I first encountered what is now called “political theology”—though we did not use that trope—in 1976, when Berkeley political theory graduate students gathered informally to read the Hebrew Bible as a work of political theory. I had been bar mitzvahed, but my religious education included only assorted stories reduced to didactic “ethical” messages, never the actual biblical texts in their enigmatic complexity. To actually read the Pentateuch, Kings, Prophets, and Job was revelatory and transformative. I was able to grasp how central these texts were to so many thinkers and arguments in the political theory canon – and to the literary artists I wanted to include in that canon. I saw that the literary and rhetorical complexity of the texts composing “the Bible” resisted the didactic readings characteristic of orthodoxy, but also, its philosophic profundity and poetic beauty defied the reductionist assumptions of leftist atheists like myself. I began to develop a reading practice that resisted the catechisms of both the devout and their “secular” critics. At the same time, I was writing my dissertation on the mystic Christian communist, Gerrard Winstanley, whose digger experiment in 1640s England drew on Biblical symbolism to present a radical alternative to the emerging hegemony of a Hobbesian modernity – though again, I did not use the trope “political theology” to depict their divergent projects, or my own readings. When I moved to New York in 1985, I took my engagement with religion and radicalism to what was then called “the Marxist School” (later “Brecht Forum”) and taught “the Bible for Leftists” to adults. They responded passionately to the ethical and political dilemmas dramatized in the stories and Books of the bible, especially Exodus of course, and their intense debates replayed the history of the left. Soon after, I published my first essay in Political Theory on the implications of the Cain and Abel story for thinking about politics and city-building – and again, I did not use the term political theology.
When I began teaching at the Gallatin School of New York University in 1995, I finally designed an undergraduate seminar called “political theology,” in which reading the Pentateuch, Prophets, Job, Matthew and Paul was supplemented by excerpts from Machiavelli, Rousseau, Winthrop and Blake, and followed by modern theorists like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Dostoevsky and Kafka, or Tocqueville on American civil religion. After 9/11, Carl Schmitt and his critics became crucial. More recently I followed Marx and Nietzsche on “secularization” with contrasting arguments by Freud and his feminist critics about patriarchy, religion, and fascism. I have always concluded the course with Baldwin’s biblically-inflected essays on white supremacy in the U.S. as a form of political theology. Especially since 2010, I have foregrounded the resonance of Biblical tropes and narratives with intense American conflicts over race, gender, and nation, and I have asked whether Biblical texts bear resources for imagining radical—democratic and political—alternatives to an emerging Americanized fascism.
To be able to share and “publish” these course materials is an unexpected gift, and these responses from scholars I greatly admire are both gratifying and critically generative. I feel heard in a truly moving way, and also pushed to reflect on and more clearly articulate my intentions and commitments. In illuminating ways, Professors Walker and Pickett (and Professor Tranvik’s introduction) identify the broadest features of my approach to political theology and political theory, while Professors Heschel, Satkunanandan, Kahn, and Inouye focus specifically on my approach to the value and capaciousness, dangers and limits of prophecy as a political idiom. My response will follow that trajectory.
My dear friend and political theory colleague Peter Euben always asked of a text or argument, “What is at stake?” – a question at once existential, ethical, and political, at once personal and political, at once about meaning and worldly impact. As well, he always asked literary and rhetorical questions about how a text “worked” in the ways it addressed, framed, emplotted, interpellated, persuaded—or disturbed and confounded—its audiences. He thus articulated the pedagogic politics of “the Berkeley school” that shapes my own practice of reading, teaching, and writing. By this approach, the meaning of a text—and act or event—is not inherent in it, to be discovered or revealed by one who knows to those who don’t, but rather is produced in and by our encounter with it, so that interpretation and meaning are co-authored and contingent, contestable and revisable. I thus approach the Biblical texts—and any theory text or political event—as a speech-act whose meaning emerges in and through encounter with audiences as they take it up, argue about it, revise or refuse it. This approach animates my seminar pedagogy, my writing practice – and my view of democratic politics. As Professor Walker rightly notes, my pedagogic goal is to model, and so to engender, “critical practices” of reading and thinking to “resist orthodoxies—sacred, secular and otherwise—that authorize, fix, and contain meaning-making, interpretation and understanding.” In the most basic sense, I wanted this course to enable a fresh encounter with biblical texts rendered inaccessible by religious orthodoxies, by so-called secular criticism – and by the esoteric edifice of what is now called the field of “political theology.” Such experiences of encounter bear democratic possibility to the degree they develop self-reflection and collaboratively contestatory meaning-making.
In this spirit I compose “letters” to my students about their response papers and discussions each week. These letters necessarily have changed over the years, depending on the issues foregrounded by different classes taking place in different historical contexts, e.g. after 9/11 or since 2016. I thus say letter, not lecture, and the idea is to engage people where and as they are – like Mie Inouye’s account of Ella Baker’s organizing, or Fred Moten & Stefano Harney’s account of “study.” That aliveness, context-dependence, and engagement may be lost as these letters are fixed in time, but the genre difference between a letter and a lecture seems crucial to understanding how I construe and do political theology. In related ways, my reading practice emphasizes how scriptural (and literary) texts, unlike the genre of the formal or philosophic “treatise,” dramatizes issues rather than make arguments, or uses elements of dramatic representation—of storytelling and character—to give visceral meaning to unstated and deep assumptions. In this political theology seminar, I practiced a reader-response approach that began with student’s emotional responses to (and questions about!) enigmatic characters and outrageous stories, but I also practiced what Blake called an “infernal” reading, which emphasizes how textual irony confounds moralized conclusions advanced by “priestly” (i.e. didactic) interpreters. (But if one were to “lecture” in a tone of certainty about the unconditional truth of infernal reading, one would become priestly, whereas a “letter” should sustain the uncertainty and plurality of approaches that enable real encounters with texts and others.)
As Professor Pickett astutely observes, by this approach I redefine “political theology” and “political theory,” both the “political” predicate and the “theology/theory” practice. Rather than see these as concepts with essences to get right, stipulating what is or is not properly subsumed in a creedal sense, I say these name contingent practices of thinking and acting, embedded in historical situations, embodied in lived experiences of suffering and aspiration, articulated in both vernacular and literary forms. Rather than define political theology conceptually, in the register of the philosophic, therefore, I use the vocabulary of “faith” in a phenomenological sense, and I emphasize the poetic. I propose that “faith” is inescapable and ubiquitous, undergirding and animating every form or instance of human life, whether people “worship” a god or reason, invest in a nation, church or property, undertake a political project or personal experiment. We are always enacting a faith – especially as we critique one another! Faith is often tacit or taken-for-granted, but always via lived experience; always linked to social practices, faith is always embodied and experiential, not doctrinal in essence. For me, “political theology” thus names the study of the ways that imagination is embedded in sentient, desiring bodies, instantiated in vernacular forms of life and ordinary (ritualized) practices, and conjured in mytho-poetic metaphors, images or representations that are formalized by literary genres and assembled into scriptures.
As Picket puts it, my assumption is that “our ultimate commitments and un-named affectivities animate what we believe (to be true or false) and how we act politically.” My claim is that forms of faith raise and “answer” three basic, indeed constitutive, political questions. First is the question of authority: by what ideas, people, practices, or table of values do you, and should you, orient yourself, and how do and should you engage with the authorities you live by? Second is the question of identification: with whom do you identify and on what basis – which translates as the constitution of the “we” that “holds these truths self-evident.” Third is the question of redemption: what practices and investments can truly engender your flourishing, not only “mere life,” but “more life” or “the good life?” In this way I would displace Schmitt’s equation of theology with concepts, and politics with sovereignty, to instead take a phenomenological and poetic orientation toward the practice of faith in lived experience, creative meaning-making, and collective life.
In the spirit of Nietzsche and Baldwin, I practice “political theology” by analyzing the faiths we already (often tacitly) enact, assessing their worldly implications, tracing their revision over time, imagining the possibility of their renewal, or articulating alter-faiths or counter-theologies to displace them. Against the liberal distinction between “religion” and “politics,” one denoting individual and voluntaristic creedal commitment, and the other deliberation by public reason, I follow Inouye’s Gramscian sense that faiths are woven with organizing practices of congregation and festivity, and that politics is “church-like” in mobilizing and forging constituencies and forms of governance. In this sense, though I use the language of faith, I reject the Pauline and Protestant distinction between faith and works, spirit and flesh, love and law, for I see faiths as inter-subjectively constituted and embodied in social practices. Importantly, faiths, churches, and organizing infrastructures—let alone formal political regimes—can fail, lose credibility, become “corrupt” in the Machiavellian sense that collective energies are no longer adequately organized by extant social forms. As authorities, institutions, and values lose credibility, a form of life fails to sustain its authority and vitality; as an orienting faith enters crisis because it fails to make sense or enable flourishing, voices of prophecy or theory—new forms and practices of political theology—emerge.
As Pickett thus notes, I refocus political theology on poesis, understood as “the fictions, narratives, and metaphors by which people imagine and name, and so organize and shape, both the world and themselves.” I especially emphasize how human suffering generates imaginative poesis, to name, explain, express, also protest and mobilize their suffering, to make it endurable by making it meaningful, but also to end or remediate it. By such poesis people depict what can and cannot be changed or remedied, what is (im)possible “in this world,” in ways that are both world-defining and world-making. Rather than separate “discourse” from “politics,” I would trace how poesis (as imaginative invention) is always linked to (both emerges from and addresses) social practices, and how poesis is inseparably tied to both paideia—subject formation—and praxis – world-building through action in concert. In turn, as Pickett shows, I re-interpret “politics” not just as “government” or the action of states, but as “collective self-fashioning” that forms collective subjects and social practices, and births or contests hegemonic regimes. “Politics” thus names contest over power, rules, norms, practices, and meanings; “politics” names the forging, disruption, and remaking of forms of power, forms of subjectivity, and forms of meaning. In sum, then, I see “political theology” as analyzing how faiths are articulated, practiced, tested and revised: to achieve authority or sustain hegemony, an organizing faith must explain and justify itself in ways that recruit or interpellate supporters, always in relation to historical realities and potential alternatives. Organizing faiths are thus porous, polysemic, and internally contradictory, subject to historical exigencies and change. They manifest intra-mural contests over the meaning and practice of declared first principles, and provoke or engender alter-faiths seeking to radically reconstitute or repudiate them. In these terms I argue that the Hebrew Bible and Christian gospel entail what Alisdair MacIntyre calls “an argumentative tradition” about principles and practices, but also, echoing Lincoln, I construe “democracy” as an organizing faith and argumentative tradition, currently in profound crisis.
The nexus of faith, poesis, and politics is dramatized not only by the poly-vocality of the Hebrew Bible, but also by the ways its strands and voices have been taken up subsequently, by the history of successor faiths and the regimes they animate, by the history of European crusades and colonization, by settler colonialism, by the new, weirdly modern fundamentalisms. It is impossible to read “the Bible” now—from exodus purges and exterminations to prophetic dreams of universalized monotheism—without wondering whether monotheism can ever be separated from the violent history of its racialized, patriarchal, imperial practice, even as we also can see how exodus and prophecy animated the revolutionary left, abolitionism, liberation theology. Before I turn to the ways that Kahn, Heschel, Satkunanandan, and Inouye engage prophecy, therefore, one more transition is needed. For in this course, prophecy is ONE strand contending with others. How we “read” prophecy depends on how we situate it in a larger argumentative tradition that includes not only other biblical (and Christian or Islamic) texts but all the commentary since. And to situate prophecy, we should begin with typical student responses.
In my experience, secularized students unthinkingly bespeak an implicitly “christian” and “liberal” orientation. They are truly shocked and morally outraged by the God they encounter in Genesis. They expect an omniscient and omnipotent, ethically rational, absolutely just, and yet unconditionally loving god, but encounter a god whose favoritism, jealousy, rage—also learning, changes, and intimate proximity—seem all-too-human. They are shocked by the morally problematic conduct of the founding patriarchs they had been taught to idealize, e.g. Abraham abandoning Hagar and Ishmael or taking Isaac to sacrifice, or Jacob deceiving Isaac and displacing Esau. They struggle to grasp the difference between the coercion of Pharaoh and Yahweh, and object to a warrior god fighting for one people against others. They are shocked not by the golden calf but by the violent purge of those who would return to Egypt. They reject the Sinai covenant because it seems coerced, not voluntary, and they see successor generations trapped within a covenant they did not make and coerced by threats of punishment if they dissent. They cannot imagine a world in which “religion” is not individualized and private, but political, mythic, and festive, or what it requires to sustain (allegiance to) a covenant over time, across generations. They are stunned when prophets depict the destruction of the northern kingdom and the exile of Judah as a just consequence of injustice and idolatry. Though they are living through catastrophic climate change, they cannot imagine what it means for prophets to say it is too late to forestall collective self-destruction. They are outraged by the injustice of Job’s god, and take Job’s humbling merely as craven submission to superior power. Devout students, both Jewish and Christian, struggle with the disturbing, contradictory and changing features of a god they had taken as fixed and morally unproblematic, and they suffer the moral outrage of their peers, but they “know” how to enfold these issues in the service of a redemptive narrative – they know the formulas of theodicy. The secular and liberal (but in a Nietzschean sense still “Christian”) students “know” that god is a fiction others believe, whereas they believe they are freed from illusions (and faith!) by their enlightening rationality and scientific truths. The teaching challenge is to put these two groups in conversation, but also to disturb the “knowingness” that protects each from experiencing these texts in ways that allow discovery and learning.
Certain premises open up their capacity to read. First, I identify the implicit anti-semitism that distinguishes “old” and “new” testaments according to a Christian conception of god and redemption, which reads texts teleologically toward a known conclusion. That implicit anti-semitism includes Pauline dichotomies between law and faith, legalism and love, flesh and spirit, particularity and universality, dichotomies which underwrite not only a liberal, individualistic and voluntarist view of religion as creedal, but also the racial premises of European enlightenment that oppose the mythic and tribal as a primitive “stage” to get over. Second, I go behind the abstract (prophetic) monotheism depicting the one true god, to recover how poets conjured gods to figure forth otherwise unspeakable realities, how peoples were allied with these gods, and why Hebrews might affirm “our god” as part of affirming their form of life in contrast to others. Third, I encourage students to ask why the Hebrew poets imagined god in the ways they did, to consider the relation between the reality of incommensurately vast and enigmatic forces, and metaphoric representations, but also to consider why the poets said human beings are made in the image of the god they depict. Lastly, I trace two narrative strands in tension: one narrates a lineage from the patriarchs to David and Solomon, as if the telos of Hebrew history culminates in a powerful monarchy, centralized temple, and priesthood; the other posits an egalitarian Mosaic covenant and narrates kingship as a betrayal, a return to Egypt, the cause of self-destruction. Then we see ongoing arguments within and between these royal and prophetic strands about the relations between inheritance and change, between (ethnic) descent and willful consent in defining community and membership, between law and love, between worldly exigencies and internal motivation, between ritual acts and ethical ideals, and so on. The Jesus of the gospels is thereby framed as a Jew, not a Christian, engaging with constitutive arguments about collective social forms and the internal life, with prophetic forbears and priestly authorities, with wealthy elites and impoverished constituencies, with colonial oppression by a Rome echoing Egypt/Babylon.
In sum, I emphasize the politicality of the Biblical books as a political poetry that dramatizes rather than resolves the constitutive questions posed by living “east of Eden.” That means seeing how the text poses but does not resolve the paradoxes of politics – that people cannot be before the law what they become only by way of it, that any becoming is vexed and riven by ambivalence, and that political poets and actors face rhetorical and political dilemmas in drawing people toward actions on behalf of future selves they struggle to imagine, and in tension with present selves they resist questioning let alone changing. I also foreground the democratic resources in these strands and dramatizations. I find rich resources in several ideas. Human beings are made in the image of a god whose power and freedom is manifest in creation and beginning, whose sensitivity to human suffering engenders a sense of justice, and who both teaches (and struggles with!) the relationality that inescapably enmeshes creators and creatures. In turn, beings animated in this image can flourish only if they live by covenants, for as Nietzsche and Arendt later argue, it is by making, keeping, and revising promises that people at once exercise their freedom and the justice of mutual accountability. For the Hebrews, moreover, civic practices of Sabbath, jubilee, and festive memorialization were crucial features of the paideia that sustained the de-centralized and non-state federation animated by this ethos. Implicit in these ideas are other democratic insights: only in a community without kings, priests, and inherited castes can every member flourish “unmolested and unafraid,” but this requires ongoing practices of covenant renewal to sustain what Machiavelli called its “first principles.” The Hebrew confederation thus presumed that any person could and should step into the role of “judge” or “prophet,” to address peers about the condition and fate of their joint endeavor. After the people ask for a king, the Biblical texts dramatize both the danger of false prophets serving the royal house, and the dilemmas faced by those figures we now canonize as true prophets. Consider now the commentators who focused on prophecy.
Susannah Heschel reminds us of the specifically Biblical and Jewish provenance of “prophecy,” while pointedly questioning the limits of the idiom, especially in regard to patriarchy and feminism. On the one hand, she emphasizes the complexity of the modern and specifically Jewish engagement with biblical prophecy. She defends the lineage from Herman Cohen to Abraham Heschel, which allies modern Judaism (and Jewish law) with prophetic universalism and a god of justice, against anti-Semites who reduce Judaism and Jews to legalism and ethnic particularity. But against those who would secularize prophecy as a form of social criticism with a “message,” she also emphasizes her father’s theist sense of the prophet as one who stands in god’s presence, “holding human being and god in one thought at one time, at all times,” and thus modeling how we can help overcome god’s exile from this world. She thus depicts prophecy as Biblical and Jewish, but also as “appealing to our humanity regardless of national and gendered identity.” Given its origins and the gendered history of theism, though, she also wonders “if prophetic poesis can support efforts to dismantle patriarchy.”
Heschel thus objects to the fact that “Jewish thinkers barely play a role” in my work on prophecy, and to the fact that I presume the very capaciousness she questions. I plead guilty as charged! I would reiterate the historical and political validity of the fundamental move I make: to see Biblical tropes as profoundly resonant in Euro-Atlantic history and politics, both Christian and secular, and in anti-colonial “liberation theology,” is to see why prophecy can be construed as an idiom and genre that is “written on subway walls and tenement halls,” taken up by poets like Blake and Ginsberg, philosophers like Nietzsche, as well by activists and artists committed to various liberation struggles. My American Prophecy was in fact inspired by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which took on the gender question that Heschel believes a prophetic idiom cannot address because of its biblical origins. On the contrary, I would say, Black feminism is inconceivable without a prophetic language oriented toward unjust suffering, and affirming how the most marginalized, the least of us, bear redemptive possibilities for all of us. Critics thus repeatedly inhabit the “office” of prophecy to dramatically revision the world. Announcing unspeakable truths that we disavow at our peril, bearing witness to the dis-remembered and unaccounted for, warning of dangers we can forestall if we amend our ways, lamenting the damage some inflict on others and the self-destruction they bring down on themselves, prophetic voices nevertheless affirm a human capacity to turn and begin again. When Amos announced a god holding Hebrews to account, when Blake poeticized prophecy against empire, when Nietzsche announced the death of god, when Black abolitionists and artists name and oppose white supremacy, and when climate activists declare unspeakable truths about an unsustainable and self-destructive form of life, do we not hear the genre, and witness the political and rhetorical dilemmas faced by those who assume the office?
In this spirit Shalini Satkunanandan considered how Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra” displayed the necessity and value, but also difficulties and limits of a prophetic idiom that is not theistic and that refuses theism’s secular substitutes. As I propose in my seminar, she argues that Nietzsche’s unspeakable truth concerns the emergence, grip, and danger of modern nihilism. It originates in the other-worldly theism and inner-worldly asceticism of Christianity, but its will to truth takes secular form in the episteme of enlightenment rationality and science that entails “the death of god.” If nihilism is the inability to posit value, to affirm our (poetic and political) authority as value-creators, her Nietzsche argues, it is because modern subjects believe that values are valid only if authorized as transcendentally true in all times and places, and otherwise are merely subjective, lacking in authority. They will be averse to value claims, and devalue their own values, on the grounds that none are objectively validated, but they therefore despair over the apparent meaninglessness of life, and focus on material well-being, even as they long for rescue. She thus foregrounds the rhetorical dilemmas of prophecy in modernity.
On the one hand, how can Nietzsche make fundamental claims about shared circumstances—and crisis—in times of radical skepticism? What kind of language would vividly render a truth people inchoately feel but have not yet put into salient, actionable terms? On the other hand, what kind of speech-act could engender not believers who relinquish their own authority, but co-creators who take on a responsibility for value-creation without validation by objective or transcendental guarantees? What sort of speech could confound the skepticism, and the longing for unconditional truths, that are nihilism’s twinned symptoms? What sort of speech could empower not prophetic speakers, but those they address? These questions, at once personal or existential, and inter-subjective or political, capture what is at stake in modern instances of prophecy. Satkunanandan’s Nietzsche does not “answer” or resolve these questions, but inhabits them in vividly instructive ways. Despite his own anti-democratic animus, the example of his texts helps us to “think authority democratically” while at the same time recovering prophecy as a language in and for politics.
That double-sided imperative characterizes Jonathon Kahn’s reading of Baldwin’s political theology and its impact on my wedding of prophetic speech to the politics of race. Like Nietzsche on the nihilism of the ascetic ideal that founds modernity, Baldwin depicts white supremacy—the historic and multi-faceted practice of racializing domination—as the constitutive premise of liberal, Euro-Atlantic modernity, a fact or truth that must be accepted, and then struggled against politically, if Americans are ever to create a democratic form of life. My inference from Baldwin is that white supremacy is a Schmittian political theology, for it declares a racial exception, as well as the frontier between friend and enemy, to establish sovereignty as white. The question that follows is how to fashion a counter-theology to name that disavowed truth, and to inspire a politicizing response that builds a world on different terms. Baldwin’s prophetic speech exemplifies that counter-theology. Like Satkunanandan, Kahn thus emphasizes how biblical and modern prophecy involves what I called “crucial albeit disturbing registers of voice and essential albeit dangerous dimensions of politics.” Especially under the influence of liberal assumptions, this voice seems dogmatic, because it entails a politics that is not procedural or pluralist but abolitionist – though just rules and genuine plurality can emerge only through the work of abolition.
Whereas Satkunanandan notes the anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic animus in Nietzsche, Kahn thus foregrounds the degree to which prophetic and abolitionist critics of white supremacy must live in a vexed tension with democratic norms. For the rule of law and majority rule have authorized and sustained racial domination as well as imperial wars; critics who refuse the passionate frame of reference wedding individual liberty, whiteness, and popular sovereignty are perceived as denying the very terms of democratic common sense. Those who name systemic derangement thus seem deranged to those they address. But whereas Satkunanandan depicts me analyzing the dilemmas of prophetic speech rather than practicing it, Kahn pointedly says that I echo and channel Baldwin’s political theology. Kahn is right that my apprehension of race in the U.S. and my view of “political theology” emerged in tandem, by mutual illumination, though I would add that American literary art was crucial in this learning process. Kahn is also right that when I talk about race, I instinctively move into a prophetic idiom to denounce domination and its disavowal while seeking a redemptive reconstitution of our life together. What other idioms or counter-theologies can address the derangement of this world in ways that might sustain a horizon of possibility for radically democratic politics?
Mie Inouye thus plays the importantly adversarial role of doubting prophecy as a language in and for politics. She questions “how deep the changes effected by discourse—however prophetic—can go. Whereas Shulman sees a deficit of prophetic language, I see organization as a much more pressing concern for the left.” We need “not only prophetic demands, but forms of mass organization capable of cohering a social block around an abolitionist ideology.” For Inouye this means not a turn from political theology, but its reconceptualization. She draws from Gramsci’s sense that the Catholic Church aligned “a conception of the world and norms of conduct,” but also gave this “ideology” institutional, and so material and social force. She calls this model “missionary” rather than “prophetic,” because it involves not declarative truth-telling but the face-to-face evangelizing that engenders genuine conversion. Indeed, Inouye sees “prophecy” as a problem insofar as it entails leadership by charismatic speakers and leaders addressing passive audiences, rather than an organizing model that is horizontal and participatory. Despite the connection of “missionary” to projects of domination, she makes Ella Baker its exemplar, albeit after she abandoned the uplift project of the Baptist convention. For Baker reconceived organizing, beginning with understandably fearful and privatized people, to slowly, patiently, respectfully build relations of trust that enabled them to “convert” to a life of committed participatory practice. For Inouye, Baker thus modeled “how to go beyond prophecy to dialogue and beyond discourse to practice.” For Inouye, this seems crucial if abolitionist organizing is to “go beyond a self-selected membership to reach people with doubts about its plausibility.”
I resist the idea that “prophecy” is merely or only “discourse,” and elite discourse at that, as if imposed only by preachers in the genre of the sermon, for in the Black church tradition prophecy has been a shared and vernacular idiom according to which “bearing witness” means congregational action in concert. Indeed, the politicization of the Black church tradition in that specific regard demonstrates the recruitment and conversion of religious Black folks who doubted the efficacy of politics and the legitimacy of mixing “religion and politics.” Black prophetic practice—by preachers but also by activists in congregations—patiently engaged the inner and otherworldly asceticism of Black Christianity to mobilize a congregational ethos in public spaces. I would grant Baker’s critique of the patriarchal leadership model in the Black church tradition, and affirm Inouye’s claim that radical social change requires organizing face-to-face encounters to recruit doubting but potential allies into mobilized constituencies. I see (prophetic) discourse and (democratic) praxis as working in both tandem and tension, not as opposed, but her sense of the vexed relation of rhetoric and organizing, and her concern about the marginalization of the abolitionist left, offer an occasion for some concluding thoughts about “political theology” in our historical moment.
Americans are living through a manifest moment of crisis, when many have lost faith in the capacity of purportedly democratic institutions to represent them, and at the same time display, in deep but inchoate ways, the apprehension that their customary form of life is unsustainable, unable to offer security, dignified livelihoods, or futurity in the ways it once did – albeit for the enfranchised at the expense of the subordinated. As they undergo a crisis of faith in the practices and values not only of liberal democracy but also of the economic growth-consumption model of Euro-Atlantic modernity, the constitutive political questions—of authority, identification, and redemption—are reopened to contest in disturbing and indeed terrifying ways. A majority of Americans manifest cynicism, despair, and desperation, though metabolized differently by alienated millennials, mobilized people of color, and rancorous white Republican men and women. But significant public figures and modern media do not acknowledge, in politically salient ways, what vast numbers of people know tacitly: our inherited form of life is really failing and ending – and indeed deserves to end because of its injustice and its catastrophic environmental impact. Instead, left and right offer “back to the future” projects, whether through a “new New Deal” or a renewed nationalism to secure race and gender hierarchies. But hidden in plain sight, practices and values that prefigure a different and better world are being organized – by indigenous groups, young workers, resilient feminists, climate change activists, and abolitionists. Such incipient possibilities need to be amplified to recruit wider commitment. My own faith is that imaginative poesis of an alternative futurity, allied with patient praxis, might help some whites acknowledge the loss and rancor they feel in ways that enable what the Bible calls a “turn,” a renewal of life that enlarges the circle of the “we.”
Surely we now witness the central drama in the bible – the centrality of suffering in life, and the question of how human beings make it meaningful. We can see the toxic ways that faiths organize suffering in forms of idolatry, as whiteness, fundamentalist theisms, or moralized demonologies of gender and nation. But the political theology I draw out of Biblical texts and modern commentaries wagers that suffering has been and can be represented and organized in life-affirming, vitalizing, and democratizing ways. In these terms I would relate the birth of tragedy out of the spirit of music, the blues aesthetic of Black vernacular culture, and Hebrew customs of covenant, Sabbath, and remembrance. Whereas the canons of political theory and political theology tend to respond to such crises by securing authority in de-politicizing and anti-democratic ways—whether by god’s truth or reason’s logic, by declared scripture or stipulated law, by forms of knowledge and expertise—I would propose that scholars of political theory and political theology approach our moment by affirming that, east of Eden, politicality is inescapable, and that a democratic politics must be a covenantal form of faith, declaring, “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Just as Lincoln at Gettysburg called equality a “proposition” (not even a truth) to which “we are dedicated,” we might imagine first principles as embodied in acts of commitment, but also by patient persuasion that takes doubters seriously to recruit potential allies. Such a faith is “made true” or materialized as it is “held,” embodied in practices of life that empower and democratize by going beyond the overt limits and disavowed violence of liberal modernity. Whether such a democratic proposition can be newly posited and embodied in sustainable social practices remains an open question that “we the living” must risk to face impending fascism and climate catastrophe. On the other hand, I would propose that this question requires us to imagine, in a politically persuasive way, both the “end” of “this world” and the emergence of another form of life, call it a new covenant, that reorganizes the terms of livelihood, kinship, and collective identity that liberal modernity had imposed. As Baldwin ended The Fire Next Time, the responsibility for imagination and action is held in “our hands,” even as we continue his struggle to open them as widely as possible.
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