Symposium Introduction

After Ferguson, Sandra Bland, Charlotte, NC, Bresha Meadows, and a host of recent black victims of the injustice of our criminal legal system, can one have faith in the law of the land? If it had not been already, many are beginning to see the failure of the criminal legal system and appeals to justice from the law as inescapably fraught. The inability of the judges, juries, lawyers and politicians tasked with ensuring justice to discern instances of injustice that seem so clear to black people, the law’s inability to indict or convict police officers who are caught on tape murdering black people—either directly or through neglect—seems to be a sign of the law’s collusion (and perhaps fundamental alignment) with antiblackness in the United States. Still, in the wake of the law’s failure, where can we turn? Is there any hope of things changing if the state and its legal systems are fundamental incapable of providing justice? If the notion of justice that the state appeals to is fundamentally unjust and reproduces injustice as a way of life, must the law simply be discarded?

Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law provides one response to this impasse by turning to an under-explored element of well known black thinkers—their appeals to natural law. Against both conservative, European understandings of natural law and secular multicultural narrations of law and religion, Lloyd argues that attending to the black natural law tradition and its fracturing will enable us to better know and do justice here and now. Rather than a notion of law that is reduced to either law and order or to individualistic notions of love, Lloyd argues for a complex texture to black natural law tradition that understands the importance of uniting action, affect, and reason for the advancement of social justice. Thus, the black natural law tradition has two aims which guide its expression: ideology critique and social movement organizing. By examining the interplay between these two, Lloyd seeks to shake off the impoverished notions of justice that remain when we accept secular or conservative Christian notions of law and tradition. For Lloyd, this creates more room for a rich engagement with black religious thought.

“Educate, agitate, organize” is a common principle in movement building and grassroots organizing. In Black Natural Law, Lloyd gives us an illustration of how black thinkers can be said to constitute a black natural law tradition in a way that aligns with these principles. Considering four foundational figures in black political thought (Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr.), Lloyd uses the black natural law tradition as a focus point to make the compelling case for blackness as the primary starting point for all political action and work against injustice. The black natural law tradition thus becomes a means of educating the reader on the uses of natural law in black politics and religion, and also serves to contest the understanding of the natural law tradition as promulgated by white, conservative reason. Against the flattening of natural law discourse into a conservatizing impulse, Lloyd shows how multiple traditions of natural law can be accounted for by showing how black natural law is a useful and necessary tradition (indeed, the most significant natural law tradition) that theologians and activists concerned with justice should draw from, recover, and expand. In so doing, Lloyd compelling argues that “affect, ideology critique, and performance must all be part of a story about justice—about injustice in the world we have and about how we can move toward a more just world” (xiv).

Within this story about justice, each figure taken for consideration reveals something about how black natural law informs understandings of affect, ideology critique, and performance to engender more justice—its discernment and its practice. Frederick Douglas is shown to be a skilled orator whose speeches effectively challenge the slaveholding law of the land through appeals to a higher law. These proclamations, grounded in a uniting of emotion and reason, work hand in hand in the pursuit of God’s law—that is, the abolition of slavery and black freedom. Anna Julia Cooper’s skill as an educator and organizer is brought to the fore in a way that takes her seriously as a strategist whose appeals to God’s law ground her claims that black women have a privileged role to play in the struggle for justice. Against readings of her as simply beholden to respectability politics, Lloyd shows how her negotiation of gender politics reveal an astute and creative leader who utilized claims about God’s law as a way of educating others in the practice of negotiating complex political terrain. In some ways, this aligns with an argument like Delores Williams’ regarding a quality of life/survival ethic as a central insight of black women’s history. Lloyd finds that Du Bois’ work on the soul and religion reveals the connection between natural law and the perception of humanity and injustices against humanity. Du Bois’ exploration of the souls of black folks shows that the black condition reveals a higher law which grants black people an epistemic privilege in recognizing the apophatic nature of humanity and the white lie that black people are objects rather than human. Du Bois’ use of natural law thus reveals the souls of white folks as deformed by racism and unable to perceive the reality of humanity and injustice. Consequently, whites are incapable of knowing the good, the true, and the beautiful without becoming educated by the black condition and subject to the black struggle for freedom. Finally, Lloyd recovers the radicalism of King’s appeals to natural law against the secular narration of him which would reduce his religious concepts and rhetoric to political opportunism. Instead, Lloyd highlights an adept and astute intellectual and rhetorician who contributes to the black natural law tradition by highlighting the necessity of continual discernment of a higher law which may require we become maladjusted to the status quo—a maladjustment which can aid us in refusing arrogance in maintain critical reflection as we strategically organize for justice.

Whether the book makes good on its intention to reveal this tradition’s relevance for today is what primarily concerns the respondents to Lloyd’s monograph. Luke Bretherton wonders about the accuracy of Lloyd’s depiction of black natural law as the predominant framework for the figures he considers and whether Lloyd loses something of the specific theological content of appeals to natural law traditions by relying on an abstract metaphysics. Still, Bretherton finds reading Lloyd’s work as performing a black natural law critique in its style and argument clarifies his treatment of his subjects. Courtney Bryant contends that the diversity of black responses to oppression gets lost in Lloyd’s narration of them as a coherent black natural law tradition. This leads her to wonder how authority gets deployed in such a narration and the importance of negotiating between a plurality of incongruent black visions for justice. Carol Wayne White extends the critical engagement with Lloyd by questioning the theological nature of Lloyd’s argument. She takes issue, especially, with the absence of naturalism and non-theistic humanism and animism in his account of figures like Anna Julia Cooper. Gregory Williams sees much promise in Lloyd’s advancement of a black natural law tradition and hopes this text will lead to a greater development of this tradition—especially its “apophatic humanism.” Finally, Andre C. Willis is welcoming of Lloyd’s illumination of the strategic and affective dimensions of a black natural law tradition but wonders if the appeal to a higher law falls back into a problematic Christian metaphysic and whether Lloyd’s reading of his chosen figures overdetermines their use of natural law rather than showing its strategic deployment. In their responses to the book and Lloyd’s conversation with each author, it becomes clear that Black Natural Law provides a fruitful (if contentious) site for further clarifying black conceptions of justice, organizing, strategy, critique, and the role of theology in black struggle.

While Black Natural Law might appear to simply reproduce a declension narrative, Lloyd is attempting something more interesting here and eschews Rod Dreher-esque handwringing and nostalgia for a lost time. Instead, as Bretherton also points out, Lloyd is out to perform something of what he’s writing about and so reinvigorate our ability to imagine the black natural law tradition as an aid to failing better in the struggle for justice and liberation. Thus Black Natural Law reads as an attempt to persuade, to educate the mind and the emotions, to reveal injustice, and point to a way forward through organizing and ideology critique. This becomes most clear when Lloyd closes out the book with a rousing abolitionist call:

The challenge of America’s racist legal system offers an opportunity to confirm and refine the black natural law tradition. Focusing on one or another law to be fixed tempts us to forget what is most basic in that tradition: ideology critique and social movement organizing. Confronting the racist legal system teaches blacks to look suspiciously on the wisdom of the world, to work together to build power, and to patiently wait until the right moment to rise up and destroy the demonic forces that hold more than a million of our black brothers and sisters in cage. (147)

Thus, part of the aim of this book is to contribute to a tradition, black natural law, that can account for human nature in such a way that it can strike a powerful blow and speak a powerful word against the injustices found in our current criminal legal system. These actions would not seek to either discard the law or sacralize the unjust law of the current order. Instead, Black Natural Law presents resources for making the case against the laws of this world without appealing to a superssessionist logic—a force that comes from outside the world to violently fix the world through overcoming the law. In the appeal to natural law, the black condition becomes a privileged site of revelation of God’s law. Still, like blackness, this higher law is always opaque, requiring discernment, critique, and organizing that educates our reason, emotions, and actions in the true, the good, and the beautiful. Further, since this law is found through discernment, organizing, and education on the black condition it refuses an ideal triune harmony or sovereign state that sets the world right. Rather than deploying a narration of justice that requires an overcoming of blackness through participation in a divinity or a legal structure that erases the black condition, Lloyd shows how it is only in and through an education in the black condition that an account of the human and natural law can be given. When taken as an anti-supersessionist account of law, the desire to recover a black natural law tradition becomes clearer. For, without the appeal to a higher law, a divine law, it seems that life and death, especially black life and death, is stuck—subject to the whims of the laws of this world, stuck appealing to a state that shows no ability to recognize the humanity of black people. Turning to a black natural law tradition, then, is one way of both indicting the current criminal legal structure with its reproduction of injustice and, at the same time, advancing a conception of God and the human person—her actions, intellect, and affect—that can affirm a black abolitionist struggle for justice.



Black Natural Law as Performance and Rationality

This is a brave book that reframes discussion of both natural law and the analysis of race in a theological key. My response begins by discussing how Lloyd situates Black natural law in relation to other traditions of natural law, as this is a central focus of the book. It then locates Black natural law as an approach to race in relation to other political traditions, notably, black nationalism. And I end by trying to understand what kind of book this is so as to understand how the book performs an argument as much as it makes an argument.

Let me begin by laying out what I take to be Lloyd’s central thesis. For Lloyd, the Black natural law tradition (BNL) is a “style of ethical and political engagement” (viii) as much as it is a set of conceptual judgments about the nature and form of human flourishing. As a style of ethical and political engagement it emerges from reflection on human nature as experienced within conditions of systemic oppression and the work of organizing done to end this oppression. The argument is that the oppressed, of which African Americans are a paradigmatic instance, have an epistemic privilege in determinations of human nature (ix). Failure to grant this epistemic privilege leads to mystified and false constructions of human nature that reinscribe unjust systems and oppressive forms of life. As a mode of natural law thinking BNL has a normative conception of what it means to be human, one grounded in theistic conceptions of all humans as made in the image of God, which can be appealed to as part of challenging idolatrous, hegemonic constructions of what it means to be human that privilege some and exclude others. White supremacy, and its manifestation in such systems as the criminal justice system, is one such idolatrous construction of human nature that BNL critiques, capitalism is another. This argument is set out through discussions of four “canonical” figures who embody in their lives Lloyd’s thesis. These figures are: Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. The book closes with a declension narrative focused on how the BNL tradition fragmented and dissolved subsequent to the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Lloyd oscillates between envisaging Black natural law (BNL) as a unique tradition incommensurable with other natural law traditions and envisaging it as a paradigmatic exemplar of natural law thinking that has distinct characteristics against which all other traditions of natural law thinking must be judged (e.g., ix, xiii). A case could be made either way. If it is the former some account is needed of how BNL is part of wider developments in Africana philosophy and whether it should be understood as emerging out of older traditions of what Henry Odera Oruka calls “African sage philosophy.” Such an account would fit with Lloyd’s MacIntyrian argument about how BNL is incommensurable with other natural law traditions (154–55). However, the argument that BNL is incommensurable seems to be contradicted by the evidence of all the figures Lloyd himself discusses, each of whom draws on and makes use of European philosophy and theology in creative and explicit ways. To insist on incommensurability would entail disregarding the testimony of those whom Lloyd puts forward as canonical figures within BNL.

If, however, BNL is taken to be a paradigmatic form of natural law against which all other traditions of natural law thinking should be judged, it becomes a singular and very powerful form of immanent critique. Connections can also then be made to parallel projects of immanent critique, most notably Eugene Rogers’s recent work on natural law.1 What Lloyd plots are the epistemic conditions for natural law to take account of idolatrous systems and oppressive cultures in the formulation of what is taken to be human nature. The BNL tradition exemplifies these conditions (e.g., 23, 68, 72).

Working with such conditions, and using BNL as a paradigm, let me suggest some connections and parallels that can be made to developments in what Lloyd calls the “European, Christian natural law” tradition. For this purpose I will focus on Catholic social teaching as a primary articulation of natural law reasoning in Europe. Arguably, Catholic social teaching is initiated by wrestling with the experience of impoverished and oppressed industrialized workers across Europe in the nineteenth century. Attention to this experience generates Rerum Novarum in 1893, spawns the ressourcement of Thomist conceptions of natural law, the rejection of “throne and altar” political theologies, and the adoption of democracy as a primary marker of good political order.2 However, failures to further extend this epistemic privilege leads to breakdowns in the rationality of Catholic social teaching and calls for its renewal. The Vatican’s response to Latin American Liberation Theology from the 1970s onwards can be seen as a fight over who is granted epistemic privilege and is settled by the recognition of the Vatican that a “preferential option for the poor” is central to any determination of what constitutes human flourishing. An engagement between Catholic social teaching and BNL points both to parallels but also the need for Catholic social teaching to be instructed by BNL, particularly in relation to white supremacy and the symbiosis between the development of phronesis and what Lloyd calls in places social movement organizing.

The book, however, begs the question as to whether natural law can be saved by the salve Lloyd proposes: namely, attention to the epistemic privileging of the oppressed, involvement in social movements and anchoring it metaphysically in an abstract theism. James Cone stands in an ambiguous relation to Lloyd’s argument in this regard. Lloyd praises Cone for his early work and the way it was paradoxical. He criticizes Cone for his subsequent embrace of “contextual” theology and a move towards a “theology of multiculturalism that ultimately also embraces secularism” (160). Yet Cone is most paradoxical when he is most christological. Cone’s statement that racism is a demonic force and Black Power a form of exorcism points to a christological analysis of what needs to happen for liberation from oppression.3 Cone makes an analogy between Jesus’s acts of exorcism and the significance of Black Power. On Cone’s account, as well as a means of survival, Black nationalist and Black Power efforts to form a nation within a nation can be understood as theo-political gestures of exorcism within the wider body politic.4 The confession of Jesus Christ as savior and how this confession presents a crisis to all other ways of knowing the world is not addressed in Lloyd’s book. Yet all the figures discussed are shaped in one way or another not just by involvement in social movements or experiences of oppression but also by Christian confession, either their own or of those around them. So is natural law and a vague theism enough? Or is there a need for a more determinant sense of the revelation of God given in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in Lloyd’s conception of natural law? The book invites this question even while its focus is elsewhere.

The mention of Cone and Black Power raises the question of how to understand Lloyd’s claim that BNL is the majority and mainstream tradition of black political thought in North America. Even within the terms the book sets for itself, this is a claim that needs much further substantiation. An absent presence in the text is what most black political theorists judge to be the primary discursive tradition of US black political thought: black nationalism. To define what I am referring to let me draw on Michael Dawson’s distinction between three overlapping ways of conceptualizing what it means to be the black nation:

The first is built on state power and land. The second defines African-Americans as more than “just another American ethnic group” but as a separate, oppressed people, a nation-within-a-nation, with the right to self-determination. A third, usually less political, conception of “the” black nation defines it as a community with a defined and unique spiritual and cultural identity. All three definitions of the black nation presume that people of African descent within the borders of the United States have at least some common interests based on their race or their common history of racial subjugation.5

Even though the form black nationalism took varied, the basic goal was the same: to form a demos/people capable of, in the first instance, surviving; in the second instance, resisting; and finally, thriving within an oppressive system that refuses to see, hear, or talk about the dehumanizing impact it is having on others and on its white beneficiaries. As Dawson notes, black nationalism is a way to challenge the insider-outsider status of being the racialized other in North America that generates what Du Bois called “double consciousness.” This challenge operates on two fronts simultaneously: first, by claiming to be a nation, entry to and recognition within white channels of public discourse (whether mainstream, such as universities, or subaltern, such as the labor and women’s movement) is demanded; and second, by developing an alternative counter-public, space for critical reflection and self-cultivation (a form of life within which to live and move more freely) is provided.6 The claim to be a nation, even a nation within a nation, is a claim to be all that being a nation invokes as a “social imaginary”: belonging, sense of place, a history, a future, self-determination, citizenship, and a distinctive culture. It is a claim to possess a way of being in the world that lives an alternative to and refuses racialized constructions of blackness as a form of non-being and an anti-type of the good citizen.

Within Lloyd’s book key figures within black nationalism pop up—notably Martin Delany and Marcus Garvey, as well as Stokely Carmichael, who is briefly critiqued (120–21)—but black nationalism is not named, let alone discussed. It would be helpful to hear how Lloyd situates BNL in relation to one or another of the forms of black nationalism Dawson identifies. As it stands, Lloyd seems to position BNL as achieving the same things as being a nation.

Further attention to the intersection between black nationalism and BNL problematizes Lloyd’s identification of Black Power as the forbear of multiculturalism and secularism and the progenitor of the emergence of a middle-class, black intellectual elite who represent the fragmentation and decline of the BNL tradition. His account does not reckon with how the Black Power movement mixed sacred and profane, public and private, the vernacular and the formal, theory and practice, and refused modern European attempts to separate pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. “Black is beautiful” is a simultaneously political, economic, ethical, spiritual, and aesthetic statement that was performed in rap and ballet, hairstyles and poetry, political polemics and preaching. Rather than a form of secularist multicultural discourse, Black Power can be seen as a form of “post-secular” politics avant la lettre. This is exemplified in a figure like Albert Cleage who is central to the emergence of Black Power as a social movement. Cleage’s critique of white supremacy is explicitly theological, does make normative claims about human flourishing, and is tied to specific forms of community organizing and electoral politics. He thereby contests Lloyd’s declension narrative.7

Let me shift focus from specific points of contention to a consideration of what kind of book this is. If the book is read as a monograph, setting out a detailed analysis with carefully substantiated claims based on evidence to warrant those claims and situated within a wider set of scholarly disputes, then problems abound. For example, it is not clear why Lloyd’s framing of W. E. B. Du Bois as a proponent of the black natural law tradition is better than either Cedric Robinson’s reading of Du Bois as mediating the engagement between what Robinson calls “the Black radical tradition” and Marxism, or Cornel West’s situating of Du Bois within American pragmatism, or Gary Dorrien’s identification of Du Bois with the Social Gospel. None of these or other accounts of Du Bois are engaged and the evidence given for Du Bois as drawing on natural law is at times tenuous. And at no point is a justification given for why Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. should be considered “canonical” (159). Moreover, the lack of definition of the term “community organizing” and its deployment to describe radically different kinds of political engagement was frustrating. And I have no doubt that scholars of natural law will be driven to apoplectic distraction by the sweeping characterization given of the “European, Christian natural law tradition” (4). But Lloyd explicitly eschews detailed intellectual and social history because he wants to keep in view a clear line of argument. At the same time, he recognizes the need for it to substantiate various points he is making (e.g., 119, 127).

To understand the nature of this book it is important to attend to how Lloyd is constantly directing the reader’s attention to how genre, style, and rhetoric are vital to discerning the arguments being developed by the figures he discusses. And we cannot understand why genre and rhetoric are so important unless the figures are themselves situated within the forms of political engagement that informed and embodied their understanding of natural law. As Lloyd puts it, to understand the account of natural law someone like Frederick Douglass develops “requires careful attention to both form and content, to rhetoric and argument, to principle and strategy—and to how all of these are entwined” (3).

Lloyd, then, seems to want to invite the reader to engage his book as a richly suggestive essay rather than as an academic monograph. To treat it as a monograph is to miss entirely the performative dimension and rhetorical function of the book which Lloyd himself makes clear is crucial to understanding the BNL tradition (e.g., 90). The book echoes and performs the BNL tradition, which is not mediated by detailed philosophical analysis carried out by professors in ivory towers. It emerges from speeches, stories, letters, poems, and essays, written in the midst of and as a response to urgent political work to end injustice. Like this book, these writings were written to be read as part of enabling shared action.

Attention to the role of genre, style and rhetoric enable a notable feature of Lloyd’s book to come into view; that is, the absence of technical, jargon-heavy and often idiosyncratic terms beloved of critical race and other social theorists. Lloyd writes with a pellucid prose that is a pleasure to read. The style of the writing thereby performs not only his account of BNL but also his critique of other theological and philosophical accounts of white supremacy, for example, Afro-pessimism. For Lloyd, the prolix and obscurantist nature of such accounts reflect how they are disembedded from and often antithetical to black religious traditions and black-led constructive forms of social movement organizing. Therein they fail the essential purpose of writing that, as Lloyd notes in relation to Du Bois, “is to persuade” (59). In contrast to BNL, they emerge from “black intellectual elites whose political and cultural views are closely aligned with the liberalism or radicalism of white intellectual elites” (119).

There is much more that could be said and I very much look forward to reading other responses to this bold and creative book, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to argue with and think alongside it. My hope is that at least some of what I have said might be a constructive catalyst for further reflection.

  1. Eugene Rogers, Aquinas and the Supreme Court: Race, Gender, and the Failure of Natural Law in Thomas’s Biblical Commentaries (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

  2. On this, see Luke Bretherton, “Democracy, Society, and Truth: An Exploration of Catholic Social Teaching,” Scottish Journal of Theology 69.3 (2016): 267–80.

  3. James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (Maryknoll: Orbis 1997 [1969]), 41‒42.

  4. Ibid., 42‒43

  5. Michael C. Dawson, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 91. Marcus Garvey is an example of the first, Martin Delany the second, and LeRoi Jones (before he became Amiri Baraka) the third. For an alternative typology to Dawson’s, see John T. McCartney, Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 111‒32. What Dawson misses is the “cosmopolitan” dimension of most Black nationalisms. The constitution of the Black nation/people operated in both a local and a global register. For example, revolutionary nationalists located their struggle within broader anti-colonial and cross-class struggles elsewhere in the world. Whereas for others, self-determination was framed in terms of being part of a Muslim umma, or Africana diaspora, or worldwide class solidarity.

  6. Dawson, Black Visions, 27‒28. On the dual role of counter-publics as means of incorporation, see Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Civil Sphere (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 275–77.

  7. Cleage is not an isolated figure. Others include Reverend Arthur Brazier and Minister Franklin Florence.

  • Vincent Lloyd

    Vincent Lloyd


    Response to Bretherton

    It is always a pleasure to have intellectual exchange with Luke Bretherton, whose scholarship has taught me much over the years. A careful reader, Bretherton calls our attention to aspects of Black Natural Law that are in need of clarification, and he offers a way of understanding the intervention that the book aims to make that is sympathetic and elucidating.

    In general, Bretherton seems to want assurances that there is space in my story for figures from the Black political tradition who are usually seen as more radical than the figures with whom I engage. I certainly am sympathetic to this desire; indeed, in the introduction to Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics (Orbis, fall 2017), Andrew Prevot and I ask, “How might we understand the black radical tradition as a black religious radical tradition—or a black Christian radical tradition?” In that volume, we attempt a collective answer; in my book Religion of the Field Negro (Fordham, fall 2017), I develop my own response, beginning with Malcolm X and Albert Cleage and proceeding to chapters critically engaging with James Cone, Steve Biko, Huey Newton, Sylvia Wynter, and others. That book is framed as a prolegomena to a systematic Black theology (arguing, along the way, that the prolegomena is the systematic theology itself). Black Natural Law is a different sort of project: highlighting the political-theological dimensions of the mainstream Black political tradition and showing how doing so brings out the radical core of that tradition.

    Bretherton worries that this attempt to explicate a tradition is torn between an investment in the incommensurability of tradition, on the one hand, and the claim that the Black natural law tradition is paradigmatic, on the other. He further worries that Black political leaders’ appropriation of “European philosophy and theology” undermines the claim to incommensurability, and so he chooses to embrace the claim that Black natural law is paradigmatic while setting aside the claim of incommensurability. We lack the space to dive into philosophical arguments about incommensurability here, but I would just point out that it seems quite plausible that we could observe a dramatically different society that seems relatively egalitarian or relatively elitist, or where elites are constantly being overthrown, while also acknowledging that the words, concepts, and even feelings of that society are so different than ours that we cannot even begin to understand them.

    I certainly do not expect that it is possible for readers living lives of relative privilege to translate specific concepts or feelings native to the Black American experience into their own. (I tried to avoid graphic accounts of violence that would elicit empathy encouraging the sense of commensurability.) Rather, I tried to draw attention to the second-order question of how performance, rhetoric, reason, affect, and imagination all work together in a particular way in this tradition to motivate challenges to elites. The answer to that second-order question is what I take to be exemplary, teaching a lesson to all. While such a lesson might be heard by all, I doubt that it can be put into practice by those who are not participating in marginalized traditions, for traditions that are not marginalized quickly dismiss (or co-opt) attempts at ideology critique and serious organizing that would challenge elites. This is why I conclude in the book that conversion to a marginalized tradition is necessary—as the only way to rightly access natural law and so to participate in the good, the true, and the beautiful.

    “The confession of Jesus Christ as savior” strikes Bretherton as important to Christian engagements in politics and to the four protagonists of my book in particular. He contrasts this “confession” with a “vague theism” about which I write. In fact, the kind of theism that the Black natural law tradition advocates is not “vague” at all but quite akin to “confession.” It is a commitment to challenge every attempt to name God with worldly terms, and at the same time it is a commitment to pursue that which escapes worldly terms (i.e., to have faith). I do not introduce specifically Christological or Trinitarian terminology in this book, but I attempt to present the tradition in a way that is open to that sort of terminology, and I hint at how some of the protagonists of my story use such terminology (e.g., Du Bois on his son).

    I take Black nationalism to be a concept that is sometimes employed in Black political engagement. When it is employed depends on context: it is a tool that helps with some problems and not with others. As I try to show, the Black natural law tradition employs all sorts of tools (concepts, rhetorics, tactics, etc.), and practical wisdom concerning which tools to employ in which cases is essential. In other words, I do not worry about overlooking a tradition of Black nationalist politics just as I do not worry about overlooking a tradition of Black pacifism: they are tactics rather than traditions, even if they are sometimes elevated to a tradition-like status by the clunky conceptual distinctions of political scientists.

    Bretherton asserts that “the evidence given for Du Bois as drawing on natural law is at times tenuous,” and he notes that Du Bois could equally be read as part of a pragmatist, Black radical, or social gospel tradition. Similar claims could be made of all the protagonists of Black Natural Law. Why bring them together and assert that they are part of a unified tradition? In part, it is to offer a new story of natural law that de-centers Europe. But it is also to show how there was a distinctive style of political engagement in Black America that seriously engaged with religious ideas and that grew organically from Black Christianity and Black experience of marginalization. It is certainly harder to make a case for this story than for others, but it is also more necessary—because it is a story from the grassroots, rooted in oral tradition and performance that only occasionally and fleetingly enter the archive.

Carol Wayne White


Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law “Tradition”: Concerns Fissures and Questions

Introduction & Overview

In Black Natural Law, Vincent Lloyd recovers a black natural law tradition (BNLT) that he argues has collapsed in the wake of the ’60s Civil Rights movement. Lloyd believes this BNLT offers a distinctive view of human nature that surpasses other conceptions of humanity found in comparable natural law traditions; this tradition both “appreciates the mix of reason, emotion, and imagination that make up our humanity” and asserts that human nature is “ultimately unrepresentable” (ix; xi). According to Lloyd, this BNLT also enacts a type of strategic wisdom that targets ideology critique and engages in social movement organizing (xii; xiii). Finally, for Lloyd, the unfolding of this BNLT can be seen in the life, work, and reflections of four iconic figures, whom he shows as performing natural law: Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King (xii).

There are many layers to Lloyd’s provocative study; however, in this brief essay, I focus on Lloyd’s depiction of the “concept of the human” in BNLT, which he states is the basis for this tradition’s normativity. I remain curious about the explicit a priori theistic commitments in configuring the human that Lloyd associates with all of the figures he investigates. I also raise questions about the “normative” claims that Lloyd makes about this tradition’s normative claims, namely, that “black natural law offers the best way to approach politics, not just for blacks but for everyone. . . . It is the approach that ought to be taken” (ix). I then conclude with a few general observations, asking if the BNLT is capacious enough to justify the normative claims that Lloyd makes for it.

Lloyd’s Theological Basis for Constructing Our Common Humanity

Lloyd’s general aim in this study is laudable. He retrieves and indicates the persuasive power of a BNLT amid a national crisis, poignantly and aptly described as “two million imprisoned Americans whose human nature is systematically denied” (162). The importance of his work is magnified even more when one considers the enduring legacy of white supremacy in a Euro-American lineage of thought that has helped shape an exclusionary category of the human, designating who is properly so and who is not. Even up to the present day, modernist processes of racialization repeatedly characterize people of African descent as deficient when measured against the construction of the normative Western human of Enlightenment thought (Eze 1996; Mills 1997; Stefancic and Delgado 2013).

As Lloyd develops and justifies the BNLT’s conception of humanity, he references a metaphysical component that is beyond human comprehension: “The black natural law tradition is committed to the view that no worldly description of the human suffices. Just as God exceeds all worldly description, the image of God in humanity exceeds all worldly description” (xi). When presenting the four iconic figures’ perspectives on the God concept, Lloyd does not fully theoretically demonstrate whether each figure’s view is consistent with the others. Given their diverse allegiances, historical eras, and modes of reflecting, as well as their varying cosmological and philosophical frameworks, some form of synthesizing may be warranted. My primary interest, however, is not Lloyd’s lack of systematic theorizing in presenting the “God” concept; rather, it is his contention that a theologically based view of human nature is shared by all figures, allowing Lloyd to recover a seamless BNLT.

Lloyd begins his examination with the figure of Frederick Douglass, using Douglass’s natural law theory as paradigmatic of the BNLT (2). Accordingly, Lloyd suggests that Douglass’s “complex” view of human nature, admittedly drawn from many inconsistent descriptions, is striking in its focus on “the expansive, one might even say spiritual, life of all human beings” (7). For Lloyd, Douglass’s view suggests that we are not reducible to our animal nature. Continuing his discussion of Douglass’s views of human nature, Lloyd adds to the “typical” admixture of reason and emotion, a catalogue of other important qualities and capacities. For example, among other qualities, humans can resist, believe, and also doubt; unlike animals, they are able to make progress, to remember, and to reason; humans also possess self-awareness of temporality, and they have the knowledge to distinguish between the human and the non-human (7, 8). Lloyd does not stop there. He also identifies a definitive theological (theistic) component to Douglass’s perspectives, which he presents as Douglass’s sense of the “irreducible” mystery that separates humans from animals and allows humans to identify with God (6, 8). Douglass’s God appears to be the biblically based anthropomorphic deity of traditional Judaism and Christianity. Consequently, the various human qualities “mark the ways in which humans reflect the image of God” (8).

Lloyd follows this schema when discussing each figure. In his section on Cooper, for example, he presents Cooper’s interpretation of human nature as a fusion of reason and emotion, blended in a complex “dynamic mix” (33). He then contends that Cooper’s perspectives on human nature are complemented with her views on God (35, 36, 43, 44); in some cases, as with Douglass, Lloyd even suggests that Cooper’s views are not necessarily exercises in rhetoric (42). The same general pattern, with varying points of emphasis, differences, and clarifications that allow for the specificities of the individual, is found in Lloyd’s treatments of Du Bois (66, 70, 74, 75) and King (103, 104, 105, 110).

As interpreted by Lloyd, the performance of natural law theory by all figures exemplifies the BNLT’s conception of humanity that is understood only within the context of a set of metaphysical affirmations based on a dualistic view of reality. With these portrayals, Lloyd justifies his notion that “black natural law calls us to honor the higher law that acknowledges our humanity by actively challenging the wisdom of the world” (x). Lloyd’s use of religious language is perplexing to me, as it seems to revitalize the Eliadian worldview of the profane and the sacred (Eliade 1987). This dualistic cosmology seems central to Lloyd’s discussion of the advent of secularism in the final pages (150). On p. xiv, Lloyd asserts, “The black natural law tradition certainly uses religious language, but it is legible—and persuasive—without any commitment to any specific theological beliefs or participation in any religious practices.” In reading Lloyd’s assertions, however, I sense a theological rather than religious task in this study. For example, Lloyd consistently employs traditional Christian theological anthropology in characterizing the BNLT (xiv, 6, 10, 38, 40). The result for me as a reader is that the complexity of religious symbolic language utilized by the various figures are collapsed into a formulaic God symbol.

Fissures in BNLT: Other Possible Perspectives

Conspicuously absent in Lloyd’s study are Anna Julia Cooper’s naturalized and humanistic views of human nature and W. E. B. Du Bois’s anti-metaphysical leanings, both of which fissure the seamless theological portrait Lloyd presents. When introducing the young Cooper, Lloyd states that “religion offered her a way of embracing the connections among all human beings” (34); he also infers that this pious Christian temperament remained in Cooper as she aged and informed her conception of human nature (35). In the collection of essays, A Voice from the South, however, Cooper writes not merely as a pious Christian, but also as a humanist. Throughout the volume, she presents a nuanced view of humanity that is supported by her understanding of the prescripts of nature, in which she saw egalitarian principles at work (Cooper 1988, 71, 177–78). She also employs naturalistic metaphors alongside religious ones, characterizing humans as evolving, perfecting, and maturing processes with inner-determination (Cooper 1988, 244, 258, 297). Cooper expresses US blacks’ desires for fulfillment as universal aspirations that supersede cultural and even religious differences among people (Cooper 1988, 113; 108).

In “The Gain from a Belief,” Cooper argues for a view of humanity as a material, dynamic entity capable of transformation under the proper conditions necessary for its cultivation (Cooper 1988, 244). Cooper adamantly targeted a crass materialism that she ultimately rejected with her brand of religious humanism: “Life must be something more than dilettante speculation. And religion (ought to be if it isn’t) a great deal more than mere gratification of the instinct for worship linked with the straight-teaching of irreproachable credos. Religion must be life made true, and life is action, growth, development—begun now and ending never” (Cooper 1988, 299).

Lloyd often makes his case for Du Bois’s theological anthropology by drawing on Du Bois’s earlier writings, such as Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Darkwater (1920). These two works, for Lloyd, combine Du Bois’s empirical studies and literary sensibilities. Rather than demonstrate that Du Bois himself argues as a natural law theorist, Lloyd suggests it is sufficient to show that normative judgments flow from Du Bois’s reflections on human nature. Lloyd then contends that Du Bois portrays blacks as having privileged access both to “the ways that God’s image is present in human nature” and “to God” (59). Furthermore, Lloyd notes that Du Bois sees blacks using their insights to change the world for the better, and that Du Bois implicitly argues this can be done by their attempts to “implement natural law” (59).

I share Lloyd’s sense of Du Bois’s appreciation of the rich semiotic significance of religious symbolism in black religion. However, I think he ignores important writings of Du Bois that are replete with anti-theistic articulations and anti-metaphysical leanings when describing blacks’ rights to fullness of life vis-à-vis their accountability of their own humanity (Du Bois 1968, 285; Du Bois 1970, 111; Du Bois 1978; Du Bois 1995, 134). Lloyd and I also interpret Du Bois’s perspectives in Souls differently. In my reading, Du Bois’s interpretations are in line with his empirically based humanism (White 2016, 88ff.), whereas Lloyd often cast Du Bois’s words in a theological idiom that supports Lloyd’s theistic agenda (78). Other examples include Lloyd featuring Du Bois’s purported eschatological views (73) as expressions found only in works of fiction (Lloyd 2018, 74–75), while often minimizing Du Bois’s conceptions of a self-determined black humanity governed by a sense of purposive living. In public speeches and personal correspondence, Du Bois’s anti-metaphysical views and socialist sensibilities have him emphasizing human ingenuity within the context of raced living in the United States. In a 1956 letter to Herbert Aptheker, he writes:

I assumed that human beings could alter and re-direct the course of events as to better human conditions. I knew that this power was limited by environment, inheritance and natural law, and that from the point of view of science these occurrences must be a matter of Chance and not of Law. I did not rule out the possibility of some God also influencing and directing human action and natural law. However I saw no evidence of such divine guidance. I did see evidence of the decisive action of human beings. (Du Bois 1978, 395–96)

Theological Anthropology, Normative Claims, and Questions of Justice

The fissures I read within Lloyd’s portrayal of human nature in the BNLT lead me to consider his normative claims. According to Lloyd, the normative implications of this BNLT’s conception of human nature are so compelling that all ethical and political theory ought to start with the insights of blacks (xiii). Furthermore, recalling the BNLT points to “a powerful resource to revitalize and orient normative inquiry in black studies” (xiii). The boldness of these claims has me wondering if Lloyd’s sense of the BNLT is capacious enough to address the complex and diverse forms of injustice in America today. Can this theologically formulaic approach encompass the varied, emerging conceptions and enactments of black humanity as some of us experience today? For example, can Lloyd’s BNLT creatively address the excluded humanity that queer, transgendered, and other marginalized sexualized beings experience in our unjust world? Granted, Lloyd implicitly acknowledges some of these important issues in his discussions of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde (122–29). However, I am not fully persuaded by his accounts of their views, which I think are much more complex when set within queer theory. I also object to his final critique that their perspectives are insufficient because “both offer inadequate accounts of politics” (129). I think Lloyd fails to incorporate the wider communal, sociopolitical, and ethical implications of (black) humanity that Lorde and Baldwin enacted by daring to “queer” normative views of humanity, thereby challenging problematic, monolithic views of sexuality, erotic-affective desires, femininity, and masculinity in the United States.

While deeply appreciating Lloyd’s movement from the restrictive account of natural law he often associates with European rationalist traditions, I also detect a residual androcentricism in his account of this BNLT. This androcentricism seems anachronistic when considering current ecological appraisals of the essential interconnectedness of life (Ralston 2006, 911). Additionally, current developments and empirical studies in animal studies may undermine Lloyd’s sense that reasoning, feeling and imagining are characteristically human capacities (Bekoff 2008; Waal 2016; Safina 2016). As a religious naturalist, I see Lloyd’s BNLT reinscribing a cultural fantasy of human exceptionalism, which assumes that the human is not a spatial, temporal web of interspecies dependencies (Haraway 2008, 3–4). The concept of the autonomous human has lent theoretical support to popular myths of the self-made individual in the United States, which is antithetical to the social, communal view that Lloyd champions. Given Lloyd’s critique of the rationalist bent in other Euro-American models, Lloyd’s implicit speciesism is an ironic dimension of this particular rendering of the BNLT.

Finally, given that we find ourselves in the anthropocene facing forms of ecological destruction, I have doubts about Lloyd’s BNLT’s capacity to function as a normative tool within black studies. I remain skeptical that its current theological-based configuration of human nature can help us identify and politically resist the ill effects of white supremacy on all of life. Lloyd is silent, for example, about the important political organizing done by black (and other racialized) communities in the environmental justice movement. Often without any explicit theological anthropology, this movement appeals to a view of humanity that is inseparable from other natural processes. It has also produced generations of activists of color engaged in struggles to advance natural resource conservation, environmental protection, civil rights, and social equity (Glave 2010; Finney 2014; Cole & Foster 2001). These important ecological values, along with other ones that Lloyd associates with Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois, and King, are necessary, I believe, to promote a view of black humanity that is interconnected with all of life.

  • Vincent Lloyd

    Vincent Lloyd


    Response to White

    I very much appreciate Carol Wayne White’s scholarship, and in particular her wonderful book Black Lives and Sacred Humanity, so I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to engage with her. White raises two pressing sets of questions about Black Natural Law. First, she wonders whether the book pushes its protagonists, particularly Douglass, Cooper, and Du Bois, closer to theistic and specifically Christian commitments than they would themselves be comfortable with. Second, she wonders whether the political vision put forward in Black Natural Law is capacious enough to address the variety of social justice concerns today, particularly in the Black community.

    There certainly is an important sub-tradition of Black intellectuals who have been vocally skeptical of Christian claims, and a few who have proclaimed themselves agnostic or atheist. There have also been attempts, most notably by Anthony Pinn, to reclaim a Black humanist tradition that strives for social justice without appeal to specifically religious beliefs. I am skeptical of this sort of project because it strikes me as motivated by contemporary concerns that might even be labeled evangelical. The sense that we face a menu of religious options from which we are to select, and Black people have been facing a similar menu and choosing from among its options for decades and even centuries, strikes me as a secularist fantasy. Certainly there were eccentric religious outliers at various moments in Black history, and certainly broader options became available at certain moments, such as with migration to urban areas, but an ambient Christianity was inescapable during the period in question. To ignore that ambient Christianity is really to repress it—playing into the hand of the wealthy and powerful whose power is entrenched through a secularist regime just as much as through a racializing regime. (This point is further developed in my coedited collection, Race and Secularism in America.) One of the goals of Black Natural Law is to effect a return of the repressed, displaying the political potential unleashed once the secularist repression of Black Christianity is rejected.

    I tried to be as clear as possible in Black Natural Law that my goal was to read a variety of texts by each of the four protagonists, searching for their key ideas, for the philosophical work they were doing. This involved reading texts they wrote explicitly about religion, texts they wrote that made use of religious concepts and symbols, and texts they wrote about philosophical ideas that did not appeal to anything identifiably religious. One of the key ideas I found in each of the protagonists was a commitment to an account of the human as impossible to represent in worldly terms. Sometimes this was expressed in a theistic idiom, such as the image of God in the human (though I am not sure this ever approaches the language of an “anthropomorphic deity,” as White suggests). Other times it is expressed in more philosophical terms, as in Douglass’s reflections on rhetoric. At still other times, it is performed, as when Douglass offers a flurry of divergent definitions of the human. The philosophical point here has nothing to do with the sacred and the profane. It has to do with the way we inhabit the world, always struggling but always failing to figure it out precisely. The Black natural law tradition opposes those who think they have figured it out—and then attempt to turn their confidence into norms imposed, necessarily with violence, on the bodies of others.

    I was particularly puzzled by White’s secularizing reading of Anna Julia Cooper. White writes that I attribute a “pious Christian temperament” to Cooper from her youth to her old age. (Cooper lived to be 105.) Curiously, as evidence, White cites exclusively from A Voice from the South, a collection of Cooper’s essays published when she was thirty-four years old. Cooper dedicates this collection “To Bishop Benjamin William Arnett, with profound regard for his heroic devotion to God and the race, both in Church and in State.” The cornerstone essay on the connections between gender and race was first given as a lecture to a meeting of Black clergy. As White notes, there is extensive discussion of religion throughout this text. To say that the religious engagement of the text is all really ornamental, and so to set it aside, does not strike me as the best reading strategy. Certainly the religious language could be pointing to something deeper—it is, I argue, pointing to a joint commitment to ideology critique and social movement organizing—but we have to get to that conclusion by grappling with the religious ideas rather than reducing them away. I would also point out that the vast majority of Cooper’s writings remain unpublished, held in the basement of Howard University. The Cooper chapter in Black Natural Law draws extensively on these unpublished writings from throughout her life—before and after A Voice from the South—in order to demonstrate just how deeply formed by Christianity Cooper was, and just how deeply she held onto her investment in religious community in her old age. Even late in life, she was writing poems about the saints.

    White asks what the Black natural law tradition might say to questions of sexuality and gender identity and to questions of environmental justice, the latter a particular worry because of what White describes as the “human exceptionalism” implicit in the tradition. Central to the Black natural law tradition is the rejection of accounts of the human as essentially anything, beliefs that human language can capture the nature of the human. This would clearly involve a rejection of claims that the human is essentially heterosexual, or cleanly divided into male and female. Similarly, claims that the human is essentially distinct from nature would seem to run counter to the tradition. As I emphasize in the book, deriving concrete political practice from such conclusions requires attention to context and practical wisdom.



Apophatic Humanism

Vincent Lloyd’s latest volume can be situated within an economy of recent works which call into question what was often assumed about natural law, both by its proponents (the “new natural law” theorists, John Finnis et al.) and by its critics (usually Barthians of some stripe or another). This assumption was that natural law is an attempt to “read” moral data off of creation, that, while this attempt cannot come up with all the data that Christian revelation provides, it can provide some clear, “common sense” answers to moral questions, and that these answers can be held in common by all right thinking people, whatever their particular tradition (Christian or non-Christian) or social location.

The problems with this position have long since been made clear, both by the postliberal insistence that there is no such thing as a tradition-neutral stance on moral questions and that moral reasoning always (literally) comes to terms with the world in a specific language cultivated by a particular community, and in the liberationist insight, derived from a robust engagement by theology with subaltern studies and postcolonial theory, that what is named as “natural” and “obvious” within a particular order of knowing is often, if not always, that which has been rendered “natural” and “obvious” by a particular order of power. It has been made to appear “natural,” in various times and places, that there are innate differences between the races, that the biological differences between men and women make men, and only men, fit for full citizenship, and that the exclusive purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation within lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriages. Natural law, then, has often been seen as a way of obfuscating the machinations of social power, sanctioning the “common sense” of Empire by divine fiat, and rendering the desires of working class and oppressed people for emancipation, or even for bare existence, “contrary to nature.”

While it would take an essay in itself to flesh out this line of criticism in its entirety, it seems safe to posit, for the purposes of reading Lloyd’s text, that this critique does, in fact, hold, for much natural law theory. This begs the question: is natural law to be abandoned? The answer, among both postliberals and liberationists, has, generally, been “yes” for a very long time. Political theology and Christian ethics in both of these schools of thought has tended to emphasize the apocalyptic, revelatory character of moral discourse, and to devalue “nature” as a locus for moral reflection with goods proper to it. Whether this means devaluing “creation,” too, is a separate issue, which cannot be covered here.

Now, as Lloyd points out, this tendency has extended even the category of the human. Thanks, in large part, to the engagement between Christian theology and Afro-pessimism, the claim “that Western metaphysics or theology has rooted deep within it a commitment to the dehumanization of black bodies” and that the “very concept of the human has been defined in such a way as to exclude blacks” has gained significant traction (145), bringing the rejection of natural law to completion in a rejection of humanity itself. For Lloyd, this rejection of nature in general and human nature in particular is deeply problematic, resulting in “a solipsistic retreat into the supposedly foreclosed self” (146). If the real world, peopled with beings that are really human, is not a site for moral reflection and action, then there is no possibility for concrete interventions by practically wise human agency to transform, to convert the world as it is into something more like the world as it should be. It may be true, as Marx puts it, that philosophers need to move from merely describing the world to changing it, but if there is no world that can be meaningfully described, then change is manifestly impossible, and the result is a theology and politics of hopelessness.

Black Natural Law, then, is one of a number of recently published works that are beginning to fill a crucial need: for reflection on nature—human nature and the broader nature in which humans live, move, and have their being—as a site of moral action and analysis which is not reducible to hegemonic forms of “common sense.” It is not the first, nor will it be the last, project to make this attempt. For example, Eugene Rogers’s Aquinas and the Supreme Court: Race, Gender, and the Failure of Natural Law in Thomas’s Biblical Commentaries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) argues that “Aquinas believes there is such a thing as natural law, but he is also completely comfortable admitting that we don’t, in fact, know what it is” (26). In other words, like Lloyd, Rogers, wants to affirm that the “natural” and “apocalyptic” dimensions of theology and ethics are not at odds with one another, that affirming that human nature and nature as a whole has moral content to it does not mean saying that that content is equally obvious to everyone, much less that it can be reducible to any sort of “common sense.” Rogers, Lloyd, and others in this emerging school of “dissenting natural law” or “subaltern natural law” want to affirm that natural law can, in fact, be subversive, that it can, in Lloyd’s words, condemn “worldly laws that flow from a faulty account of human nature” (20).

Yet Lloyd’s work also stands out from this emerging school of thought for two related reasons. First, Lloyd stands in continuity with classical liberation theology insofar as he wants to strongly affirm the epistemic priority of the oppressed. For W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, “experiencing oneself as a different sort of creature than how one is treated, experiencing oneself as a human rather than as a thing, offers insight into what it means to be human” (70). This epistemic privilege is intrinsic to a key aspect of Lloyd’s formulation of natural law, which could be termed “apophatic humanism.” Put in classical Christian terms, because human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, because movement into the life of the Trinity is the very principle of their being, and because the triune God whom Christians worship in Jesus Christ is infinite, without limit, there are no fixed definitions that can fully capture what it means to be human. For Anna Julia Cooper, for example, “what is most essentially human . . . is infinite possibility” (53). In fact, definitions that seek to capture human being tend to be the cultural productions of, and technologies for reproducing, regimes of social and political power that capture human beings—slavery, and, together with it and on the basis of it, colonialism and capitalism, cissexism and heteropatriarchy. Insofar as this is the case, people who live on the underside of those regimes will stand the best chance of grasping that simplistic definitions like “human beings are creatures that possess reason” or “human beings are intelligent animals who control their environment through technology” are just that—simplistic, and, in religious terms, idolatrous.

This epistemic privilege of the oppressed raises the second major way that Lloyd’s work stands out from other recent attempts at a dissident formulation of natural law. Unlike someone like Rogers, who is explicitly engaged in a critical ressourcement of a major figure in the eurowestern Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas, Lloyd’s work directs the attention of those who would have a subaltern approach to natural law and human nature to actually existing subaltern communities, and the dissident intellectuals by whom those communities are served, and through whom their understanding of the good is “made more unitary and coherent” (Gramsci, 1971, 634). Instead of reading Thomas Aquinas or even Gregory of Nyssa, Lloyd has written a book on natural law that takes Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. for its primary subjects. This alone is a radical (and highly generative) move. But Lloyd goes further. He also “suggests that the black natural law tradition gets things right. To put the claim strongly, black natural law offers the best way to approach politics, not just for blacks but for everybody” (ix). There are (at least) two possible ways of reading this claim. On one hand, it could be read reductively, as saying that Black Natural Law should replace the eurowestern Christian tradition as a way of thinking about political ethics. Unfortunately, there will almost certainly be some who take Lloyd in this way, and, on this basis, refuse to take his argument on its own terms. On the other hand, one can read Lloyd as saying that Black Natural Law gets at something real, something that the eurowestern Christian tradition has sometimes tried to evoke but has often failed to articulate. Black Natural Law, on this reading, sounds an echo in the best part of the eurowestern Christian soul, that part which is not fully possessed by the powers of Empire, and hails a new and ancient promise for the redemption of creation by the power of divine love and justice.

What I am calling Lloyd’s “apophatic humanism” is just one example of how this can work—though it is far from the only one. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, affirmed that, as the image of God, humans are “an incomprehensible image of the incomprehensible,” that is, he had an “apophatic anthropology” as “the consequence of an apophatic theology” (Tanner, 2009, 118). This understanding of the freedom intrinsic to the human as the image of God has radical consequences—Gregory’s opposition to slavery, for example: as J. Kameron Carter puts it, “the notion of the image is what orients Gregory’s posture as an abolitionist intellectual” (Carter, 2008, 242).

Yet this powerful theological resource for organized resistance to slavery and other forms of domination has been largely ignored by a Christian tradition that has sought to place a firm definition on the human as a rational autonomous chooser, that is, as free, propertied, and male. This is the process that Sylvia Wynter has forcefully called the “overdetermination” of the human as Western Man, and it has led Afro-pessimists, including Carter, to seek to do without the category of the human altogether, a move that Lloyd condemns. By showing how apophatic humanism works in the thought of four of the most powerful organic intellectuals in US history, and how it has played a concrete role in their articulation of the black freedom movement’s efforts to challenge racism and white supremacy in American laws and social norms, Lloyd pulls political theology and social ethics back from the brink of this nihilistic, anti-humanist abyss, and gives an account that is faithful to what the Christian tradition, pace Gregory, has tried, at its best, to evoke, and, frankly, that is more faithful to Wynter than many of her theological appropriators are, since she, arguably, wants to speak out against the “overdetermination” of the human, not against the human full stop.

Lloyd, then, is right when he claims that Black Natural Law, while constituted within a particular tradition of resistance in the United States, is a way of thinking about nature in general and human nature in particular that is open to everybody. Those who are interested in doing Christian theology and ethics in a liberative key should be particularly interested in the book, not only because it assigns epistemic privilege to the oppressed in theory, but performs that priority in its very written pages, pointing to a way of describing and changing the world that still has much to teach us as we confront the evils of police power, the carceral state, and other powers of Empire which seek to vitiate and destroy black life in America, and so to cheapen and denigrate the lives of working-class and oppressed people everywhere. We stand in need of a new generation of Black Natural Law theorists and practitioners, and hopefully Lloyd’s volume can help to name that need, and call a new generation to fill it.

  • Vincent Lloyd

    Vincent Lloyd


    Response to Williams

    I am grateful for Gregory Williams’s careful reading, explication, and contextualization of Black Natural Law. He situates the book among recent works that have sought a middle ground on natural law issues, between outright rejection of natural law and overly zealous adherence to a very narrow understanding of natural law (one which more often than not complements a partisan political agenda). Rather than a middle ground of political moderation, this is a middle ground opened by careful scholarship, and it is a middle ground that can still have powerful, even radical implications for political concerns in the present day. As Williams points out, Eugene Rogers’s work is a particularly potent example of this approach; Pamela Hall, Cristina Traina, and John Bowlin are among several others who have also offered important contributions to this scholarly project and whose work I have found inspiring.

    Williams helpfully describes the Black natural law tradition as expressing “something that the eurowestern Christian tradition has sometimes tried to evoke but has often failed to articulate.” This strikes me as precisely hitting the mark. Natural law is, of course, accessible to everyone who possesses human nature. However, there are individual and systemic factors that prevent us from rightly discerning our human nature—and so that prevent us from rightly knowing and acting on natural law. Indeed, no one rightly knows and acts on natural law: in such matters we deal in better and worse rather than right and wrong. While we all suffer from individual confusion about our human nature and natural law, what is particularly important (and, in the scholarly literature, under-discussed) is systemic distortion.

    Racism, like patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia, class privilege, and a host of other factors, distorts the perception of whole classes of individuals, obscuring their view of human nature and natural law. Certainly effort can be made toward overcoming such systemic distortions (as it can for individual distortions), but prima facie, if you are looking for someone with a relatively good understanding of human nature and natural law, one would look to the marginalized rather than to the privileged. Just because the privileged create impressive theological and philosophical systems for describing human nature and natural law does not mean that they are wiser on these matters. Those systems, more likely than not, will guide us astray. Our project should not be to construct alternative systems, from the margins, but rather to attend to the wisdom of those in the margins even as it lacks systematicity. Figuring out how to do this—a methodological challenge—was one of the problems that Black Natural Law tries to tackle.

    Williams usefully situates Black Natural Law among the emerging literature on “apophatic humanism.” The book claims that, for the Black natural law tradition, the way that the human images God is negatively: that there is something about the human that can never be captured by concepts, just as God can never be captured by concepts. While Williams draws attention to theological parallels with this view, I would also point to the way this view has gained currency recently in secular scholarship. Bonnie Honig has provided a particularly useful survey of this landscape (in the first half of Antigone, Interrupted), arguing that dissatisfaction with content-laden accounts of the human has led to two responses. Some have rejected the category of the human altogether, turning to continuities between humans and animals, to ecology, to materialism, to speculative realism, or to other currents of anti-humanism. Others have attempted to offer new accounts of the human that are better than those focused on reason: for example, accounts that focus on aspects of human finitude such as vulnerability or natality. In this typology, Black Natural Law would be aligned with, for example, recent work by Judith Butler that similarly attempts to draw normative conclusions, and a politics (of “relationality”), from a refined account of human nature (as vulnerable).

    Honig and Anne Phillips (in The Politics of the Human) have launched a powerful critique against attempts to recover a refined category of the human as the basis for politics (though they both agree that the concept of the human can be employed politically, in political contest; they are opposed to the flow from claims about the human to claims about what ought to be done in politics). I do not have the space here to develop their critique in detail, but it strikes me as a serious challenge to the project of Black Natural Law. I agree that politics should not be reduced to applied ethics (as Raymond Geuss pithily puts it in Philosophy and Real Politics), and I share reservations about Butler’s work on vulnerability and relationality (see my exchange with Butler in Political Theology 16:4).

    However, it strikes me that there is a significant difference between, on the one hand, attributing some content to the human and, on the other hand, using the indiscernibility of the human as an inspiration for ideology critique. The latter is what I find in the Black natural law tradition. It is not that our political life ought to be organized in certain ways because humans really are X; rather, it is that certain specific claims ought not to be considered legitimate if they depend on the claim that humans really are X. I want to say a little bit more, too: that those pursuing the critique of ideology also find it important to advocate (in different ways in different places and times) for social structures and political institutions that will assure humans are able to discern (the indiscernibility of) their human nature—by guaranteeing access to basic necessities of life. This combination of ideology critique and organizing for social democracy is what I find in the Black natural law tradition.



By Whose Authority?

Preserving the Humanity We Seek to Liberate

Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. serve as the exemplars of Vincent Lloyd’s black natural law tradition in his newest book, Black Natural Law. Through these figures, Lloyd traces what he believes to be the distinctive threads of the tradition. At its heart, he argues, the black natural law tradition is a “doing of theory” through the performance of ideology critique and the organizing of social movements. Its critique and action aim to recover the concept of the human, which suffers distortion as a result of the oppressive powers of the world. Black natural law’s intervention is a recovery of right perception, a process of conscientization that is inspired through the performance of black natural law by leaders/organizers. These performances function as part of a process in which key human capacities, including reason, feeling and imagination, are modeled, evoking the exercising of the same capacities within their audiences. Lloyd suggests these aspects of human nature have remained dormant, stunted by the diminishment of humanity by corrosive ideologies and oppressive practices. Exercising the capacities of reason, emotion and imagination allow individuals to reflect on and discern their own human nature, which makes clearer the truth of natural law. In this process, reflection upon human nature, which is understood to reflect the image of God, occurs communally, informing one’s responsibility to just relationality, and inspiring the community to apply what they have discovered as they struggle together in pursuit of justice.

As is clear from the use of language like the image of God, Lloyd contends, the black natural law tradition cannot be divorced from the black religious tradition, a tradition that permeates all of black culture. However, Lloyd curiously offers a myopic vision of black religion through Christian leaders, or at the very least, leaders who employ Christian language and Christian concepts, begging the question: Is it possible to identify a viable articulation of black natural law that does not grow out of Western religious conceptions of humanity? Lloyd’s disqualification of the truly effective measures of movements like Garveyism and the Nation of Islam, movements that both critiqued erroneous ideologies and galvanized black people across the nation to organize and act for justice, offer the clearest insight into Lloyd’s criteria. If the communal practices of ideology critique and organizing principles of the tradition of black natural law that Lloyd espouses are present in these movements, the exclusion of their philosophies from the catalogue of the black natural law tradition suggests a belief in the universality and kinship of humanity, philosophies from which these movements diverge, prove more important than their theological inspirations or their aims.

As Lloyd articulates in his treatment of Frederick Douglass, his tradition of black natural law is more concerned with the process for discernment than the destination. That process as mentioned earlier asserts a template for discerning natural law, through an understanding of human nature, by way of a concept of the image of God. None of these elements, he argues, can be apprehended, but all are predicated on a theological anthropology. Lloyd’s account is dependent on the concept of the imago dei, a notably biblical concept, which grounds a common concept of humanity and justice in a common divine source, whose nature we reflect when we are pursuing our best selves. Lloyd’s use of these exemplars inadvertently establishes black natural law as an orthopraxy, suggesting we participate in the imago dei when we struggle together towards justice, so that the image of God is not simply reflected in the being of humans, but their practices in the struggle for justice.

While aspects of this struggle and participation in God include Christian practices of love, servant leadership and sacrifice, virtues enthusiastically espoused by Douglass, Cooper, King and even Du Bois, these concepts have been historically debated within black communities as naive, and unrealistic. An aversion to sacrificing one’s power for the sake of preserving and recovering humanity, as well as an unwillingness to commit to black interpretations of Christian religious doctrine, and a lack of confidence in “other-worldly-strategies,” which privilege love above anger, represent the most acute perennial conflicts in the praxis of black political engagement. These are evident in the historic philosophies of the Nation of Islam, the Black Power Movement and are present contemporarily in much of black religious scholarship and secular justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

In addition to different responses to religious tradition, black communities’ perceptions of humanity and the order of the world are diverse. For example, Lloyd argues, mainstream black leaders and communities operated under the assumption that goodness and justice were inevitable, that the long arc of the moral universe “bends toward justice.” However, he does not account for the strong sentiment in black communities that such hope is inappropriate. The suffering and injustice experienced by black communities in this world has eroded this confidence. One of the most celebrated writers of this generation, Ta-Nehisi Coates, recently revisited the old adage, used by Martin Luther King Jr. In his much-lauded book Between Me and the World, Coates argues, “The arc of the universe bends toward chaos, then concludes in a box.” In fact, the conflicts that arose in the black communities regarding a way forward were often rooted in a healthy skepticism that justice was not an outcome that could be assumed, but had to be apprehended through human effort. While, Lloyd contends, black leaders and intellectuals operated out of a confidence in the notion that people were generally good, he does not consider how the privileging of power over integrity in the world compels many to believe otherwise.

Such a posture, Coates admits, is a product of fear that plagues many black children, women and men. This fear is cultivated by unchecked state-sanctioned violence against black people, and rampant inequity in education, healthcare and income, which compromises black communities’ willingness to engage in hope. To those whose perspective has been influenced by fear, hope is a dream that hinders the ability to be vigilant in a world that preys upon them. Still, it must be acknowledged that these deviations from what Lloyd considers the tradition, result in a collective exploration of an intuitive higher law that contests the injustice of the world, engages in critique of the ideologies that animate oppression and collective struggle toward justice, sans divine inspiration. The question becomes, is the idea of the divine animating the work of struggle necessary to maintain an impulse for pursuing justice?

Lloyd’s argument suggests it is. In fact, he contends that one of the reasons for what he perceives to be the current dilapidated state of the tradition is secularization’s watering down and disorientation of religious language among black leaders and organizers. This, he argues, makes it increasingly difficult to articulate a means by which natural law can be discerned. However, communities through creativity have always explored their intuitive yearnings for more. This creativity operates as a form of reflective reasoning, emoting and imagining through the tradition of communal critique and revision, which include assertions of perspectives soberly bereft of hope, or those that affirm self-care before sacrifice and retaliation before forgiveness. This critique and revision are not abandonment or distortion of the tradition but signal something other than the typical Christian articulations of black natural law at work.

Part of the beauty of the diversity of black political engagement is the way in which its various strands constantly critique the others. The dissonance in black philosophies and strategies impels communities to be in constant discernment about the appropriateness of our process. This includes questioning what directs us in our search for justice, and whether principles informing mainstream black thought and morality are contributing to an oppression of their own. As we reflect on Lloyd’s argument, attention to the diversity of thought, methods and actions of black communities is vital. Lloyd’s commitment to the representation of a “black mainstream” tradition presents obstacles, as it is unclear by what criteria this “mainstream” is constructed. However, his exemplars suggest that while this “black mainstream” may have a variety of beliefs, they do not stray too far from Christian perspectives on human nature. This limits what can be perceived as good, considered an appropriate strategy or celebrated as a worthwhile aim, even when they are theologically driven. More importantly, the disqualification of other theological streams stifles critique.

It is our responsibility to struggle together with our incongruent visions, discerning what aspects of these concepts are essential and those that need to be retired, amended, or recast to include the neglected. The discernment of a natural or higher law must include all of the community, acknowledging the traditions that have been effective in our progress until this point, while considering the aspects of practices that may have done more harm than good. For example, in light of the violence Christian doctrine has inflicted upon non-white people, or the fact that society disproportionately expects and feels entitled to the labor and suffering of black people and women, new interpretations of sacrifice may be necessary.

Moreover, we need to open our eyes to the plurality of performances of black natural law traditions, rather than simply one black natural law tradition. While Lloyd suggests the tradition has been misappropriated, I would argue that an intelligible black natural law tradition persists. No, it is not happening in neat, linear ways, however; black communities are always attempting to discern a way forward with the resources at their disposal. These strategies operate in a manner more reminiscent of a kaleidoscope than fixed locations of implementation. In other words, rather than one leader/organizer being the source of ideology critique and a catalyst for the social organizing, aspects of natural law were and continue to be performed and synthesized communally, through a myriad of sources, inspiring black communities to engage in ideology critique and action. Literary and musical artists offer performances that model human nature through their creativities, highlighting the importance of emotion and disputing Western science’s attempt to deny its role in humanity. Politicians and intellectuals exemplify black rational capacity, dispelling the myth of black cognitive inferiority. Non-Christian religious movements offer alternative ways of imagining the good, human nature and possible ways forward. In other words, the black ethical political engagement emerges from unlikely spaces and sources, and builds off of multiple ongoing efforts. Consequently, it is an endeavor strengthened by inclusivity and an expansive approach to method.

However, in the midst of our attention to diverse dispositions and strategies for political engagement, we must take seriously our ethical responsibility to the preservation of our own humanity. This requires deep reflection on an appropriate response to a world that seeks our demise, as well as attention to the damage that has been done to our own perspectives as a result of the injustices visited on our communities and its impact on our abilities to imagine new possibilities. Are particular dispositions more affective in reaching the goal of justice, and preserving our humanity in the process? Lloyd speaks of the black natural law tradition being a tradition that seeks to bring about conversion; conversion from the posture of oppressor, to the practice of advocating for those whose humanity is being diminished. In my estimation, this includes those who rely on the degrading of black humanity to maintain a sense of self-worth. This is not for the faint of heart. Justice and equality are not the same, just as the struggle toward progress is not about a specific telos where black people are no longer oppressed, but that all are operating in the fullness of their humanity. Still, we must be critical of the versions of authority we erect as representative of a black vision of humanity to ensure that we do not stifle the expansive possibilities of the very humanity we seek to liberate.

  • Vincent Lloyd

    Vincent Lloyd


    Response to Bryant

    Courtney Bryant draws our attention to the important issue of the diversity found in Black communities. She worries that talk of a singular Black natural law tradition elides that diversity, leading readers to forget about the rich variety of Black experiences—and of Black struggles for racial justice. Specifically, Bryant worries that Black Natural Law focuses on a particularly Christian, universalist, perhaps integrationist, liberal rather than radical strand of Black politics that places more importance on love than on anger. In doing so, such important strands of Black politics and culture as the Nation of Islam, the black power movement, and the pessimistic reflections of Ta-Nehisi Coates are set outside the mainstream—even as they have attracted wide interest and many followers in the Black community. I would add that similar worries could be raised about the United States—rather than diasporic focus of the book’s narrative, where Black might effectively be reduced to African American, with all the provincialism and crypto-nationalism that implies.

    It is certainly correct that Black culture, like any culture, includes diversity along many axes, and that this diversity has been represented in the varied forms of Black political engagement. I do not think that we should, or can, simply stand back and observe this diversity. We can, and do, whether we admit it or not, make judgments. When we represent a tradition, whether writing about a tradition in a scholarly way or participating in it, we discern what is central and what is peripheral. These are not merely topographical markers: what is central correctly represents the core values of a tradition. What is peripheral does not represent as well those core values. This could be because of incompetence (not being fully versed in the tradition), or pathology (being blind to certain aspects of the tradition), or because of the (voluntary or involuntary) embrace of a certain sub-tradition with its own values distinct from those of the tradition as such. The Black American tradition, for example, might be considered a sub-tradition of the American tradition more broadly, involuntarily embraced by Blacks because of the exclusion of Blacks from the American tradition as such.

    Traditions, with their characteristic norms, practices, values, histories, symbols, and stories, create the horizon of possibility for truth, goodness, and beauty. Fully embracing participation in the core of a tradition does not guarantee truth, goodness, and beauty: we are still in the world, not in heaven, so we deal in relative terms. Indeed, some traditions can be deeply infected with pathology, to the extent that fully embracing participation in such traditions can mean fallacy, wrongness, and ugliness. Prima facie, traditions that are embedded within some other tradition that marginalizes them are better oriented to truth, goodness, and beauty than those traditions that are not so marginalized.

    I was interested in telling the story of politics in the Black American tradition. Until the 1960s, that tradition was marginalized within the larger American tradition in such a way as to make those who embrace participation in it, prima facie, well-oriented to truth, goodness, and beauty. After the 1960s, I argue, this was no longer the case. The form of marginalization shifted in such a way as to fragment the tradition. (Obviously this is not to say that Black Americans are no longer properly oriented to truth, goodness, and beauty; rather, we need more specific descriptors, such as poor, rural, Southern, Black American, to name traditions that might still be so oriented.) In the heyday of the Black American tradition, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. were exemplary figures, central participants in the tradition and so displaying its core values. My argument in Black Natural Law is that these figures are often understood as liberal rather than radical, but this is because secularists neglect their religious thought. When we appreciate the mix of their religious and political ideas, we see how they, and the tradition itself, is deeply committed to radicalism—specifically, to the complementary activities of ideology critique and social movement organizing.

    Put differently, I wanted to get Du Bois, Cooper, and the rest right in order to get the Black American tradition right. To get those figures right, I had to grapple with (rather than repress) their religious ideas, just as I had to grapple with their rhetoric (the way they persuaded specific audiences), just as I had to think about their biographies in addition to their abstract ideas. Each of the figures I dealt with was formed in different sorts of Christianity, to different extents, and employed different sorts of Christian ideas and symbols. These religious engagements were important, but ultimately secondary, just as the four individuals themselves were secondary, to the task of getting at those core values of the tradition.

    Certainly, there were a variety of creative new religious movements that emerged on the peripheries of Black America. Some of these movements attracted wide attention and gained broad followings. At the end of Black Natural Law I mention some of these movements and the quite significant extent that they employed natural law language—and, similarly, I mention the ways that individual writers, like Ralph Ellison, employ ideas that resonate with the Black natural law tradition. However, I argue that these are deviations from the core of the tradition. I acknowledge that this is contestable: I would be happy to see other reconstructions of the tradition’s core and peripheries that demonstrate different values to be central. In the absence of alternative reconstructions of the tradition, I would simply point to plausible explanations for deviations from the core of the tradition. Elite writers are distanced from the political struggles of the Black community (in all its diversity). New religious movements are often pathologically focused on self-interest, hindering their ability to open participants to the good, the true, and the beautiful.



Reflections on Black Natural Law

There is always a bit of the subject’s desire already in the law and always a bit of the law already in the subject’s desire.

—Maria Aristodemou, Law, Psychoanalysis, Society

The point of departure for the most recent book in Vincent Lloyd’s rapidly expanding corpus is his contention that at its best, African American ethical and political engagement reflects the style of a distinctive yet dying tradition of natural law to which black people have “privileged access” (xiii). Lloyd prioritizes the importance of notions like “‘God’s law,” “universal law” or “higher law” (he uses these terms interchangeably) for the black intellectual heritage and its associated freedom struggles. This book is an important contribution to the fields of black political thought, theology and legal studies as it thoughtfully directs our attention to the vital role that African Americans have played in publicly articulating a unique human rights discourse that has emphasized “the eternal, universal and indestructible” (20) elements of an ultimately ineffable human nature.

Black Natural Law attempts to skillfully re-situate the wisdom of the Christian-inflected black political tradition as a distinctive line of natural law activism with important normative and performative features. On my reading, two major threads run throughout the text: a descriptive, historical thread that situates four “mainstream” (vii) black ethical and political leaders within a black natural law tradition; and a normative, aspirational strand that contends the black natural law approach is “the best way to approach politics, not just for blacks but for everyone” (ix).

Descriptively, Lloyd links his thesis to a historical treatment that cuts against the grain of conventional interpretations of four seminal black freedom fighters: Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr., whom he reads as participants in a revised tradition of natural law. Each of the four chapters is nicely detailed and powerfully argued. Overall, these fruitful interpretations aim to demonstrate that at its most effective, the black religio-political heritage effectively dramatizes firm theological and metaphysical commitments such as the notions that God exists, that humans are created in God’s image, that freedom is the natural right of all human beings, and that equality is guaranteed by higher law.

Lloyd’s master narrative of a black natural law style of politics—whose core content he determines to be “ideology critique” and “social movement organizing”—highlights the importance of the affective features of black subjects. Instead of cognition and reason, for Lloyd it is our emotive and imaginative faculties that discern the norms of freedom and equality. He is careful, however, to accentuate the limits of human discernment. He notes that humans can never achieve complete knowledge of human nature or fully implement God’s law, and we cannot successfully codify natural law or firmly establish its determinative content.

It is worth emphasizing that for Lloyd, the discoverable content of black natural law is discerned via a process that starts from the stable center of our humanity (a place that is ultimately unknowable), not from our sociopolitical conditions. His worry seems to be that when we allow our political work to be guided by categories that “obscure the soul, such as race, gender, and class” (40) we inhibit both proper self-orientation and spiritual alignment with others. In other words, we cannot fully understand the transcendent aspects of ourselves and others unless our actions are based in a sense of something bigger than us. On Lloyd’s account then, to start from the fixed yet ineffable center of the soul is to inspire proper discernment. This helps us both to avoid political work marked by the relativism and essentialism of multicultural approaches (that work from definitive contemporary conditions), and to resist the secularism and problem-solving language of pragmatic approaches to politics (that appeal to the rhetoric of natural laws but fail to access their true power). It is a robust, critical black natural law tradition, as crafted by these interpretations of Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois and King Jr., that relies on stable and nonnegotiable laws as sources for our most soul-affirming ethical commitments and humanizing political criticisms. The black natural law approach also avoids the paralyzing problems of skepticism and relativism.

Lloyd’s interpretive historical account of these figures invites us to consider new dimensions of the rich style of black political rhetoric. Yet, the definitive readings of Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois and King as stylists of natural law renders them unidimensional and, to my mind, actually weakens the argument for Lloyd’s black natural law interpretation. To over-determine their efforts in this way is to conceal the creative breadth of their efforts and to overstate their location inside of this tradition. A more nuanced interpretation would argue that these four figures strategically used natural law rhetoric within the larger goals of their work.1 This might more compellingly establish the style of black natural law as a strand within the broader traditions of black religious activism.

Further, on a separate but related criticism, Lloyd does not provide an explicit argument for the rationale behind the specific choice of his four exemplars. At times, other religiously inspired political workers, for example Denmark Vesey, David Walker, Al Sharpton, and Ella Baker, use rhetoric that resembles the normative claims of the black natural law tradition that Lloyd aims to construct (they center the Judeo-Christian God and eternal laws). Vesey, Walker, Sharpton and Baker are generally not, however, considered mainstream thinkers. Does Lloyd’s tradition of black natural law only apply to the mainstream of black political and ethical thought? If so, what features make a black religio-political worker too radical for inclusion in the black natural law tradition that Lloyd constructs? The question of what exactly is illuminated by the description of the figures he chooses as stylists of black natural law would be resolved if he were to tell us the reasons behind his choices.

It also strikes me that against Lloyd’s numerous criticisms of neo-pragmatism and multiculturalism, a specific pragmatist bent and set of “multicultural” tendencies actually inhabit both the method of discernment and the “blackening” of the natural law tradition that he describes.2To acknowledge the multicultural and pragmatic aspects built into his distinctive natural law interpretation given here would serve to moderate the intense critical stance he takes toward neo-pragmatism and multiculturalism. It would also mitigate the most basic criticisms of neo-pragmatists and multiculturalists regarding natural law: that truth is always contingent therefore the very idea of natural law is hubris, and that racial and ethnic differences are products of distinct histories and require idiosyncratic, not universal, solutions. Since Lloyd takes historical truths to be dynamic and appreciates nuanced responses to human difference, he has little to lose by bringing them into his own method.

Before turning to the aspirational strand of the text, I want raise two related points of confusion regarding the descriptive features of the argument. On one hand, Lloyd contends that “black natural law” does not “derive from any facts about race” (xiii) and that it should not “take as its starting point the circumstances and capacities of a certain community” (158). At the same time, he characterizes black natural law as a “distinctively black tradition” and writes that blacks have “privileged access to” it (xiii). He says he wants “the epistemic privilege of the oppressed,” but the oppression he describes is always—as he very well knows—racialized. I have difficulty, however, holding the idea that natural law can be adjectivized as “black” but that it does not derive from any fact about race.

From where does politico-ethical critique arise if not from “circumstances and capacities of a certain community” (158)? While I agree that any process of discernment that gets to “the stable center of our humanity” is useful, it strikes me that interpreting King, Du Bois, Cooper and Douglass—who understood themselves as fully embodied subjects immersed in distinct sociopolitical circumstances—as not starting from “circumstances and capacities of a certain community” (158) actually obfuscates their achievements. It diminishes their extraordinary efforts to be both deeply present to actual conditions of dehumanization and always looking beyond them for more affirming means of human organizing.

Turning to the second, aspirational thread of the text, Lloyd contends that “black natural law” is the “best way to approach politics” (ix). He believes its theological commitments and metaphysical foundations relieve late-modern political detachment and moral confusion. Black natural law method removes the human subject from having to take full responsibility for separating good and bad laws and eliminates the human errors that occur when (self-interested) humans try to identify just from unjust acts. For example, it follows that Lloyd holds that the black natural law approach would lighten the burden of organizers, say, those working under the banner of Black Lives Matter, from having to craft an argument for racial equality based solely on empirical data and derived strictly from identity-based calls for justice. Lloyd would rather these activists appeal to higher laws inscribed in the nature of the universe in their justice work. In this way, the unchanging, absolute and stable moral tenets of the universe would guide Black Lives Matter organizers, who would then direct their listeners to a better discernment of partially obscured moral Truths. In this way, the universal laws demanded by our shared human condition would govern social movement organizing; Black Lives Matter activists would cease to operate out of the racial conditions in which they are mired.

On the one hand, I think Lloyd is correct: attempts to elevate human consciousness beyond immediate sociopolitical conditions are useful for justice work. On the other hand, this kind of transcendence is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for expanding rights and improving the quality of life in the United States. In fact, the Christian “elevation of consciousness” he prefers has been a feature of black political work throughout American history. African American struggles for equality in the United States feature numerous activists, like those in women’s clubs, school teachers, union organizers, ministers and others, who persistently reminded their supporters that they were more than the events they faced and greater than the conditions that produced them. This distinctive form of engagement with the identity-politics at the core of modernity has been a feature of African American life. In both its most elite political articulations (King, Cooper, Du Bois, Douglass) and its more folksy expressions (Booker T. Washington, Mary McCleod Bethune, Huey P. Newton), transformative African American political work begins with an identity-based call for justice that is deeply other-regarding.

Howard Thurman provides another way to think about this unique African American quest for transcendence. In his tracing of the moral history of Jesus (in Jesus and the Disinherited [1948]), Thurman details the history of the black sojourn in America as best understood when we consider how black subjects were able to generate an ethic of love from the psycho-cultural circumstances of oppression and sociopolitical conditions of being disinherited. For Thurman, as for Lloyd, the symbol “God” calls us to the “better angels of our nature,” directs us to our higher selves, and animates aspects of our personality that are greater than our social conditions. Yet Thurman’s vision of this development, unlike Lloyd’s, requires being fully grounded in social facts and taking them as one’s point of departure.

Due to the dynamic nature of politics and the shifting political needs and strategies of citizens on the margins, it is difficult to thoughtfully consider strong assertions regarding any singular, best overall approach to politics. What may work for one issue at a particular time in light of the needs of a particular community, may not work for another issue at another time for a different set of communal needs. Lloyd’s speculative claim that black natural law is the overall best approach to an ethical politics must, then, be understood as polemical. In chapter 5, “Decline and Detritus,” he describes why the tradition he has outlined has declined but he does not directly engage the best arguments against the natural law tradition itself. This leaves the text vulnerable to a slew of potential criticisms; the two most glaring ones are the practical problems of applying natural law solutions, and the value of moral realism in our late-modern moment, that is, after the insights gleaned from the linguistic turn, existentialism, and post-structuralism.

The problem of the application of black natural law is raised but not addressed in Lloyd’s recounting of Martin Luther King Jr.’s debate with James J. Kilpatrick in 1960 (100). Lloyd notes that in both the televised debate, as well as in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King Jr. argued that the proper discernment of God’s law would lead to a greater understanding of human equality, which supported the demand for full and immediate integration of black people into all aspects of American life. Alternatively, Kilpatrick claimed that correct discernment of God’s law enlightened us to the fundamental differences between black and white people, their comfort in being separated, their quest for racial self-preservation, and thus, the continuation of racial segregation in America. These two positions illuminate a fundamental tension within the method of natural law: its lack of a formal means to adjudicate between competing claims regarding the just discernment of higher law. What is the final court of appeal for the clash between King’s position, that higher law demands racial integration, and Kilpatrick’s position, that higher law demands racial segregation?

Lloyd might respond that black natural law includes ideology critique, which, in this case, demonstrated that unjust laws were laws imposed by a majority on a minority (without their consent) that granted privileges to the majority (that the minority did not receive). This, however, does not settle the question of the morality of segregation, it merely settles the issues of consent and unequal privileges (that is, a minority group could consent to “separate, but equal”). Further, ideology critique and social movement organizing are not robust ways to attend to thorny problems like gay marriage and transgender bathrooms; nor, do they effectively speak to the facts of disproportionate pay for women doing the same job as men or the ban on Syrian refugees.

It is hard to hold black natural law as the best style of ethico-political engagement for our time because it is a form of moral realism, and this approach—as Lloyd notes in chapter 5—has gone out of style. Lloyd, however, is convinced that our best way out of our modern predicament is to turn to objective, real moral laws. He allows that these universal, unchanging moral laws are never discoverable in full and that on the ground, laws are fluid (e.g., who the state will consent to be married). Yet he is committed to the position that higher laws are not fungible (e.g., the true nature of marriage). One problem with this account is that conflicts about higher law are merely conflicts regarding proper discernment. This leaves disagreeable parties with nowhere to turn. Black natural law provides no final arbiter between human subjects to help make progress in the face of absolute claims for higher law. What remains, then, is only a power struggle; one that requires not just ideology critique and social movement organizing but protest and resistance against principalities and powers that have a long history of punishing those who resist them.

While we might romanticize the nonviolent protest of the Civil Rights strategists, we must be very careful here: our epoch is not the era of Martin Luther King Jr. (or Cooper, Douglass or Du Bois, for that matter). African American communities are both more diverse and more fractured than they have ever been. This diversity and its concomitant relativism, pragmatism and multiculturalism seem to trouble Lloyd. This may be because he does not acknowledge the imperial language of Afro-Protestantism, which, in the minds of many black people, resembles a tool of capitalist oppression more than it does one for black liberation. In many ways, God-talk itself seems to have run its course for a black radical politics. Black women have long protested patriarchal conceptions of racial freedom reproduced by Black churches. Additionally, Black LGBTQ folks have been dehumanized by so called “charismatic” black male preachers and the repressive morality of their institutions that are largely trans-phobic and excessive promoters of conservative family values. Add to this the fact that the coercive power of the state is more deadly, the strength of its surveillance more intense, and the power of its repressive apparatus more swift. These factors suggest that one must be careful trumpeting any absolutist claims for God’s law as the basis for justice.

I’m on board with the noble aspirations of a rhetorical style and a method of religio-political engagement that pulls us beyond ourselves in ways that mitigate unjust laws that diminish the quality of life. Whether or not the theological language of the tradition of black natural law as it is described here can mobilize a wide swath of the American public, is another question. This does not mean that we cannot aspire to the better angels of our nature by using narratives that remind us of the best of our spiritual imagination, it just means that the problems of justification built into the natural law framework, the historical disharmony created by the clash of so called “self-evident” truths, and the pain that the black Christian heritage has caused to non cis-gendered black men, make it less than possible that the black natural law framework will play a central role in raising the quality of life, in any significant way, in the United States.

The task for African Americans is not to attempt to discern God’s law more effectively, it is to coordinate their interests better (that is, to work in better solidarity with similarly interested groups) and to reconcile with a more expansive sense of self (that is, to be in closer contact with what Howard Thurman calls “whole feeling”). In this way the radical religious heritage of African descended peoples may be able to support energies that counter the brutal forces of global capitalism, which limit the possibilities of so many human beings by trapping them in cycles of poverty and wage-slavery, conditions that diminish the capacities of the human soul.

  1. For example, one might say that a distinctive understanding of natural law informed King’s evangelical theology of the cross, but to collapse his entire method and lump all of his influences under the umbrella of this creative concept of natural law is to overstate. I also wonder why other reasonable interpretive options for these figures that function to illuminate and connect important facets of their work are not discussed, for example, interpretations that situate them as: prophetic black leaders, civil rights activists, freedom fighters, etc. Their work is not reducible to any one strategy.

  2. Here I’m thinking of statements like: “the particular targets of this critique and organizing vary depending on what problems are most pressing at a given moment” (xiii); and “working that ineffable point indefinitely, always failing, trying to fail better” (158).

  • Vincent Lloyd

    Vincent Lloyd


    Response to Andre C. Willis

    Andre C. Willis’s request for greater clarity on the metaphysical commitments entailed by the Black natural law tradition offers a welcome opportunity to think more deeply and write more precisely about the relationship between pragmatism and natural law. I find myself in deep agreement with Willis’s pragmatic instincts and his metaphysical skepticism, but I also find myself wanting to take one step more. Whether this one extra step brings back metaphysical baggage, as it were, strikes me as the place where our views diverge. Put another way, I would argue that pragmatism without ideology critique is not really pragmatism at all: it is parasitic on the structures put in place by the wealthy and the powerful. Once we embrace a genuinely pragmatic spirit, we must turn to ideology critique in order to pose a real threat to the powers that be.

    Willis reads Black Natural Law as advancing theistic, metaphysically-freighted accounts of leading Black political leaders. I certainly do engage with the religious and metaphysical (if we are using the term loosely) views of these leaders, but I do so in the service of displaying their commitment to ideology critique. Because they were formed in American Christianities, these leaders necessarily express their intellectual projects in religious terms—just as naturally as they express their projects in the English language. In the same way that this does not imply their projects privilege or depend on English, it does not imply that their projects privilege or depend on theism or specifically Christianity. Similarly, just as we cannot understand what they are arguing without understanding English, we cannot understand what they are arguing without attending to that Christianity. What matters is the project rather than its form of expression, and that project in each case involves ideology critique paired with social movement organizing.

    Of course, it is also the case that we cannot extract the pure content of Douglass or Cooper or the others’ projects and express it in the nude. We are all, necessarily, rhetoricians, speaking to specific audiences and attempting to persuade them in specific ways. I made a rhetorical decision to describe the shared project of Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois, and King as “Black natural law,” and I tried to use language that would make their shared project accessible to secular social justice advocates, to theists of various stripes, and to orthodox Christians. In choosing a means of expressing this project, it was important to choose a decisively non-secular idiom—because the radical insights of these figures have been muted by excluding or managing their religious ideas and practices from accounts of their politics. (I have some further reflections on this sort of method in “Political Theology as a Rigorous Science,” in my book The Problem with Grace.) This necessarily leaves a possibility, even likelihood, of confusion between how an author such as Cooper expresses herself, what her project itself is, and how I express her project, but this is inevitable—as studies of intellectual esotericism have demonstrated.

    To take a specific example, Willis attributes to me the view that “the black religio-political heritage effectively dramatizes firm theological and metaphysical commitments such as the notions that God exists.” While some central figures in the Black political tradition may have believed God exists, this claim has little significance for their intellectual project. What is more relevant to their intellectual project, and what I attempt to attend to in the book, are the variety of religious ideas, symbols, and practices that are inextricably intertwined with the lives and politics of these exemplary Black political figures.

    To take another example, Willis attributes to me the view that “we cannot fully understand the transcendent aspects of ourselves and others unless our actions are based in a sense of something bigger than us.” This has to do with the intellectual project at the heart of the Black natural law tradition. Yet Willis describes in the positive what I attempted only to describe in the negative: no worldly descriptions of the human fully capture a human. This does not mean there is some remainder, in the sense of some chunk of us that transcends the world and so connects us with “something bigger.” It is meant quite sincerely as a claim about the inadequacy of worldly language and concepts—or, more deeply, it is a pointer to the tragic nature of the world, the sense that our words and concepts can never get the world right, yet they are all we have. Rather than such a sentiment leading to resignation, or pragmatism in the crudest sense, I show how this sentiment can fuel ideology critique and social movement organizing. When this sense of the tragic is realized by the privileged, they write poetry or philosophy, or see a therapist. When it is realized by the marginalized, it motivates collective analysis of the precise ways that the ideas of the wealthy and the powerful misrepresent and fuels collective action to challenge the control of the wealthy and the powerful.

    Willis identifies an apparent tension between my claim that the Black natural law tradition does not derive from any facts about race and my claim that Blacks have privileged access to natural law. He worries that such privilege derives from marginalization that is itself racialized, i.e., based on specific facts about race. While this book was, indeed, particularly focused on one especially marginalized community, Blacks in the United States, the claim about epistemic privilege has to do with marginalization in general. Privilege shields the privileged from the way that words and concepts misrepresent the human. Communities marginalized because of disability, or gender identity, or geographical location, or a host of other reasons are similarly more attuned to the machinations of the wealthy and powerful—and similarly motivated to organize against injustice.

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