—Xavier Pickett is the Founder and President of Reformed Blacks of America, a Philadelphia based think tank, and a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary.
In Chapter 3, I take Carter to be unmasking the implicit theological claims of Albert Raboteau’s magisterial work, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South and unraveling their full import for thinking about subjectivity, historiography and religion. Specifically, he enters the historical debate about the nature and history of slave religion through Slave Religion in order to bring into focus ‘meaning in history’ that “point[s] towards a theology of history—toward an account of history suited to the phenomenon of black faith generally and Afro-Christianity particularly” (126). However, for Carter, there is ambiguity regarding Slave Religion and specifically, “at it pertains to the issue of meaning in history” (126). Such ambiguity has left the door open for
problematic appropriations and readings whereby black religion is interpreted as nothing more than a cultural reflex. Understood in this way, race, culture, and religion, are imagined as hermetically enclosed, sealed within themselves, and “opaque” to any exteriority. Black folks can only speak as “black.” In the parlance of critical theory, they become “reified” or made “essential.” The ambiguity of Slave Religion, therefore, is this: Raboteau’s attempt to offer a historical narrative of the coming-to-be and subsequent early development of slave religion and black faith could be read—and, indeed, has been read—to say that at their ground is the citadel of “Africanity,” the impervious domain of a cultural “blackness” itself (126).
For Carter, “the central question is this: Is Christianity but the reflex of an identity or consciousness that is more primal or fundamental than the Christianity taken and performed by those who ‘made Jesus their choice’? Is it but a religious expression of a pragmatic and democratically pious response to a racialized and enslaving modernity?” (127)
In the first two sections, Carter introduces us to the Herskovits-Frazier cultural anthropology debate into which Raboteau is seeking to intervene. Here’s the crux of the debate: “How do we account for the difference in cultural sensibilities (i.e., religion, music, and art) among peoples of African descent against the dominant and enslaving culture of the New World? With respect to slave religiosity, as Lawrence Levine put it, this is really ‘a question of origins’: Did the cultural and religious distinctiveness of diasporic African peoples reside in the presence or absence of certain African retentions or Africanisms?” (128) In short, E. Franklin Frazier’s position is that “the process of enslavement destroyed everything identifiably African about African people” (129) whereas Melville J. Herskovits’ position is that slavery did not eliminate the traces of African cultures or Africanisms from enslaved African folks.
In route to explaining the differences between Frazier and Herskovits, Carter briefly lays out another debate behind that of African retentions among enslaved folks of African descent. This background debate, influenced by anthropologist Franz Boas, has to do with what constitutes culture. One strand of the Boasian tradition views culture as basically “in terms of universalizing homogeneity” (129) whereby culture is primarily understood in the singular, whereas the second strand views culture in the plural. As a student of Boas, Herskovits is closer to the second. This debate about culture is important for Carter because
it remains somewhat open as to the extent to which the discourse of cultures succeeds in actually decentering race as a strong or founding category of thought and life. The significance of this for reckoning with Raboteau is this: theoretically speaking, Raboteau situates the history told in Slave Religion within the framework of “low-flying” culture, within the discourse on cultures, as a way of historically articulating how black faith sought to break out of the constraints of modern racial reasoning (132).
It is Raboteau’s “framework of ‘low-flying culture’ ” that “presses him to go beyond Herskovits, who because of a more static approach to Africanity and religious consciousness is unable to sufficiently account for [the] Christian element” in antebellum slave religion (134). However, “the Christian element gets lost insofar as it becomes the husk within which a more primal, even if ‘traditioned,’ African consciousness functions. This consciousness is more or less the cultural core of blackness. And in the end, black Christian folks, insofar as they might be understood as theological subjects, are quarantined within African consciousness” (137). To be sure, Carter’s “claim…is not that Raboteau collapses his distinctions between content and style such that the African gods live on but only wearing Christian clothes. Yet it is precisely the ambiguity that leaves the argument he advances in Slave Religion perilously close to arguments made by others in which the fatal, reifying step about African retentions is actually taken” (138).
The last two sections have to do with the relationship between historiography and (religious) faith. Here Carter examines Raboteau’s dialectics of history and faith for doing history. First, “history sequentially arranges events, ordering them as a world process that reveals their structure, meaning, and consequence or how they hold together. As a science beholden to the particularities and concreteness of events, history ‘[tells] stories about the ways that people lived in the past’ ” (143). Second, faith, “like history, structures the events of human experience into ‘a coherent pattern,’ religious, particularly Christian, faith contends that the source of the meaning of life’s events ‘ultimately lies outside of history in the will and providence of God’ ” (144). However, history is not without its own “faith-based perspective, the fact that it, too, is an endeavor rooted in faith” (144) of some kind. With such distinction, Carter is much more able to track the role of religious faith in history and the academic discipline of history in the formation of whiteness via the obscuring of blackness. Carter argues:
Indeed, religious faith has often aided and abetted history by validating the skewed, exclusionary plotline advanced as the history of America. Faith’s difference from history, however, is that it has promulgated the storyline of America in the idioms of religion. Yet, whether one speaks of history as functioning through a national myth of whiteness or through a Christian mythologization of whiteness, what has united both religious faith and history is whiteness (145).
But what happens when history is renarrated by enslaved persons of African descent of Christian faith? Carter claims vis-à-vis Raboteau that “the faulty historical foundations on which the plotline of American manifest destiny” (147) will be destabilized, thereby revealing an invisible history that demonstrates “how the slaves and former slave children pulled together the fragments of their existence in America into a story of historical wholeness. They dismantled the myth of America as New Israel and out of its fragments forged a new story of their existence, a new religious history of themselves and of America as well” (147). Theologically, Carter in quoting Raboteau says, “Identification with Israel, then, gave the slaves a communal identity as a special, divinely favored people. This identity stood in stark contrast with racist propaganda depicting them as inferior to whites, destined by nature and providence to the status of slaves” (148). However, for Carter, this new identification with Israel by persons of African descent “avoids the modernist problem of supersessionism because that identity is mediated through the worship of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth” (148-49). Therefore, “Black flesh comes to inhabit Israel’s covenantal story…with YHWH as non-Jews (or Gentiles) through the Jew Jesus. In this way they imagined and live into a history of Exodus, a history of exiting the ways in which whiteness racializes all flesh. This history is nothing less than the history of YHWH-God” (149).
In returning to the relationship between history and faith, Carter seems to follow Raboteau in thinking about such relationship in terms of analogy, instead of dialectics. Carter suggests, “ ‘Analogy’ assists Raboteau to work toward what might be termed an incarnational understanding of faith and history, of Christian consciousness and African heritage, an understanding that integrates the two sides through the plotline of the person of Jesus in his Jewish humanity” (150). “Analogy, therefore, does the important work of grounding the claim that Africanity and Christianity are mutually inhering living traditions” (151-52). This analogy (or what can also be called “iconic”) view of history can move “toward the possibility of a theological engagement with history” (152). Such view “can be summarized as follows: Black existence and black faith relate to the eternal Logos as an icon relates to that which it represents. In this way, the invisible becomes visible even as it retains its invisible depth, a depth rooted in a freedom (for God the Creator), which cannot be policed and thus enslaved” (152). When history is understood in this way, it brings into view the significance of faith in the ways it “began to weaken modernity’s discourse and pseudotheology of race. It opened up a new disposition on history. Thus, far from being anti-historical, faith becomes history’s telos—or, better, a realization, even if not yet a thoroughgoing one, of the eschaton” (155).
I conclude with a few questions to get our discussion going: First, for Carter, race could easily be (and has been) reified in Slave Religion, but to what degree does Christianity become reified in Race? Undoubtedly, he views Christianity as a tradition that can be “re-traditioned” (139), thereby seemingly being able to forestall reification. However, specifically, how might we think about the search for the “Christian” element or reality as being different from the (potentially) reifying search for African retentions, especially in “offer[ing] a more cogent account of Afro-Christian life as a Christian emergence” (139)? In other words, is the problem of reification reproduced in that before “black folks can only speak as ‘black’ ” whereas now they can only speak as “Christian?” Second, is it possible to avoid supersessionism when any (people) group claims identification with Israel other than Israel itself, regardless of its worship/acknowledgement of and union with the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth? Third, how can an “analogy/iconic” view of history avoid oversacralizing the meaning and the constitutive human agents of history?
27 thoughts on “Carter Book Event: Historicizing Race: Albert J. Raboteau, Religious History, and the Ambiguities of Blackness (Chapter 3)”
Thanks, Xavier for this summary.
You basically read my mind with this question:
“Second, is it possible to avoid supersessionism when any (people) group claims identification with Israel other than Israel itself, regardless of its worship/acknowledgement of and union with the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth? ”
When Carter argues, that enslaved African Christianity “avoids the modernist problem of supersessionism because that identity is mediated through the worship of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth” (148-49), I wonder what was the difference between the worship practices of white enslaver Xianity and enslaved Xianity? Were not the whites worshipping “Jesus the Jew” was well?
And is not identifying your community as Israel the very definition of supersessionism? If your community, be it black or white, is Israel, who become the Canaanites after Sinai?
Excellent review, Xavier!
I share the question about supercessionism, but I suspect we’ll get the argument for how the black appropriation of Israel is non-supercessionist in the final three chapters.
The more we’ve discussed this book, the more I’ve decided that the dissertation format forces one to “write backwards” — you have to situate yourself in the field before you can put forward what you’re actually doing, and so you wind up making critiques, etc., that don’t (yet) make sense because they presuppose what you’ll do later.
Xavier, What did you think about the parts discussing Raboteau’s Eastern Orthodox piety and its parallels in black religion?
Probably included in that response, after reading Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, I think a response probably (and I would agree) would entail an example of modern nation-state building as a supersessionist project. I do not know what went on during the editting process for the book, but probably a stronger connection of Chapter 3 to chapter 2, especially with the Kant section & the German Enlightenment.
On Raboteau’s eastern orthodox piety & black religion, I found it quite fascinating and plan on reading “A Fire in the Bones.” In my work, I am always seeing parallels between the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis and the holiness writings of 19th century AME women evangelists.
Good chapter. I’m going to have to incorporate Raboteau in my Historiography class.
Greetings everyone. Thanks very much Xavier for you review of this chapter. I think you’ve done a very fantastic job. You’re question re: supersessionism is spot-on because in many ways its goes to the heart of the matter—theologically at least.
What I basically start to do in this chapter is try to make sense of early Afroo-christianity. I do this in conversation with Prof Al Raboteau. There is a logic to my argument. In effect, I start to interpret an afro-christianity that is responding precisely to the problems of christianity’s articulations to the nation-form that I lay out in chapters one and two and to gnostic architecture of those articulations as developed again in chapts 1 and 2 along with the Prelude chapter on Irenaeus. I do think in chapt 3 through an engagement with the work of historian Professor Al Raboteau of Princeton University.
Through an engagement with Prof Raboteau’s work I argue that what we’re seeing in early Afro-christianity (or at least significant quarters of it) is the effort on the black folks as Gentiles to understand themselves as worshipping the Jewish Jesus and therefore as being a people brought by grace inside of the story of another people. Of course, this isnt to say that there have never been those within the horizon of black religion who have not seized the story of Israel, who have not, shall we say, taken over Israel’s election, thus reproducing the problem supersessionism. One need not look far to find example in which this problem surfaced among black religious folks. In fact, this duplication of the supersessionist problem in many ways fueled early forms of black cultural nationalism. (On this see Eddie Glaude’s fine book *Exodus*.) But the point I’m driving at in chapter 3 is that when we see the move to take up the story of Israel in the history of Afro-Christianity, even when that taking up goes over the line, shall we say, becoming supersessionistic itself (and there are instances of this; there’s no denying it), we must bear in mind a few things.
First, there is the understanding among Afro-Christians that the fate of Israel in the christian imagination and the fate of black has been bound, and that this parallel goes to the origins of modernity as as social formation.
Second, the move to take up the story of Israel amogn black folks is done not to reproduce supersessionism, even if sometimes this happens. It’s done out of a quest to undo the supersessionistic production of identities (like the ‘citizen-subject’ and the ‘slave-abject’) in the production of the nation-form. By turning back to the story of the people of Israel and the election of the Jews, Afro-Christians were engaged in a profound theological (!) act. Almost like Foucauldian archaeaologist before Foucault himself, they were returning us to the problem of how the christian life had come to be articulated to the nation-state through the plantation as a key node of the articulation. As early as Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley and others, this point is being made.
This may be a good place to clear what may be emerging as not the best way to read what I’m trying to accomplish in this chapter. My argument doesn’t call for Afro-Christians to be “perfect” non-supersessionists. That’s not the point I’m trying to secure, for would this not be just another gesture of Gentile hubris, if it were my point? Rather, the point is that in returning to issue of the election of Israel and the Jews early Afro-Christians had discerned where the pathology, the grievous sickness, within Christianity as articulated to the project of modernity lay. This is the point.
A third thing I try to bring out in the chapter about the turn toward the story of Israel in the emergence of Afro-Christianity is this: By trying to read themselves inside of/in terms of Israel’s primary election, black Christian folks were already suggesting what in contemporary critical parlance we’d call an “anti-essential” understanding of identity. And here I’m building on a point from my Irenaeus chapter through my engagement with AR. The point of the Iren chapter was to seize upon Iren’s correct insight (in the midst of his own struggle against gnostic supersessionism, a struggle that he wasn’t completely himself successful in!) that driving Valentian supersessionism was gnosis (knowledge). In ways that would foreshadow the racism to come with modernity, Valentianism fixed—or can we say, essentialized?—the meaning of the Jews. It was an aesthetic, a gaze, a mode of the visual and the (in-)visible that was discursive and that worked in such a way that to know the Jews is to have “fixed” the Jews. I use fixed here in the sense Fanon deployed in his chapter “the lived experience of the black” from Black Skin, White Maks in which he interprets the look he received on arriving in Paris on a train from a child who in fear clutched its mother. That child cried out in in racial fear, “Look mama, a Negro!” Fanon offers a phenomenology of that gaze and says that that gaze is in effect a gaze of (false) knowledge. It is a gnostic gaze that fixes the black as with a dye. Similarly, knowledge of the Jews function among the Valentinians to fix the Jews with a dye. Iren struggled against this, not at all completely successfully but he got it tright hat a key mistake occurs when christians think that they are intelligible apart from the story of Israel. My Ireanaeus chapter sought to coordinate the idealism of gnosticism with its materialism, its materialist conditions.
Now to return to this chapter, I’m suggesting a reading of Raboteau’s work on slave religion and early Afro-Christianity that claims that in aligning themselves with Israel’s story, blacks were working against essentialized/gnostic-like frames of identity, for now blackness becomes maleable, not fixed, living and surviving through openness and life with another people. Afro-Christians bear witness now to a christianity that affirms life/humanity in openness to another people, the people of Israel. Insofar as we read early Afro-Christianity as suggesting something like this, we can say that they surface a key moment of modern racial formation; namely, Western (Gentile) Christianity refusal of just this gesture. To say it again, profound archaeological-cum-christiaan theological work has been done. Moreover, insofar as we read early afro-christianity this way we can say that unsettle another central moment of the project of modernity its national formation; namely, the racializing of the Jews (fixing them as an inferior dye) as central to the production and reproduction of modern (racial) identities (including the now postracial racial horizon). On this reading of a trajectory of early afro-christianity, Israel/ the Jews are a non-essential people of openness towards other people. (Isn’t this what we see with Naomi’s relationship to Ruth the Moabitess?). The election of Israel is not to the exclusion of the goyim. Rather, the goyim are included inside of the inclusion of Israel as the Israel of God.
To conclude, what I find so fascinating about Prof Raboteau’s work is that he captures, in effect, and as a historian, a struggle inside of Afro-Christianity itself; namely, how does black religion generally but, in my concerns in this book, black christianity especially to understand blackness and the struggle against its white production or formation? Shall it go in something of a essentialized direction, or shall it go in something of a direction of ‘traditioned’ maleability? This is the question Raboteau opens up both historically and theoretically. it is the question that moves the chapter.
Y’all pray for me, as they say in my church. I’ve gotta get my comments shorter :-)
Thanks for the response. Appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions.
@Adam: What I find interesting about Raboteau’s religious piety (and Carter helpfully draws our attention to this) is the significant role it seems to play in his academic/intellectual pursuits. He provides a model for academics who desire to take serious their religious/faith commitments in way they go about their scholarship. In other words, “how living the life of the mind, in the academy or otherwise, is an act of faith” (142)?
@Dr. Carter: Any time I think about the election of Israel in the discussions about Black Christianity, my mind almost always goes back to biblical scholar, Renita Weems essay, “Womanist Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics.” She argues (and I will quote at length to provide a fuller context):
So, doesn’t the invocation of “the election of Israel” seem to (necessarily?) fund theological justifications for the domination of and exclusionary practices against non-Jews, women, enslaved and colonized people and so forth? In other words, it would seem that “the election of Israel” operates as a particular (theological) racial category/reasoning that reauthorizes a racial hierarchy/privileging (or racism?) similar to modernity’s problematic racial imagination, which is the very thing being critiqued in Race.
Thanks again for the overview and for putting this quote from R. Weems up here. One simple answer would be to see Carter’s work as suggesting that (1) Israel’s election does not construct the basis for racialized notions of peoplehood (e.g., Ruth) and that (2) in fact, the production of Jewish identity as racial identity was part of a larger process of the establishment of white Christian identity and civilization (to borrow from Levinas, an ontology that “consists in neutralizing the existent in order to comprehend or grasp it”). In short, Carter can be read as pointing to an understanding of election that presses against the sinful modes of self-possession (performed through and as domination of the flattened or neutralized “other”) that undergird both patriarchal and racist determinations of human social identity.
Weems seems to draw on both the construction of religion as cultural reflex AND the articulation of Israel qua racial group in her critique (emphasis on *seems* as I have only read what you posted), a move that unfortunately opens up what almost appears to be a nostalgia for an incomplete severing of Christianity from Judaism, such that Israel becomes the cipher through which one reads the malperformance of identity-politics, a formation of identity that must be overcome precisely as it is also now tied, racially, to the bodies of Jewish persons. I read chapters 3-5 of Carter’s book as narrating three attempts within black religious thought to push beyond an understanding of religion as cultural reflex as these thinkers strive to do justice to black religious thought that understood and pushed beyond the ways the discourse of race actually structured this discourse of religion (religious as cultural reflex, as reflex of a people, as racial reflex, as race).
Carter’s account of various figures entrance into the logic of identity performed within a covenantal structure through the mediation of the Jew Jesus does not depend on a reading of the Hebrew Scriptures as providing a kind of “pristine” social formation (such that Carter must now show that patriarchy is foreign to the figures in and writers of Hebrew scripture, so that baptismal entrance into the Jew Jesus now guarantees one has overcome patriarchal social formation). However, he is developing a notion of covenantal identity that is rooted in these Scriptures and that can undergird a performance of identity that subverts the patterns of race and gender based domination involved in modern statecraft and its production of “the people.” Instead of covenant as the basis and logic of the patriarchal “ordering of society and its view of a select few in society in relation to the cosmos and the rest of the world,” Carter is, I think, arguing that covenantal identity challenges this performance insofar as (1) this covenantal identity cannot be reduced to the rightful possession of one’s biological heirs, (2) is not racially closed, (3) exists in a kind of ecstatic deferral (always dependent on the one whose name is given as it is withheld, YHWH), and therefore (4) whose very life is grounded by this God’s freedom to love what is not God, what is other than God, creation. To retrieve Levinas, covenant is not (performed as) ontology: it does not need to know, possess, dominate, and ultimately destroy the other as other (for its very identity as elect is already oriented towards the other, e.g, Abraham’s election as having space for many nations to be blessed).
I’m not sure how helpful this is but it is at least a first shot. Hopefully some other voices join in to add other perspectives and thoughts.
I am not entirely sure if these questions have been answered in all that gone before, but I raise them anyway:
What is the Bible primarily rejecting, racism or slavery? And what is the relationship between the two? I detect something like the following paradox going on in what I’ve read so for on the blog: The Bible redeems the slaves and YHWH makes a covenant with them, only this leads the descendants of the slaves into racism (“chosen peopleness”). Now Jesus comes to undo the racism and complete the redemption of all humanity from slavery.
Perhaps I am overly simplifying the argument, but perhaps it’s helpful. Certainly there is a dialectic at work between slavery and racism. Pharaoh did not enslave the Hebrews on racial grounds. The slaves were a “mixed multitude” when they left Egypt. YHWH’s redemption was an act against slavery, not racism. Yet YHWH chose a people, Abraham’s descendants, as his “firstborn son” (Ex.). Is YHWH a racist? I would say definitively NO, but perhaps only Deuteronomy makes this clear. Deuteronomy I think reflects on this strange dialectic: redemption from slavery leads Israel to (the temptation of) racism. It says, “You will think you deserved redemption for some inherent quality, but I redeemed you so that you would witness to my Name in the world. Don’t be proud.” But this only shows that the logic of redemption from slavery leading to racism is almost ineluctable. How does YHWH get the world to see that slavery is the greatest sin against the human being as Image of God without redeeming a group of slaves, thus leading them to think they are chosen for some inherent quality in themselves? He can’t redeem one slave here and there. Slaves come in groups. I think that the Hebrew Bible is willing to accept this messy dialectic, and make Israel bear a double burden: witness to the sin of slavery as a sin against the human being and resist falling for the temptation of racism. Now, I don’t think Christianity is doing a better job than the Hebrew Bible at solving this problem. Jesus redeems from the enslavement of each human to sin itself (as the individual’s own Pharaonic assault on the Image of God within himself), and he redeems no group, just individuals. This ought to avoid racism on the part of Christians, but the problem is that the solution is poised as BETTER THAN THE ONE IN THE HEBREW BIBLE. The Christian is thus chosen OVER THE JEW. Paul tries to do what Deuteronomy did, telling Christians: Don’t be proud. But, just as for Israel, the advice only shows the ineluctability of the logic of racism following redemption.
And now I suggest tentatively: The real problem is neither slavery (assaulting the Image of God in each human being) nor racism (assuming there is something inherently worthy of God’s love in a human group), the real problem is combating both at once. There is no way to escape the dialect of singular/universal/group building on the Hebrew Bible. Gnosticism, of course, cuts the HB out of the picture and makes redemption a matter of singular individuals, but it too does not escape the dialect: the redeemed soul despises the rest of the world with a sort of universal racism. Redemption and racism are simply the twin poles of biblical history and every group or person who inscribes herself/themselves into that history are ineluctably caught in the tension.
Bruce, Thanks for this — for me, your comment breaks through a few recurring obstacles we’ve had in the conversation so far.
“The Bible redeems the slaves and YHWH makes a covenant with them, only this leads the descendants of the slaves into racism (“chosen peopleness”). Now Jesus comes to undo the racism and complete the redemption of all humanity from slavery.”
Could you clarify who you see expressing this motif or paradox (Carter, the Weems quote, others on the board)?
I ask because it seems to be the narrative that Carter is trying to undo on both ends (identification of covenantal chosenness w/ race and racism; Jesus as overcoming this Jewish racial-particularism).
@Tim: perfectly good question. Let me say I think I am entirely in agreement with Prof. Carter, whose book on Race I am very much a fan of. Here is something from his post here:
Similarly, knowledge of the Jews function among the Valentinians to fix the Jews with a dye. Iren struggled against this, not at all completely successfully but he got it tright hat a key mistake occurs when christians think that they are intelligible apart from the story of Israel. So, I guess I am asking, “What is it about the story of Israel that makes it possible to get it so wrong?” If it is something about Israel’s election, was it human or divine error that made the election the source of racism? I was merely trying to remind folks that Israel’s election was a necessary part of the drama of YHWH’s teaching the world that slavery is the gravest sin (debasing the image of God), and that this lesson had to be carried out as an act of redemption/election. But this ineluctably led to racism (misunderstanding the nature of election as based on some inherent quality of the group) as the new sin. Israel must now witness to two things: the sin of slavery, and the sin of racism. By keeping the sabbath as the memorial of redemption from slavery (Deuteronomy’s explanation), it witnesses to God’s rejection of slavery. But it falls prey to racism whenever it complacently believes that it was chosen for any other reason than to witness against slavery. Christians do no better when they think they are elected for any other reason than to witness against slavery, and their temptation to racism is also built into the logic of their election, since it is interpreted as “new” and “better” than the election of the Jews. Now I think that I have said nothing against what Prof. Carter has said, but it is certainly incompatible with the Weems quote. Here is one problematic passage: any critique that aims to challenge the theological and cultural assumptions and biases of the biblical mindset must begin with an analysis of what it means and meant for Israel to claim to be elected. Being elected is not a claim made by Israel, it was what happened when Israel was redeemed from slavery. Or is that a claim made by Israel too? Sure, we can debunk everything in the Hebrew Bible as ideological posturing, but what good would that do? Would it really help “to resist the ideological foundation of the patriarchal world order”? If Weems wants to get rid of election talk, she has to get rid of redemption talk too. The Hebrew Bible is way smarter than she is about what it means to actually create a just order based upon the rejection of slavery and a recognition of the image of God in every person. Such a free society cannot create itself (or claim to do so, if we want to keep with Weems’s terminology), or it will look like the Soviet and Nazi efforts at creating a New Man. By making a people believe it was elected by YHWH to witness to His hatred of slavery, the Hebrew Bible may have created a society living within a terrible double-bind (be my first-born son and witness to my redeeming power!, don’t be proud!), but (to put all my cards on the table) it succeeded in becoming the first and most lasting legal constitution of a free and racially open society in human history. It isn’t any accident that African slaves made it their own, or that Hitler’s minions burned the Torah on Kristallnacht.
This definitively transitioned to “greatest book event” status with Bruce’s arrival.
Thanks for the clarification, that was very helpful.
I think one of the “obstacles” that Adam mentioned might be with how the terms ‘race’ and ‘racism’ are being used. I find myself reluctant to say that racism is kind of a shadow-side of election, not because I think covenantal election is immune from being seized sinfully in the way you describe (“we’re chosen because we’re superior”)–that it can be is evident–but because of the historical, social, and ideological components of racism, e.g., the discourse surrounding blood and biological purity. To genealogically trace racism (or the possibility of) to election might obscure the fact that modern racism developed within a Christian social body that expelled the Jews to maintain the body’s purity. That is, I wonder if equating “peoplehood superiority complex” to “racism” bypasses the ways in which race functions in the production of the bios of the modern state. Israel could certainly sinfully claim human superiority without their self-identity functioning within the bio-logics of racial discourse. That being said, there is substantial agreement that Israel’s covenantal life enacts a mode of being that opens up configurations of personhood and peoplehood beyond the discourse of race/races.
“Israel’s covenantal life enacts a mode of being that opens up configurations of personhood and peoplehood beyond the discourse of race/races.”
How does Israel’s covenantal life do that if you abstract away from Christianity? There’s a passage where Carter talks about Israel as being inherently mulatto — an interesting thought, certainly — but if I’m remembering right, he’s talking about that in terms of the “ingrafting” of the Gentiles. It’s important that there be a robust way of understanding Israel as a genuine alternative without needing Christianity to make it work, because otherwise it sounds like Christianity is, you know, superceding Israel. And this is where it probably makes sense to be in dialogue with Jewish thought if you’re going to make the nature of Israel the core of your argument.
Adam, a good place in the _Race_ book to look at this would be 260-266, the notes which reference some of the work supporting this thinking. To highlight one article, Jon Levenson’s piece “The Universal Horizons of Biblical Particularism” is helpful, accessible on google books as an essay within _Ethnicity and the Bible_, and notes that “one of the hardest points of biblical thought to understand is the concept of peoplehood, which is familial and natural without being racial and biologistic.” If we accept that Paul took himself to be thinking as a Jew, then his analysis say in Romans 9-11 also points to strands within Jewish thought that made it possible to imagine and think through the inclusion of Gentiles as flowing from the very life and covenantal history of Israel.
Citing a couple articles, in one footnote, doesn’t count as “dialogue.” And sure, let’s grant that Paul was thinking as a Jew and highlighting aspects of the Jewish tradition that pointed toward inclusion of the Gentiles — it seems that for Carter, this is only actualized in Christ, such that the Christian tradition understands Israel’s vocation better than Israel itself does, hence superceding it.
It does show that the idea of “election” isn’t being produced over against or in the presumed silence of contemporary Jewish thinkers. Asking that the book be a kind of Christian-Jewish dialogue such that these sources are more thoroughly and explicitly engaged is just asking for him to have written a different book for different purposes. The section I cited from Carter again builds from other moments within the Jewish story (Abraham for instance) that he thinks are intensified in Christ but this intensification is neither the replacement of nor understandable in the absence of this history. I don’t think this claims entails the stronger, more violent claim that “the Christian tradition understands Israel’s vocation better than Israel itself does,” though certainly large portions of Christianity push it exactly in that direction (and further).
One can see the “deferral” of identity Carter mentions vis-a-vis Abraham as a moment that hinders the deployment of this kind of Christian “knowledge/power” regarding Israel: our salvation as foreigners welcomed into the covenant (Eph 2) depends on our inability to “seize” (produce/possess/master) the covenantal structures of Israel’s identity. If we Gentiles are saved IN Israel, this is because Israel’s identity cannot be possessed by the creature but is constantly deferred as it is held in and born by YHWH (since this last phrase implies a kind of “incarnational logic,” let me quickly refer to Michael Wyschogrod’s piece on Incarnation and the dwelling of YHWH with the people).
That said, I do want to hold open a possibility for Christians to witness back to Israel what Israel holds about itself in ways that Israel–and now, I switch to Israel as modern “nation-state”–seems to have forgotten. But again, though such efforts can easily proceed as violent supercessionism I see no reason to think that they can only proceed as such.
I probably need to stop harping on this point.
@Tim: I think it is at least an open question whether the fact that racism functions in the production of the bios of the nation-state (I take it you are referring to Foucault’s point that sovereignty reclaims biopower by cutting the bios of the population along racial lines to decide who can live and who must die) operates apart from a theology of election. The modern, post 1789 nation constitutes the people as the source of sovereignty where every citizen is equal before the law, but as “source,” the pre-citizen body of the people are undifferentialed flesh (see Santner’s new book), and sovereign power must write the symbolic structure of the law on that flesh, hence the racial cut: the body of the Jew, the Muslim, the Indian, the African, etc. is the part of the flesh that resists inscription, or that is removed and replaced by the inscribed letters of the law. This logic works without reference to which racial body gets identified as the unassimilable remainder of the sovereign writing machine, and therefore it seems to lack any connection to the Jewish-Christian dilemma of election. On the other hand, we could question whether this logic is built into the deep structure of human political-symbolic existence as such (as we find in Agamben, or in Lacanian theory) or whether it is rather contingent, arising within the biblical-Greek historical field. One wonders whether bodies being inscribed by the law and then brought into the one eternal life of the people is (the modern version of the king’s two bodies, as Santner points out) is just an ideological superstructure imposed on the logic of sovereignty and biopower, or even whether sovereignty itself is imaginable without its theological history. So, maybe racism is deeply theological, precisely embedded in a historical tradition shaped by the idea that sovereign power (of YHWH) takes you out of bondage (to a power that pretends to be sovereign by debasing the human to the level of mere life) and lifts you into a relationship with a super-bios (a new peoplehood under YHWH). I opt for the theological as a necessary ingredient in the mix of modern nation-state racism, but I also believe that without this theology we would live in a mythic world of the Furies who pursue you for your struggle against the blood guilt of seeking freedom from undifferentiated nature. If you want freedom from this mythic domain that isn’t reserved for heroes or mystery cult initiates, but is your birthright as a child of God, the price is the (temptaiton) of racism, the obverse of redemption. Perhaps one could combine both positions and say: racism is the trace of pagan mythic thinking left over after redemption from the mythic world. I don’t think it is built into the logic of the sovereign nation state. I think it is a result of the “terrible freedom” that YHWH offers.
And what about Greek ethnos-thinking, say in Aristotle, which has no relation to the bible? Isn’t that racism? Surely Aristotle thought the Greeks were superior to “barbarians,” and this was a feature of physis. Good, that’s racism. But are we so certain that it isn’t connected to redemption? I mean philosophy is also a break with the mythic world, only this time it’s reason that qualifies you to enter the super-bios of the people of God (thought thinking itself). And yes, once again racism is the remainder left over of mythic thinking, for other philosophers, like the Stoics or Epicureans, recognized that reason could not be the privileged possession of Greeks as a group. So, just as the bible’s redemption from the mythic world of Furies and Fates could not free itself from the taint of the mythic view that something inheres in the blood that brings miasma, so too Aristotle thought that something inhered in the physis of the barbarian that brought miasma. But again, reason is universal, not a Greek possession; so also is the promise of redemption in the bible not limited to one ethnos, but no break with the past is clean. However, and here is my main point, if one sees what the future really means, one can battle the past. I am not such a pessimist about the biblical-Greek inheritance as to want to jettison it as inherently racist, patriarchal, etc. There are no other tools with which to fight against myth than reason and faith.
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