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.