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 »

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

Letting Go: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Normally Adam posts something in recognition of MLK day. In the past he’s linked to his remarks from his radical work often covered over in today’s official celebrations or to the remarks in Letter from a Birmingham Jail concerning the threat of the white moderate. Remarks often repressed in white consciousness even as they celebrate the supposed victory that MLK lead the nation towards. On today’s MLK day I invite you to read Chris Lebron’s piece in the NYT: “What, to the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?“.

Many on my various social media timelines have shared this powerful line, “I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.” The sorrow at the ways in which white Americans have co-opted MLK, and this day in particular, as a symbol of a job already done is a sorrow brought on in part by the way it erases the responsibility of white Americans to either answer the call of MLK and other radical Black leaders or be honest about their apathy and hatred for their Black neighbors. As he goes on to write, “While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks.” As whites tarnish MLK’s legacy through ad campaigns or as a figure of respectability politics, then they continue not in the tradition of MLK (as they may fantasize they are), but of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Only now they–a “we” for some of us–are laden with artifacts of Black culture they use as new modes of repression. Repression both of Black demands for justice (“MLK was peaceful, but you’re out here blocking shoppers!”) and their own repression of the shame of being white (“MLK’s dream is fulfilled today because I don’t see race!”).

Today is a day to celebrate one of many important Black leaders. But anytime the same state and culture invites you to worship a human being they tried to kill, we should be suspicious of the ways they want us to remember. Many Black americans already know this and it is something that white Americans, including myself, need to learn from them. Whites need to let go of the fantasy of Martin Luther King Jr. if they are going to be part of his being reclaimed.

On demonization

In his testimony before the grand jury, unrepentant cold-blooded murderer Darren Wilson claimed to have been afraid of Michael Brown — an unarmed man literally the same size as Wilson — and said that in his rage, “it [Brown] looked like a demon.” Perhaps Wilson can pursue a second career as an exorcist in the long life of freedom that he has been unjustly granted.

What strikes me about this remark is what an appalling reversal it is from the original purpose of the language of demonization. For the Jews of the Maccabean period who created the concept of the demonic as we recognize it, as for the early Christians who took it up and developed it, the demonic was a concept that was synonymous with unjust earthly rulers.

Previously, the Jews in exile had been able to view earthly rulers as more ambivalent figures, carrying out God’s punishment against Israel for its unfaithfulness to the law and then subsequently being punished by God for their own injustice and violence. In the Maccabean period, however, the mad king Antiochus Epiphanes rendered this intellectual compromise impossible by persecuting Jews precisely for being faithful to the law. No longer was he the unwitting servant of God, but his conscious enemy and rival, who must be defeated in order to usher in the messianic age. The apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel are centered around this cosmic battle between God and the demonic forces embodied in Antiochus (symbolically designated the “little horn”).

Multiple texts from this period (most notably 2 Maccabees, widely available in standard Bible translations) focus on his torture of a mother and her sons for refusing to defile themselves by eating pork, and the authors credit the bereaved mother with creating a key theological concept: the resurrection of the dead. The grief of a mother whose innocent sons had been slaughtered is thus a primary site of theological reflection, something we shouldn’t forget today.

As an interesting sidebar, the same text that documents the origins of the Jewish-Christian theory of martyrdom also recounts a successful armed rebellion on the part of Jewish religious leaders, which led to the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state that lasted for a century. We tend to view non-violent resistence as an alternative to violent revolution, but the two have never been far apart.

The question I’m trying to get at in my devil research is how we got from there — where Wilson himself would be viewed as a demonic functionary of the Satanic system of oppression — to here — where language of demonization has been co-opted by the oppressors themselves. From a liberal perspective, this question is purely academic in the negative sense of being irrelevant: demonization language always “others” and “dehumanizes,” and so it is rejected on formalistic grounds as simply “bad.” Yet I think this view falls prey to the same false symmetry that always infects liberal formalistic arguments. Demonization language in the mouth of Wilson does illegitimately dehumanize Brown, but demonization language applied to Wilson reflects the objective fact that Wilson has dehumanized himself, has allied himself with demonic forces actively opposed to divine justice.

So I maintain that demonization language is both powerful and necessary — though my study of its legacy in Christian history shows me that it is also dangerous. That is in the very nature of a weapon, however, and we should not be so quick to dismiss theological tools that emerged from communities of the oppressed in the moment of their direst need.

“All lives matter”

In the United States of America, abstract liberal universalism is objectively pro-white. For instance, take the all-too-common white response to the slogan “black lives matter” — “all lives matter.” Yes, to me all lives matter. To God or nature, all lives matter. But all lives manifestly do not matter to the American law enforcement apparatus. The life of a white cop matters so much more than the life of a black person that the system is willing to let the white cop kill a black person with impunity so long as they claim to have perceived even the vaguest threat. In the face of that, the empty generality “all lives matter” is actively obscuring what is in fact going on.

Similar is the liberal “hypocrisy attack” against the Ferguson PD’s calls for peace while they were clearly planning on committing violence. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? Well, here’s a news flash: the powerful always define peace as the status quo that empowers them. They regard their power as stemming from the natural order of things, so that any challenge to that power is a violation of that order — hence protestors we recognize as not engaged in any significant literal violence can appear to the powers as “violent.” Meanwhile, for the oppressed, the day-to-day reality of the status quo is the real violence. The implicit claim of the hypocrisy attack is that there is some neutral concept of “peace” that both sides can abide by. There is not. The battle is, in part, over the very meaning of peace and violence.

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The uncomfortable origins of ‘Afrofuturism’

The term ‘Afrofuturism’ was coined by Mark Dery in his article ‘Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose’. I finally got round to reading the piece recently; as you might infer, it’s not my area of expertise, so it’s more than possible that someone has made these observations better than me, before me. But I thought it was worth writing about: firstly because I was so taken aback by how uncomfortable it was to read, as a white person who’s minimally aware of the many perils that beset the work of white people like me writing about black culture; and secondly because after a throwaway comment I made on Twitter, Mark Dery took it upon himself to sealion me, and demand that I explain in detail my critique of his work:

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I’m doubtful as to the sincerity of this demand – the Panopticon is, after all, a tool of discipline rather than reflection. But as a scholar of Žižek, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most ethical thing to do is simply to take a person at their word.

‘Black to the Future’ opens with a conundrum: ‘Why do so few African Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounter with the Other – the stranger in a strange land – would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists?’ Why is it that African Americans are not producing the sort of culture that Mark Dery, a white guy, thinks they should be producing? Dery does at least realise that if there’s an answer to this question he can’t figure it out on his own, and so the bulk of the article consists of interviews with Samuel Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose. Most of the words are not Dery’s own. It’s not clear how closely the text itself hews to the original interviews, but on the account that Dery himself gives, the bulk of the analysis the article contains is Delany’s, Tate’s and Rose’s. They’re fascinating, smart, insightful interviewees, with a lot to say about the relationship between black culture and science fiction. Dery? Not so much.

For someone who is so sure about his competence to assess the contributions of African American science fiction, Dery is remarkably unreflective about his own position in relation to the people he is interviewing. African American culture which engages with technological, sci-fi and futuristic imagery and concepts is a ‘largely unexplored psychogeography’ towards whose exploration Dery himself is taking ‘a first, faltering step’. That’s right: Dery, a white guy, is positioning himself as bold explorer into a largely unknown region populated by people of colour. A voyage into the heart of darkness, if you will. This ‘largely unexplored’ region is so unknown, so previously unthought, that Dery must appoint as his native guides an author and literary critic (Delany), a musician, producer and cultural critic (Tate) and a Professor of Africana Studies who is ‘currently at work on a book on rap music and the politics of black cultural practice’ (Rose).

Dery is right, however, that his first steps into this region are faltering. His unfailingly gracious interviewees spent a truly remarkable amount of time gently correcting the assumptions which underlie the questions he asks them. It’s excruciating:

Dery: One thing that intrigued me about your brief essay [on cyberpunk] is that you made no mention of the orbital Rastafarians in Gibson’s Neuromancer. I find that curious.
Delany: Why should I have mentioned them?
Dery: For me, a white reader, the Rastas … are intriguing in that they hold forth the promise of a holistic relationship with technology.
Delany: You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing presentation of a powerless and wholly nonoppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction; but maybe that’s just a black thang…Your question is indicative of precisely what I was speaking about in the essay you cited: the interpretive idiocies that arise as soon as a book is lifted out of its genre and cut loose from the tradition that precedes and produces it.

Dery: Why, then, would black youth be alienated by SF signifiers for high technology?
Delany: The immediate answer is simply that the sign language is more complicated than you’re giving it credit for.

Dery: Wasn’t there an elitist, if not crypto-right, slant to [science fiction] literature from the very beginning?
Delany: Once again, that sounds to me like a simple historical misunderstanding about the history and tradition of science fiction … I’m not even sure what you could be referring to.

Dery: Why has there been so little overtly gay SF?
Delany: There is, of course, a whole bibliography full of gay science fiction … And there is a considerable gay fandom …. There is at least on annual gay science fiction convention … And the gay programming that regularly, today, turns up in other science fiction conventions is almost always among the most crowded, standing-room only event.

Dery: Why hasn’t the African-American community made more use, either as writers or readers, of science fiction?
Tate: I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.

Dery: I sometimes wonder if there isn’t an inherent dichotomy in hip-hop between a displaced people’s need to reaffirm a common history and the quintessentially American emphasis on forward motion, effected through technological progress. Don’t these contradictory impulses threaten to tear hip-hop apart?
Tate: No, because you can be backward-looking and forward thinking at the same time.

It’s clear that Dery simply hasn’t done the work required to be a good interviewer. He asks his interviewees about areas of culture in which, as they make clear to him, they have no interest or expertise. Many of his questions draw not on Dery’s own observations but on work that has been done by other people. The article ends with the final interview: Dery writes no summary, and makes no attempt to sketch out a map of the terrain in whose exploration he describes himself as a pioneer. What’s interesting about the article, one of Dery’s best known works and the reason why his name is so omnipresent in discussions of Afrofuturism – a phenomenon which he both names and claims to have discovered – is precisely how little work he does. A great deal of intellectual labour is visible in the essay, but almost all of it is undertaken by Delany, Tate and Rose, who not only tolerate Dery’s ill-informed and – let’s be honest – occasionally racist questions, but offer smart and insightful accounts of the areas in which they are, after all, experts.

There’s so much in here that I want to reflect on, to digest, and to be formed by intellectually. But I can’t cite this work on the part of Delany, Tate and Rose without citing Dery himself. What’s worst about ‘Black to the Future’ is that Dery has found a way to identify an area of black culture, declare it unknown territory, and, by appropriating the labour of black creators of both culture and critical reflection on that culture, has ensured that this terrain has come to bear the name that he chose for it.

“White men” as a curriculum

It’s always easier to design a syllabus with only white men — a particularly potent instance of the way Sara Ahmed teaches us to view “white men” as an institution. An inclusive syllabus is a struggle. You can anticipate the dismissiveness, the uncomfortable silence, the angry rejection. The syllabus filled with white men, by contrast, is calm. Their debates are all well-known, and they’ve all staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament. They are precisely debates — ritual exchanges of well-known positions and evidence, rituals that we must reenact. After all, those debates have been so “influential”! You don’t have to agree with them, of course, just be able to give an account of them. Such soothing neutrality. Such comfort and familiarity.

Who would want to disrupt this equilibrium with arguments that don’t already have their pat answers, with positions that haven’t already been incorporated into the repertoire of reasonable options? Why gum up our political discussions with questions of how we structure our households, how we act in our most intimate relationships, how we go about excluding and corralling some so that others can feel comfortable and safe? The pushy interloper’s positions don’t seem to belong to the set of familiar toys we know how to manipulate. They don’t seem to allow us to take up our accustomed stance of studied neutrality, don’t let us assess them from afar by clear rational standards everyone would agree on. We’re trying to have an intellectual debate here, and the pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives. Worse, they seem to be insisting that we change our lives — and not in the uplifting way of that Rilke poem!

The endless conversation: who could want to bring it to an end? Who would dare interrupt it? Better to tell, once again, the story of how secular tolerance solved the problem of religious conflict while leaving room for the exploration of spiritual truth. Better to review the three ethical options: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Better to trace the progress of those scientific and artistic and literary traditions in which white men have been in such intricate, intellectually satisfying dialogue over the centuries.

To bask in the influential and the great — who would turn away from this to pick a fight, to document a struggle, to leave no room for neutrality? Why would we turn away from the influential and the great, from the guaranteed payoff of quality (well-attested!) and prestige (well-deserved!) to risk our world enough and time on texts that almost certainly are not the very best, and that surely can’t dream of the level of influence of the greats. And where would there be room, when we already know for a fact that they must read Homer and Dante and Plato and Aristotle and all the names we all know how to name in the syllabus we could all sketch out in five minutes or less if pressed? Surely you would never ask us to deprive one of these great and influential texts of its rightful place in service of a divisive partisan agenda.

So much easier, then, to reproduce influence under the guise of neutrally, objectively responding to it. After all, we already know the correct liberal positions we’re supposed to have — a skill we demonstrate when we ignore or explain away passages in which the influential greats contradict them. We all know that one must transcend those merely time-bound elements to reach the universal truths, whereas the texts you’re asking us to include do just the opposite, openly wallowing in the merely particular, the concrete, the historically conditioned. Don’t we enter the seminar room to escape from all that? And aren’t we glad of it? Isn’t it calm? Soothing? Comfortable?

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