Resist: a response

What Is Political Theology?

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.

I am grateful to all three panelists for helping us think through different aspects of the relationship between the term resistance and political theology.  Resistance appears in all three as a critical moment in political theology, whether it be to (1) “re-anarchize Christianity” (Cavanaugh); (2) respond to “relentless cruelty” (Prevot); or reverse “academic self-sufficiency” (Rowland).

Cavanaugh “plays” with a Schmittian term—anarchism—to attend to the current political landscape in America. He identifies two forms of what I would call “de-anarchized” Christianity.  The first is found in the many Christians who “are unable to think of politics as meaning anything other than casting a vote for one of the two major party candidates.” Cavanaugh argues that this attitude reveals a lack of imagination: political action is reduced to voting, which itself has been reduced to two candidates, both beholden to corporate interests. The second form concerns those Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who helped elect Trump because he promised to “resist secularization and the marginalization of Christians from public life.”  There is a loss of power—whether real or imagined—that many Christians identify with and seek to remedy.  The problem Cavanaugh identifies here is that this notion of marginalization produces a divisive politics that pits certain groups against each other.

In response to this situation, Cavanaugh calls for a re-anarchizing of Christianity: “imagining the church as a different kind of political body that transgresses national and racial and class border in a creative way.”  Here, political engagement comes to be understood in more robust terms, not confined to simply voting.  It calls citizens to engage more deeply in social life.  And, it calls for a different form of Christianity.  He provides a telling example of this kind of resistance when he suggests that the body of Christ “relativizes the border between Mexico and the U.S.” This would seem a radical suggestion for many Christians. Re-anarchizing Christianity depends upon a reversal of what religion has often assumed in this country—its own power and privilege.  Under Cavanaugh’s proposal, Christians would have to embrace, rather than resist, the loss of power they perceive.  To accept a “relativized” border is to de-center American power.  In addition, this anarchized form of the faith would call into question, rather than tacitly accept, the corporate structure of American political life.  “Sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Luke 18:22) is a different politic than accumulating profits at any cost.  And it is precisely this questioning—of borders, or corporate structures, or power—that is dangerous and often appears threatening.  Anarchic Christianity offers a resistance rooted in a “loss” of traditional forms of power, which makes it less-appealing to corporatized American culture.

I appreciate Cavanaugh’s call for re-anarchizing Christianity, but I remain unsure how many of us are actually ready to engage in it.  Cavanaugh’s evocative examples of resisting borders with baptism and militarism by following the the Prince of Peace remain gestures. Of course, his capacious work gives more specification to these claims, but I also wonder what accompanying practices would be necessary for actual Christians in actual churches to embrace the downward mobility he advocates. One could imagine practices of community organizing, for example, being a key part of such transformations. But, I want to hear more about the types of spiritual and political formation that prepare Christians for this task. In different ways, the other essays in this symposium take up this challenge.

Like Cavanaugh, Andrew Prevot interrogates the current American social and political landscape and the place of Christianity in it. He calls for Christian “accountability” in the face of what he categorizes “relentless cruelty” and a “demonic” social disposition.  This disposition is reflective of an attitude of hard-heartedness (pharaoh) and its present day manifestation in “Euro-American imperial domination, anti-black racism, and white Christian supremacy.”  Prevot tells us that in the face of this relentless cruelty, we cannot but resist by trying to get political theology “more right.”  He begins with an existential question: “what makes one prone to cruelty?”  The response comes from a reading of two contemplatives, Catherine of Sienna and Ignatius of Loyola.  Both offer a spiritual interrogation of cruelty.  For Ignatius, cruelty is a product of an unnecessary attachment to riches, desire for honor and pride.  Catherine locates cruelty in the problem of greed and refusing to share.  For both, cruelty arises from inverted desires, that misshape dispositions of the soul.  These misshapen dispositions, in turn, produce cruelty.

Prevot is moving in the right direction when he identifies the individual dispositions of the soul that may be involved in this cruelty.  However, if the demonic is at play here, as he asserts, it would also be useful to identify more systemic causes for our current cruel moment.  It is telling that we elected a president, who was considered a “successful” businessman at time that wages are stagnating and the workforce is going through radical changes.  In this situation, to say that one’s heart is hardened is only half of the equation.  One should also point to the social forces that contribute to these individual dispositions:  how do greed, pride or unnecessary attachments arise in any given soul?  Our political and economic system is organized around Capital, an ideology that is rooted in accumulation and increasing profits by any means.  In addition, it depends upon the objectification of human beings and alienation of workers.  Capital shapes the lives of all Americans.  I would suggest that without a more systemic analysis of what produces these individual dispositions, resistance will not be as productive.

Anna Rowlands’ paper is rooted in the rich field work that she conducted with asylum seekers in the U.K.  Her paper suggests that this kind of work expands the community of theo-political interpreters and thereby offers a richer notion of what resistance might be.  Even as she supports and participates in the academic labor of political theology, Rowlands suggests that this kind of cognitive work can tend toward a “self-sufficiency, that might undermine task of resistance.”  In other words, an academy that has little relationship to other sites of resistance, could stagnate.  Rowlands is concerned about what happens to teaching and research when isolated from other forms of political engagement.

I completely agree with Rowlands, that the asylum seekers have much to contribute to notions of resistance and political theology (and I am looking forward to reading her work on this).  However, I wonder about her acceptance of an oft-quoted and accepted division: “sites of theory and praxis.”  For Simone Weil, this split was one of the most problematic aspects of western society, as it falsely disassociates thinking from any kind of practice.  Although Rowlands admits that she is just as concerned with the academy as with the world “outside” it, I wonder if positing this division doesn’t contribute to the problem.

In a country that seems increasingly skeptical of theory, ideas, and of the humanities as a discipline, one way of redefining resistance would be to posit the university as part of the “real” world.  Just as Rowlands notes that the asylum seekers she interviewed “theorized” about political theology, our students and classrooms offers a creative praxis of political engagement.  This would mean that all of labors come to be understood, as Weil suggests, as praxis.  Thinking would then be considered a kind of labor—not any more or less important than others—and never just confined to institutions of learning.  For example, students at universities have multiple sites of praxis: living in a dorm, working a part (or increasingly full) time job, studying and participating in classroom discussions, caring for sick parents or siblings.  In this scenario, academic work would be conceived as one site of praxis among many others—a praxis that Rowlands herself engages in!

Together, these three essays demonstrate the rich forms of resistance that are present in and against the practice of political theology. 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.

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.

Communal, Contradictory, and Broken Labour

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.

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