These are undoubtedly times of violence and terror. There is a war on – a war of, and a war against, terror. Violence is everywhere, it seems, and the antidote, the resistance, the countermeasures of peace, of love, of nonviolence seem to be anemic, unable to properly counter the seductive force of hate, fear, and yes, evil. The well-worn appeals to toleration, deliberation, and consensus seem to lack persuasive effect in the face of a foundational, systemic installation of inner logics that make up everything about contemporary life, that determines what bodies, what lives, what histories matter.
It is such a context that figures like John Brown, with all their eccentricity and extremity – their essential weirdness – make their way back into our figuring out of the world, our thinking about what be necessary to change our social order, to resist systemic and objective violence, and to struggle against evil. It is not immediately obvious that political theology would emerge as a central resource for this kind of thinking, and yet, perhaps political theology is helpful precisely because of its weirdness, its awkwardness, the fact that it does not fit into available coordinates. Political theology holds within itself the ostensible and palatable tensions between seemingly oppositional forces and terms: sovereignty and freedom, love and justice, religion and violence, law and the exemption, sin and grace, zealotry and practical reasoning, fanaticism and toleration. No wonder then that so many of us who work at the intersection of religion and politics, of theology and ethics, find ourselves particularly uncomfortable at cocktail parties.
In this symposium, we are graced with four thoughtful essays that provoke in the best way possible: that is, they press Smith to think and work in directions that were taken in the book, but also vectors yet unexplored. At issue in this book – and as such, is taken up in many times and in various ways in the essays – is the legacy of John Brown, both for American imagination about race and violence, but also Christian ethics. Not surprisingly, the essays all take issue –in only the best way – with the role that John Brown seems to play in the book. Learnt in the traditions of thought that surround this question, Ted Smith certainly engages these readings from history, but does so in a way that points beyond this question, asking what this question says (and what its various answers mean) about the current discussion about the relation of religion to politics and law, but also the very limits of ethics – what ethics can and cannot be. To bring John Brown into our time is to take John Brown seriously within his own context, a historical challenge that Smith reconfigures as a specific kind of theological task with moral weight. American historian James P. Byrd, writing with Alan Murphy, take this up, wondering what this task of telling theological history means for the relationship, not only between the normative commitments of theology and the empirical descriptions of history, but also the universalizable moral obligations of ethics.
Sociologist of religion Angela Cowser’s questions are more direct; they are expressed in a critical assessment of divine violence and rooted in resistance to anti-blackness. How much we use this text, these ideas, she wonders, in seminary courses in ministry and theology in contexts of daily street violence like south Chicago? How does John Brown – much less Benjamin and Agamben – help calm these troubled waters, give voice to those very specific injustices and their systemic conditions of possibility?
Mark Douglas goes straight into the question of violence, asking just what is violent about divine violence, especially if it is, as Benjamin notes and Smith repeats, a “bloodless” disavowal of the sovereign claims of present social orders that render them illegitimate and unintelligible, thus creating space of the glimpses of an untold and unknown potencies. The violence of divine violence is not, as Slavoj Zizek has claimed, the chaotic force of Jacobin revolutionary terror; rather it is the clearing of the way for the return of practical reasoning to a political scene of address that has long been overtaken by the mythos of “bloody, earthly violence.” Whether this clearing generates an openness to ethics or as its limit.
And so, we must return to the theological questions at hand, specifically the development of Smith’s constructive position as a “negative political theology.” What does this mean? What can be said about God and about human persons in such a time of terrorizing violence? Christian Collins Winn presses Smith to explain more thoroughly the doctrinal implications of his theological history, particularly the impact that Smith’s critical use of Theodor Adorno’s ‘determinate negation’ has on his understanding of Christological and eschatological vectors in Weird John Brown. Smith defends this position by articulating along the way a theology of limit that speaks of ethical reasoning as that which exceeds the immanent frame and yet is paradoxically limited by it.