Introduction: To What End Must Race Lose Its Deathly Power?
Kay Higuera Smith and Daniel K. Darko
How we negotiate racial identities in North America is the subject of Bantum’s thought-provoking book entitled The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World (Fortress, 2016). The subtitle aptly articulates what becomes apparent in the book—the failure of Christians to deal with the issue of race theologically and ecclesiastically. Bantum interweaves theological anthropology and personal stories to lament discrimination and dehumanization and to call for alterations in Christian thought and praxis.
In some ways, the book’s title is misleading, because it sounds like Bantum is imagining that we can get to a “post-racial” world such as some people imagined after the election of President Barack Obama—a world in which we don’t see color; we don’t see ethnic or gender differences. In that world, we all treat each other equally. Bantum is not naïve, however. He argues instead that our varied ethnicities and distinctions of race, gender, and sexuality are crucial not only to our embodied presence on earth but to a recognition of the embodied Christ who took upon himself (Phil 2:7–8) that kind of human particularity that must, by extension, include an ethnic, gendered self.
Rather, for Bantum, race is a category of death production. One might read his title in the subjective genitive just as easily as the objective, yielding a meaning something like: “The Death that Rac[ialized] Ideology Inevitably Produces—The Death of [by] Race.” But Bantum also imagines an ideal in which the binary categories of colonial thought—White/Black; Male/Female; Cis/Trans; Occidental/“Oriental”—cease to be the taxonomic categories by which we structure human experience in ways that cause death and destruction to the binary “Other.”
In this book, then, race is not a descriptor of humans with common descent or ancestry but a negative construct of difference and its dehumanizing antecedents. Race is thus a terminus technicus for an arbitrary classification of humans, involving stereotyping and dehumanizing by people of Euro-American descent (Whites) as well as cisgendered males with respect to women and LGBTQI folks.
In autobiographical narrative and accessible style, Bantum brings the complexity of racial identity to the fore and endeavors to provide a theological framework for conversation and better Christian witness. He invites the reader to observe how bodies take on various identities depending on space or associations. Bantum, as the progeny of a white mother and a black father, recounts his early childhood struggles to establish his own racial identity. He tells of marrying his wife, Gail, a Korean-American woman, and a story about how the complexion of his wife reveals another layer of difference, even in the context of biological family. Bantum journeys with his reader to explore the beauty that transcends racial labelling. It becomes apparent that race is socially inscribed by those who presume power to assign social classifications of people groups, thereby demarcating in-group and out-group by order of their subjective yardsticks. These arbiters are purportedly people of White race, buttressed by a colonial story that authorizes them to assign otherness using their own binary, colonial criteria.
Bantum refrains from combative parlance but bemoans the state of race relations in Christian institutions. He thus calls for confession in the Augustinian order so that Christians might find a better way forward. His narrative approach humanizes difficult concepts, and it challenges Christians to deal with race as real human problems that affect us all. The tax collectors are as much in need of liberation as are the oppressed peasant farmers who suffer under their injustice.
Two prominent theological themes permeating the discourse are the doctrines of the imago Dei and incarnation. Bantum expands the scope of the imago Dei to other parts of the creation narrative and further underscores the distinct role of Mary of Nazareth as birthing both song and body as ways to resist the death produced by race.
The dominant imagery used to characterize human experiences is that of the “body.” For Bantum, the incarnation of Christ demands that we, too, consider the ways “our bodies do work in the world” (8). Because Bantum sees embodiment as a key theological category, for him, the kind of disembodied, autonomous theology that imagines our bodies to be irrelevant to the liberation that salvation brings is “a lie” (8)—a denial of how we exist as human beings in the world and thus a denial of Jesus’ incarnation into that selfsame embodied humanity. We must take note of this theological move. Jesus’ incarnation was not as some sort of universal ideal human. It was specific and particular. Hence embodiment itself becomes a key theological category that cannot be overlooked, claims Bantum.
Now, as aptly noted by the reviewers, this body metaphor is indeed helpful and provides important insights in several instances. On the other hand, they suggest, it is also problematic. First, it is problematic in its limited ability to capture the issues at stake. Bantum may simply be asking “the body” to do more rhetorical “work” than is reasonably possible. Second, it is problematic because such a theology can be used by the perpetrators of racial, ethnic, disability, or gender injustice just as easily as the victims. Consider the embodied ideology/theology of White, racist antebellum Southern Christianity, or that of Heidegger and National Socialist German in the mid-twentieth century, as sobering examples. Because of this, an incarnational theology of embodiment, while a key category, must include a self-critique. It is not embodiment alone. It is embodiment in the light of the social, political, economic, and discursive power differentials that exist. If we do not place the interrogation of power front and center in a theology of incarnational embodiment, those who wield such power will employ (and have employed) it to distort the image of God in other groups whom their “embodied” theology marks as “other,” or, as somehow embodied incompletely or deficiently, and thus worthy of subjugation.
Despite this, the book generally succeeds in laying out the challenges of minorities in a racialized world and the urgency for change. The book does not aim to provide a definite solution to all racial problems but provides a theological framework for healthy conversation. What might this healthy conversation look like? A major interlocutor foregrounded by Bantum’s lament and his aspirations is the collective group of White Christians. Fruitful conversations—ones that move past “alleged victims” bemoaning injustice, on one side, while White Christians persist in stereotyping and failing to acknowledge implicit bias, on the other—may result in Euro-American Christians being able to participate in listening, sharing, and critiquing their roles as we work together for unity in diversity in the body of Christ. Without these conversations, we reduce this important discussion to a gathering of minority Christians bemoaning racial injustice with no path to better race relations.
In his hope for an alternative future, Bantum does not make a clear distinction between Christian and non-Christian involvement, but it is essential to make such distinctions lest we assume that Christian values or theological frameworks are shared by, and operative for, non-believers. By this, we avoid perspectival blindness about non-Christians in the United States and their unique values. Much of the discussion of the book is applicable only to Christians with shared theological convictions and values. That said, Bantum’s book can be an excellent starting point for having important conversations with those who will listen and participate in challenging the death that race produces.
Our four respondents both advance and challenge Bantum’s call to use story to speak into existence not only the ability to perceive the death-producing nature of race but also the life-producing nature of a vision and a theology that takes seriously embodied existence.
Vincent Lloyd (Villanova University) sees Bantum’s book as a helpful vehicle through which Christians with social justice concerns, Evangelicals, and White and Black Christians of all denominations can consider race, both through story and through careful theological reflection. Seeing The Death of Race as a response to the well-received book Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lloyd suggests that Bantum adds a different dimension—one that invites Christians who resonate with Coates’s critique to imagine an alternate way of being in the world that takes seriously the theological and ecclesiological implications of an embodied, historically-situated Christ. Coates has demonstrated how our racialized world seeks to name our bodies and to construct taxonomies of bodies in order to underwrite hierarchies that produce death. Bantum responds by suggesting that we first acknowledge such a naming and then reject it, consciously choosing to look to another source to name our bodies and the stories associated with them.
While on the surface, such a proposal seems liberating and refreshing, Lloyd reminds us that even our Christology is so embedded in the racialized, hierarchical logic of existing social structures that to imagine it otherwise will be difficult to pull off. He takes up what he calls Bantum’s “two pillars”—bodies and stories—one of which, he notes, occupies the material and the other the immaterial realm. A noble challenge such as Bantum’s, he observes, can easily be reduced to serving the existing regulatory norms produced by the ideology of the autonomous individual, which in itself is aggressively policed by our capitalist, neoliberal economy—“advancing the interests of elites, sold to the masses, packaged along with middle class aspirations, but always leaving some remainder.” How, then, can “story” that does not center discourses of power and real economic forces that produce the very death of race have any effect on upending those forces?
Angela Parker (Seattle School of Theology and Psychology) examines the book against the background of current affairs, particularly the US elections, Brexit, and violence against minorities. She appreciates Bantum’s use of stories, body imageries, and race to espouse complexities of race and cessation of its dehumanizing impetus. Parker, however, raises concerns about “arbiters” of racial identity and who gets to tell stories of race. She observes that the power too often resides with “cis-gendered, White, male, heterosexual, propertied men.” She posits that aspirations to resist and reduce dehumanization would benefit from the inclusion of womanist and LGBTQI interlocutors in retelling both biblical and human stories, if what Bantum advocates would have a wider effect.
Reggie Williams (McCormick Seminary) opens his response with a close look at how race is defined and invoked as a destructive force in our public associations and perceptions. To understand its effects and the potential “death of race,” he suggests the necessity for a sound theological framework in the quest for better human relations. Race as an “ideological mechanism” and “aesthetic mark” informs identity constructs, self-concepts, and the value of humanity. Misappropriation of the biblical creation narrative and other passages is partly the reason a sound theological anthropology would be imperative in engendering more life-giving conceptions of fellow humans created in the image of God. He argues that a good grasp of human identity in relation to God consequently would inform how we perceive and relate to the other in more dignified ways. Williams hopes for further conversations with Bantum on the integration and appropriation of his conception of “the death of race” in the academy, especially given the current political landscape in the United States.
Elaine Padilla (University of La Verne) richly develops the aesthetics of Bantum’s focus on song and story. She finds it a way to celebrate birth, life, creation, and vivacious living in a new and fresh mode. Focusing on song more acutely than body, Padilla reminds us that while embodiment does its own theological work, so does song. Embodiment grounds us, but song frees us. Embodiment places limits on us but song rises up beyond limits and joins with others in a lush, polyvalent chorus, invoking the multiracial character of the singers. Because of her embrace of the rich, chordal possibilities of song, Padilla reminds the reader not to settle for the Black/White or male/female binary. Just as songs are so much more inspiring when reflecting the opulent, thick chords of jazz or of the symphony, so our identities express aesthetic beauty when we recognize their luxuriantly intersectional natures.
But these songs are not and have never been solely songs of joy. Because of the death that race produces, we join our voices in lament—with all those who have suffered the death production of past generations. Nevertheless, she contends, the final song is not a song of death. Death, “pressing against the membranes of our bowels,” becomes the tomb/womb that leads to our birthing new songs of redemption. Lament turns into gratitude.
Padilla also picks up on Bantum’s discussion of the new birth that pressed itself forward in the Magnificat of Mary of Nazareth. Mary’s song of liberation is a song embodied in Gloria Anzaldúa’s concept of la raza—an affirmation that rejects taxonomic structuring of bodies for the purposes of dominance. Just as Mary calls us to reject our gendered, classed hierarchical taxonomies, so we can draw from “Jesus-Sophia” to imagine a new way of being in the world.
Response: Brian Bantum
Bantum acknowledges Lloyd’s depiction of the ways that our experience of capitalism snares all in its ideological web. However, he assigns great power to bodies and stories, arguing that their very “mystery” makes them important vehicles to first perceive, then reject the “story” told by our neoliberal ideologues. In this sense, for Bantum, stories and bodies open up possibilities. They are undetermined and indeterminate. For this reason, Bantum sees stories as key components in resisting the death produced by ideologically rigid stories that bind and kill. While acknowledging the “gritty practices” of resisting social, economic, and political oppression, Bantum refuses to abandon story as an important part of the equation. He does, however, accede to Lloyd that story cannot do it alone. Likewise, for Bantum, however, resistance and organizing cannot do it without story.
Bantum picks up the theme of womanist stories in his response to Angela Parker. He acknowledges the validity of Parker’s challenge to his theme of confession. Confession, Parker notes, by its very nature, implies a power differential—one that has been exploited over time to silence and oppress Black women. Bantum hopes that these perspectives will inform his own growing and changing understandings of confession. He acknowledges his Augustinian understanding that one confesses “who one is (or is not) even as one confesses who God is.” But he also has learned from his womanist and mujerista conversation partners that confession also involves confessing to the reality of who one knows oneself to be—a confession that resists and refuses a society that seeks to enforce a different understanding of one’s self. It is only bodies and stories that have the flexibility and fluidity to address our lived, communal realities and, in the process, to resist the stories that rigid, hierarchical systems of race, patriarchy, sexuality, and class seek to impose on us.
In his response to Williams, Bantum takes up the theme of theological education and the ways that an orientation that takes seriously the death of/by race will and must change academic theological institutions. Theological education now, argues Bantum, is taught “from the contextual center of colonizing modernity,” more often alienating than liberating its students. Taking up Williams’s challenge, Bantum imagines a new way of being in the theological academy. He imagines the academy taking up radically new urgent questions and training students to approach those questions using their embodied space and their stories. He leaves aside the issue of how practical an undertaking like this is, given that our academic institutions are beholden to constituencies that often fail to or are unable to perceive or acknowledge the death that race produces.
Bantum resonates with the rich, savory imagery that Padilla evokes. He affirms her calls for intersectionality, invoking the female theologians who have shaped and challenged his own thinking. For Bantum, this new way of being in the world is unimaginable without the testimony, guidance, and insights of women who follow a tradition which, in many ways, has been navigating and overcoming death-dealing taxonomies from time immemorial. Padilla, with her focus on song and on images of water, entombment, birth, and resurrection, inspires Bantum to envisage fluid ways of being. He expresses delight in Padilla’s recognition of the importance of Mary’s song of redemption in the Magnificat. When new stories emerge that take up the hymns and ballads of those who imagine life otherwise, Bantum contends, we are all enriched.