Political Theology:

The politics of the atonement

posted by J. Kameron Carter

The premise of Paul W. Kahn’s Political Theology (a premise that, on the whole, I agree with) is that imagining a decisive break between the theological and the secular is not the best way to understand modern politics, and certainly not American political experience. Contra Mark Lilla, whose position represents in theoretical terms what more popularly is cast axiomatically as the separation of church and state, Kahn argues that modern politics is not a disavowal of religious experience, nor even of the theological as such. Rather, modern, secular politics is itself a new mode of the religious. In saying this, Kahn is not making a normative claim. His project is not constructive in the sense of trying to redirect the political imaginary. He is not affirming this imaginary by saying this is the way politics should be, “that politics must be put back on a religious foundation.” Rather, Kahn’s enterprise is a phenomenological or “descriptive” one. It aims, he says, “to explore the political imagination we have,” apart from the question of “whether or not we should have it.”

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What does political theology describe that at the same time eludes political theory? Political theology begins with the existential, and thus pre-legal, moment of revolution and sacrifice to make sense of modern political experience; for revolution, as a form of war, entails sacrifice. That is to say, in war, sovereignty, or preserving the life of the people at all costs, is affirmed. But at the origins of political experience, life, or society, is not merely defended. In the beginning, or, in theological language, at the “Creation” of sovereignty, the community of the living is constituted, as are the structures put in place so that it can be maintained. This constituting moment is called revolution. It is the exceptional moment, the moment of the (declared) exception, the moment of (popular) sovereignty.

But is this just an example of an incomplete break from “premodern forms of religious influence on political order”? No, says Kahn: political theology argues instead for “the discovery of the persistence of forms of the sacred in a world that no longer relies upon God. [It] argues that secularization, as the displacement of the sacred from the world of experience, never won, even though the church may have lost. The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.”

Here we are at the heart of Kahn’s argument. Indeed, it is the key point that Kahn insists must be taken away from Carl Schmitt’s classic Political Theology: Four Chapters on Sovereignty, around which his own book is structured. First published in 1922, at the dawn of the Weimar era in Germany and on the heels of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which effectively subordinated Germany to England and France (its two main rival European powers) and stripped it of its colonial holdings—forcibly rendering it, as one theorist has said, “a postcolonial state in a still colonial world”—Schmitt’s Political Theology offered an account of contemporary political experience given the crisis of (German) sovereignty, or the collapse of German peoplehood. Schmitt saw this moment of political crisis as an existential crisis tantamount to death, and as a threat to which liberal political theory as such could not respond. Surrounded by perceived enemies without (its revival European and imperial competitors) and within (the Jew as abject), Germany faced an existential crisis that could be summed up in the Shakespearean phrase: “to be or not to be . . . .” Thus, Schmitt took the question of the political to be at best only secondarily a question of law or constitutionalism. It was principally a question, rather, of authenticity, of being. Hence, “the political,” as Kahn explains, “begins with the distinction of friends from enemies. This is a world in which subjecthood—who you are—makes all the difference.” Schmitt understood that the future of Europe would develop in accordance with such a concept of the political.

Kahn’s objective is to seize upon Schmitt’s deepest insights precisely at this juncture. Now, while I wish he would have done more reflection on the issue of identity (i.e., identity as subject and object, and even more, as abject, as Jews came to be figured within the political field, of which he says nothing at all; I will return to this below), Kahn is surely right to attend to this part of the Schmittian description of politics, sovereignty, and the exception in his effort “to develop a political theology for our [post-Cold War, post-September 11] time.”

When political theology takes the Western political imagination as its object of inquiry—in Schmitt’s case, post-World War I Germany; in Kahn’s and our case, the United States in the age of the war on terror—what is discovered? Kahn argues that one finds an imagination of the exception, or of exceptionalism, as a practice of “ultimate meaning.” Exceptionalism functions within a political and social imaginary fueled by a quest to secure national life by holding at bay an imagined death (think of the ticking time bomb scenario, which the television series 24 put on cinematic display) at the hands of a perpetual if undefined enemy.

This imaginary thus includes as a basic possibility the suspension of law and the use of violence. Exceptionalism, in other words, functions within an imaginary that rests, beyond the rule of law, on the sovereignty of the people, which, before being legal, is first and always existential, a sovereignty that decides who lives and who must die for the sake of life itself, or the preservation of the people. Within this framework for understanding modern political experience, sovereignty is what enables law (not the other way round) and law is shaped by sovereignty, which, as a logic of sacrifice, is invested in securing life over death—by means of death.

The experience of political sovereignty for the sake of life over death, or for the sake of the life that at all costs must stave off death, exceeds theory and discourse. It is a matter of authenticity and freedom, through which the sacred—our own sacredness—appears in history. This is what political theology describes as it looks back to the originary moment of sovereignty, and it is what liberal or political theory cannot describe, and cannot describe because of what might be thought of as its own melancholic disavowal and reinscription of its origins.

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From my perspective as a theologian and critical theorist of religion, one of the great gifts of Kahn’s book, as a constructive interaction with Schmitt on the notion of the exception, are the possibilities that it opens up for understanding what’s at stake in the discourse of theology as a mode of humanistic inquiry into the current political machinations of our world, and of America as a state of exception/alism. With Kahn we begin to understand why theology ought not to be reduced to being the parochial or fideistic pursuit of like-minded, if at times fractious, believers and increasingly inconsequential theologians, though far too often, certainly, it is this too. As Carl Schmitt once said, in a letter to Jacob Taubes, “everything is theological, except what the theologians are talking about.” Zeroing in on the heart of Schmitt’s thinking about the political (despite that he put his insights to fascist ends), Kahn calls attention to the form of political life that is coordinated with Christian theological and doctrinal ideas. And it’s worth saying again that I speak of the Christianity that has been collapsed into the project of West. Kahn has put his finger on how the political in which we have come to “live and move and have our being,” as St. Paul put it (Acts 17:28), is a theological field, a field, as I would put it, whose deepest operations remain “Christian”  (again, as it came to be bound up with Western hegemony), though it functions between the denial and the forgetfulness of its ongoing theological being.

Political theology refuses to dwell in such forgetfulness and denial. It attends to sovereignty as the alpha and omega of modern political experience.  It calls attention to the moment of destruction and construction, the moment of apocalyptic eschatology and sovereign creation, that lies at the heart of lived political experience, an experience that also lays claim to the sacred. The political is a sacred field. Inasmuch as it is a correlate of Christian theology, it sovereignly posits itself as “a joint community of gods and men” (Cicero), the community of the God-Man. This is the moment of sovereignty, the constitutive moment of We the People.

Moreover, political theology understands that mediating between eschatology (the telos of such a community) and creation (its origin), between death (as a threat to the community) and life (as its preservation at all costs), is atoning sacrifice. Therefore, atonement is at the heart of the political. Kahn notes, “Our tradition of the theological—in both its religious and political forms has always modeled that double moment of destruction and creation as sacrifice. Sacrifice has been our tradition in the democratic revolutions of the past, on the battlefields of the great wars of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and perhaps now in the sites of confrontation with the terrorist.”

Kahn’s final chapter brings the argument home by turning to the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. This story of sacrifice is the singular narrative of the preservation of the father(-land) in the person of Abraham and the appearance of the divine or the sacred in history to authorize or legitimate self-preservation. History, Kahn notes, unfolds as sovereign sacrifice for sake of the life of the people. This biblical story is at the root of modern politics. It portrays our politics as a politics of sacrifice, which is to say, as a politics that carries out a logic of atoning death to preserve the nation. It is a story in which the human is conceived of as fundamentally a sacrificial animal, a being caught within a kind of “death contract” (Abdul JanMohamed), or within a politics that is always and fundamentally a “necropolitics” (Achille Mbembe).

Theologically, this way of understanding the story of the sacrifice of Isaac eventually became a hermeneutical key for interpreting the death of Jesus Christ, who in classical Christian thought is the God-Man, the head of the ecclesial community. In this way, modern political experience, as the experience of sovereignty, acquired footing in the life of Jesus Christ (i.e., Christology) and in his death (i.e., soteriology, or atonement theory). All of this is to say that death is a most strange political gift, as we have learned from Jacques Derrida, a gift in dialectical relationship with life.

To grasp the deep architecture of the political today, therefore, is to venture into the theological domains of Christology and especially atonement, that area of theology (particularly, Christian theology) that deals with the logic of (redemptive) death. But the journey cannot be simply phenomenological in the way Kahn carries it out. Or, put differently, it may need to be phenomenological, but in a way that Kahn himself has not considered. Atonement thinking, and the “death contract” that binds politics, must, from within a different phenomenology (and therefore from within a different approach to political theology), be redirected. There must be a new future of death and the political.

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I have only scratched the surface of Kahn’s richly provocative and, indeed, on so many levels, clarifying text, mainly in celebration of what he has accomplished in it. But I have also just suggested that we must not rest with his phenomenology of the political. I want to conclude with a few thoughts meant to gesture toward what I mean.

Earlier I mentioned that I wish Kahn would have reflected more on the issue of identity formation (i.e., the making of subjects, objects, and abjects) in the constitution and in the telos of the politico-theological field of political experience. This is an important matter, for it provokes the question of what an account of modern political experience, generally, and U.S. exceptionalism, particularly, might look like if it were tied to actual bodies in the world. It is precisely here that Kahn’s account of political theology does not go far enough.

For the most part, Kahn carries out his fine analysis of political theology from a vantage point that privileges those constituted as subjects in the political field of the sovereign We the People. What might a politico-theological examination of the political look like if it were carried out from the vantage of those constructed as “enemy,” or, moreover, (and this is what I’m most interested in) from the vantage of those deemed “abject”?

My colleague Rey Chow (see The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism), drawing on Julia Kristeva, Elizabeth Grosz, and others, notes that abject is that which is neither wholly a part of the body nor wholly apart from it. Examples of abject substances are tears, saliva, feces, and urine. In terms of political theology as a description of the field of the political, the abject is neither friend (subject) nor enemy (object). The abject exists in the zone between life (full citizenship) and death (the enemy as one who must be killed). As with tears and similar substances that are never fully expelled from the body but that it rather produces as waste matter to maintain itself as a “clean and proper body,” so too is the abject within the field of political theology. Thus, even more than the enemy, it is the abject, as that which is produced in order to maintain the cleanliness and propriety of the body politic, that might prove to be key in understanding the field of the political as a sacred field of sacrificial sovereignty.

Thus, the abject is a figure neither of life nor of death but of living death, or, as Orlando Patterson has put it, of “social death.” This space in-between is both a precarious space of brutality and a flexible space that can be the harbinger of new possibilities. Kathleen McKittrick, in her work on black women in modern social space, has called this “the space between the legs” (see Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle). It is a space that crushes, but also a space that functions as a “loophole of retreat” (Harriet Jacobs), where the project of the human is carried out in a different key. In its flexibility, it is the space of the death of death itself and the space of new human life. The quintessential figure of this political space is the figure of the slave, modernity’s abject par excellence. Could it be that this is the sacrificial figure, along with this figure’s unassimilable progeny, who actually funds sovereignty or peoplehood in the making or constitution of normalized social and political space? And could it be that this is the figure who offers an alternative site, a space “to be” politically otherwise?

Most accounts of political theology today do not approach the political from the vantage of abjection. A qualified exception—no pun intended—can be found in the work of Giorgio Agamben. Agamben, however, theorizes the homo sacer (the abject) as passive, without agency, and therefore does not consider the possibility of an agency particular to the homo sacer—an agency through death itself. Put somewhat differently, death, according to Agamben, is that which acts upon the homo sacer, and not that through which it acts to risk transforming the political structure and experience of death itself. It is perhaps this mode of “abject agency” that Frederick Douglass, to cite but one example, gave voice to in his 1845 Narrative, in which, after his fight with Covey, he declared a “resurrection” of the abject self in the transformed subjectivity of the slave with the words, “I rose.”

My point in positing this other possibility is to suggest that the political experience of abjection, as a mode of being politically otherwise, can supplement, if not reorient, Agamben’s as well as Kahn’s (and others’) work on political theology. But for Kahn to have pulled off a phenomenology of this sort, one that begins with the lived experience of abjection and incorporates the friend-enemy-abject distinction as it has been pressed into the flesh, he would have needed a different set of interlocutors. Among these could have been transnational black intellectuals (or similarly positioned figures), a number of them contemporaries of Schmitt, who in thinking in terms of their own position of abjection, and the position of black folks more broadly in the socio-political and cultural world of modernity, were themselves engaged in reflections on political theology, though many of them did not use the term “political theology” to describe what they were doing. They had to think and act from within what W. E. B. Du Bois often referred to, in an allusion to the psalmist of the Hebrew Bible, as “the Valley of the Shadow Death.”

Besides Du Bois and Douglass, in this group we find thinkers like Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley, David Walker and Maria Stewart, and others like Richard Wright and Caribbean intellectuals Amié Césaire, Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, Édouard Glissant, and, contemporarily, Sylvia Wynter, Paul Gilroy, and Toni Morrison. This tradition of wide-ranging thinkers has approached the concerns of political theology, concerns over sovereignty in the creation and telos of the field of the political in colonial modernity (which of course is not apart from the field of the social and the cultural), from the sites of abjection and “social death.” Such abject sites are those of the slave ship, the transatlantic slave routes, the slave plantation, the black body itself, or what Fanon called “the lived experience of the black.” These were the sites where sacrificial sovereignty, or normalized peoplehood, was constituted—and contested—in modernity. These were sites of the death-world—the excremental sites, wastelands, archipelagoes (Wynter), and uninhabitable zones of under- and uneven development that helped maintain and regulate Western political life-worlds, worlds like the United States and the European metropoles.

In providing phenomenological descriptions of political sovereignty from the vantage point of abjection, black intellectuals of the sort just named have been involved in a project similar to the one Kahn embarks upon in Political Theology. They have been about the task of both describing and renarrating death, of trying to think toward a new future of atonement and therefore toward a new future of the political itself.

Perhaps the next horizon of political theology as a mode of inquiry is to learn from these and similar kinds of intellectuals. Perhaps it is to begin the work of political theology (understood as a phenomenology of the political) neither from the subject (the citizen) nor the object (the enemy), but from the abject (the one who is “both-and” and “neither-nor”). Until then, we have been given much to think about with Paul W. Kahn’s fine and timely book.

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