To have been so right, and yet so wrong, about the private consensus (My conversion to liberation theology #3)

To have been so right, and yet so wrong, about the private consensus (My conversion to liberation theology #3) December 14, 2017

Rick Warren's Facebook post - screenshot by Andrew Tsai (redguard1.jpg)
Rick Warren’s Facebook post – screenshot by Andrew Tsai (redguard1.jpg)

This is the third in a series of posts testifying about my conversion to liberation theology. Previous posts can be found here and here.

Before moving on to my discovery of liberation theology proper, I want to talk a little bit more about the implications of the Radical Orthodoxy with which I was enamored while I was an Anglican and a graduate student in geography. It has taken me a while to admit that much of the inspiration behind my work on ‘grounded theologies‘ – what I described in Progress in Human Geography as the ‘performative practices of placemaking that are informed by understandings of the transcendent’ – was informed by the school of thought in theology called ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ associated with John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, and even Stanley Hauerwas and Bill Cavanaugh to some extent. In a nutshell, Radical Orthodoxy sees what we might call the ‘secular’ world as constituted by an aberrant Christian theology premised on sheer power and calls for the church to rediscover a radically orthodox Christian existence based on musical harmonization and loving communion. With a twist, this means that all geographies – every way of conceiving of space that is possible – can ultimately be analyzed theologically for what they might have to say about the supernatural, including secular and atheistic ones.

What I then suggested in my dissertation (which I have to totally revise now for my book) and subsequently in a bit of online activism around an open letter that Asian Americans wrote to ‘the evangelical church‘ (about which I have some misgivings now) was that the attempt to keep theology in a kind of private sphere is really a form of religious colonization. Oftentimes, this doesn’t happen because secular institutions are telling religious people to keep their mouths shut in the public arena (though this does happen), but because evangelicals might feel the need to be ‘relevant’ or (as Milbank portrayed it in Theology and Social Theory) because liberation theologians might want to make theology actually applicable to the real, material circumstances of the poor and the oppressed (he is wrong about this, as I hope to show in future posts). In both cases, Milbank would reply that what is at work is a secular theological impulse borrowed from liberal sociology called ‘policing the sublime.’ The idea is that theology, being unruly, needs to be restricted to a domain that where it can be thought of as irrelevant. On the flip side, deciding that theology has to become relevant maintains that boundary and causes any exercise of theological speech to be done with a chip on the speaker’s shoulder. In this way, it can be said that the ‘secular’ with its theological conception of sheer power exercised through policing has successfully colonized theology in the modern era.

This is precisely what I saw throughout my work on Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians in Pacific Rim civil societies, as well as among Asian American and Asian Canadian Christians trying to engage the evangelical world and their own home communities on social justice. When it came down to getting things done in the public arena, there would be a lot of hesitation and misgivings from many of the communities I studied. There would be a lot of bells and whistles at the beginning, and then crickets. What was happening in the meantime was that they were taking an argument offline, back into some closed-door meeting or telephone call, and then what happens behind the scenes is that if, say, you are protesting an institution like a church or a government or some big business, suddenly you emerge having done a deal and the protester is silenced. This is, I suggested, how a privatized religion works, so the danger for when it begins to think about its ‘relevance’ to the secular world in a post-privatized way, it will slip back into a private way of doing things. Recalling that Milbank took his ‘policing of the sublime’ from his critique of liberal sociology where the point of politics is to build an overlapping consensus among disparate parties, I playfully called this the private consensus. I never published anything formal about it. However, at the height of my frustration with my research participants and comrades in arms in evangelical activism, I wrote a blog post on it, which I then spoke about with journalists and all who would give me a fair hearing. What starts public stays public, I declared. The moment you take the conversation offline, you lose to the more powerful party because offline, in private, in the shadows, is where power wants to put the powerless.

In time, I was consumed with speaking to journalists, writing blog posts, posting on social media, and even taking to the streets for demonstrations, which was part of my impetus in getting involved in the Umbrella Movement. The point was to unravel the private consensus. I couched the whole thing in descriptive terms: the private consensus is unraveling (with a very bad hashtag, #TPCIU). In this time of far-right authoritarianism accompanied by new forms of fascism, that assessment might seem naïve. But I have to be fair to myself: I said this at a time of great hope and optimism, when the occupy movements of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Maidan, and then soon after the Sunflower and Umbrella Movements actually looked like they might do something to overturn authoritarian regimes. Their strategy was also to use social media, and in sharp contrast to the misgivings now of social media programmers, the idea was that Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, and all the rest of these platforms could be used by activists to directly mobilize the masses for social change.

I saw a convergence here with the activist dimension of Milbank’s forceful denunciation of the policing of the sublime. If the secular realm is just as theological as the church, then what he is talking about is a secular colonization of the sacred. Put in social justice terms, this necessitated in my view a decolonization of theology, and that would happen by resisting the policing of the sublime, which seemed to me (naïvely) to be precisely what protesters in the occupy movements were doing in a very physical way with actual state paramilitary police. It was like I was reading Milbank through Kwok Pui Lan and Joerg Rieger’s Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude – terribly misguided, hopelessly cute, woefully doomed, so stupid.

The devil, after all, lies in the detail of practice. How exactly I envisioned the unraveling of the private consensus was by making sure that all the things that evangelicals (and then, by extension, Catholics and Orthodox) wanted to keep private should be constantly broadcast on social media, the blogosphere, and to the press. In this way, we wrote that Asian American open letter to evangelicals, and I kept tabs on what was going on in Hong Kong and Taiwan with the democracy movements.

I had so much faith that the private consensus was unraveling. Part of it was my being very taken with the newly elected Pope Francis’s devotion to Our Lady Untier of Knots; as I’ve written before, that’s where I got the metaphor of unraveling. But that is not what happened. Each of the occupy movements failed in their own way. The openings that they had made for the irruption of the sublime to overthrow its policing were shut. Soon, the new vogue in activism was not constant public broadcasting, but the formation of safe spaces, identity politics with an intersectional strategy, and the refusal of journalistic commentary for fear of a liberal co-optation of social justice narratives. In looking back at the Umbrella Movement, it became apparent that the street occupations had truly been leaderless in the sense that they were not only demanding democracy from the Hong Kong government and the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing, but also voicing their discontent with the democratic campaign Occupy Central with Love and Peace that had tried to educate them about civic participation and civil disobedience, the churches that tried to stay politically neutral, and the spectre of organized crime linked with property tycoons. The movement had fragmented because there were too many egos on the street and too many institutions to protest, and as the streets were cleared, public opinion turned against the memory of the occupations, radical groups advocating for Hong Kong’s autonomy harassed Chinese tourists and enacted violence on the streets, and new political parties faced reprisals from the government, sometimes for their own stupidity but always in a Kafkaesque tone that from the government that was usually even more stupid.

But the greatest disappointment I had was with Anglicanism itself. In Chinese, ‘Anglicanism’ is translated 聖公會, sheng kung hui, the ‘holy public community.’ I was very taken with the concept of the 公, the ‘public,’ as was most of Hong Kong theology at the time and even now, in the terms of a ‘public theology’ 公共神學. The opposite of the private consensus, I thought, was to conceive of the church itself as public and as ‘public’ – a people that is addressed, called out of the world, in order to serve the world. Here, after all, lay the concept of the parish, which is neither the church building nor the gathered assembly, but a geographical designation to be served by the church around which the community revolves. This was, furthermore, not a strictly ‘Western’ concept. Was this not, after all, the politics of the Beijing Spring at Tiananmen Square, where confrontations were public, everything was broadcast, and the Poliburo brought to its knees before the tanks came rolling out because the private consensus had unraveled and a future of public transparency was being brought into reality? Chinese Anglicanism: here I thought was what I was talking about, and this could even be brought into the Chinese evangelicalism of my youth. I was, in all full disclosure, not even attending an Anglican parish at the time I was thinking about all of this, but a small non-denominational church with mostly second-generation Chinese Canadian families that met in a community center and had quasi-liturgical sensibilities inspired somewhat by Anglicanism. ‘Anglican’ in this sense was not an identity that I had to be strict about, although I really was canonically Anglican, chrismated as I was in the Province of Rwanda (I have realignment origins). It was the sensibility of the ‘holy public community’ brought to bear on the rest of Christianity.

And yet, this was not Anglicanism as it was lived out. When it came to Hong Kong, the Anglican primate and provincial secretary rejected the democracy movement on the grounds that their proposed plan for civil disobedience would disturb the financial stability of the city. When there was a protest in the summer before the Umbrella Movement occupations, the primate made fun of the protesters for being middle-class kids who didn’t bring their Filipina maids out onto the streets and then said that they should have been silent like Jesus as he was a lamb led to the slaughter. As for Anglican theology in the United States, all that the theological inspiration afforded by the occupy protests managed to generate were proposals to de-hierarchicalize the church without much reference to the world that was still in the grip of late capitalist authoritarianism. The private consensus had not unraveled, and it felt like Anglican theology had made it worse. What’s more, around that time, I discovered that Milbank had some laments about the ‘premature’ loss of British colonial imperialism. I was a geographer, so I missed the insight from the theological academy for a couple of years, and I was so mad.

Unraveling the private consensus through public broadcasting, especially on social media, turned out to be a dead end. It may be true that the secular is theologically constituted, but this does not mean that all theologies are created equal. You cannot just broadcast your way through public religiosity out of the private consensus. You cannot fight a theology of power with a politics of harmonious communion without compromising with the powers. You cannot just live theologically without an analysis of power, oppression, and colonization that goes beyond complaining about how the secular polices the sublime. There was something missing, but I could not seem to find what it was. When I ended up learning about it from some of my Catholic friends, Latin and Byzantine, that something almost ended up unraveling me altogether. It also probably brought me to liberation theology.

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