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In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Natality is an essential precondition of politics, Hannah Arendt argues in her book The Human Condition (HC), in which she lays out a three-part schema to describe the active engagement of humans with the world. The vita activa, the active life, involves labor, work, and action, which entail, respectively, biological processes, the creation of things, and mutual engagement among people. In a saturated landscape of binary theories, nature/culture king among them, Arendt invites us to begin theorizing the world anew. Such is the spirit of natality: the possibility for beginnings. In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Against an absolute concept like creation ex nihilo performed by a singular entity outside of time, history, or materiality, natality is necessarily emergent from the condition of life itself: humans are necessarily born and die. Of course, neither is exclusive to human life. To understand why Arendt’s concept does not apply equally to, say, beavers, who do the labor of eating and reproducing, and the work of building structures and shaping their environments that leaves permanent traces, we need to consider how theological and political ideas come together in and through natality.

Natality is the precondition of action and the action of politics. While labor, work, and action are all “rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers,” the intimate alignment of natality and action is most significant for the formation and perpetuation of both “political bodies” and history (HC 8-9). The potential “inherent in birth” is only actualized by the impression the “newcomer” makes on the world by acting. Arendt elevates action above the less politically potent activity of contemplation, thus reversing the hierarchy established and maintained by Greek and then Christian thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Augustine. While Arendt follows Nietzsche and Marx, who flipped the hierarchy of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa on its head, it would be erroneous to assume natality is anathema to religion, especially dominant forms of Christianity.

Though Arendt will distinguish natality from Creation, she first introduces natality in the context of “The Beginning.” Early in HC, Arendt suggests that natality is “implicit” in the first creation story of humans in Genesis 1:27, in which God is said to have created them, Adam and Eve (HC 8). It is plurality which makes the political possible. “Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable in the nature or essence of any other thing,” Arendt writes. “Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live” (HC 8).

It is not a feminist hermeneutic that attracts Arendt to the story of a mutual creation, over the second creation story in which Eve is produced from Adam as a helpmate (Genesis 2:21-3; see, for example, Pardes). In fact, Arendt adamantly rejects the move, which would soon become popular among feminist thinkers, to elevate labor and by extension nature and femininity (see Ortner). For Arendt, labor figures centrally in her critique of Marx, who does not treat labor as a ball and chain in flesh. For the sake of the economy of this short essay, I’ll simply note that Arendt is motivated to distinguish labor and work in reaction to Marx’s inclusion of labor as part of the ladder to liberation (it might be more accurate, to extend my idiom, to say that Marx treats labor as both shoot and ladder) (HC 101-109). Suffice it to say, Arendt would not be one to join in in Starhawk’s Circle Dance worshipping female bodily power nor to choke back tears while watching Beyoncé perform at the Grammys as a pregnant goddess.

If you approach Arendt, as I do, as a (Jewish) feminist scholar, this might be the moment where you lose hope that natality might be somehow redemptive of the patriarchal political theological traditions you’ve inherited. As it turns out, women as mothers are almost wholly absent, an unmentioned vessel to bear new beginnings in what turns out to be, in my reading, a quite androcentric philosophy. This is not a universal appraisal. Take, for example, the first essay in the body of Bonnie Honig’s collection, Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt, in which Mary G. Dietz lays out the polarizing nature of Arendt’s thought among feminists. Some difference feminists (thinkers for whom the category of woman, as distinct from man, is a central object of analysis) reject Arendt’s fundamentally “phallocentric” thought for reproducing a masculinist valorization of the public sphere, rather than rescuing women’s labor from its denigrated status, as advocates of social reproduction would do. Others perform “gynocentric” readings of Arendt that, as Dietz aptly puts it, “appropriate natality or birth” in the service of feminist theory. Dietz treats Nancy Harstock’s reading of Arendt as emblematic of just how inappropriate natality is for feminist projects that ground women’s power in reproductive capacities or experiences; transfiguring Arendt’s valuation of labor, Dietz suggests, disfigures natality, which is necessarily about action, rather than embodiment (Dietz 27-9).

Is natality not about birth then? Perhaps not in the commonsense imagination of a particularly female reproductive activity. Later in HC, Arendt elaborates: “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. This insertion is not forced upon us by necessity, like labor, and it is not prompted by utility, like work. It may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we responded by beginning something new on our own initiative” (HC 176-7). And thus, a wide variety of people, feminists included, have taken various liberties with natality, perhaps authorized by the concept itself.

A quarter-century after Honig’s volume, for example, a spate of Arendt interpreters has given new life to natality. Notably, rather than a phenomenologically grounded politics emerging from experiences of female embodiment, Rosalyn Diprose and Ewa Plonowska Ziarek’s Arendt, Natality and Biopolitics reasserts natality’s plurality and relationality as an event that can contend with repressive biopolitics, or the governance of life itself. As the central concept of a political ontology, then, natality opens new possibilities for “a more general notion of the political, of human inter-relationality, and of political action that includes but extends beyond the ‘right to have rights’” (8), a formulation that they argue is inextricable from the individualism of modern liberalism, and more tentatively they venture, Christian thought. Diprose and Ziarek argue that natality, which prefigured Foucault’s observation of modernity’s normalizing power, also outperforms the Foucauldian formulation in its political possibilities because of its insistence on “collective action and interaction” to combat the racism and patriarchy of modern biopolitics and to develop an “alternative to liberal notions of citizenship and to the logic of sovereignty” (20). Thus, for Diprose and Ziarek, natality becomes the philosophical tool that might save modern nation states from Hobbesian traditions of repressive, death-oriented politics that Arendt watched consume modern nation-states and that we today are witnessing as nativism, carceral logics, and the curtailing of reproductive rights.

It should come as no surprise, given natality’s strange fertility, that with some feminist political concerns now quieted, new questions begin to surface about the political theological tradition from which natality emerges. After all, Arendt identifies natality with a second birth. Her inspiration, HC makes plain, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth! Arendt seeks to recover Jesus as a political thinker from his interpreters, Paul among them, who she argues distorted Jesus’s call to action by emphasizing the telos of salvation. Arendt’s politics require worldly promises, the embodiment of which is not a sovereign (whether God or human ruler) but rather the child, man’s new beginning. It would go against Arendt’s metaphysics to say she deified the figure of child, but she does identify the natality that the child makes possible to be “the miracle that saves the world.” Ultimately, it is Jesus who is the archetype of natality, and “[a] child has been born unto us,” the words of the Gospels, its dictum (247). Is natality, thus, the grounding of a Christian political theology?Questions have arisen indeed!

Arendt’s thought does not lend itself to simple answers, but the short answer is no. As Miguel Vatter argues in Living Law, the miracle to which Arendt refers is not Jesus Christ. According to Vatter, Arendt prescinds Christian theology from what Jesus models and proclaims as his originary message, namely, “that forgiveness was an inherent articulation of natality, in the sense that it is that (re-)action which permits action and so beginnings to be repeated” (278). Thus, in a twofold sense, Jesus performs natality in the initiation of a movement and in the new beginnings that the action of forgiveness affords.

Arendt herself clarifies Jesus’s role in theorizing natality in On Revolution (1963), where she works to explicate how natality could undergird the formation of a republic that is stable but anti-authoritarian. As Vatter explains, “The concept of natality crowns her theoretical attempt to think political freedom as a function of the paradoxical coincidence of revolution and authority, of an an-archy and stability” (266). Arendt’s answers, Vatter argues, emerge from reading the Roman poet Virgil in conversation with the Jewish collective story, especially Moses who serves as a model for civil religion. To gloss Vatter through Sara Ahmad, Arendt’s orientation toward the past is akin to Buber’s rendering of the Hebrew Prophets as leading back toward their collective promises rather than the otherworldly, absolute ends of Christian apocalypticism. It is the very endless “iterability” in the world that natality engenders that Vatter identifies as the wedge between a just political ideology of secularism and Schmidtian secularization of divine authority (264-77).

So, I find myself asking, as a Jewish feminist, not whether natality can be redeemed, but how I can forgive it for what it as of yet fails to do. In the conversation I have constructed among strands of Arendtian thinkers and interpreters, natality is pregnant with possibility but also risk. With iteration there is the threat of what Donna Haraway and Sarah Franklin have referred to as the “reproduction of” or “tyranny of the same” (Staying with the Manifesto: An Interview with Donna Haraway, 9). What is hidden in the “nothing other” of Vatter’s assertion that “the ‘miracle that saves the world’ is nothing other than ‘the fact of natality’”? At the risk of reintroducing Hobbes, I wonder, can this “matter of fact”be taken as self-evident? I return to my reticence to divorce this fact of natality from the agents, the mothers, to pretend birth exists in a vacuum (See Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump).

To further invoke Haraway, “Reproduction and production go together, and call up a complex historically-situated set of practices, worlding practices, world-making practices that necessarily involve the biological processes of bodies, and in particular, women’s reproductive labour in its entire comprehensive sense of making lives, and of bringing lives to the possibility of their taking off and having lives of their own.” Haraway goes on to insist, invoking Marilyn Strathern and Sarah Franklin, “production and reproduction are Euro categories” that have been “falsely universalized” (Staying with the Manifesto, 10). By reading these feminist refusals to separate (re)production back onto political theology, I don’t want to drown out natality’s potentiality as action but rather to call to account the way power suppresses some newcomers from equally impressing themselves on the world; the burdens of newcomers in a world where nature seems less and less likely a grounds for eternity; and the continuing incivility of Euro-American civil religion to Euro-divergent collectives, namely Jews.

With the following partial list of resources on which to build, Arendt and the collective of theorists who have read and re-read her again invite you into the risky yet rewarding business of initiating new directions in political theology.

Annotated Bibliography

Kei Hiruta, Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics and Humanity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

By framing the contours of Hannah Arendt’s and Isaiah Berlin’s disagreement, Hiruta draws out these two thinkers’ approaches to key conceptual categories, most notably human freedom.

Adam Stern, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021)

Survival traces the rhetorical work of “Jewish survival” in modern Jewish political theological thought, showing how the discourse is enmeshed in particularly Christian ideas about incarnation.

Samantha Rose Hill, Critical Lives: Hannah Arendt (London: Reaktion Books, 2021).

Hill locates political thought in the biographical and aesthetic life of the person who produced them, Hannah Arendt.

Roberto Esposito, (Timothy Campbell, ed.), Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

Esposito situates natality, in particular, and Arendt’s thought more broadly, in the context of biopolitical thought.


Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”


Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.


Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.


In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.


Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.


Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  


Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”


Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.


Diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free.


If there is one thing that can be said about blackness, it is this: blackness is unruly.

Black Reason

Black reason is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness.

Racial Capitalism

The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion.


Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.


Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today.


Official responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged us to understand risk in individual terms. They’re wrong: risk is all about interdependence.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities.


Doxa is a term used in sociology to contend with belief and orthodoxy without reducing either to behavior or cognition. It explores disposition and embodied belief—the gut sense of the world which is acquired through practice rather than discourse.

Settler Colonialism

I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing.


In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?


This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.


What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.


While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.


The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.


That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.


The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.


For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.


Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.


If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.


A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.


The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.


Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.


Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.


Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.


Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.


It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life.


As we watch the illusion that was Man fall apart, we also see these more-than-human worlds that Man called “animal” disrupting and revealing the cracks and fractures in his own divine intentions.

Temporality I: History

William Apess, like Walter Benjamin a century later, sought to shift the paradigms of society with history and theology as orienting poles for colonial critique. Anticipating Benjamin, Apess looked to those who had been wrecked by the advance of colonialism as the grounding site for historical and political theological inquiry.

Temporality II: Futurity

Both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity, that is, which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.


In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Critical Race Theory

CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power.


[S]ituating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom.


From Myanmar to Mariupol, from the streets of Memphis to the waves and winds of the Mediterranean Sea: resistance to violence takes many forms. So does political protest against precarity. At which point does the unavoidable vulnerability of the living condition come to expression as political agency? Can such precarious politics constitute or configure an alternative community?

Hunger Strike

“Instead of neatly separating the forms of resistance to biosovereignty into life-affirming struggles and necroresistance and mapping them (and life and death) onto the reform/revolt dichotomy, I suggest that we conceive life and death as relational rather than oppositional categories. For every differentiation and intensification of death creates new possibilities of life; and every differentiation and intensification of life entails experiences of “death” that cannot be reduced to the power of one’s death.”

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