Sunday, February 23, 2014

Being Promised and Faith in the Face of Empire

A promise is a doubled and extended gift. This definition of promise, crucial to the overall program of Gregory Walter's new book, requires (and rewards) unpacking. A promise is a gift. It is something one gives. It is, first of all, two kinds of gifts at the same time. It is an archaic, reciprocal gift encompassing exchange and obligation (the Marcel Mauss anthropological type of gift), sent in a circle, requiring as part of the exchange reciprocal response. But it is also a pure, unilateral, free gift, a gift with no strings attached, the kind of gift Jacques Derrida in his phenomenology of the gift considered to be the only condition for a true gift, but just so conditioned making the gift impossible.

In this sense promise is two kinds of gift simultaneously, in that it is a kind of gift that can be both pure and exchanged at the same time. Or if it is not two kinds of gift simultaneously, it is a middling gift, a gift that "properly lies between the two forms of a pure and a purified gift. It upholds the nature of exchange with the field of love created by the initial token but defers the obligation that any gift bears" (33).

Additionally, a promise is an extended gift because it "is both less than a gift and more than one" (24). Promises are extended because they are more and less fragile than a pure gift, relying on the trust of the receiver for their fulfillment. This is the other way they are doubled, because although the promise before it is received by a trusting recipient is weaker than any gift since it does not yet give what it promises, it is stronger than other gifts because in not divesting itself into the kind of exchange intrinsic to archaic gifts, it takes on a body archaic gifts lose in the giving.

All of this work bracketing concepts in order to describe gift and promise illustrates to what degree Walter's work engages the anthropology of the gift and the phenomonology of promise. In fact, the book as a whole serves an excellent primer in a post-foundational engagement between theology and disciplines such as cultural anthropology and philosophical phenomenology. What is unique about Gregory Walter's work in relation to other theologians is his intentional and regular engagement with the discourses of neighboring disciples, precisely because he believes post-foundational theology lives in a situation of radical plurality and so requires a different way of making arguments. He finds promise to be particularly generative for this kind of argument making, because it is a "weak power that gives possibility directed toward the neighbor. It is open to public criticism and evaluation. Promise occupies no place and gives the place to the neighbor, requiring a radical kind of hospitality" (13).

It is then no surprise that in Walter's second chapter, he takes up the topic of hospitality directly, specifically in conversation with the event of Sarah's laughter. Phenomenologists of all sorts are taken with (perhaps even obsessed with) the event. It is a crucial concept to Derrida, Badiou, and others. It is closely related to what the great phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion identifies as saturated phenomenon. Theologians like John D. Caputo are picking it up as a primary leitmotif in their postmodern theological endeavors. Walter turns phenomenological attention to the event into a hermeneutical resource for reading the stranger's promise at the oaks of Mamre to Sarah and Abraham.

In terms of archaic gift exchange, the strangers give too much. Their gift is so beyond appropriate for the context that Sarah's laughter erupts. Her laughter is an event beyond full interpretation. It is surpassingly strange and just right at the same time. It expresses incredulity, doubt, even as she attempts to disguise it. However, the strangers roll that doubt into the promise itself by naming the promise (Isaac) after the laughter itself. The event is so full it is actually pregnant, full both of what is in the situation of hospitality and what is promised in expecting a child.

Walter shifts in chapter 3 to the relationship between the weakness of promise and the gift of time. The chapter is a meditation on the icon of Pentecost in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, again utilizing phenomenological conversation partners (such as John Milbank, Pierre Bourdieu, and Paul Ricoeur). In Walter's analysis, promise gives time where time has run out, in this sense liberating the recipient from the reciprocal time that is always time coming to an end.

Promise, phenomenologically speaking, has a weak power, inasmuch as it takes a hospitable approach to time and God's future. Weak for Walter means open to the other, welcoming of the new, a power that does not "attempt to preserve the present in the face of the past or the future" (49). Because the Spirit is this weak power, the future is not a already realized place to which the Spirit invites or from which the Spirit blows--rather, the Spirit is the future itself, a "welcome that allows one to expect the unexpected" (54).

Because this way of speaking of the Spirit prioritizes possibility over actuality, it is by definition the kind of theology Walter is hoping to prioritize in his work, non-foundational and post-metaphysical. Taking account of Giorgio Agamben's political theology, Walter concludes that the Spirit is itself the kind of promise phenomenologically analyzed in the early chapters, a doubled and extended gift. "Promise extends the future into the present as arrabon or down payment of the Reign of God even while the end is constantly arriving" (60).

In the meantime, nothing is pure. Walter's final two chapters fund the theological imagination for promise embedded in the nitty-gritty of everyday life and the give-and-take of liturgy. Walter surprises at every turn, even as he demands close reading and re-reading. This reviewer read the book three times as preparation for writing the review, and the rewards of reading through these last two chapters a third time were particularly rich.

Specifically, Walter offers a completely fresh definition of the concept of place and taking place. After offering a brief summary of Heidegger's definition of place, and the challenges to this definition of place forwarded by Catherine Pickstock and Jean-Yves Lacoste, Walter offers the Eucharist as itself a place "as non-place, a dis-place-ment of all local rootedness that moves toward another home... porous to the other's place... a doubled and extended gift... look[ing] forward to a place of community...nowhere except the neighbor" (87, italics added).

Walter perceives Eucharist as this kind of taking place phenomenologically. Like the basic phenomenological insight that the event is what is taking place in the event, so too it is what takes place in a place that is that place. This kind of bracketing, which reduces giver and gift to pure givenness, is precisely what happens in the Eucharist itself, because the giver (Christ) is elided. "[The Eucharist] circumvents the ordinary dyanamics of host and guest by the elision of the host" (90). In addition, because there is no host, there are also no guests, by the very nature of the case. "A host can discern who belongs to the community and who does not. But the promise rules out any sense that its location can be dominated or ruled by those charged to declare it. This does not mean that the churches have not and will not have tried to do so, domesticating this meal and making it their own feast instead of one that is itinerant, iterable, and open" (91). But the basic Husserlian rule applies, "More reduction, more givenness." The more the host and guest are reduced, the more promising the actual giving of the gift of the meal becomes.

Walter's concise prose and precise theological formulations are nothing if not demanding. Pastoral readers will immediately want to make the leap to practical implications, and may struggle on first read through the text to make the creative connections. However, let me make a suggestion. First of all, try reading Walter's book, then return to read the Genesis account of Abraham and Sarah's hospitality to the strangers and Sarah's strange laughter, and see if you can avoid thinking about promise in phenomenological terms. Similarly, view an icon of the Pentecost, and note if it does not radiate newly saturated light. Similarly, preside over the sacrament, the Eucharist, and try not to consider the implications of weak promise and porous place taking. Try not to think of the taking place of the neighbor in this meal of betrayal. As Walter concludes, "the Eucharist gives the place of the neighbor. Since the Eucharist is not its own place, it makes the church out to be no place at all, a place that is porous, anticipatory, and mutual" (93). The church as no place at all? In this sense, it is less that practical theologians have little to work with in appropriating Walter's work in their context, and more a question of whether they will have the courage to do so.  

Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes. By Mitri Raheb.  Orbis Books, 2014.  Pp. 166, paper.

Confession: Somewhere just beneath the surface of my thankfulness for this book lurks a doubt, Can there really be anything new to say about the Bible through a specific liberationist lens?  Rationally, I know this doubt is unfounded, because many of the most important hermeneutical insights of the last century came as a result of trusting the experience (and struggle) born of oppression, of occupation by empire.

This lurking doubt puzzles me. I do not have the same reaction when a new work of Christology is penned by a scholar I respect. In this sense, the critique of Western assumptions Raheb offers in the introduction is valid. I am (conditioned by my culture and context) insular and obsessed with fixed and rigid Eurocentric questions (6). For this reason, I need to read, and keep reading, the voices from the margins, voices that are, in the end, not the margins at all, but are marginalized only by my failure of imagination to realize that voices, and preeminently among them the Palestinian voice, are central rather than marginal, even if they are simultaneously silenced and ignored by Western theologians.

This book is Mitri Raheb's tour de force. In six tight chapters Raheb offers a post-colonial Palestinian liberationist hermeneutic that questions the prevailing evangelical and liberal Christian narratives (and to a certain degree Jewish and subjugated Palestinian narratives) that overlooks the native people of the land--the Canaanites and the Palestinians--and then making "the natives of the land... strangers in order to make room for an invented people to occupy the land" (38). This is not an anti-Semitic argument per se, although staunch Zionists will likely hear it as such. Instead, it is a geo-political re-reading of the place of Palestine, and the role of the people of that land, in biblical and world history.

In a way quite comparable to James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree (which I reviewed in a recent issue of Word & World), Raheb notes the complicit silence of liberal theologians in the oppression of a people. Raheb notices that the very theologians who should be the most sensitive to Palestinian concerns are blind to the Palestinian plight precisely because the role of the modern state of Israel plays a part in the hermeneutics of liberalism, which is itself influenced by its Orientalism (a term coined by the Palestian Protestant Christian Edward Said).

Raheb sees promise in some recent developments in both Jewish and Christian theology which have begun to attend to the Palestinian situation (for those who hope to read further, the chief Jewish voice is Marc Ellis, chief Palestian Christian voices include, Yohanna Katanach and Munther Isaac, and prominent U.S. Christian voice is Walter Brueggemann).

After middle chapters on geo-politics, Palestine and Empire (chapters four and five), Raheb proceeds to roll out generative exegetical insights into the biblical texts informed by the Palestinian experience of exile in their own land. Here his concept of the longue durée takes center stage. It is not just that Palestine is occupied now, it is that Palestine has, almost in uninterrupted fashion, always been occupied. In the context of occupation, one prayer to God is lifted over and over, "Where are you, God?" This is the "three-thousand-year-old lament that the inhabitants of Palestine have passed from one generation to the next" (68).

Those occupied by empire inevitably ask themselves: What is the best way to obtain liberation (74). Raheb catalogs five traditional ways occupied peoples have responded to oppression and sought liberation: fighting back, observing the law (like the Pharisees), accomodation (the Sadducees), collaboration, and retrieval (Qumran). Having outlined these five quests for liberation, Raheb then offers a modest Trinitarian theology, with chapters on God, Jesus, and the Spirit.

God is who we turn to in the face of omnipotent empire. In Raheb's analysis of Palestinian liberation theology, "it wasn't the notion that there is a God that was revelatory, but the response to that existential question, 'Where are you, God?' The people of Palestine were able to discover a unique answer to this question, and the answer made history" (86). The answer, in short, is that the oppressed Palestinians learned to spot God where others could not see God. God accompanies them into exile in Babylon, in the destruction of the temple, and so on. "The salient feature of this God was that he didn't run away when his people face their destiny but remained with them, showing solidarity and choosing to share their destiny" (87).

Jesus lives this solidarity also, and reveals this God on the cross. In the chapter on Jesus, Raheb offers a fascinating interpretation of Matthew 5:5, the meek shall inherit the earth. The meek inherit, according to Raheb, by staying in place. Empires come and go, but the meek people of the land remain. Jesus understood this geopolitics, and deeply identified with these people, the people of villages and of the countryside. He did not aim for Rome, and mostly avoided Jerusalem. He was a man of the land.

Finally, the Spirit is at work as the presence of this God in ways that quietly offer creative resistance and foster cultures of life. The Spirit calls the people to lives of hope, "living the reality and yet investing in a different one" (130).

These final chapters only begin to hint at a systematic theology, and exegete wonderfully brief passages of Scripture. Given Raheb's busy life (President of Dar al-Kalima University College in Bethlehem as well as president of the Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and Senior Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, Palestine), it is a wonder he has produced this book at all, and yet if I wished for anything as I finished reading it, it is that it would be, perhaps in a second edition or future volume, a more expansive systematics or work of biblical theology that fleshes out the hermeneutic so wonderfully on display out of the Palestinian perspective.

Both of these reviews will appear in forthcoming issues of Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry.

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