Melissa Caldwell on her book, Living Faithfully in an Unjust World

Interview by Natalja Czarnecki

Natalja Czarnecki: You write that inter-faith food aid organizations occupy a “border zone” in the Moscow assistance world; they do not completely self-identify as “religious” or “secular,” for example.  Actors thus find it difficult to put their actions into words (Are we a business? Are we a religious organization? Do we “do” charity? Care? Public service?).  How does this ambiguous kind of self-identification affect these organizations’ “messaging” and self-promotion, if at all?

Melissa Caldwell: One of the things I struggled with was trying to figure out what was “religious” and what wasn’t.  My starting point was always within religious organizations, religious congregations. And yet, so many of the people I encountered, whether they were volunteers or staff who were running programs, or recipients themselves, were very quick to say there’s nothing religious about this.  And it seems to me that the idea is really more about “spirituality” as connected to morals and ethics and “religious” being the institutional practices:  the going to services and wearing certain things, crosses or scarves, you know, going through particular rituals. And so somehow even though religious institutions become spaces where all this other work happens, there doesn’t have to be an absolute connection between, a critical and skeptical stance toward organized religion and these religious organizations.

And so, I would encounter people who would go to church fairly regularly, that was their personal religious activity, but then participate in these other activities, these other social assistance activities with completely different religious organizations. What they were trying to do was reconcile both whatever their personal religious identity affiliation might be with their own moral ethical beliefs about how to fix problems and change the world.

It was often funny; when I would interview staff at some of these religiously affiliated, social work organizations, the staff themselves would criticize the very denominations that were employing them.  In terms of, you know, the beliefs of the priests, the patriarch, the nuns, you know, whoever they were.  These were criticisms about their kind of religious activities, but also praise for the social work that were happening within these denominations.  And to some extent, I think this is part of a longer Russian history, where identity and faith and practice have always been kind of confused; they’re not the same things. And so people can move around, picking up the beliefs and the practices that make sense to them.  And those may or may not align with the identity that they’re “supposed” to have.

Natalja Czarnecki: You describe how the Russian Orthodox Church has long constituted a mass-mediated source of ethno-nationalist authority, ideology, and identification in Russia.  Does the call to “personal acts of genuine care, kindness, and compassion” constitute a response to Russian ethno-nationalism as a communicated through, say, popular sermons of the Patriarch, if at all?  Does a gendered labor within these organizations factor into this?

Melissa Caldwell: I think the gender dimensions are really interesting and complicated. And I think that’s part of it.  Yes, there are some visible gender differences. But no, I don’t think they play out in the way we might expect them to, that it’s just women providing care and men being the officials who get criticized.  Yes, the vast majority of the clergy I encountered were male, just by virtue of the fact that when I was working with Orthodox denominations, the clergy were men and when I was working with Catholic communities, the clergy were men.  And then in the Protestant or Anglican communities, it was mixed.  And so some of the denominational differences reflected who was working in what capacity.

But in terms of staff, it was much more balanced. And in terms of volunteers, it was more balanced as well. Often women in this aid world work the direct lines of provisioning; it was more women doing that kind of work.  And also, that was partly, I think, a reflection of the Russian side of it all, where more women are in social work profession.  But on the foreigner side, at a certain point, many of the expatriates who were providing direct lines of assistance were the unemployed wives of foreign professionals. Behind the scenes, though, in other sorts of activities, there were more men.  So if their work commitments prevented them from going to the soup kitchen every day, or the clothing handout every day, behind the scenes, they were providing money and using their networks.  And on Saturdays, they were driving goods all over town.  It was much more mixed than I thought it would be. 

Do gender differences play out in the critiques?  Yes and no.  There were implicit gender critiques of Orthodoxy, such as: “The priests don’t know anything, they just go in and do their work and they don’t actually talk to the people who do know.  And they’re making all the decisions.”  So by virtue of just saying “the priests,” it was clear that it was men making decisions. And then it would be, “Well, you know, so and so who’s running the program actually knows what’s going on.”  And then usually those people were women.  But in the other denominations, the critiques were more about institutional practice versus theological interpretation.  I would have long conversations with clergy who would say, “Well, you know, the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church — These are the practices they use. But if we actually go and look at scripture, we interpret it in this way,” or “if we go to the theologians, we have something else.”  So the critiques weren’t necessarily about the person in charge so much as the institutions.  I think there’s individual clergy and volunteers who have their own ideas about whether they’re doing politically sensitive work, and whether they could be in danger of harassment from the political authorities or from their own denominational authorities.  You know, at what point are they speaking for the denomination and what point are they speaking as individuals who belong to that denomination?  And that’s where that I think it got really interesting; there were individual clergy engaging in philosophical debates that were really more about themselves and how they fit within a denomination’s structure.

My interlocutors were trying to navigate all of this.  Much of this research was done in 2012 to 2015 and at that moment, the Russian state was trying to figure out what to do with foreign people in foreign organizations.  And some of these organizations, these religious denominations and their social service organizations, were in conflict with the Russian state, either officially or unofficially.  This was in terms of how the Russian authorities were viewing their activities; you know, whether they were interpreting them as the dissidents, or the activities as destructive to the Russian nation, while other organizations had full sponsorship from the Russian state or from Moscow city authorities; they were getting funding, they were getting meetings with politicians.  There were also some organizations very much under the radar, and some definitely over the radar.

All of these interfaith organizations are working with one another, and they’re all trying to navigate who’s going to be public and who’s going to be invisible or  who’s afraid and who’s not afraid.  It often came down to whether individual organizations, the clergy who were affiliated with them, and the denominations themselves were willing to take a public stand.  Or if they felt they needed to be invisible.  So I think that was part of it; some of the clergy were much more willing to be out with whatever they were saying.  And others did not want to go on record at all.  I think part of it also had to do with, and I don’t have confirmation from anybody in the Russian government about this, but my sense is that some organizations were doing service work that was essential to the stability of Moscow as a city and to the Russian state. Because they were doing this work and weren’t causing other problems, they were allowed to exist.

Natalja Czarnecki: One of the main arguments in your book is that in contrast to stereotypes of religious organizations, the actors within faith-based groups are not doctrinal or particularly religious necessarily.  Rather, what you call a “secular theology of compassion” is what informs your interlocutors’ sense of purpose.  How does this secular theology scale itself, if at all? Is this a Russian and/or post-Soviet mode of humanitarian networking? Does it see itself as translate-able into other worlds of need and uncertainty?

Melissa Caldwell: For my fieldwork interlocutors in Moscow, many of the things they were pointing to get lumped together by anthropologists and sociologists under this category of social problems — homelessness and hunger and addiction, domestic violence, unemployment — all of those things.  And for the people with whom I worked, these were problems of everyday life: why life is not fair, and why people are working so hard.  In order to think about those problems, I found inspiration in the literature on social justice.  I wanted to think about these as not just social problems, but in terms of social justice and social action.  Of course, this was also in a particular political context in Russia, where people were starting to demonstrate against political repression from the government. 

What seemed to be most consistent was a claim that these questions of inequality and justice actually precede political systems and are somehow bigger than political ideologies. These are moral and ethical questions that go to the root of fundamentally being a good human.  That’s how they would ground those debates.  In something like neutral, abstract, moral, ethical terms, they would make reference to, “Well, the Bible says that Jesus did x and y,” or, you know, “The Catholic Church has always done X, Y, and Z to help people because that’s what you do to be a good moral person.”  My sense was that for many of my interlocutors, they were skeptical of political ideologies to a great extent as an explanatory framework.  That politics was too much tied to particular people trying to be strategic, whereas these broader moral ethical values could transcend any one political person.

In the food aid community, there did seem to be this sense that the state isn’t providing; it’s a collapse of the welfare system or the retrenchment of the welfare state.  And so social workers really felt like they had to do what the state wasn’t doing, a kind of supplementary work.  By the time I was doing this project, there was still that attitude.  I also heard people more explicitly saying, you know, “We live in the twenty-first century;  there shouldn’t be these problems anymore.”  These are bigger issues.  These aren’t just issues of socio-economic inequality in an unstable welfare system.

Natalja Czarnecki: In your chapter, “The Business of Being Kind,” you discuss some of the “compassion commodities” produced by these organizations.  You write that “Russia’s commercially oriented modes of compassion have not so much emerged alongside the country’s post-socialist capitalist economy as they have developed a critical niche within it” (159).  Can you talk about the political and communicative composition of this critical niche?  For example, is this about addressing consumers and if so, who are they?

Melissa Caldwell: I think there are several different things going on.  One is that there’s a particular sub-niche within the niche, or whatever you want to call it, that emerged with the idea of targeting a particular type of ethical consumer.  Those goods seem to be coming out of particular “development” movements, wherein many of the development organizations that went into Russia, like many other parts of the world, would ask “How do you get small businesses off the ground,” and “People need to create things to sell.”  And often those are things like arts and crafts.  And so then those get marketed and targeted for certain consumers.  Then it almost becomes that kind of fair trade sort of commodity that pops up in all the markets all around the world.  You know, you want to help the small business person, or you want to help the elderly babushka, going blind, who isselling little doilies in her apartment.  So I think that part of it definitely was targeted at a consumer who was responsive to that sort of compassion assistance, “help somebody out.”

On the other end, there was a more strategic angle.  Some goods were from corporations that had goods and needed to get rid of, for example, expired products or close-to-expired products.  A lot of the food donations would come from companies that had lots of yogurt that was going to expire within a week.  One of the big furniture companies discontinued an entire line of cribs and needed to move them.  And there were different moments in which companies could get tax benefits, or at least do something where they weren’t losing money on that stock.  

I think someplace in between that there was just the more general sense that there’s this big formal capitalist market where anything goes.  And whether people were selling as part of another sort of larger business entity or as private entrepreneurs, or not even necessarily selling, trading, and moving things through, I think that was where most of this compassion economy really existed.  I think much of that was still grounded in the socialist era informal networks where you simply circulate things; you might not need them, but somebody else does.  And so it will eventually get to where it is needed.  And likewise, you will eventually get what you need through these systems.  And I think within that particular niche, most of the people I encountered didn’t explicitly think of that as being compassion.  That was simply informal exchange or the normal way that people move things.  And so in trying to put all of these things together, that’s how I started thinking about this compassion economy.

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