Winnifred Sullivan’s latest book calls for a model of religious community “otherwise” than that which she calls “the church-in-law.” Disestablishment, to paraphrase her much more detailed argument, has established a model of religion, a “church”—the term the Supreme Court repeatedly uses—defined and regulated by the state.
Across her oeuvre, Sullivan has shown that there is a model of “legal religion” in the US; that such a model is deeply indebted to and inflected with protestant characteristics and sensibilities; that “freedom of religion” is therefore impossible; and, moreover, that the ideal of equal treatment under the law is hindered by religion’s privileged yet problematic place within the legal system.
This arc of argument is laid out with attentive empathy to humans negotiating such realities as incarceration, mourning, criminalized blackness, or capital jury duty. Sullivan explores such situations with sadness as well as a rage for a new order, a rage tempered always by a push for reconciliation.
Hers is a revolutionary vision. Not revolution by guillotine or machete but revolution through encounter. She imagines a community outside the political and legal framework of the state. She imagines opposing parties coming together at a shared table.
In the wake of former president Donald Trump’s use of gas and armed agents to clear away protesters for the purpose of posing outside a church while holding a Bible, Sullivan published an essay. While one could imagine—and, indeed, read, in various hot, lukewarm, and tepid takes—a range of reactions to such violent theatrics, Sullivan called for dialogue, for “listening to and talking with his supporters.” This short essay speaks alongside Church State Corporation, detailing the concept of church-in-law and gesturing toward an alternative. In lieu of supersessionist claims about the true meaning of the Bible or nostalgia for an imagined past when the big beautiful wall of disestablishment prevented such spectacle, Sullivan calls for human engagement, for conversation, and for exchange.
In Church State Corporation, she expands on this method of “listening and talking,” pointing to the example of “radical empathy taught by Hillel Gray” (177), who leads students through a process of listening to members of the Westboro Baptist Church. She also considers the chef, writer, and travel show star Anthony Bourdain as both a model of an alternate religiosity—one not limited to self-definition or necessarily even recognized as such—and a model of the kind of revolutionary community to which Sullivan gestures.
Sullivan reads the famous, late career meeting of Bourdain with Barack Obama, wherein the two shared beer and noodles in Hanoi, as an implicitly religious gathering.
Sullivan then imagines if the disputants in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation were to sit with Bourdain, to enter this “church,” to listen and to talk and to share, in this case, muffins and coffee.
Further, she offers an image of a crowded table, various otherwise-opponents or exemplars of counter-communities gathered together, practicing what she identifies as “the hospitality and table fellowship that all religions teach” and instantiating what she calls “messianic time conscious of the end but not collapsing into it, suspended in tension, already but not yet” (177-9).
Sullivan’s style can be terse, extreme in its economy. Her writing is designed to force her readers to listen, and she relies on images that require “writerly” work in Roland Barthes’s sense. We must listen and talk back to Sullivan as we read her work.
In a more recent dialogue about her new book, Sullivan insists that she doesn’t naively imagine antagonists gathered under some large tent in which everyone can agree to disagree. But how does she imagine this crowded table, this “broader community,” working?
A recovered addict known for his foul mouth, often impatient and snide, Bourdain nonetheless exhibited a generous humility, an openness to encounter. Bourdain’s persona, across his writing and television work, was defined by what we might call conversion—conversion without telos, an ongoing process of change through encounter. Across sixteen years and four different travel shows, we see him consistently surprised by pleasure—pleasure in food, pleasure in the connection with those with whom he shared meals.
Across this career, Bourdain was equally and consistently surprised by discrimination and exploitation in myriad forms around the globe. Especially in his final show, Parts Unknown, Bourdain focuses attention on communities that, themselves, instantiate a radical otherwise, that imagine a transformed world and seek, on however small a scale, to embody such transformation. Such communities are celebrated, though framed within a larger lens that is not untainted by pessimism.
I think in particular—and often—of his 2017 episode in Puerto Rico, filmed before the devastation of Hurricane María and debuting in its aftermath. Focusing on responses to the “staggering economic crisis” of the US colony, the episode features a meal at the protest camp Campamento Rescate Playuela in Valle Costero, where environmentalist surfers (lawyers among them) squat in civil disobedience, aiming to shut down a resort project that would wall off the beach. There is another meal among the workers of the sustainable Finca Conciencia, on the island of Vieques, long used—and polluted—by the US military as a weapons testing site.
The squatters’ camp seeking to preserve public beach access and the farm/apiary run on a philosophy of cimarronería or marronage—these are “churches” in Sullivan’s sense, embracing an ethic and possibility in contrast with the destructive practices of American colonialism and the corrupt Puerto Rican government, gesturing beyond any model of state whatsoever. Yet, as in the episode featuring Obama, these alternative communities are presented by Bourdain, at once ally and outsider, as admirable, with goals and worldviews that echo his own—commonality between humans, pride and pleasure in honest labor, celebration of and desire to conserve the distinctiveness of local cultures and environs.
If Sullivan’s vision of a shared table is predicated on the possibility of conversion—that telos-less dynamic—must we not imagine Bourdain sharing a table with those whose desires he does not endorse? As in the imagined example of Bourdain alongside the opposing parties from the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, the community gathered at the shared table is expected to listen, to be able to listen, to talk and to be heard, and then to keep listening and keep talking.
Are we to imagine Bourdain with MAGA devotees, undocumented immigrants, an ICE agent and a CBP officer as well as a grieving parent of a lost child, an activist from No Mas Muertes, a lobbyist and a wall contractor, even a professional coyote or narco trafficker alongside a citizen of the Tohono O’odham nation, whose reservation the border crosses? Such a conception echoes Gray’s project of talking with the Westboro Baptist Church. Gray’s aim is conversion for all involved, a mutual humanizing, a rejection of the kind of dehumanization for which the Westboro Baptist Church is so famous.
Neither a civics project nor a performance of civility, neither about “rights” nor democracy, this shared table is about the creation—however temporary—of a human community beyond the framework of the state, predicated on encounter and exchange and change.
Sullivan labels her hope for this meal no less than “messianic”—well aware that this term requires quite a bit of writerly wrestling from her readers. For Sullivan, as I read her, authentic encounter and conversation, already instantiating the “messianic,” will tilt further toward it. Bluntly, it is harder to long for border walls the more borders one crosses. I read her as calling, moreover, for those of us who recognize this truth to shoulder the burden—even the responsibility—of such work of “listening and talking,” work likewise described as valuing and reforming “[o]ther laws and other churches” (163).
Sullivan’s work inhabits a “sacred register of politics,” as Jason Bivins describes his work on “Christian antiliberalism” as a rejection of the state on its own terms and logic. Sullivan calls Church State Corporation “a work of phenomenological description” (12), but she is also after something more. She describes “[o]ther laws and other churches” even as she calls for and invests hope in the possibility of such alternatives. Her vision is grounded in and manifests a capacious theology and a religious anthropology—a faith in humans as willing to come to the table, to meet each other with “no reservations.”
My exegesis of Sullivan may well diverge from her intent. At times, there is something almost cryptic in her use of words (“messianic”) and imagery (a crowded table featuring Anthony Bourdain). One also always reads through one’s own lens, as Sullivan so expertly showed her readers back in Impossibility, describing among other fallible humans a judge who knew what he wanted to hear and therefore didn’t really listen. This judge is presented not with rancor, but—as always with Sullivan—with compassion. More importantly, his preconceptions about “religion” do not make for a punchline; he serves as a cautionary tale for us all.
Here again, I see Bourdain as a useful model of Sullivan’s goals. Rather than worry about whether other people will come to the table, whether other people will listen, we must, first, come to the table ourselves, be willing to do the revolutionary work of “listening and talking,” proceeding into the real risk of such encounter with likewise real openness to the experience and its transformative effect. This is, to risk profound understatement, a difficult talk.
The rewards are great, as in all those scenes of Bourdain, smiling and learning, laughing, toasting, listening—as at the end of that episode in Puerto Rico—to voices raised together in song, shouting with joy and defiance against the night.
Yet as Bourdain’s career—his life—consisted of a string of such scenes, “conscious of the end but not collapsing into it, suspended in tension, already but not yet,” it is difficult not to read his death by his own hand as, likewise, related to the difficulty of this project of living otherwise.
Parts Unknown’s Puerto Rico episode ends in a moment of community through song. Tito Augur and the members of Fiel a la Vega have pushed their chairs back from the table, taken up their instruments, and they cry out together—a grito, truly—“Salimos de Aquí” (“We Came from Here”)—a song of origins in place and in breaking from structures. “We came from here,” the lyrics go, from the cracks in the sidewalk and the concrete houses, from the rivers of the rainforest. Yet left behind, too, are the love of conformity, the machismo, “the fanaticism of the political parties and the church and the wallet.” Rejecting the church-in-law, the song nonetheless proclaims an otherwise religion, wherein prayers, the recitation of which was once forced, return now, transformed into authentic sentiment “in songs, in greetings and discussions and the look on your face.” Here is “another truth,” as Sullivan says, another “church,” and—for a moment, a series of moments, the length of time at table after a good meal—a revolutionarily other world.