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The Messiah in the time of Trump

In the warm, spindled foyer where I go to university, there hangs a collection of paintings. On the stairway they are flanked by portraits of nineteenth century university doyens, in anachronistic yet recognizable clothing – principles, deans, emeriti. They are joined in the middle by six bearded and awkwardly collared reformers, gawking pensively at each other past their gold-ribbed picture frames.

At the far end, on the wall just adjacent to my first-ever university classroom, dangles Richard Hooker. He is the Anglican of this group. Looking stoic and tranquil, he stands in the foreground of an English meadow split by a lazy stream. Wearing a black cassock topped with a billowed ruff, Hooker’s hands are almost raised in prayer. Only the tips of his fingers are touching, spread apart, in a reversed rabbinic blessing. Surely, it speaks to the tranquil orderliness that the artist wanted to convey. I noticed the painting while an undergraduate and, since the election of Donald Trump, have been thinking about Richard Hooker and this painting again.10557673133_b704dee9e5_o

The Anglican Church, of course, was founded because of a dispute over the nature of political authority, a crisis between the secular and sacred. In the Act of Supremacy of 1558, the state affirmed itself as the head of the Church. The full ramifications of this are articulated in the work of Richard Hooker, surely the most compendious thinker Anglicanism has ever produced.

The results of Hooker’s oversized volumes collected as The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity shape the Anglican Church and its establishments as a state Church. And so it was thusly, the Church of England found itself ensconced within the machinery of the state, theorized latterly by Richard Hooker, one of the first faces I saw when I started attending university. In the early weekday mornings when I had to walk through Hooker’s imposing shadow, as now, I couldn’t help but think that Hooker had missed something essential. Can Christianity be reduced merely to a spirituality that both intermixes with and undergirds the state? What are we to make, then, of the Messiah who also happens to have been crucified by the state?

In his book The Time that Remains, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wants to remind us that Christianity is messianic, and moreover that it posits that we live in the time after the Messiah. But don’t we know this already? This, I would argue, is what Hooker misses when he wants to legislate a non-acrimonious relationship with the state. To clarify, messianic time is not itself the end, the apocalypse where time finally exhausts and yields itself to eternity. Rather, it is the time of the end, the penultimate time between the Messiah and the end; the “already” that is also the “not-yet.” As Paul writes, it is the contraction of time; and so it changes the way we experience time itself. In messianic time, the time that now is, we are to live and experience differently, aware that time is coming to an end. The end that is Jesus – the messiah – has already arrived and thus we are in the time that it takes time to end.

These seemingly paradoxical formulations have but one goal: to realize that, as Paul says, “The appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor. 7:29). This means that the Church must recognize the potential and fecundity that exists within the immediate, and that deference or deferral is no longer possible. The Greek word for “grown short” (synestalmenos) has the connotation of contraction, such as that of wrapping up a bandage or the furrowing of sails. By this, Paul means that time takes on a distended tightness, and that we are in the “now” time of the Messiah.

If the messianic time involves a different way of experiencing this penultimate time, this time that it takes for time to end, and it does so by revoking the validity all vocations, this means recognizing that every political authority is essentially illegitimate. Paul structures this as the “as-not”: “And those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:30-31).

Here we can see the structure of Paul’s messianic version of time: the ultimate changes the penultimate, not by abolishing it, but by rendering it inoperative, to use Agamben’s technical term. This is why Agamben sees the specific vocation of the Messiah as the revocation of all vocations. Paul and the early Church called the legitimacy of the powers that be – and indeed the law itself – into question without entering into conflict with them, but rather by considering them inoperative, given the coming of the Messiah.

Perhaps, by keeping the faith of the Messiah in mind, this can open a space for Anglicans (and all Christians), contrary to the political deference that is enjoined to Anglicans in the political theology of Richard Hooker et al., to both symbolically and politically resist. This will enable us to actively resist, fight, and refuse the explicit racism, vulgar sexism, veiled white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and outright fascism that is not only endemic to, but also constitutive of, our time, especially the time of Trump’s presidency.

Adam Smith is a Rupert's Lander completing an MA in religious philosophy at the University of McGill

Adam Smith is a Rupert’s Lander completing an MA in religious philosophy at the University of McGill

Perhaps we will also see that it is not our job to offer conciliation or well-wishes to Trump and other illegitimate powers, to reconcile ourselves to them, or work with them in any way. Rather, we are to blotch them with the question mark that is the Gospel, nothing other than the crucified Messiah, while simultaneously resisting the very real political implications of Trump’s presidency. In the last instance, the question is: can the Church live out the political ramifications of its original assertion that, as the theorist Jacob Taubes puts it, “it wasn’t the nomos [law] but rather the one who was nailed to the cross by the nomos who is the imperator.” Will we defer this yet further with our usual political theologies? The Anglican Church must at least remember that messianic time is nothing other than now. Time, indeed, grows short.

One Comment

  1. Indeed. As a Mennonite who has flirted with Anglicanism (a creature sometimes referred to as a Manglican) this repudiation of state church theology strikes me as good news, and timely indeed. I would like to bolster this move with the Christian anthropology of Rene Girard (see, e.g., “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.”) Girard makes his case for how the Messiah alters the shape of our time not by making a theological assertion but by offering a sociological fact. In brief: the cross tears away the veil of sacred legitimacy from state violence, as upheld by religion since time immemorial. In this new, exposed state, no one can agree anymore who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. Anti-establishment becomes the new establishment. Pretending to be anti-establisment becomes a tactic to uphold establishment. In a strange way, only Christianity could give us a Trump. And only Christianity offers the cross-shaped tactics able to overcome his evils with good and expose his lies to the truth, with love.