From My Thesis: Melancholia

As noted earlier, this specific nexus of white working-class people is often dismissed by those on both the right and left – politically and in the church as well- as worthy of time and attention, both because of their abhorrent political expressions and their waning utilitarian merit in terms of electoral power and economic output. This attitude towards rural white working-class people often leads to an attitude that they simply aren’t worth the time or the effort. In the church, this attitude is reflected because of the decline of congregational populations, and the subsequent decline of financial support in these communities. They become a group that is not politically, financially, morally or demographically worth the time of the rest of the country. They are, for lack of a better term, collateral damage for the shoring up of structures of civil and religious power in America.

But, for a church committed to a theological anthropology centered on the Imago Dei present in each human being, no one can be classified as collateral. And, for a society that wanted to believe it had a handle on the social and cultural divides that have long plagued the nation, 2016 showed that classifying this group as collateral and consigning them to the dustbin is not a viable option either. There is political and cultural power in the white working class still, despite (and, most likely, because of) their declining numbers. But beyond the utilitarian arguments around electoral and financial power for reaching out to this group of disaffected Americans, the church also needs to remind itself that when it claims to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it must include all – even those whose political and social attitudes are found repugnant. They cannot be left aside; otherwise, they become easy fodder for prosperity preachers, politically-aligned evangelical conservatives, and the Radical Right.

Simply writing off rural working-class whites is how that demographic is where it is at now: poverty-stricken, afflicted by addiction, mental health issues, substance abuse, violence and suicide; politically and socially resentful of other whites, of minorities, of sexual minorities, of foreigners and immigrants; and susceptible to the political machinations of people like Donald Trump and his religious servants – the Court Evangelicals, as John Fea has so accurately dubbed them.[1] At the point they begin voting in mass for politicians like Trump, and supporting movements like white supremacy and Neo-Nazis, their power becomes readily apparent, and their problems become the problems of everyone. When the white working class pushes Donald Trump to the presidency on a wave of nativism, xenophobia, and raw anger, it becomes incumbent on the rest of America to try to understand why and try to figure out a constructive way forward, because it is actively harming the world. As United Methodist theologian Tex Sample writes, “That the white working-class members do not dominate the American demographic profile as they once did is clear, but to dismiss them as a powerful force in this society is a blunder of major proportions.”[2]

But the answers cannot be purely political; the church must also look for answers. The anger and sense of dislocation and loss emanating from white working-class America is a spiritual malaise as much as it is a political and economic one – if not more so. By spiritual malaise, what I mean is a metaphysical sense of loss and dislocation, a deep and profound melancholy, in the sense expounded by Kate Manne is a recent essay. She writes, “melancholia involves a loss which is resisted rather than fully acknowledged.”[3] This melancholy is experienced in white working-class communities as the sense that the world around them is changing – and it is change they are not ready for, and even actively working against. It is changing in a way that feels like an unnatural exacerbation of the natural feeling of loss in the progress of time, and thus something that must be actively worked against.

It is not because of active hate towards those benefiting, in their view, from this change that they work against this new world, however. Melancholia is not something experienced as quite so other-oriented. Rather, it is a grasping after a past – real or imagined – that the melancholic person is feeling like they are losing. Oftentimes, it is nearly impossible for her to name the perpetrator of that loss definitively. Manne goes on, “The melancholic person is hence in a kind of limbo – consigned to a state of perpetually losing. She hence cannot let go, and is forever at a loss – and at a loss to name the source of her sadness and ambivalence.”[4]

This melancholy, while not other-oriented in origin, becomes so in expression. The melancholic person’s loss is partially felt as a sense of not being heard, and thus they feel they must make themselves heard. Manne draws on Freud when she calls it a “noisy self-abasement – the expression of an inward stripping away of the ego.”[5] This noisy self-abasement is on full display at, for instance, a Trump campaign rally, characterized as it so often is by scenes of inconceivably angry white people. This is the sound of a melancholic people who feel the only recourse they have for what they are feeling and experiencing will come in the political realm.

[1] John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 99.

[2] Tex Sample, Working Class Rage, 23.

[3] Kate Manne, ”Melancholy Whiteness (Or, Shame-Faced in Shadows),“ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research XCVI:1 (January 2018), 239.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

 

 

 

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Political Theology and Theological Politics

I just finished reading Arne Rasmusson’s The Church as Polis. The book is really interesting to me, as Rasmusson’s project is to bring together and put into conversation the two theologians who have, so far, shaped my own theology the most: Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas. For those who aren’t steeped in 20th century Euro-American theological trends, to have these two voices reigning supreme in one’s theological discourse is a bit like trying to organize your life with simultaneously with an IPhone and a Google Chromebook (another bit of meshing I participate in; stick with my stretched metaphor here): on the surface, it seems like it could work, as they purport to do similar things. But in the details, they just don’t mesh, and in fact, you come to find they come across as quite oppositional to what each is trying to achieve.

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Jurgen Moltmann & Stanley Hauerwas

Nevertheless, I insist on having both Moltmann and Hauerwas speak loudly in my work, because I can neither shake Moltmann’s shattering and paradigm-orienting Theology of the Cross and basic theodicy, nor Hauerwas’ entirely prescient and important orienting of church and world in relation to one another. As a result, I have been fascinated by Rasmusson’s book. His basic goal is to critique and correct deficiencies in Moltmann by a reading of Hauerwas, so he isn’t overly enamored with Moltmann. Nevertheless, he is always charitable and willing to engage Moltmann seriously, and his ultimate goal is keep what is really good in Moltmann while correcting the rest with what Hauerwas does so well. It’s similar to the same yearning I’ve had over the last couple years, and I just couldn’t name it until I read The Church as Polis.

Anyways, my goal here isn’t to get into the weeds of the hermeneutical debate between postliberal and liberal theologies. Rather, I want to comment on the concrete way this book has shifted my thinking, as Rasmusson has really done a good job of verbalizing something I was feeling. The subtitle of the book is “From Political Theology to Theological Politics as Exemplified by Jurgen Moltmann and Stanley Hauerwas.” That important turn of phrase – “political theology” to “theological politics” – gets at a really important point. Let me explain.

Political Theology is a well-established tradition in liberal theology in the 20th and 21st century. Arising out of the thought of German theologian Carl Schmitt, political theology is the work of using various social sciences – anthropology, political science, economics, classical philosophy – to relate Christian theology to the prevailing liberal nation-state and the workings of policy, economy and government. In short, it translates Christianity into a language that enables the Christian to also be an activist. Out of political theology rises what you commonly associate with people like Rev. William Barber, or the theological work of Martin Luther King Jr, or liberation theology, or even, on the other side, the political engagement of conservative Christians (although the Religious Right is equally, if not more so, ideologically dependent on the original evangelistic impulse, Fundamentalism, and Dispensationalism.)

Political theology has been the dominant world I, and most every progressive-leaning Christian, exists in. We hardly ever question the engagement of the church in political language and advocacy, much less the rationalization behind such engagement. For me, liberation theology was a huge entry point into theology. The assumptions this kind of theology brings – of theological work at inherently practical, of the necessity for the church and theology to respond to political events, of the mere compatibility of faith and political causes – are ingrained in many. Political theology partly rests its assumptions on a reading of Matthew 25, but like all areas of liberal theology, it does not assume a necessity for Scripture as a foundation for its hermeneutical worldview, instead drawing upon natural theology in the interest of interfaith and secular outreach in order to advance the political mission it advances. Scripture is used to bolster a previously formulated argument, not necessarily to ground it.

I, and so many others, have taken this view for granted, as just the way Christian theology is, that criticisms like that of Rasmusson – and, by extension, of thinkers like Haeurwas, Yoder, and Lindbeck – seem radical and unreasonable at first. Taking Rasmusson as our guide here, they criticize the ground on which political theology stands, by accusing it, in essence, of being a reactionary doctrine. In other words, political theology does not formulate a theory of the world that it then lets guide its actions. Instead, it takes its cues from modernity, from the priorities of the liberal nation-state, resting its assumptions upon the necessity of state power, and the primacy of the radically liberated individual, making decisions in one’s own self-interest first and foremost. Rasmusson critiques Moltmann on these grounds. Throughout the book, he notes how Moltmann doesn’t root his vision of theological engagement with the world in Christianity as much as he does in liberalism.

The shift, then, to theological politics comes at the level of first-order justifications. Whereas political theology is asking, “what situation can a Christian respond to, and how?”, theological politics asks, “what do politics look like in the context of the Christian church?” This means, what does a community formed and guided by the traditions and assumptions of Christianity look like? Only from that starting point can a Christian even begin to aim towards political engagement with the world. But, this political engagement will never accept the rules of the game laid down by the liberal worldview. Instead, theological politics, and postliberalism in general, tries to envision what a community of faith rooted in the specific, historical practices of the Christian faith, look like. In this  way, it doesn’t propose an agenda or blueprint for fixing the things that arise in society, but instead envisions itself as a whole other way of being in the world, anticipating the Kingdom of God and showing, by way of contrast, an alternative. It doesn’t try to take a 30,000 foot view of society, in line with the technocratic assumptions of modernity and the social sciences, but instead envisions a better world achieved moment-by-moment, in the interactions of real people, formed and informed by the Christian virtues taught by the church. Rasmusson terms it a “contrast society”; he writes,

“This concentration on the church’s life and on everyday life does, Hauerwas thinks, prevent the church from speaking to the larger society. Instead it is to make use of the best resources of the church. The church, as a distinct community with its own tradition, can be a carrier of alternative practices and alternative ways of seeing the world.

[…]

A church with a strong sense of community, living with a tradition and practices that partly stand apart from the dominating stories, traditions and practices of modernity (as a contrast society), might have a larger ability (because of a different ‘grid’) and the social space to see modern society from other perspectives, and to form and sustain new ways of thinking and living.”

(Rasmusson, 373)

I’ve come around to this way of thinking. For so long, as this blog has evidenced, mine has been a distinctly “political theology,” forming theology to address political issues. I wasn’t necessarily conforming my theology to fit my politics; I still hold on to my beliefs about the dignity of all human beings, the equality of all, the need for compassion and common sense in our communal lives. However, I no longer view the mission of the church as advancing this white paper or that legislative initiative. I don’t think real change in the world, change that reflects the Kingdom, comes through our systems as they are. I am more committed to and interested in localism, a la Wendell Berry, and I think the assumptions of the liberal order are inherently flawed and unworkable. I don’t assume a utopian outlook any more, wherein we have the possibility of realizing the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Instead, we can merely point towards it, but only in the context of a community of virtue, situated in specific practices and traditions.

One of my goals here is to continue to work this out for myself. That’s what I’m trying to do here and one of the themes I will continue here. Because it has been my way of thinking for so long, it is still difficult for me to approach issues and happenings in a new way, but I’m hoping to practice that here. I want to reflect on things happening in the world a little more slowly, and with this different, postliberal lens.

As always, your feedback is appreciated.

 

 

The Angry White Male

This story came to my attention today. Apparently, the University of Kansas is offering a course titled “Angry White Male studies” as part of their Women’s and Gender studies course offerings in the fall. The course description on the KU website says,

This course charts the rise of the “angry white male” in America and Britain since the 1950s, exploring the deeper sources of this emotional state while evaluating recent manifestations of male anger. Employing interdisciplinary perspectives this course examines how both dominant and subordinate masculinities are represented and experienced in cultures undergoing periods of rapid change connected to modernity as well as to rights-based movements of women, people of color, homosexuals and trans individuals.

Taught by (noted white male) Dr. Christopher Forth, it seems to be a course responding to the growing cultural awareness that white men in America, in large numbers are angry about something (evidence: one Donald J. Trump) and the rest of the world should probably take notice and figure out why they are angry.

From what I can tell, the emerging debate around this class has centered on two questions: first, is this a legitimate class for a university to offer; and second, are white man unusually or especially angry? As someone who just spent the better part of the last year researching and writing a thesis centered around figuring why white people – of which I am one – are angry, and how the Church can begin to formulate a constructive theology that takes this anger seriously and begins the work of healing and reconciling, I feel I am somewhat well equipped to think about these questions.

We’ll start with the second: are white men especially angry right now? I began my research with the premise that white people in general – and especially white people inhabiting rural and working class areas – are indeed quite angry. To say this isn’t a value judgment. I’m not overly interested in why white people angry in the sense of trying to fix those things; this is because I think a lot of the things driving that anger – immigration, cultural demographics, empowerment of women and LGBT people – are good things on net, and basically aren’t going to be changing their trajectory. This doesn’t mean some of the other reasons for the anger aren’t legitimate – for instance, growing economic inequality, the slow death and degradation of small town and rural life, the cultural scorn often directed at rural working class people.

All in all though, I am less interested in the causes of that anger, and more interested in the fact that that anger is real and deeply felt and is being expressed in loud and often socially damaging ways. What ways? Well just name two, the growing rise of white nationalism:

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and the high numbers of mass gun violence committed by whites:

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Apart from the socially-destructive aspects of white anger, there is also the fact that white people are the only demographic group currently experiencing a growing mortality rate, or that suicide is an increasingly larger reason for cause of death among white men, or that drug and alcohol abuse it rising at alarming rates, including the well-publicized effects of the opioid epidemic. Clearly, there is an alarming level of existential angst amongst white people, manifesting itself both publicly and as self-harm, and it is worth our attention.

In my own research, I came across an abundance of sources on the growth and drivers of white anger. Justin Gest, in his book The White Working Class, does a great sociological analysis of white people in the United States and the UK, unpacking the demographic drivers behind growing support for right wing movements like Brexit, white nationalism and Trumpism. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land is an extraordinarily moving account of a particular context of white working-class people in Louisiana, documenting their anger and despair over a changing world. As she writes in her book, “Trumo was the identity politics candidate for white men.” And finally, Rev. Tex Sample’s Working Class Rage does a really good job of exploring a Christian approach to the anger felt by white working class people.

You don’t have to dig into academic works, however, to investigate the phenomena of white anger. A simple Google search for “white anger” will return a plethora of articles at a variety of news sources on the nature of white anger in America. So, in answer of our first question, yes, I would say white men are very angry. I think a lot of people are angry right now, but as we have seen, the anger of white men is manifesting itself in particularly public ways.

Which leads to our second question: is a class on white male anger something a university should be offering? In short, yes. Seeing as how we just noted a variety of ways in which white people – of which at least half are white men – are particularly angry at this moment in history, then it seems legitimate to me that a humanities department at a major university in the United States would want to attempt to study and think about it. This doesn’t seem overly objectionable to me; in fact, this is what the academy is all about. Exploring questions, even if the answers to those questions ultimately prove spurious, is one of the primary missions of the academy.

To get back to my earlier point: this is the exact kind of thinking people need to be doing right now, especially in the church. As I said, I’m not as interested in questions of why white people are angry, except as those reasons inform our ability to address that anger. Because, whether the reasons are legitimate or not, the fact of the matter is, the anger and hurt and despair being felt by white people – and being expressed by white people – is very real. And, not only should we be thinking about it with a utilitarian motive – as in, it’s importance because of the way it effects us – but, as Christians, we should also be thinking about it because these are our fellow human beings. Their pain is real, and we have a responsibility to take another human being seriously when they are telling us they are in pain. Even if we don’t understand the reasons, or agree with it. Understanding is worth our time, because only by understanding is empathy created and solutions found.

I think, from this view point, the KU course is a really good thing. I hope more universities start grappling with questions of real substance concerning the forgotten world of rural working class people in America, rather than dismissing their interests and situations. While I hold no illusions about some of the non-constructive directions this course could take, I also think there is the potential for the unequivocal goods of empathy-building and the door that opens to building bridges and, ultimately, communities of reconciliation and healing.