This is a panelist contribution to the “Engaging Christianities and Socialisms” series, co-hosted by the Institute for Christian Socialism and the Wendland-Cook Program for Religion and Justice. You can watch all three webinars here.
The Engaging Christianities and Socialisms series arose out of a fundamental unease with the current state of our economic, political, and religious lives. We see deep economic inequalities only heightened by the pandemic, where working people are once again placed at the mercy of a capitalist system that prizes profit and shareholders over working people’s lives and the planet. Our political democracy seems to be democracy in name only with corruptible politicians at the mercy of the moneyed elite. Our religious leaders, more often than not, offer excuses for the current quagmire of troubles and suffering that late modern capitalism has created.
But we at The Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Institute for Christian Socialism know that the current reality is not our only option. There is a deep and wide tradition of democratic socialism that Christians can again engage today by building economic, religious, and political democracy in their communities. By telling the story of how we got here, we can break open new imaginaries for where we can go. And yet, we need not only imagination but practical strategies for building God’s cooperative commonwealth.
Over the course of the three webinars we’ve held this spring, we’ve highlighted working peoples’ movements in response to the evils of capitalism, rising white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and ecological destruction. We have often said—and it should not be overlooked—that religion is part of the problem. Religion is not a panacea to our economic and political challenges. Instead, religion itself must be transformed into a deeper resource for liberation movements today. This is why throughout the series we’ve not only examined various economic and political responses found in socialisms broadly, but we’ve also examined how a commitment to democratic socialism and economic democracy can change our religious expressions: liturgies can be found in organizing strategies; in the body of Christ assembling in public; in listening to the movement of the Spirit through listening campaigns and deep canvassing. Christianity can make a difference within people’s movements for greater economic and political democracy, but it takes the right sort of religious vision and expression for it to make the right sort of difference. The best of the Christian democratic socialist vision and expression emerges from a dialectic of religion and organizing, where both are transformed and edified.
In the first webinar, What Have Christianity and Socialism to do with Each Other?, we explored this relationship broadly. Angela Cowser, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Joerg Rieger, and Cornel West addressed how for many on the left, Christianity provides a grounding and deepening of socialism. Socialism is a particular moment in the broader Christian worldview, as West said in our conversation, And, as Rieger argues in his written contribution to this project, this doesn’t mean that the Christian socialism we have in mind is utopian or optimistic. The Christian socialism we have in mind is deeply connected to democracy and democratic peoples’ movements that place questions of production and agency over questions of consumption. Rather than blaming individual consumers, the sort of Christian socialism we have in mind takes aim at unjust systems and structures of production and labor.
Theologically put, God invites us into covenantal relationships that are morally and ethically significant and enhance our agency as producers and co-constructors of the world with God. The model of society is not the social contract, but the Christian socialist covenant that envisions a model of society characterized by radically democratic institutions and distribution of power in all areas of life, where human and non-human agents have control over their own productive and reproductive labor, and where finally all are liberated from extractive neoliberal, neofascist, white supremacist capitalism.
Then, in the second webinar, How Can Christian Socialists Build Deeper Solidarities?, we explored the challenges of building deep solidarity. Timothy Eberhart, Obery Hendricks, Sarah Ngu, Jeremy Posadas, and Josh Davis argued that intersectional analysis, an analysis that argues for the liberation of all people and all of the planet’s biodiversity, is part and parcel of this movement. Often, socialisms are unhappily associated with deformed visions of liberation and democracy by the working people for all working people—this leads to misconceptions and overlooks that “capitalism is the ism that funds all the other ‘isms’” as Jeremy Posadas puts it. Intersectionality is crucial here. As Posadas says in my interview with him, “We rightly pursue vibrant and intentional inclusion with regard to identity-based forms of identity, but with regard to economic and class-based difference, we’re talking about abolishing not only the divides themselves, but the underlying mechanisms that create those divides.”
“Practice and demand”: That is Jessica Gordon-Nembhard’s advice for Christian socialists today in our third webinar, What is to Be Done? Gordon-Nembhard joined Ed Whitfield, Andrew Wilkes, Micah Uetricht, and myself in a conversation that addressed the question, How can Christian socialists today join all working people to build religious, economic, and political democracies, and what are the unique strengths that Christian socialists might bring to these action-oriented movements?
The challenges and opportunities set before Christians interested in socialism are rapidly shifting: for the first time in almost one hundred years democratic socialism and economic democracy are popular terms; through patient organizing, black radical critiques have hacked their way back into the mainstream liberal news, so much so that The New Yorker is publishing them. Mass mobilizations in support of police abolition have occurred in numbers the United States seldom sees. But protests do not create political and economic power. For Micah Uetricht and Megan Day, co-authors of Bigger than Bernie, the Democratic Socialists of America offers a unique platform through which to construct a viable political party for the Left. The key is to use the dialectic of mass mobilization and electoral work to shift us away from late modern capitalist politics.
This strategy, Gordon-Nembhard worries, too often forgets that democratic socialisms are economic visions (not just political visions) for change and so participants never truly grasp their class agency. Gordon-Nembhard has magnificently chronicled how Black cooperative efforts built economic power and agency to protect and fight for their political and civil rights. Without power over productive and reproductive labor, those who work for a living, immigrants, women, and people of color are at the mercy of the moneyed elite who exercise undue influence over our political life. The point of economic democracy is not just more democratic distribution, but actualizing democracy in the processes of production.
For too long, Christian communities have demurred to the political elite for reform efforts directed at a system that is designed to disenfranchise and crush the working majority, especially people of color, women, and immigrants. Late modern neoliberal capitalism thrives when communities are under false consciousness regarding their economic position and pitted against each other by racial, gender, and sex identities. These identities are significant—but as thinkers of racial capitalism and black radical traditions have shown us, capitalism uses value differences to benefit the few.
What is to be done? The way forward starts with agency grounded in our unique experience as working people and starting small. The practical vision we want to offer has to do with reclaiming intersectional agency as working people and beginning to participate in the solidarity and cooperative economies in ways that practice our ideal. This vision comes from the history of peoples’ movements for liberation who stay committed to this fight because their faith grounds them and helps them weather the storms that always come with difficult organizing. From this practice, however small, we can begin to demand support of the solidarity economy from our political and economic systems and begin to transition to an economic and political democracy that puts labor over capital. Participating in this work puts us in solidarity with the most vulnerable workers, people of color, immigrants, and women. But the transformation extends beyond economics and politics into the transformation of our religious practices. For churches, a first step can be to align themselves to support, and eventually contribute to incubating worker, consumer, or producer cooperatives. When we practice solidarity and cooperative economy, we can begin to demand the realization of God’s cooperative commonwealth. This is the work set before us. Beginning with unease, we end with a chastened hope in the work ahead.
Aaron Stauffer is the Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Vanderbilt Divinity School, working primarily with the Wendland-Cook Program in Religion and Justice. A recent PhD graduate in social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York, his dissertation, “Organizing Lived Religious Practices for Power: Sacred Values in Broad-based Community Organizing” focuses on the political role of sacred value in broad-based community organizing. Drawing from a tradition of radical democracy, constructive feminist and anti-racist critiques of liberal political theory, and the rising field of “lived religion,” he argues for the importance of religious values in the practice of community organizing.