New-old article on J. Kameron Carter

This piece on the fascinating Duke University theologian J. Kameron Carter appeared in the Christian Courier a little over a month ago. As it is not easily available online or in databases, they have kindly given me permission to reprint it here. You could also, of course, subscribe. This is worth doing in any case.

It is not enough to be against racism—one must be dedicated to the unmaking of whiteness itself. So we are often told, by scholars of race, by activists, and sometimes by Christians working to make the church more Christlike. The claim sounds suitably radical, but it makes me scratch my head. How do you destroy an incorporeal idea? How do you kill an ill wind? And even if you’ve got that figured out: what is whiteness, anyway?

I’m familiar, of course, with the common scholarly distinction between ethnicity (what we can’t help having, insofar as we come from somewhere and have families) and race (the supposedly biologically inherent qualities of mind and character that place some bodies in charge of other bodies). It’s the difference between being German, British, and Welsh; being the son of Mary and Phil, Sr.; being from central Michigan farming country—and, on the other hand, being the assumed norm for the human race; being by right the loudest mouth in every room; being the sort of person you picture when someone says “average guy.” (The freedom of being average! But also, the self-contempt! I think of the shamefaced way my white Midwestern students describe themselves as being “like anybody” and “from nowhere,” or the terrible, ubiquitous “basic bitch,” a term by which the unique and God-beloved young white women in my classes both exalt and degrade themselves for their supposed cookie-cutter normalness.) These are all awfully hard to disentangle from each other in everyday life. This task of disentangling is made harder by the fact that to be white and to struggle thoughtfully with race at all is to feel stupid the minute you open your mouth. Any moral anxiety, however piercing or painful, the world creates for you by declaring you “white” is a Newtonian infinitesimal compared to the problems it creates when it declares others “black,” and then segregates them in failing schools, stares them out of countenance, treats their sexual consent as already granted, imprisons them, murders them.

Theologian J. Kameron Carter is pursuing what has to be among the most urgent and fascinating projects in contemporary theology in his attempt to disentangle Christianity from American whiteness (and to figure out how they got entangled in the first place). He’s published a number of articles (“Bonhoeffer and the Meaning of Christmas” is one I especially enjoy) and one giant, rich, difficult, worldview-rearranging book, Race: A Theological Account (2008). If you’re one of the millions of Christians who, not being white, cannot help knowing her- or himself as raced: well, I don’t feel comfortable telling you what to do. But my fellow white folks should certainly prayerfully consider what Carter has to say.

Race is a book with many threads, but its overall claim is fairly simple. Why, Carter asks, did Christianity become entangled with European colonialism, with the justification of slavery and Jim Crow, and with the ongoing oppression of black people? (If you can’t immediately name ten ways that such oppression is “ongoing,” you should try tackling a few other books before you read Carter. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Nor would Ta-Nehisi Coates’s already-classic investigative polemic “The Case For Reparations.”) Carter’s answer is that it starts with the split between Christians and Jews. When Christians, starting early in the medieval period, began to theorize (rather than lament) our separation from Judaism writ large—when we ceased to think of ourselves as a Jewish offshoot—we began creating a conceptual armature of “normal” (Gentile) and “abnormal” (Jewish) peoples that was easily converted to the later task of labeling some people “black” and therefore enslavable. I am not a historian, and I cannot verify Carter’s overall contention. But when you read medieval Christian anti-Jewish polemic, with its emphasis on bodily grossness and wrongness (some medieval Christians claimed Jewish men could menstruate, or that all Jews smelled funny), it fits. If Carter is right, then the commonplace idea that there are different people groups—the “nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” of Revelation 7:9—started becoming the pernicious (and scientifically indefensible) idea of biological race when Christians began to feel we were better than our parent religion.  

The advantage of such a big claim, whether true or not, is that it creates a spacious home in which a great scholarly intelligence can pursue many directions. Anytime Carter deals with the early Church Fathers, his writing calls to mind Marilynne Robinson’s remark that “theology is a kind of gigantic and intricate poetry.” If you read nothing else of Carter’s, check out his treatment of Gregory as the first “abolitionist intellectual.” (It’s true; no known ancient writer condemned slavery qua slavery before Gregory did.) About Carter’s engagements with, say, the French sociologist/activist/weirdo nihilist Michel Foucault I’m less certain. One implication of Foucault’s thought is generally taken to be that we should avoid all normative claims, and you can see why this would be useful for someone trying to get white people to stop taking ourselves as the pattern for all humanity, but it’s also a claim that proves too much. After all, “It’s not good for people to be racist” would seem to me to be a kind of normative claim, too. Even here, though, I’m fascinated by the way he links Foucault’s famous if not terribly clear idea of “power/knowledge” to the way knowledge functions in the academy, in business, in everyday life: as a tool for controlling stuff. We think of knowledge as something to use (to make new gadgets, new curricula, new regimes of everyday life); in doing so, we risk the pride that tells us we, and not God, are in control. How theology can be a true branch of knowledge, something people are paid to teach, and yet not be part of this activity is a powerful question. How to disentangle the rest of our knowledges from such pride is another.

I’m not anywhere near doing justice to Carter in this summary. I haven’t said a word about the way he reads classic African American autobiographical narrative—by Briton Hammon, Frederick Douglass, and Jarena Lee—as, in essence, embodied theology. (Think of the way the great slave narrators often return to the story of Moses as a way to interpret their own experiences, and vice versa.) Nor have I said a word about his devastating expose of Immanuel Kant’s racism, which is far more explicit and far-reaching than I’d imagined. (Kant, on Carter’s reading, helped create the idea of whiteness as being a sort of “basic” humanness, on which everything else is a weird and problematic variation. Kant more or less actually says this.)

The book ends—for me, anyway—on a bit of a letdown. In critiquing the out-of-touchness of some contemporary theology, he drops a long quotation from the sociologist of culture Pierre Bordieu—who, with his dismissive and cynical analysis of taste (including artistic taste), has done more than anybody in the last forty years to make gifted and earnest artists and intellectuals trivialize themselves before they’ve properly gotten started. Bordieu blasts the “scholastic disposition” with its “play-world of theoretical conjecture and mental experimentation,” its tendency to “raise problems for the pleasure of solving them, and not because they arise in the world.” Though Carter ultimately pushes Bordieu’s rant in a useful direction—he wants theologians to remember that they’re ultimately working for those navigating “real worlds of pain and suffering and life and death”—I think there is something deeply unChristian in attacking “play-worlds of theoretical conjecture,” AKA the free play of our God-given imaginations. What is Carter’s much-used metaphor of jazz—or really any music, any art—but, among other things, a kind of “raising problems for the pleasure of solving them”? In trying to attack bourgeois dilettantism, he seems to condemn the playful creativity that is intrinsic to being image-bearers of God. If I belabor a sidenote, I do so because I think the mistake is an old one among Christians: the tyranny of joyless, loveless “usefulness,” which at its worst produces people too grim in their piety to be much use to anyone.

Carter, however, is in general a thinker as useful as he is imaginative—useful because he is imaginative. In an era that rarely even understands the meaning of the term “pride” in its theological sense—we think it has something to do with self-esteem, or sportsball—Carter has produced a profound meditation on pride. For there is no other name for the sin by which people saved by a Jew came to understand ourselves as better people than Jews. And there is no other name for taking oneself to be, and in staking one’s sense of self-worth on being, the “normal” or “basic” human, the template person, rather than the strange and unrepeatable being Christ has called one to be.

This is already a pretty long piece for a newspaper. But one other issue I had with the book—and like my mini-attacks on Bordieu and Foucault, it’s more an issue with the way a lot of brilliant people seem to “do” intellectual life in the humanities these days, full stop—is the tendency to treat a person’s ideas as irretrievably interconnected, so that, for example, if some Enlightenment figures wrote racist things: that’s it, their thought is now dead to us, it has no further use to us except, perhaps, as an example of what not to do. This seems to be Carter’s attitude toward Kant. Honestly, I’m not sure that the rightness of Kant’s epistemology (which is the stuff he’s famous for) stands or falls on whether his anthropology is wrong (and evil). I’m sure there are many connections to be drawn between the two, but they’re not the same thing. 

Or, another example: late in the book, he uses some ideas from the late-medieval Thomists, then inserts a long, thoughtful footnote insisting that his use of the Thomists is “strategic”—a term that in its academic uses seems generally to mean “I think these guys are full of it, but since you probably don’t, here’s how their thought could be used to support mine”—and says that Thomism hasn’t yet reckoned with its complicity in the slave trade. Now, I do get tired of the constant, and often insufficiently complicated, appeals to “tradition” in some of the works of the more famous Duke Divinity School theologians—*cough* Hauerwas *cough*—or of their Radical Orthodox frenemies. But, again, I don’t think that because some Spanish and Portuguese theologians of the fifteenth century used the system they considered authoritative to make excuses for slavery, that system is now poisoned all through. Carter seems to, and this in turn seems to stem from his tendency to treat idea-systems as if they were organic beings, their component parts as indivisible as a torso and a head. (You hear such a hint when he speaks of Thomism reckoning with its “complicity” in the slave trade—as if Thomism were a single being with agency and moral responsibility.) To me, it’s all too much like saying “George W. Bush cited democracy as a reason to kill people. LET’S NEVER VOTE ON ANYTHING AGAIN.” 

Briefer: I think ideas are separable from each other. I think one idea within a system being rotten doesn’t mean the whole thing is. I think there probably are no interesting ideas that have never been used in some way for evil. I think well-thought-out and robust ideas, or idea systems, make better justifications for evil than shitty ones. (The Third Reich didn’t last nearly as long as the USSR. There are many reasons for this, but one of them surely has to be that Marxism at least bears thinking about, while Naziism is a bad cartoon.) Separating Kant’s epistemology from his anthropology, or Aquinas’s metaphysics from his social philosophy, is more like playing an old song in a new context than it is like removing a limb from a living being.

I clearly needed to get that off my chest.

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