Rethinking pacifism with Agamben’s remnant

In his commentary on Romans, Giorgio Agamben writes that the remnant (in Israel’s history) “is precisely what prevents divisions from being exhaustive and excludes the parts and the all from the possibility of coinciding with themselves.  The remnant is not so much the object of salvation as its instrument, that which properly makes salvation possible. In Romans 2:11-26 Paul describes the remnant’s soteriological dialectic with clarity. The “dimunition” (hettema) that makes Israel a “part” and a remnant is produced for the salvation of the ethne, the non-Jews, and foreshadows its pleroma, its fullness as the all, since, in the end, when the pleroma of the people will have come, then “all of Israel will be saved.” The remnant is therefore both an excess of the all with regard to the part, and of the part with regard to the all.  It functions as a peculiar kind of soteriological machine. As such, it only concerns messianic time and only exists therein.  In the telos, when God will be “all in all,” the messianic remnant will not harbor any particular privilege and will have exhausted its meaning in losing itself in the pleroma (1 Thess. 4:15: “we, who remain alive, unto the coming of the Lord shall not overtake then which are asleep”). But in the time of the now, the only real time, there is nothing other than the remnant. This does not properly belong either to an eschatology of ruin or salvation, but rather, to use Benjamin’s words, it belongs to an unredeemable, the perception of which allows us to reach salvation.” (Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 56.

How does this notion of the remnant, of messianic time in relation to the eschaton and salvation affect how we think about the work of the church?  One must note here that when Agamben employs the terms “instrument” and “soteriological machine” (above) we are not to think of means and ends logic.  The remnant is not that which somehow moves history forward towards salvation.  What do instruments and machines do? They play and compose music, they produce something.  What do they produce? A remnant, remnant relations. The remnant, for Agamben, is a relation, a way of relating to others that does not coincide with itself.  It maintains an inherent antagonism to any identitarian establishment, territorialization, or domination.  “This “remnant” is not any kind of numeric portion or substantial positive residue.”(Agamben, 50) But if we think of the Christian church as emptied of its identitarian contents, its propositions of belief, how do we speak of something characteristically Christian? Or, to put it differently, what then is the work of the church if not to bring about the the Kingdom of God on earth as inaugurated by the Messiah? A remnant-church does not empty us from all work, but reconfigures the way we think about what constitutes Christian work.  Insofar as we can talk about Christian practices, we must think of them as contingent rather than as content-actions or a prescriptive list to adhere to.

Let us take the example of pacifism.  Most of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage takes this to be a position inherent to the practice of Christianity, discipleship to Jesus.  But is this a definitively Christian concern?  Is pacifism or non-violence, if you prefer, an inherently Christian belief?  Does Christianity specifically contain certain practices and not others? With Agamben in the background, I submit that pacifism or non-violence is not a position, a place from which we stand, from which we see the world. Pacifism is a practice, and as such it names a way of relating to others. Pacifism and non-violence are often understood as propositions or categories of things we believe in. But pacifism must be thought of as enemy-love, a term that shows the inherently relational quality of the concept (which is really not a concept at all).  Enemy-love is a way of relating to others, not an objective action.  Practices must be thought of as relational/relations, and insofar as they are remnant, insofar as they maintain their non-coincidence with themselves, their antagonism towards sovereignty, they are Christian practices.  Therefore, something like war, violence, colonialism, will be excluded from Christian practice, not on doctrinal grounds but because of how these relate to others.  Non-violence can be called a Christian practice insofar as it renounces its own sovereignty (read: establishment/domination) and any sovereignty.

The original Italian title of Agamben’s book is Il tempo che resta, The tempo that remains, or The tempo of the remnant.  It is not by chance that the word tempo is also a musical term connoting rhythm and movement alongside time.

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7 comments on “Rethinking pacifism with Agamben’s remnant

  1. But what if we think of the Christian church as emptied of its identitarian contents, its propositions of belief, how do we speak of something characteristically Christian?

    That line of questioning gets a little scary when you start exploring it in very public institutional (ecclesial) spaces. It is necessary though, in that at least you begin to feel the unseen borders that frame a given institution or identity.

    • Kampen says:

      I know it is. And it’s scary for me too considering the church I have grown up in. What is important to recognize is why it’s scary. It’s scary because we think of the church a some kind of body filled with identitarian practices, a sort of object filled with content. I submit that we need to think of the church primarily as relational, the body of gathered believers in relation to itselves and to others. The practices that might come about as a result of a non-dominant relationality, then, would be constitutively (but also contingently) Christian. I should add that I don’t think this means we have to or should abolish institutions. I think there is a difference between Christian institutions and establishments – a difference of dominant organization. I think an institution can be understood as a gathered collective that composes certain kinds of relations with others. I think the way MCC initiates various projects with other Mennonite or non-Menno partners across the world is one way of imagining/composing an institution functioning in a non-identitarian, non-dominant way. (I am using the term “composing” here the way Barber uses it in his book). You can see, for example, the MCC partnership with the Coptic Orthodox church in Egypt. Bishop Thomas (Coptic) has described the relationship as an “ingrafting.” The Mennonite church has not come to establish a church or somehow persuade/nurture a more Mennonite theology; rather, they work together to imagine better ways of living in Egypt and composing relations further, with others. I also think that Mennonites go wrong when they think they need to somehow bolster themselves as an institution in order to compete with other institutions. This kind of protective move is effectively establishmentarian (and often results in a constantinian alliance with powers of all sorts, including dominant theologies). I think this is currently happening at Mennonite Church Canada with the new business-like structure. The church is not a business. The church is not in the business of establishing itself or marketing itself as an organization among and in competition with other organizations, a power among other powers, a nation like other nations (Israel’s idolatry!).

      • Theophilus says:

        What are these business-like shifts to which you refer in MC Canada? I’m asking not just out of curiosity, but because of recent similar-sounding movements within the Canadian Conference of MB Churches, both of which seem to have aligned with the hiring of new executive leadership (Willard Metzger for MC Canada, and Willy Reimer for the MB’s).

  2. I would also be interested in hearing your articulation of MC Canada as ‘business-like’. Is this related to changes arising from budget cuts or is this something other. I don’t know that I have a bead on MC Canada yet.

    • Kampen says:

      I am exactly talking about Metzger. Let me preface by saying that he is a good man and has a lot of good things to say, good ideas of how to run organizations (coming from his World Vision background). Running MCCan like a business is, however, not a good idea. The initial leadership model for MCCan was a team model. Jack Suderman was the executive director but decisions were made as a team the executive level (i.e., decisions were not deferred to him and he was not granted any sort of arbiter status). This has changed with the new leadership. It is important to note that as MCCan grows (no longer in its beginning stages after a decade) some of the organizational structures also need to shift around because of the nature of not being at the beginning stages anymore. There are other things to do.I don’t know all the details of these organizational stages and whatever. Anyway, Metzger was hired by a small committee or maybe the board (this was unclear to me) and almost none (or none) of the MCCan staff had any input in the decision of who to hire. After the hire, there was somewhat of a fall-out, rather than simply shifting things around. Many positions were cut in order to help monetary short-comings in the budget (and yet Metzger is flow in about once a month – I think, don’t quote me on this – from Ontario to Wpg. in order to do parts of his job here. The rest he does there…this is a good way to save money? It should be said that he is flown in because of important family/personal reasons but still – that begs the question whether or not he was a good fit for the job). Because many executive positions were cut, Metzger effectively “runs” MCCan now, at least at the level of final decisions on things, and makes most of his decisions himself rather than with a team. Because of his background with WV he is also much more business model oriented. This has influenced his approach to MCCan greatly as well. This is by no means an attack on Metzger, I have simply questioned his suitability for the position from the beginning, not because of who he is and what he knows how to do, but because of what the wider character of the church is, beyond MCCan, and that MCCan needs to reflect. We are not a business. Our theology does not match up with this at all.

      • Theophilus says:

        I find your equating of World Vision with a “business model” to be very interesting, considering that they are a charitable organization. I wonder if what you might be getting at might have to do with your ecclesiology, which on the denominational level usually functions somewhere between a presbyterian and episcopal fashion. (The only major denomination I’m aware of that practices congregationalism even at the level of intercongregational organization is the Church of Christ and their offshoots, who generally don’t have much of anything resembling a denominational structure you or I would recognize.) It sounds to me that Jack Suderman practiced a presbyterian style of governance during his tenure, while Willard Metzger’s leadership has tilted more towards the episcopal style, which more closely resembles the chains of command common in businesses. But this seems to be a bit distantly related to the original post and its concern with boundary keeping. I wonder if that might be the case at least in part because Metzger’s background is not located entirely within the former General Conference. The church he pastored, Community Mennonite Fellowship in Drayton, Ontario, was a part of the “Old” Mennonite Church, which did not share the General Conference’s historic emphasis on openness and accomodation.

        Our situation in the MB conference is a bit different. Neither boundary-keeping nor presbyterian-episcopal styles of leadership have been observed to have changed with the new leadership, at least as far as I can see.

  3. Kampen says:

    I can’t speak to the MB conference changes because I know nothing of them. The original post, however, was about rethinking the content-beliefs of Christianity (specifically Mennonites – and that is why I chose pacifism). The rethinking done here with Agamben effectively empties the church of identitarian content such that any identity is rather constituted by kinds of relations (enemy-love rather than pacifism/non-violence) and therefore resists sedimentation (and establishment, by extension).

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