In ‘Stealing My Religion,’ Liz Bucar tackles obscure forms of appropriation

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(RNS) – White people with dreadlocks. Models sporting $800 turbans. Plastic sticky dream catchers. These examples can make appropriation obvious, but that’s not always the case – ask Liz Bucar.

A leading expert in religious ethics, Bucar freely admits that she has borrowed other people’s religion since she was 11 and wears a cross-shaped necklace made popular by Madonna. While Bucar is clear that cultural appropriation is often harmful, she is more interested in fighting elusive and obscure forms of religious borrowing, such as, for example, walking the Camino de Santiago as a non-Catholic.

Bucar found herself writing her latest book, “Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation,” in part out of frustration with the way her students at Northeastern University used the label “cultural appropriation” in her classroom.

“It closed the conversations,” Bucar told RNS. “We couldn’t have a conversation about the ethical gray area.”

Published in September by Harvard University Press, Bucar’s book uses three incisive case studies to invite readers into a discussion of religious appropriation where easy answers don’t exist. RNS spoke to Bucar about his own religious appropriation missteps, how religion can be co-opted onto political agendas, and tools to identify religious appropriation in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the difference between religious borrowing and religious appropriation?

I realized that whenever the word appropriation was said in my class, in public, or even by other scholars, the assumption was that it meant something bad. He already had a moral judgment in him. So I tried to introduce the term “religious borrowing” as something morally neutral.

Religious borrowing has always existed. It’s certainly a big part of how religion in America is lived and consumed, especially if you think of the spiritual but not the religious or the no. Some forms of cross-traditional borrowing are positive. For me, borrowing is the biggest category and appropriation is the problematic form. And the reason it’s problematic, for me, is when borrowing happens under conditions of injustice, oppression, and power inequalities. This is what generates evil. So a good intention doesn’t get you out of trouble. You need to zoom out and look at larger structures. It becomes a way of thinking about your position vis-à-vis religious communities that you are not part of, and your privileged position in the world in general, and how complicated it is.

Why do you think progressive, non-religious liberals might be more likely to fall into the trap of religious appropriation?

I think that progressive secular people, a community that the academy is full of and that I would probably identify with, haven’t always understood religious communities or seen them as a source of what life can look like. human flourishing. They often view religious communities as problems to be solved, or as people governed by hierarchical institutions or arcane rules and doctrines. This position perhaps makes them less respectful or deferential to religious claims than they might be.

And then the spiritual but not the religious are a whole other group of people who are primed enough to engage in religious appropriation. By definition, they say religion is not for them and insist that spirituality is something very different from religion. But as a scholar of religion, I believe that spirituality is what they call the bits of religion that they love. They often organize their own spiritual and devotional practice, but I’m not sure they always take seriously the fact that this process can sometimes aggravate oppression. I don’t know if that’s part of their calculation when deciding if they want to burn sage or wear a rosary.

In the chapter on the hijab of solidarity, we see feminists using the hijab in ways that harm members of the very community they defend. Where did this act of protest go wrong?

Both progressives and liberals donned the hijab to stand in solidarity with Muslim women and combat gender-based Islamophobia, but they did so in a way that truly centered and strengthened white secular feminism. Some Muslim women felt it was another layer of otherness, symbolization, decentering and erasing.

The law erases half of Muslim women in the United States who do not wear a hijab. I also think that if people really understood how the hijab works for Muslim women who wear it, and the values ​​associated with it, they would understand why it might not be appropriate as a form of political protest and solidarity. There’s something really weird about adopting a religious practice that’s about humility and modesty and then putting it on your head and taking a selfie or posting on social media to get lots of likes and to report that you are against sexist Islamophobia. Part of the dynamic with the solidarity hijab was that a lot of non-Muslim white women focused as true feminists, rather than following and learning from others.

The liberal political agenda to combat gendered Islamophobia, which is a good thing, has not taken the time to be truly intersectional in its approach to the problem. They didn’t really ask the community what they wanted, and sometimes what the community wants is harder to give.

The first group Liz Bucar took on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Photo courtesy of Bucar

Can you tell us how Protestantism facilitated the appropriation of pilgrimage in your program on the Camino de Santiago?

At Northeastern, I developed a month-long study abroad program for Spain, and part of that program was to study pilgrimage by walking the last 150 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago. It was created with the idea that if you practice a religious practice, you will learn something special from it. As I started to think about appropriation, I thought, huh, this sounds a lot like religious appropriation for course credit.

Most of my students are neither religious nor Protestant, and even unaffiliated students have some sort of Protestant idea of ​​what religion looks like. This form of religion resembles an inner personal experience with God and sees the hierarchy, smells and bells of the Catholic church as an obstacle.

Many of my students approached the Camino as if they could do whatever they wanted with the Camino without having to deal with its problematic history. Students do not want to deal with the problematic parts. They want an authentic, meaningful and transformative personal experience.

I think it’s really important that a study abroad program centered around a religious practice examines some of these ethical issues around appropriation and borrowing. When I think about how I would do it again, I would ask students to focus their discomfort on finding authenticity and self-actualization by borrowing someone else’s practice and extracting its essence.


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Can you tell us about the secular yoga class you led? What did you learn from this experience?

For part of the research for the book, I got a 200-hour Kripalu yoga instructor certification and led a yoga class at Northeastern University where I teach. Based on advice from a book I read, I tried to secularize the practice of yoga to make it more accessible. I pulled out Sanskrit names for the poses, I didn’t talk about classical texts or big metaphysical ideas. And I thought that would be better, because I wouldn’t stand in front of them pretending to be a spokesperson for South Asian culture or using Sanskrit as a pseudo-liturgy or a way for people to see me as an authority.

A yoga class at Northeastern University led by Liz Bucar.  Photo courtesy of Bucar

A yoga class at Northeastern University led by Liz Bucar. Photo courtesy of Bucar

But the flip side of appropriation is not just what you borrow, but what you leave behind. And I realized that I had bought into the idea that there was something dangerous about Eastern religious practices, or the religious content of yoga, and there was something safer in the fact that white woman teaches yoga practices. And so I no longer felt comfortable teaching yoga in that space. I felt like what I was erasing was contributing to structural injustice. But I didn’t realize it until I tried it.

How could we borrow religion more responsibly?

I think part of that is religious literacy. One way to prevent exploitation is to reflect on a religious practice and really understand it in the context of the community and the stories it is part of, the systems and values ​​it is associated with. But this is not enough. We also need to challenge the position that we have the right to take the religious practices of others for our own purposes.

The other thing is to admit that we are committed to religion and not keep insisting that our spiritual practices are not religious or that we are somehow better than religious practitioners. Engaging with the issue of religious appropriation is an opportunity to learn more about your position and relationship to systems and structures of injustice, rather than believing that you have the right to take whatever you want. for your personal enrichment.


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