Moral Agency Under Duress: Lessons on Transformation and Transitions from Colombia.

Mural at Sembrandopaz in Sincelejo, Colombia

In this blog post, I draw the notion of constructive agents under duress into conversation with the notion of “constraint” articulated by Dr. Katie Cannon. The writing itself is drawn from my article by the same name1 and a footnote from a forthcoming book on the same topic.  

 (August 5, 2009): Northwest Colombia, in the department of Córdoba. Dozens of unarmed women and men suddenly leave their fields, vegetable stands, and workshops in order to protect Isaac, a civilian wanted by the paramilitary armed group. The state army is within easy walking distance of the impending assassination but does not respond to the urgent calls for help. In contrast, church members quickly gather in supplication at the slat-walled church where Isaac has sought refuge. Isaac is in their midst, held by the community that is interceding and, by their account, intervening with God on his behalf. They remain and protect him throughout the night, then smuggle him out in pre-dawn shadows, out from under the watchful eye of the paramilitary.

Amid extreme political tensions in an embattled area abandoned by the state, the community neutralized and counteracted violence through their corporate practice of theological agency. Through their participation, they transformed a space of terror enclosing the nearly dead in a firm grip, into one of relative peace. Why did they risk their lives for Isaac in this way?  “We had nowhere and no one else to turn to but God,” the pastor responded to my question. “We participate with the Spirit,” other participants chimed in. Such partnering with ultimate power allows them some sense of being able to protect and extend their life. It gives them a sense of agency in a situation of terror and chaos.

Providing protection is an exercise of constructive agency under duress: the communities redressed an instance of injustice in a situation of exigency, meeting the goal of rights even though rights were not in place. 

The liberal peace assumes that human rights are necessary to save life and limb, yet the communities’ constructive interventions realize the goal when rights regimes are unsuccessful. Rights regimes fail to understand crucial engagement by agents under duress, because they assume that the goal of rights can only be reached if a minimum threshold of autonomy is met.

Moreover, because those enmeshed in situations of injustice do not enjoy conditions necessary to free agency, rights frameworks seem to assume that they are not agents at all. Since agency under duress is outside the scope of rights-based evaluation, which is shaped by negative prohibitions that protect the conditions of free agency, rights-based theories neither pretend nor aspire to capture them. Nevertheless, failure to attend to these forms of agency forfeits opportunities for transformative peacebuilding, so we need to find other ways of attending to constructive agents under duress and theorizing about them.

My notion of “constructive” is linked to how I understand the term “duress” and its place in Catholic moral theology, where it refers to constraints on autonomy that might lead someone to cooperate with evil acts that she would have extricated herself from, were it not for forced choices. It is an analogical extension, however, in that I am not talking about how people have been forced into entanglements with evil but rather about what people have been able to accomplish under duress. Amid conflict and adversity, communities operating independently of institutional political systems redressed instances of injustice through relying on divine action. 

The constrained moral agency of Black women articulated by Dr. Katie Cannon in her groundbreaking Black Womanist Ethics (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006) provides an important point of comparison. In a forthcoming book, I explain that like Cannon, I am working against the dominant tradition of ethics that makes assumptions about moral agents with “freedom and a wide range of choices”2 who (seemingly) make decisions within an ahistorical, universal moral context. Like her, I emphasize that the present situation of the communities in focus relates to the “historical background” of colonialism, slavery, death, continued economic exploitation and racism.3 She was a forerunner in tracing the intersecting and interlocking oppressions that Black women face,4 which is a method that I deploy in my forthcoming book about agency under duress. Furthermore, like Cannon, I emphasize that context informed by relations of power shapes moral life, which cannot be pre-determined by “fixed rules or absolute principles of the white-oriented, male-structured society.”5 

Points of divergence between Cannon’s account of moral agency and agency under duress are also significant. Methodologically, while Cannon retrieves Black women’s novels as a site of authority for ethics, I look to the praxis of specific communities. Second, for Cannon the dominant ethical motifs are survival, dignity, grace, and courage. In my reflection on communities in Latin America, the ethical motifs are extending life and transitions through transformative displacement. That is, agents under duress engage limiting systems as objects to transform.

For example, in spite of threats and reprisals, the communities I work with helped found the inter-institutional, pluralistic el Grupo por la Defensa de la Tierra y el Territorio en Córdoba (GTTC).6 They acquired new ways of thinking about problems and tools for redressing structural problems with colonial legacies through cooperating with other groups with converging goals. Several years later, representatives of the state drew on the moral power and authority of the communities’ achievements to leverage support in the international community for a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America. The communities’ actions presaged this process, which they support. As they look to the future, they enact transitions to new systems and new ways of being together alongside moral others through participatory democracy. At least this is my interpretation of what the communities that I accompany have taught me.

As this brief note suggests, considering and heeding Latin American, Black, and other voices victimized by hierarchies is critical for rethinking agency in a world that is in conflict and in flux. 

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  1. Janna Hunter-Bowman, “Constructive Agents under Duress: Alternatives to the Structural, Political, and Agential Inadequacies of Past Theologies of Nonviolent Peacebuilding Efforts,” the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Vol 38, No 2 (Fall/Winter 2018): 149-169
  2. Katie Cannon, Black Womanist Ethics, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2006), 2
  3. Ibid., 6
  4. Ibid., 4
  5. Ibid.
  6. English translation: Working Group for the Defense of Land and Territory in Cordoba

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