Arguing for Abrahamic Theopolitics From Practice to Scriptural Reading

A theory for Abrahamic theo-politics moves from the fact of some practice to scriptural readings and interpretation that might cast light on that practice. More conceptual work would follow, generating plans for more practice. The brevity of this essay leaves space only to illustrate the move from practice to scriptural reading. In this case, the readings are to provide some basis for assuming that Muslims, Jews, and Christians have overlapping as well as separate, political missions.

Sabbath as the telos of human creation

And God created Adam/Humanity in His image . . . On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing . . . God blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. (Gen. 1: 27, 2: 1)

We are finite creatures on this earth, dependent on our Creator and yet touched by and in ways sharing in the Creator's image. Eschewing Maimonidean intel-lectualism, shall we gloss "image" as the capacity to act beyond the bounds and limits of our given, creaturely, finitude, but only in direct relation to God? And shall we locate the telos of this action in the holiness of Shabbat?

Human failing

Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life ... The Lord God . . . drove Adam out. (Gen. 3: 17, 24)

We fail to enact the divine image in ways appropriate to its infinity and holiness. Our actions therefore go off the mark, embodying our illusions about who we are and upsetting the finite/infinite order in which we find ourselves. Failing in this way to win life in Shabbat, we must lead lives of work, that is, lives devoted to repairing, I'taken, what our errors have made wrong in this world.

Our temptation is jealousy

Hashem paid heed to Abel and his offering. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And Hashem said to Cain, "Why are you distressed . . . Surely if you do right, there is uplift; But if you do not do right, Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master." (Gen. 4: 4-7)

Our sins of action follow from jealousy, rather than from any error of judgment or action, and it is jealousy of another's religion: that is, of another's apparently greater success in seeking God's favor. Seeking God's favor directly, we might imagine, is one way to cut short a lifetime of work. If so, to be jealous is to wish the other did not receive such favor: perhaps so as not to be reminded that our own work is not yet done? If so, to be jealous also means failing to recognize that both our work and the other's is infinite, which means that it cannot be completed without God's direct involvement and that we cannot predict the time and manner of that involvement. We cannot learn from one offering, cannot predict the future by induction. Just like our parents, we act out of our illusions, misunderstanding both our finitude and infinitude: as if the other's absence would guarantee God's favor in the future. As if the church could do away with the Jews and thereby curry God's favor? As if the mosque could do away with the church and the Jews and win this favor? As if the Jews could re-win God's favor by boasting of their privileged relation? As if offerings of the past guarantee those of the future? As if there were any such short cut out of work? But we need not act on our jealousy. We do have the power to overcome it - if not the jealousy, then at least the impulse to act on it.

Our ultimate failing is violence

We do not overcome the consequences of jealousy. To act out those consequences is to bring violence into the world: violence understood as our confused effort to re-remove the other and thereby, magically, without work and merit, to become God's only, and thus God's favorite, and thus the one whom God would free from the toil of redemptive labor. Christian, Muslim, and Jew: who is God's favorite? It seems we cannot resist the tendency to act out our jealousies of one another.

Violence becomes second nature to us

The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence. (Gen. 6:

Although not inborn in us like our tendency to err, the tendency to act out the consequences of jealousy becomes so strong a habit that it appears as if part of our nature, a "second nature." The Creator considers: Shall I do away with this tendency by doing away with all creatures who have acquired it as second nature? What age of violence prompts the divine flood? The expulsion of 135-6? The crusades? Europe's religious wars? The world wars and Shoah? Mideast conflicts? The conflicts symbolized by September 11? The salvation history of Israel should no longer be ignored by the church and the mosque: enslavement in Egypt, destruction of the first temple (586 bce), destruction of the second temple (70 ce), expulsion from Jerusalem (135-6 ce), expulsion from Spain (1492 ce), Chmielnicki pogroms, Russian pogroms, Soviet pogroms, Shoah ... Do you suppose floods are only Old Testament stories? Do you suppose floods are merely "universal," and not also universal to particular covenants at particular times? Do you suppose these pertain only to the "old" dispensation, or, otherwise put, do you suppose you have necessarily left that dispensation? Does your doctrine say one thing and the material history of your covenants reveal another? Are there no cycles to your salvation histories as well? If you no longer belong to the land that can spew you out, is the whole earth not your land? Do you have an account to offer of the violence and destruction that visits you, too, periodically? Are you not also the child of the Mosaic covenant? Does the Deuteronomic theodicy truly never apply to your people: "Hear, O heavens, and give ear O earth, For Hashem has spoken: I reared children and brought them up - And they have rebelled against Me!" (Isa. 1: 2)? Or the theodicy of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 41ff.)? Is the Servant only an Other, or also you, O Israel,3 and do you not suffer for their violence, and theirs and theirs . . . ? Have you truly escaped the throes of earthly salvation history, the birth pangs still of Messiah even if of another coming?

But we cannot escape it in this world

Never again will I doom the earth because of Adam/humanity, since the devisings of Adam's/humanity's mind are evil from youth. (Gen. 8: 21)

If that second nature is indeed our earthly nature, there is nothing to be gained from punishing the earth for what we have become. But the experiment of flood was not fruitless: the covenant of Noah is no longer the covenant of Adam, since humanity's redemptive work will no longer succeed unless it is led by God's redemptive word. The imago is not enough; God must send his spoken Word, without which humanity cannot redeem its sins. The spoken Word begins with the worded covenant of Noah, articulated in rabbinic tradition as the Noahide laws disclosed in Gen. 9: set up courts of justice, no idolatry, no blasphemy, no sexual immorality, no murder, no robbery, no tearing flesh from living animals (Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8. 4). Humanity and God are thereby partners in the work of redemption: the divine word and the human work (avodah). This work is divine service as well as service to the world, what we tend to call "religion."

Recognizing that we remain jealous of another's divine service, we seek to resolve the jealousy on our own, through our own construction

Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we be scattered all over the world. (Gen 11: 4)

Shall we all be Christians, or all Muslims? If by God's hand, then, indeed, for in the end of days, in the Garden of Eden, in the world to come, in Shabbat, we shall all be Christians, all be Muslims, all be Jews, all be children of Abraham. Indeed, we are one, already, in Shabbat, in the divine presence, which is the world to come now. But we are also many, in this world, these six days of work, which are not yet redeemed, and who are we to choose of our own will, according to our creaturely nature, when and how we shall all be one in this world? Is it for us to say when this world is the world to come? Or is this not what we mean by violence in the world after Noah: the willful effort to do away with the difference between ourselves? Is this not, indeed, the mark of political violence after Noah: the effort to do away with Abel by incorporating him into our own construction, which is our own religious construction, since it is the means through which we seek to complete our labor of redemption, once and for all?

But have we not already inherited two epochs of failed attempts to resolve matters this way: the epoch of religious empire and the epoch of secular empire? Have these not brought on the flood?

Children of Abraham

Go forth from your father's house to a land I will show you. (Gen. 12: 1)

For Abrahamic theo-politics, the broken Tower of Babel serves as a mark of two failed epochs of efforts to force unity on the world through human will, alone. One marks efforts to force a single Abrahamic religion on the world. The other marks efforts to force a single political regime or single socioeconomic system or single philosophic system on the world. These are two epochs of political violence, because they are defined by efforts to do away with the otherness of Abel and, thereby, to evade the hard, slow labor of transforming one's second nature into divine service and, then, undertaking that service as the very long work of redeeming the world from the effects of human sin. Neo-orthodox practitioners may protest that this is precisely the work of converting the world to Abraham's covenant. Our response is to read such Abraham's covenant as the point of departure from such neo-orthodoxy as well as from its secularizing doppelganger.

Go forth from your father's house. If Noah's covenant represents a point of departure from Adam's covenant of creation toward the Noahide covenant of spoken Word, then Abraham's covenant departs from a Word spoken to all humanity toward a Word spoken to a particular language-family. This spoken Word emerges neither within Abraham's creature-heart nor without that heart, in the structures of his creature-communities and creature-polities. The Word is "nigh unto him" (Deut. 30: 14), neither in the heavens nor in his flesh, but alongside him, with him, in the name of the God ehyeh imach, "who will be with you" (Exod. 3). This is a third place, neither here nor there, not of this world, but with it, which is of the other world that knows neither place, here nor there, but only relation with. It is in this sense a Word of language, but not of the natural language we often suppose. Noah already had that; even in his drunkenness, he soaked up the language of creaturely socialization. This Word is with natural language, not of it; with Hebrew, not of it, even if the Word is introduced alongside it; it is therefore also with Arabic and with Greek.

Separated from his father's house, Abraham is separated from the house that became a tower. Christian towers and Muslim towers are still towers, as for that matter are the towers of a nation-state, even a Jewish one, or even a Muslim Palestinian or a Christian Palestinian one. Small nation-state towers are more modest towers, indeed, but within their scale they are still built in the memory of Babel's nation-state. And towers do not belong to the epoch of Abrahamic theo-politics.

Tents are another matter.

Hashem appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, "... Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on - since you have come to your servant." (Gen. 18).

Scholars and religious leaders of the Children of Abraham Institute meet together under a tent they call both the "Tent of Meeting" and "Abraham's Tent." It is an imaginary tent, built of images, at once, of Jacob's ladder (Gen. 18: 10-22), of Peter's sleep (Luke 9: 28-36), of Abraham's "House of Worship" (Qur'an, Sura Bakarah 2: 125-34), of Abraham's Tent (Gen. 18), of the place where Moses meets the divine presence (Exod. 40). All participants in CHAI are also members of what they call "houses" - that is, denomination-specific houses of worship, or synagogues, mosques, and churches. Like ancient Israel's Jerusalem, set up outside the precinct of any single tribe, the tent is raised outside any particular house. In this, literal sense, CHAI participants leave their houses in order to enter the tent; but, unlike Abraham, they in no way leave the religion of their houses: they retain full allegiance to their houses, within which they worship and acquire their primary relations to God and congregation. CHAI offers its participants a source of secondary relations. Under their imagined tent, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian participants teach their scriptures to one another, inviting one another to ponder and discuss their traditions' readings, both singly and in relation to readings from the other traditions. In this way, each participant and each tradition offers hospitality to the others, which includes the hospitality of both listening and active response. All of them are children of Abraham; the participants recognize one another as servants of the same God of Abraham, and they encounter one another as one would a messenger of that God.

The men set out from there and looked down toward Sodom . . . Now Hashem had said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?" (Gen. 18: 16-17)

CHAI participants recognize, however, that they are not brought together merely to enjoy each other's hospitality. There is the matter of Sodom: not Sodom, per se, but the fact that violence remains one of the most conspicuous features of inter-Abrahamic relations. CHAI participants remember that they are children also of Adam, whose labor in this world is to redeem the consequences of Adam's failings; and that they are children of Cain, of the generation of the flood, and of the generation of the tower. They acknowledge that, both singly and together, they are children of Abraham, whose task it is to help redeem the world, now, according to specific missions disclosed through their several scriptural traditions. They acknowledge that their missions are different and that, in some significant ways, they remain competing missions. But, "looking down toward Sodom," they also say now to one another, "come, let us not now hide from one another what we think we are now called to do; there are, indeed, members of all our houses in the valley of Sodom, some sinners, some innocent; their social spaces and their lives are mostly intermingled, so that there is no way we can now take action toward one group without affecting all the others; without losing our three separate missions, let us now, in this moment, also adopt a fourth, additional mission: to work, together, to redeem the social space that our fellow congregants share."

All CHAI participants offer allegiance to this shared mission, in addition to (and within the laws of) their traditions' separate missions. Their shared mission is theo-political by definition, since it is to work, from out of shared study of the Abrahamic scriptural traditions, to remove violence as a condition of relationship among Abrahamic peoples. It is therefore a mission to remove inter-Abrahamic jealousy as a motive of action among Abrahamic communities. It is thus a mission to undo these communities' efforts to curry God's favor by removing one another as objects of God's favor. This means it is, furthermore, a mission to undo these communities' efforts to shorten the labor of world repair (tikkun olam) through mere, religious self-expansion or self-aggrandizement. It is a mission of Muslims, Christians, and Jews to help each other redirect their separate, tradition-specific missions to the aboriginal goal of laboring for the redemption of Cain and for repair of the earth he has polluted.

There are many ways that Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities could work together under the "Tent of Abraham." The efforts of CHAI's scholars and religious leaders represent one modest example. In their case, the first stage of work has been to gather religious and academic scholars to share a practice of scriptural study and, from out of their experience of this practice, to compose models of an inter-Abrahamic "hermeneutics of peace." A second stage has been to invite religious leaders into this tent and to ask these leaders how they would extend CHAI's hermeneutic to members of their congregations. According to CHAI's plans, the next stage is to help groups of Abrahamic religious leaders, in various regions of the world, to draw select members of their congregations into CHAI study groups: in particular, members who also hold positions of social, political, or economic leadership in their regions. A goal of this stage of work is to nurture such groups into nongovernmental bodies that could offer an Abrahamic voice, or serve as a source of Abrahamic policy-statements, in response to social, political, and economic crises in their specific regions of the world.

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