The Politics of Metanoia

Towards a Post-Nationalistic Political Theology in Ethiopia

by Theodros A. Teklu (Author)
Thesis 250 Pages


This book examines and critiques secular modes of self-writing in Ethiopia that put considerable emphasis on the enactment of national/ethnic identity leading to an equivocal situation wherein the ethos that binds people has been greatly eroded. Its analysis demonstrates that such modes of thought are flawed not only on the notion of the human subject, but also inappropriately position the religious or the theological. The book argues that a theological turn generates theological resources for a social horizon of hope – for the apotheosis of the bond of togetherness – which risks thinking politics in an altogether different way beyond the ethno-national logic. This, as the author argues, paves the way for the possibility of a new political subject and the reinvention of politics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Dedication
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Ethiopia in Academic Discourse
  • The Functionalist Paradigm
  • The Instrumentalist Paradigm
  • Why A Theological Turn? Why Political Theology?
  • A Hermeneutical Approach
  • Theology and Social Theories
  • Theoretical Frameworks
  • Outline of the Argument
  • Part I Imaginative Practices
  • 1 Ideology and Identity
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 A Materialist Account of Ideology
  • 1.3 Interpellation and Identity
  • 1.4 Ideological Apparatuses and Practices
  • 1.5 Conclusion
  • 2 Technologies of the Self
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Self-techniques and Modern Identities
  • Confessional Technologies
  • Self-Writing
  • 2.3 Ethics as Practices of Freedom
  • 2.4 The Logic of Subjectivisation
  • 2.5 Conclusion
  • 3 Agency and the Self
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Preliminary Remarks on Ricoeur’s Action Theory
  • 3.3 Narrative Identity and Ideology
  • 3.4 Utopian Imagination
  • 3.5 Conclusion
  • Reflections on Part I
  • Part II Ethno-political Imagination
  • 4 The Politics of Integration: The Emergence of Homo Ǽthiopicus
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 The Narrative of Greater Ethiopia
  • 4.3 The Imaginary Singularity of Ethiopians
  • 4.4 Nationalistic Absorption of Christian Identity
  • 4.5 The Imagination of National Self-determination
  • The National Question
  • Practices of War
  • The Crisis of Multi-ethnic Politics
  • 4.6 Conclusion
  • 5 Ethno-politics: The Ethiopian as Homo Ethnicus
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Modes of Self-Writing and Polarised Subjectivities
  • The Narrative of Colonisation (Oromia)
  • The Narrative of Domination
  • Truth Regimes and War of Memories
  • 5.3 Self, Federal Polity and the Global Order
  • Enacting the Federal Body Politic
  • New Trends and Federal Politics
  • 5.4 A Turn to Metaphysics: Re-enchanting Tradition
  • The Traditional Matrix
  • A Return to the Source
  • Back to the Stalemate?
  • 5.5 Conclusion
  • Reflections on Part II
  • Part III Theo-political Imagination
  • 6 Theological Introduction
  • 7 Divine-Humanity and Agency
  • 7.1 Introduction
  • 7.2 Two-Sophias Christology and Cosmic-mediation
  • The Problem of Divine-Human Unity and Chalcedon
  • The Sophianicity of the Divine and the Human
  • Double Kenosis
  • 7.3 The Event as Task: A Metanoic Re-turn to the Event
  • 7.4 Conclusion
  • 8 A Christian Social Ontology
  • 8.1 Introduction
  • 8.2 Trinity and Ontology
  • Personhood and Differentiated-Unity in the Holy Trinity
  • In the Image of the Holy Trinity
  • 8.3 The Ontology of Work
  • 8.4 States of Peace and Privation
  • Evil and the Concept of Limitation
  • Freedom or Self-determination
  • 8.5 The Church as Counter-polity
  • Holy Corporeality: The Sobornost’ of the Church
  • Noumenal Ontologism: Enacting Sobornost’
  • 8.6 Conclusion
  • 9 The Politics of Metanoia
  • 9.1 Introduction
  • 9.2 The Metanoic Community
  • A Metanoic Return: Towards a Christian Culture of the Self
  • Solidarity beyond the Ethnos
  • 9.3 Metanoia and the Kingdom
  • 9.4 Sobornost’, Free Theocracy?
  • 9.5 Conclusion
  • Reflections on Part III
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliograpy

← 10 | 11 →Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my sponsoring institution – the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology – and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester whose offer of an Overseas Research Studentship award made it possible for me to buy some time – by being away from my work – in order to focus on my research. I would like to thank my family without whose dear support I could not complete this work. Special thanks are, of course, due to my PhD supervisor, Professor Graham Ward, for unreservedly dedicating his time and energy to my research, and, most of all showing confidence in me right from the start. I also would like to thank Professor Peter Scott for his academic support especially during the last stage of the study. I would like to thank the librarians of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University of Addis Ababa for making accessible relevant material on Ethiopia. Likewise, I would also like to thank my former colleague Mary Evans at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology for proofreading the manuscript, and my colleague Dr Desta Heliso for his encouragement. Many thanks go to many people and friends, too numerous to mention their names, who supported and encouraged me during my research.← 11 | 12 →

← 12 | 13 →Introduction

Ethiopia in Academic Discourse

Suppose that one day, after a nuclear war, an intergalactic historian lands on a now dead planet in order to enquire into the cause of the remote little catastrophe which the sensors of this galaxy have recorded. He or she – I refrain from speculating on the problem of extraterrestrial physiological reproduction – consults the terrestrial librarian and archives which have been preserved, because the technology of the mature nuclear weaponry has been designed to destroy people rather than property. Our observant, after source study, will conclude that the last two centuries of human history of planet Earth are incomprehensible without some understanding of the term ‘nation’ and the vocabulary derived from it.1

Taking a cue from this passage by Eric Hobsbawm, we recognize that this category called the ‘nation’, which remains significant to understand human action and suffering, is not a naturally given or a self-evident reality. Indeed, it is difficult to offer a priori definition of what a nation constitutes. In this regard, the aid of the dictionary is of no avail since the nation is not a semantic phenomenon but rather a modern political concept that is best understood in particular political and social formations. Owing to such a fact, then, the nation (being historically and locally rooted) can only be properly understood a posteriori.2 Consequently, any inquiry relating to the nation – such as this one – must draw ← 13 | 14 →attention to local, and modern, historical processes and their discourses. This study examines the case of Ethiopia.3

Although the name ‘Ethiopia’ evokes several images, Carlo Conti Rossini’s illustrious cliché èun museo di popoli (a museum of people) best describes Ethiopia, which is home for diverse people groups, anthropologically.4 When Conti Rossini coined this aphorism during the early years of the past century, Ethiopia was already a modern empire-state heading towards centralisation. At least two aspects are evident, here: Ethiopia as a bounded territorial state and Ethiopia as a population state composed of diverse groups.

Three historical conjunctures are important to understand the territorial construction of the modern empire-state. First, the centralisation of parcellised sovereignties within the fragmented Christian Abyssinian kingdom located in the central and northern highlands of Ethiopia including parts of present day Eritrea during the 19th century a period referred to as the Zamana Masafent (Era of the Princes) under emperor (Atse) Tewodros II; second, the conquests and expansions to the regions south of the Abyssinian kingdom – a process locally understood as agar maqnat, which implies cultivation and a Christianising or civilizing mission, under Atse Menelik of Shawa (present day central Ethiopia);5 ← 14 | 15 →and third, the scrimmage of interests and treaties between European colonisers such as Britain, France and Italy and Ethiopian rulers.

Despite the divergent interpretations given to these historical conjunctures (which we will see later), the historical agency of these conjunctures have led to greater diversity of people groups subjected to a common law within a single polity: Ethiopia. Due to such processes, present day Ethiopia is composed of diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups: Oromo, Amhara, Tigre, Sidama, Gurage, Wolaytta, Hadiyya, Afar, Gamo, Gedeo, Somali, and others.6 Over eighty languages are spoken: Amarigna (Amharic) is the official language; Oromiffa and Tigrigna are official regional languages; and other languages such as Somali, Sidama, Wolaytta, Gurage, Afar, Hadiyya, Gamo, and foreign languages such as English (official) and Arabic are also spoken, taught in schools and serve as working languages. Ethiopia is also home for various religions: Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant, traditional, Catholic, other.7

In view of such diversity, how do we understand Conti Rossini’s aphorism – a museum of people – today? Does this imply that Ethiopia contained the diverse groups ‘side by side’ as closed self-contained and self-sufficient groups, or has Ethiopia been a ‘melting pot’ – a sphere of assimilation?8 This is not only an academic question but one that also has strong practical or political implications. Under successive regimes, the management of the diverse population has taken different routes. The incumbent government (1991-present) claims to have taken a radical leap from the unitary centralist political culture of previous regimes that are considered to have misrecognised this diversity: the modernising autocracy of Haile-Selassie (1916/1930-74) and the military socialist regime (1974-1991).

The current government ‘has adopted what some might see as a peculiarly anthropological approach to state-building, recalling Conti Rossini’s famous aphorism’ implying a re-imagining of Ethiopia as an ‘assemblage of distinct ethnicities’ – ethnic-federalism.9 However, how this diversity should be ← 15 | 16 →understood and recognised is still unclear and an issue of contest in Ethiopia. People groups who once claimed to be Ethiopians are no longer identifying themselves as such, and even people groups who are ‘being’ or becoming Ethiopian do so in ways different from past times.10 Indeed, embarking on such a study that relates to the ‘nation’ places one at the crossroads of various theoretical routes leading to different ways of understanding this abstract entity named ‘the modern Janus’11 by Tom Nairn. No less ambivalent is the subject of ‘ethnicity’ with a ‘chameleon-like capacity’12, as Katsuyoshi Fukui and John Markakis have rightly described it.

Underlying the political discourse on Ethiopian nationhood are contending intellectual trends. Over the past century, intellectual currents have emerged whose role in shaping the discourse of nationhood in Ethiopia has been significant. In their methodological presuppositions and their disciplinary location, these academic trends are diverse as well as divergent. If I may employ typological categorisation for heuristic purposes, they can be classified into two major trends: the functionalist paradigm or the integration model, and the instrumentalist paradigm or the conflict model.13 The former paradigm, which is largely informed by structural functionalism and social evolutionary theories, ← 16 | 17 →emphasises the survival or persistence of Ethiopia and the integration of its people while the latter, which draws upon Marxist and neo-Marxist theories, centres on conflict and the need for change – i.e., of asserting the right to national self-determination. These are contending ways of understanding Ethiopia – a museum of people.

Such trends have sought to explain the historical conditions under which Ethiopians have developed as a people. However, while the concern of these currents of thought is somehow related to or inseparable from the problematic or philosophy of the human subject, they have not yet given rise to philosophical-theological consideration that takes human action and suffering earnestly. Recently, of course, a philosophical discourse has emerged, which seems to have set a new trend, albeit, arguably, highly coloured by the functionalist mode of thought and liberal political pragmatism.14 In reaction to the instrumentalist mode of thought, this philosophical discourse claims to give due attention to the native condition of Ethiopia, which it considers as being marginalised by Eurocentric views adopted to understand, analyse, and redirect Ethiopian socio-political realities. While this mode of thought has its own inadequacies, it strongly asserts the significance of drawing attention to metaphysical and religious dimensions that should not be relegated to a marginal position in understanding the country’s past and present.

This later discourse paves the way for a new possibility of approaching the Ethiopian situation from the theological angle. I will briefly demonstrate how this current of thought relates to my own approach below. And the present study seeks to explore this possibility. It endeavours to offer a theological contribution to the academic discourse of Ethiopia, which to date has been a lacuna. Whilst there is a proliferation of academic works that investigate the political context, few interdisciplinary approaches have attempted to provide a theological outlook. It is precisely the connection between the two discourses – the political and the theological – that I intend to make in this study.

In order to elaborate the nature of this theological contribution, I must further expand this introductory outline. The question I want to confront in this introduction – ‘why is a theological turn appropriate and desirable for the Ethiopian case?’ – is what justifies my contribution in this study. Since one way of approaching this question is to demonstrate how the theological figures in the two paradigms, I wish to review briefly these modes of thought below.

← 17 | 18 →The Functionalist Paradigm

The work of Donald Levine, the Chicago sociologist, especially his book Greater Ethiopia: the Evolution of a Multiethnic Society best represents and imbues this paradigm.15 Akin and complementary to this current of thought are the ‘western éthiopisant school’ who studied the ‘Christian Orient’ or Semitic Ethiopia.16 Central to this mode of thought is the Durkheimian understanding of integration, or social cohesion. Nationalism or patriotism, according to this paradigm, is considered as one of the stabilising collective ideologies. Drawing upon Talcott Parsons (who synthesises the works of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber), Levine brilliantly combines structural functionalism with social evolutionism in his work.

Of course, Levine is aware of the weaknesses of the social evolutionary theory.17 Despite its weaknesses, Levine deems social evolutionary theory useful to understand or interpret Ethiopia. Levine considers three major concepts of this theory: first, the idea of emergent novelty – that is, ‘over time human groups have created social and cultural forms which previously did not exist’; second, functional specialisation implying that ‘new forms have been retained because they better satisfied certain needs’; and third, the reality of social integration – that is, ‘the new forms have increased the scope of human association, relating larger numbers of persons within societal systems’.18

← 18 | 19 →Applied to the Ethiopian situation, such concepts construct an understanding of Ethiopia (a) in terms of survival that looks backwards into the past (an historical explanation) and (b) how such mechanism of survival moves forward into the future (a telic explanation). Accordingly, this paradigm emphasises historical continuity and hence, follows a longue durée approach with the idea that Ethiopia extends back to millennia. The interest of this paradigm is not, however, limited to describing the historical events per se but rather seeks to explain this survival sociologically. In consequence, the diverse people of Ethiopia, which are classified as the ‘Ethio-Semitic’, the ‘Cushitic’, the ‘Omotic’ and the ‘East Sudanic’ (or rather Nilo-Saharan), who occupy diverse ecological niches, are said to have undergone processes of social evolution, which culminates in the formation of the modern state of Ethiopia.

What is important to note for our purpose here is not only the undertaking of this paradigm to offer a functional explanation of the ‘nation’ (Ethiopia) in ‘objective’ sociological terms as a whole (vis-à-vis parts and counter-parts), but also its historic determinism. The latter becomes significant and often problematic particularly in its legitimation of nation-building during the 19th century by the dominant ethnie (i.e., the Amhara) and the manner in which all other people groups including the Tigreans and the Oromo had to follow the Amhara. Beside the strength of Amhara socio-cultural system including military prowess accentuated by access to modern weaponry, the revival of the myth embodied in a book called Kebrä Nägäst, ‘Glory of Kings’, which makes Ethiopia’s rulers descendants of successors of Israel and the Jews through a legendary union of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba, is regarded by this mode of thought as significant in understanding Ethiopia’s modern nation-building. As a ‘national epic’ or ‘societal script’, this ideology of chosen ness (covenant) is regarded as fulfilling both legitimising and integrative functions.

The Instrumentalist Paradigm

Drawing upon Marxist and neo-Marxist concepts, socialist movements, particularly the Ethiopian Student Movement, began to shape the discourse on the so-called ‘nationalities question’ in Ethiopia from the late 1960s.19 The radical writer ← 19 | 20 →Addis Hiwot20, who typifies a profound left-critique of Ethiopian society, seems to be the first to establish an academic landmark, as early as 1974, in the deconstruction of the assumptions of the functionalist paradigm. In his analysis, Addis Hiwot deploys the analytical concepts of feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism. This kind of analysis had implications for subsequent works that focused on the idea of class and the question of nationalities.

Literatures, after Addis Hiwot, on Ethiopia, mainly since the 1980s, sought to demystify the myth of Greater Ethiopia. Unlike the functionalist paradigm, this mode of thought emphasises the recent ‘invention’ of Ethiopia – only a hundred years and so – and it also focuses on the domination and exploitation of people groups of Ethiopia. For example, Gebru Tareke’s published thesis de-centers the story of the Ethiopian modernising state through exposing various regional revolts or ‘protests’.21 In their book The Invention of Ethiopia, Bonnie K. Holcomb and Sisai Ibssa employ the concepts of ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ to explain how modern Ethiopia was invented and how it colonised people groups such as the Oromo.22 Published in 1993, Asafa Jalata’s Oromia and Ethiopia presented Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, and Oromia as though the two were contending nations that co-existed in pre-modern times until Abyssinia gained the favour of European imperialists whose ally and support enabled Abyssinia to colonise Oromia with the ideology or the politics of empire building (1850-1935).23 Several other works also attempt to expound the relation between the dominant social class and the subordinate groups in light of centre-periphery dialectics.24

← 20 | 21 →The debate on national self-determination, whether among the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s and 70s, or the works mentioned-above, from the 1980s and 90s, inappropriately resonate around the question of ‘what is a colony?’ rather than ‘what is a nation?’ Where they ought to have inquired into what constitutes the nation, proponents of this current of thought moved into issues of colonisation because the reality of the nation and the belief that every nation should have its own state were simply taken for granted. Accordingly, this paradigm construes Ethiopia as the ‘prison of nations’ – an expression borrowed from Ernest Gellner – and the political will, which resists the freedom of the ‘nations’ (that is, Greater Ethiopian nationalism), is regarded as ‘great-nation chauvinism’ (echoing Lenin).25 As a result, this mode of thought elevates the category of the ‘nation’ or the ‘ethnic’, leading to identity politics as ethnic politics.

In a similar manner, the metaphor of prison also applies to religion: the state takes on a new significance in ensuring that religious groups, as interest groups, exercise their freedom and assert their rights.26 Nonetheless, what reverberates in the literature within this paradigm is the charge that religion (that is, Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christianity), in the past, was in the service of the ruling ideology in order to manipulate the ‘masses’.

Why A Theological Turn? Why Political Theology?

Having cursorily reviewed these two paradigms, it is now possible to address the question posed earlier in this introduction concerning the theological turn. To this end, I now want to draw attention to how the theological figures in the two paradigms. And later I also want to add the point that there is already a cultural exigency in Ethiopia that welcomes the theological turn. Although the functionalist mode of thought considers religion as a key aspect of Ethiopian society, religion is narrowly understood in terms of its function as a cohesive force promoting social bond between the whole, the parts and ← 21 | 22 →counter-parts. Such an understanding of religion in terms of what it does in society – as either legitimising authority (power system), or sacralising consensus (social conventions) – is reductive because it downgrades, if not totally denies, the transcendent dimension of religion or the theological that is often scandalous (i.e., it has a critical capacity). Moreover, it justifies the nationalistic absorption of religion (I will explain this later in Chapters 1 and 4). The functionalist discourse on the differentiation of spheres, as we noted above, leads to the affirmation of secularism. But the story does not end there as this differentiation then leads to the subordination of the theological by the political.

The instrumentalist paradigm charges Christianity and its practices as ideologically distortive. Religion is relegated to the private sphere and the freedom of religion is not as such about its public contribution but its qualification for being treated as one of the interest groups in society. What we observe, here, is the inappropriate positioning of the theological by these secular discourses. And, hence, it is my contention that the repositioning of the theological vis-à-vis these dominant worldviews requires the emergence of a particular Christian theological standpoint.27 Such a theological turn will allow the repositioning of the theological within the Ethiopian society.

These secular sociologies are flawed not only because of the nature of the religious or the theological, but also because of their views on the human subject and especially the nature of collective social existence. Both paradigms affirm ‘original violence’28 as constitutive of the social. Despite its emphasis on integration, the functionalist paradigm embraces the necessity of foundational violence. Even more evidently, the instrumentalist paradigm presupposes imagined ‘ethnic conflict’ underlying social realities because of which society needs a social pact. As I shall argue, these views are not compatible with the views held ← 22 | 23 →by ‘Christian sociology’29. I will make the case that Christianity recognises no ‘original violence’ but rather, in John Milbank’s expression, ‘harmonious peaceful order’30 and towards this end, I will outline a political theology (in Part III). Here, my embrace of Milbank is limited to his social ontology in Part IV of Theology and Social Theory rather than his critique of secular social theories in the foregoing parts.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Theodros A. Teklu (Author)

Theodros Assefa Teklu studied at the University of Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST). Afterwards he completed his PhD at the University of Manchester (United Kingdom). Currently, he is a lecturer in Theology at EGST.


Title: The Politics of Metanoia