This essay is Chapter 4 of Kevin Barrett, John Cobb Jr., and Sandra Lubarsky, eds., 9/11 and American Empire: Christians, Jews, and Muslims Speak Out (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2007).
ELEMENTAL LOVE: TOWARD A COUNTER-APOCALYPTIC COALITION
“People seem unable to understand love as a political concept.”-—Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
I. Love and War
Sometimes an outside view cuts through theological ambiguities. For instance, a new Jewish friend, never privy to any religious education, mentioned her perplexity about present US politics. “I know it sounds naïve,” she noted, “but with all that wonderful love-talk of Jesus, Christians in this country seem to stand for hate and war.” Of course I wince that “Christians” signifies conservative evangelicals, but I share her perplexity. Another non-theological thinker, Andrew Bacevich, a scholar of international relations and a Vietnam veteran, expresses a similar puzzlement: “Conservative Christians have conferred a presumptive moral palatability on any occasion on which the United States resorts to force.” Reflecting on the legitimacy the National Association of Evangelicals has conferred upon our military imperialism since 9/11, he concludes that “were it not for the support offered by several tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism in this deeply and genuinely religious country becomes inconceivable.”1
Given the unambiguous imperative of love in the gospels: how does Christian force so widely eclipse Christian love? How indeed does the underdog religion of love become the pretext for empire building? How does the power of love flip into the love of power? Like many of us who belong to the minority voice of another, older, Christianity, I have lived with versions of this question for so long that it can seem naïve (well, of course, one responds, the religion of a colonized people converted the empire too early; or, power not only corrupts, it takes over...). Moreover, I am immersed in a vast ecumenical religious world with near zero support of, for instance, the invasion of Iraq. And yet progressive Christianity has so far failed to make a serious dent in Christian militarism. This essay considers the religious ferment of fear, hate, and violence that intoxicates so many American Christians. Its aim is not to denounce the religious right but to announce a more truly evangelical theology: a theology of love in times of empire.
Although some evangelicals are currently offering votes and legitimacy to the new American empire while others resist it, none would deny that a Christian involvement in national politics must conform to gospel values. However, there seems to be considerable confusion about what those gospel values in fact look like. This confusion is odd since, on this matter, Jesus leaves no room for doubt: the irreducible priority for a follower of his way would be the Great Commandment. Any Sunday School alum can recite it instantly: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”2 The Great Commandment is none other than Jesus’ own interpretive citation of the love commandments of Lev 19:18 and Dt 6:5. It offers the crucial text for any investigation of the permutations and deformations of Christian love. Put more simply, it presents Jesus’ nonnegotiable priority for Christian hermeneutics and action.
In order to develop the ancient and unfulfilled promise of this priority and of this claim, a specific evangelical perspective must be affirmed. There are three major senses of “evangelical.” The oldest is based on the word evangel, gospel or “good news,” and simply means gospel-based. The second, based in the Reformation as well as current German usage, signifies merely “Protestant.” The third, often confused with “fundamentalism,” refers to the recent, US-based phenomenon of a biblicist, “born-again” version of Christianity, often but by no means automatically yoked to rightwing politics. This essay operates within the two older meanings of the term—even as it seeks to engage the third. The first form can be considered obligatory for all Christians. The second is a matter of historical confession. The third is a modern phenomenon, even in its reactions against select elements of modernity. For a century and a half, it has been pulled into the orbit of an apocalyptic, tribulationist view of history, in which the battle between divine and satanic forces is coming to a head within our generation (whichever generation is preaching). The third form of “evangelical” (the quotes will distinguish it from the original form) has been especially prone to find signs of the end times in historical conflicts. In this it is less prone than mainstream Christianity to drift into a vague spiritual individualism. It takes the crises of modernity with utmost seriousness, and it attempts to turn the causes of fear into grounds of hope. But apocalyptic hope can mingle dangerously—and not at all evangelically—with politics.
The attack on the World Trade Center emblematizes this danger. David Ray Griffin also calls us to decode the signs of the times: indeed the attack seemed perfectly scripted to produce a fearful, furious, easily manipulated public. But rather than making God the author of a sinister conspiracy, he demands an investigation of those who had already been seeking cause for just this war and indeed for the development of a global empire.3 Such a demand lies close to the prophetic tradition, with its founding mistrust of human superpower (whether Babylon or the Whore of Babylon!) But biblical prophecy has also been on the other side maneuvered into a justification of US empire. I am here, however, focusing on the spiritual tenor of that justification.
We cannot understand the successful manipulation of the 9/11 event—into a cause for war with a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11—as a mere effect of fear. The strange logic by which the al-Qaeda terrorists could be fused in the public imagination with the leadership of Iraq, which posed no ascertainable threat to the US, suggests not just fear, not just ignorance, but the effective production of a global Evil. Such an Enemy is not to be understood, not to be strategically isolated, resisted, or even defeated within history; this is an apocalyptic evil. Thus the president of the Southern Baptist convention announced that “the ultimate terrorist is Satan.” Giving the “amen” to White House war-making rhetoric, he declared that “this is a war between Christians and the forces of evil, by whatever name they choose to use.”4 Such an Enemy transcends not only political fact, but also projected fear. Hate as a collective force must be stoked in order to keep it alive. Hate is the shadow cast by love, the effect of love gone toxic, turned into its opposite. There is much to be learned from studying how the apocalyptic orientation of much of Christianity serves as the toxin. If perfect love casts out fear, it is because “hate,” as love’s opposite, represents a certain kind of systematized fear, spliced with self-righteousness and thus rendered intractable. It is hate that translates fear into war.
Here I want to ask: how might love detoxify itself? All the progressive Christian rhetorics of peace, social justice, and liberation, and of structural change, have so far failed to transform the critical mass of Christianity. I believe that at the heart of our failure lies our embarrassment with Christian love.
Mainstream Christian political thought and action has for the last several decades privileged “justice” or “liberation.” If love came into the theological picture at all (as for those seeking New Testament authorization of their struggles it was wont to do) it was immediately subordinated to the category of “social justice.” Purged of personal or spiritual feeling—Christian “love” is not affect but action, we insisted—it became a clean-cut political virtue. Depending upon identities and ethnicities, it may have been permitted some free play in the dissident zones of sexuality—but even so, not as a reflection upon the New Testament agape, but as an oppositional eros. Nothing wrong with justice and its erotic edge, except inasmuch as the radical love-teaching itself evaporates. In the face of a mounting injustice, an injustice so global, systemic, and barely visible that it is not obviously injustice in most American eyes, more than the negative rhetoric of justice versus oppression is needed. In this context, it does seem that the political potential of love is coming again to the fore; that one encounters less of the automatic dismissal of love in favor of justice; that for the first time since the fading of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s radical love rhetoric, the Christian love teaching as the motive for justice may be coming into its own.
It may be no more from Christians than from secular progressive theorists and activists that an unfamiliar rhetoric of love started percolating up through the wailing websites and busy blogs, the humiliation and the fermentation, of the aftermath of the 2004 election.5 As the political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri suggest, people seem unable to understand love as a political concept. But Hardt and Negri’s work is also a symptom of the shift toward a rhetoric of love. This pair of assertively secular analysts of the “postmodern Empire”—the sovereign hybrid of economic globalization and US militarization—reaches the following (startling) conclusion: “a concept of love is just what we need to grasp the constituent power of the multitude.”6 In their prior work Empire, these secular leftists had in fact arrived (in their final paragraph!) at the love-teaching of St. Francis of Assisi.7 Perhaps their insistence on the positive force of love—indeed a love that in their work is drenched in iconic biblical associations—can encourage religious progressives to develop our own theopolitics of love. This would be good news indeed.
II. Love Sentimental, Love Elemental
“It’s fun to shoot some people.” “You got guys who... ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” Speaking out was Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis of the US Marine Corps. Chastened by his superior and inspiring reactions such as “How terrible! How insensitive!” Lieutenant General Mattis found a defender in the conservative Christian magazine World (February 26, 2005). Columnist Gene Edward Veith derides those who were shocked by the lieutenant general’s call to have fun shooting and killing. Veith reminds readers that “there is a pleasure in battle... Excitement, exhilaration, and a fierce joy... go along with combat.” Some soldiers testify to this pleasure; others feel very differently. Dr. Veith wants readers to appraise Mattis’s pleasure in killing “from a Christian point of view.” The question: “Should a Christian soldier take pleasure in killing people?” His answer: war-making is precisely the work of killing people, and “there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s work.”8
Most evangelical Christians would abhor Dr. Veith’s position: a little gospel alarm goes off. Love (uh, killing) the enemy? Yet perhaps we should not be so fast to judge. Veith touches an uncomfortable truth: if war unleashes a primal energy in some of its participants, a sporting excitation shared vicariously by many noncombatants back home (“war is a force that gives us meaning,” after all) who would begrudge those who are doing our dirtiest work this pleasure? Doesn’t public pleasure in vicarious violence support both Washington and Hollywood? So the predictable peace-making efforts of gospel-based Christians seem tired, lame, no fun. They lack elemental force. Virtue without the “vir”—the virile “manhood.” No wonder Christendom has routinely, in the very name of the gospel, energized itself through violence. After all, the gospel contains the great world symbol of the vicarious benefits of violence: the cross, slick with the blood of its nonviolent victim. As the success of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” demonstrates, many Christians still assume that it is the very suffering, torture, and death of Jesus—rather than his love and his life—that saves us.9 After the Constantinian conversion, the cross was wielded in defense, rather than defiance, of empire, and the blood of the Lamb would mingle with the gore of Christian wars: crusades and conquistas.
Neither progressive Christianity nor the secular left seems to have yet grasped the connection between passion and violence—in the craving for contact with elemental energies, open to chaos. The trick of Christian violence seems always to have been apocalypse: interpret the gospel in terms of the Book of Revelation, rather than vice versa. Then, with Jesus decked out as holy warrior, his word turned sword, the love commandment is oddly suspended; war becomes global; and absolute evil is answered by absolute war, illimitable global war as a God-blessed good.
Not coincidentally, then, the present imperial project requires the enthusiastic support of a wide band of activist Christians. For with the US’s open-ended “war on terror”—its signifiers of “evil” floating freely across a spectrum of barely related enemies (from al-Qaeda to uncooperative dictators to home-front homosexuals and the ACLU)—US sovereignty seems, again, to require a religious legitimation. As Hardt and Negri argue, our situation seems to be once again “defined by the seventeenth century motto, Cajus regio, ejus religio, that is, the one who rules also determines religious faith—a dangerous and oppressive situation against which all the great modern movements of tolerance struggled.”10 So the new empire is postmodern not only in its disregard of modern boundaries, but also in its infidelity to its own constitutional secularism. It can thus call upon a purely apocalyptic notion of evil. “Posing the enemy as evil serves to make the enemy and the struggle against it absolute and thus outside of politics—evil is the enemy of all humanity.”11 In a sense, war is reduced to a police action within a boundless imperial space, even as the technologies of global destruction lend war an absolute, indeed “ontological dimension.” Hardt and Negri offer in passing an all too apt metaphor: “The thinning of the war function and the thickening of the police function maintain the ontological stigmata of absolute annihilation”: the threat of genocide and nuclear destruction.12
Eerily, this apocalyptically validated reorganization of planetary life sprang into action even as we crossed the threshold of a new millennium. Planned for decades by diligent neoconservatives in a difficult coalition with the religious right, it is managing to manipulate what we may call the apocalyptic unconscious of the nation.13 In combination with the base—if not elemental—excitement of righteous violence versus “evil,” it exercises an awesome mass appeal. This appeal is all the more wondrous for the willingness of so many sincere Christians to vote against their economic and ecological self-interest in the name of these “values.” Can we appeal differently to that mass? Might a critical mass of this public morph into the force of resistance Hardt and Negri honorifically, and not accidentally echoing the biblical term, call the “multitude”?
A merely secular response to sacralized violence—such as appeals to tolerance, moderation, economic justice, general affluence, world peace—is likely to continue to fall flat with the crucial (swing-vote) population. Any effective answer will require the collaboration of a gospel-centered Christianity. And yet the “multitude,” in its very Christianity, remains strangely deaf to the imperative priority of the gospel (perhaps then we have to do with, in Hardt and Negri’s terminology, the “mob” or the “mass” and not the multitude). The unmistakable priority of the Great Commandment gospel seems hardly to register, even with such an avowedly evangelical national majority. And rendered most strikingly invisible is the very test case of that commandment: the love of the enemy.
Of course traditionally this latter imperative is usually read as a kind of call to exceptional personal virtue, meant only for the supererogation of the few, not required of Christians—something like celibacy. Love of the enemy in its radicality is surely the polar opposite of the above “Christian perspective” on killing as good sport, but it doesn’t budge the masses. They get the message that good Christians can leave loving the enemy to the saintly exceptions. For the supererogatory reading has rendered this practice unrealistic for most and merely private for a few. The entire spectrum of Christian love, from love of God to love of the “neighbor” as friend, as stranger, or as enemy, then appears as a rather vapid moralism, a bit of rhetorical excess, readily subordinated to non-gospel texts—which, in the fundamentalist heritage, means subordinated to John’s Apocalypse. And tellingly, the only reference to love in the Apocalypse is coupled with punishment: God “rebukes and chastens” those He [sic] loves (3:19). Of all the New Testament texts, and most of the Old, it is indeed only the Book of Revelation that uses “hatred” as a virtue.14 Martin Luther actually argued on such a basis that Revelation lacks the savor of the gospel, and should not be part of the Bible. I am, however, not trying to redesign the canon.
The point is that apocalypse is not gospel. It cannot therefore form the basis for a legitimately evangelical Christianity. Apocalypse should be ordered to the ends of the gospel—not vice versa. When apocalypse is mistaken for gospel, “love” gets deprived of the priority that Jesus assigned it. And then, with alarming ease, love gets subordinated to such non-gospel yet supposedly “evangelical” priorities as opposition to abortion and same-sex unions, not to mention war and patriotism. Is this just because nationalism easily trumps religion, especially in times of war—and almost always has? Sure, but such an answer begs the question. Why does such a clear gospel priority lack traction for a critical mass of committed Christians? Is it perhaps that “Christian love” lacks the elemental force of Christian violence?
If liberal Christianity, like liberal politics, has largely failed to grasp the connection between violence and the elemental, it has left the playing field of passionate intensity to the right. This is not without irony. The right, with its rhetoric of conservative order, has learned to manipulate that margin of chaos that accompanies change. And the apocalyptic imagination channels the excitement through its vision of an “Evil” that can only be countered by all-out holy violence. In Revelation, the whore’s imperialism of war is ultimately countered precisely not by love but by messianic terror—the holy war directed against the superpower of its day. In an excruciating historical irony, the messianic warrior, arguably the most clearly anti-imperial figure of the ancient world, became the great defender of various Christian empires—Holy Roman, Spanish, British, and now, truly apocalyptic in its weaponry, American. So the current religio-political right channels the excitation of apocalypse—minus the gospel of love. And the nice Jesus of the mainline is helpless in the face of it.
If love lacks political currency it is not just because it undermines the politics of friend versus foe; it is not just that it might inhibit personal or national self-defense. It is also because love has not been learned in ways that vitalize—bring life—to human relations in the first place. It seems to dampen down the spirit of adventure and “fun”; its agape seems to repress eros; indeed it has vast power to demean those already degraded even further, to encourage in the vulnerable a cringing acquiescence in abuse, and in the powerful, a condescending disengagement (the two faces of what Nietzsche called ressentiment).
Yet if it is read in its evangelical—gospel—context, it may evince another potential altogether, a potency not sentimental but elemental.
III. Love out of Bounds
The invocation to love one’s enemy is found within the gospel of Matthew in the first great address of Jesus to “the multitudes”: the Sermon on the Mount. It is not a counsel of personal morality; it is a call to the widest possible public. And Jesus does not offer it in the form of a commandment, as though adding to the Great Commandment. It is not an imperative to take an extreme or self-sacrificial position: rather—and this is so important, and so routinely ignored—it is offered as an argument against an extreme: “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43).
Where would the ochloi (the people) have heard this said? Nothing like it occurs within Jewish scripture. Where it does occur, it may have held considerable interest for these specifically Galilean multitudes: in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the text of the Qumran community with which Jesus’ old mentor John the Baptist was associated.15 So then Jesus’ utterance directly counters apocalypse, at least in the form of an intensified apocalyptic dualism of good and evil that had emerged in the intertestamental period, as a response to debilitating occupation by a foreign empire. There was no more politically and subversively coded symbolism in the ancient world than this apocalypticism of the children of light versus the children of darkness. In the Christian apocalypse, the evil would be identified directly with the imperial city Babylon (Rome).
The gospel, however, counsels instead: “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). This proposal must be read not as a new law, and not as a counsel of self-sacrificial or saintly extremity, but as a theo-political strategy: if it is radical to love one’s enemy, it is because it counters the radicalism of cosmic dualism. Apocalypse has proven tempting and suicidal for oppressed people (like the community at Qumran)—and irresistible to Christian aggressor-states. We are observing its effects in the hands of yet another empire today. So Jesus’ logion can only be read as an alternative theo-politics—a politics of love, directed not to the few but to the multitude. Rather than construing the enemy as pure evil, to be defeated by the righteous force with whom “we” are identified, the enemy must be “loved,” “prayed for”—which is precisely not to say admired, accepted, or obeyed, but rather relativized, i.e., understood in relation to ourselves. This love humanizes the enemy: makes me recall the enemy’s humanity and calls the enemy to notice mine—and if direct contact would be lethal, prayerful indirection provides a good alternative! It demands understanding. Yet we hear routine denunciations of any attempt to understand Islamic extremists, as though “to understand” means to condone, to acquiesce, or to justify. This refusal to understand refuses a more basic religious insight: we are all interdependent members of the same species; the enemy is no more purely evil than “we” are purely good. But when the official policy is one of extermination, understanding—sliding as it does toward love—becomes subversion.
Jesus’ love-preaching is a lure cast out to the multitude, an attempt to create mass movement, to shift the course of history: beginning where each member of the multitude can, no matter how powerless, always begin—in self-transformation, the activation of our singular gifts. But this preaching is not, as so much of the church has mistakenly thought, fulfilled in individual spiritual transformation. This address to the ochloi on love was a wild strategy for a new world. Not accidentally, there is resonance in Hardt and Negri’s call to the postmodern multitude: “Become different than you are! These singularities act in common and thus form a new race, that is, a politically coordinated subjectivity that the multitude produces. The primary decision made by the multitude is really the decision to create a new race, or rather, a new humanity.”16 This new humanity can only take place within the space opened up by the deconstruction of apocalypse—otherwise all primal force is sucked and circulated between the poles of good and evil, draining human, creaturely inter-dependence of its vitality, burning up hope in the fantasy of annihilation. Thus the humanization of the enemy is indispensable to any progressive politics: otherwise our humanity remains divided against itself.
For it is then no less than the creation that is called upon as the interpretive context of this radical love: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). How shall we read this elemental gesture, inscribing upon divine love the signs of nonhuman nature? Again the critique of apocalyptic “righteousness” is unmistakable. But more, infinitely more, is at play than a specific debate: this utter excess of divine love, disturbingly amoral in its natural expression, is being invoked as the ground of an alternative theo-politics. The tradition has often taken this to be the inscrutable omnipotence of the creator at play, maintaining all of life. But this distance is not Jesus’ point at all; he is teaching the way to intimacy with God, the way to be God’s sons and daughters.
To be children of God is to take part in a creation-sustaining, indiscriminate love; to be sons and daughters of God is to practice this solar radiance, this fertilizing downpour. The rain of God that drenches all: this is a metaphor of boundless inclusivity. (It does not hate the sinner or the sin—those final meanings of our lives will all get sorted out later, after the lives, in the end, finally, separating wheat from tares—none of our business; not even, for now, God’s business.) But does it render meaningless all moral striving, all resistance to oppression, all distinctions of good and evil, just and unjust? Not at all. It renders them relative to each other. But this is no moral relativism. On the contrary, it is lifting up as the moral imperative the practice of this streaming agape.
In emulation of this nondiscriminating generosity, this sheer excess, this gift of agape, we may reclaim our likeness to God. This is not a trivial claim, nor one readily reconciled with an Augustinian or Reformation theology of the sin-shattered imago dei. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—an outsized demand, no doubt a rhetorical hyperbole, but not to be confused in context with moral perfectionism aimed at heavenly reward. This love is rewarding; it is its own reward, not just as means but also as the end of human existence. I do not “love” now so that then I can pig out in solipsistic heavenly bliss in the end. The rewarding end of love is precisely that of the consummation of love, a release of our individuality into the eternal life of boundless Love. Its “perfection,” teleion, a concept meaning wholeness, ripeness, maturity, is suggestive of the realization of the telos, hence in this context eschatological. This eschatology does not aim out of the world but into it and through it—like the rain and the sun. These natural processes are not mere figures of speech; they remind us of the living material matrix that nurtures and holds us, the creation of which we are creaturely elements.
Elemental love is charged with the energies of non-human nature—for our human interactions take place within the living, vulnerable, and shifting ecologies of the creation. A love and a spirituality abstracted from its cosmos is not only self-defeating but self-deceiving. Elementality resists sentimentality inasmuch as it opens us to the complex, multiplying interdependencies of our shared social and material lives.
“The multitude” potentially names such a complex interdependence. The collapse of moral dualism, ethnic purity, or identity politics in progressive politics opens up the elemental space for the “self-transformation, hybridization, and miscegenation” of the multitude.17 In the elementality of love, the traditional opposition of agape and eros collapses. Traditionally, only an agapic one-way love, not passionate desire, can be divine. A politics of love will take place only in a reclamation of gospel agape in its inseparability from the elemental creatureliness of eros. God desires; God desires passionately. Biblically, there is no basis for making God’s love into some condescension that loves us only for our sake. Covenant is the very heart of reciprocity amid asymmetry: the creation in all its messy, material interdependency matters to God. But surely the indiscriminate generosity is wildly and unconditionally for our sake too, for the sake of all of us creatures—that is, the whole of the creation. For “God so loved the world” that Jesus as the very flesh and child of God invites us to (re)join the family of creation: in the creation of a new kind of humanity. “When love is conceived politically, then, this creation of a new humanity is the ultimate act of love.” Indeed, Hardt and Negri even allude to the passionate elementality in the Song of Songs (6:8), lifting it—startlingly—beyond the mere interplay between intimate eroticism and allegory of faith, into its theopolitical potentiality: “both God’s love of humanity and humanity’s love of God are expressed and incarnated in the common material project of the multitude. We need to recover today this material and political sense of love, a love as strong as death.”18
In this forcefield, this creativity, crackles and flows an energy otherwise channeled into the sick righteousness of violence. As love therefore, with its elemental, nonhuman dynamism, it must test and strengthen itself on the inhumanity of the enemy as well as the obstreperousness of the neighbor. Its release is the counterforce of the new creation, the counterapocalypse that begins in a nonhuman excess of generosity, a boundlessness of passion.
IV. Postmodern Agape
But if agape, the primary word for love in the gospel, expresses a passionate excess, what remains of the classic distinction of agape and eros—between a unilateral donation to another and a desire for the other? The generosity of agape is conventionally and unfortunately construed as a one-way grace; eros desires something back from the other, desires the desire of the other, and drives toward reciprocal exchange. The gospel does not make such a distinction. Feminist theology has been at pains to counter the condescending power dynamics of the traditional agapic model, seeking to liberate a more embodied eros.19 However, for our particular form of the evangelical, we cannot write off agapic generosity. We can, however, refuse its construal as a unilateral love and indeed an omnipotent act. Unilateral power is incapable of love. The notion of a sovereign grace breeds the politics of Christian unilateralism and leads to the apocalyptic exchange of love for power. But there remains a distinction we cannot lose. It comes coded in the radicality of enemy-love and elemental passion. It is this: the agapic gesture initiates. It takes upon itself the risk of initiation.
Within an alienated, oppressive status quo, where our interdependence with all human and nonhuman creatures has been occluded by the concept of sin, someone has to start the transformation. Someone has to begin to be different. Someone has to break the cycle of friend/foe polarizations. At any given moment, in any given deadlock, someone, some agent, must take the chance of novelty. So to initiate is to risk but not to seek self-sacrifice. The risk of agape is the initiation of love: it involves a one-way gesture, a direction of flow. This is not unilateralism of love or politics: this is the initiation of reciprocity. For the initiation is invitation.
Only as elemental love does the gospel priority of agape have the chance of its kairos—its incarnation, its enfleshment in history. As Hardt and Negri write in their different but not Christ-free context, “We need to learn what this flesh can do.” They cite Merleau-Ponty, reminding us that “the flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it we should need the old term ‘element,’ in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire.’ The flesh of the multitude is pure potential, an unformed life force, and in this sense an element of social being, aimed constantly at the fullness of life.”20
In the elemental Spirit of this flesh, loosening itself from the bounded bodies of its own failed ecclesiologies and politics, another ekklesia lives, has perhaps always lived, and may yet, as it never has, come into its own—in time to serve a politics that this time we will not seek to apocalypticize and control. With critical gratitude, it will engage the heritage of a secular enlightenment, which has its own roots in millenialist-progressive forms of the apocalypse. A strong distinction of religion from the state—even when no pristine separation has ever been possible—enables not only the survival of democracy but by the same token, of progressive Christianity. By contrast, the assault on the boundary between church and state threatens the church itself—in case by church we still mean the communal embodiment of the gospel. The spirit of Christ has barely survived the power politics of officially and unofficially Christian states. And the specter of the most global empire in history lying with a loveless fundamentalism tempts one with new visions of the whore and the beast gloating in their bed of power. However, we do not need any new progressive apocalypticism to come and trump again the fierce first stirrings of a postmodern politics of love.
If now, perhaps out of desperation, religious and secular moderates, liberals and progressives begin to work with more discipline together, with persistence and insistence, we may move beyond the mere flare-ups of trendy resistance. A counterapocalyptic coalition can emerge. Together, we experiment with the politics of a love whose shadow is not hate but vulnerability. Indeed it recognizes its partners in all who would share the fullness of life. It becomes possible to extend a positive force of love into the shadows of our collective future.
1 Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 146.
2 Mt 22:37–39; Lk 10:27; Mk 12:29–31.
3 David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2004).
4 Quoted in Max Blumenthal, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” Salon.com., 15 April 2003 (archive.salon.com/news/feature/2003/04/15/ in_touch.html), accessed 6 March 2003. Cited in Bacevich, 143, 249.
5 For instance, among the brave voices who publicly articulated both grief and hope in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election, were the authors of a couple of wise articles posted on the Nov. 11 AlterNet. Both reached into a love-discourse unfamiliar among progressive secular venues: one asked “What’s our job? To dedicate our lives to preserving and passing on what we love, so that if things ever get sane again there’ll be something left” (Michael Ventura, “Dancing in the Dark,” Austin Chronicle). Another argued that while many “God-fearing” individuals are outside our range, “religious Americans who believe in a loving God share many of our values.” To reach them, we have to “reach into our hearts, as we slowly recover from the heartbreak of Nov. 2, and rediscover our own capacities to appreciate people who, as things stand, really do threaten what we most value: our planet’s health, our civil liberties, our commitment to a government that cares for its people” (Vivian Dent, “From the Heart”). A “love of the enemy” as outreach to the swing-vote?
6 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), 351.
7 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
8 February 26, 2005, cited in Martin E. Marty, “Fun for Christian Soldiers?” Sightings, March 7, 2005.
9 For a ground-breaking feminist challenge to the Christological tradition of atonement by blood sacrifice, see Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroads, 1984/1999); also Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995). For the intensely readable follow-up, see Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon, 2002).
10 Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 16.
11 Ibid., 19.
13 Catherine Keller, God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
14 Rev. 2:6.
15 “They may love all that he has chosen and hate all that he has rejected,” Community Rule of Qumran. See Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels Annotated Scholar’s Edition (Sonoma: Polebridge Press, 1992), 67.
16 Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 356.
18 Ibid., 351–52.
19 The theological polarity of agape as divine self-giving vs. eros as human desire has been most forcefully developed in Anders Nygren’s now classic Agape and Eros (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953).
20 Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 192.
Catherine Keller is professor of constructive theology at the Theological School at Drew University. She is the author of From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism and Self (1986); Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (1996); The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003); Post-Colonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire (2004); and God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys (2005).