Jonathan Tran reviews three books that he says redefine both black theology and challenges many assumptions white theologians hold about the relationship between race and the theological enterprise.
Instead of Christianity being expressed in a colonizing and slaveholding universalism, Christ is inscribed in the flesh of those whose slave narratives proclaim the good news. Rather than look for the triumph of the universal over the particular, the slave finds her particularity marked in the particularity of Christ’s sufferings and resurrection, which universally gathers and heals those who suffer. This unity “reorders” humanity without overwhelming it.
By returning to the scene of racism’s theological origins, the new theology outlines where things initially went wrong and charts an alternative course. A better option was there all along in the church’s affirmation of Jesus’ humanity (a particular, Jewish humanity) and divinity.
Debates in the early church about Jesus’ identity featured two sides: one side prioritized Jesus’ humanity at the cost of downplaying his divinity; the other prioritized Christ’s divinity even if that meant disparaging his humanity. The church ultimately settled these matters at the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, where Christ’s humanity and divinity were both affirmed within the trinitarian confession.
It is at this point that Bantum, Carter and Jennings reinvigorate the likes of Irenaeus, Athanasius and Maximus in their articulations of orthodox Christology. White supremacy (and its nonwhite versions) can be indicted as a modern perpetration of adoptionism (the early heresy that prioritized Christ’s humanity over his divinity). Those who malign certain kinds of bodies (such as bodies different from one’s own) or ignore bodily life altogether (as in the notion of “color blindness” popular among evangelicals) are guilty of a new strain of gnosticism (the early heresy that prioritized Christ’s divinity over his humanity). The new theology finds a way forward by returning to what the church long ago affirmed: Christ’s divine-human particularity and Christ’s divine-human universality. The church’s deep affirmation of corporality, reinstantiated in every celebration of the Eucharist, calls Christians to embrace rather than oppress the stranger.
The three books are: J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008), Willie J. Jennings’s The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010) and Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010), by Brian Bantum