the description I submitted to the conference organizers:

I examine how the philosopher and social activist Grace Lee Boggs conceived of class. Through a careful reading of published writings, private correspondence, and organizational records I argue that over the course of her long career Bogg’s shifting understanding of the nature of class drew from her experiences as highly educated Asian American woman in industrial and then post-industrial Detroit, her involvement in Marxist-Leninist organizations, her studies of Hegelianism, and her engagement with post-colonial and decolonial movements throughout the globe. Towards the end of her life Boggs came to understand the struggle for social change to be primarily a spiritual rather than class struggle.

Born in 1915, Boggs was a founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency of the Workers Party, a grouping that included C. L. R. James. She spent more than eight decades involved in radical politics, along the way meeting with a diversity of activists that included autoworkers, black power organizers, environmentalists and proponents of liberation theology. A study of her life and activism underscores the contingent fate of class based politics in the United States and how an enduring core commitment to economic justice shifted while the world evolved. 

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags Grace Lee Boggs Detroit Johnson-Forest Tendency Marxism

Jun 7, 2016

Yale’s Cultural Studies Laboratory

Last month at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies I met people from the Yale’s Cultural Studies Laboratory. Its official title is the Working Group on Globalization and Culture. It is run by Michael Denning. The lab is modeled after the now defunct Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, where Denning did a master’s degree. As a collaboration between senior faculty and graduate students, its pedagogy and research methodology are quite different from what I have encountered at Harvard or elsewhere in my education. During one of the conference sessions and in casual conversations participants were eager to share what they were doing and how they were doing it. Here is my reconstruction of the how.

The lab has about nine graduate student members and one consistent faculty member, Denning, though other faculty participate from year-to-year. The lab is by application only and its members meet together once a week, sometimes in small groups and sometimes as a whole, throughout the academic year. It is multi-disciplinary and the members I met included doctoral candidates in American Studies, literature, political philosophy, and history. In the past there have been law students as well.

At the beginning of the academic year the lab collectively selects a common research question. This process takes about six weeks and anyone can suggest a topic. Apparently, Denning stays out of the selection of the topic unless the graduate students can’t reach agreement.

Once the topic is selected lab members create a reading list which they then move through in their small groups. Around the same time they also select an empirical case study that relates to the group’s overall research question. This provides the group with opportunties to try out different theoretical discourses on varying empirical case studies in pursuit of answers to a common research question.

Denning then leverages a speaking engagement he gets to conference into an opportunity for the group to collectively present their work. At the French Association of American Studies the group offered it research findings in two panels of five students each. The presentations were tailored to build off each other, moving from the more abstract to the more concrete. Denning presented at one of them as a member of the group and then contributed to the conversation that followed the presentation. The panels were moderated by a graduate student member of the group.

As both a pedagogy and a methodology this lab approach rubs against the individualization of expertise that is rampant in the humanities. It challenges the idea individual should be responsible for a multi-disciplinarily approach. Instead, each member brings their own disciplinary perspective and shares it with the group. It also fosters a sense of collegiality and collaboration that it is rare in the academy. Overall, it is a way of generating knowledge that I wish was shared more widely. I think it could be deployed, in a modified form, in a community setting or amongst clergy as well. 

CommentsCategories Research Notes Tags American Studies Yale Michael Denning Cultural Studies Research Methodologies

Jun 2, 2016

American Studies in France

I spent much of last week in Toulouse, France at the annual conference of the French Association of American Studies. I was there to present a synopsis of my dissertation and participate in the graduate student seminar that proceeded the conference proper. Along the way I learned a bit about the differences between American and French approaches to American Studies. Most of these stem, I suspect, from a combination of cultural difference and the size of American Studies in France. There were about 100 people at the conference and are, I was told, about 500 people who belong to the association. In contrast, the American Studies Association has several thousand members. 

Not surprisingly, the most substantive difference between American Studies in France and American Studies in the United States is that French American Studies functions like something of a province of the latter. The two keynote speakers, Michael Denning and Shelly Jackson, at the conference were both American academics. When people made appeals to the authority of other scholars those scholars were primarily American. I was at one session where a paper’s author was told that if he wanted his work to be taken seriously he had to substantively engage with the work of James Kloppenberg.

In contrast, I got through the entire conference almost without hearing anyone make mention of the French academics who are the rage in America. The only time Michelle Foucault came up was during a conversation I had with a student from Yale. I did not hear any discussions of Gilles Deleuze and Pierre Bourdieu. I find this somewhat shocking. I cannot imagine spending three days at an academic conference in the humanities, of whatever discipline, in the United States and not hearing at least one paper referencing one of them.

American Studies in France is also organized differently than in the United States. The French divide pretty much all topics into two large categories: literature and civilization. Literature focuses on, well, literature. Civilization seems to include everything else: religious studies, history, cultural studies, etc.

I found myself in the civilization section of graduate students. I was surprised at the difference between my presentation and the presentations of the other graduate students. I followed the narrative form, leading with an anecdote and then laying out my major claims in an exegesis of the anecdote. I concluded by suggesting the kinds of contributions I think my dissertation is going to make. All of the French students presented papers that followed the same form. They began by stating their hypothesis. They then provided a brief discussion of their methodology. This was followed by a very specific literature review: I am engaging with x and y texts, which my work improves upon in the manner of z. Following the literature review was articulation of the project’s chapter structure and a brief conclusion.

Over the next week or so I will be posting some further reflections on my trip to France. I hope to include a piece on Yale’s Working Group on Globalization and Culture, who participated in the conference as a group, and something on French anarchism. I might also summarize what I learned about contemporary social movements in France and the conflict over French labor law.

CommentsCategories Research Notes Tags French Association of American Studies L'Association française d'Etudes Américaines France American Studies

Nov 17, 2015

After This War is Over

During my research today I came across a remarkable quote from "Big" Bill Haywood about World War I that seems apropos:

And it is what this war means to society after this war is over. Somewhere in the files here is jotted down on a piece of paper what is meant by the aftermath of the war. Nothing for a hundred years but war, war, war. Nothing to follow but war cripples, war widows, war orphans, war stories, war pictures and war everything. 

CommentsCategories IWW Research Notes Tags Anti-war

Nov 19, 2014

Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship

Tomorrow I am going to participate in a panel at Collegium on the Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship. Here are the remarks, based largely upon the survey I conducted, I prepared for the conference:

My first impulse when asked to participate on this panel was to survey the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship. I am familiar with most of the scholars in our movement. Instead of providing an overview of their work I thought it would be interesting to ask some of my ministerial colleagues who they read. I conducted an on-line survey. Seventy-four people, including a dozen who identified as lay people and another eight who primarily identified as academics, responded. I won’t claim that the survey is scientific but I do think that it tell us something interesting things about the current state of Unitarian Universalist scholarship.

The question “Who are the five most influential Unitarian Universalist or liberal religious thinkers today?” generated a clear consensus. More than half my respondents included Rebecca Parker’s name on the list. Five other scholars were named by at least twenty percent of respondents: Mark Morrison-Reed, Tom Schade, Paul Rasor, Thandeka and Dan McKanan. Three others were offered up by at least ten percent of respondents: Cornel West, Forrest Church, and Sharon Welch.

There are two things that I think are interesting about this list. It is not made of exclusively of academics and there is a disconnect between how influential a scholar is within the academy and how influential they are within our movement. To the first point, Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church are not traditional academics, they are, or were, scholar ministers. Tom Schade is a blogger. Among the academics named only three are, or were, engaged full time in theological education. No one currently on the Starr King faculty makes the list and only one of Meadville’s full-time faculty is there.

Second, I compared my list against google scholar’s citation tracker to see whom amongst is read by the wider academy. Hands down the three most cited Unitarian Universalist scholars were, in order of citation count: Sharon Welch, Anthony Pinn and Rebecca Parker. Interestingly, two of the scholar ministers received about the same number of citations as established academics: Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church. Less surprisingly, the blogger on the list had not been cited by any scholar.

One conclusion that might be drawn from this data is that the site of scholarship within our tradition will continue to be situated both inside and outside of the academy. As Dan mentioned, there are thirty five either recent graduate PhD or doctoral students. Many of us, I suspect, will not pursue jobs within the academy. Those who opt for a non-academic career will not necessarily leave their scholarly work or their ability to influence either Unitarian Universalism or the academy behind. Indeed, they may be uniquely positioned, as Mark Morrison-Reed and Forrest Church were, to have some impact on their academic fields while at the same time nurturing future generations of Unitarian Universalist religious leaders.

Another is that the people we scholars perceive as influential are not necessarily the same people that those in our movement conceive of as influential. For the past decade there have been a variety of blogs that have had transient but significant on the discourse within our liberal religious community. Tom Schade’s The Lively Tradition is the latest iteration of these. In previous years Chris Walton’s Philocrites or Victoria Weinstein’s Peacebang were similarly influential. This suggests a possible project for those of us who are interested in bridging the space between the academy and our wider Unitarian Universalist community: a collective blog.

I am almost out of time. My two other questions were: “What magazines, academic journals, and blogs most impact your work?” and “What is the most important issue for Unitarian Universalist scholars to address?” The responses to both were all over the place. Only three publications--the Christian Century, New Yorker, and the UU World--were named by more than ten percent of respondents. There was no clear consensus as to what issue we should be addressing, though several people did write some variant of “Theology, Theology, Theology.” Mark Morrison-Reed was kind enough to send me a personal e-mail in response and given that I value his opinion as I value few others I thought I would let him have the last word here: “exploring the multicultural history of [Unitarian Universalism] important...

Why is this important? If the UUA is to become more diverse is must figure out what is getting in the way. And it must hold up the history that exist[s] but is yet untold. The various Identity groups need to understand that they have been around and have made a difference. That narrative must be told a a corrective to our misunderstanding of who were really are and might become.”

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Nov 10, 2014

The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship

Next week I am going to be part of a panel presentation at the UU Collegium on the “The Current and Future State of Unitarian Universalist Scholarship.” To aid in preparations for my portion of the panel I am trying to collect some unscientific survey data. There are only four questions and I would appreciate it if readers of my blog could fill it out and distribute it. I will publish the results on the survey next week. The url is

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Jul 19, 2014

An El Salvador Reading List

I am starting pack for my trip to El Salvador. I have two long plane rides and so I am anticipating having a fair chunk of time to read. I have compiled a small of list texts to bring with that will either provide me with historical and political background or aid me in the theological reflection.

Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky
Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora, Daniel Kanstroom
Witness to War: A Doctor’s Moving and Urgent Story, Charles Clements
Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation, ed. Michael Lee
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Oscar Romero

The first two are some of the better recent books on immigration. Clements is a Harvard professor who served as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for a several. He spent his politically formative years in El Salvador. Ellacuria and Romero are both important Catholic liberation theologians. Both were assassinated by right-wing thugs during the civil war. I also plan to bring a good Spanish dictionary, I’m fond of Larousse, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Chet Baker piensa en su arte; Relatos selectos. I realize that’s rather a lot of books for such a short trip but we’re going to be based out of a hotel and I’d like to have useful tools on hand preparing notes and, possibly, blog posts.

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Jul 7, 2014

With Two Lamps to Guide Me; Staughton Lynd as Theologian

My paper “With Two Lamps to Guide Me; Staughton Lynd as Theologian” has been accepted by the Unitarian Universalist Collegium: An Association for Liberal Religious Studies for presentation at their November 19-22, 2014 conference. Here’s my proposal:

Staughton Lynd is an American historian, social justice activist, labor lawyer, and, I argue, theologian. He was the only significant white organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, was deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War, and has played an important role in theorizing the problems and potentials of the contemporary American labor movement. Despite his own profession of faith as a religious person, and frequent deployment of religious tropes, little scholarly attention has been paid to how he proceeds as religious thinker. In this paper I track Lynd’s development from his childhood involvement in Ethical Culture through his work as a Quaker prison abolitionist in Youngstown, Ohio.

I suggest that Lynd functions as what Sallie McFague calls a parabolic theologian. As McFague presents it, parabolic theology “is not a theory to be applied to literary genres of the Christian tradition but a kind of reflection that arises from them.” It resides primarily in works of literature, stories, poems, autobiographies and, most importantly, parables. Parabolic theology is “embodied thinking, thought which cannot finally abstract from the person who is doing the thinking.” Parabolic theologians are not known, primarily, by what they say but rather how they live and what they do. Lynd is a parabolic theologian exemplar. Throughout his career his consistent emphasis has been on pairing what he terms “exemplary action” with theoretical reflection.

Lynd’s own theological interests center on the Latin American tradition of liberation theology. He pays particular attention to the liberation theology concepts of the preferential option for the poor and accompaniment. He has found these two concepts to be essential for his own work as an activist and has theorized how they can help other activists engage in more authentic and effective work.

The paper is built around the discussion of some of Lynd’s key parables, how they relate to his activism and what they suggest about an important religious concern of his, the kingdom of God. In sharing it at Collegium I hope to prompt Unitarian Universalists to see the work of this religious humanist as a resource in our own strivings to create a justice filled world.

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May 16, 2014

Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, Carl Schmitt

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008 [1970])

This text is Schmitt’s sequel to Political Theology I and began as a response to Erik Peterson’s “Monotheism as a Political Problem: A Contribution to the History of Political Theology in the Roman Empire.” In his book Peterson sought to argue for the “annulment of any belief in God being politically relevant, or of any socially relevant theology at all” (35). Schmitt wants to reject closure. He divides his text into three chapters: The Myth of the Ultimate Theological Closure; The Legendary Document; and The Legendary Conclusion.

The Myth of the Ultimate Theological Closure

In this section Schmitt outlines Peterson’s thesis and the responses of three theologians who have more-or-less adopted it. He writes, Peterson claimed to bring “to an end any Christian political theology once and for all” (56). According to Schmitt, Peterson’s argument rests on a belief that theology is specifically a Christian activity and that it only occurs in the period between Christ’s death and the second coming.

The Legendary Document

An important part of Schmitt’s argument appears here as “The church of Christ is not of this world and its history, but it is in this world” (65). He also claims, “There are many political theologies because there are, on the one hand, many different religions, and, on the other, many different kinds and methods of doing politics” (66). He is especially critical of Peterson’s “placement beyond all politics, the absolute unassailability, unattainability and autonomy from the political, is denied the non-Christian, that is, the non-trinitarian, monotheism” (77). Peterson also claims that the political theology that exists within Christianity is a vestige of Judaism and paganism. “When a bishop [Eusebius] is introduced into the twentieth century as the prototype of political theology, there seems to exist a conceptual link between politics and heresy” (84).

The Legendary Conclusion

“Theology is not the same as religion or faith or numinous excitement. Theology wants to be a serious academic discipline and it will remain as (107) such, unless a completely different understanding of science is able to marginalise religion and its theology and to assimilate them into a scientific understanding of the world” (108). “A conflict is always a struggle between organisations and institutions in the sense of concrete orders. It is a struggle of institutions over stances” (114).

Postscript: On the Current Situation of the Problem: The Legitimacy of Modernity

Here he reiterates that the law and theology proceed from the same impulse. “This understanding of the state has achieved, to date, the greatest rational ‘progress’ of humanity in the definition of war as it appears in the theory of international law: namely the distinction between the enemy and the criminal, and therefore the only possible basis for the theory of the neutrality of (117) states in times of war between them” (118). “Thus de-theologisation implies de-politisation, the sense that the world has ceased being ‘politomorph’. Consequently, the distinction between friend and enemy is no longer valid as criterion of the political” (124). “One cannot get rid of the enmity between human beings by prohibiting wars between states in the traditional sense, by advocating a world revolution and by transforming world politics into world policing. Revolution, in contrast to reformation, reform, revision and evolution, is a hostile struggle. Friendship is almost impossible between the lord of a world in need of change, that is, a misconceived world... and the liberator, the creator of a transformed world. They are... by definition enemies” (125). The postscript concludes with the necessary process to create a “modern-scientific closure of any political theology:” “no theology as a subject of discussion” (128); a new human being who “is the unplanned, arbitrary product of the process--progress of himself;” the process-progress contains within it “the possibility of its own novelty--renewal;” “freedom of the human being is the highest value;” this “self-producing new human being... is not a new God;” and the distinction between friend and enemy is eliminated and the “old is not the enemy of the new” (129);

Appendix: ‘Peterson’s Conclusion and Concluding Footnote’

This is a reprint from Peterson’s essay.

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May 15, 2014

"Sermon to the Princes;" "Special Exposure of False Faith;" and "Highly Provoked Defense," Thomas Müntzer

"Sermon to the Princes;" "Special Exposure of False Faith;" and "Highly Provoked Defense" in Revelation and Revolution: Basic Writings of Thomas Müntzer, trans. and ed. by Michael G. Baylor (1993)

All of these texts are from 1524.

Sermon to the Princes

An exegesis of the second chapter of Daniel. It consists of four sections. The first three focus on the corrupt nature of the world and the Church. After the death of the disciples the Christian church “became and adulteress” (99). Also, “the whole world, from the beginning down to the present time, has been deceived by dreamers and interpreters of dreams” (103). In the fourth section he proclaims, “You should know that an elected person who wants to know which visions or dreams are from God and which are from nature or from the devil must be severed in his mind and heart, and also in his natural understanding, from all temporal reliance on the flesh” (106). “It is true--and I know it to be true--that the spirit of God now reveals to many elected pious people that a momentous, invincible, future reformation is very necessary and must be brought about... This text of Daniel is thus as clear as the bright sun, and the work of ending the fifth empire of the world is now in full swing.” The first empire was Babylon, the second was the Persians, the third was the Greeks, the fourth was the Roman and the fifth “is that which we have before our own eyes.” God is going to smash the old ecclesiastical order. The rulers are in danger of being seduced by it but the “poor laity and the peasants see it [the situation] much more clearly than you do” (109). God “will make your hands skillful in fighting against his enemies” (111). “Nothing on earth has a better form and mask than false goodness.” “He to whom is given all power in heaven and on earth [Christ] wants to lead the government” (114).

Special Exposure of False Faith

Muntzer begins by claiming that Luther is preaching false theology, even though they are both trying to interpret the Bible. He writes, “all knowledge contains within itself its diametrical opposite” (115). He suggests that the correction to this is “the common man, must become learned... so that you will be misled no longer. The same spirit of Christ will help you in this which will mock our learned ones to their destruction” (116).

Next he moves to an exegesis of the first chapter of Luke. He emphasis that people can read the Bible themselves, “With all their words and deeds our scribes make sure that the poor man cannot learn to read, because he is worried about his sustenance. And they shamelessly preach that the poor man should let himself be sheared and clipped by the tyrants” (119). The poor will know true scholars by the way they lead their lives.

In the second section he claims, “every person should observe most carefully, and then he will certainly find that the Christian faith is an impossible thing for a man of the flesh” and that faith is also impossible. “And all of us must have just this experience of impossibility in the beginning of faith. And we must hold to it that we carnal, earthly men shall become gods through the incarnation of Christ as man” (121). “Therefore, rulers are nothing but hangmen and corpse renders. This is their whole craft” (123).

In the third section he asserts, “the heart of a member of the elect is constantly moved to the source of his faith by the power of the Supreme Being” (126). And claims again that the learned have led the peasants astray. In the fourth he says that the people need “to wait for a new John the Baptist, for a preacher rich in grace who has experienced every aspect of the faith through his own lack of faith” (128). After this happens there will be a movement of the spirit that reprimands the people “on account of their disorderly desires” (130). The people need to turn away from their sins and towards God. “Otherwise preaching is a thief’s prattle and a war of words” (133). In the sixth he asserts that the coming of the true church is imminent, “In a short time, each will have to give an account of how he has come to the faith. The separation of the godless from the elect would indeed bring about a true Christian church” (134). In the seventh he emphasizes “Christ was a lowly person, of unimportant parents” (137). In the eighth he claims that the elect make room for God in their hearts.

Highly Provoke Defense

Here Muntzer attacks Luther at great length calling him “Doctor Liar” (143). He argues that he, Muntzer, is not preaching rebellion but, instead, preaching that the law be followed. “Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property” (144). In other words, Muntzer maintains that the rich are the real thieves while Luther claims that the poor are thieves whenever they don’t respect private property. After smearing Luther at great length he concludes, “The people will be free. And God alone will be lord over them” (154).

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May 10, 2014

Myles Horton's Organizing Advice

While reading the essay "On Building a Social Movement" in Myles Horton, The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change, ed. Dale Jacobs (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2003), I came across this insightful passage:

It’s been my experience that, to get started, you have to have unannounced meetings or you can’t have a meeting. What you’ve got to do is to find a man back there that’ll get a few people together at his house... and talk to one or two people, when there’s not anybody around. You have to build it up, in little house meetings. You don’t have a meeting; meetings are the worst way in the world, because that’s an open invitation to politicians to come in and take over. That’s their meat, that’s their game. Don’t play their game. You know, set up your own rules of the game. You know, when you were talking about one community wanting a school? Now what you’ve got to find is somebody needs to go in to a place like that, somebody that’s preferably a native, or known to these people, or somebody that’s related to them, even better; and go in and talk to somebody until they tell you the truth of the situation. And then, you win their confidence, and say, well, you get three or four other people together, and they’ll say, maybe these people are afraid to talk to a stranger, but I’ll see. You finally get through, and you meet two or three more people, and you build up very slowly, and these people are the people you want to reach. And then they begin, and if they’re doing something, and they ask for your help, you give help to them--then you’ve got it made. But you have to keep it kind of underground, not too open, and that’s for two reasons. One was the reason you gave where they come and take over. And the other is, these people aren’t going to talk if those people are around. So you’ve got to work with the people you’re dealing with.

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May 9, 2014

Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology, Kathryn Tanner

Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997)

In this book Tanner argues for the utility of insights from anthropology in theological work. Her main argument is that, rather than accepting H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic formulation of Christ against culture, Christians must recognize that religious community and, by extension, theology are part of culture. To construct her argument, she offers a primarily social understanding of human nature, “Human beings construct the character of their own lives through group living” (4). After tracing the historical origin of the concept of culture through its role in manufacturing the hegemony of urban elites, she defines culture as “the primacy of social influences on the lives of individuals” (13). The book is divided into two parts, the first focuses on defining the concept of culture. The second on looking at how an understanding of culture can influence the study and construction of theology.

Culture, as she understands it, has nine basic aspects: 1. “culture is understood as a human universal” (25); 2. “The fact of ‘culture’ is common to all; the particular pattern of culture differs among all;” 3. “culture varies with social group” (26); 4. “a culture tends to be conceived as... [an] entire way of life;” 5. “because cultures are group-specific they are associated with social consensus;” 6. “culture is understood to constitute or construct human nature” (27); 7. “Cultures are conventions in the sense that they are human constructions;” 8. cultures are contingent and “a particular culture can never claim inevitability;” 9. “the notion of culture suggests social determinism: society decisively shapes the character of its members” (28). Perhaps her most important insight into culture is that it is “the meaning dimension of social life” (31). Additionally, she argues that it is now “less and less plausible to presume that cultures are self-contained and clearly bounded units, internally consistent and unified wholes of beliefs and values...” (38). Culture, is not, stable. Rather it is inherently unstable.

The key question of the second section is: “How might some fundamental theological topics appear differently, what new directions for their investigation might arise, were one to experiment in theology with a postmodern view of culture” (61)? She notes, “Saying that theology is a part of culture becomes a way of talking about theology in terms of what it means to be human” (64). Armed with this insight, she makes a distinction between everyday theology and academic theology. Both have “to do... with the meaning dimension of Christian practices, the theological aspect of all socially significant Christian action.” Everyday theology is “found embedded in such matters as the way the altar and pews are arranged” (70). Academic theology, in contrast, is a critical exercise that seeks to systematize and critique Christian practice and everyday theology.

When considering theological method she writes that it has “a twofold character. First, theologians show an artisanlike inventiveness in the way they work on a variety of materials that do not dictate of themselves what theologians should do with them. Second, theologians exhibit a tactical cleverness with respect to other interpretations and organizations of such materials that are already on the ground” (87). This means that “the issue of whose theological position is most compelling is decided by judgments of an aesthetic sort, ones like those used to determine, say, the best interpretations of a poem” (91). Further, “Faced with an incredibly disparate and complex set of materials, the theologian is always ultimately making meaning rather than finding it” (93).

The balance of the book is spent arguing for Tanner’s particular theological positions. Against people like John Millbank she rejects firm boundaries between Christian communities and the wider society. She rejects the use of “logico-deductive” arguments, claiming they are insufficient and inaccurate in constructive theological work (117). Her emphasis on everyday theology leads her to argue that “Christian identity, at this most basic level... is more a matter of form than substance” (124). Tradition is important in maintaining form across time. And that this tradition and form are a matter of discipleship, “One only comes to know the character of one’s own discipleship by listening to them... One remains the disciple of God, and not the disciple of God’s witnesses” (138).

Her concluding chapter’s argument is summarized in this sentence from its first paragraph: “My conclusions in the last chapter about Christian identity--that it is constituted most fundamentally by a community of argument concerning the meaning of true discipleship--suggested that Christian identity need not be jeopardized by ongoing disagreement about what Christians should say, feel, and do” (156).

My major criticism of Tanner is that she grossly underestimates the role of violence in maintaining theological consensus and establishing the boundaries of identity. While she amply engages with other theologians, references to Schleiermacher, Lindbeck, Millbank and Kaufman abound, she does not discuss particular religious communities, historical events or traditions. This makes her argument feel somewhat disassociated from the everyday theology that she sees as the subject of study of academic theologians. This disconnect undercuts her argument.

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May 8, 2014

The Journal of John Woolman

John Woolman, The Journal of John Woolman in The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, ed. Philips Moulton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 21-192

In his journal John Woolman accounts for his growing belief that slavery is wrong, his transformation into an abolitionist and his efforts to convince Quakers in both America and England to stop practicing the slave trade. His concern with slavery is that it is a moral sin and he is working to end moral sins, be they slavery or wanton behavior (see, for instance, his discussion of his rebuke of the “sleights-of-hand” performer in 1763 (138)). The journal spans 1720 to 1772 and was revised and rewritten between 1770 and 1772.

The years 1720 to 1742 constitute his childhood and early adulthood and contain Augustine like accounts of how his understanding of human nature is rooted in his own early experiences. For instance, after killing a bird and her babies and then feeling guilty about his action he writes, “he whose tender mercies are over all his works hath placed a principle in the human mind which incites to exercise goodness toward every living creature” (25). As a Quaker he believes “true religion consisted in an inward life” and his journal can be seen as an attempt to practice that religion (28).

His conversion to abolition takes place when he participates in the sale of an African American slave he knows. Shortly afterwards he stops working as a merchant and becomes a tailor observing, “I saw that a humble man with the blessing of the Lord might live on a little, and that where the heart was set on greatness, success in business did not satisfy the craving, but that in common with an increase of wealth the desire of wealth increased” (35).

The majority of the journal consists of Woolman’s account of visiting various Quaker meetings and trying to convince them to stop participating in the slave trade. He recognizes that this is a difficult task, “Deep-rooted customs, though wrong, are not easily altered, but it is the duty of everyone to be firm in that which they certainly know is right for them” (50). At the core of his organizing methodology is the conviction that, “Conduct is more convincing than language” (60).

Of Woolman’s several journeys two in particular worth mention are his visit to the Native Americans in 1763 and his trip to England, where he ultimately died, in 1772. In England he tried to convince the London Quaker meeting that slavery was wrong.

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May 4, 2014

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999)

Aristotle’s major ethical work is the primary source for the tradition of virtue ethics. It is notable, amongst other things, for his teleology, definition of virtue, doctrine of human nature and discussion on friendship.

Aristotle believes that, “Every craft and every line of inquiry, and likewise every action and decision, seems to seek some good” (1). The good he thinks that humans seek is what he calls happiness. He identifies three kinds of happiness: pleasure, honor and study. Aristotle is hierarchical in his thinking and he ranks all of his typologies. For him, study is the highest good. Likewise, political science is the highest science because it is about the happiness of many and not just one.

The good that is sought can also be understood as a function. And just as a horse has a function, so too with a human being “activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason” (9). Philosophy can be understood as the craft to best realize this function. Goods can be divided into three types: external, of the soul and of the body.

A person can only be said to be truly happy at the end of life because reversals of fortune can reveal that what was thought to be happiness earlier was illusory. Happiness is defined as “a certain sort of activity of the soul in accord with complete virtue” and virtue is defined as “virtue of the soul, not of the body” (16). Aristotle divides the virtues into virtues of thought and virtues of character. Some of the virtues of thought are wisdom, comprehension, and prudence. Some of the virtues of character are generosity and temperance.

This is an act based ethics, ones becomes virtuous by doing things, by acquiring the habits of virtue, rather than believing things. Virtues, furthermore, are understood as the mean between two extremes. Generosity, for instance, is the mean between being a miser and being a spendthrift.

Justice in this system is what allows us to become virtuous. An unjust social system is one that cultivates unvirtuous behavior. Law is useful and just when it aims to cultivate virtuous behavior. One reason why political science is the highest science is that it tries to pass the correct laws that will cultivate the correct behavior in the citizens of a city.

Aristotle, incidentally, understands human beings as social creatures. We are people who live in communities, cities, and are parts of families. Seeking virtue is never an individual act.

Also, Aristotle believes that there are both voluntary and involuntary actions. Only adults, and possibly men, are capable of voluntary actions.

Throughout the book Aristotle makes reference to incontinent people as opposed to virtuous people. The incontinent are those who are “prone to be overcome by pleasures” which the lowest kind of happiness (109).

Two books (VIII and IX) of the ethics are concerned with friendship which “is most necessary for our life” and is what “hold cities together.” It is so important that most “legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than justice” (119). The good that friendship seeks is love and “friendship is said to be reciprocated goodwill.” Friendships has “three species, corresponding to three objects of love” (121). These are: utility, pleasure and character. The most enduring, and rarest, kind of friendship is that of character.

The book closes with a discussion of education and the disconnect between theory and practice. Aristotle attacks “the sophists who advertise that they teach politics but none of them practices it” while praising those who both teach and practice politics.

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May 3, 2014

The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966 [1963])

Thompson’s book, like the title suggests, chronicles the making of the English working class. In the Preface he lays out his methodology and argument. “Making, because it is a study in active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning.” “I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships... the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. ...And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs” (9). “Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms... Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way” (10). “Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition” (11).

He also describes the aim and structure of the book, “This book can be seen as a biography of the English working class from its adolescence until its early manhood” (11). Part One of the book looks at “the continuing popular traditions in the 18th century which influenced the crucial Jacobin agitation of the 1790s.” Part Two traces the experiences of workers during the Industrial Revolution and attempts to “estimate... the character of the new industrial work discipline, and the bearing upon this of the Methodist Church.” Part Three picks “up the story of plebeian Radicalism... through Luddism to the heroic age at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.” The book concludes by look at the evolution of political theory and class consciousness in the 1820s and 1830s. Thompson admits to have a particular democratic communist agenda in writing his book, “Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won” (13).

The work is broken into three parts. The first part “The Liberty Tree” covers chapters one to five, the second part “The Curse of Adam” covers chapters six to twelve, and the third part “The Working Class Presence” covers chapters thirteen through sixteen.

Part I: The Liberty Tree

In the first chapter, he defines a working-class organization as “There is the working man as Secretary. There is the low weekly subscription. There is the intermingling of economic and political themes... There is the function of the meeting, both as a social occasion and as a centre for political activity. There is the realistic attention to procedural formalities. Above all, there is the determination to propagate opinions and to organise the converted, embodied in the leading rule: ‘That the number of our Members be unlimited’” (21).

In the second chapter, he sees religious dissent as a space for preserving radical ideas by keeping them “in the imagery of sermons and tracts and in democratic forms of organization” (30). Additionally, “The tension between the kingdoms ‘without’ and ‘within’ implied a rejection of the ruling powers except at points where co-existence was inevitable” (31) or throughout “the Industrial Revolution we can see this tension.... in the Dissent of the poor, with chiliasm at one pole, and quietism at the other” (50). He summarizes this argument, “The intellectual history of Dissent is made up of collisions, schisms, mutations; and one feels often that the dormant seeds of political Radicalism lay within it, ready to germinate whenever planted in a beneficent and hopeful social context” (36). On a side note, in this section he also traces the origin of “a ‘calling’” to Puritan culture and argues that it was “particularly well adapted to the experience of prospering and industrious middle class or petty bourgeois groups” (37). He pays particular attention to Methodism throughout the book, arguing that it had both a conservative aspect and “was indirectly responsible for a growth in the self-confidence and capacity for organisation of working people” (42).

In the third chapter Thompson lays out his famous argument about moral economy and describes his method: “If we are concerned with historical change we must attend to the articulate minorities. But these minorities arise from a less articulate majority whose consciousness may be described as being, at this time, ‘sub-political’... The inarticulate, by definition, leave few records of their thoughts. We catch glimpses in moments of crisis... and yet crisis is not a typical condition” (55). Further, “We may isolate two ways in which these ‘sub-political’ traditions affect the early working-class movement: the phenomena of riot and of the mob, and the popular notions of an Englishman’s ‘birthright’” (59). As he summarizes this, “Hence the final years of the 18th century saw a last desperate effort by the people to reimpose the older moral economy as against the economy of the free market” (67) and in “considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direct action some legitimising notion of right is to be found” (68).

In chapter four Thompson takes up the task of describing how the Englishman’s “birthright” of freedom formed a basis for the moral economy and working class resistance. He writes, “they felt themselves, in some obscure way, to be defending the ‘Constitution’ against alien elements who threatened their ‘birthright.’ ...Patriotism, nationalism, even bigotry and repression, were all clothed in the rhetoric of liberty” (78). Mostly, this manifested as a desire to be left alone and understanding that the “profession of a soldier was held to be dishonourable” (81). However, Thompson also notes, “This defensive ideology nourished... far larger claims to positive rights” (83).

In chapter five Thompson tries to show how the traditions of the 18th century laid the way for the emergence of working class radicalism in the early 19th century. He summarizes the chapter thusly: “In the 1790s something like an ‘English Revolution’ took place, of profound importance in shaping the consciousness of the post-war working class. It is true that the revolutionary impulse was strangled in its infancy; and the first consequence was that of bitterness and despair. The counter-revolutionary panic of the ruling classes expressed itself in every part of social life; in attitudes of trade unionism, to the education of the people, to their sports and manners, to their publications and societies, and their political rights. And the reflex of despair among the common people can be seen, during the war years, in the inverted chiliasm of the Southcottians and the new Methodist revival” (177).

Part II: The Curse of Adam

Chapter six lays out a theoretical framework for the next few chapters that deal specifically with the impact of the Industrial Revolution on particular groups in society. He argues, “steam power and the cotton-mill = new working class” (191) and claims the “working class made itself as much as it was made.” He sees a working class and not classes because “first... the growth of class-consciousness: the consciousness of an identity of interests as between all these diverse groups of working people and as against the interests of other classes. And, second, in the growth of corresponding forms of political and industrial organizations” (194). At the heart of these differences in interests lie an exploitative relationship which “is depersonalised, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality... are admitted” (203). Furthermore, the “process of industrialisation must, in any conceivable social context, entail suffering and the destruction of older and valued ways of life” (204). He writes, “People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time” (211).

Chapters seven, eight, and nine look at how the process of class formation impacted field labourers, artisans, and weavers. In all three cases he argues that the conflict between the groups and the emerging industrial class can be understood as a “conflict... between two cultural modes or ways of life” (305).

Chapter ten is dedicated to arguing that the above groups did not fare better under the Industrial Revolution, “In the fifty years of the Industrial Revolution the working-class share of the national product had almost certainly fallen relative to the share of the property-owning and professional classes” (318). He pays particular attention to child labor and argues against those who note that it took some time for the movement against it to arise after the advent of the Industrial Revolution by claiming, “We forget how long abuses can continue ‘unknown’ until they are articulated: how people can look at misery and not notice it, until misery itself rebels” (342). Setting up the next chapter he claims, “We shall return to the Methodists, and see why it was their peculiar mission to act as apologists of child labour” (348).

Chapter eleven focuses on the role of Methodism in forming, taming and disciplining  the working class. During this period he sees Methodism as making great gains among the working class and consolidating “a new bureaucracy of ministers” (351). He also claims, the “factory system demands a transformation of human nature” (362). Further, he lays out a variety reasons why Methodism accommodated child labor.

Chapter twelve looks at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on community, “In the industrial areas it can be seen in the extension of discipline of the factory or clock from working to leisure hours, from the working-day to the Sabbath, and in the assault upon... traditional holidays and fairs” (403). He summarizes the chapter “together with that of the loss of any felt cohesion in the community, save that which the working people, in antagonism to their labour and to their masters, built for themselves” (447).

Part Three: The Working-Class Presence

Chapter thirteen looks at how popular radicalism survived into the 19th century, the “laws outlawing corresponding societies and open political meetings had atomised the movement, so that the individualistic and quarrelsome behaviour of its leaders was a function of their situation as ‘voices’ rather than as organisers” (469).

Chapter fourteen traces this popular radicalism in “the Industrial Revolution, [and how] new institutions, new attitudes, new community-patterns, were emerging which were, consciously and unconsciously, designed to resist the intrusion of the magistrate, the employer, the parson or the spy” (487). Additionally, we “find some the sharpest conflicts involving men with special skills who attempted to attain to, or to hold to, a privileged position” (506). The major form of working-class organization that Thompson focuses on here in Luddism, “We have attempted to draw closer to the Luddite movement from three directions: the shadowy tradition of some political ‘underground’: the opacity of historical sources: and the vigorous traditions of illicit trade unionism” (521). For the Luddites, “What was at issue was the ‘freedom’ of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages” (549). He sees the Luddites looking forward to “a democratic community, in which industrial growth should be regulated according to ethical priorities” (552). He traces its demise to various factors. In the Midlands: where they were partially successful, the government deployed massive force against them, and it made their practices illegal. The Luddites also had the impact of bringing about greater unity amongst the ruling classes.

Chapter fifteen traces the development of political radicalism, as opposed to the workplace-based radicalism of the previous chapter. Thompson holds that it “was a generalized libertarian rhetoric, a running battle between the people and the unreformed House of Commons within which one issue after another was thrown to the fore” (604). He sees radicalism as having born “a direct relationship to the structure of each community” (611). He also treats the problem of leadership in this (these) movements: “the democratic movement looked to the aristocratic or gentlemanly leader;” “there was... [a] demagogic element;” there was no political organization to provide “self-discipline” (623); there was a tension between a resort to force and electoral reform. The “true heroes” of this movement were its local leadership, not its national leadership (631). Finally, he traces the influence of the Peterloo massacre on both the development of the working class and its enemies.

Chapter sixteen provides the conclusion and traces the emergence of class consciousness which occurred when “working men formed a picture of the organisation of society, out of their own experience and with the help of their hard-won and erratic experience, which was above all a political picture” (712). The development of a free press played an important role in this because “Persecution cannot easily stand up in the face of ridicule” (722). William Cobbett was crucial here. The Owenites mark the emergence of the first working-class movement and marks the end of older forms of revolt because they learned “to see capitalism, not as a collection of discrete events, but as a system” (806). Throughout this period there was also the emergence of middle class consciousness.

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Apr 14, 2014

The City of God, Augustine

Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Betenson (New York: 1984)

Augustine’s City of God was written in the wake of the 410 CE sack of Rome by the Visigoths. It consists of twenty two books and serves several purposes. Primarily, it seeks to distinguish the City of God from the City of Man and, in doing so, offer a Christian theology of history. Secondarily, it aims to show why Christianity cannot be blamed for the sack of Rome. Along the way, Augustine also tries to prove that pagan religion and philosophy are both inferior to Christianity and, in the case of paganism, demonic.

The rough outline of the book: Books I-X, criticism of pagan religion and philosophy; Books XI-XXII, explanation of Christian theology. The two subjects are intertwined and so the focus on criticizing paganism and advocating Christianity can be found in both sections. In a fashion the first part can be seen as giving a history of the City of Man and the second can be seen as giving a history of the City of God. Throughout God is understood as knowing the course of history, “he gives in accordance with the order of events in history, an order completely hidden from us, but perfectly known to God” (176). In addition, what appears evil to humans in only a result of our limited knowledge for “God turns evil choices to good use” (449).

Book I

Augustine begins by stating his purpose and method, “the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the founder of that city. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat.” He defines “the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination” (5).

The balance of the book is spent explaining how the sack of Rome was not the fault of Christians and what Christians should do in the face of the sack. He tries to show that the Christians can’t be blamed because the Visigoths respected Christian churches and did not murder those who sought sanctuary within them. Then he turns his attention to the question of rape and concludes that women who were raped during the sack should not kill themselves since, “There will be no pollution, if the lust is another’s; if there is pollution the lust is not another’s” (27). This argument fits in with Augustine’s major claim about sin, it is the misdirection of the human will from God towards the human. This means that if one is ordered to kill by the authority of the state “it was not an act of of crime, but of obedience” (32).

In this book Augustine also makes an argument about God’s punishment in this life, “the sufferings of Christians have tended to their moral improvement” while “the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme” (14).

Book II

The major focus of this book is to show that the worship of pagan gods has never benefited Rome. There is a particular focus on the pagan theater. He argues, “Rome had sunk into a morass of moral degradation before the coming of Heavenly King” (69). Also, “I shall do my best to demonstrate that that commonwealth [the Roman Republic] never existed, because there was real justice in the community... true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” (75).

Book III

This book continues the previous argument, describing the history of the City of Man through the reign of Caesar Augustus.

Book IV

Augustine begins this book by emphasizing, “the false gods whom they used to worship openly and still worship secretly, are really unclean spirits; they are demons” (135). Then he offers an account of the growth of the Roman Empire. He sees the empire as just and asks the question, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” There is good parable here, which Augustine borrows from Cicero: “it was a witty and a truthful rejoiner which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, ‘What is your idea, in infesting the sea?’ And the pirate answered, which uninhibited insolence, ‘The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor’” (139). Also, “The increase of empire was assisted by the wickedness of those against whom just wars were waged” (154).

He also makes the claim that God is not immanent. God is transcendent.

Book V

Here Augustine inquires “why God was willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long” (179). Again his purpose is to show that the sack of Rome has nothing to do with the rise of Christianity. There is an important discussion of the nature of free will and God’s knowledge, “Our wills themselves are the order of causes, which is, for God, fixed, and is contained in his foreknowledge, since human acts of will are the causes of human activities” (192). He also begins to make the argument that evil wills result from turning away from God, “they are contrary to the nature which proceeds from him” (193). A good summary of his position: “The fact that God foreknew that a man would sin does not make a man sin; on the contrary, it cannot be doubted that it is the man himself who sins... A man does not sin unless he wills to sin; and if he had willed not sin, then God would have foreseen that refusal” (195).

Book VI

This book presents a critique of pagan religion and philosophy, primarily as presented by the philosopher Marcus Varro. He tries to show here that both are insufficient for creating righteousness in this life.

Book VII

This book follows the argument of the previous. However, the emphasis here is on why pagan religion and philosophy offer inadequate account of how the divine operates in this life.


This book focuses more exclusively on pagan philosophy and makes the claim “the true philosopher is the lover of God” (298). He tries to show the Platonist school got things mostly right, “There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists” (304).

Book IX

This book continues the previous discussion of Platonism. He also makes the claim that humans need a mediator, i.e. Christ, because “there can be no direct meeting between the immortal purity on high and the mortal and unclean things below” (364). He begins to describe angels and demons, both of which he believes to be real.

Book X

Augustine begins this book by summarizing his agreements and disagreements with the Platonists, “they have been able to realize that the soul of man, though immortal and rational... cannot attain happiness except by participation in the light of God... [yet] they have supposed... that many gods are to be worshipped” (371). He then moves onto a discussion of the nature of true religion and Christ. Christ is “our priest, his only-begotten son” through him people learn to offer God, “on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise” (375). Further, true love of self is understood to be love of God, “For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness” (376). In addition, acts are understood to be righteous only if they are “directed to that final Good” (i. e. God) (379).

This is followed by a discussion of the nature of God, “he moves events in time, while himself remains unmoved by time” (390).

Book XI

This book concerns the origins of both cities. Augustine claims, “the existence of the world is a matter of observation: the existence of God a matter of belief” (432). He discusses the nature of time, “there can be no doubt that the world was not created in time but with time. An event in time happens after one time and before another, after the past and before the future” (436) and provides an account of the creation, including the creation of the angels and the fall of “some angels who turned away from... illumination” (443). These fallen angels “fell, by their own choice” (445). He claims that evil can be understood as necessary because it enriches “the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem” (449).

The City of God exists because God “founded it” and its structure can be found in the Trinity, “It exists; it sees; it loves” (458). Human beings mirror this as well, “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know that exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” (459).

Book XII

In this book Augustine further explains the origins and natures of both cities, “We may speak of two cities, or communities, one consisting of the good, angels as well as men, and the other of evil.. We must believe that the difference had its origin in the wills and desires” (471). Evil is understood to be good which has turned away from God, “the turning is itself perverse” (478).

A second part of the book makes argument that human history is only 6,000 years old and that those who believe otherwise are following a false teaching. Furthermore, true history is to be found in the Bible. The when God’s creation of the world is understood to be a mystery, “it is certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alteration in his purpose and design” (490). Various other theories of history are then rejected.


Here Augustine is concerned with the problem of death. He makes a distinction between the death of the body, “the first death,” and the death of the soul, “the second death” (511). Death begins “from the moment that... bodily existence” begins” (519). While asserting that the Fall was real, he also reads the Fall and paradise allegorically, “paradise stands for the Church itself” (535).

Book XIV

This book focuses primarily on the Fall and human nature. He begins by underscoring the differences between the “two cities... one city of men who choose to live by the standard of the flesh, another those who choose to live by the standard of the spirit” (547). The Fall be understood, in part, as a decision to reject the spirit for the flesh. This decision originates, however, not in the flesh itself but in the will, “it was the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible” (551). Further, the “important factor in those emotions is the character of a man’s will. If the will is wrongly directed, the emotions will be wrong; if the will is right, the emotions will be not only blameless, but praiseworthy” (555). Because of these two factors the human life must be seen as full of sin, “anyone who thinks that his life is without sine does not succeed in avoiding sin, but rather in forfeiting pardon” (564).

Augustine recounts the Fall as told in Genesis. A fallen angel is seen as tempting Adam and Eve to leave the City of God. Disobedience understood as originating Satan then being transfered to Eve and finally, through Eve, to Adam. The Fall is also understood as a movement from being to nonbeing, “although the will derives its existence, as a nature, from its creation by God, its falling away from its true nature is due to its creation out of nothing” (572).

Augustine focuses on the orgasm and the erection as both proof of, and a symptom, of humanity’s fallen nature, “So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness” (577). The erection shows that lustful sinful men cannot control their own bodies. As a result, sex is shameful because it demonstrates a loss of control. When humanity is reconciled with God this will no longer be the case.

Book XV

In this book Augustine traces the history of the City of Man, and the City of God, from the story of Cain and Able through the Flood. He sees the Ark as a symbol of the City of God, “this is a symbol of the City of God on pilgrimage in this world, of the Church which is saved through the wood on which was suspended ‘the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’” (643).

Book XVI

This book continues the histories of the City of Man and the City of God through the start of the time of the prophets.


This book continues the histories of the City of Man and the City of God from the time of the prophets to the birth of Christ. The history of the City of God in the world is to be understood, in part, as the story of “two things promised to Abraham... that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan... [and that he would be] the father... of all nations follow in the footsteps of his faith” (712). A great number of pages are spent trying to prove that the Hebrew Bible contains passages foretelling the coming of Christ.


This book continues along the lines of the previous three. The last chapters begin to explain the nature of Christ and the Church. People born before Christ had the possibility of belonging to the City of God, “I have no doubt that it was the design of God’s providence that... we should know that there could also be those among other nations who lived by God’s standards and were pleasing to God, as belonging to the spiritual Jerusalem” (829). Augustine sees the Christ event as, “After sowing the seed of the holy gospel, as far as it belonged to him to sow it through his bodily presence, he suffered, he died, he rose again, showing by his suffering what we ought to undergo for the cause of truth, by resurrection what we ought to hope for in eternity, to say nothing of the deep mystery by which his blood was shed for the remission of sins” (832).

Book XIX

In this book Augustine defines “Final Good is that for which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake. The Final Evil is that for which other things are to be shunned, while it is itself to be shunned on its own account” (843). This is the book that most clearly articulates Augustine’s ethics. The primary emphasis here is on the kinds of virtues and vices and what the good Christian life consists of, “eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death, the Supreme Evil” (852). Happiness can never be found in this life. It will only come in the next “we are saved in hope, it is in hope that we have been made happy; and we do not yet possess a present salvation, but await salvation in the future, so we do not enjoy a present happiness, but look forward to happiness in the future” (857). Augustine returns to arguing against Marcus Varro. The themes of peace and justice, both of which have to do with alignment with God, are visited. Just war theory is partially articulated. And slavery to lust is described as a greater evil than slavery to a human being. Augustine summarizes his ethics thus, “In this life, therefore, justice in each individual exists when God rules and man obeys, when the mind rules the body, and reason governs the vices even when they rebel, either by subduing them or by resisting them, while from God himself favour is sought for good deeds and pardon for offences, and thanks are duly offered to him for benefits received” (893).

Book XX

The subject of this book “is a belief held by the whole Church of the true God, in private confession and also in public profession, that Christ is to come from heaven to judge both the living and the dead, and this is what we call the Last Day, the divine of divine judgement” (895). Much of the focus is on the scriptural evidence for the judgement and nature of “the resurrection of the dead” (900). The judgment is include a purifying fire.

Book XXI

This book focuses on “the kind of punishment which is in store for the Devil, and for all those of his party” (964). The “bodies of the damned [are] to suffer torment in the everlasting fire” (976). About the metaphysical conflict between the two cities he writes, “Better war with the hope of everlasting peace than slavery without any thought of liberation” (993). A small section is devoted to arguing against Origen and universal salvation.


The final book describes what will happen when the City of God comes, “in this City all citizens will be immortal, for human beings also will obtain that which the angels have never lost” (1022). Human will will be restored to its proper orientation and people will no longer sin, “this last freedom will... bring the impossibility of sinning... [it will be] that condition of liberty in which it is incapable of sin” (1089). He concludes by claiming that humans live in the sixth epoch and that the last judgement will bring about the seventh.

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Feb 11, 2014

On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 2006 [1963])

Arendt’s comparative study of the American and French revolutions examines one of the two major political issues in the world (the other being war). She finds that war and revolution have an interrelationship and that at, in some sense, both require the glorification or justification of violence. She believes that revolutions are fundamentally about liberation and that the revolution process is two-fold. It begins with the effort to gain freedom and ends, if it ends successfully, with the foundation of new institutions designed to preserve that freedom. She believes that revolution is a modern concept that can be traced primarily to French revolution and “the idea [that] freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide” (19). French revolution was a failure because it got sidetracked in efforts to deal with the abject poverty in France and stopped focusing on freedom. The American revolution was successful because the colonies were wealthy in comparison to Europe. The kind of poverty that existed in France simply did not exist in the colonies. 

The last chapter of the book focusing on recovering the revolutionary tradition. Arendt traces both creation of political parties and councils to revolutionary periods and claims “political freedom, generally speaking, means the right ‘to be a participator in government’, or it means nothing” (210). The councils are the authentic spaces for political freedom that can be traced to revolutionary periods. They are crushed by the logic of the nation state while the parties are able to succeed. Ideally, the parties can be a space for knowing and the councils a space for doing. As she writes, “Wherever knowing and doing have parted company, the space of freedom is lost” (256).

A few synthetic notes: Like Theda Skocpol, Arendt believes that revolutionaries are bad at both organizing and predicting revolutions. Unlike Skocpol, she is not interested in what causes revolutions but rather in the course they follow after their advent. Human agency appears mostly in the events that stem from a revolution and the long term success of a revolution is dependent on the culture and institutions that proceed it. The American revolution was successful because it depended on the long standing institutions of local governance. The French revolution was unsuccessful because it swept away entirely the old order and sought to replace it. As she writes, “...the more absolute the ruler, the more absolute the revolution will be which replaces him.” (147)

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Jan 7, 2014

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

I have started to study for my general exams, which take place at the end of May. As part of my study process I am writing notes on all of the books on my reading lists. I plan to post the notes on a few books that I think people I am in regular dialogue with might be particularly interested. Here’s this morning’s notes on Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, translated by Terrell Carver in Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’: (post)modern interpretations, ed. Mark Cowling and James Martin (London: Pluto Press, 2002)

This is Marx’s analysis of the rise of Louis Bonaparte in the wake of the 1848 February revolution and abdication of King Louis-Philippe. It covers the period of 1848 to 1852, when Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers. Marx divides the era into three periods:

1. The February period or the overthrow of Louis-Philippe, which ran from February 24 1848 to 4 May 1848;
2. The Constituent Assembly period, May 4, 1848 to May 28, 1851;
3. The Constitutional Republic, May 28, 1851 to December 2, 1851.

He identifies these periods largely with the classes who held power in the country during them. Only in the first period was the proletariat in charge. After that various bourgeois parties held power. Louis Bonaparte skillfully manipulated them until he was able to consolidate his own power at the end of 1851, beginning of 1852.

In the text Marx lays out a theory of revolution and political transformation. It is summarized in the first two sentences of text: “Hegel observes somewhere that all the great events and characters of world history occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce” (19). By this he means that during times of revolutionary struggle revolutionaries always look to the past for inspiration. They begin by imitating the past but only succeed in creating revolutionary change when they move beyond imitation. The first example he gives of this is the way in which revolutionaries during the French Revolution looked back to the Roman Republic for inspiration. The second example he offers is the way that the revolutionaries of 1848 and Louis Bonaparte both looked to earlier struggles and figures, in the revolutionaries case it was the French Revolution and Louis Bonaparte is was that of his uncle.

Another important theme that Marx takes up is how during revolutionary times people, particularly, the bourgeoise, prioritize order above progress. People are not often aware of this tendency within themselves which leads Marx to observe, “Just as in private life one distinguishes between what a man thinks and says, and what he really is and does, so one must all the more in historical conflicts make the distinction between the fine words and aspirations of the parties from their real organization and their real interests, their image from their reality” (43). What’s really going on is always class struggle. That struggle may be veiled, from the participants themselves, by words.

Towards the end of the book Marx provides a description of class in relation to his discussion of the French peasantry. It is worth quoting in whole:

Thus the great bulk of the French nation is formed by simple accretion, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. In so far as millions of families get a living under economic conditions of existence that divide their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes and counterpose them as enemies, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection amongst peasant proprietors, the similarity of their interests produces no community, no national linkage and no political organization, they do not form a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interests in their own name, whether through a parliament or constitutional convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. (100-101).

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Jan 2, 2014

Books Read in 2013

Every year I keep track of the books I read and post the list to my blog. This year my six year-old son started to get into graphic novels and so I read quite a few of those with him. I read a lot of great books over the year. A few that stand out for particular praise are: Debt; The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber; Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology, Sallie McFague TeSelle; Orlando, Virginia Woolf; After Virtue, Third Edition, Alasdair MacIntyre; Local Histories/Global Designs, Walter Mignolo; and, of course, Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. I have read Don Quixote before, in 2003 or so when I was staying in a Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico, and it remains one of my three favorite novels (the other two are The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick). This year I read Cervantes while walking the Camino de Santiago. Someplace in me is a long essay about Cervantes, pilgrimage, social justice work, colonialism and decolonial theory. Maybe someday I'll write it.

The two books I was probably least impressed with were: The Spanish Civil War, Stanley Payne and En La Lucha/In the Struggle; Elaborating a mujerista theology, Asa María Isasi-Díaz. I disliked Payne's history of the Spanish Civil War because I read it as having a right-wing bias. He claimed that the civil war and the right-wing uprising were reactions to social chaos brought on by the rise of the Popular Front government. Such an explanation is line with the story almost every right-wing coup leader tells about why he organized a coup against an elected government. As for Isasi-Diaz, I wanted to like her book. I was engaged by her methodology (enthnography), inspired by her commitment to remain in dialogue with and accountable to her community and liked her writing. Her theological argument, however, was completely disconnected with the work of latina theorists like Gloria Anzaldua, who were her contemporaries. This disconnection was unfortunate. I find Anzaldua's work, and that of those who respond to her, much richer than Isasi-Diaz's. If Isasi-Diaz had integrated some of the work latina theorists into her own work I think she would have written a powerful text. As it was, I was left feeling like her text was rather flat, not particularly useful and not part of the same dialogue of many of her contemporaries. 

I should probably also mention that I had a real love hate relationship with David Hall's A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England. On the one hand, it is one of the best intellectual histories of 17th and 18th century New England Puritanism. On the other, it made almost no mention of said Puritans relationships with the indigenous peoples of New England. I would like to say that I found this to be inexcuseable. But truthfully, I find it more perplexing than anything. Hall is a great scholar and I simply don't understand how he could make such an obvious omission. I imagine that most people would just chalk it all up to some form of unconscious white supremacy but I have a nagging suspicion that explanation is deeper than that.

Here's the full list of my 2013 books:

The Signal and the Noise; Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, Nate Silver
Debt; The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber
From Here to There; the Staughton Lynd Reader, Staughton Lynd
The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Staughton Lynd
Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, Staughton Lynd
Stepping Stones; Memoir of a Life Together, Alice and Staughton Lynd
Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology, Sallie McFague TeSelle
Rumpole a la Carte, John Mortimer
Transmetropolitan: Year of the Bastard, Warren Ellis
Transmetropolitan: back on the street, Warren Ellis
Transmetropolitan: lust for life, Warren Ellis
A Machiavellian View of the Ministry, Brandoch Lovely
A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch
Parish Parables, Clinton Lee Scott
Transmetropolitan: the new scum, Warren Ellis
Rumpole and the Angel of Death, John Mortimer
The Cosmic Race, Jose Vasconcelos
Elfquest Vol. 1, Richard and Wendy Pini
Elfquest Vol. 2, Richard and Wendy Pini
Elfquest Vol. 3, Richard and Wendy Pini
Elfquest Vol. 4, Richard and Wendy Pini
Elfquest Siege at Blue Mountain, Richard and Wendy Pini
Elfquest Kings of the Broken Wheel, Richard and Wendy Pini
The Spanish Civil War, Stanley Payne
Transmetropolitan: one more time, Warren Ellis
Transmetropolitan: the cure, Warren Ellis
Transmetropolitan: dirge, Warren Ellis
Transmetropolitan: gouge away, Warren Ellis
At the Same Time, Susan Sontag
Local Histories/Global Designs, Walter Mignolo
En La Lucha/In the Struggle; Elaborating a mujerista theology, Asa María Isasi-Díaz
Red Rackham’s Treasure (Tintin), Herge
The Seven Crystal Balls (Tintin), Herge
Contentious Politics, Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow
Tintin and the Picaros, Herge
Ethics for a Small Planet, Daniel Maguire and Larry Rasmussen
Under the Net, Iris Murdoch
Los Borgia Intergral, Alejandro Jodorowsky (Spanish)
Don Quixote Vol. 1, Miguel de Cervantes
El Señor Cocodrilo Está Muerto De Hambre, Joan Sfar (Spanish)
El suspiro, Marjane Satrapi (Spanish)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1910, Alan Moore
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1969, Alan Moore
Nemo: Heart of Ice, Alan Moore
Don Quixote Vol. 2, Miguel de Cervantes
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 2009, Alan Moore
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris (audio book)
Thank You Jeeves, P.D. Wodehouse, fiction (audio book)
Private Lives, Noel Coward, drama, (audio book)
MacBeth, William Shakesphere, drama (audio book)
When Jesus Came To Harvard, Harvey Cox
Rumpole Misbehaves, John Mortimer (audio book)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling
The Names of the Lost, Philip Levine
The Time of the Doves, Merce Rodoreda
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka
Take the Cannoli; Stories from the New World, Sarah Vowell
The Star Thrower, Loren Eiseley
Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
The Ocean at the End of the Land, Neil Gaiman
Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill
Utilitarianism: For and Against, J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling
A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England, David Hall
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant, translated by H. J. Paton
Living for Change: An Autobiography, Grace Lee Boggs
The Sources of Normativity, Christine Korsgaard
The Next American Revolution; Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige
The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, Gordon Wood
Chico & Rita, Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba (Spanish)
The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
After Virtue, Third Edition, Alasdair MacIntyre
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Bernard Williams
Attack of the Deranged Killer Monster Snow Goons, Bill Watterson
They Feed The Lion, Philip Levine
Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, James and Grace Lee Boggs
Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers, Alexander McCall Smith
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Kiran Desai
The Days are Just Packed, Bill Watterson
Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga
Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, Bill Watterson

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Nov 19, 2013

A Brief Comment on the Gettysburg Address

Today was the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” I spent the better part of the day reading Eric Foner’s recent The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner makes the following argument about the address:

At the time of his death and for years thereafter, Lincoln was remembered primarily as the Great Emancipator. Not until the turn of the century, when the process of (white) reconciliation was far advanced, would Americans forget or suppress the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war experience. Lincoln would then be transformed into a symbol of national unity, and the Gettysburg Address, which did not explicitly mention slavery, would, in popular memory, supplant the Emancipation Proclamation as the greatest embodiment of his ideas. (333)

The Civil War wasn't about States rights or any other similar nonsense. It was about slavery. As people take time to remember Lincoln's let's also remember that.

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Nov 13, 2013

Some Thoughts on Matter

Today I gave a presentation on matter for the American Studies colloquim. It is currently focused on material culture. Below is the text of the handout I put together for class. Since some of my Facebook friends asked for it I thought I'd just go-ahead and make it publicy available. I'll try to put up a .pdf version tomorrow.

Some Thoughts on Matter

1. Matter is weird and complicated. It can behave in counter-intuitive ways. What physics gives us is different models for understanding matter. These models help us predict how it will behave in different circumstances. Remember: a model of the universe is not the same thing as the universe. Also, as evidenced by the search for dark energy and dark matter, there is still an awful lot that we don’t understand (together they make up 95% of the observable universe).
2. How physics models the behavior of matter depends on speed, scale and frame of reference. There are three overlapping models: Newtonian Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics and Relativity.
3. Two things to remember before turning to these models:
   A. e = mc^2 or mass and energy are different forms of the same thing;
   B. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that the total amount of energy (and therefore mass) in a closed system must be conserved;
4. Newtonian Mechanics:
   A. Describes the world that we can see with the naked eye: largish objects (i.e. larger than a molecule) moving at slow speeds (i.e. significantly less than the speed of light).
   B. Essentially deterministic: I can write an equation predicting where a ball I throw will land.
5. Quantum Mechanics (i.e. the Standard Model and whatever comes after it):
   A. Describes the world that we can’t see with the naked eye: atomic and subatomic particles.
   B. Counter-intuitive and essentially probabilistic: I can write an equation predicting the probability of a particle arriving at a particular place. (Einstein said: “God does not play dice.”)
   C. Is predicated on the idea that particles have fixed values or quanta associated with them (i.e. an electron has a charge of -1).  
   D. At this scale matter has a dual particle wave nature (an electron behaves like both a particle and a wave form).
   E. Places limits on knowledge (i.e. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: we can only know so much about the position and momentum of a particle. The more we know about one, the less we know about the other).
   F. Matter itself is made up two families of particles: fundamental particles (fermions) and radiation or force carrying particles (bosons). Asif Hassan, a physicist at University of Texas at Austin, says: “no two fundamental particles (electrons, neutrinos, quarks) can be at the same place with the same properties. The other kind of particle is bosonic (commuting), so that this kind of particle (photons, W and Z particles, gluons, and the Higgs) can be at the same place with the same properties. So photons for instance can constructively interfere at the fundamental level and lots of them can be in the same quantum state at the same time - this is what is arranged to happen in a laser. There is no such thing as a neutrino laser, or an electron laser for example. So with bosons you can see the quantum behavior at an energy and size scale that we consider normal, but with fermions the quantum behavior mostly shows up at tiny scales. You have to be careful though about the idea of material things corresponding to fermions... because we usually think of those things as things we can touch, and neutrinos are fermions but they are so weakly interacting that we don't even notice them. Intuitively we associate "stuff" with things we can touch, and most of that is fermions - electrons and quarks (which make neutrons and protons.)”
   G. There are lots of amazing phenomena observed at the quantum level that we don’t have time to go into: entanglement, quantum tunneling, virtual particles...
   H. Satisfactorily accounts for three of the four fundamental forces: electromagnetic, and the weak and strong nuclear forces.
6. Relativity:
   A. General relativity accounts for gravity and how mass and energy distort space.
   B. Special relativity says:
      1. There is no universal frame of reference;
      2. The laws of physics are the same for all frames of reference;
      3. The experience of time depends upon the frame of reference.
   C. Relativity is useful for understanding things that are either very large or are moving very fast. That doesn’t mean it can’t show up in our everyday life. Asif Hassan says, “the gravitational field of the earth changes the speed of clocks, so GPS satellite clocks run at a different rate than they do here on Earth. GPS has to account for this correction to work properly. Most of us don't realize it but we are carrying around an application of general relativity in our pockets.”

Suggested Resources

Scientific American (
Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and General Theory
Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes
Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos
Leon Lederman, If the Universe is the Answer: What is the Question?


Asif Hassan commented on a draft of this handout.

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Sep 10, 2013

Crowdsourcing a Research Idea

This semester I am taking a research seminar with Professor Lisa McGirr entitled “Twentieth-Century Politics and Social Movements.” I am currently trying pick a research topic for the seminar. The ideal topic would be something that relates to the labor movement, indigenous movements and/or religion, has not been written about widely and has archival material that I can access either on-line, through Harvard’s Interlibrary Loan or within a two hour drive of Boston. There are a few different topics I am considering at the moment. These include indigenous membership in the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s through the 1950s, the religious dimensions of the sanctuary movement for refugees from Central American of the 1980s and the turn towards Latin American liberation theologian by American Marxists in the 1980s (specifically looking at the relationship between Vincent Harding, Grace Lee Boggs and Staughton Lynd). Since I labor under the delusion that my scholarship may in some way be relevant to people I work with in liberal religious circles and on the labor and radical Left I thought it might be interesting see what other ideas people have and/or if any of these ideas resonate with anyone. There’s a decent chance that I will eventually publish a version of the paper or something relating to it.

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May 7, 2013

A Favorite Description of Anarchism

I am working on a term paper about the Spanish Civil War at the moment. This afternoon I came across a quote from Murray Bookchin describing anarchism. It is one of my favorite descriptions: 

Unlike Marxism, with its founders, distinct body of texts, and clearly definable ideology, anarchistic ideals are difficult to fix into a hard and fast credo. Anarchism is a great libidinal movement of humanity to shake off the repressive apparatus created by hierarchical society. It originates in the age-old drive of the oppressed to assert the spirit of freedom, equality, and spontaneity over values and institutions based on authority. This accounts for the enormous antiquity of anarchist visions, their irrepressibility and continual reemergence in history, particularly in periods of social transition and revolution. The multitude of creeds that surface from this great movement of the social depths are essentially concrete adapations to a given historical period of more diffuse underlying sentiments, not of eternally fixed doctrines. Just as the values and institutions of hierarchy have changed over the ages, so too have the anarchic creeds that attempted to dislodge them.

Murray Bookchin, The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868-1936 (New York, San Francisco and London: Harper Colophon Books, 1978), 17.

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Apr 27, 2013 genealogy?

A friend of mine, who is also a scholar, has blog called What in the Hell? in which he poses questions that he has come across in his work or his organizing and then tries to answer them. At the moment I am working on a bibliographical essay on race and performativity. One of the terms that the authors I am reading tend to like a lot is genealogy. Apparently, this is a term that is related to the philosophy of Michelle Foucault. I don't know much about Foucault and I haven't found the wikipedia definition of genealogy to be super helpful. So, I was delighted to come across a defintion of genealogy as a method in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. She writes, “A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origin of gender… rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin.”⁠⁠ (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), viii-ix)


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Apr 1, 2013

Interview with Staughton Lynd

Recently, I wrote a paper for a course I took with Harvey Cox on the theological views of the civil rights activist, labor lawyer and radical theorist Staughton Lynd. I interviewed Lynd as part of my research and he's given me permission to publish the transcript from the interview. I hope to turn the article into a journal article over the summer. As such, I am not posting it.

Reading through your work it seems to me that you place a great emphasis on the centrality of conscience as a source for moral authority. Is that correct?

I don’t think either I or Quakerism is unique in that. Quakerism speaks of that of God that is in every person. Marcus Rediker at University of Pittsburgh uses the big word antinomianism to describe the direct connection between the believer and God. And that too points to conscience because it emphasizes that connection over and above the idea of some sort of institutional church.

You place a great deal of emphasis on spontaneity and, it seems to me, also tradition. Is there a tension between spontaneity and tradition?

I am not quite sure where tradition comes into that. I did not grow up in any specific religious atmosphere. My father had gone to Union Theological Seminary. An experience he had as a summer preacher greatly influenced me. My mother grew up in a congregational church and took that very seriously until she got to Wellesley and read Hegel.

It is also the case that from pre-kindergarten through the twelfth grade I went to Ethical Culture schools in New York. That was a kind of Reformed Reformed Judaism. Above the platform was the slogan “The place where men meet to seek the highest is holy ground.” I am very attached to that place, that school, those words. I have been astonished to speak with some of my closest childhood friends and they do not remember those words. That was, and remains, about all the religion I had. That is, when we gather together to imagine the most, the highest, we can something sacred is going on.

Has Ethical Culture continued to be a factor in your life?

It is a difficult to know what that would mean. There are not very many Ethical Culture societies around. In the early 1960s my wife and I joined the Quakers. The Quakers have a great deal in common with Ethical Culture. So to that extent I did continue in that specific tradition.

Have you experienced a tension between the Left and religion?

It depends on the particular period of my life. In the South from 1961 to 1964 there wasn’t much tension because the Southern Civil Rights movement was permeated with something that could be called spiritual or religious. Its leaders were often ministers. People often met in churches. The moment of the most religious awareness that I experienced in the South was during the orientation for the summer of 1964. It was when, in Oxford, Ohio, word came to us that James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were missing, and, we presumed, dead. There was then a small meeting of SNCC staff and myself. I was there because I was going to play an important role with the Freedom Schools. When I say small I mean no more than a dozen. The very first thing that happened was the singing of a song that to my great anger is parodied as a summer camp song, Kumbaya. [Lynd then recited lyrics of the song from memory.] That was most intensely religious moment of my years in the Southern Civil Rights movement.

When you go onto other movements, it gets more complicated, because there wasn’t the same spiritual or musical component in other parts of the movement. We were in connection with the draft resister movement in Chicago. I remember we gathered to send some young people off to appear in court, where they might be sentenced to years in prison for draft resistance. We sang “Amazing Grace.” That was a song from the 18th century British anti-slavery movement. That was the best we could do in that situation.

In Youngstown, where Alice and I have lived since 1976, what has come closest to that is singing the song “Just my hands/ Just my hands can't tear a prison down” at the end of a meeting. That song has had a religious feeling to it when we have sung it in a circle. But nothing like the religious atmosphere of the Southern Civil Rights movement has come my way in the last fifty years.

Do you think that it is a reason for, and I am not sure of the right adjective, the success, the strength, of the Southern Civil Rights movement?

There are questions about the right adjectives. In the case of the Southern Civil Rights movement, after obtaining the Federal Voting Rights Act, and even before that, the movement pretty much disintegrated. Similarly the movement against the war in Vietnam, while it was successful, has not prevented what we used to call the seventh war from now. We are now about seven wars from Vietnam.

Alice and I made several trips to Central America in the 1980s. We have since continued and made several trips to Mexico. Our daughter Martha lives in Guatemala. We have had a deep encounter with liberation theology. I would say personally for us, the most important religious experience has been encountering Latin American liberation theology. Not everyone has had that experience and not everyone can go to Latin America.

Although, I have some questions about it. When we attended the neighborhood church in Managua, Nicaragua, they used as their liturgy the peasant mass. Part of that mass says that we know you Jesus. You are with us when we stand in line to get paid at the end of the week and you are with us when we go across the street to get a snow cone. That’s a very attractive image and there are certainly passages in the New Testament that suggest it. But there are also many passages, many parables, that I find baffling, that suggest that we should turn to the master, the absentee landlord, for an answer. I don’t understand how the person of Matthew 25 can dispense that kind of wisdom. Liberation theology has been very influential but I don’t take it hook, line and sinker. If you want an example of the problem look for the parable called the wicked husbandman. That parable, in almost the identical language appears in the synoptic gospels, but also in the Gospel of Thomas. You tell me how the person who took the side of the absentee landlord in that situation could be the Jesus of liberation theology.

I have noticed reading through your work, and certainly in your recent Accompanying, an increasing reference to religion. Has religion become more important to your thinking as you have gone on? Or is that a misreading on my part?

I would put it this way, growing up, although I don’t pretend to have mastered Das Capital, I think was pretty familiar with the Marxist classics and pretty much accepted them. Religion came later. When my father or mother would refer to a particular bible passage we would look at them perplexed. We didn’t go to church on Sunday. We went hiking instead.

Over the years, I have become more interested in the Christian tradition. If someone put me up against a wall I would say that Christian metaphysics strike me as childish. Metaphysically I am more-or-less a Buddhist. The ethics of Christian tradition are stronger than anything else that I have found. I would also say that I haven’t abandoned Marxism. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone can make sense of where this country is at without talking about Marx and Marxism, capitalism and imperialism. However, perennial critic, I very much adhere to the strain in Marxism best represented by Rosa Luxemburg. She said that Lenin had a soul of overseer and was in general much more oriented to working class self-activity than Marx or Lenin. I would go easy on the notion that I have foregrounded Christian New Testament and backgrounded Marxism. We have been to half a dozen retreats by John Dominic Crossan. I am trying to find a way through what is left of my life with the two lamps of the New Testament and liberation theology ethics and Marxism to guide me.

In your recent work, though there are suggestions of it earlier, you emphasize the importance of decency in working for social change. Does that call for decency have religious roots?

I do think, that, Todd Gitlin in his book on the sixties, refers to my sweetness of character. I think it is true that both Alice and I have sought to recreate the group atmosphere that we experienced in the Macedonia Community Cooperative when we were in our mid-twenties. That was more than fifty years ago. We have tried to describe it, in Liberation Theology for Quakers, it just left an impression on us. Sitting in a circle, by a fire, someone would offer an idea and we would listen, put another log on the fire, and someone else would offer an idea or respond. Quaker meetings attempt to replicate that atmosphere, though we never have experienced it as deeply as we did at Macedonia.

Stokley Carmichael has described the seeking of consensus in the Southern Civil Rights movement. He talked about how consensus was important because people were taking risks with their lives and you couldn’t ask them to do that if they didn’t agree with the decision that had been made.

I was distressed beyond the words by the way that the way both SNCC and SDS crashed. I have often said that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when it comes to national meetings and organizations. I have found that young people in the Occupy movement seem to say that it was all Cointelpro. Yeah, Cointelpro was part of the scene but basically we did it to ourselves. I have seen the same thing in the trade union movement. A reform slate gets elected to a local and pretty soon they are tearing themselves apart.

Decency then is very important thing to me. And I don’t think that you can say religious people have any particular claim to it. You certainly don’t find it in all the texts from the first Christians. Also, Alice and I have encountered religious people who have fared very poorly as members of families. I tend to think that nature has given us the family as a sort of first model of the way the world might be. We devote a lot of attention to our three children, our seven grandchildren and our two great grandchildren. That is the model that life provides. At the very least we have the challenge of making something of that model.

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Mar 6, 2013

The Two Experts

This last story from Staughton Lynd actually comes his wife Alice. It's called "The Two Experts" and this version appears in Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together:

When I was counseling, I believed, there were two experts in the room: I was an expert on the Selective Service regulations and what was required to support a particular kind of claim; the counselee was an expert on what he had experienced, what he thought, and what he was willing to do. We put our expertise together. 

Staughton and I carried the “two experts” model forward into our legal work when we became lawyers. We learned from our clients. The local union president knew how the contract was actually interpreted. The local grievance man knew how the system was supposed to work and where we should look for evidence. A prisoner explained to me how to find my way through the maze of the Rules Infraction Board policies and procedures.

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Mar 5, 2013

Burnham's Dilemma

Staughton Lynd suggests the following a crucial problem faced by those interested in social transformation:

As a high school student I pursued my political education during the half hour trip to school on the New York subway. I devoured Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. I read Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine, still my favorite novel. And I also read a book by an ex-Trotskyist named James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution.

Burnham argued that the bourgeois revolution occurred only after a long period during which bourgeois institutions had been built within feudal society. The position of the proletariat within capitalist society, he contended, was altogether different. The proletariat has no way to begin to create socialist economic institutions within capitalism. Hence, he concluded, there would be no socialist revolution.

I have no distinct memory, but I assume that I when I got off the subway and back to my parents’ home I reached for Emile Burns’ Handbook of Marxism or some such source to find out why Burnham was wrong. The problem was I couldn’t find an answer. Nor have I been able to find out during the more than half century since.

This version of Lynd's story, which is featured in a number of his writings, comes from Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader.

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Mar 4, 2013

The Parable of the Protesting Lawyer

Today's parable from Staughton Lynd, the second of four I'll be posting, is found in at least four of his texts. This version is from Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader. It is one he uses frequently in describing his understanding of liberation theology and accompaniment. 

When the first Iraq War began the Workers Solidarity Club to which Alice and I belonged decided to picket against the war everyday in downtown Youngstown. I could hardly absent myself because the picketing site was only a few yards from the office building in which we worked, but I inwardly told myself that this might be the end of of our stay in Mahoning Valley. In fact nothing changed. One retiree told me at a meeting in our office, “Lynd, you know I disagree with you about the war.” Another approached me as we walked along a sidewalk to a meeting in Cleveland and said quietly, “Staughton, you know I agree with you about the war.” But our activity on behalf of Solidarity USA [the labor struggle he and Alice were involved in at the time] went on as before. It was as if both men said to themselves, What else would you expect from Staughton?

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