In May 2018, students in Prof. Lorena Muñoz’s University of Minnesota graduate seminar “GWSS 8620: Geographies of Sexualities and Race: Economies, (Im)Migrations, and Borders” read and discussed David K. Seitz’s book, A House of Prayer for All People: Contesting Citizenship in a Queer Church. Prof. Muñoz’s seminar taught first monographs to help demystify the transition from dissertation to book manuscript for Ph.D. students. In this blog post, Seitz offers condensed answers to some of the students’ excellent questions about his book.
What are the curiosities that led you to the meshing of queer citizenship and the church?
What first brought me to the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT) was a 2010 story in the Toronto Star about the church’s refugee program. I was fascinated by the ways in which the story positioned members of this predominantly LGBT Protestant congregation as “model citizens,” but model citizens who were extending hospitality and care to and breaking bread with refugee claimants, whose motivations, identities, and claims were subject to remarkably high scrutiny, particularly but not only under the previous Canadian federal government.
On the one hand, the scene presented yet another iteration of the all-too-familiar story of what Lisa Duggan calls “homonormativity” – queers as well-adjusted, ideal-typical, non-threatening citizens of a neoliberal state, one reliant on private charity for provisioning for the most vulnerable people. But on the other hand, it was also a story about refugees, people regarded by agents of the racial state, as Engin Isin puts it, as “the worst kind of beggars,” but to whom these “good” gay citizens were extending hospitality. At a time when some LGBT people in Canada were (and are) quite celebratory and triumphalist about gains like same-sex marriage (or faux “woke bae” Justin Trudeau), I was struck by the convergence of these refugees, who experience so much state violence, with a big-tent LGBT institution that had a non-secular mandate – one that answered not only to the sovereignty of the Canadian state, but to the sovereignty of a loving God.
Of course, what I could not glean from one newspaper article was whether the church approached its refugee work with a savior mindset, or through a framework of solidarity. But in the case of the church, as in the case of contemporary migration politics in the United States and elsewhere, there is an extremely aggressive incitement to put respectable faces on marginalized populations, to differentiate between “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants and/or queers. This incitement is to some extent always present, at the very heart of biopolitics, but it is amplified under open-handedly white supremacist, “family values” governments. Such differentiations must obviously be resisted, and when they are successfully resisted, as it to at least some extent has been in the case of the MCCT refugee program, it becomes crucial to ask: “How?”
What in your personal journey led you to explore affect in your work?
One of the things I had observed as an undergraduate, but not really gotten access to language for interpreting until my graduate work, was that there is a constitutive gap – as much on the radical intersectional activist and academic Left as anywhere else – between what people say and what they do. Many, many people on the Left say all the right things politically, but you have no idea why they as individuals are on the Left until you get to know them, and maybe not even then. Do we want to be recognized for our moral righteousness? Brilliance? Radicality? Sex appeal? Hipness? Efficaciousness? Grassroots authenticity? Charisma? Empathy? Pain? Professional prowess? Vision? Cleverness? For making a material difference in the world? If so, recognition from whom? Or, are our preoccupations even with recognition at all, or are we after something else altogether? What are we running away from, or chasing? What are we trying to resolve or secure for ourselves? Is it enough to be against the Right? What is the Left for, and what are we on it for?
Then there’s the question of attachment, of what keeps people on the Left, or what in a neoliberal moment passes for the Left, and of what keeps people attached to institutions that to one extent or another may be trying to be big-tent, coalitional, with all of the contradiction and disappointment and de-idealization that can attend that. When is that disappointment worth sustaining, and when does it suggest the object is beyond repair?
Particularly in times such as these, it can be extremely easy to let the Right be a limiting foil, one that shuts down self-reflection and debate on the Left, to the Left’s peril. Yet I would argue that it has to be possible for us to ask these questions of ourselves and one another in good faith for a capacious, coalitional Left to accomplish any of its aims. That’s one of the big lessons of the book, probably because it’s one I find myself learning over and over again: it isn’t self-indulgent and bourgeois to figure your shit out; it’s crucial to any healthy relationship, including the relationships that populate and constitute our political and spiritual spaces. Rev. Darlene Garner’s question to the MCC denomination in its desires to grow internationally – “Why are you doing this?” – is one to which I argue the church and the Left should constantly return.
I think these are questions my book tries to open up around a predominantly LGBT church as an object of emotional and political investment for many differently situated people, but similar questions might be asked of a number of different objects: educational institutions, social movements, Left and center-Left political parties. Object-relations psychoanalysis and affect theory have proven helpful to me here, in part because they can offer us less functionalist language for thinking about people’s complicated attachments, while remaining centrally informed by people’s constitutive contradictions. We all contain them.
How do you connect this reparative work with a broader sense of spirituality (e.g., outside of Christianity)?
Reparation in the affective sense is by no means limited to Christian scenes, archives, or thinkers – some of the most writers on the subject whose work I consult most often (Melanie Klein, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick) were secular Jews. For me, working on Christianity is a question of what Minnie Bruce Pratt calls “doing one’s own work.” While psychoanalytic psychotherapy and astrology are probably the practices that most closely resemble “church” in my quotidian life, I consider myself “culturally Protestant,” in a way that goes unmarked in the constitutively Protestant arrangement that we in the United States call “secularism,” but that I think is worth marking if we’re ever to live, as Talal Asad puts it, as “minorities among minorities.”
In that vein, I have long been inspired by the intellectual, ethical, political, and spiritual work of my progressive Jewish friends to resist forms of state racism in Israel that invoke the figure of the Jewish people for self-justification. That work implicates me as an American citizen, too, because of what’s done in my name in the region. In “Love, Guilt, and Reparation,” Melanie Klein uses explicitly colonial metaphors to think about reparation – repairing guilt over the genocide of natives leads to a repopulation of a colonial locale, not with indigenous peoples but with one’s European countrymen. David Eng and others have confronted this colonial way of thinking about reparation, and sought to imagine alternative ontologies of affective and political repair. Judith Butler suggests that ethical cohabitation – cohabitation with the neighbor one doesn’t have the right to choose – is itself a reparative practice. That anti-racist vision of ethical cohabitation is what I saw in the church refugee program, and it’s what I see in the leadership that a lot of my progressive Jewish friends – and progressive Muslim friends – have provided in fighting for the human rights and self-determination of Palestinians and racialized Jews.
Likewise, at this moment in the United States, I think multi-faith movements like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival do an amazing job of demonstrating how faith can be a departure point for coalitional, multiracial work for economic justice. One bad (but at times salient) caricature of liberal faith communities is that they’re normatively white and/or normatively middle class, crunchy granola spaces in which everyone more or less agrees about the profoundly unjust state of the world, but no one actually acts – to recall Hannah Arendt’s definition of politics – no one acts in public in concert with others, particularly people differently situated from them. Yet the Poor People’s Campaign, which actually stems from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and began in 1968, brings faith and labor communities, differently racialized, differently religious people together, in public, risking arrest and in a number of cases getting arrested, around robust, substantive political demands like a $15 minimum wage and universal healthcare. That’s the kind of potential that I think brings many people to a wide range of progressive faith communities, and it’s important to both map that potential and to pay close attention to the moments when it’s realized in concrete political acts.
How do you see your work being taken up across disciplines inside and outside of academia?
A number of you talked very thoughtfully about your work in education – what it means to do anti-racist, feminist or anti-homophobic work in an institution so historically and constitutively enmeshed in settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, the instillation of more or less explicitly Western Christian values. To what extent does contemporary education reiterate these hierarchical power relations, and to what extent is repetition with a difference possible? I hope the case that the book makes – for remaining harshly critical of inequality and injustice, but curious about the prospect of historically bad objects to offer even modest good surprises, and for staying around long enough to find out what goes down in “bad” institutions – is one that resonates with you in your important work. And to be clear, I don’t think academics corner the market on the capacity for careful attention to bad, potentially transformative and occasionally surprising, political and quotidian scenes. Community organizing, progressive and community journalism, and therapeutic and other forms of care work are all in their own ways rigorous practices grounded in both a strong sense of justice but also a commitment to careful listening, a commitment not to know their object in advance, and to revise judgment about their objects. Folks in all of these fields have certainly taught me a great deal, in ways that I hope show up explicitly and implicitly in the book.
David K. Seitz is author of A House of Prayer for All People and assistant professor of cultural geography at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.
“David Seitz’s rendition of the politics of refuge within faith community in Toronto is challenging, insightful, empirically rich, and conceptually bold. Seitz offers ‘improper queer citizenship’ as a messy, unfinished political project. His analysis is essential reading that grows more pressing with each passing day.” —Alison Mountz, author of Seeking Asylum