Do not worry about what you will say: Images of soul and power

In summer the preaching schedule becomes a little more freewheeling. Not tied to any lectionary or planned series we typically get to choose something we are simply interested in. This Sunday I wanted to reflect on the ‘soul'; that something necessarily tied to the body but that also creates difference or excess in bodily experience or relations. So I was with a topic in search of a text as the preachers say. I finally landed on Matthew 10:39,

Those who find their soul will lose it, and those who lose their soul for my sake will find it.

A significant portion of the sermon went to unpacking the chapter leading up to that statement. Matthew 10 offers the first clear commissioning of the disciples by Jesus. What gets little attention in the notion of commissioning or of the disciples’ ‘mission’ is how the whole section gets initially framed.

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

This is the commission, to go out in authority over that which torments (unclean spirits) and destroys (sickness and disease). The rest of the chapter is basically an unpacking of how this will get you into a lot of trouble. There is trouble because this is a question of authority, this is NOT about individual acts of charity or miracles. This is a mission to engage the powers that torment and destroy. This commission takes very seriously the social nature of torment and destruction; it is to stand with those who are cast out and against those who create stability through the expelling. Those with personal or professional experience working in areas of disability, mental health, race or gender violence, and poverty know all too well the powers that need to marginalize in order to stabilize their control.

What I was not prepared for was how clearly this commissioning would parallel some of the events happening here in Winnipeg as well as Ferguson, Missouri. Here are a couple of excerpts from the sermon,

We are often praised for individual acts of charity but when we begin to name and stand against the powers that inflict the body and the spirits that torment souls we are likely to get some pushback. Jesus encourages the people not to be worried about what they will say when you are confronted. There is a good chance there will be no reasoning in these situations anyway. When we are confronted with the reality that our attitudes or behaviours are directly connected to expressions that are demeaning or hurtful of others we tend to become defensive, we suddenly become unable to hear for ourselves what we could see clearly in others. Jesus, it seems, knows this. Don’t worry about defending yourself. So long as you are addressing the things that deteriorate the body and soul then no defense is necessary you need only stand by and hold out the reality you are trying to draw attention to.

It is hard to acknowledge the powers at work in these debilitating and tormenting spirits. Our prime minister Stephen Harper denies that there are social powers at work in the pervasive violence against indigenous women in Canada. He sees them as isolated crimes. There is a group camped out on the lawn in front of the legislative building in downtown Winnipeg. They are calling on the government to acknowledge and investigate the powers that are tormenting this community. I went down to the camp last week to offer a small gift and word of support and encouragement. I spoke briefly with a woman who was helping to organize this call. At one point she said, humbly, that she trusted that at the right time the right words and the right teaching would be given.

Jesus said,

do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit . . . speaking through you.

These are not lawyers, politicians, and professionals (to be sure there are those within this movement as well). These are people trying to claim authority over the tormenting spirits that plague them. They are speaking from that place in that moment.

This led me to the further thought that NOT worrying about what to say was also a way of resisting the temptation and tendency to be recuperated back into the discourse of the powers, to play into their rules and set of values.

And again,

In the U.S. the ongoing conflict in Ferguson Missouri lays bare the hypocrisy of American culture and how it treats people of colour. The rapper J. Cole released a song in honour of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and in tribute to the ongoing struggle of black people in America against racism.

A line from the song,

“I’m just letting you know / their ain’t no gun they can make that can kill my soul.”

Jesus said,

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

This imagery of body and soul is a reality for people forced to or willing to stand against the powers that torment and destroy. It is a source of embodiment that can be drawn on for strength against these powers.

I have no interest in appropriating these movements and expressions for the Christian agenda (or that Christian theology can *best* understand it) but rather I want to point the church beyond itself to see the ways in which the ongoing struggle of taking authority over the powers that torment and destroy remains active and how we might hear and see and follow the Good News as it occurs today.

Perfect God or public faith; Or, why theology needs better options

Ben Myers recent posts (here and here) at Faith and Theology are reminders that the church and its theology often do not give very good choices. In these posts Myers reflects on the broad change in his thinking that went from being ‘apocalyptic’ to ‘eschatological’. In Myers’ words an apocalyptic orientation understands,

that God does not have an originating relationship to the world so much as an interruptive relationship.  God bursts in on the world like an alien intruder. God comes to knock things into shape.

In hindsight Myers reads this interest as reflecting,

ordinary youthful iconoclasm. All young people, young men in particular, feel a certain resentment towards the status quo and a certain seething desire to imprint their own will on to the order of things. Call it a rage against mortality. Anyway, when you allow that kind of resentment to guide your thinking, you easily end up with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the lust to master reality and to make it conform to your own ideals.

Apocalyptic then, for Myers, was the option of projecting idealistic angst upon the notion of God so that God was (and could only be) understood as the one who breaks in with unprecedented presence, completely outside the current order of things. The realities of life, however, brought him to another consideration. He now had children to consider. He became immersed in the actual workings of institutions and he returned to early Christian writings. This led to a dramatic shift in his orientation. He now saw the doctrine of creation as needed to hold at bay the type of libido that apocalyptic rage against the world could ignite. This led Myers to a theological and practical position which proclaimed a divine transcendent order in which we could work and testify to in partial and real ways. Put simply Myers seems to have positioned his move from idealism to realism.

I think what has been most frustrating for me is that, on a certain and decisive register, Myers’s logic has not changed at all. Myers is still working within a clear framework of transcendence. This is of course makes sense given his Christian orthodox orientation but it should be noted that this is not the only logic to work within (Christian or otherwise).

The most troubling aspect of his posts is that he is indeed right about his critique but wrong about his change (or that he fails to follow through on his critique). I agree that there is a youthful male (and usually white) lust for control. For many of us this means that we rage against the Father (in the psychoanalytic sense of the one who sets the rules). Again, Myers is right this is typically pious fervor then learns some form of apocalyptic rhetoric but never intends or is able to kill the Father. Some white dudes just end up pouting longer than others. The change, I guess, is Myers’ relation to the Father. The Father is still in control and now the son can be more at peace knowing the world is won for him in the end, the inheritance is secure and there is even a portion of it to share in now if he goes about his Father’s business.

Myers, it seems, has allowed his life to be a bit more enjoyable, I think. Good. Fine. Just don’t speak publicly. To speak publicly in the register of divine transcendence is to always hedge for the Father in a way that positions him as determining and also out of reach. In Myers’ words,

That there is a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history and relativises every social order.

The result is that both postures do not need to learn from anyone, least of all the least of all (it is self-sufficient, superior, prior to contact).

It does not take long to know that life is compromised. Yes, as I said, some continue to pout and posture in apocalyptic ideals but most of us know that is not where life is lived out. So, to return to Myer’s medium of biography, I too have changed. This change can be directly related to my being confronted in my apocalyptic / eschatological transcendence. I was challenged to consider that both forms of transcendence reflected ideological (and, I would say, idolatrous) stances. To put it simply I was convicted of my inability to be open to and affected by those who challenged my notion of a “divine order of perfect justice”. Through this conviction a change came where I entered a commitment of attention to what was around me (materially, discursively, affectively, etc.). I attempted to not pull rank on these realities and instead allowed for a further mutual-affection (to love the world?).

I have written about some aspects of this change before (pastorally, conceptually, ecclesially) .

All this to say that Myers has not changed, not really. He was right in his critique but wrong in his response. I am also further ‘implicated’ in the discourses/institutions around me. I have a kid. I have a leadership position in the church. I have a mortgage. I am ‘invested’. But to return to my comment about being public, to the extent that I speak and act publicly (and I appreciate I should not always speak) it should be in the service of those disadvantaged and suffering under the current order. So I will not speak publicly about a divine order of perfect justice which transcends human history. When I speak I hope it is to critique the present powers, to lend support to those who need it, and to allow my voice to be critiqued in light of the present powers. My knowledge, faith, and action comes from the eternal relay with the world engaging for freedom and against slavery; which, again, I must continually learn from my neighbour (pretty Christ-like, no?).

This commitment, while becoming more ‘invested’ in the institutions, has also led to more conflict and antagonism. It has demanded more from me in terms of being able to describe and navigate my place in the discursive flows. Rather than appeal to transcendence I am trying to figure out what it is to become public; that is, to express good news (or to be quiet when there is none). So while I remain invested, I also have regular conversations with my wife about the possibilities that there may be time when I will not be employed by the church.

The change then is the commitment to what being public means, which is the mutual relay of my engagement with the world apart from a transcendent authority. This is not a woe-is-me statement, it actually points back to my privilege in the discourse. I could, if I wanted or if I didn’t pay attention, easily slip back into the flow of some discourses that I have been trying to distance myself from or create antagonism with (my existence is loaded with the tone, gender, and tradition that would allow this easily). The converse of this need to be intentional is that for many people their very existence (tone, gender, tradition) is experienced as an antagonism, a rejection or abjection of their lives from the dominant discourse (and so to cope there has been the closet or the white mask). This, it seems to me, is a fundamentally different experience than what I am going through in ‘becoming public’. Many others are cast out, stripped of discursive power in the public domain. I cannot forget that.

I don’t begrudge Myers for attending to his family and working hard in his institution but his public framing of this ‘change’ is false and potentially destructive (and in many ways I take his account as symbolic of many theological expressions). This is not the only option. I am working within the institution of the church to try and change that.

Whether Oka or Ferguson there will be no monument to the warriors

[I sat on this post for a while. I wrote it before the events in Ferguson. I am still uneasy speaking into these issues but I want to offer them to challenge some themes and to open myself for criticism as well.]

I was biking through The Forks the other day and noticed a small gathering area with seats and monuments. I stopped by and read the main plaque. It was a monument honouring Indian Residential School survivors. The first lines of the monument read: Residential School survivors past and present provide powerful lessons in faith, forgiveness, joy, and peace. Next to that monument was another sign noting an historical event that occurred around 500 years ago in which it is said that a number of indigenous nations gathered at the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers (The Forks) to establish a peace treaty.

This monument is placed in the ‘Peace Gardens’ outside the soon-to-open Museum for Human Rights. I understand that this monument was initiated from within the Indigenous community and a number of representatives were present at its unveiling but I have no idea how the wording was developed. And it is the wording and the framing of this are that has given me pause. My concern or criticism is precisely in how the indigenous traditions get taken into dominant media/cultural discourse.

One thing that I have learned from my (limited) contact with indigenous writers and activists is there deep and abiding vision of peace. I was impressed by a short piece written by Ellen Gabriel for the Indigenous Nationhood Movement website. This website reflects a movement not interested in political compromise with colonial based governments but is committed to following “the natural course of actions taken by Indigenous peoples struggling to reclaim, rename and reoccupy our homelands.” Peace within this context is a ‘warrior’s’ commitment. Warriors in Gabriel’s tradition are, at least in part, those with a burden for peace. Now of course the notion of ‘peacekeeping’ is contentious but what I found interesting in Gabriel’s notion of the warrior is the integrated context in which a warrior functions.

In Kanien’kéha, the word [for warrior] is “Rotiskenrakéh:te”, meaning “those who carry the burden of peace”. In the younger days of our societies’ existence, Rotiskenrakéh:te were trained for combat by using the game of Lacrosse, to get into shape as “warriors”. But more importantly, they carried with them the teachings of peace and the customary laws of their peoples. They underwent ceremonies to prepare them for physical battle, and when they returned they underwent more ceremonies, such as a condolence ceremony to cleanse them spiritually and mentally for what they had endured on the battlefield.

Leaders like Clan Mothers and Chiefs were the voice of the people; they listened to what was in the hearts and minds of the people and brought forth the issues that needed to be discussed. In Haudenosaunee customary laws, the women are the protectors of the land and hold title to the land, while the men were the protectors of the people. During the Kanehsatà:ke Siege, this kind of governance was practiced by the people of the Longhouse and our allies.

. . .

It is important to note that in times of war, women have always participated equally with men on the front lines.

Gabriel sets this understanding of the warrior within the context of the ‘Oka Crisis’ in the 1990s and how the Indigenous community was characterized as led by masked warriors ready to do battle with the government. This indeed was part of the posture but it did not define the working of the community and its engagement with this crisis. As is clear from Gaberiel’s account the warrior was a much more integrated figure within the workings of a community that allowed a greater diversity of voices in discerning issues and responses.

The Oka Crisis is an excellent example of contrast to the monument of Indigenous ‘peace and forgiveness’ at The Forks. In the Oka Crisis (which I have limited memory of as a kid) Canadians were shown a band of warriors out in the woods preparing for violent (or at least threatening; definitely threating) confrontation with the Canadian military. This is a necessary image (a threat) for justifying military action. These images saturated and effaced what I can’t even image was the painful and all too common process of indigenous people trying to legally address land claim injustices which has literally gone on for centuries (I have read claims of peaceful action in response to unjust lang appropriation going back to the early 1700s). Regardless of this history the branding of a warrior was imprinted; natives at the edge of the woods ready to attack.

Contrast this image to the monument at The Forks. Here we are given the image of ‘Indigenous wisdom’. The way of peace that has stretched back over 500 years and now can be seen in the ‘forgiveness’ of the Indian Residential School survivors (we are not told who is forgiven and for what). This is another useful image for settler culture. It appropriates the Indigenous vision of peace and re-inscribes onto our thinking. This re-inscription moves in two directions. First, it creates a norm in the mind of settlers. It feels like progress (for liberal whites) from the notion of the ‘violent savage’ so that we can now feel good acknowledging that Indigenous people really are those who work for peace, we see this now. Peace is named here as ‘faith, forgiveness, and joy’. What is implied here however is that when peace does not come in this form we should be wary as settlers, we will be concerned that Indigenous people are not walking in their own wisdom. What, you are angry, you hold us responsible, you want justice!? But what about your way of peace and forgiveness? In naming this tradition of ‘peace and forgiveness’ we will now be tempted to hold them to it. There is no monument for the community’s warrior tradition that will stand against injustice.

Perhaps I should just experience this monument as a positive, even if flawed step. I really want to be careful because I cannot speak of the journey survivors have gone through and what it means to them for this monument to exist. There should indeed be recognition for Indian Residential School survivors and I hope to support those expressions as they continue to develop and emerge from within the indigenous community. As a settler, though, I want to name at least the potential damage in framing this tragedy in the way it is. I am not convinced that, as it stands, this social expression can create a break, shift, and alteration in the dominant discourses about indigenous/settler relations.

This post feels all the more pressing as events in Ferguson unfold. We seem to have only two images of the black and indigenous person in Canada and the US. It is either the visceral aggressive male (whether the masked ‘savages’ of Oka or the bare-backed Molotov cocktail lighting ‘animals’ of Ferguson) or it is the appropriated peace ambassador who is only acknowledged in the posture of forgiveness. These are the only images we are able to function with as a society and to the extant this remains true I am not sure how it is we can work for peace and justice.

       

When you go to the grave you don’t get up again

I love talking with people close to death about death.

[Visit with 98 year old in hospital]
[After some length of conversation where I am not quite sure whether we are both working on the same plane of reality]

98 yo – I’m going to die
Me – What do you think about that?

98 yo – [laughs wryly] Well what do you think of [starts using some German phrase about heaven]?
Me – Blah, blah, blah, God of life, blah, blah, blah Jesus is greater than death, blah, blah, blah.

98 yo – In the Bible there is the cross, the grave, then what?
Me – That is a good question.

98 yo – [Laughs] Well?
Me – We believe that [stumbles over some affirmation of the resurrection]

98 yo – Does the Bible say that?
Me – Yes it does.

98 yo – [Pause, turns deadly serious and looks at me] NO. When you go to the grave you don’t get up again. [another pause] What do you say about that?
Me – I think we are asked to love while we are alive and then let go.

98 yo – You are right.

Feminine Friday – In Three Acts

Act 1

Outside my office window is a small green courtyard. The warm spring air has just begun to draw a few souls out to the four circled benches. A woman in her eighties wearing a kerchief is sitting on a bench warmed in the sun.  There is another woman, also in her eighties wearing a kerchief, carrying a flower who slowly walks up to the seated lady. Upon meeting, the lady who is standing gives the flower to the woman sitting down. After receiving the flower she looks at it for a moment and slowly lifts it to her nose and smells it. She then proceeds to gently pat the bench with her hand. The standing woman sits down and they begin to talk. About twenty minutes later they walk off together.

 

Act 2

I am on bus #71 heading to Seven Oaks Hospital for a visit. With my head down in a book I hear a raised voice,
– Stop staring
Another voice calls back
I can look wherever I want

It is a young indigenous woman probably still a teenager confronting a middle-aged white man wearing sunglasses. The confrontation continues.

No you can’t look wherever you want. Stop starting at me.
– You’re crazy
– Don’t make me sound like I’m wrong. You’re the one staring, you’re creeping out my cousin
(sitting next to her).
– What? I can’t look out a window?
– No, you can’t look out my window
.

This back and forth goes on for a little while. Until the man finally stops responding. The woman begins talking with her friend saying things like how tired she is of being treated this way (of how aboriginals are still treated this way). She is sick of it. I have so many thoughts going through my head. She is resolute. Unyielding. I am proud of her. I respect her. I want to speak words of affirmation but what would that mean come from a white dude? She doesn’t need me, she doesn’t need my affirmation to know what she was doing was right. But still wouldn’t it just be good to affirm someone . . .
As I am performing my ethical dialectics a black woman, probably in her 50s, stands up and goes over to the young woman. You can see the energy pulsate in her body. She puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder and whispers in her ear. I can’t make it out. I think I hear the phrase ‘stand up’. From all that I can tell she is strongly affirming what the young woman did.
I was piecing this all together on the fly. I was following the script and in that time I had already laid it out its ending. Surely there should be a moment of meaningful acknowledgement; a recognition of their solidarity and support. But no. In respond to whatever was said to her the young woman replied in a deadpan, almost sarcastic voice OK.

This disrupted my thoughts. All I could do was speculate. Why was she unable to receive sheer affirmation? Was it too vulnerable? Did she actually not care? She did say she was sick. Sick of being treated like an object for manipulation. How could you receive affirmation from a stranger when the outside world, your environment, made you sick? And then I thought of the middle aged woman. What had this evoked in her? I didn’t want to think of it. I could see it viscerally in how she held herself next to the woman. Whatever was happening there it was powerful but it was not my script.

 

Act 3

I arrive at Seven Oaks Hospital. I have been there often enough now that it does not take me too long to find patients, as the building is cleared modeled after some medieval conception of hell. I need to gently wake up the elderly woman lying in bed. I don’t really know what is wrong with her. I don’t think she has family in church. She can’t really talk because she is a little confused and does not have her dentures in. There is some recognition, some connection. I ask if I can pray for her. She nods. I do.
She looks into my eyes.  We are leaning fairly close together now after the prayer. She keeps looking into my eyes. She raises her hand and lays it against my cheek. Her hand is unexpectedly and overwhelmingly soft, like innocence. She holds it there for a moment and then brings it back down. We say goodbye and I leave.

 

These are the scenes. I would like to weave them into something more but they have already defied my discourse. They strike me as foreign. They do not reflect my form. My postures rarely take time for simple deliberate gestures. My expressions are weak introducing too much nuance and so dance around the enemy, lending him strength. My acts are not unnervingly gentle.

Barber and the Naming of God – Review Excerpt

Excerpt from a forthcoming review in Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Daniel Colucciello Barber. Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

The question of God is not one that can be answered with a yes or no. What is evoked in these questions “is the task of imaging a world, the task of world-making.” With God – or at least the name of God – “the stakes of world-making are pushed to the highest degree” (3). With this orientation Daniel Barber furthers his project of exploring the implications of Deleuzian immanence in the context of religion and secularism. Barber challenges the notion that the critical question is between religion and secularity by claiming that religion (as Christianity or defined by Christianity) and secularism work under the same supercessionist logic that is able to name and position all non-adherents; as Christianity re-positioned Judaism and eventually non-Christian or heretical others so to secularism re-positioned Christianity and religion in general.

. . .

Chapter 6 takes up the challenge of what it means to give attention to the present without escape to another world (whether religious or secular). One example is the life of Malcom X, born Malcom Little. Little did not change his name but marked the site of a name with an X. This X demanded attention to the present because of its constant reminder of a now inaccessible genealogy of his past, his marking under the Christian colonial naming in the present, and his refusal of effacing the present by taking on some eschatological future name. The X remained and resisted the present, opening new possibilities. Barber concludes the chapter with a section called The Fabulation of Icons. This section returns us to the opening comments regarding imagination, politics, and the naming of God. At some point all these elements converge on particular types of story-telling. We are told a story that the question of God can be answered with a yes or no but this and other stories keep us from asking the question of yes or no with regards to capitalism, nationalism, and other ideologies. In the face of these competing imaginations Barber proposes the act of fabulation which “names the capacity to tell a story that outstrips the criteria that would decide on its truth or falsity.” (200) A fable takes the materials of the present and creates an account that refuses the present criteria of truth or falsity and so opens a space for the new. These accounts come most clearly from a place of suffering because suffering demands attention to the present but is itself already outside the discourses of truth (inasmuch as suffering remains senseless).

 

The practice of Critical Conversation: What are we doing when we study?

For two years now a small group has been gathering monthly for what has been called Critical Conversation (CC). In practice, CC is a reading group. Different individuals suggest articles, they are posted online, people read them (or not), and we gather to discuss them. After two years of this practice it seems like an appropriate time for some reflection.

The initial motivation for this group came from conversations I had with Aiden Enns (editor of Geez magazine). We connected over shared interests and over a lack of context in which to engage those interests. What were those interests? As we talked more and as we thought about some sort of reading group we came up with this statement now posted in the ‘About’ section of our website,

You are invited to join us for Critical Conversation. We hope to read and discuss materials that help us identify, understand and constructively engage the systems and expressions among us and within us that promote destructive forms of privilege for some groups to the detriment of others.

We see a lack of opportunity for this sort of dialogue within our culture and particularly within our churches. We see this form of engagement as part of assembling the message and work of good news from the materials of the present age.

Our readings fall broadly under the category of “critical theory and theology.” This includes influences from political/liberation theology, feminism, queer and race theory, marxist/socialist/anarchist thought, and philosophy of religion.

So what sort of opportunity has CC become? First, it is apparent this is not something many people want to do or have the time to do. We meet during the day over lunch and so this immediately excludes some people (as it would exclude others if we met in the evening) and we pick texts that are often, at best, difficult to understand after one reading. This group is limited in its accessibility and challenging in what it asks of people. This group has not had the problem of having too many voices around the table. That being said, we continue to have a stable and committed core of individuals as well as those who come and go. It is clear that such an opportunity is important to some people.

While we publicized this group to anyone interested, the group continues to reflect the circles we most commonly reside in. Most of the people who attend have some connection to the Mennonite world; a few are pastors, a few work for Mennonite organizations, or have studied at Mennonite schools, and for the others the connection has been more informal or indirect. The Mennonite church or ethos broadly informs our reading and discussion. However, what has proved unique in this context is that there is no explicit ‘over-sight’ in the conversation or thinking as it relates to things Mennonite. There is no shared commitment to the inherent value of Mennonite theology or institutions (or the church in general for that matter). Conversely, there is no shared commitment against these things. What I have come to value in this space and opportunity is being freed from the basic antagonism or false option of defending or discrediting the faith. There is very little policing in what people are allowed to say or propose other than the willingness to have it further examined and perhaps challenged. The commitment is to see what comes from the conversation itself. The event drives and directs where we go.

So again, what is this opportunity, what is this space in which we gather and what do we perform there? We do not gather as the church and it has never been advertised as a program of a local church or of the Mennonite conference. However, we meet inside a building owned by a Mennonite church and many of us are professionally employed or trained through the Mennonite church. This gathering is also not a class, we are not a school, though we rely heavily on the university structure and the type of work and insights it produces. We have also had two graduate students present their own original research for consideration. There are no tuition fees and no credit or diploma will be given.

To borrow a term developed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney this space is one opportunity to study.[1] They deploy this term not in a strict intellectual sense (though that of course is present). Rather, they view study as a sort of speculative practice. In an interview, Harney says,

A speculative practice is study in movement for me, . . . to speak in the midst of something, to interrupt the other kinds of study that might be going on, or might have just paused, that we pass through, that we may even been invited to join, this is study across bodies, across space, across things, this is study as a speculative practice.

Earlier Moten refers to this practice as a sort of irreducible convergence. Critical Conversation appears to be a group refusing to simply support the church but it has also refused to refuse the church. This double refusal has resulted in a particular gathering, an irreducible convergence that accepts the reality of the church’s institutional force and presence but cannot accept the church with the institutional tendency towards over-determining policy which Harney describes as a way of ‘thinking for others.’ So we gather for the opportunity of intervening in the church’s discourse, intervening in the academy’s discourse, and (as we can) intervening in the various social and economic discourses that affect us. Our practice as a group demonstrates that it is not possible to simply reject these things but that we also cannot be carried away by them.

To be clear I do not think Critical Conversation is a unique or original space. I agree with Moten and Harney who see this type of study happening in the arts, music, theatre, in the workplace, on the steps, at the bar, or out for a walk. However, I also cannot say that it is a common practice. For many people school and church (as well as family, work, and society) function as a finishing process, an accomplishment, and a security. To remain committed to study in contrast is to remain committed to “not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing.” It is an ongoing practice which will not live in the illusion of a world without institutions but will also not accept their presence as finally sovereign.

I have been relying on the work of Harvey and Moten to help me think through what happens as we gather for Critical Conversation. To borrow another phrase, I want to consider whether the opportunity taken at there is to work within and against the church. It is apparent that by and large the people gathered for this time do so somehow fall within the gaze of the church even if particular individuals do not move directly within its parameters. We remain invested in the impact and presence of the church and, as with Christians and non-Christians alike, it can still be difficult in the West to truly consider oneself outside the conditions established by the church. Within the Mennonite church we form a particular expression, a particular and contingent communion of those understanding that our study, our speculative practice, is performed precisely against the church to the extent that it immunizes itself to the presence and voice of those differing or dissenting with the finishing process inherent to institutions.

This opportunity is important because popular imagination still holds that there is only the choice of faith or atheism, religion or secularism. This opportunity is important for the church because the church cannot but remain in the binds of institutional realities. These realities are not all bad but they have to be called into question, challenged, studied or they will move easily into the posture of a sovereign voice that will silence ‘weaker’ voices. This expression of study, this speculative practice within and against the church, invites all those once rejected, avoided or silenced by the church and it calls to those who still cannot help but resonate with the witness of the Gospel, the unavoidable nature of worship, and the commitment to healing.

 

[1] The following references are all taken from Stephano Harvey and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).