Luke Bretherton, professor of theological ethics in the Divinity School and senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, joined the University Scholars for a USP Seminar on “Coming to Judgement in a World on Difference” on 09/10/2015.
Bretherton began his talk by discussing the events that shaped his perspective and interest in community organizing following his graduation from university. In 1989, after university, he headed to Berlin and Prague. He began working for Christian NGO in Central/Eastern Europe with schools (for example: he met with the Russian Minister of Education on how to write history textbooks in post-USSR). He worked with orphanages, microcredit unions on “knowledge transfer politics.” Eastern Europe at the time was the “Wild East,” with the premonition of questions persisting today including the role of state sponsored healthcare (i.e. Medicare), the role of universities, sustainable agriculture. Problems included:
- Rise of plutocratic elites (i.e. Putin), backed up by capitalistic enterprises results in a concentration of power in the hands of a few
- Rise of ethno-religious nationalism – what is the role of religion in shaping international relations?
- Collapse of European Marxist project –building an emancipatory future through state ideology, including educating the young, caring for the old, maintaining crops/agriculture, roads, etc.
With NGOs, Bretherton started wondering how the church can resolve moral/ethical disputes, including with those with whom the church disagrees. This led him to do his PhD at the University College London on moral philosophy and moral theology, pursuing the question “what is the nature of the good life?” and “what does it mean to be human?” following Duke professor emeritus Alasdair McIntyre. He contrasted notions of hospitality, which is a thick practice in various religions. For example, various religions have notions of hospitality regarding contact with strangers contrasted to notions of tolerance – ways of understanding not only strangers, but also those whom you actively do not like. Polarizing conflicts:
- Alternatives to euthanasia = hospice
- Alternatives to abortion
- US Culture Wars
Bretherton’s 2nd book questioned the ways that the state had been the primary provider of welfare in Europe after 1989. Individual vs. party state – no mediating structure. The state controlled everything from soccer clubs to knitting clubs, which meant that the individual was extremely vulnerable to the power exerted by the state. However, in market-based economies, the individual is equally vulnerable, but to the power of the market, rather than the state.
Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, discussed the atomizing of society, claiming that civil society was not flourishing. Religious groups suggested themselves as mediators. Bretherton asked himself how we should understand the public sphere? He analyzed the concept through the intersecting lenses of social policy, theological concerns, and political theory, asking questions such as:
- What is a “state”?
- How should we understand “government”?
- How do we understand “secular”?
- Should the public sphere be secular?
1979 was a watershed year. It featured:
- The rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the Moral Majority and the influence of evangelists, and a move away from social democracy to a neo-liberal market orientation.
- Pope John Paul II ascended to the papacy and became the first “celebrity” pope and was very influential in positioning the Catholic Church as a public and political presence.
- The Solidarity movement in Poland, Pope John Paul II’s home country, originated as a Catholic based trade union. It was at the vanguard of opposition to communist rule, a mass mobilization to challenge the totalitarian structure in Poland.
- 1979 also saw the rise of political Islam with the Iranian Revolution (referenced in the recent film Argo.) In 1979, the CIA saw “modernization” as equating with “secularization” and predicted that the significance of religion would decline. They saw the Shah of Iran as the future, with women entering universities, and they did not recognize the Ayatollah as a threat. Iran was the center of US spy operations in the Middle East. During the Iranian Revolution, the CIA was forced to shred all its intelligence documents, destroying any institutional knowledge of the Middle East, and ending US influence in the region.
- In India, the world’s largest secular democracy, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, reformed from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), and it now has a prominent religious party at its head.
Today, we find ourselves in the context of plurality and de-institutionalization. There is no institutional imagination now, and yet institutions are crucial for civil society, outside of state and market influence. Bretherton began by asking what are alternatives to a “non-statist, non-market based society?” He needed a methodology, a mode of research based on listening, which he found in ethnography.
Ethnography begins with listening. Bretherton was more influenced by Marvin Gaye’s question, “What’s Going On?” than by Lenin’s question of “What is to be done?” The former question demands that the questioner listen to the interlocutor to understand the issues at play. The latter begins by asserting a given issue or problem, already identified, and then seeks solutions. Bretherton got training in ethnography, following the model espoused by Saul Alinsky. How do you know you understand the practice of ethnography? By doing it and immersing oneself. Bretherton was also influenced by Michael Burawoy, a UC Berkely sociologist who works on trade unions; by Hannah Arendt‘s work; by the notion of “civic republicanism”; and by the concept of “consociational democracy,” democracy based on individual liberty using shared speech and common action to resolve problems. Rather than try to resolve problems as individuals, we need the involvement of associations.
Much is made of the impact of social media, but it is important to distinguish between organizing vs. mobilizing. Social media is great at mobilizing. Organizing is a populist politics vs. the anti-establishment rhetoric of the Tea Party and Trump, which insist on “my family, my territory, my rights” vs. seeking the welfare of ALL. It is important to take people’s customs and traditions seriously. Community organizing begins with people’s traditions.
Community organizing means having to join an institution, not to seek change as an individual. The main institutions underpinning community organizing in the US today are primarily religious institutions, some schools, as well as radical urban political organizations, focusing on issues such as establishing a living wage. Durham CAN is one such organization, positing itself as contrary to the stereotype of the intersection of religion and politics. While the stereotypical merging of religion and politics connotes pushing a right-wing conservative agenda, Durham CAN instead seeks to promote issues of social justice serving the poor and disenfranchised communities.
Bretherton charges that today we suffer from a paucity of imagination. The dominance of market-based economics in government has led to a failure to produce new institutions. When the notion of “public” is equated with “oppression” and “private” equates with “freedom,” it is impossible to invent new institutions with that perspective.
In the European context, which operates on a “civil economy,” state-mediated capitalism redistributes wealth for welfare needs. In the U.S., increasingly, we rely on “philanthropic capitalism,” where individuals with enormous personal wealth seek market-based solutions to social problems. The market may be more efficient, but the state allocates resources better. Bill Gates is a heroic model of change. But what about ordinary people? Where is the space for them to act? Who has the power to act? How has agency? These are questions of the distribution of power, not of resources, because we are not lacking resources.
Some, like Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, who works on network theory, are critical of community organizing as being too small scale because it doesn’t impact on the global scale. Bretherton counters by arguing that within globalization, localities are micro-environments with global span. Power is the ability to act. Politics is action in time. We have to know when, where and with whom to act. For example, research on value chains asks us to identify where value is added to a commodity. By disrupting that, one impacts the whole chain. Similarly, community organizing can have a global impact by starting at the local level. We have to be savvy about place not scale, Bretherton argues.