Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Political Theology of the Crucified God: M. M. Thomas and the Contemporary Political Thought

(published in "The Life, Legacy and Theology of M.M. Thomas," Jesudas Athyal, George Zachariah and Monica Melanchthon, eds. (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), pp 195-203) 

It is an honor and privilege for me to be part of this M.M. Thomas’ centenary volume. M.M. Thomas as a theologian and ecumenist offered new trends in Indian Christian theology and Indian social thought. Commemorating his life and witness in the contemporary context demands a re-reading of his theological/ social thought which would be an appropriate tribute to M.M. Thomas. As a student of theology and a pastor in the Mar Thoma church, I admire M. M. Thomas as a veteran Bible teacher who used to interact with us children and as a social reformer who inspired us to stand in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized in India. In my student days, as an active member of the Student Christian Movement of India (SCMI), I had the privilege to be in touch with M. M. Thomas whose life and thoughts influenced me in deep and motivated me to consider church ministry as my vocation. Along with the new generation theologians in India I salute to the ever green memory of M.M. Thomas whom Indian Christian church and theological academia can never forget.        
David Tracy, in his book On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics, and Church, refers to three factors that constitute the contemporary: modernity, anti-modernity, and postmodernity.[1]  For modernists, according to Tracy, the Western enlightenment notions of politics and theology are foundational for all other knowledges.  For anti-modernists, the present is the time to retreat to a past which is not at all contaminated by the modernity. Postmodernists attends to the ‘gaps’ unfilled by the project of modernity and problematizes the marginal spaces created by Eurocentrism and totalitarianism.  Alluding to the postcolonial theories Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak would add one more dimension to the category—contemporary: postcoloniality.[2] Postcoloniality, on the other hand, exposes the totalitarian tendencies of the modern Western thought and pays attention to the recuperation of the colonized bodies, cultures, and spaces. Nevertheless, the present—the contemporary—is complex, ambiguous, and fragmented and demands theology to have effective methodologies to attend the ‘multifariousness of contemporary life.’
Theologizing the politicality of life is the fundamental task of political theology. However, has theology ever been apolitical? Or has politics ever been atheological?  The distinction between theology and politics is a matter of debate today. Are they distinct, interchangeable, alternative, parallel, polar, complimentary or supplementary? Political thinkers have already exposed the integral connection between political thinking and the history of the West and hence with the Christendom. As we all know, the omnipotent—sovereign God is a pre-condition for the Hobbesian political theory of modern state, democracy, and politics which is foundational for the modern Western political theology. On the other hand, the contemporary postmodern/ postcolonial theological imaginations interrogate Christian Theology’s “imperio-colonial sense” and demand the deconstruction of Christianity and its logic of sovereign God.[3]  They signify the theology of the crucified God by which they try to nullify the claim for the legitimacy of the sovereign state and problematize the state of exception—the marginal space—which is legally substantiated within.  Here, the inadequacy of the modern political theologies to interrogate the logic of Empire is exposed and the imperative of the reconstitution of a radical political theology is affirmed.    

M. M. Thomas was one of the post-independent Indian Christian theologians who found significance in the theology of the crucified God to expose the failure of the Absolutist political power of the state in India. Thomas’ theology, in the process of formulating radical political theology in India offered a political logic of forgiveness founded on his theology of the crucified God.  It was an exhortation to the secular state to imagine its post-secular identity and to the religions to think about a secular Koinonia. However, the inadequacy to address the postcolonial aspects of post-independent Indian politics and their implications on contemporary theology necessitate a re-reading or critical engagement with his theological imaginations. This paper tries to re-read Thomas’ understanding of state, democracy, and politics by highlighting his theology of the crucified God in dialogue with the postmodern political thinkers—Gianni Vattimo and Giorgio Agamben.  The list of postmodern/ postcolonial thinkers who make use of the Biblical resources to formulate their political theories is very vast. The selection of Vattimo and Agamben is based on their close affinity with the Christian theological heritage and their critique of the dogmatic Christian faith from within.  Despite the epistemological divergences between the postmodern/ postcolonial political thinkers and M. M. Thomas, it is interested to see some of the converging points in the theology of cross especially in terms of their consensus to formulate a materialist foundation for Christian theology.    
Defining Political Theology
The concept of ‘political theology’ connotes, As Jan Assmann suggests, the ‘ever changing relationships between political community and religious order, in short, between power [or authority: Herrschaft] and salvation [Heil].’[4] Political theology addresses the questions such as, the relationship between theology and politics; the relationship between church and state; the role of religion in public life; and to what extend religious belief should shape our political discourses. Historically, the term political theology dates to Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) who speaks of the stoic tripartition of theology, in which a political theology is juxtaposed with mythical and cosmological theologies.  In the City of God, Augustine contrasts the City of God with an earthly city and refuses to sacralize the Roman Empire. In the mediaeval period this dialectics continued and this was evident in the conflict between papacy and secular rules. Martin Luther in the reformation period signifies two kingdoms.   It was the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) marked the collapse of Christendom and gave secular authorities the power to determine matters of religion in their own state. When it comes to the enlightenment period, religion was relegated to a private space which is totally opposite to the political realm.
Postmodernity as it demands the return of the religion envisions a post-secular and post-religion context.  Post-religion signifies Christianity after Christendom and God after the death of God. In this new context, Christianity is provoked to be deconstructed in order to listen to the other religions, ideologies, and cultures.   God in this context is a weak God as we seen in the life of Jesus Christ on the cross.   Cross as it poses itself as the political space of crucifixion and resurrection, becomes a sign and symbol of the contemporary political theology. Unlike the atonement theories in antiquity by which the cross has been interpreted as the site of divine sacrifice and love towards the human kind who had gone astray from the divine, and the Hobbesian political theologies that are founded on the notions of sovereignty and transcendence, the contemporary political thought finds the location of crucifixion as the death of all unitary, hegemonic, absolutist metaphysics and ontology.  Following the Spinozian theologico-politico epistemological tradition and denying the ‘hyper transcendentalist’ western tradition, the contemporary political thinkers offer a radical political ontology and a materialist theology of the “common”—the Multitude.                      
Crucified God: Taking Stock of Contemporary Political Thought
i.                   Weak Ontology: Gianni Vattimo
Gianni Vattimo is a prominent social democratic politician and a distinguished Italian philosopher. Postmodernism, according to Vattimo, is an epoch of transformation of ontology (the notion of being).   Modernity developed the notion—“forgetting of being.” For modernity, the constitution of being is an innocent activity—nothing official about it—because it is the European, white, male being which is at the center of all discourses of politics, philosophy, and theology.  Postmodernity dismantles this certainty of modern ontology and metaphysics and opens up a new sphere of multiple interpretations of being. Following the Nietzsche’s “death of God theology” and Heideggerian “ontology of Dasein,” Vattimo offers a political theory of ‘weak ontology’ which means that the meaning of being is embodied in manifold interpretations.[5] Vattimo finds the theological foundation of this ‘weak ontology’ in the theology of cross where the sovereignty of God is denied and the violence of the modern metaphysics is rejected. 
According to Vattimo, “the weak ontology” or “the ontology of the weakening of (the western) Being” supplies philosophical reasons for preferring a liberal, tolerant, and democratic society rather than an authoritarian and totalitarian one. It stands for the emancipatory politics as it attends to the cry of the victims in this world. It signifies a post-metaphysical epoch where the identities are understood in terms of our relationality, mutuality and multiplicity. The (Western) logic of development at the coast of the non-Western communities and cultures are to be revoked on the basis of this ‘weak ontology’ and metaphysics. The capitalist logic of economy has to be revoked in order to understand the struggles of the marginalized people in the colonized worlds. On the whole, ‘the weak ontology’ signifies a post-Western/ colonial philosophy, science, economics, culture, and politics.
Alluding to Rene Girard, Vattimo argues that natural religions are founded upon the need to create victims to keep order in society.   There is a metaphysics that connects sacred with violence.   A sacrificial scapegoat is killed to prevent the society’s destruction. Bible reveals this victim based mechanism.  For Vattimo, Jesus was not sacrificing himself for his father; rather he was trying to expose this victim-based mechanism.  Cross, by exposing the violence connected to the sacred, becomes an act of emancipation.[6]   Jesus on the cross abolishes the nexus between violence and the sacred. Cross exemplifies the divine act of kenosis.   Kenosis is the message of the weakening of God.  Imitating God is listening to the message of weakening as principle.  It is this message enables us to weaken the sovereign political structures that create victims.  For Vattimo, faith in Christ is nothing but a faith in the weakening of strong structures (metaphysical, political, and religious) that restricted multiple interpretation of ontology.  Weakening or nihilism, for Vattimo, is not a negative/ pessimistic location; rather it is the ‘sole opportunity’ for emancipation from the violence of metaphysics. Vattimo, by rejecting the metaphysical foundation of the act of politics argues for a political ontology of actuality that finds meaning in all local argumentative political practice.[7]         
ii.                 Ontology of inoperativity: Giorgio Agamben
Giorgio Agamben is the professor of philosophy and Aesthetics at the University of Verona in Italy.  Agamben’s political thought begins with his distinction between political life (bios) and bare life (zoe) or non-political life.  For Agamben as citizens of the state, we become juridical subjects.   We all are born to a political system and thereby we are denied of our bare life—life we have simply as human beings.  Thus the stateless—the slaves, the unborn, the refugees, the inhabitants of the camps are non-humans.  Here Agamben reveals his thesis that the marginality of those people are legally legitimized and sanctioned within.   The notion of the sovereign state legitimizes this ‘state of exception’—the state of ‘excluded in’ and ‘included out.’ [8]
Re-reading the Pauline theology of cross, Agamben argues that crucifixion is the point of revocation of our subjectivity.   Christian vocation is a call (kletos) to revoke all our vocations.  All other vocations like slave/ master; woman/ man; Jew/ gentle etc. are constituted juridically. Call to be part of ekklesia is to crucify the juridical subjectivity and to reconstitute new subjectivity in Jesus Christ.   The vocation’s revocation involves death—crucifixion.  The resurrection is the revocation of the vocation on behalf of the church—‘the coming community’ and thereby becomes the Christian political agent.  Agamben argues that the revoked and crucified vocation of the Christian political agent should be evident in their ‘quietist political action.’  The Pauline usage of the Greek word katargeo which means deactivation or de-energizes or emptying out connected to the concept of crucifixion explains the quietest political action of the Christian agent.   It is nothing but the act of inoperativity of the juridical subjectivity and to become part of a collective subjectivity—‘the coming community.’ To be a new creation in Christ is not exactly or simply to take a new identity; it is to empty one’s already-in-place identity of juridical significance without thereby removing it.[9] Christian political agent, a citizen with vocation revoked, is a member of the remnant who acts in the Kairos of the messianic now. In Agamben’s view the Christian agent is supposed to crucify her political interest and thereby do politics without law through quietism, skepticism, hope and lament.
The Messianic call is to deactivate the juridical subjectivity and thus become bare life-the life which is not bounded by the law.   It is nothing but the sphere of the church—the body of the crucified Christ.   Those who live in the ekklesia are in a sphere of weakness which alone makes possible the use of their emptied but still present vocations.  The church, in this sense, is community without the law; it is what Agamben likes to call the coming community, the community that occupies the time that remains, the community which is outside of the law.  It is the location of bare life—the crucified body of the victims of the world. Ecclesiology in Agamben’s political thought is a political ontology which embodies a cruciform ontology. Agamben’s political theory based on cross does not make us inactive; rather asks us to be ontologically different and actively participated in the contemporary political programme of reconfiguring the social positions and subjectivities.   
Crucified God: Political Theology of M. M. Thomas
M.M. Thomas’ political thought is founded in the interstice between ideology and faith.  Prophetic faith, according to Thomas is “the spiritual opening of our hearts to the cries of the victims in response to the passion of God.  Political theology translates it in terms of understanding the situation of the victims and formulating the ends and means to be pursued to effect a transformation of the situation.   In that way faith needs ideology in the struggle for justice.”[10] Though his teleological anthropology and its dialectical materialist relationship positions him in the Hegelian/ Marxist epistemological framework, Thomas overcomes its inherent limitation by opening the Hegelian closed ontology with the Christian faith that keeps the internal potentiality of human bodies and social bodies vibrantly.  The hermeneutability of human subjectivity is well explained by his theology of humanization.  Church as the body of the crucified God, for Thomas, is the embodiment of this potentiality and vibrancy as it reconstitutes its ontology in solidarity with the victims of this world.        
Responding to the declaration of emergency in 1975, Dr. Thomas interrogated the totalitarianism and the authoritarianism of the sovereign state in India.  Thomas wrote: “The price we pay for the peace of a police raj is that it will put large sections of the people, just beginning to awaken to their rights in the emerging society, back to sleep….Without some revolts and conflicts resulting from people’s efforts to throw of their slavery and exploitative structures, poverty will remain with us forever. It is these revolts which have now been halted.”[11]  For Thomas, state is a protector human rights and it legitimizes peoples’ desire for emancipation. His distinction between “conquering kingship” and “suffering servant hood” is very much helpful to understand his theology of state.
Thomas’ theology of state is founded on his theology of cross. According to Thomas, the cross is the self-manifestation of the self-forgetting and self-sacrificing God. This crucified God in Jesus was giving new direction to the Davidic kingdom which is established on sovereign power. Crucified one is the negation of the totalitarian exercise of power over humans. The state is to serve the people, not to rule over the people. Thomas cites St. Mathew to clarify his theology of state: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but however would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man come not to be served but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20: 25-28). Thomas comments that the throne of David has been replaced by the kingdom community through the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.[12]
Thomas argues that on the cross, Jesus Christ disarmed the rulers and the authorities of the world. The empire is defeated and nullified. Cross signifies the end of the totalitarian power and the beginning of a new community—kingdom community—a universal community where there is no dichotomies. In the new community, “there is no longer any distinction between gentles and Jews, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarians, savages, slaves, and free” (Col.3:11). The new human community is constituted as a single body—the body of the crucified God in history. The crucified body of God is not a new thing; rather it is the body of the slain lamb from the creation of the world and it continues to be slain till the end of the world fighting against the totalitarian forces of powers. The mark of crucifixion continues to be the sign of the suffering struggle of God against the principalities and powers till the end of the world.  It is a radical reconstitution of the political subjectivity through which the imperialist biopolitics is crucified and initiated a new ontology of solidarity and multiplicity.  According to Thomas, the mission of the church today is to embody this mark of crucifixion and thereby reconstitute its own ontology by baptizing it in the cries of the political victims in India today.
According to Thomas, church is entrusted with a prophetic diakonia to discharge its duty based on the servant hood exemplified by the crucified God. Thomas writes: “The church in India is called to proclaim the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ as the source of redemption of all spiritualties underlying religion as well as ideologies, and to demonstrate the Koinonia in Christ around the Eucharist as the nucleus of a movement of the larger Koinonia in Christ uniting peoples of diverse religions, ideologies and cultures—as well as the cosmos with its bio-diversity.”[13]   Based on his theology of cross, M. M. Thomas explains the features of the mission of the church in India: (1) the calling of the church is to resist the idolatry of power and wealth and other gods of death in India’s collective life, (2) to be in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed in their struggle for justice, and (3)the mission of the church to give up communal self-interest and self-identity for the sake of creating in India a secular national community in the midst of India’s religious and ideological pluralism through manifesting a fellowship in Christ, transcending class, caste, ethnic and religious communal divisions.[14]  
However, what is lacking in the political theology of M.M. Thomas is that he was not attentive to the metamorphosis happening to the sovereign state as it was becoming the Empire.   In the context of Empire democracy assumes the global stature and the national citizens become trans-national subjects which demand new analytical tools to assess the metamorphosis happening to post-globalized state and democracy.   Empire assumes new cultural-religious-economic logics and manifestations that legitimize a multifaceted sovereign political power which has no single point of performance. The biopolitics of the Empire assumes multiple origins and micro-formations.  Here political becomes cultural and social and their ramifications in the micro-spaces of common living are even extended to the human bodies.    According to Antonio Negri politics is not the reaction-response of people against the state, rather; human life itself is political.   Alluding to the Spinozian tradition, Negri makes us to think about a human body and social body which is prior to the biopolitical impact of the state on human life. In the Spinozian tradition, life has its own inherent potentiality to challenge the hegemonic practices and that politics of ‘bare-life’ is to be upheld for a radical political engagement. Negri calls it the politics of multitude.[15] The political theory of multitude signifies a social living of ‘common’ which is capable enough to take on the global form of Empire in its multiplicity and universality.                                       
Denying the notion of the Sovereign God—the unitary foundation of our politics, philosophy, and theology, the contemporary political theology signifies the theology of multitude.  The political theology of multitude signifies the God of multiplicity, alterity and fluidity based on the theology of the crucified God.   Ontology is given the possibility to have multiple interpretations. According to the theology of multitude, life is embedded with divine potentiality and it is always endowed with bio-power to transform itself.    The crucified body of Christ does not demand a transcendental God who comes from beyond to offer his gracious act of salvation, rather; it is in the agonies of the tortured bodies we find a tortured God. Here, God is not a transcendent omnipotent reality, rather; it is the inherent potentiality of life to deny the biopolitics of Empire even in its micro-spaces of both human and social body.   Contemporary political theology, differentiating itself from the medieval atonement theories and even from the modern political theologies locates itself in a social logic of salvation embodied in the cruciform existence of the countless victims in the world. Hence, it becomes a theology of embodiment and materialism.   Political theology in India today signifies the theology of multitude, of course even going beyond the theology of M.M. Thomas in order to find meaning in the micro-politics of human life which is not at all obliged to have a teleological point of convergence like class struggle or any other unilateral struggle against the state; rather promotes an ontology of actuality and multiplicity to find life in “common” in the context of Empire.     

Y. T. Vinayaraj    

[1] David Tracy, On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics, and Church (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 3.
[2] Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
[3] Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bettina Bergo, Gabreil Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
[4] Jan Assmann, Authority and Salvation: Political Theology in Ancient Egypt, Israel, and Egypt (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2000), 15 cited by Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-secular World (Delhi: Orient Longman, 2006), 32.
[5] Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, and Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 91-92.
[6] Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation, 109.
[7]Gianni Vattimo, Nihilism & Emancipation, 88.
[8] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 11  
[9] Paul J. Griffiths, “The Cross as the Fulcrum of Politics: Expropriating Agamben on Paul,” in Paul and the Philosophers, ed. Ward Blanton & Hent de Vries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013),179-197.  
[10] M. M. Thomas, Faith and Ideology in the Struggle for Justice, p. 30, cited by Bastiaan Wielenga, “Faith, Ideology & Politics: A Contextual Interpretation of the Social Philosophy of Dr. M.M. Thomas,” in Koottayamayilekulla Valarch (Mal.) ed. M. J. Joseph (Tiruvalla: CSS, 1996), 113.
[11] M. M. Thomas, Responses to Tyranny (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2000), 17.
[12] M.M. Thomas, The Throne of David (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2006), 41.
[13] M.M. Thomas, A Diaconal Approach to Indian Ecclesiology (Rome & Tiruvalla: CIIS & CSS, 1995), 82.
[14] M.M. Thomas, “The Church in India—Witness to the Meaning of the Cross Today,” in Future of the Church in India, ed., Aruna Gnanadason (Nagpur: NCCI, 1990), 11.
[15] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

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