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The Bourgeois Appropriation of Marginality

The “persecution complex” maintained by Conservative Christians in North America is a widely noted and rightly criticized phenomenon.  By employing this method those with power — and those who wield that power in a way that is oppressive and death-dealing — attempt to paint themselves as embattled victims or martyrs serving the cause of goodness and truth.  By attempting to establish a certain framework around our sociopolitical discourse, they seek to claim the high ground and make their position unassailable.
Of course, Conservative Christians are not the only ones acting this way.  Within North America, they provide but one (glaring) example of the ways in which a “culture of victimization” has spread so that everybody lays claim to the moral authority and the lack of accountability, not to mention the sympathy and assistance, that is supposedly (or supposedly supposed to be) the domain of “victims.”
It is interesting to note this feature of our culture given that we are actually the most death-dealing, violent, and oppressive gathering of people that has existed to date in history.  No other culture comes close to equaling the amount of damage that we are doing not only to other human beings but to our plant and to life itself.  However, people with guilty consciences have been playing the victim card in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions since at least the beginning of the biblical stories — Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the Serpent (and God blames all three of them!) — so I guess this shouldn’t surprise us.
Be that as it may, the particular element of this that set my wheels spinning is the way in which those who criticize Conservative American Christians for their persecution-complex, usually end up reworking that same complex to their own advantage.  The obvious twist is that these people — who often come from a background of some sort of close relationship to Conservative Christianity — claim that they are the ones persecuted… by the Conservative Christians.  You see this a lot in the “Christian Radical” or “new monastic” or “Emergent” circles.  Essentially, you have a group of predominantly middle-class, well educated, white males claiming that they (and not the other middle-class, well educated white males) are actually the ones who can occupy the high ground.
Take, for example, the blog Religion At the Margins (NB: I have nothing against those who post there, but chose this blog as an apt example of this phenomenon).  Here you have eight contributors (six white males, one white female, one non-white male, all well educated) laying claim to the discourse of marginality.  Thus, they define their blog in this way:

Religion at the Margins is a space dedicated to the exploration of marginalized perspectives in religion, politics, and culture. “At the margins” might refer to a class or group of people, or a heterodox theological perspective, or to those who find themselves on the margins of a faith that was once central to their lives. In any case, the theme here is marginality—however we feel like interpreting that at any given moment.

As far as I can tell, this means that we have a bunch of bourgeois writers who, despite their ongoing intimacy with privilege and power, lay claim to “the margins” because they aren’t as close as they used to be to Conservative Christian doctrines or communities (I’m open to being wrong about this, but the authors’ bios certainly suggest this conclusion).
Now, as the passage quoted above makes clear, the notion of marginality is somewhat vague.  Really any person at any time and any place could lay claim to being on the margins of something.  For example, I could claim to be “on the margins” of the fast-food industry (although I long ago gave up on places like McDonald’s, I still buy the occasional sub from a chain store down the street from my work), or I could claim to be “on the margins” of working with female survivors of sexual violence (since I do work with some survivors but do not work, and am not permitted to work, at the sort of female-staffed space that does the best work in this area).  However, it should be apparent that, while technically true, these are pretty banal statements that don’t carry a lot of weight.  Generally, people easily recognize that some spaces of marginality and some experiences of marginalization are more significant than others (in fact, it is this recognition that is at work in those who criticize the persecution complex of some Conservative Christians — while it may be true that they are more marginal than they used to be to the functioning of the American Empire, the assumption is that this relative marginality doesn’t carry any moral force).  Therefore, when people do employ the language of marginality it is usually done as a discursive power-play in order to gain the benefits I mentioned above (claiming the high ground and all that).
Unfortunately — and here I’m going to make my discursive power-play — the people who genuinely suffer debilitating forms of marginalisation are the ones who end up being forgotten and neglected in all of this.  When one group of bourgeois Christians lays claim to marginality over against another group of bourgeois Christians, then the significance of the death, dying and exploitation of other people groups is minimalised or completely forgotten (this despite the fact that one group of bourgeois Christians may like to read and write about those people groups). Therefore, I think that is time that we all reconsidered the ways in which we deploy the language of marginality, why we employ that language, and what the repercussions of that deployment may be.
This poster has made its rounds through the theology blogs:

But we may want to consider something like the following images.


Not Marginalised:


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  1. Thanks Dan – I always appreciate your articles, even when taking exception to something or another. I used to think in terms of “dwellers on the evangelical fringe”, but why bother if the phrase means one thing to me and another thing to someone else? Ah, forget about it.
    “By attempting to establish a certain framework around our sociopolitical discourse, they seek to claim the high ground and make their position unassailable” – This could be expanded to include any situation where one is reluctant to alter any particular belief or motivation in their heart. What kind of machinery do we have in place that is meant to justify, maintain, and defend our lifestyle choices? Or that is meant to convince ourselves of our primary identity?
    First Nations youth huffing versus McLaren selling lots ‘o books on – nice contrast, I had to laugh when I saw Brian’s picture.

  2. Dan,
    Thanks for this. I am an occasional reader and a bourgeois white male who sometimes throws around terms like marginality. I hope in my own usage that I am not equating myself with those who are really marginalized but rather naming the need to live in relationship with those on the margins. Years ago, I read Christine Pohl’s Making Room where she observes that hospitality is more generous among the marginalized, but that it is possible for those at the centre to choose marginality in some sense. Certainly this could be stretching the term (like when Christian suburbanites rush to identify themselves as the poor in spirit). But I wonder if the language of marginality carries some freight in terms of where the Christian life ought to be lived.
    Certainly th

  3. Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are even nominally endorsed by Obama in the Audacity of Hope.
    Not that anyone should go and read that book though. This is possibly the most boring piece I’ve read all year, written purely to try to lure in new supporters by not taking a lot of risks. And Obama’s not taking a lot of risk with the folks he endorses, which further reinforces the point I made above. Not many people, even among conservatives, really object to your average Christian dogooder.
    What really freaks me at the moment is that our big C Conservatives in the UK absolutely adore them. People doing things for free and not asking the state for money is fantastic news because then the government can invest public resources where it matters: nuclear weapons and big business.
    As Foucault has it, if we’re not being persecuted that could be because we’re massively culturally disciplined and don’t look like we’ll be changing much in terms of how the system works. No need for blood, cultural discipline just looks better.
    Is smoothing the edges of the system by engaging in philanthropic dogooding really the right thing to do?
    I genuinely don’t know to be honest. There are pros and cons. But the cons are that are enabling an increasingly nasty system to keep going without it looking any worse at street level. The government disinvests and dogooders step in. Is that what we want?

  4. I agree with Thom. I feel that the use of Religion at the Margins to prove your point is a baseless mischaracterization. All of us at ROTM share your concern for the marginalized and oppressed, none of us are claiming to be oppressed, or grasping at some ideological high ground. We are in this together, speaking on behalf and hopefully with those marginalized in the US and elsewhere.

  5. I don’t see why you guys are so upset at Dan here. It seems to me based on what I’ve seen at ROTM that you all make pretty clear that what you are on “the margins” of is indeed conservative Christianity. That’s not bad, its just an example of how the langauge of marginality can become rather thin and easily appropriated by people in relatively dominant socio-economic positions.
    Again, that doesn’t mean your website or what you write there is necessarily bad or anything, just that it is using the langauge of marginality is a particular way, namely as a way of establishing yourselves as a sort of intellectual minority vis a vis conservative Christianity. Rather than just crying “Shame!” it seems like a better approach would be to say why you think your more thin (or overly wide, depending on how you look at it) way of using marginality language is important and helpful. Dan seems to think that it may not be helpful in that it has the rhetorical effect of placing your perceived intellectual minority status in the same semantic field as people suffering actual oppression and exploitation. That seems like a cogent argument, one worthy of being argued with, rather than reflexively spat at in response.

  6. Halden,
    I don’t feel like Dan’s post deserves a response. I think it takes cheap shots and I’m not going to bother making a public defense against cheap shots. It makes me look cheap. I’ve interacted with Dan in a private exchange about this. I think the issues this post raises have more to do with Dan than with ROTM.

  7. I can’t for the life of me figure out how opting not to respond to Dan’s post marginalizes him. Talk about thinning the definition of marginality!

  8. Hi, Dan.
    I’m quite late in responding to this post; I just came across it today. But I think you are exactly on target. Those who are “on the margins” do not say, “I am on the margins.” Here’s some things they do say:
    “Can you tell me where the food bank is?”
    “I need to get home to my family in [some town in northern Manitoba]. Can you spare five bucks.”
    “Fuck you!” as I pass by and don’t give them some change.
    “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour,” as they try to hand me a CHIC tract while I walk by ignoring them.
    “Can I shovel the snow off your driveway. I’m living in my truck, and I need a few bucks for some gas, cigarettes and coffee.”
    I myself have never said any of these things (well, except “Fuck you,” but not for the same reasons). They have all been said to me.

    • Hi Doug,
      Thanks for your comment and thanks for stopping by. I have enjoyed reading what you have written on Paul, so I’m happy that you enjoyed reading this post.

  9. Doug,
    First, we at RATM are not claiming to be marginalized. Second, the socio-political margins are not the only kind of margins that are theologically relevant. Third, I know plenty of people on the socio-political margins who _do_ say, “I am on the margins.” There are plenty who are acutely conscious of where they are located.


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