C. Melissa SNARR, Social Selves and Political Reform. Five Visions in Contemporary Christian Ethics. New York/London: T&T Clark International, 2007, pp. 134 + xxvi. $138.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-567-0603-3.
Reviewed by Mary ELSBERND, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL 60611

C. Melissa Snarr does exactly what the title and the introduction claim. Born out of her disillusionment with her involvement in the 1992 election through an internship in a Christianity and politics course, Snarr turned to the intellectual resources of her liberal Protestant tradition. There she uncovered theological tools such as social anthropologies, various approaches to political participation/agency, diverse understandings of the relationship of Kingdom of God and the world, the disciple and the citizen as well as Christian conceptions of liberty, equality, sin and salvation. The focus of her work is the centrality of the social self and institutional analysis for engaging different strategies of political reform.

Methodologically Snarr focuses on five Protestant social ethicists as bearers of five major trajectories in contemporary Christian ethical tradition, namely Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas, Beverly Harrison and Emilie Townes. For each she describes and evaluates the social and intellectual contexts of their thought, social anthropology, political agency, and similarities/differences with the other authors. Snarr’s abiding interest in the intersection of a social anthropology and political agency is the crux of the study.

Rauschenbusch introduced the idea that the “socially enabled self” was not embedded in a neutral social context, but rather in social institutions which made it harder or easier to do good. As a result Rauschenbusch advocated Christian practices that critiqued and reformed all social institutions so that Christian character would be promoted and enhanced. The “paradoxical social self” of Reinhold Niebuhr located the potential for destruction and creativity within the person. The task of social institutions was to restrain the destructive potential of the social self. Niebuhr’s work gave less attention character formation or institutional reform. Stanley Hauerwas turned from the liberal Protestant approach advocated by Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr to a “particularist social self” formed in concrete church communities to stand over against liberal culture. These particular communities are called to create political and social alternative structures which witness to the existing corrupt and idolatrous state and social order.

For Beverly Harrison, the social self in constructed in relationship, in interaction with social, political, religious and economic institutions, hence the “interstructured social self.” Her analysis attends to economic order as a most influential power as well as the role of race, gender and class on social moral agency. Hence her attention to reform focuses less on political agency and more on the interwoven nature of all institutions which make gradual reform nearly impossible. Emilie Townes developed her sense of the social self through the lens of the oppression and resistance of black women. This “socially resilient self” is formed through womanist spirituality linked to the black churches. Such formation in alternative communities provides a way into building up black communities and transforming political institutions.

Snarr concludes that an adequate anthropology must accurately describe moral formation of the social self and the dynamics of institutional change for political reform. She spells out such adequacy in a series of six core convictions drawn from the scholars she has studied.

1. The self’s enduring capacity for creativity and destructiveness is enacted socially.
2. Institutions both enable and limit the quality of the self.
3. Communities and selves are formed by their stories and histories.
4. Institutions are interdependent and oppressions interlocking.
5. Multi-institutional immersion provides transformative leverage within and across institutions.
6. Sanctification, or being incorporated into the life of God for the world, is a social and institutional process.
Snarr’s work provides a definite service to those interested in the intersection of a social anthropology and political agency, especially in the United States and Protestant contexts. Since this reviewer is convinced of the centrality of a social anthropology for social issues and is familiar with the Roman Catholic traditions, I found her assessment, critique and link to political life helpful, insightful and valuable reading. I’m considering the book as a textbook alternative to Roman Catholic American history of social ethics albeit with two serious concerns. First the typeface is difficult to read, even a publishing mistake. Second the cost of the hard cover book ($134) with no paperback alternative makes it virtually impossible to require for graduate students.


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