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The Brink

Response to George Shulman

We are all indebted to Shulman’s important delineation of prophecy’s role in American thought, especially in relation to race and redemption.

I have long admired George Shulman’s understanding of the Hebrew prophets and his deployment of their teachings in his analyses of anti-Black racism in the United States. I particularly appreciate his emphasis on disavowal as central to racism. The courses he has been teaching provide expanded contexts for the role of prophetic witness in America, where the prophets uniquely have been figures of inspiration and guidance. In no other country are the prophets so consistently invoked on issues of politics, societal organization, and theology. Shulman calls attention to the political engagement of prophecy in the Civil Rights Movement and in the Black church, in James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and others. I would add that the prophets are central to most mainline Protestant denominations and to Jewish liberal religious communities (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist) and to secular Jewish organizations.

Shulman addresses what he identifies as four aspects of concern: the Hebrew voice of prophecy as a genre; prophecy as an American idiom, deployed in political discourse; “prophecy” as an object in American studies; and prophecy in political theory. He is not trying to define prophecy, he tells us, but listen to its voice and force of inspiration; he is interested in prophecy as “poesis,” which I find extremely compelling and important. At the same time, I want to explore whether there might be limits to prophetic poesis.

While prophecy carries a message of hope for redemption, its forcefulness during the Civil Rights Movement was directed at shattering the disavowal at the heart of American society – what Cornel West calls America’s “self-deceptive innocence” and “reluctance to confront the nightside of its own history.”[1] As Shulman writes, disavowal defines white supremacy[2] and the prophetic demand is an end to white ignorance and a demand to acknowledge racism.[3] Breaking ignorance is not so simple. Elizabeth Spelman argues that “Baldwin’s indictment of White Americans is not that they are ignorant, but that they desire ignorance so that they can—with a clear conscience —enjoy the fruits of a worldview that affirms their placement at the top of the social/ontological order.”[4] Isaiah 47:10: “You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, No one sees me; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, I am and there is no one beside me.” This is a powerful argument: racism’s power lies with white disavowal.

Disavowal has to be shattered, Spelman argues, because racism in America depends on ignorance and turns ignorance into a desire, a way to maintain a clear conscience. Thus, white supremacy, writes Shulman, “is not a valid identity to reconcile with others, but a social practice empowering some by subordinating others.”[5] By standing with the weak, marginal and oppressed, the prophets not only challenge the figures of power, they also identify and expose the disavowal and the claims to innocence and ignorance that structure and maintain that power of oppression. The claim of innocence is what the prophet Jeremiah attacks when he speaks directly to disavowal: “On your shirt is found the life-blood of the guiltless poor. Yet in spite of all these things, you say, I am innocent. Behold I will bring you to judgment for saying, I have not sinned” (2:35-36). Thus, the problem of racism is “not quite ignorance, but the ‘innocence’ of whites who do not want to know, or who disavow what they already know, about racial injustice, the conduct of the state acting in their name, the humanity of the other.”[6] As a “fantastic system of evasions,” Baldwin writes, innocence itself is the crime.[7]

The Hebrew prophets were particularly attuned to disavowal in their denunciations of injustice. In an argument that resonates with Shulman’s approach, the Catholic theologian and law professor Cathleen Kaveny calls for a revival of the prophetic jeremiad in response to American racism. In her recent book, Prophecy without Contempt, Kaveny analyzes the historical uses of prophetic rhetoric in the United States in contrast to the polarizing condemnations that dominate the public square today. The polarization develops, Kaveny argues, less because of the content of the arguments than the rhetorical formed in which they are framed. The prophetic jeremiad, especially as developed within the Black church, avoids polarization by affirming solidarity with those under indictment. Even in its devastating denunciations of corruption and racism, the prophetic jeremiad unites us by affirming fundamental values that we share, together with a dose of compassion. With a rhetoric including irony and humility, the prophetic jeremiad functions as a form of “moral chemotherapy,” she writes.[8]

But are there limits to prophetic poesis? Does prophetic rhetoric have the power to overcome the racism that is quickly becoming a civil war of white versus Black, fostered by a “great replacement” notion promoted by powerful media interests? Kaveny’s proposed “moral chemotherapy” of the prophetic jeremiad offers a path forward, assuming more religious leaders would agree and assuming the violent, murderous anti-Black and anti-Asian racism and antisemitism rapidly growing in the United States can be halted before civil war breaks out and a white fascist regime becomes the government.

While the prophets have been at the center of anti-racist efforts in the United States from the nineteenth century to the present, they are absent from post-World War II liberation movements involving women, gender, and sexuality. If the heart of prophecy calls us to dismantle the ignorance, evasions, and disavowal of societal cruelty, why has the prophetic tradition not been deployed in the feminist movement that seeks to expose the patriarchy that is disavowed by claims of “natural” gender differences? Certain generic verses about justice from the prophetic writings might be applicable in countering patriarchy, but metaphors of sexual relations that appear in the writings of the prophets also render them unhelpful and even inappropriate. The prophet Hosea is particularly troubling because his marriage is his message: his marriage to Gomer, a former “harlot,” is an allegory for Israel and God that leaves women as social and religious outcasts. What is a harlot? A woman whose sexuality is exploited by a patriarchal society or a woman who has control over her own sexuality? The prophet presents Gomer as sinful, but God tells him to take her back as a wife. Her voice is never heard, which is typical for so many women who appear in the Bible. This is but one example of prophetic misogyny. We might also have a look at Ezekiel or at Jeremiah’s Lamentations for the destruction of Jerusalem. When Israel sins, the metaphor is female, and the sin is sexual. So, I wonder if prophetic poesis can support efforts in dismantling patriarchy. Just how far does the prophetic message extend?

For Shulman, prophetic poesis does not have to address the specifics of injustice – racism, sexism – just as Kaveny’s prophetic jeremiad speaks to unifying moral principles. Both appeal to our humanity regardless of national identity and gender hierarchy. Yet Shulman’s students should also know that the poesis of the prophets was subjected to Jewish-Christian debates during rising German racial antisemitism.

In Germany, where modern theology and biblical scholarship were crafted since the late eighteenth century with enormous sophistication, the prophets have never played much of a role beyond the attention, much of it negative, of a few Bible scholars. During racist outbreaks in Germany, when some Christian leaders called for separate churches for Asians and Africans converted to Christianity by missionaries and during the rise of racialized antisemitism starting in the 1870s, the few theologians who protested did not call upon the prophets as a biblical voice of justice. Indeed, during rising antisemitism in Germany, some theologians demanded the Old Testament be excised from the Christian Bible. That led after 1933 to publication of a dejudaized New Testament, hymnal, and catechism.[9]  

Over the course of the long nineteenth century, modern Jewish thought took shape in Germany with an emphasis on the prophets. Liberal Jews, seeking an identity for Judaism apart from rabbinic law, proclaimed Judaism to be “ethical monotheism,” based on the classical Hebrew prophets. Prophetic teachings of justice exemplified Judaism, argued Jewish theologians from Abraham Geiger to Martin Buber, and the prophets’ universalism was proof that Jews were not a separate nation, but integral and loyal members of the European nations, a point Jews had to emphasize over and over against claims that Jews’ patriotism could not be trusted and that their citizenship was questionable.

In response, Christian theologians, mostly Protestant but also Catholic (eg, Ernst Renan), claimed that Jesus was heir to the prophets, teaching a prophetic message in a prophetic style, and that he fell victim to Jewish deicide because the Jews in antiquity had abandoned the prophets in favor of a religion of rabbinic legalism. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen influenced Bible scholars to believe that the prophetic tradition marked the climax of Israelite religion that subsequently deteriorated into priestly and then legalistic Judaism. His work, called “higher biblical criticism,” was deemed “higher antisemitism” by Solomon Schechter. Indeed, that Judaism was not a continuation of the Israelite religion of the Hebrew Bible, but a new and separate religion, continues to be proclaimed by some Protestant Bible scholars. Jesus (and Christianity) continued the prophetic religion while the Israelites turned into Jews; “Israel died and Jesus arose” might be the slogan of German Bible scholars from Heinrich Ewald in the nineteenth century to Martin Noth in the twentieth.

Despite drawing a line of continuity from prophetic teachings to Jesus, Protestant Bible scholars disparaged the prophets. From the 1890s to the mid-twentieth century, leading German scholars including Hermann Gunkel, Bernhard Duhm, and Gustav Hölscher, among others, presented the prophets as ecstatics who lost consciousness, writhed on the ground, and barely understood the words they uttered.[10] The famed Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch, in a December 1915 lecture in Berlin, mocked the prophets as, essentially, country bumpkins who had no idea how the real world operates. His lecture was aimed, as everyone in attendance recognized, at Hermann Cohen, the great elder statesman of Jewish philosophy, who had identified Judaism with the ethical teachings of the Hebrew prophets and linked Judaism’s principles with those of Germany: Deutschtum und Judentum, published in 1915. Cohen’s understanding culminated over a century of modern Jewish thought that equated Judaism with prophets, demonstrating prophetic principles within rabbinic law.

I mention this point because Jewish thinkers barely play a role in Shulman’s work. His quotes from Martin Buber, notably unpoetic, define prophecy in conventional ways. Given Shulman’s emphasis on poesis, I’m surprised there is not more attention given to my father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 1962 book, The Prophets, has become the most influential work on the subject, especially among Civil Rights leaders, far more widely read than other studies. Moreover, Heschel’s book exemplifies what Shulman writes in his syllabus: “I am reading faith less as ‘doctrine’ and more as ‘poesis’ (as the organizing fictions, narratives and metaphors by which people imagine, name, and shape the world -and themselves.)”

Whereas Buber and Cohen present the prophetic message as a demand to overcome injustice, with a promise of a messianic future of peace and equality, Heschel finds poesis in prophetic subjectivity; the prophet is not a messenger but “a person who stands in the presence of God” (Jeremiah 15:19, 21). Heschel writes, “The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh” of human suffering (9). “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven” (16). If the prophetic critique of society is called hysterical, “what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?” (5).

Prophecy is the realization that there is no bifurcation of human beings and God: “What is the essence of being a prophet? A prophet is a person who holds God and human beings in one thought at one time, at all times.” This leads to the key understanding of God for Heschel: divine pathos, that God is affected by the suffering of human beings and receives strength from our prayer, our observance of the mitzvot (commandments), and that we can help overcome God’s own exile and bring God redemption. Divine pathos means that God, too, has an inner life. Both Heschel and King distinguished between Aristotle’s God as the “unmoved mover” and the Bible’s God as the “most moved mover.”

When he returned from the Selma march in 1965, my father said, “I felt my legs were praying.” The sentence defines Heschel’s understanding of the prophets, based on Jewish mystical and Hasidic thought about God, revelation, and the nature of the human; marching for social justice becomes prayer. He said the Selma march reminded him of walking with Hasidic rebbes in Europe; he felt holiness. “To walk” is the root of “halakha,” Jewish law, and it is also a metaphor for spiritual quest and inner religious growth as pilgrimage in most religious traditions, including Judaism. To walk and to pray is to grow spiritually: “prayer should be subversive,” my father wrote; we pray not simply to comfort or reassure ourselves, but to disturb our complacency. “The root of sin is callousness, hardness of heart, lack of understanding what is at stake in being alive.” Prayer, for Heschel, makes us recognize what the prophets teach: “the opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference.” Yet prayer has another significance: bringing unity and redemption to God. The Talmud makes it clear: “ani va’ho hoshia na,” (Mishnah Sukkah 4:5). Who is “ho”? The Talmud says “ho” is a name for God (BT Shabbat 104a): “I and God, may You redeem us both.” God, too, requires redemption. Prayer and prophecy align in teaching that creating justice creates room for God’s presence.

We are all indebted to Shulman’s important delineation of prophecy’s role in American thought, especially in relation to race and redemption. In contrast to their German Protestant counterparts, American Protestants have come closer to Jewish thought in appreciating the prophets. Sin is not female nor focused on sexuality, but about society at large, as Jeremiah, witness to exile and destruction, denounces: “They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things, says the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this? An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jeremiah 5:28-31).

The prophetic answer is to recognize that redemption comes not with a messiah nor a rapture, because the ultimate expression of God is not wisdom, magnificence, land, glory, or love, but justice. Zion, Isaiah declares, shall be redeemed by justice, and those who repent, by righteousness. Justice is the tool of God, the manifestation of God, the means of our redemption and the redemption of God from human mendacity.

[1] Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism (New York: Penguin, 2004), 41.

[2] George Shulman, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 243.

[3] Ibid., 253.

[4] Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Managing Ignorance,” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, eds. Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 126.

[5] Shulman, op. cit., 241.

[6] George Shulman, “Acknowledgment and Disavowal as an Idiom for Theorizing Politics,” Theory & Event 14:1 (2011), 11.

[7] James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 95. See the discussion in George Shulman, “Baldwin, Prophecy and Politics,” in: James Baldwin: America and Beyond, ed. Bill Schwarz and Cora Kaplan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 106-25.

[8] Cathleen Kaveny, Prophecy without Contempt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 287.

[9] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press, 2008)

[10] Susannah Heschel, “Ecstasy versus Ethics: The Impact of World War I on German Biblical Scholarship on the Hebrew Prophets,” in: The First World War and the Mobilization of Biblical Scholarship, ed. Andrew Mein, Nathan MacDonald and Matthew A. Collins (London: T&T Clark, 2019), 187-206.

Response to George Shulman

We are all indebted to Shulman’s important delineation of prophecy’s role in American thought, especially in relation to race and redemption.

The Zeal of a Convert to Political Theology

Shulman listens for and to race. Toward these ends, Shulman writes about political theology with the zeal of a convert, which I mean as a compliment.

Between old and new gods

For the left to prevail in the war between old and new gods, we need not only prophetic discourse, but forms of mass organization capable of cohering a social bloc. In this work, religion, understood not as prophecy but as missionary work, remains a crucial resource.

To Think is to Resist: Notes Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Freedom

Shulman’s seminar unfolds a creative cosmos for pursuing new knowledges and new forms of life together.

Nietzsche’s Prophet, Shulman’s Prophecy

I am responding to George Shulman’s letters on Nietzsche and on prophecy. I do so by offering some thoughts on Nietzsche’s prophet, Zarathustra. In addition to considering Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in light of Shulman’s “Political Theology” seminar, I also take illumination from Shulman’s American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (2008).

What’s Faith Got to Do with Political Theory/Theology?

This essay reclaims the value and role of faith in Shulman’s political theology and shows why it is important for wrestling with our contemporary political realities.

Re-imagining Political Theology

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.

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