“White man, hear me!” — James Baldwin
The prophetic voice demands a hearing, a listening to. It is interesting to think of the ways that George Shulman, a white man, hears, which is another way of asking, what is he listening for? In this light, I rather think of Shulman’s “Letters on Political Theology” as “Letters on Race and Political Theology, or, better, “Letters on White Supremacy and 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.
My sense is that Shulman is drawn to political theology exactly because of how it allows him to hear an American story of race. Shulman writes as though until he heard a voice like Baldwin’s in its proper theological key, he was unable to apprehend the past, present, and possible futures of race in America. Conversion was necessary. So, what does political theology, and Baldwin’s political theology in particular, allow Shulman to hear?
Shulman begins his masterful American Prophecy by scolding democratic political theorists for their unwillingness to listen to theological voices, especially when those voices have a great deal to say about the damn obvious and brutal racialized realities of democratic existence. Shulman does not tell us if he counts himself as one of those democratic theorists who at one time disdained the “theist absolutes and redemptive rhetoric” in prophetic political theology (26). But here he names in three categories why he is drawn to Baldwin and political theology. The first category is speaking truth. Though Baldwin does not traffic in theist absolutes, Shulman insistently reads Baldwin as speaking a vital language of truth, “unspeakable truth, which people deny at great cost to themselves and others” (162).
Baldwin’s truths are not theistic nor are they absolutist in the sense of being dogmatic. Shulman sees in Baldwin a version of truth that evades epistemology. Instead, Baldwin’s truths function as a language of confrontation, of urgency, of encounter, and of demand. For example, the most important truth that Baldwin speaks is of the viciousness of white American claims to innocence, the execrable disavowal of anti-black racism in the service of constituting American nationhood.
The importance of this truth is not as a static piece of knowledge, but in its capacity to evoke responsibility “for the conditions we must acknowledge if we are to flourish” (3). This is all to say that Baldwin teaches Shulman how truth claims should properly function in democratic life: as an imperative demand that we cannot deny and run from if we are to survive.
The second category is “redemption,” and it functions as a continued commentary on truth. Shulman spends a lot of time qualifying Baldwin’s notion of redemption, as he should. Baldwin’s redemption is not, Shulman explains, a universal ideal; it is not an exit from or transcending history; it is not the search for repose in an afterlife. On this account, Baldwin is a practitioner of negative theology, as Vincent Lloyd suggests. However, that does not exhaust his theological account. Shulman constantly returns to the way Baldwin is seeking forms of connection, what Baldwin often calls “love” or, at times, “salvation.” “Salvation connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself” (165). Baldwin practices constructive theology, too.
To be sure, Shulman maps the ways Baldwin’s understanding of this type of salvation or redemption changes over time. As so many critics have noted, early in Baldwin’s career, he sought redemption with whites. As the civil rights movement ground on, Baldwin increasingly envisioned redemption among Blacks. As Eddie Glaude points out, Baldwin’s “we”–who he thinks he can be in community with at particular times–changes over time. Nevertheless, what remains constant are the fundamentals in what redemption consists. To redeem, for Shulman, is to “make somehow meaningful or valuable” (“Letters on Political Theology”). Over and over in his letter on Baldwin, Shulman returns to the way Baldwin never wavers from insisting on seeing, feeling, and acting on connections to others. Shulman likens this persistence to the prophetic injunction for communities to come to understand their interrelation, which is a call for this American nation to realize its “joint liability,” which is to say, its collective responsibility. Redemption, in this key, is not a note of triumph. It is a blued note of living in the light of the those “many thousands gone.”
Crucially, Shulman helps us understand that Baldwin’s version of collective responsibility cannot be dissolved into a pluralistic haze where, shucks, we all have to do our part. No, Shulman’s reading of Baldwin’s reveals the urgent demand that each of us has to engage in the difficult process of determining what liability means. It will look different for different folks. But Baldwin is clear: we all have to do it.
This brings me to the third category, rhetoric. Shulman’s turn toward political theology is best understood as Shulman’s search for a political rhetoric that vitally works to upbraid, critique, resist, and even break liberal norms, while simultaneously looking to renew norms in more just ways. Said differently, the rhetorical form of political theology “performs poesis—it imagines and names life, depicts and shapes a world—in ways that raise fundamental political questions” (Shulman’s Letters on PT). If Schmittian political theology sees liberal rule as fatally self-deceived, then the “counter-theology” that Shuman traces in Baldwin seeks democratic possibility by continuously working to transform the particular bonds of the American instantiation of political life.
The constraints of this project are tricky and can be seen in Shulman’s letter when he defends certain liberal principles: “If people can’t assemble and protest, or vote, then we can’t really initiate the kinds of social changes that would make our society more equal in genuine, material and tangible ways.” Do not mistake this for a gradualist reformer’s vision of change. It instead reminds me of Ted Smith’s account in Weird John Brown of the way political theology can function to “break the grip of dominant orders to open up a space for genuinely free response, a space in which practical reasoning about public goods can be developed and refined in conversation” (13). As if wielding a crowbar against the liberal order, Baldwin’s politico-theological vocabulary—love, innocence, birthright, redemption, sin, salvation, repentance, and the sacred—gives expression to the failures of liberal politics “by recasting at visceral levels what and who are counted as real” (152). At the same time, Baldwin’s critique of the liberal order is for Shulman in the service of classically liberal ends to “remake[s] the passionate frame by which people orient self-reflection and agency” (152).
As I’ve suggested, the tension between the two prongs of this project is real. The sort of force and effort and insistence that is needed to shift visceral frames often requires a wholesale overturning of the categories of agency and self-reflection. Said slightly differently, the passionate frames that need remaking are precisely those of self-reflection and agency. This is where Shulman’s reading of Baldwin’s political theology leads: faith in the redemptive possibility that from honest grappling with the rot in the American political foundation may emerge new frames and practices and to reconstitute a liberal political life together. This is not just Baldwin’s political theology. It is Shulman’s, too.
And so, Shulman leaves us, appropriately, with decisions to make. How willing are we to affect change, and what kinds of change do we want to affect? I say appropriately because the idea that politics resides ultimately in the power, authority, and commitment to make decisions is a Schmittian one, and dangers for abuse abound. What Shulman teaches is that decision can be rendered differently from Schmitt, rendered more prophetically. The decision-making powers of the prophet are conditional, which is to say that they do not issue in the form of ironclad predictions or authoritative roadmaps for salvation. Instead, the decision-making powers of the prophet, at least democratic prophets, are “dependent on question and alternative” (170). Prophets ask us if we want our futures to flourish in particular ways: this is the question. And if we answer yes, then they insist “you must stop doing x and start doing y”: here are possible alternatives (162). And this amounts to a moment of decision. But I also want to suggest that the prophetic moment introduces iterative reflective questions about the nature of decisions: What are the conditions that keep us from having the will to stop doing x and start doing y? What does “will” look like at this moment? And most crucially, what are the practices that shape and influence the building of will that get us–not me but us–to stop doing x and start doing y?
Like Baldwin’s writings, Shulman’s “Letters on Political Theology ” are best understood as demands. Their authority rests in the ways in which they question and inflame desire. Do we desire to acknowledge the ways that race is “the organizing discourse defining the constitutive outside and internal other of American liberalism”? (Shulman’s Letters on PT) And if so, do we desire to engage in and invent as is necessary the sets of practices that contest this organizing discourse?
As I write this, I am reminded of a time when I sat on a panel with Shulman with some of the other essayists from Race and Secularism in America. At one point, someone asked a question about the binary, black-white, frame of the volume’s account of race. The volume, so the criticism went, ignored other racialized experiences in America. Many of us on the panel acknowledged the question’s premise, and quickly conceded that the frame was narrow, and that this volume was only a first step in interrogating the ways that race and secularism are intertwined.
Then Shulman spoke. Channeling Baldwin’s claim that “blackness stalks our history and our streets” (162), Shulman refused to apologize for his specific focus and recognition of the sins of white supremacy committed by the American nation-state against people of African descent. Given the size of the crime–four hundred plus years of assigning “those who have been marked black…to social death–to invisibility, non-recognition, and gratuitous violence” (Shulman’s Letters on PT) — this is where he felt he must begin.
I remember it as a prophetic moment. Shulman spoke from where he stood, acknowledging his inheritances, his realities, the conditions of the world he sees himself inhabiting. He knew that what he was saying was unpopular. His conviction was palpable. So was his desire to connect. I wonder if he felt Jimmy by his side.