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.
political theology

Political Theologies Seminar

I’ve been rather silent here because I’ve been quite busy. This is partly because I don’t yet know how to talk about my dissertation publicly online — I’ve heard far too many horror stories about people getting ripped off; partly because I’ve been prepping for the class I’m teaching this fall; and partly because of a new project launching at Marquette:

We’ve got a Political Theologies Seminar that we’re starting up. Part of the seminar is to put up a helpful website with announcements on work we’ll be doing, bibliographies, etc. It is still a work in progress — some bibliographies are nearly nonexistent, but others are beginning to fill out — nevertheless, go check it out here:

books, political theology

A Not-So-Theological Book List for Political Theology

Daniel asked about a book list of ethics and politics works of the not-so-theological variety for those in political theology. I take this to be a book list both about people who at least are not theologians and/or works that may not even consider the place of theology. It covers political theory, continental philosophy, and a few other subjects, but it certainly is not exhaustive — in fact it may really be a poor introduction to people and writings I think are important to know and work with or against. If you’ve got any books to add, please do.

Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince

Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, and Man and Citizen: De Homine and De Cive

GWF Hegel (specifically these editions): Phenomenology of Spirit, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion One-Volume Edition, The Lectures of 1827, and Lectures on the Philosophy of World History

John Locke: Two Treatises of Government and Political Essays

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘The Social Contract’ and Other Later Political Writings

Karl Marx: just start with The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition) — it has Marx’s important essays on Hegel and Feuerbach, among other writings. Of course there is Capital starting with Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics)

Friedrich Nietzsche: Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Will to Power (Volumes I and II), and Beyond Good and Evil

John Rawls: A Theory of Justice: Original Edition, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, and A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith: With “On My Religion”

Carl Schmitt: The Concept of the Political, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, Legality and Legitimacy, and of course Constitutional Theory

An edited volume by Chantal Mouffe on Carl Schmitt: The Challenge of Carl Schmitt

Walter Benjamin, aka anti-Schmitt: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, an excellent commentary by Michael Löwy Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”, and of course, if you have the time and the interest, The Arcades Project

Michel Foucault: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, and The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language are all well known, and certainly worth reading, but I find more interesting and helpful his lectures at the College de France: Security, Territory, Population, The Birth of Biopolitics, The Government of Self and Others

Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, On Revolution, The Human Condition (2nd Edition), On Violence, and The Origins of Totalitarianism

Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, State of Exception, Means Without End: Notes on Politics, and his commentary on Romans, The Time That Remains

Alain Badiou: Being and Event, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, and Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil

Slavoj Žižek: The Parallax View, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? with Milbank and Davis, and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity

The publication of Harink’s Paul and Philosophers conference that I was at some years back: Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Others

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and Simulation

Jacob Taubes: From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, The Political Theology of Paul, and Occidental Eschatology

Sheldon Wolin: Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought

Gillian Rose: The Broken Middle: Out of Our Ancient Society and Hegel Contra Sociology

Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics with Ernesto Laclau, The Democratic Paradox, On the Political, and The Return of the Political

David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, and A Companion to Marx’s Capital

Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri:

books, political theology

A Short Book List on Political Theology

I just gave a paper at Calvin’s Religion and Politics Symposium. There I was asked about books on political theology by a political science phd student. I thought this list might do well on the internet too, so here is a short list that I believe would introduce well, but certainly not exhaust, political theology for someone in political science.

Important Introductions:
Editors William Cavanaugh and Peter Scott’s The Blackwell Companion to Political Theology

Michael Kirwan’s Political Theology: An Introduction

Gary Dorrien’s Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition and Economy, Difference, Empire: Social Ethics for Social Justice

And here are more books for further reading if you’re interested:

Systematicians, Ethicists, and Political Theologians:
John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus

Stanley Hauerwas and Rom Cole’s Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian and Stanley Hauerwas’s Naming the Silences

William Cavanaugh’s Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, and Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ

Delores S. Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness

Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology

Traci C. West’s Disruptive Christian Ethics

Jon Sobrino’s No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays

Graham Ward’s The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens and Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice

James Cone’s God of the Oppressed

Lee Griffith’s The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God

Editors Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Zizek’s Theology and the Political: The New Debate

Oscar Romero’s Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements

Joerg Rieger, Jun Mo Sung, and Nestor Miguez’s Beyond the Spirit of Empire

Charles Curran’s Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis

Biblical Studies:
Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically

J. G. McConville’s God and Earthly Power: An Old Testament Political Theology

Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good

Theology, Philosophy, and the History of Thought:
Editors Cole and Smith’s The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory

Louis Dupré’s Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture

Michael Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity

political theology

Politics = Eschatology

As far as the biblical imagination is concerned, eschatology and politics are the same thing, whether we are looking at God’s promise of fulfilment [sic] to Israel in the Old Testament, or the advent of the ‘Kingdom’ in the New. For the early Church, notably with Augustine, ‘biblical and classical Christian eschatology can be taken directly as political theory’.

Michael Kirwan, Political Theology: An Introduction, 171.

books, political theology

A Must-Read Introduction to Political Theology

In the past few years, I have made a point to keep track of introductory books primarily because, from time to time, people ask about books to read. And with future prospects for teaching, I pay even more attention to introductory books — particularly on topics that seem to rather misunderstood, like political theology.

Now, I’ve noticed a few different trends in how to introduce a subject. One way is to do something like a reader. The famous Blackwell Companion to Political Theology edited by Peter Scott and William Cavanaugh follows this route and function at times like a reference volume. There are obvious perks to this method: each chapter is written by a specialist and highly informative concerning its focus — be it person, topic, or movement. However, at times, such an introduction sometimes seems to miss conveying that a conversation is at hand and how different schools of thought interact, build off each other, etc. Also, introductions like Blackwell’s are very long, and for some, can be difficult to read through period, much less feel like one has a grip on the scholarly conversation. Simply put, the point of an introduction is to get the big picture and encyclopedic introductions do not always meet this need.

Now, there is another way: something like an informed conversation-lecture. This kind of introduction is incredibly difficult to do well: one must balance space, intellectual depth, readability — all the while conveying accurately the complex and multiple conversations, concerns, and stories. Until recently, I had felt that the contemporary discussion in political theology lacked such a volume. That is until I ran into Michael Kirwan’s Political Theology: An Introduction released last year.

Kirwan has written an excellent book. I have considered going back through his book to outline it here and list those who are given a voice, so as to show you how much ground he really covers, but this has proved more difficult that it appears. Crucial to writing such an excellent book is interweaving a multiplicity of voices, and this he does so from page one. To do him justice in summary, I simply do not have the time — he has covered much ground — and nor do I think I could faithfully convey the tone of the book. The way he engages material reminded me of the better conversations I have with professors in their offices: I had the feeling that I was in Kirwan’s office listening to him explain the field. His engagement with material was as if he pulling books from his shelves, showed me his worn copy, and talked about what was inside, all the while gesturing to books he already mentioned now piled on his desk, or ones we would get to still on the shelves.

Any teacher looking to touch on political theology should include this book in their class. Anyone looking for a reading list -– who they should read next or at least be aware of — should read this book. And just as important, those looking for why to read someone included in the book should read this book as well. As Kirwan makes connections between thinkers, he invariably provides answers to “Why” questions: primarily “Why should I care about so-and-so when I am concerned with this other conversation?” So not only does this book simply broaden one’s horizons, but challenges the reader to stretch themselves in the future — to read someone who initially seemed beyond their interests. This everyone needs, no matter how old they are.

I do not believe that the Blackwell Companion removes the need for Kirwan’s book, and vice versa. These two books together would set the interested reader on a strong path. But people already know about Blackwell’s Companion. So the conclusion here? Go read Kirwan’s book. You will not be disappointed.

If I were Kirwan’s Jesuit superior, I would lock him in an office all day long and order him to write many more introductions like this. This, among many other reasons, is probably why I am not his Jesuit superior. The University of London is lucky to have him.

Elizabeth Johnson, feminism, gift, grace, Hans Urs von Balthasar, mission, political theology

The Map of My Missions Paper

I’d like to thank those who raised questions. CTN, you’re answered in the paper, even though it doesn’t show so much here in the conclusion. And Brad, I had to make certain moves, so Israel played a smaller role — very, very small actually — than I wanted. Your concern was one of the many footnotes that I used to give the body of the paper more focus, and I still went over the page limit. Sigh.

My Provisional Conclusion:

I have sought in this essay to provide a politics proceeding from and based on the triune economy of gift. I began with Christian dogma, noting God in action in human history through the incarnation, the Spirit, and the economy of gift. In doing so, I noted that the work of God should be understood as gift, while elaborating on human participation in the response of Mary. I then moved to the inner life of the Trinity by assuming Balthasar’s assertion that the triune God is not hidden, but revealed in the Cross. I elaborated on the dynamism of gift in the inner trinitarian life with the help of Balthasar and Johnson. This step located and defined the economy of grace in the giver of all that is good. Next I moved to the implications of the gifting God working in human history, framing the step in terms of apocalyptic, Christian formation, and liberation. Recent work on the apocalyptic was noted to highlight my own move: the church is not theologically a dispossessed church, but when rightly living, drawn up into the economy of God — in a word, possessed rather than ever a possessor. This gifting church then spreads gift into the surrounding world, hence the recognition of Romero and Church of the Servant King.

In short, I have sought to draw a line from the inner life of God directly to our action in the world. I have done this through political theology, because, as I understand the recent turn in missiology, there is much overlap between the two. I have re-framed everything underneath gift because that is fundamentally how the divine works with the cosmos and within human history. Thus, from gift, we can re-understand the apocalyptic work of God and therefore, the church’s purpose in the world: to live the gift economy of God for the sake of creation.

modern nation-state, political theology, Rowan Williams

My Presentation at the Calvin Symposium on Religion and Politics

I’ll be delivering a paper at Calvin’s Symposium on Religion and Politics, April 23-25. So will fellow colleagues and friends, Thomas and Geoff. My presentation will be a truncated version of my paper titled: “Imagination and Exploration in Church and State Relations: Rowan Williams, Sharia, Social Space, Christianity, and America.”

I believed I alluded to this paper, or mentioned it in passing, on the blog last semester while I was writing it. Still, if anyone is curious, below is the abstract and proposal. And anyone who is thinking of swinging by the symposium, I’d be interested in some constructive feed back.

On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective,” at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. England was in an uproar within hours. Nearly a year later, the lecture resonates within English jurisprudence discussion, while in America, the lecture is better known as his “Sharia speech.” This presentation aims to give Williams a close, fair, and accurate reading, while at the same time, imagining what it would mean to carry on his challenge in another context: the United States of America. The fruit of such exploration is not mere indulgence, but aims to help us better understand the complexity of Church and State relations today — specifically around law, sovereignty, and jurisprudence — and where relations may move, or we should push them towards, in the future.

On February 7, 2008, Rowan Williams gave a lecture entitled, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective,” at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. England was in an uproar within hours. Nearly a year later, the lecture resonates within English jurisprudence discussion, while in America, the lecture is better known as his “Sharia speech.” This essay aims to give Williams a close, fair, and accurate reading, while at the same time, imagining what it would mean to carry on his challenge in another context: the United States of America.

From William’s speech, I emphasize two key themes: “social space” and “transformative accommodation.” He noted that law – an outworking of or a voice of the modern nation-state – can often, if not inherently, function in a coercive, monopolistic fashion. This law is more than reluctant to allow for other jurisdictions. When law acts in such a jealous fashion, coupled with an individualistic anthropology, it ignores or rejects other communities or social bodies that contribute on a fundamental level to human identity. No only does supercessionist law function inadequately, but it does great harm when its blunt universalism is enforced. The outcome, Williams argued, is the marginalization and/or silencing of entire communities, particularly communities that are not violent.

The significance of the Archbishop’s speech is his carving out a new social space, as he called for the equalizing of jurisprudence. Not only should the law critically re-evaluate itself, it is called to recognize that its generalizing universalism is incomplete and harmful. Williams seeks to make space for distinctive communities that seek the good because of their distinctiveness. Clearly by the law, there are small allowances, or deferring to religious authorities, however, these are understood within the monopoly’s categories of accommodation or expert witness, not on equal terms. The importance of Williams’ speech for this essay lies in his challenge to the law, showing its poverty and need for a re-visioning of its self-proclaimed sovereignty, while upholding the inherent value of other communities and their jurisdictions. Thus Williams’ makes room for and shows the necessity of transformative accommodation.

In an exploration of the difficulty, with its positive and negatives, of adapting Rowan Williams’ vision for American civil and religious jurisprudence, I begin with two observations: I briefly note similarities between American and English and, at greater length, the dissimilarity between Christian and State notions of justice and peace. The difference between State and Christian notions of peace and justice should make clear to the reader that Christianity attempts to go far beyond the State in the ecclesial endeavors to rightly remember Jesus (specifically in anamnesis of the Christ). Thus, when reconciliation is achieved in lieu of litigation, something better, something holistic and healthy has been achieved. Supported by Rowan Williams’ argument, this seeking of the global common good through prophetic reconciliation should be recognized as legitimate and helpful. The social body of Christianity, the church, and its jurisprudence should be recognized for the sake of the faith’s adherents (who are also citizens of the State), to avoid an oppressive exercise of law, and to embrace those who seek, and arguably achieve, the common good by peaceful means from the distinctiveness of their faith and community.

The last two sections briefly address how each institution must begin the transformation to meet Williams’ challenge. There will certainly be difficulties in a move towards transformative accommodation and equal jurisprudence. I therefore address what I take to be the two biggest hurdles for the State: sovereignty and civil religion. Yet, there is also much for faith communitites to do, namely a greater emphasis on ecumenical responsibility, inter-faith dialogue, and inter-community cooperation. The fruit of such exploration is not mere indulgence, but aims to help us better understand the complexity of Church and State relations today and where they may move, or we should push them towards, in the future.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Johann Metz, political theology

Von Balthasar and Metz: Towards the Interruption

Von Balthasar is criticized for lacking a political dimension in his theological aesthetics. While overtly that may be the case, I have a strong suspicion to the contrary at a deeper reading or implied in VB’s work — strong enough work out an aesthetic interruption. In an endeavor to avoid ideological pragmatism’s successful failure, the transcendentals — the true, the good, and the beautiful — seem another way to inform what constitutes the interruption. In short, I’m constructing a foundational essay for me: I’m combining Metz (interruption and anamnesis) and Balthasar (seizing form, grasping, measurement, and contemplation). If you’re in doubt of such an endeavor, simply look at the quotes below from merely my reading today (the rest of volume one is filled with such statements with political implications).

By becoming man, God does not speak to himself; he speaks to the world. Christ is this speech of God which addresses itself to us all. We are addressed not only from outside, but are affected in our very selves, in our intimate nature; and, in so far as Christ is our brother and has responded to God from within our own nature, all of us have already responded with him. By the Incarnation we have been transferred into the sphere of the dialogical, out of the sphere of sin which is the monological, out into the ‘marvellous light’ of the Word. We already participate in the sphere where things are fundamentally right and attuned and where, therefore, if we so will it, things can be similarly right for us as well. With the appearance of Christ, the Church is already posited: that is to say, his appearance is the measure which God applies to the world, the measure which God has already communicated to the world, bestowed on the world, as a measure of grace and not of judgment, as a freely conferred measure which no one can arrogate to himself but which is given in such a way that anyone so desiring can take it to himself.

… Christian contemplation is the opposite of distanced consideration of an image: as Paul says, it is the metamorphosis of the beholder into the image he beholds (2 Cor 3.18), the ‘realisation’ of what the image expresses (Newman). This is possible only by giving up one’s standards and being assimilated to the dimensions of the image. Christian life is not a second movement subsequent to contemplation, a practical corollary to theoria. For theoria can occur only as we spread out our existence under the image offered by God, which has shone within our darkness as God’s light (2 Cor 4.6). The image unfolds into the one contemplating it, and it opens out its consequences in his life. … The image unfolds into the one contemplating it, and it opens out its consequences in his life.

The Glory of the Lord Vol. 1, 478, 485.

liberation, Oscar Romero, political theology

Romero on Theopolitics

The Political Dimension of the Faith
This has been a brief sketch of the situation, and of the stance, of the church in El Salvador. The political dimension of the faith is nothing other than the church’s response to the demands made upon it by the de facto socio-political world in which it exists. What we have rediscovered is that this demand is a fundamental one for the faith, and that the church cannot ignore it. That is not to say that the church should regard itself as a political institution entering into competition with other political institutions, or that it has its own political processes. Nor, much less, is it to say that our church seeks political leadership. I am talking of something more profound, something more in keeping with the gospel. I am talking about an authentic option for the poor, of becoming incarnate in their world, of proclaiming the good news to them, of giving them hope, of encouraging them to engage in a liberating praxis, of defending their cause and of sharing their fate.

The church’s option for the poor explains the political dimension of the faith in its fundamentals and in its basic outline. Because the church has opted for the truly poor, not for the fictitiously poor, because it has opted for those who really are oppressed and repressed, the church lives in a political world, and it fulfills itself as church also through politics. It cannot be otherwise if the church, like Jesus, is to turn itself toward the poor.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastorals and Other Statements, 182-183.

J. Kameron Carter, political theology, race

Misguided Ways of Dealing with Race and Racism

In the wake of Obama’s inauguration, I’ve seen a number of responses across the news, on the internet, and amongst friends. And so, what follows is a brief endeavor to list a few problematic responses and point out their underlying logic. Interestingly, the logic of each point in the list that follows, have much overlap between each other.

Colorblind: Some people (I’ve only heard this from Christians lately) still seem to think that the proper way to deal with race is to act like one shouldn’t see race. I have a sinking feeling why this is still so prevalent is because it was Contemporary Christian Music’s way of dealing with race (when it rarely did). To accept the colorblind philosophy is to accept a notion of making what is visible, invisible. Essentially, to be colorblind is to divest a person and people group of their story — the history that has formed them as a group. Specifically when this comes to race in America, such a move ignores the historical context of suffering and community bonding in the face of structural oppression that at least still fuel vestiges of privilege. This skips steps that have yet to be made. Justice and reconciliation looks the past straight in the face and deals with the repercussions that occur today. Thus, to ignore one’s story and the formation of the community past that still exists out of necessity today, is to take away one’s positive relationships, while ignoring struggles. This in effect dehumanizes people and leaves people exposed to the rending of the foundation of identity: relationships. In sum, we still live in a world where the color of one’s skin plays an important role in our historical and contemporary stories and actions. We should not ignore this by claiming to be colorblind.

Just let the old people die out, because their tired, old fight doesn’t translate today. Post-race means we’re past our history and we’re pretty much past racism: We aren’t post race. J. Kameron Carter has an excellent critique, and shows that racial categories are predicated on modernism and its theological and scientific grounding. Racial categories are in themselves racist. Also, to live in the modern world is to live in a racialized world. Even if we could adequately deal with Obama’s hybridity in public, we’d still be in some form of racial categorization, but probably taking a step in a positive direction that recognizes the hybridity in most (if not all) of us.

But how do we square the imposed racial categories of modernity’s scientific and theological logic with the need for community in the colorblind point above? For instance African Americans, Asian immigrants, Latin/South American immigrants, Native Americans, etc. form their own communities, partly out of survival. These communities are good, even though they have been categorized with the modernist racial category. This survival is done in the face of colonial violence and a theological divestment of their humanity. In fact, one could say that these communities of the oppressed function as the salvation for those who do not see their own humanity slipping away as they are the ones who have enforced these colonial categories.

But to find the good in the oppressed communities still stays within the racial modernist structure. Thankfully there is something else. To divest a person or people group of a skin color, that is considered beautiful by God, is partly the action of a terrible creation theology. Creation theology does not have a semi-gnostic persuasion that turns colors to grey, but helps recognize what is created and encourage flourishing. Even if colorblind philosophy is only symbolic, insomuch that it attempts to address the racist assertion of a qualitative difference between skin color, the right response does not mean the elimination of beautiful skin color. Thus, while the skin color is beautiful and God given, the divisive work of racial categorization must be dismantled by first looking it in the face, rather than ignoring it. Both the colorblind philosophy and its new protégé, post-race, take the strides that have been made and assert them as the fulfillment of MLK Jr.’s dream, while ignoring MLK Jr.’s warning against colonial America. So where can we all stand? In solidarity.

Therefore (either because we should be colorblind, or the old people live in a different world) don’t speak about the racial categories, its divisive: Well, not really. If the racial categories still exist, and if privilege still exists in structures, then to call for us to ignore the currently divisive, racial, modernist structure is to yet again ignore reality in favor of a white narrative (Yes, I’m using white here as a symbol. Don’t get your underwear in a knot.).

If someone else, like a white person, said this…: From my post on Rev. Wright: Dr. Wright is also not a “reverse racist” (as if only whites could be true racists…). This is not to say that a black person cannot be racist, however, what Newt Gingrich purports assumes that racism does not continue to exist in any large way. Yet, if what Wright does say is true, understood within a racist culture at large, than it merely rings true. However, Wright is not engaged by others at the level of his and his community’s experience. Instead, Wright’s words are taken from his mouth – from his black body and black context – and put into a white person’s body and context. In some senses, it seems that even Wright speaking cannot be understood as a black person speaking; rather, culture at large must think of him as a white person. How is that not itself racist, stripping him of his own humanity? Sure, maybe if we took Wright’s words and gave them to an oppressive people, the content of the words might sound racist, because they would be coming from the oppressive people’s lips. The body and context from whom the words come from are infinitely important. To call Wright a reverse racist merely on the basis of what he said in his speeches, based on forgetting the black community’s story and acting like he is a white man, is bullshit. This is just another way to marginalize a black man speaking prophetic truth.

So what common theme ran through this list of points? Divestment. To divest someone within the category of race is going to lead to some form of racism. Hell, to divest a person or community of the opportunity to be wrong likewise divests them of their humanity, as it fetishizes them rather than recognizes their failure. Divestment — racism — can only be met first by a honest and deep look that continues until the community is no longer segregated. I’m looking at you, church.

obama, political theology

Defamation? Fun!

I’m the kind of person who is frustrated with the “now that its the end of the year, lets look back…” nostalgia. Its kinda annoying and reaffirms a specific kind of calendar, not to mention that it teaches a halting and poorly categorized view of history. I much prefer the Christian calendar, although I am have spent precious little time studying it.

Still, when “Christian News agencies” act as loud voices for NGOs with a considerable lack of theological competency, I do a little more than worry — like Christian News Wire (what seems like a Christian version of Fox News) with sources like the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission considering the “Top Ten Instances of Christian Bashing in America, 2008”:

INSTANCE #3: Barack Obama Defames Christianity
According to research into President Elect Obama’s own statements about faith, and an examination of Obama’s position on moral issues, CADC has determined that by any biblical and historic Christian standard, Barack Obama is not a Christian, although he claims he is a “devout Christian.”

INSTANCE #2: Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin Is Attacked
Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, came under sharp attack by some in the mainstream media because she self-identifies as a Christian. The Washington Post published a cartoon by Pat Oliphant mocking Palin because she has a background as a Pentecostal/Charismatic Christian. A suspicious arson fire at Sarah Palin’s home church recently caused over $1,000,000 in damage.

Personally, I love self-appointed, Bill O’Reilly justified crusaders, fighting to keep Christianity respectable in the face of “Christian bashing.” Especially when this list of fear mongering is followed with a call to support the NGO.

This is persecution?? Barack Obama isn’t a Christian? Palin was criticized for being a Christian? Wow. You’ve really done your homework. No, this isn’t persecution. Yes, Obama is a Christian. No, Palin was criticized for her anti-evolutionary, six-day creationist stance.

We need a bigger movement to get back in touch with the Christian calendar, merely for the sake of professing Christians who don’t understand what they’re professing. Apparently they need a reminder of what Jesus did.

political theology

Pssst, Don’t Tell Them About Liberation Theology

I came across something just as theologically impoverished as that bumper sticker, God is my Co-pilot (found on a motorcycle website), and perhaps even more ironic. From Kentucky:

Under state law, God is Kentucky’s first line of defense against terrorism.

The 2006 law organizing the state Office of Homeland Security lists its initial duty as “stressing the dependence on Almighty God as being vital to the security of the Commonwealth.”

Specifically, Homeland Security is ordered to publicize God’s benevolent protection in its reports, and it must post a plaque at the entrance to the state Emergency Operations Center with an 88-word statement that begins, “The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God.”

The rest goes as:

State Rep. Tom Riner, a Southern Baptist minister, tucked the God provision into Homeland Security legislation as a floor amendment that lawmakers overwhelmingly approved two years ago.

As amended, Homeland Security’s religious duties now come before all else, including its distribution of millions of dollars in federal grants and its analysis of possible threats.

The time and energy spent crediting God are appropriate, said Riner, D-Louisville, in an interview this week.

“This is recognition that government alone cannot guarantee the perfect safety of the people of Kentucky,” Riner said. “Government itself, apart from God, cannot close the security gap. The job is too big for government.”

Nonetheless, it is government that operates the Office of Homeland Security in Frankfort, with a budget this year of about $28 million, mostly federal funds. And some administrations are more religious than others.

Under previous Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a lay Baptist preacher, Homeland Security interpreted the law at face value, prominently crediting God in its annual reports to state leaders and posting the required plaque.

Under Gov. Steve Beshear, officials this week said they didn’t know about the plaque until the Herald-Leader called to ask whether it’s still there.

(They checked; it is.) The 2008 Homeland Security report, issued a month ago, did not credit God, but it did complain about a decline in federal funding from Washington.

Thomas Preston, Beshear’s Homeland Security chief, said he isn’t interested in stepping into a religious debate, and he hasn’t given this part of his duties much thought.

“I will not try to supplant almighty God,” Preston said. “All I do is try to obey the dictates of the Kentucky General Assembly. I really don’t know what their motivation was for this. They obviously felt strongly about it.”
There is no reference to God in Homeland Security’s current mission statement or on its Web site, which displeases Riner.

“We certainly expect it to be there, of course,” Riner said.

But state Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said Homeland Security should worry about public safety threats instead of preaching religious homilies.
“It’s very sad to me that we do this sort of thing,” said Stein, a frequent critic of efforts to mix religion and government. “It takes away from the seriousness of the public discussion over security, and it clearly hurts the credibility of this office if it’s supposed to be depending on God, first and foremost.”

Good thing Jesus didn’t love for the sake of safety.

ecclesiology, justice, modern nation-state, peace, political theology, reconcile

Justice, Peace, and Reconciliation

I’m drawing to the end of my church and state paper, still tentatively titled “Imagination and Exploration in Church and State Relations: Rowan Williams, Sharia, Social Space, Christianity, and America.” Of course I’ve got a few books out and in lieu of having twitter, I’ll use this blog: “David is surrounded by his Metz books. His heart feels strangely warmed.”

I’ve also got an excerpt here from near the end, where I’m juxtaposing State and Christian ideas of justice and peace. I’m still editing it, but this is a blog, so I don’t think it all has to be perfect. That is also the reason why I haven’t put in footnotes from the actual work. As far as content, its also a bit of a playful “screw you” to those who understand reconciliation in terms of regression. I’m looking at you Milbank and Bridges.

While reconciliation is not the operative lens for the state, it is for Jesus and the church, among other foundational, interrelated politics like the economy of grace and forgiveness. However, the divine economy of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not limp wristed, passive attempts at mediating relationships. Importantly, Christian peace and justice also does not trivialize the rift or violation, instead it takes seriously the violation, the people, and the redemption. Human involvement in grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation on this side of the parousia does not disappear transgression, as if it never happened, but transforms relationships today into how they will eschatologically be – swords beaten into plowshares and the lion laying down with the lamb. Even much of liberation theology can be read this way, as it seeks to redeem people, oppressor and oppressed, and their oppressive relationship.

In fact, even the church today as the mission of the basileia of God does not achieve a thoroughgoing justice throughout the globe. It is a participant in what can be achieved locally throughout the globe – in the interruption of the way of death by God – before the parousia. Thus, reconciliation today is not particularly retrogressive. The Jews, homosexuals, and handicapped killed in the Holocaust and the Germans who designed and implemented the programs are both dead and beyond the reach of the church (as is the case in 9/11 or some of Darfur or some of Iraq, etc.). We live in the aftermath of dead, irreconcilable generations and only God can enact a full redemption at the end of time; nevertheless, the church has plenty of redemptive work to do today. In fact, to stop death in its tracks is the key to redemptive work; the past will not tyrannize the present or the future. Despite the shortcoming of the church, it is formed by the memory of Christ and eschatological hope and can therefore seek a true sense of justice and peace; the ecclesial vision is comprehensive and holistic. It attempts to live the interruptive action of crucified and resurrected grace that declares the end of death’s sting. Death will not have the last word; it shall be stopped, interrupted this very day, so as to make way for divine peace – the flourishing of people and relationships. The church, rightly understood even in its brokenness, seeks to embody the in-breaking of the basileia; if we act right, if we live up to our call to witness, we can participate in making space where the basileia breaks in and creates a social space of reconciliation, of redemption, of peace. It is this Christological power embodied in social existence that the State in its individualist anthropology cannot rightly account for. With these Christian relational definitions of justice and peace in mind, Paul’s exhortation for Christians to settle relational breaks among themselves – and so to be the “witness to the inauguration of the kingdom of Christ” – is intelligible.

The difference between State and Christian notions of peace and justice should make clear to the reader that Christianity attempts to go far beyond the State in the ecclesial endeavors to rightly remember Jesus (specifically anamnesis of the Christ). Thus, when reconciliation is achieved in lieu of, say, litigation, something better, something holistic and healthy has been achieved. Supported by Rowan Williams’ argument, this seeking of the global common good through prophetic reconciliation should be recognized as legitimate and helpful. The social body of Christianity, the church, and its jurisprudence should be recognized for the sake of the faith’s adherents (who are also citizens of the State), to avoid an oppressive exercise of law, and to embrace those who seek, and arguably achieve, the common good by peaceful means.

Before moving on, I want to make very clear that this understanding of equal jurisprudence and transformative accommodation is not to be understood within the categories of something like a chaplain in the United States army. Christian jurisprudence crosses the borders of human categories because it is relational. It is not to be coerced to enable the status quo as it seeks to continue oppression, of say, the Native Americans in the United States, rather it aims to achieve reconciliation that interrupts the abusive relationships and works towards a flourishing peace. The church is not to be behind the soldiers enabling them kill and absolving them of guilt, but in the crossfire and in the trenches, working for reconciliation. The church in its very being inherently works for this global common good. This is the natural political outworking of ecclesial/communal, ethical embodiment of its memory of Jesus that has been stripped by the State, as the church has been fragmented by the monopolistic jurisprudence of the State.