PATRISTIC THEOLOGY AS WHITE’S ONLY PIE
One of my favorite movies from my teen years has to be LIFE (1999) starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Lawrence’s character, Claude, at the beginning of the movie is refused service at a restaurant. One of the restaurant’s employees claimed that the cherry pie that Claude was drooling over was “white’s only pie.” In the video I have added above, Claude grows old in prison, and knowing he would get shot if he crossed the line, ran across the street for some white’s only pie. Of course the warden catches up with him, and makes him pay, along with his partner Ray.
What does this have to do with theology, you ask? I submit that there remains a piece of the theological pie that remains white’s only, that being of the Early Church. It is not by intentional or some forced segregation that it happens, but by a history of practices within the U.S. American church. As I consider Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, I think one of subversive and at the same time confusing things (for outsiders of black American theological perspectives) is his working towards a retrieval of Patristic theology and comparing it with the narrative theologies of early Afro-Christians of the 19th century. To the critical thinker, and one well read, one possible reading of Carter’s work could be nothing more than a black version of the “Radical Orthodoxy” movement. That however, would be a mistake, for Carter time and again seeks to go beyond what these post-liberal and post-modern projects seek to go. His is just not simply a reiteration of what has already been said in the past; that is the white U.S. American scholastic tradition which was inherited from Europe.
The theology that JKC envisions is one that embraces materiality, dialogical modes of thinking and being, as well as liberating ways of doing. In part I, Dramatizing Race, JKC chooses Immanuel Kant as his example as an Enlightenment thinker, and Michel Foucault, post-Enlightenment. Kant’s project is bound up in Prussia’s quest to become Germany, and therefore the Kantian Jesus has to be a Westerner who assumed Eastern garment. Foucault sees Israel as the archetypal group of people building and becoming a nation. In both instances (and this will become a pattern if you are not a careful reader), religion is viewed as merely a cultural reflex, something that sanctions the divine order of the nation-state.
In Part II, Engaging Race, Carter considers the work of three black male scholars of religion: Charles Long, James Cone, and Albert Raboteau. In each case, he finds their projects problematic, but more so with Cone and Long, whose theologies are caught up in the nation-building project set forth by the Founders of the U.S.; both are guilty– at least in my reading, of binary oppositional thinking, unable to speak languages not of their own.
For Part III, Redirecting Race, Carter turns to the theologies of early Afro-Christians (18th and 19th enslaved/ formerly enslaved African Americans): Britton Hammon, Frederick Douglass, and Jarena Lee.
Hammon’s theology is a salvation (according to the editor of his narrative) of rejoining his master, the General. Douglass’s story is a redemptive story, about a man using the very violence that was used against his aunt Esther, against the man responsible for beating the slaves into submission. Carter’s chapter on him was not without controversy. Why suggest an abolitionist and a suffragists on the front lines of both freedom movements as sexist? That, I would say, is only a very small part of this chapter, and in fact, I feel it suffice to leave you all with this comment I left on the AUFS Carter event:
“I will have to be honest. Two years ago, when I finished this chapter, it was probably one of the most confusing “What the Frakk?” moments I had dealt with in terms of theological texts. In fact, in July of last year, when Jay posted on his blog about Frederick Douglass, I had to ask him what was up with him accussing FD of being sexist? You can see the conversation here: http://jkameroncarter.com/?p=318
Like Adam, I was thinking to myself, there is no way Frederick Douglass was sexist; I mean he joined the Suffragist movement for crying out loud, working with all of those white women leaders, and that Sojourner Truth. I mean, this was supposed to be a book about Race, right, why bring up gender in the next to last chapter, essentially? His criticism had bothered me so much I had to go back and re-read Narrative, and I still could not see it.
Even after Jay’s answer to me on his blog post, I was still remained perplexed. Two things had to happen before I now make an apology for Carter’s critique of Douglass. First, I had to finish Edward Said’s Orientalism, and secondly, I read Chapter 7 all over again. Okay, starting with Said. On the first page in his introduction to Chapter 7, Carter brings up Said; it is not by accident. In Orientalism, Said argues that part of the problem with Orientalists (the scholars of Middle Eastern histories) was that they studied Islam as a cultural reflex of the essentialized Orient. In other words, Islam is but the religious expression of the weak Middle Eastern/Asian Other. While Said is not free from a few Islamophobic comments himself (as a Christian reading this text, I felt too comfortable reading it), his point can easily be applied Westward, in the form of Occidentalism, that is, the idea that Christianity is nothing but the national response of Europe and North America for the sake of building the nation-state. With this idea of nation-state, comes a notion of agency. The ideal agent in the Occident world is the self-reliant, self-made man in the tales written by Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger, two men whose works I had the (dis)pleasure of coming familiar with in a college American literature class. For them, rugged individualism and U.S. American variety of virtue was all that one needed to succeed in life.
I have a deep suspicion that Carter’s theological criticism of this notion of the self propagated by Douglass comes from, in part, Carter’s familiarity with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even though he does not say as much. A close reading of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics would see that his is a 20th century German Protestant critique of the Western laizze fairre attitude of “To Each His/Her Own.” This logic is supersessionist, for it rejects creation’s story, as told through Israel of our interhumanity. As Jay argues in his comments to me on his blog, the U.S. American nation-state has as its founding bricks dialectical/oppositional thinking, “master/slave, freedom/bondage, male/female, weakness/strength.” This criticism of Douglass is consistent with Carter’s criticism of Cone’s use of Tillich’s dialectic and non-participatory mode of being that they both put forth.
To focus on gender exclusively as the issue Carter has with FD is to completely miss the point. Carter’s concern is about the formation of the nation-state, and how FD participates in this formation by promoting an assimilation (in the classical theological sense–theosis) of whiteness. FD’s resurrection happens through the very violence that he imitates his slave masters to be using.
The question we should be putting forth to Jay is this: does this mean, by this reasoning, that Nat Turner and the other black slave rebellions were “sinful,” ignoring the cross as a display of Triune Love?
I believe Adam Kotsko was right to push back, and compare Carter’s view of sin with Reinhold Niebuhr’s, that is, sin as pride. Black Feminist ethicist Traci West’s analysis does provide an appropriate counter to this type of view in Dirsuptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter. In it, she argues that the sin of women (and I would add other members of the oppressed) is that they accept their humiliation rather than their being made in the image of God.
Chapter 8, The Spirit of Christ, on Jarena Lee I thought was quite a stretch for interpreting Lee’s narrative. I would not say that Carter’s interpretation of Lee is impossible, but his focus is just so few passages from HER gave me a cause for concern. Lee’s pastoral promotion of nonviolent politics, as I talked about last week, would have been a perfect complement to Carter’s critique of Douglass. Instead, I was left wondering if Carter’s presentation of her as a praying preacher woman, and therefore, making prayer the center of anti-racist praxis, comparable with the Radical Orthodox move to make the solution of every problem the Eucharist. Would this interpretation of Jarena Lee be just another version of the Black Woman as the Super Religious Mammy figure, on par with Pappa in Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack or Tyler Perry’s Madea, the man who by the way is the highest paid person in entertainment. [Enter South Park joke, with Token].
The danger in de-politicizing Jarena Lee’s life and work (as we know of it) is that it would re-affirm the black woman that whiteness created, that of the other-worldly thinking domestic HELP who has to carry the burden of the world on her shoulders.
On the Prelude, Interlude, and Postlude, I would say there is more work to be done. They are great conversation starters, and I do side with Carter in legit comparison of the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis and the Weslyan holiness teaching of Jarena of perfection. Such a view should lead us to reject liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and see that the poor are God, for YHWH became the Poor Man out of Nazareth (page 366-368). Therefore, we cannot neatly tuck away God in our ontologies of separation, dividing and conquering in modern fashion the divine from the human and creaturely.
It is in the Incarnation, that the Creator makes plain what God’s reign looks like.