God Was on Everybody’s Side: An Interview with Jean Comaroff

Comaroff_jean_print In the Immanent Frame:

[David Kyuman Kim]: Jean Comaroff, tell us about the role of religion in your work.

JC: For me, as a scholar, religion has always been an exercise for a left hand. I started out working on these issues because I was interested in the relationship between politics and religion and the uneasy ways in which anthropologists at the time separated them. I was interested not least because, if you went to Africa in the 1960s to study religion, religion was assumed to be a matter of “tradition.” Already I felt that this term, in its then unproblematic usage, was less than helpful.

When I got to my field site, in rural northwest South Africa, the religious lingua franca was Christianity, African Christianity, which was inseparable from anything else you might call spiritual, religious, or moral life. I was Jewish in my upbringing, but the kind of Christianity I encountered was profoundly unlike the Christianity I had known about growing up in white South Africa, or when I subsequently lived in England.

There was concern among my advisors at the London School of Economics [LSE] because Christianity was regarded as a topic for comparative religion or sociology, not for anthropology. There was no anthropology of Christianity at that time, so it was really quite a struggle at that point to find relevant interlocutors.

At the same time, it was obvious that Christianity had long been a key dimension of local history. In South Africa, Christianity was inseparable from the whole logic of the way colonialism had been made and was then being unmade.