Unshackling the Imagination: J. Kameron Carter on Structural Injustice, Misery and Melancholy, and the Theology of Race
“So Jesus steps inside of that and lives a life of sheer life. And that itself was the critique of the political order. So what did they try to do? Kill him. They killed him, but then they discovered that they’re trying to kill what’s unkillable. Christians call this the resurrection. The death of Jesus wasn’t necessary. It was the cultural reflex against a form of life that did not need death or its negative other to anchor.”
J. Kameron Carter does theology with urgency. Why? Because he reads these times as urgent. His theology is responsive to the moment we’re in. In this conversation, we discuss the black experience of a structurally anti-black world; the meaning of belonging and communion; how race factors in America’s struggle for belonging to each other; the difference between black misery and white melancholy; and the presumption of comfort and alleviation of suffering that whiteness assumes. We also cover atonement theology; the erroneous logic of false ownership; and the unkillable, vibrant life of Jesus the slave. J. Kameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, author of Race: A Theological Account, editor of “Religion and the Future of Blackness,” and is currently at work on his next book, Black Rapture: A Poetics of the Sacred.
- 3:50—On his name (and what the J. stands for)
- 6:44—On suffering, the tension between the wound and the blessing, and Harriet Jacobs’ “loophole of retreat”
- 9:30—“That negotiation between what we might say the tension between the wound and the blessing, it marks black existence insofar as anti-blackness is structurally the condition of possibility of the society that has come to bear the name the United States of America.”
- 9:58—Harriet A. Jacobs on her “loophole of retreat”; a reading from her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
- 12:14—On structural and individual racism
- 12:46—Rodney King: “Can we all get along?”
- 18:10—On skepticism toward structural problems, structures that create conditions of misery, and the presumptions of whiteness
- 22:54—“What I think we have talked ourselves into is a claim that might go like this. Suffering and misery are always already, they are never not racialized.”
- 24:25— Ad Break: “Charting a Course Through Grief” A free 8-week ecourse with a variety helpful resources on grief. cct.biola.edu/grief
- 27:10—On the logic of atonement, a structure of misery and melancholy, a new cultural imagination, and the way forward
- 29:49—“What if the death of Jesus was about the destruction of an imagination that pits life against death and death against life altogether? What if it’s the destruction of that?”
- 34:57—On Jesus’ incarnation and Christianity’s need to move against itself
- 37:15—On false ownership, “Christian supersessionism,” Jesus as slave within a particular structure of domination, and Dostoevsky and the illegibility of God
- 39:21—“The structure of ‘It belongs to me and not to you’ took on the veneer of colonialism, generating what we now call race. Racism is a specific iteration of Christian supersessionism of the gentiles. It’s a theological problem.”
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Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Kameron Carter: So Jesus steps inside of that and lives a life of sheer life. And that itself was the critique of the political order. So what did they try to do? Kill him. They killed him, but then they discovered that they’re trying to kill what’s unkillable.
Christians call this the resurrection. The death of Jesus wasn’t necessary. It was the cultural reflex against a form of life that did not need death or its negative other to anchor.
ER: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions. J. Kameron Carter does theology with urgency. Why? Because he reads these times as urgent. His theology is responsive to the moment we’re in.
But is he tyrannized by this urgency? No. Far from it. Honestly, a paradoxical patient urgency comes to mind when I read his work and listen to his words.
This is an interesting question to consider. If we’re living in urgent times marked by the threat of climate change, deteriorating political efficacy, polarized party lines, and something that is surely beyond mere incivility, not to mention all the other things that keep you up at night, how can you respond to urgent times with anything like peace and steady presence of mind?
Kameron Carter’s poetic and flowing oratory has an inspiring, imaginative nature to it. He uses the concept of a loophole of retreat, a phrase he borrows from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
A loophole of retreat is a means for thinking through the troubling landscape of racial conflict and the attitudes that contribute to continued tension, even or perhaps especially in Christian communities.
Harriet Jacobs’ loophole as a runaway slave was to find a way out from impossible escape and inevitable suffering. But her loophole was an attic crawlspace on the very plantation where she was enslaved. Her own prison became a sanctuary of escape when she saw a creative opportunity for life.
What is the loophole Carter recommends? It’s the imagination, a spiritual, theological, subversive Christian imagination, imagination that acts even from within the worst of conditions. It’s the poetic in the Greek etymological sense of poiesis or bringing something into being that didn’t exist before. It’s creativity in the face of oppression and the threat of despair.
You can hear it in the improvisational, responsive voice of J. Kameron Carter. J. Kameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, author of Race: A Theological Account, editor of “Religion and the Future of Blackness,” and is currently at work on his next book, Black Rapture: a Poetics of the Sacred.
In this conversation, we discussed the black experience of a structurally anti‑black world, the meaning of belonging and communion, and how race factors in America’s struggle for belonging to each other, the difference between black misery and white melancholy, the presumption of comfort and alleviation of suffering that whiteness assumes.
We discussed atonement theology, life against death, the error of false ownership of the Christian faith, and the unkillable, vibrant life of Jesus, the slave, what Carter calls life without remainder, a life of sheer life.
JKC: I’m someone who’s been given the name “J. Kameron Carter.”
ER: Given to you.
JKC: My mother, who is not with us anymore, named me, gave me a first name that was an initial. I think it had to do with an era that was important to her own formation, the ’60s and the ’70s. A major figure of the ’60s and the ’70s was Malcolm X, who dropped the master’s name and only went by the kind of placeholder X.
I read that X, that kind of name that is not a name as the name of possibility, the name of a certain kind of futurity in the face of trauma, difficulty, trial, tribulation, suffering, black suffering in the ’50s and the ’60s in a Western world that was at once coming apart and then the United States assuming the burden to put it together.
That sense of both losing something, the Western loss, but also the US as the possibility of Western gain and refounding itself was the matrix of a certain brutality, the reproduction of a brutality against black life. It was in that matrix that Malcolm X becomes Malcolm X.
The X was indexical of both social breakdown and cultural harm, and at the same time witness to possibility. I want to think, because I didn’t have the chance to ever ask her, but I want to think that when she named me simply J, that she knew was I wasn’t worthy of the X, and so she said I’ll do something that’s maybe close, and there you have it.
JKC: At least in my head. [laughs]
ER: Witness to possibility.
JKC: Witness to possibility, and that’s what I’m about.
ER: Just J.
JKC: Yeah. Sometimes I even dream, if I had to make that J stand for something, what would I make it stand for? I never can settle on anything.
ER: Maybe that’s the very point.
JKC: The point.
JKC: Exactly, the point. So yeah, maybe that’s letting people into my world a little bit. The world of a name.
ER: I’m glad to know. Thank you for going there, that’s awesome. Starting there, suffering, the possibility of growing through it. I was looking at, and just comparing, the way that King talked about suffering as opposed the way that Malcolm X talked about suffering. What kind of framing do you have there? For that dialectic between them, and the two strains of thought that are going in there?
JKC: It’s not new. That’s the first thing to acknowledge. That tension, that complexity, that effort to make sense both of the difficulty of being in a culture that is structurally anti‑black. If you want, I can come back to that word structurally, because it’s very important.
The difficulty in being in a society that is structurally anti‑black on the one hand, and yet within that structure and the misery that it necessarily produces, yet black folks finding shall we say—here I’m going to invoke Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, of 1861—yet finding a loophole of retreat, as she put it.
ER: Loophole, love that.
JKC: She’s in slavery conditions. She runs away because her master is taking mastery to the bedroom, and she runs away. She is a master ventriloquist because she technically doesn’t leave North Carolina, which is where she was, but she mails letters to the master with a northern address. Giving the impression that she’s up north.
She stays down south seven years in the crawlspace attic of the “home” that her, her mother, and certain relatives lived in, hiding out, because she didn’t want to go north. The people she loved, most especially her children, but the broader kinship network, she didn’t want to just leave them there. She needed a place where she could see them and not be seen, so she hid for seven years.
A biography had been written on this, so this is not just literary license. She hides for seven years in the attic. She calls it in her writing, her loophole of retreat. The beams, the woods beams that were the roof of the house had the knots of trees in it. She knocked the knot out, and could see out, but couldn’t be seen. She called this her loophole of retreat.
This was this space of negotiation, of maintaining contact, and friendship, and relationship, under brutal conditions of duress. To the point where she finally does come down, she walks hunched over.
JKC: It’s almost as if, to use a religious language, she bears the stigmata of her condition. That negotiation between what we might say the tension between the wound and the blessing, it marks black existence insofar as anti-blackness is structurally the condition of possibility of the society that has come to bear the name the United States of America.
ER: Harriet A. Jacobs, “A Loophole of Retreat,” from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
“A small shed had been added to my grandmother’s house years ago. Some boards were laid across the joists at the top. Between these boards and the roof, was a very small garret, never occupied by anything but rats and mice. It was a pent roof, covered with nothing but shingles, according to the southern custom for such buildings. The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide.
“The highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board floor. There was no admission for either light or air. The air was stifling, the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side, but the slope was so sudden that I could not turn on my other shoulder without hitting the roof. The rats and mice ran over my bed, but I was weary and I slept such sleep as the wretched may when a tempest has passed over them.
“Morning came. I knew it only by the noises I heard; for in my small den day and night were all the same. I suffered for air even more than for light, but I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children. There was joy and there was sadness in the sound. It made my tears flow. How I longed to speak to them. I was eager to look on their faces, but there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep.
“This continued darkness was oppressive. It seemed horrible to sit or lie in a cramped position day after day, without one gleam of light. Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave, though white people considered it an easy one, and it was so, compared with the fate of others.”
Talk about that structural, and specifically I wonder if you could speak to how things are structured for suffering in particular.
JKC: Suffering, and I’ll increasingly use the word misery. Misery that invites commiseration on what you’re going to do about it. When I say structurally anti-black, I’m trying to say something more than just the violent actions of individuals, because often the way in which we talk about racism, and its would‑be eradication, is around the question, how can we…Well, actually, I don’t know if I can say this on the podcast.
When he was getting his ass beat, Rodney King asked the philosophical question…
Rodney King: I just wanna say…
JKC: “Can’t we all just get along?”
RK: Can we all get along? Can we get along? Um…
JKC: And that’s the question of how do we be nice to each other? Why do we, as individuals, it’s framed through the individual, why do we as individuals do harm to each other? I’m not trying to dismiss that question.
ER: That’s just symptomatic though, that’s like at the level of surface, right?
JKC: You took the words right out of my mouth, you said it beautifully. That’s symptomatic. With any kind of disease, you’ve got to distinguish between the disease and the symptom of the disease. What are the bad actions, individually, symptomatic of?
They’re symptomatic of what I would argue is, the way in which society itself is structured. To get a little bit more than that, what I mean is society is structured in such a way that it wants to regulate the terms of belonging. It wants to regulate the terms, to put it another term, another way, of getting together.
ER: Or of encounter.
JKC: Of encounter itself, of communion. It wants to regulate it under the auspices of a kind of will towards purity. The belief in purity. Now, we don’t walk about the will of purity, I want to stay pure, we want to be a pure country. We don’t talk like that. We do talk in terms of, “Keep our borders up.” We do talk in terms of who’s got a right to immigrate and who doesn’t. We do talk in these kinds of terms.
We do talk in terms like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the famous senator, he’s intellectual, he’s the brainiac, so to speak, of the Senate, in his own day. He writes the famous Moynihan report. For him, he talked in terms of black life being pathological and pathogenic. Particularly because its family unit did not meet the standards of the family unit, which for him, had to be basically a male and a female that produces a child.
And the reason you produce that child, is because that child becomes the future generation of the citizen that carries the nation’s will forward. From Moynihan you’ve got black men in jail—this is the ’70s into the ’80s, I’m sorry, the ’60s into the ’70s—you’ve got black men in jail. He completely allies the fact that the incarceration complex as it’s emerging at that point was a political instrument against black people who were resisting, like Malcom X.
ER: This is like thirteenth, this is all that.
JKC: The 13th Amendment, how the prison‑industrial complex becomes the extension of the plantation hold.
ER: Talk about a loophole.
JKC: Exactly, so he allies all of that, allies all of that. And basically says the problem with black life is its family unit isn’t in order. The men are in prison, and the women are running the household, they’re matriarchal. And that can’t help but degenerate society.
What Moynihan was doing, and he’s trying to be progressive, he’s trying to find ways that we can actually, as it were, help black people. But he can only help by first pathologizing them. And the pathology is not just an individual pathology, he sees this as a cancer in the national structure, that if we don’t fix the black family, it will break the country.
He had the same type of worry that Thomas Jefferson had [laughs], with his whole deportation scheme and his early immigration policy. I can talk about that if you want.
JKC: But it was structurally similar. These are the structural problems that I’m talking about here. You don’t fix the structural problem by just asking the question, “How do we not be mean to each other?”
ER: When we talk about suffering, that’s like first personal. It’s held in virtue of a perspective. When we talk about structures, we’re at least partially removed. The experience of structures, it comes through inference, it comes through development of the diagnosis, right? It’s the doctor working from symptoms. Show me where it hurts? Then you back up.
I wonder if you could speak to the person who’s maybe skeptical of structural problems, because all they see are symptoms, because they’re worried about blaming too much on biases. I wonder if you could speak to that, and speak through…I don’t know, see what you think about coming from that angle. What do you mean bias? What do you mean that things are structurally beyond us and we’re all just operating at the level of…
JKC: I’ll give you an example. The example I’m going to give you is an example of a structure that creates conditions of misery, but because those conditions of misery have got white folk in them, they acknowledge that it’s structural. When black folk do it, of course, is like, “I don’t see.”
Let me give you the example that it got white folk attention. The production of misery through structural means is what propelled Trump partially into office. When people in certain states where driving industry for jobs, things like coal mining, the steel industry. And many did not want to accept arguments or come to terms with perhaps arguments that said the nature of jobs were changing and many of those jobs aren’t coming back. For the longest time, people denied it.
Once globalization took hold where jobs tended to aggregate in certain pockets of the globe and not in other pockets of the globe, and then producing misery for people in the United States in large numbers because those jobs were gone and weren’t coming back, people needed someone to blame for those structural realities and for the problems of globalization and globalism.
Some blamed Obama. Some blamed generally the left. That angst and anxiety caused a number of people to turn to Trump. That turning to Trump and the misery that draw people to turn to Trump in large numbers, it was the first time you started hearing word like globalization inside the political discourse.
When you say globalization, you’re talking about a structural reality. You’re talking about the way in which jobs in some macro way have shifted, producing in its wick certain miseries. That people, no matter what they did, found it hard to get out of.
In fact, to stay with that example, when that misery started causing or inviting people to try and medicate themselves through it with things like opiates, then you get big governmental attention for how it affects white.
ER: Symptoms again, yeah.
JKC: The assumption, though, here is that the wages of whiteness are such that you ought not to suffer. That’s the presumption inside of this.
ER: You have a right not to suffer.
JKC: You have a right not to suffer. Another way to put it is, whiteness is the presumption of comfort. When the incoherence internal to that assumption becomes surfaced, then we start to see that actually there’s something big going on here. It’s not just that people in Appalachia won’t go to school and get jobs.
Suddenly, we realize that there are no jobs to accommodate these massive numbers of folk, and we got to something about it. When that suffering and misery redounds back to white folk under the presumption that whiteness is the presumption to comfort, then the structural acknowledgment is given. I use that as a kind of example from another angle to make the argument for structuralism.
Also, it allows me to make another argument about presumptions about whiteness. The other side of the presumption of whiteness as the entitlement to comfort is non‑whiteness, and at its nature, blackness, as in some sense aligned with suffering, misery, discomfort, so on and so forth. That’s the other side of the presumption.
ER: It’s not just the other side, it’s the implication. When you established that as a standard, then you’ve got a system that is going to produce an implication and inference.
JKC: That’s exactly right. What we are inside of, it seems to me, is something that is, let’s just say, at the level of the symbolics of culture—the cultural imagination, the way in which we think about what does suffering mean, where does suffering align itself, who should not suffer, and where does that align itself—that’s what I mean by the cultural symbolics that we tend to like imaginations that we presume and work inside of. It seems to me that…
ER: The suffering that we’re OK with, what’s acceptable, what fits within our paradigms where suffering applies to.
JKC: I want to try and make this as direct as I can in talking about it. What I think we have talked ourselves into is a claim that might go like this. Suffering and misery are always already, they are never not racialized. I think this is an important statement to make.
ER: It is. There’s some controversy to it.
JKC: In other words, what fuels, what has energized the president of the United States, senators from red and blue states to want to address the opioid crisis, when a decade‑and‑a‑half ago, the issue around crack cocaine…
JKC: …was just seen as a part of the pathology of those people, that difference in response is already racialized. It’s operating under the assumption that certain people are given to suffering. There’s an equivalence between them and suffering. Suffering almost becomes a state of their existence.
The philosopher will say it’s ontological. Their condition and pathogenic state is so ontological that suffering is equated with them. Other people operate under the presumption that that is not the case.
ER: Stay with us as J. Kameron Carter and I consider the way forward. How to intercept and tear down the false logic that a good life of happiness and flourishing is synonymous with whiteness, in just a moment.
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What do you say about the way forward? What is there to correct what hope for correction? Surely, we need to say we can acknowledge that is a fact, but we can say this is not right. There are opportunities lost.
There’s all sorts of extra pain that comes to a situation when we’re not encountering suffering as humanity, acknowledging the dignity of individuals. Instead, we create a system that moves suffering out from the suburbs. It moves it into the margins, constantly pushing pain back in an oppressive way on people of color.
JKC: For me, I think we have to stay at the structural level. The issue for me becomes, at least the way in which I talk about it with my students. I’m doing a Christian theology class, the general theology class at Duke Divinity School this semester.
One of the things I’m laboring to make as clear as I can is that we are caught inside what I call the logic of the atonement, atonement theology. We’re caught inside of a certain logic of atonement. What do I mean by that?
What I mean by that is to the extent that modern society imagines or equates life, the good life, life with certain groups, and particularly with the standard, the ideal of whiteness as equivalent to life, and equates the non‑white, and most especially at its negative anchor, the figure of blackness to align that with the horizon of death, that antinomy between life and death as a zero‑sum game creates a cultural, structural logic. In misery, that structural logic produces misery. It is a structure of misery. Even for those who think that life is their birthright, that the good is their birthright, actually it’s still producing misery even for them. It’s killing them softly, but it’s still killing them.
ER: You call that melancholy.
JKC: That’s the melancholy part. It’s a structure of misery and a structure of melancholy. If you want to intercept that, we have to risk another cultural imagination. An imagination of a social world that is not structured through death being aggregated towards some for the life of others.
To stay with the atonement within Christian thought if we want to talk about this within the terms of Christian theology, I argued with my class, offered to them for their consideration, some of them pushed back.
ER: [laughs] It’s always good when students push back.
JKC: It’s always good. What I offer to the class for their consideration is, how do we think about the atonement? If we don’t want to think about it as a structure of necessary misery, some oscillation between life and death, where life, or the good life, is increasingly aggregated towards the few, and the bad life towards the many, and that bad life is their fault.
What do we do? I suggest to them within the framework of Christian theology, I say, “What if the death of Jesus was about the destruction of an imagination that pits life against death and death against life altogether? What if it’s the destruction of that?” This is something that we learn from womanist theology.
Delores Williams already taught us in that wonderful book that we still have much work to do to begin to catch up with what she was saying, Sisters in the Wilderness, 1993. She makes an argument against the vision of atonement in which life gets pitted against death. Jesus, she says, did not have to die.
He died because of a social order that saw Him promulgating a form of life that didn’t need death to anchor it. It was life without remainder. It was total life, which was a critique of the Roman Empire, because the Roman Empire was funded through the production of misery and death. Jesus steps inside of that, and lives a life of sheer life. And that itself was the critique of the political order.
So what did they try to do? Kill Him. They killed Him, but then they discover that they’re trying to kill what’s unkillable. Christians called this the resurrection. The death of Jesus wasn’t necessary. It was the cultural reflex against a form of life that did not need death or its negative other to anchor it.
They tried to kill it because they saw it as the critique of their society. Only to discover, even when you kill it, you can’t kill it. That poses for us a structural challenge. The challenge then becomes not simply, how do I get you stop police slamming me to the ground?
It requires that I ask, what structural work does slamming, throwing Freddie Gray in the back of that van do? What structural work was Zimmerman executing? What sent Zimmerman to deputize himself, to secure society? It requires us to ask that deeper level question. And then to ask and further question that it scares bejesus out of us.
Can we imagine a different form of society? Not to make it better. A different form of society, one that is not structured through some aggregated towards death, the few aggregated towards life. What if we had to get rid of that and reimagine another world?
ER: This breakthrough of imagination, that comes with incarnation. We’re reimagining all sorts of concepts that are just flipped upside down. Speaking at the level of imagination, I think it’s really helpful because it introduces a whole, embodied approach to, one, the Christian experience.
At another level, certainly related for this country, but the American experience. There’s a physicality that comes with this new imagination.
JKC: That’s right.
ER: It’s a new sense of place. Where does the Messiah go? Who is the Messiah Himself? Also, who does the Messiah associate with? Who gets to associate with Him? Who gets to claim Him?
JKC: Who does He claim?
ER: Who does He claim? [laughs] Absolutely. This all comes to your renewed sense of the imagination. One thing I want to explore here is where this comes from. I think maybe this is just the age‑old effort, the desire to have some justification for this.
Tell me how this happened, because structures like that, I would think, they don’t come into existence by virtue of just one individual. Sometimes they don’t necessarily even come volitionally. Sometimes they do. I just want to untie a little bit of what’s going on, and I have a praxis in mind at the end of this question.
What I hope is that there are ways that I can act out of my humanity, but not act out of my whiteness. That I can act out of who I am knowing that there is going to be a structure that privileges me. I want to act with that new subversive imagination. That’s what I think. That what I think the radical root of Christianity is, is to act with subversion in mind. What do you think about this? [laughs]
JKC: I think your emphasis and constant returning to this word imagination I think is crucial, because the racial world is precisely that imagination that shackles the imagination, that does not allow for imagination. It will not let it be released to imagine another world.
I also like how you’ve turned to Jesus, the incarnation. I have a particular read on the incarnation that I think will be important. I would argue if Christianity is going to have some positive say on where we’re going, and I say it in those terms because Christianity, we can’t say this enough, Christianity midwifed the racial world, period.
It is a Christian invention. The entire apparatus of Christian doctrine was mobilized to construct the imaginary that we now call race. Therefore, Christianity’s implicacy in the production of the racial world raises a challenge back to Christianity, because it would require at that very point for Christianity to move against itself, to become illegible to itself in order to break what it did.
ER: The first image that comes to mind when you say is the Jesus of the Grand Inquisitor coming back and essentially in protest of the inquisition. So what I hear is not…
ER: …just Christianity protesting against itself but Christ’s protest against Christianity.
JKC: That’s exactly right.
JKC: Part of what’s the issue here, and I try and talk about this in my book, my colleague and friend, Dr. Jennings, has talked about it in his book. We both have made this argument that the minute that a predominantly gentile populated faith believed that that faith belonged to them, you’ve got a massive problem. You’ve got a massive problem. That mistake happened fairly quickly and fairly early. Indeed…
ER: All you need is Galatians 3.
JKC: That’s all you need. You already see the problem emerging in scripture itself. It’s almost as if the blessing of revelation was to include that problem as a part of the revelation if we take that seriously, that this mistake is also inside the revelation. That gentiles ceased to see themselves as invited into a faith that did not belong to them.
And therefore, their relationship to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was only a relationship of gift, only a relationship of unmerited communion. Once that was lost, that problem of false ownership would metastasize in different ways throughout the rippling history of the West. We are inside one of these most pernicious mutations.
That problem, what I’m calling Christian supersessionism, gentiles believing that they’ve superseded Israel as owning the faith. When that happens, beginning in the 15th century, that problem of Christian supersessionism mutated in such a way that it hit the Transatlantic.
The structure of “It belongs to me and not to you” took on the veneer of colonialism, generating what we now call race. Racism is a specific iteration of Christian supersessionism of the gentiles. It’s a theological problem.
There’s another problem that I couldn’t end this without saying, because I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what may be a bad inference of what I’m saying. It’s not even that the Jews owned their faith. The logic of ownership itself is a big part of the problem. The Jews were called.
If we dial it back to that transition from Tower of Babel, Genesis 11 into Genesis 12, the calling of one who was among the people of Chaldea, a guy named Abram. He’s called out by the God who will become the God of Israel. Israel don’t even exist yet. The one who will become the God of Israel calls the guy named Abram and says, “Go to a place that I will tell you.”
He set on a journey of going into. He don’t own nothing. So the Jewish relationship to the God of Israel and to the faith of Judaism is not one of ownership itself. Even if Jewish people then converted culturally into a cultural property, that only evidences the tension inside of Judaism, too. It doesn’t legitimate it, it just surfaces it.
The logic of ownership, which is to say the logic of the master, which of course you need a slave, is right at issue here. This is why the incarnation, the point you made, this is why when the Son of God, according to the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2, takes the form of the servant or enters into the human form, He doesn’t become a human being in the abstract, which is the way we like to talk about it. Jesus became a human being. No, He didn’t. He became this particular one within a structure of mastery and slavery, he became the slave.
From the position of the slave within a structure of mastery and slavery and dominance, the dominant over the dominated, within that structure, He took the position of the dominated to blow up the structure itself.
He entered into that subject position to blow up the whole structure. Whatever we mean by Jesus is Lord, it don’t mean Jesus is a master, which is another thing we got to get rid of. These are the cultural logics that fund America.
This is why John Locke, when he writes that brutalizing text that is at the political bedrock of the US constitution, “The Second Treatise on Government,” he says in, what is it, book six on property, he has this powerful line where he sums up the whole argument he makes about property.
He says, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” by which he means property to be owned. That rewriting of the Genesis narrative as a Christian narrative to fund the American scene is an iteration of exactly what I’m talking about. The problem, my friend, that I would argue is this. Our Christianity is so stitched and wedded to that, that we don’t know how to let it go.
It’s that logic that slammed Sandra Bland to the ground. It’s that logic that drew Freddie Gray in the back of that van. It’s that logic that sent Dylann Roof into Emanuel AME and shot those people as they extended his arms to him and said, “Come on in, we love you, too.” It’s that logic that sent them people up in Charlottesville and killed that woman.
That’s the logic we’re dealing with. It’s not just people being bad. It’s that, but it’s way deeper than that. It’s a cultural imaginary. We don’t know how to live without the logic of property, which is to say the logic of somebody having and somebody not having, which is also to say, because whenever you have property, you have to have the means to secure your property, which is a structural violence.
Property and war are the same thing. So we got to do some major imaginative renovation. That’s the problem as I see it. I can’t stress it enough. Christianity midwifed this. For Christianity to do something different, it has to fundamentally rewrite its own terms.
It has to fundamentally be something different. It’s going to be so different, it won’t look like Christianity as we know it. It can’t. It will often get read as not even Christian. It has to be that radical.
ER: I’m sorry, I keep coming back to Dostoevsky here. It’s just been on my mind. The Christ that comes back to the inquisition is unrecognizable.
JKC: He’s illegible. The illegible and the unrecognizable Christ who took the form of the slave looks like the Dostoevsky figure. In the US, it’s necessarily the figure of the black. When James Cone said, “God is black,” this is what he’s talking about. He’s not making at ethnic statement.
He is making a statement that God is at the site of the abjection that secures the logic of society as a place of would‑be prosperity but actually generating misery. You can’t get to Jesus apart from blackness. That’s what’s being said.
ER: It’s beautiful. Thanks for all this, man.
ER: The Table Audio is hosted and produced by me, Evan Rosa, and is a resource of the Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation.
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