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Religion and the Public Life

Political Theology as Transformative Opposition

The idea of opposition then is not about establishing a negative position for its own sake. Instead, to embody opposition here is to draw a line, and this line constitutes a limit-experience. It as if to say, ‘enough is enough.’ So, this opposition is an ending and a beginning.

This article explores the role political theology has in relation to strongman politics. Using insights from the work of Michel Foucault, I argue that theology has a role to play in embodying opposition to political violence. In particular, I explore the multivalent nature of opposition. Overall, political theology has a critical role in problematizing political violence. It also has a prophetic role in fostering counter-discourses and counter-practices of resistance. These nuances are interrelated.

Resistance takes many forms. In this article, however, I focus on the idea of opposition as representing a particular nuance of resistance. The idea of opposition then is not about establishing a negative position for its own sake. Instead, to embody opposition here is to draw a line, and this line constitutes a limit-experience. It as if to say, ‘enough is enough.’ So, this opposition is an ending and a beginning. As such, this oppositional gesture is inherently transformative. In other words, opposition acts as limit to violence and, in so doing, it prefigures transformative possibilities.

I am concerned about resisting the political violence of strongman politics. I am using the term strongman here as trope, encompassing a range of populist leaders and the wider movement to the right. From Putin to Trump, then, strongman politics fosters a culture of fear, division, and mistrust, where others are sacrificed for the sake of the species. In the process, human worth is instrumentalised, as indigenous communities, various minorities, and women are objectified.

I established the groundwork for this approach to strongman politics in Violence, Entitlement, and Politics. In that book, I addressed the problem of gender-based violence in two ways. At the personal level of analysis, I used the idea of a limit-experience to explore ways of transforming male subjects, with an excessive sense of entitlement, who are predisposed to controlling behaviour and/or violence (cf. desubjectivation). At the cultural level of analysis, I argued that political theology has a role to play in addressing the politics of entitlement, which shapes the formation of violent subjects.

In this article, however, I want to bring these two dimensions together, and explore the implications of that interplay. What if opposition to political violence prefigures the transformative? That is, what if opposition is both a ‘no’ to violence and a ‘yes’ to transformative possibilities. In order to explore this, I am taking the following steps:

  • I begin to explore the idea of limit-experience by looking at the concept of desubjectivation
  • I take up the idea of limit-experience, and place it within a broader political context, using Foucault’s notion of counter-conduct. So, counter-conduct, counter-discourses, and counter-practices represent the institution of limit-experiences constituting opposition to violence
  • The concept of opposition here has two aspects. In figurative terms, it is an end and a beginning. I draw out these dimensions by examining how Foucault’s concept of limit-experience evolved over time
  • I provide two illustrations of this transformative process. First, I take a political reading of baptism. And second, and more briefly, I investigate a transformative reading of opposition in the story of Nicodemus

Desubjectivation, then, involves undoing and re-forming the subject. It is not any kind of experience. In “Interview with Michel Foucault,” Foucault describes experience as such in terms of a “wrenching the subject from itself, of seeing to it that the subject is no longer itself” (241). This is generated by a limit-experience. In anecdotal terms, a limit-experience is a shock to the system. It is disruptive, yet transformative. In fact, a limit-experience is like a doorway, which is both a boundary and a threshold. Foucault, however, does not expand on this concept, but his work on counter-conduct in general, and the limit-experience in particular can be used to that end.

The idea of counter is an important theme in Foucault. For him, power in the West has been exercised by managing conduct. In the name of obedience, the Christian pastorate was preoccupied with managing our conduct. It was about shepherds managing sheep, and sheep following shepherds. I looked at this problem in detail in The Church, Authority, and Foucault. So, in response to pastoral micro-management, there were “revolts of conduct”. These acts of resistance were expressions of counter-conduct. They represented the institution of limit-experiences. That is, ‘enough is enough.’

The counter theme is related to freedom. In the mesh of power-relations, freedom is not unlimited. Nevertheless, there is the freedom to resist. We can say no. We can will another way. In other words, we can exercise counter-conduct. In this vein, political theology is engaged in politics in the public square, fostering countermoves, configuring opposition, presaging the new. Specifically, this theology has a role in creating counter-discourses and counter-practices, instituting limit-experiences. But I need to say a word here about discourse and practice.

Discourse and practice cannot be separated. To begin, a discourse is a network of statements producing knowledge, where a statement is more than just a speech act. A statement is an enunciation that enables speech acts to be formed. In Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, a statement is “always an event” (28). So, there is a performative element in the production of theological discourses.

With this in mind, I need to focus on the prefix counter in the terms counter-discourse and counter-practice. In advocating that a theologian strives to constitute opposition to strongman politics, I am not saying that we are adopt a purely negative position. Instead, our opposition represents a genuine alternative, a counterpoint, something new, a sign of new life in the present age. In Thinking with Balibar, Bernard Harcourt elaborates on the significance of the countermove “Born in an opposition: it soon exceeds it” (80). This transformative dimension is part of the Christian tradition.

Historically, the Christian pastorate was formed for the sake of managing conduct. Unsurprisingly, there were “revolts of conduct” in response to the church’s meticulous practice of obedience. These acts of resistance can be described as expressions of counter-conduct. Foucault identified early examples of counter-conduct. In his Security, Territory, Population, for example, mysticism stands out. For Foucault, mystical experience works against institutional demands of obedience, because it “short-circuits this hierarchy” (212).

The idea of countermove has been taken up in different ways. In Equaliberty, Etienne Balibar explores a counter theme by developing it in a political context as the need for a “counterpower” (284). In Political Theology, Catherine Keller invites us to discover a new sense of the divine, that is, as “counterexceptional all-in-allness” (136). In summary, I argue that political theology is called to generate countermoves. Subsequently, theology is engaged in politics in the public square fostering countermoves by configuring opposition. So, what makes the concept of opposition a transformative concept? In order to address this question, it is important to address the idea of desubjectivation as a limit-experience.

The idea of limit is important for Foucault. He does not define the concept clearly, however, there are important nuances. In an early article, limit is about transgression. In a later article, it is about crossing-over. I refer to these nuances respectively as transgression and threshold. In my concept of desubjectivation, the limit-experience is a disruptive (wrenching) experience, which has elements of transgression and threshold. In practical terms, the formation of opposition can be transformative. It is about drawing a line and going beyond it. So, I examine these two articles here, in order to draw out the salient nuances.

In “A Preface to Transgression” transformation is related to transgression, which involves a limit. In fact, limit and transgression are entwined. Limits, moreover, can be transgressed, and transgression presumes the existence of limits. Indeed, “a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit completely composed of illusions and shadows” (445). In this sense, then, the wrenching of the subject is a kind of transgression, which is part of the experience of transformation. Foucault later draws out this transformative nuance.

In “What is Enlightenment?” transformation is like crossing-over a threshold. Again, Foucault is concerned about limits. Limits are critical for defining who we are. That is, limits represent “work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings” (54). In describing the purpose of critique, for example, Foucault uses the term franchissement. The term franchissement is from franchir and it can be used to describe crossing a river. So, the limit here is more threshold than impermeable barrier. The sacrament of baptism, like a doorway, represents a good example of boundary and threshold.

Historically, baptism has had a conservative role in terms of maintaining church order by inculcating practices of obedience. But there are other ways of reading baptism. In Women-Church, for example, Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that “Baptism should symbolize the overcoming of alienating and oppressive modes of human relationship, and the reunion with one’s authentic potential for human life by entering into a community that represents redemptive human relationality” (77).

As a practice, baptism takes place in the here and now. It is performative (I baptize you) entailing interpellation (the child is named). As ritual, then, there is a narrative and symbols (water, candle, holy oil). In that sense, the symbol of baptism captures the immanent, material, and communal dimensions of transformation. Baptismal practices, however, differ. Moreover, there are various ways of interpreting baptism. In the case of infant baptism, the inherent promise of limit and threshold is proleptic in nature, although the experience can be transformative for parents, godparents, friends, and parishioners.

Baptism is transformative. I am using it here to bring into focus my construal of transformation. To improve that focus, I am also using the trope of dying and rising to interpret the meaning of baptism. In Baptismal Imagery, Robin Jensen identifies dying and rising as a major baptismal theme. As a sacrament, then, baptism is a limit-experience that wrenches the subject from itself. It is threshold, representing a crossing-over (franchissement) from the death of the old to the birth of the new. The limit dimension is expressed in the symbolic action and narrative framework. The symbolic action entails the use of water, which is a symbol for dying and for living.

The early church lived under the shadow of Rome, which demanded allegiance. So, baptism raised questions about loyalties. The church’s practice of baptism entailed a new claim of allegiance to God, requiring loyalty to an alternative realm, that is, “the basileia” of God. That is, the use of the term basileia is a signal to Rome that here is an alternative. Politically, the church’s use of the term sacramentum prefigures new allegiances (cf. the Roman soldier’s oath). In Binding the Strongman, Ched Myers rightly construes “baptism-as-declaration-of-resistance” (130).

The significance of baptism is heightened when the symbol is read through the prism of the resurrection. In The Power of Resurrection, Patrick Stefan examines the influence of the belief in the resurrection in the early church. Stefan’s “concerns in this project center on the rhetorical and material instantiation of the belief of the resurrection, not its reality” (14). Focusing on the body, Stefan’s basic suggestion is that “the rhetorical force of resurrection contributed to the rise of Christianity and subsequent subversion of the Roman Empire because it challenged Rome’s power” (1). The resurrected body, then, and ultimately the Christian body, is not a docile body, but resilient. To be incorporated into this body then is itself a counter-practice. So, limit and threshold go together and find their focus in the implementation of opposition. So, I am going to explore this using the story of Nicodemus.

The triptych of Nicodemus is a three-part configuration undergirding the Gospel of John (Jn 3:1-15; 7:45-52; 19:38-42). It picks up and the themes of dying and rising. The triptych consists of three iconic images working together telling a story of transformation. In so doing, it acts as a lens for reading the story of Jesus, underlining the possibility of the new in the here and now. The story of Nicodemus, then, expresses something of the spirit of Catherine Keller’s use of “the now-time” in her Political Theology.

The turning point in the triptych emerges when Nicodemus, in defence of Jesus, opposes the strongmen (7:45-52). In other words, Nicodemus, working from the inside as an entitled man, uses the law to oppose the machinations of the strongmen. The opposition embodied by Nicodemus represents, not only a boundary for the entitled men, but also, a threshold experience for Nicodemus (and a prefiguration of the new for the reader). It is important then to draw these themes together now in relation to contemporary strongman politics.

In conclusion, I am concerned about political violence encapsulated by the trope of strongman politics, where others are sacrificed for the sake of the species and human worth is instrumentalised. Political theology has a role to play here embodying opposition to political violence. In other words, it acts as limit to violence, but also, in so doing, it prefigures immanent transformative possibilities. In other words, political theology has a critical role in problematizing political violence. Moreover, it also has a prophetic role in fostering discourses and practices of resistance. In this article, then, I focus on the idea of opposition representing a particular form of resistance. In this context, to embody opposition is to draw a line, thereby constituting a limit-experience. However, this oppositional gesture is inherently transformative. It is a threshold. In theology, theory and praxis work in tandem. This means that in the formation of our opposition to strongman politics, we embody a constructive form of resistance to violence. Of course, the prophets knew this, producing their equivalent of counter-discourses and counter-practices. Moreover, feminist, womanist, queer, and liberation theologies have been prefiguring the new for decades. So, then, there is room for exploration of the nature of resistance in general, and opposition in particular. Clearly, there are various forms of resistance, but my focus is on opposition as a transformative intervention. It is saying no to violence, and yes to the promise of the new. It is at once reactive and proactive. In this vein, the me-too movement is an outstanding example of transformative opposition.

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