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.