Rachel Pafe on Karen Bray
Theologian Karen Bray describes “Black Lives Matter” and “Make America Great Again” as two diverging channels of deep grief. The former is a lament of liberation and transformation and the latter is a lament for the return to old forms of power. These deep-seated grievances over daily life, death and imagination do not vanish with political shifts in power. Bray’s Grave Attending: A Political Theology for the Unredeemed asks how we can listen to and harness such mournful moods, but it also performs a lament itself. It draws on grief, not as a celebration of sadness, but as a rejection of a one-dimensional happiness and exclusionary redemption.
The lament has been used as a means to share grief for thousands of years. From ancient Greek tragedies to the biblical Book of Lamentations, lament serves as a literary device in poetry, prose, prayer and song to express an irreparable tragedy. It often presents grief as an unbridgeable chasm between human and society or God/gods; this frequently crystallizes in the figure of a particular dead beloved, but also has metaphysical consequences, speaking beyond the historical instance and of a universe that is irrevocably broken. In the case of Grave Attending, this brokenness stems from a global crisis created by neoliberalism and parallels a painful, broken present in which future salvation is uncertain.
Bray describes neoliberalism as a system that goes beyond traditional capital and monetizes emotions, social interactions and sharing. She argues that this system determines the value of citizens based on their success as worthwhile investments, both monetarily and culturally.
Echoing Adam Kotsko’s Neoliberal Demons: On the political theology of late capital (2018), neoliberalism is positioned as an exclusionary system of both capital and redemption. Salvation is tied to realizing success within the market and personal freedom and damnation is found in personal blame and responsibility when one does not realize success within supposedly limitless choices. This creates a system of unachievable goals, or as literary and affect theorist Lauren Berlant puts it, a “cruel optimism” that sets one up to try, burn out, strive and inevitably fail. Bray focuses on how demands for success extend to the spiritual implications of the body and its affects: those who are not sufficiently healthy, stable, white, able, resilient or heteronormative enough are deemed unworthy of salvation from the start or soon fail to keep up. So, Bray asks: what if we choose unredemption?
Grave Attending is not unique in its message. One can read it in many other places, especially in feminist, queer and crip theories. As one friend put it, the message that “it is okay to not be okay,” however difficult to reconcile amidst daily pressures, is well documented and out there. What is remarkable about this book is how it forms this message from disciplinary strands that have rarely, if ever, been brought together, particularly the fields of political theology and affect theory.
Bray engages with leftist and radical strands of political theology, the theorization of faith-based motivations that underlie political structures. She contends underlying spiritual drives of neoliberalism, but also critiques the current state of political theology itself. She argues that despite radical political theological calls for revolutionary action in the immanent world, it is a field that, beyond being mostly dominated by white men, often feels cold and unemotional. This type of political theology is exciting in its broad and powerful structural critique, but the idea of a revolution in the abstract form of the “event” often feels divorced from the daily emotions engendered by such systems. As someone personally engaged in the field, this often feels like a yawning gap: political theology is a field that still struggles with its undeniable modern heritage in the thought of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, lacks diverse voices and yet tries to chart the inevitably messy constellations of how faith continues to drive our intertwined political and personal desires.
Bray bridges this gap with affect theory, a dense system of thought that she engages with as the cultural and political coding of emotions, feelings and sensations. This varies from the often-ineffable sensation of butterflies in the pit of one’s stomach before jumping off a (proverbial) cliff to normative cultural associations of happiness in ideas such as the American dream as a white, able, heteronormative, middle class couple that owns a house in the suburbs. While affect theory is increasingly common in gender, feminist and literary studies, it rarely ventures into the realm of theology.
Grave Attending brings affect theory and political theology together to ask about the rarely explored emotions of spiritually based politics and the politico-spiritual potentials of emotions. These two disciplines serve as broad banners to incorporate Black studies and feminist, queer and crip theories to examine the power of moods such as sickness, madness, queerness, unproductivity, lament and brokenness, which do not fit into the dominant vision of American happiness and redemption. In doing so, Grave Attending aims to perform moodiness, especially through Bray’s personal vignettes of racial, class and emotional tensions, breakdowns and self-doubt. She positions herself as a white female Christian theologian often described as too emotional, acknowledging the bounds of the systems of thought and broader academia in which she works and the ailing America in which she lives.
Sometimes it does feel like too much: chapters structured by “uns,” such Unsaved Time, Unproductive Worth and Unreasoned Care, can become overburdened with references. Yet we must continue to mourn. In Grave Attending there is a palpable frustration with the imperfect form of the academic book as a means for reflection on the depths of misery, unheard voices and ongoing violence of American society under neoliberalism. It nevertheless manages to embody a call against the relentless drive to move on and performs the frustrating agony of what it could mean to begin listening to the pain of others. In order to examine the privileges we personally reap from this system at the expense of others, we need to feel this pain and the agonizing uncertainty of its duration.
Bray proposes the idea of “grave attending,” a theo-ethical response that she defines as:
“A caring for the gravity, a pulling down to the material world, the listening and feeling for what all its myriad emotions have to tell us and where they have to lead us. Such a grave attention is an attention to the lamenting cries (those released in word and affect) of those who have been crucified by neoliberalism and its concomitant heteropatriarchal, ableist, and white supremacist ethics.”
The theological core to this idea of grave attending is Holy Saturday theologies of remaining, an in-between state between the events of crucifixion and resurrection. Holy Saturday is about not knowing when redemption will arrive and choosing to remain within the suffering and pain of crucifixion. It positions this in-between space of unbearable pain and uncertainty as a means of questioning and refusing triumphant narratives of redemption. The “grave” in grave attending both recalls a burial site (a graveyard) and a moment of urgency (grave concern).
This lamenting call to willfully remain in a state of suffering, unsure if redemption will ever come, treads the line between strength and horror. It finds potency in the refusal of linear narratives, dogmatic faith and simplistic stories of recovery; it remains within the necessary dread rooted in the failure to listen to repressed voices and bodies and the history of slavery, oppression, and imperialism that built and continue to haunt America.
Bray emphasizes that “it does not and cannot rush toward redemption out of the gravity of such damage, because it is attendant to the damage of those who, in the wake of our resurrective impulse, we have let down.” In the context of movements such as Black Lives Matter, grief often goes unheeded. We need to reckon with the pain caused by centuries-long systemic and structural racism and resist the desire to see last summer’s violence as out of the ordinary, as solved, or as a turning point.
American society is broken and we cannot just smile and move on, quickly protest and take a picture, complain, and expect a reward.
On the cover of Grave Attending is a floating, hand-shaped mass covered in scratches. In the chapter Unproductive Worth, the hand becomes fleshier, scarier. It bounces between feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s idea of a willful hand shooting from the grave of a Grimm Brother’s fairy tale, originally part of a fable devoted to disciplining a willful child, to the monstrous being that haunts the protagonist of It Follows, a 2014 popular horror movie.
The film is about a deadly haunting presence that is passed from person to person through sexual contact. It takes the form of many different people, but once contracted, it will slowly follow and kill the infected person unless they quickly absolve responsibility and pass the following to another. When the protagonist, a white, beautiful, blonde, straight, able-bodied teenager, finds the date who passed her the thing that follows, he tells her that, “all you can do is pass it to someone else.”
It Follows plays with the trope of the American dream to underline the particular dread that accompanies ripples of a nightmare. This sort of aspirational happiness wants to get as far away as possible from a country constructed on slavery and white patriarchy and struggling not to confront the violence of this repression. Although Grave Attending tries to interrogate such one-dimensional redemption, the incredible chasm of lament has no timeline of ever closing, and the book falls short.
The characters in It Follows literally break down, and the frenzied effort to remain whole goes into overdrive. This movie of endlessly running away from pain parallels the broader spiritual demands of neoliberal America. It recalls an endless chain of passing on pain and trauma in the relentless drive to make it to the finish line of happiness, whatever the human cost. This type of cheap salvation runs one ragged and promises no help, collective or otherwise, when one reaches the point of exhaustion. We need to stop passing on the responsibility of grief and trauma to others and embrace and experience this pain.
In the late stage of the Biden campaign, an email somehow kept slipping through my spam folder. Disconcertingly addressed to “Rachel” from “Joe”, it begged me to consider that the upcoming presidential race was “a battle for the soul of America.” This statement posits the soul: an all-encompassing spirit that can be won. By assuming that the American soul can be simply retrieved through a change in political power, this narrative reinforces the need to move on from the trauma of those who do not fit into this vision of the soul. Rejecting this call to battle means the ongoing work of confronting grief. It means committing to listen to how others express it.
The lament performed by Grave Attending is a cry that resonates before and beyond current political promises and begs us to remain in the agony of this moment. In choosing to confront what haunts us, in choosing to see the pain of others and our role in its creation, only then can we begin to hope to spiritually heal.
Rachel Pafe is a writer and researcher interested in twentieth-century post-war German-Jewish thought and interdisciplinary theories of mourning. She writes fiction and criticism and collaborates across disciplines, including projects with artists, religious historians, philosophers, and game designers. She is currently completing an MA in Jewish Studies at University of Potsdam with a thesis focusing on the early 1950s correspondence between Susan and Jacob Taubes.