“Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (6)

“Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (6) September 11, 2007

Part Six: Appalachia today in the midst of new forms of “imperial capitalism”


In light of globalization’s effects on Appalachia, the liberationist method of ethical reflection remains as important as ever. The Church must continue to strive to see reality from the viewpoint of those who are victims of institutionalized violence in the region, making a preferential option for policies that contribute to the common good, especially the well being of those excluded and marginalized. In addition to this commitment, two recent theological perspectives have the potential to contribute to the ever evolving ethical reflection in the Appalachian context, namely 1) the “new ecclesiologies” which focus on the Church as an alternative social body, and 2) recent theological reflection on radical political and social movements, particularly anti- and alternative globalization movements. This first theological development, coined the “new ecclesiology” by Nicholas M. Healy,[44] falls into what Bevans would call the “countercultural” model of contextual theology, posing a radical alternative to what Richard Gaillardetz sees as two dominant trends in Catholic social thinking: neoconservatism and correlationism (the stance of much “liberal” theology).[45] Many of those theologians who would consider themselves part of this theological trend would no doubt cite the influence of Christian ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas on their work. Insisting on a radical rethinking of ecclesiology and ethics, Hauerwas (with co-author William Willamon) insisted famously that “the church doesn’t have a social strategy, the church is a social strategy”[46] and thus, the concrete practices of the Church and how they embody a distinct social ethic in witness to the world becomes the central focus.[47] Political action, for Hauerwas and those who agree with him, is not a matter of the Church inspiring individual Christians to become “good citizens” of the nation-state, but of the Church embodying the radical politics of the Gospel in the very practices of the Church.

William T. Cavanaugh has done work on challenging many of the assumptions of Catholic social teaching, particularly the traditional Catholic understanding of the “common good,” from this ecclesiological and ethical perspective.[48] As he was a student of Hauerwas and clearly stands in the tradition of the new ecclesiology, emphasizing the importance of the practices of the Church, he also is deeply committed to the liberationist preferential option for the poor and a view from the victims, as can be seen in his influential Torture and Eucharist.[49] A quick summary, of course, will not do Cavanaugh’s work justice, but I will attempt to summarize his argument as follows.

Cavanaugh’s project serves as a necessary deconstruction of the universalizing—and, ultimately, theological—claims of the nation-state, claims that many Christian theologians end up affirming when they insist, as does Charles Curran for example, that the state is “natural and necessary” and “based on creation.”[50] In much Catholic social teaching, as in the wider society, it is assumed that the state is a natural institution that grows out of society in order to secure the common good of all citizens. Cavanaugh insists that the idea of the state as the “keeper of the common good” is a myth. Through an examination of history and a look at the particular experience of human communities under the power of nation-states and the process of globalization, Cavanaugh makes two arguments that are important for our discussion here. First, the state is not natural but originated “almost exclusively” for the purposes of revenue extraction by privileged classes and continues to legitimate itself through the production of external threats which require warmaking in order to “save” the political community from these created threats (terrorists, for example).[51] Second, the state does not serve society but has become fused with society, killing and/or absorbing diverse social groups and creating a polity of individuals who exist in a helpless relationship to the central authority of the state.

Cavanaugh concludes that, although the state can provide some limited goods, it is nevertheless “simply not in the common good business.”[52] The Church, then, needs to “demystify the nation-state and to treat it like the telephone company”—an institution that has a limited purpose for providing certain limited goods of organization and order—rather than the promoter of the common good and the “potential solution to any given social ill.”[53] Through the Church’s own community practices and common life it should imagine itself as an alternative social space and “a body that is not only international, and constantly challenges the narrow particularity of national interests, but is also eternal,”[54] and thus can facilitate a truly catholic (small ‘c’) vision of the common good. Cavanaugh’s “eucharistic anarchism,” as he called it in one essay,[55] inspires a radical hermeneutic of suspicion toward assumption that the state is the promoter of the common good, and provides a much needed reminder to Catholic social ethicists of the role of the Church as political witness. Weinbaum’s analysis of politics and economics in Appalachia, as we have seen, seems to confirm the truth of Cavanaugh’s theological critique of the state by showing how the state governments of the region largely serve, not the common good, but the interests of corporations and facilitate the process of killing and/or absorbing local social realities that Cavanaugh describes.

Advocates of the new ecclesiology are not without their critics. Because of the sometimes sharply stated division between the Church and the world, some criticize “ecclesiocentric” theologians for being sectarian, advocating a withdrawal from the world and from the realm of the “political.” Such a stance, these critics say, is irresponsible because it places faithful witness above effective engagement with the world. In response, the new ecclesiologists might argue that a return to a focus on the practices of the Church does not mean a separation from the world, but is the very means and entrance point for a real engagement in and with the world. In the words of Hauerwas,

The church need not feel caught between the false Niebuhrian dilemma of whether to be in or out of the world, politically responsible or introspectively irresponsible. The church is not out of the world. There is no other place for the church to be than here…. The church need not worry about whether to be in the world. The church’s only concern is how to be in the world, in what form, for what purpose.[56]

Just as the praxis/liberationist model highlighted the need for marginalized human persons and communities to become subjects of their own histories, the countercultural/ecclesiocentric model highlights the need for the Church, marginalized[57] by the creation of the “secular” nation-state, to become a communal subject in history, or a “public in its own right,” in the words of Reinhard Hütter.[58] An ecclesiocentric approach maintains and emphasizes the power of the Church to resist being the “chaplain” to structures of injustice. The Church’s recovery of its own subjectivity and a sense of its own ability to embody the radical demands of the Gospel, far from encouraging a withdrawal or sectarian posture, should in fact draw the Church into dialogue, engagement and cooperation with other communities who are working to embody radical alternatives to the global order. Again, Hauerwas insists that from this ecclesiological perspective, the choice between faithfulness and effectiveness is a “false alternative.”[59] Churches “can participate in secular movements against war, against hunger, and against other forms of inhumanity, but it sees this as part of its necessary proclamatory action. The church knows that its most credible form of witness (and the most “effective” thing it can do for the world) is the actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith.”[60] Indeed, this is already taking place in some circles such as the movement to close the School of the Americas, a movement that combines the Church’s liberation tradition with a focus on the Church’s radical countercultural witness while collaborating with other groups who share all or part of that vision.[61]

A related charge is the suspicion that an ecclesiocentric focus will lead to a ecclesial triumphalism that encourages a model of Church that sees itself as superior to others while remaining incognizant of its own faults and sinfulness. Indeed, it is easy to read some of the new ecclesiologists this way and charge them with having an elevated, idealistic ecclesiology which would inspire an ethic that is arrogant at best and, at worst, perverse.[62] Hauerwas, in his extremely confrontational style is an especially easy target for this charge, although the gentler Cavanaugh seems equally prone to this tendency when he makes claims such as “Liberation theology has taught us to address the conflictual nature of Latin American reality. Christians need to read this conflict as between the world and [the] new community, the church.”[63] Taken in context, however, it is clear that implied in these statements is the clear recognition that the Church has not lived, and indeed is not living, up to what it is called to be, and thus has a strong tendency toward unfaithfulness. This recognition of the sinful nature of the Church (perhaps admittedly more present in Cavanaugh’s work than in Hauerwas’) undermines any attempt to paint these ecclesiocentric theologians as triumphalists. Indeed, Healy, who is sympathetic to but somewhat critical of the “new ecclesiology” insists that these theologians provide a much needed reminder of the Church’s task of witnessing to the wider world.[64] Healy considers himself a part of the “new ecclesiology” but at the same time maintains a humble and non-idealized view of the Church’s relationship to the world.[65] Following Healy, I would insist that the new ecclesiology of practices must maintain a realistic sense of the sinfulness that is present in both the world and in the Church, thus the goal of the Church’s political life is not to “Christianize” the social order, nor should the Church expect that the structures of domination, especially as they exist in the situation of global capitalism, will ever be “just” in the fullest sense. The calling of the Church, though it can and often does fail, is to live faithfully in the present, resisting the powers of injustice, marginalization, and violence. It is to engage the world in the context in which it finds itself in hopeful witness, embodying in its own practices the Kingdom values to which it is committed.

Cavanaugh’s style of theology, in its drive to reveal the theological underpinnings of supposedly “secular” realities such as the nation-state, breaks down the barriers between what is usually assumed to be “religious” and “secular.” The second recent theological development I want to draw from does something similar, but from another angle. Our second step of the hermeneutical circle, that of “judging,” can learn not only from theological sources of reflection but from supposedly “secular” sources as well, particularly the countercultural social movements that have irrupted to oppose the process of corporate and imperial globalization. Canadian critical theologian Lee Cormie has suggested that radical social movements can be “primary sites of our encounters with the Divine in history.”[66] In agreement with Cormie, I believe that the Church can, with theological reflection and discernment, learn much from the experience of recent social movements and that there are many parallels between the insights of these movements and the vision of the new ecclesiology.

One of the insights of these anti- or “alternative” globalization movements is that in order to create the kind of world we want, we cannot count on the state or existing structures of domination to change, or to “be their best selves.”[67] Instead, some of the most effective movements of resistance and change have not been focused on
petitioning or lobbying the state or other organizations to change, nor have they focused on the “revolutionary” take-over of state power, but have instead focused on building power from below through practices of resistance and the creation of alternative social and economic relationships that threaten the established order through the building of a new one.[68] This has been true, not only in Appalachia (recall the “experiments” described in At Home in the Web of Life), but on a global scale, in particular communities within the “First World” (e.g. New York City[69] and Ontario[70]) and the “Third World” (e.g. Argentina[71]). Some have gone so far as to suggest that the Left’s traditional critiques of capitalism have themselves contributed to capitalism’s hegemony over human life and have discouraged movements toward alternative noncapitalist relationships and structures by envisioning the “revolution” as a future event in which capitalism, as a monolithic system, will be destroyed, and only after this revolution would the room needed to develop alternatives then emerge.[72] Instead of “waiting around for the revolution,”[73] these new social movements take what could, ironically, be called the “Nike” approach to resisting capitalism and building alternatives: “Just Do It.”

Interestingly, this key insight of the radical social movements has parallels with the ecclesiological debate between “faithfulness” and “effectiveness” alluded to in the previous discussion of the new ecclesiology. Within the circles of radical politics and radical ecclesiology that both tend to rethink the meaning of politics and power, debates have arisen around the degree to which “effectiveness” should be of concern. For radical social movements, this takes the form of the tension between “reform” and “revolution,” or the question of how much radical groups should “sell out” their radical ideals by working with the current system in order to effect change through various compromises. For ecclesiologists and ethicists, the tension is between the ideal of faithful witness to the Gospel and the “effectiveness” of trying to influence unjust political structures. As we have seen in Hauerwas and Willimon’s thinking, perhaps this is a false dichotomy, and the most “effective” way of making change is the radical embodiment, without compromise, of the alternatives that are our hopes for the world.

Next: Part Seven – Appalachia today in the midst of new forms of “imperial capitalism” – Acting (Conclusion)
Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four
, Part Five


[44] Cf. Nicholas M. Healy, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” International
Journal of Systematic Theology
5, no. 3 (November 2003): 287–308 and Nicholas M. Healy, “Ecclesiology and Communion,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 31, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 273–90.
[45] Richard R. Gaillardetz, “The Ecclesiological Foundations of Modern Catholic Social Teaching,” in Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries & Interpretations, ed. Kenneth Himes (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 77–80.
[46] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 43.
[47] Three key essays by Hauerwas give a general over view of his thought: “How ‘Christian Ethics’ Came
to Be,” “On Keeping Theological Ethics Theological,” and “The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics,” all of which can be found in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
[48] William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology 20, no. 2 (April 2004): 243–74 A fuller critique can be found in his Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism (London: T. & T. Clark, 2002).

[49] William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
[50] Cited in Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company,” 244.
[51] Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company,” 247–9.
[52] Ibid., 266.
[53] Ibid., 266, 268.
[54] Ibid., 269.
[55] William T. Cavanaugh, “The City: Beyond Secular Parodies,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy Series (London: Routledge, 1999) As strange as it may sound to some, there is an identifiable tradition within Christianity that understands the faith to have much in common with certain strands of anarchism. The Catholic Worker movement, co-founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, has always identified itself very much as an “anarchist” movement. Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac and Gregory Baum have both engaged the classical anarchist thinker Pierre Joseph Proudhon (Henri de Lubac, The un-Marxian Socialist: A Study of Proudhon, R. E. Scantlebury [New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948], Gregory Baum, “From Solidarity to Resistance,” in Intersecting Voices: Critical Theologies in a Land of Diversity, ed. Don Schweitzer and Derek Simon [Toronto: Novalis, 2004], 49–66).
[56] Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 43.
[57] To speak of the Church here as “marginalized,” I do not intend to ignore the many ways the Church possesses and exerts real power in the political realm. Some have rightly criticized ecclesiocentric political theologies for arguing that the Church should reclaim its “political” nature when the Church actually needs to withdraw from the political realm in many ways. Elina Vuola makes this point in “Radical Eurocentrism: The Crisis and Death of Latin American Liberation Theology and Recipes for Its Improvement,” in Interpreting the Postmodern, Rosemary Radford Ruether (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2006), 57–75. The question revolves, of course, around what one means when one is describing the “political” nature of the Church, and whether the Church, according to this vision, exerts political power by protecting the status quo or by embodying the politics of the Gospel.
[58] See chapter 2 of Reinhard Hütter, Bound to be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004).
[59] Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 46.
[60] Ibid., 47.
[61] See the School of the Americas Watch website at http://www.soaw.org.
[62] The work of John Milbank, who has spearheaded the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement, is frequently criticized for a perceived ecclesial triumphalism (John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason [Oxford: Blackwell, 1990]). For a sympathetic but strongly critical response to Milbank’s work, see Gregory Baum, “For and Against John Milbank,” in Essays in Critical Theology (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1994), 52–76.
[63] William T. Cavanaugh, “The Ecclesiologies of Medellín and the Lessons of the Base Communities,” Cross Currents 44 (Spring 1994): 68.
[64] Healy, “Ecclesiology and Communion,” 287.
[65] For a fuller description of his own ecclesiology and approach to ecclesial ethics, see his Church, World
and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology
, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
[66] Lee Cormie, “Movements of the Spirit in History,” in Talitha Cum! the Grace of Solidarity in a
Globalized World
, ed. Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare and Gabriella Miranda Garcia (Geneva: World Student Christian Federation Publications, 2004), 238.
[67] See the collection Notes from Nowhere, We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global
and Klein, No Logo.
[68] Notes from Nowhere, “Power: Building It Without Taking It,” in We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism, ed. Notes from Nowhere (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 387–97.
[69] Brad Will, “Cultivating Hope: The Community Gardens of New York City,” in We Are Everywhere:
The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism
, ed. Notes from Nowhere (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 134–39.
[70] Jeff Shantz, “Fighting to Win: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty,” in We Are Everywhere: The
Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism
, ed. Notes from Nowhere (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 464–71.
[71] Marina Sitrin and Notes from Nowhere, “The Power of the Piqueteros: An Interview with Members of
Argentina’s Movement of Unemployed Workers,” in We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global
, ed. Notes from Nowhere (New York: Verso Books, 2003), 472–81.
[72] J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996).
[73] Ibid., 251.

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  • Wow… Right off the bat, I don’t agree with Cavanaugh with regards to the State, but I would have to read him more to see how he backs his concept up. I’m sure he has interesting points worth pondering on.

    Is he the same Cavanaugh that liked Dorothy Day? Is he a Jesuit? I think Michael J mentioned that there was a Jesuit priest in St. Louis U that liked Dorothy Day a lot.

  • Check out the Cavanaugh article I cited for a fuller explanation of his position on the state. His book “Theopolitical Imagination” is an even fuller version.

    Cavanaugh indeed admires Dorothy Day and the CW movement, and I think he teaches a course on the CW movement. But no, he’s not a Jesuit, and he teaches at St Thomas in Minnesota. You are probably thinking of John Kavanaugh of America Magazine.

  • Yes, that’s probably him with a K. Thanks for the reference!