Christianity, Race and Colonialism reading questions

When I was preparing to teach my Christianity, Race and Colonialism module for the second time round, I realised that one of the main things I was trying to do in the module was to help students develop the skills to recognise the ways that the entanglements of Christianity, race and colonialism show up in the world around them. The module was assessed by an oral exam, where students were asked to analyse a theological text, and to answer the question ‘How does the text reflect and/or resist the entangled histories of Christianity, race and colonialism?’ I told my students that I wasn’t expecting them to go off and do a lot of additional research on top of the core readings for the module, because what I really wanted was for them to think about how they could take what they’d learnt from lectures, readings and seminars and apply them to other texts. One of the things I did to help them prepare for their assignment this time around was to put together a worksheet, where I briefly recapped what we’d covered each week, and gave them some questions they could ask of their chosen theological text to help them spot where key themes and ideas were showing up. It seemed that, for at least some students, this was helpful for thinking about how to draw connections between the material we’d covered in class and the texts they presented on for their oral exam – many of them certainly produced really excellent work, though I obviously can’t take all the credit for that. Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve done something like this, and I thought that as a pedagogical tool it might be of use and/or interest to readers of the blog:

Christianity, Race and Colonialism Reading Questions

This document is designed to give you some questions to think about as you analyse your chosen theological text in your exam. These questions are designed to help you think about how to draw on ideas from across the course and apply them to your chosen text. So that it’s clear where the questions are coming from I’ve divided the questions up by week and included brief summaries of the lectures and readings so that you know where to go if you want to find key concepts and arguments, or to figure out what the questions mean.

Questions from week 2

This week’s lecture looked at Lentin’s distinction between racial naturalism and racial historicism & the link between racism and ‘the nation’; the way that the medieval great chain of being was transformed into a way of organizing people by their relationship to whiteness; and Sylvia Wynter’s ‘Genres of the Human’.

  • Is the text assuming that differences between people are innate, or are about different degrees of development/progress?
  • Does the text see some people as having capacity and others lacking capacity?
  • How does the text see people who aren’t Christians?
  • How does the text see people who are thought to be irrational?
  • How does the text see people who are thought to be ‘less developed’ or economically unsuccessful?

The reading by Yancy focused on the relationship between racialization & different ways of relating to space, capacity and embodiment. The reading by Rose explored the relationship between Christianity, innocence and whiteness. Is the text talking about a nation/nations/ ‘a people’?

  • How does the text talk about embodiment?
  • How does the text talk about physical or geographical space?
  • How does the text see people who aren’t Christians?
  • How does the text talk about innocence/forgiveness/savedness and guilt/unforgiveness/unsavedness?

Questions from week 3

This week’s lecture looked at some key early Christian theological concepts which influenced the later development of racism: supersessionism, heresy, conversion, and the metaphorical use of images of slavery and freedom.

  • Does the text talk about different degrees of development/progress?
  • Who or what is taken to be universal? Who or what is taken to be particular?
  • Who is understood to believe wrongly, and why?
  • Which group identities/beliefs are people supposed to join? Which group identities/beliefs are people supposed to leave?
  • What use is made of images of slavery and freedom?
  • Who counts as a person? Who doesn’t count as a person?

The reading by Orlando Patterson focused on the idea of slavery as social death (characterized by generalized dishonour, natal alienation and gratuitous violence) and explored the role of slavery imagery in the work of St Paul. The text by Denise Kimber Buell explored the idea of Christianity as a new ‘race’ or ethnic group, an ‘essence’ that can be acquired, and a universal ethnic identity as opposed to other, particular ethnic identities.

  • Who or what is taken to be universal? Who or what is taken to be particular?
  • Is the text talking about a nation/nations/ ‘a people’?
  • What use is made of images of slavery and freedom?

Questions from week 4

The week 4 lecture looked at late medieval Christianity and the emergence of religious racism. We discussed the development of Christian anti-semitism, the importance of blood imagery, and growing Christian hostility to Islam during the crusades and the Reconquista.

  • Who is making money from whom?
  • What economic opportunities do different groups have access to?
  • What relationship do different groups have to land?
  • Does blood imagery play a role?
  • How is kinship understood?
  • Who is meant to be converted and to what?
  • Is it possible for people to fully convert?
  • What’s the relationship between conquest and conversion?

The reading by Jennings talked about how Christianity and Europeanness came to be associated with whiteness, and the role of supersessionism in the emergence of racism. The reading by Humbert of Romans offered theological justifications for the crusades, arguing that violence is justified if it spreads the kingdom of God, that non-Christians are dangerous and can be killed en masse, and that God’s providence is on the side of Christianity.

  • How do people justify the suffering that others experience/the suffering they are inflicting on others?
  • Which kinds of suffering are seen as redemptive?
  • How does the text see space, bodies, land and identity?
  • What hierarchies are there?
  • What’s the relationship between colonialism/conquest and mission?
  • What are people supposed to convert to? What are people supposed to leave behind because it’s been superseded?
  • Who is seen as dangerous?
  • Who is seen as killable?

Questions from week 5

The week 5 lecture looked at the early Christian colonization of the Americas. We looked at the violence committed by colonizers & their perceptions of colonized peoples as violent, the emergence of the idea of ‘human rights’ and the use of Aristotle’s arguments about ‘natural slaves’ to justify racial chattel slavery, and we revisited Sylvia Wynter’s ‘Genres of the Human’.

  • Who is committing violence? Who is seen as violent?
  • Who has rights?
  • How do laws/moral principles apply differently to people ‘inside’ (Christianity/Europe/‘civilization’) and those ‘outside’
  • Who is seen as naturally/inherently suited to slavery/other subordinate roles?
  • What characteristics are seen as markers of humanity?
  • Who is seen as Christian/non-Christian?
  • Who is seen as rational/irrational?
  • Who is seen as developed/advanced/successful and who is seen as undeveloped?

The reading by Bartolomé de las Casas discussed different types of barbarians and what kinds of rights the church and state have over non-Christians and non-citizens. The reading by Sylvia Wynter discussed Las Casas’ life and talked about the role of rationality in early colonialism and discussed the relationship between class, land and race.

  • Who is seen as civilized/uncivilized?
  • What are the markers of civilization?
  • How are differences between societies understood?
  • What’s the relationship between race, class and land ownership?

Questions from Week 7

The week 7 lecture looked at the colonization of the Americas, and in particular at the way that European Christians justified taking land from indigenous people. We discussed the doctrine of discovery, the role of European enclosures, the role of convenants, treaties and papal bulls, and questions of native identity and the blood quantum.

  • How does the text understand the relationship between people and land?
  • Are indigenous people presented as childlike and innocent, or as savage and demonic?
  • How is membership of a particular ethnic/racial group understood?

‘Dum Diversas’ and ‘Romanus Pontifex’ encouraged European rulers to conquer Muslim lands. ‘Inter Caerae’ gave European rulers divided the ‘new world’ between Christian monarchs. The text by Andrea Smith discussed the relationship between exodus and conquest, talked about the role of Canaanite mythology in shaping the treatment of Native Americans, and discussed the complex relationship between innocence and oppression in liberation theology.

  • What is the relationship between conquest and conversion/mission?
  • How does the text see the relationship between the mission of the Church and the power of the state?
  • What is the relationship between the mission of the Church and the economic interests of Christians/white people?
  • What role does the image of liberation or exodus play in the text?
  • Are oppressed people seen as innocent? Is this used to justify other forms of oppression?

Questions from Week 9

The week 9 lecture looked at the emergence of racial chattel slavery in North America, along with the emergence of scientific racism. We looked at the way the Bible was used both to justify and to challenge the institution of slavery and in particular at the ‘Curse of Ham’, and we looked at the changing role of slavery and abolitionism amongst Catholics and Protestants.

  • How does the text understand the relationship between ‘race’ and slavery?
  • How does the text understand and categorise ‘racial’ differences?

The text by Richard Furman presented a theological argument that Christians should support the institution of slavery. The text by Harriet Jacobs looked at the complex relationship between Christianity and slavery in the antebellum south of America. The text by Frederick Douglass argued that Christian/American freedom was incompatible with the institution of slavery.

  • Does the text use theological ideas to support slavery/colonialism/racism or to challenge them?
  • Is Christianity seen as on the side of the status quo or as revolutionary?
  • How does the text understand the relationship between national identity (e.g. Americanness), Christianity and slavery/freedom?

Questions from Week 10

The week 10 lecture looked at the emergence and development of Christian missionary movements beginning in the late medieval/early modern era. It looked at the changing relationship between church and state structures, the complex relationship between Christian mission and the imperial desire to ‘civilize’ non-white people, and the complex relationship between gender, sexuality and empire, as seen in imperial feminism and homonationalism.

  • How are ideas about ‘mission’ and ‘charity’ shaped by racism/whiteness?
  • Who is seen as ‘civilised’? Who is seen as in need of civilization?
  • What role do the feelings of Christians/white people/white women especially play in the text?
  • What is the relationship between ideas about mission, charity, and civilization?
  • What role do ideas of purity (particularly sexual purity) play in the text?
  • Are feminism, freedom, or LGBT rights being taken as indications of Western/Christian/white superiority, or of the need for the West/Christian/white people to intervene in non-Western/non-Christian/non-white contexts?
  • What role do ideas about femininity play in the text?

The reading by Teju Cole talked about the ‘white saviour industrial complex’ and argued that Western philanthropy reflects and perpetuates inequality between the West and the non-West. The text by Josephine Butler talked about the hypocrisy of 18th century society around sexual purity and argued that men needed to be help to the same standards as women. The text by Antoinette Burton discussed the entanglement of imperialism and feminism in Butler’s ‘Indian Campaign’.

  • Who sees themselves as a hero in this text?
  • Who is seen as needing to be rescued/saved/civilized?
  • How are differences between societies understood?
  • What role does purity imagery play in the text?
  • What role does sexual ethics play in the text?
  • What role do images of motherhood play in the text?
  • What role does gender play in the text?
  • What role does sexual ethics play in the text?
  • What role do images of motherhood and sisterhood play in the text?

Questions from week 11

This week’s lecture looked at the development of black religion in America and some of the key theological questions that emerged out of the experience of slavery and racism. We looked at the particular form that the problem of theodicy took for enslaved people, the ways that African American people transformed Christianity, and the emergence of the civil rights and black power movements.

  • How does the text make sense of the suffering caused by racism, slavery and colonialism from the perspective of racialized, enslaved and colonized people?
  • How do racialized, enslaved and colonized people take up and transform Christian ideas and practices which have been shaped by racists, slave-owners and colonizers?
  • How does black theology resemble white theology? How does it differ?

The reading by James Cone argues that Black Power is the message of Christ to 20th century America, and argues that when the church fails to embody Christ’s message of liberation, it fails to be the church. The reading by Delores Williams examines the biblical story of Hagar in the light of the experiences of black women in America, arguing that Hagar’s experience of God is more about survival than about liberation, and that Hagar creates her own understanding of God that is distinct from the theology of the people who enslaved her.

  • Does the text see human nature as compatible with slavery, racism and colonialism, or as opposed to it?
  • Does the text see Christianity as compatible with slavery, racism and colonialism, or as opposed to it?
  • Is the text concerned with survival and/or liberation?

Questions from week 12

This week’s lecture looked at way that Christianity, race and colonialism were transformed with the emergence of secular modernity. We discussed the new forms that Christian universalism and supercessionism took in modernity, the racialization of ‘religion’, and the role of race and religion in the emergence of nationalism.  

  • Does the text associate religion with groups racialized as non-white?
  • Which values does the text see as universal (open to everyone, desirable by everyone, and one thing that everyone can be converted into), and which groups are excluded from/unable to grasp these universal values?
  • Is religion associated with particularity or universality? Are particular groups associated with particularity or universality?
  • Which cultures/values/ideas are seen as overcoming and replacing other cultures/values ideas?
  • Which people/cultures/religions are seen as ‘backwards’ or less developed?

The reading by Amaryah Armstrong discussed white/Christian responses to black riots, and argued that white Christians/Westerners tend to see God as being on the side of order and authority and black people as a threat to that order and authority. The reading by An Yountae argued that the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ are produced by colonialism, and that religious and racial difference are inextricably linked. The text by Anthony Paul Smith argued that the secular West inherits from Christianity a tendency to theodicy – to make sense of, and therefore justify suffering, especially the suffering which results from racism. The text by Philip Gorski argued that certain characteristics of right wing populism are appealing to white evangelicals.

  • How does the text think that order is maintained in society? Who or what is seen as a threat to order?
  • What role do ideas about ‘religion’ or ‘the secular’ play in the text?
  • What is the relationship between religious and racial difference in the text?
  • (How) does the text attempt to make sense of suffering? (How) does the text justify the suffering caused by racism, slavery and colonialism?
  • Does the text use blood imagery?
  • Does the text see the world in Manichean or apocalyptic terms?
  • Does the text portray the dominant (white) group as a persecuted religious minority?

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