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  • On (Im)Patient MessianismMarx, Levinas, and Derrida
  • Chung-Hsiung Lai (bio)

In the past few decades a group of well-known thinkers and rising-star scholars within the field of continental philosophy have come together to rethink what “the messianic” might mean. From Levinas’s reading of the Talmud and Franz Rosenzweig, and Derrida’s work on Marx and Levinas, to Agamben’s reading of Benjamin and Saint Paul, and Žižek’s work on Saint Paul and Derrida, among others, it is now possible to detect what Arthur Bradley and Paul Fletcher call “a messianic turn” in continental thought. To contribute to this ongoing “messianism” dialogue, this chapter aims to examine what could be termed “(im) patient messianism,” as illustrated in the writings of Marx, Levinas, and Derrida. Although these three philosophers are of Jewish decent (and all of them inherited the concept of Jewish messianism), they develop different, and yet intersecting, messianisms in their philosophies. While Marx’s political philosophy demands an impatient messianism entailing an impending apocalypse intended to achieve social justice, Levinas’s ethical messianism requires absolute patience to pursue justice for the Other in infinity. Resorting to both Levinasian ethics and Marxist politics, Derrida’s spectral (im)patient messianism attempts to [End Page 59] demonstrate the possibility of moving from the ethical to the political without returning to the mire of either ontology or theology. Nevertheless, all three thinkers have problems associated with their messianic beliefs. Simplifying to the extreme, I define (im)patient messianism as the dynamic of a three-dimensional humanism that will be explained in the conclusion after the analysis of (im)patient messianism in the works of the three messianic thinkers.

Jewish Messianism and the Messianic Now

“What is the messianic? Where does it come from? And why speak of the messianic now? It is, on the face of it, difficult to imagine anything less contemporary — more untimely — than talk of Messiahs, redeemers, chosen people, last judgement. . . . Yet, paradoxically, it might be precisely this radical sense of untimeliness — of ever becoming ‘timely’ or happening ‘now’ — that represents the messianic’s greatest value of our time, to ‘now-time.’ . . . In other words, the messianic now might actually be something that enables us to think, write and perhaps even judge our ‘now’ otherwise.”1

The word Messiah is derived from the Hebrew mashah (“the anointed”) and refers to an eschatological redeemer, a savior, of a group of people. In Difficult Freedom, Levinas points out “messianism in the strong sense of the term has been compromised in the Jewish consciousness since Emancipation, ever since Jews participated in world history” (DF 96). In “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” Gershom Scholem also claims that “Judaism, in all its forms and manifestations, has always maintained a concept of redemption as an event which takes place publicly, on the stage of history and within the community.”2 Messianism appears “as a living force in the world of Judaism.”3 In truth, the idea of messianism originated in Judaism and is also used in the other Abrahamic religions, namely Christianity and Islam. According to Jewish eschatology, the Messiah is a king or High Priest, traditionally anointed with holy oil to be the ruler of God’s Kingdom. After a series of wars and disasters, [End Page 60] God will send the Messiah to redeem the Jewish people and the world, taking the Jews back to Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem. Specifically, this future Jewish Messiah is thought to be a human leader,4 physically descended from the paternal Davidic line through King David5 and King Solomon,6 who will usher in the Messianic Age of peace for Israel and all the nations of the world. At this time, enemies will become friends, the wicked will abandon evil and do good, so the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the child shall play with the beasts.7

Since the Jews have suffered thousands of years of persecution and diaspora, the arrival of the Messiah has become an important concept in their eschatology and living tradition. The messianic is actually a matter of promise, advent, waiting, hope, and redemption. Hence, it...


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