The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?


I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Read the rest of this entry »

Stop saying “love” when you really mean “liberal tolerance”

I’ve noticed that among progressive Christians, “love” works as a kind of rhetorical trump card. Christians are supposed to “love,” hence you should be nice to people, hence you should be a liberal — or something to that effect. Are you worried about illegal immigration? Stop worrying and deploy some love. Does acceptance of homosexuality bother you? Well, I’ve got bad news — accepting homosexuality is a form of love, therefore you should do it. Case closed!

Presumably this rhetorical tactic does work in some individual cases, most likely people who were already uncomfortable with conservative Christianity and just needed that last little nudge. And it does make sense to try to deploy the most powerful and intimate Christian virtue if you’re trying to make radical changes to people’s moral and political commitments.

In the end, though, it rings hollow. Most of the time, it seems like “love” is a translation for “liberal tolerance,” which overlaps only very partially with love, if at all. Does “love” really mean that you don’t make any effort to change the loved one’s behavior if you believe it to be self-destructive? Does “love” mean letting someone rest content with a way of life you believe to be beneath them? That’s not how it’s ever worked when I’ve loved or been loved. Maybe you grudgingly come to accept that you can’t change the loved one, but that’s normally the end of a long and bitter process, not step one.

Further, does “love” mean supporting government policies to impersonally help someone? If my sister became homeless, I don’t think my go-to solution would be to write my Congressman and demand greater funding for shelters. And if you are trying to goad people into taking radically self-sacrificing actions on behalf of the homeless, or illegal immigrants, or whoever, I would remind you that love has degrees, and you may well learn that the person has enough on their love-plate with their day-to-day obligations to their own family.

A diffuse love that vaguely includes “everyone” isn’t love at all — it’s liberal tolerance accompanied by sentimental feelings. And I agree, it would be better if people would embrace liberal tolerance, with or without the sentiment. But that’s not love, and anyone who has thought about love seriously — which would presumably include any committed Christian, for instance — is going to see through the cheap rhetorical ploy that wants to pass off generic liberalism as the most profound Christian virtue.

The Hypocrisy of Christianity: Or, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”

Christianity promotes an extremely demanding ethic in principle. The problem is that it also provides unlimited, unconditional forgiveness for failing to live up to that ethic.

The history of mainstream Christianity is the story of embracing the latter principle until the former is a vestigial organ. The end result is a situation like today, where conservative Christians never see a “necessary evil” they don’t love.

It’s more complicated than pointing out Bible verses. Conservative Christians are not being “hypocritical” by failing to live up to the challenging ethical teachings — hypocrisy *is* the ethic of mainstream Christianity.

Hence the scorn that conservative Christians reserve for those naive fools who think we’re supposed to live according to Jesus’ teachings. If you quote a liberal-sounding Bible verse at them, that just shows you’re not in on the joke.

Political analogies for the Trinity

I’m reading David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor, partly just for my own edification but partly as “deep background” for the Trinity project I’m beginning to think about considering planning. The first third of the book is devoted to the state of the Roman Empire in the decades preceding Constantine’s rise to power (indeed, Constantine barely manages a handful of cameo appearances within the first 100 pages). One striking feature of Diocletian’s reign is the use of power-sharing as a way of managing the sprawling Empire. Eventually Diocletian had a co-emperor to whom he was formally equal (both being titled Augustus), then two sub-emperors who also shared power (termed Caesars). Diocletian still maintained a certain primacy over his fellow Augustus, but he was at great pains ideologically to assert that power was not divided, but shared among the four.

In “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” Erik Peterson famously declares that the Trinity renders political theology impossible because the inscrutable mystery of divine triunity has no possible earthly analogue. I have a healthy dose of Barth in my theological background, so I see where this is coming from, but I think it’s basically wrong. There are plenty of political analogies for a power that is shared among several persons while deriving from one of them and remaining undivided. We can see something like this in the rise of a powerful vice-president in recent American politics — a VP can often function as an effective co-president (or supra-president, in the case of Dick Cheney). Other figures might gain similar stature, as Rahm Emanuel and Timothy Geithner arguably did in the early years of the Obama administration. The legitimacy of the administration derives ultimately from the elected president, but someone with the implicit trust of the president shares in and extends the president’s authority rather than competing with it. (Or at least that’s how they present things for public consumption.)

The Fathers at Nicea would have had personal experience of such a regime. I don’t want to be reductive about this, but I also don’t want to claim that questions about the divine governance of the world — particularly questions that are being adjudicated in a politically-charged environment, at the Emperor’s behest — exist in splendid isolation from questions about human governance. (Once developed, of course, theological doctrines maintain a certain autonomy and can have unanticipated effects, as in all the liberation and other politically radical theologies that have drawn on the Trinity as a rebuke to worldly powers.)

Works on the Trinity: A Request for Assistance

As I have begun to wrap up my work on The Prince of This World, I have been thinking about which direction to go next. A project on the Trinity seems like the most compelling option to me currently, and though I plan to take it easy writing-wise for a while, I’d still like to be in a position to make some progress toward that project. Toward this end, I suspect it would be helpful for me to have a list of texts on the Trinity that I can work through over time.

So let’s assume that I am familiar with the obvious classics. I did an exam area on patristics, I’ve read Pelikan, I’ve taken a course on contemporary works on the Trinity, etc. What are some non-obvious texts that I may have overlooked? I don’t need to be told that Augustine or Rahner wrote major works on the Trinity, but I might not have come across someone like Marius Victorinus. I probably know that Athanasius wrote a lot of anti-Arian literature, but may not be familiar with his Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit. That kind of thing.

Fragmentary thoughts on the Trinity and political theology

In The Kingdom and the Glory, Agamben tries to demonstrate that the concept of oikonomia links together the Trinity and notions of divine governance/providence, but he doesn’t really talk about the Trinity as such, as a theological problem in its own right. He’s basically doing a word study on oikonomia (and its subsequent translation into Latin as dispositio).

Thinking about how you would fill in Trinity-specific stuff in his argument, I’m thinking of the early patristic characterization of the Son and Spirit as God’s “hands,” then the subsequent division of power in the governmental apparatus (spiritual and secular), and finally the return of the hand metaphor with the “Invisible Hand” (of which there is presumably only one). I wonder what’s at stake politically in the dispute between binatarianism and trinitarianism, which from this perspective may be the more salient difference between Arianism and orthodoxy — and why, for instance, Arianism would so often suggest itself to emperors as the better way to go. Maybe it’s all just arbitrary, but that doesn’t seem satisfying.

I also wonder how we fit this into the prophetic and apocalyptic frameworks. We know that God’s providential plan for pagan rulers and kingdoms is guided by something like an “invisible hand” — a logic that is only discernable to those who have eyes to see and that otherwise just looks like the dispiriting tedium of power politics. We also know that God plans a more direct intervention and/or self-revelation in something like the messiah. Could we map these two positions onto the shadowy and vague Holy Spirit and the more concrete Son?

Further, could the early victory of Trinitarian orthodoxy be trying to reluctantly include the Empire in God’s plan via the curt inclusion of the Holy Spirit (the vague and indirect “hand”) alongside the Son (representing the Church as the real source of legitimate earthly authority)? Then the dispute could play out over which of the two powers is the vague HS and which is the more concrete Son — in the West, it seems that the papacy claims the Son, while in the East, the emperor becomes more like the Son, relegating the Church to the Holy Spirit role.

If this theory has any weight, we could see why emperors would find the Arian position appealling because there’s only one power working in the created realm.

(Idle thoughts that I have not substantiated by any means.)

The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,086 other followers