The third post in our October issue of the Forum comes from Brandy Daniels (University of Virginia), a religious leader and scholar who participated alongside other clergy and religious leaders in the Charlottesville counter-protests. In this essay, Daniels considers her own experience and the implications of #Charlottesville for her scholarship in particular as well as the study of religion more broadly. For our October roundtable, we have invited several scholars of religion to reflect on the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, recognizing #Charlottesville as a moment of national reckoning with white supremacy and the manifold forms of racism operating in American culture and politics, including both those which are explicit as well as subtle-but-no-less-sinister forms. Contributors to the roundtable will offer analyses of the relationship of religion to race and white supremacy, and they will think about the potential contributions of scholarship in religion for helping shape broader discourses about race in the US. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.

Posted essays:

by Brandy Daniels

I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth. I would also like to cop easily to my abundant privilege—except that the notion of privilege as something to which one could “easily cop,” as in “cop to once and be done with,” is ridiculous. Privilege saturates, privilege structures. But I have also never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position or orientation. What other reason is there for writing than to be a traitor to one’s own reign, traitor to one’s own sex, to one’s class, to one’s majority? And to be traitor to writing.

– Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts1
 

Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of cultural studies?…At that point, I think anybody who is into cultural studies seriously as an intellectual practice, must feel, on their pulse, its ephemerality, its insubstantiality, how little it registers, how little we’ve been able to change anything or get anybody to do anything. If you don’t feel that as one tension in the work that you are doing, theory has let you off the hook. On the other hand, in the end, I don’t agree with the way this dilemma is often posed for us, for it is indeed a more complex and displaced question than just people dying out there…[cultural studies] has to analyze certain things about the constitutive and political nature of representation itself, about its complexities, about the effects of language, about textuality as a site of life and death.

– Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies”2

In his excellent piece, “‘What in God’s Name is the Point?!’ Theorizing Ritual, Representation and Resistance in African American Religious Thought and Practice,” Michael Brandon McCormack, a professor in Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, starts with the above Hall quote as an epigraph. I say that not only to cite him as my secondary source for my own use of the quote as an epigraph, but to use his engagement with it as a jumping off point of my own. Turning to Ferguson organizer and faith leader Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou as a kind of case study of a “theoretically informed religio-political praxis deployed on behalf of black youth who have been marginalized, criminalized, policed, and executed in post-Civil Rights America,” McCormack challenges the way in which academic accounts of black religious life have positioned worship and activism as distinct, often opposed, modes of action. 3 McCormack uses Hall’s claim about cultural studies to illuminate and theorize what black religious praxis reveals and makes possible, thus also pointing to what cultural studies—and religious studies!—can modestly offer, in and through that theorization. I especially appreciate Hall’s claim, and McCormack’s engagement with (and inhabitation of?!) it, in that it points to what theory can offer praxis as it at the same time uses praxis as a resource for and site of theory—it points to how the relationship is, or at least can (should?) be, multi-directional.

I’ve been thinking about that multi-directionality quite a bit in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally that occurred at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA on August 12th, what many local residents and activists now refer to as “A12” as shorthand. What might religious studies scholarship offer to faith leaders and activists? What can it learn from them, from the work they are doing? This question is one I’ve been thinking about a lot, for three key reasons. First, my current project looks at the relationship between theology and practices—looking at how practices are utilized in theological methods, particularly those shaped by postliberalism, in feminist theologies in ways that foreclose difference. My research has led me to be critical of a lack of multi-directionality— even feminist theological accounts of formation presume and posit a singular and stable vision of Christian identity as the telos to which gender and sexual identities must bend or assimilate into. Drawing on queer theoretical reflections on temporality, my work examines how the methodological and ethical uni-directionality of these frameworks forecloses the flourishing amidst difference that such accounts seek. So, it has been interesting (for lack of better words) to think about what practices are, or are not, doing, and what epistemological presumptions are coming into play, and being perpetuated, in terms of not only gender formation and difference, but in terms of racial formation and difference, particularly amongst white progressive folks of faith.4 Second, I’ve been thinking about the multi-directionality between religious studies and praxis because, as a postdoctoral fellow with the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics at UVA, asking these kinds of questions is, well, part of my job.

Finally, I’ve been asking questions about what religious studies can learn from and offer to faith leaders, practitioners, and other publics because I’m looking for answers myself. I was there on A12, which I hesitate to even admit, as I’m very aware of and (try to be) cautious about how activist work, particularly by the privileged, can function as a performance of—and even worst, a bolstering of—the privilege and power such work is purportedly seeking to challenge and undo. I’m also wary about the purity politics that are wielded in some activist discourses, but perhaps that is because I’m quite cognizant of the ways in which I don’t measure up. Privilege structures, privilege saturates. I offer up and speak about my experience here not as any kind of answer, but as an impetus of my questions—and, really, as a kind of apologia for my lack of answers. I wound up in academia in large part, I think, because I love research, because I find comfort and hope in turning to texts when I have questions. So, the activist/practitioner part of me is looking to the religious studies scholar part of me hoping to find something there to grasp on to. And the religious scholar part of me is also curious, turning to the activist/participant part of me as its own kind of text, to see what kind of data is there.

While I’ve been thinking about these themes and questions pretty consistently and diligently, trying to mine these parts of me and what they represent for resources, unfortunately, I haven’t yet come to any clear or clean answers. I struggled with writing this piece. I tend to be the type of person who always has something to say, usually too much to say, but on this, I’ve struggled to find words, and certainly have no answers.

In part, I think that is because, in having been there, I don’t yet have distance. Not that I think distanced “objective” scholarship is desirable, or even possible. It’s more that I’m at a place where I’m still in the weeds, where I can’t see the forest for the trees.5 Moreover, there has been so much already written on A12. One project I’m doing as part of my job (see key reason number two above) is working with a colleague to compile and curate an archive of materials that reflect on and analyze A12 and its aftermath from or in relation to religion—from primary source materials of sorts (i.e. sermons, statements from religious leaders) to popular engagements and analyses (blog posts, journalistic pieces) to academic explorations and examinations. This has meant reading and combing through literally hundreds of pages of material.6 Given all I’ve read, I don’t feel like I have anything substantive to add. Certainly not yet.7

But alas, here I am… I don’t have any coherent constructive answers to the questions I’ve posed, no clear proposals on what religious studies can offer, or add. Which certainly makes me a kind of traitor to writing, at least in the academic sense. The rest of the Maggie Nelson epigraph above is also, all the more, true, or at least, I want it to be so here. I certainly find myself quite interested at times, in arguing for the rightness and righteousness of certain positions, particularly in relation to A12, and unabashedly assert them. Here, though, precisely at the point of trying to see and understand and utilize the messy, entangled, multi-directional relationship between religious studies scholarship and religious praxis, from my own very real place of privilege in multiple senses of such, I’m just hoping to perform my particular manner of thinking, for whatever its worth, which, sincerely, may not be much.

McCormack’s piece engages this multi-directionality from the point of and in relation to African-American religious thought and praxis. A question I’m curious about, especially (but certainly not solely) in light of A12 is, what of white religious thought and praxis? There is obviously much that could be unpacked here, and the breadth at which I even frame that question here is academically troublesome, particularly given that I do not have the space to frame it with a guiding question, let alone some specificity as to not universalize and make monolithic said white religious thought and praxis.8 But alas (c.f. Nelson epigraph and note about it in the middle of the paragraph above)… In particular, in relation to my own experiences and research, the questions I have, that stem from this overarching one, are about formation—again, as will quickly become clear, these are merely questions I have and themes I’m trying to think through.

In a piece reflecting on the events of, before, and after A12, reflecting particularly on his own experiences of those events, UVA religious studies professor Willis Jenkins suggests that folks in Charlottesville, especially those who, like him, participated in various actions of that weekend, are experiencing a kind of moral trauma. After identifying and describing three fissures of moral thought that engender and exacerbate said trauma—free speech and white terrorism, the civic importance of incivility, and nonviolence reconsidered—Jenkins concludes by (re-)locating these fissures in relation to the everydayness of white supremacy, what he poignantly calls the “quotidian monster.” He muses:

It should be easy to oppose Nazis when they oblige to identify themselves with actual Nazi flags and carry thuggish accessories. That it was so difficult for us sobers my view of the prospects for treating the underlying pathology to which they gave expression: the disease of white supremacy that spins moralizations and resentment around desperate yearnings for meaning and identity.9

Jenkins concludes by pointing to the ways white supremacy is inscribed “into how we are housed, policed, governed, educated, and monied,” and notes that A12 was an occasion where he experienced viscerally what others have known deeply.

That it was so difficult for us….” The university, the city, hell, this country, has found itself in exhausting debates over when and how to oppose hatred and prejudice, even when it comes to literal Nazis. An analysis of major newspapers, for instance, revealed that, in the month following A12, they spent more time and space condemning and critiquing antifascist protesters than they did condemning and critiquing white supremacists.10 Jenkins’ trenchant analysis aptly identifies key discursive sites where this is the case, and in doing so highlights some of the work to be done in order to be able to imagine and enact otherwise. Others have offered different insights about the difficulty and how we should respond. For instance, theologian Paul Dafydd Jones, one of Jenkins’ colleagues, speaks to the moral imperative to pick sides, pointing to how white supremacy is avowedly not a site where compromise is what is called for. Jones does not stop there however. Rather, noting that, “because the struggle ahead of us might well be long, once I have picked sides, I need to begin cultivating an impatience for a future in which far-right extremism is no longer a current threat, but a mournful memory.”11

What does it say about our formation as white humans, as white American citizens, as white Christians, that opposing actual Nazis has been so difficult? What might it mean, what might it look like, to cultivate the kind of impatience that Jones calls for us to do? How do we un-form, de-form, the ways we and the communities and institutions we are a part of have been formed in, with, and by white supremacy?

This question of formation is one that is often taken up by in a positive manner, with ethicists and religious scholars asking what virtues we might need to learn to inhabit, what practices we are to take up, in order to form us in and by and towards a telos we seek. But what is lost in that “positive” formation? What is foreclosed? What violence is done? As Joseph Winters, a scholar of religion and African-American studies, points out, despite the (rightfully) waning optimism of a post-racial future, we nevertheless “cling to ideals, narratives, and tropes… that perpetuate racial injustice and diminish awareness of the violent marks of racial formations.”12 Or, as Judith Butler puts it, “What is the relation of knowledge to power such that our epistemological certainties turn out to support a way of structuring the world that forecloses alternative possibilities of ordering?”13

This more negative approach to formation (to politics, ethics, knowledge, subjectivity) is one with a rich and varied history. Winters, in the essay I cited above, for instance, places French intellectual Georges Bataille in conversation with James Baldwin, drawing on their respective analyses of our efforts to control chaos, claim innocence, and mediate finitude, trauma, and death in order to better understand racism and its legacy. Winters also turns to Afro-pessimism, a discourse that “questions any kind of hope in a system predicated on anti-blackness” and “suggests that the pessimist disposition is perhaps the only viable response to white supremacist practices and logics.”14 In a similar vein, the antisocial turn in queer theory has identified, challenged, and sought to resist investments in subjectivity and how subjects have been formed socially, shaped by various sources of power-knowledge, recognizing within that social formation a process of normalization and assimilation that still fails to recognize and embrace difference. In his essay, “Desire’s revelatory conflagration,” Kent Brintnall places one of the key proponents of this turn, Lee Edelman, in conversation with Bataille, Guy Hocquenghem, and Pseudo-Dionysius to emphasize and argue on behalf of “queer theology’s apophatic, antihumanist antecedents rather than its affirmative practices.”15 Narrating Edelman’s argument, Brintnall explains that to “maintain a society, to maintain a self, is to maintain boundaries and borders against unruly otherness,” and argues that, as such, queer negativity cannot have nor be an end or goal, that it instead be open to and a part of continual, destabilizing, movement—a conflagration.16

There are, of course, debates and questions about this poststructuralist-inflected negative turn, about how it is linked to the presumptions and visions of Western Man, and its implications for marginalized bodies and communities.17 As Winters puts it, “what would it mean to urge Syrian refugees or black residents in Ferguson, Missouri to be more open to excess and ambivalence?”18 This is a point that these negative turns have contended with and will, and should, continue to do so. But to return to a question I posed earlier, what of white religious thought and practice? This turn to negativity, to de-formation, to ambivalence and movement, seems to be, well, relevant.

Another, complementary, side of the argument that maintaining a self buffers and borders against otherness, is that encounters with otherness un-do us. “Ethics is a difficult willingness to be undone by the Other and an acknowledgement of the limits to this intimate and vulnerable disposition,” Winters states, a point that echoes Judith Butler’s claim that “we’re undone by each other,” that, with grief and with desire, one “does not always stay intact…despite one’s best efforts…”19

There’s so much to say here, and so many places to potentially go with this theologically—I’m thinking, for instance, of Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the worldliness of Christianity and his calls for Christians to thus “abandon every attempt to make something of oneself,” of Willie Jennings’ insights on our diseased social imagination and the Christian capacity for intimacy that this imagination has buried and marred, of Charles Mathewes’ Augustinian proposal of public engagement as a site of ascesis, the ekstatic qualities of theosis in Eastern Orthodox apophatic theologies, and the list can go on.20 Here, simply (or, perhaps, not so simply), I wanted to begin to think through what religious studies might learn from, and offer to, praxis, around questions of (de-)formation, difference, and community.

I was trying to think of how I might (semi-)succinctly conclude this essay when I went to a lecture by Susana Heschel, titled “From Antisemitism to Civil Rights Prophets: Learning from the Past for Our Present.” Heschel concluded her fantastic and insightful lecture by reflecting a bit on her father, the Jewish theologian and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., and his involvement in the civil rights movement. Interestingly, after narrating how her father understood his activism as a spiritual practice—“I felt my legs were praying,” he said after marching in Selma—she linked such work to King’s call for folks to become maladjusted, how there are things in our social order to which we desperately need to be maladjusted. Heschel ended her talk calling for a “strong and personal commitment to maladjustment.”21 I loved this, and thought it was getting (more clearly and trenchantly, unsurprisingly) at the same thing I have been trying to think through concerning de-formation. And what I’m continuing to try to think through, is what and how theology and other religious studies scholarship can learn from, and offer to, work “on the ground,” particularly in Charlottesville in light of A12, particularly in regards to white religious folks and practices, around these questions. How might we better understand and cultivate such maladjustment? ♦

Brandy Daniels is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer with the Luce Project on “Religion and its Publics” at the University of Virginia. Brandy has a PhD in Theological Studies, with a minor in Ethics & Society and a certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies, from Vanderbilt University, where she was a fellow in the Program in Theology and Practice. Her research focuses on theological anthropology, methodology, and practices of formation, exploring intersections between constructive and political theologies and feminist and queer theories to better understand and envision accounts of faithful Christian identity and community amidst difference. Brandy is under-care for ordination with the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), and is an avid runner and Jeopardy fan.

* Image credits (all): Heather Wilson Photography 

  1. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, 97-98. The final sentence of the epigraph is marked by italics in The Argonauts, and is a citation of Deleuze and Parnet. Nelson interweaves quotes into her work, marking them by italics and citing the authors referenced by name only as marginalia.
  2. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies” in Cultural Studies eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler, (New York: Routledge, 1991), 285. Again, I totally stole this from McCormack’s piece. See n.3 below.
  3. Michael Brandon McCormack, “‘What in God’s Name is the Point?!’ Theorizing Ritual, Representation and Resistance in African American Religious Thought and Practice” Practical Matters 8 (March 1, 2015), http://practicalmattersjournal.org/2015/03/01/what-in-gods-name/.
  4. There is also, of course, much going on in terms of white racial formation in terms of the Alt Right Neo-Nazi White Supremacists, and along those lines, there is a lot to be said about gendered formation as well…
  5. As I was beginning to write this piece, Richard Spencer returned to Charlottesville for a quick White Supremacist flash mob of sorts—complete with tiki torches yet again. Two days later, DeAndre Harris, a young black man who was brutally attacked by white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 12th, was issued an arrest warrant, accused of unlawful wounding. Two days after that, a veiled threat on social media discovered by the FBI resulted in local schools being placed under a lockdown. The threat “express(ed) discontent with recent events in Charlottesville,” and expressed admiration for the gunman who killed 58 people in Las Vegas on October 1st, according to a police statement. And three days after that, another black man—Corey Long, a counterprotester who was captured in pictures holding up a makeshift flamethrower against a group of white supremacists, was arrested on charges of assault and battery and disorderly conduct.
  6. And that is a conservative estimate—the number of pages is more likely in the quadruple digits.
  7. I’ve actually found myself returning a number of times to Kent Brintnall’s reflections here on the Religion and Culture Forum. In his contribution for the roundtable on studying religion in the age of Trump, Brintnall suggests that scholars’ contribution in light of the situation we find ourselves in is, perhaps, that of “fostering the habits that define us as scholars,” work that is slow-going, that takes time, that demands detailed analysis and “‘long-form’ articulation. “As scholars, our contribution should be a set of habits and dispositions that foreground deliberation, and care, and attentiveness,” Brintnall writes. “This is not a call to be disengaged, objective scholars, but rather an insistence that the political vision of politically engaged scholarship should champion the disciplines required for the discipline of thinking well.” See Brintnall, “It’s Complicated,” Religion and Culture Forum, February 20, 2017, https://voices.uchicago.edu/religionculture/2017/02/20/studying-religion-in-the-trump-era-scholars-roundtable-part-2/.
  8. Though, to be fair, the kind of universalizing I’m performing here is an effect and performance of whiteness. See, for instance, Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Robyn Wiegman, “Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity,” boundary 2 26.3 (1999), pp. 115-150 (amongst many many others—these are just the first two that came to mind…). So at least I’m being consistent, even if ironically so?
  9. Willis Jenkins, “Moral Trauma.” Medium, August 28, 2017, https://medium.com/@willisjenkins/moral-trauma-f4c17866ad8c, emphasis mine.
  10. Adam Johnson, “In Month After Charlottesville, Papers Spent as Much Time Condemning Anti-Nazis as Nazis,” Fair, September 13, 2017, http://fair.org/home/in-month-after-charlottesville-papers-spent-as-much-time-condemning-anti-nazis-as-nazis/.
  11. Paul Dafydd Jones, “Picking Sides: Responding to Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville.” Berkley Forum, August 24, 2017, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/picking-sides.
  12. Joseph Winters, “Rac(e)ing from Death: Baldwin, Bataille, and the Anguish of the (Racialized) Human,” Journal of Religious Ethics 45.2 (2017), 380.
  13. Judith Butler, “What is Critique?” Transversal (2001), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/butler/en.
  14. Winters, “Rac(e)ing from Death,” 401. For more on Afro-pessimism, see especially Frank Wilderson, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions 5 (2011): 1-47.
  15. Kent L. Brintnall, “Desire’s revelatory conflagration,” Theology and Sexuality 23.1 (2017), 50.
  16. Brintnall, “Desire’s revelatory conflagration,” 52. See also Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
  17. Winters turns particularly to Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
  18. Winters, “Rac(e)ing from Death,” 399.
  19. Winters, “Rac(e)ing from Death,” 390; Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 19.
  20. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison DBWE 8 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 369; Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Charles T. Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Aristotle Papanikolaou, Being with God: Trinity, Apophaticism, and Divine-Human Communion (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006).
  21. For more on King’s call for maladjustment, see Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” New South (March 1958): 8-12.
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