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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Carter's RACE 1: Gnosticism, the Body, and Black Churches

I'm working slowly through J. Kameron Carter's new book, Race: A Theological Account. My first response is that it promises to share a place in my learning with a few other books which seek to narrate the emergence of the intellectual, social, and political character of the modern age and its dissolution. Carter, like me, is convinced that critical yet contingent events, movements, and developments occurred at critical moments congregated around and in relation to the European venture into global empire. With apologies to my friend JKC, I will attempt to articulate a few of the things I have been learning.

Having offered a structurally parallel argument about hierarchical arrangments of bodies that appears in the disputation between Irenaeus and Gnosticism, Carter moves to show how a restructuring of humanity in the European imagination asserts and deploys the concept of whiteness as an ordering principle. He finds the critical move of differentiating whiteness in the modern construction of Jews as deficient humanity. This initial Enlightenment vision of rewriting Christianity as whiteness affirms a supersession of the covenant with the Jews and simultaneously severing Jesus from his Jewish covenantal flesh. A spiritualized Jesus, mascot for white supremacist visions of a world order in which European empires manage the globe, contributes to the classification of non-European bodies (politic) as lesser forms of humanity, a hierarchy of racialized bodies (politic). Carter finds in the early articulations of Christian faith among African Americans an apprehension of how racialized theology and politics has gone wrong, along with insight into the path theology must take to again be true to the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ.

When it came time in my Christian Ethics class to discuss Jim McClendon's Ethics, chapter 3, it occurred to me that McClendon's initial argument had waded into the same waters of which Carter's more recent book gives richer historical and theoretical account. McClendon argues that in confronting the misconstrual of bodily existence and nature, individualism of the sort that severs body and mind has greatly harmed Christian thinking about the natural and the body. He turns to the insights of certain scholars of the black church to argue that a residue of wholeness lacking in much mainstream theology can be found in the practices of the black churches, some of which he labels as embodied religion, life-affirming faith, conversion narrated through bodily experience, presence to God and one another, participation in the life of God, possession by the Spirit, and openness to the depth of human suffering. A key element of the articulation of such an argument is the hermeneutical stance toward recapitulation of the stories of Israel among the Africans of this continent.

McClendon approached this topic with some trepidation, recognizing that he could be construed to be stereotyping black people in the same ways that racism has always done so. Thus, it is critical to see that his argument is not that the black church exhibits emotion, ecstatic movement, etc., but that it witnesses to a wholeness which does not assign opposites to body and mind, to black and white. If I am reading correctly, then Carter's argument affirms and extends the insight that McClendon ventured 22 years ago.

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