The spectacle of Black death is not just those grotesque moments recorded and disseminated, ad nauseum. The spectacle of Black death also finds an unwitting ally in strategies of “resistance” and “solidarity” with the dead: the casual iconography and commodification of reproductions of Breonna Taylor’s face; the masculinist martyr narratives of salvific purpose preached over the body of George Floyd. This is not to say that ritualistic honoring of the dead is always already a violent reproduction of their death. Rather, what is at stake is the thoroughgoing presumption that this kind of remembrance is an efficacious means of appealing to the very juridical forces whose henchmen took their lives. Why do so many of us presume that these performances sensitize empire rather than seduce it? And if seduction is all that reproducing antiblack death incurs, then what other recourse do we have to honor and love the lives of the dead, our lives, and all the Black lives yet to come?
I want to think here with the archive of a sage of Black religion—one too often ignored by scholars of Black study and Black religion: Howard Thurman. Thurman’s Black Christian Mysticism, together with what Paul Harvey calls his effective self-declaration as “socialist,” gives language for religious experience, love, and political resignation. Considering how Black people in America might go on living and loving life, facing seemingly interminable political impossibility, I want to read Thurman at the junctures where his modernist tendencies for a kind of liberal humanism obfuscate, or fill-in, otherwise abyssal dreams. This mystic, with his socialist sentiments, offers us a spiritual imaginary of joy at the end of the world.
When the riots began this summer, compelled by George Floyd’s murder, a brief indication of possibility seemed to emerge for those of us seeking a radical un-ordering of dominate order. Many imagined what disabling entire infrastructures might look like. And for a brief moment, the critical and lived work of abolitionists took centerstage (almost always getting drowned out by deeply embedded tugs to notions of mere reform). These tugs, conscious and unconscious, to the efficacy of the state as a remedy to antiblack violence, clarified for me that there seem to be few psychic alternatives to the tantalizing, illusory promises of neoliberal capitalism (that economic infrastructure of “exceptional” possibility that drives the state). While there may be various structural alternatives, the question is still live as to how to attend to one’s soul, one’s spirit, in the sustaining of freedom dreams (as Robin D. G. Kelley might say) and their new modalities for living well.
In 1969, Thurman delivered a sermon, “Jesus and the Kingdoms of the World,” in which he argued for a way of imagining life and living that pushed against the state as the ultimate source for determining life’s “value.” Thurman proclaimed, “The kingdoms of the world, the organization and perpetuation of the state, are built upon force. This is an essential part of the reality . . . It is the ability to achieve goals, purposes, ends that are set up as objects of endeavor. It is power! Power.” He goes on to delineate that the essential force the state exerts is power over a) nature, b) space and time, and c) the lives of its citizens. What was essential for Thurman was the putting into play of religious experience—the work of mysticism—for disabling a violent state. “The mind of God moves through the mind of man,” he observed, “as if the mind of man is a lung through which God is breathing.” For that reason, Thurman foregrounded nature insofar as we are creatures of flesh, first. There was, already, an attempt to disimbricate the historical materiality of “the world” from “the earth”—perhaps too cleanly—as that which is in excess of “the world.” And to the extent that the state must “profane” nature in order to establish territory, and imperially subdue that territory through the proliferation of violent technological advancement, the state is inimical to life in its very constitution.
In this vein, Thurman later contended that the state is essentially violent because, “if the kingdoms of the world do not have power of veto and certification over the lives of its citizens, over the activities of its citizens, then it is always liable to be overthrown. And power has to guarantee itself on behalf of its future. And it cannot be held, as it would seem, ethically or morally responsible.” These juridical metrics require, in Thurman’s estimation, a nonmetrical response. Something that cannot be “checked out” in much the same way that what planetary creatures are cannot be checked out, pinned down, in our irreducible dynamism. For Thurman, religious experience—an internalized, fleshly sense of God’s Spirit moving in one’s own Spirit—holds only in the context of loving relationship that visages planetary movement—movement that evades metrics and the juridical.
Preached during the height of the Vietnam War, and just over a year after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this sermon was as much a straightforward critique of the nation state, as it was a call to conscientious objection. In this way, in the face of neoliberal capitalism and all its metrics of death, one can hear the mystic’s call to obsolescence—to complete resignation of participation in state violence. This call is an end to “the world” as we know it.
For Thurman, religious experience ruptures the symbolic structure of an antiblack world— one beset by a transmutational singularity in the formula of slave/free. The rupture of religious experience—understood in a Thurmanian tenor—is an in-process simultaneity of alterities that antiblackness conceals. White supremacy, through antiblackness, has made a world out of something (the planet/the earth) that militates against being utterly subsumed under machinations of imperial sovereignty. And what Thurman wants to presage with a planetary, rather than a strictly political mystical vision of simultaneity, is a sense in which no one escapes (however concealed) the “terrifying judgment” of a universe which, in-process, is destined to destroy and expel all manner of matter that imposes static.
Alterity in simultaneity is the all at once-ness of all things, at every indiscernible interval of “time.” Moreover, for the mystic, it is that which is the fact, but which finitude disallows us from being able to attend to as a fact, constantly. Only through sustained spiritual practice can one remain on its scent. Some might want to call this simultaneity of alterities, as Thurman so often does, “wholeness.” But even wholeness fails to take seriously the play of simultaneity—that which cannot be captured, cannot be possessed, commodified, and so on. It is, better stated, the Spirit of God.
This would be religious experience, and not merely political consciousness, because what is experienced cannot be theoretically calculated nor circumscribed. The experience is not a matter of will, nor testimony to a perfected sense of agency. Rather, becoming conscious of the effect of religious experience, one is made distinctly aware of the undoing of the will—its abolishment, perhaps. And yet, the experience is not merely one of detachment from the arrogances of will. It is the incomparable seduction of the Spirit of God always already casting out Legion.
Unable to be made sense of (hence Thurman’s skepticism of the dogmatic), this experience can only be enjoyed. And the proper response to it is an ethical one: to go on, with the Witness in one’s spirit, casting out Legion—not for the sake of reforming Legion’s kingdoms, but in a thirst for the erotic life that is simultaneity in alterity (love). This is a love that, saying “no” to empire, looks very much like obsolescence through resignation from participation in economies of death.
In Deep River: The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Thurman deduces this prescient bit of wisdom from what the sorrow song meant to the slave: “Sometimes the load is so heavy that nothing is of any avail. Hope is destroyed by its feeding on itself, and yet their destiny is deliberately placed in God’s hands. It was a maniacal kind of incurable optimism that arose out of great overwhelming vitality as deep as the very well-springs of life.” Thurman understands the slave to have accepted impossibility in a certain kind of hope. And only in that place of resignation from hope in a worldly politics do the wellsprings of a planetary primordiality give to one an irreducible, indelible sense of daring.
The mystic destroys the world not because they desire to do so, but because in them the world is already destroyed. The world’s symbolic structures of antiblack death no longer register as an efficacious anything—whether to secure the state or sensitize it. The state, built on force, is not a thing that can be sensitized. And with a “maniacal kind of incurable optimism” the mystic stands at the ready to do nothing in the company of other do-nothings—without whom the state is reduced to nothing.
There, in mystic obsolescence, we dream from the zero point of new possibilities—guided by a Witness in our spirits that opened a door, as Thurman used to say, “that no man can shut.”