Tuesday, 10 April 2018

'Can anybody hear me?' Political Theology after #Brexit & #Grenfell

Pasted below is the text of a lecture I gave recently in the Faculty of Theology at VU University of Amsterdam on 13th March, in the company of Professor Graham Ward (who was immensely gracious in his response!). A fascinating conversation followed, one particularly striking feature of which were the observations from several South African students that many of the issues Great Britain is currently wrestling with have been wrestled with in South Africa for a generation, albeit in much more visible ways. It's a lead I'd love to follow up further...

'Can anybody hear me?' Doing political theology in Brexit Britain, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower
1.       Brexit Britain
We are living in times of profound fragmentation. In the United Kingdom, the referendum on withdrawing from the EU divided the country between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ (with a wafer-thin majority to the former), but it also exposed divisions between people from different generations, different ethnic backgrounds, and different socio-economic classes. Politicians’ claims that ‘the people have spoken’ immediately begged the question, ‘which people are you listening to?’ While Leave voters were, overall, more likely to come from poorer than more affluent backgrounds, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ might well have been more decisive for Leave than the ‘left out’ (Rosenbaum 2017; Antonucci et al 2017), and even clearer was the evidence that the Leave vote was overwhelmingly older, and more white, than the vote for Remain.
More than any other issue, the vote to leave the EU has been linked to concerns about immigration, concerns which have certainly been intensified, even if not purely manufactured, by pro-Leave politicians and media (Snyder 2012:118). The Leave campaign’s slogan of ‘taking back control’ put immigration front and central, summoning up images of Great Britain at the heart of an apparently glorious empire, securing its own borders against its quasi-mythical European enemy. ‘Two world wars and one world cup, doo-dah, doo-dah,’ as some English football fans still chant at matches against Germany (Gilroy 2004:117).
Beneath the ‘ethno-nationalism’ peddled by the Brexiteers, however, lie deeper and more complex issues. There is what Paul Gilroy names a ‘post-imperial melancholia’ that profoundly problematises white British identity narratives: an ‘inability to face, never mind actually mourn’ the ‘profound change … that followed the end of the Empire’, the ‘loss of imperial prestige’, and ‘the shock and anxiety that followed from a loss of any sense that the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture’ (Gilroy 2004:98). Lurking under this melancholia, Gilroy goes on to argue, is a further inability to ‘work through’ the feelings of ‘discomfort, shame, and perplexity’ at the horrors of that imperial history itself, and its white supremacist ideology (Gilroy 2004:98, 102; cf also Reddie 2017).
Also profoundly significant for the Leave vote are class-related (and by no means simply ‘white’) precarities related to housing and jobs, and an unyielding and often punitive welfare regime. That such class issues have become channelled into anti-immigration politics is, as Kjartan Sveinsson observes, due in large part to the discursive formation (and often demonization) of ‘the white working class’ as a quasi-ethnic group, pitting its interests against those of ‘ethnic minorities and immigrants’, and obscuring structural inequalities – effects not just of current austerity policies, but also the longer-term legacy of ‘Thatcherism, deindustrialization [and] the rise of the super-rich’ (Sveinsson 2009:3-5).
Digging even deeper into the fractures exposed by Brexit, we find the bedrock itself crumbling away: the disintegration of the bonds of society and community in our post-industrial, postmodern world. At this level, the EU referendum turns out to be a perverse parable of our times, a mirror that both shows us who we are, and presents us with a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Anna Rowlands notes wryly, in the face of social fragmentation, the crumbling ruins of the civic institutions that were meant to unite us in seeking the common good, and the ‘gradual polarisation of our political culture’, ‘[t]he considered political response … was to ask a binary question, and then be pained when the fault lines emerge in sharp relief’ (Rowlands 2016).

2.       In the shadow of Grenfell Tower
And then, in the early hours of 14th June 2017, a 24-storey tower block in west London caught fire. The fire spread with terrifying speed and ferocity, and despite a massive fire-fighting operation, 71 people lost their lives. In the days that followed the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we discovered that residents of the Tower, members of the Grenfell Action Group, had been issuing repeated warnings for several years before, that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord . . . and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants’ (Grenfell Action Group 2016).
Why had their warnings not been heeded? Why had their voices not been heard? In a lecture two months after the fire, journalist Jon Snow articulated the profound and dangerous ‘disconnect’ between those who are part of ‘the elite’ (within which he includes himself and his journalist colleagues), and ‘the lives, concerns, and needs of those who are not’:
Amid the demonstrations around the tower after the fire there were cries of “Where were you? Why didn’t you come here before?” Why didn’t any of us see the Grenfell action blog? Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we have contact? Why didn’t we enable the residents of Grenfell Tower – and indeed the other hundreds of towers like it around Britain, to find pathways to talk to us and for us to expose their story? . . . We can accuse the political classes for their failures, and we do. But we are guilty of them ourselves. We are too far removed from those who lived their lives in Grenfell and who, across the country, now live on amid the combustible cladding, the lack of sprinklers, the absence of centralised fire alarms and more, revealed by the Grenfell Tower.
For Snow, from a profession of communicators, the pressing issue was one of disconnection. Rather than seeing their role as simply ‘communicating to’ the wider population, journalists – as part of what Snow calls the ‘narrow elite’ – should be bridging divides of class and background to get to know their audience – not as two-dimensional stereotypes, as victims or villains, but in all their three-dimensional complexity as fellow human beings. ‘So casually written off as nameless migrants, scroungers, and the rest,’ Snow remarks, ‘actually, and it should be no shock to us, the Tower was full of talent’ (Snow 2017). How might he and fellow journalists have come to truly see the talent of the Tower’s residents, how might he have thoroughly heard their voices, in those years before the devastating fire – the years of what we might call ‘ordinary time’ – before Grenfell Tower became tragic headline news?
Theologians, like journalists, are a profession of communicators. And those of us who are paid to do theology are, inescapably, however rooted in particular contexts, a narrow elite. So how are we to do our theology in a context of profound fragmentation and disconnection? How are we to do our theology, in the ‘ordinary time’ after the EU referendum and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, so that the voices we pay attention to are not just those in positions of opinion-forming power, or those of tragic victims, but also and most particularly those who, with their talents and passions, their struggles and their hopes, live daily on the geographical, economic, cultural and social edges of precarity? That is the question I want to explore in the remainder of this talk.


3.       Graham Ward: political theology for fractured times
There are many ways in which Graham Ward’s work over the last 20 years stands out from the crowd of contemporary theology, but one of the most important is that he has taken seriously the fragmentation and disconnection of our times. Pointing to the demise of traditional industry and the ‘decentralising’ of manufacturing, ‘the growth of multinational corporations’ in search of ‘superprofits’, the ‘erosion of Keynesian welfare systems and historically developed social contracts between governments, corporations and organised labour’, and the development of ‘flexible’, ‘migratory’ and unstable employment,[1] Ward highlights the ‘dramatic dismemberment of the social and industrial body’.[2] This dismemberment he traces through the geography of the city itself, which separates highly-surveillanced sites of consumerism and entertainment, and luxury housing in gated communities for the affluent, from the places where those who service them (‘pools of cheap labour in low-skilled, low-paid jobs’) are able to live: a ‘[s]egmentation, segregation, polarisation, ghettoisation’ which also ‘maps onto class, gender, ethnic and racial divisions’.[3]
Politically, Ward describes four interrelated dimensions of the ‘postdemocratic condition’ afflicting Western societies, following the analysis of Colin Crouch among others. First is the ‘aestheticization of politics’: politics has become just one more cultural product for consumption, dominated by the myth-generation of ‘media presentation’, such that ‘the will of the people’ is ‘created’ as much, if not more, than it is discerned.[4] Second politics has collapsed into economics, where a ‘market-oriented authoritarianism’ (Fukuyama) views democracy as, if anything, ‘a drag on economic efficiency’, and a ‘self-referential political class’ is ‘more concerned with forging links with wealthy business interests than with pursuing political programs’, frequently profiting itself from the outsourcing and privatisation of public-service delivery.[5] A third dimension understands depoliticization as beginning with the social atomization engendered and accelerated by laissez-faire capitalism, where priority is given, systemically and culturally, to the ‘entrepreneur’ and the ‘customer’ rather than the ‘citizen’, and ‘intermediate’ political institutions (churches, unions, and the like), and public spaces for ‘dialogue’, ‘discussion’ and ‘contestation’, have been sharply eroded.[6] Fourthly, Ward observes a ‘crisis of representation’, such that ‘powerful minority interests obtain far more attention than their numbers would secure in a ballot’, ‘government [is ] becom[ing] increasingly opaque’, and ‘the poor and [economically] marginalized’ are further marginalized politically in ‘the absence of an autonomous political profile’ of their own,[7] and where their interests are often calculated, in the rhetoric of welfare in particular, as a ‘zero-sum game’ with the middle-class.[8]
To counter the ‘advanced atomism’ of the postmodern city, then, Ward argues that we need ‘a new way of seeing’ the world: ‘changes to processes, economic or political, have to be preceded by, and grounded on, changes in transcending values and vision. This means the creation of a new anthropology, a new way of seeing ourselves, our purposes and desires, our bodies, hopes, expectations, and teleologies.’[9] Fundamental to this ‘new way of seeing’, for Ward, is ‘a strong doctrine of participation.’[10] Drawing deeply on neo-Platonism, Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers, Ward outlines an ‘analogical worldview’, which understands different kinds of ‘bodies’ – ‘physical, social, political, [and] ecclesial’ – as participating in the (eucharistic) body of Christ, and made ‘heavy with meaning’ through that participation.[11] Furthermore, Ward goes on to claim, that eucharistic body provides the ‘new political community’ that democracy has been searching for, the ‘ontologically founded community’ that was eclipsed by modernity’s turn to the individual – ‘a community rooted in a sense of belonging to one another, to a social order, to a cosmic order ordained and sustained by God.’[12]
At the heart of what Ward calls ‘the struggle for the soul of the city’ is a struggle of desires. ‘Postmodern desire’, for the Augustinian Ward, ‘dismembers’ the social, ‘atomising’ us into ‘monadic consumers’, cultivates a willed ignorance of the human, social and environmental costs of consumption, ‘preys on others for its own satisfaction’,[13] and yet, ultimately, can ‘never be satisfied’. It ‘can never come to an end – or the market would cease’. Postmodern desire is caught between ‘having’ and ‘not-having’: between ‘a lust that only consuming the other would satisfy’, and the ‘endless sacrifice of self-abnegation’. It is, Ward suggests, ‘sado-masochistic’, ‘akin to being suspended on the brink of orgasm without being allowed the final release of coming’.[14]
Where postmodern desire operates on the logic of constantly unfulfilled ‘lack’, ‘Christian desire’, by contrast, operates within an economy of abundance, of ‘giftedness’. Founded as it is ‘upon God as triune, … a community of love fore-given and given lavishly’ – Christian desire ‘moves beyond the fulfilment of its own needs’, ‘is always excessive, generous beyond what is asked’, ‘is a desire not to consume the other, but to let the other be in the perfection they are called to grow into’.[15] In contrast to the ‘infinite kenōsis’ of Emmanuel Levinas among others, that ‘unending emptying of oneself’ in the ‘movement out to the other’, Ward insists that such ‘outpouring’ is ‘only possible, … only sustainable’ in the context of what St Paul calls plērōma, the ‘infinite, divine generosity’ of God’s ‘plenitudinous grace’.[16] In eucharistic terms, this is, for Ward, the outward-reaching ‘logic of the fracture’: ‘both celebrating the intimacy of oneness and taking that celebration out into the world: “we break this bread to share”.’[17]
The Church, then, as an ‘alternative erotic community’, is a body constituted, ‘made to appear’, through this eucharistic ‘activity’.[18] ‘The eucharistic We’ is ‘a network of actors’, ‘a pluralised and pluralising body that overspills defined places’, ‘exceeds’ and ‘transgresses’ the boundaries of ‘the institutional Church’, as it ‘offers itself to perform in fields of activity far from chancels and cloisters’, reaching out through ‘all creation’, ‘disseminating’ the body of Christ ‘through a myriad of other bodies’, with a ‘love that desires, that draws, that seeks [the] participation’ of all things ‘in God’.[19] And it is in this expansive, eucharistic vision that Ward locates the mending of the divisions and fragmentations of our postmodern world: the geographical segregation of different parts of the urban fabric,[20] the cultural divisions wrought by ‘racism, sexism, class and ageism’,[21] the social and political withdrawal Ward sees in both ‘neo-tribalist’ ecclesiologies[22] and the  secularist privatisation of the ‘sacred’. Ward’s is a theology of ‘the layperson’ who (more than the supposedly sanctuary-dwelling clergy), ‘enact[s] the incarnation of Christ’ – ‘performs Christ’, even – by ‘dwell[ing] deeply within the material orders to which [s/he] has been given, surrendered to Christ’, seeking ‘to creat[e], or participat[e] in the creation of, conditions maximally closest to communion’.[23]
4.       Graham Ward’s gifts to the contemporary Church of England
I want to suggest that Graham Ward’s political theology offers at least three valuable gifts to the contemporary Church of England, as that institution wrestles with its place and its mission within ‘Brexit Britain’.
Firstly, Ward affirms the vocation of the laos, the whole people of God, and most especially the 98% of the Church of England who are not ordained. In this, it resonates profoundly with the CofE’s 2017 report ‘Setting God’s People Free’ which, in its own words, ‘calls for a shift in culture’ which ‘looks beyond and outside Church structures to the whole people of God at work in communities and wider society – not to “fixing” the institutional Church’. The challenge outlined by the report, ‘to find a way to form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel’,[24] is a challenge Ward takes up and develops as what he calls ‘the politics of discipleship’ – a politics which emphasises the importance of speaking faith, as well as enacting it.[25]
Secondly, Ward offers a vision of ecclesial expansiveness rooted in the divine plērōma, which has potential to re-frame current anxieties about institutional survival. ‘Significant and continuing decline[s]’ in church attendance and stipendiary clergy numbers, the ‘unsustainability of certain patterns of ministry’, the ‘lack of capacity in at least some dioceses to envision, develop and implement strategies for a more hopeful future’, and ‘the lack of leadership capacity in some places to respond effectively to current and future challenges’, are part of the ‘realistic assessment’ presented in the Church of England’s ‘Renewal and Reform’ agenda.[26] As Jeremy Worthen has pointed out, ‘mission’ and ‘church growth’ have often, in Renewal and Reform’s documentation, appeared as an inseparable pair in a way that ties the goal of the missio dei to the preservation and growth of the institutional church, and participation in the missio dei to techniques and strategies for achieving such growth.[27] Rather than getting trapped in ‘means-end’ ways of framing the relationship between church and mission, Worthen turns to Anglican theologian Daniel Hardy, to suggest ‘that both church and mission have a common source in worship, and that mission should be seen as the “overflow” of our praise and thanks to God’.[28] Ward, I think, is wanting to say something similar.
Thirdly, unlike contemporary missiologies which make church growth their primary goal, Ward’s political theology addresses the divisions and fragmentations of our society head on. The work of overcoming division, creating communion (or in Ward’s careful phrase, ‘the conditions maximally closest to communion’) is the mission of God in which the Church is called to participate. It is what ‘performing Christ’ looks like in practice. It is not a means to another end, or a spin-off from a more central activity of the Church. Ward would surely echo the words of Sam Wells which have been repeatedly quoted by Archbishop Justin Welby: “Far from being an essential, tiresome, and time-consuming precursor to the gospel, reconciliation is the gospel. There isn’t anything more important to which reconciliation is but the prologue.”[29]
There is a timeliness, then, in receiving Graham Ward’s contribution within current conversations in the Church of England, and an urgency in what he has to say in a country in which Brexit has exposed wounds that run along the fault-lines of age, class and ethnicity, among others.
5.       Problems with Ward’s missiology
There is, however, a problem. It is a problem Ward has in common with much contemporary missiological thinking – but it comes to a particularly sharp visibility in Ward’s work, thanks to his explicit attention to the dynamics of desire. And for that exposure, and the critique it invites, we should be immensely thankful. Space here permits me just two illustrations of the problem, but they are, I argue, illustrations which exemplify one of the general thrusts (and I use that word deliberately) of Ward’s wider project.
The first comes in Ward’s 2009 discussion of the ‘struggle for the soul’ of the postmodern city. ‘The church,’ he insists, ‘must not allow areas of the city to be walled up. Ghettos and gated communities must be entered; the no-go zones riddled with racial and economic tensions and ruled by violence must be penetrated and linked back to the wider civic society; and the Christians in these places must be hospitable, opening the possibilities for transit, for the flow of communications necessary for freedom. The church must work alongside other agencies at every level ... to [help] those who fall beneath the city’s ambitions, those dwarfed and rendered insignificant by its towering achievements.’[30]
I want to observe three things about this passage in relation to Ward’s wider work. Firstly, there is a prioritising here, of action and initiative over reception, of the agency of the ‘helpers’ over the agency of the ones cast as ‘needy’ – and an unquestioning identification of ‘the church’ with the former. Secondly, there is an implicit class assumption here: we are presented with a church whose centre of gravity is presumably so much outside such ‘walled up’ urban areas (located firmly in middle-class suburbia, perhaps?), such that it has to ‘enter’ and ‘penetrate’ them; and those (presumably few) Christians who are in ‘these places’ are commanded to be ‘hospitable’ to that penetration. Thirdly, I am troubled by the explicitly sexual language at work here. At best, perhaps it indicates a burning desire, from Ward’s largely middle-class church, for relationship with and participation in these urban ‘no-go zones’, and an overcoming of the uneven distributions of wealth and power within the city. At worst, however, and particularly if the middle-class church’s own power remains unexamined, there is something that sounds unnervingly like sexual violence in the language of ‘penetration’ here.[31]
My second illustration comes in Ward’s earlier (2005) discussion of the ‘cultural politics’ that happens when Christian disciples ‘rewrite the Christian tradition back into contemporary culture’ through our ‘social and cultural engagement[s]’, ‘performing Christ’ through ‘all the micropractices of Christian living’. ‘[T]he work and words of the living community’ of Christians, says Ward, ‘extend out’ into what, quoting Barth, he calls ‘the “deepest, darkest immanence”’. Christians ‘go forth’, commissioned and commanded by Jesus (as in Matthew 28:19-20), ‘teleologically driven’, ‘tracing and performing ... “the march of God in the world”’ (Hegel’s phrase). Ward does acknowledge that ‘[w]e may not like Hegel’s metaphor’, and that the words of Jesus’ missionary imperative are ‘not only stirring and challenging ... but dangerous ... as a continuing history of colonialism, zealotry, hatred, prejudice and violence ... testifies’, and yet it seems the danger is unavoidable: it is ‘upon this basis’, he insists, upon ‘[t]his movement in, through and beyond the Church’, that a Christian cultural politics, must proceed.[32]
Ward is insistent, elsewhere, that there is ‘no room for Christian imperialism’ or ‘crusades’ in the ‘expansive’ dynamic of the body of Christ.[33] Nevertheless, alongside the unavoidably expansive christological dynamic in Ward’s work I suggest there are also often a couple of dangerous slippages – which again, are far from unique to Ward. One is a slippage towards an identification between Christ and the church (highlighted in the language of ‘performing Christ’). The other is related: despite his explicit disavowals of binary oppositions between ‘church’ and ‘world’, he does at times slip into exactly such oppositions, depicting the church as the place of order, and the world as a chaotic place of ‘squalid allies, neon-lights, plasma-screens, crowded tenements, seductions, excitements and destitutions’.[34] The resonances with the imagery which drove previous generations of Christian mission, themselves inextricably implicated in colonial expansion, are, I suggest, hard to miss.
To summarise my argument so far, then: Ward offers an acute analysis of our contemporary social and political fragmentation, and in response proposes a profoundly embodied and expansive ecclesiological vision, rooted in the pleroma of God, which both affirms the worldly vocation of the whole people of God, and directs that vocation towards the reconciliation of our divided world. In the process, however, his tendency towards identifying Christ with the church, coupled with a deeply pessimistic portrayal of the postmodern city, a passionate prioritising of the church’s agency and voice, and implicit assumptions about the church’s largely middle-class location, leave us with a missiology which, at worst, has both sexually penetrative and colonialist undertones. Sigridur Gudmarsdottir observes in Ward’s christology a one-way flow (‘a flow from God to humans’, through Jesus, in which Jesus’ human others receive, but he himself does not).[35] What seems to happen in Ward’s ecclesiology is that this one-way flow is mapped from Christ onto the church: a flow from God, ‘in, through and beyond the Church’, into the world – a flow in which the Church’s ‘others’ receive from it, but the Church is resistant to receiving from its ‘others’.
It is not hard to find echoes of this dynamic from the opposite end of the Church of England’s theological spectrum. Evangelicals leading the planting of large, youthful ‘city-centre resource churches’ describe ‘a missional flow of ministry that will … resource the church across the whole city’, as such centralised, well-resourced churches ‘energise a city vision that other churches can get behind’ (Thorpe, 2015). The closest ‘resource church’ to me, St Luke’s Gas Street in the centre of Birmingham, states that its vision is ‘to be a church that generates light for the city of Birmingham’, and prays that that light ‘will pour out of [its million pound city centre] building’.[36]
6.       Facing tragedy – attending to the cracks
If the alternative to institutional anxiety about the church’s survival is not to be found exclusively in an expansive, overflowing ecclesial confidence, then what other options have we got? I want to suggest, perhaps slightly strangely, that we need to stare tragedy more squarely in the face. To be more precise about this, I am proposing that in Brexit Britain, in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, Christian political theologians adopt what radical democrat Romand Coles calls a ‘tragic sensibility’ which ‘stretches’ us between, on the one hand the work of ‘articulating, mediating, and striving toward the highest values of a community’, and on the other hand, ‘painful evocations of the unacknowledged suffering often wrought by a community’s ideals (or constitutive failure in light of them)’. Crucially, for Coles, those ‘painful evocations’ of our tragic failures come with ‘the inextinguishable need to be transformed through receptive engagements with those a community marginalizes and subjugates’ (Coles 2005a:2). Tragedy thus ‘interrupts the church’s flow’ with a summons to attend to the voices of the church’s ‘others’.
I suggest there is more than a mere analogy here with Paul Gilroy’s diagnosis of the ‘postimperial melancholia’ in white British identity, that inability ‘to face, never mind actually mourn’, both the ‘loss of imperial prestige’ and the ‘repressed and buried knowledge of the cruelty and injustice’ of the British empire (itself entwined with the history of Christian mission). Could it be that the Church of England’s anxieties about institutional survival, and its expansive missiologies both catholic and evangelical, are, firstly, rooted in this same unacknowledged sense of loss of prestige, and are also, secondly, either unable or unwilling to grapple with the tragic consequences of expansionist approaches to mission both past and present?
Here I offer three brief critiques, from other parts of the Christian tradition, which both highlight what is at stake, and also point towards ways in which we might ‘work through’ some of what Coles calls our ‘tragic remainders’ towards a more healthy missiology for our times.
i.                     Speaking without listening
The first critique comes via a Quaker feminist theologian, Rachel Muers, who herself draws on the philosophical analysis of Gemma Corradi Fiumara. In Western culture, Fiumara argues, ‘the logos we inhabit is “halved”… we know how to speak but have forgotten how to listen’.[37] Furthermore, this ‘non-listening culture’ has ‘divide[d] itself into separate discourses, which are free from the desire or obligation to listen to others’. On the contrary, characteristic of a ‘powerful’ and ‘productive’ discourse is that it ‘seeks to expand its territory through the silencing of others and the ever-closer determination and definition of objects of knowledge’.[38] Written almost 30 years before the Trump presidency in the USA, Fiumara’s analysis is prophetic. It is also a challenge to the church in Brexit Britain: where many are adopting the survival tactic Fiumara names ‘benumbment’ – the ‘refusal to listen or be listened to, as a means of defending one’s own discursive space against the predatory invasion of other discourses’ – the church cannot afford simply to be yet another speaker, however persuasive, in the ‘war of words’.
ii.                   Identifying with the divine
The second critique, from American critical white theologian Jennifer Harvey, picks up on Ward’s language of ‘performing Christ’, but most directly addresses the recent linking, among many young evangelical American Christians, of the mantra ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ (‘WWJD?’) to a ‘social justice Jesus’ with a prophetic, political significance beyond individual, spiritual salvation. Harvey highlights a fundamental problem with white Christians identifying themselves with such a Jesus:
It just so happens that identifying with or as the central agent in the narratives we embody is one of the broken ways of being toward which white people are prone. It just so happens that being inclined to do “for” in postures that are paternalistic is another damaged side-effect of white racialization. And it just so happens that these tendencies are valorized in the social justice Jesus who is the central power-agent in his saga. Social justice Jesus is like a superhero standing up to evil forces around him and attempting to inveigh on behalf of suffering others. And, thus, while it is laudable that he stands with or works on behalf of the marginalized, it, therefore, just so happens that the broken ways of being toward which white people are already inclined are likely to be triggered, maybe even amplified, by identifying with such a figure. ... Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a white person whose life is embedded in white-supremacist structures should be doing.[39]
Harvey’s words here, I would suggest, translate into the register of class (and gender) relations as well as race, and serve as a sharp warning to those of us, occupying privileged social locations in an unjust (and patriarchal) socio-economic system, who might be tempted to imagine our words and actions as ‘performing Christ’.
iii.                 ‘Formation’ and the ‘insufficient’ subject
My third and final witness to some of the tragic consequences of our current missiologies is American Methodist theologian Joerg Rieger. If Ward and other postliberal political theologians are seeking to reject (and reverse) modernity’s turn to the individual (and the resulting ‘social atomism’ of ‘the postmodern city’), and return to the church as an ‘ontologically founded community’, then Rieger worries that ‘the individualist narcissisms of the modern era’ risk being ‘simply converted into collective narcissisms in the postmodern era’.[40] Drawing on the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, Rieger argues that the turn to the church, the focus on the formation of Christian disciples (primarily through worship), construes human beings as fundamentally insufficient, as subjects that the church ‘can teach and mould into its own image’: ‘[t]he goal of this model,’ he suggests, ‘is to integrate the uninitiated … into the system, enabling them to repeat and reproduce the language and tradition of the church’, the ‘overall purpose’ being (in words that resonate with Ward’s) ‘the production of culture’.[41]
Most of my neighbours, however, like the residents of Grenfell Tower written off by Jon Snow’s journalist colleagues, have already had their fill of being labelled by more powerful voices as lacking, deficient, problematic, before the church has got anywhere near them. As Rieger reads Lacan, what a the postliberal focus on the struggle between the self and the tradition, the imaginary and symbolic orders, misses Lacan’s third term, ‘the real’ – that which, when ‘repressed and excluded … comes back to haunt us’. What we urgently need, Rieger argues, is a Christian theology which ‘grow[s] out of “attention to the continual tendency of ... the church not-to-see things.”’ ‘“Who is the stranger?”’, is the question we should be asking, and ‘“Who is ‘unintelligible’ now?”’[42] Whose talents, whose gifts, whose passions, we might add, are we overlooking? Such theology, Rieger goes on, sees ‘receptivity, listening, and reflecting [as] more important initially than establishing foundations and identities’.[43] Attending with care to the ‘fissures and cracks’ in ‘faith’s reading of reality’, we are opened up to encounter the divine Other afresh – that’s how the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen reminded us.[44] Or, as Rieger concludes, ‘“the terms of good news we might receive if we were formed to receive from the other will surprise even those of us who tell stories about the oppressed”’.[45]
7.       An alternative performance?
In my own conclusion, then, I want to briefly sketch some of the contours of a political theology for multiply privileged Christians in Brexit Britain, that is attentive to the lasting shadow of the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, and thus radically receptive to the voices and agency of those on the edges of our fragmented society.
i.                     Performing and being formed – receptively
First, I agree with Graham Ward and other ecclesial theologians that we Christians should engage in a particular kind of ‘performance’ in the world, a performance that is formed – at least in part – liturgically. But I want to suggest, with Rachel Muers and with Nelle Morton before her, that the Church in its local presence, among the silenced, the unheard and the benumbed, might learn to see its primary vocation as one of ‘hearing to speech’, as Morton put it: a hearing that ‘evokes speech – new speech that has never been spoken before’. Such hearing might be understood as ‘hearing with God’s ears’, setting off a chain reaction of listening (‘Once a person is heard to speech, she becomes a hearing person’) (Morton 1986:205, Muers 2004:51) – it must also surely be an act which transforms the hearer herself, as she receives both the gifts and the challenges of the one heard.
Such listening in Brexit Britain, must, as Anna Rowlands argues, transgress our entrenched ‘silos’: it must find or create ‘new spaces of civic encounter’ where we can begin to ‘form bonds of affection and a sense of shared life across different classes, ethnicities and faiths’. In such spaces, we might begin to acknowledge that ‘the fault lines’ exposed by the likes of Brexit ‘run through the human heart, not simply between classes and communities’ – as we learn ‘to handle the presence of both a felt sense of loss and aspiration, suspicion and resilience, betrayal and pride, as Augustine might say – ad permixtum’ (Rowlands 2016). Such spaces need not be grand – they can often be found in our neighbourhoods in coffee mornings, community cafés, and other ‘Places of Welcome’ where participation is encouraged as much as provision is offered.[46]
We must also make space for such listening at the heart of our gatherings as church. And paying attention precisely to the way we gather is surely critical here – just as we have been learning, in recent decades, to pay more attention to our mission-focused sending. What if the first ten minutes of our worship intentionally ‘heard to speech’ the stories of encounter, surprise and struggle that our fellow congregation members bring with them from their daily living? What if they were allowed to shape the rest of our worship – the questions with which we approach the biblical text, or the way we come to God in penitence and intercession? How might our gathering re-form and trans-form the body of Christ before it is sent out into the world afresh – to listen as well as to speak, to be fed at other tables as well as sharing what we have received from the church’s table?
ii.                   ‘Working through’ tragedy – with our ‘others’
Talking of penitence, a second dimension to a radically receptive political theology will be to listen not so much with God’s ears, but very deliberately and self-consciously with our own complex and compromised subjectivities (Reddie 2017), attending to our own blind-spots, and embracing the challenges that our hearing brings us. I have already quoted Rom Coles’ insistence that the ‘painful evocations’ of our tragic failures must come with ‘the inextinguishable need to be transformed through receptive engagements with those [our] community [has] marginalize[d] and subjugate[d]’. To Coles’ insight I add that of Jim Perkinson, another critical white theologian, who argues that the necessary ‘radical redoing of white identity and expectations’ requires ‘a shaking of white “being” to the core’ which ‘cannot be accomplished simply by remaining in one’s (white) room and “thinking thoughts.” Ultimately,’ he insists, ‘it can only be accomplished as a “grace from without”’ – through a physical ‘dislocation’ from ‘the centres of institutional power’ to ‘peripheral’ places in which ‘other bodies have worked out other postures and potencies not beholden to the white male norm’ (Perkinson 2004:239, 232, 215). How do we respond to Jon Snow’s lamenting the disconnection of journalists and other members of the ‘narrow elite’, from the cries of Grenfell Tower residents for better, safer housing, or the concerns underneath many votes for Brexit, rooted in precarity, demonization, and a loss of a sense of community? Re-locating and hearing deeply is not enough. Working through, in the company of our marginalized and silenced neighbours, our own complicity, and our own need to change, must follow. As with Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, our journeys out to the edges, if we go with sufficient receptivity, will both challenge us and change us.
iii.                 Re-locating Christ
So, thirdly, maybe there are ways of ‘performing Christ’, in radically receptive mode. Mark’s story of Jesus’ anointing (Mk. 14) offers another example of Jesus receiving the initiative of another – a woman again, this time a gate-crasher at a private meal. Despite Judas’ economic protestations, Jesus defends her extravagant interruption and receives it for what it is: a prophetic declaration that he is ‘the anointed one’. He receives from her his commissioning for the way of the cross.
But perhaps, as Jennifer Harvey suggests, we who are multiply privileged should dis-identify with Jesus, and ask instead ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do?’, finding ourselves on the receiving end of Jesus’ challenge, and summoned, as Harvey puts it, to ‘figure out ways to become … race [and, I would add, class] traitors’, choosing the path of ‘radical conversion’, embodied in ‘humility’, ‘repentance’ and ‘reparation’ (Harvey 2012:98-9).
Or could it ultimately be profoundly unhelpful, in these times of deep fragmentation, to locate Christ on one ‘side’ or the other of our divides? Perhaps we are invited neither to ‘perform Christ’ nor to identify Christ with the neighbours who challenge us most acutely – but to discover Christ as ‘taking place’ in the space of encounter between us and our neighbours, in the ‘interplay’, as Ward himself puts it, of ‘attraction and desire’, of ‘revelation’ and ‘reconciliation’ (Ward 1996:231-2). It is Christ who draws us to our neighbours, and it is Christ whom we discover – both creative and unsettling – in the encounters with them.
iv.                 Receptivity against the machine
Lastly, in the face of desperate tragedy I want to hold onto a glimmer of hope. It may be that a church reoriented towards radical receptivity simply gives more of our neighbours ‘a good listening to’ – and that in itself may be of unimaginable value. But I believe it may have more significance than that. Rom Coles describes the prevailing ‘spiritual ethos’ of western societies as one in which ‘extreme inequality, fundamentalism, generalized ressentiment toward difference and ambiguity, as well as bellicosity and indifference toward future generations, the poor, foreigners, and the planet often intensify one another’ (Coles 2016:37-8). And we’ve certainly seen plenty of all of those over the past couple of years. This ‘spiritual ethos’ is not the product of one referendum result, or one American president – rather, it has been engendered over a much longer time by what Coles (following William Connolly) calls ‘a resonant assemblage’ made up of many different, interrelated components (corporations, institutions, media, practices, experiences, attitudes), that interact, interpenetrate, and generate ‘flows’ and ‘circulations’ which transcend the lines of simple, deterministic ‘cause and effect’, and in which we are all inescapably participants. I am not convinced that a church which is anxiously strategizing its survival, or a church which is over-confidently proclaiming its expansiveness, are well-placed to resist the workings of Connolly’s ‘evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’. I do wonder, however, whether a church which, in Coles’ words, ‘cultivate[s] a more radical notion of [its own] insufficiency’, embodying, dramatizing and performing its need of the gifts and the challenges of its – often quite different – neighbours at the margins, might not just prove to be a significant component of a ‘counter-machine’ which, in Coles’ terms, ‘generate[s] resonant relational energies’ that ‘turn up … our receiving volume’: receptive counter-flows which ‘re-assemble’ our social organisation, and intensify our receptivity both to each other and to the ‘not yet’ of God’s future (Coles 2016:37-9, 2008a:40-43).


[1] Ward 2000a:55
[2] Ward 2000a:55
[3] Ward 2000a:58, 67-8, 241, citing Sassen 1991:317 (see also Sassen 1991:318-9, 334 & passim).
[4] Ward 2009:66-67
[5] Ward 2009:68-69, quoting Francis Fukuyama (1992:123).
[6] Ward acknowledges that some social scientists point to ‘levels of stability’ in ‘softer’ forms of social capital, such as ‘participation in voluntary associations and informal sociability’, but these are, he suggests (quoting Robert Putnam), ‘“narrower, less bridging, and less focused on collective or public-regarding purpose”’ (Ward 2009:65-6).
[7] Ward 2009:66-72, quoting Phil Burton-Cartledge (2005:372).
[8] Ward 2000a:58, 241, 67-8, citing Mike Davis (1990:115).
[9] Ward 2009:74 (my emphasis)
[10] Ward 2000a:75
[11] Ward 2000a:113
[12] Ward 2009:245, 226
[13] Ward 2000a:75, 56, 59-60; 2009:83
[14] Ward 2005b:79, 263-6 (see also 2005b:109-10 and 2000a:201-2 on the ‘demonic and nihilistic logic’ of ‘endless giving without reception’).
[15] Ward 2000a:76 (my emphasis)
[16] Ward 2005b:77, 79. Behind Ward’s use of kenosis is the ‘Christ hymn’ of Philippians 2:5-11 (see also Ward 1999). Critics of the recent ‘kenotic turn’ in theology (a move of which Ward is a significant representative) have challenged the apparently unproblematic translation from divine (christological) kenosis to human kenosis. As Linn Tonstad observes, for example, ‘[a]lthough Ward exegetes the Philippians hymn in order to discover “the kenotic economy,” he skips directly from there to modernity’s turn to kenosis, starting from Lutheran orthodoxy. This may be why he fails to note how far his own reading of kenosis is from that of the early church, where it – in most cases – expresses the act of assumption of humanity (the appearance of the God of glory in human form), rather than a general economy of sacrifice or representation’ (Tonstad 2016:89 n.24).
[17] Ward 2000a:174
[18] Ward 2000a:180, 2009:201-2 (see also 2013:329)
[19] Ward 2000a:176 (my emphasis), 180; 2009:184, 189.
[20] Ward 2000a:266 n.23
[21] Ward 2000a:92
[22] Ward 2000a:69 (as above), 92
[23] Ward 2013:330-1, 332; Ward 2009:188 (see also Ward 2000a:257).
[24] Archbishops’ Council 2017 [GS 2056]:1,3.
[25] Ward 2009, 2015
[26] Archbishops’ Council 2017 [GS 2038]:2
[27] Worthen 2017:3
[28] Worthen 2017:3 (cf Hardy 2001:24-40) [‘The Missionary Being of the Church’, in Finding the Church: the Dynamic Truth of Anglicanism (London: SCM)]
[29] Wells 2013:6 [‘The Exasperating Patience of God’, lecture at Faith in Conflict Conference, Coventry, Tuesday 26th February 2013], http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/wpsite/wp-downloads/Sermons%20and%20talks/2013-02-26-1%20Faith%20in%20Conflict%20-%20The%20Exasperating%20Patience%20of%20God%20%5BSam%20Wells%5D.pdf
[30] Ward 2009:219-20 (my emphasis)
[31] Compare this outworking of supposedly ‘Christian desire’ with, for example, Ward’s construal of postmodern desire as ‘akin to being suspended on the brink of orgasm without being allowed the final release of coming’ (see section 3.3.iv, above).
[32] Ward 2009:165-6, 2005a:55-6, 10
[33] ‘Crusades in the name of the triune love misconceive the kenosis of that love. That love is poured out externally on behalf of not against. It works alongside, transfiguring the ordinary, transforming the mundane. It persuades; it does not coerce’ (Ward 2000a:259, cf 257).
[34] Ward 2005a:59 (cf Graham 2013:129-30)
[35] Gudmarsdottir 2012:169-70
[37] Fiumara 1990:2, quoted in Muers 2004:53.
[38] Muers 2004:54-6
[39] Harvey 2012:86-9, 94-5.
[40] Rieger 2001:97, 94. When Rieger sketches the ecclesiologies of a few postliberal pastors and ‘church consultants, we might hear more than passing resonances with Ward’s own work: ‘On Sunday [people] feel as if they need to “receive something”... people are “desperate for meaning”... the turn to the presence of God in the reality of the church... “Before we can change the world, we must first submit to change ourselves. Call it conversion.”... “Healthy congregations turn on the lights in a dark world”... “Which people group in the circle around our church has the greatest needs?”... The church is in the center; it is the focal point. There is little doubt about the integrity of the church and its people, properly converted and formed, assuming not only that the church can indeed help others in need by reaching out (a mutual relationship does not seem to be required) but also that the church could not possibly be part of the problem that needs to be addressed’ (Rieger 2001:94-5).
[41] Rieger 2001:148
[42] Rieger 2001:106, quoting Fulkerson 1995:174.
[43] Rieger 2001:106
[44] Leonard Cohen, ‘The Crack’
[45] Rieger 2001:112, 111, quoting Fulkerson 1994:358, 395.
[46] www.placesofwelcome.org

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