by Andrew Packman
What is a theological account of race? What makes a response to racial disparities theological?
To get this conversation started, I’ll consider the work of one prominent, contemporary Christian theologian whose work is pushing the field in new directions. J. Kameron Carter is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School. His 2008 monograph, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford), contends that while race theorists and social scientists have long theorized about race as an historical, political, and sociological phenomenon, these approaches all miss something critical. For Carter, the diagnosis of race as a problem and his response to it are explicitly theological.
Clocking in at 467 pages, this is a long, thoroughly researched, complexly argued tome. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at Carter’s theological diagnosis of the problem of race. And in the following two posts, I’ll consider his critique of Black Theology and his constructive proposal for how to think theologically about identity.
For Carter, it’s not that Christians live in a racist political and cultural environment and so happen to be racist. Rather, culture and politics became racist because Christians made a theological error. He locates the beginning of modern racism in heresy.
This heresy is what Carter calls the theological problem of whiteness. By Carter’s lights, the problem was born when Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, misinterpreted Christ’s flesh as racial flesh instead of Jewish covenantal flesh. That is, instead of casting Jesus’s Jewishness as the means through which God proved faithful to God’s promises to Israel, Kant sought to divorce Christ from his Jewish cultural and religious roots. He did this by figuring Christ’s Jewishness as that feature of his identity that needed to be overcome in order to become an enlightened, rational, moral, cosmopolitan being. As long as Jesus remained culturally Jewish, he lived a life governed by his limited, local prejudices – not universal reason.
But, as Carter poignantly notes, this dichotomy between universal reason on the one hand and particular cultures on the other needs some unpacking. Carter digs through a trove of Kant’s early essays, his students’ lecture notes, and some of his unpublished personal reflections to show that when Kant spoke of “universal reason”, what he really had in mind was white European culture.
In one instance, Kant contends that “The Race of Whites” stands as the original and perfect human form from which “the Negro,” “the [Native]-American,” and “The Hindu” each mark relative deficiencies. And he further notes that, as the human race continues to develop, these non-white races would be “stamped out” as the political process of Enlightenment took hold throughout the world and perfected humanity as such. Humans achieve this perfection to the degree that they govern their behavior with reason, and Kant is quite clear that “the Race of Whites” is naturally better at rational self-legislation while “the Negro,” as the race so governed by passion that rational self-legislation is impossible, is figured as a natural servant in need of a ruler. So the political triumph of “universal reason” looks a lot like colonialism – the establishment of white European sovereignty over people of color.
While this political project has the colonization of non-white people as its external goal, Carter shows Kant to be equally worried about establishing rational self-legislation of Europeans over the alien within their borders, i.e., the Jews. Just as Kant’s Christ overcame the cultural limitations of his Jewishness through reason, so too should the modern state overcome the diverse and often conflicting cultures within their borders (symbolized by the Jews) through the governance of rational laws. What goes for Christ’s body goes for the body politic.
So when Kant tells us that Jesus overcame his Jewishness in order to become the rational, self-legislating Christ, Carter presents this decision in favor of “universality” over Jewish “particularity” as the moment when Jesus becomes white. And further, this is heresy because Jesus bears Jewish covenantal flesh, not white racial flesh.
While I am largely sympathetic to Carter’s case, I do have a few quibbles with his reading of Kant. If you’re interested, here are my thoughts. (See, Is Kant an Irredeemable Racist? by Andrew Packman for further thoughts on Kant.)
Let’s bring this into a more contemporary setting. Carter’s diagnosis of the problem of whiteness in Kant helps us understand what’s at stake in the debate between claiming that black lives matter versus claiming that all lives matter.
To make the universal claim that all lives matter shifts the moral focus from the particular to the universal. Like Kant, it emphasizes what we have in common to the detriment of that which makes us culturally unique. If you pressed folks on both sides of the debate, I think that all parties would agree that human life, as such, is valuable. Particular instances of injustice against black lives are only recognizable against a background assumption that human life is valuable and deserves respect. So the disagreement is not over the truthfulness of the claim that all lives matter.
Rather, the problem is that we live under the auspices of freedom and justice for all (universal) when, in reality, African-Americans are suffering from an acute lack of freedom and justice. Against this backdrop, the focus on what we all share can blind us to the injustices we don’t share. To claim that specifically black lives matter is to direct our moral gaze not to the universal principles that underlie our beliefs but to the concrete, particular instances where we as a society fall short of these principles. And our resistance to having our gaze so directed strikes me as evidence for Carter’s claims about the prevalence of the theological problem of whiteness.
Carter’s novelty is to show that this problem of whiteness is tied to a Christological heresy. He shows that there is a stream of Christian theology stretching from Irenaeus of Lyon to Gregory of Nyssa to Maximus the Confessor that insists upon Jesus’ particularly Jewish flesh as the site of God’s covenant to redeem Israel. This understanding of Jesus figures his particular cultural identity not as something to be overcome but as a locus for redemption. This means that if Kant had remained theologically true to the stream of Christian thought that insists on the significance of Christ’s flesh as Jewish flesh, this whole nasty business of white supremacy could have been averted. And it means further that a theology that values Jesus’ cultural particularity and fleshiness stands to correct this profound epistemological and moral failing.
Andrew Packman is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).