Communal, Contradictory, and Broken Labour

What Is Political Theology?

Given the magnitude of the challenges we face the task of resistance remains a communal, provisional, necessarily (ie meaningfully) contradictory, broken labour shared between sites of theory and practice.

In his volume on contemporary political theology Hent De Vries defines the discipline of political theology as:

‘the ever changing relationships between political community and religious order, in short, between power (or authority: Herrschaft) and salvation (Heil)’.  (Quote is from Jan Assman ‘Authority and Salvation: Political Theology in Ancient Egypt, Israel and Europe’). Yet its contemporary range and implications reach further and encroach upon the central questions of political philosophy and political theory, in its comparative anthropology, sociological, economic, and juridical varieties, from which its original metaphysical impetus must also be distinguished. In addition to theorizing ‘the political’, ‘political theology’ also enters into relationship with urgent questions of daily ‘politics’, without, of course, being immediately (or fully) rendered (or contradicted) by them. Precisely this irreducible tension will interest us….; it signals this tradition’s continued recalcitrance – as if, so far, nothing could really substitute for it.’ (25)

In the ‘Introduction’ to the Blackwell Companion to Political Theology, William Cavanaugh and Peter Scott argue for the following characterization of the task of political theology:

Theology is broadly understood as discourse about God, and human persons as they relate to God. The political is broadly understood as the use of structural power to organize a society or community of people… Political theology is, then, the analysis and criticism of political arrangements (including cultural-psychological, social and economic aspects) from the perspective of differing interpretations of God’s ways with the world. (1)

I have used these and similar sources many times in teaching courses on political theology, and in many ways they express well the meta-task of our discipline – as well as pointing to its fairly obvious contemporary relevance.  Embracing the plural performances of the discipline in its critical, metaphysical, ecclesial and public modes, resistance emerges as a complex, disputed question – but not an incoherent one.  What tends to vary between accounts is what (even who) is to be resisted and who is envisaged as performing this resistance. And of course, the inheritance of the mid-twentieth century redefinition of political theology – which the topic for this symposium rather nicely illustrates – is the insistence that the discipline should turn back on itself, conscious – to slightly misuse philosopher Gillian Rose term – of the politics in religion as much as the religion in politics, capable in this light of critically inspecting its own edifices.

Nonetheless, and especially in the light of our current global predicaments, it strikes me that these opening quotes are notable for their emphasis on particular forms of cognitive labour performed within the discipline: we raise questions, we analyse, we criticise, we theorise and (I am drawing directly here on the language of other well know textbook definitions) when we enter into relationship we enter into relationship with ‘questions’. In the brief for our panel today, we ‘apply’ our discipline to ‘concrete contexts’. There is a relation of passivity and activity in the labour performed here. To be clear, I have no fundamental argument with the tasks of political theology laid out in any of these core texts, I think all these things should happen, and I hope I do at least some of them myself. But I do suspect that in turning to address the question of resistance in the politics of our current moment we might find that this set of tasks is not quite sufficient. Or, to put the problem differently, that this set of tasks manifests something of a tendency towards an academic self-sufficiency that might just risk undermining the core common political theological task which now lies before us.

I’d like to briefly illustrate this claim through reference to some fieldwork I conducted this summer with destitute asylum seekers in London. I had undertaken the research with a particular understanding of my task: I wanted to undertake a critical and metaphysical reading of forced destitution as a biopolitical practice. In doing so I hoped to contribute as a researcher to the task of resistance to current UK immigration practices. I had chosen to deploy the metaphysical resources of an Augustinian virtue ethics as the framework for my research questions. I constructed my research questions around a theology of the good (and its privation). This was a deliberate choice on my part. By defining my research as an inquiry into the good, I hoped to challenge methodologically the public image of migrants as solely suffering victims.This was crucial to how I had constructed the idea of agency and resistance in my own mind.

Quickly the research yielded results: the main issues to emerge concerned the distorting effects of destitution and detention on experiences of temporality. The normal productive markers of time -labour, participation, sociality – were forcibly denied through public policies focused on the manufacture of privation. A condition of stasis described strikingly by one interviewee as ‘the degrading of the person in time’ ensued. The interviewees described the ways in which administrative incarceration without crime or trial for an indefinite period causes an acute mental trauma of self-perception: it imposes a moral and political identity that cannot be accepted by the incarcerated self, for it has no stable reference point.

But then something unexpected happened. My interviewees began to tell me fairly spontaneously about their own political theological imaginings. Some had little consciousness that their words could be interpreted in this way, others were quite aware.  Some reflected on the failure of structures of political sovereignty promising and withholding security and protection and of the re-finding these very categories as a grounds for hope and resistance in the Psalms. Others reflected on the trouble with interpreting Jeremiah 29, meditating on the fact that the text implies a necessity for preparing oneself for a plan that whilst ‘for your welfare’ may involve unexpected endings, that one both was and was not the holder of one’s own story. Tying Jeremiah to Abraham and to the Pauline epistles I was treated to a reflection on the relationship between time and promise as it appears from inside detention. I hadn’t asked a single question directly about religion or personal faith in my research. But here was a community of theo-political interpreters, deploying sacred texts and traditions as the basis for resistance, where resistance denotes, as Simone Weil would have it, engagement with contradiction, the acceptance of incompatible truths, ‘and in recognising them as such, and in making of them as it were the two arms of a pair of pincers, an instrument for entering indirectly into contact with the sphere of transcendence.’

What does this example from my research have to do with our original question of resistance?

First, this research made me think about both the nature of resistance as a communal practice and more specifically the role of research in this setting. These questions drew me back to the question of labour, of the work of resistance as a shared – if you like a public – task, that includes but exceeds the more narrowly analytic, overly perfected contours we can sometimes set for ourselves.  Given the magnitude of the challenges we face my sense is that the task of resistance remains a communal, provisional, necessarily (ie meaningfully) contradictory, broken labour shared between sites of theory and practice. This is to propose a vision of political theology practicing resistance in less ‘applicationist’ and more speculative, dialogical and dialectical modes. I suppose this is what I think political theological research at its best to be.

Second, I said at the outset that I have no desire to argue for a particular form or school of political theology. That stated, perhaps the time has come for a return to wrestling with some of our more liminal but interestingly enduring political theological voices, those for whom resistance – research in the context of ‘mere existence’ or against ‘the dark background of difference’ – formed the core of their work: it was to Simone Weil, to her work on decreation, on force, necessity and the good that my own mind returned over the summer. A revisiting of the canon at this point might serve us well.

Symposium Essays

Andrew Prevot

Against Cruelty

I do not know what political theology ideally ought to be. But I do know that, minimally, it should not be cruel.

William T. Cavanaugh

Re-Anarchizing Christianity

For Christians resistance must mean re-anarchizing Christianity, that is, imagining the church as a different kind of political body that transgresses national and racial and class borders in creative ways.

Resist: a response

Does political theology offer strategies for resisting injustice? Or should political theology itself be resisted (because it is part of the problem)? Of course, the answer is yes.

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