Friday, July 17, 2015

Everything Will Be Alright: Overcoming Christian Whiteness

By Josiah R. Daniels

In rapper Kendrick Lamar’s newest music video Alright, Kendrick puts visual imagery to themes he has been working with for quite some time; black nihilism/resiliency, police brutality, the new Jim Crow, life in the ghetto and the fragility of black life. Like the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly, this video demonstrates Kendrick’s keen ability to address modern crises regarding racial violence in an artistic and prophetic way.

[Warning: some readers may consider language or images in the following video to be graphic.]



Throughout his video, Kendrick imaginatively and concretely depicts the danger that threatens black and brown people day in and day out. But this does not stop Kendrick from literally soaring above it all; he flies above the lights, the streets, the fans and haters, the ghetto, the city, money and even the police themselves. The last scene depicts Kendrick perched above his hometown Compton, looking out to see all that he can see. A white-male police officer appears underneath the place where Kendrick looms—the officer looks up and sees Kendrick occupying an unusual space. It is unusual in one sense because Kendrick is, so to speak, flying sky high. But Kendrick’s being on top of the world is doubly unusual: Kendrick occupies a black body—a body that has, since the “colonial moment,” been fraught with an unwarranted history of subjugation. This black bo(d)y must not and sadly cannot escape the fixity of the racial imagination. Kendrick, a black-inner-city-male, “flying high” (which the reader should now understand to be a metaphor) is akin to an elephant flying, an absolute impossibility.

It becomes clear that the officer means Kendrick harm. Rather than using his rifle or his sidearm, the officer, cast as the white-masculine, makes a gesture towards Kendrick by pointing at him with his fingers which have been formed into the shape of a weapon. And with a single “shot” Kendrick is knocked back down to the dirty dusty earth. With all this in mind, a twofold question must be posed: What is Kendrick trying to convey to his audience and what is the significance of the concluding bit of Alright?

I think that the conclusion of Alright tells us that the racial problem is bigger than white people, guns, or the police. That’s not to say that this triad is wholly exonerated from culpability concerning injustices perpetuated against dark bodies. However, there is something that Darren Wilson takes as an a priori before he, a white, gun-toting-police man shoots the “demon” known as Mike Brown. This seemingly intangible, indescribable, elusive “something” was also a fait accompli in the shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 50-year-old Walter Scott. This “something” is what causes the police officer in Alright to shoot Kendrick Lamar. This “something” is whiteness.

This “something” is what causes the police officer in Alright to shoot Kendrick Lamar. This “something” is whiteness.

Whiteness here does not exclusively allude to those who have a “lighter hue” or even those who can trace their origins back through Anglo-European lineage. Whiteness must be understood as a totalizing ideology, a sick perversion of Creation whereby racial classification becomes the pervading way to determine one’s production value, ultimate worth, and even one’s salvation. Christianity has not only played a pivotal role in establishing this ideology but has also reinforced it. Nowhere has this been truer than in America. As J. Kameron Carter poignantly observes, “Christian[ity]… tended to ventriloquize the American social order rather than witness to an alternative form of sociopolitical existence.”[1] The question now becomes: Why? Why did Christians both create and sustain the ideology of whiteness—an ideology that has created a legacy of plunder?[2]

To answer this question, a consultation of the “New Black Theology” will be in order. Willie Jennings and J. Kameron Carter bring this question into light specifically by examining the ways in which Christianity has uprooted itself from Jewishness. Adding to this discussion is the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who sees in Biblical Israel a “countercommunity” capable of providing an alternate script to a royal consciousness that resembles the totalizing ideology of whiteness. As we will see, whiteness’s totalizing power is a major outcome of Christianity severing itself from its Jewishness. We will come to find out the only way for Christianity to move beyond the ideology of whiteness is for Christianity to reclaim its Jewish heritage.

First, a word of clarification. The historical analysis of race, specifically whiteness, is a largely new endeavor.[3] Thanks to critical race theory (CRT), we now understand “race” to be socially constructed. Race is no longer viewed as “natural” but highly arbitrary and subjective. When I refer to “whiteness” here I am not necessarily referring to the pigmentation of one’s skin, but rather “whiteness” refers to a political economy, an ordo or a social arrangement, that is a locution for the modern/colonial world-system which was inaugurated by those who held to an obtuse Eurocentrism. Currently, the residual effects of whiteness reveal themselves in old and new ways.[4]

In his book The Christian Imagination, Jennings meticulously examines the development of whiteness and the ways in which it produced a racial taxonomy. For Jennings, the racial moment is synonymous with the 15th century’s “colonial moment.” Entrenched in this moment are Christians who get caught up (willingly and unwillingly) in the racing of “New” World and African bodies. Jennings cites numerous examples of European colonialists configuring social space and conditions that in turn created a racial world that orbited around European bodies. Racial classification not only served to delineate between the good and the beautiful but between the saved and the damned. During the rise of this racial matrix, if a person had dark skin, or subscribed to Judaism or Islam, they were commodified, deemed ugly, branded as evil, or violently exterminated. Even Muslims and Jews who converted to Christianity were treated as anathema.[5]

Racial classification not only served to delineate between the good and the beautiful but between the saved and the damned.

The conflation of whiteness with Christianity results in whiteness acting as judge and co-creator with God by setting itself up as the standard by which all beings are judged and found wanting (62). The Christian faith and its Scriptures ultimately become accomplices in creating “mangled space” wherein Christians envision a “kind of community” that is diseased in its “scope, character, and materiality” due to its reiteration of whiteness (233). Christians create this mangled space by confiscating indigenous peoples’ land and justifying such plunder by appealing to the dogmas of white supremacy such as the Doctrine of Discovery or Lockean principles concerning property (225-226). The mangled space can also be seen in Slave Catechisms where the master-slave hierarchy is reinforced through Christian scripture and Christian language (238-239).

Jennings’ historical outline of whiteness is as devastating as it is compelling. Similar to Jennings, J. Kameron Carter argues that whiteness is not only a historical project but a theological project. In his book Race: A Theological Account, Carter argues that whiteness is a “pseudotheology,” a totalizing ideology that has been “secularized and politicized” but nonetheless deploys itself from out of a Christian-theological framework.[6] This pseudotheology is birthed out of Enlightenment rationality. Immanuel Kant is perhaps the primary culprit in aiding and abetting whiteness’ flowering into a pseudotheology as he uses anthropology to address the Rassenfrage, or the “race question”.

Through modern political and social science, Kant demonstrates the grotesqueness of black flesh while painting white bodies as the arche of the created order. For Kant, all beings should aspire to think, act, and organize themselves in a way that views whiteness as a sort of eschatology (89-90). Those who are raced as non-white become the proving grounds for the power of whiteness as their bodies face either assimilation or extermination all for the sake of the good, the beautiful, and the right.

Those who are raced as non-white become the proving grounds for the power of whiteness as their bodies face either assimilation or extermination all for the sake of the good, the beautiful, and the right.

Kant is able to cast whiteness as the world’s destiny because he rejects Israel as the primary interpretive key in discerning the ways in which God relates to the world. Israel’s election is superseded by whiteness co-opting and redeploying “choseness” to white bodies and white spaces (e.g. The church as the New Israel, Colonialists ➜ Israel vs. Canaanite ➜ “Savage Indians”). In Kant’s schema, Jews are no longer a distinct theopolitical group but simply a racial group that must be put in their proper place (101-108). Kant’s racializing of Jewish flesh results in him missing what so many other supersessionistic interpreters of Scripture continue to miss: Israel is to be a unique people that receives their identity from YHWH and therefore characteristically complicate, confound, and counter the world’s definitions of “belonging,” such as class, citizenship, and ethnicity. It is through this countercommunity that YHWH, vis-à-vis Israel, sets the world on its appropriate trajectory of bringing all into relationship with God’s self (262). Israel then is a nonsolipsistic nation—it is, as Carter puts it, a “nation and people unlike any other, a nation without analogy” (170).

Walter Brueggemann has relentlessly countered modernity’s inherent supersessionism by accenting the particularity of Israel.[7] Brueggemann insists that Israel’s origins and fidelity to YHWH are dependent on a counter-hegemonic narrative. Nonetheless, a second competing narrative arises in the life of Israel. The two narratives that remain in opposition throughout Israel’s history can be classified as follows: Moses’ countercommunity which places a premium on neighborliness, inclusion, fidelity, and justice versus the royal consciousness which seeks to subjugate people based on external factors, ignores the voice of the marginalized, believes Israel to be incapable of doing wrong, and ensures that theology serves the powerbrokers of society.[8] This royal consciousness conceals the novelty of Israel because it seeks to mimic the hubris of the nations by absolutizing itself. But the countercommunity stands in direct opposition to the totalizing claims of belonging because it locates its identity in YHWH who maintains the ability to create a people ex nihilo.

With a nod towards Emmanuel Levinas, Brueggemann identifies the ways in which the royal consciousness and its totalisms shape the reality of modern ideologies.[9] Brueggemann has consistently diagnosed the prevailing ideology of the United States to be one of technological-therapeutic-consumer-militarism.[10] But in recent lectures, Brueggemann has been more explicit in asserting that the royal consciousness manifests itself in the United State’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy. Brueggemann is convinced that the only way Christianity can combat the ideology of whiteness is by rooting itself deep within the narrative of Israel’s countercommunity. This community has a distinct theopolitical tradition that traces its lineage back to one whom God gave a new identity for “all families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). Israel’s “miscegenated” countercommunity can also be seen in its emancipation from Egypt where a “mixed multitude” exits the totalizing ideology of Pharaoh (Ex. 12:38). The prophet Amos, a radical voice within Israel’s countercommunity, explains that YHWH is even interested in performing exoduses for Israel’s enemies (Amos 9:7). Indeed, the Old Testament makes a cogent case that Israel is to witness to the reality that YHWH calls “all flesh” is to YHWH’s self (Is. 65-66).[11]

...the only way Christianity can combat the ideology of whiteness is by rooting itself deep within the narrative of Israel’s countercommunity.

To say I am invigorated by the scholarship of these three individuals would be an understatement. Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter and even the 82-year-old Walter Brueggemann are on the frontier of imaging a reality that exists outside the mangled, pseudotheological ideology of whiteness. They invite all of us to be pioneers with them on this frontier. But for Christians it will require a re-acquaintance with the Old Testament narrative. Rather than a pejorative view of the Old Testament as a flaccid introduction to the more important “climax” known as the New Testament, Christians should humble themselves in the face of Israel’s history as it makes gentile inclusion a real possibility.[12] Further still, as our authors have pointed out, it will only be by rooting itself in Israel’s unique theopolitical identity that Christianity will be able to exorcise the demons of white supremacy.

Before Alright comes to a definitive conclusion, we see Kendrick, eyes closed, lying lifeless on the ground. The screen fades to black--but a final shot of Kendrick is shown where he opens his eyes and smiles! Whiteness has been unsuccessful in its attempt to slay him. Perhaps this is why he smiles. Or does he smile because he knows he is the recipient of “originary words from elsewhere”? Then again, maybe he smiles because he knows he is “black and beautiful” (Sg. 1:5). Or maybe he smiles because he knows, like J. Kameron Carter, that though they try to slay him he cannot be slain.[13] I think it’s all of the above. Yes, Kendrick smiles because he knows that everything will be alright.
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Dedicated to Miss Kimmy Payne who reassures me that everything will be alright.


*A special thanks to my editor, Dean Dettloff, for suggesting this title.
[1] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account. (Oxford; New York NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 307.
[2] By “plunder” I mean what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates often refers to in his writing. See for example, “When Plunder Becomes a System of Governance.” The Atlantic, October 25, 2013. Accessed July 8, 2015; “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. Accessed July 8, 2015; “Ta-Nehisi Coates - Black Boy Interrupted: American Plunder and the Incomplete Life of Jordan Davis - YouTube.” Accessed July 8, 2015.
[3] Nell Irvin Painter, “What Is Whiteness?” The New York Times, June 20, 2015. Accessed July 6, 2015.
[4] Carter, Race, 8, 35.
[5] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 33-38. Henceforth page numbers will appear in parentheses unless otherwise indicated.
[6] Carter, Race, 385-386. Henceforth page numbers will appear in parentheses unless otherwise indicated.
[7] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 15.
[8] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Edition. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), ch.1-2.
[9] Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 144.
[10] Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann. Edited by Anna Carter Florence. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 13; see also his Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church. Edited by Carolyn J. Sharp. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 185.
[11] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 520-527.
[12] Jennings, Christian Imagination, 250-294; also see Jenning’s piece for “DIVINITY Magazine | Overcoming Racial Faith | Duke Divinity School.” Accessed July 9, 2015.
[13] J. Kameron Carter, “The Hold: Or, Charleston USA (A Poem for the Emanuel 9).The Marginalia Review of Books. Accessed July 8, 2015.

Josiah R. Daniels is an MDiv student at Northern Theological Seminary in the Chicago area. He lives on the West side of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood. His primary interests are urban community development, contextual theologies, political theology, and Old Testament theology. He blogs at Restoring Pangea.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for this stimulating piece, Josiah. Many things struck me, of course, but I will comment here on just one: the affirmation that Israel was a counter-community, showing a new way of being in the world. Israel's identity is rooted in YHWH, who creates a new people, not out of nothing as at the beginning, but by calling out (ekklesia) Israel from the peoples to be a light and blessing to all peoples. And we Christians (should) believe that we are the renewed Israel, in which Israel's calling is to be fulfilled. This is evident in Jesus' jubilee proclamation when he begins his ministry in the temple, leaving listeners dumbfounded and angry. For me, Mark's account of this beginning has always been pivotal: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Turn around and believe the good news.” Pivotal, because it exemplifies that one cannot understand Jesus' mission unless one understands the mission of Israel. He expects this virtually contentless proclamation to be understood. My colleague, Cal Seerveld, has always insisted on speaking of the “older testament”, to emphasise the continuity with the newer covenant. He has not been alone in complaining that many Christians walk around with only half a bible, but neither has he been part of a multitude.

    Though what I have said thus far may seem tangential to the issue of racism, your post makes it very clear what the Kingdom of God has to do with this. For God's sovereign rule calls us to justice and lovingkindness, in a humble walk with YHWH, where the sacrifices required are those of our whole selves for the sake of others. Jesus invites us to pray that this Kingdom will come on earth. It is a rule of justice and love over all there is. It is a Kingdom (we may prefer “Commonwealth”) of inclusiveness, in which the widowed, orphaned, impoverished and alien are welcomed to come from the streets to the banquet table, and “God's glory is over all the earth”. It is a Kingdom in which the dividing walls have been broken down by Christ's reconciliation of all things, where there is no longer to be, at the most radical level, Jew and Gentile, free and slave, male and female, white and black.

    Abram was an Asian called from Ur. His Hebrew descendants spent 400 years in Africa, before returning to Asia. They spoke a Semitic language, not an Indo-European one. Yet we continue to think of Jesus as “white”, as depicted over centuries in European art and theology. Christianity was co-opted early by Graeco-Roman culture and religion, its Hebrew identity assimilated and submerged. The sarcastic title on Delderfield's 1970 novel, God is an Englishman (in which the protagonist had been a British army officer in subjugated India, unsurprisingly), only works because so many believed then that God was the archetype of those educated in an elite British “public” school. Elsewhere, of course, the “nationality” of God took a different name, but the hue remained the same.

    Part 2 follows.

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    1. Part 2
      “I've been to the mountain top. I have seen the Promised Land.” Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke these famous words on the eve of his assassination. They are of course evocative of Moses. King concludes, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”: another evocation, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a Civil War anti-slavery anthem, with deep folkloric roots. “His truth is marching on. Glory, glory, Hallelujah!” King has called the white rulers of the US, one hundred years after the Civil War ended, to live up to their paper promises, their oft-touted freedoms that are the birthright of all. And he called for what was promised so long ago to Israel to be realised there and then for Black Americans. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference stood and fought for the truth of God's Kingdom of justice and peace to be victorious, to come on earth, to come in Montgomery and Memphis. They were God's counter-community, the new Israel claiming not just the promises of the American Constitution, but the promises of God Almighty, for all people everywhere, but particularly in the United States of America, “the land of the free”. May we also be inspired to take up the calling to live a new way of being in the world, where all sit together at the Lord's banqueting table.

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    2. Doug thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      For J. Kameron Carter in particular, Abra(ha)m serves as a pivotal figure throughout his book. Abraham is given a new identity that transcends and confounds any sort of identity politics that we, in the modern world, have gotten use to.

      Thanks for your comment and support!

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  2. Wonderful biblical reflections spurred by a provocative post. What fun! Issues around whiteness do hit close to the bone for us Reformational theorists. After all Vollenhoven, in his first major work Calvinism and the Reformation of Philosophy, in his thetical first section, when he introduces the notion of covenant as a crucial frame for philosophy, feels he needs to distinguish biblical covenant from biological connection. Moreover there is an important ongoing debate in South Africa that Danie Strauss has recently signalled on Thinknet about the relationship between Dooyeweerd's philosophy and apartheid. Incidentally, when I taught for three years in the History Department of Calvin College, an African American colleague who had grown up Missouri Synod Lutheran admitted he'd been introduced to Reformational thought in the 70s and was almost instantly on guard. As he said: "All those irreducible modes and stuff, all those separations--it sounded way too much like Jim Crow somehow". It would certainly be worth thinking about the Reformational tradition with race in mind

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    1. Bob, I can tell you that after spending 4 years at an ungrad school in Grand Rapids, MI that I share similar concerns about the Reformed tradition and its seemingly racist tendencies.

      But oddly, I think if people read more Moltmann and Barth (both Reformed), that a lot of the de facto racism embedded within the Reformed tradition would start to dissipate. Barth and Moltmann both have strong ties to liberationist hermeneutics but it seems to me that a lot of Reformed types don't want to go there because Keller, Piper and DeYoung are more "traditional" (i.e. more in support of status-quo-whiteness).

      Thanks for the comment. Glad ICS teaches Barth, Moltmann and Brueggemann.

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    2. I'm glad ICS teaches Barth, Moltmann, and Brueggemann as well! Thanks, Josiah, for your thoughtful, provocative, and eye-opening piece.

      And I'm glad that the Reformational tradition is still capable of reforming. Thanks for your comment, Bob. I'd love to hear more about any studies of race as they pertain to Reformational philosophy in particular.

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  3. Why are you citing the long-discredited "Mike Brown was murdered by a racist police officer" narrative?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Michael_Brown

    "On March 4, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice reported the conclusion of its own investigation and cleared Wilson of civil rights violations in the shooting. It found that witnesses who corroborated the officer's account were credible, and it was also supported by forensic evidence. Witnesses who had incriminated him were not credible, including some who admitted they had not directly seen the events.[15][13] According to the evidence, Wilson shot Michael Brown in self-defense.[16][17]"

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    1. Greetings,

      I won't speak for Josiah, but I'll offer my own response. The Brown case is a lot more expansive than a legal investigation, given all the very circumstantial evidence surrounding it, meaning the narrative of Brown's death being racially motivated is undecidable--that is, hardly "long-discredited." The fact that the USDJ also discovered systemic racism in Ferguson's police force as an institution should at least give us pause to assume that some kind of internalized racist feelings were likely present during Brown's shooting. What Josiah's post illustrates is how someone like Wilson could come to see Brown as a "demon," something totally alien to white identity. In any case, Josiah's post does not at all hinge on, nor does it even really address, a narrative of Brown's shooting as being racially motivated, but rather takes Wilson's characterization of Brown as a point of departure for thinking about race. What Josiah shows is that, even if the USDJ didn't find anything "legally" racist, given the long and deep history of racism that makes up our very consciousness as white persons it is worth reflecting on how whiteness, as an ideology, could remain a factor in how we react in situations of intensity.

      To be frank, it's unclear what your comment is actually pointed toward, as it does nothing to engage the actual arguments of the post (nor, for that matter, even what Josiah says about Brown and, more importantly, Wilson).

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    2. Anonymous,
      I think Dean spells it out perfectly. 1) the USDJ's report only corroborates what the citizens of Ferguson, MO have known for a long time: systemic racism exists within the very sinews of the FPD. 2) My essay here doesn't "hinge" on proving that Wilson was a racist. Although, I think an argument can be made from the USDJ's "discoveries" and Wilson calling Brown a "demon" that something besides self-defense was going on when Wilson fired his gun.

      Click around on some of the links. Honestly, I think wikipedia is pretty helpful--but there's better sites! I've tried to provide books, articles and videos for easy access to the curious reader. You seem curious so click around!

      Delete

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