Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Editor's Note: There are many ways to practice tikkun olam, and each way yields unique insights. The piece below is a response to our request for a brief statement about how the author's work fits into the broader work of tikkun olam.
The Coming of Grace
by Josephine Donovan
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945, speaks in his book Ethics (published posthumously in 1949) of an "obligation to prepare the way for the coming of grace." "There are," he explains, "conditions of the heart, of life and of the world which impede the reception of grace." The main impediments to what he also labels "the merciful coming of Christ" are "a depth of human bondage, of human poverty, of human ignorance."
As a nonbeliever in any formal religion, I interpret the terms "grace" and "Christ" in ways that Bonhoeffer may not have intended. I see them as referring to a renewed energy, vitality, spirit, and enlightenment coming from the earth and life itself once the impediments Bonhoeffer specifies are removed. Bondage, poverty, ignorance: our job, I believe, as thinkers and writers concerned about social justice and ecological renewal, is to do what we can to remove these obstacles to the coming of grace.
Herbert Marcuse (and other Frankfurt School theorists) advocated for "the power of negative thinking" (in One-Dimensional Man), that is, the ability to recognize and say no to the institutionalized impediments noted above. Such negative thinking is part of a dialectic, the other side of which sees and protects what is emerging once blockages are removed. I see our work as part of this dialectic: on the one hand critiquing oppressive institutions, practices, and attitudes; on the other, helping to enable the emergence of crushed and hitherto silenced voices.
Part of my work has been dedicated to retrieving lost voices of women writers. Here I follow the Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire's idea that in order to counter oppression, people must come to a consciousness of that oppression by sharing their stories with others who are similarly oppressed. Literature is one way in which that sharing, that bearing witness, that naming pain, occurs. It can be a kind of revolutionary praxis that counters the ignorance that sustains oppression (Bonhoeffer's "bondage").
Literature and literary criticism, by bringing to light lost, silenced voices, makes their existence known, thus enabling that ethical caring attention be paid to them. In recent years I have focused on retrieving the silenced existence of nonhuman animals as beings worthy of such attention. In several articles I have proposed Simone Weil's notion of "attentive love" as a redemptive practice, which means simply asking, "What are you going through?"
In retrieving what French theorist Michel Foucault termed "subjugated knowledges" -- those rendered marginal, obscure, ridiculed, and/or silent by dominant powers -- one often discovers positive alternatives to the knowledges sanctioned by the ruling corporate parties. My most recent book, European Local-Color Literature (Continuum, 2010), brings to light an "underground" repressed tradition of fiction about peasants and villagers -- "little people" -- in pre-modern Europe.
My hope is that all my work may contribute to the process of opening the world up to the reception of "grace," removing the heavy boulders that are blocking the green shoots of long repressed life from emerging. If we enable that new life to grow and flourish, the earth, the world, will heal itself.
Josephine Donovan, professor emerita of English at the University of Maine, is the author of Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions, a fourth edition of which is forthcoming, and coeditor of The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics.
Source Citation: Donovan, Josephine. 2011. The Coming of Grace.Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.