Friday, June 06, 2008

Review: No Room for Grace

[Barbara Rumscheidt. No Room for Grace: Pastoral Theology and Dehumanization in the Global Economy. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.]

As regular readers might remember, I recently read and reviewed a series of books on feminist theology, despite not identify as Christian myself, in the service of the current chapter I'm writing for my social movement history project. My initial selection of books was pretty random. I wanted a range of stuff to give me a general impression of the field and to stimulate my own thinking in preparation for writing, which is now well underway. I had no delusions of developing a comprehensive understanding. The last couple of reviews I've posted have been on books unrelated to this topic, but it is now time for me to return to things theological, or at least churchy. The next half dozen or so books have been chosen much more deliberately because of some sort of connection to my interview participant. The work that is the subject of this post was written by a former colleague of my interviewee, and in the interview she specifically named and recommended this book.

The book begins from a recognition of the devastation wrought by "unfettered capitalism on a world scale" [ix] and investigates how to "address a faith dilemma that arises out of awareness and experience of the dehumanizing, exclusionary effects of the global economy" [x].

Readers of this book are invited to an exploration that is essentially one of critical faith development. The global reality of escalating dehumanization indicts any process of faith formation that denies, condones, minimizes, rationalizes, legitimizes, or is otherwise innocent or ignorant of mass human suffering. The specter of corporate capital acquiring legal power to preempt laws designed to protect the common good is ominous.... Christian theologies become apostate if they foster acceptable powerlessness in the face of such idolatrous expropriations of God's creation. [xi]

The book seeks to deal with these issues in the context of "pastoral theology", which is the branch of theology that is most practically concerned with the activities of ministers and others acting in the world and amongst ordinary people. The book's basic thesis, as far as I understand it, is that the current context of the global economy is dehumanizing to both its "winners" and "losers." In the context of a rich country like Canada, Christian faith often functions in ways that helps parishioners avoid or deny their active or passive complicity in this process of dehumanization through fostering a sense of uncritical "good conscience" that serves as a kind of immunization from responsibility. Rumscheidt argues that the key to fostering conscientization among privileged Christians is dialogue among the privileged and the oppressed, whether in the form of direct encounters between people under the unifying banner of Christianity or in more vicarious form through engagement with texts both by Christians and others. She is very firm on the point that realizing the Kingdom of God means transforming social relations, therefore social analysis, including secular analysis, is fair game for Christians to take up, learn from, reflect on in a critical theological context, and act on. Such encounters, she believes, are the basis for fostering critical faith development and collective practices that can result in rehumanization for all.

I experienced No Room for Grace as kind of a peculiar book. It contains a lot of powerful and important political ideas. Its integration of these into a staunchly Christian context is quite encouraging to me, even though that context is not mine. There is even something about it that feels like a challenge to me and some of my practices. Yet I found its writing hard to follow at times, and not always as engaging as I might like.

Part of the issue with the writing is probably a product of a political decision I actually quite approve of: the use of many lengthy quotes from a variety of voices well worth listening to, from secular radicals like Walter Rodney and Eduardo Galeano to critically engaged theologians from Latin America and Africa. Another part of the problem probably also had to do with the fact that, my recent reading notwithstanding, theology is not something I know a lot about and I am not completely up to speed in theological terminology. However, that is certainly not the whole problem, and it was a recurring disappointment that the delivery was not as compelling as many of the ideas being delivered.

The book brings together some important ideas and combines them in ways I have not previously encountered. For instance, the book talks about the material, cultural, and discursive phenomenon of "triage" whereby certain segments of the world's population are simply written out of the definition of humanity and made expendable, especially in the dehumanizing conditions of neoliberalism. This resonated for me with the idea of "disposability" I've encountered in writing by Henry Giroux and "exterminism" as discussed in various places by Stan Goff. Though it could have been more completely developed, the book also contains some important gestures towards opposing understandings of the world that reify everything and obscure the fact that social relations are all about human beings, which I have come to see as being quite important. This carried into the more general framing of the book's argument in terms of dehumanization and rehumanization, which I think is quite a powerful way to get at many of the major problems in the world today and one that is quite broadly understandable. There was also quite a clear embrace of the importance of standpoint, not as essence but as created by differential placement within social relations, though that precise vocabulary was not necessarily used. And I also liked the idea of "good conscience" as a barrier to developing critical consciousness, which made me think of things that Sherene Razack has written about people with privilege taking refuge in a mindset of "innocence, [or] a determined non-involvement in the social relations being analyzed."

My most significant political concern with the book is around the place that it gives to dialogue across power differentials as a key to fostering rehumanization and critical consciousness. I can't deny that this is absolutely essential for those of us with privilege in various areas to developing critical and politicized understandings, particularly with respect to areas in which we hold privilege -- without the generosity of friends and the glorious technology of texts that have introduced into my local reality things which would otherwise have no presence here, I would not have whatever modestly critical consciousness of the world I've managed to develop thus far. But I think any discussion of such dialogue as pedagogical tool has to involve a lot of reflection on how people who are differently positioned enter into it in very different ways. Those of us with privilege have much more to gain from it, while those whose oppression will be discussed are much more at risk. The book drops the ball on this point, I think.

The most unexpected aspect of reading this book was the sense that it was challenging me. I think I have noted in one or two other recent reviews how feminist or other socially critical and engaged theology can contain a sense of cohesion across different scales of analysis and between analysis and action that is all too often missing from secular left writings. I think I could probably write a lot about how I feel challenged by this, and I may do so in another post, but for the moment I will make just a couple of points. I think one thing that the secular left can learn from at least some parts of the Christian left has to do with what we expect from people -- that is, I think many elements of the secular left are too quick to have low or no expectations of people who are not already politicized, while the best of the Christian left combines an acceptance of people where they are at with the expectation that all of us have it within ourselves to reach towards some kind of very immediate, material transcendence or transformation or surpassing of/resistance to the circumstances that constrain us. Because of those higher expectations, I think the kind of Christian left approach discussed by Rumscheidt leads to trying harder to facilitate the kind of pedagogical engagement with others that can result in mutual challenge and transformation. Not that we/I don't do that at all -- I think my book writing, for instance, takes great pains to try and meet interested non-activists where they are at. However, in my on-the-ground activist work, though I can see ways in which we do this, I can also see lots in which we could but don't. And with this blog space, I could make much greater use of it as a place to practice and rehearse and experiment with ways to engage. I do that occasionally but not often. Not that there is anything wrong with using at I most frequently do, to refine my own thinking using the discourse that feels like it fits best to me regardless of how accessible that might be to others. But I think maybe I should do more of that other kind of writing too.

It is hard to know exactly how to recommend this book. I think if you are undergoing certain kinds of questioning about the world and you tend to understand things in Christian terms, this could be a very useful book. I think it also might be useful to people concerned with social change and fostering critical consciousness more generally, and not necessarily just Christians, though there are also lots of reasons why some in that group might find it offputting. In any case, because of the enthusiasm with which my interview participant spoke of it, I'm pretty sure I shall return to it and flip through it as I continue to write the chapter.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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