Thoughts After Reading Mitch Landrieu’s, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History

Peter Slade

A Tale of Two Surprises

Thoughts after reading Mitch Landrieu’s, In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, Viking, 2018.

by Peter Slade

Mitch Landrieu’s book, In the Shadow of Statues, is the backstory of the speech he gave as mayor of New Orleans on May 19, 2017, following his removal of three Confederate statues—Lee, Davis, and Beauregard—from the city. Pulling down statues symbolizes regime change. Statues of Lenin fell across Eastern Europe during the revolutions of 1989 and statues of Saddam Hussein tumbled in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. It seems reasonable, then, to consider that the current struggle to remove Confederate monuments is symbolic of a struggle to change a regime here in the United States of America. But this outgoing regime—unlike the communists in East Berlin or the baathists in Baghdad—is one that is hidden in plain sight and may not be outgoing at all. Viewed from this perspective, Landrieu’s book is above all an account of the surprise of discovery: his surprise at discovering this hidden regime’s history and his surprise at its continuing political power.

Landrieu is surprised to see the history he did not know celebrated in a landscape he did not see. Challenged by his friend, none other than the jazz great Wynton Marsalis, to remove the Confederate statues from New Orleans’s streets, Landrieu details his awakening to the meaning of the statues he had driven past thousands of times. He presents his personal testimony of “learning to see what’s in front of me” in the hope that his readers will also see these symbols and their American history with the veil torn away. This is a book written in the easy voice of a man with the common touch: the voice of a successful politician who expects to bring you along with him. For those familiar with the development of the religion of the Lost Cause and the history of race in America, there is nothing new here. But there is something depressingly instructive for historians and activists in Landrieu’s naive story of personal awakening. How is it, we need to ask ourselves, that a well-educated, intelligent, and humane white man who had spent his professional political career studying the motivations of his constituents was so surprised by this at all? How did he miss it?

Landrieu’s second great surprise is at the power and persistence of white supremacy. He opens the book with his shock that, despite the support of the city’s government and all his office’s money and connections, he could not hire a crane to take down the statues. He returns to his quandary again near the end of the book: as the mayor of New Orleans, “[after] all the billions of dollars we’d spent on contractors,” “I still can’t get anyone to lease me a damned crane: This still eats at me.” Again, the surprise of a powerful white man at the political center of his world should be instructive. How did the intimidation of contractors with death threats and arson come as a surprise to Landrieu?

With his awakened hindsight, Landrieu gives an account of race and the regime of white supremacy running through his life from his earliest memories of his Catholic upbringing as the son of a mayor of New Orleans to his own assumption of that office. For Landrieu, “[race] is like a song that you cannot get out of your head.” With this song in heavy rotation by the summer of 2015 when he announced the removal of the statues, Landrieu was not surprised by the popular appeal of Donald Trump: he had seen it all before in Louisiana in the political success of the Klansman David Duke. “When I look back today,” Landrieu writes, “David Duke’s demagoguery stands like a dress rehearsal for the rise of Donald Trump.”

In the interviews Landrieu has given to promote the book, he has been asked repeatedly if he will throw his hat in the ring as a challenger to Trump. It’s clear that Landrieu constructs his narrative with the intention of introducing himself to a national electorate. He interlaces his stories with extraneous reflections on his current policy positions on race, gentrification, education, guns, police, mass incarceration, and urban crime, and makes a case for his skills and experience at running a political administration and in beating politicians like Trump. Whether or not he does run in 2020, Landrieu should bear in mind that he will be faced with a white America that, by-and-large, does not like surprises: certainly not the ones that force us to confront the power and persistence of white supremacy in America.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

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PLT Alum Kelly West Figueroa-Ray Defends Dissertation on Beloved Community

Kelly Figueroa-RayDissertation Entitled Beloved Community in Multicultural Contexts: The Lived Theology of Pastor Miguel Balderas

On April 18th, PLT alum Kelly West Figueroa-Ray successfully defended her dissertation entitled Beloved Community in Multicultural Contexts: The Lived Theology of Pastor Miguel Balderas. This study is a hermeneutical ethnography that situates Pastor Miguel’s approach to multicultural ministry within the lived theological tradition of Beloved Community. This research combines ethnographic methods with a set of hermeneutical tools, traditionally used to analyze ancient scriptural commentary, to examine enacted theological expression, specifically preaching, liturgical choices, and leadership models.

When reflecting on the most important insight from this study, Kelly states:

“By imposing upon his congregation the scriptural values and characteristics of the Kingdom of God in light of the Pentecost experience of Acts 2, Pastor Miguel’s lived theology can be described as the insurgent multiculturalism of Beloved Community. Unlike other multicultural approaches within mainline Christian churches that encourage assimilation to the majority-white culture, Pastor Miguel’s approach encourages his congregants to move towards a congregation in which: 1) the leadership works as a team and reflects the diversity of the community’s demographic and 2) “se come la comida de todos” (everyone eats the food of everyone). This is not an International Day form of sharing, but rather a practice that becomes part of the fabric of community life. Through this organic approach to multicultural training, Pastor Miguel’s hope is that the long-term, majority-white, and English-speaking members could lead their congregation alongside non-English-speaking immigrants, with every person functioning as a full participant in the leadership process.”

This research contributes to the growing body of literature on multiracial congregations by offering a unique ethnographic perspective missing from the scholarship—an in-depth examination of a non-multicultural congregation’s approach to developing multicultural ministries. Hermeneutical ethnography as it is applied in this study also offers a new method for Christian ethnographers, anthropologists, and other scholars interested in how scripture and Christian tradition function in contemporary religious communities, a method that takes seriously the role of texts within the process of lived theological expression.

Kelly graduated last week and has also accepted a one-year faculty position at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. She looks forward to offering courses that will explore contemporary scriptural hermeneutics and the lived theology of faith practitioners and Christian communities.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more news from PLT fellow travelers, click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #PLTfellowTravelers. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Reclaiming Authentic Lutheranism: Michael P. DeJonge Delivers Guest Lecture on Bonhoeffer’s Ethical Framework

Michael DeJongeOn Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Lutheran Theology and Political Life

On September 20, Michael P. DeJonge delivered a guest lecture entitled “Bonhoeffer’s Reception of Luther.” Drawing from his most recent publication of the same title, DeJonge centered the lecture on the argument that Bonhoeffer’s approach to political and ethical issues rests on a complex and balanced account of the relationship between theology and political life inherited through the Lutheran tradition.

He begins by discussing how the structure or logic of Bonhoeffer’s thought is informed by two extremes of ethical framework, the compromise approach and the radical approach. As Bonhoeffer seeks out the middle position of the two, he reclaims the authentic Lutheran position, DeJonge argues, using two tools from the Lutheran tradition of social ethics: the ideas of the two kingdoms and the orders. DeJonge concludes with a practical account of how this abstract conceptual frameworks should approach political projects.

In his discussion of the two kingdoms, DeJonge says:

“Bonhoeffer is a two kingdoms thinker, and it is really crucial to see that if you want to understand the way he works with political and ethical issues… A key theological notion that is secured by the two kingdoms is the idea of preservation. So in the Lutheran tradition, there is a relatively clear distinction between preservation and redemption. Once creation falls into sin, God’s action towards the world isn’t straightaway redemption, but rather preservation and redemption. Preservation is God’s activity by which God prevents the world from falling into the total chaos that should follow from sin. Before God redeems the world, God needs to preserve the world in its fallenness, keep it out of nothingness. So God is doing that with one hand, and redeeming the world with the other.”

Listen to the entire lecture through its resource page here.

Michael P. DeJonge is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, and teaches in the areas of the history of Christian thought, theories and methods in religious studies, and modern religious thought. His research has focused on the twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he sits on the board of the International Bonhoeffer Society and is a co-editor of the journal, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Yearbook.

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Lived Theology after Charlottesville

All of us at the Project on Lived Theology extend our gratitude for the many expressions of concern and solidarity received since the white supremacy marches on grounds and in Charlottesville. In the coming months, our work building bridges between scholars and practitioners has assumed a new urgency. We look forward to learning from and sharing resources in the conversations and exchanges emerging at UVa, Charlottesville, and around the nation. This statement drafted by our colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies eloquently conveys our renewed mission and purpose going forward.

August 14, 2017

An Open Letter from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in Response to the Events of August 11th and 12th

The Department of Religious Studies denounces the violence and terror perpetrated by the gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA on August 11th and 12th, 2017. As a faculty, we are particularly horrified that our University Grounds were used to promote this agenda and that students, who were exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest, were physically attacked a short distance from their dormitories.

The Department of Religious Studies rejects the white supremacist ideology of intolerance and its practice of hateful speech, as well as the violence it engenders. We stand in solidarity with the victims of these events and with those who courageously resisted the hate groups and their virulent messages; we stand with the community of Charlottesville and with all those at whom hate continues to be directed. We cherish the diversity of our student body and commit ourselves to supporting students who are targeted by hate groups. We promise to be available to students who seek support from us, even as we actively develop new initiatives to support them.

As a department, we advocate for no single religious faith or political point of view. Our faculty comprises scholars who practice different religions or no religion at all. Our professors, all of whom serve the Commonwealth of Virginia, hold a range of political views. Those who are American citizens vote their consciences individually in elections, for a wide array of political parties. Amid this political and national diversity, we stand united in our unanimous and unequivocal condemnation of those who promote hate, by way of violent speech and action—the white supremacists, the neo-Nazis, the neo-Fascists, the anti-Semites. And we regard this condemnation as the expression of a simple, moral truth rather than a political statement.

We must not hesitate to name and condemn the intimidation, terror, and violence that convulsed and profaned our city and university this weekend. We consider the groups who organized and participated in the “Unite the Right” rally to be hate groups. We do not take their views to represent a legitimate, alternative political perspective: they are dangerous, and they perpetuate what is universally condemned by all the world’s religions and ethical systems. We feel morally compelled to call out those who afflicted our community with their night-time mob on the University’s Grounds and with their violence on our city’s streets the following day. Burning torches, aggressive chanting, and racist, homophobic, and antisemitic slogans echo the symbolism, and messages, of Nazi-era Germany and of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. This is not a time for equivocation. We stand firmly and explicitly against the views and actions of those espousing hate, terror, and violence in Charlottesville over this past weekend, and any other day.