How do the past and future impinge upon the “now” of political theology? The first part of this essay aimed to triangulate the historical dimensions of the temporality political theology by placing Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Concept of History into critical articulation with the anti-colonial counter-history of New England composed and performed by the nineteenth century Pequot minister/activist/orator by William Apess, Eulogy on King Philip. Though separated by time, space and culture, both thinkers engage vivid political theological imaginations to counter colonial and fascist narratives that naturalize the power of the ruling classes and enact programs of genocide. The second part of this essay considers how both thinkers turn their potent conceptions of history into radical visions of futurity. Indeed, both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity; that is: which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.
In Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, Walter Benjamin sees an Angel of History who is forced by the storm of progress “into the future to which his back is turned while the pile of debris before him grows skyward” (ix). According to Benjamin, “[w]here we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling up wreckage upon wreckage in front of his feet.” Where we are trained to think of time temporally, the Angel perceives time spatially. The Angel is taken aback, not by the unfolding of a narrative, but by the intensifying of an horrific image. With the Angel and Benjamin, we are able to visualize the debris of the wrecked lives and discarded histories that grows higher and higher with every passing moment; we also feel the force of the “storm blowing from Paradise.” The storm, according to Benjamin, “is what we call progress” (ix).
Continuing his condemnation of fascism, Benjamin charges the ruling classes with the offense of imagining time, particularly the future, as “homogenous and empty.” Following Benjamin’s critique, we might say there is temporal counterpart to the colonial doctrine of terra nullius; what we might call a doctrine of tempus nullius. According to this doctrine, the future, like the Indigenous Americas, is regarded as empty of authority and thus available for exploitation, settlement and the unimpeded advance of “civilization.” Guided by this notion, fascist regimes “progress” into future as though it was natural that they should not only be its architects and its residents, but also its border control and police. Only bodies legible as “human,” “civilized,” and “proper” are allowed to enter and thrive in this space. This is a homogenous, fascist future at which Benjamin shudders.
In the Native Northeast, Jean O’Brien (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) calls this practice of narrating Indigenous people out of the future by narrating them out of history the narrative trope of “lasting” Indigenous peoples; a term that elucidates the genocidal logics of colonization narratively expressed in James Fenimore Cooper’s tragic Indian romance, The Last of the Mohicans in which the supposed passing of the “last” Mohican chief secures white settler futurity.
Apess’s approach to critiquing this form of narration is to flip the colonial narrative by affectively “repositioning the settler” (to riff on Vince Diaz’s book title, Repositioning the Missionary) as though they were on the receiving end of their own violence with their futurities under existential threat: “O white woman! What would you think if some foreign nation, unknown to you should come and carry away from you three lovely children, whom you had dandled on the knee, and at some future time you should behold them, and break forth in sorrow, with your heart broken, and merely ask, “Sirs, where are my little ones?” (10)
In his Eulogy on King Philip, Apess uses the word “children” thirty times in his Eulogy. If, for Apess, the execution and dismemberment of the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet (King Philip) was ground zero of colonial terror as discussed in the first part of this essay, Apess saw Metacomet’s death as sending shockwaves into the far reaches of the Indigenous future with children bearing the brunt of the violence. Apess wants his non-Native audience to feel the acute pain of colonialism rending one of the most intimate bonds he could imagine: the connection between mother and child.
In his spiritual autobiography, Apess traced the source of the abuse he experienced at home as a child, not to the deficiency of his alcohol-impaired parents, but to New England “Christians”: “For surely no such sufferings were heard of, or known amongst our people until that burning curse and demon of despair came amongst us: surely it came through the hand of the whites” (5). The demonic spirits that haunted Apess’s childhood were not temporally bound but roamed the land always prospecting for more Indigenous bodies, spirits and lands to possess. Indeed, ultimately, Apess was “bound-out” to a white Presbyterian family where the word “Master” replaced the word “Mother.” The most Apess could say for the head of the house was that “This good man did not care much for the Indian boy” (9). Torn from the care of their families, Apess knew first-hand how Indian children and the Indigenous futurities they embodied, were among the most vulnerable to the storms of colonial progress.
With early nineteenth century language, Apess argues what Sandy Grande (Quechua) would assert in the early twenty-first century: “The ‘Indian Problem’ is not a problem of children and of families, but rather first and foremost, a problem that has been consciously and historically produced by and through the systems of colonization: a multidimensional force underwritten by Western Christianity, defined by White supremacy and fueled by global capitalism” (19).
Acutely aware of the of violent force of history, neither Apess nor Benjamin regard colonialism or Fascism (respectively) as invincible nor their genocidal narratives as the last word, though neither underestimated the challenge of realizing an alternative.
“The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer but as the subduer of the Antichrist,” Benjamin writes (vi). He then proceeds to illuminate a vision of heterogeneous futurities guided by the notion of the future as a place that is already populated and already filled with Messianic authority. This, he asserts at the conclusion to his Theses, is the reason “the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future… For every second of time was a strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” (xviii).
Writing in a context in which Jewish life, thought and futurity were under genocidal assault, Benjamin’s secularized Messianism was a powerful refusal of the Nazi logic of Jewish elimination. Just as importantly, Benjamin refrained from strategically essentializing or homogenizing the Jewish Messianic body and by extension the Jewish body politic. Instead, he attributed a “weak Messianic power” to the cadre of futurity-oriented, materialist historiographers he hoped to arouse. In doing so, Benjamin seems to have embraced a distributive conception of Messianism as a power spread among multiple, diverse bodies. This offers a way of thinking capaciously and heterogeneously about the future.
Rather than privileged bodies laying claim to the empty terrain of a future and configuring it in their own image, Benjamin “establishe[d] a conception of the present as “’the time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time” (xviiia). With each of these “chips” landing in different places and among different people—as was the Jewish experience—rather than imagining a singular polity under a ruling “Messiah,” Benjamin’s distributive Messianic futurity leads to the possibility of innumerable political formations.
Apess, too, imagines a radical shift in American political, social and religious life. Though its structural contours are hazy, this new polity has definite ethical center: “I say, then, a different course must be pursued, and different laws must be enacted, and all men must operate under one general law. And while you ask yourselves, “What do they, the Indians, want?” you have only to look at the unjust laws made for them and say, “They want what I want” (59). On its face, it would appear that Apess may be appealing to the kind of “homogenous” humanist universalism that Benjamin critiques, albeit in a less exploitative, more inclusive form than what was being practiced in New England at the time. But the call for “a different course” in the first sentence, must be held together with the ethics of desire in the second sentence.
If the settler colonial ruling class invokes the state of emergency in order to seize land and rid itself of aberrant “others,” Apess’s ethical intervention – rendered in the formula “They want what I want” – is to makes the Indian “they” legible to the colonial “I” not by locating the commensurability of these two positions in religion or culture (a homogenizing impulse), but in the deeper human desire to live and to thrive. Eve Tuck (Unangax̂) argues that centering Indigenous desire is a futurity-oriented practice which is the antithesis of historiographies that orient around and reproduce narratives of “damage.”
“Desire,” Tuck writes, “accounts for the loss and despair, but also the hope, the visions, the wisdom of lived lives and communities. Desire is involved with the not yet and, at times, the not anymore” (417). But there is a tension between Tuck’s impulse to shift away from “damage-centered” narratives and Benjamin’s observation that rituals remembering oppressed ancestors are necessary for animating social change. In attempting to “redeem” the future without remembering the past, Benjamin rebukes the working class for “forget[ing] both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors, rather than that of liberated children” (xii).
In his Eulogy, Apess shows that Tuck and Benjamin’s insights are not at all mutually exclusive. Filled with ire, Apess uses history to convict colonial Christianity of crimes against humanity – the “not anymore” aspect of his Eulogy. But he also invokes des-ire to compel his audience to open themselves up to the “not yet,” or what he imagines as the complete reconstitution of society. Crucially, as he performs the Eulogy, Apess’s impassioned Indigenous body refutes the logic of Indigenous elimination even as he offers a glimpse of a future capacious enough to allow for the thriving of an array of heterogeneous bodies, epistemologies and aspirations. As such, Apess’s theological vision is consonant, if not in complete unison, with Benjamin’s messianism. He also anticipated what Jace Weaver (Cherokee) asserts about American Indian Literary Nationalism in the early twenty-first century: “American Indian Nationalism is separatist, but it is a pluralist separatism. We are splitting the earth, not dividing up turf” (74).
Though Apess narrates New England as the originary site settler Christian violence demonstrated most viciously in the dismemberment King Philip’s body, he also surprisingly, envisions the Northeast as the geo-political center for the formation of an reimagined body politic with the Indigenous prophetic imagination as the that voice that calls this new form into being: “This work must begin here first, in New England… Let peace and righteousness be written on our hearts and hands forever, is the wish of this poor Indian” (59-60). In Apess’s summons, we might hear strong reverberations of the spirit-inspired enunciation that brought another Indigenous world into existence in another place with the words “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3).
Considering Apess’s powerful, critical vision, Robert Warrior (Osage) writes that Apess “raises questions about how an experientially aware intellectual praxis leads us to critical issues – not of how this might uncritically celebrate Native cultures, but of ethics, morality, history, imagination, spirituality and intellectual development” (47). Indeed, Apess’s performance is in concert with the practices that have guided and energized Indigenous nations since the emergence of both coloniality and the state. His Eulogy overflows with turns of phrase and narrative reversals that, in the words of Benjamin, “manifest themselves in this struggle as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude” (iv). Here, Benjamin describes, and Apess performs, something strikingly similar to Gerald Vizenor’s (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) notion of survivance which includes, “narrative resistance and personal attributes, such as the native humanistic tease, vital irony, cast of mind, and moral courage” (1).
Like Benjamin, Apess, as Indigenous historiographer/theologian/prophet fights tooth and nail for the “crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist” (iii). In so doing, he exemplifies the kind of historian that Benjamin a century later hoped to rally in the midst of genocidal fascism: one who “does not mean to recognize the way it really was (Ranke),” but who “seiz[es] hold of a memory that flashes up at the moment of danger” (vi). Apess enacts a resurrective performance that treats the scattered quarters of Metacomet’s body as something like Benjamin’s “chips of Messianic time.” As he maps the connections between Christian theology and violent colonial history, he simultaneously reclaims what has been dismembered and in so doing, he constellates a spirited and critical Indigenous futurity formed out of Metacomet’s re-membered body which is always already breaking into the Indigenous “now.”
Did we need Benjamin and Apess to remind us of these things? Perhaps not. Perhaps their imagery and language are too archaic, too opaque, too inchoate, to be of immediate use in the urgent politics of the moment. Perhaps they are too “in their own mystical worlds” to offer any solid grounding for revolution. Or perhaps, these enigmatic prophets of history and futurity are precisely the kinds of figures who plunge us into the powerful cross-currents of existence where time and space converge and where the lives of those who have come before converse with those who are yet to be born. If that is a disturbing place, it is because it is a place heaving with the presence of those whose lives and stories have been nearly submerged by narratives of violence but who nevertheless continue to speak. Perhaps as we orient ourselves around those stories and not those propagated by the apologists of “progress,” we, along with Apess and Benjamin, might begin to appreciate what Indigenous peoples have long known and anticipated – hopefully for better and not for worse: that “there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one,” and that “[o]ur coming was expected on earth” (ii).
Diaz, Vicente M. Repositioning the Missionary: Rewriting the Histories of Colonialism, Native Catholicism, and Indigeneity in Guam. Pacific Islands Monographs Series. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010.
Diaz employs a humorous range of sexual positions—“From Above,” “From Below,” “From Behind”—as critical positionalities that elucidate the intimate ways power inflects Chamorro relationships with colonial nations, from the Spanish in the seventeenth century to the United States in the present day, with Chamorro Catholicism being the modality through which colonialism, decolonization, and sovereignty push and pull against each other.
Grande, Sandy. Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.
Grande engages the tension that is the premise of this essay: Is it possible to maintain the integrity of Indigenous thought while engaging European critical theorists? Grande stresses the need for modes of thinking, learning and teaching rooted in Indigenous epistemologies and shaped by the contemporary challenges faced by Indigenous people that do real work toward advancing an anti-capitalist, non-Eurocentric Indigenous sovereignty.
Jean M O’Brien. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
We knew it was a powerful colonial narrative trope, but we didn’t have such a succinct name for it, nor the full scholarly argument worked out in such granular detail, until O’Brien (White Earth Nation of the Anishinaabe) wrote this book. “Firsting” is the historiographical practice of starting “history” in North America at the moment when the first European arrives. And “Lasting” is the convention of killing off the last “authentic” Indian through narrative, thus ignoring the countless ways Indigenous people have not only kept up with, but often outpaced modernity.
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 Apess’s life and world.
Vizenor, Gerald Robert. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Vizenor (White Earth Nation of the Anishinaabe) offers yet another delightfully ambiguous but critically illuminating rendering of his neologism “survivance” in the opening essay to this collection of scholarly essays by exploring the potent concept that has come to express, in a term, the capaciousness and force of Indigenous vitality and creativity in settler colonial contexts. Among the essays in this collection is one that considers Vizenor alongside William Apess.
Warrior, Robert. The People and the Word: Reading Native Nonfiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
In this book, Warrior (Osage) focuses in on the context of Native non-fiction literature which includes everything from the social and biographical contexts in which Native non-fiction is produced to the context of the reading experience and the intellectual formation of historical and contemporary Indigenous thinkers. His first chapter, “Eulogy on William Apess: His Writerly Life and His New York Death,” is both an homage to Apess and an imaginative interpretation of the ways Native literature bends the frames of time and space so that Warrior’s own formative experience of living and writing as an Indigenous critic in New York City inflects understandings of Apess’s experience a century and a half earlier, and vice versa.