Field Notes article

Madrasa Graduates: Children of Abraham and Aristotle

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “School of Athens” by Rafael at the Vatican. The fresco features Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, the Andalusian Muslim polymath.

Have you ever wondered how your everyday Muslim connects with the Islamic tradition today? The connection takes place as it always has: at the feet of scholars. More precisely, it happens in air-conditioned auditoriums at knowledge retreats in universities and hotels around the world. These gatherings typically consist of teachings in Islamic jurisprudence, ethics, and theology, offering theories of the soul, temperaments and humors, and virtue ethics that originate in ancient Hellenistic philosophy.

However, these teachings are credited to scholars like Raghib al-Isfahani and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali instead of Aristotle or Plato. This is because by the eleventh century of the Common Era, ancient learning had been completely assimilated into Islamic thought. So deep and thorough was the influence of Greek, Indian, and Persian communities on Islamic intellectual and political life that the different strands became virtually indistinguishable.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “Ottoman astronomers at work around Taqī al-Dīn at the Istanbul Observatory.”

The fusion of “foreign” learning with Arabic revelation in the formation of classical Islamic thought cannot be overstated. It is vital to recognize the debt to foreign influences for two reasons: 1) it precludes naïve and even irresponsible appeals to adhere to some kind of “pure” Islam that existed in the past, and 2) it encourages openness in religious thought that is necessary for religion’s continued relevance through changing times. If the essence of “tradition” is to be found not in its content but in its dynamism, then fealty to tradition can be redefined, shifting it from an emphasis on “transmission” to an emphasis on “openness” to new ideas.

The Templeton-funded project to “advance theological and scientific literacy in madrasa discourses” is designed to bring about this very shift. Tradition, we argue, is not the mere repetition of the creativity of past scholars. Tradition is active participation in ongoing creative syntheses, keeping in mind shifts in human understanding. The project is guided by an “elicitive” pedagogical method that draws on resources that are already present in Islamic thought. The purpose of an elicitive approach is to preserve authenticity and legitimacy: the encounter with new knowledge comes as an extension of, rather than rupture with, the inherited Islamic scholarly tradition.

Throughout the course of human history, philosophers, scientists, and mystics have offered competing cosmologies to describe the universe we inhabit and experience. Before the mesmerizing advance of science and technology that we see today, competing views of the structure and composition of the universe could not only be internally coherent but also equally good at explaining things around us. Today, premodern cosmologies must contend with the reality of modern science if they are to remain relevant. This does not mean that everyone must become a materialist or succumb to scientism; however, it does mean that the knowledge systems and philsophical presuppositions that propel and sustain science must be intelligently grappled with.

Take the following as an example of unintelligent grappling. In one of my undergraduate courses, we read Rachel Carson’s argument against the use of pesticides. Reading from one of her environmental essays in Silent Spring, an eager student quickly bought her argument hook, line, and sinker. He proceeded to extend Carson’s compelling argument in our classroom discussion without realizing that it relies on the scientific theory of biological evolution. When I asked the student what he thought of that, he was taken aback because, as a traditional Muslim, he had not yet come to terms with evolution.

This kind of an incoherent intellectual framework is neither compelling nor sustainable. It will not only continue to alienate future generations of thinking Muslims from their tradition, it will also keep Muslim thought ossified and irrelevant in the modern world. One of my Quran teachers used to love to repeat this story: “Once I asked a colleague of mine—who was a medical doctor—what he thought about evolution. He replied without batting an eye: ‘Why, it’s disbelief!’ When I told him I was not seeking a fatwa but rather a scientific perspective, he changed his tune: ‘Well, the evidence is very compelling!’” (I can still hear the story in an endearing lilting South Asian English accent!)

If Islam is to thrive as a religious and intellectual tradition that cultivates healthy individuals and communities in the age of modern techno-science, it is imperative for traditional Muslim theology to come to terms with the ontological worldview, epistemological assumptions, and sociological implications of modern science. This does not mean that Muslim theology should surrender unconditionally to science’s terms. It does mean, however, that Muslim thought needs to understand and contend with these terms with integrity and sophistication, not with off-hand dismissal or asystematic appropriation. I suspect that real intellectual engagement will lead to new syntheses in a creative process of knowledge assimilation and appropriation which was a hallmark of the classical Islamic scholarly tradition.

An exemplar for the “madrasa discourses” project is none other than the celebrated Ghazali, mentioned above. In his reflections on his own intellectual journey as recorded in his autobiographical Deliverance from Error, Ghazali lambasts the religious fool who refutes his intellectual opponent with strawman arguments or with naïve understandings of his own tradition. Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, draws inspiration from Ghazali in his work on Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination: “Frustrated by the violation of common sense demonstrated by some implacable theologians, Ghazali reminds us of the wise dictum that ‘a rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.’ With bruising sarcasm, he said elsewhere: ‘To shun an ignoramous is to make an offering to God!’” (p. 181). An essential prerequisite to critique, says Ghazali, is to first not only understand but also to articulate the opposing point of view sympathetically. Ghazali, who has been widely recognized as an intellectual “renewer” of tradition, serves as a model for us in this respect.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. “Illustration by Al-Biruni (973-1048) of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-Tafhim (in Persian).”

The notion that tradition needs constant updating or renewal is embedded within Islamic teachings, and it fits right in with our elicitive pedagogical approach. Renewal takes place when two sources of knowledge—of the world and of scripture—collide. There is only one requisite for the success of an endeavor that brings different intellectual systems into conversation: the use of common terms that are intelligible to both. As in the case of translation from one language to another, seamless communication is only possible when another language is mastered. In our case, the language that madrasa graduates must begin to learn is the language of modern science and contemporary academic frames for the study of nature, society, and history.

Our hope is that the intimate intellectual encounter that we facilitate will lead to greater respect, understanding, and even trust, across cultures and civilizations. Trust lays the foundation for mutual enrichment, reconciliation, and enduring peace. Given that the intellectual heritage of Catholicism shares so much in common with the Islamic past, as children of both Abraham and Aristotle, it is no coincidence that a project of this kind is located at the University of Notre Dame, one of the world’s premier Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Mahan Mirza
Dr. Mahan Mirza PhD (Yale University, 2010) is Professor of the Practice in the Contending Modernities program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, housed in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. Having spent several years working with religious groups around issues of social justice before earning an MA from Hartford Seminary in the study of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and a PhD from Yale University’s program in religious studies, Dr. Mahan Mirza comes to the practice and study of Islam from a diverse set of perspectives. Prior to joining Notre Dame in fall 2016, Dr. Mirza contributed to the establishment of Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college to be accredited in the United States, serving as the college’s Dean of Faculty from 2013-2016.
Field Notes article

Total Diplomacy, Cash Diplomacy, and the Fate of “Moderate Islam”

Photo Credit: James Hoesterey. “Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi (front row, third from left) with BDF delegates from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.”

In December 2016, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted the 9th annual Bali Democracy Forum (BDF). Founded in 2008 during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the BDF has been central to Indonesia’s diplomatic strategy to assert its role as an important regional power on the global stage. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Hassan J. Wirajuda, envisioned the BDF as a diplomatic platform in which Indonesia could promote democracy by sharing Indonesia’s own lessons from its democratic transition. The BDF’s implementing agency, the Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD), has now become the legacy of what Wirajuda refers to as “total diplomacy”—a combination of formal government-to-government diplomacy and person-to-person public diplomacy. Indeed, Yudhoyono heralded his foreign policy in terms of “a million friends, zero enemies.”

The theme for the 2016 BDF, “Religion, Democracy, and Pluralism”, is in keeping with the IPD’s goal to use the forum to showcase Indonesia’s form of “moderate Islam.” However, at the time that current Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) gave the BDF opening address, he was contending with Islamic State-inspired terror at home, a contentious blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s Chinese-Christian governor, and frequent mass rallies to “defend Islam” —one of which was held at the doorstep of the state palace. The looming question at the parallel media and civil society forum was whether Indonesia can still tout itself as the shining example of “moderate Islam.”

Domestic challenges to religious tolerance and pluralism notwithstanding, Indonesia’s foreign ministry was nonetheless intent on promoting the image of Indonesia as the home of religious pluralism. On the second day of the BDF, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, escorted representatives from nearly 100 countries to the Bina Insani Islamic school located in the heart of the Hindu-majority island of Bali. As delegates descended from luxury tour buses, they were welcomed by an ensemble of Balinese music and dance, and they took their seats of honor in the front rows of an outdoor covered stage with a huge red banner welcoming BDF delegates.

Photo Credit: James Hoesterey. “Musicians playing Balinese gamelan greet BDF delegates. The image on the instruments is Barong, the king of spirits in Balinese mythology who represents goodness and order.”

A young female student began the program with a Qur’anic verse, recited in eloquent Arabic, about ethnic and religious pluralism. After government officials welcomed BDF delegates, a Hindu woman who taught at the school shared her personal testimony about feeling welcomed into this community. Next, schoolgirls recited moving poems about tolerance and pluralism–one in English, the other in Arabic: a linguistic showcase of an Indonesian Muslim cosmopolitanism at ease with both the West and the Arab world. (At the most esteemed Islamic schools in Indonesia students must learn both Arabic and English.) Finally, the school’s director shared stories about his childhood in Bali, his education at the state Islamic school in Jakarta, and his return to found this school as one way to promote Indonesia’s national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, “unity in diversity.”

As the program concluded, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Indonesia, Osama Mohammad Abdullah Alshuaibi, leapt to his feet and loudly proclaimed how impressed he was that this Islamic school reflected the Qur’anic notion that Islam came as a “blessing for all humankind and the universe.” With no small dose of national pride, the Saudi ambassador pledged his kingdom’s donation of $50,000 to the school. For decades, Saudi’s cash diplomacy in Indonesia has offered free hajj pilgrimages, funded the teaching of Arabic in Indonesia, and provided scholarships for religious study in Saudi Arabia.

Scanning the diverse audience of government officials, Islamic school teachers, and foreign diplomats, I observed reactions ranging from awestruck jubilation to horror and disappointment. One phrase from the cacophony of voices was especially memorable: duit boleh, asal jangan guru, or “your money is OK, as long as it’s not your religion teachers.” Following the festive announcement, the school director gave the delegates a personal tour of the campus, with Indonesia’s Director of Public Diplomacy walking side-by-side with the Saudi ambassador. A couple diplomats from Western Europe trailed behind, murmuring about the audacity and excessiveness of Saudi diplomacy.

Photo Credit: James Hoesterey. “The Saudi ambassador praises the Islamic school and pledges $50,000 to the school.”

This combination of awe and horror is perhaps the best way to characterize Indonesia’s complex diplomatic ties, religious lineages, and cultural fascination with Saudi Arabia. Despite Indonesia’s rich heritage of globally-learned religious scholars, Indonesians have shown little interest in exporting these scholars. Whereas the works of Arab scholars are often translated into Indonesian, the reverse is seldom the case. Saudi Arabia thus enjoys an aura of religious authenticity in some sectors of Indonesia’s popular imagination. As suggested by the current visit of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, some Indonesian politicians and religious leaders jockey for Saudi praise, while others bemoan Saudi Arabia as a kingdom which has gone astray from Islam’s true religious principles, whose exported Wahhabi theology threatens Indonesian national integrity, and whose wealthy citizens have been accused of torturing their Indonesian housemaids. Whereas some seek to emulate versions of Islam espoused as “Arab,” others fear the Arabization of Indonesian Islam. Indonesians returning from pilgrimage often recount stories of gruff, impolite, and unrefined Saudis who sharply contrast with the refinement of most Indonesian Muslims. Jakarta taxi drivers relish stories about Arab tourists who venture to Indonesia for sin-ridden excursions.

The machinations of “total diplomacy” become ever more complicated in light of King Salman’s expected announcement that Saudi Arabia plans to partner with Indonesia to combat the Islamic State and to promote “moderate Islam.” Indonesian foreign policy finds itself at a crossroads. Whereas the promotion of “moderate Islam” plays well with Western parties, it can further complicate bilateral relations between Indonesia and, for example, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Partnerships to promote “moderate Islam” do not necessarily imply that each country perceives the other’s practice of Islam as authentic or rooted in authoritative tradition.

When I conversed with the Saudi ambassador on the bus back to the BDF, he told me that Indonesians had yet to practice “authentic Islam” and lamented the use of music and mixing of genders at the Islamic school. “But it would be rude to publicly declare such things,” he proceeded. “We must realize that this is their culture and how they understand Islam. Remember, Islam has only been here for a few centuries.” His remark combined the linguistic finesse of a diplomat with the inexorable scorn of a colonial officer. Despite the rhetoric of cultural variety within Islam, it would seem unthinkable for the Saudi king to visit the Indonesian state palace and laud the concept of Islam Nusantara, the “Islam of the Archipelago”, that has served as a mantra of authentic, yet regionally distinct Islam for which Indonesians should feel a sense of pride, not inferiority, vis-a-vis Arab articulations of Islam.

The predicaments of Saudi’s cash diplomacy and Indonesia’s “moderate Islam” have implications for how we understand issues of authority, identity, and community in relation to multiple visions of Muslim modernity. Whereas public affirmations of an inspired allegiance to a global Islamic umma play well in certain circles, persistent questions about religious authority and political legitimacy, informed by actual bilateral relations and reported human rights violations of Indonesian domestic laborers in Saudi Arabia, strain the bonds of religious solidarity. At the same time, voices critical of the Indonesian state’s response to a major blasphemy case look approvingly to the Wahhabis as the true defenders of Islam. The pleasantries of public diplomacy are not always compatible with the realities of real politik. Ultimately, the Indonesian state’s most important task will be to successfully ensure merciful and compassionate Islam at home, not just “moderate Islam” abroad.

As Marcel Mauss has observed, gifts are always given in relations of power, and there are no unencumbered gifts among friends. President Jokowi has already displayed a willingness to depart from Yudhoyono’s foreign policy of “a million friends, zero enemies.” Indeed, one need not make enemies in order to keep some friends at a safer distance. “Your money is OK, just not your religion teachers.”

James Hoesterey
Jim Hoesterey is a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University whose research and teaching interests include Islam, media, and politics. His recent book, Rebranding Islam: Piety, Prosperity, and a Self-Help Guru (Stanford University Press, November 2016), chronicles the rise, fall, and rebranding of Indonesian celebrity televangelist Kyai Haji Abdullah Gymnastiar. Hoesterey’s current book project focuses on the cultural politics of diplomacy, foreign policy, and the making of “moderate Islam.”
Field Notes article

The Pastor as Sexual Object

Photo Credit: Dr Chris Okafor.

At the core of my ongoing study of Pentecostal pastors and changing forms of authority in Africa are two related premises.

First, due to a variety of factors, partly socio-economic, but also cultural as well as political, the landscape of authority across a majority of African states has altered radically over the last three decades. For example: if one effect of the combined militarization of the state and ‘Structural Adjustment’ of the economies of many African countries in the 1980s was the impoverishment of the academy, its logic has been the delegitimizing of universities themselves as authoritative centers of knowledge production.

With the entire system of tertiary education more or less stripped of its epistemological raison d’être, growing numbers of the African intelligentsia have had to look elsewhere for intellectual fulfillment and compensation that is commensurate with their status and skills. Hence my claim: that for all that this exodus has bequeathed a social and intellectual void, Pentecostal pastors have been the indirect beneficiaries, purveyors of a new kind of authoritative clerical speech-act which tends to be valorized over and above secular law or normativity.

The Pentecostal pastor is no mere direct substitute for the intellectual though. True, he (or in far fewer cases, she) now occupies what once was the academic’s spotlight as authority on economic, political, and cultural matters, to such an extent that today, even the academic tends to genuflect to his (i.e. the pastor’s) authority. But that is where, seemingly, the comparison ends. At the peak of his influence, the African intellectual was a mere defender of the public good, in which capacity he defined and contributed to public debates, built bridges with popular organizations like trade unions, resisted military and other forms of dictatorial rule, and generally aligned with efforts to hold the state accountable. In short, the intellectual was a crucial cog in an emergent postcolonial public sphere.

In terms of his authority, the modern-day Pentecostal pastor is a different beast. Contra his predecessor the intellectual, his power and influence project over a wider range of social life, including the most intimate. He is a widely sought after existential micromanager: a blend of spiritual guide, financial coach, marriage counselor, fashion icon, travel advisor, all-purpose celebrity, and last but not least, and as we are beginning to see from a stream of media reports from across the continent, center of an erotic economy.

He is the one with the power either to command female congregants to come to church without their underwear so that they can ‘more easily receive the spirit of Jesus Christ,’ as was reportedly the case with Reverend Pastor Njohi of the Lord’s Propeller Redemption Church, Nairobi, Kenya; or, as we saw more recently with Kumasi-based pastor ‘Bishop’ Daniel Obinim, the one with the license to openly massage the penises of male congregants with erectile anxiety.

Whilst the political sociology of the pastor is a well-trodden ground, the idea of the pastor as an object of erotic fascination, part sexual healer, part sex symbol, the throbbing center of an intense Pentecostal sexual economy, is comparatively less frequented. Yet, this is something that my research has persistently thrust on me, and one I would argue holds immense riches.

For one thing, it furnishes a radical approach to the study of African Pentecostalism by allowing us to corral and cross-fertilize issues and subjects typically allocated in separate intellectual compartments. Foremost amongst these are: masculinity, gender, patriarchy, femininity, studies of affect, crowd engineering and crowd control, the religious spectacle, media studies, emotions, pornography, sex and sexuality, and ethics.

For another, it allows us, taking provocation from theorists Niklaus Largier, Birgit Meyer, and Nimi Wariboko’s respective works on the religious sensorium, to approach the physical space of the church as a sensual space, a place where people go to find pleasure, and where sounds, ululations, music, dance, bodies in motion, bodies flailing and sprawling, bodies in collision [whether casually or intentionally], bodies sometimes literally thrown at or surrendered to the mercy of the pastor; all combine to produce ecstatic worship.

Photo Credit: Ebenezer Obadare. Lagos, Nigeria.

Accepting the Pentecostal church as sensual space frees us to imagine the altar as a special stage repurposed, if not in fact designed, for the pastor’s hypersexual posturing. On this altar—increasingly, the ritualistic center of worship in many mega churches—the sexualized pastor channels masculine performances that bristle with erotic intimations. Through him, female congregants may lay a vicarious claim to ‘spiritual impregnation;’ often times, and as vindicated by countless examples across African Pentecostal churches, it goes beyond that.

Thus, to place the pastor at the center of a Pentecostal libidinal economy is, in essence, to put the persona of the pastor under a completely different analytic light. What my study appears to mandate, and what I am proposing here, is a critical shift from the idea of the pastor as the one who dictates sexual mores, who gives counsel on sex and proper sexual conduct, the physical symbol of heteronormativity whose stable (sexually and otherwise) domestic life is invoked as an example to the congregation; to the idea of the (body of) the pastor as an object of desire whose sexual energy comes from a strategic choreography of dress, mode of preaching and performance on the pulpit, aesthetics, personal ‘tone,’ automobile, travel, and ‘connections’ (either proven or suggested) to transnational networks.

Suffice to say, the backdrop to all this is extremely complex. It involves—and is in part enabled by—the rise of the celebrity pastor in Africa; the rise of pastoral ‘calling’ as the quickest route to social prestige, critical in a context in which the need to ‘be somebody’ has become very acute; and its corollary, the emergence of pastoring as a virtually automatic guarantor of social mobility.

But perhaps of utmost importance is what appears to be Pentecostalism’s theological project of producing a new man, which tends to translate all too literally into a man shorn of his masculine properties, i.e. highly domesticated, abjuring the company of ‘sinful’ former friends, and most important, sexually ‘tamed.’ A ‘demasculinized’ man, in short. The consequence, I would argue, is that often times, the only ‘man’ left standing in the Pentecostal church is the pastor occupying the altar. Cherished, beloved, and, dare I suggest, eroticized.

Ebenezer Obadare
Ebenezer Obadare is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, and Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa. He is author of Humor, Silence, and Civil Society in Nigeria (University of Rochester Press, 2016) and co-editor of Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of Resistance in the 21st Century (James Currey, 2014). His ongoing Contending Modernities research focuses on Pentecostal pastors and changing patterns of authority in Nigeria and Ghana.
Theorizing Modernities article

Piety and the Logics of Consumer Capitalism

Photo Credit: Doni Ismanto. Fashion Photoshoot For Batik Kiawah.

President Donald J. Trump is as well-known for his vocal and vitriolic Islamophobia as he is for his brand. Indeed, unabashed and aggressive Islamophobia has become a central feature of the Trump political brand. Positioned within the spaces of both tension and collusion between global commodity capitalism and contemporary Islamophobia, Faegheh Shirazi’s Brand Islam—The Marketing and Commodification of Piety emerges at an intriguing, politically dangerous, and culturally charged moment in time.

According to Shirazi, “the truth is that Islam is merging into commodity marketing, promoting capitalist consumerism by appealing to Islamist sentiments” (140). However, as Laurence Moore and other historians remind us, the religious application of marketing techniques is not itself new. In Western contexts, Christianity and industrial capitalism were intimately entangled from the beginning. Moreover, as Coleen McDannell and others have argued, religion is reproduced, materially, in tandem with the everyday world of objects and, as Brent Rodríguez Plate and others have emphasized, religion is inexorably and endemically linked to and mediated through the body. That is, certain historical and phenomenological aspects of religious commodity fetish are not entirely new.

Photo Credit: Aslan Media. “Hot Pink and Mustard Bowtie Shirtdress” at the Abaya Addict show.

For her part, Mara Einstein has argued that in our highly commercialized society, religions themselves, in order to rise above the cultural noise, must become active and eager participants in the branding discourse. Marketing gets consumers to do things with objects–with and to their bodies. As such, among other things, Shirazi’s excellent and arresting study of religious branding proves to be a usefully critical intervention into the domains of material and popular religion. Again, however, as Shirazi herself concedes, neither the religious remaking of mundane objects nor the marketization of religion are new. What is new, she writes, are the “surprisingly out-of-the box methods entrepreneurs and companies are using to convince devout Muslims to part with their money” (196).

Having established the burgeoning Islamophobia of the post 9/11 period and the deep histories of colonialism and postcolonial struggle as the broader context for the emergence of “brand Islam”, Shirazi weaves together six case studies (the halal food industry, halal animal slaughter, the marketing of Islamic toys, halal cosmetics, and Islamic fashion) in the service of her larger argument regarding the commodification of Islam. In addition to an admitted focus on Iran, within which the author maintains active personal networks and to which she has unique cultural and institutional access, the scope of analysis extends to the Malaysian, Indonesian, Turkish, American, and E.U. contexts as well.

Brand Islam is rife with well-chosen and well-documented examples of Islam’s multivalent relationship with global consumer markets. In addition to a discussion of well-known lightning rods like the burkini controversy in France, Shirazi touches on the less-documented contestation over the halal status of civet coffee by Islamic scholars (ulama) in Malaysia and Indonesia, for example, and the proliferation of administrative bodies charged with the certification of halal goods and services (and, at times, the transnational disagreements between them about what counts as halal (permitted) and haram (forbidden)). Along the way, Shirazi provides the reader with useful signposts in the form of summations of basic Islamic theological doctrine relevant to the dynamics she explores.

As Shirazi explains, the religious practice of halal recalls Allah’s dominion over all things. Historically, dietary restrictions and the prohibition against the consumption of alcohol have taken precedence although, in reality, halal can be extended into a plethora of everyday activities. At stake, according to Shirazi, are the following are tensions which remain of central interest to her analysis: 1) Just as markets in brand Islam expand through the category of halal, on the surface potentially Islamicizing global capitalism, so too does this imply, in turn and in equal measure, a structuring of Islamic piety by the coordinates and logic of consumer capitalism; 2) The desire for piety and a stance of solidarity with the worldwide ummah (Muslim community) can fuel Muslims’ increased existential investments in the commodity circuits of global capitalism; 3) One consequence of virulently Islamophobic societies is the proliferation of “brand Islam” within the coordinates of those very societies; 4) Brands can sell the mystique of halal as well as Islamophobia (sometimes the same brand will even play both sides of that dangerous game).

As the reader learns, both the Islamic world itself and multinational corporations recognized somewhat late that the religious category of halal could be extended into Islamic-compliant lifestyle products (124). That is, halal lends itself well to market segmentation and product differentiation. In my view, the crux of Shirazi’s study—one which could receive more exacting analytical attention—is precisely this phenomenon whereby an ancient religious category is being transformed (in real time) from the inside out through its mediation by the now ubiquitous brand form.[1]

In actuality, brands are sets of metaphorical associations individuals have with products, services, persons, places, groups, and organizations. These associations are often ritualized through consumer practices. While a general discussion of the brand form itself could help further direct the reader, Shirazi does not provide one. Moreover, although the term “brand Islam” is foregrounded in the very title of Shirazi’s monograph, she does not offer a unifying definition of how she actually uses the term (and the term itself is listed in the index only twice). However, she does offer some guidance. Early on, Shirazi explains, “Islamic commodities I view as Brand Islam, working at the level of fetish, as Muslims consumers, perhaps especially Muslim middle-class consumers, attach mystical and religious significance to what might otherwise be considered inutile and mundane objects” (7). Later, she adds, “Brand Islam has morphed into an explosion of products and services, some useful and some superfluous, created by Muslim manufacturers and government-sponsored initiatives as well as by entrepreneurs solely interested in profit, not the Prophet’s teachings” (199).

While Shirazi admits that sentiments of piety (especially in the face of xenophobic violence and danger) can motivate the practices of the consumers of “brand Islam”, she is more dismissive of the manufacturers, government-sponsored agencies, and financiers who are indispensable to the explosion of the new halal culture industry. At several points in the text, Shirazi reduces motivation on the production side to profit-motive alone. However, as Daromir Rudnyckyj argues specifically within the Indonesian context, Islamic theology can be blended into the ideology of a specifically Muslim neoliberal entrepreneurship. Interesting ethnographic questions, therefore, lay beyond the horizons of Shirazi’s landmark study regarding the social processes whereby the profit-motive is ‘Islamicized’ by the entrepreneurial purveyors of “brand Islam” and whereby religious and economic valuations are squared (and transmuted) in tandem. This important sociological question also presents itself: does “brand Islam” signal the religious deinstitutionalization of swaths of global Islam into taste groups, voluntary associations, and corporate cultures? Does an increase in everyday piety through “brand Islam” simultaneously and necessarily weaken the authority of Islamic religious institutions?

Finally, all of the case studies Faegheh Shirazi includes speak to the gendered dynamics that underwrite its global development and to the ways in which women’s bodies stand as literal crossroads for the crisscrossing of historical forces. From the burkini controversy to the religiously imposed strictures against an Islamic fashion industry in Iran to the displaced patriarchy played out in controversies regarding the modesty and piety of girls’ dolls, the rise of “brand Islam” (and both religiously conservative and Islamophobic resistance to it) is being mapped onto the bodies and souls of Muslim women and girls (and their proxies like lingerie mannequins). In the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump (whose own personal history of violence against women became a major campaign issue) to the American presidency, Muslim women who veil have been especially vulnerable to the rising tides of hate crimes and bias attacks. Shirazi’s book might have us ponder whether in the Age of Trump, religious, political, racial, economic, and cultural conflicts might not continue to play themselves out at especially electric levels of intensity upon the commodified bodies of pious, upwardly mobile Muslims.

Brand Islam—The Marketing and Commodification of Piety is a groundbreaking book that will be of interest to scholars and students of contemporary Islam and across disciplines. It adds to our comprehension not only of contemporary Islam but also to our understanding of the conditions of post-secularity that are today characteristic of the relationship between religion and neoliberalism. Faegheh Shirazi has performed a great service to several fields by clearing such timely and fecund paths.


[1] None of this is to imply the either Shirazi or I put any stock in the existence of an a-historical, pristinely Islamic halal in the past. Rather, the point is that Shirazi has very usefully brought attention to a moment of observable and patent transformation and change.

George Gonzalez
George González is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Monmouth University. Most broadly, his research interests lay in the sociocultural legislation of Western metaphysics and the concrete and specific form of power that has attached to liberalism, as a historically specific kind of cosmology. He remains especially interested in approaching the study and criticism of postsecular, neoliberalism through the framework of religious social change. He was trained in ethnographic method by the philosophical anthropologist, Michael Jackson, and has special interests in the work ethnography can do at the intersections of religion, science and global capitalism and as a complement to critical theory. He is the author of Shape-Shifting Capital—Spiritual Management, Critical Theory, and the Ethnographic Project and articles on methodology in the study of religion, the conceptual relationships between ritualization and branding, and the ‘workplace spirituality’ movement in contemporary business management. He is currently working on a multi-site ethnography and historiography of the ritualization of consumer capitalism and is set to begin fieldwork with the famed radical performance troupe, Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping in early 2017.
Global Currents article

Theo-Politics in Flux: The ‘Alt-Right’ on God, Christendom, and the Nation

Photo credit: White supremacist group Identity Evropa was founded in 2016 in California and conducts poster campaigns across US universities, particularly targeting offices of professors of color.

A few moments with the Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt can show us ways in which race, religion, and political life operate elastically to produce a narrative that sustains a totalitarian, anti-pluralistic system of control. Arendt’s insights are deeply relevant to the cultural imagination of America’s “Alt-Right”—the euphemistic label employed by American White nationalists. This is an especially important time to revisit Arendt. 

Arendt shows us how the Nazi racial fantasy of almighty power to remake the world, the will to power of ethnic nationalism, remains entangled in a tradition of monotheistic theology. The continuous logic of messianism operates together, paradoxically, with Nietzsche’s conviction that “God is dead.” The Nazi ideology of Arendt’s own “dark times,” as she called them, depended upon the tension between these contending modernities. Whether killing God left us an inheritance only of the human will to power, or whether the will to power killed God, cannot be readily disaggregated.

In The Origins of TotalitarianismArendt provides an account of “the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved,” (viii).[1] (This theme is under-recognized in the current literature, but I address it in my forthcoming book Politics in the Absence of God.) Comparable threats are manifesting today. With the dramatic resurgence of White nationalism in America, we can borrow Arendt’s insights and say that “[t]he subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition” (ix).

This twenty-first century “Alt-Right” American movement revives singular White entitlement to formal power, complete with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discourse that are both sublimated and explicated. The movement is at once secular and indebted to singularly Christian logic. Its manifestos preach the “imperious necessity of a European Brotherhood.” The National Policy Institute, its primary think tank, is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” The movement’s adherents admire Russia as an embodiment of White anti-LGBTQI nationalism. They herald Zionism as implemented in Israel for its commitment to religio-ethnic purity and domination (ethnocracy). Its aspirations require that the “Alt-Right” subvert the aspirational values that underpin, to return to Arendt, “all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world” (viii).

Below, I shadow male writers of White nationalism as they contend internally over how to occupy time and space, and under allegiance to what God or gods. We will see how pre-modern aesthetics and theology function to produce White politics and culture in ways that can be culturally practiced.


A note on method: technology as medium, subverting “hidden mechanics” 

Photo Credit: Bob Jagendorf Neo Nazi Rally in Trenton, NJ, 2011.

Contemporary fantasies of White supremacist and/or separatist patriarchal White nations are not overtly modeled by the mastery of antebellum plantations or racialized purity drives marching native peoples west. Nevertheless, the “Alt-Right” imaginary is fostered by alluring narratives and archetypes that foster identification with pre- or a-modern cultures. Virtual realities of cable television, video games, on-line blogs, and chat rooms present enchanted worlds manufactured as “purer” times of White supremacy, free from contaminating environments of pluralism, diversity, feminism, and the regime of “political correctness.” Collective imaginaries of a lost world that must be fought for, or might be made Great Again foster identification with concatenated European Whiteness, masculinity, and power.

Distinctively late-modern technological delivery systems and cyber space also allow for accelerated and more effective consolidation of “alternative facts.” Therefore at each stage in this brief tour, we will briefly glimpse how a fantasy of White patriarchy with a special relationship to God and to salvation history is reflected back through contemporary American media.


The madman’s cry: “Where is God?” and the conflict of absolute values

Where is the Christian tradition in this project of racial trans-Atlantic nationalism? Within to the Alt-Right movement, this is a surprisingly complex and important question.

Christian doctrine teaches a universal brotherhood of salvation in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek.” Because the “Alt Right is openly and avowedly nationalist,” because it does not recognize spiritual equality across races and ethnicities, the movement would seem to be on a collision course with essential Christian values.

For the New Right“The Christian Question” (Sam Francis, 2001) asks whether the values of German folk religion have not always been at odds with Christian values of egalitarianism and universalism. Francis works from James Russell’s Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Socio Historical Approach to Religious Transformation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).  The recent kerfuffle at the University of Chicago Divinity School reminds scholars of religion that we should be alert as to how reputable academic institutions, and perhaps our guild in particular, wittingly and unwittingly serves white nationalist agendas.


White Paganism

Stephen McNallen, the Texan-born founder of the neo-Paganist religious movement Asatru Folk Assembly, rejects Christianity for its profession of universal humanity. Because Christianity “lacks any roots in blood or soil,” he says with concern, it can “claim the allegiance of all the human race.”

McNallen calls for a return to “the Faith of our Ancestors.” He professes, “I am a pagan, because it is the only way I can be true to who, and what, I am. I am a pagan because the best things in our civilization come from pre-Christian Europe.” (Other American Heathens object to any association of McNallen with their religious movement, given his association with the “American neo-fascist radical traditionalist movement.”

Identifying against Christianity functions in multiple ways. A new identity is produced that signifies its repudiation of values of universalism and egalitarianism. Rejection of Christianity also accomplishes rejection of debts to the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish origins of Christianity.

These practices of identity are also derivative of neo-romantic atavistic values and aesthetics of proto-fascist Europe. Then too, Aryan nationalists identified with “pagan” Europe, appealed to hero-god mythology of Greek antiquity, or claimed absolute allegiance to a lineage of blood and soil.

In the U.S. now, pre-modern but post-Christian media invites viewers in to constructed worlds of so-called “paganism.” Earnest adventures of noble Whites triumph in “Vikings” and “Game of Thrones.”  “World of Warcraft,” like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings invites consumers to inhabit fantasy worlds in which species are differently playable races (The blond humans of the Alliance fight the tribal orcs of the Horde, etc.).


Christendom and Racial Rule

The paradox here, Vox Day, another White nationalist male blogger, reminds his readers, is that Christendom was necessary for forging common European identity. “Pagan or Nietzschean alt-righters” have “legitimate criticisms about Christianity,” he allows. Yet his White brethren “souldn’t [sic] forget that it was the first religion that gave a feeling of kinship and a common purpose to Europeans.”

Arendt agrees. “Consciousness of nationality is a comparatively recent development” (230). Under Christendom, the ethnic nation was secondary to participation in God’s order. By doctrine, all humans shared the possibility of salvation through Christ.

In ““What the Alt Right Is,” Vox Day professes that “[h]uman equality does not exist in any observable scientific, legal, material, intellectual, sexual, or spiritual form.” Nevertheless, he identifies as a Christian, as well as with the superiority of Whites.

If this claim strikes some readers as dissonant, Arendt invites her readers to re-encounter the theo-politics of European Christian imperialism and colonialism. On their imperial adventures, Christian Europeans encountered “great physical differences between themselves and the peoples they found on other continents,” she recounts. They proved themselves unable “to include all the peoples of the earth in their conception of humanity” (176-177).

Religion is a malleable institution. Its history can be told in many ways, and it can be lived out in many ways. Arendt revisits the Dutch Boers in South Africa to illustrate how readily they reconciled Christian practice with the supremacy of their own ethnic group.

Nativist White American Protestants lived out this performative contradiction of doctrinal principles of universalism with militant chattel slavery by identifying Whiteness alone with civilization and progress. They are indebted to European imperialists and colonialists, but also to ongoing White American Christian practices of eugenics, mass incarceration, and other forms of terror.

Given this history, it should not be surprising at all that some American White Nationalists seek to “Save Christianity.”  Richard Spenser joined the conversation in December 2016 with “Ghosts of Christmas Past.” He reclaims both the enchantment of Santa and the local and in particular the Whiteness of Santa in religious imagination of northern Europeans.

Certainly Jesus is back on TV. Promos for “Finding Jesus” season 2 play on CNN between the hours as news anchors fret about Breitbart news and the authority of Alt-Right visionary Stephen Bannon. Special effects enchant biblical epics such as “Noah” (played by Russell Crowe) and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: God and Kings” (in which Welsh Christian Bale plays Moses). The Roman world of primitive Christianity also performs White masculinity in divine favor. In “Ben-Hur,” the British Jack Huston is cast in a “Gladiator”-like remake. In the forthcoming “Resurrection,” Mel Gibson will supplement his “Passion of the Christ.”


The Post-Christian White Nation: Its Own Absolute

Credit: John Kittelsrud Photos taken during National Socialist Movement (Neo-Nazis) march in Phoenix, AZ, in 2010. “The NSM was there to protest a federal judge’s decision to ‘water down’ the SB1070 immigration legislation.”

“A criticism of the Christian concept of God leads inevitably to the same conclusion,” says Nietzsche in The AntiChrist §16. “A nation that still believes in itself holds fast to its own god. In him it does honor to the conditions which enable it to survive, to its virtues—it projects its joy in itself, its feeling of power, into a being to whom one may offer thanks.”

In Europe, says Arendt, even an idea of a sovereign God slipped away. The collective no longer looked to providence to work through a chosen nation, granting it a warrant for ethnic violence. Instead, the ethnic nation came to believe its “own chosenness without believing in Him who chooses and rejects,” she says (73). Attributes once assigned to God (stable, eternal, and essential) transferred to the nation in which one lived and for which one died. Émile Durkheim’s social functionalist analysis of religion shows its ongoing conceptual purchase. Society worships itself. The practices and sentiments of social solidarity prove basic in this analysis of religion as epiphenomenal.

This post-Christian vision for White nationalism that seeks “metapolitical prayer and will to power” installs the ethnic nation as its own god. Predictably, the ethnocracy arrogates ultimacy to itself and authorizes the “ethical” violence required for population purity.

In this rendition of contending modernities, individuals and groups of the Alt-Right travel the internet under the name of nihilism. Their second-order humor is sardonic; they deride enchantment. Pepe the Frog (with benign origins in the web comic Boy’s Club) functions as an anti-Semitic, racist internet meme. The signification of the image is, again, atavistic. Kek the frog-headed man had a prior life as the ancient, androgynous Egyptian deity of darkness and god of chaos. Now his initials show up as “LOL” on infamously female-trolling World of Warcraft chat boards.

The technological medium is modern, but the message refuses the norms of modern liberal society: transparency, accountability, and equal power of civic participation.


Where that Leaves Us

“We are protected by God,” said President Donald Trump in an Inauguration Speech co-written by Bannon. This much American exceptionalism is consonant with our national history. But singular changes to civil religion are afoot. In the Holocaust Remembrance Day national address, the murder of European Jewry went purposefully and unapologetically unmentioned. Muslims with U.S. Green Cards were singularly legally held at international airports, while Syrian Christians received the special attention of the president. Bannon’s ascent to a general’s role on the principles’ committee of the U.S. National Security Council defies precedent, and Arendt’s cigarette smoke lingers in the air.

Mara Willard
Mara Willard is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. She is completing her first book, entitled Politics after the Death of God: Hannah Arendt on Religion and Politics, and publishes and teaches more widely on religion, modernity, and feminist thought. She holds a PhD from Harvard University and her BA from Swarthmore College.
Authority, Community & Identity article

Religious Festivals, Community Engagement and Peaceful Co-Existence

Community engagement is an important mechanism to maintain peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic and multicultural country like Indonesia. It is comprised of the active involvement by diverse members of a given society in mutually beneficial interactions. In Lombok, an island in the eastern part of the country and home to many ethnicities and religions, one way to generate community engagement is through public religious observances and cultural festivals. They can serve as a means for social integration, peace, and harmony, as evidenced in various events.

For example, people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations participated in the 26th national Qur’anic reading festival in Mataram last summer. While the Hindu-Balinese deployed pecalang (civil guards) to safeguard the festival parade, Catholic students joined the choir team and sung the festival anthem in the opening ceremony. In another festival featured in the top image, called perang topat  (a theatrical war using rice cake) in the area of Pura Lingsar, west Lombok, Hindus and Muslims gather, interact, and compete in religious and musical performances. On Christmas morning members of Radio Antar Penduduk Indonesia/RAPI civil force assisted the police to ensure the safety of Christians during their rituals. While this is a secular civil association with no affiliation to any one religion or ethnic group, a mix of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and others make up its membership. Furthermore, the Ansor of Mataram Branch, the youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama/NU (the largest Islamic organization in the country), has successfully sponsored multiple interreligious gatherings in remembrance of a pluralist figure, the late fourth Indonesian president and NU former leader Abdurrahman Wahid. It has also supported the congregation of Gereja Yesus Kristus Tuhan (GYKT church) in its so-far unsuccessful efforts to obtain a permit to establish a new church.

From the left: researcher, policewoman, and RAPI members in the front of the main gate of Gereja Protestan Indonesia Barat (GBIP church) in Mataram on Christmas morning, 2016.

Cultural festivals promote community engagement along cultural and ethno-religious lines, lessening segregation through what may be extended contact in preparation for the event and establishing relationships and communication between groups. In order for public engagement to have greater positive impacts and reach, it needs to be “scaled up”, to borrow Robert Hefner’s word, by involving broader community participation. Scaling up public engagement requires integrating diverse groups into more religious and cultural festivals and other regular community programs. According to a senior Christian priest, there has been no systematic grass-roots peacemaking effort for the purpose of mediating Muslim-Christian tensions in Lombok since the 2000 outbreak of violence. Instead, what has continued is inter-group consolidation amongst elite and top figures. The Indonesian inter-religious harmony forum (Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama/FKUB, a state body) holds regular meetings with state officials, the intelligence service, the police, community leaders, as well as other secular and religious authorities about the religious social dynamic, security, and intolerance. Those assembled seek to formulate the best mechanism to curb intolerance or violent conflict. For example, within a week of the destruction of a mosque in Tolikara, Papua, in June of 2015, the provincial FKUB board quickly responded to the incident by inviting all community and religious leaders to unite. This is an important mechanism, but it only addresses tensions at a certain level of society.

What has not been sufficiently developed are formal or informal encounters at the grassroots level which involve all community members regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations. Religious cultural events or festivals help resolve this problem because almost everyone is welcome to participate and engage. Through such festivals, people interact and engage intensively, establishing channels of communication and relationships. The lack of positive exposure to diverse people is a major concern for efforts to eradicate intolerance. The failure, or at least the postponement, of the approval for the GYKT church noted above underscores the effects of insufficient community engagement with this minority Christian community. Recently, the FKUB of Mataram city issued a recommendation to the Mataram city government advising the GYKT congregation be permitted to build a church. However, the recommendation is now at odds with the opposition of the majority of the local community. While procedural or administrative steps have been fulfilled, intolerance remains a roadblock. The problem arises mainly because none of the GYTK congregation lives in the area where the church will be built. More importantly, the congregation and the community hardly communicate or engage in public events together. This leads one to ask whether a new religious space can be built in a community where no congregational members live.

In Indonesia, it is legally nearly impossible to erect a new place of worship that does not correspond to the majority religion in a given community. The Minister of Religious Affairs and Minister of Home Affairs Joint Decree No. 8 and 9/2006 require at least 60 local residents’ approval and 90 available religious adherents before a place of worship can be built. While in practice adherents to the majority religions in Indonesia often do not fulfill the requirement nor do they have serious difficulties in meeting it, religious minorities have often found it to be a major obstacle. They believe that the decree discriminates against them. However, the examples from Lombok suggest that the issue is not solely a legal one. Rather, it is also a cultural issue. The solution to this problem is often contingent upon the management of communication and engagement with the local community where the new place of worship will be constructed.

A Catholic bishop baptizes children on Christmas at St Maria Immaculata Church, Mataram, one the most damaged churches in the 17th of January, 2000 riot

This can be seen in the cases of a church for the Gereja Kemah Injil Indonesia community (GKII) and a Christian college called Sekolah Tinggi Theologia Injili Indonesia (STTII). The GKII church does not yet have an official permit from the local government in Mataram. The GKII contends that it has completed requirements to obtain a permit that will give it the status of a permanent “legal” church, but it has not yet been approved. The priest of the church, however, does not consider this as important as the proper functioning of the church and regular services for its members. Every year, his church celebrates Christmas openly and invites local community leaders and sub-district heads. To gain community support, the church is involved in community social work, such as giving to charity and caring for the environment. A similar approach is taken by STTII. Although this college holds an official permit, it continues to cooperate with non-Christian locals (most of whom are Muslim) and comply with their social conventions, such as participating in community-based security at night (ronda), celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (mawled), and attending burial ceremonies whenever a neighbor passes away. As a result of this engagement, the college principal suggests, non-Christian neighbors have never considered the presence of the college a threat. Indeed, the ability to build and maintain houses of worship in these cases may be predicated upon the positive esteem of their non-Christian neighbors.

The social and cultural practices which these two Christian institutions have adopted in their respective communities are by no means obligatory. Rather, the institutions are seeking the most viable way to negotiate a strict legal boundary or cultural barrier. The goal is to establish good communication and enhance social engagement. These are key parts of accelerating social integration. Further efforts by the parties concerned, including the state agencies, religious authorities, community leaders and non-government organizations, must move beyond elite dialogue to focus on strengthening and enhancing community engagement.


Photo Credit: Mohamad Abdun Nasir

Mohamad Abdun Nasir
Mohamad Abdun Nasir is a lecturer at the Department of Islamic Law and Economics and at the Graduate School of State Islamic Institute (IAIN) Mataram. He received a Fulbright Presidential Scholarship and Emory Laney Graduate School Scholarship for his doctoral degree at Emory University, where he earned his PhD in Islamic studies in 2013. His recent publications have appeared in the Asian Journal of Social Science and Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.
Global Currents article

Taking it Back from the Global Catholic Right: Reclaiming the Underworld of the Religious Imagination

As we struggle to understand the rightwing populist movements that have taken the world stage, Roman Catholicism has turned out to have an unexpected, tragic starring role. Those who work in the expansive global network of Catholic thinking (universities, high schools, popular or university presses, parishes, magazines, think tanks, and NGOs) cannot responsibly ignore this. Anyone seeking to make sense of the world we find ourselves in should also take note. How can this movement’s religious imagination—its theology, its spirituality—be understood? Most importantly, what might a distinctive mode of resistance look like?

In the United States, white Catholics voted for Trump by a wide margin. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, is a devout Catholic, and the transcripts of his (warmly received) speech given to the Vatican have recently been released. General Michael Flynn, the choice for national security advisor, hails from a large Irish Catholic family. In France, the devout and staunchly conservative François Fillon has pulled ahead in the presidential primaries, supported by those now known as les zombies catholiques. The term “zombie Catholics” refers to the faithful who had long been dismissed in secular France, but have suddenly, as if from the dead, risen up to assert their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Throughout Eastern Europe, the far right gather under a broad Catholic-nationalist coalitions in the region, including Poland’s League of Polish Families. Around the world, these populist movements present themselves as the besieged, traditionalist victims of the secular, elite establishments of power.

At one level, the centrality of Catholicism here makes sense. Despite the gilded thrones and papal rings that might suggest otherwise, there is a deep history of Catholic scorn for establishment powers. Within this theological imagination, through Jesus, God chose the least and lowliest of vessels to enter into human history, not as a real king, but as an infant who grew up and surrounded himself with the lowly, the poor, the criminals, and the generally unfit. It makes sense to Christians that the most reviled would have special divine favor, not the centers of worldly power. The uneducated, the poor, and the rejected are endowed with a transgressive kind of holiness. Catholic sermons and hagiographies throughout history constantly remind people of this inverted logic. To be holy or authoritative, the lack of respectable credentials can be a sure route to success.

Hagiographies of St. Francis often begin when Francis strips himself naked before the shocked townspeople of Assisi. When Teresa of Avila interrupts the narrative flow of her mystical theology in The Interior Castle with “But I am so stupid!” it is not only internalized oppression. Nor is it rational, but it is the Christian logic of inversion at work. When French novelist Léon Bloy highlighted the sanctity of the protagonists of his books (the orphans, the poor, the insane, the disfigured) he always, as a contrast, described the blind and deaf elite, oblivious to the cries of the vulnerable from below. Bloy’s 1902 Exégèse des Lieux Communs [Exegesis of the Commonplaces] was a collection of satirical aphorisms from the bourgeoisie (today it would be like a parody of Chicken Soup for the Soul). It made a splash: in 1928, Walter Benjamin called it “splendid. A more embittered critique, or rather satire of the bourgeois could hardly have been written.” We see this Catholic mockery of authority in artists closer to home too, like the late, great comedic genius Chris Farley. His character Matt Foley pokes fun at parental authority, clueless disciplinarians, and his own huge body. Bruce Springsteen had all this in mind in his new memoir: “I don’t always participate in my religion but I know somewhere… deep inside… I’m still on the team. This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger, and darkness that reflected my inner self.” Here is the almost religious aura that surrounds mockery of those in charge, peering at what’s underneath, and endowing that underbelly with a new kind of reverence and power. It is a vision that can steer the conversation. In her 1962 Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas, herself a Catholic, theorized as a feature in fact of all religions, not just Catholicism. In the realm of ordinary reality, according to Douglas, we work to excise death, danger, and weakness from our lives. But in the religious domain, what is taboo carries what she called a “symbolic load” in our psyches that can serve as a powerful source of relief, regeneration, and resistance.

When, in 2014, French sociologists Emmanuel Todd and Hervé Le Bras declared those French Catholic populists on the right who oppose gay marriage “Catholic zombies,” the grotesque term was meant as an invective. But the zombie is a contemporary symbol that marks that strange liminal space between life and death. To call these populists zombies was to inject their transgression of liberal norms with the foulness of death and turn it into an ultimate symbol of taboo, giving it more power. It made perfect sense that we suddenly saw pictures of white, middle-class Catholic French activists dressed up in zombie costumes, fake blood coming out of their mouths, holding up signs reading, “No gay marriage!” In the United Sates, white Trump supporters wore pins emblazoned with their new repugnant monikers: deplorables. The more transgressive Trump and his followers seemed, the more fascination and desire gathered around them.

So in one way, what we see in the rise of right wing populism among Catholics is simply an extension of the Christian logic of inversion. But the differences are noteworthy. We saw, for instance, in Trump’s campaign an antiestablishment mockery of the elites (that charade has now all but disappeared). But the “taboo” was not only to mock the elites, but to insult the world’s multicultural present and its attention to race, religious pluralism, and gender. Trump was not just poking fun at the media establishment and Washington, D.C., but mocking the vulnerable, especially the elites who care about the vulnerable: his own victims of sexual assault, people with disabilities, American Muslims. This violated the logic of Christian inversion and the basic rules of humor (which tends to be about overturning hierarchies). It’s funny to see a powerful man in a tuxedo slip on a banana. But a little old lady? No. This is why Trump was so stridently unfunny and un-Christian even if he played, on the surface, with their transgressive logic. He was using psychic flirtation with a taboo critique of the mainstream, but deepened, rather than overturned, basic hierarchies.

In the work of antiestablishment Catholic writers who went on to have lasting power—like Dorothy Day or Léon Bloy—there is, admittedly, also sometimes a proximity to insanity, but humanity is eventually revealed within the peril. They focus on the concrete reality of protagonists bought in from the margins, and despise efforts to obscure their lives. For example, in Bloy’s 1909, Le Sang du Pauvre [Blood of the Poor], he inveighed against on the horrors of child labor practices, which were rhetorically condemned throughout Europe but still widespread. Catholics tended then to blame everything on secularism or Protestants, but Bloy, at his best, resisted temptations to change the subject: “In order that no one may say ‘religion is forgotten,’ the little girls’ workshops are often managed by nuns!” he wrote.

In contrast, right wing populism now is a studied refusal to attend, in any way, to the actual material reality of vulnerable people’s lives. It is a projection of ideology that never encounters reality. Instead, their flirtation with taboo lands its focus not on the humanity of people struggling, but on scapegoats. The conversations steer themselves, as if irresistibly, to immigrants and Islam. In Steve Bannon’s comments to the Vatican, there is a blend of populist frustration with banks but the activist energy gathers for a war against Islam, strengthening our nation against it, and an urging to return to our “Judeo-Christian roots.” This fanciful and divisive rhetorical construct is a dangerous diversion playing to basest instincts in human nature. It helped create the culture we are in at the moment, where it perfectly acceptable to select a national security advisor, Michael Flynn, who has called Islam a “vicious cancer.” What could that possibly signal other than a call for the absolute violent destruction of Islam by “Judeo-Christians?”

In Europe, Islam and immigrants are scapegoated too, but among Catholics, the politically active populism focuses a great deal on homosexuality, feminism, and changing gender norms. One feature of their success has been to link their resistance to liberal gender norms to anti-Americanism. This keeps the antifeminist and antigay activism still seemingly tethered to a respectable anti-elitism and anti-hegemony. Activists associated with the Catholic group La Manif pour Tous [Protest for All] in France, for instance, protest gay marriage and inclusion of the idea of gender in schools (as opposed to biological sex), by framing these issues as an American invasion. As historian Camille Robcis has shown, in activist literature the term theory of gender is often rendered in English even in French pamphlets to signal its foreignness and Americanness. Rightwing activism slides easily into longstanding French Catholic anti-American sentiment, signaling that family relations, like so much else in our world, are tragically in danger of Americanization. This brand of populism is a much easier sell.


So what should we do? If this weird religious imagination with its taboos, inversions, and scapegoats is the problem, sober-minded secularism must be the answer, right? No. This must be emphasized: we cannot succumb to the familiar triumphal narrative of secularism. This almost always makes things worse.

In trying to imagine alternatives, my own research has focused on the small community of Catholics who played important roles in resisting anti-Semitism and fascism in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Though our world is radically different from theirs (a point I state emphatically), their ways of pushing against the widespread scapegoating of religious others and the acquiescence to authoritarianism overlaps with some of our own concerns. Three distinctive resources help us imagine Catholic kinds of resistance today.

First, the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac was among the few priests active in the resistance. In letters and essays from 1939-1944, he showed prescient awareness of the widespread but largely unconscious feelings of repugnance against Jews spreading throughout Europe, animating the violence and indifference. He called it an “invasion of poison” that spread, little by little, into “souls.” To understand it, de Lubac immersed himself in the propaganda literature of Aryan nationalism. “It is repugnant,” he wrote, “to move about again in this bloody filth by rereading these blasphemous pamphlets.” He saw that the propaganda functioned at a deep psychic level of demonization, making sure Christians felt they were so unlike Jews spiritually that their destruction was irrelevant. De Lubac and others insisted their work was a kind of “spiritual resistance.” In some essays, he directly described the violence, but he also worked on the underworld of the religious imagination as it pertained to the vulnerable, highlighting the spiritual vitality of the Jewish scriptures and their connection to Christianity. He honed in on the beauty of Jewish texts and prophets in the Hebrew Bible: “The Prophets shake us still today…. They console us in our distress and revive hope in us. The Psalms nourish our prayer every day.” Against those who would stress separation between Christians and Jews he wrote, “In truth, all this is our heritage. We will no longer allow them to tear it away from us.” De Lubac understood this work as distributing a kind of spiritual food in a time of crisis.

Similarly, the writer Raïssa Maritain, a Catholic convert from Judaism, wrote in 1942 of the beauty of the household Jewish piety she knew growing up as a child in Russia. In her archives, I found a letter from a priest written to her in 1943. “I was not an anti-Semite,” he wrote, “but there was in me a certain repulsion. I have overcome it, and for that I thank you.” Today on our campuses, in book clubs, in magazines, and at conferences, we might consider the power that spiritual, literary, even mystical narratives and art have to reach these levels of repulsion that so many white Catholics feel toward Muslim refugees, gay families, the poor, African Americans, and women who control their reproductive lives. Not all activism has to be about the direct political level of conscious belief, action, and policy. Showing the spiritual depth, beauty, and humanity of a vulnerable group can work effectively on that deeper level.

Second, when I was a graduate student one of my mentors, the beloved Church historian John W. O’Malley, coined a phrase, the “parishization” of Catholicism. It described a process in modernity in which we have come to think only of the parish as the place to find “church” and spiritual nourishment. This wasn’t always the case. In early modern times, monasteries, mendicant societies to aid the needy, confraternities, shrines, and schools were key places for meeting God in community and living out one’s faith. (You can see a summary on page nine of this document.) This opened my eyes up to a feature of the twentieth-century Catholic resisters in Europe that I would have otherwise missed: in their writings there is very little discussion of parishes. I’m sure many of them went to mass, but it wasn’t where the intellectual, spiritual, or social action usually was, by a long shot. Instead it was in the salon of the Maritains, or the events hosted by resister and scholar Marie-Madeleine Davy at the Château de La Fortrelle, or the community gathered around the underground journal Témoignage Chrétien [Christian Witness], and groups like Amitié Chrétienne [Christian Friendship] focused on Jewish-Christian friendship. At the same time, in the same impulse, Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality were sprouting up in the United States. The work was political, but it was also understood to be deeply spiritual, and it didn’t necessarily happen only in the parish.

In our own time, Stephen Pope wrote powerfully about how little Catholic parishes in the U.S. did to resist the authoritarian trends that led us to Trump. He writes of the “anemic, impersonal, and ‘low impact’ character of many of our parishes today.” For Catholics looking for alternative ways to “be” church in addition to the parish, we might think of places like the monasteries that offer spiritual renewal and recharging, like the Benedictine Abbey Regina Laudis in New Bethlehem, CT. Or we might think of places like the thriving immigration center, Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Services in East Harlem. Started by nuns in the 1950s, it is now run by secular women who have a deep respect for the original spirit of founding Sisters. The staff consists mostly of brave, dedicated New York women with social work degrees who work to meet the needs of immigrant families in East Harlem. Or I think of the Abraham House in the South Bronx which helps families with incarcerated parents. Abraham House was started by a French worker priest and Belgian nuns. These are just some institutions near my home that embody the spirit of Catholic resistance. But they are all over the world. They would love to hear from progressive Catholics—or anyone—for support. We might too think about the crucial role that Jesuit Universities have played in places where populations were dangerously vulnerable, like the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador in the 1980s. In the United States, there are twenty-eight Jesuit universities—so much potential and institutional power! It is in these places, not only the parishes, where the action often is. And they are all still here.

But none of these organizations can carry the weight of inadequate social policies. Alone, they cannot fight whatever cruelties the far right has in store. This leads to my final example. In the 1930s Jacques Maritain described the American community organizer Saul Alinsky as “one of my closest friends who was an indomitable and dreaded organizer of ‘People’s Organizations’ and an anti-racist leader whose methods are as efficacious as they are unorthodox.” Maritain and Alinsky had met through George N. Schuster, then editor of Commonweal and chairman of the board of trustees of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Maritain wrote in a 1940 letter to his friend Yves Simon, “Alinsky has discovered in community organization work the creative sap of American life and I believe in them can be found the germ of an authentic renewal of democracy.” Through Alinsky, Maritain saw in these community organizations seeds of renewal: the grassroots efforts to put pressure on governments to protect the vulnerable, immigrants, the poor, mothers who cannot afford childcare, low-wage earners. Today, we must include grassroots efforts that have been dismissed as “women’s issues” (or as Maritain wrote, “None of my business!”). In 2016, we don’t need to wait for Catholic men to prioritize issues: we have to put priorities like childcare and access to contraception at the forefront of our efforts to combat poverty at the heart of grassroots demands.

Though whatever efforts we put in at the local level, we should resist the temptation to assume a march towards secularism, even if we’re understandably dismayed at the role many Catholics are playing in the current political moment around the globe. In our protests, art, speeches, books, and teaching, our words and actions should draw deeply from the symbolic wells of the religious imagination: inversions, transgression, blood, death, renewal, redemption. There are risks, to be sure, in engaging its strangeness, but there is a long history of creative, risky thinkers who drew deeply from this symbolic reservoir and combined it with a compassionate, leftist social politics. To think of de Lubac again: “All of this is our heritage. We will no longer allow them to tear it away from us.” But the heritage must be struggled for and reclaimed, constantly. When Charles Péguy wrote, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” I think he meant that it was the mystics, the artists, the writers who spurred our imaginations and opened our horizons, and the politicians, often for the worse but sometimes actually for the better, who took it from there. There is just so much to do.


Photo Credit: Laurie Avocado, “Christ of the Breadline”,

Brenna Moore
Brenna Moore is Associate Professor of Theology at Fordham University. She works in the area of modern Christianity, with a focus on Catholic intellectual and cultural history in Europe. Dr. Moore’s teaching and research tends to center on mysticism and religious experience, gender, a movement in theology known as “ressourcement,” (“turn to the sources”) that paved the way for Vatican II, and the place of religious difference in modern Christian thought. She is the author of Sacred Dread: Raïssa Maritain, the Allure of Suffering, and the French Catholic Revival, 1905-1945 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).
Field Notes article

The Ambivalence of Modernity Seen from Abidjan

Photo Credit: Njambi Ndiba. “Mornings in Abidjan”. People gather to read the newspaper.

In his recent post, “The Pastor as Sexual Object”, Ebenezer Obadare rightly suggests that the rise of the authority of the Pentecostal pastor in contemporary Africa should also be understood against the background of the decline of other authorities. Focusing on the demise of the authority of the intellectual, he holds that the Pentecostal pastor “now occupies what once was the academic’s spotlight as authority on economic, political, and cultural matters, to such an extent that today, even the academic tends to genuflect to his (i.e. the pastor’s) authority.” As the present contribution also shows, besides the intellectual there are other authority figures who have lost ground in favor of the Pentecostal pastor. During fieldwork in the city of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, we asked our interviewees, most of whom were educated urban dwellers fluent in French and either Christian or Moslem, how they thought of modernity and what images they associated with this category (one even scholars have a hard time defining). Our informants, whose voices are echoed here, lament the decline of parental authority and blame “modernity” for it. As Obadare’s piece notes, what we are witnessing in Africa is not necessarily the disappearance of authority figures in favor of individual freedom, but the emergence of parallel sources of authority competing with traditional ones for social control. We are attempting to capture popular representations of modernity within the framework of the Contending Modernities project and the views echoed here about the ambivalence of modernity cut across religious denominations

The overarching images that emerge from the data include those of “change” (“la modernité c’est le changement”) and “novelty” (“la modernité c’est quelque chose de nouveau” or “pratiques nouvelles”) characterized as both positive and negative and associated with various aspects of social life. One informant sums it up as follows: “modernity is change—the difference between the vision of our forefathers and that of our children today. It is adaptation to current life; it is about new practices”. The baseline here seems to be the “ways of living of our forefathers” that some refer to as “tradition”, which can risk “essentializing” the ways of the “forefathers” by denying them the same historicity accorded to modernity. Indeed, as historians have shown, pre-colonial Africa was as familiar with change as any human society and should not be equated with stability. Some simply describe modernity as “social change” (“changement social”) or as “change of mores” (“changement de moeurs”). But the object of change is not confined to ways of being, thinking, or doing. It is also extended to material, scientific, and technological innovations seen as an essential component of modernity. Science and technology are perceived as the embodiment of modernity. Particular references are made in the interviews to new technologies of communication and information and to new means of transportation which have accelerated the circulation of people and goods and reconfigured how people inhabit space and time.

But modernity is not only about change. It is also seen by interviewees as people’s “ability to adapt” to these changes (“vivre avec son temps”). One is described as “modern” if he or she is open to change, to novelties. For one informant, “[m]odernity has to do with something new suited for our times” (“adapté à notre temps”). For another “modernity is living with one’s time, adapting to the evolution of time and space”. In other words, new times, new ways of living, and new material goods call for adaptation either by embracing them or resisting them. In the words of one interviewee, “modernity is change in present-day society; this change is positive and negative.” For believers, religious norms seem to play a key role in the selective embracing of modernity.

Regarding the “positives” of modernity, informants mentioned, among other things, the development of new technologies which have improved people’s living conditions and made life easier in many respects. Many speak of “improvement of daily living conditions” and of the evolution of “laws governing African realities”. Here, change is described in terms of progress: “modernity is progress—something added onto; that which is new”. Besides new technology, other celebrated imports of modernity referred to by interviewees include western schools and the promotion of the rights of vulnerable categories such as women and children. In the words of one informant, “Modernity has allowed women to express themselves as men”. It is seen as a key factor in growing consciousness about human rights, especially those of vulnerable categories such as women, children and sexual minorities.

But this “redefinition” of the role of women in society is not welcomed by everyone. And here begins the trial of modernity that we primarily focus on in our research: how the revision of the family code has been received by various religious constituencies in the Ivory Coast. Indeed, in the interviews, modernity is also variously associated with “curse”, “debauchery”, “social disequilibrium”, “depravation of mores”, “loss of parental authority”, “reconfiguration of family relationships”, “neglect of religious norms”, “new conceptions of marriage”, “the revolt [i.e. insubordination] of women”, “evolution of sexual practices”, “individualism”, etc. What seems to stands out from this non-exhaustive list of the charges levelled against modernity is the weakening of parental, male, and family authority in favor of individual freedom or new forms of authority. For some, the weakening of parental authority is responsible for the demise of “good education” since parents are no longer allowed chastise their children. One informant expresses his regrets in this way: “[t]oday, children oppose the choices of their parents, and this was not the case in the past. Children claim to have rights: which rights? It is modernity.” Another adds: “the rights of children; you can no longer scold a child, let alone discipline him or her”.

In short, less parental authority seems to imply more individual freedoms leading to what some describe as the “uprooting of the youth” illustrated, for example, by indecent dressing: “Men and women [no longer] dress in a way that is worthy of religion, and hence the punishment from God,” laments one informant. Modernity is seen not only as occasioning the weakening of traditional forms of family life but also as favoring the emergence of news ones such as gay marriage, described by many as “deviant.” As one informant puts it: “modernity is debauchery with regard to marriage: in the past, a man married a woman; today people of the same sex get [married]. This not normal”. What we have here is a good illustration of the ambivalence of popular representations of modernity. It is partly embraced for its scientific and technological wonders, but also partly associated with moral decline especially with regard to family and sexual ethics. Hence the hermeneutic value of the concept of “multiple modernities”: “modernity, if it ever was a single entity, has gone in innumerable and often unanticipated directions…Since modernity has not led to the wholesale convergence of societies and cultures, it is plain that there is nothing particularly ‘natural’ or inevitable about it. Modernity is not simply the logical outcome of an inevitable unfolding of structures and ideas” (Moore and Sanders, 12).

Ludovic Lado
Ludovic Lado is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the Center for Research and Action for Peace in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. His publications include Catholic Pentecostalism and the Paradoxes of Africanization (Brill, 2009); Le Pluralisme Religieux en Afrique (PUCAC, 2015); and Towards an Anthropology of Catholicism in Africa (forthcoming).
Field Notes article

Land and Authority in Postcolonial Cameroon

Photo Credit: His Royal Majesty the Fon of Njirong. View of landscape of Mbawrong.

Sonny Okosun’s song, “Papa’s Land,” released in 1977, is about the dispossession of Africans from the land by colonists. Four decades later, land and land acquisition continues to be a major social, economic, political, and religious staging ground for contending modernity in postcolonial Africa. In fact, studies from different parts of Africa today demonstrate that land, more than ever before, has become an important commodity. Our project examines a land dispute between the Njirong and Ntumbaw villages of the Ndu sub-division of Donga Mantung in the northwest region of Cameroon. These two neighboring villages have lived together for generations and are interconnected in many ways. They share religious institutions: one Catholic church, one Baptist church (though now there is a Baptist Church in each village), one mosque, and the traditional rites that protect land in both villages was performed by the Nsingong (a traditional society charged with stewarding the land) of Njirong Village. The villagers intermarried and in spite of the conflict still have only one government recognized market in Ntumbaw village. Fulani cattle headers lived in Ntumbaw, but during the dry season, they moved their cattle to the low lands of Mbawrong in Njirong Village, because there was an abundance of grass and water for the cattle.

Then the residents of Njirong Village started growing rice at Mbawrong in the late 1960s. It is alleged that the Chief of Njirong invited the chief of Ntumbaw to join him in cultivating rice. The Ntumbaw Chief hesitated, but later sent his own villagers down to Mbawrong to cultivate rice. The Chief of Njirong reportedly designated a plot of land within Njirong territory, bordering Ntumbaw lands, for the Ntumbaw villagers to cultivate. It is alleged that Ntumbaw farmers at Mbawrong then annexed that piece of land and claimed ownership of the land. Since 1974, the land dispute has disrupted social, family, economic, and spiritual relationships between the two villages, which are both members of the Warr Family of the Wimbum community in Donga Mantung Division. In 2004, in accordance with the 1974 Land Law of Cameroon, the Senior Divisional Officer of Donga Mantung convened a Land Consultative Committee, also called a Land Commission, to settle the dispute. Both parties made submissions to the commission and after hearing from the neighbors of Njirong and Ntumbaw, the commission ruled that the land at Mbawrong belonged to Njirong Village. However, in an unusual move, the commission granted the villagers of Ntumbaw permission to continue to grow rice and work on the farms on the condition that they acknowledged that the Chief of Njirong is the landlord and also refrain from working on their farms on the sacred day of Njirong. Sacred days in Wimbum villages are also called “native Sunday”, because that day is a holy day according to traditional religion. The people of Ntumbaw continued to work on the farms, but rejected the ruling of the commission. Tensions continued to mount between the two villages, and at some point, Njirong villagers reported that Ntumbaw was mounting an economic boycott of Njirong, since Njirong’s access to the rest of the Sub Division passes through Ntumbaw. It was also alleged that Ntumbaw wanted to sell portions of the land they had annexed. But tensions burst into open violence when Mr. Shey Evaristus Nganjo of Njirong was ambushed on June 12, 2013 by some members of the Ntumbaw community and attacked with a machete, leaving him fatally wounded. He died on his way to the hospital. Other members of the Njirong community were wounded in the same attack, including a physically challenged man, Mr. Etienne Ntami, whose fingers were cut off. The senior divisional officer imposed a curfew in response to this violence, and deployed members of the armed forces and police to keep the peace. Several people were arrested and some were charged in court for the crimes. Following the conflict, the senior divisional officer ruled again that all people from Ntumbaw working at Mbawrong were no longer permitted to do so as a group, but that individuals who wanted to cultivate rice must first apply for the Chief of Njirong’s permission.

This crisis reflects some of the key questions animating the Contending Modernities Authority, Community, and Identity working groups. First, it is a conflict of authority in a postcolonial state and therefore evokes all the transformations that African countries have gone through in the imperial and post imperial age. Second, there are three sources of authority in tension here. There is the traditional Wimbum authority, namely the chiefs who are custodians of the land on behalf of the ancestors. In 2001, the chiefs of both villages poured libation (the ritual of calling on the ancestors by pouring wine on the land and invoking the name of the ancestors to respond). Both sides claim that their ancestors agreed with their position on the matter because they accepted their offerings in the form of libation. The second area of authority is religious authority. Islamic and Catholic leaders have generally been sympathetic to the village of Ntumbaw since most of them are members of Ntumbaw. Both religious communities and their leaders as well as the Baptist churches at Ntumbaw and Njirong have been involved in discussions and continue to seek ways of achieving reconciliation. It is not clear to us if their attempts at peace and reconciliation have been coordinated with traditional authorities.

Finally, the third and most consequential level of authority is the leadership of the state of Cameroon represented by local administrators such as the senior divisional officer, the divisional officer, and the forces of law and order whom they have deployed several times to halt violence in this land dispute. There are several things here which we will unpack in the future. The land law of Cameroon authorizes the divisional officer to mediate land disputes and he can call a land consultative commission to hear submissions from disputed parties and that commission then rules on who owns the land. The senior divisional officer used the provisions of that law to call a commission in 2004, and based on submissions from the two villages and their neighbors that commission determined that the disputed land at Mbawrong belongs to Njirong. The committee based their judgment on the history of the region, ancestral claims, and testimonies of neighbors and oral historical accounts. The commission also took into consideration that Njirong village carried out the rituals that protect the land in both villages. As such, this decision and the Cameroonian land law take religious ritual into account in addition to secular activities and documents. As articulated in the work of Charles Taylor, this ruling operationalizes a broad view of secularity which does not limit religion.

The village of Ntumbaw continues to contest the decision of the land commission of 2004, arguing that Njirong is not listed in many official government documents, such as minutes of meetings attended by other Wimbum Chiefs. We have brought up this point with members from Njirong village and they have argued that in the past, Ntumbaw villagers did not want to recognize them as an independent village. However, Njirong villagers took their case to the west Cameroon government and their chief was recognized and that recognition also meant that they kept the land on which they have lived for generations. As both villages look to the future, the question will not end with who owns Papa’s land, but: is the land big enough for all who need to grow food? If that is the case, and both sides agree, what are the conditions for reconciliation?

Elias Bongmba
Elias Kifon Bongmba is Harry and Hazel Chair in Christian Theology and Professor of Religion at Rice University. Bongmba is the principal researcher in the "Land and Authority in Postcolonial Africa" Contending Modernities project.
Global Currents article

Diplomacy as Hypocrisy: The Biya System in Rome and at the Vatican

Photo Credit: rbairdpccam. “Catholic Mission Shisong”

In this post, first published on the CIHA blog in English and on Cameroon-Info.Net in French, CM researcher Ludovic Lado considers the role of religion as a vehicle to speak truth to power, on the one hand, and religions as institutions existing within the state system, on the other. In the case of the Catholic Church, which has a long tradition of diplomatic relations with political leaders, the effort to maintain positive relationships with heads of state can generate actions incongruous with, or in opposition to, the prophetic role of Catholicism on the ground.


Writing this text is for me a Lenten practice, an act of penitence for my people’s cause. I write in a hotel room in Rome, where I traveled in response to an invitation to an international scientific conference. But I was distracted by a curious coincidence: the state visit of Cameroon’s President Paul Biya on the same dates. Such a visit is technically called diplomacy. I learned that, in the course of this visit, President Biya received the gold medal of the Italian University Rectors’ Conference, during a ceremony in which Biya was lauded for his “great achievements” in promoting culture and higher education in Cameroon. But in fact, what is the state of higher education in Cameroon? And why has Italy become the premier western destination for Cameroonian students? It is precisely because our universities are not doing well. In distinguishing between the person and the office of the president of Cameroon, I wondered whether the Italian university officials spoke of the real Cameroon or simply read a speech prepared for them. Addressing Italian investors, one heard President Biya joke about his more than 30 years in power. Better to laugh than cry! Let us not forget that political power is a question of life and death for our peoples. And western economic interests make a mockery of democracy and human rights in Africa. It is too bad that some continue to count on western leaders to help them find the path to liberty.

How should we explain that this is a troubled time in the history of Cameroon, in which the Biya system is shamefully repressing the Anglophone resistance to Francophone assimilation, erasing all forms of dissent while Italian officials, hungry for investments, choose to treat President Biya as a hero of culture and higher education? Who is mocking whom in the end? Of course it is the poor Cameroonians who are daily victims of the political economy of violence that supports the world economy. This diplomacy, punctuated by compromises and silences of complicity and guilt are nourished by blood, like the genocide in the eastern DRC or the human dignity sacrificed on the altar of the economic interests of multinational companies in neighboring countries. Such hypocritical diplomacy makes the global political and economic order a veritable structure of sin according to the social teachings of the Church. Have the Italian officials forgotten the Lampedusa drama? And if they have not forgotten it, do they ignore the fact that it is the mediocre regimes like that of Mr. Biya that push their young people to emigrate in dangerous conditions across deserts and seas? Under these circumstances, a diplomacy of complacency is a diplomacy of complicity.

When I learned that President Biya would be received by the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church, I couldn’t help but think of the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate during the Passion. Jesus told Pilate, “I came into the world to attest to the truth. Whoever is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked, “What is the truth?” (John 18: 37-38). I ask myself whether the dialogue between the Pope and President Biya will center on the truth, that which would liberate Mr. Biya and his people (John 8: 32). I wonder whether the Vatican diplomacy with its network of apostolic delegates serves this truth, to which the Church must witness, the body of Christ, during good times and bad. What do the nuncios say to the Pope about our heads of state, who smile at the Vatican while trampling on human rights, public freedoms, and human dignity in their own countries? It depends on these apostolic delegates, the ambassadors of the Vatican in our countries. Unfortunately, these nuncios have the unlucky job of maintaining good diplomatic relations with the State, which is good for the mission of the Church; paradoxically, though, this sometimes comes at the price of its prophetic role. That is also called diplomacy and I often wonder what it has to do with the Gospel, serving justice, and the truth of these times. I hear that it is up to the local churches and not the apostolic delegate who is usually a foreigner, to assume such a prophetic role vis-à-vis the political insanity that is costing thousands of lives in our countries. But bishops and priests are themselves afraid of Pontius Pilate’s reprisals. So the Church is ensconced, in the name of diplomacy, in a system based on hypocrisy, one that masks the truth and feeds on human lives. I dream of the day when my Church will distance itself from this diplomacy of complacency that harms the poor.” May the time come when every head of State who goes to meet the Pope and every bishop or priest fears hearing the prophetic message of John the Baptist to Herod, “You do not have the right to take the wife of your brother” (Matthew 14: 4). We know that John the Baptist ended up in prison where he was beheaded. The Church does not have the right to silence the truth through fear of persecution.

By way of conclusion, I dare to believe, but without giving into illusions, that the reader of goodwill will understand that the crux of my dissent is not Mr. Biya as a person, but rather the unhealthy political system that he represents, and that has caused suffering to so many of my compatriots for decades. It is this well-oiled system that every Christian has the obligation to subvert until the point of delivery to the scribes of Pontius Pilate, to suffer and die like the Savior. Isn’t it better to die from love for the truth rather than from malaria? I do not fear because Easter is near! Thus begins my own writing of a return to my village of origin.


Translated from French to English by Cecelia Lynch.

Ludovic Lado
Ludovic Lado is Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the Center for Research and Action for Peace in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. His publications include Catholic Pentecostalism and the Paradoxes of Africanization (Brill, 2009); Le Pluralisme Religieux en Afrique (PUCAC, 2015); and Towards an Anthropology of Catholicism in Africa (forthcoming).
Field Notes article

Inter-Religious Literacy Among Young People in Indonesia: Contrasting Frameworks

Photo Credit: Nicholas Adams. Local researchers from Kampoeng Percik: Ambar Istiyani and Agung Waskitoadi.

Europeans like us, the lead researchers, tend to see religious questions through a European lens: our inter-religious (or inter-denominational) histories are shaped by the Reformation, the development of modern nation states during the Thirty Years War, the legal frameworks that regulated the opportunities of minority traditions, the privileging of the individual in Enlightenment thought, and the complex negotiations between religious and secular institutions in the twentieth century. Religious identity is often a deep and fundamental concern for members of European religious traditions and religious people arguably tend to see their religious identity as what is distinctive about them. This presents some challenges for research into Indonesian contexts: it is vital that European presuppositions about what ‘religion’ is, or about what religious difference is, do not distort local narratives. Our project mitigates this risk through its partnership between researchers from European universities (Birmingham and Berlin) and fieldworkers from local Indonesian research centres (Percik and Interfidei), centres whose leaders are familiar with Western religious studies but are not confined by its limited imagination.

An example may help to illustrate what is at stake. It is quite common to hear Indonesian intellectuals suggest that in Indonesia religious affiliation is as much an administrative matter as one of deep personal conviction or identity. This sounds odd to Western ears (or at least to the ears of the two Western researchers working on this project), given the ways in which religion is in our contexts a marker of identity.

However, it is worth noting some recent discussions which suggest that in Western contexts too ‘religion’ is a significantly administrative matter. There is a growing literature on the local construction of religion through law and state mechanisms (for example Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s account of the ‘securitization of religion’ or  Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s discussion of how the ‘religion’ of the USA’s Constitution’s First Amendment plays out in contemporary foreign policy).

It is important to understand that in the wake of the anti-Communist purge of 1965 Indonesians were for the first time required to declare officially which religion they belonged to. This was a strategy intended to expose Communists, who tended to be anti-religious. Moreover, ordinary folk were not free to describe their religious affiliation. They were limited then to five: Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic and Protestant (also sometimes named ‘Christian’). This presented severe challenges to Jews, for example (there were until recently synagogues in some cities–the last one in Java, Beith Shalom in Surabaya, was destroyed in 2013), and it also meant that those who practised local Javanese religious traditions had to find an alternative religious designation for themselves. Suharto’s imposition of a requirement that Indonesians identify their ‘religion’ created an administrative imperative and generated a concept which was then put to local use in various ways. (Since 2006 Confucianism was added as an available “religion” category and at least since 2010 it is permissible, at least in principle, for this field to be left blank–although it seems few dare to do this.)

Photo Credit: Eckhard Zemmrich. Javan Gamelan.

Javanese traditions are nonetheless still alive in villages in Salatiga. In October of 2016 we visited a church in Nalen where a new balcony was being constructed at the West end. This was a major—and expensive—undertaking, and it was not immediately obvious to us what its purpose might be. The balcony, it turned out, will in fact house the church’s gamelan, thus expressing musically a deeply rooted Javanese religious heritage in a Christian setting.

The case study explores the ways in which such categories as ‘community’ and ‘identity’ are locally constructed; we have not found that there is ‘modernity’ (a general category manifesting itself in various local contexts) but rather local histories whose memory (perhaps explicit but very likely implicitly) shapes contemporary self-understandings. These are not readily generalizable. Our project is primarily led by young local actors’ own characterisations of their religious practices and especially their willingness to move between one tradition and another (for example by ceasing to be Buddhist and becoming Muslim).

One can test Western theoretical constructions of religion to assess their adequacy in an Indonesian context (as Robert Hefner has done in Civil Islam); our approach is to suspend judgment on what a general category of ‘religion’ might be (this has been another notorious question in literature in this field) and to pay attention to how local actors seem to use and conceive it. It is not so much the construction of the category ‘religion’ that is at issue, so much as the various uses to which traditions (which Europeans might name ‘religious’) are put in local contexts. For example, the continuation of traditional Javanese religious practices like the ‘Slametan’ are embedded within Muslim everyday life. The Slametan is a communal meal, deeply rooted in Javanese traditions, which might be local and small-scale or large regional affairs: they typically mark births, deaths, or significant dates in the religious calendar. The food is a blessing: to eat is to receive favor. There is arguably a significant difference between the sharply contrasting ‘religions’ of state bureaucracy (where local actors must name their tradition and thereby exclude the others) and the significantly more blurred edges between traditions in actual communities.

These considerations lie in the background of our research into young people’s attitudes to other religious traditions and we are interested to discover how things look after our fieldwork is completed this year. The main body of research will be composed of interviews with youth who participate in inter-religious initiatives, especially ‘before and after’ conversations, with follow-up interviews one year and two years after participation to discover whether students’ interests, concerns, and relationships are sustained beyond the immediate period of the initiatives themselves. Since it is notoriously difficult to demonstrate cause and effect in situations of this kind, we mitigate the danger of attributing all shifts in perspective to the inter-religious initiatives considered here by taking into account other activities that might have shaped their religious views.

It is certainly a puzzle to figure out how young people view flare-ups of ‘religious violence’ if religious identity can be viewed, at least in some regions, (in the words of one Indonesian colleague) as ‘largely an administrative matter.’ It is also a puzzle to account for religious practices as simultaneously deep-rooted (as in the case of Javanese customs) and yet readily exchangeable (as in the cases of changing religious tradition). That is a central focus of our research.


Featured Photo Credit: Tom Soldan. Gamelan Crok.

Eckhard Zemmrich
Dr. Eckhard Zemmrich is a Research Fellow of Religious Sciences and Intercultural Theology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Prior to that, he served as a Theological Advisor for the Evangelische Landeskirche Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesische Oberlausitz, as a parish pastor in Germany, and as scientific Co-Worker for the Council of Churches in Indonesia, in Jakarta.
Nicholas Adams
Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham. His principal areas of research are the impact of German Idealism on Christian theology together with the investigation of philosophical problems in inter-religious engagement.
Field Notes article

Introducing Who Are My People? An Interview with Emmanuel Katongole

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

KL: Thanks Emmanuel for sharing with me a bit about your new Contending Modernities project. Just to get us started, tell me, what is this project about and how does it connect to the major themes of Contending Modernities?

EK: “Who Are My People? Christianity, Violence, and Belonging in Sub-Saharan Africa” investigates three types of violence: ethnic violence, religious violence, and ecological violence in Sub-Saharan Africa. The driving assumption is that a crisis of belonging lies at the heart of modern Africa. It is this crisis that manifests itself in violence, which takes these three different forms. How does it connect to the major themes of Contending Modernities? The issues of authority, community, and identity (ACI) are connected to the issue of belonging: who am I? Which is connected to where I locate myself in terms of history, but also in terms community. Especially from an African point of view, belonging is always mediated through a sense of community. So, what happens if one’s identity is inscribed into that crisis of belonging?

By crisis I mean that the way that Africa is brought into modernity and the contact Africa has with modernity generates a sense of being received into modernity while simultaneously being rejected by modernity. By this I mean that Africa’s contact with modernity was framed around perceptions of Africa as savage, backward, primitive; a dark continent. The story that received Africa into modern history is of “nothing good out of Africa.” . And so, whatever is within the African heritage, including traditional forms of belonging, is rejected as part of primitive and savage heritage that has to be left behind if Africa is to become modern, civilized. But even as this “savage” heritage is rejected, it gets to be incorporated within the modernity that is supposed to save Africa. A case in point, if nation-state citizenship represented the modern form of belonging, Africans could only be received within the nation-state as members of a “tribe” (the very notion of belonging that was rejected as “backward”). Thus, one can speak about the “invention” of tribe, as a perpetual feature of nation-statehood in Africa.

As a result, in terms of nation-statehood, there is a sense of both rejection and incorporation, a sense of belonging and not belonging. The irony is that the very forms of traditional belonging that are normatively rejected are at the same time incorporated within the founding story of modern statehood. The widespread phenomenon of “tribal” or “ethnic” violence in Africa cannot be fully understood without this story, and how “tribal” and “ethnic” identity gets to be reproduced and exploited within the power struggles of modern African politics.

What perhaps may not be easily understood is the way the crisis of belonging is reproduced especially through the institutions of modern education and politics. In terms of education, anybody who has ever gone to school within Africa learns the story of “nothing good out of Africa” and so learns to look at the past as primitive, as negative, and as backward. In learning to reject this heritage, they learn to reject themselves and to perceive at themselves as not good, not wanted. Meanwhile, they are standing in the space of modernity trying very desperately to become civilized. But, they can only do so as “African” who inherit a particular tradition, who are for example, a member of a “clan” or “tribe” the very notions that are read as “primitive”. And in relation to politics, as I said, in writing the constitutions of modern Africa, “tribal” identity was foregrounded: the African could only be received within the modern nation-state as a member of a tribe. You see? These orphaned notions are repudiated yet incorporated into the foundational structure of modern Africa. But, if that is connected with this sense of not belonging, not being wanted, and then they incorporate this within the space of modernity; you can already sense the crisis. Critically, this is where I’m going to be doing a lot of research, giving an account of the unique modernity of Africa and how it’s connected to that crisis of belonging in Africa that easily triggers violence in these many forms: ethnic, religious and ecological violence.

KL: I’m interested in your work on belonging. It seems like there is both a critical and constructive edge to that work. Critically, you want to expose the tribalisms that live within modernity that are often concealed: a kind of belonging that requires a rejection of other forms of belonging. But, there is also a constructive account that you’re developing here. Is it a retrieval? An improvisation? What’s the constructive account of belonging you are wanting to develop?

EK: First of all, before I come back to the constructive, the critical work manifests in two ways. First, it is to display that unique modernity of Africa. Second, it is to show that the tensions inherent in this particular form of modernity cause outbreaks of violence. What is unique for me is that for the first time in my research I want to connect ecological violence with the other forms of violence, religious and ethnic violence, and argue that they’re all connected with the same ambiguity of living within this modern space. That’s the critical work.

The constructive work that I’m trying to do is, first of all, to investigate the Christian difference: what difference does Christianity make? Often times religion is implicated in the violence. But I’m going to explore the Christian difference by tracing it through the lives and work of particular individuals and communities that I’ve been investigating. Whether it is Bernard Kinvi in the Central African Republic or Godfrey Nzamujo in Benin who are able to resist that violence, but also, surprisingly, who improvise and invent new forms of belonging within that confluence of violence that is neither traditional nor modern. It’s kind of a bricolage. It’s an improvisation. They are, in a way, grounded in the African reality, but in a way that they reject also the binaries, the either or. So, they draw positive insight from African tradition and positive insight from modernity, and they are able to weave and create new forms of community, nonviolent forms of community. So those are the kind of people I want to explore, and study what is at work in their lives.

Katongole pictured with his mother in Uganda.

KL: I know across your work you’ve engaged questions of African political theology that relate to your biography. But this work in particular, though an academic work, is deeply personal. As your title suggests, you’re asking a question about your communal identity which is in some ways a question of who am I? And how do I fit within this construction of African modernity? I wonder how this project is emerging from your own history and identity? And how does it integrate also your diaspora status here at Notre Dame?

EK: That is the motivating, and I think in the final analysis will also be the framing, story of the book. My own identity: who are my people? I go back to the story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the violence of it, that is when these questions emerged for me. I know that I’m a Ugandan, but my parents migrated from Rwanda: one is Hutu, the other is Tutsi. So, I looked at the bodies in the aftermath of the violence and said, “Oh my goodness. Which side am I on?” I’m unable to tell.

But that has been compounded over the years as I have traveled and stayed in Europe for six years and America now for fifteen or so years. So, am I African? Am I American? Am I Ugandan? Am I Rwandan? Am I Hutu? Am I Tutsi?

I think that what has been revealed in all of that is a sense of coming together of the different facets of my identities – and what I have learnt over the years in terms of the possibilities and challenges of inhabiting more than one identity, of belonging to more than one community. I’m going to use the notion of the Ephesian moment—the coming together of the fragments that Paul talks about in the letter to the Ephesians when Jews and gentiles shared for the first time the meal table thus giving rise to a new fellowship—as the theological framing lens. I will draw upon what I have learnt from my own journey throughout the years about these Ephesian moments from a theological point of view. That’s why my own biography is at stake here.

The different people that I will be investigating within the context of narrating religious, ethnic and ecological violence display some of the bringing together of fragments that used to be far apart. “The dividing wall has been broken,” as Paul writes in Ephesians. A New community has emerged through the act of Jews and gentiles “eating together.” I read that as the quintessential ecclesiological moment, that coming together. So what these people are doing is performing dimensions of church, as God’s new people; the church not so much as an institution but as an event, an Ephesian moment.

But, it’s really framed through my own story. Or, maybe the driving motivation is connected to my own story, my own sense of diasporic presence, of not able to tell clearly who my people are, because even people I originally thought were “strangers” have come to be part of “my people.” I’m really excited about that as well.

KL: Thank you, Emmanuel, for telling me a bit about this project. I share your excitement and look forward to hearing more as your research proceeds.

Emmanuel Katongole
Kyle Lambelet
Kyle Lambelet is a PhD candidate at the University Notre Dame in Ethics and Peace Studies and a Research Associate with Contending Modernities. His research focuses on the intersections of religion, ethics, conflict, and peace with particular attention to the ethics of nonviolence.
Theorizing Modernities article

Action as Prayer: Lessons from Oceti Sakowin

Photo Credit: Jessie Palatucci. “Rise with Standing Rock. United Church of Christ. Washington, DC. March 10, 2017.”

Within the Christian context, I argue there are three common ways in which prayer relates to action. Here I broadly conceive of prayer as an attempt to connect to the divine. Action refers broadly to attempts to influence society beyond the Christian community. Prayer instead of action, prayer as action, and prayer in support of action. None of these common conceptions, however, fit the way prayer and action seemed to be related at the Standing Rock camp. The best explanation, using the above language, would be action as prayer.

Upon arriving at the camp visitors were taken through an orientation based on the seven Lakota values. The first value was prayer. The orientation explained, “This is a ceremonial camp. Act accordingly.” It went on: “Remember why we came here: to stop the pipeline as a ceremonial camp.” The camp itself (both the physical encampment and the community within the camp) was both an act of resistance to the pipeline and a place of ceremonial prayer. Within the camp there were many different forms of prayer ceremonies. Every meeting began and ended with a prayer from any faith tradition who wanted to share, the diversity bound by a common goal. There were sacred fires, water ceremonies, and prayer songs among other forms of prayer. Even direct actions such as marches were considered a form of prayer.

The direct action training led by Indigenous Peoples Power Project employed twelve principles for direct action. The list begins: “We are Protectors not Protesters. We are Peaceful and Prayerful.”[1] This was not mere sentiment. Before people participated in direct actions they were reminded that those actions were a form of prayer, and that they should go with a prayerful attitude, remembering that their ancestors were watching, and that they were participating not only for their own grandchildren, but for the grandchildren of the police and DAPL employees too. The actions were seen as one of the forms of prayer. Those taking action were reminded of the spiritual aspects of their work.

Photo Credit: Shane Balkowitsch. “Dakota Access Pipeline Native American protest site, on Highway 1806 near Cannonball, North Dakota, August 15th, 2016.”

The prayer practices at Oceti Sakowin camp offered a holistic and positive relationship between prayer and action, a relationship not often found between prayer and action within Christianity.

The practice of praying without taking political action, or prayer instead of action, is founded on the belief that the Godly realm and the earthly (political) realm are separate and in conflict. Therefore, rather than appealing to “earthly powers” one is best served by appealing to God as the greatest power. In the positive sense this offers hope to those in a state of complete despair. If people feel there are no other acceptable actions available to them or that political powers have irreconcilably harmed them, prayer offers a form of hope in the divine. The suggestion “just take it to God” comes to mind.

However, this can lead prayer to have a negative (oppositional rather than complementary) relationship with action. The understanding has led to a reluctance toward engaging in political action, as the latter is seen as futile, or worse, as appealing to a “false idol.” For example, a Mennonite bishop during the U.S. Civil War extolled his congregants to pray to God rather than petition the president, stating, “What is the president? But a poor dying mortal like ourselves.”[2] Today, there are still some in the Christian tradition who will disparage political action as unfaithful, or even idolatrous, because it appeals to society rather than to God. This understanding is more common in Mennonite circles than in most other forms of Christianity.

The second relationship is that of prayer as a form of political action. This is perhaps the most common relationship. It includes prayer for political leaders, prayer for faith based organizations, or prayers of petition regarding social and political issues. When faith based organizations speak to churches about ways congregants can partake in their work, prayer is almost always mentioned as a way for the church to be involved. In the positive sense this offers congregants a way to connect their faith deeply with the action that is happening. It also connects the work of the organization to the work of the church.

But this can also establish a negative relationship between prayer and action. It can excuse churches from offering more direct support for changes they would like to see. Prayer becomes a substitute for political or social action. Rather than becoming active, congregants are offered a form of ‘involvement’ that demands no real commitment of resources, time, or money. You can hear a critique of this way of thinking in a quote attributed to Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” What he offers instead is prayer as a call to action. This is a form of the third relationship.

Photo Credit: Tony Webster. “Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. 25 August 2016.”

The third relationship is that of prayer in support of political action. In this understanding prayer can help catalyze political action, help orient political action, or help rejuvenate political actors. This may include prayers of discernment, meditations, prayer retreats, or centering prayers. The concept is that times of prayer help committed spiritual individuals do their work better. This concept connects prayer to action in a complementary relationship.

While the relationship here may be complementary, it nonetheless suggests a strong dichotomy between prayer and action. Prayer is no longer a way of promoting social change, like in the other concepts, but a support to those who are acting for social change. There is a time of prayer, then there is a time of action. To use Pope Francis’ statement as an example, one prays for the hungry, then stops prayer and starts feeding the hungry. The prayer and the action are distinct. None of these three understandings hold prayer and action together positively and holistically, in the way shown at Standing Rock.

I do not have the expertise or experience to comment on Native American spirituality, but I did recognize the Standing Rock organizers viewed the relationship between prayer and action in a way that is not often expressed in Christianity. Action as a form of prayer. Though it is not a commonly expressed conception in Christianity, that does not mean it would not fit within the Christian tradition. In fact, there are some scriptural passages that may support it. For example, the command to pray without ceasing implies that prayer is part of every action, including political actions. More directly, the suggestion that, “in everything you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him,” seems to suggest one should conceive of actions as a form of prayer. Or to paraphrase Pope Francis, by feeding the hungry you pray for them.

Reflecting on the Native American traditions expressed at Standing Rock offers a critique of common Christian understandings of the interplay between prayer and action. It also offers an alternative understanding which has not been widely entertained. It is time we Christians more deeply engage the indivisibility of prayer and action offered by conceiving of action as a form of prayer.


[1] Indigenous Peoples Power Project, “Direct Action Training,” (Standing Rock North Dakota, December 1, 2016).

[2]John M Brenneman, “Cover Letter to Petition”, Mennonite Historical Bulletin 34 (October 1973), 3.

Jonathan Brenneman
Jonathan Brenneman is an alumni of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame. He is currently the Coordinator of "Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking" for Mennonite Church USA coordinating educational opportunities about Israel-Palestine. He spent a week in December 2016 with water protectors in Standing Rock North Dakota.
Theorizing Modernities article

Prayer, Peace, and the Imagination: A Catholic Sacramental Perspective

Photo Credit: Steve Evans, “Ukraine Conflict”. Women pray on March 31st, 2014.

In Catholic spirituality, ritual and ceremony are cornerstones of prayer. In the context of peacebuilding, this form of prayer can be powerful. I would like to reflect on this style of prayer in Catholic tradition as a complement to Dr. Tanya Schwartz’s presentation on the role of prayer in Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) working on peacebuilding. In Schwartz’s lecture, prayer was presented as largely therapeutic or as something to define organizational identity. In the three FBOs she studied, prayer functioned mostly as a means of spiritual sustenance for the organizations and their members, something that strengthened them to do their work and provided relief for the high stress of working in conflict situations. Or it served to define a special identity that bolstered common commitment to the organization’s mission. While therapeutic prayer is a definite part of Catholic spirituality, and prayer in many forms is a powerful identity marker in Catholicism, the ritual forms of Catholic prayer demonstrate a different role that prayer can play in peacebuilding contexts.

In Catholic thought, the ritual sacraments are very poignant expressions of prayer. These seven ceremonial rights are, according to Catholic tradition, defined by the life and teaching of Christ. The belief is that when these rites are performed with the valid materials, actions, and words as defined by Catholic tradition, and with sincerity and intention by the minister and the participants, that God’s sanctifying grace is made directly manifest. And while the stereotypical image of prayer may be something more extemporaneous, and typically geared toward petition or requesting something of God, ceremonially defined sacraments, like the Eucharist, give Catholics expressions of prayer that are more complex. Whatever one might ask of God, one is asking in some form for God’s grace. And the sacraments are symbols of God’s grace given for the salvation of humanity, but ones that, Catholic theology claims, actually effect that which they signify. That is, the sacraments are taught to actually make God’s grace present. And wrapped up in the ceremonial form that brings about this manifestation of God’s grace are expressions of worship and thanksgiving, which are other powerful intentions of prayer besides petition. So, while one might commonly imagine prayer as a person or a group beseeching God for forgiveness or strength or help, the sacraments are prescribed ways in which Catholics invoke those things directly, even automatically, within a ceremonial rite that simultaneously expresses the apt gratitude and praise for the granting of that grace.

Photo Credit: Alan Creech. “This is My Body”.

The significance of this grace-granting cannot be overstated in terms of Catholic theology. The ultimate human end is salvation, and one requires grace to get salvation, so the grace of the sacraments is quite simply in Catholic understanding absolutely necessary to the final end of human life. Catholic anthropology presumes the marring of Original Sin, a principle by which human beings are destined to fall short of goodness if they do not receive divine assistance. This theology has much to say to peacebuilding. It says that one variable that must be dealt with in any situation of violence and conflict is the pervasiveness of sin, and the inability to overcome it without God’s grace. Prayer in this paradigm is indispensable for peacebuilding because it invokes the divine help without which stable peace could not be realistically hoped for.

However, there is another more functional and pragmatic way in which ritual and ceremonial prayer can benefit peacebuilding. Ritual and sacrament can serve as powerful vehicles for social transformation. Catholic rituals, such as the Eucharist, can provide a space in which conflicting sides can meet to pursue reconciliation and transformation and in which community can be restored. Robert Schreiter, in reflecting on the Eucharist, notes that it has particular power to aid reconciliation because it invites all parties, on both sides of conflict, to be transformed and healed in light of God’s mercy, but with an insistence on accountability and truthfulness that are vital parts of genuine reconciliation, (Peacebuilding, 230-2). For Schreiter, rituals model “alternative social formations,” and he describes the place of rituals in post-conflict efforts at reconstruction and reconciliation this way: “Sometimes all these rituals can say is that there is an intention to live differently in the future, and that the resentment about what happened in the past will not be allowed to dominate the future” (227-8).

Ritual prayer, then, can stimulate the moral imagination and make it a potentially powerful catalyst of peace. Paul Ricoeur referred to the utopian dimension of the imagination, whereby the imagination has an eschatological force that creates new possibilities (Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, 265-6). Those new possibilities cannot come to be without the imagination’s provocation, and part of what makes that provocation operational is that it can work from a shared base of understanding and comprehensibility. In ritual prayer, actors in conflict can draw on shared religious beliefs, and within the prayerful space of the ritual, model and project new possibilities.

This view obviously presumes a shared point of religious heritage and identity across lines of conflict, meaning this dynamic may be harder to apply in situations where this is not the case. In contexts where common religion is not present there are legitimate concerns about the use of prayer and ritual. In Schwartz’s lecture, she noted how non-faith based agencies worry about prayer representing proselytization, and sensitivity to such a worry must be recognized.  But still, inter-religious action work by Catholic Relief Services, as highlighted in a series of articles for Contending Modernities, demonstrates the value and importance of shared action for bridging inter-religious divides and enhancing cooperation for development. The commentary by Nell Bolton of CRS emphasizes carefully respecting the boundaries of traditional religious authority, while “creatively orient[ing] it towards collaborative ends.” Indeed respecting the integrity of religious identities is crucial, but even in pluralistic religious contexts, shared ritual action has the potential to be a bridging activity that can help transform possibilities for interaction between different religious groups. Atalia Omer, observing inter-religious action in Bosnia and Herzgovina, notes that inter-religious action has imperfections that can leave in place or even accent ethno-religious divides, but acknowledges the value to inter-group collaboration for peacebuilding. Crafting shared rituals respectful of individual traditions, or sharing in rituals where appropriate, can foster engagement between narrative spaces and cultivate empathy, which Omer describes as necessary elements for successful inter-religious action for peacebuilding.

The therapeutic functions of prayer are not to be ignored. The empowerment and assurance that workers in FBOs can feel from prayer are doubtlessly valuable. However, ritual prayer can provide an even more valuable asset. FBOs and Catholic Church actors must not abdicate the responsibility to address conflict and violence in concrete ways beyond prayer, ensuring that it serves as a catalyst to real action for the sake of development and social cooperation, as well as advocacy and effort for structural change. But ritual prayer is able to be such a catalyst by creating the chance to imagine different ways of existing beyond the strife of conflict, making such peaceful alternatives into more realistic possibilities.

Caesar Montevecchio
Caesar Montevecchio holds his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, where his doctoral research focused on the development of doctrine. He is currently a Research Associate with the Catholic Peacebuilding Network in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to joining the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, Montevecchio spent nine years as an Instructor of Religious Studies at Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA, and five years before that teaching at the secondary level in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Field Notes article

Inter-Religious Literacy Among Young People in Indonesia: Contrasting Locales

Photo Credit: Nick Adams. Research Team.

How do young people, of around university age, think and speak about inter-religious encounter in Indonesia? And what, if anything, leads them to change their minds about religious traditions other than their own? These are the questions that we are asking in Java in two contrasting sites: Salatiga and Yogyakarta. Our motivating assumption is that questions of this kind are posed in Indonesia using categories (and in the light of histories) that are distinct from those that have developed in European and North American contexts. This approach suggested itself early on, when familiar European systems of classification (involving ‘exclusivism’, ‘inclusivism’ and ‘pluralism’ for example) failed to do justice to the descriptions of inter-religious engagement given by Indonesian colleagues.

Eckhard Zemmrich (Humboldt University, Berlin) and Nicholas Adams (University of Birmingham, England) are leading a small team of five researchers to investigate these questions. Our team includes local research partners Percik (in Salatiga) and Interfidei (in Yogyakarta). Our local partner institutions arguably have as much experience leading inter-religious engagement in Indonesia as any in Indonesia, having been set up before the fall of Suharto in 1998, and being key actors in the response to the religious violence that erupted at that time.

For young people aged between 16 and 20, the violence of 1998 occurred before they were born or when they were very small. While stories and memories are very much alive in their communities, they themselves did not witness the violence. Further back, the atrocities of the anti-Communist purge of 1965 are deeply etched in those communities, but for young people these events are known only second-hand through the memories of their grand-parents or through such films as The Act of Killing or The Look of Silence. It is likely that for everyone, regardless of age, flare-ups of religious violence today are generally made sense of against the backdrop of the events of 1965 and 1998. However, we have not yet identified a clear pattern in how young people (as opposed to the older community leaders) refer to this historical context, nor is it clear, yet, how deep their knowledge of it is. This is certainly one of the focal questions in our fieldwork.

Our research engages two contrasting groups: university students in Yogyakarta, and young people from villages near Salatiga. We aim to discover how they respond to local inter-religious initiatives and to ask whether these initiatives are relevant only to these local situations or if their approach might be extended to other situations in other countries.

The two locations themselves offer strong contrasts. The Yogyakarta setting is urban, intellectual and relatively affluent: its participants are university students and the political context is for the most part stable. The Salatiga setting is rural and less affluent: the participants are either at school or have just left school, and the political context is more charged. Many of the villages surrounding Salatiga are periodically targeted by outside groups of Muslim hard-liners who encourage local Muslims to sever ties with neighbours from other religious traditions, placing strains on relationships of mutual dependence that may have taken families years to build up. We plan to report on whether the young people in these contrasting locales give similar or different answers to our questions, and–if the answers are different–we consider whether these differences can plausibly be explained by the difference of context, and if so, which differences seem to matter more.

Our primary goal is a before-and-after assessment. What do young people say before they engage with local inter-religious initiatives, and what do they say afterwards? What difference do the local initiatives make? We are also interested to hear how participants have learned about religious traditions other than their own, especially because Indonesian school-children are typically educated with their co-religionists. Muslim children attend Muslim schools, Christian children attend Christian schools, and so on. Digging a little deeper, we want to find out whether young people change their minds (or at least change what they say), and if so we want to make reasonable guesses at the forces which shape these changes: is it related to the kind of information available (or not available); is it conversation with peers from other religious traditions; is it inspiring leadership from inter-religious activists; is it shared study of texts? And at the same time, we are attentive to those cases where young people might not change their minds or might be critical of activities which bring them into conversation with members of other religious traditions.

Our research focuses on three initiatives, two in Yogyakarta and one in Salatiga. In Yogyakarta, we are looking at an undergraduate religion course hosted by Interfidei, in which students from four universities elect to study questions of contemporary religious significance (these change from year to year), and during which trips are arranged to visit sites representative of a variety of local religious traditions. We will also report on a now-annual Peace Camp organised by and for students at Gadjah Mada University, which takes place over two days in the summer, and which includes a variety of inter-religious activities including Scriptural Reasoning. In Salatiga we are researching ‘sobat’ programmes (sobat is Indonesian for ‘friend’) arranged by Percik for young people in neighbouring villages, at which participants from different religious traditions mingle, eat, discuss and consider local challenges. These often take place in the evening, with some including late-night discussions and overnight camping.

Photo Credit: Nick Adams

It has been suggested to us in conversation with our research partners that the ‘religious question’ (i.e. the question ‘what is your religion?’) is largely a post-1974 issue arising from the legal requirement that official documents name one’s religious tradition. One is unable to receive such documents unless one declares a religious tradition, and so this declaration is largely an ‘administrative matter’. This contrasts strongly with Western contexts: there are administrative cases in European contexts where there is an opportunity to declare one’s religious affiliation (e.g. when being admitted to hospital, to ensure correct dietary or chaplaincy provision), but these are relatively rare, and one is free to name any religious tradition one chooses—even ‘Jedi’, for example. ‘Jedi’ is most certainly not an option on official Indonesian documents. It is possible, in principle, to leave the declaration blank on the official identity card, but in practice it seems few dare to do that.

A recent visit to Thekelan, another village close to Salatiga, revealed that in one prominent family the husband and wife had both become Muslims at the time of their marriage: the groom had been a Buddhist, and the bride a Christian. The reason given for this was ‘to avoid family disagreements’, with a strong impression that this was a pragmatic decision made, perhaps, with comparable seriousness to Western discussions about whether a wife will take her husband’s name, or whether the couple will take a new double-barrelled name. One might test the hypothesis that to take a religious tradition here is like taking a name: it is necessary for documentation, and is arguably something consciously chosen after due deliberation more than being something handed down through generations. This is a central concern for us, and we will explore it in a little more detail in our next blog.


Featured Image Credit: Asian Development Bank. Indonesia: Education.

Nicholas Adams
Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham. His principal areas of research are the impact of German Idealism on Christian theology together with the investigation of philosophical problems in inter-religious engagement.
Eckhard Zemmrich
Dr. Eckhard Zemmrich is a Research Fellow of Religious Sciences and Intercultural Theology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Prior to that, he served as a Theological Advisor for the Evangelische Landeskirche Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesische Oberlausitz, as a parish pastor in Germany, and as scientific Co-Worker for the Council of Churches in Indonesia, in Jakarta.