When we are baptized, we are made new; whether as children or adults, somehow our lives are different, and the life of discipleship is the discernment of that life. Struggling to conform or resist, we attempt to understand which aspects of ourselves must die and which aspects can be conformed into the image of Christ.
But in the Western world, this is not the only baptism we undergo. Through refusal or acceptance, we are incorporated into racial waters and into a racial people. We are reminded that we are not like others or we are assured that we have a place. Just as many of us came to see ourselves as beloved, as God’s children, we also undergo a racial conversion of sorts. W. E. B. DuBois described his own baptism into racial life this way:
In a wee schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, – refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.1
DuBois’s experience, from over a century ago, continues to reverberate today as we are confirmed or refused in subtle and not so subtle ways. The question of race in America is about systemic patterns of inequity. But it is also about how these inequities are born through the formation of hopes and in the practices of everyday life.
Our lives together are indelibly marked by race. The complicated interconnections of belonging and exclusion, foods and music, practices and hopes, and simple ways of being in the world are not easily untangled from our claims of who Christ is for us and for the world. Because of this, the question of race is not merely about practices or acts that should be eliminated. The question of race for Christians is about the shape of our lives together and what might prevent us from binding ourselves to one another in ways that produce a real disruption to the racial imagination and its oppressive systems in the modern world.
I suggest that if Christians are to account for race in their lives, it must be seen as a matter of discipleship. Race (and ethnicity) constitute a wide set of practices, visual markers, and ways of being in the world that cannot be bypassed or become “post-racialized.” Far from imagining a “post-racial” world, the question of race reminds us of the difficulty of discerning how to live faithful lives. As disciples of Christ, we are continually discovering what aspects of our lives must be conformed more faithfully to the image of Christ, while also consecrating the particularities of our life to glorify the God that created us. The question of race confronts us with the realities of our own formation and of how our lives are shaped by something both illusory and real.
Our lives together are built upon the lies, pain, and blood of racialized life in the West. This necessitates that we recognize the power and effects of racial formation in all American identities, particularly the challenges and possibilities that racial formation poses to our Christian claim that God has called us and that somehow God’s Word has entered into our predicament. Through this entrance, God draws us into life with one another and into God’s own life. To become a disciple is to account for the ways race has formed us and shaped our vision of a Christian life that is disconnected from one another.
Who We Are
Today, at the end of the summer of 2009, it is clear that we still struggle to negotiate the realities of race in both personal and systemic ways, that these are intricately tied, and that these struggles are significant. For the sixty children of the Creative Kids Camp in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who overheard women talking about “all the black kids” at the Valley Club pool in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, race mattered. It mattered for the men and women of Valley Club who would refund the camp’s admission and revoke its privileges at the pool.2 And it mattered for those many white people who protested or were appalled at the behavior of the club. It matters in the criminal justice system. It matters in identifying gifted and talented children in schools. It matters in who likes whom in middle school, who loves whom in high school, and who marries whom after college.
Race mattered in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his Harvard University home. How race intersected with power in the exchange between Professor Gates and Officer James M. Crowley (as well as President Barack Obama), we may never know. But what is clear is that a significant portion of this country felt Gates’s pain and humiliation while another portion of the country identified with the officer who they felt was “just doing his job.”
In this process of identification we are reminded how intimately race binds us or separates our perceptions of one another as well as what even constitutes a problem. Race matters in our assertions of its existence, and it matters in our refusals. But perhaps we must now ask the question, “How does it matter?” and perhaps more importantly for those who confess the name of Christ, how does Christ complicate the process of identification, assertion, and refusal that constitutes our identities? What does it mean to live as disciples in a world so indelibly marked by race in its institutions and its relationships?
Those people who became uncomfortable with sixty darker children in the swimming pool were not the same kinds of racists who, forty years ago, would have considered the pool water dirty. But despite their relative innocence, they represent the pernicious effects of racial formation in our modern world. These effects accumulate in the mundane hardening of institutional arteries. America’s racial problem is perhaps no longer due to insufficient laws but to our failure to imagine ourselves differently and consequently our failure to imagine one another differently. The challenge of race stands before us no longer as a beast armed with bold ignorance and legal codification. Instead, it lurks in the everyday, and in this way, it entangles all of us in illusions concerning our lives together.
President Barack Obama’s election ushered in a new era of hopefulness regarding the possibility that America might have crossed an important threshold in the race problem. Wide swaths of the American public embraced this man and hoped that his election would be representative of a change in America. Obama’s election shows that America has changed to some degree, but more than anything, it reveals the complications of American identity—his election marks the visibility of our condition. He is both hopeful and disruptive.
Like those parents at the pool in Huntingdon Valley, white society in America is only now beginning to calibrate itself to the presence of difference within its boundaries. Many white people are only recently recognizing the presence of those who presume their equality and whom white society thought it presumed to be equal—until they got in the pool. That is, we often speak of our desire to be fair and without prejudice, but we do not reflect on what might prevent us from doing so. Here we have unwittingly tied the task of discipleship to commitments of citizenship or family or race in ways that shape our perceptions of problems and possibilities. This is not to say that we are racist, but that we must attend to how our desires are shaped by a deeply racialized world.
Of course, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to not be of this world, but we cannot take this as a matter of simple obedience. It is a task of de-formation. The church cannot merely ask, “What is to be done?” We must begin by asking, “What in the world are we?” We must discern together how the patterns of this world have become a part of us, how they have made us reflect something very different from Christ. Although we so often want to act to show our lack of guilt or a true desire to serve, our actions are always bound to our perceptions of the problems and the possibilities. Our vision of what must be done and who it must be done for is always bound to who we perceive as others and who we see as our people.
We see difference where we should see similarity, and we see sameness where we should see difference. This lack of discernment could be identified as a mark of our fall, the corruption of the imago dei. When Adam and Eve looked at the tree of good and evil, they saw similarity, a thing to be attained. Transgressing that line of difference, they gave birth to a series of fissures that would continue to fragment individuals, peoples, and societies. These differences sparked a flame in the very first children of the fall, as Cain hated Abel’s difference and sought to master it, and on and on.
In the midst of these refusals and misconceived claims, Christ, as the early church father Ireneaus of Lyon reminds us, came to undo the knot that Adam and Eve ensnared about humanity.3 The child of Israel, Christ refused the impossibility of difference; he came as a God-man, as the God-man, thus opening up a new way to conceive difference in the world. But even within Christian reflection, the question of difference, the question of Jew and Gentile continues to mark the church and the world.4
Racial identity is bound to the contestations and assertions of identity in encounters with “new” peoples. We exist in a vast wake of claims and forces that we cannot quite locate, but that nonetheless pervade our sight, our assumptions, the nuances that so often become constitutive of our deepest value, and our individuality. The modern world we are wading through is indelibly marked by the racial question, what W. E. B. DuBois would call the problem of the color-line.5
In the modern world, the question of difference is predominately a racial question. Or to put it another way, the question of difference was the birth of the modern world. Discovery of peoples was always bound to encounters, and encounters always became explanations of “Why?” and “For what purpose?”
The question of race is important for the church—in fact, this question should pervade our very identities as Christians—because we are children of the modern world, a world forged in the foundries of racial speculation and dominance. We cannot forget this. To ignore this would be to look away from the mirror and forget who we were and what we have become.
Race matters in the world, and most importantly, it should matter for those who claim the name of Christ. But it matters in a particular way. It matters not as something to move past as we seek an “unqualified Christianity.”6 Rather, Christ qualifies us and as such, he dissects, interrogates, and illumines our particularities, our struggles, and our possibilities. To be without qualification is to be people of our own making. We must ask, “What is our qualifier?” and “What does the answer to that question mean for our lives together?” Some of us have found the injustices of racial oppression lamentable yet abstract, whereas some of us live with the consequences of this silence and obfuscation. Before we speak too quickly, we would do well to properly consider the power of race upon us.
Race Is Discipleship
More than a biological fact, an essential aspect of our createdness or our nature, race is a process.7 It is a way of imagining difference and the significance of those differences. For centuries, racial indicators have served as signals that point to a deeper set of realities (intellect, spirituality, or capacity for citizenship, for instance) and denote how peoples ought to be ordered or participate in the common life of a nation or culture. These racialized presuppositions were not merely prejudices about peoples who were different; they were a complicated process of forming self-understanding that all peoples participated in.8
Simply because we have attained some separation from the brutally explicit practices of differentiation does not mean we have escaped the subtle modes of identification or differentiation that mark all identities. In this way, race is much more a process of formation than a given fact. This is not to say it is not real or that it is everything about us, but racial identities are a product of our living into ideas about who we ought to be or who we do not want to be.
This process of formation is what makes race in America such a difficult and pressing challenge for the Christian church. It is a theological challenge not only because of the inequities still present or the vestiges of oppression that haunt us, but because it highlights the failure of churches to account for the very real ways we are formed and the aspects of ourselves we do not question or examine more carefully. In failing to do so, we unwittingly fall into a trap of idolatry, of worshipping (through our patterns of life, our fears, and our hopes) a god who seemingly looks like us and wants for us what we want for us.
It is not merely a question of people being afraid to air their true racist feelings. They truly believe it does not matter, that they are not racist. But this is where the church has failed. We have failed because we have placed the emphasis upon actions rather than personhood. We have chosen to fight against injustice rather than fighting for people.
The emphasis here is not the exclusion of action; it is a question of how our actions are bound to our self-understanding. For example, the evangelical fascination (or obsession) with Supreme Court justices and state abortion legislation is, in many ways, the inverse of the civil rights movement and its contemporary legacy. In each instance, the movements sought the codification of their aims.9 Likewise, although legal action can press the Valley Club to offer its space to the Creative Camp or an abortion clinic to turn a young girl away, it cannot abide with them. It does not imagine a life together, but only the other as opposition. On one level, such action is necessary, but as Christians, might we ask the question differently? Is this God for us? Is this how Christ has qualified our lives? Do these actions of opposition only reify an illusion of purity?
We cannot recognize our own sin because we equate sinfulness with the perpetration of certain mores, laws, and codes of conduct that legitimize or delegitimize our membership within these communities. To be blunt, we are Pharisees. We are the ones who pray in the temple, thanking God that we are not like “those over there” (Luke 18:10) determined to establish our purity and therefore our place before God (or the hospitality lay committee or the worship band or the you-fill-in-the-blank).
We cannot recognize how race matters because we have refused to accept our own culpability, our own sinfulness, our own participation in these processes of formation. For all of us, these processes and their products are different, but none of us are without the need for reflection.
In the theological academy and some Christian traditions, we hold up baptism and the Eucharist as the central elements of the Christian life, and in other traditions we preach Christ, obedience, love, tithe, serving—none of these help us to see that race still matters, that those who are different from us matter, because we have refused to acknowledge our own failures. We do not confess that we have sought to be God in these moments in our lives.
If we took confession seriously, we would be confronted with the very real possibility that God may not matter for us, not really. Does our view of God really determine who we look at on the street, who seems to “click” with us at a local party, who we look for first when our wallet is gone, or who we are convinced is the smartest in our class? Does our faith participate in the vision of the one we want to marry, the one we want to sleep with, and the children we hope to have?
When we consider the realities that shape and form us, we want to think that our lives have been formed by our desire for Jesus, our hope and love for a God who saved us, but when we really look at the patterns of our lives, where we live, who we befriend, who we avoid, and who we hope to be like, we begin to see the perniciousness of that quiet beast lurking. Race is alive in America.
Because we do not think about how race matters, those assumptions and habits not only go unnoticed, but become sacralized, embedded within the patterns and hopes concerning ourselves that are above reflection, above confession. They are simply an aspect of who we think God created us to be. So I like this music, and they like that music. I like this neighborhood, and they like that one. My judgment of his or her criminality is completely objective.
We exonerate ourselves on the question of race because we are not like “those” women in Huntingdon Valley. But those women have done us a great service because they have been the sacrificial lambs. They are the ones who would die to appease the guilt of the many. They are the ones who allow the rest of us to say, “We are clean.”
However, this is not an occasion to appease our guilt, but to confess our similarities. It is not an occasion to lament the stupidity or narrowness of a few privileged white people but to lament our own participation, however small, on any given day. Christ frees us to confess. He has freed us to bare it because it no longer marks us, and it only fails to mark if we give it up, if we identify with the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. But knowing us as he did, he also knew he would have to die.
This is the difficulty of the race question in America. We are so convinced that race is bound to truth that we refuse our own complicity. Certain of our vicitimization or our innocence, we enter the conversation not to bear witness, but to accuse or deny. But what is so deceptive about these approaches—and telling about our churches—is that it presumes a certainty of who we are and simply asks the question of what we should do given this fact. And perhaps this is the clearest indication that race matters in America.
We enter churches certain of our placedness. We enter classes certain of who we are. We are certain through a complex process of signs and patterns of interaction. We come to believe certain things about who is beautiful and who is not, who has a right to speak and who must prove themselves worthy to speak, who is to be trusted and who is suspected. These certainties are no longer racially coded in an explicit sense, but they are deeply bound to race in the modern world (a fact that dark people of the world have been trying to convince white people of for some time). The certainty of who we are becomes bound to the things we think we need not confess. If I am certain this is who God made me to be, I must reflect upon, search out, and confess the aspects of myself that are inconsistent with that personhood.
All of this is to say that our conversations regarding race can no longer be centered upon what to do alone. This, for lack of a better phrase, was a question of the 60s. It was a question that needed to be raised against a vicious beast who had been fed so well it could walk easily in the daylight and whose presence emboldened others to feed it and be fed by it.
But this beast is not dead. The beast now lingers quietly in the sinews of cultural and personal formation. It binds itself quietly to our yearnings and our fears so that it becomes so close to us we could mistake it for ourselves. This beast will rear up publicly on occasion, but we are not like “those” narrow-minded suburbanites—we would welcome those darker children—it’s a shame they live so far away! No, in reality, the marks of the beast are quite plain and our participation is too often clear if we take the time to honestly look at ourselves or let another name us.
So we go to church, and we sing, and we listen, and we share. We repent for the bad word we spoke or our frustration with the neighbors. In our most vulnerable moments, we might even confess our sexual addiction or our violent anger, but we will not confess or think about how it could possibly be wrong that we failed to see that Susan was more than “Asian.” We cannot take the time to consider why we presumed that the white guy was more qualified than the Hispanic guy—“I just seemed to ‘click’ with the other guy,” “We came from the same city,” “I could really see myself working with him.”
Jesus’s life challenged an Israel that had forgotten what it ought to repent for. He was a presence that refused the claim of the state that it was god. Both the Judaic elite and the Roman state sought to discipline and shape its followers not through strict codification but in formation through the mundane. The codes represented a system of identification that resisted transformation for its own survival. Christ’s person and work ushered in not only the possibility of social and individual transformation, but even more radically, a citizenship not bound to the world yet still present in the world. The earliest baptismal rites incorporated a physical turning away as part of their liturgy, which suggested that the life of the Christian must require a certain death of the old person. When we consider race in America, we can only say that our baptisms do not call us into death, but deify our own self-deceptions. In these ways, we are still slaves to the state and servants of the law.
It is this necessity of confession, this ritual of self-discovery that the church has failed to do and that our conversations regarding race have refused to acknowledge. It is not about what must be done. Our lives as disciples are a claim about who we are bound to, what we do or do not do. In the face of Christ, we cannot begin with what we understand about ourselves; we must begin with the confession that we do not understand ourselves, that we do not know the depths to which we have sunk in this system of death and imprisonment. We must all acknowledge that we do not know where to go or where to begin. We must confess this, we must make our lack of knowledge central to who we are because we cannot change without this. And we cannot begin to imagine what we ought to do unless we can imagine becoming people who are different because of these conversations and these relationships.
The longer we refuse to acknowledge how we are intertwined with race and its optics, the more race will matter. Our conversations, our prayers, and our liturgies must come to take seriously our malformation. Perhaps through this process of confession we can begin to imagine what to do, how our lives can resist the mark of this beast, and how we might become conformed with one another in Christ. Our baptisms have ushered us into a world in-between where difference can no longer be accounted for in the same way. For the simple reason that we are baptized, we cannot hope to look beyond; we cannot hope to be “post” anything. We are baptized into a living body that did not bypass us, did not look beyond us, but became us and entered into our condition. Our baptisms enter us into this life of transformation, this life of holy union that produces children who may not look like us and our lives. As followers of Christ, we must seek not only the possibilities but also acknowledge and struggle with our own refusals.
1. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York, NY: Dover Publications), 2.
2. The club would eventually extend an offer to the children to return to the pool, claiming that safety and not race led to their decision to break the contract. See Zoe Tillman and Max Stendahl, “Montco Swim Club Accused of Racial Discrimination,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 9, 2009, Local News section, http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/20090709_Montco_swim_club_accused_of_racial_discrimination.html, accessed July 30, 2009.
3. Ireneaus of Lyon, Against Heresies, trans. Robert. M. Grant (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997), III.22.4.
4. For two interpretations of how theology failed to account for difference and Jesus’s Jewishness in the development of modern theology see Jay Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).
5. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 9.
6. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., “Unqualified Christians,” Christian Century 124 (2007): 16. Dr. Sadler is a good friend of mine, and here I am not seeking to contradict him but rather to suggest a way of imagining how to account for the particularity of our lives in a world where race has mattered and perhaps should matter.
7. Recent scholarship has described race as a process or more formally as a social construction, thus repudiating the claims of race as natural. The notion of race as natural was tied to ideas concerning essential characteristics related to this natural phenomenon. These claims regarding race as essential aspects of our identity were deeply bound to the hierarchical and oppressive systems of slavery, Jim Crow, interracial marriage, and inadequate education for those deemed not white.
8. For an excellent account of how whiteness was “formed” in the United States, see Matthew Jacobsen, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).
9. Of course, an important difference here is in the way the legislation is envisioned. For the civil rights movement, legislation was sought that included citizens within the larger possibilities of the country while anti-abortion legislation (while seeking to protect unborn children) must do so through exclusion or refusals. Although this is an important difference, it is also vital to note how the civil rights movement began to splinter as Martin Luther King Jr. and others envisioned a wider (and deeper) level of participation through the language of integration.