On the romanticization of resistance and liberatory impulses

It’s been a challenging time adjusting to life and study at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). I’ve met some lovely people with similar values and I’m nerding out on our readings, but moving to what can be considered the belly of the colonial beast has been privately disorienting. Being surrounded by monuments to colonization and genocide, crimson proudly displayed everywhere, and the concentrated culture of white supremacy and elitism– and having all of that be normalized– is super upsetting. I find myself more often than not in a posture of resistance, ready to fight back against many forms of dominance. While I am acting in accord with my political values, being so reactionary, so hard and sometimes so inapproachable is depleting my reserves.

It makes me wonder what other bits of information and experiences I have been missing out on while being in this shape. This week’s reading for Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion is forcing me to reconsider my righteousness: Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. In the book, she delves into the problematic ways that western feminist scholars always situate Muslim women’s participation in Islam as either a subversion (good) or submission (bad) to religious male domination, and how this normative liberal reading totally misses the specific cultural and historical conditions shaping their participation.

Mahmood refers to the western progressive scholar’s romanticization of resistance (citing Lila Abu-Lughod), normative freedoms and liberatory impulses. This is a habituated, clockwork behavior in leftist activist community: orient all discourse toward some notion of freedom and consume approved media that center ongoing resistance and tearing down power structures. Even terms of liberation, like “liberatory” and “liberative,” are liberally applied to all sorts of realms that we think need improvement, such as our sexualities, genders, relationships, work.

I have realized that my seemingly radical orientation towards justice and liberation is shaped by western progressive humanist assumptions about the importance of personal agency as central to “the good life” and an emphasis on asserting one’s free will in ways that challenge social structures. This is troubling because it is a direct outgrowth from European rationalist thought, to which I vehemently say I am opposed.

Mahmood on the Kantian legacy, “Kant argued that a moral act could be moral only to the extent that it was not a result of habituated virtue but a product of the critical faculty of reason. The latter requires that one act morally in spite of one’s inclinations, habits, and disposition.“ (25). To a certain extent, acting out against who society says I am supposed to be, who my community asks me to be, how I was taught, is categorized as a moral act.

To be clear, because of a queer application of this framework, I have grown so much and have been able to access doorways to healing and autonomy and identity-making. I have learned the language of critique, rejection of harmful hierarchies, and erecting protective boundaries, especially in the face of unjust modes of structural power. I am forever grateful to my teachers and comrades for their gift.

And/but, here I am realizing that coming with a fighting posture to a space of creativity and innovation regarding fostering spiritual community is an extremely limiting approach, even wrong. I am realizing that it is possible to go too far in this direction, that I am still running away from evangelical Christianity instead of running towards what I need, which might not be the complete opposite of organized religion as I know it. After freeing myself from religion, how could I both feel so much relief and so much grief? Maybe spiritual healing doesn’t mean total avoidance of what harmed me, but instead, it means that I can have a more playful attitude of engagement on my own terms.

To riff off Mahmood, what if specific modes of subordination can create and enable more life-giving ways of being, and even thriving?

What if I need to be free to be bound up with others?

What if I need to be free to submit to other presences and desires outside of my own?

What if I need to be free to surrender to an uncontrollable bodily response to the world? (Why can’t I cry in public?)

A panoply of doubts arise as I ask these questions. Being subsumed in activist spaces has taught me that individual safety and agency is paramount, and that has to do with surviving trauma. Knowing that folks are living through trauma and still working towards healing, can I expect my community to stick around, even when things get really hard? Can I expect my community to consistently and meaningfully donate their time, money and energy to our collaborative project, when we live in a culture of disposability, ghosting and shopping around? Can I expect my community to “take what works and leave the rest” as we iterate on communal practices so that they feel more resonant, instead of having knee-jerk dismissals to parts that feel too hegemonically Christian? And, will I be brave enough to keep going even if others decide to leave?

Theologian Rachel Ward talks about rejection from religion spaces due to queerness as a kind of “living death.” It reminds me of last week’s reading we did of Judith Butler, where she theorized about ungrievability: my take on her is that society disallows our queer ways of being, and then we are forced to then live in an unresolved, suspended state where it is impossible to grieve the loss. There are a lot of us queers who are floating around unable to heal from religious trauma while simultaneously judging ourselves for missing aspects of belonging to those communities. What if what we need is not to be more free, but to be more bound to something/each other, in brave and bold ways? I think that when we come to this realization, we may be able to commit to one another and a set of practices to nourish us.

This is a very difficult truth for me to consider, as I’ve been fighting the imprints of organized religion on my soul for more than a decade. But I have to admit that this feels true. What this means is that I will be taking a more open and humble approach to religious/devout people and what I can learn from their submission to a set of rules, way of life and specific communities. The journey, as always, is a circle.