Religions & Public Life Graduate Working Group Think Pieces on Religion, Peace and War
These think pieces were composed by the graduate students of the 2022-2023 Religions and Public Life Graduate Working Group of the Religions and Public Life Initiative. In response to global shifts of 2022, this year’s theme was “Religion, Peace and War.” Previous years’ themes included “Religion and Immigration,” “Church and State,” “Pain and Joy,” and “Minorities and Diasporas.”
Over the course of the academic year, the working group discussed and developed their respective projects, providing each other with mutual support and opportunities for interdisciplinary exchange. Here they summarize the fruits of their research and collaboration, exploring — from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives — the role of religion in shaping reflection on war, conflict, and peace in society today.
Eight Gates: A Portrait Documentary
Eight Gates is a portrait documentary about Htarsu, a 38-year-old Burmese woman who is a refugee in Durham, NC. She was compelled to flee her country with her two children due to her and her husband’s prominent opposition to the Myanmar military dictatorship. Htarsu’s husband is a renowned political activist, both nationally and internationally, and he had left the country earlier. Given limited time, Htarsu had to hastily pack her belongings. After enduring days of moving between different locations in Myanmar and passing through eight checkpoints, they eventually reunited with Htarsu’s husband in Thailand. Additionally, she brought her husband’s niece along to provide her with a better life.
Htarsu mentioned the word “gate” for each check point and described how her grandparents who gave them a ride to cross the borders pretended they were taking a family trip to Thailand. This short film is not only about the challenges that refugees face, but also about a woman who seemingly lived in the shadow of her famous husband. She had the opportunity to come to the US, but this is not the whole story. It delves into the impact of dictatorship, coup, and revolution, which tear families apart and lead to immoral behavior. Moreover, it tells the narrative of two children, currently eight and ten years old, who technically have a father but haven’t seen him in person for three years. It explores the emotions and identity of generations influenced by dictatorships.
The story structure revolves around Htarsu’s narrative, with a focus on still images such as paintings and photos, particularly those created by children. During their time of limited communication, painting and drawing became their primary means of expression. Additionally, I employ a non-linear approach to storytelling, moving between different places and times, using sound and images to evoke memories. For example, in Durham the dominant sound of passing trains may be unfamiliar to a non-American audience. Conversely, in Yangon, Myanmar, after the coup, the banging of pots and pans became a prevalent sound, symbolizing protest against the military coup.
Many similarities exist in the patterns followed by dictators, regardless of their origin. I come from Iran, a theocracy where neglecting the rights of minorities has increased after the 1979 Islamic revolution, while Htarsu comes from Myanmar, which has a military dictatorship. This shared experience allows me to delve into the essence of immigration, exploring not only the reasons behind it but also the consequences for ourselves as immigrants and for the host society. For me, the central question revolves around identity, the sense of displacement, and the search for belonging.
Additionally, the film delves into the everyday life of a single parent with two children, navigating a completely different culture, and the challenges faced by women in such circumstances. Htarsu, who is Buddhist and supported by a Catholic church, remains loyal to her husband, a human rights activist. However, the question arises: Can she claim that he is also faithful?
As Htarsu once said, “Do you know Titanic? It’s the same. I am here because my husband is a famous activist, but what about my friends who are at the borders?” She acknowledges her privilege due to her husband’s prominence but wonders if she too should be granted similar privileges. These are the questions that will be explored as sublayers within the film.
Htarsu and I have been friends for about a year and a half. She has placed her trust in me, and since we both live in Durham, I have no issues with accessibility. She is currently working on an autobiography with the assistance of an author, and she has generously granted me permission to utilize the content of that book. Additionally, she has allowed me to make copies of her asylum documents for reference purposes.
As a filmmaker, my perspective and insights are driven by a belief in the power of storytelling to foster empathy and understanding. I aim to give voice to marginalized individuals and challenge stereotypes through the experiences of refugees. My motivation is to bridge cultural gaps and inspire cross-cultural dialogue. By creating a thought-provoking film, I seek to engage audiences emotionally, challenge preconceptions, and promote a deeper understanding of the human experience. In particular, I was drawn to the story of Htarsu and her husband, who have been actively helping the Rohingian minority. The Rohingians, a stateless Muslim community, endure inhumane conditions in the camps between Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is disheartening to see that even Muslim governments, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, have ignored their plight. This presents a unique opportunity to bring global attention to the significant suffering and oppression that the Rohingians endure. By capturing their story through Hratsu’s narrative, I aim to raise awareness and draw the world’s attention to this ongoing crisis, as well.
Apocalypticism, Agnus Dei, and Ancient Near Eastern Divine Combat Motif
In Revelation 13:8, amidst a series of cryptic visions and violent struggles, the seer of Patmos makes a reference to “the lamb which was slain from the foundation of the cosmos” (a rendering of the Greek text that makes sense on syntactical grounds). In the context of the New Testament, it most naturally refers to the crucifixion of Christ, often called the lamb (John 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7). This, however, raises some questions: how is the crucifixion of a man in first-century Judea “from the foundation of the world”? What kind of claim is the early Christian author of Revelation 13:8 making about the figure of Christ? This is a literary and hermeneutical problem with regard to a book that has inspired endless apocalyptic speculations, including in our own time.
To attempt at a possible answer to these questions, I suggest here that it is necessary to go back to the Ancient Near Eastern motif of divine creational combat, which is the idea that, at the time of creation, God fights against some other deities (or other beastlike or deified entities for supremacy). In some cases, the creation of the world itself is the result of the divine combat. A notable example of this is the Enûma Elish, or the Babylonian Epic of Creation. Written in Akkadian on seven clay tablets, first discovered in the 19th century in the region of modern-day Iraq, the Enûma Elish likely goes back to the 2nd millennium BCE.
The Enûma Elish recounts the story of the Babylonian pantheon. The first tablet begins with a pair of Gods, Apsu and his lover, Tiamat (the sea-goddess who represents chaos). Together, they beget a new generation of Gods, who beget their own children. The newer Gods turn out to be so rowdy that the original pair of Gods could no longer rest peacefully. Unsettled by the younger Gods, Apsu plans to banish them. Tiamat, however, could not bear to harm her children and wants no part of his plans. Apsu continues to plot with his vizier against the younger Gods. Ea, one of the younger Gods, overhears Apsu’s scheme and responds by preemptively slaying Apsu (Tablet I, Lines 1-84). Violence escalates as the “generation gap” between Tiamat and the others widens. Enraged by the insolence of the younger Gods who would kill her lover, Tiamat allies herself with Qingu and creates a league of chaos-beasts to battle the younger Gods. From among the younger Gods, Marduk rises up as the champion to face off against Tiamat, eventually killing her with an arrow. After that, Marduk proceeds to create the world out of Tiamat’s lifeless corpse. With half of her body, Marduk spreads out the sky. The other half of her body is presumably used to form the earth. The cosmos itself becomes intertwined with the violent struggle between Gods (Tablet IV, Lines 93-140). With a tinge of triumphalism, the Enûma Elish establishes Marduk as the supreme God.
The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (HB/OT, which postdates the Enûma Elish by centuries) also participates in this kind of theomachic discourse. While the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3 do not portray God as fighting another divine entity in order to create the world (at most, God in Genesis 1 is engaging in a more abstract way in struggle against chaos), the motif of divine combat is nevertheless present elsewhere in the HB/OT, often in contexts having to do with Israel’s founding or survival. The Book of Exodus pits the God of Israel against the Gods of Egypt. The fight is rather one-sided, as the God of Israel pummels Egypt with a series of plagues, defeating its deities (cf. Exod 12:12; Num 33:4).
In the rest of the HB/OT, especially in poetic sections, we encounter a God who slays all kinds of rival cosmic entities such as Rahab, Leviathan, or the dragon. Thus, Psalm 74:13-14 remembers, “You divided the Sea by your strength, / You broke the heads of the Sea-Monsters in the waters, / You crushed the heads of Leviathan.” In a similar way, the prophet Isaiah asks rhetorically, “Are you not the one who cut Rahab into pieces, / who pierced the Sea-Monster? / Are you not the one who dried up the Sea, / And the great deep waters?” (Isa 51:9-10). Apocalyptic literature such as Daniel 7-12 takes this motif to new heights—imperial powers that threaten Israel are depicted as hideous beasts rising out from the ocean, but the God of Israel will be roused to deal with them in a decisive way.
The Book of Revelation, an apocalyptic text in the New Testament, similarly trades in this kind of cosmic theomachic imagery, including its own lineup of hostile monsters—from the dragon in Revelation 12 to the beast in Revelation 13 and 17-18. Conflicts and martial struggles abound in this apocalyptic book, and God is actively involved in the fray through agents such as angels or Christ (the divine lamb in early Christian thought). All of those monsters are eventually subdued by God in a triumphalistic manner (Rev 19-20). However, in the midst of cosmic battles, the divine being is also doing something else, something odd. It depicts the lamb in a grotesque or beastlike manner—it has seven horns and seven eyes (Rev 5:6)—and in so doing, it turns the lamb into something of a reflection of the opposing monsters (cf. Rev 13:1, 11). Then, as if subtly slipping it in, the Book of Revelation claims that this lamb has been slain from the foundation of the cosmos (Rev 13:8). On one level, Revelation reconfigures the Ancient Near Eastern motif of divine combat by turning it on its head. Instead of God slaying some opposing being at creation, here it is the lamb who is itself slain from the very founding of the world. On another level, it prefaces the series of conflicts that runs through the entire book—before everything else described in this book occurred, this lamb was first slain. This God is not above being killed. In fact, this beastlike lamb was killed.
We can now return to the question: what kind of claim is the early Christian author of Revelation 13:8 making about the figure of Christ? In light of the divine combat motif, which is found in Ancient Near Eastern literature as well as in the HB/OT and the rest of Revelation, it seems that the author of Revelation is reconfiguring the motif so that it may be superimposed upon the event of Christ’s death. Revelation 13:8 thus intends its audience to think about the event of Christ’s death on a cosmic scale—from the very beginning, from the foundation of the world, Christ was first slain. Violence was still rampant in the first (and subsequent) century, and the author of Revelation was aware of it. The author did not naively ignore the reality of violence (indeed violence runs through this text), but in Revelation 13:8, the author also offered the early Christian community an alternative starting point when confronted with the problem of violence.
Do these New Testament texts still matter today? Yes, because these texts are still being read today, and people today continue to construct theologies based on these texts, and because historical contexts matter for our interpretations, it is important to read these texts in light of their ancient contexts. Just a few weeks ago, many Christian churches worldwide celebrated the Triduum, a time when various ideas about God or Christ-as-lamb are preached from pulpits, celebrated in liturgies, and remembered by devotees. It matters how God/Christ is being remembered or celebrated. This reading of Revelation 13:8, which attempts to take seriously its ancient contexts, offers Christians a particular way of remembering Christ which checks against triumphalism. While Christians often celebrate Christ as a victorious one, this reading of Revelation nudges Christians to remember that God is not above being slain.
Jünger, Celan, and Weil: An Experiment in Composition
Ernst Jünger, Paul Celan, and Simone Weil lived and wrote in intimate proximity to questions of religion, peace, and war. Each addressed the relationship between violence and transcendence, between physical destruction—whether of military opponents, the individual self, or entire peoples—and the breaching of spiritual limits. The positions from which they wrote, and their lives and deaths, were drastically different. Yet all three were thrust into the crisis engulfing Judaism, Christianity, and Western reason in the 20th century at the moment that it boiled over into catastrophe and permanently transformed all three traditions.
As a composer, I draw creative energy from the study of philosophy, intellectual history, politics, and religion. In one way or another, the non-musical world of ideas tends to reveal itself in my musical work, notably in my instrumental compositions. I strongly believe that, beyond the setting of words, and beyond mechanisms of representation and narrative, music is able to embody ideas, to literally give them physical form in time.
So I devised a simple experiment: I would immerse myself in the thought of Jünger, Celan, and Weil, and then see what sort of work I felt motivated to compose in the wake of this immersion. I left as an open question what form this work would take, including whether it would involve the singing of these writers’ texts, a combination of singing and instrumental music, only instrumental music, neither singing nor instrumental music but only live reading of the texts, or any other conceivable combination involving sound that had something to do with Jünger’s, Celan’s, and Weil’s work.
I narrowed the scope of the source, or prompt, material to Jünger’s wartime memoir Storm of Steel, Weil’s Gravity and Grace, and only the poems in the Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan.
A bit of background on each author:
Following his service in the German army in World War I, Jünger was launched to prominence by the immense popularity of Storm of Steel, a vivid—and unsettlingly apolitical—account of his exploits on the Western front. He then bore further into the cultural fray penning vociferous attacks against liberalism and democracy, and as a leading right-wing intellectual of the Weimar period he was assiduously courted by the ascendant Nazi movement. He nevertheless rejected their advances, and by the time he died in 1998 he had become one of the major figures of 20th-century German literature.
No less a literary giant of postwar German letters was Celan, who, born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Romania, survived the Holocaust while his parents, and with them the entire Jewish world of his youth, perished. Much of his poetry is an attempt to come to terms not only with Nazi atrocities but with the sense of betrayal by German culture, to which he nevertheless remained, however contradictorily, devoted until his death by suicide in 1970. His best-known poem, “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”), is one of the most widely circulated Holocaust-related texts.
Simone Weil was also born a Jew, to a secular family in France, yet her legacy is as a Christian thinker. Her brief life was equal parts self-made mystic, member of the French resistance, and social philosopher, broadly aligned with the left but advocating a Christian society ordered by a confessional politics. The emphasis in her writing on the meaning of suffering, along with her visceral identification with the poor and hungry, uncomfortably mirror the circumstances of her illness and death in 1943. A far greater cause for discomfort is her attitude toward Judaism and Jewishness. She set Christianity squarely in opposition to the Jewish God, targeted Jewish civilization with a striking philosophical crudeness given her otherwise compelling thought (which, some argue, is permeated by Jewish ideas), and, as antisemitism unfolded all around her, disavowed all but the most flatly biographical notion of her own Jewish identity.
The thematics of Judaism, Christianity, and European enlightenment (as well as of love, friendship, and violent death) in the texts I studied elude summary here. Yet I can more easily summarize what, in imagining how I would mount a combined response to these authors, became for me the point of comparison between them, namely, how each handles space. I wanted to create a work in which the aforementioned thematics would be encompassed by the spatial language and imagery to which they gave rise rather than the other way around.
In Storm of Steel, a vast horizontal backdrop lurks beyond all moment-to-moment movement, whether of soldiers, bullets, bombs, tanks, or horses; eventually, the sprawling networks of trenches and wire that disrupt this plane, as well as the natural topography itself, must give must way to an eventual charge across no-man’s land by one side or the other that restores the open plane to its full lethality before suppressing that lethality again through the drawing of new battle lines.
Celan’s poetry by and large wants to stabilize people and things long enough to truly regard them; it seeks a kind motion in place, though often with a pronounced vertical inflection, such as that of the descending poplars, the downward grasping arm, and the heavenward-praying roots in “I Heard It Said.”
Weil both abjures “gravity” and claims it is sacrilege to destroy someone’s metaxu (a concept borrowed from Plato, from the Greek meaning “between”). “No human being should be deprived of his metaxu,” writes Weil, “that is to say of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible.” Sometimes she emphasizes the need to ascend, and sometimes the need to till the soil of the great middle ground of human life for God.
Is there a specific musical aesthetic, compositional methodology, or mode of musical performance that is intrinsically suited—or even just adequately suited—to these considerations? I think the answer is no. Yet I had to come up with some sort of blueprint in order for an actual work to take shape. I needed a strategy for connecting inspiration to execution, which would mean accepting and/or deliberately applying limitations.
So I decided to plan the following work: a trio consisting of a bugle, a cello, and an out-of-tune piano accompanied by three readers reading from the three authors.
The advantage of three separate readers is that different texts can be read at once, opening up the possibility of contrapuntal speech.
As for the unusual (most likely, in fact, unheard-of) instrumentation, it offers, I hope, precisely the kind of constraints that will allow me to approach the literary texts authentically—which, given their intellectual, historical, and emotional heft, necessarily also means approaching them obliquely.
The bugle is almost never found outside its use as a military signal instrument, and with no valves or other devices to alter pitch, it is limited to the harmonic series (and specifically to the five partials above the fundamental, meaning only three pitch classes in equal-tempered tuning). A piano not perfectly tuned in equal temperament similarly becomes a microtonal instrument, with dozens more pitch possibilities than the bugle, yet also, as with any acoustic keyboard instrument, no way of instantaneously adjusting intonation.
And then there is the cello, one of the most robustly expressive instruments in all of Western music.
What kind of music can one write with this extremely unconventional group of instruments? The constraints are expressive as well as material, not least of all because the departure from sonic or contextual normalcy in the case of the piano and bugle calls attention to the materiality of the instruments themselves. Yet the ghost of that normalcy is nevertheless present: a bugle will still recall the barracks or the battlefield, and the piano will still be the center of the musical universe of the modern-industrial-rational West. The ever-elegant cello is the odd one out, and while not materially constrained itself is nevertheless constrained by the company in which it finds itself.
With its obvious suggestions of war, decay, and alienation, this instrumentation could all too easily be consigned to symbolism alone—at best ironic, at worst film-score cliché. The artistic challenge will be to create musical material with intrinsic value, of which the symbolism is a vital yet not overly prominent part, that in turn is cohesively joined with the literary texts.
It has been a great pleasure to engage with Jünger, Celan, and Weil, and I hope to keep the flame alive as I move forward with the composition.
What if Trusting Women, in Any Circumstance, Was for the Greater Good?
A few years ago, The Guardian published an article about a priest administering birth control to migrant women crossing the US-Mexico border. The priest knew the sexual violence migrant women faced on their journeys, so he helped women access birth control as a preventative measure. Even though taking birth control was technically a sin, the priest believed this option was “the lesser of two evils.” In other words, this moral reasoning assumes that this action produces a less evil reality and is for the greater good. This priest is not the first Catholic to consider administering birth control for the greater good. In the 20th century, Catholics equally debated alongside their secular counterparts if birth control was justified for the greater good of parents, families, and even society. This priest’s work and moral reasoning are part of a longer and more violent history of birth control in Mexico and the rest of America. From this historical perspective, what is distinct about the case of this priest is his concern for women.
Mexican Catholics considered whether it was moral to use the pill for the greater good into the 1970s. As my dissertation shows, even though the Pope had prohibited the newly invented birth control pill in 1968, Mexican Catholics continued to debate the morality of the pill. Since alleviating poverty would make the world a better place, Mexican Catholics asked whether this reason would justify the use of the pill and family planning initiatives. This idea was also reflected in population politics more broadly at the time. As exemplified by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), many population experts feared overpopulation endangered society and the environment. Many believed that decreasing population growth would make the world a better place to live.
The way Mexican Catholics linked the question of inequality to the use of the pill may initially sound considerate, even moral. What this viewpoint, however, disregarded was women’s concerns. As upsetting news spread about the forced sterilizations of Puerto Rican women, by the 1970s, many Latin American feminists critiqued family planning initiatives, particularly those implemented by the United States. These feminists recognized how such initiatives often posed dangers to Latin American women. Regarding the Mexican Catholic debates about the pill and family planning, I have found that it was not Church authorities or priests who criticized violence against women. It was other Catholic women.
Women from across the Americas argued for reproductive autonomy at the little-known Catholic women’s conference at Puebla in 1979. These activists had met to protest the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), a meeting of bishops from across Latin America. These women wanted women to be at the center of CELAM’s concerns. Their critiques of the Church ranged from labor to society to sexuality. The few experts who spoke about issues related to reproduction and sexuality argued for women’s ability to make decisions outside of pressure from the state and the Church. They echoed the feminist critique that population politics often meant violence against women, specifically the women of Latin America. The women of this conference imagined a world where women could make decisions about their reproductive lives free of violence and outside pressures.
In some ways, this priest’s justification for administering birth control reflects aspects of this argument made by Catholic women at the 1979 conference. The priest recognized the violent realities these migrant women crossing the border faced. It seems that the priest served as a valuable resource for these women. So, yes, this priest prioritized Catholic women’s safety. And at the same time, this example also shows the limitation of what that means, especially when compared to alternate, more radical visions. The priest argued that the pill was a lesser evil. He did not call for change to the entire violent system, as the 1979 conference participants had.
Despite his limitations, this priest’s explicit concern for women’s safety is notable. His concern diverges from a history of Church authorities ignoring women’s safety concerns. And at the same time, it is very much representative of a violent history against Latin American women. It is another example of a male authority figure providing birth control measures to Latin American women. Perhaps this is why this priest’s actions did not cause greater scandal. As much as his work was distinct because he prioritized women’s safety, it still fits the same model used repeatedly in history – an authority figure administering birth control for the greater good. Hopefully, the Church can embrace a more radical vision, such as the ones envisioned by the 1979 conference participants. Surely, someday Church authorities can trust Catholic women to make decisions about their reproductive lives, even if they do not face such precarious, extreme conditions as these migrant women crossing the border. What if trusting women, in any circumstance, was for the greater good?
Pluralism or Multiculturalism Repackaged?
Ehsan Sheikholharam Mashhadi
The language of pluralism is embraced across the political spectrum. Public figures, institutions of various sorts, and corporate entities embrace pluralism to signal their openness and the possibility of critical discussion across communities and stakeholders alike. The UN and World Bank, notably, have adopted pluralism as an ethical framework for human rights and international law. Governmental organizations incorporate pluralism into their DEI initiatives to signal an affirming attitude toward diversity. This in turn fosters a space for “reasonable accommodation” and “respectful negotiation” of differences—especially cultural differences. Religious leaders, too, have welcomed the soft and peaceful language of pluralism over deterministic and divisive polemics.
The contemporary sense of pluralism resonates the most with developments during the 1960s. This period witnessed the emergence of postmodernist critiques of grand narratives, the rise of intersectional feminism, and significant civil rights and emancipatory movements on a global scale. Within this context, pluralism provided a critical framework for reimagining social structures and rethinking the cultural implications of globalization. This contemporary sense, however, differs from pluralism’s older connotations. In the second half of the 18th century, for example, pluralism was understood as: “The system or practice of two or more offices or positions, esp. ecclesiastical offices, being held at the same time by one person.”
In Western philosophical traditions, pluralism is defined as a concept symmetrically opposed to monism. Monism, as a “doctrine of unity,” posits that everything that exists emanates from the One; thus, there is nothing essential about apparent differences. While monism is predicated on the One, pluralism recognizes the Many. Pluralism embraces life in its actual messiness. In the words of one of its renowned thinkers, William James (1842–1910), pluralism regards existence as a “turbid, muddled, gothic sort of affair, without a sweeping outline.”
The line between pluralism and monism, however, is not entirely solid. Spinoza (1632–1677), the emblematic figure of monism, conceptualized the variegated universe to be composed of “one infinite substance: the God or Nature.” In his monism, the infinite diversity of existence was nothing but different manifestations of the One. Spinoza’s God-Nature or “Deus sive Natura” no longer relies on the notion of a transcendent Creator existing outside and above the Creation. Interestingly, however, when it comes to authoritative interpretations of Scripture, the quintessential thinker of monism becomes pluralist. Consistent with his immanent philosophy, Spinoza refrained from attributing a transcendent or eternal Truth to Scripture. Instead of privileging one singular Truth, Spinoza honors particular ways that individuals interpret the meaning of the sacred text. In Theologico-Political Treatise he writes: “every man is bound to adapt dogma to his own way of thinking, and to interpret them accordingly as he feels.” Furthermore, Spinoza was not concerned with the truth of Scripture, but only with its community-bound “meaning.” Although truth is not guaranteed by a higher, transcendental authority, the sense of Scripture is not arbitrary either. The meaning is linked to and ascertained by the conventional use of words. The “semantic content of a word,” is stable in each historical moment because each community has an established system of signification. In this precise sense, Spinoza places the authority of Scriptural interpretation within the community itself.
Similarly, contemporary advocates for social pluralism bestow authority upon communities. Each community is considered as unique, with singular characteristics and cultural identities. Furthermore, the notion of experience is enshrined in an aura of exclusivity: only those who have, or rather possess, almost in the sense of private property, the same experience reserves the right to speak on the behalf of a community. This is particularly pronounced when it comes to ethnocultural communities.
As globalization and climate change entail various forms of population displacement, national cultures (geocultures) that previously perceived themselves as homogenous are challenged by the presence of new cultural identities. The fiction of one nation, one culture (akin to the Medieval theme, “one God, one King, one Nation”), is increasingly untenable. In certain metropolitan zones in Western Europe, ethnic enclaves overtly reject the so-called majority culture, to which, far-right politics responds with xenophobic polemics.
The sacralization of community, nonetheless, forecloses the possibility of external scrutiny into its affairs. The Cartoons Controversy is case in point. Even scholars as nuanced and sophisticated as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood have suggested that Muslims have distinct embodied sensibilities, suggesting that insults targeted at symbolic representations of the Prophet inflict actual pain because Muslims affectively identify with the Prophet. Asad urged that Muslims are to be understood “on their own terms,” denouncing the application of secular, liberal values of the West as a measuring stick. This plea effectively sanctifies the community, making it untouchable, so to speak. When an ethnoculture lays claim to a differentialist interpretive frame, no alternative perspectives can be expressed. And without a space for critique and collective deliberation, politics is dead.
In principle, pluralists cherish multiplicities over reductive singularities. Through negating the hegemony of the One—one party, one ruling class, one leader—pluralism serves as the backbone for democracy and acts as a safeguard against authoritarian impulses. Furthermore, democracy itself is a process—a perpetual act of creating consensus out of dissent. Without a shared collective ground for political deliberation, mere dissent has the potential to bring the entire system to a halt. Majoritarian consensus, too, can have the same effect, hence the notion of “illiberal democracy.” To foster a space for politics, democratic societies need a strong sense of solidarity—as Charles Taylor suggests. If a society cannot decide on what public education should be about or what types of values it should carry from one generation to another, it becomes inoperative (inopérante)—to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s terminology. The very notion of society would fall apart as the next generation of citizens would be unable to reach any form of compromise. Disagreement and agreement both require a more fundamental horizon of intelligibility where differences can be negotiated. Nonetheless, if the mode of operation for democracy is predicated upon a common horizon, then its condition of possibility is a monist universal.
As Quentin Meillassoux suggests, with the abolishment of the absolute, reason and rationality loess its privileged position to be the ground for authority. The only remaining ground for evoking the universal is a form of fideism, of which identitarian religions are a paradigmatic expression. No one is in the position to question the personal experiences of the believer. If distinct communities, especially cultural minorities, demand to be recognized in their particular ways, then the imagined national identity will be further fractured. The challenge is the following: how to give minorities a chance to keep their cultural specificity, while also recognizing the desire of the majority to maintain their (however imagined) sense of national identity. It is not simply that pluralist or monist formulas offer more or less democratic political outcomes. Rather, it is within the tension between these two poles that politics becomes possible.
I wish to claim that pluralism has become a safe substitute for multiculturalism. In some corners in Europe, multiculturalism has morphed into the rather undesirable phenomenon of communitarianism. Because integration has not been successful, ethnic communities close themselves off against the rest of society and withdraw from the public domain. Many have turned to interculturalism to emphasize the need for integration, accommodation, and reconciliation. Pluralism is a fresh name for the unresolved problem of negotiating cultural differences.
The difference is that theorists of multi- or interculturalism were audacious enough to formulate detailed programs and propose practical solutions. Yet, when their ideas and theories are put to the test, challenges emerge. This is why multiculturalism carries a heavy baggage. Those who work on pluralism, on the other hand, usually focus on the positive and celebratory dimensions of cultural differences and avoid tackling murky areas. Pluralism, as a framework for governmental, economic, and legal institutions, keeps stakeholders in conversation without the pressure to stipulate final pronouncements—and perhaps that is a good thing.
One might argue that pluralism is a fitting substitute for multiculturalism because it is bigger than culture. It encompasses not only cultural differences, but also differences of economics, religion, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, nationality, age, etc. Furthermore, unequal treatments based on any of the above categories will automatically be flagged as discrimination, and is often prohibited by law. Culture remains the only permissible site through which a certain group of people could be alienated. This is precisely because the operative logic of pluralism is that cultures—by virtue of their singularity—are incommensurable with one another. Despite the best intentions of multiculturalism and pluralism, the specter of cultural difference refuses to disappear as epitomized by the return of Samuel Huntington’s civilizational discourses.
Lists of the Dead
In 2021, after the death of Brittany Kittrell while in custody in the Durham County jail, a crowd assembles downtown, there in front of the jail, calling out her name to honor her life. They include her name in the litany of all the others who have died in the jail over the past decade: Niecey Fennell, Matthew McCain, Dashawn Evans, James Earl Staton Jr., Raphael Bennet, Dennis McMurray, Terry Lee. Their names remembered, called out into the evening while traffic speeds by. No matter the response, the lack of interest from most people in the city, when a person dies in the jail, a group assembles to add another name to the list of the dead and to remember their life.
In Douglas, Arizona, at the border with Sonora, Mexico—on the U.S. side, a community gathers near the port of entry on Tuesdays to call out the names of the people who’ve died while crossing the desert into the United States. They take the names from their county’s medical examiner’s database of migrant deaths. For the human remains that forensic examiners aren’t able to identify, the group adds the words “no identificado,” “no identificada,” to their list of names. Under the shadow of the border wall, members of the group take turns calling out the names of the dead. The last time I joined them for their gathering, a few years ago now, before the pandemic, I jotted down the names from their list that I was asked to call out as a participant in their litany of remembrance: Juan Tovar Hernández, Rosalía Ana Lilia Ramos Reyes, Isaias Sanchez Mayo, Lucina López de Olmos, Araceli Estrada Lopez y niño.
What do we want from the dead? Not just any dead, not loved ones—but the dead we identify as victims of particular injustices. To remember the dead is an intervention into the historical formation of our cultural consciousness, to reconstitute our imagination. This year as a Kenan Religions and Public Life fellow has provided me an opportunity to engage with the work of two authors for whom lists of the dead feature prominently in their novels. The ongoing presence of past terrors animate the narratives of Percival Everett’s 2021 The Trees: A Novel, Daša Drndić’s Trieste (2007) and her duology Belladonna (2012) and EEG (2016). They attend to the woundedness that presses, through time, into our experience of the world. The memory of those who, in their death, still bear the wounds of injustice flash into Everett’s and Drndić’s texts by means of their use of lists of names. These lists refuse the violence that silenced the lives of the dead. Their lists are a literary conjuring, an invitation for victims of injustice to become actively involved in prodding our historical consciousness and provoke our political imaginations.
At the heart of Everett’s The Trees, in the middle of his novel, he populates his story with page after page of names, victims of racist violence. Some of them are familiar to me: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark. Most of them are unfamiliar, for example: Mae Dorsey, Manny Prince, unknown female, Arena Salvatore, Rosario Fiducia, unknown male, An Won, Dr. Chee Long Teng, 11 adult men, David Walker, David Walker’s wife, David Walker’s 4 children. The novel ends with one of the main characters in the story at his typewriter, punching out names, adding page after page to the list. While he types, “Outside, in the distance, through the night air, the muffled cry came through, Rise. Rise” (308). Every strike of a typewriter letter becomes an incantation, the spirits of the dead awakened, released to accomplish their own justice. The Trees imagines redemption as the spiritual resurrection of the dead, victims of the atrocities of the past now liberated from the prison of the grave in order to administer judgement.
Drndić’s last three novels centers on lists of names of the dead. In Trieste, for example, she includes 9,000 names in four columns on over forty pages: “Jews who were deported from Italy, or killed in Italy or in the countries Italy occupied between 1943-1945” (142). In Belladonna, she includes twenty pages of the names and ages of Jewish children sent to Nazi death camps. “Tenuhemo min hashamayin, May Heaven comfort you,” she writes at the beginning of the list (279-299). “How long does it take to read the names and ages of 2,061 children?” Merve Emre writes in her review of the Belladonna and EEG duology. “Approximately forty-eight minutes.” The narrator of Belladonna likens the list of names to Gunter Demnig’s Stolperstein, the “stumbling stones” inserted into walkways in European cities with the names of people who were abducted and killed by Nazi regimes (279). Drndić’s lists are like stolperstein. Her names trip up the reader’s sense of progress through history—as if we could step over the dead.
The names Drndić unearths and publishes as lists are memorials, commemorations to the victims of warfare and persecution. Like the group that gathers in Durham whenever someone dies in jail, and the community in Arizona that assembles weekly to honor the migrants who’ve died in the desert, Drndić’s lists hope for redemption. The characters in her novels don’t imagine judgement as the vengeance of the resurrected dead, like in The Trees. But she does acknowledge, like Everett and Benjamin do, that the communal work of remembrance engages in political struggle. As the protagonist in Belladonna and EEG describes the function of his lists (which are Drndić’s lists):
Lists, particularly when they are read aloud, become salvos, each name a shot, the air trembles and shakes with gunfire. Lists of the dead—the murdered—are direct and threatening. They beat out a staccato rhythm like a march, out of them speak the dead, saying Look at us. They offer us their short lives, their faces, their passions and fears, the rooms in which they dreamed, the streets they loved, their clothes, their books, their medical records (EEG, 64-65).
To list the dead as part of the political formation of a community is to tremble with spirits of the dead in their reckoning with us and our complicity in maintaining the world as it is. To invoke lists of the dead as something like a liturgical act, as the work of a people, is to inhabit temporality differently—to recognize a moment as shared with the dead through acts of remembrance.