Symposium Introduction

There was a shooting in South Carolina. A young white man with a handgun killed nine congregants at a historic black church. He left behind photographs displaying his allegiance to symbols of white supremacy and words legitimizing his actions as part of a struggle on behalf of the white race. These pictures and words offered a painful comfort: the motive was clear. This was not inexplicable violence. It was violence with a reason, a history, a culture, maybe even a religion. There was already a movement against white supremacy gaining momentum across the country, animated by black death. Here were nine more.

This explanation, this logic, is disconcerting because it is the same reasoning that would condemn Islam as a religion of violence, motivating organized and lone wolf killers around the world. They are not the same, Islam and white supremacy, but why not? We desire cause and effect, belief system that motivates action, but humans are more complex. The world is more complex. There is also painful comfort in abandoning reason, in proclaiming the inexplicable. The world is too complex. Horrific violence is part of the world that is incomprehensible, alien, or demonic. But we do discern, explain, and judge, whether we like it or not. The challenge, both deeply human and deeply theological, is to balance our desire to neatly make sense of the world with the world’s resistance to all explanations.

White supremacy is an evil that must be condemned. It shapes American culture, institutions, and lives. It sanctions the brutal domination of black bodies and minds. It decimates black health and black wealth, it puts more than a million black men and women in “correctional” cages, it humiliates millions more through police harassment, and it crushes black dreams. The souls of whites it deforms. White supremacy deformed the soul of Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, as it deforms the soul of every white American. But we must resist the painful comfort of treating white supremacy as a full explanation, just as Islamophobia does not explain Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway and psychosis does not explain James Holmes’s shooting in Colorado. Why do we want an explanation in the first place? For our comfort. Because facing tragedy directly is too hard. But it is confronting directly the force of tragedy that allows us to see the world rightly, and to act rightly.

Tragedies are political opportunities, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. It is how politics is played. (It should not be how ethics is played; ethics should be lived, not played.) The Confederate flag came down from the South Carolina state capitol, and the continuing legacy of the Confederacy provoked national—read: white Northern liberal—concern. The danger is that the meaning of white supremacy, and with it anti-blackness, will narrow to that flag and to an extremist fringe. The grassroots organizing provoked by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others was beginning to demonstrate how mainstream anti-blackness, and so white supremacy, had become: if the white liberal elite did not quite implicate itself, at least its police officer cousin was implicated. The challenge of responding politically, and theologically, to Charleston is twofold: first, to make the connections between racial extremists, state violence, and white liberals so invested in their innocence; and second, to find a language that broadens and strengthens the power of grassroots black organizing.

The seemingly too-quick professions of forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof by family members of those killed in Charleston provoked some commentators to condone black anger. Given the myriad indignities of black life in America, is not anger the appropriate response to the spilling of black blood yet another time? Does not the glee with which those quick professions of forgiveness were reported in the white media suggest just how politically and theologically impotent they must be? But perhaps another way of reading the forgiveness spoken by victims’ families is as a refusal of easy explanations and so as a natural, profound acknowledgment of the mysterious complexity of the human person, of this human person, Dylann Roof. Such forgiveness would be ethical, not political. It would mark the need to live in community with those who sin badly and often, which is all of us. We live in community with human beings, not with ideologies. Ideologies distort community and conceal humanity—and conceal divinity. Ideologies conceal the interests of the white, the wealthy, and the powerful, both in the extremist rants of Dylann Roof and in the sonorous sounds of white media, the public radio announcer’s ostensible neutrality in reporting from both the police and the black protesters, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, both the International Monetary Fund economist and the unemployed Greeks. This should make us angry. This should make us fight. This should make us organize. This, ideology, is unforgiveable: it is worshipping graven images and forsaking the goodness of God.

Reggie Williams

Response

Emanuel AME Church as Outlaw Religion

Two weeks after racism took the lives of nine Christians at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a small group of congregants gathered for conversation at my predominately African American church in Chicago, during our weekly Thursday evening men’s ministry. The group was in touch with their rage, and they were finally able to vocalize it. Violent racism had struck yet another unconscionable blow, this time in a church, verifying again in a visceral way that the notion of a post-racial America is a lie. Like a virus within the body politic, racism has not gone away in spite of historical efforts to remove it. It has adapted in ways that make it tolerable in the court of public opinion.

A college-aged member in attendance that evening in Chicago stoked the flames of rage by declaring that he could not be socially aware of his race as a young black man and a Christian at the same time. As a black Christian, the college student said that if he were to also acknowledge the historical impact of race on his potential to live a safe and productive life in America, he would be forced to wrestle with the veracity of the existence of a just and loving God who has made him black in America. He was asking the question of theodicy, which seeks to make sense of belief in a good and almighty God in a world where evil exists. Racism, he argued, is the enduring moral evil that prohibits blacks from living within the potential for productive life in America that whites are granted. He, like many others today, struggled to see the role of the black church in addressing the changing evil of racism, for the well-being of black people. What is more, given that the massacre happened in a black church, he doubted whether the black church is even equipped to deal with today’s American racism.

In dialogue with the college-aged man, some respondents agreed with theological arguments that have historically blamed the presence of moral evil on human free will. They paired free will with the conservative politics of personal responsibility to argue that African Americans can freely choose to succeed or to fail in America, the land of equal opportunity. The free-will Christians argued that the role of the black church is to help black people realize the American dream of equal opportunity by encouraging the nation to live into its principles of liberty and equality. The pastor of Emanuel AME, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, represented this endeavor for them, having risen himself to the role of a South Carolina state senator, where he used his platform within the political system to influence that system to provide liberty and justice for all. But others in attendance that evening took great offense at the argument of a politics of personal responsibility. They argued that the politics of personal responsibility gives the impression that America is a meritocracy; you get what you earn. Rather, as they see it, America has stolen black lives, black labor, black opportunities, black ideas, and black wealth to build systems and structures that exclude black people, leaving black people in America with limited opportunity to make advancements. For them, America is no meritocracy; it is a whites-only place, and the Charleston terrorist is a product of this American way. The black Christians who were offended by the politics of personal responsibility argued that the role of the black church in America is one of brokering resistance and revolution to make completely different possibilities for blacks in America, not to integrate black people into this whites-only world.

The two sides settled firmly into different historical perspectives in an ongoing dialogue about the role of the black church in America. They were trying to make sense of the absurdity of terrorism at Emanuel AME, and the deep dissonant logic of black hope in suffering that lies at the core of the history of the Charleston church and to black life in America. Emanuel AME Church is one of the most historically significant houses of black Christianity in America. It is a church that has endured since slavery, in spite of threats to its existence by whites, who prohibited blacks from gathering together for worship for fear of what they might plan. The church was also rebuilt after racists burned it to the ground in an earlier act of terrorist violence that was meant to extinguish the spirit of resistance. Emanuel AME is a physical representation of the historical role of Christianity within black communities as testimony of “God with us” in the midst of oppression, standing in critical opposition to depictions of humanity that endorse systems and structures for whites only.

Yet it is also true that black houses of worship in America have had to wrestle with their role in the face of white supremacy. Langston Hughes takes a moment to artistically depict this struggle in a story titled “Father and Son,” in a collection of essays published in 1933 under the title The Ways of White Folks. The story is set in 1930, in sharecropping Georgia. Hughes illustrates sharecropping as another turning in the saga of race-based slavery in America by describing a wealthy white sharecropping plantation owner with unfettered access to the lives and bodies of his “employees.” In Hughes’s story, after the death of his wife, the plantation owner, Colonel Tom Norwood, vows never to remarry. Instead, he takes a black child sharecropper, Cora, as an unmarried substitute for his deceased wife. With Cora, the Colonel fathers five children. And although they are his biological children, his racism prohibits him from claiming them as his own. The Colonel’s children are not white; they are the offspring of black Cora. Hence, Cora’s children have no father, no inheritance, no just payment for hard work, no country that allows them rights as full and equal citizens, and no assurance of safety in a violent white supremacist society. Their black lives are limited to the world controlled by whites, on the plantation, in Georgia. The plight of Cora’s children is symbolic of historical black life in America; African Americans are descendants of former slaves and ancestors of the exploitation and commodification of black bodies in a white supremacist, patriarchal world. They are left with no financial inheritance from centuries of their ancestors’ labor, no equal compensation for contemporary labor; no country where their humanity is commonly recognized without caveats and qualifications, “Why, just the other day, I met an intelligent and well read black person!” and no hope for more than the creative moments of amusement that they can forge out of their existence in subjection to white supremacy, in America.

In Hughes’s story, the only privilege afforded to Cora’s children is access to Negro schools. But travel and school finally ruin Cora’s youngest son, Bert. When Bert returns home to the plantation from college in Atlanta, for a summer before his senior year, it is evident to everyone that Bert is no longer capable of accepting life as a subject of white supremacy.

Bert’s return home is the point at which Hughes’s story includes an analysis of the role of the black church. Bert embodies a spirit of resistance that agitates and excites the black community. The Colonel senses the agitation and orders the local black Baptist minister to “start a revival and keep it going until he said stop.” The Colonel’s command of the local black church represents the black church as simply an additional device of white supremacy. The church in Hughes narrative appears to be another tool of exclusion serving to maintain black submission in a whites-only world. Colonel Tom’s reasons for ordering the revival are clear:

Let the Negroes sing and shout their troubles away, as in the past. White folks had always found revivals as a useful outlet for sullen overworked darkies. As long as they were singing and praying, they forgot about the troubles of this world. In the frenzy of rhythm and religion, they laid their cross at the feet of Jesus.1

The Colonel is under the assumption that black religion is a useful device to inoculate his subjects against the spirit of resistance. It is a carrot-and-stick regulating scheme to keep black people in frightened submission to whites in this world, yet hopeful that humble acceptance of their fate, and simple obedience in suffering, would bring them a reward in life after death.

But Hughes wrote this story at a time when embracing a hope for death, rather than a hope for a better life on earth, proved to be too much for many blacks in the post-WWI, Harlem Renaissance setting. Life as mollified subjects of white supremacy had always been a heavy burden for black people in America, as evidenced by the history of one of Emanuel AME’s founders, Denmark Vessey, the freed slave whom whites killed in 1822 for his role in planning a slave revolt. Like Vessey, religion as an opiate to help maintain black subjection to racism was something that Bert despised, and rejected. Bert traveled and saw the world outside of sharecropping, and he liked what he saw. He viewed himself as more than the depictions of black people crafted by racists dreaming of a white world. One may speculate that Hughes’s protagonist, Bert, heard of the pride generated within black America when the all-black Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th infantry regiment marched through the streets in Harlem, New York, upon their return home as heroes, after WWI. The 369th gave African Americans an image of black life bestowed with martial virtues that included within it the dream of liberty and justice for all, as proud Americans. What role did black religion play in this moment to give African Americans hope for a better life on earth? Since slavery, whites like the Colonel sought to control the representation of religion that was celebrated by blacks, in order to regulate hope. But images like the 369th infantry regiment stoked a revival of a different kind of black hope in Jesus.

For Hughes, Bert’s presence on the plantation inspired a different interpretation of Jesus. This Jesus was tired of carrying the cross of subjection:

Poor overworked Jesus! Somehow since the War, he hadn’t borne that cross so well. Too heavy, it’s too heavy! Lately, Negroes seem to sense that it’s not Jesus’ cross, anyhow, it’s their own. Only old folks praised King Jesus anymore. On the Norwood plantation, Bert’s done told the young people to stop being white folks’ n. . . . More and more the Colonel felt that it was Bert who brought trouble into the Georgia summer. The revival was a failure.2

The cross they were carrying was made out to be the suffering of Christ. It was suffering manufactured by a political system, with a contrived depiction of Jesus; a sovereign white man’s King Jesus, whom Bert resisted, but the old blacks worshiped. King Jesus didn’t carry the cross; although they are told that he carried the cross with them, Bert recognized that King Jesus placed the cross on the shoulders of his black followers. In this political arrangement, the ideology of Christian suffering is religious sophistry to make white supremacy a holy ordinance. From the perspective of the Colonel, the revival did not work. But given the historical role of the black church in a white racist world, one may say that indeed, the spirit of resistance embodied in Bert is evidence that the black Baptist revival did work. Hence, for the Colonel, the black church was meant to be a device of white supremacy, but instead it became a fugitive, and an outlaw, of a whites-only political establishment.3

The Christianity that regulates hope in favor of white supremacy, in Hughes’s story, is one that has historically nurtured racism and its agents of terror. Terrorism was used by white supremacists to train a distorted self-image, and a distorted hope into the hearts and minds of an excluded and subjugated black community. But black fugitive religion has historically embodied a spirit of resistance that takes the cross of Christ to mean something completely different; rather than seeing the cross of suffering as evidence that life in oppression is the burden of subjection that black Christians must carry, a Christianity of resistance sees Jesus’ crucifixion as evidence of God’s partiality for the oppressed. As Kelley Brown Douglas argues:

That Jesus was crucified not only reaffirms God’s partiality for the oppressed; it also reifies that this partiality is much more than an impassive identification with those least regarded in society. The crucifixion unquestionably reveals a compassionate solidarity with them . . . God through Jesus, exalts them as an indispensable, vital witness to God’s self-disclosure.4

Hence, the role of the black church in a white supremacist society is to witness to the work that God is doing in the world in this Jesus, the one in compassionate solidarity with the outcast, through whom we are allowed to witness God. This God is a fugitive and an outlaw who cannot be regulated, and for that reason, is always a threat to white supremacy. It is no wonder racist terrorists target black houses of worship.

The argument at my black church on that Thursday evening is not completely solved by reference to God’s compassionate solidarity with the oppressed. But the college-aged young man should know that indeed, he can be black and Christian in America at the same time. The traditions of black Christianity represented by Emanuel AME, and our own church, have this understanding of God’s compassionate solidarity with the oppressed as foundational of the history of black Christianity in America. But understanding God’s work in Christ in this way does clarify what the church should not do; the black church must not reach uncritically for a relationship with American government. Without prophetic engagement with the history of American racism, we become vulnerable to the blasphemy of a “King Jesus” who blends black submission and Christian duty, using black Christianity to integrate black life into the politics of exclusion. The politics of exclusion and personal responsibility are core pieces of the history of American racism, which continues to generate its own legitimizing ideology that shapes terrorists and enlists outcasts in their own marginalization. Rather, the legacy of Emanuel AME would have us consider a different understanding of God with us, and consequently, a more faithful picture of the mission of the church.


  1. Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage, 1990; first published 1933), 230.

  2. Ibid.

  3. The concept of religion as fugitive and outlaw that I am relying on here is inspired by the current work of my dear friend Dr. J. Kameron Carter. It is a concept that is a powerful work in progress.

  4. Kelly Brown Douglas, “What’s Faith Got to Do with It,” in Black Bodies / Christian Souls (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005), 96, italics original.

M. Shawn Copeland

Response

Overcoming Christianity’s Lingering Complicity

On Tuesday morning June 16th, I presented a paper on bias at a small conference. The paper treated bias—not as idiosyncratic preference or an inclination of temperament—but as Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan defines the term: The more or less conscious refusal or exclusion of insights; the more or less conscious choice to be incorrect, to suppress new or further questions. Bias distorts our understanding by blocking or dismissing corrective or complementary insights; this refusal surfaces in the warped ways we behave toward others in daily living and blunts healthy affective development. I wanted to draw out the connection between breakdowns in the cognitive and the affective in promoting the deforming bias that racism is. The next day’s announcement of the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shook me to the core. Dylann Roof cruelly illustrated the thesis I argued.

Racism rejects, consciously and intentionally, rejects the intelligible fact that we human beings are embedded together in physiological (biological, genetic, neurological, and psychic) recurring patterns that relate us consciously and unconsciously to one other. It disrupts our cognitive and affective patterns and breaks the bond of human intersubjectivity—the spontaneity of a greeting or a smile, the sense of human belonging, the sigh of relief on seeing another person on a dark and lonely street, the comforting knowledge of being wrapped together in shared social life and history. Racism twists and distorts the very meaning of generous and compassionate human and humane living.

Yet, racism never relies on the choices or actions of a few individual people or someone like Roof; rather racism is structured, institutionalized, woven into the fabric of our daily living. Racism shapes our ideas, attitudes, and dispositions; directs our cultural norms, rules, and expectations; guides our linguistic, literary, artistic, media representations and practices. Racism is no mere problem to be solved; it is a way in which we define our reality, live the most intimate moments of our lives. Racism is not something out-there for us to solve or fix; racism is in us, sedimented in our consciousness.

The fatal shooting of nine black women and men in a Christian church uncovers Christianity’s historic and lingering complicity in chattel slavery and anti-black racism. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, Christianity failed to challenge the customs and culture of the plantocracy, with its practice of buying and selling black human flesh and objectification of black human beings. Taking race at a point of departure, Christian ministers manipulated the Scriptures, regulated the meaning of baptism, proscribed reception of Holy Communion, segregated Christian worship, and circumscribed Christian cemeteries. From the conclusion of the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, Christian churches did little to interrupt lynching, racial peonage, the legalization of racial segregation and racial discrimination. In every region of the United States, Christianity—whether in its Protestant or Evangelical or Roman Catholic expression—has failed to counter and to contest effectively and adequately centuries of what sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant name our racial formation.

Omi and Winant explain racial formation process as the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”1 They deploy the term racial formation process to uncover how differing human bodies are represented and ranked within societies, how race is linked to regulation and rule (i.e., hegemony), and how discursive practices and cultural representation (i.e., education and media) transmit and reinforce racial power, privilege, and rule.2 Racial formation process shows how race forms an intentional, deliberate, and planned element in organizing and constructing a society, rather than some an anomalous or accidental feature within it. This theory discredits both any romanticization of race as essence and any depiction of race as either an objective condition or an illusion. Moreover, the notion of racial formation clarifies the relation of racism to structural or systemic oppression through sexism, heterosexism, economic exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Christian teaching has done too little to confront and to challenge racist and discriminatory behavior at worship, at work, at school, at home, in restaurants, in stores, in playgrounds, on radio, on television, online. Much too slowly, indeed, only in the last half-century have Christian churches come to understand and to define racism as personal and structural or systemic sin against the neighbor.3 Yet, these churches have not yet taught that the practice of racism and discrimination obstruct the realization of authentic Christian discipleship.

At the same time, poignantly, painfully, paradoxically, the murder of nine black women and men in a black Christian church calls attention to the capacity of Christian believers to be seized by and to seize the Word of God. Despite the concerted efforts of white ministers, slave traders, and slaveholders, black believers found in the Christian Scriptures the ground to contest bondage, to valorize their humanity, and to fight for freedom. Black believers understood justice and liberation to be constitutive of the good news preached by Jesus of Nazareth. Mother Emanuel has and will continue to contribute effectively to the struggle of black people for the realization and flourishing of their humanity and freedom. Steeped in a long history of resistance to the evils of black enslavement and anti-black racism, Mother Emanuel has endured assault by fire, suppression, and earthquake; now the blood of martyrs waters this hallowed space. This Church’s commitment to justice, to freedom, to hospitality, and this martyrdom command all people of good will to work vigilantly against racism and the white supremacy that supports it.

The pioneering work of scholars such as Derek Bell, Peggy McIntosh, Charles Mills, Paula Rothenberg, Patricia Williams unmasks the support racial formation provides for white supremacy. All whites, whether or not they collude with racial hierarchy and irrespective of class, enjoy unearned privilege, dominance, and advantage. White supremacy operates concretely in the interests of all white people—with or without their approbation. It assures whites a greater share of vital, cultural, material, social, political, economic, and psychological resources. And as Frances Ansley wrote nearly three decades ago, all whites “have a real stake in the system and, with the exception of few idiosyncratic and often not very reliable defectors, they will fight to defend it.”4

The killing of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depayne Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., and Mira Thompson was no isolated incident. Dylann Roof believed he was defending white supremacy. Reportedly, before shooting, he said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And, you have to go.”

Christianity continues to offer little defense against or sustained critique of white supremacy. Certainly, it proposes to tutor the minds (cognition), hearts (affect), and lived lives of believers so that they conform themselves in mind, in heart, and in living to the mind, heart, and living example of Christ. But, Christianity brooks incongruity: In the name of law and order, the Word of God is preached to defend segregation and loathing; in the name of peace and justice, the Word of God is preached to dismiss dissent and protest; in the name of love and mercy, the Word of God is preached to shield violence and abuse. We Christians are obstinate, stiff-necked; convinced of our own righteousness, we have too small a sense of sin, too large a sense of evil. We Christians have allowed the religion of active solidarious love and justice to devolve into a cautious carefully crafted endorsement of the supremacy of the (white) status quo.

With twisted motivation, Dylann Roof dramatized sin and evil; he was a willing agent of white supremacy—once again, crucifying innocent women and men because of the color of their skin. Roof lived by and lived out of the Law of Iniquity. Christian believers profess to live by and to live out of the Law of Love that flows from the Cross of the Crucified Jewish Jesus.5 His suffering and death on the cross reveal the power and wisdom of God: God does not do away with evil through power, but transforms evil into good. And it is at the foot of this cross that the Christian community is judged. For the cross of the Crucified one exposes our personal and communal pretense to innocence and neutrality, our personal and communal indifference and narcissism.

For followers of Jesus of Nazareth the only response to violence and evil are forgiveness and reconciliation. For followers of Jesus of Nazareth the only response to violence and evil is love—the absorption of evil, the overcoming of evil by good. By offering forgiveness to the murderer, the Charleston family members of the murdered black women and men embodied Christian discipleship and its Law of Love. Their gratuitous act attests to lived and free cooperation with divine grace. Their act of forgiveness intimates an enlargement and possibility for the actuation of a new future of human solidarity for the nation and for Christianity itself. Moreover, their example summons all of us to concrete actions that confront the racism that chokes the vitality and future of our nation and of Christianity itself. Their example summons us not only to lament and prayer, but to the critical re-education of mind and the disciplining of new habits of heart. We are summoned to act for justice and truth.


  1. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, from the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed (New York: Routledge, 1994), 55.

  2. Ibid., 56.

  3. For a good structural definition see James Lee Boggs, Racism and the Class Struggle (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 147–48: “Racism is systematized oppression of one race of another. In other words, the various forms of oppression within every sphere of social relations—economic exploitation, military subjugation, political subordination, cultural devaluation, psychological violation, sexual degradation, verbal abuse, etc.—together make up a whole of interacting and developing processes which operate so normally and naturally and are so much a part of the existing institutions of society that the individuals involved are barely conscious of their operation.”

  4. Frances Lee Ansley, “Stirring the Ashes: Race, Class and the Future of Civil Rights Scholarship,” Cornell Law Review 74 (1988–1989): 993–1077 at 1035.

  5. I mean here what Bernard Lonergan means by the ‘Law of the Cross;’ see his Supplement to The Incarnate Word, Article 23, “The Law of the Cross,” 82–86, typescript, Boston College, The Lonergan Center, 1987.

James Noel

Response

Judgment Day in America

American Liberal Christianity and its seminaries do not properly contextualize themselves within America’s body politic, a body that suffers from what Kierkegaard called a “sickness unto death.” Racism articulates throughout the entirety of this body and affects us all. That the terrorist who massacred the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Ms. Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Mr. Tywanza Sanders, Ms. Ethel Lance, Ms. Susie Jackson, Ms. Depayne Middletown Doctor, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Ms. Myra Thompson of Emmanuel Temple appears psychotic is deemed proof that he is different from all the well-intentioned, non-racist whites who comprise the majority of American Liberal Christianity and its seminaries. In so decontextualizing the incident, the racial terrorist becomes an exception and the racial problem becomes solvable through tried and true methods. All we need do is what we have been doing. The bizarre justification for the senseless crime—“You are raping our women and taking over our country”—is a part of America’s psychosexual history which both instigated and legitimated white on black violence since slavery, through Jim Crow, lynchings, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, up to the most recent incident in Charleston. Ever since the first Africans arrived to these shores, whites have been able to murder blacks with impunity. The racists who inflict terror upon blacks have a crude theory that justifies racism but our liberal and progressive white allies in the church and academy have no theory that solves the evil. Hence, theological terms like salvation, reconciliation, grace, or whatever are rendered meaningless abstractions in this racist culture and society which has proven itself to be a far cry from a “Christian nation” and anything but “exceptional” when it comes to violence and discrimination. Yes, America is still producing a harvest of the “Strange Fruit” Billy Holiday and Nina Simone sang about. The racially motivated murder of black people in America as harbingers of God’s judgment upon a nation that has never repented of its racism. Or, to put it differently: A nation wherein people are murdered because of their skin color—on the street, in their homes and in their churches—is already judged! But America represses God’s judgment from awareness through a variety of maneuvers. If the nation and society were really religious and recognized God’s judgment in the white on black violence that has most recently culminated in the Charleston incident there would be a call for collective repentance. If true repentance is lacking all other responses—verbal and otherwise—are mere avoidance mechanisms functioning to insulate our society and its institutions from dying to white supremacy whose foundation is “whiteness” per se.

Whiteness per se exists in the individual and collective consciousness of America as the a priori category generating the existential certainty of normativity. In taking itself for granted, the white self is incapable of problematizing itself as a historical/social construction. It never asks: Why am I white and how did I become white with the same urgency with which blacks interrogate themselves and their blackness. Blacks engage in such interrogation through the episteme of “double-consciousness.” Whiteness remains oblivious to the normativity of its stance and gaze. Nevertheless, James W. Perkinson observes: “White supremacy—the beginning and major meaning and incorrigible presupposition of all race discourse . . . in modernity—has always operated as a hidden a priori that only infrequently reveals itself as such and speaks its own name.”1 And furthermore, he argues that whiteness operates “as the hidden ground from which ‘talk’ takes off, in modern Eurocentric evaluations of reality and divinity, operating through other things (like ‘theology’).”2 Whiteness operates as what V. Y. Mudimbe (borrowing from Foucault) termed the “episteme” that determines what counts as knowledge, how such knowledge is organized, and which questions are valid.3 This makes it very unlikely that American society will eliminate racism through the discursive practices that are extant. We already had Myrdal’s massive study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy4 and the Kerner Commission Report5 and all those other studies, such as Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice6 . . . Are we doing that all over again expecting different results? Really? As long as the race problem in America is viewed by whites as a black problem and not something that is insinuated in the entirety of their being Charleston incidents will continue to happen as the United States is increasingly de-centered in the global political economy.

There, as yet, is no social theory that adequately accounts for the relationship between the diversity of individual psychologies within a racist society and the structures and institutions of that society. The counterpart in Christian theology is its failure to connect individual salvation with societal evil. Who is responsible for society? Why is no one reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man & Immoral Society anymore?7 In his Prophetic Fragments, Cornel West called for an elucidation of how racism is maintained at the micro-institutional level where psychosexual identities are constructed and the macro-institutional level of class exploitation.8 The racist assumes responsibility to rid society of what he sees as evil represented in the hated group. Here, I need to briefly return to the Charleston assailant’s stated purpose for his terrorist act: “You are raping our women and taking over our country.” This statement should not be dismissed simply because it is easily recognized as delusional and pathological. The statement indicates an unconscious relationship between white male sexual identity and racial identity in America that Erick Erickson did not elaborate in delineating his psychosocial stages of development. The inability of American whites to consciously grapple with and solve their race problem is due significantly to the fact that the conjunction of their racial and sexual identities resides in the unconscious. By definition this makes the root of American racism impervious to consciousness. Can this Gordian knot ever be untangled? But black Americans are very conscious of the fact that castration occurred at almost every lynching of black males. The black penis was fetish. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere the society acts out . . . the racism lodged in the deep structure of America’s soul erupts in its most grotesque and ugly form. Then the ritual begins with well-meaning individuals and institutions trying to examine the thing. The eye, however, cannot see itself. Concealment!

The reality of racism is concealed and masked over by the dual and interrelated fictions of racial innocence and racial progress. These dual fictions—racial innocence and racial progress—are conveniently used by white liberal institutions to shield themselves from their complicity in the evil of racism. In embracing and committing itself to the “Social Gospel” American Liberal Christianity has also been able to externalize and localize the sin and evil of racism to either society or the other people who are “racist” without seeing how it is also implicated. At a certain point, white liberals take their own temperature and once having determined that it is normal, i.e. that they are not racist, labor under the illusion that the work is done, the cure made. There is however a cancer lodged in the depths of America’s soul that is not amenable to an instrumental rationalist cure. When forced to admit that it is not completely innocent of racism an institution declares that it has heretofore made great strides—great progress—on the race issue. All that is needed is to do more. The institution then gives assurances to its public that it will . . . what? It will continue to make progress. Progress? Progress in relation to what? An institution’s declaration of erstwhile progress means it has faked itself out and faked out all concerned parties, because the precipitating incidents prove that whatever it is that America and its institutions have been doing under the trope of racial progress has not achieved any progress at all when it comes to this sort of atrocity. Should not Ferguson have taught us this much? So are we really convinced that redoubling our efforts—doing the same things we have been doing—will solve the problem of racism in America? . . . eventually, by and by? If some spokesperson is going to persuade me of this—or if in desperation I want to persuade myself—it seems that I should have some sense of what the problem actually is that our renewed efforts are supposed to eventually eliminate. Not only that. Where, we must ask, is the problem lodged? If I get a physical check-up and the doctor tells me I have cancer, I certainly need to be told as well in what part of my body the disease is lodged? American Liberal Christianity and its seminaries presume the cancer of racism to be lodged outside itself, in the social body or in a lone individual. For the racist, the disease is represented in the person he has designated as his next victim. Innocence abounds.

So much for the vaunted progress of American Pragmatism. It has failed us, as has American Liberal Christianity and its seminaries, as has the American criminal justice system, as has . . . every one of our institutional interventions, models for social change, and epistemological categories through which we rationalize ourselves. All are under the judgment of God. I am applying the hermeneutic of Barth’s Römerbrief to our predicament. Barth takes Paul’s critique that “all have sinned” seriously. My point is that nothing has worked, nothing has been effective in curing America’s sin-sickness, the racial core of its original sin. In the spirit of the Jeremiads, we may wish to pause and consider that something entirely new is called for or else we will soon undergo what our literary prophet James Baldwin referred to as the judgment of “Fire Next Time.”

Are we now so completely devoid of the prerequisite historical awareness and theological sensibility that must undergird the kind of conversion I am suggesting that judgment is indeed imminent and inevitable? We may well have arrived to that point. If the nation actually believed in the God its leaders reference in invoking the nation’s exceptionalism, it would be possible for it to still experience itself as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It would be possible for the nation to experience itself being addressed by President Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” of March 1865 when he said: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” The nation should not assume that the black victim’s willingness to forgive is any guarantee that God’s judgment has been assuaged or abated. Is this what these atrocious murders are all about? A godless nation requires the sacrifice of black bodies to generate the ritual of black forgiveness through which it can experience the God who bestows it vicariously. Such mockery of true Christianity will surely be avenged.

The Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders stated the necessity for American society to “mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” and that “these programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.” At the time, this report was addressing the rebellions in black communities across the nation. Is there an equivalent sense of urgency now that the violence is clearly originating among whites? How does that get analyzed and addressed. In 1967 the Presbyterian denomination produced a Confession of 1967 that had its counterparts in other Protestant denominations. The denomination typically convinced itself that something was being accomplished in the mere writing and recitation of the Confession. It has since moved on to other priorities in terms of resources. Inner city and racial/ethnic congregations are struggling and closing. There once was a time when we were serious when we affirmed that:

In each time and place there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations. The following are particularly urgent at the present time.

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.9

Any statement or gesture that does not acknowledge the seriousness of the problem that has normalized the dehumanization and degradation of black people in America, is shallow and will be viewed as offensive by many African Americans, for whom there never was a period of not mourning those slain by racism. Meanwhile black folks will continue to do what they must: “keep on keeping on . . .” In the words of James Weldon Johnson, “We have come over the way that with tears has been watered; we have come treading our way through the blood of the slaughtered.”


  1. Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 193.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

  4. New York: Harper, 1944.

  5. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders [the “Kerner Commission Report”], 1968.

  6. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954.

  7. New York: Scribner, 1932.

  8. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

  9. Presbyterian Church (USA), Confession of 1967, 9.43–9.44a.

Richard Hughes

Response

The Myth of White Supremacy in American Life

When it comes to race, Americans are a bit like the man who searched high and low for his spectacles, only to discover them perched on his nose. In efforts to account for the motives behind the horrendous murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, we have looked in every conceivable corner of our national life except the most obvious place of all. The New York Times and the Southern Poverty Law Center have spoken for most Americans when they connected Dylann Roof’s contempt for blacks to white supremacist organizations, a contempt best symbolized by Roof’s use of the Confederate flag.1 Pat Boone and Fox News suggested that Roof was driven by a hatred for Christians.2 And Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor, thinks Roof was influenced by Islamophobia, peddled by “right wing Jews.”3 But the most obvious place to look for the roots of the Charleston murders are the negative attitudes toward people of color that, after all these years, still flourish in the hearts of far too many white Americans.

Some very good reasons drive our reluctance to take a hard look at ourselves. First, it is far more comfortable to keep such horrendous acts—and the motives for those acts—as far removed from our own personal lives as possible, to objectify them as something altogether “other.” To admit that our own hearts and minds might contain the seeds that in the remotest possible way might inspire such horrendous crimes is so incredibly threatening that we force the search to go elsewhere. Second, most of us would vociferously deny holding negative attitudes toward people of color. Why, then, examine our hearts? Because to the extent that we harbor racist perspectives, those perspectives often thrive in the innermost recesses and the least examined places of the human heart. And that is precisely why we must lift those perspectives into the full light of day where we can see them for what they are and then excise them.

These truths came home to me with considerable power after I delivered a response to James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2012. In the course of that response, I commented that I had been both deaf and blind to the suffering of blacks for much of my life. I attributed much of that blindness to some of the American myths that I learned as a child growing up in West Texas. No one taught me those myths. I simply absorbed them. In my world in the 1940s and 1950s, those myths were as pervasive as the air I breathed.

I recalled in that speech how, as a child, I learned the myth of Nature’s Nation—that my country was grounded in the natural order of things, a design rooted in the mind of God.

I recalled how, when I was young, I fully accepted the myth of the Christian Nation—that my country was fully conformed to the basic principles of the Christian gospel.

I recalled my belief in the myth of the Chosen Nation—that God Almighty had chosen the United States to redeem the rest of the world.

I recalled my belief in the myth of the Millennial Nation—that in God’s own good time, my country would bring peace, freedom, and justice to all the nations of earth, thereby launching the final, golden age.

And above all, I recalled how the myth of the Innocent Nation had shaped my thinking when I was young. Other nations bore the guilt of history and carried on their hands the blood of innocent people. But because my country always stood for noble causes that were true and right, we had escaped the guilt of history and stood innocent before the nations of the world.

When I finished my response and took my seat, James Noel, a black professor of African American Christianity at San Francisco Theological Seminary, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Professor, you never mentioned the single most pervasive myth in American life.” “And what is that?” I asked. “The myth of white supremacy,” he said. Frankly, Noel’s comment struck me then as exaggerated. I didn’t want to admit—and still don’t wish to admit—that there was merit to his claim. But the racial climate of the past few years, and especially the hatred and contempt spewed at America’s first black president, have convinced me that Noel spoke a terrible truth that most whites, including me, do not wish to acknowledge. Most people of color—like Professor Noel—fully grasp the meaning and power of the myth of white supremacy. But if we have any hope for racial healing in the United States, the rest of us must come to terms with that myth as well and acknowledge the role it has played—and continues to play—in our national life.

Some years ago, I wrote a book about the American myths I had learned as a child. I called that book Myths America Lives By.4 But thanks to Professor Noel, I now plan to revise that book, taking account of the great and terrible truth he spoke to me on that day in Chicago in 2012. I understood when I wrote that book that the myths that had shaped my youth had always served people of privilege, mainly whites. And I understood as well that those myths typically operated at the expense of marginalized people, especially people of color. And that is why I concluded each chapter by lifting up the voices of African Americans who saw the tragic dimension of those myths in ways that whites typically did not. But not until Professor Noel said to me, “Professor, you never mentioned the single, most pervasive myth in American life”—not until then did I begin to consider the intimate relation that the myth of white supremacy has sustained to every other primal American myth.

In fact, it now seems clear to me that the myth of white supremacy is woven into the fabric of every other major American myth.

The most obvious case in point is the myth of “Nature’s Nation”—the notion that the principles that have shaped the American nation are rooted in nature and, indeed, in the very mind of God. John Adams, for example, argued that “the United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature.” Or as Thomas Paine noted, when we view the American government, “we are brought at once to the point of seeing government begin, as if we had lived in the beginning of time.” In that context, the Declaration of Independence could boldly claim, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and could attribute those “self-evident truths” to “Nature and Nature’s God.” But Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote those words, also wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “comparing [blacks and whites] by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory [blacks] are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He concluded by advancing the theory that blacks are fundamentally inferior to whites, and that the differences between the two races are rooted in nature. “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only,” he wrote, “that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Further, “it is not their condition, then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.”5

Jefferson clearly excluded blacks from the “all men” who were “created equal,” and the Declaration of Independence, therefore, simply assumed the myth of white supremacy as a category that privileged whites took for granted. Based on the consensus of the Founders, it is also true that the Declaration excluded women and poor whites from the “all men” who were “created equal.” Over the years, the American people have enlarged the meaning of “all men” to include all white men and, to a lesser degree, all white women. But the question that begs for an answer is whether, in the minds of white Americans, those “all men” who were “created equal” includes blacks or not. On that question, the jury is still out, and I hope to probe that question in depth in the revised edition of Myths America Lives By. The same could be said of the myth of the Christian Nation that has now been said of the myth of Nature’s Nation—namely, that the myth of white supremacy was woven into the fabric of this myth from a very early date. If whites failed to grasp that point, blacks understood it well.

Frederick Douglass, for example, understood all too well that “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. . . .”

[The Christian religion of the United States] is . . . a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there, and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation—a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.6

The question we now must ask is this: has anything really changed? Is the myth of white supremacy still woven into the fabric of the Christian religion in the United States? There is abundant evidence to suggest that the answer to that question is partly “no” but also partly “yes,” depending on the strain of the Christian religion under examination. But on this question, too, the jury is still out, and I will explore that question in depth and detail in the revised edition of Myths America Lives By.

Finally, above all other myths, Americans cherish the myth of the Innocent Nation—the notion that while other nations have blood on their hands, we do not, thanks to our Judeo-Christian identity and our roots in the laws of nature and the mind of God. But that myth, too, has been compromised. It has been compromised, first, by the sheer fact that the United States belongs to human history and is therefore not one whit better or worse than the lot of humankind. But it has also been compromised, betrayed, and rebuked by the myth of white supremacy that continues to define the dominant culture of the United States. How else can one read the systemic poverty that has defined America’s urban black communities for decades on end? How else can one read the repeated murders of unarmed black men by America’s police? How else can one read the murders of nine black Christians in Charleston whose only crime was showing up for Bible study on that fateful night? If there is any realistic hope for long-term racial reconciliation in the United States, then we must look for the root of our problems not in those organizations committed to hatred of blacks, as evil as those groups may be. But we must look in the one place we don’t want to look—our own misshapen hearts.


  1. Michael S. Schmidt, “Charleston Suspect Was in Contact with Supremacists, Officials Say,” New York Times, July 3, 2015; Hatewatch Staff, “Charleston Shooter’s Alleged Manifesto Reveals Hate Group Helped to Radicalize Him Online,” Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org), June 20, 2015.

  2. Frank Vyan Walton, “Pat Boone Lectures Obama on Understanding and Sympathy [. . .] of Dylann Roof’s Racial Fear,” DailyKos.com, June 25, 2015; Rashad Robinson, “Enough of FOX News’ Hate Speech,” ColorOfChange.org, June 20, 2015.

  3. Leo Hohmann, “‘Right-Wing Jews’ to Blame for Charleston Shooting, Historian Says,” WorldNetDaily.com, July 3, 2015.

  4. Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

  5. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 138–43.

  6. Frederick Douglass, “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” (1852), in Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900, ed. Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 262–63.

Amaryah Armstrong

Response

Theology in the Shadow of Charleston

Speech, Silence, and the Risks of Faith

In the shadow of Charleston, theology is again confronted with its primary question: how ought we speak of God? As inhabitants of a world shaped by White supremacist values and norms, how we speak of God can be a means of affirming the status quo or challenging the idolatry of White supremacy. In the wake of such unspeakable violence and its occurrence within a historic Black church, the question of how to talk about God seems more urgent now. The fact that the gunman targeted a Black church known for its ties to slave rebellions, fighting for Black freedom, and creating space to cultivate and celebrate Black life and faith must not to be glossed over. Indeed, the question of God is at the root of white supremacist violence, and the murders in Charleston starkly reveal the differences between how White theology speaks of God and Black theology’s otherwise articulations. Here, we might understand the difference in Black and White theology as a difference of history and memory. To what extent do history and memory shape God-talk in Black and White?

White Theology’s Speech, White Theology’s Silence

“White images and ideas dominate the religious life of Christians and the intellectual life of theologians, reinforcing the “moral” right of white people to dominate people of color economically and politically. White supremacy is so widespread that it becomes a “natural” way of viewing the world. We must ask therefore: Is racism so deeply embedded in Euro-American history and culture that it is impossible to do theology without being antiblack?”1

White theology is skilled at forgetting and this forgetfulness is its great success. Its short memory pervades the media’s reporting of the Charleston massacre. What possible reason could Dylan Roof have for enacting such violence? Why have we let confederate symbols and monuments survive so long in public spaces? Why would anyone burn Black churches? To hear liberal and conservative news outlets speak of it, one would think White supremacy was a recent and alien invention rather than a foundational national investment in a particular social, political, and theological imagination. The naturalization of such forgetfulness is the triumph of White supremacy as White theology.

Wendell Berry charts this forgetfulness as theological practice in recounting the relationship between Southern mythology and White Christianity in his racial autobiography, The Hidden Wound. Reflecting upon stories handed down to him by his southern landowning family, he considers White slaveowners common practice of bringing slaves to church. For Berry, this seems to be a dangerous “moral predicament [for] the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting to his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used.”2 The dangerous sharing of church space with one’s slaves required the cultivation of silence and forgetfulness within White theological speech. Through such practices of forgetfulness, White slaveowners revealed an ability to abstract the soul from the body in order to profit financially. But this abstraction, Berry notes, is a risky endeavor that requires an intentional ignorance.

“[The slave master] placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own? To keep this question from articulating itself in his thoughts and demanding an answer, he had to perfect an empty space in his mind, a silence, between heavenly concerns and earthly concerns, between body and spirit. If there had ever opened a conscious connection between the two claims, if the two sides of his mind had ever touched, it would have been like building a fire in a house full of gunpowder.”3

The contradictions contained in White Christianity are precariously built on being able to suppress and violate black people by whatever means necessary to protect this theological and economic investment. Its speech is fundamentally shaped around silence in the face of shackled, brutalized, and violated Black life whose recognition would threaten to undo its economic and ontological security. White theology is thus primarily a way of affirming and confirming the security of one’s being and one’s property. The requirement for faithful White theological speech is for God-talk to be reducible to the aims and ends of White supremacist values, the effect of which is an inability for White theology to distinguish between Whiteness and God. For White theology, then, forgetfulness is a virtue and it is no surprise that many interpret the forgiveness extended by the families of murdered Emmanuel congregants as an invitation to forget. White theology would not simply actively forget the events of Charleston through empty speech, but actively forget why something like Charleston is possible. In the liturgical formation of short memories, the violent history and current enactments of White supremacy are cut off from each other, appearing as isolated moments of violence carried out by lone wolves, rogue police officers, and backward southerners.

Because Whiteness forgets itself in its speech, its silence is untouched by concerns of a world where Black life matters. The worlds of White churches and preachers around the country that had little or nothing to say about Charleston depend on liturgies of forgetfulness for their theology to function. Being trained in the necessary violence of forgetting is the inheritance of White theology. Both complete silence and a speech that swallows Black life into its own forgetfulness are liturgical practices that affirm White churches’ detachment from those oppositional worlds where Black life matters. If White Christianity operated otherwise, we would seriously be able to ask how Dylan Roof could grow up in a White church and harbor such hatred of Black life. As it stands, it is all too clear that the formation occurring in White churches deeply contributes to practices of forgetfulness that spur on the construction of a history where one is the hero, the defender of White life and its purity, the ultimate arbiter of the value of another’s life. White theological amnesia requires building a history and world where one is God. Black life does not matter to White theology because such life requires practices of remembering that would undo White theology. Black life and Black theology are a threat to White theology because they point out this forgetfulness and its idolatrous effects.

Black Theology’s Speech, Black Theology’s Silence

“Is it possible that our freedom is found here in black life and culture and nowhere else? This is certainly the belief of the Black Church.”4

In opposition to White theology, Black theology has a long memory and this persevering memory is a sign of its failure within a White supremacist Christianity. Black theology cannot forget the long history that shapes its speech. It cannot forget, either, the spaces where it learned how to speak of God. The Black churches, the blues bars, the street corners, the beauty shops. This failure to forget that Black theology is Black speech about God––that it is touched by a particular history of Blackness––is the practice of persevering in remembering. This is a dangerous memory in the face of White theological amnesia. Black theology confronts the silence in White theological speech and thus, Black theology becomes dangerous talk about God because it seeks to explode the contradictions of White Christianity as an enduring and foundational enactment of White supremacy.

In order to explode these contradictions, Black theology takes on a risky form of double-talk. It is doubled because it is always remembering its failure of speech at the same time that it seeks to say something about God’s affirmation of Black life. It is risky because it recognizes that the possibility of failure is the only way to speech that might confront the reality of Black suffering and God’s ‘No’ to such suffering. Black theology can begin with the goodness of God only because it is able to begin with an affirmation of Black life. This love of Black life understands the expression of Black life as an expression of God’s goodness––a goodness which requires one say ‘No’ to any God whose goodness depends upon violating Black life through forgetting Black life. One must say no to White theology and its idolatrous God-talk. Black theology takes Black suffering seriously because it takes Black life seriously, understanding that only in the affirmation, celebration, and practice of Black life is one able to affirm, celebrate, and practice life itself.

Emmanuel AME is one such space where the affirmation, celebration, and practice of Black life as a sign of God’s ‘No’ to the violence of White supremacy is being undergone. And this is precisely why the weight of the violence in Charleston leaves our Black theological speech barren and babbling. In the wake of such violation, Black people feel immense vulnerability. Where can one go to escape the imposition of White supremacy? How can one be free of this violence and its intrusive apparitions in the form of lone wolves and rogue police officers and criminal justice systems and self-appointed neighborhood watchmen? The question of freedom is a question of how to live under conditions that require one’s death. In seeking freedom from death-dealing conditions, we cannot forget the silence that marks grief—an abyssal utterance in the wake of extinguished life, a life that inexpressibly exceeds our words. We can neither forget the speech that seeks to honor such life, to find speech worthy of this bereaved silence, to commemorate and remember the life we cannot afford to forget lest we forget the gifts of our own lives. This remembrance and commemoration of life is precisely what Senator Pinckney’s daughters sought to do with their moving poems for their slain father. This remembrance and commemoration is what the extension of forgiveness from the victim’s families enacts. Rather than understanding forgiveness as an act that erases the violence of White supremacy, forgiveness in Black theology requires recognizing and reckoning with the extermination of Black life by actively remembering those lives and striving to live together in such a way that one’s living is not in vain.

Black churches remind us that only together can we discern the double-talk, the intermingling of silence and speech, the urgent necessity and the failure of words. Only together can we hold our speech and silence accountable to Black life. We cannot strive to be free of this responsibility to one another, for the forgetting of responsibility is not free––it comes at the cost of Black life and clearer perception of the idolatry of White supremacy. We can only practice perseverance toward one another and with one another in the failing and beautiful ways we humans do.

This negotiation of silence and speech is the tightrope Black theology must walk and a tightrope many Black churches continue to walk. Confronting the reality of Black suffering requires the strongest possible denouncement of White supremacist violence and theology without the erasure Black life. Black theology requires a double-talk that is able to name Black suffering as suffering precisely because it is a violation of Black life. This perseverance toward remembering Black life through collective gathering and action is a precarious practice of what Vincent Lloyd calls, failing better. Yet isn’t this failing better precisely the risk of faith that Black theology understands as the necessary condition of its speech? In these troubling times we can neither stand to speak nor be silent about Black suffering and Black life. We cannot forget the one for the other. It is only by learning and repeating practices of remembrance that our silence and our speech is otherwise than White theology’s violently forgetful silence and speech. In Black theology’s double-talk, its practice of remembering, and its call to gather together, we become more perceptive of the weight of Black suffering, more worthy of holding and sharing the gift of Black life, and more faithful to the risky, tragic, and beautiful existence theology requires us to encounter and inhabit daily.


  1. James Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 131.

  2. Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound (New York: North Point Press, 1989), 16.

  3. Ibid.

  4. James Cone, Risks of Faith, 127.

Johnny B. Hill

Response

Ghosts of the Enslaved

The Charleston Massacre and the Future of Race in America

With the soils around the graves of those slain in the Charleston shooting yet to be settled, America’s relentless impulse of historical amnesia must be met with a passionate cry for remembrance, confrontation, and rage. As a religion professor at Claflin University, just miles away from the scene of the tragedy and home of a similar tragedy, the 1964 Orangeburg Massage, I felt curiously close to the incident. I was sitting in my living room pondering over my day, watching the evening news, when the report in real time claimed my TV screen and millions of others across the nation.

While the American public, and black folks in particular, are accustomed to a constant barrage of graphic violence as the norm, this particular event cut to the soul of America. It spoke to primitive and ancient wounds that have been layered over by generations of denial, indifference, and outright disregard. The Charleston massacre exposed America’s greatest sin, the negation of humanity by humanity. It challenges us as a nation to once again reexamine the slave past, symbols of systemic evil (past and present), and the ways in which these symbols take on flesh in troubled souls like Dylann Roof.

To begin with, there is the symbolism: murder of innocence in a particular house of worship, Emanuel AME Church. This great tragedy embodies the urgency of examining the ghosts of the enslaved, or rather the deep and persistent memories of American slavery and how it continues to be expressed in systemic evils like poverty, disparities in education, mass incarceration, police brutality, housing discrimination, and the like. As many historians have observed, Charleston, South Carolina, is a very compelling political stage in the history of slavery in America. Through Sullivan’s Island and then Fort Moultrie, which sits on the fringes of the city center, nearly two thirds of all of the enslaved Africans who entered the new world were funneled and processed, first into this narrow coastal inlet and then dispersed across the South and nation. The Old Slave Mart, a small museum in downtown Charleston, tells the story of the horrific unfolding trauma of enslavement in the Low Country amid the disturbing gentility of the Southern aristocratic culture of the era. In Charleston and throughout the South, symbols of the Confederacy overwhelm the beauty and charm of Southern living. In cities like Charleston, Greenville, Orangeburg, Columbia, Florence, Beaufort, and Spartanburg, one would have to search deeply and ultimately in vain to find any statues or symbols of slave life in the South. In South Carolina and states like Georgia, where I was reared, the slave past is viewed as an unpleasant disruption to Southern history and culture. It is rarely mentioned in school curricula, and when it is it comes only as a footnote and addendum to the preserved “heroism” of the Confederacy and antebellum culture.

What is most insidious about the nature of the slave past and the ghosts of slaves present is violence exacted on black bodies. So, how do we make connections between the mass murder by Dylann Roof in Charleston and the sea of fallen black bodies at the hands of law enforcement, and indeed the much larger genocidal impulses of structural racism in the nation? Roof’s actions, under the banner of the Confederate flag, the native symbol of white supremacy in the South, represented attempts at stabilizing and celebrating the narrative of white supremacy and its hegemonic control of black bodies, both symbolically and politically. Violence was the language of Confederate imperialism and continues to be the normative form of engagement with black life. From the lynchings of Reconstruction and beyond to the outright and blatant violence of Jim Crow segregation in the South, what seems to hold Southern culture intact is both the reality and threat of violence. The Charleston shooting was a calculated and deliberate attempt to inject fear and horror in black bodies, no different than the intended purposes of public lynching generations ago.

In a broader political sense, these acts of terror run deep within the veins of American history. The 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by the actor John Wilkes Booth at the Ford Theatre on April 14, 1865, provides an occasion to reflect on Lincoln’s presidency and what it meant for the millions of enslaved Africans in the shadows of America’s Civil War. Lincoln’s assassination also points to a deeper matrix of violence that continues to be felt today, in places like Ferguson, Missouri. The death of Lincoln exposes the great perils and conflicts in the American political narrative as it relates to black lives in America. Lincoln opposed slavery on moral grounds and made constant appeals to the Declaration of Independence as the ideal corrective for one day dismantling the evil of slavery. Lincoln was also preoccupied with the preservation of the union and visions of imperial conquest. For Lincoln, these concerns legitimated a slow and necessary continuance of the slave system in some form. Like those of his age, Lincoln was never in favor of granting full citizenship rights to Africans on America’s shores. In addition to the preservation of the Union, Lincoln also upheld the Constitutional ideal of self-government.

In substance, the brutal death of Lincoln—in the literal and figurative theater of American politics—is a nation deeply divided against itself, torn between two realities: tormented by its own sins while faced with its own demise. The negation of blackness and the terrible systematic subjugation and exploitation of enslaved Africans and their children becomes a terrifying foil for the stabilization of empire (in the broader sense) and notions of whiteness in particular. Lincoln’s legacy endures because it continually points us to the great struggles for freedom, justice, and human dignity, reaching out to future generations yet unborn.

On this recent anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, we also celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the courageous Selma march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The march was led by Martin Luther King Jr. King, who was flanked by persons of different races, genders, ethnicities, religious traditions, and orientations. He offered a new and powerful vision of what America could be and would be with the determined hopes of a people who refused to acquiesce to imperial systems. It was a turning point because it offered up a new, expansive, and inclusive vision of what America could be, and it made clear ways in which the black struggle for freedom was intrinsically linked to the broader concept of American democracy and its role in the international community. In rising to the occasion of their time, their courageous act still echoes the call to freedom for future generations.

We saw this echo touch the ground on the blazing streets of Ferguson, Missouri. On a blistering hot summer afternoon in August 2014, as the blood of teenage Michael Brown stained the streets of this weary and depressed city in the shadows of the heartland, a firestorm of protests was set off across the nation. New mantras like “black lives matter” and “hands up don’t shoot” were shouted from the people who were fighting with frustrated hopes, conjuring painful memories of the segregated past. They were and are “children of the enslaved”—stirring up the ghosts of the enslaved echoing up from the gallows of America’s sinister and blood-wrenched past. In their prophetic rage and protest, they stirred the imagination of a generation, testifying to the dignity and self-worth of all life—that all life is indeed sacred, endowed with dignity, and of inherent value.

So, on the backdrop of the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma March over that fateful Edmund Pettis Bridge, and considering the limits and possibilities of our imperfect union, it is clear that one of the critical tasks of theology is to be faithful to God’s way of freedom, justice, peace, and human dignity at work in human history and in the world. Preserving or perfecting the “union” premised upon American imperialism should not be theology’s charge. The theological challenge before us is to explore the ways in which black bodies in particular—in stark contrast to an imperial and colonizing theology of domination, exploitation, and violence buttressed by ideologies of white supremacy and American exceptionalism—have resisted the violence and destructive demons of American imperialism and offered up a theology of liberation and freedom.

What is clear is that the haunting memories of the slave past refuse to die. Instead, they are visited upon us again and again in the horrific, systemic evils of the past and present. The past does not die but lingers with us like gentle zephyrs in spring. Our forebearers call to us, urging us to remember and face the past with courage as we resist both the symbols and practices of white supremacy and violence in the present age. The Charleston shooting, ultimately, offers a moment of clarity, decision, contestation, rage, and perhaps redemption. This tragic event creates the space for courageous truth-telling, a moment of reckoning with the past to cast a shadow of hope for the future. We must go beyond mere dialogue; we must move aggressively toward unsettling and prophetic acts of truth-telling and policy changes that respect and honor not only the slain bodies of the saints of Emanuel AME Church, but the spirits and ghosts of the enslaved, whose bodies still speak to us from their ancient graves. Similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions amid the fall of apartheid, it is crucial to engage in authentic dialogue on the history of race, its connections to structural evils, and its connection to public policy. The ghosts of the enslaved and the memories of human suffering (past and present) will continue to awaken the soul of the nation until they find rest through the persistent pursuit of truth and justice, and reconciliation.

Amey Victoria Adkins

Response

Before I Wake

 

We were baptized in the basement.

Our tiny church sat on the small crest of the highway hillside right off the bypass, just a few miles outside of town. From the road you could see two seasonal wreaths of welcome hung on the large white double doors that signaled the main entrance into the vestibule. But for us, most Sundays began around back. There my lace-fringed church socks held my black Mary-Janes in place as I pattered down the stone-cement steps, hands grazing the black metal scrolling that served as decorative support descending into the subterranean cool.

There beneath the pulpit and the pews were two large areas that served as the kitchen, the fellowship hall, nursery, overflow seating, and the children’s Sunday school classrooms all at once. When it rained hard the floors would darken to a charcoal grey, water collecting around the drains spaced across the surface. The air there was always damp, and smelled the smell of most modest buildings out in the country, a familiar blend of moss, baby powder, and mothballs.

In the back of the basement the chill of concrete floors rose to meet a pine plank platform that was always padlocked shut. We were already underground, but beneath those boards was a small chamber that plunged even further into the earth. The hollow well was lined with light blue plastic that seemed part bathtub and part kiddie pool. Five short steps led into what might as well have been a tomb, though such a thing never occurred to me as a child. I certainly didn’t know anything of the baptism pool’s layout being so theologically a propos until I was an adult given most of my friends and family were still baptized in the little creeks that riveted our county. But even such a profound indoor theological statement existed in our world primarily as function. Where else but the basement would you intentionally collect water?

I was nervous when that early morning finally came, but I was excited. At just seven years old I anticipated each moment with the entirety of my young being. Like always, someone started the singing.

Wade, in the water.
Wade in the water, children! 

I watch the VHS tape and remember the butterflies, even though I don’t remember the camera. Prayers and scriptures and testimonies, before someone else took a turn.

Take me to the water!
To be baptized!

Wearing flip-flops and three shower caps over my head (you-most-certainly-would-not partake of communion for the first time with a head of hair that looked crazy, freshly baptized or not), I told the Reverend that I confessed with my tongue and believed with my heart that Jesus Christ was Lord. He told me that I was now dead to myself, made alive in Christ. That now, I was a Christian.

When you’re giving your life away so young, there’s a limited capacity of your awareness of what that means, perhaps because no one reflects on how easy it is to take life away. And yet, there’s a gravitas that even a child can recognize. We weren’t the kind of church who said words like “remember your baptism” next to “remember your death.” But death was a constant of life, and one we didn’t forget. We sang songs about it—about expecting it, preparing for it, about not being afraid of it. Tattered lives, torn worlds, imaginaries of great big yonders and o’er theres—these were gospel truths of struggle, experience, gratitude and hope all in one. We knew that one day, reunited with the cloud of witnesses that were our friends and loved ones, we would walk around heaven all day. Maybe the Notorious B.I.G got to the album title first, but folks had been singing about being ready to die for a long, long time. The difference, though, was that the machinations of death were never the subject. These songs were all about how to live a life.

A few weeks ago I found myself suddenly quickened, and then immediately confused, by a musical refrain floating from a passing car. Sitting canal side, my heart recognized the rasp of Shirley Caesar’s voice in what seemed like an eternity before my mind could comprehend what was happening. Living in the Netherlands, I have heard almost every sample under the sun nuanced and transformed into a techno, tropical, or deep house beat. But never before had I heard the gospel sound of my youth sampled over a back bass drum.

I wasn’t shocked by the harmonics, the musical overlays and textures that had melodically created something altogether new. What struck me was how displaced the mix felt in such a casual hearing, absolved of history and displaced from the context that I could only describe as “home,” the perception of sound that could not embody the heart or the soul as I knew it. The version I knew was so different, a cappella, shoe soles anchoring the beat of clasped hands. Touching, resounding skin, telling a story both in and out of time. Tone and vibration, give and take, the sonic swell perhaps best described as “agitational roughness.” These verses, this sound, are not the kind you forget:

I would not live
live a liar
I tell you the reason why 

I’m afraid my Lord might call me
and I wouldn’t be ready to die

Hearing the radio edit, the absence was palpable. The electronic “popular” version had unsurprisingly eclipsed the verse about death, the part that holds tension between the ethics of “living right” and the inevitability of a time when there is no longer the option. They had missed connecting to a distinctive story in the human struggle—the articulation and particularity of a black, Southern, Christian struggle—a sound and a story that animated each verse, the spiritual striving for something both now and not yet. They had heard all of the notes, but chosen only to listen to the words they wished to hear, displaced and divested of enfleshed meaning. Words made more palatable, words that wouldn’t cause pause with wind blowing through your hair.

Willie Jennings speaks wisely about the power of displacement, the theological catastrophe that is the loss of human connection from the land, from animals, and from one another. In The Christian Imagination he recalls how colonial encounter theologically justified a “scale of existence, with white at one end and black at the other end and all others placed in between,”1 a legacy of distorted vision that persists in this very moment. That legacy continues to be a poison imbibed with every Eucharistic chalice, with every plastic Communion cup, spelling out in bread and bullets just how ordinary evil has become.

What happened at Charleston is exactly the opposite of incalculable evil, precisely because it rests on a math that everyone has already done. These longstanding social proofs consistently point to an ideological fallacy, this long-ago absorbed scale of existence that captures the imagination and the heart by resting lies upon the skin. Robbing black bodies of breath is justified by the theological devaluation and market calculation of black bodies as those which can be consumed. By this assessment, the cycles of violence we are witnessing actually make sense.

The most difficult thing about daring to speak a word about Charleston has not been the anger or the weariness, but perhaps the sheer grief, the decisive but cumulative pain, sorrow and heartbreak over what seems to be a daily affirmation of a pervasive theology of the worthlessness of black life. As one brilliant writer has put it, it is being trapped in the tension between “the urgent necessity and the failure of words.” Beholden to the shivers of cold. To inconsolable swelling at the back of your eyes. I wake accustomed to the nauseating expectation of relapse. I am more surprised when I do not hear of the violence against black bodies than when I am. What is there to say that has not already been said, repeated, remixed, replayed upon deaf ears? There is an exhaustion of generativity that comes when you are incessantly tasked with birthing a struggle, particularly one whose redundancies seem so obvious. I do not know what there is to say. I am compelled because there is more work to do.

I’m afraid my Lord might call me
and I wouldn’t be ready to die

Teach me, Master, teach me
Teach me, Master, teach me
Oh, teach me how to pray

When I bow at the altar
Teach me what to say

As a child I dreamed quite often of dying, but I never dreamt of being killed. I was not insulated from death, from its tragedies to its heartaches. Cancer. Car accidents. You can drown in only an inch of water in ten seconds. You can go to bed the picture of health and never see the sun again. But the little country church that raised me had a broader ecclesial ethos that not only insisted upon the embodied enactments of gratitude to a God in and for all things, but modeled a deep awareness of the fragilities of life. Nothing in life could, or should, be taken for granted, especially not the fleeting nature of life itself. You do things while the blood is still running warm in your veins. You get right, Church, so that you can go Home.

In those small rooms walled in cinderblock we memorized scripture. We learned to close our eyes in prayer. We learned how Jesus loved everybody. We learned that black was beautiful. That we were made in God’s image.

I sat in the back of countless Wednesday night Bible studies, fidgeting in wooden pews padded in crimson as I learned to love my neighbor. I learned to forgive. I learned not to fear evil. I learned that the last person they tried to kill was Jesus, proof that the plans of evil could not prevail. The breadth of one’s life was never discussed solely within the terms of the physical world we encountered in this life. Perhaps some one, some thing, could take your breath. Could make a beating heart stop. But no one, no one ever, could take away that which actually constituted your life.

In The Fifth Son, one of Elie Wiesel’s characters makes an insightful observation: “Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.”2 His character was right. Shadows are things that define form, that distinguish height, depth and dimension. They only exist as they delimit the distance of an object from the source of light.

The murder of innocents in Charleston is critical because it shows us the shape of our shadows, the truths of our beliefs and the incomprehensibility of our failure to ask real questions about what is and whose lives are valued. Baptism, catechism, years filled with bright Sunday mornings and church camp afternoons left Dylann Roof with an inability to index anything other than incoherence with the sociality of black life.

And yet, the black church was where he thought he could best find it.
Where he was wrong was in thinking that he could kill it.

Like so many in our country and in our world, this young man’s hearing was just fine. He chose the church, a historic, mother, black church, a singular symbol, data qualitative and quantitative, that destabilized and dismantled the myths of supremacy he collected and left behind. He already knew the beauty, the relation of black life, of black people, the resonances of a particular community whose history invited every voice to lift and sing, who attested the belief deep in its heart that we shall overcome. He lived it himself, at least for one hour, welcomed into the house of God by a communion of saints he was blind to see.

But as he premeditated his actions, studying faces and names, he chose to be seduced by the false promises of his own shadows of death. He had already been taught how to choose which and whose words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories he would listened to, which ones could simply be edited out. He had already been discipled to ignore whispers in whirlwinds, to manually override goodness and grace. He manifest what so many fail to realize they daily micro-aggress. He heard the notes that were sung, but chose only to listen to the world he wanted to hear, displaced and divested of enfleshed meaning. In all truth, “he showed us the deaf ear of those seeking whiteness, a deafness that reaches deep into the soul and thwarts the power of God’s love.”

Ideology has one hell of a drum beat.

Do you remember your baptism?

That church basement is where we celebrated. It served as the space of anticipation, the stairwell lined with bridal parties waiting to walk down the aisle, huddling nervous children rehearsing last-minute lines for the Christmas play. It was also where we mourned. It served as the space of consolation, where welcoming arms gathered around those whose loved ones had died. At times that smell of moss mixed with warm aromas and sweet perfumes. At times those drains saw more tears than rain. Empty echoes could give way to the warmth of laughter or the agony of wailing, walls strong enough to bear the weight of it all. Folding tables and chairs made room for everyone no matter the occasion. It was a space swallowed whole at the end of revivals and anniversaries, by people shouldered together between heartache and memories at funeral repasts. It was our scale of existence, the presence of God encompassing everything in between. This was life from below, life underground. Life resurrected, life after death.

There for it all was the well. So present, so familiar.
If you weren’t looking for it, or simply were occupied otherwise, it was easy to forget it was there.

In remembrance of Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson.


  1. Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 23.

  2. Elie Wiesel, The Fifth Son: A Novel (New York:Schocken, 1998), 54.

J. Kameron Carter

Response

What Was Dylann Roof Shooting At?

 

—for sandra bland, before the next one falls. am I too late?

Though we’ve wept and mourned and shouted in the wake of Charleston, we’ve yet to reckon with what Dylann Roof was really shooting at.

What, in fact, was Roof targeting on that fateful Wednesday night when he entered the Emanuel AME Church? What if what he was shooting at was both embodied in the nine people he killed but at the same time far in excess of them alone—much, so much more than even their beautiful lives? What if what he tried to kill was the same thing Darren Wilson tried to kill and that he called “demonic” when he shot Michael Brown as he walked down the middle of a Ferguson street? What if it was the same thing that police officers tried to choke out of Eric Garner on a Staten Island corner? What if it was the same thing another officer tried to slam to the ground in slamming Sandra Bland to the ground in Waller, TX? What if it was the same thing that George Zimmerman targeted when he shot Trayvon Martin? What if it was the same thing that . . . ?

Again, what was Dylan Roof really targeting in Charleston, SC?

Let me begin by recalling briefly how it all went down in the hope of gaining some second sight both on what Roof was trying to shoot down and on the deeper logic of his horrific deed.

Around 8pm on the evening of Wednesday, June 17, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. He was well received and invited into the church where Bible study and prayer were taking place. South Carolina state senator Rev. Pinckney, who was also the pastor of the church, was in attendance. Roof was invited to sit near him. For roughly an hour Roof participated in the Bible study and prayer.

What did this Bible study and prayer meeting represent? How and why was the ecumenical itself subjected to the racialized, sexualized violence of self-defense?

Answering these questions is central to any reckoning with the Charleston massacre for what it is: the latest moment in an ongoing American horror. (And this sentence itself must be qualified in its always premature lastness, for before this goes to press there will no doubt painfully be another to fall.)

That Bible study and prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel index another kind of communion, an unencroachable way of relating to self and thus to others that does not traffic in the regulative procedures of “stop and frisk,” of holding up life as the condition of entry. Rather, insofar as such holdings or state hold ups are the attempt forcibly to hold onto those who won’t hold onto themselves, who won’t hold themselves together, those who refuse a “proper” relationship to self and therefore to the state, those “unable” (yes, this is an “ableist” discourse) to comport themselves or properly possess themselves in “straight” uprightness before the state—insofar as this is the case, the Bible study and prayer meeting in its very deregulated openness, harboring those in its sanctum without “having” them, unmoors such holdings. That is to say, that Bible study and prayer meeting may be understood as moving against the injunction to hold it together, the demand to be proper (self-possessed) property, the citizen-subject. Instead, in this other sanctum they hymn impropriety: “Swing low, sweet chariot . . .” Which is to say, that Bible study and prayer meeting was the practice of a re-ritualized relation to self, an otherworldly relation to self beyond the protocols of the propertied and therefore the properly comported, self-possessed subject.

Nathaniel Mackey is someone I’m trying to think with as I feel my way into the words to express what I’m feeling or into what I’m trying to get a feel for or into what’s feeling me out—feel me?—in talking about black churchicality as a non-propertied relation to self. In his poem “Irritable Mystic,” from the collection Song of Udhra, what Mackey describes as an “unseizably vast underbelly of light” aids me in what I’m trying to get at in speaking of an otherworldly relation to self, which also might be called following Sarah Jane Cervenak “deregulated congregationality” and “parapossession.” It aids me in trying to talk about what that Bible study and prayer meeting were about and that Roof entered. Here’s Mackey:

   Unseizably

vast underbelly of

   light

     limb-letting thrust

Tread of

     hoofs. Weighted udders of

           dust . . .

     His it their she

once they awake,

the

         arisen one,

world

                             at her feet,

her feet

one with their

     rapture,

ankledeep in damage

though she

           dances1

And before this, the poem’s opening:

   His they their

we, their he

   his was but if

need be one,

self-

   extinguishing

I, neither sham nor

   excuse yet an

alibi, exited,

out,

       else

     the only where

   he’d be.2

In these scatting lines, identity decomposes into a “His it their she,” a “self-extinguishing . . . an alibi, exited, out, else, the only where he’d be.” In the first of the quotes I’ve isolated—“His it their she”—the pronouns (two of which are possessive) are all at once distinct and yet unseparated by any commas or any other punctuation marks. Air is at once their separating and conjoining cushion. Self is precisely that undemarcated relation between “His it their she,” an improvisatory slipping and sliding through the interstices of constructed identities, in and out of possession. I’m interested in the slipping and sliding, the dipping and dancing, in the spaces or silences between the words and internal to the words: this is the unclaimable scene of self under “black reconstruction.” The words breathe (in) these spaces where identities or self-possessed subjectivities are decomposed, un/made, where, as M. NourbeSe Philip says, “we are absolved of authorial intention” and live the risk that “we are at least one and the Other. And the Other. And the Other. That . . . we are, indeed, multiple and ‘many-voiced.’”3 Philip further points out that “absolve” is indeed a telling word, “given its connection with the idea of freeing from debt, blame, obligation, or guilt”4 and ultimately with sovereignty, the sovereign, self-possessed subject, which in modernity is none other than the figure of Whiteness. Mackey and Philip are pointing to an insovereign relation to self in which we are re-languaged into the broken, wounded circle of the blessing, which though wounded is still a blessing. Blackness is a blessing.

And this ain’t just something that Mackey and Philip are trying to help us understand; it’s what (black) churchicality points to. It’s what that Bible study and prayer meeting points to, particularly when understood, as I contend they must be, in the tradition of churchical blackness, a tradition that “moves in the doubleness of possession”5 that is the doubleness of “double consciousness,”6 and that indeed is the critique of consciousness. It is a tradition that parapossessively swerves from and slips the noose of (self-)possession in the interest of a kind of “holding on” or gathering without interest.7 In other words, to join Mackey’s “irritable mystic,” to enter into these lines, and to enter into churchical study and prayer (maybe this is what Frantz Fanon was trying to get at: “My final prayer: O my body, always make me a man who questions!”8), is to enter into the altered consciousness they articulate and thereby enter into an altered relation to self, into self as altered consciousness which is nothing less than the critique of (propertied) consciousness. In other places Mackey speaks of this as a kind of “post-expectant aplomb, unprepossessing (non-prepossessive) aplomb”9 and in another place still he describes it as a kind of “blue ictic devotion,” of being “held but not had . . . [in] churchical girth.”10

Study and prayer is precisely this wandering, unencroachable movement, within the fold of the scene of subjection.11 It is an otherwise liturgy. That Bible study and prayer meeting at Emanuel AME marked out the “real presence” of an alternate mode of social life, one that’s exorbitant to the state and in its exorbitance points to a non-state, deregulated form of life in excess of a US settler logic of property relations.

Dylann Roof entered into this real presence. It is this real presence and real life that he targeted. He went into this church to kill what black church really is. But he couldn’t kill what’s unkillable, what the study itself enacted, namely, that paraontological, sacred expansion that is black life.12 Above the Veil.

Black church is Michael Brown and his friend ambulating itinerantly and jurisgeneratively as a deregulated tabernacle down the middle of a Ferguson street. Black church is #BlackLifeMatters. It is #SayHerName. It’s illegible, ecstatic congregrationality. It is study: getting together to figure out what it means to get together without (state) interest; intimacy, in a world that would regulate intimacies. Black church is improvisation in the midst of such regulation, which is to say, it’s deregulation. For precisely this reason, black church at its best both is but is more than—irreducibly more than—the institution called black church. It’s this inappropriable excess that Roof was shooting at. He targeted a holy place. He tried to crush a holy place—and its signature tokens: open study and open communion—insofar as (and herein lay its holiness) it’s an emanation of what’s ecumenical: ecumenical blackness; black churchicality as wayward “sociality”;13 improper flesh of Jesus’ improper body, improper of the improper; the swerve of stateless folks in their stateless status.

What I’m trying to think about is what Roof stepped into, what he targeted, and why he targeted it. Roof left some serious carnage and pain on that Wednesday night. Yeah, he’s crazy . . . or is he? Let’s not get it twisted: that muhfuckah understood something.

Dylann Roof understood that as an emanation and manifestation of the improper over against the normative or the proper (body politic), black churchicality is the practice of a sociality that’s already over the edge of state control and that for this reason requires enclosure—a repetition of the very act of settler violence against Indigenous Peoples on which this country is founded, and as it turns out, on which it maintains itself. Roof was a settler colonialist performing US citizenship in/as defense of the state. He believed that “society must be defended.” He understood that black church—again, understood not as a space of black uplift into good citizenship status before the state but as an alternate sociality as such—is far more dangerous than what we tend to take “resistance” to be about. Black churchicality as an alternate sociality is the feeling of an otherwise communion of those otherwise gathered, something along the lines of what Ashon Crawley talks about as “otherwise movements.”14 Roof understood that Emanuel signified (within) this tradition of the otherwise gathered, a tradition of the political otherwise, a tradition of deregulated counter intimacies. He understood that Emanuel signified (within) a tradition of the “queer thought world,” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it in Souls of Black Folk, a thought world that “moves above the veil.” This is an exorbitant tradition of exorbitance, of exorbitant sociality, of itinerant communion and “deregulated congregationality” (Cervenak), of congregation-ing without (state) interest, of “churchical exchange . . . without designs on churchicality itself” (Mackey). This is a tradition whose flirtations with voicelessness is precisely the means by which it “advances its own blue-ictic amen” (again, Mackey), another name for which is “paratheological blackness” (Carter). What does it mean to commune, to be engaged in churchical disinterest, or more precisely (lest I be mistaken for pining for Enlightenment) to be a church without interest in a world invested in interest (bearing instruments), that is to say, in weapons of war?15 What does it mean to go to the church that is without interest and thereby call into question any and every mode of normative, regulative communion which can’t help but be predicated on the interests of state or status?

With roots in the antebellum South and having at one point been burned to the ground and run underground because some of its charter members plotted a slave insurrection (I’m thinking of Denmark Vesey and Morris Brown), Emanuel AME bears the traces in the deep US South of this tradition as an alternate sociability without state interest. Mother Emanuel was a breakoff church from the church of the master class and thus of the state. Emanuel is part of a tradition then of what might be called an ante-American ante-church, an out communion of outed outsiders whose congregational outness is both next to and a disturbance from within the violence of state communion.

This is what Dylann Roof entered, what he was welcomed into with such warmth and love that on his own admission he almost couldn’t carry out his deadly deed. This is a communion of those who commune otherwise, whose liturgy is that of an “inappropriable ecstatics” of the open. Black church (para)theologically understood and at its best is an emanation of this ecstatics, an opening of the open, a refuge(e) congregationality.16 Studying change, bibles open, books open, doors open, windows open, hearts open, flesh open, in the open—no, it is the open, it is “the clearing.”

In speaking of the clearing to talk about black churchicality—that which Dylann Roof stepped into—I have Toni Morrison in mind, specifically that famous scene of her beautifully haunting novel Beloved, the scene often denoted as “the Clearing”: “a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.”17

There in the clearing, that is, in the commons, the “Rev.” Baby Suggs, who was an emanation of the masses and who actually refused the honorific of “Reverend,” only allowing “holy” after her name “like a small caress after it,” offers an ecstatic liturgy and homily of the flesh, a liturgy of deregulated congregationality where everything “gets all mixed up.”18 There, in the open, in the Clearing, that’s where the real eulogy was happening.19 Deregulated congregationality is an ongoing liturgy and eulogy of black social life. It is a well-word that can’t help but be a broken-word, an ante-logos or discourse on, in, and from silence. Listen to “the uncalled, the unrobed, the unanointed, unchurched preacher” herself, Baby Suggs, wax churchical in the churchical open, precisely the open that Dylann Roof tried to close but couldn’t. Though he left carnage, he couldn’t kill the churchical:

Then [Baby Suggs] shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.

“Let your mothers hear your laughter,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.20

As the scene proceeds, Morrison’s narrator continues the elaboration of the Clearing as an alternate church, a churchical ante-church of outed outsiders, as it were—after all this is a scene of the called out (the ek-klesia) into being gathered together (the ek-klesia) in a new relationship to self—of those who’ve been ecstatically released from the enclosure of the woods that would seek to contain the clearing.

Morrison’s scene bespeaks churchical blackness as a form of being together, of congregationality, and of delight in each other and in being with those churchically harbored together in the open cathedral of dis/believers without interest. Even more, the scene suggests release into a new relationship to the ground itself. They have an ungrounded relationship to the ground, a relationship that’s not about upright comportment or proper citizenship standing before the state, a relationship that’s already swerving past state interest. This is a relationship to ground that marks out an alternate form and an ante-rhythmics of life itself, an afterlife in relationship to the state operations of the management of life and death (“another life,” D’Angelo might croon, at the “window seat,” Erika Badu might sing), something on the far side of state interest and its regulation of intimacies, another modality of breathing.

Sociality—which is to say, congregationality-without-interest—is what I’m talking about and is what Roof was shooting at. What does it mean to go to the church without interest: the churchical church of the clearing, not the interest-bearing church with (state) interest?

Black churchicality or churchical blackness is the critique of the state as we know it. (And in fact, some black churches don’t like the churchical for this very reason. While black church has a privileged relationship to the churchical, we nevertheless must hold to an ontological difference between black churchicality and black church.21 The former is without ontology because it’s the paraontological critique of ontology and the paratheological critique of ontotheology, while the latter at its worse yearns for the ontological, that is, for state standing, to be a church with interest. But I digress . . .) As I suggested earlier, black churchicality is Michael Brown and his friend ambulating itinerantly down the middle of a Ferguson street. That was an itinerant congregation, refuge/e(d) tabernacling of the flesh. Incarnation. Black churchicality is #BlackLivesMatter (because BlackLifeMatters), a movement given its name by three queer women of color. Black churchicality, like “robot love,” as Janelle Monáe put it, is queer. Black churchicality is #SayHerName. It’s that illegible, ecstatic congregrationality of the open. It is study, getting together to figure out what it means to get together without (state) interest, all in a world predicated upon self-possessive interest and therefore the regulation of intimacies.

Perhaps when we talk about something called the black church tradition, this is what’s being paratheologically gestured toward: a non-enclosed and internally lush, full, and unencroachable mode of life that “[expresses] in a single meaning all that differs,”22 but that a state logic can only register as “threat” and “waste” that needs to be “enclosed” or settled for the sake of the defense of the state.23 “Settlers always be thinking they surrounded.”24

In short, Dylann Roof targeted the open. He was shooting not only in and toward but also through the Emanuel 9, trying to shoot down or close the open. But how do you shoot what’s open or target the untargetable? Or more precisely, how do you restrain a congregation and congregationality that always exceeds your grasp, one that continues to lovingly hold the Emanuel 9 and move with them in otherworldly study? Answer: Thank God, you can’t.

*Sarah Jane Cervenak, Felicia Lane Carter, Donyelle McCray, and Denise Thorpe: for your generosity as readers and listeners, for pressing me, for your sparkling ideas, for being interlocutors—thank you.


  1. Nathaniel Mackey, School of Udhra (San Francisco: City Lights, 1993), 25–26.

  2. Ibid., 25.

  3. “Notanda,” in M. NourbeSe Philip (as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng), Zong! (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 205.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Fred Moten, In the Break (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 23.

  6. W. E. B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk (New York: Norton, 1999; original, 1903).

  7. See Sarah Jane Cervenak, work in progress.

  8. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove, 2008; originally published, 1952), 206.

  9. Bass Cathedral (New York: New Directions, 2008), 3.

  10. Blue Fasa (New York: New Directions, 2015).

  11. On the concept of “wandering,” see Sarah Jane Cervenak, Wandering: Philosophical Performance of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

  12. On paraontology, see the work of Du Bois scholar Nahum Chandler.

  13. I like Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between “high society” and “sociality,” which I am playing with: “‘high-society’ differs from ‘sociality’ in that it is closer to the pack.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 34.

  14. Ashon Crawley, “Otherwise Movements,” http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/otherwise-movements/.

  15. This question riffs on a conversation with Sarah Cervenak in which we were riffing on something Fred Moten and Stephano Harney say in “Blackness and Governance,” in The Undercommons: Black Study and Fugitive Planning (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2013): “The churchgoers who value impropriety. The ones who manage to evade self-management in the enclosure. The ones without interest who bring the muted noise and mutant grammar of the new general interest by refusing. The new general intellect extending the long, extra-genetic line of extra-moral obligation to disturb and evade intelligence. Our cousins. All our friends” (52, emphasis mine).

  16. On “inappropriable ecstatics,” see Fred Moten, In the Break (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

  17. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, reprint 2004, original 1987), 87.

  18. Ibid.

  19. I originally planned for this piece to be a meditation on why President Barack Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was so profoundly problematic. I will offer thoughts on that another day. I’ll only say here that Obama offered to the nation a discourse of the enclosure performed through a black church aesthetics sutured to the state. In this sense, Obama’s speech (because it wasn’t a eulogy) promulgated the grace of the state—a “state grace” of the enclosure, we might say; a theodicy as “state-odicy” of state grace, more precisely still—not the grace of the open, which is precisely the grace Baby Suggs elaborates in her homily: “She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could see it, they would not have it. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grace. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. . . . [they] flay it. . . . This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. . . .’ Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh” (Beloved, 87–89). It’s not “state grace,” which really isn’t grace, that one meets in the clearing. Rather, one finds there a deregulated grace of the open, a grace that moves in the fold of the enclosure.

  20. Beloved, 87.

  21. Here I annotate Harney and Moten’s beautifully crafted first thesis on “Blackness and Governance,” in The Undercommons: “The anoriginary drive and the insistences it calls into being and moves through, that criminality that brings the law online, the runaway anarchic ground of unpayable debt and untold wealth, the fugal, internal world theater that shows up for a minute serially—poor but extravagant as opposed to frugal—is blackness which must be understood in its ontological difference from black people who are, nevertheless, (under)privileged insofar as they are given (to) an understanding of it” (47).

  22. Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 254.

  23. John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, II.6.

  24. A fleeting comment Fred Moten makes in conversation with Robin D. G. Kelly. The conversation (“Do Black Lives Matter? A Conversation with Fred Moten and Robin D. G. Kelly”) can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/116111740.

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