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Ascetical Theology and the Beloved Community

When I look at the corporate nature of injustice in our culture and society, and when I consider my own place within it, especially as someone who enjoys many privileges, I feel powerless. What can I do?

I know that thinking great thoughts – even “right” thoughts, alone, does not change anything. I know that feeling big feelings, especially feelings of shame, never changes anything. So how can people with privilege “be a part of the change”?

In his groundbreaking book, The Body and Society, Peter Brown showed how the corporate body of a given society is “inscribed,” so to speak, on the bodies of the individuals who comprise it, through the disciplining practices enjoined upon them by their culture. Likewise, the performances of individual bodies contribute to the shape of society. The image of what a body should be, in a given culture, manifests, and is performed, between and within the body corporate and its individual members.

So, in the face of this (and this was really his point), those who choose an ascetical life are explicitly choosing to resist society’s corporate body and its current performance of embodiment. By choosing to perform embodiment in a different way, the society as a whole recognizes what it actually is, and, slowly but surely, over time, through these tiny experiments of individuals, the body corporate itself changes.

An example Brown gives is that of the Christian monastic renunciation of marriage. The Roman corporate body demanded the reproduction of new Roman citizens and slaves to keep the machine of the state and its warfare going in the face of the inevitability of death. But Christians do not believe in the inevitability of death, we hope in the resurrection of the dead. And Christians do not believe that the Kingdom of Heaven increases by birth, but by Baptism. So monks and nuns refused to add to the machine of Rome. This was understood as “counter-cultural,” as an act of renunciation and a critique of core Roman structures. It also changed the Roman empire and ushered in a Christian age.

I am not suggesting we engage in ascesis as a means to an end. The end of ascesis is ever deepening union with our God through the body of Christ. Now the body of Christ is the living membership in a shared body of which we all form but a small part. But when we recognize our mutuality, bearing with one another in Christ (Ephesians 4), Christ himself is there. And there is always a suprising side-effect to the arrival of Christ’s body: when Christ is present, things begin to change.

I wonder what concrete, ascetical, body-reshaping disciplines that privileged Christians could practice in order to reshape those corporate structures we share in our current North American contexts. I searched the internet for words related to “ascesis,” and words related to “racism.” I found that someone else had thought along these lines as well! I found an article by Musa Al-Gharbi, “Resistance as Sacrifice: Toward an Ascetic Antiracism” (Sociological Forum. 10.1111/socf.12544, 2019). I wouldn’t say I agree with everything he says. But he makes good points, and, most of all, he offers concrete ascetical practices that those in a position of privilege could employ to fight corporate injustices and begin the work of witnessing to what Presiding Bishop Curry calls the “Beloved Community.” I will list a few of his suggestions to people with privilege, here:

  • Avoid moral grandstanding (do more, say less)
  • Abstain from itemizing charitable donations (do not lower tax liability)
  • Refrain from summoning the authorities in response to mere suspicions
  • Rely on carpooling and public transit (avoid rideshare applications)
  • Show extraordinary generosity in tipping
  • Treat all workers with dignity equivalent to one’s peers
  • If in authority, recruit, mentor, promote persons from underprivileged groups
  • Ensure that all subordinate employees receive compensation that is both genuinely livable and representative of the value they bring to the organization
  • Provide standard compensation for all workers regardless of documentation
  • Send your children to their zoned public school

As someone who enjoys some privilege in our society, I found some of these suggestions truly challenging to consider. But then I remembered, that that is exactly what ascesis is, in part, expected to do. Ascesis is about the denial of self for the sake of God and the other. It is rarely “comfortable.”

Pierre Hadot in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life explains how ascetical practice actually changes us. We begin to know things differently. We begin to see aspects of reality previously unopened. An ascetical approach to the Beloved Community could take us beyond sensitivity, into genuine encounter with our fellow human beings.

As a Christian, I wonder how practices like those above could be integrated into the traditional Christian disciplines passed down to the church. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving have always been linked. By denying the body and abstaining from buying and selling for a set period of time, we have an abundance from which to give to those less privileged than we are in that moment. Could those with privilege fast as living members of the body of Christ, then actively give to persons, communities and organizations that witness to the Beloved Community? Could we do so anonymously, without letting our left hand know what our right hand is doing? Could we do so without itemizing it on our taxes?

I also tend to think liturgically. When we link our personal ascetical disciplines to the shared, corporate life of the church, the church and the culture within which a particular church finds itself settled, is offered a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and an invitation to transformation. I wonder if those with privilege in the church could do something like the following?

  • Fast on Fridays and hold a holy Sabbath on either a Saturday or Sunday
  • On those days refrain from requiring anyone to be in service labor to you or your household
  • All money not spent on those days, send to someone or something witnessing to, or in need of a witness to, the Beloved Community – without reporting it to the IRS

In conversation with Bryan Stevenson’s work on lynching memorials, I wonder if those with privilege in the church might engage in something like the following practices?

  • Recognize those who were lynched and those who were killed due to genocide to be martyrs – thus recognizing their bodies as Eucharistic sites
  • Commit to pilgrimages to sites of lynching and genocide
  • Fast beforehand, then celebrate the Eucharist upon arrival, in order to give thanks for the witness of the martyrs

This is just a brainstorm of a few concrete ideas. But I am trying to get concrete with action and behavior on the part of those who find themselves in positions of privilege in our culture and society.

We know that ideas and feelings alone do not change societal structures. Behaviors and practices do. And the intentional, concrete behavior of small groups, and even a single person, can begin to budge that giant rudder that slowly turns the ship of societal structures.

Did any of these suggestions make you feel uncomfortable?

If you enjoy privilege, could you imagine setting any of these disciplines in place in your life?

What other disciplines might we imagine for those with privilege to engage – especially if we were to attempt a kind of organized asceticism, like that of our historic monastic traditions, in witness to Christ’s Beloved Community?

This spring, the Sowing Holy Questions blog will focus on issues of racial healing. Writers will reflect on what has been done, what change ought to happen, and offer visions for healing in our communities. 

The Rev. Nathan G. Jennings, PhD, a native of Austin, returned to his hometown when he joined the faculty of Seminary of the Southwest in 2005. Jennings is also the Director of Community Worship and has served as the Chair of the Anglican Studies Program at Seminary of the Southwest since 2008. Jennings is interested in liturgical theology, Christian Platonism, Ancient Near-Eastern studies, asceticism, hermeneutics and the way these disciplines intersect and inform one another. His first book, Theology as Ascetic Act: Disciplining Christian Discourse, published in 2010, represents a light revision of his doctoral dissertation and argues that Christian teaching and reflection are embodied acts analogous to, and part of, Christian asceticism. His second book, Liturgy and Theology, Economy and Reality, Wipf and Stock 2017, argues for a Christian metaphysical realism, presenting liturgy as a cosmic gift economy whereby God renders cosmos out of chaos. He is currently working on a book that will provide a an outline of sound liturgical decision-making. In teaching, Jennings reflects on liturgy theologically as that which enables participation in God and God’s work in the world. In addition to the required liturgy and Anglican studies courses, Jennings offers elective seminars in Liturgical Theology, Hermeneutics, and occasional seminars on Anglican Divines.

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