Tag Archives: Tim McGee

Christ in #Ferguson: On The Theological Failure of R.R. Reno’s Comments on Race and Criminality

A guest post

Timothy McGee is a doctoral student at Southern Methodist University, working in the area of systematic theology. His research focuses on 20th century political theologies, especially as they draw on Christological themes in their analysis and critique of the political configurations of life and death.

R.R. Reno, the main editor of the religious journal First Things, recently made a series of troubling posts on Ferguson (8/25, 8/26a, 8/26b, 8/27). Having commented on some of the false and prejudicial aspects his claims, I want to entertain the possibility that, at least on one point, R.R. Reno was correct. The moment when Reno was correct is, however, a complicated moment, similar in more ways than one to that moment in John’s Gospel when Caiaphas supported the plot to kill Jesus by saying: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).

The complicated moment in which Reno says something right as long as we read it against the grain is this: “We’ve all—black and white—decided to accept the fact that the culture of poor blacks is violent, dangerous, and dysfunctional. The best we can do is keep the violence under control with aggressive policing and incarceration (8/25).” The “we” is the point at which Reno is both terribly wrong and in another way, completely right. For this “we” is not the “we” of all but rather the respectable we—black and white—formed through the denunciation and exclusion of the “violent, dangerous, and dysfunctional.” Reno is completely at one here with his liberal opponents. They may offer different explanations for what causes the problems facing African-Americans: collapse of family values or past and present forms of racist discrimination. They may also offer different solutions: restoring nuclear family or providing governmental remedies for causes and effects of discrimination. But both agree—and the “we” of the nation is formed out of this agreement—that the cohesion and security of the nation depends on monitoring, separating out, and eradicating (civilizing/incarcerating)those deviant or delinquent black others here: for instance, recall how much effort liberals spent to identify “looters” as “outside agitators,” and thus not part of the respectable we.

It is also at this precise point that Reno begins, in a deeply troubling theological moment, to echo the logic Caiaphas expressed: the logic of sacrifice. Reno’s overall point is that the criminal culture of poor blacks necessitates the aggressive policing that targets them, thereby making the black community responsible for the racial disparities in who suffers the inevitable mistakes and shortcomings of police. Policing, therefore, always brings with it the sacrifice of some, but ultimately these sacrifices are what keep the whole nation from being destroyed by this criminality, until this criminal threat—“the culture of poor blacks”—is overcome.This logic of containment, control, management, and transformation through (cultural) death is the logic of the “we” of the U.S., a logic that, as we know, has simultaneously included and excluded—or included as excluded—black bodies ” (most obviously but not only in the three-fifths clause). Conservatives and liberals are at one in that the solution to “black violence” is to increase the inclusion of blacks into this “we,” into us, the respectable law-abiding and law-giving citizens. What Reno cannot imagine—which is, I think, the theological problem at the center of his troubling remarks—is that the Christian community is bound together as a “we” not through a “nobility of faith” that is placed equally alongside “the dignity of work” and “marriage and family.” Rather, the Christian community is formed as those whose lives are bound together in and through the body of the poor, marginalized, unwanted, un(re)productive, criminalized, and crucified Jesus of Nazareth. Christian community is not formed among those justified by the law but among those who are brought into the body of the one condemned by the law (Gal 3:11-14).

And so, with this failure of theological imagination, Reno is unable to imagine poor black bodies as the figure of Christ. At best, he can do so in the same way as liberals: only insofar as these bodies are docile and respectable—i.e., submissive to or tragically murdered by the law (of whiteness). What neither can imagine is black violence as figuring Christ for us (as Nyle Fort has recently argued). For neither can imagine the foundational anti-black violence—the simultaneous exclusion and containment—at the core of our national identity. Or, to put it in more traditional theological terms and from the other side: neither can imagine that only the rupture of our
national identity—the “death” of the we in which Reno speaks—can be a sign of our salvation through this God’s broken body (cf. Phil. 3:4-11).

By his refusal of this rupture, Reno cannot imagine the lives of those crossed out by this we as existing—living and loving and fighting—as a parable for how God comes to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Precisely at the site of exclusion internal to the production of the nation, God has identified God’s own life not with the respectable “we” but with those James Cone calls “the oppressed,” granting them possibilities for life that exceed a world structured by their containment and death. To put it again in more traditional theological terms, if Christ is for and with them in the Spirit, who can stand against them (cf. Rom 8:31-39)? And we—yes, I place my respectable white self clearly in Reno’s we—cannot imagine we have a future with this God without attending to and entering these ruptures created by the struggles and movements of black Americans. That Reno cannot imagine this possibility—the Christological work of joining—but instead rushes to excuse the inevitability of sacrifice while blaming black Americans for their suffering is the theological failure at the center of his deeply troubling remarks on race and Ferguson.

Nonviolence & Receiving Life: Yup, I’m still pacifist but why & how?

Earlier today, Tim had some questions for pacifists of the Anabaptist variety, and explained why he is not, or has never been pacifist. Since one of our common starting points is the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I wish to offer a response, with Bonhoeffer, and work my way out into how and why I am a proponent of Christian nonviolence. At the conclusion, I wish not to convert Tim, but hopefully invite him to consider, as he is working out his “non-pacifism” that Tim consider the Just War Tradition within Christianity.

In Bonhoeffer’s ETHICS, his first few pages are written to convince us as Christians “invalidate the knowledge of good and evil” as those who do ethical reflection do (page 17). How do we know to behave in this world? For Bonhoeffer, it is within the very life of the Godhead (18). After making these claims, Bonhoeffer goes into the stories of creation and the traditional fall (Genesis 1-3). God alone is good, and Christ in complete union with that good, places a demand on us (30). Because of our brokenness, we cannot act as judges; for only God can judge me, as Tupac once said.

Tim’s case against the new high-church pacifisms inspired from the Duke school (if we can indeed name a place) is this; that pacifists place under judgment even the oppressed who wish to defend themselves, who care nothing for what we learn in cemetary seminary. For Tim, it is “in talking to a refugee, a Christian man, who was part of a militia in Burma. He carried a gun to protect his village–his family–from slaughter at the hands of the military. My pacifist ideas would have seemed hollow and trite to him, and I knew that, so I kept them to myself, and realized a few hours after the conversation that I wasn’t really a pacifist–any longer, or, if you prefer, I realized I never was.”

Tim, in his post and subsequent comments, does not argue for the necessity of violence. This, I would argue, is the foundation of the Christian nonviolence ethic. Violence is a choice, and never needed per se. It is not something programmed into the male biology where, in order to perform masculinity, men have to fulfill the need to exert violence towards others. My concern for Tim’s position is that while it is neighbor-centered, the question remains, we have so many neighbors, and therefore a multiplicity of demands, and so I must ask, whose demands do we submit our duty to? As a Christian proponent of nonviolence, I do not know what good or evil is apart from the Triune God. When it comes to the bloody slave revolts of the Nat Turners of the world, I simply refuse to judge them. Turner claims, according to some accounts, that God spoke to him, using the words in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. Who am I to judge this man? To judge his experience, is to exert violence toward his very being.

Now, the problem with the high-church pacifism of glory that Tim McGee critiques is that THE CHURCH is set up as the judge of human action, and that pacifism is seen as the only way, as counter-cultural to American nationalism. Honestly, I have serious questions for Stanley Hauerwas’ reading of Bonhoeffer, and I do not think that Bonhoeffer would ever see THE CHURCH as God’s kingdom here on earth. Sure, Bonhoeffer affirmed community, rejected the “To Each His/Her Own” libertinism of Western European culture.

Further more, anti-nationalist Anabaptist pacifism can only take us so far if stuck in upper-Middle class church circles. Perhaps I am seeking a nonviolent Christianity that not only seeks to address the national community, as such, but also the gender, race, and class violence that THE CHURCH is responsible for as well. Any talks of nonviolence abstracted from realities of racial, class and sexual oppression should be considered a pacifism for the status quo. There are forms of pacifism that are this-worldly, that seek to keep us encapsulated in the way things have always been done. The anabaptist/mennonite traditions are not the only Christian traditions that have promoted pacifism; often overlooked is the Spirit-filled pacifism of historical Pentecostalism; Bishop G.E. Patterson, of the Church of God in Christ wrote President Bush prior to the Invasion in Iraq, showing his dissent. It is exclusive forms of pacifisms (the chic & relevant white lead anabaptism) that I can agree with Tim, that they may be “part of a social power sustained through death.”

Along the lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and perhaps the Logos Christology of early Christianities, perhaps for those Christians who wish to engage the world nonviolently should repent, and confess of the violences we do not wish to speak of. The Other that places a demand upon our bodies is the very scarred body of the Word of YHWH. It is only in this Wisdom can we as Christians know what is evil and what is good.

It is my hope that even if Tim has chosen a different path, even though we may have a similar foundation on the non-necessity of violence as well as the invalidity of all human knowing of the good or evil, that he could perhaps take up the Just War Tradition. Last week, I did a 2 part series on Daniel M. Bell’s Just
War as Christian Discipleship. In part two, I tried to re-imagine the Just War Tradition, rather as something that has a “CENTER” at all, but something from the margins. While Just Warriors claim that they are only comfortable with the idea of limited war, this ceases to be the case when they approve of colonization as a means of waging war. Empire building is actually a means of going to war perpetually, for the battle lines are drawn each day, between colonizer and the colonized.

Tim has already dismissed (and rightly so) the Natural Law tradition in agreement with Bonhoeffer; yet the Just War Tradition relies heavily on NLT. If Tim does so choose to go the JWT route, I hope that he can start with a praxis founded upon the experiences of the crucified populations of the world.

I don’t think that Tim is wrong in the way he makes his case, but his conclusions do not necessarily have to be true.

I hope we can continue this dialogue.

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Rihanna's "Man Up": Two Theological Reflections

Words cannot express my feelings for the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident last year, and maybe I will be able to express them at a later date (let’s just say simply put, Brown was given cheap grace by the black community–I had one too facebook responses to my anti-domestic violence statuses during that time saying we should forgive first. Um, whatever happened to repentance).

Katie Grimes first wrote A Double Standard for women and violence in the media; my comments in that post, when comparing Rihanna to the likes of Martina McBride, I find differences according to race and nationality. The American flag does not appear at all in “Man Down” yet featured in McBride’s Independence Day”– the theme song for Sean Hannity’s radio show.

Oh, and that vengeance thing, while ambiguously considered by Rihanna, is definitely glorified in McBride’s hit.

Secondly, Tim McGee wrote with great detail how the culture of rape takes away the subjectivity of women, i.e., keeps in into a gridlock of social death in his The Political Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: Pulling the Trigger on Rape Culture.

UPDATE: Tim has added a second reflection, The Theological Contours of Rihanna’s “Man Down”: Pulling the trigger on rape culture

I hope you all will take a look at both posts. Highly recommended

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