Symposium Introduction

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.

Vincent Lloyd

Response

Bodies and Stories

Brian Bantum has succeeded in doing what few scholars are able to do. He has written a book that is accessible to a broad audience but does not compromise its critical and theological rigor. Not only this: he has also produced a book in praise of story—the story of the author, the story of race in America, and the Christian story—and he employs story to persuade. This embrace of story, and this ability to communicate accessibly, opens the book to multiple interlocutors, pushing them to think more critically about race and faith. The Death of Race provides a framework for evangelicals to engage with racial issues and a way for racial justice advocates to engage with evangelicals. It also speaks compellingly to White “liberal” Protestants, Black Christians of all denominational stripes, and post-liberal theologians. Bantum gently introduces each of these audiences to the best theorizing and theologizing about race, offering tools to engage with some of today’s most pressing questions by employing these tools in stories about himself and those around him with evocative language and images. In part, this approach—of telling stories—works because Bantum, the main character, is so relatable yet also distinct. He encounters the complexity and paradoxes of the American racial landscape and owns his perplexity and discomfort—indeed, perplexity and discomfort eventually lead to the catharsis that embrace of the Christian story will provide for him.

The Death of Race is motivated, but not overdetermined, by concerns of the present and the local. Bantum is clear that the increased public visibility of racial injustice compels him to write, but he does not remain tethered to either violent Black deaths or the “Black Lives Matter” movement that has developed in response. Instead, The Death of Race is fundamentally about living and loving and believing—about growing in life, love, and faith. Through negotiating the complexities of a world marked by race, Bantum directs our attention to a world beyond race, made possible by the embrace of the Christian story, one that tells of a peaceful world, a world beyond Black death, and beyond all death. This strategy is promising because addressing the present in its own terms, given the strength of anti-Blackness, given the strength of the powers that be, is futile. It is necessary to find an alternative set of concepts and images, joined together by alternative stories, in order for genuine social transformation to be effected and for social justice to be achieved. These stories are necessarily speculative and tentative; if they are not, they would be derivative of the wisdom of the world. The criterion by which they should be evaluated, thus, must be in their capacity to inspire imagination and to orient listeners away from the interests of the powers that be—in theological terms, to orient them toward the divine.

At the center of the stories Bantum tells is the body. In a sense, The Death of Race is a direct response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, an attempt to out-narrate Coates’s pessimistic story by embracing it and also supplementing it with a joyful, redemptive Christian story.Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015). Both Bantum and Coates see the Black body in the United States captured by a racial logic that operates in the domains of ideas, institutions, histories, perceptions, daily interactions, and, with particularly brutal force, police and prisons. Coates would certainly agree when Bantum writes of the American racial regime: “This fallen way of seeing and naming the world obscures our bodies, makes us more blind to who we are and who others are” (87). Here Bantum is already hinting at his counter-narrative: there is a truth to the body, to who we essentially are. It is a truth made visible in Christianity, specifically, in the centrality of the body in Christianity. Jesus Christ is divinity embodied, and worshiping him means embracing the image of the divine in the human. This means that allowing some other, worldly regime to determine the body’s meaning runs directly counter to Christianity; a prime imperative of Christians is to discern and reject the world’s attempts to inscribe the body in its stories. In other words, attacking idolatry—as Bantum elegantly puts it, purging the human tendency to confuse “our own machinations as holy and divine” (53)—means not only suspicion of those people and powers that would set themselves up as transcendent but also the suspicion of all ascriptions of what we are in favor of an embrace of who we are, participants in a divine drama.

This framework strikes me as very generative. The challenge is to articulate such a framework in a way that does not anchor it in the network of concepts, images, and institutions that sustain the status quo, including the present racial regime. Obviously, there is no possibility for telling stories unrelated to that regime, given its pervasiveness and power. The best one can hope is to use words and images—and institutions—in a way that encourages thinking otherwise. These are strategic questions, or questions of rhetoric. (I would argue that they also ought to be theological questions as well, when theology is approached with sufficient humility, when speaking about God is understood as a question of choosing better words rather than right words.)

In this context, I wonder about the possibilities and limitations of the two pillars of Bantum’s project, the concepts of bodies and stories. There are hints at a certain architectonic instability in choosing these two worldly terms as pillars right away: the connotation of bodies is essentially material while the connotation of stories is essentially immaterial. For example, we might wonder whether, when stories attempt to organize bodies, those bodies push back. We might wonder whether friction between stories and bodies is a feature of the world, never overcome in the world, not even by an embrace of the Christian story. We might wonder whether stories norm bodies, or whether bodies norm stories. And we might wonder how taking as foundational bodies and stories—abstractions both—helps and hinders the concrete, gritty practices of organizing for racial justice.

Beyond these general, conceptual worries, the choice of bodies and stories as cornerstones for The Death of Race raises a set of concerns based on the current cultural connotations of these concepts. While engaging with the intricacies of incarnational theology is well above my pay grade (and I have no doubt that Bantum is pointing to something right—and an important corrective—in emphasizing Christianity as a story about the body), I do worry that there may be ways this emphasis fits too comfortably with contemporary American, secular culture. Here I do not mean only exercise and dieting—though these are symptomatic—but also a more general emphasis on the autonomous individual, disconnected from community and history, with their essential normativity. A generation or two ago, this was an abstract, rational individual, with discrete desires, making discrete choices in line with his interests. The individual, as imagined in today’s culture, remains denuded of normativity, but the light has softened. Mind and body are integrated, along with reason and emotion, leisure and work, and necessities (of food, love, shelter) and pleasure. American individualism has incorporated its critics into itself, aided by the complementary forces of neoliberalism that colonize social life and culture. Nevertheless, for most of us, at the end of the day there remains the individual mind-body, alone, driving to work, to the store, to the mall, choosing her lifestyle, looking for new experiences, searching for a “value system” that fits—fully invested in the false consciousness that it is she alone, not her communities and histories, that sets the horizon of normative possibilities for her life. This, of course, is ideology—advancing the interests of elites, sold to the masses, packaged along with middle class aspirations, but always leaving some remainder. That remainder, that resistance to ideology, is most visible in the most marginal, where the pull of community and history is inescapable. My worry, then, is about centering the elite language of bodies rather than languages from the margins, where the marginalized obviously recognize the import of bodies but express that import in ways that do not automatically translate into an idiom that makes sense from the perspective of those who uphold the status quo.

Stories, of course, have always been part of the world, but the thematization of story as common currency also strikes me as very much a product of the past half century of American life—a technique to manage the unity of American identity in the face of proliferating diversity. Multiculturalism (as ideology, rather than fact) embraces the plurality of stories, each arising from specific histories and communities, and each enriching our common life. The role of teachers, politicians, and business leaders is to tell stories that motivate but that also increase our investment in that common story—that common, American identity. Certainly, some stories are harmful, enabling violence (weapons of mass destruction, Manifest Destiny), while others open new possibilities for living together (Rosa Parks, Stonewall). Telling stories that have been excluded becomes an imperative of justice—stories about disability, gender, immigration, and race. These stories are constrained by various culturally-specific genre conventions, but they are also, more importantly, constrained by the necessity that each story accept, at an ontological level, the plurality of stories, its place as one of many interlinking stories. As Bantum rightly points out, stories that sustain patriarchy, heteronormativity, and white supremacy are deeply linked (I would add—crucially—capitalism, a word that is absent from his book). But these are stories that are crumbling—even while the practices and institutions they praise remain robust. They are weakened because they do not fit into the contemporary economy of stories that requires a commitment to plurality. This prompts the question: how could Christianity, packaged as story, thrive in such a story-economy?

Here I wonder again about strategy or rhetoric—or theology. Does challenging injustices through multiplying stories—or through advancing the Christian story—allow for the depth of critique that is necessary to combat entrenched evils, specifically, the evils associated with racial injustice in the United States today? On the one hand, racial justice activists have recently pointed to the specificity of anti-Black racism and the way it is not just one of many “-isms” but a constituent ingredient in the metaphysics of the West. Whether or not one buys such a grand theory, it does seem like increased attention to the distinctiveness of Blackness, rather than just race—one among many stories, itself consisting of many stories—would be useful, given the specifics of the world—and of the nation—in which we live. On the other hand, racial justice activists have also pointed to the way that race ought to be understood in the context of racial capitalism, with specific economic forces in specific places and at specific times shaping the way the concept of race and its practices manifest themselves. The focus on story would seem to pull away from these material conditions, discouraging the sort of analysis that attends to economic forces shaping the world and also to the contradictions that result from those economic forces, contradictions that can be exploited to advance social justice.

The Death of Race unfolds as love unfolds: Bantum learns about himself, race, and God as his romance with his partner deepens. Love brings insight, and participation in love deepens participation in the divine. There is something peculiar about this love story, however. It seems to involve neither desire nor especial pleasure. There is intimacy, and there is “joy in the mundane again and again” (32), but the most we hear of desire is the disavowed “male desire to be free without limitation” (66). I suspect this has to do with the limitations of taking bodies and stories as foundational. Story plots bodies, putting some here, some there, costuming them this way or that, offering scripts to follow. The love story is such a script—again, a quintessentially American one. I wonder what would happen if The Death of Race set aside the American love story in favor of the Augustinian love story, the story of the human as a bundle of disordered loves with a deep desire for those loves to be rightly ordered, for participation in the divine, but also with deeply human resistance to such right ordering. Racialization systematically disorders desires, of an individual and a community, with the two inextricably linked. Naming this disorder helps to account for the fundamental dissatisfaction that we feel, even when our worldly desires are apparently sated. Where Bantum’s vision of bodies plotted by God’s story rather than by racial stories conjures the post-racial—which is a questionable and still decidedly worldly utopia—the tragic struggle to order desires in the City of Man offers a helpful reminder that the City of God is qualitatively different, and that maintaining this difference is absolutely essential for racial justice activism—and for theology.

  • Brian Bantum

    Brian Bantum

    Reply

    Brian Bantum’s Response to Vincent Lloyd

    I wrote this book with the hope of offering a theology of race to people beyond the academy. To have colleagues join me in this endeavor and take such care with a book that was very personal for me to write is a gift. I am incredibly grateful for Kay Higuera Smith and Dan Darko for convening this conversation. Vincent Lloyd, Angela Parker, Reggie Williams, and Elaine Padilla have offered some important observations that have both confirmed much of what I hoped to do in the book as well as pressed some important questions about both form and the implications of what I have raised in The Death of Race.

    Story and body. I suppose the terror of our capitalist moment is the power it has to incorporate anything, even those most antithetical to its presuppositions, into its orbit. I suppose the very reciprocity of body and story, the mutually orienting and disorienting power of these “material” and “immaterial” poles, is part of what I hope resists this compulsion brought about by our capitalist existence—that we are bodies that are inherently mystery, that out stories cannot be told without one another, that there is a necessity to reach back in a way that leaves us vulnerable to discovering that the story we thought was true was actually a lie.

    We must ask whether stories can do the work of organizing, mobilizing, and gathering communities together in ways that are concrete and local. I would be naive if I said, “yes,” as though that was all there was to it. But I think we should not deceive ourselves as to the power of the story that has shaped Christian congregations who remain silent or egregiously complicit in our current crisis. Every time we gather on Sunday morning and hear the word of God preached or taught, there is a story being slapped between the bricks of our communities like mortar, left to harden over time. I am a theologian. I am a child of and for the church and have seen how these stories conjure new sight and visions and draw people into forms of life that have become flesh. For me, The Death of Race was an opportunity to tell an intervening story that could, perhaps, tear some of those bricks down and offer a different possibility.

    After my father died, I often gave a testimony about how his life and witness in the midst of cancer was part of what brought me to Christ. He was a man whose life was completely turned around; he became a symbol of what it meant to be Christian. Only years later would I get flashes of memory about other things he said and did during the time he was sick, whether of his impatience or anger or disregard. He was, in many ways, the same man who had disappointed me often as a child. Nevertheless, the story I had been telling had already done work in my life. I was on my way to seminary, responding to a call to ministry. I had emulated the ways he prayed until I had forgotten they had a beginning in him. That story had become enfleshed in me.

    However, Lloyd wonders, “Does challenging injustices through multiplying stories—or through advancing the Christian story—allow for the depth of critique that is necessary to combat entrenched evils, specifically, the evils associated with racial injustice in the United States today?” He also asks if the emphasis on story might reinforce problematic notions of the individual. These are critical questions. Is it possible that the language of story becomes a neat, new theological trope, something like narrative theology, but ultimately only an academic trope that fails to bring about substantive political transformation? Lloyd challenges me to consider this possibility. But here I am not invoking story as an ideological or theological hope. I do not think we need a “better” story. The idea of story that I was working with is more literary than theory. By literary, I mean that stories are the accumulation of material moments, observations, conflicts, knowings, and unknowings that unfold in our lives and shape us, even as our navigation of those moments shapes the lives of others. For the novelist, the story is not the overarching idea. The story is the development of the character—getting to know people who are coming into being, and sharing that discovery with the reader. The story is embedded in the small interactions and the big decisions, the way a home is organized or is a mess. This is no less true for a community, a culture, or a nation. The story is not simply the July Fourth narrative, but the way that that myth is present in how pastors preach from Sunday to Sunday, or how the two new dark-skinned families are received in the previously all-White neighborhood. I am not so naïve as to suggest that these stories are the only thing we need to attend to, but I also think that without attending to the stories that shape what we believe is possible or impossible, we will not get very far. What is it that animates a person’s desire to organize? To resist? To work toward a future that is not visible? In many cases, it is a story.

    To Lloyd’s point regarding the danger of individualism in telling one’s story, I understand his hesitation. Is the book my individual interpretation of what my life ought to mean and what the Christian story ought to be? Is my body signifying what I think I ought to be or know? As the book makes clear, my story is impossible to tell without the lives of others. While I am speaking of aspects of my story, it is impossible to speak without referents, without multiple stories navigating one another. As the earliest slave narratives have shown us, there is something inherently political in telling our story. But for me this story was impossible to tell without my wife—without my mother or my father. Moreover, at the end, I still am faced with “unknowing.” Mine is a story that continues to unfold into the lives of others with little certainty about what it will look like in my children. That is part of the point of the letter to my son at the end of the book—to say that we are mystery, that the body is not a discrete, knowable entity, that the body is a signification of the interrelationship between mystery and presence. In the midst of this acknowledgment, we are always discovering and confessing our story. I am convinced that living in this tension is a critical way forward in a racialized world.

    I suppose what I wanted to convey in The Death of Race is a deepening conviction that we will not resist the distortions of racism, patriarchy, and homophobia without infusing into our Christian communities a story that is enfleshed and present. From children’s church, to sermons—from weekly Bible studies to small groups—I hope to ask whether we imagine our bodies as an impediment to a life with God and one another, or whether we see them as beautiful, powerful, and necessary to following Jesus, the Word made flesh.

    Certainly, there are political theories and strategies of community organizing that will contribute to the tangible transformation of communities and our nation. There are alternative economic models that we should be advocating for in order to cultivate a more equitable society. But I wonder if our current moment suggests that we must also have the eyes to see a faithful model when it becomes present to us—that we must have the ears to hear the lie when someone preaches peace to us through violence against others. I wonder if this is not also a necessary part of prophetic witness—helping us to see that our stories are embodied and that our bodies are stories. In this reciprocity, there is power and possibility in the everyday. I often return to the conclusion of Emilie Townes’s Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, as a guide when considering the seeming dichotomy between communal “versus” individual responses necessary to overcome systemic oppression. Townes suggests,

    Ultimately, somewhere deep inside each of us we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of what we will do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are as we stare down the interior life of the cultural production of evil is live your faith deeply. This is not a quest for perfection, but for what we call in Christian ethics the everydayness of moral acts. It is what we do every day that shapes us and where both the fantastic hegemonic imagination and the challenge and hope to dismantle it are found.1

    In a way, this idea—that we can so easily distinguish between the story and body—is raised again in Lloyd’s question regarding the specificity of Blackness versus a story of race more broadly conceptualized, and I am glad Lloyd has raised it. The question for me has been how the stories that shape social spaces (church, nation, neighborhood, academy) become intertwined with not only race but also ethnicity, patriarchy, homophobia—how is it that a church can fight against the anti-Blackness of the Western world and at the same time exclude women from the pulpit? What is at the heart of these rhythms of exclusion and myopia? How do we help everyday people in the church to begin to see in new ways? While the book works with the category of race in broader ways, I had hoped to show how it becomes manifest in my own life and how notions of Blackness and anti-Blackness are specific to that story. I do not think this specific approach and the broader questions are dichotomous. In fact, I think it is important for us to name the ways in which anti-Blackness becomes instantiated in our everyday lives.

    This leads us to ask, however, whether the language of story and body is the way to accomplish this. Lloyd suggests, “We might wonder how taking as foundational bodies and stories—abstractions both—helps and hinders the concrete, gritty practices of organizing for racial justice.” Lloyd is quite right here in pointing to the inherent limitation of any concept to do this work. What I had hoped to do in contextualizing these themes within a story is to resist the very conceptualization Lloyd points to. These concepts would certainly hinder the work if considered as stabilizing narratives. He suggests,

    That remainder, that resistance to ideology, is most visible in the most marginal. My worry, then, is about centering the elite language of bodies rather than languages from the margins, where the marginalized obviously recognize the import of bodies but express that import in ways that do not automatically translate into an idiom that makes sense from the perspective of those who uphold the status quo.

    I take this hesitation to be registering the claim that marginalized communities do not need to be reminded that they are bodied and that language about the body arises from particularly privileged communities. I would add that marginalized communities have been speaking about bodies from the very beginning. Slave spirituals imagined the freedom of their bodies in this land and the next. Harriet Jacobs describes hiding her body in attics and coves to escape the sexual violence her master intended.2 David Walker intermingled Israel’s suffering with the plight of slaves throughout the globe and in the United States, finally quoting biblical psalms and Wesley’s hymns in a way that infused new meaning into them.3 However, I am less convinced that those of us in marginalized communities immediately translate the recognition of our embodiment equally to all others within our communities. If this were so, the Black church would be an Eden of inclusivity, would it not?

    How then do we work within these communities to discover a mutual way forward? Lloyd seems unconvinced that story is an adequate way forward: “The focus on story would seem to pull away from these material conditions, discouraging the sort of analysis that attends to economic forces shaping the world but also to the contradictions that result from those economic forces, contradictions that can be exploited to advance social justice.” Yes, a conceptual notion of finding a better story is a vein of thought found in Narrative Theology of a certain post-liberal stripe. But I suppose this is where the reciprocating nature of body and story become necessary—less in a theory of narrative, but more in a literary and performative sense. That is, literature arises from observation, from a mode of seeing and being in the world that allows the writer to speak and lift corners of our everyday lives in order to see the connections, patterns, or histories that get lost in the stories we have previously told ourselves. Performatively, story is less what I say I am doing and more the ways the patterns of my everyday life speak in the world. In many ways, I came to realize that my story was necessary in this book not as an easy translation of difficult concepts, but because the notions of story and body were not simply concepts; they were enfleshed in me.

    Ultimately, I hope the book serves as an invitation to the kind of creative imagining and re-imagining that I believe is necessary if churches and Christian communities are going to be faithful witnesses to God’s presence in this strange new world.


    1. Emilie Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 164.

    2. See Harriet A. Jacobs, Nellie Y. McKay, and Frances Smith Foster, eds., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Contexts, Criticism, 1st ed., Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

    3. See David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, 2011).

Angela Parker

Response

Challenging the Stories We Tell Ourselves

The current religious and political climate of the United States lends itself to both triumphant and disturbing stories. One particularly disturbing story comes out of Portland, Oregon, where, after yelling racial and religious epithets at two Muslim-appearing women on the MAX train, a man stabbed and killed two men who were trying to intervene. News outlets also reported that the man had attended a conservative free speech rally a month prior, where he also shouted racial epithets. While media outlets have not specifically reported whether or not this man was a Christian, I am still left wondering if parts of his extreme ideology have any roots in the stories that evangelical Christianity continues to tell today.

At a time in which 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for the current president (Trump), who has run a campaign infused with flawed racist views, misogynistic taunts, and fearful rhetoric, I believe that Bantum’s book comes at a time when many of us must reevaluate the stories that we tell. As I formulate my response to Bantum’s work, The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World, I will focus on three aspects of the book: story, bodies, and identity.

I think that what Bantum does best in his book is to weave stories into his argumentation for the death of race. While in no way arguing for a “post-racial” ideal in the United States, he rightfully calls for the demise of race as “the structure of death, the dehumanizing and de-creating word a people [successfully] sought to speak over the world” (16). Recognizing that race “is a story bound to the death of certain bodies,” Bantum uses his stories around race to argue for a different way of living and hoping within the world (16).

Bantum’s delineation of story is important here. He states that race is “a” story. It is not “the” story. And one of the many ways that Bantum pushes his readers not to think about race as “the” story is the way that he interweaves stories of his partnership with his wife, Gail, into his book. As a “sucker” for a good love story, I love the personal nature of the stories that Bantum tells about his partnership with Gail. When Bantum married Gail, he saw that their story was not just a story of White and Black. Theirs is a mix of Black-White-Brown-Korean that demands an untangling and deciphering of that story for the task of living. Bantum reminds us that there are levels of complexity within story. The ability to recognize complexity is what I often hear from my Asian students: in the United States conversations often center on Black/White and Christian/Muslim dichotomies while missing the complexities of everything in between; we have a habit of telling one story as “the” story.

Thinking through the complexity of story, Bantum turns to biblical stories in order to flesh out his thesis, the first being the creation story in the book of Genesis. Reading the creation story through the lens that he had inherited, Bantum recognized that this story could not explain the women that he knew and loved, such as Gail and his mother (22–23). The “simple” creation story that he thought he knew was that God created men and women for different roles: men lead, women follow; men are rational, women are emotional, etc. This simple creation story named what was “natural” but still could not explain what Bantum saw every day: enslavement, patriarchy, etc. (23). When he began to resist and complexify that “simple” reading of the story, Bantum states, “I did not see a story of marriage. I did not see a story that simply explained why I should not have sex before marriage or why women were somehow to blame for the evil in our world” (25–26). Rather, what he saw was that the creation story is a story that claims that we were created to be with God and with others (26).

Part of the beauty of Bantum’s resistant reading is that it helps me frame my own pedagogical approach as a womanist biblical scholar teaching biblical hermeneutics in a predominantly White institution. Many of my current students come from evangelical contexts where they have been taught models of purity codes from texts such as Genesis and the book of Ruth. Bantum responds to such ideologically-laden readings of these texts and argues for alternate readings. Instead of thinking about the creation story as showing God’s intention for humanity within the confines of sexual relationships only, Bantum expands the creation story of Genesis to offer an ideal of being with God and being with others. Building capacity for resistant, complex readings is of utmost importance for Bantum and, I would argue, for our continued conversation and work in the public sphere and within theological education.

In chapter 2 of his book, Bantum argues that “bodies matter.” Specifically, bodily difference has often justified both dehumanization and death in society. Pondering difference as a gift, instead, Bantum argues that our bodies’ power lies in limitations. These thoughts lead Bantum to ask how the stories of our bodies can aid in understanding the incarnation of Jesus (40). More specifically, since Bantum recognizes that our “senses help us to know and understand so much,” then bodily differences can serve as an opportunity to “understand God, the world, others, and ourselves more deeply” (40). While Bantum’s logic is sound, the problem with implementing such logic is that only certain bodies have accumulated the power to tell the story of the incarnation. Cis-gendered, White, male, heterosexual, propertied men have been the arbiters of thought regarding incarnation for such a long time that it may be difficult to wrest the stories of bodies from such entrenched, ideological prisms.

Recognizing the power dynamics regarding the stories of bodies takes me back to how I began my review of Bantum’s work. The Portland stabbings show that in our current political climate, we are not understanding “God, the world, others, and ourselves more deeply” (40). It seems that Brexit and our recent, 2016 election in the United States have shown that cis-gendered, White, male, heterosexual, propertied men as arbiters of power would rather hold to a story of the body that does not recognize difference as an opportunity to bring about “love, faith, and hope” (40). Bantum’s book implores Christians to engage difference in meaningful ways.

Now that Bantum has pondered bodies and difference for the incarnation, he links together the stories of race, contemporary bodies, and the racialized body of Jesus. As I ponder the 81 percent White evangelical vote noted in my introduction, I believe that Bantum argues for a corrective to the Christian story’s lack of accountability for the racialized body of Jesus. However, Bantum does not stop at the body of Jesus since he links his argumentation to the racialized bodies of contemporary Jesus followers as well. In his chapter entitled “Jesus Walks,” Bantum highlights the story of Jesus’ particularity as a Jewish man in Roman imperial society as a way to show how a culture “interprets a particular set of bodily markers” (101). More specifically, contemporary readers of Jesus must now recognize that we are all connected to one another without erasing one another’s differences. For Bantum, Jesus’ incarnation takes up difference and declares that our histories are irrevocably tied up with one another. Can we live with that? In today’s world, I do not know if we can. While that last sentence is difficult to write, I would love to read from Bantum if (and how) Christians in the society of the United States can live with being irrevocably tied up with one another. Bantum writes that following the body of Jesus makes “our confession,” become “a type of activism—naming the various ways white supremacy shapes our lives” (149). He continues that through “naming we begin to live a new story” (149). I am trying to be hopeful that we can live a new story, but I am not sure exactly how or if we can.

Bantum closes his work with a letter written to one of his sons. In the epilogue, he ponders the “nebulous space” of the “inter,” the “in-between,” the “not quite,” and “racial ambiguity” (174). Bantum’s son was finding that “innocent” questions of identity have more attached to them than he realized (174), and he welcomes his son to this realm of the “neither/nor” (174). These words and questions of identity are especially trying for our children. I also have a son who has struggled with what it means to be a Black man raising children in the Southern United States, knowing that often police have not been prosecuted in many unjustified shootings of innocent Black and Brown bodies. As Christians, how do we navigate our various identities that are steeped in gender, race, class, nationality, and sexuality? How do we navigate the realm of the “neither/nor”?

Additionally, Bantum hits the proverbial nail on the head when he writes about the Jewish people’s identity as an identity of presence (82). In Jewish tradition, Jewish bodies move toward God as they live into covenant with God (82). Likewise, Christian identity is about finding yourself encountered by a God who knit you together with others and now speaks to you through broken, imperfect people. Bantum, however, articulates that his White Southern Baptist church, although steeped in apparent piety, would not speak to the duality of his identity as a Black and Christian man (84). Because of this, Bantum argues that a transparent Jesus cannot save. To clarify, since Christian identity is about the realities and everyday struggles that occur in embodied limbs, thoughts, and desires, Jesus must be embedded and embodied in those struggles (83). As a result, any idea of a Jesus who saves means that Jesus must walk in his authentic, historically-situated, embodied Jewish identity (83). This reasoning leads to the conclusion that any Christianity that does not account for race and embodied existence in general is not an authentic Christianity at all.

Bantum’s language around identity took me to the work of Eboni Marshall Turman. In Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon, Turman embraces the duality of identity for Black women by arguing that the church’s understanding of Jesus not only informs its identity but also propels the active articulation of that identity into the world.1 Thinking through Chalcedon, Turman argues for a meaning of “coming together” wherein the two distinct natures of Jesus coexisting in difference paves the way for Black women to occupy sacred space within difference. Turman predicates God’s ethical identity upon a womanist ethic of incarnation, in which the bodies of Black women possess the brokenness of their bodies while also rejecting the oppression and subjugation with the “coming-togetherness” of God’s activity within their bodies. In my reading, Bantum takes up difference in a manner similar to Turman. As Bantum reckoned with his identity, his mother’s identity, and even Gail’s identity as a Korean woman, he often used the language of “confession” as the act of making known and walking in Blackness, Whiteness, or Korean identity. Thinking through Turman’s ethic of incarnation and Bantum’s definitions of confession, I am left with an uneasy feeling that some womanists who read Bantum’s work may push back against the notion of confession because, historically, Black women have resided on the lowest rung within the society of the United States. For example, Bantum idealizes Mary as a confessor because she expresses the “wonder of God’s redemption through her particular body” (128). While I appreciate Bantum’s view of confession as a way of resisting patriarchy through Mary’s body, the fact remains that Mary’s body was used in a surrogate manner that speaks to a hermeneutic of sacrifice. Womanists such as Joanne Marie Terrell and Delores Williams have written against the sacrificial uses of Black women’s bodies.2 Moreover, what does confession look like to those who have generally been arbiters of power and who espouse an ideal of masculine authority over women’s bodies?

Another question I have stems from Bantum’s work and its relationship to the church’s re-imagination of Christianity. Since I believe Bantum and I both serve as academics and people of faith, how does Bantum imagine his work engaging both the arenas of the academy and the church? I imagine that “academic” folks will argue that Bantum’s work is too subjective.

My last question for Bantum relates to sexuality. In his work, Bantum alludes to differences in sexuality. Knowing that many of our LGBTQI allies are married, raising children, and have expressed fear that the current presidential administration may decrease certain rights and freedoms affecting their communities, how does Bantum see his work interacting with those communities? How might Bantum’s work be beneficial to LGBTQI Christians?

Notwithstanding the above questions and critiques, Bantum’s work is timely. I am excited (and slightly more hopeful) about how the church and the academy can engage such a work to bring about effective change and transformation in a context here in the United States in which it appears as though some want to turn back the clock by fifty years.


  1. Eboni Marshall Turman, Toward a Womanist Ethic of Incarnation: Black Bodies, the Black Church and the Council of Chalcedon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

  2. See JoAnne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood: The Cross in African American Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998); and Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993).

  • Brian Bantum

    Brian Bantum

    Reply

    Brian Bantum’s Response to Angela Parker

    I was first struck by Parker pointing to the consonance between my work and womanist readings of Scripture in her description of both readings as comprising “complexity of story.” This was meaningful to me because of the ways in which womanist and mujerista scholars have shaped and impressed upon me to reread texts in order to “see” the bodies they are signifying. My hope in my work has been to think with or alongside these other writers—at once acknowledging that I cannot occupy their stories but also that I have heard them and desire to witness how I now bear the marks of those encounters.

    In a way, the book is a kind of confessional response to the words and witness of the women in my life who have taught me. Given this, I see how the idea of confession could be a conflictual idea. As Parker asks, “What does confession look like to those who have generally been arbiters of power and who espouse an ideal of masculine authority over women’s bodies?” This is an important question, and it is something I have been, and continue to be, wrestling with. I imagine confession in a dual sense throughout the book. In the first sense, I imagine confession in an Augustinian mode, in which one confesses who one is (or is not) even as one confesses who God is. While I try to be transparent about my own journey and growth and the need to confess what I do not yet know, I also hope to speak to the power and groundedness I gain from the witness of Black women and men. What I have learned from womanist and mujerista scholars, my wife, and many other gifted women is the power of confessing who we are in the face of a society that refuses to acknowledge our wholeness and humanity. I have seen these women confess who God is in how they own their bodies and their stories, in the ways in which they organize, adapt, and commune with others in their communities so that they might thrive and live fuller lives. As Cheryl Townsend Gilkes suggests, “If it wasn’t for the women . . .”1 As a Black man in the academy, I recognize that the confessions of other Black women and men has created space for me to imagine that my story mattered—that I had something to say to this world.

    In the second sense, as a cis-gendered man—and a light-skinned Black man at that—confession means to me a willingness to bare my imperfections as a sign of hope. What I mean by this is that I had to wrestle with how my life was shaped by some privileges that influenced some early decisions and some implicit ways of seeing the world. I have had to work to understand how I have been complicit in those formations, even when I may understand their intellectual or historical reality. Even as someone whose work and life has sought to undo those deathly consequences in the communities in which I find myself, I cannot extricate myself from the story of what I was. But I am not what I was. Like those early disciples, I can look back and see salvation slowly creeping into the crevices of who I am. And I can see how the parts of me that I thought insignificant or unimportant were never unimportant to God and God’s work in the world.

    This possibility of holding in tension the contradictions of one’s life is at the heart of what I hope for as we reimagine the church in a world where what race is seems ever-changing but also where the old realities seem intractably present. I began the book with an analogy of building. If I were to press that analogy further, I would imagine that it is like building homes on land that is undulating. For years we knew this, but when a wall cracked or a beam fell, we just pinned it back and perhaps reinforced it with a thicker beam or a patchwork of 2×4’s. Nevertheless, we refused to acknowledge the actual nature of our shaky foundation. Now, however, I imagine that most would agree that our world is changing with such rapidity that our institutions are fracturing faster than we can repair them. Like so many of the old, historic churches that inhabit our cities, the costs for upkeep are outstripping our ability to fix them.

    Perhaps the heart of this incapacity is not the lack of intellectual power but the unwillingness on the part of our institutional gatekeepers to portray our lives and stories as material that God uses to build us up in different ways. Some were busy searching for more sturdy materials that could withstand the forces of time—granite, oak, steel—using them to build grand cathedrals and to maintain and recreate a meticulous intellectual scaffolding to support the existing structures. Countless other people of faith, however, found that their lives were upheld, invigorated, sustained, and mutually supported not by these institutions but rather in communities where they found human and divine presence, where they developed life-giving practices for people who had survived a culture and its institutions that perpetually told them they were not.

    The church and its academy have put off the inevitable for as long as they could. In the midst of quickly changing demographics, which includes growing numbers of individuals and communities who refuse to accept an education that is not for them, both institutions must now turn to the creative, improvisational powers of those they saw as outside of their mission (if they saw them at all). The Death of Race is a subjective story because our God is subjective. By subjective, I do not mean that there are many meanings. I mean that our God is particular. Our God is this and not that. Our God takes up residence through a particular people, and through those people God chooses to be made known to the world.

    Our God is one who becomes present not only through a people, but as a person. God risks not being known, being misheard, or being misunderstood. God is subjective because God’s story becomes entangled in our stories. While the notion of subjectivity seems to lack intellectual rigor, I find it to be the opposite, because when I acknowledge the subjectivity of my story and my life, I must be constantly open to what I do not know—what I cannot know because I occupy this place and no other.

    In a way, this is the heart of the notion of confession that I use. I confess that I am here—in this space, in this time, in this body—and all that I speak, write, and do arise from this point. I cannot determine what happens afterward. Like the artist who writes or paints or sculpts, I create in the face of the world that encounters me, and I can only leave something that I hope subsequently encounters the world.

    The reason this is so important for the church is that it calls us to equip those who do the work of ministry with the possibility of improvising, creating, and seeing the ways that many stories can come together. We must become storytellers. But like all good storytellers or writers, in order to become storytellers, we must also listen to the stories of others. We must read in order to write. Having listened, perhaps I discover something new in my own story. The question is, who will we listen to? Who will we read?

    How our communities tell their stories is not insignificant. As the story of the White supremacist in Portland makes all too clear, stories are not without flesh and bone. They shape us and our communities. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is effectively a four-word story encapsulating a very particular imagination that has shaped whose body is for what, who can live where, whose death is justified, and whose should be mourned.

    This is one of the stories that, in turn, shapes our Christian communities and the possibilities they can imagine when confronted with any kind of difference. When I first set out to write The Death of Race, I had wanted to write a book about our bodies and the many differences that our bodies convey. I wanted to tell a different story of what it means to say that we are made in the image of God, of what our difference means and what difference the Word enfleshed makes for our lives with one another and with God.

    While race was the central lens I was looking through, I had in my mind the many churches (Black, multicultural, White) that told my wife that her wisdom and words were less significant or inconsequential because of her body. I had in mind LGBTQI persons whose bodies and lives were rendered alien and perpetually invisible or sinful even while heterosexual men’s and women’s bodies seemed to inoculate them from the same judgment and boundary-making. At the heart of it all I saw the same distortion that animated racism circulating in the patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia of most of our churches. Seeing how some churches and theological institutions seem more willing to resist one or two of these hierarchies—but rarely all, I hoped to tell a story that would create conversations and questions about who is being excluded and whose life is being policed with more scrutiny than others. But even more, I wanted to ask whether it was possible that we tell a story not simply about inclusion but one that includes an opportunity for us to see anew the wonder and power of the Christian story, one that asserts that our salvation is not a status but a way of being with one another and with God.

    I hope that, while gestured to throughout the book, it is clear to my readers that the vision of being made in the image of God is one of difference conjoined radically with and for another, and that this image is intrinsic to all of us. This means that we cannot only consider race or gender. For the church to live up to its calling as the body of Christ, it must embrace the queer life embodied in LGBTQI persons. The death that race reproduces justifies exclusion. The life of Christ imagines how we might be with one another in new ways.

    Ultimately, this book is intended for the church. It is intended to encourage people to gather together to hear one story and prayerfully to invite them to imagine other ones as well. It is intended for pastors and Sunday school teachers and everyday folk, that they might see the particularity of their bodies and the bodies of their neighbors as infused with beauty and possibility. It is a book that I hope helps to create new conversations—whether in predominately White, Black, Latinx, or Asian and Asian American churches. It is a book that I hope helps us all begin to see anew the ways in which we press certain bodies away from us and that we might begin to imagine the holy wonder of a life with one another in new and transformative ways, ways that Mary—that priest and prophet—showed us long ago.


    1. Cheryl Gilkes. If It Wasn’t for the Women . . . : Black Women’s Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).

Reggie Williams

Response

The Word Became Flesh: The Word of God as the Death of Race

I begin my interaction with Professor Bantum’s book with tremendous gratitude for the personal narratives he tells within its pages that are very helpful to illuminate his argument. There is a great risk in doing that, especially in light of the book’s title. One of the potential problems is voyeurism; the abiding joy that onlookers gain from viewing the distress of others. Yet, Bantum avoids the problem of voyeurism by holding the reader accountable for what is being viewed within the pages, paying close attention to the way that Whiteness is a regulating and problematic force that we all must endeavor to address.

Near the end of Bantum’s book, he makes a claim: “Race is an idolatrous tool, a pseudo god invoked to re-create the world in its own image. Race is not a description, but a way of being—its henchman is whiteness and its chariot is the church” (151). This claim sits in the book’s penultimate chapter, and it encapsulates much of the argument that he advances. Race is not merely a way of describing benign, human difference; it is a nefarious device, a false god, and a way of being. Those metaphors for race coalesce within its pages to support two key theological symbols that are appropriated as response—namely death and rebuilding, or rebirth. These symbols help to demonstrate that in all of its complexity, the problem of race cannot be understood by Christians apart from the accompanying role of theology. Moreover, the same can be said about a healthy response to the problem; in all of its difficulty, an appropriate Christian response to the problem is also theological, redeployed as our co-participant in the divine response to the forces of death within the complex—and lethal—subterfuge of race.

Race is a destructive tool (nefarious device) and a way of being. In society, this narrative is a biopolitical organizing mechanism appropriated to arrange communities around the concept of an ideal human being—a White, heterosexual, masculine, self-possessed, sovereign subject. Our humanity is measured by aesthetic proximity to this ideal. Race is an ideological mechanism that arranges the world that we understand ourselves to inhabit in a precognitive way. We live and move and have our being in this racialized world, as characters within a story that we know by heart. We inhabit this story even as we sit here, reading and listening. We are protagonists—and antagonists; there are no neutral characters. Race identifies our character. What you know about your capacity for intelligence, for beauty, morality, potential to be a criminal—or a president—is all handed to you in the script you are given at birth, before your capacity to earn merit or to consent. Race is the aesthetic mark—written in our flesh—of our role in a particular, scripted way of being in the world that is given to us at birth.

This corporeal story is constantly being told through multiple outlets. It speaks on our behalf before we utter a word. From the moment I enter the classroom to meet new students, the story is talking, before I even open my mouth. When I enter a department store, the story is talking. When I walk through predominately White spaces, the story speaks. I am not the protagonist in this story, and that is not by my choice. As Bantum describes, who I am is intimately tied to the way my body is seen by others. He tells us that this story is woven into us, thread-by-thread, commercial-by-commercial, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, and sermon-by-sermon. The racialized gaze is connected to the narrative in a way that focuses our vision by lenses set behind our eyes, filtering what we believe we are seeing and think we know about others through the prism of race. It demands that we respond to the claims that it makes on our bodies.

Race is a false god. Bantum argues that race is more determinative for our lives than being a Christian. As he states, “Race shapes who marries who, where we live and cannot live, who is more likely to be seen as guilty or innocent, who shapes our prospects for education or for health. . . . It is a Christian story that has not accounted for the body of Jesus, or the bodies of those who believe” (10, 11). Here, I want to add something to Bantum’s argument. We may indeed understand the narrative of race as a heretical accounting for the body of Jesus, as devotion to a fetishized being who masquerades as the central figure of Christian devotion. Bantum gestures toward this façade as a White impersonation of the divine, speaking over the creative Word of God, de-creating, and disfiguring what God has made. This act of speaking over and disfiguring is historically the work of humanity re-creating the world from its own imagination, as an idealized being who subsequently functions as a kind of deity.

This act of de-creation is a disfiguring effort at re-creation. Genesis chapter 1 tells a story of creation that can help illustrate a historical drama that I am describing as re-creation. When the Spirit of God is hovering over the darkness, God’s speech reigns in the unformed, unregulated chaos, shaping the world in the divine act of creation. Through six days, God speaks the words that form all that exists. On the sixth day God creates human beings in God’s image and hands creation over to them. They become God’s proxy in creation, with access to God’s regulating power over chaos. This creation narrative informs the historical manner in which Anglo-European theologians and biblical interpreters have deployed whiteness to regulate darkness, organizing humanity according to the imagination of an idealized human—a White, sovereign, cisgendered man—the one scripted in the narrative as the only one with the image of God, endowed as God’s proxy on earth, with power and authority over dark bodies. His word is the word of a deified human, and, as Bantum describes it, his chariot is the church.

But there is more than one creation narrative. John chapter 1 also describes a creation narrative in which the Word, which existed in the beginning with God, by whom God created all things, became flesh and made his home among us. We have encountered him. The word of the White, sovereign, cisgendered proxy god-man meets the Word become flesh, and one of them must die. They both cannot survive the encounter. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, the “word of man” says, “what” or “how are you,” meaning, “how do I describe your existence?” in the encounter with this Word made flesh. The question from the proxy god-man does not come from a desire to know, but to control with the word of his imagination. And in the encounter with the Word made flesh, the question is not able to generate a genuine response. It is the wrong question. The answer to this question can only make sense in a world where the proxy deity, the White, hetero-masculine sovereign, controls everything. That is a world where he remains perpetually ascendant, and people whose bodies do not represent the idealized White figure have their identities given to them from his distorting, malignant imagination. This is a violent malformation of real humanity. His insidious creativity tells the world about the ascendancy of Whiteness through the ever-present question, “what are you?” that configures racial others. The answer to “what are you?” provides a word he uses to regulate all others according to his imagination, and stabilize his ascendancy, by capturing all of humanity within his story of human difference. This move to capture and to regulate is an act of violence to enslave—and to kill—God’s Word. As Bantum describes, this “word of man” takes what is most unique, what is given by the creative, life-giving Word of God, and utterly destroys it, all the while believing that destruction is a mark of the likeness of God. But this Sicut Deus—this “likeness of God—is the result of death as people no longer in a life-giving relationship with God now oppose the life-giving Word of God. In the encounter with God’s Word, the White sovereign cannot abide this rival. Encountering the Word of God would necessitate the death of this de-creative word and would result in submission to the Word become flesh, who meets us in the daily social encounters we have with one another.

The de-creative word is idolatry. It is the gospel of the cor curvatus in se, the “heart turned in upon itself.” It captures those whom it meets in order to establish a world created in its own image. It is incapable of a genuinely ethical encounter with others or of loving others in any real sense, as it can only consume the other, loving the other for its sake, alone. As Bonhoeffer describes, the question that must be asked is not “what,” or “how,” but “who are you?” That question can only be asked in faith, by one who recognizes their limitation, that it is God whom we are addressing and that our total being is required in the encounter. This question does not seek to consume the other in an act of self-aggrandizement; it does not originate from the effort to sustain a human hierarchy. With this question, the Word of God remains ascendant as the one to whom we relate in humble reverence, and not as rival. This question recognizes the other as “thou”—as co-humanity in responsible social encounter and not as “it.” That is a genuine encounter with the “other,” and it is the death of the “word of man.” In that encounter, God’s Word speaks of a different reality. This reality is one of freedom for one another; of love for the sake of the other’s well-being, of a humanity regulated by the imagination of a creative and generous God, who chooses to create with no explanation. God gives no explanation, no regulating logic; God is simply free for us. God’s Word comes to us as loving and free. It is freedom for us, and gives us freedom for real encounters with one another. Thus, it is the death of race.

To close this brief essay, I want to clarify that race as it is described here is a biopolitical organizing scheme. It is a historical distortion that serves as a malignant ideology of difference that is socially constructed and not a biological reality. It is, however, a political reality. As such, I ask Dr. Bantum to address the way he might imagine the conversation about death and rebirth in the academy, where students are trained to adhere to it as a reality. How might we imagine our theological institutions, or our churches, undergoing the sort of death that he is describing here? Especially in the wake of the election, when many of us are undoubtedly complicit in educating people within a community that found it within the realm of their Christian responsibility to vote for a proxy god, or demagogue. Our history of making Europe the point of departure for knowledge of everything related to heaven and earth is the centering word that disfigures the rest of humanity. What would it mean for our theological institutions or our churches, to see the death of race or, perhaps, to die, themselves?

I commend Dr. Bantum for this work. This book speaks all of this complexity in a way that renders it accessible to educated laity and clergy. Thank you, Brian, for your work.

  • Brian Bantum

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    Brian Bantum’s Response to Reggie Williams

    Reggie Williams raises the question of personal narrative early in his response. I understood immediately where his concern came from. Voyeurism was a significant concern of mine. As a student of history, I am not unaware of how the stories of Black men and women, and other people of color, can become co-opted within White imagination. Initially, I had hoped to write the book without my own stories, using some analogies and metaphors to help convey the deeper theological ideas. But by the time I got to my third revision of the book and hit a wall, I realized that I could not write a book about the body—and the way race creates and de-creates bodies—without telling my own story. This was not because my story encapsulates the entirety of racialized life, but precisely because it demonstrates only the smallest fragment of the story.

    By telling my story, in its incompleteness and—prayerfully—complexity, I hope to invite readers to explore their own story and not to be afraid of their own complicities, complexities, and limitations. This is true, not only of individuals, but of communities as well.

    Williams asks, “What would it mean for our theological institutions or our churches to see the death of race, or perhaps to die, themselves?” Some might initially interpret “the death of race” as the hope for a post-racial future. But in the book, the phrase “death of race” refers not to the end of racial difference but rather of the dynamics of power and the violent exploitation of power to create the social, economic, and political differentiations that have shaped our modern world. What I take Williams’s question to press is how theological education, itself formed within this same singularity of anti-Black colonial imagination, can resist the deathly consequences of race.1

    Perhaps it would look like a recognition that many of our curricula are old wine skins—dry and cracked and only getting a portion of their contents from point “a” to point “b.” They carry within them the very logics and assumptions that, if not giving birth to racial thinking, leave Christianity complicit in the proliferation of its violence. It would mean recognition of the ways in which theological education’s “core” courses, when taught from the contextual center of colonizing modernity, are more successful at alienating non-White and queer students than they are at illuminating the wonder and power of God in their lives and in their world.

    As long as theological curricula are successful in this, they fail White students as well as queer students and students of color because they infuse in them a distorted understanding of their own possibilities and limitations. The traditions of Christian faith and the witness of Israel from which Christianity was born are continual reminders of what we cannot and what we can be only because God has joined Israel’s story to ours. Some might accuse me of wanting to jettison notions of traditional or historical Christianity for simply the latest cultural question. But in the book—and my work more broadly—I have continued to point to ways in which God encounters us through these stories that result in making these cultural realities the very spaces where we can discover God’s liberative work among us.

    What would it mean to imagine theological education as a holy space, where inchoate calls are fleshed out and discovered? What would it mean if theological education was not mastery of history or tradition or biblical exegesis but mastery of an approach that introduced these methods and readings as tools—techniques—for creating communities of mutual flourishing? What if the aim was not competence of knowledge but empowerment and wonder—the union of skill and sight and craft? What if we were to imagine theological education as the cultivation of artists and craftspeople—a space in which successful students do not simply rewrite the stories of their teachers but graduate with the possibility of telling their own stories and the stories of their people and of God’s presence among them, to see their story as it weaves with and against the many Christian stories that preceded it? What if we cultivate in them the ability to tell their own stories with such power, insight, beauty, and conviction that it causes people to gather in newly created spaces and encourages others to discover their own stories as well?

    What if theological education began with different questions, such as, Who are you? What is community and who is your community? What are your gifts? What if the curriculum was designed to help students deepen these questions and discover the answers during their time in the institution? What if theological education imagined itself as already in the world and that its curriculum needed to adapt to incorporate the realities of its world through a plethora of disciplines and theological approaches that encourage students to explore who God is and who we are?

    While this does not quite speak to Williams’s initial question of how we identify “the death of race” in the academy, in this book, I could not bring myself to recount again the instances of White supremacy that are so prevalent in the academy. There are numerous scholarly projects that have done this quire well. The question I would press in response to Williams’s question is this: Who are we for? To answer this question, we need to be able both to name the ways race’s deathly effects continue to reign in theological schools as well as to articulate a vision of a new kind of community of theological formation. To do this, we need constructive theologies that can account for and hold together the very real differences of our bodied lives and communities. The Death of Race is a gesture toward this hope.

    I wonder if we can excise the false dichotomy of intellectual rigor vs. “personal” or “accessible” theology? The truth is, many of us who do this “accessible” theology, and who essentially have had to educate ourselves within these institutions, have been doing significant theological work. We have borne fruit and we are willing to share our collective wisdom if theological institutions are willing to risk embracing the possibility that our collective future will not look like our past and acknowledging what they do not know and that we truly need one another.

    In the end are we not servants? Our learning and writing is a ministry of mutual discovery and recognition. If our work does not help learners to discover and tell their own stories, what are we doing? Until we can make our theological education place this aim at the center of our work, we will inevitably subject ourselves to the death of race again and again. I suppose this notion of story and narrative that framed the Death of Race is at the heart of the question of theological education. The book is a performance of this theological form—of weaving the historical, the theological, the social, and the personal. While some might suggest this is a “practical” theological mode, I argue that this form is the most complex task we can engage in, and if our task is to educate people called to ministry (in its many forms), this creative act should be the heart of theological education.


    1. Race as “singularity” is brilliantly described in Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University, 2016), 106.

Elaine Padilla

Response

A Magnificat: A Theological Reflection

<epigraph>But what if the composer wrote a song with enough structure to hold together and enough flexibility to be played in countless ways, again and again and again? What if our freedom was tied to being notes that found new resonances as they found new partners and new communities and new rhythms? What if race is just an ancient song that refuses to make sense of the beautiful depth and profundity of each dark dot that marks a score, a mystery that allows a body to slide and sound in new ways?

—Brian Bantum, The Death of Race, 168–69</epigraph>

In the book The Death of Race, by Brian Bantum, I hear a song in which memorializing tunes creatively intersect our innermost impulses for flourishing expressions of interconnectivity. Like the groans in many tongues of Pentecost, his is a Song that interweaves the burial of the “colonial idolatry” that illusorily projects our split from dark bodies with the threads of the resurrecting horizons of a new era of freedom to think “race” differently. The lyrics of this song aim at the experiences of freedom for love: to become bone and flesh of another (as Bantum describes becoming one with his Korean-American wife, Gail Song), to give birth to a life that can emerge out of the most entombing of existences, and to celebrate our bodied pluralities and differences. So, while the title would suggest to the reader an encounter with a philosophy of death typical of modernity, on the contrary, its verses embody a theology of natality, of creation, of beginnings. In The Death of Race, memory, mourning, and lament encounter the resurrected Jesus, and the Middle Passage transfigures into the womb of Mary. Just as the Spirit hovered over the primordial chaos for the Word-Sophia to become flesh through her, our song becomes our embodiment of a God-Creatrix blessing, a Magnificat.

As a response to the genocide that Race is fueling, Bantum’s Song explores how we can consciously and habitually be reborn into the fullness of our humanity. Time and again, we humans can become a song that renounces the tendencies toward egotistic self-enclosures and that welcomes interrelatedness. Through redemptive processes of memory and anticipation, as with groans of many tongues, we join the harmonies of differences within the spectrum of the many ethnic-othered, with a view for enacting social transformation.

But what would it mean to become a harmony of differences when one feels compelled to choose between black and white categories? As with Bantum, many of us continue to confront a history of raced bodies embodying a narrative that progressively suffers the death of innocence within a world of sharp binaries—male/female, black/white, Latinx/American. Might there be a way out of the black and white binary? Even as I read a liberating text such as this one, as a Latinx, when I see my image in the mirror, I have difficulty recognizing myself solely in relation to these two categories.

Nonetheless, I embrace the impulse to choose to darken my ancestral line. This is not so that I can transcend all categories by belonging to some extraterrestrial race, but, rather, so that I continue to participate in redemptive processes. Darkening sharpens my awareness to the manner in which the messiness of my human story is painfully and yet wonderfully entangled with blackness. On this, there is no disregard for the beauty of the details of the cosmos and of God that each human comes to embody. Rather with each act of remembrance (or meaningful entanglement with the many others), I am being an icon of the Word who tabernacles with us. In this manner, I agree with Bantum. I progressively become a song of redemption in the shape of freedom to enact my love toward another in darkening myself.

A darkened song is born from past and present wounds that bid our colonized selves to enter the resurrection waters of the Jesus-event. For Bantum, as bodies face the deadening abyss of race, these can be at the precipice of the pools of the resurrection, which overcomes race’s death-principle, if not also our death-drive—the cancer that de-creates us into inhumanity. Tunes of lament awaken us to the possibility of a turn in history should we consciously choose to participate in redemption as a people “spoken into being from nothing” (82). This “nothing” can mean, as Karen Baker-Fletcher explains, “out of nothing” and also “out of the deep,” in the sense that God is present as Word and Spirit in our creative processes, and particularly, as we face the nothingness of exclusion and scarcity.1 Bantum summons humanity to perform aesthetically this storytelling as a way to limit modern notions of race that illusorily appear as impossible to obliterate. Because the term “end” can metaphorically point to the human horizons as much as to the limits of being human, the phrase “the end of race” can also mean the goal for becoming human in a manner that anticipates the limitless. In other words, ending race means the conscious, willing, and bodied participation in processes that end the constrictive manner in which society has signified and devalued dark bodies.

Perhaps not too unlike the “Redemption Song” of Bob Marley, our ancestors humming in us the cries of the Middle Passage remind us that hope remains mixed with mourning. In singing according to the lyrics of Marley’s “songs of freedom,” we lament, “Minutes after they took I / From the bottomless pit”; and can immediately hear the “I” exclaim, “But my hand was made strong / By the hand of the Almighty.” In such laments, we are plunged into the horizon of divine deliverance—deliverance that leads to human freedom and triumph over the effects of robbery, trade, human trafficking, market economy—the “bottomless pit” that voraciously seeks to claim souls and minds. For Bantum, the abyss of the Middle Passage marked on bodies the beginning of a world that also birthed the limits of the globe as merchant ships transported the “moans and cries of dark bodies” (15). Reflecting on W. E. B. DuBois’s work, Bantum writes about awakening to a historical blackness that was submerging him underwater. When feeling as if drowning under the weight of the ocean pressing upon his chest, someone swimming alongside him had to show him “how to find the pockets of air, the spaces in this confined space, where so many” before him had survived, resisted, and found “lament mingled with hope” (85). Redemption includes mourning, yet as with Jesus’ resurrection experience at the tomb, death loses its submerging weight when black bodies that matter are spoken into being out of the nothingness of a bottomless pit or an abyss.

These memories of navigating through the Atlantic waters, in which darkened bodies have been racialized, suffuse our songs with lament because they arise out of the depths of our unconscious longing for life. The melancholic groans express an inexplicable impulse to spiral down into the depths of what has been denied and turned opaque—such as the “I” over which Bob Marley laments—in order to enliven potentialities to be more fully human. As with Afro-Caribbean Edouard Glissant, when going deeper into the dark unconscious, we traverse the oceanic waters. In its depths, we resist and struggle against the onslaught of sameness. There we also twist linear histories and entangle them with our ancestors in our search for meaningful forms of human interrelatedness. The bottomless abyss of our unconscious, as if passing once more through the Atlantic, recombines multiple zones of contact, entangling us with the many cultures and identities. This would be our creolization,2 the manner in which the unconscious “seeds of an invisible presence” become the submarine sediment for the emergence of cross-cultural relationship.3 Hence its potentiality can be described as the ancestral breathlessness of the maroon desperately pressing against the membranes of our bowels in order to birth novel social frameworks and dynamics that free us also from an enslaving past.

Theologically speaking, lament also can turn into gratitude and praise, as the depths of the Middle Passage are continuously being overflown by the natal waters of the divine creativity, which, as Bantum notes, like the resurrection, can metamorphose our most entombing realities into a womb (124). For our innermost being together with the rest of creation gestates in the likes of Mary as the theotokos—the “God bearer”—when the Spirit embraces us. Bantum puts it thus: “God dives into our wombs and enters the world through our most inward parts” (105). With the “Word pressing into our flesh” (125), we enact new beginnings, which take shape through bodily matter. In particular, by affirming fleshly differences, we celebrate what makes “love, faith, and hope possible” (40). We come to be a song of praise when we demonstrate an understanding of our entangled freedom for mutually beneficial forms of flourishing. To be a worship, meaning, to bodily live redemption, is to recognize that one cannot thrive without another.

Might Mary, as an icon of what all our bodies could be, serve to challenge the race and gender—along with the human/nonhuman—divides? Bantum is keen on taking this direction in order to further disrupt “white solipsism” (137). When we embody Jesus in a similar manner to the creative event of the womb of Mary, our response with regard to “Whiteness” includes that which we in Latinx communities refer to as denouncing what we proudly call la raza. As with Gloria Anzaldúa, la raza,4 or “the race,” is a term that denotes the shortcomings emblematic of the marginalizations of our own ethnic groups, behavioral patterns and conduct like male “bodily” privilege that often remain unchallenged in Latino culture. Similarly, it calls for a critique of the category of “the race” in the sense of the “human race” when it favors dominance over interconnectedness with regard to the nonhuman or the world of matter. By enacting our interdependence between male and female and with creation, or an entangled “I,” we enflesh the divine wisdom, the Jesus-Sophia intrinsic to the whole, so that the whole can be a song of liberation from bondage.

This then is how our bodies can sing anew the euangelion, as in Mary’s Magnificat, groaning in many tongues and timbres with the lament and the hope of praise. For in drawing near each other, including the strangely unfamiliar, we become songs of redemption that embody the plenitude of thanksgiving—freedom for all. Bantum aptly describes this gospel ensemble, avowing, “To sing a new song requires a radical commitment to making sure that all are free to sing along with you. The choir needs difference, it needs all the parts; the story needs all the tellers to be truthful, to be whole. To be a Christ follower in this moment is to fight the death of race so that the life of God might be felt for all” (171). This would mean for God to be born for us in daily life, for God to become body through us, for us to be called blessed, and for us to be a blessing unto God and ourselves. For in enacting bodily resurrection, we lament and mourn the de-creating effects of race upon humanity yet announce that a third day’s freedom is proximate. It is possible, for in plunging into the depths of our “colonial idolatry,” the “bottomless pit” of the Middle Passage, the abysses of our dark unconscious can bear witness to our bodily entanglements with the “lowly” in state (weighed down by the “mighty”) yet favored by God (Luke 1:46–55). The choice to consciously be a song that bears the Word, like Mary’s Magnificat, can mean the daily death of race, for bodies to freely slide down the score and create a new melody whose notes vibrate according to “new resonances,” “new partners,” “new communities,” and “new rhythms.” By living accordingly, the limit of the human race can be its horizon; an abyss that can become a womb.


  1. Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2006), 67–73.

  2. Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981), 26.

  3. Ibid., 67.

  4. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 105–7.

  • Brian Bantum

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    Brian Bantum’s Response to Elaine Padilla

    While the academy is often a necessary arena of critique and questioning, some of the most holy moments I can remember are when a group of people begin to think and imagine with one another. What I loved most about reading Elaine Padilla’s review was the sense that she was reading with me—that, in a sense, I was in a room with a scholar riffing together, and I could see new sinews of my own work developing even as she was adding her own layers. As I kept reading, I was highlighting and scratching, “yes!” into the margins.

    There were two places especially where I was thankful for the resonances and the extension of “thought-with.” First, I was glad Padilla heard the significance of Mary and by extension the ways race and gender were bound together for me in this work. Centering the language of Mary’s Magnificat, my hope was that we could see the ways words and bodies work with one another, both in the de-formation of persons and also in the possible redemption of our lives together. If Jesus is the Word enfleshed, then Mary, Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, and the many women who remained tragically undocumented in the gospels are undoubtedly the words with which God was speaking something new into the world. This was the case even if the male disciples failed to recognize what was happening in their midst. I am thankful Padilla perceived this call in the book.

    The second place where I heard resonances was in her articulation of the equally complicated beauty of Latinx identity and the difficulty and reality of creolization in our colonial world. She writes, “As with Gloria Anzaldúa, la raza, or the race, is a term that denotes the shortcomings emblematic of the marginalizations of our own ethnic groups, behavioral patterns and conduct like male ‘bodily’ privilege that often remain unchallenged in Latino culture.” While continuing to work out what I call a mulattic theology, in multiple ways and valences, Anzaldúa has been a constant reminder to me that not all hybridity is good and that without attending to the dynamics of power that so often want to shape hybridity toward an enfolding of dark lives into White imagination, we must continually mark, speak, confess, and practice denials of colonial imaginations, even as we open ourselves to the ways various cultures and peoples become grafted into one another. These realities address not only questions of race and ethnicity, but also patriarchy and sexuality.

    Walking with Asian Americans, I have come to understand the various ways Asian American and Latinx immigrant experiences intersect and diverge from Black experiences. If we are to walk forward together, I hope we can continue to share these resonances and dissonances to discover just how we can be for one another in liberative ways.

    As I dream of a “new” Christianity and the theological education that will animate it and/or grow from it, I cannot help but lament the lack of imagination that holds our current moment hostage. While some seminaries are scrambling for broader ethnic and gender representation (finally), I fear that too many of our institutions will continue the mistake of collapsing us people of color into singular, representative bodies. I hope those who lead in places of theological formation—be it seminaries, conferences, or local churches—can begin to see the power and the possibilities our stories hold for the church. But even more, I hope they begin to see what it would mean if theological education could become dynamic examples of “thinking-with”—scholar-artists, steeped in their craft and style, bringing their art to the conservatory to “think-with” theologians and biblical scholars. What if this new song was less performance and more process—more about creating spaces where the many scholars who are thinking, praying, and teaching critically about the realities of our bodied lives are given a space to talk with one another and to invite students to join in the conversation? While this is not the norm in the church or the academy, I am thankful for the in-breaking of the kingdom that was this conversation and for gaining a new fellow sojourner in Dr. Padilla.

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