Without September 11, the burgeoning academic discourse on political theology would have looked very different. It would have been much better – both politically and theologically.
As it is, much scholarship associated with political theology has been captured by the same fantasy that animated the 9/11 attacks. It is a very white, very male, very Western fantasy, one that is taken too literally by foreign subjects of American hegemony who have gone astray. There is such a thing as Sovereignty, which can be wielded by a Dictator or embodied in a People or hidden in Capital or represented in Towers. The goal is to defend It, or capture It, or displace It, or pluralize It, or expose It, or destabilize It – or, quintessentially for the academic, interrogate It.
Carl Schmitt, his fashionable French and Italian appropriators, and their obsequious Anglophone readers meditate on the logics of Sovereignty, elevating It to the lofty, and quaint, status of trans-cultural, trans-historical constant. In a complementary manner, some theologians juxtapose the “mythos” of political sovereignty to the “mythos” of God’s sovereignty, judging the latter preferable to the former (an argument which often seems to take the form: mine is bigger – more good, more true, more beautiful – than yours).
The September 11 attacks certainly did target the prime symbol of turn-of-the-millennium power, no longer imagined in a ruler or a people, now imagined in elusive and impersonal capital, in cahoots with empire, for which there was a convenient metonym: the World Trade Center. Yet an assault on capital, empire, and Western hegemony had already been building for years, one that targeted substance, not symbol; material realities, not fantasy. The massive protests in Seattle (1999), Prague (2000), Quebec (April 2001), and Genoa (July 2001), were only the most visible elements of this resistance movement. As organizers with the Movement for Global Justice, including myself, worked in the summer and fall of 2001 to prepare for the September 23-25 annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C., there was a sense that something spectacular was about to happen, that the political landscape was about to shift irreversibly.
Of course, September 2001 did see the political landscape shift irreversibly. The resonance of “anti-globalization movement” was dramatically different in the wake of an attack on the World Trade Center. The focus of the American Left shifted to opposing the wars abroad and the contraction of civil liberties. At first, the Left stood alone; soon, it was a Left-liberal coalition in which the liberal voice was dominant. The promise of the rapidly ascending anti-globalization movement had been a Left-liberal coalition in which the Left was dominant.
While the missing images of the September 2001 that could have been show hundreds of thousands of creative, diverse, assertive protestors chanting and marching and dancing and demanding, this is not the substance of what could have been. Most important is what would have been behind those images: the resurgence of the American organizing tradition, a tradition that spans from John L. Lewis and the CIO to Saul Alinsky and the IAF to Ella Baker and SNCC to César Chávez and the UFW, a tradition composed of the practices, stories, and ideals articulated by the thousands and thousands of ordinary Americans who have participated in the seemingly mundane activities involved in building people-power with their neighbors and co-workers. The American organizing tradition, which had been fading from the public imagination, returned with gusto – or it would have.
It is tempting to say that this counter-factual September 2001 would have had little to do with political theology. The most visible religiosity in the global justice movement was the enthusiastic neo-paganism of Starhawk and her followers. Many would say that the religiosity of the American organizing tradition is, at most, a watery “Judeo-Christianity” perfectly aligned with “American democracy” (as Alinsky explicitly professes).
Yet a mass movement for global justice would have prompted theological questions that went unasked – and addressing these questions would have benefited both the academic discourse of political theology and the political practice of ostensibly secular organizers. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, after all, led to the development of Black and feminist theology, introducing new questions into theological discourse and forcing reconsideration of theological reflection as a whole, though these developments were quickly assimilated into theological liberalism and had a limited impact on secular political practice. This easy slide into liberalism resulted from the fundamentally liberal idiom of identity politics; in contrast, the anti-globalization movement took as its starting point the secularized theological idiom of global justice.
Conversations about political theology today rarely address sin. The counter-factual political theology, growing out of that other September 2001, would understand the crucial importance of sin. The anti-globalization movement was motivated by the massive harm inflicted by international financial institutions on the vast majority of the world’s people – in Asia, Africa and Latin America. So-called structural adjustment policies of institutions like the World Bank transferred resources that had once been held collectively to the private ownership of the wealthy elite, leaving millions impoverished and unemployed. These institutions were (and are) run undemocratically and were (and are) unaccountable to the communities they purport to assist. Moreover, it was clear that reforming institutional policies would never be enough. Institutions, organizers concluded, are always already deeply flawed; power must be in the hands of the people.
But individuals, too, are sinners – greatest among them “the people.” Organizers in the anti-globalization movement, and in the American organizing tradition more broadly, were acutely aware of the tyranny of structurelessness. Without acknowledging community norms, and explicitly creating new organizational norms, individual desires, whims, and irritations thwart the work of justice. Some theologians have suggested the virtues, and particularly the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, are important political practices in a fallen world. Too often the focus of such accounts is on individual character traits rather than on the practice of organizing: navigating group structures together with a common purpose. The widespread use of consensus decision-making in the global justice movement, where anyone can block a decision if she or he believes it runs counter to the fundamental values of the group, is ripe for theological analysis. Consensus decision-making and other practices of organizing expose to participants the shortcomings of both individuals and groups, shortcomings that can be redressed in the context of a committed community.
Sinful institutions are challenged by the people, and sinful people are challenged by the practices of organizing. Global justice organizers were tempted, like the organizing tradition more generally, to address both at once through foundation-funded nonprofits. But it became evident that this multiplied, rather than eliminated, the sin. Just as in the labor movement and the civil rights movement before, what has been termed the “nonprofit-industrial complex” functioned to advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful, subduing dissent by creating a class of career employees implicitly orienting their work to what is “marketable” to funders. As soon as organizing becomes a career it ceases to be politically potent. The counter-factual political theology would reflect on the implications that such critiques of the nonprofit-industrial complex hold for the age of megachurches.
While the events of September 11 decimated the global justice movement in North America and Europe, grotesquely memorialized by the fair trade coffee fad, organizing around social justice issues has continued in the global South. There are also groups, like Solidarity, that have preserved the American organizing tradition through thick and thin – another model ripe for theological reflection. And there are other pockets of rejuvenation, such as the energetic labor organizing of UNITE HERE and the emergence of new groups like Unity & Struggle and Bring the Ruckus. Yet secular groups such as these often lack the resources for ideology critique that would distinguish their critical practice from the liberalism they ostensibly oppose.
This limitation is particularly acute on two fronts. Both result from the secular sentiment that we, on our own, can get from here to there, can achieve our own redemption. First, American secular organizing often posits freedom as an ideal – freedom understood in liberal terms, as lack of constraint. Political theology could make it possible to appreciate the ambivalence of worldly freedom, a practice of inhabiting communal norms, and eschatological freedom, where those norms fall away. Second, American secular organizing too often uncritically embraces, even fetishizes, difference – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, though notably not religion – to the point that organizations aspire to perfect inclusivity, resulting in a hubristic self-confidence. Political theology could humble such aspirations by providing a reminder of the fallenness of the world, and the necessary specificity of every community.
Ironically, this blindness of the secular Left echoes blindness in the current academic discussion of political theology. For the latter, the Church as Body of Christ has a tendency to shift from icon to idol, the paradoxical duality of worldly church and eschatological Church forgotten. The warm, unequivocal embrace of the Body of Christ provides comfort against fantastical terror; the political theology that could have been endures paradox, relishes it. As organizing efforts against public sector cutbacks gain traction, that political theology still may be.
Vincent Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011) and the editor of Race and Political Theology (Stanford, 2012).