21 thoughts on “Carter Book Event: Theologizing Race: James H. Cone, Liberation, and the Theological Meaning of Blackness (Chapter 4)

  1. Xavier’s questions echo concerns I’ve had throughout, and I’d add a question: where is he getting the idea that Israel is always a mulatto people? There are no footnotes in the relevant paragraphs.

  2. Thanks for the summary and questions. I’m looking forward to seeing what others think about the chapter and your responses. A quick point for clarification/elaboration. I’m uncertain as to how to read your final critique of Carter given your reading of Cone. You critique Carter for “concealing or subordinating racial identities” to a “nonracial” account of identity; yet on your interpretation of Cone, blackness is a “provisional” and “intervening” term that will “give way” to what is presumably a post/non-racial account of identity (from the position of suffering). Could you clarify what it is in Carter’s account that leads his account to be a recapitulation of whiteness that Cone avoids?

    Adam–I think the point is that since one can become Jewish (convert), Jewishness reads on a racial register as mulatto (e.g., Jesus has Gentile ancestors in his lineage).

  3. Adam–undoubtedly yes, but there is also the tension between “mixing with” and “converting to” and this distinction still registers within a racial logic as mullato (the issue isn’t biological purity and even if openness to others waxes and wanes, there isn’t a “pure stock” of racially Jewish identity to protect).

  4. @Tim: Thank you for the questions! I’m not suggesting we are left with any particular identity, let alone a (non-suffering) post/non-racial identity after blackness gives way because it is not clear to me that Cone is concerned about such.

    In order to avoid reproducing whiteness, it seems to me that Carter has to clarify what he means by “nonracial” flesh/identity, precisely because at that moment he seems to be engaged in an ambiguous form of racial reasoning that might not be too different from the ways in which whiteness functions. Specifically, Carter makes a distinction between Jesus’ Jewishness and his nonracial flesh, yet it seems that Jesus’ Jewishness is a way for Carter to talk precisely about Jesus’ flesh as racialized in his critique of theological whiteness. This ambiguous form of racial reasoning then goes (white?) theological when Carter introduces “covenant(al),” hence my aforementioned questions.

  5. Xavier–
    Thanks again for your response, although I must confess I’m not satisfied. It seems to duck the question: blackness “giving way” has to give way to “something” and it’s not clear to me how this works in a way that satisfies the central concern of both Carter and Cone as reflected in this chapter–to avoid erasing in or severing black life from revelation or the universal (“I’m not suggesting we are left with any PARTICULAR identity”)–and also avoids the recapitulation of whiteness (subordinating racial identity to itself as universal) that you think haunts Carter’s account.

    Perhaps I’m missing your point but to clarify: Carter doesn’t distinguish BETWEEN Christ’s Jewishness and his nonracial flesh but instead clarifies that Jesus’ Jewishness cannot be articulated as racial flesh and is therefore “nonracial.” “Covenantal” then describes this nonracial mode of existence.

  6. @Tim: I hear you and I appreciate the conversation. Your dissatisfaction seems to lie more at Cone’s feet. As I read Cone, he isn’t concerned about articulating that which blackness gives way to. (Perhaps, he should, which might be your point, given the way I am reading him. I’m not sure it’s necessary for the purpose of Cone’s critical intervention.) But it is here that I see Carter in his own way picking up where Cone left off.

    Let me restate my basic concerns/questions this way: Is Jesus’ Jewishness intelligible independent of his racial particularity – racial flesh? Does Jesus’ Jewishness only signify a religious – covenantal – identity/flesh?

  7. Xavier–
    Thanks for the clarification re. Cone. About the Jewishness of Jesus: why suppose that creaturely difference is, at bottom, most basically racial difference? The “covenantal” identity isn’t something that supervenes on some more basic racial givenness; the covenantal structure IS the basic structure of his identity as a Jew. Jesus doesn’t have a “racial” Jewishness that must then be related to or displaced by some subsequent “religious” identity. Jewish identity only exists within covenantal terms (e.g. there is nothing peculiar or particular or defining about Abraham except God’s call); and this covenantal identity is reducible to neither race nor religion (or, race/religion).

  8. Oh–and I know many others are following along and I am really interested in seeing more takes, ideas, critiques, elaborations, and what have you. We haven’t even hit the immanent/transcendence, Tillich/Barth, and many other fun conversational points–so please jump in and I’ll jump out and go back to my more usual lurking status.

  9. Hey Xavier & Tim,

    After reading the chapter a second time, I think I have come to see what Jay is saying about non-racial flesh. Racial flesh is the human identity, seen as part of a creation story that does not participate in God. Carter’s criticism of Cone (and Tillich) is that even with Cone’s interpretation of Tillich’s dialectics as dialogue, there still remains a problem, the problem with history. In fact, in Cone’s reading of the New Testament, particularity is overcome by the universal (page 172-173). While Cone was once on the right track in his Barthian Black Theology and Black Power, his struggles with Barth’s inability to deal with creaturely truths lead him in the direction of rejecting a participatory view of transcendence just by applying the logic we discover in Tillich’s The Courage to Be.

    Jesus’ Jewish flesh is not literally “Mulatto” in terms of biology; I don’t think we can say that Carter wants us to see race as a purely scientific, naturally discovered Thing, rather, because Israel’s story participates in the covenantal life of YHWH, and vice versa. Israel’s identity is found in its partnership with YHWH, and for Carter, the creeds are a Christian articulation of that relationship as “impurity” (191-192). Its about a participatory view of transcendence, something that undermines the logic of separate but equal, found both in segregationist and multiculturalism arguments.

  10. Rod–
    Thanks for jumping! Just to highlight something you said so it isn’t missed: the covenantal participation isn’t a symbol of some more foundational ontological structure of participation (e.g., of a Milbankian sort). The covenant as covenant is historical and structured around event, encounter, and call. I think Barth’s account of creation and anthropology are important here: the covenant isn’t a symbol of creation but is the basis of creation; humanity isn’t a self-possessed structure but is constituted within and as address (the Word of God) or as you say “partnership,” and thus isn’t positioned over-against “the other.”

  11. @Tim: I’m not sure why you take me to be suggesting that race is the most basic element that distinguishes human beings. On the contrary.

    I think Carter’s covenantal identity talk seems to be a stretch both biblically and philosophically. Biblically, (and I’m not usually inclined to make biblical arguments. Ha, ha.) In the letter to the Romans, Paul’s undying affection and affinity for his Jewish brothers and sisters turns precisely on racial, instead of covenantal lines. He is concerned about his brothers and sisters of the same racial flesh. If the covenant structure defines the identity of every person, Jew and Gentile alike, in the covenant as nonracial flesh, then Paul’s Jewish racial flesh distinction does not seem to make much sense.

    Philosophically, if “Jewish identity only exists within covenantal terms,” then it would seem that this identity is reducible to religion, despite attempts to historicize such identity or the covenant. What else is “covenantal” if it is not fundamentally a religious category? What’s more, if covenantal identity were a nonracial religious identity, then it would seem that Carter has ironically stripped the humanity/material, specifically the particularity of human flesh from the very notion of (Jesus’) Jewishness in a way that is not very different from Gnosticism or the theological imagination of whiteness. Lastly, if “the covenantal structure IS the basic structure of [Jesus’] identity as a Jew,” then does this structure somehow become inherent to or apart of his “nonracial” Jewish flesh? In other words, how is it that this abstract theological structure can even have any purchase on what defines or constitutes concrete human flesh? Such abstract theological thinking, namely its ontological claims that render black folks in all their particularities invisible, is precisely what Cone takes to be the fundamental problem with white theology.

  12. Xavier–
    I apologize in advance for this longer reply but I’m trying to be as clear as I can about where I see the disconnect in this conversation.

    I make the assumption because it seems that any time we talk about biological humanity, flesh, you claim it is racial and must be spoken of as racial. So, when you read Paul talking about Israel, you state that it is racial flesh. Or, previously, you asked if Jesus’ Jewishness was intelligible apart from his racial particularity, his concrete flesh. I simply don’t know how else to interpret this (and your other responses) except as the lingering remnants of some kind of racial realism (such that talk about flesh, about biological bodies, about concrete human particularity, is somehow always to talk about race). For you, the religious seems by definition to be disembodied and abstract, such that to speak of “nonracial” but “covenantal” flesh is to speak in religious terms about bodies, which is really just docetism or Gnosticism and so not to speak of flesh at all.

    Carter, I think, is arguing that covenantal speaks to concrete, biological existence (hence his continual talk of “flesh”) in a manner that bypasses both the discourse of race (since it is an ordering of concrete fleshly existence that is not articulated in an essential binary opposition to or exclusion of the other) and also the discourse of religion (since it is not an abstract idea that arises from or must subsequently be related to a people’s fleshly existence).

    You seem to want to position “covenant” between the two poles of race or religion (either covenant speaks to the concrete flesh and is thus really racial or it is religious and does not speak of fleshly existence at all). Carter, I think, is not only arguing that covenant bypasses these two discourses but that these two discourses–race and religion–show the theological supercessionism at the core of racial modernity: to sever the connection between Israel and God (the covenantal call), Christendom articulated–produced the new knowledge of–Jewish particularity as a biological failure (race) that accounts for their failure to convert (and be properly religious); with the encounters of “other peoples,” Christian Europe hierarchically arranged these “new” peoples through the deployment and refinement of these two interrelated discourses (e.g., the debates over which peoples could be converted). In other words, Carter is giving a genealogy of the discourses of race and religion; any attempt to re-articulate his account through a kind of commonsense appeal to these terms–like when you ask “what else is covenantal if…not religious” or “is Jesus’ Jewishness intelligible independent of his…racial flesh”–is going to fail: covenant is not religious but involves God; Jewishness is not racial but involves biological bodies. Covenant cannot be accounted for between or within the two poles of race and religion for these two discourses were formed out of European supercessionism!

  13. Xavier–let me just state again, I am really enjoying the conversation. To all others, I hope I’m not blocking you out and am eager to hear your thoughts.

    One other thought: perhaps an appeal to Foucault would be helpful here. Carter is asking you to make the genealogical move with him, so let me just quote Foucault and substitute “religion” for “madness”:

    “The method consisted in saying: Let’s suppose that [religion] does not exist. If we suppose that it does not exist, then what can history make of these different events and practices which are apparently organized around something that is supposed to be [religion]?” (from the 1st lecture in _The Birth of Biopolitics_). Carter’s historical sketch involves uncovering its intimate connection to the development of racial ideology in conjunction with supercessionism as part of an elaboration and enactment of Christian European global imperialism.

  14. @Tim: Thanks again for the conversation here. I too must apologize in advance for the length.

    Covenant talk does not seem to be a useful way to reason about human identity or difference, specifically fleshly differences that are sometimes captured by the term “race.” I’m still not convinced that this abstract theological structure can have any purchase on what defines or constitutes concrete human flesh. Covenant talk does not seem to be able to significantly account for the material/fleshly differences. This was my point about Paul’s affection for his Jewish brothers and sisters in the flesh. Instead of engaging in covenant talk to distinguish between human beings or people groups, Paul appealed to the material, the differences of human flesh (in the manner in which appeals to race usually functions), because the notion of “covenant” could not do that type of work.

    “Jews” as a people group seems to be unintelligible apart from (imperfect!) identifiers like “race” that registers a type of human difference, which do not have to involve ordering human existence. (This is how I am basically using the term “race,” which might have been a source of our disconnect). If true, Jewishness is not simply registering a religious/God-involved identity or relationship, but also something peculiar or particular about concrete human flesh that is often signified by race. So then when you said, “Jewishness is not racial but involves biological bodies,” how do you distinguish between (groups of) biological bodies without recourse to some notion like “race?”

    Is the term “race” the best way to talk about such differences? No, not at all. We all know how that story can go and Carter does an excellent job in pointing out the pitfalls. But to offer “covenant” in its place as a way to reason about human identity and difference does not clarify much. In fact, it seems to turn our gaze away from recognizing the material/fleshly differences of human beings in a manner that reproduces and reauthorizes the problems with deracialization, post-racial, color-blind talk. As far as I can tell, covenant identity talk begs whether one’s relationship with otherworldly figures (YHWH) and activities (divine covenantal callings) actually bears upon one’s concrete, physical body and flesh in any substantive way.

    Lastly, you said, “Covenant cannot be accounted for between or within the two poles of race and religion for these two discourses were formed out of European supercessionism!” I think you are flattening out the discourses of race and religion in such a way that seems to beg the question of whether covenant can be accounted for at all. If “covenant is not religious but involves God,” what then do you take “religious” to be? How do we make sense of something that “involves God,” yet not be religious in a very basic sense? Is “covenant” then sui generis? Moreover, if the discourses of race and religion were formed out of European supercessionism, “covenant” is certainly not immune from such, as I have been suggesting.

  15. @Tim: By the way, I meant to comment on your genealogical point (and there’s much more I could say about it but we already have a lot on the table). To clarify, I take Carter to be engaged in more than a genealogy of the discourses of race and religion. So, I’m making explicit what I see as an ambiguous form of (racial) reasoning about human identity and difference built into his notion of covenant that seems to be quite tenuous.

  16. Tim, if i understand Xavier’s point (though to simplify it greatly and to lose something of it in my own translation, no doubt), it’s that covenant is functioning transcendently here. It’s being divorced from the question of race. That is, while the logic of covenant, considered in itself, might refuse reduction to race, the functioning of this logic takes place in a context of Paul talking about Jewish flesh, as well as of a history of Christianity in which being “beyond race” serves to ignore (or even to produce) concrete racism. In other words, racially (or fleshly) coded difference is at work, and so to go beyond these differences one would have to address them without just “going beyond” them in the name of covenant. After all, isn’t this “going beyond”, in its Pauline version (“neither Jew nor Greek,” etc.), the very origin of racial difference? (since those who do not accept the “new covenant” of Paul’s Christ are pretty quickly, in Patristic thought, “raced” or “fleshed” — carnal Israel and so on. … So the point, i guess, is that covenant seems to define itself always through flesh as its negative site.)

  17. I’ve just caught up on the conversation that’s been happening around chapter 4. I’ve been offline for a while finishing up a few things.

    I really appreciate Xavier’s care in working thru the Cone chpt and offering some really important things for us to think about. I’m also very, very appreciative for the care of others in reading through the posts and as well for many of you who’ve chimed in. I’m so very grateful for this fellowship in ideas.

    Tim, as so often is the case, has done wonderfully in capturing so much in what I’m trying to do in my work and in my thinking. And thanks very much to ‘Rod of Alexandria’ for your summary of what I’m doing and for your reading of how the ‘mullato/a’ fits into what I’m trying to work out her towards a theological interpretation of Israel/Jewish covenantal being and what this means for our understanding of the identity of Jesus and for the being of the (especially now, Gentile) Christian. You drew the threads together nicely.

    I appreciate Xavier continuing to press me about the issue of covenant. But your last set of comments that more or less insist on understanding covenant as religious is in a certain sense absolutely right at the same time that it you run the risk of completely missing the theological [!] point I’m workinig to articulate in the chapter and indeed in the argument of the book precisely because of the degree to which you are right on the first score. Let me try to explain what I mean.

    The sense in which you’re right about covenant and religion is this: a central operation by which Western Christian supersessionism functioned to put in place a structure of racial antagonisms was first the 15th century move locate the discourse of Jewish covenant inside of a rhetorics of blood purity. It was at this moment that covenant was made to articulate and to be an articulating hinge for the production of religion. In this sense, Xavier, you are right: covenant is connected to religion. Thus again, you’re right: “covenant is certainly not immune” from cooptation into the antagonistic structure of religion/race or race/religion, for the first victim, one might say, of the specific mode of Christian superssionism that set in place the modern world, modern sovereignty, modern civil society, was indeed covenant. Moreover, it is covenant now articulated to race/religion that must remain the repressed within the order of things to keep that order working, one might say. The Jew as a being-in-covenant with YHWH is s/he who must be made into a socially dead being for their to be life in (Western Christian) sovereignty and for their to be a “multitude” (the reference to Hardt/Negri is intended), which is to say, civil society. So again, Xavier, in an important sense you’re right.

    But it’s not all of the story, and the problem is that if we stop our meditations on covenant at the point at which the notion of covenant has been colonized and invaded, we are then fated to make a racial-religious settlement with with the colonization of covenant and therefore with the death of Jewish being, which was the condition of possibility of the modern making “Christian” (read: White) being as secured theologically by Jewish covenant death and then ramified out ultimately into the non-being of the Black. At the heart of my argument is a refusal of the racial/religious settlement. this doesn’t mean, contra Xavier, setting up the all to trite move of the postracial (vis-a-vis) covenant. Rather, from covenant I have a place from which to theologically think the unthought (on thinking the unthought, I’m drawing heavily now on the theory work of Hortense Spillers and Sadiya Hartman).

    The question I’m asking is this: in order for modern/Western Christian hegemony to get in place, what had to be unthought? What had to be rendered as nonbeing to secure Christian being. My answer is twofold. On the one hand, what had to be unthought was the figure of the Black or slave (non-) being. The African was made to be black flesh to secure white bodies. But (and this is the other side of it) theological condition of possibility for the African to become black nonbeing or unthought blackness, Jewish being as covenant relationship to YHWH (to say it again, Rod you’ve read me rightly) had also to become the signification of racial/religious deadness in relationship to White (whiteness is being produced here; it’s not ‘natural) being, which is to say, in relationship to sovereignty and civil society.

    I’m not using covenant then as an ambiguous or slippery racial placeholder. Rather, I’m trying to surface the unthought that subtends the structure of racial antagonism and to discern the theological conditions under which it functions.

    Now I’m the first to admit that there’s much more for me to develop in this argument. But key here is the work I’m trying to get out covenant, recognizing that “covenant” is neither sui generis but nor is its meaning exhausted by having been articulated to race/religion.

    I also want to say before wrapping up my few comments that Xavier has put his finger in a very helpful way on something that since the publication of this book (remember, this book is now 3 years old) I’ve been attuned to, and that is this. My book presupposes a Christian theology of Israel (with the notion of covenant at its core), but it does not fully develop that theology of Israel. This is partly because the book is my effort to execute such a theology in the mode of a kind of structure of feeling, as Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall might put it. The book is a kind of theological feeling into the dark towards such a theology. And by “feeling in the dark” I don’t me I was shooting aimlessly into the dark, as it were, to see what I’d hit. No. By “feeling in the dark” I was (and still am in much of my ongoing research and writing) trying to think the Christian reality (and thus the connection between the struggle to be Christian, on the one hand, and Jewish covenant life, on the other) from the placelessness and timelessness of the Dark, that is, the Slave/the Black/the Middle Passage/the Auction Block/criminality/the Penitentiary. I’m trying to think the conjunction of the Middle Passage and Slave (non-) being, on the one hand, and the conversion of the Jew into the first race-type within a heirarchy of race and the recoding of covenant (indeed, its subtle takeover) that has been made to culturally and conceptually achor Western religiosity and secularity, and thus anchor that species called Humanity (read: Western Man).

    Of course, the problem is that since the Middle Passage (and here we see a big difference between the Jew and the Black), the Black has been unable to escape non-being (for nonbeing or incapacity struturally and therefore ontologically defines its being, if I may put it this way). The White is body (and thus, the index of sovereignty and [civil] society), but the Black is only flesh, “that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discouse or the reflexes of iconography” (H. Spillers). Somehow, in the post-Auschwitz situation the Jew has escaped the flesh to be incorporated into the (white?) body. (How else do we read, for example, the Palestinian situation?)

    What I must deal with then in future work is how this happened and what it means to speak covenant under these conditions, under the conditions in which the flesh (and thus death) is the repressed and the unthought, and the body (and thus sovereignty and civil society) is what is bio-politically thought. But already in the Race book I’m working toward an answer to this conundrum. And that answer is christological: God speaks to us as the Slave and thus from the elected Jewish flesh (!) of Jesus (i.e., from his zero degree of social conceptualization; that is, from his being as the Slave [Phil 2]) But this answer remains to be fully developed. Perhaps at some point I must write a book that thinks toward a Christian theology of Israel that proceeds from the unthought, that is, from the flesh in the way Spillers speaks of it to reconceive the life of Israel and therefore the covenantal being of Jesus.

  18. Thanks Dan for your restatement of Xavier’s point. I think that my (rather long: [my apologies]) comment responds to it. That is to say, what I must further talk work through (and that I am starting to do increasingly in work subsequent to the book and definitely in projects I currently have underway) is how Christian supersessionism articulates covenant to the white sovereign body and at the same time represses its articulation to the abject, “dead-zone” of the flesh.

    Moreover, the point of my theological mobilization of covenant is not toward a discourse that is meant to be “beyond race”. I do see how some might take this away as the punchline of my project. But unequivocally, it’s a mistaken reading of me. My project—including the Race book as well with the proviso that this is my first statement the matter, not my last—aims toward a christian imagination that’s “more than race” and that therefore isn’t exhausted by because constitutive of race/racism. “Beyond race” and “more than race” are categorically differently conceptualities and, I’d argued, they point to categorically different lived experiences and most importantly different structural frameworks—and the goal here is to change the frame, to effect a metamorphosis of the equation itself by shifting to the site of the flesh and away from the site of the sovereign body (politic) of the White. “Beyond race” as I show in the Kant chapter is the completion of the race project in the making of sovereignty and civil society. “More than race” works from the position of the Black, the position of the Slave, the zone of the flesh as “that which does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse or the reflexes of iconography”.

    Covenant, certainly as I’m deploying it as “more than race,” is meant to help me theologically do this work. And again, looking back at my book, I see the need to further theorize this out. But I think that it’s still clear from what is in place that there is no covenant transcendentalism going on here (as if covenant is not tied to the flesh and thus to creation). Covenant is tied to the flesh and thus to creation, but what I’m refusing is that covenant must be routed through sovereign land (Nation), sovereign body (for who has the privilege of speaking as a sovereign body, anyway?) or through the apparatuses of the civil society in order to be conceived of as intelligible. As the unthought, flesh shifts the frame and effects a metamorphosis in the equation.

    I’ll finally say that I nevertheless think it’s mistaken (and here I agree with Tim) to take it that the Romans 9-11 texts necessarily and thus already articulate flesh to race, nor do I read Paul in the direction of seeing the bond he has with his brothers and sisters in the flesh, as he puts it, as a bond of race. We must distinguish, I think, how this language gets subsequently deployed in the history of Christianity from Paul’s own deployments. The two may be related (I do think that they are) but they certainly shouldn’t be collapsed.

  19. Jay, thanks for the response. The distinction between “beyond race” and “more than race” is a good one, i think. I suppose we run up, again, into the question of whether Paul, early Christology, etc., and the concomitant theology of Israel, is able to be articulated as “more than race” and not as “beyond race.”

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