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Meme: The Academy and the Poor

In the final chapter of Until Justice & Peace Embrace, Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that theory must be praxis-oriented (especially given our recognition of the injustices that are rampant within the world, and our recognition of our own responsibilities, and abilities, to effect change). The scholar, Wolterstorff argues, cannot claim a form of rationality that is detached from the struggle, for a “seesaw battle is taking place in history between the forces that advance and the forces that retard shalom” and neutrality is not an option. Hence, Wolterstorff asks: “Is it not the calling of scholars, and certainly of Christian scholars, to participate in that battle?”
Wolterstorff believes that it is indeed the calling of Christian scholars to participate in that struggle by making a commitment to justice as the governing interest of their theorizing. This is theorizing “in the service of the cause of struggling for justice.”
Further, following the insights of both Kuyper and Marx, Wolterstorff argues that one must learn to listen to those who are in very different geographical, social, and economic locations than our own, for socially produced malformations and ideologies will significantly influence one's own religious beliefs and moral convictions.
In all of this, Wolterstorff mirrors much that has been said by liberation theologians, and other political theologians (like Moltmann). And I am convinced by these arguments. I believe that, confronted as we are with the massive brokenness of the world, and the suffering of our neighbours, our academic endeavours must be shaped by certain commitments. We are not free to pursue every little rabbit-trail that we find captivating. Rather, our scholarship is to be part of our participation in the embodied proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus and ongoing his mission of forgiveness, liberation, and new creation. Further, I also believe that, to more fully understand this proclamation and its implications, we must move into the company of the poor, and listen to what they have to tell us.
This, then, is the question I would like to ask, as I attempt to start a meme: when confronted with 'the Poor' of our day, how do you justify your own academic endeavours? I invite any and all readers of this blog to respond to this question on their own blogs (or in the comments section) and to invite others to respond.
I have my own response to this question — my own way of understanding my academic endeavours in light of my commitment to the poor — but I would like to hear what others have to say, before I present my own thoughts.

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  1. Thanks for this post. For me it really hits home. As a South African who has benefitted from Apartheid and who got an education at the cost of others, this is a question that challenges me on a weekly basis.
    In terms of ‘justifying my own academic endeavors’ I would say that:
    – It’s hard to justify it, I think it will always be a struggle (for me).
    – I only see academics as ‘justified’ when I become a servant as a result of it.
    – This serving means developing friendships with people who can’t access the white/black elite academic situations/conversations that I’m part of.
    – Within these friendships a sifting takes place of what is really helpful for my friends in the squatter camps and inner city.
    – Involving them in the conversation usually exposes huge blind-spots in ‘my academic endeavors’.
    – We do this by doing studies/conversations with them where we/I bring some of the academic background and they bring their experience. It usually sifts through the ivory tower idealism and bullshit. It’s amazing how much of my middle-class/rich rationalizations are shot to peaces when it’s critiqued from the margins.
    [An excellent resource in this regard has been Gerald West’s book “Academy of the poor” (]
    – I’ve also learned that the poor can have some wacko ideas, so it’s not just all romantic ‘sit at their feet and learn’ stuff. But I still find it helpful to place myself in a listening posture [especially in my African context where colonialism and missionary work has been practiced as almost the same activity].
    This is not comprehensive, yet if I could sum it all up in one word then I would choose ‘servanthood’. If it doesn’t make the academic more of a servant then it usually only serves to isolate / build up the ego [and I’ve had a lot of that here in SA]. Here in SA academics are still a main way to become rich and isolated, I posted something about it here (

  2. For my part, I have felt it necessary to move away from the academy. I have chosen not to move towards doctorate studies etc. There are several theological reasons for this. I think the way of Jesus are opposed to the acceptance of hierarchies, titles and experts (Matt 23:8-12), I believe that our gifts of grace should be used for free (not receiving a pre-determined salary), I think theology should be made by everyone in the church in close relationship to practice, not by expert in a school, and I reject the alliance between the state and the church that are a big part of the academic theological system here in Sweden.
    /Jonas Lundström

  3. I’m with Jonas here, and I’d like to hear more of those theo reasons because I haven’t really sat down and thought about what I’d say.
    I can envision both studying and living in a marginalized community with good integration, but perhaps not in Toronto…

  4. I was lucky enough to hear Wolterstorff speak at AAR 2007. He was unusually brilliant – unusual because he sounded so different than typical academic-speak.
    A good example of an academic concerned with the struggle is Cornel West. Indeed, “struggle” is a major motif in his work.
    Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to your tough question.

  5. The Scholars’ academic endeavors are either to: 1. educate to maintain the present status of a society or to, 2. educate to liberate the people from oppressive systems of the present status of a society.

  6. No way to sugar coat it. Getting the Ph.D. means you are going to become what you despise. No sense dressing it up with all of these roundabout justifications. You will be paid to talk about social justice which now your listeners AND you won’t be engaged in anymore. Debt, monotonous lectures, and a sort of bland prestige await you. Turn back it’s not too late!!!

  7. Okay, I will need a bit more time for that one, but I can jot down a contribution. I began a PhD for two reasons: I was getting paid to do it, and I was tired of people lording it over me, stating that I couldn’t do research since I did not have a doctorate when I was working in a policy environment. I realised that, increasingly, you’d need a doctorate to run the big research projects I was interested in running, because otherwise people would continue to imply that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
    Now, for justifying further professional activity in the academy, I think it is needed for a number of reasons:
    1. Because we have become theoretically powerless in the face of globalised free trade: We need academic self-defense: we need to develop solutions that challenges neoliberal and neoconservative status quo.
    2. Because we have become theoretically powerless in Marxist terms: we need, once again to theorise capitalism. As Christians we can’t just wait for a bloody and violent revolution, which shows no signs of happening anyway. There remains the massive question that nobody knows ho to answer: how to bring about a more socially just society.
    3. Because we have become theoretically powerless in Feminist terms. Chantal Mouffe defines feminist politics “not as a separate politics for the pursuit of the interests of women as women but as the pursuit of feminist goals and aims within the context of a wider articulation of demands”. Groups that are oppressed need to learn how to articulate their identity in political terms and to keep questioning the oppressive power relations that exist in society, for this is the essence of progressive politics.
    4. Because some part of me remains a reformist, and I believe that an argument, well articulated, is an argument that can be heard. Because the welfare state is not too bad an idea and I wish globalisation was more social rather than less. I actually get excited when the critiques that emerged in Porto Alegre become mainstream, when entrepreneurs stop and think “hang on a minute, they’ve got a point”.
    5. Because we are deluding ourselves when we think that this type of learning can happen entirely outside of the formal academy. Jon Sobrino is as academic as it gets. For most of us reading this, schooling made us who we are. We heard the messages somewhere. We had the time and leisure to read books and websites and Zines. Stopping after getting a master’s degree level hardly makes anyone anti-academy.
    6. Because academics (those with a PhD anyway) teach. Because the time I’ve spent locked away in the ivory tower has enabled me to read books which I can then recommend to others. Because my students love them, and they start to think too. Because I never said or wrote anything that my mum (who did not finish high school) could not understand.
    7. Because I would agree that being in academia is never enough. I believe that the blueprint for scholars of tomorrow is to be hybrid scholars who are also rooted into something else.
    8. Because I would like to build on the supposedly radical academy. All of my colleagues are “left wing”. All of my colleagues would like to be taught and shown a way of living radically. I believe that they are good people.
    9. Finally, I suppose I could use my time better elsewhere. At the end of the day, I may be a fairly mediocre academic. There’s a certain level of pride in thinking that I may be the next social science genius. If I am, God will let me know, but most likely I’m not. Spending a lifetime trying to publish five or six obscure articles and a monograph or two isn’t my idea of a productive life. I’d much rather be at the coalface, and maybe send up an idea or two back to academia. But by then, I’ll have the degree and connections to be listened to.
    – dany

  8. Dany. Interesting arguments. Would you like to comment on my suggestions for moving away from the academy above? To me there is a difference between the theological academy and the secular one. I was speaking about higher theological education and I thought that Dan´s question was about this, but I am not sure. My arguments doesn´t exactly fit a job within the academy outside of the theological world, although I am somewhat skeptical of both worlds.
    Some comments on your arguments (since you spoke about “us christians”, I take it that you include yourself in this category)
    1-4. Well, I think that God´s people should not focus there energy upon reforming the system. God´s true people is an alternative society, “salt and light and a city on a mountain” and has its own distinct politics. To obey Jesus and conform to the pattern of the coming kingdom should be our primary way. When the church has done this, it has also to some degree affected the system, but this should not be our first priority. God´s power is fundamentally different then what the system acknowledge as power (1 Kor 1-2).
    5. You seem to be confusing learning and the academy. I believe true learning can happen without being sponsored by the academy.

  9. Jonas, thanks for engaging with me, as I said elsewhere, I’m learning Swedish just to read you blog! I like your point about prefigurative politics. -Me using the word “prefigurative politics” testifies that people outside the radical Christian bubble have been using very similar concepts and we would do well to cross-pollinate-.
    I find your argument compelling, but while this new order is being set up, I also believe in reforming the current system. So when the daughter of a garment industry CEO goes to a mainstream church’s confirmation classes and then walks up to her dad challenging working conditions and achieving instant change, I say well done! At the end of the day that achieved more than some permaculture base-community in North America. And I still want that sort of thing to happen, so I’ll have a foot on both endeavours.
    I doubt that learning can happen entirely outside the academy, because in our societies, the academy is still the obvious place to look for solid knowledge. I’m sure that you can reach a point at which you can learn for yourself, with books at home, but who wrote the books? And who taught you the critical skills as an undergrad? Just zoom into the grassroots movements; I can assure you that scholarly research has had some influence all over the place.
    So yep, once you’ve got a first degree or a master’s, you can do your own research without going for a PhD. I very nearly didn’t get one, and I would have been just as curious to learn. But having three years (in the UK) of empty time to teach yourself stuff while getting paid for it is a wonderful opportunity. And I am a much better scholar now than I was three years ago, I can teach in universities, and I can get listened to by policy makers.
    More importantly perhaps, I can “teach” whomever I want, and I can demystify learning. I’m so non-threatening around knowledge that very often people who meet me start thinking “hell, if she can do it, I could do a Ph.D. she’s not that clever”. People who know me who did not study feel that they could have, if given the right opportunities and the right encouragement. My students leave my classes with more confidence than they had when they entered it. And then learning happens outside the academia, you bet! But academia is still there and it will continue to be there, let’s draw from their resources if they let us.

  10. I´m sorry, I didn´t get what you were referring to with your comment about Swedish and my blog. Sarcasm? And what did you mean by “elsewhere”?
    Well, I think I agree with a good part of what you say. And I am still not sure whether we are talking about theology or other disciplines. I have good friends that have moved on to doctorate studies in history/sociology, and I have encouraged them in this. Even for my own part, I´m not sure I won´t get into this in the future, although I probably would hesitate due to the problems associated with the kind of power positions that often/always comes with high academic training.
    My argument above about Jesus´ words on hierarchical titles/positions, receiving salary etc has (mostly) to do with the relationships within God´s people and the freedom of God´s message, as I see it, and wouldn´t necessarily apply within other disciplines.
    The fact that we are influenced by the academic theology, and that some of this influence is positive and creative, I wouldn´t deny. God´s spirit can be found everywhere, and I believe there are true disciplies within the theological world. But for me, this is no argument why this is the best or the only way to make good theology.

  11. Nope it’s not a sarcasm at all! I speak several languages and reading stuff is my way of picking them up. Besides, the Swedes make the best movies. “Elsewhere” is an old post on my own blog: I hate promoting my own writing and usually don’t leave an url, except when leaving argumentative comments, so that people can make up their own mind if they wish to see where I come from.
    You guessed it, I’m a political scientist, with side interests in philosophy and economics. Personally, I wanted the communicative power of academia, because even though it’s unfashionable to say so, power can be used for good. And power can be used to empower others, i.e. by demystifying it. I don’t yet fully subscribe to the theory that the welfare state is irretrievably lost, although it does look pretty bad.
    I wish you’d go for further study, or maybe just further publicity; I wish theology sounded like the kind of stuff you usually say. There is strength in numbers when we talk about spreading (good) ideas. I’m all for creating more buzz, for getting more students exposed to them. For preaching the Gospel “to the end of the world”, if you will.
    Of course talking is not everything, and living the Gospel is far more important because if we don’t we’ve got no credibility whatsoever. Maybe if people started living peaceably the way of life would just spread via the transmission of tacit knowledge. But there is worth in codified knowledge (knowledge that is written down or spoken out), hell, even the Bible is codified knowledge! Someone write those books, someone teach those students!
    You would likely receive a salary if you worked in academic theology. That means that you would not be distributing your gifts for free. Believe it or not that is why I keep theology as a hobby. But really I’m piggybacking on people who have dedicated their lives to the study of theology, where else would I get the knowledge from? I fully agree with the substance of your last sentence though.
    Okay, I hope that I’m still relevant and that Dan doesn’t mind me hogging his blog with such lengthy comments.

  12. Your post assumes that all who enter the academy come from privileged middle-class backgrounds, thus the need to “move into the company of the poor.” However, a few of us in academia have been your romanticized “company of the poor,” the face of your homogeneous “‘the Poor’ of our day.” For us “the Poor” is not Other; it has been Self and it remains many a friend and family member. Let’s not forget that the Lordship of Christ leads (for very mundane reasons) to betterment of life. I have little sympathy for the complaints and woes of the North American middle class as they wallow in disgusting waste and complacency. However, I find equally distasteful jeremiads that romanticize the poor and make their plight solely the result of injustice against them. Injustice and inequalities are real, to be sure, but so is the fact that many wallow in poverty because of their own foolish and (do I dare say it?) sinful behavior. Many times the most efficient solution to problems of poverty is to teach wisdom and virtue, to call people to repent. Let’s not get so enamored with the empty rhetoric of the political left or right that we forget that Jesus’ message to the poor began with that distasteful imperative: “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”

  13. Actually, I’m making no such assumptions. In fact, I myself was street-involved (and even homeless at times) when I was a teenager, as were a good many of my friends. As are a good many of my friends and neighbours at this present moment.
    And I have no interest in romanticizing the poor, as I’m sure you’ll realize if you engage in a more careful reading of the entries I have written on this subject over the last few years.
    Further, you might want to spend a little more time exploring what it is that Jesus says to the poor, and when it is that he uses the language of repentance. To the poor, Jesus usually extends an unconditional form of welcome that prepares the way for repentance — it is only when he is talking with the wealthy and well-established that Jesus begins with the call to repentance. Again, I invite you to a more careful reading of the relevant material.

  14. Hey Dan,
    This is a well-timed post for me. I had one of my blogs posted on a Salvation Army site recently called The Rubicon.
    My blog is called ‘the i-phone challenge’ which essentially challenges people to not buy into the whims of the adman and use the money saved from buying garbage like an i-phone by giving it to the poor.
    One person responded by challenging me with the legitimacy of paying for an education when I could use that money to help the poor. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t hit a little sore spot for me, but this discussion is helping me process that.
    I’m looking forward to your own thoughts on the matter.
    Much respect

  15. Check out the link to follow the thread of responses but essentially I admitted that it hit a nerve and that while I think it’s an unfair comparison, I couldn’t quite articulate why so would get back to him later.
    So now I’m dependant on your own thoughts as I apparently don’t have any of my own:)