“Traitors to White Modernity?”
A Review of
A Theological Account.
J. Kameron Carter.
By Chris Smith.
Race: A Theological Account.
J. Kameron Carter.
Hardcover: Oxford UP, 2008.
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Every year, the Advent season in the Church’s calendar offers us an excellent opportunity to reflect anew upon the incarnation. As we celebrate the coming of the baby Jesus, we should pause to consider the meaning of his identity as a Jew born in a certain time and place, etc. And if you enjoy the challenge of intricately-reasoned theological volume, J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account might be for you, as it provides precisely this sort of radical reflection upon the incarnation. It is difficult to write a review of
I, by no means, have the credentials to offer a legitimate critical assessment of Carters
Let’s begin by tracing Carter’s argument. The origins of the theological problem of race, he contends, lie in early Christianity’s sharp separation from its Jewish roots. The effect of this separation was to cast the Jewish people as a race group distinct from that of Western Christians. This distinction, Carter says, can be characterized as one of racialism (i.e., the creation of racial groups) that would pave the way for the theological racism (the casting of one race as superior/inferior to others) that would emerge in the early modern era. Carter begins his book with a “prelude” that examines the work of the early Church father Irenaeus in challenging Gnosticism, which he understands as an example of the struggle in the early Christian era to keep the Christian faith connected to the historical identity of Jesus. Thus, Carter maintains that the Gnosticism that Irenaeus denounced relied upon a sort of “ethnic reasoning”(12), or racialism, that was beginning to take root in Christian theology. In the book’s first part, Carter relies upon the work of Michel Foucault and Immanuel Kant to examine the shift in the modern era from a racialized theology that severed Christianity from its Jewishness to a racist one that took the superiority of white, Western culture as axiomatic. Carter begins by describing , and then refuting, Foucault’s claim that modern conceptions of race had very little to do with modern theology. In the second chapter, he develops this argument against Foucault by exploring Kant’s theology. He maintains that in Kant, the severance of Christian theology from its Jewish roots is made complete. Such a severance, Carter argues was indicative of an emerging modern theology that was distinctively racist in its preference for Western (i.e., white) rationalism.
In the book’s second part, Carter assesses the work of three black theologians who have engaged the racism of modern theology: Albert Raboteau, James Cone and Charles Long. Of particular interest here is his critique of Cone – and black liberation theology in general – which maintains that such liberation theology is “not radical enough” in that “it ironically leaves whiteness in place” (192). In between, the book’s second and third parts, Carter inserts an “interlude” in which he posits Gregory of Nyssa’s arguments against slavery as an example of theology that works “against the social order.” This interlude provides an important transition to the book’s third and final part, in which he examines the work of three early African-American writers – Briton Hammon, Frederick Douglass and Jarena Lee – as a means to begin to outline a theological program that works against the social order that is defined by the racism of modernity. He uses the works of these three writers to begin to develop a radical new Christology, exploring the meaning of the birth of Christ using Hammon’s work, the death of Christ using that of Douglass and the spirit of Christ using the writings of Jarena Lee.
Carter’s epilogue begins to shed some light on the significance of
[A]s a twenty-first-century discourse, Christian theology must take its bearings from the Christian theological languages and practices that arise from the lived Christian worlds of dark peoples in modernity and how such peoples reclaimed (and in their own ways salvaged) the language of Christianity, and thus Christian theology, from being a discourse of death – their death. This is the language and practices by which dark people, insofar as many of them comported themselves as Christian subjects in the world, have imagined and performed a way of being in the world beyond the pseudotheological containment of whiteness. To the extent that they have done this, they mark out a different trajectory for theology as a discourse. (378)
And it is here that we need to heed Carter’s call. If we are to remain faithful to the way of Christ – and as such, become traitors to white, Western modernity – we cannot do otherwise. May we, in this Advent season, hear Carter’s message and may we die to our conformity to Western theology and be born anew into the transformative way of Jesus, who was born of Jewish lineage into Bethlehem’s stable, raised in the Jewish culture of his day, died on a cross and was resurrected by the grace and power of God.
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- Kameron Carter