J. Kameron Carter. Race: A Theological Account. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. 504 pages. $28.00 hardcover (Amazon). Click here or on the image to purchase Race from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
J. Kameron Carter’s recent book, Race: A Theological Account, is a wrench thrown into the frustratingly predictable modern academic discourse on race. In what will doubtless prove a landmark study on race, Carter engages the fields of theology, sociology, history, philosophy, sociology, and literary criticism from a distinctly theological viewpoint. A supremely ambitious study, it sets out to ascertain the origin of the problem of whiteness in Christian theology, or in other words, the complicity of theology in the establishment of white supremacy in the West. Carter’s bold thesis is that this complicity stems from an early and seminal split between Christianity and Judaism, a split in which Christianity cordoned itself off as a racial religion of non-Jews. Drawing on thinkers ranging from Irenaeus to Albert Raboteau, from James Cone to Michel Foucault, Carter offers a sweeping and at times brilliant analysis of how a thus racialized Christianity participated in the construction of the modern concept of race in general and whiteness in particular. Yet he also brings to light various interstices in the history of Christianity where faithful reimaginations of Christology served to undermine the status quo of racialized flesh, opening up instead liberatory ways of being grounded in the self-sacrificial identity of Jesus. In short, the book aims to demonstrate both how supersessionism led to white supremacy and how a revival of Christology has at times served and may now serve as a way out of the trap of racialized thinking.
Along the way, Carter situates himself within the stream of black theology. He does this through a critical engagement of the work of Cone, who appears as a sort of symbol of black liberation theology. But while he acknowledges debts to his forebears, it nevertheless is clear that Carter is doing something new here. Such a wholesale Christological re-envisioning of the basic categories of racial discourse is a genuine shock to the system for a way of thinking that has all too often been content to take Jesus as an inspirational figure and then move on to fill in the blank of his mission with a repetition of the standard secular identity politics. Carter charts a new course by allowing his Christological convictions to shape a notion of identity that is not bound by the binary logic of modern racial arrangements.
The book begins by dealing with the consequences of historic Christianity’s apostate conceptions of identity. Here he demonstrates how in becoming a religion populated mainly by gentiles, Christianity came to conceive of itself in terms of a binary opposition between itself and the Jews. The “Prologue on Christology and Race: Irenaeus as Anti-Gnostic Intellectual” proves to be a haunting introduction. If the original Gnostic disavowal of the incarnation is the specter hanging over Christianity’s historic inability to reckon with the Jewishness of Jesus’s flesh, then Irenaeus sets the tone also for all future faithful affirmations of the full humanity of the Nazarene, as he certainly does in Race.
In the first chapter, Carter draws on the respective racial genealogies of Cornell West and Michel Foucault to paint a picture of the development of a great rift through the middle of society that made it possible to think of one’s identity as non-other. The second chapter demonstrates that Immanuel Kant’s entire philosophical project (critical, aesthetic, and political) of enlightenment is grounded in a Westernized view of Christianity as a social order based on reason and is therefore grounded in an anti-Semitism that is central to the identity of the West. Even as the West purported to be the civilization that would become universal and thus overcome petty ethnic and tribal feuding and general irrationality, it did so by racially distinguishing itself from the Jews. The Jews were the constant constitutive exception to the non-racial (read: white) West, present in their midst as a stand-in for the oriental other.
Carter’s versatility as a scholar comes to the fore in the second section of the book, in which he addresses the work of three black scholars—Albert Raboteau, James Cone, and Charles Long—in their attempts to reckon with the inherited problem of whiteness in America. Raboteau’s epic work Slave Religion garners a great deal of appreciation from Carter on account of its efforts to overcome the constraining terms of race and identity. In response to the conflict between Melville J. Herskovits and E. Franklin Frazier over whether African spirituality in the new world was a stubborn resilience of old religious forms or a versatile adoption of new practices, Raboteau posits a notion of blacks and their souls that is much more fluid. For that, he is to be praised, says Carter, but ultimately he remains too much beholden to the very constructs he is trying to escape.
The focus of chapter four, James Cone, gets due praise for his historic and groundbreaking role in articulating the problem of whiteness. It was Cone who most strongly saw that Jesus’s whiteness was a production of the severance of Jesus from his Jewishness. However, Carter levels a strong critique against Cone’s later work, especially Cone’s heavy use of Paul Tillich (as opposed to his early work, which borrowed heavily from Karl Barth). Here again is the problem of a black scholar unconsciously promoting this antagonistic structure of identity, as Tillich provides Cone with a language of courage and struggle for the structure of being. And so Cone simply repeats an oppressive way of thinking about identity, just this time it is with an attempt to replace white with black as the dominant identity.
After a chapter on the efforts of Charles Long to articulate a way of speaking about black spirituality that would preserve the opacity of the religious experience, we enter the third section of the book, Carter’s constructive response to the problem of race. By way of reply to the modern racial imaginary, Carter brings in the autobiographical slave narratives of Briton Hammon, Frederick Douglas, and Jarena Lee, engaging with them to ascertain the ways they were able to undermine and destabilize the static categories of race from within. Carter uses these autobiographies specifically because they bear witness to the process of individuals’ “catching up to themselves”—their journey of learning to identify themselves within the narrative of Israel. In a brilliant passage, which I will quote at length, Carter writes:
[The West’s] accomplishment was one in which Western, mainly Gentile, Christians no longer had to interpret their existence inside another story—Israel’s. [. . . .] Stated differently, whiteness is the accomplishment of interpreting the self simply by reference to oneself, and in this respect it is the uniquely “Christian” accomplishment of no longer having to understand Christian identity as unfolding within another reality, the reality of Israel’s covenantal story with YHWH. In other words, insofar as it is a distinctly “Christian” phenomenon, whiteness is the accomplishment of no longer having to leave behind a prior reality so as to enter into another one, although this is precisely what Abram, Hagar, Jacob, Ruth, and the Ethiopian Eunuch, to name just a few, had to do.
With this perspective framing his readings of the slave narratives, Carter endeavors to find the ways in which black individuals were able to render an account of themselves even as they lived, breathed, and wrote in a white-dictated framework.
Carter wraps things up by engaging another resource of patristic theology in the “Postlude on Christology and Race: Maximus the Confessor as Anticolonialist Intellectual.” Here Carter shows how Maximus portrays the will-to-possession and competitive nature of the fallen human self as being confronted by the Incarnation. For there, Christ re-opens the nature of humanity, re-presenting it to God and itself in his own body.
I have unreserved praise for this book, but there are a few notes of criticism I am obligated to make. First, given that a great deal of Carter’s argument depends upon a particular rendering of the Jewishness of early Christianity, it is surprising that he spends so little time dealing with the biblical text. Carter seems to take it for granted that what would become Christianity is an essentially Jewish affair, as it is testified to in the New Testament. Many readers, of course, will be amenable to this point of view, but there ought to at least have been a tip of the hat to the texts that seem to portray Jesus and his followers as at odds with at least the Jews of their day, if not Judaism as a whole, as they seem to be in John’s Gospel.
Potentially more problematic, though, are the hermeneutical observations Carter makes in his interlude, “Gregory of Nyssa as Abolitionist Intellectual.” Here Carter compares the views on slavery found in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa to his fellow Cappadocians, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus. In his reading of Scripture, Gregory of Nyssa was able to discern, in radical contradiction to social convention, the imperative of universal manumission of slaves, whereas Basil and Gregory Nazianzus found only support for the status quo. How can we account for this, given that both read the scriptures theologically, that is, as is so fashionably advocated nowadays, with the grammar of Christian doctrine? For Carter, it seems that proper reading of Scripture depends not simply on reading Christologically but on reading with the right kind of Christology, which of course begs the question: upon what does the right kind of Christology depend? Carter’s training as a scholar (he earned his PhD under John Milbank at Virginia) would likely point to the solution chosen by the Radical Orthodoxy, namely, consult the tradition, and there you will find your Christology. The problem, though, is that Carter understands all too well that the tradition sought by the Radical Orthodoxy movement as an antidote to modernity has all too often been complicit in the construction of modernity. Here we seem to have arrived at an impasse, and we can only hope the issue will be more thoroughly addressed in future work from Carter.
Race merits a broad interdisciplinary and interfaith readership. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any student of race, Judaism, Christianity, philosophy, or the West in general who would not have much to learn from this magnificent study. The student of theology, however, will want to pay the thirty-five-dollar cover price solely for the privilege of reading Carter’s profound reflections on the nature of Christian identity. Carter offers a profound Christological exploration of the dispossessive nature of the identity of Jesus, a nature to which we are called in discipleship. In so doing, Carter presents a compelling invitation to reconsider how Christian identity has been dictated by the idolatrous confines of the modern racial imaginary. For Jesus, to be a Jew meant that he was part of the people that Yahweh continually called—out of Ur, out of Egypt, out of Babylon—and to be a follower of Jesus is to likewise be part of that people whose identity is grounded not in fearful opposition to the other, but in Yahweh’s continual calling of them out of the neat identities they have fashioned for themselves.