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Theology and Race

The Princeton Theological Review has issued a call for papers for their upcoming issue, the focus of which is on theology and race. In particular they are looking for articles engaging J. Kameron Carter’s recent (and excellent) book, Race: A Theological Account. A worthy endeavor indeed, as I think this is one of the most important books to come out last year and will totally change the landscape of black theology and any theological approach to racial issues. Here are a couple paragraphs from my own review of the book, which appeared in Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie in the regular review column on British and American theology that Paul Metzger and I write together every year:

What lies behind the modern problem of race is what Carter identifies as the theological problem of whiteness. What he means by this has nothing inherently to do with pigmentation, but rather with the structure of supremacy that was built into the fabric of Western culture under the conditions of the modern racial imagination. What the theological problem of whiteness fundamentally names is the way in which the Oriental other (figured archetypally as the Jew) came to be racialized over-against the givenness of Occidental Christian reality. Carter makes this particularly clear in his discussion of the racial theory of Kant (pp. 89-95). In his taxonomy of races, it becomes fundamentally clear that white Europeans, while technically a race, are for Kant truly the specimens of humanity-as-such. The racialized others are only human insofar as they are, in varying degrees, connected to white humanity.

This racial imagination yields understandably heretical theological conclusions, especially in regard to the Jewishness of Christ. As Carter shows, must Western theological imagination came to cast Christ precisely not as Jewish but as a figure of the Occident, whose proclaimed salvation is precisely deliverance from the sort of mucky particularity that characterizes the Jewish race over against the universal and rational religion of Western Christianity. And here we come to the crux of the issue at play in Carter’s account: the modern racial imagination is at its core a christological heresy that seeks to establish the universality of whiteness over against all other forms of racialized flesh. This is also where certain elements of Black liberation theology have failed to go far enough according to Carter. For programs like those of James Cone, the problem is that in their attempts to exposit the theological importance of blackness, the theological structure of whiteness is simply left in its place (pp. 191–93). The proper response to this situation is, for Carter, a return to certain classical Christological sources and theological sources within the Afro-Christian tradition which offer a distinctly non-racial way of reading Christ’s Jewish particularity. As Cater notes, Christ’s Jewish flesh is fundamentally not racial flesh at all, for biblical Israel is not a race, but God’s covenant people. Christ’s flesh is not racial but irreducibly covenantal (pp. 30–31). As such, salvation as given in Christ is precisely salvation from whiteness, from a theological structure of antagonism that reduces our interhumanity to the polarities of hegemony and counter-hegemony.

6 Comments

  1. Jason Oliver wrote:

    Wonderful review. I added Carter’s book to my Amazon Wish List.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  2. Thanks for posting this, Halden! I’ll have to check out Carter’s book.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  3. slaveofone wrote:

    “biblical Israel is not a race, but God’s covenant people.”

    Technically, for those of us who are Christian or Jewish, there are no races–all people eventually have the same ancestor. Ethnic distinction, yes, racial distinction, no. Race is an evolutionary distinction that refers to different strands of hominids (or Hominidae) arising independently at different stages–some being more evolved and thus more fit for survival (and thus resulting in the historical idea that one race in particular was the greater race)

    Thursday, May 7, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  4. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden,

    So instead of engaging Kantian metaphysics, Carter engages, apparently, nominalistic categories (Covenant); is this the case? And if he engages nominalism at one level, does he follow through on this relative to his ‘Theology Proper’ and thus Christology (or maybe this isn’t a part of his accounting).

    I really want to read this book, just can’t afford it at the moment . . . but I am looking forward to reading it ASAP!

    Friday, May 8, 2009 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  5. Dan wrote:

    Slave,
    I think it’s also pertinent to mention that race is largely a social construct as well. People of mixed race are often culturally pressured to select one or the other.

    Saturday, May 9, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Andy Rowell wrote:

    Saw Professor Carter at our coffee shop today and forwarded him this link.

    andy

    Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

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