In this chapter, Carter continues his “investigation about an emerging Afro-Christian sensibility struggling with and against modernity” by looking at the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass (286). Douglass, for Carter, provides further theological insights in that, whereas “Easter delivers Hammon back into captivity, Douglass’ 1845 Narrative struggles to undo this moment so that Easter will yield freedom rather than recapitulate him into bondage.” (286). Carter here is particularly focusing on Douglass’ religious critique of how America defined who he was, which proves instructive for two reasons. First, it points to the contradictions that become embroiled in emancipatory politics of identity—how “such a politics often repeats the form of the self that needs overcoming,”—and second, those contradictions illuminate how theological discourse is bound up in this, and how it contributes to the problem (287).
“My aim,” Carter writes, “is to catalog Douglass’ complex and subtle endeavor to rechart the territory of racial and national identity, which he carried out by autobiographically probing the intersection of the meaning of religion in general and of black religion in particular as they bear on the question of race and nation” (289). There are two key scenes in Douglass’ Narrative that are especially illustrative for Carter in light of this aim: Douglass’ account of the beating of his aunt Esther and his later altercation with the slave-breaker Covey.
Starting with the story of Esther, Carter traces the religious imagery in the account to highlight what he reads Douglass as saying. Drawing from the Cain and Abel story, like Abel, Esther’s blood cries out, demanding vindication from God. With this, Carter explains, “Douglass makes the claim that the “genesis” of black indignity and the coterminous loss of black agency lies in the moral and ethical failures of slaveholding Christianity” (292). Douglass also uses New Testament allusions, reading Esther Christologically, dramatizing “how the black body is configured as the papyrus onto which religious letters are violently emblazoned to justify American peoplehood and the political economy of slavery” (293).
This scene points to both the promise and problem’s with what Douglass is doing here. On the one hand, Douglass points to “how the Easter story is made to ground national identity by upholding the binary relationship of whiteness over blackness;” on the other hand, however, it also introduces a problematic gendered dimension (293). Douglass’ vision of the liberated black self is framed over and against, and at the expense of, the feminine. And how the Easter story works in this narrative is especially illuminating, as the feminine gets tied to the Christological—“the feminine as acquiescent passivity effectively comes to represent what it means to be a slave, while the symbology of the Easther Pasch seems to facilitate that representation” (296).
Carter then turns to the second key scene—Douglass’ account of his altercation with Covey. This story too relies on Christological allusions, but in this instance, Christ is figured not as feminine, but as masculine—“Christ overcomes the feminine and thus liberates the race. The Easter story, hence, becomes a “Gnostic” saga of the masculine self”(296). In this scene, Douglass’s account mirrors the story of the crucifixion. This is the point of promise, as “Douglass unites his death with the death of Jesus on Good Friday. This move makes the literary suggestion that God is manifest in black suffering and in the black struggle for dignity and selfhood.” (298).
Ambiguity is introduced in the account as Douglass has an encounter with an old advisor, Sandy, who offers him a root to keep him safe. Is it Christianity or the root, which is emblematic of black custom and tradition, that will deliver him from Covey? Neither is satisfactory to Douglass, and the two actually become tied, as Carter points to a scene earlier in the text where Douglass reflects on the slave singing about “the Great House Farm.” This scene is demonstrative of the role religion plays for Douglass. Carter explains:
As intellectual, he can pull back the veil of consciousness and plumb the depths of the “true” meaning of religion and identity. This is possible because he himself has access to and is living out of a different mode of consciousness. In just this way, religious inquiry and theological analysis become cultural criticism—and nothing more (300).
The root did not work, and on Monday, Covey comes to whip Douglass. But Douglass fights back. As Carter explains, Douglass resists, “meeting violence with violence and, in the end, relies neither on black folk religion nor on American Christianity but, rather, on himself to bring about his own “resurrection.” Identity begins and ends with the self” (301). In doing so, he overcomes both the feminine—seizing his manhood—and the limitations of black folk culture. But the Christian imagery still remains. Carter explains the significance of this moment, which I think is worth quoting at length. He writes:
Interestingly, Douglass’ resolve to fight covet and so deny white male dominance is a complicated Christian moment that is refracted through the Easter mystery and its language of the resurrection: “I rose.” Douglass here claims New Testament authority to challenge scriptural enslavement. But what is also apparent here is Douglass’ reversal of his negative portrayal of Christianity’s Easter story as tending toward feminine docility and submissiveness. In laying claim to the Pasch for himself, his own freedom and dignity are now made coterminous with his being literally made Christoform or paschally shaped. The Easter story has now been recast as the story not of femininity but of the recuperation of masculinity. Rather than the accomplishment of whiteness, Douglass deploys Easter to culturally accomplish black masculinity as the overcoming of the black feminine (302).
The recovery of this “impartial Christianity of Christ,” Carter demonstrates, has embedded within it a problematic gendering of Christianity.
Carter ends this chapter with a postscript, that seeks to begin to think about identity in light of the theological promise of what Douglass does, while moving beyond the contradictions and entanglements he gets stuck inside of—that imagines “where Douglass’ discourse might go were one to build on the promise of his gesture to rethink identity from Easter not as a reflex of culture (and thus of race) but as a defining moment of YHWH’s covenant with Israel and thus with the world” (305). Here, Carter goes deeper into what it is that Douglass’ narrative offers us, even in its failings. Douglass is subtly making the claim, Carter asserts, “that behind the political economy of slavery lies a troublesome social performance of the Easter story” (305). The Easter story, Douglass shows, has proved not to be an alternative political and social arrangement but actually both covers over and enacts the truth and ultimacy of power, upholding the American political order.
Douglass’ interpretation of Christianity as a reflex, as a cultural expression of power, Carter explains, keeps him “mired in this debilitating mode of the self, but now at the level of gender,” but is instructive, because (another lengthy quote worth citing):
by miming their deepest intellectual procedures, Douglass has exposed to theologians the link between their intellectual reflections on and formulations of Christian doctrine (in this case Christology and atonement) and the forging of historical agents. He has exposed their position within this nexus and thus their role as mediator in the very production and repetition of this nexus (306).
Carter then goes on to suggest two possibilities for making sense of the contradiction at work in how Douglass unmasks the problem—of how he points to the problem while being mired in it. The first account Carter gives is laid out in terms of dogmatic theology, in which he suggests that Douglass fails to see the cross as the story of Triune love, and how that constitutes a wholly new social arrangement. “In foreclosing a more classically dogmatic approach to the theology of the passion,” Carter writes, “Douglass boxes himself into a fateful redeployment of the Easter story as a story of culturally illicit power” (307).
The other possible way to account for the contradictions in Douglass’ narrative, a way that Carter suggests is “equally if not more important,” was that Douglass “mimed the style of religious thought that he is actually trying to resist,” and in doing so, “he reflects the deficiencies of much of modern theology back to itself” by showing what occurs when theological discourse—even when there are “full-fledged” Christian “truth-claims” being made—functions as nothing more then the symbolic superstructure of the order of things (307). Douglass’ failure is instructive, Carter concludes, because it causes theology to reflect on what it means to be a discourse. This leads Carter to begin to propose a constructive theological claim regarding the thinking of the self.
“What might it mean,” Carter asks, “for modern theology to restore such a distinction by which Christian discourse is a faithful “discourse” only to the extent that it witnesses to the form of life, the style of being, that is an aesthetics and ascetics of a Triune love that race trades” (308)? He ends by beginning to sketch this vision out, following a Trinitarian logic, thinking about what it thus means to live “dispossessively,” and “penecostally” (308). What emerges in this frame is a reimagining of identity not only personally, but culturally and nationally. In the remaining chapters, Carter will build upon the theological vision he begins to lay out here.
I remember reading an earlier iteration of this chapter 4 years ago, in my first semester as an M.Div student at Duke, in Amy Laura Hall’s “Sex, Gender, & Discipleship” course. Back then, I was blow away, and began to see theology as something more than just abstract talk about God, to see it as discourse that mattered, that was actually formative, for both good and ill. Now, four years later, as I’m just beginning my Ph.D, in theology, at Vanderbilt (this past week was actually my first week, hence the lateness of this post!), I still find myself blown away, and found this chapter to be simultaneously piercing and comforting reminder of why I’m studying this stuff.
Carter’s two-pronged point about the contradictions in Douglass’ implicit theological claims—that on the one hand, “in foreclosing a more classically dogmatic approach to the theology of the passion, Douglass boxes himself into a fateful redeployment of the Easter story as a story of culturally illicit power” and on the other, “he reflects the deficiencies of much of modern theology back to itself”— was especially poignant (307). I’m taking a course this semester on “The Doctrine of the Trinity: The Nicene Heritage” and have already found myself balking at the sheer amount of time I am going to spend engaging with these dead white guys. It is hard to remember, reading through Nyssa and Nazianzus, Lessing and Lossky, that these ideas matter, that they can and do shape how we think about the world and about ourselves. The first part of Carter’s point is motivating—a reminder that the history of Christian doctrine is important, and ripe with resources for theological anthropology, even in—perhaps especially in—a modern context. (It was especially encouraging to me as well that it is precisely Trinitarian theology that Carter turns to in this point!) Moreover, the latter part of Carter’s point served as a comfort—that it’s ok, perhaps even a good sign, that I find this stuff a bit irrelevant and/or frustrating. Many of these scholarly theological discourses, in their early forms and especially as they’ve operated in the academy today, intentionally or unwittingly have “worked to obscure how the passion, in fact, sets personhood and peoplehood within a different moral and sociopolitical horizon because it sets them in a different theological horizon” (308).
All in all, this chapter in particular is among the best theology that I’ve ever read.