Depression as Political Resistance

Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn speaks at Mental Health Counseling Conference at Belmont University campus in Nashville, Tennessee, September 21, 2018.

By Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, an excerpt from his article “Blessed are those Who Mourn: Depression as Political Resistance” (2013). You can find more of Bruce’s work here.

What can it mean to proclaim “those who mourn,” the gathering of the depressed, to be “blessed” (Matt. 5:4)? In normative New Testament scholarship, and certainly within Christian popular piety, this text is usually employed to address the private sufferings of individuals. According to Carter (2005), such an emphasis “says much about . . . contemporary individualism that conceives of religion as a private matter isolated from sociopolitical matters” (p. 150). Postcolonial readings, however, take a different turn. This approach focuses on “retrieving silenced voices” and “foregrounding the political” in biblical texts. Particular attention is given to “challenging dominant scholarship by foregrounding empire and related issues in texts and interpretations” (Segovia 2009, p. 207). In this spirit, Carter contends that Roman imperialism provides the context for interpreting the gospel of Matthew. According to Carter (2005), Matthew’s audience suffered under the conditions of imperial Rome, a world marked by: (a) “vast societal inequalities, economic exploitation, and political oppression,” (b) “tensions between the rich . . . and poor,” (c) “pervasive displays of Roman power and control, including military presence,” (d) “no separation of religious institutions and personnel from socioeconomic and political commitments,” (e) “imperial theology or propaganda,” and (f) “obvious signs, sounds and smells of the destructive impact of the imperial sociopolitical order structured for the elite’s benefit: poverty, poor sanitation, disease, malnutrition, overwork . . . and social instability” (pp. 150–151).

Within this context a reference to “those who mourn” takes on a political and somewhat ominous tone. Although he preceded postcolonial biblical scholarship by decades, Bonhoeffer’s reading of this beatitude appears particularly cogent:

By “mourning” Jesus, of course, means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity: He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards. Such men mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune. While the world keeps holiday they stand aside, and while the world sings, “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,” they mourn. They see that for all the jollity on board, the ship is beginning to sink. (1937/1995, p. 108)

Here mourning becomes a refusal, a standing aside, directed toward a sociopolitical hegemony. It is, in other words, a political resistance. It is the despair that bears witness.

Today’s imperial power no longer looks like Rome (or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi Germany). It is not constrained by borders, nor does it overtly annex lands as in the colonialisms of the past. It is not monolithic but transforms itself to adapt to local cultures. It prefers to control through persuasion and “common sense” rather than direct police or military coercion, though it often resorts to such action if “free markets” or the power of economic elites are threatened. It works not primarily through the direct imposition of one nation on other nations, but through the routine activities of international corporations and financial institutions. Otherwise, neoliberalism imposes precisely the same conditions that Carter describes as the typical effects of Roman imperialism. Moreover, it is the first hegemony to become truly global and is far more effective in its shaping of culture, human relationships, and even individual psychology than empires of old (Alexander 2008; Dufour 2008; Duménil & Lévy 2011; Harvey 19902005; Jameson 1991; Rose 1999). I therefore will argue that the conditions of neoliberalism establish the current sociopolitical context for depression. Today it is these effects that depression may be said to resist. However, as Couldry (2010) has demonstrated, neoliberalism is exceptionally successful at reducing voices of opposition. This applies equally to the voices of those who mourn. It is to this matter that I must now turn.

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