Religion and Race

Antinomian Flesh, Part 3 (David Kline)

The following is the third of a three-part series. The first can be found here, the second here.

Antinomian Spirit as Christian Supremacy

Both before nomos and therefore its condition of enactment, the flesh names the undercurrent of living resistance that adheres in every apparatus of capture. The flesh, then, is anti-nomos, antinomian. By deploying the language of antinomianism, we are linked back up with a religious and theological framework, accompanied by all the potential to enact both novel possibilities of otherwise worlds and returns of immunitary violence. Antinomianism has its most well-known and at times deeply problematic context in the Christian theological tradition, which traditionally does not think of the flesh in the way I’ve theorized it.

Beginning with an interpretation of Pauline theology arguing that Christ has freed humanity from the requirements of the Torah, Christ is associated with the living spirit of grace against the “dead letter” of the Jewish law. In this formula, spirit comes to signify the transcendent and otherworldly reality of redemption where the “flesh,” in Pauline parlance, is a kind of worldly material remainder of humanity’s fallen and law-bound condition of sin against which the spirit struggles. This version of antinomianism has typically privileged a disembodied notion of salvation over material struggles for earthly liberation, and, more troublingly, it has provided a foundation for the history of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic Christian supremacism that demonizes Jews as both lacking the spirit and as being a bodily threat to Christian purity.

In their rejection of Christ, the Jews are figured as those that remain stubbornly bound by the law and therefore embody the fleshly condition of sin. Nascent within the New Testament writings themselves, and a common theme in early Christian writers, “the accusation that Jews were, to their detriment, focused on the flesh instead of the spirit was a recurring theme … that had a dual meaning: Christians accused Jews of mistakenly trying to please God through physical actions instead of spiritual faith, and many Christians also accused Jews of (mis)interpreting the Scriptures literally instead of spiritually, or allegorically.”[1]

Such an antinomian formulation that equates religious physicality to dead ritual and legalism has taken on the power of a Christian origin story: the great antinomian Paul overcomes the dead weight of Jewish law and becomes the founder of a new religion called “Christianity” that leaves behind a stubbornly ethnocentric Judaism as it offers the universal spirit of a transcendent identity of truth, all this while effectively siding with the imperial power of empire.

This supersessionist demonization of the Jews as representative of the dead “letter of the law,” moreover, has played a key role in the making of the modern racial order of colonialism and white supremacy. Where Christian spirit is aligned with the rational and high cultural achievements of white European Man liberated from the limits of corporeal particularity expressed as racial identity, the Jews are represented as a racially stunted people hopelessly stuck in the prison of religiously determined empirical law.

As theologian J. Kameron Carter has demonstrated in his reading of the philosophical anthropology of Immanuel Kant, Paul and Jesus are racially transformed into figures of a kind of antinomian enlightenment against the old world of religious superstition and legalism. In their adoption as proto-founders of western culture, they are extracted out of their Jewish flesh and transformed into figures of transcendent rational enlightenment, which is to say, “white,” “sundering the Old Testament, as sensuous, heteronymous, and bound to the empirical, from the New, as non-sensuous, autonomous, and transcendental.”[2] As a stand-in for fallen fleshly existence, the “empirico-juridical” sphere becomes a prison of racial particularity from which the Christian message of spirit sets free.

In this nomos of homo rationalis, the Jews, along with all other colonized non-Europeans and non-Christians, are enslaved to a “mind-set of a people bound to the empirical world rather than the transcendental world of reason.”[3] While the racial and ethnic particularity of non-Europeans leaves them irrevocably marked by the flesh and therefore positioned as racialized problems to be managed and ordered against the progressive trek toward enlightened European culture and society, spirit and grace are aligned with the body-transcending truth and universality of white Christian revelation.

Such a distinction between the material particularity of law (as racial and ethnic particularity) and the universality of revelation as spirit has deeply shaped modern western thought. In this supersessionist version of antinomianism, of which even radical readers of Paul such as Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou continue to reproduce, “the letter of the (Jewish) law kills, while the spirit of the (Christian) revelation gives life.”[4]

Antinomian Flesh as Theological “Swerve”

While antinomianism in the Christian theological tradition has traditionally been interpreted along these lines, I want to think a different antinomian path that rejects such a supersessionist and anti-Jewish orientation and turns it toward a materialist commitment to the flesh as both the key site of resistance against oppressive systems of othering and the possibility of a differential community of fleshly intra-belonging. Against traditional readings, and perhaps against better judgment, I want to stick with Pauline thought initially and extract from it (without any intentional fidelity to the Christian tradition) not a transcendent spirit of pure revelation and salvation, but a conceptual passage for thinking an antinomian flesh that prioritizes an enfleshed openness, contingency, and material connection over the nomic closures of transcendently conceived religious and political identities.

While the writings attributed to Paul are tricky to navigate in terms of the flesh, not least due to what seems on the surface as an explicit “abandonment of the flesh” in favor of spiritual bodies,[5] underneath the normative Christian Paul I find a conceptual space for thinking an antinomian (if not heretical) flesh marking a kind of materialist opening out to a “demonic ground” upon which new forms of life are assembled against the political economy of western Christian nomos. Rather than his actual language of flesh and spirit that has been so thoroughly (onto)theologized throughout Christian history, and, to be sure, marks the point at which Paul’s own understanding of the universality in Christ runs aground on the flesh of the slave,[6] it is the material opening through which Paul imagines a new differential community of Jews and Gentiles in relationship to a divisive nomos that I am interested in pursuing as a conceptual site for thinking a thoroughly materialist antinomianism.

Staying with this Pauline opening, moreover, provides a useful way for thinking the antinomian contrast between an enfleshed Paulinism that cannot be captured into the proper name of Christianity and the transcendent Christian body that he has come to represent. This is to say that I think there is a fleshly surplus to extract out of these texts that can be posed against the colonialist and imperial Christian bodies of capture that they have historically produced. Like Spiller’s valorization of claiming the “monstrosity” of female flesh’s excessive, dispossessed, and paradoxical position within the world of Man—“only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed”[7]—I want to affirm an excessive, disposed, and paradoxical Pauline flesh that makes possible both Christian identity and its deconstruction, one that exists in the liminal space between Christian and Christian-dispossessed, so to speak.

 In A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life, Ward Blanton finds buried away under the traditional Paul (as “founder of Christianity”) a “Jewish partisan” Paul of a radical messianic and materialist faith in what he calls an “undying life” that sides with the crucified against apparatuses of imperial identity. Eschewing ontotheological readings of Paul that reduce his texts to metaphysical treatises on the transcendent God of Christian salvation, Blanton’s Paul is demythologized and materialized into a non-sacred text resistant to any orthodox sedimentation as he is inserted into a genealogy of immanent and materialist thought running from Epicurus to Deleuze.

Aligning the Pauline notion of “calling” (klêsis) with Lucretius’ epicurean concept of clinamen, or the unpredictable “swerve” of indeterminately moving atoms, Pauline faith is read as the performance of a kind of singular, excessive, and immanent event through which material embodiment is conjured as the “peculiarly open or contingent ground of our emancipatory hope.”[8] In the fleshly swerve of a calling toward new creation, or what I would call social possibility itself, a moment through which the given order of things is refused for something else, anything can happen. It is the messianic structure of a faith vulnerable to what may come through any given set of material relations that opens upon the space of social possibility, where new assemblages come together through the kenotic relinquishing of enclosed identities.

Through Stanislas Breton’s account of Pauline kenosis, where the cross signifies the “madness of love within Pauline divinity” as a kind of materialist swerve against sovereign and self-enclosed identity, including Christian identity, what is traditionally read as ontotheological and doctrinal pronouncements of transcendent representation is immanentized as an ephemeral act of “‘mad love’ itself.”[9] Such is the insurgent, demonic ground of an “undying life” of immanent excess against apparatuses of capture.

We might as well call this undying life the flesh, even if Paul himself never would, which in its ungovernable contingency and aleatory movement would be exactly what makes possible a new assemblage in which, to further swerve Paul in this immanent direction, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you belong in the flesh.[10] Against the ontotheological spirit of Christian identity, which would abandon the flesh for an abstracted and allegorical body of Christ, it is the flesh that enables “new modes of undoing the power of power, rendering ineffective the coding of codes or reversing the value of effective history.[11] In a word, antinomian.

Jewish philosopher and Paul interpreter Jacob Taubes also helps with digging under the ontotheological and imperial framework of the Christian Paul to find an antinomian flesh in resistance to the nomos of empire. In his The Political Theology of Paul, we find a non-supersessionist reading of a Paul not so much concerned with the Torah as an obstacle for his vision of a new Jewish-Gentile community, but rather with a general nomos that goes well beyond the Torah, which Paul by no means wants to get rid of but rather open up to the Christ event’s “swerve” toward Gentile inclusion into the covenant.

Much more than the problem of religious ritual and ethnic particularity, it is the political reality under which Jews and Gentiles alike live that poses the real barrier to the differential community imagined. It is in this political sense that Pauline antinomianism is read not against Jewish law, but against the power of a Roman-imperial nomos built on oppressive religious, political, ethnic, and economic distinctions. Paul’s critique of law, Taubes argues, “is a critique of a dialogue that Paul is conducting not only with the Pharisees—that is, with himself—but also with his Mediterranean environment.”[12] This is no supersessionist and anti-Jewish “reject and replace” theological formula, but rather a prophetic renunciation of Roman imperial authority:

the concept of law—and this […] is political theology—is a compromise formula for the Imperium Romanum.” All of these different religious groups, especially the most difficult one, the Jews who of course did not participate in the cult of the emperor but were nevertheless religio licita [“an approved religion”] … represented a threat to Roman rule. But there was an aura, a general Hellenistic aura, an apotheosis of nomos. One could sing it to a Gentile tune—I mean, to a Greek-Hellenistic tune—one could sing it in Roman, and one could sing it in a Jewish way. Everyone understood law as they wanted to … law as hypostasis.[13]

Despite the vast differences of ethnic and religious identities spanning across the Roman Empire, what unified everything under the authority of single political identity was this nomos of Roman imperial sovereignty. The political reality of Roman power was the “measure of measure,” it was where the buck stopped. What Paul is performing with his antinomian messianic declaration of intra-belonging in the crucified Christ was not just a stance against exclusive religious identity grounded in the Torah, but to reject the entire “Greek-Hellenistic” order built on systems of oppressive political divisions.

The differential new community of Jewish-Gentile relations in which bodily identity—whether ethno-religious, political, or gendered—was conceived as no longer having any bearing on social status and belonging was an antinomian threat to the world as it existed under Roman nomos. The Christ event, not in its appropriation as a spiritual reality but in its materiality as a text being written over and over again in every performance of its cruciform “foolishness” against imperial identity, is precisely the signification of new possibilities of intra-fleshly belonging within systems of oppression and control. 

The Poetics of the Flesh

Moving through this Pauline messianic portal of fleshly resistance to nomos, a conceptual space of possibility opens up in which the flesh announces the performative practice of an unending and trans-immanent “swerving” in and out of every frame of embodied capture. Here we arrive at what Mayra Rivera calls a “poetics of the flesh” that unsettles the (unavoidable) reifications of the body that make up social hierarchies and norms. In her Glissant inspired text of the same name, various “corporeal imaginaries” spanning Christian theological and philosophical accounts of the flesh are put together towards new visions of spiritual, organic, and social worlds.

Embracing while also unsettling the Johannine view of the incarnation as “word made flesh,” Rivera finds a Christian poetics of the flesh that binds flesh and word so as to “stir new imaginaries” against bodily reifications and towards new relations of material exchange and production.[14] For Rivera, the flesh names the key site for thinking and enacting the kind of relational and imaginative openness and indeterminacy we’ve just outlined, of which “what is at stake is nothing less than the possibility of love.”[15] Poetics, informing and realizing the imaginaries of peoples grounded in their fleshly desires and reified systems of bodily meaning, is indispensable towards producing and shaping liberatory movements within contexts of oppression and loss.

Drawing from Merleau-Ponty’s entanglement of flesh and world, in which “the flesh of my body interlaces with the flesh of the world,”[16] an imagination of ecological connection beyond a human-centric orientation emerges. Poetics, then, is about expanding the horizon of thought and grounding it in the flesh as perpetually incomplete, maleable, and ecological. The flesh is the earthly materiality through which poetics opens up new connections and relations in excess of nomic measurements and distributions.

As Edouard Glissant muses at the very beginning of Poetics of Relation, an enfleshed poeticsis the very condition of new forms of thought that open up the world: “Thought in reality spaces out into the world. / It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics, / which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.”[17] For Glissant, poetics is flesh and flesh is poetics; both are of the earth and move within and between the contrasts of its forms of life.[18] Moving with the flesh as a poetic spacing within the enclosures of nomos—of bodies— new and imaginative configurations of corporeal relation are risked in all the vulnerability and worldly foolishness of fleshly desire. Risk is also resistance, which is generative.

“A poetics of the flesh,” Rivera writes, “deploys negations to counter reifications. But the apophatic gestures that this poetics has sought most intently are not those of negation but rather of multiplication. Describing flesh entails depicting a plurality of relations, images, and perspectives, which do not yield a smooth, uniform, or harmonious vista.”[19] The poetics of the flesh refuses totalizing narratives of imperial or ontotheological identity; it is the deconstruction of all sovereign fantasies of absolute order and control. In the flesh’s poetic escape out of nomos, as another Caribbean poet writes, “there is no nation now but the imagination.”[20]

Antinomian Poetics and Blackness

While her impressive and highly productive assemblage of various poetic reflections (mostly through religious and philosophical texts) offers a compelling account of a Christian poetics of the flesh as animating and unsettling body and world, there is something crucial missing from Rivera’s account that keeps her interventions hovering above what I have foregrounded as the most important site for reflecting on the flesh’s relationship to bodies within racial modernity. Despite her grounding in Caribbean thought and significant attention to issues of race and gender, there is virtually no discussion of the middle passage or the figure of the slave.

Reflected in her lack of engagement with both Glissant’s attention to the slave plantation, “one of the bellies of the world … [that] has the advantage of being able to be studied with the utmost precision,”[21] and Spillers, who for black studies is the inaugural and definitive theorist of the flesh within the frame of the New World, Rivera’s poetics stops short of a full exploration of the threshold of the flesh’s meaning within the many violences of Man’s nomos of being human. This is meant not so much as a critique of Rivera’s highly compelling understanding of the poetics of the flesh, but rather to push it further towards the poetics of blackness and black thought born in the absolute depths of Man’s “high crimes against the flesh.”

Deeper still, and within the frame of the middle passage and the plantation, the possibility of new forms of poetic life and thought in and out of Man’s nomos finds its generative mode in (and as) blackness, both as the originary (included) exclusion of Man’s nomos of being human and as the very possibility of its demise. In “Blackness and Poetry,” Fred Moten writes, “black thought, which is to say black social life, remains a fruitful site for inhabiting and soliciting the human differential within the general ecology. Black thought is the socio-poetic project that examines and enacts these possibilities insofar as they exist over the edge of the separatist, monocultural and monotheistic imperium that will have been defined in and by ontological and epistemological settlement.”[22]

As its target, blackness is not contained by slavery or the plantation, but its fugitive poetics are born as enfleshed resistance. In its violent objectification as a slave, black flesh, as the general materiality that is the condition of and the excluded element of the sociogenic production of Man’s body, is the ongoing fugitive resistance to Man’s claim to sovereignty over life. The “sociological poiesis”of black fugitivity emerges and finds its generative mode of performance against the specific and singular catastrophe of Man’s colonization of the earth and its inhabitants.

Black flesh, the “zero point of social conceptualization” for western Man, is the deconstruction of its bodily phantasms of identity. Its poetics keeps everything open and incomplete, a “black hole” in the fabric of Man’s universe. As Moten eloquently and poetically describes, “this openness, this dissonance, this residual informality, this refusal to coalesce, this differential resistance to enclosure, this sounded animateriality, this breaking vessel and broken flesh is poetry, one of whose other names, but not just one name among others, is blackness.”[23]

Returning to an antinomian religious key, Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility speaks to this necessary full descent into blackness by looking to  black religious sites where “beautiful, hard-loved flesh [opens and becomes] vulnerable … not [in] the sanctuary but the basement, where the love is felt.”[24] Descending to the depth of a tradition born out of the terror and brutality of bodies stolen and stripped of all meaningful human markers through the experiences of the middle passage and enslavement, Crawley imagines and performs the announcement of the flesh’s “infinite alternatives to what is.[25]

The name given to this poetic alternative within the frame of the Middle Passage and its afterlife is “blackpentacostalism,” an “intellectual practice grounded in the fact of the flesh, flesh unbounded and liberative, flesh as vibrational and always on the move.”[26] In and out of the black church and other religious spaces, vibrating in the musical traditions of the blues and jazz, and adhering in every social gathering against the protocols of proper identity, blackpentecostalism, as an expression of the flesh, is not an object that is possessed or owned, nor is it something given from above or outside—it is generated in the living performance of the flesh’s encounters and entanglements.

While its calling (klesis) has a privileged relation to black people, who are most intensely marked by the antiblackness of Man’s nomos, blackpentecostalism moves with the desire to belong and the belonging of desire, refusing the enclosures of proper identity wherever they are imposed. The poetic practices of blackpentecostalism are sent by the flesh into the lowest depths of a world founded on high crimes against the flesh, into and against nomos as so many forms of life striving for actualization. Against the nomos of the white fantasy of sovereignty, in all of its violent possessions of measurement and order,

those of us accepting the fact of our living in, our inhabitation of the flesh seek abolition from this way of life, from this way of thinking relation. Life in the flesh is seeking otherwise possibilities not just for our ‘own’ but for the world to live, to be, truly liberated. And insofar as being sent, Blackpentecostalism is the performance of otherwise possibilities in the service of enfleshing an abolitionist politic.[27]

This otherwise is made possible through the movement of antinomian flesh of contingent and messianic form of life breaking open each and every bodily enclosure. While the flesh is the target of capture, its flow and desire cannot ultimately be contained. Every attempt of its capture only generates more lines of flight and more openings towards new assemblages. 

To conclude, and to place this theorization of antinomian flesh within the American tradition of antinomianism spanning from Anne Hutchinson and Harriot Jacobs to Aimes Cesaire and Sun Ra,[28] Crawley’s exploration of blackpentecostalism speaks to, at the same time, a highly specific and a general American underground tradition of enfleshed resistance to Man and its  nomos of being human. As I have argued, it is the site of racial slavery that provides the organizing logic and model of enforcement for this nomos where the flesh signifies both the target of Man and the element of his deconstruction.

On this foundation, America—a historical signifier of a massive epistemological, imperial, ecological, and genocidal upheaval of life and the earth itself[29]—is a site of both unimaginably brutal violence and generative resistance. The imbrication of violence and resistance in America generates a break in which an antinomian flesh lives and moves against every protocol of the master—the propertied and sovereign self of an American nomos organized around religious, political, economic, and social significations of proper order. Such antinomian flesh is the perpetual riot that has been and continues to be enacted against the order of (white male) American exceptionalism.

At times in direct and conscious resistance to its nomos and at other times in an accidental swerve towards an open-ended set of possibilities, there is an antinomian flesh that has persisted in American thought that has resisted and evaded the nomos of American identity investment in containing and controlling blackness. In what is perhaps the most famous instance of the “poetics of the flesh” in American literary history, Baby Suggs’ soliloquy in the “clearing” in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this resistance is manifest in acts of enfleshed love:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.[30]

Here, as Moten would say, we see a “performed social theory of the mind” against the “padlocked cell” of American nomos that in its love opens out to the clearing of otherwise worlds of possibility and generativity.”[31] Man stands in violent and anti-black opposition to our common flesh. In its love there is another possibility.

David Kline is Lecturer in American Religion and Modernity in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the author of Racism and the Weakness of Christian Identity (Routledge, 2020).  He holds a Ph.D. from Rice University.


[1] Christine Shepardson, Anti-Judaism and Christian Orthodoxy: Ephrem’s Hymns in Fourth Century Syria (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014),29.

[2] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 108.

[3] Ibid., 112.

[4] Jeffrey Librett, “From the Sacrifice of the Letter to the Voice of Testimony: Giorgio Agamben’s Fulfillment of Metaphysics” Diacritics 37, no. 2-3 (2007), 17.

[5] Mayra Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), ch.2.

[6] Amaryah Armstrong, Of Flesh and Spirit: Race, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference in the Turn to Paul.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 16, no.2 (Spring 2017).

[7] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe,” 80.

[8] Ward Blanton, A Materialism for the Masses: Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 42.

[9] Ibid., 89-91.

[10] Galatians 3:38 (paraphrased)

[11] Blanton, Materialism for the Masses, 178 (italics in text).

[12] Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford: Stanford University),25.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Rivera, Poetics of Flesh, 155

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 85.

[17] Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997),4.

[18] Ibid., 84.

[19] Rivera, Poetics of the Flesh, 158.

[20] Derek Walcott, “The Schooner Flight” in Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girioux, 1987), 350. 

[21] Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 75.

[22] Fred Moten, “Blackness and Poetry” in Arcade: Literature, Humanities, and the World 55 July 1, 2015 Accessed June 1, 2020.

[23] Moten, “Blackness and Poetry.”

[24] Ashon Crawley, Black Pentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 22.

[25] Ibid., 2.

[26] Ibid., 4

[27] Ibid., 6.

[28] Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 187.

[29] Sylvia Wynter, “1492: A New World View” in Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View, Ed. Vera Lawrence Hyatt and Rex Nettleford (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).

[30] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, 2008),103.

[31] Fred Moten, Stolen Life, 187.

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