Interfaith Conversations

Kenosis, Emancipation, Pastness – Reflections From A Jew, Part 2 (Sarah Pessin)

Emphasized in a temporalized modality, and bringing together elements of our phenomenological and political reflections above, we may specifically unpack the hegemony of White Christianity as a blow against pastness: Where pastness signals the facts and facticity of a fettered social and historical situation (with parameters imposed from outside, a need to escape those parameters felt on the inside, and all-in-all a lived limit to freedom and presence), White Christian hegemony signals at the very worst the desire and at the very least the ability to live unfettered by chains of the past.

Indeed, from a critical race and feminist perspective, this abstraction of (as a kind of disregard for) the past is one of liberalism’s most damning qualities. That we move here from White Christianity to liberalism’s failures around pastness is motivated both by their shared hegemonic enactment of “New/Now” modalities at the expense of marginalized minority voices, as it is also (and relatedly) motivated by Levinas’ own identification of abstract liberalism as a degraded outgrowth of Christianity.[1]

Indeed, towards the goal of human emancipations, we may identify four destructive approaches to pastness—two that emerge from the far right of Hitlerisms, and two that emerge from liberalisms on the left. As we will see, in other words, emancipations are blocked by both overly robust and insufficiently robust relationships to our pasts.

Let’s start with two competing comportments to pastness on the part of Hiterlism. On the one hand, Hitlerism sinks into the mire of determinism and destiny. It is so beholden to a past that the future is already written—so much so that, to quote from Levinas, “if race does not exist, one has to invent it.”[2] This is an over-commitment to pastness (including, arguably, one’s own fantasies of pastness—e.g. fantasies of pastness at play in “Make America Great Again” rallying cries) that leads to violence. On the other hand, we have an under-commitment to pastness that also leads to violence.

Here we may turn to each of Habermas and Adorno on the importance of countering the politics of forgetting typified in Vergangenheitsbewältigung (i.e. mastering the past), a value on the rise in recent years and seen, for example, in a right-wing nationalist ‘Alternative for Germany’ figure vigorously denouncing Germany’s ongoing memorialization of the Holocaust, while emphasizing instead the need for, in his words, “a 180-degree turn” when it comes to Germans’ engaging their past.[3] In other words, and to paraphrase, “Enough with the Holocaust” according to one right-wing German nationalist whose party recently gained traction for its robust anti-Islam campaign. In response to this insufficiently robust relation to pastness, we may say instead that subjectivity and justice both reside in never thinking you can or should “master” (in the sense of box up and put away) the past—a point drawn out in Adorno’s own reflection—in his use of the terms “Aufarbeitung” and “Verarbeitung”[4]—on two kinds of working with the past.

The destructive kind of working with the past that aims to neatly master it, and the redemptive kind of working with the past that wrestles with history (the heaps of violent history envisioned, we might say, by Benjamin’s Angel of History) towards critical consciousness-raising and justice. And so too in Habermas’ own emphasis on the obligation of new generations of Germans to come to terms with Germany’s Hitlerian past—as nothing short of providing (or robbing) people of the ability to breathe; as summarized by Thompson:

Jürgen Habermas, in his participation in the German historians’ debate of the 1980s, adamantly insisted that present-day Germans have an obligation to remember and appropriately come to terms with the injustices of the Third Reich. Younger generations, he says, must ‘seek to reassure themselves about a historical heritage which they, as citizens and members of a collective political life, must inherit in one way or another.’[5] And the dead victims of injustice have a claim to ‘the weak anamnestic power of a solidarity that later generations can continue to practice only in the medium of a remembrance that is repeatedly renewed, often desperate, and continually in one’s mind’. This remembrance, he thinks, is necessary so that their descendants ‘can breathe in our country.’[6] [7] Too weak a bond to pastness leads to suffocation.

We have seen two Hitlerian failures to relate to pastness—one typified by too tight a hold one by too light a hold on a past. In turning to liberalism, we find two other failures to relate to pastness—and while to be sure liberalism’s insufficiently emancipatory frames ought not be likened to Hitlerism’s atrocities, liberalism can also contribute (albeit it in very different ways) to breaking the arc of justice. On the one hand, liberalism fails to critically problematize the past. In this regard, critical race and feminist theorists point to liberalism’s non-critical tendency to simply pull forward, unexplored, a number of cultural habits and conceptual dualisms—e.g. underexplored hegemonic assumptions about the private and the public—that ensure a future of ongoing subjugation for a variety of marginalized groups.

On the other hand, liberalism fails to sufficiently take up the past: In any number of critiques of—including critical race and feminist theoretical approaches to—Rawlsian theories of justice (including critiques found in Charles Mills, Naomi Zack, Anthony Appiah, et al.), the liberal approach is shown to fail precisely in its abstract theory’s inability to sufficiently lift up, engage, or address/redress a host of particular material oppressions and injustices (historical and ongoing)—including most egregiously in an American context against Black and Native people—at the very foundations of the system in which our “search for justice” transpires.

Rawlsian thought experiments about justice administered under a veil of ignorance look dispassionately to idealized futures in ways that reveal (or perhaps better: enact) an immoral disconnect: We are encouraged to “pull up a chair” and participate in thought experiments while sitting atop ground that is thoroughly soaked with the blood of our (still actively bleeding) neighbors. The past cannot be mastered by force, nor can the suffering bodies it delivers to us daily be set to the side (even if only for a moment) as we engage in idealizations.

On this charge, liberalism flies away on a cloud of universalisms and idealisms—a concern seen too in Levinas’ critique of liberalism’s failing to sufficiently engage human embodiment (in this way opening the door to Hitlerian rallying cries of blood and soil), and in Sartre’s damning assessment of the dangers of abstraction in his account of “the democrat” in Anti-Semite and Jew:[8] In upholding a view of “the generic, universal human being” the democrat (steeped in uncritical bourgeois values) advocates for assimilation and in this way refuses to wrestle with what Sartre calls the “concrete synthesis” of Jews, Blacks, and other lived historical identities.

Indeed, with his sense of “the universal human,” the universalist’s valorization of assimilation becomes a form of genocide. These failings of liberalism can be highlighted, on our temporalizing frame, as failures to appropriately engage pastness—including most pressingly the particularities and histories of neighbors from racialized, marginalized, and oppressed groups. Put into our further frame, we may note a deep link between liberalism’s failures with respect to pastness and White Christian “time hegemony.”

Indeed, seeing in the White Christian a certain brand of time hegemony that plays out in liberal failures around racial justice, and reading in “the Jew” a signal to a more phenomenologically and politically appropriate set of relations to pastness, we are—in our efforts to hasten emancipatory change for minoritized, racialized communities—well-served to consider Rosenzweig’s description of Judaism as the “no” that saves Christianity from idolatry.

In his Star of Redemption (part 3, book 3), Rosenzweig speaks of the “eternal protest of the Jew,”[9] and notes that “the existence of the Jew constantly subjects Christianity to the idea that it is not attaining the goal… that it ever remains—on the way.”[10] Judaism, in its “no” to Christianity—which in our context is to say White (and other majority-positioned) Christianity—is prevented from its will to totality (and with it the related universalist idolatries of perfection, self-completion, and totalitarianism) precisely inasmuch as the Jew remains a Jew in all her particularity—which is itself to say (in our context) precisely inasmuch as the minoritized person refuses to assimilate into the White Christian and liberal universalist dreams of sameness. To return to my starting autobiographical frame, I might add: This is why it’s a good thing to invite the voices of more scholars who are not White Christians into this and other conversations more often. Furthermore, Rosenzweig’s logic of the “no” also helps us unpack the logic and dynamics of kenosis with which I end below.

Kenotic Key

Enacting—in spite (or perhaps in light?) of myself—the Christian Christianless Christian frame of any atheological conversation, I end with kenosis.[11] Thinking the Jew as marker of the minoritized, racialized, oppressed Other, and carrying with us the weight of Rosenzweig’s “no,” we may say that the Jew (in her “no”) is the kenotic site of emptying—the site of Christianity’s emptying of its own father-like powers over the state and over the general Western thought-space. In this respect, we might say that every minoritized, racialized, marginalized subject (Black, Native, Muslim, Woman, Transgender, Gay, Jew, etc.) functions as a “no” to the totalizing desire of White Christianity, and with it white liberalism and various other forms of socio-political utopianisms and universalisms.

The structural silencing of minoritized, racialized, marginalized subjects emerges as the kenotic space which empties White Christianity of its father-like hold on its own narrative of redemption, love, and universal human community. Contrary to Vattimo who emphasizes the kenosis of Christ in a valorization of a pluralism that comes “after Christianity,” we return to our starting concern that so-called post-Christianity still bears (in its overt self-reference to Christianity even in its attempt to empty itself) a Father-like grasp on the narrative. In light of Rosenzweig’s sense of the Jew serving as the subject who allows Christianity to loose its hold on its own hegemony, would we not find that it is the minoritized, racialized, marginalized subject who serves as the kenotic site of White Christianity, allowing White Christianity to have always already unavoidably lost track of its own narrative?

Would we not find that it is the minoritized, racialized, marginalized subject who in this sense allows the Father, White Christianity, to avoid consuming itself in a bringing of same into same (with all the vigor of Dali’s ‘Autumnal Cannibalism’) through a totalizing mastery over state and thought-space? In contrast to Vattimo’s declaration of Christ’s kenosis as an end of hegemony, and in contrast to the similarly ironic tendency of much contemporary political theology and various flavors of post-metaphysical atheology to uphold grace, incarnation, Pauline anti-nomianism, and Christ’s kenosis as signaling the ends of hegemony, we might wonder if it is instead only the moments at which White Christianity fails—fails, that is, to assimilate the bodies of minorities who are not White Christians, and fails (in related spirit) to install kenosis, the death of God, and similarly Christian constructs as the grounding markers of emancipation in various disciplinary lexicons—that kenotically empty Christianity (and with it, various motions of liberalism and universalism) of its constricting holds (including holds that uphold the status quo and its many structures of inequity).

Christianity’s failures in this sense—along with the (God-willing) future failures of Christianity to totalize (failures made possible precisely by our “remain[ing] Jews [and other non-White-Christians] before you”[12] paves a path to the liberations of justice (albeit of the non-overjoyed, Derrida-meets-Levinas, pausal variety of justice that is always yet to come].

Sarah Pessin is Professor of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at the University of Denver. She works on Levinas, Phenomenology, Greek and Medieval cosmologies and ethics, philosophies of religion and race, and interfaith civics. She is the author of Ibn Gabirol’s Theology of Desire (Cambridge, 2013), and is currently working on a book on Levinasian “pausal subjectivity” and its relation to politics of responsibility.


[1] Levinas makes this point in “Philosophy of Hitlerism.” [Emmanuel Levinas, “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” in Critical Inquiry, 17(1), (1934/1990), 62-71.] In that context, Levinas is praising Christianity (and Judaism) for appropriately robust phenomenologies of pardon, and noting that a liberal (Protestant European) form of life has—in its strongly disembodied, idealizing, and abstracting tendencies—decidedly lost hold of the best of what Judeo-Christian religion has to offer in terms of pardon and, relatedly, in terms of addressing the needs of concrete embodied humans. He goes on to suggest that liberalism’s inability to address embodied needs opens a path to Hitlerism’s own racist “blood and soil” ability to feed those embodied human needs. For a further discussion of this point, see Sarah Pessin, “America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness),” in Political Theology Network, (2018). Extending to our current point, we may note that where Levinas in his 1934 essay moves from a focus on what is best about Christianity (viz. concreteness and pardon) to the loss of those features in its afterlife in liberalism, our point about liberalism above will be all the harsher given that we are here inspired by Levinas’ 1947 emphasis on what is worst about Christianity (viz. a loss of pastness, origins, and pardon): If what is best about Christianity gives way to a sad state in liberalism, a fortiori what is worst about Christianity gives way to an even sadder state in liberalism.

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” in Critical Inquiry, 17(1), (1934/1990). 69.

[3] The speaker in question was Bjoern Hoecke in January 2017; see:

[4] See Theodor Adorno, “The Meaning of Working through the Past” in Can One Live After Auschwitz, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and trans. Henry W. Pickford, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1960/2003).

[5] Jürgen Habermas, “On the Public Uses of History,” in The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, ed. And trans. by Max Pensky, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). 29.

[6] Jürgen Habermas, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate, ed. by S.W. Nicholsen, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 231.

[7] Janna Thompson, “Apology, Historical Obligations and the Ethics of Memory,” in Memory Studies, 2(2), (1999), 198-199.

[8] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, (New York: Schocken Books, 1948/1995).

[9] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. by William W. Hallo, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), 413.

[10] Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 413. My use of Rosenzweig notwithstanding, we ought remain critical of Rosenzweig’s privileging of only Christianity and Judaism from among religious traditions (i.e. he speaks of Christianity and Judaism in particular as necessary and mutually inter-related cosmic realities).

[11] Sarah Pessin, “Kenosis, Charity, Love: On the Mystical Element in Greco-Judeo-Islamic Thought,” in English Language Notes 56 (1), (2018), 139-152. See too Sarah Pessin, “America’s Love Problem: How Oprah’s Call to Friendship Feeds Bannon’s Call to Racism (or: On Three Strains of Liberal Lovesickness),” in Political Theology Network, (2018).

[12] See Emmanuel Levinas, “A Religion For Adults,” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, tr. Seán Hand (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 14.

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