#BlackLivesMatter as a Secular Black Political Theology: Ethical and Practical Implications of the first New Black Social Movement of the 21st Century

Kenneth D. Johnson is affiliated with the William J. Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, in Boston. The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For news about upcoming conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Introduction

The spate of killings of unarmed African American males by police and vigilante residents has continued to roil public opinion in the black community, leading to various forms of social protest, in particular by varied groups of young adult African Americans.

Preeminent among these groups is #BlackLivesMatter, which now aspires to become a national movement, sometimes in coalition with other contemporary groups formed near the same time, and displacing older Civil Rights groups and the Black Church’s ethical and protest traditions.

While #BlackLivesMatter has partly instrumentalized Black Church social protest tradition, it has done so in the service of a fundamentally secular set of ethical commitments. In the process, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has discarded the internal resources of self-critique that Black Church ethical praxis provides.

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Gillian Rose and Education

In her preface to the 1995 edition of Hegel Contra Sociology, Gillian Rose says that her project is “to demonstrate a nonfoundational and radical Hegel, which overcomes the opposit[ion] between nihilism and rationalism” and can renew critical thought “in the intellectual difficulty of our time.” However, I think this is not quite the case, for two reasons. First, Rose’s Hegel is not nonfoundational. Instead, as the book makes very clear, Rose’s Hegel does think the absolute, or the true. Yet her Hegel is also radical because she does not eschew the “ineluctable difficulty” of the authority of saying that truth either can or cannot be thought. Second, and in the teeth of this apparent inconsistency, thinking the absolute does not “overcome” such oppositions. Instead, it learns of their truth, their self-determination, by rethinking the religious and political presuppositions upon which these oppositions depend. Against the logic of mastery and ownership, or the propertied logic, that continues to dominate Western thinking, in Rose’s Hegel the learning and education which is endemic to the Aufhebung is not prejudged as “overcoming” (i.e., as abstract truth) or “failing to overcome” (yielding chaos and infinite regression). Instead, what it commends, and what I explore in this article, is a different logic of freedom, an educational logic, which can find its truth in preserving and reforming the opposition between nihilism and rationalism. This self-determining educational logic is the work in which thinking can renew itself in the intellectual difficulty of our time.

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Gillian Rose and Theology: Salvaging Faith

Gillian Rose began as a sympathetic interpreter of Adorno. This essay considers the abiding strength of Adorno’s thought, from her point of view, by contrast for instance with that of Heidegger; but also the rationale of her eventual move beyond Adorno, and back to Hegel. Fundamentally at issue, in this move, is the Hegelian notion of “Absolute Knowing,” as a systematic re-opening of the most purely rationalistic philosophy, toward theology. That is, the sense in which it represents an ideal “salvage” strategy, with regard to religion: neither over-reductionist in the manner of Kant, or of Feuerbach, nor inadequately critical in the manner of Schleiermacher; but, rather, an approach precisely focused on the ineradicable ambiguity of all religious utterance—as a potential medium for “Spirit”—even whilst fully acknowledging religion’s unsurpassable potential virtues as a non-elitist mode of communication. Rose, it is argued, quite rightly sees beyond Adorno’s caricatural misreading of Hegelian grand-narrative “theodicy”: which is by no means, in fact, the intrinsically de-sensitizing mode of ideology he supposes it to be, but is, instead, a therapeutically “comedic” impulse, akin to Nietzschean amor fati, combined with a (not at all Nietzschean) concern for effective cosmopolitan solidarity-building.

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The 2016 Telos Conference: Roundtable on the Ethical State and Liberal Democracy

From the 2016 Telos Conference in New York, the following is a video of a roundtable discussion of the question “The Ethical State: Is Liberal Democracy the Only Game in Town?” Moderated by Adrian Pabst, the roundtable included Samuel Tadros, Russell Berman, Aryeh Botwinick, Greg Melleuish, Paul Gottfried, and Joseph Bendersky. We previously posted videos of the conference’s plenary session on “Ethical Solidarity in Political Difference,” a roundtable on the question “What is the Global Dimension of Ethical Life?” and the conference’s keynote presentation by Samuel Tadros on “Islamism and the Crisis of Modernity.”

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The 2016 Telos Conference: Samuel Tadros on Islamism and the Crisis of Modernity

From the 2016 Telos Conference in New York, the following is a video of the keynote presentation by Samuel Tadros, “Islamism and the Crisis of Modernity.” We have previously posted videos of the conference’s plenary session on “Ethical Solidarity in Political Difference” and of a roundtable on the question “What is the Global Dimension of Ethical Life?” Stay tuned for more conference videos and papers in the coming days.

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Small Is Ethical (Or: The Morality of the Micropolis)

The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Introduction

State institutions, starting with the entity we call “the state” all the way down to city DMV offices, seem no longer capable of acting or behaving ethically, regardless of what type of ethics we prefer to apply to politics—consequentialist, deontological, virtue, or any other—or whether we prefer liberal or communitarian normative agendas. Two features of modern political institutions block their intended functioning, ethical or not, and lead to new ethical crises. Those features are too-large size and incoherence. Thus even when policies[1] are ethical, institutions’ failures to implement or follow them undermine an ethical politics. And when various policies are implemented unevenly, new ethical problems arise. At least a partial antidote to these problems may be found in libertarian municipalism, the social-ecological approach articulated by Murray Bookchin, that demands small scale and direct democracy.

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