It is my pleasure to inaugurate Rites and Responsibilities, a new dialogue series for The Immanent Frame and the Social Science Research Council, with a conversation with the renowned anthropologist and critical theorist Jean Comaroff of the University of Chicago. Rites and Responsibilities is published in conjunction with the SSRC’s Project on Religion and International Affairs, with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation. Throughout the series, we will be talking to scholars, religious leaders, and other public figures about the public life of religion in an age of globalization, especially in regard to questions of sovereignty, accountability, and authority.

The following is a brief excerpt of the interview. Click here to read the entire transcript (pdf).

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DKK: Jean Comaroff, tell us about the role of religion in your work.

JC: For me, as a scholar, religion has always been an exercise for a left hand. I started out working on these issues because I was interested in the relationship between politics and religion and the uneasy ways in which anthropologists at the time separated them. I was interested not least because, if you went to Africa in the 1960s to study religion, religion was assumed to be a matter of “tradition.” Already I felt that this term, in its then unproblematic usage, was less than helpful.

When I got to my field site, in rural northwest South Africa, the religious lingua franca was Christianity, African Christianity, which was inseparable from anything else you might call spiritual, religious, or moral life. I was Jewish in my upbringing, but the kind of Christianity I encountered was profoundly unlike the Christianity I had known about growing up in white South Africa, or when I subsequently lived in England.

There was concern among my advisors at the London School of Economics [LSE] because Christianity was regarded as a topic for comparative religion or sociology, not for anthropology. There was no anthropology of Christianity at that time, so it was really quite a struggle at that point to find relevant interlocutors.

At the same time, it was obvious that Christianity had long been a key dimension of local history. In South Africa, Christianity was inseparable from the whole logic of the way colonialism had been made and was then being unmade.

DKK: So was that the initial appeal of working on religion as an anthropologist for you?

JC: I grew up in South Africa under the apartheid regime and the universities were very depleted by the time we got there—they’d been segregated. In the universities, there was plenty social protest, but no access to intellectual radicalism, no Marx on the shelves. South African universities were an environment dominated by a larger story. In particular, the ethical problem of having the privilege of an education, by virtue of being white, bore in on us very heavily.

At that stage, there was already a lot of government repression of politics with a big “P.” Yet already there were forms of religious communal life stepping into the void, as it were. The churches, particularly some of the mainline, former mission churches—the Anglican Church, some Methodist congregations, many of the independent African churches—were places where people could aggregate to raise issues of social justice. By the time the 1960s rolled around, you needed special permits for meetings of more than 12 people; only religious gatherings and funerals were exempted, which was why funerals became such amazing politico-ritual sites.

Many of the churches stepped up. There was the sort of impetus you would find in Christian base communities in Latin America soon after: an effort to re-interrogate the message of Christianity from the point of view of the meek and the oppressed. This, of course, had deep roots. The founding of the African National Congress in South Africa in 1912-13 came out of the African Independent Churches, whose leaders had taken the Bible—which had entered the community as a colonizing, civilizing text—and read another message out of it. So they “liberated the message from the messenger,” and made of this a struggle for human dignity. This was a way of saying, “let us make this text live up to its promises, because there’s a dramatic contradiction between what we were promised when we were ushered into the global fraternity of the church, and what we have experienced as citizens of this racially segregated society.”

In the mid-1960s, when I was at university and studied a number of disciplines, I found anthropology especially interesting because it was relevant to these sorts of issues in Africa. Most other fields at the time —psychology, English literature—did not have one read a single writer from the Global South. You read Conrad on Africa, but you didn’t read African writers. That was soon going to change dramatically. In the mid-1960’s, anthropology was uniquely relevant in acknowledging the value of non-Eurocentric knowledge and life-ways.

The fine scholar who taught us anthropology, Monica Wilson, was a missionary’s daughter. She herself had been involved in quite explicit criticism of the government through her academic work, through documenting the implications of poverty in the countryside. She had made anthropology into a kind of vocation—to use the Weberian term—one that came from where she had grown up, on a mission station in the Eastern Cape.

Somewhere in our readings, which were largely about African traditional rituals, witchcraft, and kinship, there was something about “separatist” churches—African movements that had broken away from the mission churches in the name of another kind of religiosity. These churches had become communal sites for a kind of moral reconstruction in the countryside. Some were more overtly political, some weren’t. But they were amazingly inventive in terms of their ritual practices. The book Bantu Prophets in South Africa, by a very perspicacious Swedish missionary named Bengt Sundkler, explored the way that the prophetic, millennial possibility within the Christian tradition was being acted upon in the South African countryside. The acuity of this insight grabbed my attention and it never left me.

DKK: That’s fascinating. Even in this brief, rich background you’ve just given, you’ve brought up a number of the themes that we’re addressing in the forum: namely, questions about tradition, questions about authority, questions about inheritance, and questions about sovereignty. I want to come back to each of these. For the meantime let’s stay a little bit longer on the question of tradition. In describing your experience with African Christianity, you depict it as both constitutive of who you became and also as an object of study. It would be helpful if you could talk a bit about the difficult relationship in which you know and are embedded in traditions and cultures of inheritance, while at the same time these traditions and cultures also become the object of your intellectual work.

JC: What was so instructive about growing up in apartheid South Africa was that God was on everybody’s side. We had something called “Christian national education” when I was growing up, which was really apartheid as religious pedagogy. Of course, it was a cynical mode of maintaining power for a minority, an experiment in social engineering.

There was always a dimension of the enterprise that was highly theological, especially among national religious leaders who argued for a certain kind of Calvinist tradition. They tried to reconcile a rather literal sense of the Salvation of the Elect with the forms of modern “democracy,” which was ironic, because it came from descendants of radical Protestants, many of whom had come to South Africa as Huguenots in 1688, and who as followers of Calvin suffered severe persecution in Catholic France. In the context of the Cape Colony they had developed a mode of reading the Bible and an understanding of Protestantism that remained separate from some of the liberalizing tendencies that accompanied the impact of industrialization, and the rise of a class-based society and secular liberal democracy in Europe. I did meet people who sincerely thought that they could make it work in a relatively humane way, even though the more the system became entrenched, and its contradictions became apparent, the more people became invested in simply maintaining it against all odds, and terrible things were done in its name. So there was that specific tradition, and it had a great influence on apartheid theology.

My family, at least on my father’s side, was Jewish. They had run from the pogroms in Eastern Europe and had come to Africa. My mother was from a lapsed Lutheran family that had also known political exclusion in their native Bavaria. In my parents’ generation, there was a kind of accommodation to the fact that, while most had run from systems of ethnic-political-racial persecution in Europe, by the mid 20th century in South Africa, they were seeing forming around them just such a system: one being validated in theological terms and in terms of fidelity to “tradition.” Afrikaners often saw themselves as the more faithful keepers of a Calvinist “tradition” that had been watered down in secular Europe. But there was also another kind of African Christian “tradition”—a tradition in the sense that it stemmed from a particular kind of teaching of theology, and sought to perpetuate itself as such.

Most of the missionaries who came to southern Africa in the nineteenth century were not elites from the established churches. They were people often from working class communities in the north of England and Scotland. David Livingstone, after all, had been a mill worker, and had educated himself to become a doctor. So they were part of a dissenting strain, and there again you have tradition, but a reinterpreted, reformed tradition. This turns on the key question of where authority is located. This was a crucial matter in the non-European mission field, which required the adaptation of “tradition” to local circumstances. What accommodations pose no threat to established authority? At what point does one question that authority? Where does one draw the line and say: “This is a sovereign truth about which I/We can’t compromise?”

This is an especially salient issue within Protestantism, of course. The whole point about the Protestant tradition is that Providence has given you not only the means, but the obligation to constantly test sovereign truths against the world, against experience, and thus to bring it up to date, to make it speak truth to the world in which you live. This was how the liberal humanist tradition emerged within Protestantism in Europe. When the nineteenth century missionaries had come to South Africa, all of that gets left in Europe.

In Africa, they become the representatives of authoritative tradition in the church, declaring: “There can be no polygamy, there can be no ‘traditional’ ritual.” “Tradition” now gains special ideological meaning as that which is heathen, unenlightened. One has to put all that superstition behind one, leave the extended family, and become an individual believer, one who reads the text and takes a self-willed decision to convert. Now the missionaries represent orthodox, uncompromising authority. And it is Africans who struggle with this question: “How do we make that truth relevant to our lives? Are we indeed purely sinful, purely evil, and living in darkness? And how do we reconcile the fact that the church into which we’ve been brought doesn’t actually live up to formal tenets of its own tradition?”

And so it is that missionization is always a process of reform, some of it explicit, but a lot of it not explicit. Because in making real a “tradition,” in making it live in the world, in putting things into practice, in translating it (in every sense of the word translation), you’re also reforming that tradition, whether it’s an actual declaration of reform, or through the pragmatic re-vision of its components, which renders it almost the same, but not quite, to quote Homi Bhabha. So the key analytical question was: Is Africa becoming Christianized or was Christianity becoming Africanized? And what was at stake in that process? And the whole matter of what constituted a “tradition” was a complicated methodological problem, for both would-be theorists and their subjects were continually confusing ideological and analytical uses of the term.

Making claims in relation to “tradition” can be very powerful: Africans would oppose laws instituted by the apartheid government, for instance, by saying: “Look, everything I’ve been taught about justice, about equity, about any kind of sovereign truth in the Christian tradition is belied by what I see here. And on the authority of that commitment and conviction I protest.” But at the same time, they would resist certain other things that were done in the name of tradition, the Calvinist tradition, for instance.

This slipperiness of the term “tradition” weighed very heavily on me when I started my own research. There was a very strong sense in which both classic anthropology and our everyday colonial culture in South Africa accepted an overarching distinction between modernity and tradition. In colonial society, tradition was primitive, indigenous, something that had to be cast off. The missionaries sometimes referred to traditional African society as a state of “primitive communism,” from which the autonomous, self-determining subject had to be set free. Anthropologists reversed the signs, seeing traditional societies as valuable in and for their difference, even if ultimately doomed by the process of modernization. But anthropologists shared the basic idea of “tradition” as pertaining to an unchanging world, outside of history—not as a living tradition, one that would have acknowledged that African societies might have internal reform, or understood that “customary law” might evolve with social conditions, and so on. Tradition and modernity constituted a kind of Manichean divide—one that was integral to the ideological apparatus of modernity itself, especially as a rationale for colonization and “civilization” (and more recently, for “development”).

Beginning in the late 1960’s, many of us social scientists felt that such a concept of tradition had no place in social analysis. It was ideology parading as theory. We felt we had to show by every means that those putatively static “traditions” were live and that, in fact, they had been produced by modernity, that the very word “tradition” in this sense didn’t exist in African languages until called into being by a discourse of inter-dependent colonizing dualisms. As a discipline, anthropology was itself invested, not always willingly or wittingly, in the preservation of that idea of tradition, and even though they valued it positively, anthropologists were adding a certain kind of ontological legitimacy to the colonizing project because of that. What is more, in subsequent efforts to counter that effect, there has been a move to disestablish the status of “tradition” altogether. All tradition comes to be seen as “invented,” which throws out the baby with the bath water. We have tended to lose the recognition of how authoritative bodies of precept and practice are actually maintained and reformed over time in colonial societies and elsewhere.

To continue reading, click here for a complete transcript (pdf).