Race: A Theological Account (A Review)
Today, many disciplines examine the origins and consequences of the idea and problem of race. Race is a modern construct and problem. And it’s one that’s being examined by such disciplines as biology, genetics, philosophy, history, political science, economics, feminism, cultural and postcolonial studies, and more.
Strangely, Christian theologians have been largely silent about race. A theological account of race is profoundly absent.
A few theologians and authors are seeking to fill this void. Willie James Jennings, Soong-Chan Rah, Christena Cleveland, and J. Kameron Carter are examples. So are Drew G. I. Hart, Brenda Salter McNeil, Rick Richardson, Jim Wallis, Emmanuel Katongole, Paula Harris, and Doug Schaupp. See my engagement with Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, here.Christian theology has been largely silent about race. A theology of race is sorely needed. Click To Tweet
J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account is a masterpiece. Carter shows how “the discourse of theology aided and abetted the processes by which “man” came to be viewed as a modern, racial being. Moreover (and this is the flip side of what I have just noted), this book is an inquiry into the subtle, inner transformation that theology itself underwent in giving itself over to the discursive enterprise of helping to racially constitute the modern world as we have come to know it.”
3 Crucial Questions
Carter reveals how theological perspectives have shaped modern racial ideas and discourse.
Carter’s work is driven by three central questions:
1. Question One: How is Modern Racial Discourse Theological?
“In what ways is modern racial discourse theological in character?” What are the theological roots of the idea of race?
2. Question Two: How Did Theology Become a Racialized Discourse?
“What happened to theology as a discourse that allowed it to become a racial discourse?” What are the steps that occurred that allowed theology to become racialized? What stages led theology into aiding and abetting racial views of humanity?
3. Question Three: How Do We Reimagine Theology, Reconstruct Christian Social Imaginations, and Restore Human Relations?
“And, finally, is there another way of imagining the discursive enterprise of theology, given its complicity in constructing the racialized world and everything that has followed in its wake?” How can we reimagine theology, reconstruct positive Christian social imaginations, and restore redeemed human relations?
Cultivating Racialized and Racist Imaginations
Carter’s primary claim is that “modernity’s racial imagination has its genesis in the theological problem of Christianity’s quest to sever itself from its Jewish roots.”
This severance from Jewish roots gained momentum during Christendom and the colonial period. “This severance was carried out in two distinct but integrated steps,” which was followed by a third phenomenon.
Step One: Racializing Jews and Western Christians:
“First, Jews were cast as a race group in contrast to Western Christians… who were also subtly and simultaneously cast as a race group… In this way, Western culture began to articulate itself as Christian culture (and vice versa)… through the medium of racial imagination.”
Step Two: Moving from a Racial Imagination to a Racist Imagination:
Second, once Western Christians had racialized Jews in this way, they then deemed Jews inferior to the peoples, cultures, and Christians of the West. “Hence, the racial imagination (the first step) proved as well to be a racist imagination of white supremacy (the second step).”
Step Three: Seeing All People through a Racial (“Whiteness”) Frame:
Third, this racialized and racist worldview infused the Western and Christian social imagination. It shaped the way people see the world. It gave birth to notions of whiteness and blackness. “Within the gulf enacted between Christianity and the Jews, the racial, which proves to be racist, imagination was forged.”
Carter calls this the “theological problem of whiteness.” Once anti-Judaism took hold, it evolved into a more generalized racial sensibility, and then into overt racism. Christian theology shaped and became enmeshed in colonialism and empire, nationalism and racial ideologies, and white supremacy and global hegemony. In other words, racial imagination is rooted in theology.
The result is that Christianity became white.
Where Christianity thrives outside of whiteness, outside of Western cultures, outside of Euro-American influence, this thriving is seen as a novelty. Or, such Christianity is seen as a lesser version of Christianity or theology—an aberration to be ignored, quarantined, or dismissed. It’s either made invisible, or it’s made exotic.
Carter proposes a “new theological imagination for the twenty-first century, one that sutures the gap between Christianity and its Jewish roots and thereby reimagines Christian (intellectual) identity.” This is a radical, much-needed reorientation of Christianity in the twenty-first century. It has vast ramifications for societies, cultures, ethnic identities, theologies, churches, and missions.
Severing Christianity from Biblical Israel, & Abstracting Christ from the Jewish Jesus
One of Carter’s striking claims is that Western Christianity displaced Christian faith and identity from biblical Israel and the historical Jewish Jesus. (Willie James Jennings arrives at the same conclusion in The Christian Imagination).
Modern racial identities emerged as a direct result of Christianity being severed from its Jewish rootedness in biblical Israel. “Christian identity was reimagined during the Enlightenment” and “both the content and the disposition animating Christian theology shifted. Christianity was severed from its Jewish roots, lopped off from the people of Israel to facilitate Western conquest. Thus it came to pass that Christianity became the cultural-religious reflex of Western existence.”
Carter describes the problem sharply. “Christology, that area within the theological curriculum that investigates the person and work of Jesus Christ, was problematically deployed to found the modern racial imagination. For at the genealogical taproot of modern racial reasoning is the process by which Christ was abstracted from Jesus, and thus from his Jewish body, thereby severing Christianity from its Jewish roots… In making Christ non-Jewish in this moment, he was made a figure of the Occident. He became white, even if Jesus as a historical figure remained Jewish or racially a figure of the Orient.”
Jesus as the Christ was abstracted from the Jewish Jesus in a Jewish body inhabiting the story of biblical Israel. This is a medieval theological mistake, exaggerated and enlarged in colonialism, and given ideological and biological form in the modern world.
What happened to Christianity when Jesus was reconceived in this way, and when faith was displaced from Jewish roots (i.e. rootedness in biblical Israel and the Jewish Jesus)? “Reconceived as an occidental (rational) religion, Christianity was transformed into the cultural property of the West. Christian civilization became Western civilization, and vice versa… Modernity/coloniality is quintessentially the product of an ideological usage of Jesus.”
But a different Christological imagination is possible. It’s a theological move that helps to deal with the modern problem of race. We need to begin to envision “Jesus as the Christ and Christ’s flesh as Jewish covenantal flesh and not racial-colonial flesh.”It's time to see Christ’s flesh as Jewish covenantal flesh & not racial-colonial flesh. Click To Tweet
This conviction predates medieval and colonial theological sensibilities. It rejects “Gnosticisms denigration of Christ’s flesh—indeed, its denigration of the material order of creation and embodiment.” Engaging with the work of Irenaeus of Lyons, Carter shows how modern Christians must reject modern Gnostic, colonial, and racialized views of Christ and humanity. Instead, we must “reclaim Christ’s humanity as made concrete in his Jewish flesh as a central feature of both Christian identity and the theological imagination.”
Carter wants to drive home an important point, which is easily missed. To deal with the modern racial problem, we must see Jesus Christ’s flesh as Jewish covenantal flesh and not Jewish racial flesh. “Christ’s flesh, which is Jewish covenantal flesh, is a taxis, a material arrangement of freedom that discloses the historical transcendence of God.”
Earnestly Addressing the Problem of Race, & Listening to New Voices
We’ve arrived at a moment in history where the problem of race must be urgently addressed. Otherwise, the Christian gospel will not be compelling to those who’ve suffered as a consequence of Christianity’s complicity in our current global crisis in “race-relations.”
To achieve this end, Carter engages the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons, Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, Cornel West, Gregory of Nyssa, Frederick Douglass, Jarena Lee, Albert Raboteau, Charles Long, James Cone, and Maximus the Confessor. He constructs a compelling and groundbreaking proposal for a Christian approach to race, ethnicity, identity, and theology.
Christian thought and theology must move beyond white scholastic reason, and its addiction to white cultural supremacy. This doesn’t mean throwing away classical or Western theology—Carter engages with a wide range of multi-cultural, multi-peopled theological voices and sources. But it does mean paying attention to voices that challenge and subvert and reimagine Christian thought, character, theology, identity, and practice.
“Therefore, as a twenty-first-century discourse, Christian theology must take its bearings from the Christian theological languages and practices that arise from the lived Christian worlds of dark peoples in modernity and how such peoples reclaimed (and in their own ways salvaged) the language of Christianity, and thus Christian theology, from being a discourse of death—their death.”
These peoples lived into Christian theologies and practices that could not be contained by whiteness. They mapped out a different path for Christian theology and identity and imagination and discourse.
Their theological imaginations and Christian practices can no longer be invisible, or seen as irrelevant. “The language and practices, therefore, of dark people who have lived into a Christian imagination can no longer be deemed theologically irrelevant nor made invisible, which is what white intellectuals in the theological academy have tended to do.”
Nor should we compartmentalize these voices as “exotic” or “interesting asides” or “isms” or novel, marginal, racial “significations.”
Theses voices must be seen for what they really are. They help us address our current problem with “race.” But, more than that, they are “ways of narrating being beyond race, despite the surrounding world’s persistence in holding them and itself hostage [to notions of racialized identity and white, Western supremacy].”We mustn't treat voices on the margins as exotic or invisible or isms. We must truly hear them. Click To Tweet
Drawing on a wide range of voices, Carter calls us to “rend theology from the hands of whiteness rather than concede theology to whiteness.” This involves reconceiving theology “beyond the racial imagination that has become its inner architecture.” It means shaping Christian imaginations and identities that refuse to be defined by the theological problems of race and whiteness.
Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.
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 J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Page 3. (All following references are page numbers from this book).
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