In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was caught on camera by a teenage bystander. That video contributed to the conviction of Derek Chauvin for Floyd’s murder and brought to a boiling point an unrest that had been growing since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown six years earlier. But while more Americans than ever appear to be sympathetic to demands for racial justice and police reform, there is nevertheless a strong resistance to identifying the problem as systemically woven into the history of the United States. The prevalence of discrimination and police violence are becoming nearly indisputable, yet many Americans remain deeply confused over what racism is, where it originates, and what is to be done about it. Moreover, a lamentably large segment of Christians do not apprehend that the commitments central to Christian identity militate against the structures and practices which cause and perpetuate racial injustice, and thus they do not question their participation in them.
This confusion is due in large part to a muddling of the terms bigotry and racism. Bigotry is an active form of discrimination that is conscious, explicit, and overt. Bigotry has always existed. Whenever one tribe has hated and sought to exclude or enslave another, whenever one nation has accounted another as inhuman, or whenever one group has justified the elimination of another group, bigotry has been the power at work. Racism, however, is more insidious because it is implicit, often subconscious, and rooted in self-protection. It seeks to preserve social and economic positions that cannot exist apart from the suppression of other members of our society, but even as we do so, we deny it, as we cannot afford to recognize that our dominance depends upon the marginalization and exploitation of an other.
Racism, furthermore, is perpetuated through societal structures that artificially provide advantage to some at the expense of others. The actions and attitudes of individuals are not insignificant in such arrangements, but neither are they sufficient for the reformation of these structures or the rectification of their wrongs. Indeed, the mode of existence to which we in the contemporary neoliberal order are habituated reconstitutes the agency of both the advantaged and disadvantaged, rendering us largely passive spectators rather than actors upon the stage of our society’s race-related drama.
Because of the passive role we play in structural racism and our denial that our actions or inaction suppresses others, our confusion over racism is unsurprising. And it becomes even more convoluted when the beneficiaries of racism claim they are unmotivated by matters of race. This claim is true in many instances and yet their denial of the significance of race is made possible by a flawed conception of humanity, a conception promulgated by the hegemonic forces of neoliberalism. White Americans may not be bigots, but they assume a normativity to their whiteness. That is, what we may imagine as common to all human beings is in fact a reflection of the modern white male and the purchasing power he exercises. But if the particularities of any given human subject could be stripped away, we would not find a core humanity that is identifiably white. Nevertheless, this is the hidden presumption at work in many American Christians, both white and non-white, and it bears witness to the deceptive power of the systems through which we assume and exercise the forms of identity we are habituated to understand as natural.
Willie James Jennings writes that the burden for contemporary Christians is to “recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence.”1 In other words, a social imagination that divorces identity from these concrete particulars will falsely present itself as a universal view of things, in effect masquerading one set of particulars as universally normative. Distrustful of the particular as part of a quest to transcend the vicissitudes of history, the enlightened European social imagination enshrines an abstraction it cannot recognize as its own particular identifiers.
According to that view, the bonds between any people and their “land, landscape, animals, place, and space” would be seen, if at all, as jagged edges of deformity to be sanded down so as to fit the universally normative. It is as if these things were incidental to a thing’s being, as if the essence of any object or person were instantiated in anything other than its accidents within history. Reality in this paradigm is the stuff of detached analytic description rather than the thornily concrete persons, places, and things we bodily encounter wherever and whenever we are.
This supposedly objective viewpoint is one of the reasons that thousands of Native Americans were coerced into adopting, wholesale, white culture as a matter of United States policy. Setting aside the manifestly wicked protocols of Native removal, dislocation, and massacre, and this is how assimilation could be accepted as something good and decent undertaken to help Native Americans. This is the only way Chief Justice John Marshall’s ruling in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia that Indian nations were “domestic, dependent nations” which related to the United States as “a ward to his guardian” could be averred as anything other than paternalistic bigotry. This is the only way “kill the Indian and save the man” could be promoted as a beneficent program or that such rhetoric could afterward be portrayed—with absolute honesty—as not being racist in its motivation.2
Of course, even saying that Native Americans were forced into adopting white culture is something of a misnomer. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing. Culture is a traditioned, communal response to this terrain—its seasons and its creatures. That connection to place is encoded in culture, which, as Wendell Berry insists, “contains, and conveys to succeeding generations, the history of the use of the place and the knowledge of how the place may be lived in and used.” It is only with this type of formation that we are able to “carry the knowledge of how the place may be well and lovingly used, and moreover the implicit command to use it only well and lovingly.” Lacking this, “a place is open to exploitation, and ultimately destruction, from the center.”3
This is why white culture, as such, does not exist. What passes for white culture are the practices and dispositions which do not belong to whites alone or to any particular group of whites. Instead, a range of commodified goods is what constitutes white culture. But a culture that can be transplanted to any location, provided certain technological needs are met, is no culture at all. And to assume otherwise is to essentialize this particular subject, the modern white male, who is instantiated in no particular culture but rather interpellated by and bound to the forces of exchange and the sociology of knowledge constructed by the hegemonic powers of capitalism.4 For this particular subject has not always existed: he was invented and promulgated in the modern era by capitalist ideology to consume and to be consumed.
The conflation of commodified identity with culture reinforces the illusion of capitalism’s normativity. But this departicularizing mode of reason can only arise within the capitalist plausibility structure that shapes Western civilization and disciplines our notions of identity and desire. Capitalism severs the connection between peoples and the places with which they symbiotically become people, substituting a bogus vision of what life is meant to be and how we are meant to achieve it. Capitalism, therefore, is not a neutral means of accomplishing just any paradigm or concept of the good: it is its own religious paradigm, a power to be resisted by disciples of the crucified Nazarene.
The supposed normativity of capitalism is a fraud, as it attempts to conceal its motivated particularity. This is not, however, to claim that the concept of universal normativity is itself an illusion. Such a claim would be self-defeating, as it would be only another example of an arbitrary assertion advanced by a select few because of its advantageousness to them. Opposition to the machinations of capitalism dissipates into nothing if normativity is not presupposed, as any such critique is based on a mode of reasoning tacitly held to be true in all places, at all times, for all persons. This reasoning is deeper and more pervasive than ego-based antagonism; it is rooted in a notion of justice to which we assume all responsible and compassionate persons are subject.
Of course, capitalism obfuscates the very conditions that make right judgment possible by habituating us all to its bogus normativity. Mammon opxenly operates in the world, grinding away “land, landscape, animals, place, and space” to sculpt a people shaped after its own consumptive, idolatrous image, a people who are routinely blinded to its revelation. Christians are familiar with this name through Jesus’s assertion that no one can serve both God and mammon (see Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:13). But what is it?
Often understood as little more than a personification of money, mammon is the deification of all that property and provision promise. Wealth, possessions, and prestige are simply the accretion disc surrounding the insatiable black hole that is mammon. It acts and yet it is not a subject. It has an ontological density sufficient to be identified and condemned by Jesus, and yet it is not a personal being. It blurs the lines between entity and agent, as it is more like a field of force that attracts human desire and directs it towards futility. It is the principle animating the structures of covetousness that frame and direct our lives.
Mammon reconfigures our desiring so as to make contentment unattractive and dull. Under this regime, we feel most alive, perversely, in wanting endlessly. Subjectivity under mammon is instantiated through need and dissatisfaction. William Cavanaugh observes a similar pattern:
Dissatisfaction and satisfaction cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit. There is pleasure in the pursuit of novelty, and the pleasure resides not so much in having as in wanting. Once we have obtained an item, it brings desire to a temporary halt, and the item loses some of its appeal. Possession kills desire; familiarity breeds contempt. That is why shopping, not buying itself, is the heart of consumerism. The consumerist spirit is a restless spirit, typified by detachment, because desire must be constantly kept on the move.5
It is human to desire what we do not have. This is not intrinsically wrong but can careen into something unhealthy and sinful. All of us lack and seek to overcome that lack. There is a distinct, albeit painful, delight in longing for what is not available to us, because it is in the past, is distant from us, or awaits us in the future. Healthy desire does not overindulge or seek its end in competition. The insidious thing mammon does to this delight, however, is to enshrine discontent as the chief virtue we are to pursue above all others. We crave, therefore we are.
To manufacture this discontent, mammon creates a demand for commodified homogeneity, and this extends into the context of race. Indeed, race is a category manufactured by mammon to subjugate both the suppressed and the dominant within society. Mammon has no regard for our ancestry or the hue of our skin except insofar as our differences can be exploited to engender the conflict which substantiates the spurious value of the simulacra it creates.
Difference is reconciled only within the economy of commodity exchange and its badges of accumulation. These markers of achievement distinguish those who have from those who lack, the deserving from the undeserving. They have become substitutes for the identities we would have received from our cultures and communities, but our formation under mammon conditions us to view these substitutes as desirable. It accomplishes its aims of subjugating bodies precisely by claiming that embodiment and its responsibilities are of negligible value.
But mammon cannot create a value of its own. Human beings have always added value to the things of the nonhuman world through their art and artisanship, but this has been best done when they have humbly recognized the primary origin of that value outside of themselves. “When humans presume to originate value,” Berry observes, “they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.”6 This delusion of having artificially created value destroys place, creatures, cultures, and with them, ultimately, human identity.
To grasp how this is so, we must specify what it is that identity identifies. Individually, it marks out the narrative shape of this particular life rather than that one. It indicates a history that differentiates this name from another. Collectively, it identifies who we are in relation to certain commitments and responsibilities, as well as our means to achieve those commitments. Identity names those particularities that anchor each of us in time, in space, and among our fellows.
Identity under mammon, however, is scarcely an identity at all, as the differentiation it offers is designed to perpetuate covetousness and division, nor is there a responsibility to place and creatures to which it is subject. mammon provides a counterfeit identity, a mass-produced placeholder suspended over nothing, severed from space and culture, designed to orbit and draw its significance from commodity. It advertises that bodies and matter and place are inconsequential, but its denials mask its intention to reduce the human subject to an atomistic vessel of insatiable covetousness. The common good promoted by mammon is a parody amounting to little more than gratification and accumulation as measured by artificial value.
The material that binds communities together and binds them to land, to animals, and to place and space are concrete impediments to mammon’s regime. The erasure of Indigenous cultures in modernity has served its purposes precisely because, in the absence of such material particularity, it can fill that vacuum with the simulacra of culture. The forced reeducation of Native Americans did not make them white: it ground away their connections to their culture so as to assimilate them within a civilization centered around artificiality and instrumental reason. It is the accidental fact of history that the conquerors and commodifiers were white, but this explains how the mass-produced products of industry and the eagerness to interfere with and disrupt nature can be mistaken for and believed to be white culture. With this whiteness presented as the pinnacle of rationality, nonwhites can be habituated to clamor after such badges of identity and can come to accept this as the natural course of things.
But there is nothing natural about it. Mammon can take root anywhere because it is not bound to “land, landscape, animals, place, and space.” This severing of concrete ties between human communities and the nonhuman world degrades humanity and the world both. Ruinous waste becomes viewed as normal; poverty becomes reinterpreted as a vice and greed as a virtue; and systemic racism becomes the lamentable but inevitable byproduct of the failure to live up to the reasonable expectations of the social order. The rates of incarceration of Black people, for instance, come to be viewed as the unfortunate consequence of Black people’s unwillingness to accept and adapt to reality after the manner of the majority of white people. The coming of Jesus Christ into the far country—the disorder and wreckage of fallen human history— testifies, however, that these conclusions are false.7 But not only are they false: they corrode hope and embitter life. They preserve the narcolepsy of spirit that permits the perpetuation of these grievous evils.
It must be asked, then: if racism is decried, but the regime of mammon is left untouched, what actually has been gained? One form of injustice—our direct or indirect treatment of people of color, for instance—may become more visible than it was before, but if the network of practices and exchanges that give rise to exploitation and hostility are left to govern our lives and determine their shape, then the cross has not confronted it to call it to account. There is no hope of renewal apart from the judgment carried out in the crucifixion of the present age.
The specificity of historical injustices calls for specific acts of repentance and restitution. This is always the pattern in Scripture of making right what has gone wrong. Additionally, however, the prophetic impulse is corrupted whenever particularity is sacrificed and the condemnation of injustice metamorphoses and degenerates into the condemnation of generalized groups of people. The gospel—and the tangibility of all the particulars in play in our shared lifeworld—challenges each of us to resist the temptation to erase the situatedness of those with whom we disagree, or else we will simply return evil for evil after the manner of what we are opposing.
The end of such critiques is not the flagellation of those who have participated in systems of injustice, for guilt and self-inflicted torment will not lead to atonement. Moreover, an exclusive focus upon individual repentance leaves the oppressive, exploitative structures of mammon intact and operative in the lives of both collaborators and victims, as well as in the social structures that bind them together.
Reimagining the relationships between peoples and places, needs and fears, is more than an injunction to reconceive theory; it is an invitation to see and to act free of mammon’s illusions. This is in keeping with the praxis prescribed by the Apostle Paul not to be conformed to the present age but to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2 NRSV).
Injustice perpetrated and injustice denied both provoke the yearning for recompense that, gone unheeded for too long, becomes a temptation toward hatred and vengeance. But Christian faith testifies that fragile, frightened white people are to be objects of mercy and compassion, not objects of insistent, active hatred, and this is in spite of the bewildering and injurious ignorance for which they are responsible. Such white people are also victims of mammon’s tyranny, not in precisely the same way or to the same extent as nonwhite people, but we are all, white and nonwhite, implicated in the thrall of mammon. We are all in need of the disciplining of our compulsions, the healing of our habits, and the recalibration of our vision. We have all allowed the particularities of our individual and collective histories to be erased and replaced by mammon’s machinations.
But we are not all equally culpable or even culpable in the same ways. No: the beneficiaries of mammon’s hegemony bear unique responsibility for failing to recognize and repudiate the systemic injustices upon which their privileges depend. This is especially true for Christians, as this failure calls into question our allegiance to the one we claim is our Lord. Christian identity is inherently opposed to the hegemony of mammon because that hegemony is entirely antithetical to the One in whom Christians arrive at self-understanding and vocation.
Christ has come to expose mammon’s lies and dismantle its machinery because, as Joel Green comments, it “has no place in the age to come.”8 Christian identity is not an essence but a recognition of having been claimed by Jesus Christ and filled with his spirit and a vocation to participate in Christ’s liberating reign. Christians are those whose narrative sense of themselves has been enfolded within the life of Jesus Christ. As such, they are to no longer regard anyone merely according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16)—the exploitative lines of demarcation that permit us to categorize and diminish the being of our fellow image bearers—nor are they to passively accept the priorities or the structures of meaning and exchange that characterize our time and place. The core of Christian identity is the sanctified imagination that views the world and its creatures in accordance with the apocalypse and reconstitution instantiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christian identity organizes the rudiments of culture in order that the disciple may inhabit this space, with these creatures, after the pattern of the last Adam. Christianity does not replace culture, as it cannot train human beings to inhabit or to respectfully and fruitfully use this place. It interrogates and completes culture but is utterly opposed to its counterfeits. Mammon, conversely, demolishes culture and replaces it with the bastardized machinery of hegemony. It preserves the old gods and incorporates them into its pantheon so as to direct their worship and allegiance to itself. It situates unity only within its economy of artificial value and homogenization. In Christ, however, unity does not dissolve particularity but meaningfully incorporates it.
The particularity of the suffering Savior and the vocation of Israel call the church to something more difficult than ideological wars of attrition. That path is too easy and will result only in cycles of vengeance and death without end. Our vocation is cruciform: to come to awareness of our contributions to the dismal disarray of our world, to repent in such a way that we contribute to the flourishing of that world and of those we have exploited or otherwise harmed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and to absorb the pain of that process in our communal flesh as the body of the One who made atonement. The persistence of the wounds of crucifixion into new creation demonstrate the profundity of mammon’s grip upon our world and the price required to uproot its corruption. Its overthrow is possible only in the resistance that could be mistaken for defeat, the resistance that does not seek the annihilation of its opponents but their transformation.
Whoever would be cognizant of mammon’s exploitation of our fear, our distrust, and the desiring inherent to us as humans must interrogate their satisfaction with the present and the conditions of its possibility and then seek to understand the discontent of those who do not share the privileges that enable those conditions. If the most plausible conclusion that can be reached is that an entire mass of persons is more prone to violence, more prone to laziness, or the refusal of responsibility, then there is little doubt that mammon has captured the moral imagination.
Then, whoever would participate in Christ’s resistance to mammon is called to bear the patience, the willingness to listen, and the generosity that alone can summon new possibilities out of the fissures in our social fabric. These are not forms of passivity by which the status quo is upheld; these are ways in which it is confronted and urged to be renounced. These are spirit-impelled forms of activity by which death is absorbed, borne by our dying to the demands of ideology. We are not permitted to pretend that all is well, nor are we permitted to right history’s wrongs by instrumentalizing death. That both continue to take place is an index of our failure as Christians to reimagine our conditions through the prism of the cross of Christ.
We must inhabit this place as stewards of unmanufactured value and forego the temptation to master the nonhuman world or construct our own identities. This is the way of being to which we have become habituated, which we unthinkingly enable every day. The resistance to which we are called is impossible without the life of God animating us to replicate the pattern of Christ’s mission in our individual and communal lives, but that is what is on offer through the spirit that God superabundantly shares with all who will take up their crosses and follow the path Christ takes in all its particularity.
- Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 293.
- Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” in Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900, ed. Francis Paul Prucha (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–71.
- Berry, What Are People For? (New York, NY: North Point, 1990), 166.
- The term interpellate is a hailing of an individual such that they become a subject under a certain ideology; see Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, trans. and ed. G. M. Goshgarian (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2014).
- Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 47.
- Berry, Home Economics (San Francisco, CA: North Point, 1987), 61.
- See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, vol. 4, The Doctrine of Reconciliation (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 2004), 150–203.
- Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 593.