Carl Schmitt, Erik Peterson, Jacob Taubes, political theology

Donald Trump and the Beginnings for a Theological Response

Donald Trump’s vision for America is apparently a great future that demands the utmost loyalty. But do not worry, he says in his inaugural address; his singular vision of that future is assured. The sanctified union of the US––God’s people, Trump implies––is protected by the might of the US military and God. Now US Presidents have long conflated a vague, singular deity with the US. But as usual, Trump seems to have outdone his predecessors. The conflation of God with the US is a common deferral. It indirectly justifies those in power; they must look humble instead of arrogant. However, Trump is not worried about hubris; he embraces it rhetorically and ideologically. (1) His vision of utmost loyalty, sanctified unity, and ‘America first’ (2) protected, he emphasizes, by a military he commands and by God conflates a singular human figure and his authority with divinity and its power.

Clearly political theologians are in for a rough four years, not to mention the damage that such rhetoric will do in forming another generation with the lie of manifest destiny. What resources do we have to respond to this Trump’s conflation? I cannot recommend strongly enough Erik Peterson’s chapter “Monotheism as a Political Problem: A Contribution to the History of Political Theology in the Roman Empire” in his Theological Tractates.1 The chapter, from 1935, indirectly opposes Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist whose juridical work and political theology made way for Adolf Hitler’s authoritarian rise. The comparison I assume here is not Trump to Hitler, but Trump to Schmitt.2 And I believe that Peterson’s work will be essential to resisting the impulses of Schmitt in Trump. Since Peterson’s chapter is, well, a slog––a rewarding slog, but still a slog––here are relevant thematic points of the chapter.

Peterson argued that monotheism in general and Christian monotheism in particular were eventually made to directly justify the Roman emperor’s homogenizing hegemony, as typified in Constantine I’s claim and Eusebius’s support of it: “To the one king on earth corresponds the one God, the one King in Heaven and the one royal Nomos and Logos.”3 However, Peterson contended that there could be no correspondence between a Trinitarian theology and human monarchy, and so Peterson aimed to maintain the revolutionary character of Christianity that the empire had to subdue.4 Further against the correspondence, he added in all but name an eschatological reserve. That is, the eschatological unity and peace of Jesus relativizes any state’s claim to (over-)realize that eschatology.5

Peterson’s contention has been misread as a rejection of any political theology, as Schmitt did in his belated 1970 response, Political Theology II.6 But in point of fact, Peterson’s critical “arrow” rejects the Caesarian-Eusebian move in Schmitt’s Hobbesian-Nazi political theology.7 For Peterson’s development of his own political theology, one must look to his analytical work in 1932 and more constructive work from 1935-1937.

The two paragraphs above are taken from my essay on defining political theology. But since I have yet to submit the essay to a journal, I will leave much more for the (eventual) published version, like problems in Peterson’s work, the framework of his political theology, and how these issues are played out in later generations. I’ll also forgo delineating my constructive trinitarian account that goes against Schmitt and breaks from Peterson’s limits. For now, I simply want to call attention to an important resource for resisting some truly scary self-justifications of US empire and, quite possibly, authoritarianism.

  1. Erik Peterson, Theological Tractates, trans. Michael J. Hollerich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), chp. 4.
  2. I doubt that Trump is aware of Schmitt, but the similarities can be striking. Also, some of the Trump’s white nationalist supporters straight up cite Schmitt. See Richard B. Spencer, “Political Theology.”
  3. Peterson, 94. Emphasis Peterson’s. See also ibid., 69, 88-92, 95-97, 102.
  4. Ibid., 86, 88, 102-105.
  5. Ibid., 89, 103-104.
  6. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology, trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward (Cambridge: Polity, 2011). See also not only Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, “Political Theology as Foundational Theology,” CTSA Proceedings 32 (1977): 166 and Jürgen Moltmann, “Political Theology,” Theology Today 28, no. 1 (1971): 13, but also Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, introduction to Schmitt, Political Theology II, 9: “Peterson, political theology is theologically impossible for Christians” (emphasis theirs). While that quote may summarize Peterson’s single instance in “Monotheism as a Political Problem” where he explicitly engages Schmitt (Theological Tractates, 233-234 n. 168), Peterson is more careful in the body of the text (104-105).
  7. Jacob Taubes, To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections, trans. Keith Tribe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 28. See also ibid., 27-31; Peterson, 104-105, 179. For others who think that Schmitt misread Peterson, see Gyögry Geréby, “Political Theology versus Theological Politics: Erik Peterson and Carl Schmitt,” New German Critique 35, no. 3 (2008): 26; Michael J. Hollerich, introduction to Peterson, Theological Tractates, xxv-xxvi.
death, funeral, grace, love, mutual recognition, september 11, war on terror

The Attack on September 11 and the Funeral of My Grandmother on September 11: Two Very Different Visions

Today is September 11. As usual, this date is the occasion for a lot of talk about the ‘terror attacks’ and the unending ‘war on terror.’ For many the frustration has mounted. ISIS has arisen as a threat to Iraq, but didn’t we just get out there? I’m not sure the tail is wagging the dog, but rather, we and the Iraqis are reaping what the US participated in sowing. Historically we are not so innocent. Saddam Hussein did indeed use mustard gas and nerve agents on the Kurds, slaughtering thousands and thousands, and horribly affecting many thousands more. However, that was in the 1980s when the US still supported Iraq as a barrier against Iran. Now we are stuck with a mess, at least partially of our own creation. We went into Iraq under pseudo-humanitarian, but largely fearful pretenses given by our leaders who knew quite well that they were lying, and would profit immensely from it. To make matters worse, much of the 31-44 longitude region above the equator is characterized by bloody, political conflict: Israelis-Palestinians; Syria’s civil war; Iraq’s…whatever it is (dissolving? conflict is too tame); Iraq-Turkey boundary dispute with the Kurds in-between; Afghanistan; and Ukraine-Crimea-Russia. So, apparently, now we are compelled to stay in Iraq, if just to clean up our mess so the justifications go. We have a problem. Now those justifying the ‘war on terror’ are comparing it to the length of the cold war. We are in trouble.

What answer do we have? My family and I buried my grandmother a year ago, to the day. Generally one might chalk up the date to a coincidence since she had died a few days before, but in point of fact, she was a person of excellent timing. She had her major stroke the Easter before. Well, actually, it was on the morning of Good Friday in her church’s sanctuary during a small service. While on my long drive down that same day, I worked out a theology of timing as beautiful (fitting-ness), good, and true. It was fitting and good––in a sort of iconographic imitatio way––to have a massively debilitating stroke not simply during a church service, but also just after lighting one of the candles as part of a Methodist take on the ancient tenebrae liturgy. I had something for truth; however, I forget what it was. It was probably something like a witness to the truth, but whatever I had for truth was eclipsed by the timing of her funeral. I do not know how else it would be possible to get so many people into church on an anniversary of September 11, much less not hear a word about it. For at least a few hours there was only grief; there was no sense of retribution that drove our national response to September 11. There was also a deep sense of remembering truth, both of who she was and Christianity’s hope for the resurrection of the dead because Jesus overcame the void. Funny how all of that is diametrically opposed to the ‘war on terror’: remembrance of US action before September 11 did not exist during our response; truth was sacrificed; and no one is even contemplating the hope of resurrection for all the dead, much less reconciliation. My grandmother’s funeral was an occasion of imagination and re-orientation.

But what good is imagination since it is so often negatively equated with ineffectual dreams? I did not mention my theology of timing to anyone, not from the pulpit or privately, for two reasons. First, it could appear as, although it would not have been, a politicizing of my grandmother’s death. I’m an ‘intellectual outsider’ to that small-town agricultural society; they have plenty of smart people but also suspicion. And who says I would be understandable? Never mind, that I’m not a Methodist or part of the church there, and I was leaving in a few days. One does not cause a potential stir like that without being part of the community. In truth, that may actually have made ineffectual my ‘imaginative work’ and the imaginative re-orientation of my grandmother’s funeral. Yet, there was something else that was practical and effective.

Second, I suggested a certain someone else should speak instead of me anyways. They had become part of the family, and because, in my own take on Scripture, there should be no separation between black and white in the church, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line in what was historically a slave state. There was far more racial diversity at the burial than in the church, presumably affirming the very real persistent legacy of slavery, segregation, and the Klan; indeed, the Missouri town is still rather strictly divided, geographically along racial/socio-economic lines. Nevertheless, a black woman willingly, truthfully, front and center from the pulpit, and side-by-side with one of my cousins eulogized her once employer turned friend-family. My grandmother’s funeral not only paused the political narrative of the status quo, but also, in so doing, was a very real site for the proleptic, albeit partial, realization of the eschatological vision.

All this tells me two things. First, like Stanley Hauerwas notes, timing requires time, and sometimes lots of it. Conflict resolution is not quick, in part, because healing human inflicted wounds takes time. However, how does this address the fact that innocents are still bombed right now or unarmed black men shot by police? Second, like Gary Dorrien understands, there are instances of break-through when all lights are green, a kairotic moment. Yet, historically this has been the justification for seizing or colluding with coercive power. So how does one reconcile the two types of time? Both points about time I attribute to God receiving and responding to human development qua receptivity. The Spirit works unevenly––sometimes in what seems like long stretches of silence and at other times in rapid succession––because the Spirit works in-between what human stubbornness will allow at the time, the possibility of human transformation, and the fullness of transfiguring humanity for theosis.

So how does this apply today? The issue is stubbornness: the refusal to love qua openness towards the other, ekstasis, and mutual indwelling with the other; the refusal to recognize the other as giving themselves that calls for one to reciprocate with self-gift. The answer, I believe, is in Rowan Williams’s work. We have to get to a place of dialogue to mutually develop. Dialogue is built on mutual recognition, rather than some sort of ‘pure’ rationalism; and mutual recognition is predicated on the love’s openness and grace’s receptivity. So the question, upon which lies the balance of many human lives and the environment, is: how do we get to the corporate realization that we mutually constitute each other?

Funerals need to be more like my grandmother’s. I do not ascribe to the sovereignty of the void, as if it ultimately determines meaning; but we need to learn how to deal with loss in a way that stresses our mutual interrelatedness. The death of a person should recall the full history of the community, as well as be a site for steps towards dealing with the loss of them in relation to the life of the community. Unfortunately, funerals now are little more than sentimental, ineffectual bandaids. This is ridiculous. First, the truth is a pre-requisite to properly mourn someone and heal. Second, funerals are the most important, public place for how those most affected can deal with violence. Funerals need to be deeply sensitive while having a kind of public social inquest as a strong element, and ‘both sides’ (if there are ‘two’ sides) present in some manner and under a banner like the medieval “truce of God.” These wars will not end if we grieve separately. Gee, doesn’t that sound kind of similar to the “Truth and Reconciliation” vision?

Catholicism, Orthodox

Nicaea 2025

Fr. James Martin, SJ posted a link on Facebook yesterday to an article in the Vatican Insider,
A Nicea nel 2025 tutti i cristiani celebrino un sinodo davvero ecumenico,” and then he added the following comments:

Whoa! Potentially huge news. Have Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew called for an Ecumenical Council in 2025? Nicea III? Both East and West are invited to celebrate, as in participate in, a “truly ecumenical council,” said the Patriarch. Or perhaps celebrate, as in commemorate, the original Council of Nicea.

In other words, the big question is: Will this simply be a commemoration of the original Council of Nicea (AD 325), which gave us the Nicene Creed? Or will this be a new ecumenical council, with the power to promulgate decrees and possibly help unite East and West? I’m sure the Vatican press office will clarify soon.

The Patriarch said that he and the Pope, “agreed to leave as a legacy to ourselves and our successors a gathering in Nicaea in 2025, to celebrate together, after 17 centuries, the first truly ecumenical synod, where the Creed was first promulgated.”

Fr. Martin, of course, hit the nail on the head. Some have favored a Nicaea III in 2025: “With the unpredictability of Pope Francis, some Catholics have wondered if he would call another council — a Vatican III. It appears not. Something that big won’t do for Francis. He’s thinking even bigger: the church universal will be getting a Nicea III.” Others, however, have seen 2025 as a commemoration. And it appears that there is more warrant for interpreting the given statements to indicate commemoration rather than an ecumenical council. So why is Nicaea 2025 important? Besides that it will probably be an important step in healing the Orthodox-Catholic split, it could also still turn into the closest thing to an ecumenical council since the last ecumenical council in AD 787. How is this not the Spirit at work?


Plan for Planning to Give Way to Timing

I think it matters if the plan for 2025 is focused on being a celebration rather than an ecumenical council. But that is because I don’t think the planning for 2025 should be quite as pre-determined as we are inclined to do. Be careful Christians. When we gather together to celebrate, it can easily become so much more, like worship. Indeed, things change when we get together, so it shouldn’t be surprising if 2025 develops into something different than our original expectations.

I think we can agree that the central issues at hand aren’t entirely about substance. We already know what life should be like at a general level. As an Anabaptist of sorts at a Catholic school, I would love to see greater movement towards reconciling a 1,000 year split. But all the informed Catholic and Orthodox people I know would love to see the split healed as well. The problem is we have yet to ‘discover’ reconciliation in friendship, and in friendship figure out what to do with the filioque.

The other issue is time—and the question is what kind of time. The funny thing about Nicaea I is that it didn’t matter much initially, or at least those who gathered at Nicaea seemed to think so. It is a bit of an understatement to say that written records were not a priority. In fact, the reason why we have the Nicene Creed written down is because the following ecumenical council, Constantinople I, wrote down the creed in the process of affirming Nicaea I. Therefore, here is to hopeful prayer for unplanned riches to develop in 2025, even if they won’t be seen for a long time.

Yet, there is also another sense of time other than the long game. Vatican II had its own odd twists and turns in between the first few sessions, but it still went far beyond the general assumption of just re-affirming Vatican I held by many going into Vatican II. Therefore, our own expectations for Nicaea 2025–if indeed the ‘plan’ is for more of a con-celebration of sorts rather than a new council–should nevertheless be open to the Spirit’s direction, perhaps including some measure of reconciliation that goes beyond what we imagined possible. Why shouldn’t there be a miracle at Nicaea in 2025?


Location, Location, Location

I’ve already heard some people dismiss the location for the 2025 gathering as unimportant, and what is really important are the talks themselves. Yet, I think the location of Nicaea matters a great deal. A Nicaea III, as an ecumenical council, would trump a Vatican III in terms of authoritative weight. “Well duh,” you might say, “thats what ecumenical means.” But a trip to Nicaea is also deeply fitting. Of course one shouldn’t forget the initial Patriarch churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Rome; and of course Vatican II was deeply important for the Catholics. However, Nicaea is not just an ecumenical home at the crossroads of Asia minor; it is also a kind of theological home. It was at Nicaea, in the first ecumenical council, that Christological reflection began to take shape leading to Trinity, and where, centuries later in the seventh and last ecumenical council, icons were determined to helpful rather than idolatrous.

capitalism, poverty

Langone, Wealth, Poverty

So Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot and self-appointed speaker for other rich donors, is citing an anonymous donor who claims Pope Francis is alienating the rich by his talk about income disparity, the poor, and heres the kicker, that money isolates the rich from feeling compassion for the poor. Therefore, Langone is publicly noting the threat of an embargo on donations to the Catholic church (specifically concerning the restoration of St. Patricks cathedral, but does not appear limited to St. Patricks). Unfortunately Langone and others simply say that Francis was thinking about Argentina, not the US, and was mistranslated. Of course the embargo and redirection is just making Francis’s point; the depths and breadth of poverty in the US are not seen from the heights of a condo in a tower in Manhattan’s midtown. Langone and other donors, however, are not just proving the accuracy of Francis’s analysis but also Scripture. One should not forget that it is the riches of the rich man that make it difficult––as the camel through the eye of the needle––to enter the kingdom of God. So often we simply stop at the love of money as the root of many sins, but forget that wealth is still more subtle and dangerous. Wealth alienates (*cough*white flight*cough*), and capitalist wealth doubly so. But alienation sets us in a fundamental opposition to the interconnectedness of trinitarian life. Historically the Catholic church and many other denominations have often been guilty of alienation and the love of money. Pope Francis, like his name sake, represents the hope of renewal that also occurs in the history of Christianity: work to live with the poor, like Jesus; do not live apart from the poor.

biopolitics, capitalism, Foucault, Hegel, political theology, socialism, voyeurism

A Future Project for Political Theology

A problem with US pragmatism, especially US jurisprudence: changing the commodity form (e.g. vhs or cassette to digital or in this case, landline to wireless) somehow means the ‘rights’ of a previous form, like copyright or consumer ownerships, has to be reinstated in the new content form (e.g the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) because the previous rights do not seem to entirely transfer automatically.

This vision of newness without continuity–newness as sheer autonomy in order to be authentically new–stays until ‘unfortunately conquered’ by an old but equally large vision (like different types of the public good: the common good or its perversion called the greater good). This seems to be another, albeit apocalyptic, articulation of the old, conflicted division in liberalism of property vs. equality: property is ‘free’ until re-imagined as a communal good because all own themselves equally. Considering this, even if one could make a law establishing a more direct link between different forms such that the re-imagining is never even an issue, I am suspicious that US pragmatism would thoroughly resist the link.

I also wonder, then, if the real question posed to the globe isn’t the red herring of capitalism vs. socialism, but between a pragmatist neo-liberalism (with the illusionary choice to be surveilled) or a fused capitalist and state absolutism like that articulated by Hegel (or a softer version called liberal communitarianism) now wedded with obligatory and invasive surveillance, a la the NSA. The point is, whichever variation or combination of the two options that will be the new political economy, it will be its own mode of voyeuristic absolutism.

And if anything is contrary to such new ‘political bonds,’ it will be a terrorist or spy, or both. We see the beginning of this in the conviction of Plowshare activists as terrorists and the US has charged Edward Snowden with variations of espionage: “theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence [sic] information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence.” This re-defined reality is not the beginning of the eschaton as dispensationalists and conservative US evangelicals tend to proclaim–one does not even opt into a ‘beast mark’ here–but rather, this is a furthering of the attempt to ‘end’ history by controlling humanity’s telos via a thoroughgoing biopolitics made possible by this near-total voyeurism.

Theology will probably respond with “Maranatha!”, critical Orwellian appeals, or ‘super sizing’ Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, but we need a better response. I suspect part of the future task of political theology will lie in confronting voyeuristic absolutism because it will be part of the unifying and protective force of an even more static classism that, in new and old ways, will continue to oppose the theopolitics of the gospel option.

modern nation-state, political theology, race

The ‘Racialized’ Hoodie at the Intersection of Church and State

I am sure you all know about the Trayvon Martin shooting, and the wearing of hoodies as a show of solidarity. The hoodie already ‘radicalized’ (“an urban thing,” which is code for black, or sometimes simply not white) is now being used as a sign for identifying with the ‘urban’ and exposing that this assumption wardrobe is racist. There are a multiplicity of voices about whether hoodie solidarity is actually on the whole a positive move or not. But that was before Rep. Bobby Rush wore a hoodie on the house floor as he read the hopeful promises of the Bible.

Of course much of the issue around the shooting is race and segregation. I do not mean to detract from that, but instead deepen the issue because Representative Bobby Rush, like many others before him, exposed that the issue goes much further to the confluence of race, Christianity, and politics in America (and beyond, quite frankly, but I’ll stop there for now). I have have plenty of questions, but many of them are being asked by others so I will skip over those here. However, there are some questions that are not being asked. So I will raise one here.

As preface: the question I am about to ask is quite serious, rather than dismissive. Also, it is intentionally set at a nexus of many issues; it is at heart a short question that demands a very long answer to be answered well: the fact that the complex relationships between race and Christianity, Christianity and state power, and race and the state are all interconnected is just the beginning. The goal of the question is this: by highlighting the complexity around race, Christianity, and politics in America, I am gesturing to the depth racial issues go, and that therefore racial issues go far deeper in the American psyche than most willingly recognize. Of course this is not original to me, but I have yet to hear the issues brought up through the avenue used in this question:

In light of the video below–Rep. Bobby Rush being kicked off the House floor for wearing a hoodie while reading the hopeful promises of the Bible–I have yet another question: what good are the legislative chaplains if the Representatives will kick out their own for this?

link, music

I Just Couldn’t Take It

I’ve found Adele’s song, “Someone Like You,” to be disturbing on a number of levels. So I wrote about my problems with the song, and suggested another song as truly beautiful. Go read it here: Adele’s Pathological Perversion, or We’re Sorry Saint Valentine.

It has not escaped me that I wrote this on Valentines day. Don’t worry for me––I’m not in a bad place. The Grammy’s were this past weekend, and Adele won in some parts with that song.