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The Brink

The State “don’t own a goddamn thing”: Illiberal Religification of the Legal System

MOVE, while an illiberal religion characterized by abrasive rhetoric, is nonetheless an example of the religification of law and the legal system. MOVE activists refused to surrender the court to the state, seeing the legal system as a potential tool against the state, rightly beyond state control.

The nature-centric religious community MOVE is most known for being the target of a 1985 police action in Philadelphia. That attack culminated in the police dropping a bomb, by helicopter, on the home of the MOVE community, destroying it and 64 other homes in the subsequent conflagration. Before the bombing, MOVE gained notoriety for such public protests as loudly calling all those who raped “Mama” earth “motherfuckers” and leaping at the teachable moment that followed. Outrage over four-letter “obscenities” should pale compared to the obscene actions of society, MOVE argued. Dedicated to life, MOVE people saw themselves in opposition to the mechanical, polluting, and exploitative ways of “the System.” They were allegiant to natural law in contrast to “man’s so called laws,” as founder John Africa put it (10).

Rejection of society’s laws was not, for MOVE, a rejection of the possibilities afforded by, or the ideals associated with, the legal system. MOVE’s activism included legal work. They were, to be sure, quick to identify the legal system as both historically unjust and staffed by criminals, complicit in murder, even genocide. Yet—as evident in Ramona Africa’s pro se appearance at her trial and a MOVE’s publication entitled “Guide to Court Cases”—MOVE people imagined the courtroom encounter as a moment of temporarily leveled asymmetries of power. As opposed to the streets, which the state zealously and violently patrols, the courtroom—generally—afforded space to breathe, time to speak, a platform from which to be heard. The courtroom, moreover, is owned by no one, allegiant not to the state but to a protocol of fairness, even as its actual mechanisms (sentencing, decisions) are radically unfair. The courtroom is a place where “rights,” however farcical they may be in lived reality, are appreciated as ideals. 

MOVE was an illiberal religion, characterized by abrasive and aggressive rhetoric and tactics. The attack on MOVE remains an example of the spectacular violence of the state in the name of state law. At the same time, however, MOVE exhibits yet another dynamic of the religification of law—and the legal system. Recognition of this dynamic complements the consideration of religification of law that McIvor, Shrubsole, and I document, showing that such religification is by no means dependent upon quietude or even respect for the state. The example of MOVE shows how powerfully the promise of the legal system lives in the religious imagination and practices of even those most (rightly and realistically) pessimistic about the legal system’s record, even those most supposedly outside the (state’s) law. I hope, by adding this case study to the three under consideration in this forum, to gesture toward future work in the “enmeshment” of the legal and the religious, to use Mona Oraby and Winnifred Sullivan’s words.

McIvor’s, Shrubsole’s and my books explore not only examples of the juridification of religion—religion’s “regulation under antidiscrimination and rights-based law, and its interaction with other identity markers governed by these instruments, such as race, sexuality, and gender,” as McIvor puts it. They also detail examples of the religification of law—the ways religious communities imagine and engage law, including the supposedly secular law of the state. These include how the legal system offers an opportunity to be heard, speaking to the state about the Grizzly Bear Spirit or the grace of Christ or the true nature of law itself.

In their explorations of the tensions between religious communities and the state, however, these three books are all marked by certain modes of pessimism. Shrubsole emphasizes not only the impossibility of religious freedom for First Nations, regardless of their categorization under or mobilization of the status of Canadian citizens (or “Citizens Plus”) but also the looming erasure of the “very existence” of Indigenous religion by the colonial state. McIvor’s interlocutors, lamenting that Christianity has been reduced to little more than “cultural heritage” in Britain, worry that their legal activism might backfire, publicizing a reductive vision of Christianity—one that, moreover, is counterproductive in terms of attracting converts and spreading salvation. Aliite thinkers, too, have ample reasons to be pessimistic regarding their ability to gain recognition for their identity as other-than-Negro and regarding citizenship as a path toward transforming the state and aligning its legal system with true law.

McIvor quotes one Evangelical thinker, Laura, who lays out three (insufficient) paths for negotiating society: the hermit, who interacts only with other Christians; the chameleon, who keeps mum on religion when in mixed company; and the bull in the china shop, who, by “confronting the culture head on,” manages to come across as “rude, arrogant, contentious,” making Christianity seem a narrow political agenda rather than a living relationship with the divine. This latter approach does more damage than good. Christian legal activism, this thinker says, should be cautious in its challenges to the broader society and the state. Likewise, in Shrubsole’s book, and mine, legal activism hinges on a desire to survive, to continue to live in a very literal sense, which necessitates a certain degree of wary respect for the state, whether as a sovereign nation alongside or as, in the case of Aliite thinkers, “law-abiders and good citizens” within the state.

 MOVE people did not worry about being good citizens, though they—regardless of state narratives to the contrary—were not suicidal. “[W]e want justice,” they proclaimed before their murder at the hands of the state; “…we want to live” (40). They understood their illiberality as necessary, however. They saw resistance as the only sane response to this society: storming the china shop, smashing the plates and trinkets, making as much noise as possible. Yet the rules of the china shop facilitated such a performance of resistance. “If anything is out of order, then everything is out of order because if I can’t speak freely neither can you and the whole thing is out of order,” reads one line of advice in the MOVE “Guide to Court Cases.”

Aggressive legal activism is still legal work, and while the “Guide” expresses contempt for the officials and history of the legal system, it depends upon the possibility of the legal system working, in some ways, for MOVE. “When first in court, state that the constitution states you have freedom of speech and you intend to speak freely,” it begins (190). “We’re in the court to show you that your laws don’t work and not to take advantage of your law but to show that you can’t use them,” the “Guide” proclaims, yet it also offers advice on courtroom procedure. Assuming the impossibility of a fair hearing, the text nonetheless insists that trials can be more than empty rituals of the state; indeed, they can be revealed as shams and, simultaneously, turned to other (religious) uses. As Ramona Africa, survivor of the police assault on the MOVE community, declared in court, “I was sentenced when my skin was burned off my body, scarring me for life, when 10,000 bullets were fired in less than 90 minutes … when I saw my family burned up and shot down in the alley” (157). Africa was not in court to persuade the judge for leniency; she was in court to testify to the fact that her sentence had already been passed.

The “Guide” voices contempt for the history and representatives of this system. At the same time, however, the “Guide” remains invested in the possibilities of this system: “When he states that this is his court, tell him he don’t own a goddamn thing.” This refusal to surrender the court to the state—to the judge, to the protocols as enforced by the judge, to the violent power of the bailiff, even to the authority of the “sentence” passed or “ruling” issued (to the narrative structure and supposed function of the trial)—signals something deeper than a reductive binary between MOVE’s allegiance to the “natural” law of Mama earth in contrast to the laws of the state, or, indeed, between natural law and the human legal system.

This system, too, is up for grabs—and not in terms of hijacking a trial to turn it into something else. The legal system can be used as it exists to be used, albeit not as the authorities within it seek to use it. Ramona Africa was not in court to be sentenced, but she was in court for a trial, to bring accusations and declare guilt; she was in court to present evidence and call witnesses and cross-examine those brought against her community; she was in court to publicly express her pain and to lament the absence of justice and to articulate, in detail, the injustices perpetuated by the state. The legal system was complicit in the state’s crime, but the possibilities of the legal system extended beyond such crimes, and, indeed, beyond the murderous and exploitative uses of the state.

The legal activists at the centers of McIvor’s, Shrubsole’s, and my work hold to a religification of law that hinges on deference to the state, on—for the most part, even among those engaging in protests—a political quietude predicated on a desire to coexist with state power. MOVE defied this quietude. Indeed, MOVE raged against the state. Yet, simultaneously, they understood the legal system as a potential tool against the state—a tool they understood to be beyond state control. Such religification of the legal, by illiberal communities, deserves careful analysis. The bulls—to return to the Evangelical metaphor—are not rejecting the china shop. They are making use of it. They may even, I suggest, understand it more clearly than those of us who think all those plates are intended for pristine display.

The State “don’t own a goddamn thing”: Illiberal Religification of the Legal System

MOVE, while an illiberal religion characterized by abrasive rhetoric, is nonetheless an example of the religification of law and the legal system. MOVE activists refused to surrender the court to the state, seeing the legal system as a potential tool against the state, rightly beyond state control.

What Good is “Religion”?

Regardless of our interrogation of it, the terminology of “religion” is operative in the world—not only among the scholars who frame it as a second-order category, but among our interlocutors and kinship networks. Given the baggage that often accompanies it, perhaps it is unsurprising that so many of us are hesitant to apply this label to the people, places, and practices to which we attach meaning.

The Network of Relationships in Law and Religion

There are at least six identifiable and interrelated relationships in the three books under consideration in this forum. Investigations into the nature, expectations, and communicative barriers in any given relationship is of value to our broader scholarly field but so too is asking how the contours of one relationship may impact that of another

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