Divine Racism and the Theological Imaginary

I recently finished reading through William R. Jones Is God a White Racist?  and it was a good read. More than that it felt good. I say it felt good because in Jones I feel like I have found a kindred spirit. His methodology and commitments in particular dovetail nicely with my own. While much of my methodology comes out of my reading of Laruelle (a dualistic theory of religion, cloning or modelling forms of thought, an attempt to speak of the generic, a central focus on what both Laruelle and Jones refer to as a modified humanism but which I think of as creature-oriented), Jones likely wasn’t engaging with any of that when he originally wrote IGWR and yet refers to his work as “a generic clone of liberation theology’s mission and models” that he then uses to evaluate black theology’s fittingness with that mission and model. His ability to critique black theology while also affirming it (performing a kind of negative dialectic throughout his analysis) is part of his own dualistic theory of religion which sees within black theology a mainstream that he will confront with all the tools afforded him by theory and polemic, while also allowing room for a certain minoritarian tradition that he will valorize and attempt to amplify. Then, of course, there is his emphasis on theodicy and suffering as the matrix through which theology must be evaluated, rather than evaluating suffering on the basis of already-existing theologies.

I am curious why so few theologies of hope deal with the arguments Jones presents in his text. One of the targets of his criticism are theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and his eschatological theodicy, where God’s future justice somehow erases the suffering of the present. While Moltmann isn’t the explicit focus of Jones’ text, this eschatological theodicy is subjected to the criteria of ethnic suffering. How can a people, like black people in America, stake a claim on a future event without any significant economic, social, or political liberatory event? Jones here refuses the usual separation of the empirical or lived with the transcendental or ontological. Theo-poetic claims are subject to what is actually lived, regardless of their beauty as fiction.

So I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to find that my excitement over Jones raising that question of divine racism (“Is God a white racist?”) upset some Christian friends on Facebook. The conception of God, it seems to many Christians, precludes racism or racist acts. This concept does so ontologically. And yet the theological imaginary seems to almost always present God as white. I asked my students the other day, while reading a work of Latino theology, what color Jesus was in their head. Not what color they thought he was if they took a few minutes, but immediately what skin color presents itself to them without thinking. 25 of the 31 students said white. Many of those students were themselves black, hispanic, and mixed-race.

It reminded me once of an icon a friend had. He was and I assume still is a very sensitive, caring Christian. Yet this icon showed a scene where Satan was bound and submitted to Christ. Christ was white, as you would expect from Eastern Orthodox iconography, and Satan? Well, Satan was black with kinky hair. George Yancy reports on the discursive theological tradition of this anti-blackness:

The normative construction of the Black body as evil had already begun as early as the fifth century. Gustav Jahoda writes about John Cassian, a monk who wrote a series of spiritual Conferences. Some of these portrayed the devil “in the shape of a hideous Negro,” or a demon “like a Negro woman, ill-smelling and ugly.” Saint Benedict [whom MacIntyre claimed we needed a new version of and from whom Pope Benedict XVI took his name], an admirer of Cassian, made sure that the Conference were read in the monasteries and thus these images would have had a wide circulation. An axiological frame of reference where blackness is identified with demons presupposed the identification of whiteness with “light,” “divinity,” and “goodness.”

Christian racism and anti-blackness isn’t a recent phenomenon, the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and the rise of fundamentalism. What I admire about Jones book is the call for a new theology whose focus is not continuity with the Christian tradition, but a response to suffering.

18 thoughts on “Divine Racism and the Theological Imaginary

  1. Great post – I need to read this book! Also reminded me of this 1885 Proctor & Gamble ad for Ivory Soap:
    “We were once factious, fierce and wild,,
    In peaceful arts unreconciled
    Our blankets smeared with grease and stains
    From buffalo meat and settlers’ veins.
    Through summer’s dust and heat content
    From moon to moon unwashed we went,
    But IVORY SOAP came like a ray
    Of light across our darkened way
    And now we’re civil, kind and good
    And keep the laws as people should,
    We wear our linen, lawn and lace
    As well as folks with paler face
    And now I take, where’er we go
    This cake of IVORY SOAP to show
    What civilized my squaw and me
    And made us clean and fair to see.”

    The reference here is to red bodies but the racism is the same. The theological connection is also pretty overt; just replace IVORY SOAP with JESUS and you have yourself an 1885 conversion testimony.

  2. I’ve not read Jones’ book, so I can’t say anything about his arguments, however in response to Anthony’s comments about the theological traditions’ inherent racism, followed by Kampen’s comments and Dan’s reference to Melanie’s post, I can’t help thinking, Really? Do we still have to keep on doing this? I guess I’m always surprised that people are still discovering this archive, that it still has to be uncovered or exposed. Maybe it’s just my field of study that makes this all so depressingly obvious and even banal, and why I feel even more depressed by the idea that readings, or postings, about Western Christianity’s fundamental racism could still seem revelatory. What concerns me more is what’s emerged in the way of Christianity and Christian theology amongst those ‘native’, African, postcolonial converts in the last century or so, and why most people in this group (tho not all) never think to pay attention to what they might be saying. Why should we be critically reading Moltmann to think about these questions??

  3. The previous glib comment refers to the notion that such ideas could seem new and to the question of why Moltmann is relevant. As for our general neglect of the actual postcolonial sources — that is a genuine fault and I regret leaving the impression, even for six minutes, that I regard that with a similar glibness.

  4. Thanks for the qualification Adam. I wasn’t intending to be unnecessarily agressive or imply moral or intellectual failure, I just sometimes feel quite depressed by how these questions are framed and talked about, or not talked about. Glibness aside, the substance of the colleagues remark still sort of puzzles me. Isn’t it up to us who we take to be our colleagues? I’m not trying to be faux naive, I actually think that’s a freedom we have, regardless of what our ‘field’ might be…

  5. It’s true that we do pick our own intellectual circle, but there are a lot of trade-offs — failing to engage with the “mainstream” of your field can turn into self-marginalization, but then engaging with a group as the “mainstream” reinforces their hegemony, etc. And for people like me and Anthony, for whom philosophy begins with annoyance rather than wonder, there can be a temptation to focus particularly on people we disagree with.

  6. Ruth, sorry to have raised your ire. I don’t really know how to respond to the question, though. Jones’ book is interesting for the way it performs a critique of black theologians attempting to use white Christianity. I didn’t feel comfortable, as a white dude, pulling out one of those thinkers, even as I feel I learned a lot from Jones about the field, so instead went with Moltmann who is referred to as a source throughout. As to if we have to keep doing this or the failure of a project that does. I confess, I don’t really know. I find myself very constantly annoyed by theologians of Barthian, Ressourcement, and Radical Orthodoxy stripes continuing to ignore the reality of this. But that’s probably not that interesting for anyone besides myself.

  7. Just to add: i referenced Melanie’s post because her comment above made me think of it, which is connected to her own contemporary involvement in settler colonialism, Idle No More, that context. It strikes me that the Moltmann reference … yes, crazy irrelevant! But at the same time his theology is so central to various liberation theologies. Or, even if the discourse of liberation theology is bracketed, i was thinking of Jones’ importance for the work of Lewis Gordon and Gordon’s influence on Afropessimism, which i find to be some of the most fascinating contemporary work. But of course to do all of this in a constructive way requires changing the contextualization of the debate, which I’d (narcissistically) like to think of myself as doing, ha.

  8. No Anthony, you didn’t raise my ire at all, it’s the general situation that annoys me. I also endorse annoyance as a spur to thinking, which explains the tone. I’ll read Jones’ book. Here’s my problem with the premise though – what might it mean for black theologians to do ‘black’ theology? What might a properly ‘African’ theology look like? There’s an inevitable indentarian logic there, which even if it limits itself to a political, rather than an ontological or theological ground, can’t help but play on, or put into play, tropes of the proper, the authentic, original etc. This is hugely problematic, as you know. It also relates to your feeling uncomfortable about critically assessing the black theologians Jones deals with. I get why, but this view still operates within the racist logics you’re trying to struggle against. When we take all those constructed as ‘subaltern’ as our serious interlocuteurs (which doesn’t just mean reading them carefully, or generously, but attempting to forget what we know to make space for another thought, being) – then it’s less fraught.
    Which is why I just want people to read and take into consideration what all these postcolonial theologians and practitioners have done and are doing with Christianity. In some ways, it’s even more depressing, but it’s what’s going on. I get the fascination with liberation theology and hence I see why Moltmann, but Pentecostalism is the new postcolonial Christianity, whether we like it or not. I get even more fed up with political theorists who still think liberation theology is the only form of postcolonial Christianity worth talking about. It’s the same old leftist arrogance concerning the ignorance of the people – they all might be getting born-again, but they know not what they do. Melanie’s post is great – I wasn’t putting its importance into question at all, and I’m pretty sure she shares my frustration that the archive is still a novelty for many.
    The problem of thinking about what a non-racist Christianity might look like is still incredibly complicated, as Dan knows – his project is really taking it on, and there nothing narcissistic in him saying so. (he’s in my not-all bracket). Here’s the Congolese thinker, Valentin Mudimbe, paraphrasing Foucault on Hegel in his wonderful book “l’Odeur du Pere” : “Échapper réellement à l’Occident suppose d’apprécier exactement ce qu’il en coûte de se détacher de lui ; cela suppose de savoir jusqu’où l’Occident, insidieusement peut-être, s’est approché de nous ; cela suppose de savoir, dans ce qui nous permet de penser contre l’Occident, ce qui est encore occidental ; et de mesurer en quoi notre recours contre lui est encore peut-être une ruse qu’il nous oppose et au terme de laquelle il nous attend, immobile et ailleurs. (…) C’est de cette entreprise que dépend aujourd’hui et qui dependra demain la pertinence des attitudes que nous pouvons développer face au endémies qui nous viennent d’ailleurs ou que nous créeons nous mêmes.” That was over 30 years ago, and the work he called for hasn’t been taken on seriously.
    (sorry for the French, too lazy to translate)

  9. Happen to come across the first section of the above quote in another book (for those like myself altogether incompetent in French),

    But truly for Africa to escape the West involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from it. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which the West, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against the West, of that which remains Western. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Occidentalism is possibly one of its tricks directed against us, at the end of which it stands, motionless, waiting for us.

  10. The remainder: “It is on this enterprise that the pertinence of the attitudes that we can develop in the face of enemies that come to us from elsewhere and that we create ourselves depends today and will depend tomorrow.”

  11. As a recovering wannabe theologian, I echo the gravity that Anthony seems to express, and wonder how much of this interest is driven by people who have nominally escaped the influence of certain kinds of theology, but still find themselves negatively determined by it in some sense.

  12. thanks David and Adam! – just a tiny correction, the last line is “in the face of the endemics “, rather than ‘enemies’. Mudimbe wrote “the West’ where Foucault had written ‘Hegel’. It strikes me that the problem still stands in both cases..

  13. The question becomes- what is the starting point for thinking- as a ‘white’ theologian aware of the issues raised above? 25 years ago in New Zealand we had this same debate arising out of a political shift to bi-culturalism between the indigenous Maori and the settler populations- primarily white (known as Pakeha). In a discussion with a Maori elder and theologian Sonny Riini, he had this to say which has always stuck with me:“Boy, you know how we hear all this talk about bi-culturalism and identity? Well the trouble is you buggers. We Maori know who we are and so we’ve got something to say. But you buggers haven’t. You Pakeha need to go away and work out who you are and then come and talk with us about bi-culturalism. We can’t tell you who you are – and the problem is neither can you.”
    My point is that only with a self-critical engagemnt with white theology- and the racist god of that theology as so often expresed implicitly and explicitly)- can ‘we’ begin to work out who we are.
    As one living in what is very much still a settler society (Maori are at the bottom of all socio-economic indices) and where there are on-going multi-million dollar reparations for land confiscations and shonky dealings, to talk about post-colonial society can too easily make it appear as if the colonial project, attitudes and theologies is not still occurring.
    A concern with white appropriation of post-colonial theologies is that the appropriation and use of such theologies can too easily and uncritically become yet another colonial action.
    Of course the problem is also the type of post-colonial gaze, theology and stereotyping that is expressed in the famous New Zealand poem “the Maori Jesus” by our most famous poet James K Baxter who attempted to become ‘bi-cultural’ in the late 1960s/early 1970s:
    The Maori Jesus
    – James K. Baxter

    I saw the Maori Jesus
    Walking on Wellington Harbour.
    He wore blue dungarees,
    His beard and hair were long.
    His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa.
    When he smiled it looked like the dawn.
    When he broke wind the little fishes trembled.
    When he frowned the ground shook.
    When he laughed everybody got drunk.

    The Maori Jesus came on shore
    And picked out his twelve disciples.
    One cleaned toilets in the railway station;
    His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores.
    One was a call-girl who turned it up for nothing.
    One was a housewife who had forgotten the Pill
    And stuck her TV set in the rubbish can.
    One was a little office clerk
    Who’d tried to set fire to the Government Buldings.
    Yes, and there were several others;
    One was a sad old quean;
    One was an alcoholic priest
    Going slowly mad in a respectable parish.

    The Maori Jesus said, ‘Man,
    From now on the sun will shine.’

    He did no miracles;
    He played the guitar sitting on the ground.

    The first day he was arrested
    For having no lawful means of support.
    The second day he was beaten up by the cops
    For telling a dee his house was not in order.
    The third day he was charged with being a Maori
    And given a month in Mt Crawford.
    The fourth day he was sent to Porirua
    For telling a screw the sun would stop rising.
    The fifth day lasted seven years
    While he worked in the Asylum laundry
    Never out of the steam.
    The sixth day he told the head doctor,
    ‘I am the Light in the Void;
    I am who I am.’
    The seventh day he was lobotomised;
    The brain of God was cut in half.

    On the eighth day the sun did not rise.
    It did not rise the day after.
    God was neither alive nor dead.
    The darkness of the Void,
    Mountainous, mile-deep, civilised darkness
    Sat on the earth from then till now.

    This poem has become a liberal favourite because it confirms liberal thinking as to the sterotypical ‘other’ in need of liberal support and hand-wringing. I would argue the probelm is that in such liberal theologies ‘maori’ or in america ‘black’ becomes a tool for white liberal self-definition and piety.

    So the question for Americans is what does it mean to be a white theologian in america, an america of continuing colonization of indigenous peoples within your country? What are your own theological resources from and in that context? It is not about reading Moltmann, but reading against Moltmann from where you find yourself. What if black americans are, in various ways, part of the on-going colonial project in america. What do black theologians have to say to indigenous peoples in america? perhaps the place for white theologians to start is two-fold: one is to ‘work out who they are’ without asking others to define them, or to do that work for them and two; to then listen and then talk with (not’ to’ as so often happens) indigenous populations and theologians.
    Finally, ALL theologies should be suspect- the origin of them does not privilege one over the other- for ALL theologies reflect those peoples who create them- and their dynamics of power.

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