Advent Note 2016

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A moment of odd suspense—both in terms of a foreboding uncertainty as to what is coming, and of a suspension of our own capacities to act, to analyze the situation and to organize accordingly. A suspension not of time itself, which chugalugs on, pulls us to fix dinner, finish an assignment, plan a holiday; but of the shared future, the collective momentum forward, which drives politics. Politics may be defined not as mere machinations of power but rather as collective self-organization in the face of crisis. We find ourselves amidst a macro-crisis (krisis originally meant the turning point in an illness) of the US political order itself, as it undergoes self-organization into–something else. Something that is so frightening to so many of us right now that a deep stillness can be felt—a stasis, a paralysis of action, punctuated by bursts of anger, disbelief, protest.

This suspension is not necessarily irresponsible. Most of us can do little more than make ourselves take in a bit of the news—of yet more of the choices for the new white house of horrors. More of the appointments designed to undo the order of this democracy that for all its betrayals and failures we are quickly realizing we shall painfully miss. The leaders are being chosen for their commitment to bring down the structures by which a modicum of pluralist and planetary responsibility could be practiced. And we find ourselves incredulous at the lack of any checks and balance after all—at the apparent lack of any power that can now prevent the collapse of our vaunted separation of powers into one presidential/congressional/judiciary machine. The strange mix of erratic, farcical extremities of unbridled greed and right wing ideology suspends at this moment one’s capacity to analyze.

To what extent is this outcome the descendant of fascism, and so of a disciplined, conspiratorial and globally linked strategy; to what extent of a chaos of internal, contradictions in our system? Of course self-organization in complex systems, natural as well as human, always takes place at the edge of chaos. And chaos can always provoke totalizing orders in reaction, aimed at inhibiting the complexity and often cloaked by the chaos itself. The fascist elements of the white supremacist anti-immigrant energy of Trump’s victory are unmistakable, and not unpredictable. Indeed one reads Arendt reflecting on the meaning of fascism in 1946, the moment of its defeat, looking to the future thus:

It is already becoming obvious that colonial problems will remain unsolved, and that, as a result, the conflicts between white and colored peoples, i.e., the so-called racial conflicts, will become even more acute. Furthermore, competition between the imperialistic nations will remain a feature of the international scene. In this context the fascists, who even in their German version never identified the master race with any nationality but spoke of “Aryans” generally, could easily make them- selves the protagonists of a unified White Supremacy strategy capable of out-bidding any group not unconditionally advocating equal rights for all peoples.

(Hannah Arendt, “The Seeds of a Fascist Internationale”)

“White supremacy”—named before its specific Black/white US post-60’s meaning–encodes an eerie prescience. She goes on to name the “so-called refugee population” and its growing rightlessness as portending future resuscitations of a “fascist international.”

But in the suspense of this moment we need not rush either to announce fascism or to brush its spook aside. We—if we are to organize our national collectivity otherwise, at the edge of all this risky chaos—need to collect ourselves, to recollect antecedents of great danger and also of great hope. Here comes the irreplaceable verse of Holderlin: “where the danger is, there also grows what saves” [Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst/Das Rettende auch.] In this time of peril, possibility sprouts close by. We have faced planetary scale peril since the end of WW2: first in the Cold War, then in global warming. Maybe this crisis will at last provoke the critical mass of us to kick into some new self-organizing emergence—some self- and earth-respecting way of being peoples, classes, races, sexes, even nations, together.

I end with the seasonal words of the Magnificat, where the crisis of one ancient unwed mother bursts into messianic politics, stirring up that spirit that “has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1.52). And will again.

Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. In her teaching, lecturing and writing, she develops the relational potential of a theology of becoming.

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