Trump and the Banality of Evil by Evan Sandsmark

February 26, 2018

One of the central claims of Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem is that intention is not the most morally relevant feature of an action. The fact that Adolf Eichmann committed atrocious evils with the most mundane of intentions—he was merely following orders to advance his career, in his telling—does not nullify his culpability. It doesn’t matter that Eichmann wasn’t acting from some wicked motive; what matters is that he helped facilitate, with murderous efficiency, the paradigmatically evil act of the twentieth century. Ye shall know him by his fruits, and Eichmann’s were rotten to the core.

This is not an exclusively consequentialist argument. Arendt’s point is that Eichmann is still culpable for his actions because they issued from his unthinking judgement. Such a moral assessment can be made without reference to the consequences of his actions (although these too are relevant). A moment of self-reflection—a moment, really, of any sort of non-mechanical thinking—would immediately reveal the evil nature of the Nazi project. Yet Eichmann never thought. For this, Arendt claims, he stands condemned.

For the record, this is not an accurate psychological profile of Eichmann, whose intentions were in fact quite evil. Writings discovered after his trial in Jerusalem reveal a vile and deeply anti-Semitic ethno-nationalist. We know this thanks to books like Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem. But this only compromises Arendt’s example, not her moral insight.

In general, many ethicists take intention seriously, and for good reason, since what a person intends is clearly relevant when assessing culpability in a broad range of cases. If you give a person dying of thirst a glass of water, and if unbeknownst to you that water is poisoned, you are generally not regarded as culpable for the poisoning (all other things being equal). So intention mattersNevertheless, Arendt’s point standsTo see why, we need look no further than the defining political catastrophe of our time: the presidency of Donald Trump.

It is not possible to peer directly into Trump’s mind, but evidence suggests that it is more a void than a cyclone of malicious energy. Whether he’s slashing foreign aid to Pakistan or loosening regulations on toxic air pollution, Trump’s actions have caused and will continue to cause suffering on a global scale, but I find it hard to believe that he in any real sense intends to cause widespread misery. This would assign him the sort of demonic agency of which his complacently understocked mind is incapable. It seems far more likely he is in a position that far exceeds his capacities and interests, and that when his deliberative process occasionally rises to the level of an intention, it is aimed at stoking his vanity, not serving evil simpliciter.

But this does not weaken Trump’s culpability for his actions and the terrible consequences they have wrought. It is not a defense but an indictment of Trump’s character to point out that he lacks the moral introspection that is one of the hallmarks of an ethical human life (or a human life in general). A moment’s thought would deter Trump from following the path he has chosen, but a moment’s thought he will not give.

 It seems unlikely that Trump will ultimately cause suffering to an extent and degree comparable to Eichmann’s crimes. This may have something to do with the astonishing incompetence of the Trump White Houseincompetence that has largely served the interests of the Republic. The fact that Trump is incapable of issuing a lawful immigration directive can be counted only as a blessing. We are in a sorry state, however, when all that lies between relative stability and calamity are the president’s limitations, which are a mixed blessing, at best. The ineptitude that keeps immigrant families together (at least for the moment) is the same ineptitude that can initiate a nuclear holocaust on the Korean Peninsula. If there is one thing Arendt’s book teaches us, it is that banal actions—mundane, uncritical, unthinking actions—can result in disaster. 

 Trump, not Eichmann, is the subject that proves Arendt’s point. If only she were around to write Trump in Washington.

Evan Sandsmark is a Doctoral Student in Theology, Ethics & Culture at the University of Virginia.

Charisma and Seduction by Vincent Lloyd

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This piece was originally published by The Immanent Frame on January 5, 2018 (https://tif.ssrc.org/2018/01/05/charisma-and-seduction/)

Image via Flickr User John W. Iwanski (https://www.flickr.com/photos/usachicago/31672543383/)

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Producers, actors, politicians, businessmen, and professors: acclaimed men in these professions have recently been exposed as perpetrators of sexual violence. Powerful men abuse their power, and women are often the victims. Power is one thing these men have in common, and the maxim that power corrupts is undoubtedly true. But men whose violence is now being exposed more often than not share another attribute: charisma.

Charisma is what it takes to succeed in Hollywood, Washington, the boardroom, and the classroom—or so it seems. Curiously, the religious resonance of charisma is often forgotten in its popular usage. The German social theorist Max Weber, drawing on Christian theologians, theorized charisma as “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber equivocates on the provenance of charisma, asserting that it may be “regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary,” but the effect of charisma is clear: Men with charisma are treated as authorities, and they attract followers.

Today, with the supernatural eclipsed by the self, charisma is increasingly regarded as a quality that can be cultivated. Bookstores are filled with titles such as The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism. The divine is inside the self: its potential just needs to be unleashed and you, too, can uncover your unique gift for all to see—and follow.

Charisma is rightly met with suspicion. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had charisma, as did Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and Osama bin Laden. Charisma seduces, silencing our faculty of judgment and making a charismatic man’s desires into our desires. Entranced, we come to believe that all our desires will be fulfilled by following the charismatic man—and so we forget ourselves, or our souls.

But charisma must be something else, too. We use the word “charisma” to describe Mahatma Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, Lech Wałęsa and Nelson Mandela, so charisma must not necessarily be an agent of evil. Some would respond that charisma and evil are independent of each other, but even with charisma at its best, an element of seduction seems to be at work. In some cases, the seduction contains an element of the erotic (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal life), while in other cases the seduction blinds followers to changing realities that call for new responses (e.g., the neoliberal wing of the African National Congress). In all cases the seduction results in a diminished capacity to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a charismatic leader.

When the grandeur of Weber’s vision of charismatic authority is reduced to the self-help aisle, it would seem time to turn away from charisma. Shouldn’t we be talking about Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer instead of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson? Shouldn’t we be talking about Alicia Garza and Kali Akuno instead of Al Sharpton? As scholars such as Charles Payne and Erica Edwards have shown, traditions of grassroots organizing and the commitment and ingenuity of ordinary people are overlooked when we focus on charisma—where charisma is solely ascribed to elite heterosexual men. In short, charisma catalyzes the circulation of ideology, so the task of the ideology critic must include demystifying charisma.

In one sense, Socrates was a champion of such a turn away from charisma. He positioned himself against the sophists, who spoke or wrote speeches for the Athenian crowds with the aim of cultivating certain desires and suppressing other desires, advancing the interests of the speaker. With words meant to elicit the emotions and confuse reason, appealing to social conventions and shared raw intuitions, sophists were unconcerned with truth. Socrates urged his interlocutors to preserve their critical capacities in the face of sophists’ attacks, committing themselves to the pursuit of truth beyond social convention, to goodness beyond self-interest, and to beauty beyond titillation.

In another sense, however, Socrates was himself a charismatic authority, using his extraordinary gifts to persuade the Athenians to turn away from false beliefs and false gods. Like the sophists, Socrates began with views commonly held in his community, but unlike them he did not end there. Rather than molding and sating the desires of his audience, Socrates elicited from his interlocutors new desires. Rather than dispensing answers, Socrates invited his interlocutors to interrogate themselves and their worlds. Rather than a slick performer whose words advanced his own interests, Socrates was utterly ordinary, in fact described as ugly, with the juxtaposition of his ordinary appearance and extraordinary critical capacities eliciting from interlocutors a sense that things are more than they appear.

Socrates and the sophists must certainly have been more complicated than this, but they serve as ideal types of two varieties of charisma that ought to be distinguished. Let us call the sophists exemplars of authoritarian charisma and Socrates an exemplar of democratic charisma. Beyond the conditions of an intellectual laboratory, out in the real world, authoritarian and democratic charisma are difficult to disentangle, but this does not mean we should abandon charisma altogether. The intuition that there might be a type of charisma worth seeking out and redeeming is strengthened when we reflect not on the businessman or politician but on that neighbor, aunt, or colleague who we take to be wise. Not wise in the sense of dispensing answers, but wise in the sense of asking the right questions.

When social movements today, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, talk about being “leaderful” instead of “leaderless,” they have democratic charisma in mind. They envision a movement full of people questioning the status quo and questioning themselves, not full of people slickly seducing others. At its best (which, again, is obtained only in laboratory conditions) democratic charisma is contagious. When someone witnesses democratic charisma, she realizes that she is more than she thought she was, than she was told she was. If she pursues these realizations, she too will appear extraordinary and ordinary at once, eliciting responses from still others—and catalyzing not an ideology but a social movement.

Authoritarian charisma relies on seduction, and this seduction conceals violence. It conceals the violence of the status quo, of dominant ideology, on which authoritarian charisma relies and which it reinforces. And it conceals the intimate violence involved in manipulating the desires of another for the sake of oneself. While this may sound abstract, it is invidious and personal: it necessarily means deforming souls, as it were, and it opens the door to sexual violence.

Does democratic charisma avoid seduction? Surely there was something like seduction happening between Socrates and his interlocutors. But while authoritarian charisma is a transaction between a man with charisma and his witnesses aimed at achieving the goals of the charismatic man, democratic charisma is not confined to the desires of the parties involved. If democratic charisma involves seduction, the result is desire aimed beyond the self and the world, beyond the saeculum, desire that no worldly object can sate. Seduction gives way to love. For Socrates, love of wisdom; more generally, love that draws us beyond ourselves and beyond our worldly objects of love. Love properly, mysteriously, names a feeling that pulls us beyond, and that is what democratic charisma elicits.

In our transactional, loveless age, is authoritarian charisma all that remains? Those vocations that call for authoritarian charisma, those modern day sophists, are setting the terms for all vocations, from clergy to non-profit “executives” to activists. On Twitter, you can count your success in charismatic self-making literally in terms of “followers.” Yet ideology, even as fierce and fluid as neoliberalism, never runs all the way down. At neighborhood association meetings, school board meetings, or people’s assemblies, we each continue to encounter democratic charisma. It is often fleeting, perhaps fugitive, as is the democratic spirit itself. Wealth and power conspire to conceal it as they champion its simulacrum, authoritarian charisma.

Yet the ability, never even nearly mastered, to discern the difference between the democratic and the authoritarian—which is to say, between seduction and love—is imperative. Flannery O’Connor explores this when she conjures the story of a bible salesman in the rural South who romances Hulga, a thirty-two-year-old philosophy PhD whose disability brought her back to her family’s farm. The confident Hulga is bemused at first, then in spite of herself is seduced. The salesman seems so simple, with his pure faith and entrepreneurial spirit—and she agrees to a tryst. There, in the farm’s hayloft, the salesman, none too subtly named Manley Pointer forces himself on Hulga, and takes off with her artificial leg.

Hulga, who chose that name over her given name Joy, as she turned away from worldly beauty, is clearly lacking in moral formation and capacities of discernment. In fact, she fancies herself the seducer, with her superior education and worldliness. The story dramatizes a struggle between two forms of authoritarian charisma: urbanity and learning against plain Bible faith and masculine vice (these two revealed to be essentially the same), the seduction of the secular liberal elite and the seduction of the self-interested chauvinist.

Certainly, both must be condemned. The cultures that produce both must be condemned. The ways they are entangled must be unpacked. In short, patriarchy in all its forms, along with all that supports it, must be destroyed. This is not enough, however.

O’Connor’s title, “Good Country People,” is obviously ironic: Manley appears good, but he is not; Hulga aspires to be good, but she is not. Yet there are two genuinely good country people who frame the story, Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Freeman, Hulga’s mother and their hired help. O’Connor’s demystification of authoritarian charisma shifts the focus to the ordinary, and there we find democratic charisma. These two women bring out the best in each other as they work in the kitchen and the fields, listening to each other, provoking each other, judging the other but also judging themselves and the world. Ultimately they are keenly aware of the way the world cannot grasp them—in contrast to the purported simplicity of Manley. He seemingly fits the box the world would put him in, but such simplicity is impossible for the women. “Some can’t be that simple,” says Mrs. Freeman, “I know I never could.”

We must call out those individuals, institutions, and ideologies that seduce—and do real violence to us and those we care about—but we must also attune ourselves to the extraordinary in the ordinary around us. We will not find goodness itself, or truth or beauty, or even love in any full-blooded sense, but we may find something like charisma that can inspire us even as it threatens us. After all, to quote one of Mrs. Hopewell’s favorite sayings, at once painfully banal and poignantly true, “Nothing’s perfect.”

Vincent Lloyd is a Senior Fellow with Religion and Its Publics and Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of religion, race, and politics. His books include Black Natural Law (Oxford, 2016), The Problem with Grace (Stanford, 2011), and a co-edited volume, Race and Secularism in America (Columbia, 2016). Lloyd is currently writing about the relationship between divine and human fatherhood in African American culture.

 

Outsiderness: A Warning by Natalie Carnes

January 12, 2018

After the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation and the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, I find myself wondering about institutional insiders and outsiders. I wonder, in particular, about the appeal of outsiders and the status of being outside—what we might call outsiderness. What do we want outsiderness to give to us? Can it deliver on the promise of its appeal?

2017 was, in some ways, a year of reckoning for outsiderness. Donald Trump came to power as an outsider who refused the normal fundraising channels and incited chants to “drain the swamp” of corrupt Washington insiders. He built a populist base in part on the promise that, unbeholden to the institutions of money and power, he could work directly for the people without any mediating institutions (and certainly without the so-called “fake media”).

As the Trump presidency trundled through its first year, many Protestants at the same time marked the quincentenary of the Reformation, the birth of a new type of outsiderness to an institution historically central to Christianity. What has that outsiderness given Protestants? In an editorial published in the Washington Post on Reformation Day, Protestant ethicist (and, full disclosure, my Doktorvater) Stanley Hauerwas reflects that Protestants have gained what the Reformers wanted. Why remain Protestant, then? He answers the question by ending his essay in a salute to outsiderness, “I have the conviction that the ongoing change that the church needs means some of us must be Protestant to keep Catholics honest about their claim to the title of the one true Catholic Church. The Reformation may be coming to an end, but reform in the church is never-ending, requiring some to stand outside looking in.”

However Hauerwas intends his words to be received, the statement taps into a wider cultural prejudice for outsiders. In his short classic, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschmann points out that this story of outsiderness—what he calls “exit” as opposed to the insider’s “voice”—is deeply embedded in America’s self-representation. From the founding myth of disgruntled pilgrims settling a new land to the story of a nation moving West into a frontier imagined as untroubled by history, the story of America betrays what Hirschmann calls a persistent “preference for the neatness of exit over the messiness and heartbreak of voice.” And the appeal of exit and outsiderness continues today, as seen, among other places, in “quit-lit,” a genre in which people publicize their decision to exit jobs and institutions they have come to see as deeply problematic.

What do we make of the preference for exit over voice, outside over in? What I want is not to disparage exit and extol voice, nor necessarily privilege insiders above outsiders. I want instead to draw attention to the blindness and potential damage of this outsider prejudice, left unexamined. The prejudice obscures, for example, the way the categories of insider and outsider are much more complexly and continuously negotiated than any tidy division between them captures. What, for example, does it mean to call Hauerwas an outsider to the Catholic Church, when he teaches Catholic theology, has trained some of the most significant voices in Catholic theology, is close friends with important figures in the Catholic Church, has attended many Masses, and has himself spoken at more Catholic schools, conferences, and events than I could count? What kind of outsider, exactly, is he?

Similarly, what kind of “insider” is someone like Dorothy Day—a Catholic who, like the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Cistercians before her, began a reform movement in response to a sickness of the church? Critical of the bishops’ wealth and their silence on nuclear war, Day had such a fraught relationship with the institutional church that despite her significance and popularity at the time of her death, no bishops attended her funeral. (Times change: Now her cause for canonization has been put forward by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

As for Trump, the ironies of that politically-connected, white, male heir and real estate mogul claiming the status of outsider are too obvious to need explaining.

The point is that when dealing with institutions as vast and differentiated as the Catholic Church, the American government, or, say, the media, there are many different levels of power to which one can be inside or outside. Even smaller and less complex organizations have multiple circles of power. Moreover, sometimes the “outsider insider” status of someone like Dorothy Day can effect remarkable change from the margins, as an “insider outsider” like Hauerwas can in his proximity to other sources of power.

I raise this blindness because I worry about what happens when someone sees exit and voice, insider and outsider, as two flatly opposed options. I worry, in particular, about what happens to our institutions given our collective prejudice for outsiderness. What if we choose exit as a way of being unburdened by problematic institutions, of refusing responsibility for them? As Hirschmann puts it, “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too unpleasant?”

We’ve all heard the jokes about moving to Canada. Many of us have made those jokes. While I’m not all that concerned about a great exodus to our northern neighbor, I am concerned about the despair that causes us to give up on the institutions that maintain our democracy. What happens, Hirschmann asks, when most quality-conscious consumers exit? Voice is “fatally weakened” and institutional decline accelerates. My worry about the unbridled appeal of outsiderness is that it could lead to a situation in which we are all outsiders to democracy and the goods our (problematic) institutions yet help maintain. Perhaps the promise the outsider offers, in other words, requires a robust assembly of insiders, agitating to receive it.

Jane Little for BBC on August 11 & 12 in Charlottesville

Religion and Its Publics’ own Jane Little tells the story behind that infamous August weekend in Charlottesville: how clergy trained for weeks to disrupt the far right marchers, of the MLK scholar-activist-musician who trained them, and of what it represents in an ongoing struggle for the soul of American Christianity.

Click here to listen to the full program.

Charles Mathewes for the Washington Post on White Christianity

Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Charles Mathewes recently contributed to the Washington Post with a piece entitled “White Christianity is in big trouble. And it’s its own biggest threat.” Read the full article below.

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“White Christianity is in big trouble. And it’s its own biggest threat”
Charles Mathewes | December 19, 2017

It’s that time of year again, when we hear about the profanity of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and about Starbucks’ covert “war on Christmas,” run through their seasonal coffee cups. Inevitably, President Trump has intervened, insisting that stores everywhere “don’t have Merry Christmas. They don’t have Merry Christmas. I want them to say, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody.’” Once again, we are awakened to the terrible assaults on the Christian heritage of our nation.

This year, however, it’s increasingly difficult not to notice that the main threat to Christianity in America comes from American Christians themselves.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard a case from a baker who argued his Christian convictions led him to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Last week, we witnessed the spectacle of white Christians in Alabama who convinced themselves either that the man they hoped to elect as their senator was not so creepy around young girls as to get himself banned from a mall (fact check: he was), or that the behavior that got him banned is actually biblical in character, and therefore okay (exegesis check: it isn’t). In the end, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Moore.

When we’ve reached a place where good Christian folk think it’s a matter of major theological principle not to sell pastries to gay people but are willing to give pedophiles a pass, I think it’s safe to say that American Christianity today — white American Christianity in particular — is in a pretty sorry state.

It’s not just that a vocal segment of white Christians can’t tell righteous leaders from sexual predators and overestimate the power of baked goods to communicate spiritual messages; our failures are wider and deeper and more foundational than that. We’re remarkably ignorant of the history and the current state of the world we inhabit, and no better with scientific knowledge either. We don’t believe the media, but we’ll believe the most incredible Twitter rumor or Facebook post, curated for us by Vladimir Putin. We are surprisingly ignorant about religion, not only other people’s, but even our own.

But perhaps most importantly, white Christians seem unwilling to be guided by the plain truth of our shared faith. Instead of forming judgments about how to live our lives based on how our religious convictions interact with real-life circumstances, we pass off irascible reactions as theological principles. White evangelical Christians like guns, for example, and do not especially likeimmigrants. Compared to other demographics, we’re excited about the death penaltyindifferent to those who are impoverished or infirm, and blind to racial and gender inequalities. We claim to read the Bible and hear Jesus’ teachings, but we think poor people deserve what they (don’t) get, and the inmates of our prisons deserve, if anything, worse than the horrors they already receive. For believers in a religion whose Scriptures teach compassion, we’re a breathtakingly cruel bunch.

Indeed it’s hard to know who we do feel pity toward, except ourselves — for we believe that we are the real victims in today’s world. Those among us who are evangelical Christians are especially paranoid: While Americans overall are twice as likely to say there is more discrimination against Muslims than against Christians, the numbers are almost reversed for white evangelical Protestants. And apparently things are getting worse: the percentage of evangelicals who said that religious freedom in the U.S. declined over the past decade rose from 60 percent in 2012 to 77 percent in 2015.

There are many factors — historical, social and political — that have helped shape white American Christianity into what it is today. But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. Theologians as well as psychologists will tell you that there is a spiritual peril in acting out of fear and a sense of danger. Fear drives us into patterns of “reasoning” that are far from reasonable, but more akin to reactionary patterns of cause-and-effect. And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.

The tyranny of fear in white Christian life is especially visible among white evangelicals, who stand out in their opposition to pluralism in America. While all other religious groups, like Americans overall, oppose letting small business owners refuse to serve gay and lesbian people — by margins of roughly two to one — white evangelicals, by 56 percent to 39 percent, say shopkeepers should be allowed to so discriminate. And Christians’ defensiveness is increasing: in 2012, 54 percent of white evangelicals supported giving preference to “traditional Judeo-Christian values”; that number rose to 76 percent in 2015. What’s true of white evangelicals is a leading indicator for white Christians as a whole. The fear of the future makes us, in Jesus’ words, strain at gnats while we swallow camels (Mt 23:24).

This is disastrous because, from the perspective of hope, in many ways our age represents an unprecedented opportunity for Christians. The collapse of Christendom over the past few centuries has created a potentially more egalitarian, authentic and pluralistic religious world. Serious relationships with members of other religious traditions, as well as atheists, teaches believers more about their faith than we would ever have otherwise known. Religious and secular human rights activists uncover the depths of our world’s suffering and pain and display more of God’s care for the oppressed, the marginalized, and the abused. The incredible tumult among ordinary churchgoers increases theological literacy in the pews, so that 500 years after the Reformation, Luther’s dream of a “Priesthood of all believers” is potentially closer than ever.

Ironically, it may well be that it is Christians’ fears about losing control of the culture that have accelerated the rise of secularism itself. (This has been an open secret in the sociology of religion for almost two decades.) Consider the rise of the “Nones” in American public life — those adults, especially younger adults, who when asked about their religious affiliation, say “none.” For decades that number was very low, but then it began to increase rapidly in the 1980s. Why was that? It seems to be caused by the tight alliance of Christianity, especially conservative white Christianity, with conservative politics over the past several decades — an association itself driven by prophesies of a rising tide of godlessness in America after the 1960s.  Those prophesies about the 1960s were wrong; but they fueled the alliance of white Christians with right-wing politics from the 1980s forward, and that alliance has repelled many younger people from religion out of a distaste at seeing religion so eagerly bend the knee to short-term political gain. That is to say, Christians’ response to a misperceived crisis have become, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pope John Paul II, who most American Christians (even Protestants like me) would allow was a pretty good Christian, said in his first homily as pope, “Do not be afraid!” This remains useful theological advice. If we are Christians, we must believe that we are safer in God’s hands than in our own. We should take no care for the morrow, but preach compassion and mercy to all, without distinction. If we do that, they’ll know we are Christians by our love — rather than our fear.

Using Religion? Higher Ed, Vocation, and Systemic Justice by Shelli M. Poe

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A response to this piece was posted by Hannah Schell, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College, entitled “Beyond ‘Warm and Fuzzy’ Mentoring” (January 15, 2018). Read Schell’s brief introduction to the response and find a link to the full response below:

“Shelli Poe’s recent post, “Using Religion? Higher Ed, Vocation, and Systemic Justice,” raises some serious questions that need to be considered by people engaged in the development and implementation of programs focused on the “vocational discernment” for undergraduates. For my response to Shelli’s blog, and for some thoughts about the implications on vocation-centered programs, please see my post at VocationMatters.org.”

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December 11, 2017

Shelli M. Poe, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps College, explores the role of religion in millennials’ present vocational understanding — and how a new way forward is necessary to enact real systemic justice.

Millennials, it turns out, have been maligned. They’re not as politically and socially passive as they have been depicted; in fact, they believe in volunteering, and they want their employment to make a meaningful difference in the world. Yet, according to the Harvard Public Opinion Project Spring 2017 Survey, Millennials are less likely than previous generations to run for public office or engage in direct political action.

While I don’t put too much stock in such generalizations or appreciate stereotyping entire generations, such surveys can offer an opportunity for reflection on young people’s civic engagement. As the director of a vocational inquiry program at a small liberal arts institution, it’s especially important for me to help students link the academic work they are undertaking in preparation for their intended careers with their social responsibilities in the wider world. There are a number of ways to do that, through coursework, community engaged learning, internships, and co-curricular experiences.

Complicating the picture, however, we are also told that Millennials want to feel, or they do feel, special. To some degree, this desire spans generations. But its apparent prevalence among current college students can present a special set of opportunities or challenges for those engaged in vocational inquiry programs.

Some institutions of higher education, drawing on their histories, might take to religion as a way to both forge the connection between individual careers and social ethics, and to capitalize on Millennials’ desire for “the feels.” In this effort, they could employ a common (though not altogether nuanced) portrayal of Martin Luther, himself often presented as a singular hero of history, to tout the special calling of each unique individual: it is not only the priest, minister, or monk who has a call from God, but also the bus driver, the barkeep, the barista, and the business woman.  Each person has work to do that, as John Cotton would say within an American context, in serving humanity will also serve God.

This much might just as well be true. But institutions of higher education sometimes go even further to assure students that, should they matriculate, the institution will help them find their true, God-given, unique calling, in just four years’ time.

My situation, both theologically and institutionally, is rather different. I study the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose thought is not very amenable to drawing out the God-given vocations of individuals as individuals. For Schleiermacher, divine providence includes individuals only insofar as they are part of communities within the created nexus of life. The individual person—though invaluable in worth and dignity, and to be respected as such—is where she is, doing what she is doing, because of a great web of interconnections that, in so many ways, have nothing particularly to do with her. While Schleiermacher acknowledges that individuals have a feeling of partial freedom, he also has a very keen sense of the conditions and communities within which individuals exist and act.

Vocational inquiry, in this context, would not seem to be a situation that calls for individuals to engage, in a sentimental usage of Frederick Buechner’s work, in profound introspection about the meeting place of “my deep gladness” and “the world’s deep need”. Instead, vocational inquiry might look like a) a simple recognition that we—special as we may be—only exist and act in relation to others within certain structures of nature and society, b) a subsequent study of and engagement with those complex relations, and c) sustained, collective, systemic efforts toward the establishment of a just society.

In short, Schleiermacher’s way of thinking might encourage students to avoid individualistic characterizations of self and one’s relation to the world, and atomistic understandings of social forces. Individualism and atomism are ways of understanding self and world that can motivate students to engage in volunteering efforts and help them feel that they are making a difference, but these efforts and feelings are not likely to have a lasting or transformative impact on the structures of society.

The mismatch between Schleiermacher’s thought and the desires of Millennial students to hear in institutions of higher education about their unique and irreplaceable calling might seem unfortunate. Because of this mismatch, I am not able to tell my students that I will use my research interests to help them intellectually frame and then find that one thing that only they can do, which will visibly make a monumental difference in the world, and be accompanied by all the gravitas that God-talk can summon. I am not able to capitalize on their desire to feel especially called-out, unique, and important.

The great advantage of the mismatch, however, is that I can ask my students to consider their involvement in the world as one piece of humanity’s collaborative work. This might lead me to say (or at least think) things like, “Your deep gladness, discerned in your prayer closet, is probably not all that important to your future employers.” And, “The ‘world’s deep need’ is so unfathomably complex that you will not be able to diagnose any portion of it properly until you are much older, if at all; and even then you will not be able to satisfy that need by yourself.” And even, “God isn’t going to intervene in your life on account of the deepest desires of your heart, placing opportunities in front of you that will become your existential fulfillment.” Admittedly, none of these remarks are warm and fuzzy. I have no “feels.”

But the earlier students can understand that identifying the confluence of their “deep gladness” and the world’s “deep need” is exceedingly difficult and has nothing to do with being adequately equipped for a career within that confluence, the better. And the more they come to see themselves as part of a landscape over which they have limited control or influence, the less they might feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, as though its salvation depends on them alone. Hopefully, they may come to simply open their eyes to the world around them and begin to investigate the complexity of the structures within which they live. They might find structures that need challenging or further development, and this, in turn, might lead to actions that make systemic, rather than ad hoc, change.

Will this perspective on vocational inquiry help institutions of higher education form Millennials and future generations of students who will become politically engaged in more ways than posting on social media? Will it lead to responsible entrepreneurship rather than simply volunteering after-hours? Will it get them out of the chaplain’s office (fine as that might be, for a time) and into the lab? Perhaps, at least, it could help students’ educators and mentors avoid using religion to keep students’ insulating and isolating blinders on, and get them engaged in systemic efforts toward justice.

Shelli M. Poe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Vocation, Ethics, and Society and the Director of the Initiative of Vocational Inquiry at Millsaps College.