here & there

September 26th, 2014

Egypt’s uncertain future

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Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mounting chaos in the region —including unrest in Egypt and fighting in Gaza-Israel, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—has forced Egypt to the forefront of the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized during a recent visit to Cairo. As a report in Al-Monitor attempts to explain, the “Islamic Caliphate” model touted by ISIS poses problems for Sisi’s plans for a hypernationalist, secular state. As he attempts to consolidate power at home, President Sisi also finds himself playing a key role as mediator of the resurgent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. A Foreign Policy analysis described the “Sisi Doctrine” as “based on repression and stability,” an “outgrowth of [Egypt's] own domestic concerns about Islamism, militancy, terrorism, and instability.”

In the recent series on “The future of Egyptian democracy,” contributors to The Immanent Frame have tackled the various complexities of this situation. Many of our authors argued against the simplistic framing of Egyptian political forces as “Islamist vs. secularist.” Others highlighted the role of divine intervention and religious legitimacy in Egyptian politics, analyzed and critiqued democracy as a form of government, and reported on disturbing events in the aftermath of Sisi’s election, including the rise of the “deep state” and attempts to control mosques and pulpits. As part of a joint project with Religion Dispatches, contributing editor Austin Dacey has raised additional issues, including the exact role of secularism in the ongoing unrest and the Egyptian government’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.

September 10th, 2014

CFP: Religious and Political Values

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On November 26-28, 2014, Adyan and the Lebanese American University will host a conference on “Religious and Political Values” in Byblos, Lebanon. The conference builds on Adyan’s last international conference on “Religion and Democracy in Europe and the Arab World,” where participants emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in the role of religions in the public domain.

Adyan’s International Conference for 2014 attempts to respond to this intuition by providing a forum for different sectors of society to reflect on how to actualize definitions of political values and norms in Muslim and Christian discourse on the one hand, and to explore and promote dialogue about these values based on different worldviews on the other hand. This exploration is meant not only from an interfaith perspective but also from a public and scholarly perspective, where religions are invited to operate a shift from a normative discourse, and to endorse a dialogical role as part of the diverse society.

In doing so, the Conference seeks to put recent scholarship in social and political philosophy in more direct conversation with social and political theology, in Christianity and Islam specifically, and to confront both with questions and recommendations from leaders and policy makers active in the public domain.

A 300-word abstract and a 200-word bio should be sent to conference@adyanvillage.net by September 14th, 2014. For further details on the conference, and on the submission of proposals, read more here.

August 23rd, 2014

White House announces new women’s healthcare rules

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In the wake of this summer’s Hobby Lobby decision and Wheaton College order, the White House has announced a new regulation designed to reconcile recent accommodations for nonprofits and closely-held for-profits with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the Administration took several steps to help ensure women, whose coverage is threatened, receive coverage for recommended contraceptive services at no additional cost, as they should be entitled to under the Affordable Care Act.  The rules, which are in response to recent court decisions, balance our commitment to helping ensure women have continued access to coverage for preventive services important to their health, with the Administration’s goal of respecting religious beliefs.

—US Department of Health and Human Services

Read the full press release at HHS.gov.

Read more at MSNBC.

August 15th, 2014

On Religious-Secular Alliances

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In the most recent issue of The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) Quarterly, TIF contributor Slavica Jakelić, in an excerpt from her book manuscript The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms, argues that in order to understand the moral foundation and democratic potential of religious-secular alliances, it is important to move beyond the discourse of power.

Although religious-secular alliances transformed the political and social landscapes of the contemporary world, they are still mostly shrouded in a veil of silence. What are the reasons for that silence? Why don’t we talk more and know more about the collaboration between socialist and Catholic labor union leaders, between [Martin Luther] King and Asa Philip Randolph, between Father Józef Tischner and Adam Michnik in Poland, between Bishop Desmond Tutu and Chris Hani in South Africa?

One of the important reasons for the lack of discussions about such collaborations is the focus on conflict that has long defined our thinking about religions and secularisms. The emphasis on conflict, it is important to underline, is not without foundation. Historically, it highlights the real events in which religions and secularisms confronted each other—from various religious rejections of the secularizing aspects of modernity (liberalism and revolutions, religious freedom, and even democracy) to the anti-religious policies of the Soviet communist states (ranging from direct religious persecutions to more sophisticated modes of religious oppression and control). Sociologically, the view of religious-secular relations as defined by confrontation mirrors growing doubts about the secular states’ ability to address the challenges of pluralism. This view also stems from the persisting suspicions that some secularists and some believers have toward religious organizations and communities that demand a place and voice in public life.

Read the full essay here.

August 6th, 2014

Now broadcasting: Atheist TV

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Penn Jillette's Pink Mini Cooper with Nevada Atheist vanity plates | Image via Flicker user  Thomas AndersonStarting last week, atheists and nonbelievers everywhere now have a new station to add to their television lineup: Atheist TV. The channel, available online and through the Roku streaming service, is a project of American Atheists, an organization that dedicates itself to “fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion.”

The organization’s president, David Silverman, has big dreams for the little channel, which he hopes will “provide a breadth of content, from science to politics to comedy, all centered around our common freedom from religion.”

As the New York Times reports, at a party celebrating Atheist TV’s launch, Mr. Silverman focused particular ire on Discovery Communications. The company has produced shows such as “Finding Bigfoot” on Animal Planet and the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible.”

The channel, Mr. Silverman said in the first streamed broadcast, will have no psychics, no ghost hunters, no “science fiction presented as science fact,” and will be “a place we can call our own, where we can speak the truth as frankly as we want.” It intends, he said, “to promote the idea that religion can and should be criticized.” … “The TV networks kowtow to the liars who make money off of misinformation,” he said, singling out for special contempt outlets that mix silly supernatural gunk with more serious science and nature shows.

“The Discovery Channel treats ghosts like they’re real,” he said, adding later, “Bigfoot, psychics, aliens, ghosts, spirits, gods, devils — all bunk, all pushed by the so-called truthful and scientific stations in an effort to placate the waning religion segment at the expense of the growing segment of atheists who should be, but are not, their target audience.”

To counter, as they see it, this kind of content, Atheist TV currently hosts interviews with prominent atheists, footage from atheist meetings and conventions, and broadcasts of long-running cable show “Atheist Viewpoint.” As it is currently funded solely by donations, its content is limited. However, Silverman hopes Atheist TV will eventually host original programming, and he’s brought Liz Bronsteina veteran TV producer who also happens to be a veteran of Discovery Communicationsaboard.

As the BBC reports, atheists and nonbelievers in the US and Canada face high rates of discrimination, especially in comparison to other minority groups.

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre shows Americans would rather have a president who was either in their 70s, or openly gay, or who had never held any public office than one that was atheist.

One of Atheist TV’s new phone-in programmes, The Atheist Experience, has already had a taste of how many Americans perceive “non-believers”.

“So you were studying to be a minister, and now you don’t believe in God? You’re the devil,” one caller tells the host. “You’re a Marxist, you’re an atheist and you’re from Russia,” says another. …

The new TV channel is part of atheist groups’ own civil rights movement. But real acceptance, particularly for those serving in public office, in a country where no serving congressman or woman is openly atheist, could still be some way off.

Read more about Atheist TV via the American Atheists’ website.

July 31st, 2014

The renaissance of political theology

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When it comes to political theology, everything old is new again. At least that is the impression given by the growing interest in political theology within early modern literary studies—a dynamic relationship between past and present that often blurs our conventional delineations of what is new and what is old. Although political theology is traditionally recognized as a distinct problem of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—often understood as a stubborn and pervasive entanglement between the philosophical roots of religion and modern statecraft—early modern literary scholars have extended the boundaries of such a dilemma back into the early modern age, demonstrating the historical reach and enduring urgency of the fraught and fecund intersections of theology and political theory. Victoria Kahn’s The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (2013), reviewed here on The Immanent Frame, is only the most recent example in a spate of studies dedicated to questions of political theory, theology, and the literary imagination in early modern England. Such work includes Debora Kuller Shuger’s Political Theologies in Early Modern England (2003), Julia Reinhard Lupton’s Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005), Graham Hammill’s The Mosaic Constitution: Political Theology and Imagination from Machiavelli to Milton (2012), Joseph Jenkins’s Inheritance Law and Political Theology in Shakespeare and Milton (2014), and edited collections by Adrian Streete, Early Modern Drama and the Bible (2012), and Hammill and Lupton, Political Theology and Early Modernity (2012). With fourteen contributors included in the latter collection, the early modernist interest in political theology only seems to be increasing.

Such an outpouring of scholarship on early modernism and political theology raises the question: what does Renaissance London have to do with Athens and Jerusalem—or, as the case may be, twentieth-century Germany? To be fair, political theology is not entirely new to early modern studies. Ernst Kantorowicz’s 1957 study, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, has long been regarded as a classic among early modernists. Previous early modern scholars, however, have mined Kantorowicz’s work primarily for its insights into sacred kingship—less interested in its theological content per se than in using such content to translate religion into more comfortable social, economic, and political terms.

But the subject of political theology has taken on new direction and urgency in the past decade. Recent work takes as its starting point the global political crises and eruptions of the twenty-first century. This scholarship historicizes such crises, tracing these same fissures, gaps, and frictions between religion and politics to the divisive theologico-political environment of post-Reformation England. Nevertheless, such scholars eagerly step outside the chronological boundaries of the Renaissance, engaging twentieth- and twenty-first-century theorists of political theology such as Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Giorgio Agamben.

This approach to political theology conceives of its enterprise as a “form of questioning that arises precisely when religion is no longer a dominant explanatory or life mode”; such a framework “finds its questions rather in the moments where religion is not working—but neither are the secular solutions designed to replace it.” Accordingly, it is the religiously fractured moment of post-Reformation England—precipitating the wars of religion on the continent; the execution of Catholics, Protestants, and Catholics again; and, later, the overweening divine right of Charles I—that undoes easy alliances between the religious and the political and instead produces the modern problems that plague their relation.

But if these events have always been evident to early modernists, why has political theology become of interest now? What shifts and re-orientations within early modern literary studies have cleared the way for such a focus? It would be natural to see this interest as a corollary to the oft-mentioned religious turn. Certainly the recent openness toward religion in early modern studies has enabled greater attention to the theological component of the political theology dynamic. Yet while some scholars have without hesitation seen their work in political theology as an extension of the turn to religion, others have tried to distance themselves from purely religious approaches. In what feels like an opening salvo, for example, the first sentences of the introduction to Hammill and Lupton’s edited collection declare, with a hint of exasperation: “Let’s get this straight. Political theology is not religion.” That the authors felt this distinction warranted attention in their opening sentence suggests that this newer coterie of scholars is made uncomfortable by a too-easy association with religion; Hammill and Lupton later admit that their political theology seeks to critique the religious turn as much as it draws inspiration from it. No doubt a portion of these scholars seem decidedly more interested in political theory than theology, while Kahn’s book goes so far as to seek an adequate secularism that can supersede religious models altogether. But if the turn to religion did not entirely propel the recent scholarly early modernist interest in political theology, then what other factors are at play?

Perhaps another appeal of the political theology approach emerges from a growing discontent with the field’s dominant framework of historicism. Since the 1980s, the “New Historicism,” inaugurated by Stephen Greenblatt, has been the lingua franca of early modern literary criticism. Such an approach insists on the otherness of the past; scholars working in this vein approach literary texts as shaped by and shapers of a robust yet foreign historical milieu, the recovery of which is crucial to making sense of a culture and its literature. Over the course of three decades, the successes of this approach have been made eminently clear, but other implications have begun to sit uneasily with early modern critics—especially the assumption that literature, ideas, and humanist inquiries can be explained by, and thus reduced to, their participation in a particular and ephemeral historical moment. Such an assumption does little to explain the purchase that authors like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and John Milton have had over time and on us today.

In turn, scholars have started to look in many new critical directions, inciting, among other trends, a tenuous “return to theory.” Political theology was one of many such approaches, for example, included in Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds’ edited collection The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies (2011). By engaging a chronological range of thinkers extending from St. Paul to Giorgio Agamben, political theology turns away from new historicist assertions of the otherness of the past, insisting instead that the relation of the political to the religious is not simply a local phenomenon; that questions of their relation are enduring and transhistorical; and that the tensions they embody are, as Lupton writes, “born out of historical traumas and debates, but not reducible to them.” While historicism certainly isn’t going anywhere, the interest in political theology indulges a growing critical desire to attend to broader questions of meaning that persist beyond and outside the circumscribed borders of a local environment or period.

Despite this general transcending of chronological boundaries, one troubling implication of the more recent recourse to political theology is its endorsement—sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit—of a categorical “break” separating the early modern period from the Middle Ages. Because this particular brand of political theology takes as its premise that religion is no longer compelling or explanatory, it often seems to assume that the Reformation is the primary font of such a phenomenon, and that political theology was thus an invention, or symptom, of the early modern age.

But, as with other histories of modernity, this formulation implicitly characterizes the Middle Ages as a monolithically Christian, harmonious theocracy and thus unfairly disqualifies it from consideration. Such an assumption was certainly not shared by Kantorowicz, whose historical study reaches deeply into the Middle Ages and characterizes political theology as a “quid pro quo” that “had been going on for many centuries, just as, vice versa, in the early centuries of the Christian era the imperial political terminology and the imperial ceremonial had been adapted to the needs of the Church.” More broadly, such scholars silently consent to the myth that modernity radically springs from the dull, aching head of the premodern past.

Despite this tendency, the pursuit of political theology in early modern literary studies tends to be more oriented toward gathering and including rather than limiting and excluding. Indeed, because this work so deliberately engages the realms of philosophy, theology, and political theory—allowing Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Milton to converse not only with Niccolò Machiavelli, Baruch Spinoza, and Thomas Hobbes but also with Schmitt, Arendt, and Agamben—it recognizes literature as an equal interlocutor with these other realms, a form of thinking unto itself and not simply an illustrative aid for more rigorous disciplines. Work that continues to affirm this truth can only be beneficial for literary studies and the disciplines it interacts with.

July 18th, 2014

Church of England votes to allow women bishops

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On July 14th, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to allow women to become bishops, taking a step toward resolving a long-running controversy that has divided traditionalist and progressive Anglicans all over the world, and caused friction between the church and the British government.

The Church of England is recognized by law as the country’s official church and enjoys special privileges. But the church’s decision in 2012 to continue barring women as bishops threatened relations between the church and the government, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, who supported the change, as did the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.

“This is a watershed moment for the Church of England and a huge step forward in making our society fairer,” Mr. Clegg said in a statement. “Allowing women to become bishops is another long overdue step towards gender equality in senior positions.”

The governing body, which consists of a House of Bishops, a House of Clergy, and a House of Laity, voted in 1992 to ordain women priests. A previous attempt to admit women to the bishopric failed in 2012, when the House of Laity rejected the changes by a small margin.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual head of the church, said he was “delighted” with the “hugely exciting” decision in an interview with the BBC. He acknowledged the role of changing attitudes toward gender in the broader society, but insisted that the church’s decision was “essentially about theology, more than about culture.…It was a question of, what is right? Before God, in obedience to Jesus Christ, to be the church that he wants us to be, loving one another, and above all loving the society in which we live.”

Traditionalists like Susie Leafe, an member of the House of Laity, expressed discomfort with the decision. “I believe that the Bible teaches us that men and women are equal, and they’re different,” she explained. “And therefore, within the Church and within the family, we have different roles to play. I think women will be undermined by this, rather than freed.”

In a concession to opponents of the move, parishes that refuse to accept a woman bishop will be permitted to request a man instead.

The first women bishops could be appointed by the end of this year.

July 15th, 2014

Blood: A Critique of Christianity

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The starting point for Gil Anidjar’s ambitious and daring new book, Blood: A Critique of Christianity, is that modern concepts such as capital, state, and nation have entirely Western-Christian origins. Or as Anidjar—borrowing an analogous line from the German jurist Carl Schmitt—puts it: “All significant concepts of the history of the modern world are liquidated theological concepts. This is so not only because of their historical development but also because of their systematic fluidity, the recognition of which is necessary for a political consideration of these concepts.”

But how can Christianity, asks the curious reader, account for all significant concepts of the history of the modern world, especially in cases where no obvious correlation exists between such concepts and the historical teachings of Christianity?

Without reducing Christianity down to an essence, the answer for Anidjar is clear: Christianity extends beyond its theological and religious dimensions; “[it] ebbs and flows between spheres and across them…[it] circulates through, over, and beyond a number of other spheres, and ultimately as law and culture, from economics to sciences, and beyond.” Christianity, so the argument goes, thus persists as something entirely different than what it calls itself.

Perhaps Christianity’s liquidity best explains Anidjar’s surprising suggestion that nation, state, and capital became “available, sustainable, and readable in their multifarious structure and historical development” by way of Christian blood. Anidjar’s aim, then, is to formulate what he calls a “political hematology” sensitive to the presence—or absence—of blood “through the realms and collectives that have constituted the modern state, from law to society, from economy to class, and from nation to science.” By attending to Christian blood, Anidjar believes he can account not only for the political form of western modernity, but also the emergence of scientific racism, embryology, modern medicine, the one-drop rule, and so forth.

But let us take a step back and ask the simple question: What is Christian blood? In Anidjar’s rendering, Christian blood takes on apophatic proportions: it is not a thing, an idea, a concept, an object, or a subject, and it possesses no identity. Anijdar wisely refuses to offer a precise definition of blood, since this would make his argument for the Christian origins of all significant concepts of modernity seemingly impossible—although blood does sound a lot like an invisible god who created a visible world. It is for this reason that blood becomes for Anidjar the “privileged figure” or “element” by which Christianity could engender new notions of politics, kinship and race.

If Christian blood is as slippery and seemingly undefinable as Anidjar claims, locating its emergence in history would seemingly present challenges. Anidjar, in fact, states that his book does not offer a history of blood. Yet this does not prevent Anidjar from making a historical argument for when and how blood became Christian. The medieval period, suggests Anidjar, marks the advent of an entirely new way of understanding community and kinship—one that bases identity and lineage entirely on bloodlines.

In defending this claim Anidjar first offers a number of engrossing rebuttals to the anticipated argument that blood lineages have either Semitic or ancient origins. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, Anidjar maintains, does blood constitute the elementary basis of the communal bond. The Hebrew Bible is, of course, filled with violence and blood sacrifices, and there is an undeniable link between blood and covenant. Yet its basis for kinship, affirms Anidjar, is to be found in the notion of “flesh and bone.” Hence Adam’s statement after the creation of Eve: “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Genesis 2:23). For Anidjar, flesh and bone do not signify continuity across generations, but rather imply contemporaneous equality (see for example 2 Samuel 19:13; Nehemiah 5:5). Names and memory—not blood—act as the material bases for kinship in the Hebrew Bible.

Things, however, are a bit trickier for Anidjar when it comes to the association of blood and kinship in ancient Greek philosophy and literature. Anidjar readily admits, for instance, that Homer depicted blood as—among myriad other associations and functions—an element constitutive of kinship, especially in the Odyssey. Moreover, Aristotle explicitly invoked blood when stating “the same person is called ‘my son’ by one man and ‘my brother’ by another . . . whether of blood or by affinity of marriage.” Anidjar cites other ancient authors that confirm similar affiliations of blood and kinship in Greek antiquity. Yet instead of seeing any potential connection between Greek views of blood and kinship and “Christian blood,” Anidjar argues that they are categorically different.

In making this move Anidjar sidesteps the Aristotle text he has cited—and other similar ones—by stating that the connection it makes is “beyond simple.” Instead a series of unanswered questions are raised over what such statements could even mean. Anidjar presumably makes this rhetorical move for one reason: He does not think the relationship between blood and kinship in ancient Greece can connect with “any contemporary or near contemporary medical and, more precisely embryological views.” Blood meant a lot of things for the Greeks. But most importantly for Anidjar, its association with kinship did not entail individual or group superiority, even if the Greeks did understand themselves to be collectively superior to barbarians.

But what, then, about the New Testament? The idea of flesh and blood are famously present in Paul the Apostle’s letters. For instance, Paul remarks that Christians are justified by Christ’s blood (Romans 5:9). Yet Anidjar is clear that Pauline references to the blood of Christ are at best a prefiguration of the Christian blood to come. Paul emphatically denied any connection between genealogical standing and salvation: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50). Hence Anidjar’s conclusion that Paul’s genealogical understanding is rooted in spirit rather than in blood.

Nevertheless, Anidjar does seem to think that something new with blood is happening in the New Testament. After all, did Jesus not command his followers to consume his blood (John 6:53-56)? Moreover, 1 Peter 1:19 associates purity with “the precious blood of the lamb.” Hence Anidjar’s conclusion that such innovations constitute the essential building blocks of a “peculiar history” that will require a few more centuries to “fully coagulate.”

This occurred during the medieval period, when blood becomes, according to Piero Camporesi, “thick with magical significations, mystical claims, pharmacological prodigies, alchemisterical dreams,” where “the torments of Christ, along with the cult of his body and blood” all become a “collective passio.” It is here that Anidjar detects a watershed moment where for the first time biology and soteriology became inseparable.

Anidjar makes two major arguments for this claim. Citing Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Wonder Blood, Anidjar suggests that partaking in the Eucharist had become “a relation of the body and blood of Christ to each other and to his person, and on the other hand, a question of how Christians gain access to the sanguis Christi that saves.” From this vantage point, the Eucharist seems to involve something more than spiritual purification: it also equates the believer’s blood with the blood of Christ.

The implications seem clear enough: Christianity is becoming a biological division between those who do and do not possess the right blood.

Anidjar’s second argument is connected to his claims about the medieval “Eucharist matrix.” With its emergence the idea of the church as a mystical body alters. The body of Christ is now no longer invisible, but embodies the visible members of the Church who are unified by blood. To what degree someone is socially excluded or embraced is determined by the purity and origins of their blood lineage. Such concerns were explicitly implemented into canon law so that the Church could authorize or forbid marriage alliances. It is in this manner, claims Anidjar, that the “nobility could be reinvented as a “social category” grounded in blood as genealogy or lineage, along with others.” This reconceptualization of blood is also on display in the Iberian limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) statutes, which distinguishes Old Christians—those without Muslim or Jewish ancestry—from New Christians. Thus the ease by which Anidjar can explain the bio-theological origins of the Spanish Inquisition.

Yet strangely, Anijdar’s argument is devoid of any substantial interaction with how medieval theologians actually viewed blood. Rather there is a great deal of discussion on the medieval politicization of blood and its social, historical setting. Unlike with his analysis of ancient texts, however, Anidjar’s remarks on blood in the medieval period are heavily reliant on secondary works of social, intellectual and cultural history. There is, for instance, no serious engagement with medieval views on the doctrine of transubstantiation. But why would a book that stresses the theological origins of modernity actually spend so little time discussing theology proper in the medieval era? Is it not strange that Thomas Aquinas’s views on transubstantiation are nowhere mentioned in a text that roots modernity in medieval understandings of the Eucharist? Perhaps Anidjar would suggest this line of inquiry misses the point. Such an omission, however, is undoubtedly a curious one.

Anidjar’s main aim is to challenge the position that modern scientific racism, and racism in general have secular origins. But recall, Anidjar wants to claim something much more ambitious, namely that all significant concepts of the modern world emerged out of the “Eucharistic matrix” of medieval political theology. Not only is proving this no easy feat, but it also suggests that a significant portion of Europe and the entire Western Hemisphere are fundamentally Christian; Anidjar excludes the Eastern Orthodox Church from his analysis because the concepts he is interested first emerged in the West.

The argument for such a bold position, which is much more nuanced than can be presented here, seems to be the following: the medieval Eucharist cult established the language of blood ties, which must inform any understanding of political modernity. As put by Anidjar, blood is “the substance, site, and marker of collective identity…that binds us still to the “Middle Ages.” In this reading, the rise of nationalism becomes inseparable from theologico-political context that bases collective identity on blood divisions; the modern state—with its long history of racism—is conceived as a metamorphosis of the medieval body politic; while the circulation of Christ’s blood is linked with the circulation of modern capitalism.

Note, however, that Anidjar has not either reduced Christianity to some essence or to a theological doctrine. Rather he is trying to articulate “real existing Christianity,” which has left an indelible mark on law, culture, science, and economics. In this way Christianity can be stretched and reconfigured to account for a long list of modern notions. Said differently, for Anidjar the “secular age” is a profoundly Christian one.

Blood is bound to provoke heated discussion, perhaps most notably by those critics who deny that Western Christendom is ultimately responsible for the greatest evils of the age, not to mention those who play up the secular origins of modernity. What Blood does represent, at least for this reader, is the revival of an older way of approaching the debate over Christianity and political modernity, something analogous to a Marxist critique of political theology as presented in On the Jewish Question; yet with the caveat that Anidjar believes the young Marx should have been raising the Christian question. At the same time, Anidjar accepts the thesis of Carl Schmitt, which reduces all significant modern concepts of the state to secularized theological notions. How then can blood, as Anidjar describes, ever be overcome? There seems to be only one obvious solution to this problematic: a revolutionary project of de-theologizing the modern world.

June 12th, 2014

With Cantor loss, only Christian Republicans in Congress

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Lecture by Congressman Eric Cantor | Image via Flickr user Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan's PhotostreamThe unexpected primary defeat of Virginia Representative and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday is already having seismic effects on the Republican leadership and Congress as a whole. (Cantor has just announced he’ll step down from the Majority Leader post, prompting an immediate effort to reorganize.) But Cantor’s exit will also likely prove an interesting demographic marker for the 114th Congress. The Representative, who is Jewish, is the only non-Christian Republican on the Hill. As Aaron Blake pointed out over at the Washington Post, it looks like Republican Christian dominance will soon be complete:

According to data collected by the Pew Forum at the start of the 113th Congress last year, the GOP conference was 69 percent Protestant, 25 percent Catholic, 4 percent Mormon and 1 percent Orthodox Christian.

Cantor (Va.) was the only member of any other faith on the Republican side in either the House or the Senate — out of 278 members. There are no non-religious Republicans in Congress either.

That last statistic represents a stark departure from the preferences of the nation as a whole. According to the Pew data, “about one-in-five U.S. adults describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’”

The Democratic delegation is much more religiously diverse—including 32 Jewish members, three Buddhists, two Muslims, a Unitarian Universalist, a Hindu, an “unaffiliated” member, and 10 delegates who didn’t specify any particular denomination.

The primary loss dashes Cantor’s dreams of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House. As Michelle Boorstein reports in The Washington Post, Jewish figures in both parties are reacting to his defeat with some disappointment:

Much of Cantor’s conservative domestic politics are anathema to Jews, 70 percent of whom say they are Democrats or lean that way. But he played a unique role by advocating in the areas where many Jews are more conservative, particularly around the security of Israel and in public support for Jewish institutions.

“The partisan in me can’t help but be amused,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media strategist who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House and now serves many Jewish organizations. “But the Jewish communal professional in me thinks it’s not a good thing for the community.”

Read more The Immanent Frame coverage on religion in Congress here, and check out Blake’s and Boorstein’s pieces over at the Post.

June 2nd, 2014

Jesus, religion, and revolution in the South African elections

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In 2004 and 2008, South African president Jacob Zuma notoriously declared that his party, the African National Congress, will “rule until Jesus comes back.” The recent national election results favor his prediction, with the ANC winning its fifth national election since 1994.

To outsiders, the audacity of President Zuma’s statement can seem puzzling. The truth is that the ANC has managed to win election after election since 1994 because it continues to be seen by the majority of citizens as the political organization that ended apartheid, the party of heroic leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the party of black liberation and freedom. However, this narrative is becoming more complex, in part because new stories of discontent and resistance are emerging. In fact, the real surprise this election season was not the ANC’s victory, but rather the increasing number of black opposition voices who leveled stinging moral critiques at the ANC. Moreover, religion dramatically re-entered the political sphere. Critics deployed religious rhetoric in the service of radical leftist politics, and religious leaders embarked on protest campaigns aimed at holding the ANC (rather than the apartheid government) accountable, prompting President Zuma to assert: “bishops and pastors are there to pray for those who go wrong, not to enter into political lives.”

Certainly, religion has not been absent from politics over the last twenty years. Because the majority of black South Africans identify as Christian, churches frequently attract the attention of ANC leaders, especially during election season. But compared with heightened mobilization under apartheid, the noticeable political withdrawal of Christian churches and other religious bodies since 1994 has been a constant source of anxiety for progressive clergy and theologians. During the course of my fieldwork, I have heard many religious activists express frustration about the complacency of religious institutions in comparison with the “prophetic” role that religiously-affiliated organizations like the South African Council of Churches played during apartheid.

This election season, however, saw religious leaders from all sectors, including those from evangelical, charismatic, and Zionist churches, increasingly comfortable speaking out against the ANC government. The issues of concern? Poverty, unemployment, violence, police brutality, corruption, labor rights, land distribution, education, racial inequalities, and the ever-rising gap between the rich and the poor. While linked to South Africa’s tortured past, the persistence of these problems also implicates the current ANC leadership. For example, in an incident reminiscent of apartheid era violence, 34 striking miners were shot dead by police in 2012. The “Marikana Massacre” shocked the nation and the world, but to date no one has been held accountable for the decision to use lethal force.

Shocking events like Marikana help explain why founding Barney Pityana, black liberation theologian and member of the Black Consciousness Movement, lent his public support to the “Vote No” campaign, which encouraged the public to vote against the African National Congress in protest. In a scathing opinion piece, Pityana wrote, citing Hannah Arendt, that “South Africa under the Zuma ANC has all the makings of a descent into an authoritarian one-party state.” With crime and corruption rising, Pityana reminded his readers that “the overwhelming victims of this state of insecurity are the poor, women and black people.” For Pityana, the ANC has failed to create a compelling vision of transformation and instead pushed the poor into greater dependency and dehumanization. He goes on to suggest that the ANC has systematically undermined “the vision of a new South Africa” founded on values of human dignity, equality, and social justice.

I was particularly struck by the high level of political activity that took place in churches, or that involved clergy, over Easter weekend. This weekend proved an opportune time for activism because it fell just prior to Freedom Weekend, when the country celebrated twenty years of democracy, just two weeks before the national election on May 7, 2014.

In Durban, the ecumenical Diakonia Council of Churches used its annual Good Friday service to demand that “things must change.” Citing inequality, greed, violence, poverty, and corruption, over 3,000 people marched to City Hall. The tone of the day’s address mirrored that of the 1980s. Participants were called to confront “the powers” of this world and encouraged not to “lose sight of the real choices to be made.”

On Easter Saturday, April 19, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town emeritus Desmond Tutu and current Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, along with Jewish and Muslim leaders, marched to Parliament in a “Procession of Witness.” The procession saw a wide range of ecumenical and inter-religious support, once again recalling anti-apartheid activism of the 1980s. The aim of the march was to send a direct message to President Zuma and the ANC. In his statement, Archbishop Makgoba called on political leaders to “live up to the national values established by the Constitution.” He further asked those with influence and power to “return to Nelson Mandela’s way of governance and leadership”—a style not threatened by social debate and mindful of the marginalized. Makgoba’s words gesture towards two widespread critiques of the “ruling” party: its autocratic leadership and neoliberal economic policies, both perceived to be at odds with Nelson Mandela’s vision of a democratic and transformed South Africa. Perhaps most significant was a public confession that faith communities had lost sight of their moral responsibilities to the poor and remained silent for far too long.

Occurring on the same day, Pastor Xola Skosana of Way of Life Church organized his own march called “Welcome to Hell – SA Townships.”

The march, based on an “out of body” vision Skosana says he received, is now in its fourth year. Skosana has made it his life’s mission to draw attention to what he calls the “gruesome violence of township life.” Townships are residential areas originally designed to provide racially segregated labor to urban centers. Many townships have large sections of middle class homes, but overcrowded living conditions and lack of sanitation remain the norm. Skosana does not mince words about the current state of affairs:

“Townships are nothing but glorified refugee camps, rat infested hellholes that must be exposed for what they really are. In many parts of South Africa, townships exist as readily available hubs of cheap labour to keep labour intensive industries going for the benefit of the few. Let it be known across the breath and length of this country that the continuation of separate development, and integration based on affordability, is the perpetuation of the notorious Group Areas Act of yesteryear.”

This is not the first time Skosona has used controversial tactics to draw attention to the plight of the poor. In 2011, he went on a month-long hunger strike. The march began in the township of Gugulethu and ended in Khayelitsha, both near Cape Town. Throughout the 11.5 K march, Pastor Skosana carried a large wooden cross.

While much smaller than the “Procession of Witness,” the “Welcome to Hell” march is especially noteworthy because it attracted the support of a newly formed political party—the Economic Freedom Fighters. Formed by expelled ANC youth leader Julius Malema, the EFF views itself as a “revolutionary” movement in the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. Known for their red berets and militant discourse, its supporters have been instrumental in provoking national debate about economic policies that continue to favor white elites. Their agenda includes land redistribution without compensation and the nationalization of all mines. Although their message is directed towards the poor, many middle-class black South Africans and intellectuals are also attracted to their urgent call for social change. The EFF received over a million votes this year, an impressive showing for the renegade party, making it now the second largest opposition party in South Africa.

Perhaps the most shocking challenge to the ANC came on Easter Sunday, when Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, the main leader of the Zionist Christian Church, appeared to use his sermon to encourage millions of members to vote against the ANC. Though the ZCC is often considered apolitical because of its emphasis on African self-reliance, its massive Easter service occupies a special place in South Africa’s political landscape. Nelson Mandela delivered a rousing Easter address in 1992, and President Zuma was an invited guest of honor in 2012. In this year’s sermon, the Bishop urged members to elect “smart and intelligent” leaders who do not “confuse public funds” with their own. This can be interpreted as a double swipe at President Zuma, who is often derided for his lack of formal education and has been accused of corruption. A recent report by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela found that President Zuma improperly used public funds for a $25 million dollar upgrade to his private Nkandla estate—all while unemployment hovers at 25 percent.

As a result of this report, Madonsela gained recognition from Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The profile praised her “ability to speak truth to power and to address corruption in high places.” But her office has become the site of intense spiritual struggle. An unknown group called the Concerned Pastor Organization sought to cast out the “demons” in her office, prompting statements of condemnation from the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. Religious leaders in Cape Town, including Desmond Tutu, also held a silent protest in support of the Public Protector’s Office and her Nkandla report.

The resurgence of dramatic and symbolic forms of protest in South Africa, and the active presence of religious leaders in the public sphere, underscores the complexities of postcolonial “liberation” in one of the most unequal societies in the world. While ghosts of apartheid and colonialism continue to haunt, new specters of repression loom on the horizon.

In response, a renewed emphasis on moral and political struggle by religious leaders and activists suggests that the principles of anti-apartheid activism are increasingly being recalibrated for a post-Mandela era. In a public message on Facebook, posted on Good Friday, resident ideologue and EFF leader Andile Mngxitama shared a message from a follower: “We remember Jesus the communist who walked into the temple and unleashed an armed struggle on the exploiters!” This sounds not too different from the statement made by Black Consciousness activists on trial in 1973, when Jesus was named “the first freedom fighter to die for the oppressed.” Whether Jesus, the armed communist, will be a rallying cry in the future remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Jesus no longer simply serves as the ANC’s election barometer. The fact that those once heralded as liberators are now considered exploiters will certainly have political reverberations for years to come.