Divine Racism and the Theological Imaginary

I recently finished reading through William R. Jones Is God a White Racist?  and it was a good read. More than that it felt good. I say it felt good because in Jones I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. His methodology and commitments in particular dovetail nicely with my own. While much of my methodology comes out of my reading of Laruelle (a dualistic theory of religion, cloning or modelling forms of thought, an attempt to speak of the generic, a central focus on what both Laruelle and Jones refer to as a modified humanism but which I think of as creature-oriented), Jones likely wasn’t engaging with any of that when he originally wrote IGWR and yet refers to his work as “a generic clone of liberation theology’s mission and models” that he then uses to evaluate black theology’s fittingness with that mission and model. His ability to critique black theology while also affirming it (performing a kind of negative dialectic throughout his analysis) is part of his own dualistic theory of religion which sees within black theology a mainstream that he will confront with all the tools afforded him by theory and polemic, while also allowing room for a certain minoritarian tradition that he will valorize and attempt to amplify. Then, of course, there is his emphasis on theodicy and suffering as the matrix through which theology must be evaluated, rather than evaluating suffering on the basis of already-existing theologies.

I am curious why so few theologies of hope deal with the arguments Jones presents in his text. One of the targets of his criticism are theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and his eschatological theodicy, where God’s future justice somehow erases the suffering of the present. While Moltmann isn’t the explicit focus of Jones’ text, this eschatological theodicy is subjected to the criteria of ethnic suffering. How can a people, like black people in America, stake a claim on a future event without any significant economic, social, or political liberatory event? Jones here refuses the usual separation of the empirical or lived with the transcendental or ontological. Theo-poetic claims are subject to what is actually lived, regardless of their beauty as fiction.

So I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find that my excitement over Jones raising that question of divine racism (“Is God a white racist?”) upset some Christian friends on Facebook. The conception of God, it seems to many Christians, precludes racism or racist acts. This concept does so ontologically. And yet the theological imaginary seems to almost always present God as white. I asked my students the other day, while reading a work of Latino theology, what color Jesus was in their head. Not what color they thought he was if they took a few minutes, but immediately what skin color presents itself to them without thinking. 25 of the 31 students said white. Many of those students were themselves black, hispanic, and mixed-race.

It reminded me once of an icon a friend had. He was and I assume still is a very sensitive, caring Christian. Yet this icon showed a scene where Satan was bound and submitted to Christ. Christ was white, as you would expect from Eastern Orthodox iconography, and Satan? Well, Satan was black with kinky hair. George Yancy reports on the discursive theological tradition of this anti-blackness:

The normative construction of the Black body as evil had already begun as early as the fifth century. Gustav Jahoda writes about John Cassian, a monk who wrote a series of spiritual Conferences. Some of these portrayed the devil “in the shape of a hideous Negro,” or a demon “like a Negro woman, ill-smelling and ugly.” Saint Benedict [whom MacIntyre claimed we needed a new version of and from whom Pope Benedict XVI took his name], an admirer of Cassian, made sure that the Conference were read in the monasteries and thus these images would have had a wide circulation. An axiological frame of reference where blackness is identified with demons presupposed the identification of whiteness with “light,” “divinity,” and “goodness.”

Christian racism and anti-blackness isn’t a recent phenomenon, the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of fundamentalism. What I admire about Jones book is the call for a new theology whose focus is not continuity with the Christian tradition, but a response to suffering.

A link in honor of Martin Luther King Day

At Women in Theology, Amaryah Armstrong has a post critiquing the idea of “racial reconciliation”:

I want to be clear here that conflict resolution at an interpersonal level is important for life together, but the framework of reconciliation, even when it attempts to speak about justice, values the confession and the future to come above the present. Reconciliation displaces structural analysis for narratives of various experiences that end with a unity in Christ and a theological vision that is white. These narratives are used to imbue hope for the possibility of reconciliation but they actually prevent the possibility of ending white supremacy, anti-blackness, and racism because it is the supercessionist framework itself that is the problem. Reconciliation thus becomes a way of displacing structural dominance and oppression to the level of inter-personal conflict and confessions of privilege, moving our focus away from the ways Christianity itself structures racial domination and racial formation. Because reconciliation is never able to call Christianity itself into question as a problematic framework, only white people. Reconciliation continues to reproduce an inability to recognize itself as that which produces the division in the first place through its narration of identity as things to be superceded. Rather than clarifying relations of power, reconciliation mystifies them.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, her post includes many helpful links.

Posted in "the church", Martin Luther King Jr., race. Comments Off

Sermon: Duck Dynasty and the Separation of Church and Hate

I preached this sermon this morning, the readings are the lectionary for Christmastide 2, Jeremiah 31:1-14 and John 1:1-18.  The sermon led into a celebration of communion.

The prophet Jeremiah’s words characterizes the captors of the Jewish people, the Babylonians, as bullies, and celebrates that God keeps his promises, but only after God’s people recognize that they just can’t pay lip service to God, but that following God requires a real sacrifice.

This is perhaps the most important message of prophesy the church needs to hear today, as it was one of the most pervasive themes of the Old Testament prophets to the Jewish people.  The message remains the same, but the circumstances are very different.

I will return to this, but I want to talk about some things happening in the past month, during the season of Advent, as we continue through these twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany.

The philosopher Mary Daly’s most famous teaching is from her book, Beyond God the Father, written in the early 1970s, that “As long as God is male, the male is God.”  Her point is that the attributes we ascribe to God are often reflections of our own identities.  Read the rest of this entry »

Dreaming of a white Christmas?

The internets exploded in the past few days with the news story of Fox News reporter, Megyn Kelly, making an idiotic statement about Jesus and Santa both being white.

While I appreciate (former CTS President) Susan Brooks Thistlewaite’s Washington Post piece on the affair, reminding us of Cone’s important point that “God is Black,” meaning that God is “with” the poor and the oppressed, I want to take this all a step further.

It seems to me that the impulse for Jesus or Santa to be understood as “white” by conservative talking heads and those who work for them is because Jesus and Santa are generally seen as gift-givers, whether giving Playstations, Furbies, candy, peace, goodwill, salvation.  These things are all best when they are products of American exceptionlaistic capitalism: handed out by white folks out of a sense of charity or no-strings-attached presents, yet arrive with the hope of complicit discipleship.  Here is an underlying hint of support for a welfare state, but with a Zwinglian move:  the welfare state that exists, headed by a black President, is always broken and imperfect in comparison to a utopian one where welfare is dispensed liberally just for the shits and giggles of it all!  All of those “ho, ho, ho’s” aren’t just verbal, you know. Read the rest of this entry »

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What is a U.S. “state”?

It’s right in the name — the U.S. is a union of “states.” But what is a state in this sense? What makes a state a meaningful political unit? What’s more, what makes a state meaningfully sovereign, such that the powers granted to the national government have to be specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution?

Read the rest of this entry »

“Stand Your Ground” and sovereignty

Before the advent of Stand Your Ground laws, to claim self-defense you had to demonstrate that you genuinely had no other option. Violence was supposed to be a last resort, and even if the other guy clearly started it, you had no legal defense if you gratuitously escalated the conflict when you could have walked away. This approach makes sense as a way of balancing out the state’s claim to a monopoloy on legitimate violence and the individual citizen’s inalienable rights — in the last resort, everyone is entitled to do what’s necessary to preserve their own life, but it genuinely has to be the last resort.

With Stand Your Ground, a new regime has arisen in which the presumption of de-escalation no longer holds. Instead, the law functions to actively encourage the escalation of violent confrontations and defends the actions taken in that context regardless of “who started it” or whether another option was possible. Under the old regime, I think it’s pretty clear that George Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder, because he initiated the confrontation and stuck with it when he could have easily run away. Stand Your Ground removes those standards — it’s as though the state is saying, “No, don’t walk away, we want to see how this plays out.” And that seems difficult to square with traditional state sovereignty.

What is going on here? Read the rest of this entry »

A political codeword

America has a deep passion for declaring “wars” on abstract entities: the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, the War on Terror. It’s a strange usage, because traditionally, wars are carried out between two groups of human beings, rather than between a group of human beings and a vague concept. But if you look at the actual practice of these conceptual wars, you’ll see that there is a group of human beings being targeted: non-white people! The Wars on Drugs and Crime are, effectively, wars on urban blacks, while the War on Terror is a war on the swarthy.

This is why, for instance, it can make sense that people are discussing moving the NYC police commissioner, who carried out the racist War on Drugs/Crime, to the head of Homeland Security, where he’d be helping out with the racist War on Terror. It’s a transferable skill-set.

What if Zimmerman had been a cop?

Many people have been asking the rhetorical question, “What if Zimmerman and Martin’s races had been reversed? Would a black man be allowed to ‘stand his ground’?” It’s obvious that the result would have been very, very different, and so this is a good way of highlighting the racism involved. Yet it seems to me to be a little too abstract. This isn’t about racism in general — it’s about the racist structure of law enforcement. We should be asking, “What if Zimmerman had been a cop?” And the answer is, if anything, more appalling: we probably never would have heard about this incident in the first place.

I don’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the case, but the local police do not seem to have treated Zimmerman as just “some guy.” He was well known to them as a neighborhood watch volunteer and was in fact in radio contact with them when carrying out his “duties.” He clearly wanted very much to be in law enforcement — and his idea of what law enforcement does in this country is to control the black population by keeping them within their designated areas. We talk about the “militarization” of the police, and in addition to all the ridiculous weapons they now equip themselves with, they appear to think of their encounters with the black community in terms of a war. Ideally, the “rule of engagement” would prevent the deaths of innocents, but at the end of the day, you’d rather that an enemy teenager die than one of your own guys be over-cautious and wind up dead.

If an actual cop had shot Trayvon Martin, he wouldn’t have been arrested, either. There would have been protests, but there would have been no national attention and no trial. But this only happened because the local police in Sanford, Florida, appeared to regard Zimmerman as more or less one of their own — hence he walked away, hence he got a lackluster prosecution, etc. This isn’t just about some crazy white dude who up and shot a black teenager, nor is it simply about white people’s fear of black people. This is about the structure of the police violence that devestates the black community every day.

It was only Zimmerman’s self-appointed “unpaid internship” as a cop that allowed this event to register in the national discourse as something “wrong,” and that unofficial status risks obscuring the real stakes here. The problem isn’t just that Zimmerman was white and Trayvon Martin was black (as we’ve heard endlessly, actually Zimmerman is Hispanic…) — the problem is that Zimmerman was effectively a cop and Trayvon Martin was black.

Social constructs

One often hears people declare something to be “just a social construct” as a way of dismissing its reality or relevance. In reality, the fact that something is a social construct makes it infinitely more powerful and difficult to escape than if it were, for instance, a biological brute fact. We get around biological brute facts all the time. Social forces regulate our eating, drinking, defecation, urination, sexual pairings, etc., etc. Social forces can drive us to suicide — meaning they have overcome the most fundamental biological drive of survival. Biology isn’t infinitely pliable, of course, but it is hardly destiny.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann…

A colleague of mine once said that among white students, discussions of race tend toward silence, while discussions of gender tend toward anger. This sounds right to me, and certainly these reactions are not limited to white students. It seems to me that both phenomena share a common root: discomfort with any kind of generalization. Read the rest of this entry »

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