Theory

A variety of currents in philosophy and current theory have informed my understanding of liberating spirit. The following sections treat the major currents operative in my work. Thus, the following sections:

Introduction: Liberating Spirit

1  A Synergy of Activism and Theory

2  The Role of Critical Cultural Anthropology

3  Stretching Marx and “Liberating Spirit”

4  Turning to Decolonial Theory

5  The Role of Critical Race & Whiteness Theories

6  Western Continental Traditions

7  Liberating Spirit, Political Theology, “the Theological”

Introduction: Liberating Spirit

“Liberating spirit” names a space of thinking and action. It is a complexly-structured site of engagement for mutually critical dialogues. At such a site, acts and thoughts interplay among many different persons and groups – whether humanists or Christians, avowed secularists or believers, those affirming any of the many religious and spiritual traditions, and those affirming none.

“Liberation” – better than words like “emancipation,” “liberty” or even “freedom” – names the structural, revolutionary nature of the space(s) of this spirit. The term, liberation, lives in the breath and bodies of those who organize and struggle for revolutionary structures that challenge legacies of colonizing and imperial power. My use of “liberation” also reflects the years of influence on my work of Latin American liberation theologies and theories, which long have been major carriers of a liberating materialism (see below, “Turning to Decolonial Theory”). Black, feminist and other liberation theologies have left their marks on my thinking, too. Struggles for liberation must often be waged against theologies; but liberation theologies have been significant, and remain important (especially at local levels) for the nurture of liberating material practices and social movements.

I stress that “liberation” is my preferred term for this spirit because the term has historical and living traditions as its matrix, and because it connotes the need for a deep-running structural transformation. “Emancipation” often pivots around official proclamations or state provisions of change that all too often are mere structural adjustments. “Liberty” is often restricted to individual interests and Western traditions of the self, while the word “freedom” has been used in so many different ways it can lose its focusing power.

I have no illusions that liberation, or “liberating spirit,” translates easily across intercultural and linguistic worlds. Nor do I assume I have the best, nor surely the only way into, liberating spirit. In particular, white theorists cannot be the ones to lead the way toward the revolutionary future I see as necessary, though we must find our ways toward a costly and proactive solidarity at the sites of liberating spirit’s abiding and arising. As I say at the Home Page, liberating spirit is always differentiating, appearing anew, sometimes in startlingly unrecognizable forms, as peoples variously subject to repression and exclusion give ever-new artistic and organized expression to their drives for wholeness, dignity, and humanity, in a restored earth.

 1 A SYNERGY OF ACTIVISM AND THEORY

The death threat that weighs on Abu-Jamal is analogous to the one that, everywhere in the world today to some extent, tries to silence (by murder, prison, exile, censorship in all of its forms) so many intellectuals or writers, so many journalists, so many men and women who demand their right to free and public speech.”              Jacques Derrida,“For Mumia Abu-Jamal”

Philosopher Derrida spoke the above words at a public event sponsored by the International Parliament of Writers in Paris, when Abu-Jamal was just 17 days away from his execution date in August of 1995. That execution was stayed, and sixteen years later, in December 2011, activists and academics the world over were successful in seeing him moved off of death row and into general population. Derrida that day gave reasons for writers’ and academics’ advocacy for Abu-Jamal. (Almost twenty-five years earlier, Derrida, with the backing of oft-imprisoned French writer, Jean Genet, had also stood in advocacy for George Jackson, shortly before Jackson was assassinated.) Derrida’s speech for Abu-Jamal in 1995 was just one supportive act among those by many other academics , well-known and not-so-well-known, who over the years have stood with Abu-Jamal.

There’s a part of me that just likes to sit down with a philosophy book, get myself alone, and read. This has always been so. Nevertheless, my published thinking emerges more from, and is sustained by, a synergy between movement activism and theory. Crucial have been years of thinking and working against U.S. mass incarceration, which I have treated in numerous articles across the years and in my 2001 book, The Executed God. As a project for thought, this issue was first engaged when I turned early to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, while I was investigating prisoner abuses in the Virginia State Penitentiary in the late 1970s. An incident of my experiences there figures prominently in my 2011 book, The Theological and the Political.

Shaping my thought, too, have been my efforts in other movements: organizing for abolition of the U.S. death penalty in the 1980s and 1990s (over 3,000 on death rows during the 1990s); working in some modes of solidarity with Central American communities struggling with repressive U.S. policies (especially in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chiapas, Mexico); engaging anti-U.S. war work from my youth (during the Vietnam War period); more recently, continuing this anti-war work in organizations opposing U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; travelling to Palestine and working to end Israel’s illegal occupation and annexation wall in Palestine. (I addressed the confluence of nationalism and Christianity in Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire). I have also tried to foreground a theorization of sexual and gender-injustices, dimensions integral to these other struggles, as in my 1990 book, Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology. In all these dimensions of movement work, my theory pivoted, usually, between political history, on the one hand, and careful reflection on how that history conditioned present experiences of social alienation, on the other hand.

Especially important in this regard has been my work of nearly 20-years on the case of revolutionary journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been imprisoned my entire professional life (since 1982, 29 years on death row). This has not been only a matter of  “activism.” Yes, my activist’s reflexes have long been concentrated here. But the work was and remains a way to focus historically-grounded projects in thinking about mass incarceration, colonialism and U.S. imperialism, racism and capitalism – really, about how power works in U.S. culture and politics. Abu-Jamal himself names and explores, with great and discerning skill these issues, being an “imprisoned intellectual,” and a revolutionary. (On these traits in Abu-Jamal, see Joy James, Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation and Rebellion). It thus seemed natural to bring scholars together, with many others, in an organization I founded in 1995, Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ). I continue to coordinate this group, with more limited duties, while younger scholars and students now take the lead. For an example of how this scholarship still challenges me, as a project of action and thought, see John Edgar Wideman’s important essay, “Why Mumia Matters to the Nation and World” at our EMAJ website.

2 THE ROLE OF CRITICAL CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY

It is by diagnosing anthropology’s temporal discourse that one discovers the obvious, namely that there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act.  Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other

My earliest excavations of “liberating spirit” were informed by “critical cultural anthropology,” as represented by anthropologists such as Johannes Fabian, George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Jean and John Comaroff, Kay B. Warren, Paul Farmer, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Paul Rabinow, Eric R. Wolfe, Veena Das. Especially influential during my years of doctoral study, were the so-called “reinventors” of anthropology – “liberation anthropologists” – Dell Hymes, Bob Scholte, Mina Davis Caulfield, Laura Nader, and William S. Willis. I see the impulses of this critical cultural anthropology in younger theorists in the field today, such as Elizabeth Povinelli and Clara Han.

These reflexive and critical cultural anthropologists – subjecting both themselves and society to emancipatory critique – taught a maxim I imbibed and used to trace and study liberating spirit as a historical and cultural practice. The maxim is best expressed by Dutch anthropologist, Johannes Fabian: “. . . there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act.” Fabian comes to this point by interrogating Western anthropology’s practice of knowledge in “other” cultures, noting how the matrices of power constituted that knowledge as political action.

I came to a similar conclusion, as a result of my own interrogating of Western anthropological practice, in my book, Beyond Explanation, and in a journal essay appearing in Current Anthropology, both of which analyzed the inter-cultural hermeneutics of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Marvin Harris. My later article, in the Journal of Religion (1991, vol. 71),Religion, Cultural Plurality, and Liberating Praxis,” was also a key step for me, excavating in anthropologists’ work, as it did, how liberating or emancipatory interests functioned not so much as “ideology,” but more as a veritable condition for the possibility of knowing “the other” at all. This was especially, true, I found, when it is “others”, or groups, being studied and which present historical and cultural complexities that easily entail researchers’ liberatory participation in the cultural worlds of those they study.

Over the last decades, my thinking has been shaped by ethnographic studies of the homeless in urban cities (particularly in Seattle and Chicago), of Zapotec or Maya communities in the isthmus of Mexico (I lived as a child in a Oaxaca Zapotec village, and then, in the 1980s and 1990s, continued research and stays in indigenous communities of Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico). Also important were sociological and ethnographic studies of prison populations in Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

When thinking on such groups as these, critical anthropologists and social theorists provided theoretical tools for uncovering the matrix within which liberating spirit is found in peoples’ everyday living. Moreover, I have always been enriched by students who draw from ethnographic work to conduct their wide ranging studies.

3 STRETCHING KARL MARX AND “LIBERATING SPIRIT”

. . . a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue.  Frantz Fanon, Les damnés de la terre

Critical anthropology, buttressed by historical and social analysis is the matrix, is for my work the experiential precondition for any turning to the theory of Karl Marx. I have taught Marx throughout my career and his influence is evident in my writings when I foreground antagonism and conflict. His thought is always crucial, obviously, for keeping studies of economic exploitation to the fore, as social relations entail complex modes of production.

To be sure, Marx might find especially the term, “spirit,” in my notion of liberating spirit to be troubling – to say the least. Yet, an important use of the term by him is actually quite close to my meaning.  In his speech on the anniversary of The People’s Paper, Marx references a certain “shrewd spirit.” He finds it arising amid what he discusses as the antagonisms suffered by the dispossessed of the age, a spirit he later likens to the busy activity of an old mole “in the earth,” working steadily, shrewdly, meticulously in the deep places of earth’s history and for revolutionary change. That’s liberating spirit I can intellectually affirm and which I seek to fill out and render with greater specificity and clarity. Liberating spirit is neither the Geist of Hegel nor any of the theological spiritualisms that Marx rightly criticized.

Necessary as Marx remains, his contribution is not sufficient. Critical anthropology, historical and social analysis – especially as it works interculturally – shows that Marx often neglected the broader ways that capital works socially. “Capital,” as Pierre Bourdieu’s work emphasizes, is a total social and cultural process. The determinative forces of “capital” – as modes of production in an ensemble of social relations – need to be understood as including the political-symbolic signifiers of race, coloniality, sexual and gendered discrimination and repression, nationalism and imperial power – all traced with an eye to their ever-changing cultural differentiations. Marx’s limiting of analysis largely to Western unfolding of capitalism, a prerequisite for revolutionary change for him, always seemed problematic to me – too Eurocentric in its overall ethos of thinking. Works by feminist Marxists, such as Nancy Hardesty, as well as Marxist-oriented critical anthropologists, thus, have been important to me since my earliest writing. Rosa Luxemburg, too, has always seemed essential to any fruitful “stretching” of Marx.

There is another important implication of this “stretching” of Marxist analysis: liberating spirit issues from the struggle and work of not just a specific “proletariate,” a worker’s party (surely not only a male-dominated one), but also  from struggles of a more diverse, ever-changing collective of workers and many sufferers, what some have termed a “world precariate.” And this latter includes the very vulnerable world of nature itself. As expressed by Pueblo Laguna novelist, Leslie Marmon Silko, in her interviews and her fiction, nature and the land must themselves be respected as protagonists of history.

The need to “stretch” Marx’s analysis is why, even though my Marx shelf is one of the most routinely accessed in my personal library, my references to him tend to be brief, and, more importantly,  embedded in what I see as a more complex theorization of “the political” – the “agonistic political” – which I unfold in The Theological and the Political. I suspect that the form of continuing Marxism that comes closest to articulating my view of the political is that of the Italian “autonomist Marxists,” birthed in the 1950s to 1970s by Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti and Antonio Negri, and carried forward today in the works of Michael Hardt and Negri in their works, Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth (2009), and especially as expressed in Negri’s Spinozistic materialism, as in his The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics (trans. Michael Hardt).

I have my criticisms of the intellectual project of Hardt and Negri, inspiring and well-honed as their thinking has become, especially in its third volume, Commonwealth. (For my critical engagement of their work, and their response back to me, see my “Empire and Transcendence: Hardt and Negri’s Challenge to Theology and Ethics.” It is especially in the area of a certain neglect of “the decolonial turn” that I suspect their work is limited.)

4 TURNING TO DECOLONIAL THEORY

Our goals are not salvation but decolonization, and a transformation of the rigidity of epistemic and territorial frontiers established and controlled by the coloniality of power in the process of building the modern/colonial world system.
Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs

In the late 1990s I began my turns to decolonial and postcolonial theories, sensing key limitations in the critical anthropological theories I had been using. Critical anthropology is still crucial for keeping theory grounded in the materiality of peoples’ everyday living, in and across a range of intercultural settings. And indeed, there are critical anthropologists working to theorize this grounding from non-Western contexts, too. Nevertheless, I became more acutely aware of the decolonial theorists at work across the global South, and sometimes in Europe and the U.S., who more prominently theorized political repression and liberating struggle than did the anthropologists.

Among decolonial thinkers I include such figures as Frantz Fanon, Aime Césaire, Gloria Azaldúa, Chela Sandoval, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Y. Davis, Vijay Prashad, and more recently (encountered through collaborations with the pioneering work of my wife, Wonhee Anne Joh), the key works of R. Radhakrishnan, Kuan-Hsing Chen, and renewed attention to Judith Butler’s theories. What I needed from all these theorists, especially in the period of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of the U.S. to sole super-power, was especially their vigorous counter-imperial critique.

Decolonial theory gave me a sharper-edged political theory, stressing empire and colonization, while preserving the intercultural and polycultural theorizations of critical cultural anthropology.

In particular, I appreciated what Walter Mignolo terms “the colonial difference,” really, the colonial scar that global humanity and nature-systems show – “an open wound,” (una herida abierta), as Gloria Anzaldúa termed it, evident in the neocolonial, imperialized borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. The decolonial thinkers, with both nuance and boldness, insisted on theorizing the colonial and neo-colonial, imperial and neo-imperial repression.

From the global South, especially among thinkers of Latin America and the Caribbean, there have been other sources that I encountered prior to reading Mignolo. In this regard, I mention Enrique Dussel, Martin Hopenhayn, and the liberating fusion of aesthetic and political impulses in José Mariátegui’s “indigenous socialism.” Indigenous intellectual traditions and political struggle provide decolonial theory a most special endurance and force. The poet, César Vallejo, with his bleak yet inspiring phrases, remains for me an often veritable life force, ever-grounding but never-settling. The literary gems of Eduardo Galeano are paragraphs, short-takes on life, condensing the intricacies of colonial violation and of liberating struggle. They sustain senses of rage and hope together, but more importantly, perhaps, they are seasoned with poignancy and laughter.

Even though I am not a trained scholar of Maya traditions, travels during more than a decade, primarily in Guatemala and southern Mexico, have kept the decolonizing struggle of indigenous peoples to the fore of my interests. I did considerable research on the way Maya Protestants combined Christian practice with their observance of traditional Maya rites and beliefs. Often, this fusion was crucial to Maya political struggle. In fact, one council of elders in a village where I conducted numerous interviews, was a  Zapatista community in Chiapas, Mexico. A majority of these Maya elders were Presbyterian, a surprise for those who think the only religious affiliation at work among the Zapatistas is Roman Catholic liberation theology. In other words, there exists a liberatory Maya Protestant community.

In light of this work in Guatemala and Mexico, then, I always feel a sense of accountability to  Maya intellectuals such as Dr. Demetrio Cojtí, a leading intellectual of the Maya movement in Guatemala,[1] and also to Antonio Otzoy, an intellectual and Maya/Protestant activist, who worked from Guatemala with counter-imperial Christians of South Korea, the Philippines, Namibia, South Africa, and Nicaragua, in the decolonial work of the Kairos movement of the 1980s and 1990s.[2] Both Cojtí and Otzoy accented in different ways a Maya sensibility that refuses to take matter and spirit as opposites. My interactions with Otzoy on liberating spirit, as informed by Maya indigenous perspectives, is presented in my essay, “Toward a Revolution of the Sun: Protestant Maya Resistance in Guatemala” (see “Articles” at this website). For Otzoy’s own work, in English translation, see his “Traditional Values and Christian Ethics: A Maya Protestant Spirituality.”[3]

Among Caribbean writers, key influences have been Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Aime Césaire, and especially Frantz Fanon. And then, through over 20 years of travel and conferences, I have been influenced by other, often unpublished, thinkers and activists in Latin America, particularly those in southern Mexico and Guatemala. These have deepened the decolonial orientation in my work. Indeed, sometimes it was less a book or theory that instilled a liberating and decolonial perspective in me, and more, to recall one of many such occurrences, my buying a copy of El Progreso magazine from a newsstand in México City to read Dussel’s article and interview on “La filosofía de la liberación,” or reading the communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos in the newspaper La Jornada, while travelling with a caravan of “Pastors for Peace” to take supplies into Zapatista refugee communities in Chiapas.

In “postcolonial” theory, I find the decolonizing commitments and counter-imperial thinking to be most prominent in theorists like Edward W. Said and Gayatri Spivak – evidencing a “resistant postcolonialism” as distinct from what Malini Johar Schueller has distinguished as a “collaborative postcolonialism” that often supports or fails to directly challenge exploitative capitalism and neocoloniality. My view on the troubled relation of postcolonial theory and theology to my notion of liberating spirit is worked out in “Spirit and Liberation: Achieving Postcolonial Theology in the U.S.”

The decolonial turn, today, is deepened and challenged by “de-imperializing” Asian-American political theories. The ground is prepared for this, it seems to me, in the historical and politically liberating theories of scholars like Vijay Prashad (whom I first met through my organizing for Abu-Jamal), and also the works of Daryl Joji Maeda (Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian America), Mae M. Ngai (Impossible Subject: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America), as well as the movement theory of Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai (The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power).

The impact of theorizing U.S. imperialism in Asia as a problem for liberating struggle within the U.S. is acutely theorized by figures like R. Radhakrishnan (History, the Human and the World Between), Rey Chow (The Age of the World Target), Kuan-Hsing Chen (Asia as Method: Toward De-imperialization), Jodi Kim (The Ends of Empire), and others.

In critical theological studies, too, there is a new decolonizing, counter-imperial discourse – with powerful implications for both U.S. national and international politics. See the creative theoretical work by critical theologians such as Wonhee Anne Joh (The Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Theology), Kwok Pui-lan (Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology), and Tat-siong Benny Liew (What is Asian-American Hermeneutics?)

At present, I find the full complexity of decolonial and de-imperial theory to be powerfully framed in the intellectual vision of Peruvian social philosopher, Anibal Quijano,[4] whose work stands behind such world systems thinkers as Immanuel Wallerstein and Mignolo’s decolonial theory, and their analyses of “modernity/coloniality.” For Quijano, what decolonial theory treats as its subject matter is what he terms “the coloniality of power.” This power is made up of four interlocking ambits of power, in which organizing forces are at work to ensure the hegemony of Eurocentric, global North projects of sovereignty. These four ambits are (1) Labor (structural practices of global capital), (2) Sex and Sexuality (structural practices of heteronormativity and hegemonic masculinism), (3) Subjectivity (structural practices of Eurocentric white racism), and (4) Collective Authority (structural practices of boundary fortification, like nationalism). The overlapping and integrating dynamics between these four ambits provide much of the complexity and challenge of decolonial theory’s work.

5 THE ROLE OF CRITICAL RACE & WHITENESS THEORIES

Being a White Man, in short, was a very concrete manner of being-in-the-world, a way of taking hold of reality, language and thought. It made a specific style possible.      Edward W. Said, Orientalism

A project in decolonizing theory or counter-imperial work would be empty and abstract if it ignored the role of the construct of race, and how it still functions to mark peoples in systems of inequality. It is often wielded to differentiate, both subtly and brutally, groups of peoples in systems of power, separating out in the minds of more powerful communities, the lives of those who are grievable and worth defending, and those who are not.

Colonial theorist, Jürgen Osterhammel has remarked, and I have quoted him often in my writings, “race is the difference axiom par excellance.” This need not slight the importance of class, or of sexuality and gender in understanding the colonizing mindset and power-plays. But race is the key, most determinative marker that differentiates masses of humanity in the global sphere and subjects them to the imposed social sufferings of colonialism and imperialism, rationalizing neocolonial and imperial projects.

As a white scholar, I have tried to theorize race in my writings, particularly through a reflexive move that foregrounds the meaning of my whiteness for my activism and theories. White activists and thinkers should not expect to be the key protagonists for liberating spirit’s emergence in political movements. Just as “the revolution will not be televised”- as the refrain has it – so the revolutionary transformations of liberating spirit will not be “white-led,” even by emancipatory, radical whites who acknowledge their racism and resist the complex and ever-changing structures of white power and class formations. Nevertheless, as Baldwin challenges in his essay, “White Guilt,” whites must become neither passive nor silent. We must become, insofar as possible, knowledgeable of non-white intellectual traditions – and not only of black intellectual traditions, which is sometimes all that white folk know (if they do). It is equally important that we include in our regimens of reading the knowledge traditions of U.S. Hispanic and Latino/a, Asian-American, and Arab-American traditions, too. This is not a call for theory to submit to a cheap “identity politics.” It is a recognition of the political role that identities play in a racially-marked political world, and the importance of theorizing them. The constraints imposed by these identities must be broken, but they mark real and distinctive modes of social suffering and inequalities in the world. And then, too, we must analyze ourselves – “The Souls of White Folk” as a “seeming Terrible,” to recall Du Bois’ formulation in his book Darkwater.

To expose and criticize whiteness and white supremacy is not to play identity politics, as some would charge. It is to acknowledge the power of belonging that gives access to rule and opportunity that “passing as white” often brings. Whites who  are proactively at work in a struggle against white racism, do best to be analysts of our whiteness and its complex modes of interacting with other identities and political structures. Resisting white power in the assemblage of other repressive forces will not be easy. It means  always wrestling over whether we can, and how we should, both deploy and/or betray our whiteness, always in relation to the unfolding movements led by those who, amid the racialized coloniality of power, are in the vanguard of throwing off the chains by which all humanity binds itself and enchains, above all, those whom race marks with opprobrium and suffering.

I have taught for over a decade a course on “Critical Race Theory,” focusing white racism as a special challenge to theology students, but also as a critique of the entire U.S. national project in this era of “globalization.” Introducing students to critical whiteness studies, and continuing to learn from those studies myself, is a crucial part of this teaching-learning encounter. In that course we also try to reflect on how coalitions of our various traditions of resistance against racism might form – among dissenting whites, and also those from African-, Asian-, Arab-American, Indigenous, and U.S. Hispanic traditions. National and international students in this course encounter the literature in theories of race, in tandem with analyses of class, sexuality, gender and nationalism studies.

Currently, I am at work on a new book on race and the cultural-political signifier of “the white racial,” as sociologist and philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva terms it. Presently entitled The White Racial: Global Apparatus and the Specter of World, my book’s argument is that race is a marker that has a symbolic function integral to the materiality of being and suffering. I will be giving special attention to ways that theological discourse has played a key role in constructing and consolidating white racism.

6 WESTERN CONTINENTAL TRADITIONS

Hegel’s corpus is Western modernity’s canon. It is the canon of the supremacy of the Greco-Germanic Geist. His paradigm articulates, justifies, systematizes and rationalizes the project of Eurocentric modernity.  Teshale Tibebu, Hegel and the Third World.

In spite of a decolonial sensibility that regards much of Western philosophical traditions as “Eurocentric” and Continental philosophy as often ingrown and ethnocentric, I nevertheless continue to read many continental thinkers. I do this even as I regard many European traditions to be steeped in what J.M. Blaut terms “the diffusionist mind-set,” the fallacious presumption that truly rigorous and needed philosophical thought starts from a European Enlightenment and is then disseminated elsewhere from Europe.[5] In spite of this, even my critique of Eurocentrism is indebted to working through the work of some key European thinkers. Indeed, even Tibebu’s stinging indictment and critique of Hegel, in his book, Hegel and the Third World, entails his own meticulous reading across Hegel’s work, and especially in his Science of Logic.

I am not a philosopher but have read widely in Western philosophical traditions. My most intense training and orientation became focused, during doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, around readings of Hegel, notably the Phenomenology of Spirit, and also the hermeneutical phenomenology of Hans-Georg Gadamer, especially in his Truth and Method. Philosophical theologian, David Tracy’s instruction in Gadamer was also crucial and Tracy served as my dissertation adviser, with a skill, wisdom and generosity of spirit I will always appreciate.

But it was a year-long seminar on Hegel, taught by Paul Ricoeur during my doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, which was especially seminal. Tracy played a key role as major interlocutor in that seminar, too. My doctoral student cohort helped me along, as well. Steeped in Ricoeur’s readings of Hegel, and my own work in Hegel and Gadamer studies, I have followed a trajectory that, in some ways, moved through, and away from, those philosophers. (I may not have moved as far away from them as I sometimes think.)

In retrospect, Ricoeur’s influence was three-fold. First, I learned – slowly – to start reading Hegel. Ricoeur’s lectures followed a path of patient interrogation of Hegel’s Phenomenology, made comparisons’ to Jean Hyppolite’s commentary on Hegel’s work, and then featured Ricoeur’s own brilliant immanent critiques of Hegel’s text and its significance for later scholarship and present intellectual work. Just the mix of the German and French minds in labor around the Hegel text was an education in itself.

Second, Ricoeur’s own power as a thinker, and his distinctively French philosophical concerns, led me to a fascination with other French theorists. Already working in cultural anthropology, it seemed natural for me to move into works by structural anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss. It was not unlike reading Hegel, though Lévi-Strauss perhaps offered a wilder science, a “concrete science” of woodpeckers, chickadees, anthills, honey, ashes – the raw and the cooked –  all “good to think with” and unfolding in a structuralist scaffolding that was his four-volume, Mythologiques. I read it all and most of his work to date, and, without ever really becoming an expert on French philosophical traditions, I never have been quite able to leave the sense of play and adventure, as well as rigor, that characterized Lévi-Strauss’ work and that of others in the French theoretical context.

Third, and most important, Ricoeur’s own mind, not at all limited to French worlds (certainly not to German ones, either) gave me a way to link Continental philosophical traditions to more pragmatic U.S. American ones. His famous dialectic of “Understanding-Explanation-Understanding” (for relating Verstehen and Erklärung, and so the human and natural sciences) became central to my views of the empirical and theoretical projects of cultural anthropology, and later, to theological studies also. His influence is apparent in the essay I published in Current Anthropology (see Articles), and in my first two books, Beyond Explanation, and Remembering Esperanza. In short, this French thinker, Ricoeur, was an integrating figure for me, especially as his dialectic carefully brought together the oft-estranged worlds of German/French “Continental” thought, on the one hand, with the more pragmatic and analytic traditions of Britain and the U.S, on the other. This also allowed me to situate religious and theological studies in relation to both natural and social sciences.

With Ricoeur as a kind of exemplar, I was predisposed, then, to see the French philosophical matrix as one in which often disparate lines of theoretical conflict could be brought together. This implied no easy reconciliation of conceptual differences. It did suggest that the French theoretical corpus was a rich one for finding in dramatic play a full range of important ideas in turmoil. As I made my turns through critical cultural anthropology and decolonial theory, increasingly I found myself valuing French thinkers’ ways of wrestling with the colonial difference, the colonial wound. I had already noted a certain counter-colonial sensibility, a mourning of an indigenous “world on the wane,” in Lévi-Strauss’ criticisms of Western projects and his accent on the “concrete science” of non-Western peoples. To be sure, his thought, as that of other French thinkers, still often had to be “stretched,” to bring out this counter-colonial interest. This often was not difficult to do, since French thinkers, in the period of the mid- to late-20th century could not escape the conflicts arising from colonized Algeria’s fight for independence from France. Robert J. C. Young, has oft-remarked on the importance of the French-Algerian conflict for French thinkers. While it is often hidden, the colonial wound marking the French-Algerian encounter, haunts much of poststructuralist French thought and drives it toward an agonistic politics.[6]

Early on I found this politics in Foucault, and have never stopped reading him. In my most recent book, he is the major figure who allows me to theorize power, and to do so in a way that preserves complexity without dissolving the abrasions of social antagonism.  A more recent influence, beginning in the 1990s has been Derrida. I never climbed early onto the “deconstruction theory” movement of the 1980s and 1990s, being perhaps too suspicious of what seemed like an apolitical, solely literary theorizing by Derrida, and especially by devotees in the U.S. In the late 1990s, though, Derrida, I had come to see, was always troubled by antagonisms of power, and more obviously so in his later life. His deconstructionist working is a Marxian mole-like activity. Derrida displayed his own kind of Marxian “shrewd spirit,” tracing the fault-lines of Western colonizing power and its knowledge. No wonder it is he who writes of “haunting.” His deconstructing work haunts, by seeking to undo Western metaphysics and the powers it mobilizes, to expose and uncover another way, another possible world. Derrida’s “hauntology,” then, does not just uncover specters. It is a kind of specter, and thus it occasions a kind of “liberating spirit” (not Derrida’s terminology). The liberating character, and the interest in politics, was evident in the statement that I quoted above about Mumia Abu-Jamal. That was just one sentence from two of Derrida’s major public statements for Abu-Jamal, and one of many times when Derrida “took a side,” even while probing deeply the whole notion of “taking sides.”

Actually, I had worked out my first thinking on “haunting” and my reflections on the political meaning of specters and “ghosts” in my movement work of the 1990s. Then, I could not miss the fact that the dead, and their re-membrance, loomed large in the daily struggles of people and movements to work for justice, an “alternative world.” As is well known across Latin America and elsewhere, the living often intone of their dead the acclamation, “Presente!“, meaning, “they are not lost to us, they beckon to us, nurture and disturb us, challenging us to keep struggling, to keep living.” I ended my Remembering Esperanza (1990), with the poetic lines of Julia Esquivel: “They [the dead] threaten us with resurrection.” How earth, history, remembrance, story and human action work together for worlds of greater justice and peace, was worked out in an 800-page, still unpublished book, my Ghosts of American Lands: Spirit and Revolutionary Practice (1998). It has informed many other publications on specters and “ghostly presence,” as in my 2005 book, Religion, Politics and the Christian Right (pp. 13-4, chapters 3, 4, and 5). Derrida’s meticulous ruminations on “haunting,” at various points in his work, thus allow me to engage this more-than-Western notion in a “Continental” philosopher (if that’s the best way to refer to Derrida!).

Still more recently, and perhaps the most significant theoretical influence among European thinkers on my work, is Jean-Luc Nancy. As B. C. Hutchens writes, Nancy

is not merely another academic celebrity seduced by the allures of pedantry. His ideas not only bear on social realities, they also stem from them. For approximately a decade, he has endured the suffering of both a heart transplant and cancer, and written profoundly about both . . . It is from Nancy that we learn that, if each part of a body could take over or spread over the body itself, then there is no such thing as body at all, only  a sharing out of bodies and their relations. His misfortunes have inspired a relentless enquiry into the meaning of the body’s fragility and fragmentation, the tenuous connections of a community of such bodies, and the plurality of voices that express their sense.[7]

From Nancy I gain an even greater sense of the complexity of power, and yet also, paradoxically, an even keener awareness of the brutal and pervasive cruelty of collisions between justice and injustice that rupture the fragility and vulnerability of life. Most of all, the way forward through such a minefield of life, arriving at any notion of “liberating spirit,” can never for Nancy be in the easy transcendences invoked by theologians and others. Nancy courageously stays within the agony of living, and finds in its depths and its own heights, especially in its slippages and passages, a dimension he terms “transimmanence.” It is this latter term that I offer as theoretical name for “liberating spirit” in my book, The Theological and the Political. It is through a restless weighing that bodies move in the world, often entailing the rise of the image and the powers of art. Transimmanental art, he writes, emerges as “an improbable presence irrupting from the heart of a restlessness on which nothing can be built” (Nancy, The Ground of the Image, 23). It takes me the entire book to clarify Nancy’s notion of transimmanence, and how it may be viewed as the subject-matter of the theological.

It is no accident, in this context, that Judith Butler’s thought has returned for me as also highly influential. Though recognized –deservedly – for pioneering work in gender theory, some of her most important early work was on French reception of Hegel. She is a Ricoeur-like figure to me, another integrator, but in our time she is also one whose negotiations amid several lines of oft-conflicting thought also generate critique of the projects of sovereignty that the U.S. (and Israel) pursue in the international socius. Her Frames of War (2009) is a contemporary guide to the tracing and thinking of liberating spirit in our time. She is thus another key theorist of The Theological and the Political.

7  LIBERATING SPIRIT, POLITICAL THEOLOGY,

AND “THE THEOLOGICAL”

In sum, and in terms of current theological discussions, my work is a political theology of liberation. Just what “political theology” is has become a matter of intense debate, today. Moreover, recent forms have styled themselves as counter to – or, as more “radical” than – liberation theology. Obviously, I do not subscribe to the view that political theology offers emancipatory futures that must entail rejecting liberation theology. To be sure, liberation theology is not above critique, and liberation theologians themselves have embraced reflexive criticism as part of their own trajectories. The radicality of political theology need not be won in counterposing itself to liberation theology. Instead, that radicality arises from its reflecting upon, its tracing, and its accountability to the processes of liberating spirit – again, as this spirit is “born under conditions of antagonism, sustained by daily creative and often publicly performed popular arts, and focused for revolutionary impact in social movements.”

For me, such liberating spirit is political theology’s subject-matter. I prefer, though, not to call this reflection “Theology,” but – with a more  cumbersome phrasing, I admit – “the theological,” or simply, “theological discourse.” In this way I distinguish my understanding of “the theological” and political theological discourse, from Theology (its guild status denoted by a capital “T”).  When political theology reflects on liberating spirit, in the ways I have proposed at this site and in my writings, then political theology is no mere branch of guild Theology. It is a more fundamental theoretical intervention into realms of antagonism that structure all living. For those wondering why this political reflection should be called “theological” at all – here, I can only say that I plan to address that again in the manuscript under preparation.

From this perspective out of which I work, every Theology, any theological discourse, is a “political theology” whether it treats political topics or not. This is because, like nearly all discourse, it has a “politicality.” The theological discourse that I formulate also has its politicality – again, one that focuses on liberating spirit. We all have distinctive ways of being rooted in (or blocking) the politicality of liberating spirit, and so we do well to think about the inscription (embeddedness) of our thinking and of our bodies in the different assemblages of social constructs: class, empire, race, gender, sexuality, nation, and so on. But political theology is also, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s sense, an “exscription,” a writing-out from bodies suffering these antagonisms, toward an integral liberation.

Political theology, in my approach, then, can be viewed as a variant of political theorist Paul Kahn’s definition: “an effort to describe the social imaginary of the political” (Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, p. 26). My notions of “the imaginary,” and “the political,” though, do not pivot around engagements with German theorist Carl Schmitt, as do Kahn and others in political theology today. From the vantage point of Theology’s always political character, I place Theology itself in question, pressing for a radical theological discourse not limited to guild Theology, certainly not limited to Christian thinkers. Indeed, theological discourse as I have formulated it, and as I write in The Theological and the Political, has already migrated toward other spaces – transdisciplinary, intercultural and inter-religious, both academic and broadly public. 

The “radicality” – the going to the roots – of this political theology is not merely a “radical” questioning of God (asserting a “death of God”). Such may be necessary. But a deeper radicality grows when political theology’s roots drink from the synergy of popular arts and social movements of liberation. And in such a context, imaginative reconstructions of “God,” and of other traditional religious notions, can have a liberating impact – if artfully done and if in relation to social movements of liberation. See, at this web site, Liberating Sprit as Christian.

My political theology, as should be apparent from all the above, is a decolonizing liberation theology. Many others have led the way, or are doing this work already in guild Theology, but usually at its margins, or in the interstices of the guild and many other disciplines. That is often where I sense myself to be “in the guild,” though I am hardly as marginalized as many others. Sometimes – indeed increasingly today – I find the political theology of liberation to be spawned outside the guild of Theology altogether, in whatever places liberation is hungered for and traced as emergent under conditions of antagonism, expressed in the arts, and borne by social movements.

Although being newly-born in such other disciplinary sites of our time, a political theology of liberation is no new thing. It has an ancestry. Nor should it be seen as only sprung from the well-known “liberation theologies” of recent Latin America, some of whic presented themselves as a “political theology of liberation” (Ignacio Ellacuría, Teología política 1973). There are also the radical Christianities in the U.S., of Black, Chicano, American Indian, and Asian American groups. Radical spiritualities of liberation on nearly every continent, especially in the Caribbean, where African, Asian, indigenous, Creole and Mestizo, and also European traditions interplay. Palestinian theologies of liberation and reconciliation have deep roots in indigenous and multiple faith traditions. For Christians, these theological discourses were foreshadowed by liberating motifs in early Jesus movements and in prophetic Judaism. They are enriched, too, by the liberating visions, rites and practices of Islam, Buddhism, and many other traditions. None of these should be romanticized as unsullied sources of solidarity and liberation. But nor should we today forget that the struggle for liberating spirit  is ancestral, rooted in a living polycultural past, breaking forth anew amidst the antagonisms and artful social movements of our times. These all contribute to the revolutionary subjectivity of peoples that can give rise to a political theology of liberation.


[1] Cojtí Cuxil, Demetrio.  1994.  Políticas para la reivindicación de los Mayas de hoy (Fundamento de los Derechos Específicos del Pueblo Maya).  Guatemala: Cholsamaj and Seminario Permanente de Estudios Mayas.

[2] For political reasons, the book was publishes as Anonymous, The Road to Damascus: From Kairos to Conversion. SPI Press, 1989.

 [3] In Guillermo Cook, ed. Cross Currents in Indigenous Spirituality. Brill Pub., 1997, pages 261-71.

 [4] Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America,” in Nepantla: Views from South 1.3 (2000): 533-580.

[5] Thus, I still cannot stifle the query as to why, in the United States, “Continental” must continue to mean Europe, and not, say, Asia, Africa or the Americas. The relentlessly imposed adjective harbors a Eurocentrism. Europe is to be understood as “the Continent.”

[6]Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction  (London: Blackwell Pub. 2001), 414.

[7] In B. C. Hutchens, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy, McGill-Queens University Press, 2005, ix.