In my previous post, I drew on a longer genealogy of liberalism by Aryeh Botwinick to address Catherine Keller’s recent book, Political Theology of the Earth. Botwinick’s “The Good of Liberalism: Weak Messianism” develops a genealogy of weak messianism informing liberalism as far back as Maimonides. He then sees a parallel in post-holocaust Jewish ethical philosophy, citing the following words of Emmanuel Levinas. ‘The awaiting messiah is the duration of time itself” (175).
In this post I will pivot on Levinas’s 1977 essay, from which Botwinick’s quotation is taken, and then turn toward Sarah Pessin’s “From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity,” which is largely an encounter with William Connolly’s respectful agonism. As I noted in my previous post, Keller’s concept of amorous agonism draws on Connolly, so in a sense I am piggybacking on some of the nuanced criticism that Pessin has performed. Pessin’s larger project builds upon another formulation of Levinas’s — the allergy to difference, which for her is something that often goes unnoticed by otherwise well-intentioned liberals.
So, first, I want to put Pessin’s project into tension with Botwinick’s glossing of Levinas on messianism to support his larger claim that “weak messianism” (Walter Benjamin’s term) is at the heart of liberalism as a political project. Pessin’s work will support my claim that Botwinick’s argument overstated, and reinforce my earlier critique of Keller’s agonism as being too entrenched in Enlightenment and Romantic theologies of Christ. My overall point, which I will detail more in a later post, is that this entrenchment prevents Keller from establishing a credible relationship with Indigenous peoples and risks an unintentional extension of a colonial Christian Universalism that she herself criticizes. Let me now turn to Levinas.
The short quotation Botwinick takes from Levinas’s “Revelation in the Jewish Tradition” is part of a larger essay that distinguishes Judaic theological tradition from Christianity. Glossing that distinction in favor of an argument for “weak messianism” as a ground for the outset of liberalism as a political project is worrisome to me because, as Levinas argues, there is something distinctive about the Jewish tradition that persists today that nevertheless remains grounded in the Bible.
And, in the case of the Jews, this sacred history leads, without any break in continuity, to the ‘historian’s history’, which is profane history. Herein lies without doubt the originality of Israel and its relationship to Revelation, whether that relationship one of reading the Bible, forgetting it, or harbouring memories or feelings of remorse even after it is forgotten: most of the history which, to the Christian West, is ‘sacred’ is the ancient history of a people still here today, retaining a unity, however mysterious, in spite of its dispersion among the nations or perhaps in spite of its integration within them. (Levinas 191)
Perhaps it is such an “integration” within the Christian West that Botwinick sees as an overlapping moment between Jewish and Christian messianism at the outset of liberalism. However, I am struck by Levinas’s insistence in this passage about the continuous persistence of a revelatory tradition “of a people still hear today.” I often hear similar claims by Native Americans in the wake of genocide, but unfortunately such claims are frequently ignored and denied by the majority of American society, who tend to relegate Native people to a distant past, even when they simultaneously romanticize Native “spirituality.”
The Christian Imagination, to invoke Willie James Jennings’ term, was that very one that imagined itself to be akin to the Israelites as they entered their “promised land” in the modernist land-grab we call “New England.” As Steven T. Newcomb has articulated based on George Lakoff’s work on “Idealized Cognitive Models,” by imagining themselves as Hebrews, early Christian settlers justified the erasure of Natives as “Canaanites.”
However, the right of Christian discovery was slightly different from the Old Testament story of the chosen people and the promised land. When the potentates of Christendom (whether popes or monarchs) granted others “the right” to discover, acquire, conquer, subdue, and possess “heathen” lands, they thereby assumed the role that the Lord played in the Old Testament story of the Hebrews and the promised land. In a sense, the Christian grantees who received authorization to discover and possess non-Christian lands assumed the role of Abraham. Behind such grants was the belief that the pope or king truly represented God and that God, through the divine right of agency of the potentate, had granted Christians the right to fulfill Genesis 1:28 to subdue and exercise dominion over the heathen lands of the earth. (Pagans in the Promised Land 46)
Surely, Keller would see such rationalizations in the Doctrine of Discovery as that part of the cross that represents “sovereign antagonism” rather than the part that represents “amorous agonism,” but Newcomb and other Native writers such as Tink Tinker (whose powerful description of this phenomenon was posted on The New Polis a few months back) insist that the deep cognitive structure exists in much of contemporary law and politics, whether or not it presents as Christian or secular.
A political theology of the earth, were one to exist, would at least require the revocation of the Doctrine of Discovery by both the Vatican and the Protestant-derived governments such as the United States, who continue to keep it on the books justifying their property systems. Is this the revelatory intersectionality that Botwinick sees informing liberal society? Botwinick pushes further back to Maimonides, who also makes an appearance in the Levinas essay.
Levinas, as I said, is trying to distinguish a difference informing the Jewish concept of Revelation. Like Native Americans, he must insist on a continued presence that persists with intergenerational trauma. As he writes, “For many Jews, the only meaning of sacred history and the Revelation it brings us is to be found in their memories of the stake, the gas chambers, and even the snubs dealt to them publicly in international assemblies or implicitly in the refusal to allow them to emigrate” (192).
The uniqueness of the Jewish people, for Levinas, is tied to the Book through Revelation as itself the product of displacement and diaspora. He writes, “Even their land rests on the Revelation. Their nostalgia for the land is is nourished by texts, and owes nothing to any organic attachment to a particular piece of soil.” Levinas emphasizes the continued presence of Revelation for modern Jews in the course of History sustained by the Torah, the Talmud, and the oral Torah (which is also written down).
Here the likeness to Native American situations ceases to be effective, for their relationship to the land is not abstracted in an inorganic or alienated way, though many have been forcibly moved over several centuries. One need not be a Native to see the bitter irony at work when people who continue to benefit from their displacement discuss a “political theology of the earth.” Still, as Levinas’s essay shows, the particularly exilic ways that Jewish diaspora has worked is tied to the notion of Revelation.
As echoed wonderfully in Guy Stroumsa’s The End of Sacrifice, Levinas details the post-temple diaspora and the development of interrogative midrash (194). Discursiveness and listening are emphasized as well. In this diaspora, multiplicities are held together by Revelation.
I do not mean that truth is anonymously produced in History, where it finds its ‘supporters’! On the contrary, I am suggesting that the totality of the truth is made out of the contributions of a multiplicity of people: the uniqueness of each act of listening carries the secret of the text; the voice of Revelation, in precisely the inflection lent by each person’s ear, is necessary for the truth of the Whole. The fact that God’s living word can be heard in a variety of ways does not mean that the Revelation adopts the measure of the people listening to it; rather, that measure becomes, itself, the measure of Revelation. The multiplicity of people, each one of them indispensable, is necessary to produce all the dimensions of meaning; the multiplicity of meanings is due to the multiplicity of people. (195)
In this language we might see something appealing to Botwinick in his citation of Levinas’s idea of the messianic in defense of liberalism, but Levinas remains explicit in his distinction of a particularly Jewish tradition. “Thus it is the Talmud which allows us to distinguish the Jewish readings of the Bible from the Christian or ‘scientific’ readings of historians or philosophers. Judaism is indeed the Old Testament, but read through the Talmud” (197).
The discursive qualities of the Talmud lend a processual quality to Revelation that Keller’s constructive theology can appreciate. Again, it is reasonable to see why both Keller and Botwinick may want to make connections to values underwriting liberalism here, but I doubt especially in Botwinick’s case that his article on “weak messianism” as the root for liberalism would be widely received among “secularists” if Levinas’s descriptions of Revelation were emphasized within it.
And indeed, some Jewish people may not agree with Levinas’s descriptions of the continuity of Judaism I have quoted here, but my aim is to address what’s at stake for Keller and Botwinick situating weak messianism at the outset of liberalism. Levinas continues,
The Revelation is this continual process of hermeneutics, discovering new landscapes in the written or oral Word, uncovering problems and truths locked within each other. As such, it is not only a source of wisdom, the path of deliverance and elevation; it is also the food of the life of knowledge, and the enjoyment (jouissance) which goes with it. Thus Maimonides, in the twelfth century, could attach the same pleasure and happiness to the hermeneutics of Revelation that Aristotle attaches to the contemplation of pure essences in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics. (199)
Here is Maimonides’ appearance in the Levinas essay cited by Botwinick. The passage underscores the optimism Botwinick reads in citing Maimonides as a proto-liberal because it unites the Jewish hermeneutic and revelatory tradition with the Greek philosophical one. Moreover, one could say that Levinas here is in line with recent work on Jewish history such as Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion without compromising his claims to the continued uniqueness of the Jewish tradition.
As Levinas says, “The formulation of articles of faith is a philosophical or theological genre that came to Judaism late” (199). Rather than faith, he emphasizes hermeneutics as ritual. He goes on to distinguish between Halakhah as conduct and practical laws in the Torah in tension with Aggadah as apologues, parables that are theological and philosophical, but he grounds both of them in a Jewish concept of Law that demands something beyond any one person’s ability (200). It is this concept of Law as an imperative, a command, that Levinas says produces the rupture that makes “man.”
Here Levinas develops an androcentric theme within Judaism attentive to the Law, especially against “the grip of custom and terror, and the Machiavellian state with its ‘state reasons'” (202).
But man is also the irruption of God within Being, or the bursting out of Being towards God; man is the fracture of Being which produces the act of giving, with hands which are full, in place of fighting or pillaging. This is the where the idea of being chosen comes from, an idea which can deteriorate into pride, but originally expresses the awareness of an appointment which cannot be called into question; an appointment which is the basis of ethics and which, through its in disputability, isolates the person in his responsibility. (202)
And this is the paragraph that gives context to Botwinick’s citation concerning the Messiah and duration. But I want to cite a longer passage than Botwinick does before moving into Sarah Pessin’s work.
Man is questioned at his judgment by a justice which recognizes this responsibility; mercy — the rahamim –. the trembling of the uterus in which the Other (L‘Autre) gestates within the Same, God’s maternity, if we can call it that, attenuates the rigors of the Law (without ever suspending it in principle, although it can go so far as to suspend it in fact). Man can what he must; he shall master the hostile forces of History and bring into the messianic reign foretold by the prophets. The awaiting of the Messiah is the duration of time itself — waiting for God — but the waiting no longer attests to the absence of Godot, who will never come, but rather to a relationship with that which is not able to enter the present, since the present is too small to contain the Infinite. (203)
In Levinas’s description of a Jewish anthropology, ‘man’ is constituted through the irruption of God within Being through a commandment that exceeds man’s capacity. In doing so, the fracturing delivers one’s own-most responsibility, for the decision in the face of the infinite is entirely one’s own. But I do not think that this fractured individuation is what liberals generally mean by the ‘self’ or even an entity who possesses inalienable rights.
Levinas makes this clear in his later work after Otherwise than Being, and it is especially present in his lectures collected as God, Death, and Time. There, situating a critique of Heidegger’s being-toward-death, Levinas explicitly critiques the conundrum of death-as-experience or the end of experience because this confuses the content of time with time itself. Instead, Levinas asks, is there a more passive aspect to time characterized by the waiting of duration itself?
It appears to me that the passivity of time irreducible to experience itself is what Levinas means by “the awaiting of the Messiah is the duration of time itself.” Moreover, that awaiting element is only made into something like a lived experience through a particularly Jewish concept of Revelation. That relation is 1) Biblical, yet combined with both oral and written Talmud, which exists within history yet is never removed from Revelation in its prescriptive sense derived from Moses’ encounter with God’s back-parts (Exodus 33: 21-23), and 2) it is accentuated and experienced by the traumatic suffering of Jews in exilic diaspora throughout history.
To appropriate this “election” to the status of the liberal, rights-bearing subject appears to me to be an example of an allergy to difference. Sarah Pessin has taken up this Levinasian theme in relation to William Connolly’s work with tremendous nuance in some of his earlier work in a way that might accentuate what Botwinick is after without in terms of a viable democratic process but which does not anchor a weak messianism at the outset of modern liberalism.
To summarize the connection I see with Connolly briefly here, I point to a “hopeful” closing statement from his later book, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (which is not addressed in Pessin’s article). Connolly has at this point in his book described the aggregated possibility of a political change through intentional modes of being. This echoes the activist modes of affect that I referred to in my previous post with Chandra Russo’s work. One can readily see the experimental and entrepreneurial mode in his conditional language.
If action in each zone begins to reverberate with those in others, a positive resonance machine will surge into being. If it lifts off, it will be more potent than the sum of its parts. Of course a new series of injuries and modes of suffering may emerge from its very success, requiring additional rounds of creative action. A tragic vision with meliorist potential, appreciating the volatilities and interdependencies between multiple zones of being anticipates surprise amid periodic moments of success, without knowing with confidence what the surprises will be. (145)
Such a vision in the context of environmentalism combines a tragic “weak messianism” with machinist (and Deleuzean) language that in its ambiguity could support a fracking advertisement or an oil-pipeline. But perhaps I am just taking him too far out of context here. My point is that, while the language of liberal-infused affect theory may challenge discourse on sovereignty (Berlant), or what Keller refers to as the part of the cross concerned with antagonism, such critiques of subjectivity — while welcomed as critiques — do not get at what Levinas was after. And as Sarah Pessin’s work shows, this risks an allergy to difference.
More agonistically in relation to Keller’s project, such Christian agape-informed grounds for political commensurability are neither agonistic enough to deal with what is at stake in environmental concerns for a political theology of the earth, nor are they capable of moving into a listening relationship with Indigenous peoples that goes beyond a liberal politics of recognition. Here, I want to turn to Sarah Pessin’s work giving nuance to Connolly’s portrayal of agonism.
In “From Mystery to Laughter to Trembling Generosity,” Sarah Pessin argues that “Levinas’ own phenomenology serves as a much needed model for the kind of generous comportment that atheists and theists need on our path to respectful agono-pluralism” (616). Pessin praises Connolly for articulating an agonistic grounding of incompleteness and authorial humility that would evidence a possibility for a postsecular political formation (621). Agonism in this articulation founds a pluralistic generosity grounded in a shared mystery.
Connolly had suggested that laughter as a mysterious affective condition might be able to ground a common condition between the atheist and the theist that could ground a shared civic space within liberal society, and he points to Nietzsche. But Pessin sees something hostile in that kind of laughter and comes to distinguish various forms of laughter (1, 2, 3, & 4) and a tension with which she calls a “trembling” laughter informed by Levinas.
Without embarking here on a full phenomenological inquiry, we may say that ‘trembling’ has to do not simply with striking a tone of seriousness (which one might say too of Laughter 1), but with striking a tone of seriousness related to a radical humility in response to something radically external to oneself that limits oneself in some radical way. (631)
That trembling laughter ought to resonate with the “trembling uterus” of “God’s maternity” in the long passage from Levinas above. With respect to this mystery, Pessin refers to Levinas’s idea of the “third” perspective between and “beyond” myself and the other, and combined with my reading above we ought to see some resonance with a “pregnant” conditionality at work here.
In Levinas’ ethical phenomenology of responsibility, there arises a mood that can at once inspire theists and atheists to supplement or inflect (not replace) their existing belief-contents and theirexisting ‘open and laughing’ and ‘open and trembling’ comportments in ways thathelp them comport in open and trembling terms to one another: Taking ‘com- portment cues’ from Levinasian phenomenology can help further open up thetheist from communion with and trembling in the face of God to (additionally)communion (in agonistic respect) with and trembling in the face of atheists (and others). (632)
Phenomenologically writing, the difference between myself and the other from which I (in a liberal, identity-consumed way) articulate my own identity cannot be distinguished apart from “my” other’s relation to an “other,” and that third other would not only witness my necessarily relational violence toward the second-person other that violently congeals into the idea from which I come to be “I.” She would suffer a violent injustice that “I” always-already cannot be aware of.
Or, as Pessin writes,
Because of the interruptive structure of any society (of any group, that is, of more than two), I live always and only in the awareness that I am often (and unavoidably, and at heres-and-nows unknown and unknowable to me) doing harm in all kinds of ways and to all sorts of people in spite of my best intentions, and as inescapably part and parcel of my committed actions towards justice. Here, there could hardly be anything less appropriate than a Nietzschean laughter of affirmation. (634)
For Levinas, it is a kind of trembling presence underwriting the possibility of laughter that would be a more accurate conception of a grounded space between theist and atheist. This ground is importantly related to Keller’s opening qualification with which I began my previous post — “If the moment of crisis is open at its edge, its eschatos, as kairos, it seems that a specter of ‘messianicity’ (Derrida) starts to materialize within it. A historically worn yet inexhaustible possibility shoots – like the shuttle out of the loom – through the tangles of impossibility. It might make up in creativity what it lacks in power” (17).
It may seem strange at first to compare this moment of laughter in Connolly with the Pauline eschatos in Keller, by way of Pessin. Moreover, this language of theist versus atheist is situated against animosities between “right” and “left” in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Writing against liberal tendencies to situate political differences within themes of love and friendship, Pessin continues to draw on Levinasian modes of comportment that stress responsibility to the other outside of love and forgiveness, whether of the Oprah variety or the Christian agape one. In an article titled “America’s Love Problem,” she writes,
But as Levinas emphasizes in his critique of same-making as a totalizing allergy to difference (e.g. Totality and Infinity, 47, et al.), this quest to know my neighbor conceals a consumptive desire to make my neighbor into myself, to assure myself that the Other is “just like me” or at least enough like me to make me comfortable. In its unifying and same-making desire, liberal philiac hope at once hides and cultivates an allergy to difference.
Yet, the Christian theology Keller is describing as a political theology of the earth persists, despite a fleeting reference to Miguel De La Torre’s Embracing Hopelessness, to engage in hopeful work, although with the following qualifier.
So, instead of confusing it with optimism, I would rather hold hope’s feet to the fire of its most amorous – most remaining – desire. Its present tense then contracts our past with our possibility. And every possibility is a lurch into a future present. But when hope ex-cepts itself from the thick copresence of what matters, pronounce it “hype.” (90)
Let me be clear once again that I believe Keller is going in the right direction with respect to discourse on political theology, and my critique of Connolly’s language above is meant to accentuate the benefits I see in her orientation fora political theology of the earth.
Nevertheless, following De La Torre and Tink Tinker (to whom his book is dedicated), I feel obligated to see Keller’s book itself as eurochristian “hype.” It is a game of nuanced repositioning that has, thankfully, developed amid some idea of self-critique. But despite disavowals in white-masculinity, empire, bad charismatic leaders who pretend to strong forms of sovereignty, etc. … the work seems more concerned with re-articulating a form of Christianity in politically-present form than it is in taking the earth, which precedes and exceeds these notions, seriously.
For me, especially as the book moves in its later half toward process-based work, it cannot but echo, all qualifiers included, a deeply entrenched Hegelianism. This is largely due to my alignment with Tink Tinker’s reading of eurochristianity as a social movement, not as a ‘religion’, because ‘religion’ is already a Christian notion, especially in its modern conception (echoed in Masuzawa and Chidester).
In other words, the liberal work of waiting, even when informed by poststructuralist tendencies toward delay (that I am not sure thinkers like Derrida would agree with), affirm themselves as a Notion of Spirit unfolding. Indeed, that unfolding may mean the end of humanity as such, and its theodicy is reaffirmed in concepts such as the anthropocene and more interspecies awareness. True, it may not be the linearly progressive progress narrative of oversimplified models of sublation, nor a Kantian view of “perpetual peace,” but Keller’s book by the end is still a story of hope.
Part of this is, as I noted earlier, rooted in Muñoz’s queer rearticulation of Bloch in Cruising Utopia. De La Torre’s conception of hopelessness (Keller blurbed the book) argues that “To be hopeless is neither ideological nor depressing, because the inevitable is accepted. To be hopeless is to be emboldened, knowing that a different result is not dependent on us (we are not the savior)” (141). Should part of my own hopelessness be in the fact that eurochristians like myself in the one-dimensionality of liberalism merely repeat the folly of hope like a dog returning to vomit (Proverbs 26:11)?
This perpetual returning, in Levinas’s terms, is to the Same. Christianities so often do this, even in their secularized and ‘New Age’ articulations, which constantly search for a flattened Basileia tou theou. In forgetting the verticality of the antagonistic sovereign for a horizontally amorous agonism, the content of space and time remain Christian, even if that Christianity presents itself as waiting in a form of “weak messianism.”
This is part of Pessin’s critique of Connolly as well, which she articulates as a trembling laughter. As she concludes, “Returning to our comparison with Connolly, Levinas’ ‘open and trembling’ comportment is more compelling than Connolly’s laughing one because it highlights a viable civic mood in which both theists and atheists can generously reach out across the aisle, in this way better helping us arrive at Connolly’s own stated goal of arespectful agonistic pluralism” (634).
Again, I relate Pessin’s use of “open and trembling” to the longer quotation from which Botwinick pulls the line on the Messiah and duration. But as I have argued, that trembling in God’s maternity is specifically informed by a Judaism in which the Talmud, both oral and written, persist in a lineage that goes back to Sinai. When Christians, through agape seek to describe a space of waiting through amorous agonism, they risk conflating two different registers of waiting. Yes, they are similar, but not the same.
Again, despite these criticisms, there is a lot of useful information and analysis in Keller’s book. For example, she does invoke a helpful conception of Donna Haraway’s, which pushes us beyond androcentrism.
Haraway’s barely utterable Cthulucene brings home the unnameability of this time that begins as an ending, that ends the holism of the old – “new” kainos of the 11,700-year Holocene. According to Thomas Berry, the inspiration of a persistent tradition of multi religious ecoactivism, we have terminated not just the Holocene time of climate stability but the “Cenozoic sixty-five million years of geo-biological development. Extinction is taking place throughout the life-systems on a scale unequaled since the terminal phase of the Meeozoic Era.” (91)
Haraway’s term, however, in its reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, speaks well to the “dark forces” that occlude hope. In fact, as De La Torre’s Embracing Hopelessness articulates, it is this impulse toward hope within Christian political theology since Moltmann that, far from being liberating in theological form has sustained the ideological allegiances to white, middle-class, eurochristian privileges that support the economic and social systems that have given birth to the conditions we live in, largely at the expense of Indigenous “others.”
And this is not only a criticism of Keller’s book, which in so many ways pushes toward better ways of thinking, but it’s a criticism of the discourse of political theology and religious studies more generally, which maintains a eurochristian myopia despite lip-service to social justice movements. It is a theological-political position summed up best by Tink Tinker, when he says eurochristians love to say they’re sorry for the past but at the end of the day their disposition is, “but I can still keep the land, right?”
That is the problem with any weak messianic conception of a political theology of the earth: Christendomination has wielded its power in an ever-transforming casuistry of the cross to such a successful extent that even secularists and atheists, who form their anti-faith against and thus reinforce christendom as much as any Protestant splintering start-up with a newly charismatic leader, remain Christian. They celebrate their Christianity even in their antichristianity as much as English Puritans celebrated their christianity in their antipathy to Rome. Always, as Levinas’s conception of the third attests, albeit on a different, preconceptual level, this identity-structured othering between Christian, Jew, and Muslim — the “religion(s) of the book” — commits its injustice on the lives of multitudes of “thirds.”
To take a recent example of how this problem continues to play out in real life situations, at a conference I attended last month at Iliff School of Theology I was able to listen to a panel of Native people speak concerning what to do with a book of Christian history that had been bound in the flayed skin of a Native man and gifted to the School, where it was proudly displayed for 80 years before being removed from display. The cover/skin had been removed and repatriated to the American Indian Movement in the early 1970s under a non-disclosure agreement, but the unbound book remains locked away / protected in the library (Tink Tinker has written on this).
As a Lakota elder named Robert Cross said at the conference, regarding Turtle Island (the continent of the “Americas”): “Now, the less I see of the Turtle, the more I see of destruction. It’s only less than 200 years that the Lakota as a whole met Europeans. There were brief encounters before but not all of us. You [Europeans] think in terms of time, but you don’t see even from that perspective, that’s short. It’s less than a minute of time…[But] We are called primitive, unable to ‘let go'”… (from my own conference notes).
Cross went on to discuss the problem with separating the skin/cover from the book itself, which is exactly the problem of trying to separate the environmentalist notion of a political theology of the earth from the christian colonialism that still affects Native Americans and exemplified in the current American politics a drama that mask erasure. Cross said,
I’d heard about it [in the 1970s] and asked why the whole book wasn’t taken. I refuse to read it or even touch it. As a human being I think that’s really tragic. That cover should never have been taken off that book because the book had become the body. We have a Lakota word, Shihtuhn[I’m guessing on spelling]— Energy and “feelings”. When you take something and reconstruct it, you’re utilizing those feelings. They’re passed from one person to another. That energy kicks in when you want to hug someone. And anger has to be made up for. The skin and the book should not have been separated because they were together. Why can’t we deal with this in a common human way? Because it’s hidden from us.
Anger has to be made up for. And in these words it’s hard to not see the ways that the anger that eurochristians brought to Turtle Island played itself not just in violence toward humans but in the environmental exploitation that continues today. While so many eurochristians are thoroughly unwilling to entertain this subject because “it was all in the past” or “Christians are different now, we’ve learned from our mistakes,” etc., we have not done anything until we have divested in both land and the political privileges of systems founded upon the exploitation and destruction of lands and peoples that the accumulated wealth of generations sustains in so few today. This is not something that can wait, and messianism — weak or not — is irrelevant here.
That anger that Mr. Cross spoke of is not just played out by the powerful and the corrupt. It is the mimetic violence of the European poor who went to new lands and inflicted their trauma on others, only to claim that their stolen land was an exceptional place that will not tolerate new immigrants. It is the logic of an affective system so deeply entrenched in the cross that the still small voice of continuing Christian domination, even in the form of “weak messianism,” must be met with scrutiny. Because it’s not just a matter of saying sorry and asking for forgiveness when you and the political systems that support you are still dominating and perpetrating destruction of environment and other people.
In Levinas’s terms, Indigenous people are the “third,” the ones hurt by the various otherings or religions “of the Book.” But at least in Levinas’s terms there is some kind of accountability to this third — an accountability that would resist the relegation to the universalizing politics of recognition that liberalism seeks in its arrogation toward the occupation of infinite space and division. As De La Torre says, you are not the Savior.
And this is surely a difference between Levinas’s articulation of the third and how injustices continue to play out between people in the actuality of daily existence, which is why I tend to agree with Sarah Pessin’s civic project she calls “Hate and Protect,” which she described in a public radio interview a few months back. Drawing again on Levinas’s notion of an allergy to difference, Pessin describes the all-too-common liberal tendency to subsume the other in loving arms of what I see as eurochristian agape.
I would push this conception to dealing more directly and ethically with Indigenous people who have cared for the environment and dealt with environmental destructions of the worst kinds before employing the language of capitalist innovation or liberally passive conceptions of weak messianism.
Our eurochristian allergy to difference, our discomfort with sitting with those we hate, is tempered by Levinas’s idea of being “hostage” to the Other. For Pessin’s civic project, this is about the current political climate of “rancor or rainbows” and finding a third way for maintaining responsibility without absorbing the Other. It is thus counter-intuitive to the amorous agonism that Keller describes and the good intentions that go along with it. That is another step in the right direction.
But Eurochristians have hated and “protected” Native Americans so much that they have for five hundred years been loving the “Other” into themselves and sublating as they twirl toward new freedoms and new democratic “horizons,” processually going with the flow of what Hegel called Spirit back in the early nineteenth century. People love to cite Francis Fukuyama on the “end of history” and the “last man,” and Fukuyama himself has been concerned about out “post-human” future, but maybe a better conception of a political theology of the earth would call for the end of Spirit.
It is to this materialist critique of Spirit, one that is not accounted for in the horizontally described amorous agonism of Keller or the liberal horizons of Botwinick’s argument for a weak messianism at the heart of liberalism, that I will return to in my next post in this series.
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.