Ritually Atoning for America’s Original Sin

[Originally published at Truthout.]

We often hear from politicians that slavery is “America’s original sin.” This phrase has become a cliché, thoughtlessly intoned mostly by Democrats, though occasionally also deployed by Republicans in a bid to look like they are taking racism seriously. In most cases, it seems like little more than a way of gesturing at the unique gravity of racism. Nevertheless, if we take this bromide at its word – that grappling with racial oppression is not just a social or political problem, but also downright theological – it reveals the inherent deadlocks in liberal anti-racism.

Continue reading “Ritually Atoning for America’s Original Sin”

Thou shalt not lie

Immanuel Kant famously taught that we should treat all human beings as ends in themselves, and never simply as means. The categorical imperative imposes a complete prohibition against lying, because when someone lies, they treat the recipient of that lie not as an end in themselves, but as a means for the liar. When a lie is told, there is a fundamental breach––Kant calls this an annihilation––of a person’s dignity and autonomy. Many actions can be justified within a Kantian ethic; never lying.

I am becoming more Kantian by the day.

What we are witnessing today is not some postmodern moment where everything is relative. No, what we are witnessing today is a fundamental violation of Kant’s categorical imperative where a small group of right-wing extremists constantly lie to their listeners, and it is literally resulting in mass death. This is not sustainable.

When Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity––both fully vaccinated and part of a company that requires vaccination––get on television night after night and tell their viewers that Anthony Fauci is evil and that the Covid-19 vaccine is not trustworthy, they are lying. They are lying openly and they are lying unashamedly. They are using their viewers not as ends, but as means for their own political gain. Viewers of Fox News have dignity, and as that dignity is constantly violated by these bad men during a once in a century pandemic, said viewers are unnecessarily, but predictably, dying. This is not sustainable.

When these same right-wing commentators and politicians tell their listeners that President Biden has opened the southern border and that there are dangerous criminals flooding in, they are lying. Joe Biden has almost completely closed the border and he is likely violating international law by deporting asylum seekers, but half of America believes otherwise because people on television, radio, and pulpits have lied to them. The result of this lie ends up violating the basic dignity and autonomy of those who are credibly seeking help at our southern border, almost always leading to their further suffering and possible death. This is not sustainable.

From climate change to reproductive rights, the lies are nearly endless. I am actually not sure how to respond to a situation where half of the country is being lied to day after day. This might be where we need the psychoanalysts to explain that some people want to be lied to. But that still offers us no solution. In a world of lies where basic human dignity is being violated in such a blatant way, and where we see in real time the deadly results of those lies, the correct response must be political. The liars need to be defeated and their voices muted.

But is a politics built upon a prohibition of lying actually possible in a time when the liars are so loud? I’m genuinely not sure. But I am tired of watching family and friends get lied to again and again. I increasingly think that at a fundamental level Kant is right: we need a prohibition against lying. Humanity might literally depend on this.

LEST XIII Dissenting Church: Exploring the Theological Power of Conflict and Disagreement

Readers of the blog may be interested in the upcoming 13th Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology Conference, which will be taking place online from 20-23 October. The conference is free to attend, and you can register here.

I’ll be taking part in the final conference plenary as a keynote speaker. The theme for the panel is, “The theological power of conflict and disagreement?” Papers will be made available online before the conference and during the conference itself we’ll discuss the key ideas and arguments presented by the panellists. My paper is titled ‘Love your enemy: theology, identity and antagonism’, abstract as follows:

Christianity has always been characterised by disagreement, conflict, and inconsistency; so much so that it is tempting to define Christianity precisely as an ongoing disagreement about what it means to be a Christian. Theology has, for the most part, evaded this messy and embarrassing reality in favour of fantasies of wholeness, maintained by a range of strategies from sleights of hand, outright denial, or projection. Contestation cannot become a point of departure for theology so long as theologians are invested in denying its existence. To understand this desire for coherence, which grounds so much theological evasion, this paper draws on the work of Slavoj Žižek, whose materialist reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis offers resources for considering theology’s desire for unity, and suggests a number of possibilities for understanding, unsettling, and reworking our theological investments in fantasies of identity. As continental philosophy in the wake of Hegel has consistently held, however, we cannot understand self-relation and identity without also understanding the relationship between the self and the other. To consider contestation within Christianity, then, we must also pay attention to the fundamental antagonism which makes possible these internal conflicts: the distinction between Christian and non-Christian. This distinction is homologous with Carl Schmitt’s definition of the political as the dimension of human relations that concerns the distinction between friend and enemy. This paper, then, explores what it means to take seriously the centrality of the distinction between friend and enemy to the construction of Christian identity, and will consider what it would mean to undertake to love our enemies, our selves. 

Political Theology syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for this course, and also to Sean Capener, some of whose ideas for excerpts I have borrowed, and to Robin James, whose pitch/thinkpiece assignment I’ve adapted! I’ll be starting to teach my joint second- and third-year course on Political Theology next week and I’m somewhat nervously looking forward to it – I think of all the courses I’ve taught this is the one with the most texts that have most profoundly shaped my thinking, which I know can sometimes make it more difficult to teach well.

Module summary:
“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt began the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

Continue reading “Political Theology syllabus”

Christianity, Race and Colonialism reading questions

When I was preparing to teach my Christianity, Race and Colonialism module for the second time round, I realised that one of the main things I was trying to do in the module was to help students develop the skills to recognise the ways that the entanglements of Christianity, race and colonialism show up in the world around them. The module was assessed by an oral exam, where students were asked to analyse a theological text, and to answer the question ‘How does the text reflect and/or resist the entangled histories of Christianity, race and colonialism?’ I told my students that I wasn’t expecting them to go off and do a lot of additional research on top of the core readings for the module, because what I really wanted was for them to think about how they could take what they’d learnt from lectures, readings and seminars and apply them to other texts. One of the things I did to help them prepare for their assignment this time around was to put together a worksheet, where I briefly recapped what we’d covered each week, and gave them some questions they could ask of their chosen theological text to help them spot where key themes and ideas were showing up. It seemed that, for at least some students, this was helpful for thinking about how to draw connections between the material we’d covered in class and the texts they presented on for their oral exam – many of them certainly produced really excellent work, though I obviously can’t take all the credit for that. Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this, and I thought that as a pedagogical tool it might be of use and/or interest to readers of the blog:

Continue reading “Christianity, Race and Colonialism reading questions”

Help me plan a course on Political Theology

In September I’ll be teaching a joint second-and-third-year undergraduate course on political theology – by which I mean political theology as Adam helpfully defines it, ‘the study of the very relationship between politics and theology, centering on structural homologies and conceptual exchanges between the two fields.’ rather than just a course about politics and theology. I have a good sense of the broad ‘canon’ I’m working with (again, broadly along the lines that Adam sets out here), but much less of a sense of how to find and teach texts that undergraduates will find accessible and engaging. So I’m posting this in the hope that readers of the blog might be able to share any accumulated wisdom from teaching in this area. Which texts or authors work well for undergraduates? Which do not? Any suggestions/advice/tips gratefully received. As always, I’ll post my syllabus here once it’s done.

Here’s the module description I created when I first set up the module:

“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt set the terms for the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

Stop “trusting the science” and start trusting democracy

I’m an educator and a scholar by profession. So if you ask me, in the abstract, what students should do, I’m always going to go all out — do all the reading you can, pick the most challenging paper topic, take the courses that engage you the most intellectually, etc., etc. That’s because that’s my expertise and my life. If students come to me with problems that keep them from doing that, I’m happy to help them talk through their priorities, but I’m no more help than any other trusted person. I’m not a life coach, I’m an educator — I want to tell them how to get the best education.

The same thing happens with health professionals, I think. I have been having episodic symptoms that prompted my doctor to recommend I abstain from coffee and alcohol for a week and get back to him. When I told him the symptoms hadn’t come back under this new regime, his initial recommendation was for me to continue it for the rest of my life. And that’s fine. He’s a doctor and he’s going to give the maximal medical recommendation. It’s up to me to balance that with other quality of life concerns. (And to his credit, when I pushed back on his recommendation, he was happy to help me think of ways to experiment and strike a balance that works for me.)

This is all the more true when it comes to public health officials. If you ask them how you prevent the spread of covid, they will lead with the maximal plan, just like if you ask if vaccinated people pose a danger of spreading covid, they will say yes because there is still some miniscule danger. Just as it’s up to my students to figure out how to square their education with other concerns and up to me to figure out how to square my symptoms with quality-of-life concerns, so too it’s up to a democratic society to figure out how to square the public health officials’ advice with other factors.

Our elected representatives have mostly done a really shitty job of that — Republicans more than Democrats, of course, but across the board — and the answer to that is not to “trust the science” and just do whatever the expert commands you to do. The answer is a more robust democratic culture, including higher quality public officials with more creativity and integrity. And if the behavior of a big portion of our population makes you distrust democracy, keep in mind that they behaved that way in large part because they felt that the measures in question were an arbitrary imposition by some outside force, rather than the result of democratic deliberation in which they are invested — and on that point, and that point alone, they were correct. Public officials have tended to berate and bully and manipulate us rather than actually treating us like adults who live in a democratic society. That’s all they know how to do. That’s “best practices.”

We deserve better — all of us, including the asshole anti-maskers.

Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion Seminars

The Association is pleased to announce a series of online seminars between February and April 2021, featuring speakers who will be well known to readers of this blog. To attend, please email Steven Shakespeare on shakess@hope.ac.uk for a link.

All seminars run from 4pm – 5.30pm, GMT. 

Wednesday 17th February

Tommy Lynch, ‘Beyond Sovereign Subjects: Knowledge and Vulnerability’ Ferreira da Silva identifies a ‘transparent I’ as a key feature of modern racialised subjectivity. This paper examines the epistemic dimension of the transparent I and its role in constructing a vision of the sovereign subject. This sovereign subject’s agency is predicated on an ability to know self and world. Drawing on work in social epistemology (Tuana and Alcoff) and political philosophy (Mills), I argue that this knowledge and the resultant sovereign vision contain an essential ignorance. In contrast to this sovereign subject, I argue in favour of a politics of epistemic vulnerability.

Tuesday 9th March

Kirill Chepurin and Alex Dubilet, ‘Immanence, Genealogy, Delegitimation: On German Idealism and Political Theology’. This paper will in part be a presentation of Kirill Chepurin and Alex Dubilet (eds) Nothing Absolute: German Idealism and the Question of Political Theology (Fordham University press, 2021).

Tuesday 23rd March

Danielle Sands, ‘Religious Experience, Political Responsibility and the Muteness of the Animal’ In ‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,’ Derrida explores silence, via negative theology, as a “modality of speech.” Returning to the question of silence in The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida considers the apparent muteness of the nonhuman animal, opening the possibility “of acceding to a thinking […] that thinks the absence of the name and of the word otherwise, and as something other than a privation.” At first glance, Derrida’s focus on nonhuman animals’ disconnection from human language might feel misplaced in a context where increased knowledge of animal communication has begun to inform, as Eva Meijer outlines, “a theory of political animal voices.” Tracing Derrida’s understanding of the complexity of silence and its transformative potential to his earlier engagement with negative theology, in this paper, I shall consider whether Derrida’s revaluation of silence might complement rather than conflict with the work of Meijer and others.

Wednesday April 21st

Marika Rose, ‘A Political Theology of Disenchantment’ In this paper I will suggest that the invention of the secular and the modern takes place as and alongside the invention of sovereignty, private property, and a political, theological, and disciplinary concern for propriety. Rather than escaping the binary poles of the Christian and secular, then, in this paper I will explore the theme of magic, which is improper to both; and narratives of enchantment and disenchantment which have been important to the struggle between the Christian and the secular, as the secular has sought to escape the clutches of the Christian and the religious, and the Christian has sought to re-establish its sovereign power. If, on the one hand, disenchantment marks the break between medieval Christendom and secular modernity, then magic exists at the border of both, not so much lost in the transition as transposed from being Christendom’s rejected other to being modernity’s rejected other. It is this transposition which, I want to suggest, make both magic and enchantment proper – or, rather, improper – subjects for political theological enquiry, taking us not quite beyond but rather to the borders of and between the Christian and the secular

God bless us, every one

A Christmas Carol isn’t just a Christmas story, it’s the Christmas story (sorry baby Jesus), the one that brings us all together. Who can hate the heartwarming story of a lonely miser, moved to repentance, generosity, and kindness to his hard-worked employees? It’s tempting to read it as an inherently left wing story, except that it’s not just people on the left who love it; it’s everyone.

A central contradiction of capitalism is between the tendency, on the one hand, to erode people’s capacity to feed and house themselves, to take care of one another, to behave morally and believe in the morality of the system in order to maximise the extraction of profit and, on the other, the need to reproduce the system, to keep people alive in order that they may continue to be exploited, to keep people happy enough that they’ll keep doing what they’re expected, to maintain at least some kind of moral legitimacy so that we keep paying our bills and racking up debts. Capitalism wants to suck us dry and spit us out, but it also needs (some of) us to love our families, to feel hopeful about the future, to have children, to invest. This is the real meaning of Christmas, and of The Christmas Carol.

Continue reading “God bless us, every one”

What was blogging?

Yesterday I got into a fight on Twitter with the official WordPress account. My complaint was that they had imposed a new, inscrutable editor on us — not just a different interface, but a different paradigm for composing our posts — when it would cost them nothing to let us choose the old editor (which can be found with some effort; I am writing this post in “classic” mode right now). I was feeling some profound emotions about this situation, far out of proportion to the objective gravity of my complaints. I could after all just learn the new system, or I could content myself with workarounds, or I could change hosting services. Yet the very fact that I needed to take such extraordinary actions just to maintain the status quo made it feel like blogging was being stolen out from under me.

Blogging has been dead for a long time, of course. Continue reading “What was blogging?”