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Davina C. Lopez Cultivating Relationships. A Response

Thank you for organizing this conversation with this stellar group of colleagues, Susanne. I’ll keep this brief. As I read the contributions for this morning’s panel, I was moved and I am grateful. And as I think about this topic of cultivating relationships, I am struck by a current that runs throughout the panelists’ remarks: cultivating relationships through concern for the other. I am going to focus my response, then, on that issue. On the one hand, in our neoliberal authoritarian age, it might be possible to argue that, at least rhetorically, no one is “other” anymore. We live in a time when we can share anything we want with the world via social media; where emergent biotechnologies can render our bodies more similar to each other and also to machines; where the fact of extreme weather brings us together; where we are encouraged to think of ourselves as one human family, beyond gender, beyond color, beyond labels; where the discourses of nationalism redescribe and reinscribe notions of bounded purity and universality. On the other hand, in our context virtually everyone is an individual, an-other of some sort, on the receiving end of divisive rhetoric and praxis, of using difference to form hierarchies, encouraged to turn away from all the others and focus on inward self-cultivation, encouraged to damage coalitions, encouraged to tease out and brand our differences so we can be more proficient and prosperous consumers of identity markers, so we can look and talk and act the part.

Aside from what our colleagues have raised here, I want to point out an important feature of neoliberal authoritarianism: the individualization and pathologization of injustice and oppression. I have been persuaded by Angela Davis’s observations on this subtle discourse and how it plays out. Davis observes that neoliberal discourse highlights individual attitudes and acts of racism (for example) as the problem of those particular situations and those people’s particular performances of identity and culture, rather than understanding racism as a complex of institutional and structural issues that might shape those situations in decisive ways. [1] So, in the United States at least, “racism,” as a historically potent arena that denotes deeply rooted structural relations of power and privilege, is reconfigured as an individual identity issue (so, “racists”). Individuals are highlighted for their “garbage” attitudes and behaviors, for which they must “take responsibility.” Meanwhile, how all of us people participate in the broader institutional dynamics that have authorized, normalized, and perpetuated such attitudes and behaviors go largely unaddressed, as if getting rid of individual racists will somehow end racism as a social structuring principle. Similarly, what used to be called “women’s liberation” is now part of discourses about women’s individual capacities; meanwhile, patriarchy and misogyny as pervasive structural issues are sidestepped. As the neoliberal age exists at the so-called “end of history,” it has effectively mystified, if not obscured, the historical contingencies of identity formation, power relationships, and patterns of domination and oppression.

In the middle of all of this, I find myself thinking about some good old Marxist solidarity with a bit of twist. I am reminded of Karl Marx’s buddy Friedrich Engels’s prescient complaint about social Darwinism: that the struggle to compete for survival and social capital among humans was a terrible idea that would lead to a lack of flourishing among people, animals, and the planet. I don’t know about you. I have spent the last five days walking around what seems like a concentrated social Darwinist experiment around here at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meetings. I wonder what it would take to produce knowledge together without thinking about whose ideas will catch on more quickly, who will come up with the new fashionable method in biblical studies, who will get that book contract and/or lots and lots of mentions and retweets – while, as Tina Pippin has pointed out, the material conditions in which we conduct our labor are, to put it nicely, precarious – and so on and on.

In a Marxist framework, solidarity is a way to meet and support the stranger on the terms that the stranger sets. This sounds lovely and maybe a little quaint and is actually a little more complicated than it seems. As the base ethical obligation of workers’ movements, solidarity necessitates support for all oppressed peoples and creatures on their terms. It differs from community in that it emphasizes the stranger and it differs from charity in that the terms are not determined or controlled by the giver. Solidarity is in direct contrast to competition between people. What is often downplayed or forgotten in discussions of solidarity in contemporary sloganeering is the idea that solidarity is not the end of caring for the other. It is, rather, only the beginning. Once solidarity is extended, it becomes a means to cultivate trust as best we can. In order for others to connect with each other and become radical subjects together, trust born of solidarity must serve as the foundation for resistant and probably subversive social bonds not based on or aligned with tradition, family, religion, nationality, and so on. And these different social bonds are totally necessary for doing society differently.

Thus, solidarity can lead to the active imagination about what a world truly predicated on open-eyed care for the other, a world that does not overindividualize and pit us in competition with each other, can look like. Along these lines I am taken with some ideas from the dusty old area of the history of religions, namely that there is no pure origin point for our present and therefore no way to return to a golden age or move forward through such a return; no way to forget the messy histories of structural oppression; no way to just buy a special drink, face mask, spandex girdle, or car that will fix us or return us to a more whole state. Maybe we have never been whole, maybe that is what we need to remember, maybe that solidarity out of brokenness is a starting point. In this way, I resonate with Antonio Gramsci’s call to know one’s self through compiling an inventory of the broken self-in-relation, though I share Julietta Singh’s caution that this assemblage will not be enough even as it might give us self-consciousness for the journey. [2]

Finally, while neoliberalism is thought to be a new thing, it is worth remembering that it most certainly is not. I do not think it is an accident that the first use of neoliberalism was in the 1930s, as a way to reassert classical liberalism and combat the dangers of communist coalition-building at the time, particularly in the United States. This tells me that these solidarity relationships are not just a good idea, but a true threat. To this end, I also keep Emma Goldman’s articulation of anarchy through solidarity in view. Let me quote:

“The general contention that Anarchists are opposed to organization, and hence stand for chaos, is absolutely groundless. True, we do not believe in the compulsory, arbitrary side of organization that would compel people of antagonistic tastes and interests into a body and hold them there by coercion. Organization as the result of natural blending of common interests, brought about through voluntary adhesion, Anarchists do not only not oppose, but believe in as the only possible basis of social life…. Indeed, only Anarchism makes non-authoritarian organization a reality, since it abolishes the existing antagonism between individuals and classes.” [3]

May we all continue to extend to others, build trust, remember and honor brokenness, and do so anarchically or in non-authoritarian ways. I look forward to building on our time together with all of you.

[1] See Angela Y. Davis, “Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism,” in The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (City Lights, 2009), 165–178.

[2] See Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum, 2018).

[3] Emma Goldman, What I Believe (New York World, 1908), 8.

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Davina C. Lopez Ph.D.,

is Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA, where she also serves as core faculty in Women’s and Gender Studies and chair of the humanities division. Her research interests include feminist and rhetorical criticisms, histories of biblical interpretation, theories and methods in the study of religion and the humanities, and gender studies. She is the author of Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission (Fortress Press, 2008), the senior editor for the Greek, Roman, New Testament, and Early Christian worlds for The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gender Studies (Oxford, 2014), and the co-author (with Todd Penner) of De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley, 2015).

© Davina C. Lopez, 2020,, ISSN 1661-3317

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