How do the past and future impinge upon the “now” of political theology? This two-part essay triangulates temporality from the vantage points of two thinkers: the well-known, if perplexing German Jewish political theologian, Walter Benjamin, offers a riveting twentieth-century, European Marxist perspective. William Apess, the surprising-to-many nineteenth-century Pequot performer/minister/activist, fiercely articulates the colonial and anti-colonial stakes of the political theological imaginary from an Indigenous New England vantage point. Taken together, their penetrating visions not only elucidate the violent currents moving through discourses of time but disrupt the spatial and temporal terrains within which the oppressive and redemptive work of political theology, very literally, “takes place.”
Who has understood the course of history? Who can channel its world-making power? In the opening to his Theses on the Concept of History in 1940, Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish, Marxist mystic, imagined an expert chess-playing puppet whose hands are guided by a “little hunchback” who has “wisened, and keeps out of sight” (i). The puppet in Benjamin’s parable is “historical materialism” and the little hunchback is “theology.” It is the hunchback who is clued into the illusory artifice of modernity to which most are oblivious, who continues to move influentially and astutely within contemporary society even if his stature has been diminished. The hunchback-as-theology is part of the motley crew of archaic but clairvoyant figures whom Benjamin sought to recuperate, because it is they who upend modern orientations to history and with that, the structures of political formation.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that the hunchback is to Europe as the Indian is to North America: a figure whose image has been subjected to every kind of ridicule and distortion but whose mind is all the more perspicacious, in part, because of these indignities. Is it something like Benjamin’s “theology” that Native people cite when we speak of “traditional knowledge” – an alternative epistemology emerging out of deep time relationalities?
But as we seek alternative visions of history—and futurity—Benjamin asks us to contemplate a “single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (ix). We can regard this pile as the wreckage of those who have been discarded by regimes of “civilization.” As Benjamin reminds us: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (vii).
Perhaps it is not only the “traditional” Indian who has suffered indignity and is thus in need of recuperation. That might also be the fate of the “Indian Preacher” – the figure who emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and who stretched their mind to the breaking point trying to find some conversation, if not commensurability, between Indigenous and European epistemologies. To the extent that progressives and radicals have looked to “traditional” Indians or Indigenous revolutionaries for inspiration, Indigenous Christians can appear more compromised than critical, more wrecked than wise. Yet there are few who straddle the epistemological borderlands between Indigenous and Colonial forms better than the Indian Preacher.
Enter William Apess, the Methodist Pequot minister and activist who staged numerous potent critiques of American Settler Christianity across the Northeast in the early nineteenth century. Apess sought to shake the foundations of American society using the theological, literary, and narrative tools he had acquired within the houses of white masters to whom he had been bonded as a child. He successfully escaped white homes in his youth, but their discourses and diseases pursued him to his early, lonely death in 1839 in New York City.
To the purist, Apess might represent the figure of the “traditional” Indian distorted in body and mind by the frames of coloniality. But he, like 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. The “single catastrophe” Apess drew into focus in his Eulogy on King Philip (1836) was the execution and dismemberment of the Wampanoag sachem, Metacomet (aka King Philip) in 1676. Apess set out to renarrate American history not with divine providence, but diabolical violence as its originary force – a force concentrated in the body of Metacomet. As Apess put it, “Nor could they, the Pilgrims, cease crying to the Lord against Philip until they had put a bullet through his heart” (49). The surgical precision of pointed lines like these across Apess’s works lead Drew Lopenzina to observe that “[e]very public word [Apess] uttered was specifically crafted to take into account the intractable prejudices of white culture and the granite foundations of their history making” (227).
Likewise, Benjamin’s ambiguous hunchback-as-theology stands in direct contrast to a more definite and terrifying figure in his secularized political theology: the “adherents of historicism [who] empathize… with the victor” (vii). Benjamin singles out Ranke’s nationalism-laced empirical historiography as emblematic of this mode of narration. Extended temporally, those who “empathize with the victor” include theologians like Augustine and Eusebius. And extended spatially into the Indigenous Americas, colonial historiographers like Jose de Acosta and Cotton Mather join the ranks.
Indeed, in his colossal history of New England, Magnalia Christi Americana, Mather boasted of his intimate encounter with Metacomet following the latter’s dismemberment: “It was not long before the Hand which now writes, upon a certain occasion, took off the Jaw from the exposed Skull of that Blasphemous Leviathan.” Apess almost certainly had Mather’s grisly depiction in mind when he lambasted the disproportionate carnage celebrated by Christian colonists: “For injuries of much less magnitude have people called Christians slain their brethren, till they could sing like Sampson, With a Jaw Bone of an ass have we slain our thousands, and laid them in heaps” (8) reasoning that “it was the design of God that we should murder and slay one another because we have the power” (9). Instances like these affirm Benjamin’s observation that “whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate” (vii).
Though a Marxist, Benjamin considered Marx’s philosophy of history as following dangerously close to this triumphal procession. If there was a specter haunting Marxism in the early twentieth century, it was the very real possibility that any tradition, including Marxist historical materialism, might “become a tool of the ruling classes” (vi).
For Benjamin, the work of shifting the dominant historiographical paradigms on their axes was a colossal undertaking requiring human faculties operating at their highest imaginative capacities: what he calls the “weak Messianic power” (ii). Toward this end, Benjamin summons another enigmatic figure whom he never names but whose spirited voice he inhabits and whose imaginative mode he employs: that of the Hebrew prophet. Benjamin as prophet-historian sees that, according to the dominant ideology of history, all that fails to conform to a steady progression of history—which inevitably culminates with the ruling class coming to power—must be subdued. This, to him, is the dogma of Fascism.
Apess, employing the power of his own prophetic imagination toward a similar end, charged that American Christianity had succumbed to the malady of what we now call white supremacy from its earliest moments. Identifying the roots of the institution of slavery in the U.S. in the abduction of Wampanoags by the English for the slave trade at the turn of the seventeenth century, Apess writes: “This inhuman act of the whites caused the Indians to be jealous forever afterward, which the white man acknowledges upon the first pages of the history of his country” (9). Apess then continues to expose pretense of the American and Christian narratives of “freedom”: “How they could go to work to enslave a free people and call it religion is beyond the power of my imagination and outstrips the revelation of God’s word. O thou pretended hypocritical Christian!” (9).
According to Benjamin, what goes unacknowledged by the ruling class, but what the “tradition of the oppressed teaches us” is that “’the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (viii). Writing in the midst of the second world war, Benjamin saw with horrifying clarity that the states of emergency invoked by fascist regimes not only served to justify war against other nations, but even more appallingly, to write out of existence—and out of history—marginalized groups regarded as tainted “exceptions” to purity-obsessed nationalist “norms”: communists, homosexuals, Roma, and of course, Jews. It is an American version of this trend that Apess set out to critique in his Eulogy with Metacomet as ground zero for thinking historically and theologically about colonial oppression.
Following Benjamin’s logic, we can say that when a group has been marked by the ruling class as an aberration according to a homogenizing historical narrative, it is only a matter of time before the weight of the state bears down upon them with crushing force. The modern nation-state, then, is the product of a state of emergency that not only delineates the spatial boundaries between one nation and another, but even more frighteningly, as Lisa Lowe has argued, between the civilized, rights-bearing European “human” and the dehumanized, “primitive” “other.” The former strips away the dignity and rights of the latter and thus renders their land seizeable and their bodies exploitable – and exterminable.
Shifted from Benjamin’s European context to the Native Northeast in the early colonial period, Indigenous peoples experienced the violence of being regarded as repellant “exceptions” to Christian Puritanism. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra makes the compelling argument that, despite their political and religious differences, European Protestants and Catholics operated according to a shared cosmology which rendered the Indigenous Americas as the stronghold of Satan. This compelled—or at least justified—territorial, physical, and spiritual conquest as a means of bringing Indigenous peoples and their lands into the Kingdom of Christ.
Apess describes the violent colonial imagination in this way:
It is, however, true that there are many who are said to be honorable warriors, who, in wisdom of their civilized legislation, think it no crime to wreak their vengeance upon whole nations and communities, until the fields are covered with blood and the rivers turned into purple fountains, while groans, like distant thunder, are heard from the wounded and the tens of thousands of the dying, leaving helpless families depending on their cares and sympathies for life; while a loud response is heard floating through the air from the ten thousand Indian children and orphans, who are left to mourn the honorable acts of a few civilized men. (6)
If in the Schmittian sense, enacting catastrophic violence against “the enemy” is the founding principle by which nation-states are born, Apess narrates a history in which America comes into being by wantonly tearing open Indigenous bodies. This is the state of emergency to which American settler capitalism owes its existence.
In the settler capitalist nation-state, the racialized state of emergency is to history what primitive accumulation is to the economy – the condition of possibility without which its existence is inconceivable. But as Cedric Robinson has so astutely observed, “accumulation” is hardly a “primitive” phenomenon located in capitalism’s mythic past; it is an ongoing process of racial formation and exploitation that continues, unabated, into the present. Land and labor are always in the process of being narratively and physically expropriated. Apess accentuates the work of practical theology in these processes: “I do not hesitate to say that, through the prayers, preaching and examples of those pretended pious, has been the foundation of all the slavery and degradation in the American colonies, toward colored people.” Putting Apess together with Benjamin, we might regard the fascist/colonial state of emergency not as an exception, but as a norm rooted in lived religion. This distorted theology is the target of Apess’s deft historiographical critique.
Apess offers this concise summary of American state formation as forged, from its earliest moments, on the breaking of Indigenous bodies politic:
Look at the treaties made by Congress, all broken. Look at the deep-rooted plans laid, when a territory becomes a state, that after so many years the laws shall be extended over the Indians that live within their boundaries. Yea, every charter that has been given was given with the view of driving the Indians out of the states, or dooming them to become chained under desperate laws, that would make them drag out a miserable life as one chained to the galley; and this is the course that has been pursued for nearly two hundred
years. A fire, a canker, created by the Pilgrims from across the Atlantic, to burn and destroy my poor unfortunate brethren, and it cannot be denied. (45)
Denial, for Apess, is a strategy of domination in the historiographical mode that is akin to what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have termed “settler moves to innocence,” by which they mean “those strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (10).
Benjamin calls on “us”—his compatriots—to interrupt such strategies by “bring[ing] about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism” (viii). Benjamin’s “real” state of emergency is launched by a creative narrative intervention of cosmic political consequence in which materialist historiographers employ their “weak Messianic power” (ii) in order to create a rupture in the space-time (dis)order of Fascism. Contrary to the fascist agenda to annihilate the oppressed, the Messianic age that emerges through this rupture redeems the future as well as the past.
In his Eulogy, Apess narratively works to “claw back from oblivion and wrest from conformity” (as per Benjamin) history, religion, and theological vision from their distorted colonial manifestations. Even more profoundly, Apess enacts a visceral historical performance that narratively re-members the scattered quarters of Metacomet’s body. This site of physical and historical re-memberance becomes the reclaimed “New England” ground from which Apess offers a vision of futurity.
The second part of this essay, published separately, takes up Benjamin and Apess’s notions of futurity.
Brooks, Lisa Tanya. The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
In this path-setting work, Brooks (Abenaki) disrupts colonial paradigms by vividly reorienting the place often called “New England” around Indigenous life, thought and expressive forms. Her multi-modal study demonstrates how both Indigenous nations and colonists have employed cartography, historiography, and literary practice—broadly conceived—as potent forms of place-making since the early colonial era toward vastly different ends. Her concluding chapter shows how these forms come together dramatically in the anti-colonial activism, writing, and performances of William Apess.
Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550-1700. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006.
Where many emphasize the differences and antagonisms between Spanish Catholics and New England Puritans, Cañizares-Esguerra shows that when it came to the overarching cosmology that legitimized the colonization of the Indigenous Americas, both camps the read the Indigenous American and their lands within a militant Christian cosmology that mapped their spatial and temporal location as a critical site in contest between the Kingdom of God and the Realm of Satan. Furthermore, Cañizares-Esguerra analyzes early modern literatures to show that both the Spanish and the Puritans were employing discourses that are often attributed to one or the other: Franscican friars had a robust notion of “Providence,” and Puritans took up, even as they decried, Spanish discourses of “conquest.”
Lopenzina, Drew. Through an Indian’s Looking-Glass A Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017.
Lopenzina takes the lead of his biographical subject in offering a penetrating critique of the New England settler society Apess and his Pequot relatives lived within. Lopenzina’s brilliant analysis of Apess’s literary canon serves as the focusing optic for narrating his life and world.
Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. North Carolina: Duke University Press, Duke University Press Books, 2015.
Lowe undertakes what she describes as an “unsettling genealogy of modern liberalism” through a rigorous interrogation of the interpellated, racialized and capitalist structures and ideologies that formed the basis of nineteenth century British imperialism, as expressed in its disparate archives, literatures, and material culture. “Intimacy” for Lowe is a heuristic that accentuates the violent and violating practices that brought the bodies, lands, and products of Asian “coolies,” enslaved Africans and American Indigenous peoples into close contact under capitalist land and labor regimes. She shows how the category of “the human” excluded the racialized people whose circumscribed lives were the conditions of possibility for the formation of the free modern liberal subject.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Robinson brings together two primary archives for the making of a Black Radical Tradition: Marxism and Black radicalism. He traces a millennia-long history of enslavement and other forms of unfree labor, lifting up its ethnic and gendered dimensions which were ideological antecedents for the development of racial capitalism in the early modern period and leading to one of capitalism’s most powerful critiques in Marxism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But Robinson challenges the Eurocentrism and racism of Marxism by shifting the locus of capitalist critique to the African continent and diaspora. For Robinson, narrating the long histories of black revolt, resistance and revolution surfaces a Black radical tradition which has been the ground in which radical thinkers such as Du Bois, CLR James, and Richard Wright have planted alternative, Black Marxist visions. For Robinson, historiographical method is his theory.
Yelle, Robert A. Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Yelle’s work has been tremendously helpful and influential in how I have come to think about some of the key figures and concepts in Political Theology, including those referenced in this essay: Carl Schmitt, “the state of emergency,” “the ban/herem,” and “the exception.” The essay might be one way of responding to Yelle’s call for expanding the intellectual base of political theological theorists to not only include – but center – figures who often fall outside of what can often be a eurocentric political theology canon. In a vein similar to Robinson’s argument in Black Marxism, I’d argue that there is a vast and deep historiography of Indigenous political theologians with their own epistemological orientations and political visons, Apess being prominent among these.