“Whiteness” as a Theological Problem: J Kameron Carter on Race

Prof. Andrew Fraser


Mainstream Christian theology today seems determined to confuse the worship of Christ with the worship of the poor, the suffering, and the marginalized.  Such confusion reflects the influence of modern Christian humanism which dissolves differences of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation into a common “humanity.”  In Theologian Daniel C. Migliore’s words (149–150), “human beings” are created in the “image of God…to be persons in communion with God and others.”  But “[i]f we are created for relationship with God who is wholly different from us, sin is a denial of our essential relatedness to those who are genuinely ‘other.’”  A sinful “human intolerance for difference” leads many to reject “the victim, the poor, the ‘leftover person.’”  In the social gospel of liberal Protestantism, as taught by Migliore, human beings deny Christ—the Word incarnate in poor, suffering flesh—when they assert the will to power over the “other.”  Black American theologian J Kameron Carter asserts (368), however, that “privileged” White folks, in particular, compounded that sin by transforming the desire for domination and mastery over others into a science; as a consequence, their communion with God can be restored only by uniting themselves with the poor, Black victims of scientific racism “since that is where Christ is.”

Naturally, Migliore, too, deplores the heavy over-representation of Black people among the underclass in American society.  He also attributes the condition of Black America to the sinful “spirit of mastery over others” (140) that is responsible for the dismal history of patriarchy, racism, and colonialism in modern Western history generally.  Carter issues a more pointed indictment, charging that the modernist political theology of “Whiteness” “created an analytics of race that tyrannically divides creation” between a Western overclass and the underworld inhabited by the “wretched of the earth” (345)—a reference to Frantz Fanon’s book of the same title.

Carter’s book is a comprehensive account of the origins and development of the problem of “Whiteness” in Christian theology.  He also provides a summary prescription for its solution.  Curiously for a book entitled Race, the extensive analysis and critique of “Whiteness” conspicuously fails to address the empirical significance of racial differences.  More damaging still to the credibility of Carter’s argument is his deeply flawed historical theology: he insists that the Judenfrage arising out of Christian supersessionism became the prototype of Christian racialism rather than a theological issue.  In short, Carter treats “racism” and “Whiteness” as synonyms.  Christianity, as such, only narrowly escapes being tarred with the same brush.  Although Christian theology was complicit in the social construction of Whiteness, “divinity and humanity are conjoined in Jesus’ poor Jewish flesh.”  Conversely, Carter attempts to “divinise” Black folks by discussing at great length several nineteenth century autobiographies in which the Negro authors appear to re-enact the life of Christ (368, 332).

Carter insists “that the poverty of dark flesh is where one finds the wealthy God.”  Those who inhabit “White” flesh labour under a heavy burden of guilt.  Despite the zeal displayed by “White” theologians such as Migliore in their ceaseless condemnation of racism and anti-Semitism, they cannot call upon the presumption of innocence.  In Carter’s judgement, even the most progressive of his professional peers have “yet to reckon with the ways they perform theology in continuity with Catholic and Protestant theology’s racial-colonial past.”  Not only was Christian theology “deployed to justify European expansion,” for centuries Christian theologians also “spearheaded the invention of discourses of race in relationship to theology to further justify Western expansionism.”  Given the dead weight of such a shameful history, a long-term theological counter-movement will be required to overturn “the tyrannical logic of racialization.”  Carter believes that to “enter into Christ it will be necessary “to exit whiteness and the identities that whiteness creates.”  But, interestingly, for Carter, “blackness,” too, is an identity or condition which must be transcended (341, 366, 369, 462).

Carter is a Christian humanist not a Black nationalist.  Indeed, he distances himself from the “black theology of liberation” because its founder James Cone “reproduces the aberrant theology of modern racial reasoning” (159).  Ironically, Cone himself is not really a Black nationalist; he certainly does not advocate the creation of an autonomous Black ethnonation within the continental United States.  On the contrary, in the words of Harold Cruse, the leading Black nationalist intellectual of the Sixties, Cone, like countless other Black politicians, preachers, lawyers, and activists, works to perpetuate the “racial drama of love and hate between slave and master, bound together in the purgatory of the plantation” (364).  On the other hand, asserting that “divine truth is God’s liberation of the weak from oppression,” Cone never shrinks from the charge that he allows theology to be determined by social interest.  The only important question for him is: “whose social interest, the oppressed or the oppressors?” (87–88).

Carter agrees with Cone that because “White theology” remains fixed in the “axiological perspective” of an oppressive White culture, “that White theology is an ideological distortion of the gospel of Jesus.”  Both men believe that it is “impossible to be White (culturally speaking) and also think biblically” because “the oppressed are the only true Christians” (92, 136).  But, when Cone goes on to allege that all White “communities and theologies are formed by the will of white people to oppress others not of their genetic origins,” he sets off an alarm in Carter’s mind.  Such talk of genetic differences between Whites and other racial groups is anathema to Carter.  It conjures up the spectre of an “ontological Blackness” which posits race as a biological phenomenon that “objectively exists independent of historically contingent factors and subjective intentions.” (159–160).  In other words, Cone inadvertently concedes the possibility that the sorry state of Black America has less to do with the oppressive character of “white culture” than with intractable genetic differences between Black and White populations.

Carter does not even deign to acknowledge the existence of empirical studies of the measurable differences in average intelligence, behaviour, and temperament between the major continental races.  Instead, he draws upon Cornel West to establish the major premise of his argument; namely, that race is a social construct not an empirically observable biocultural phenomenon.  West purports to identify “what it is about the very structure modern discourse at its inception” that produced “forms of rationality, scientificity and objectivity as well as aesthetic and cultural ideals” that “require[d] the constitution of the idea of white supremacy.”  West’s unexamined assumption is that there no objective empirical much less genetic basis for any form of Black inequality “in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity.”  Carter and West both want “to put an end to any understanding of race that would see it as a static, nonmutating category” corresponding “with a purportedly real racial something—actual races one might say—out there in the world.”  With that goal in mind, Carter purports to explain the genealogy of a theologically-inflected racial discourse in the modern Western world.

Carter locates the remote origins of racialized discourse in the West in the Gnostic heresy which allegedly sought to sever the early Christian church from its Jewish roots.  Determined to uphold the superiority of the spiritual realm over the world of matter, the Gnostics developed a proto-racialist narrative of “the true church beyond Israel” which “supported the supremacy of the pneumatics” over other, earthier, hence lesser, breeds of humankind.  But it was the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that created the need for a political theology that could cope with “the modern problem of race, religion, and the politics of the modern state.”  In Carter’s view, the Judenfrage was at the core of the problem of race and identity in the modern world.  Kant was the theorist who “bequeathed to the modern world…its first rigorously scientific and philosophically sophisticated and, hence, its first fully developed theory of race.”  In doing so, Kant helped to “rationally” reposition Christianity within the political economy of modernity.  Through this process of repositioning, Christianity “was decoupled from its Jewish roots.”  Race became “the discourse to constitute whiteness in relationship to a non-Jewish alien without and a Jewish alien within the body politic.”

Carter accuses Kant of revitalizing Gnosticism and reconstituting Christianity “as the moral religion par excellence of reason.”  No longer does Jesus disclose “YHWH or the God of Israel as the ground of redemption for Jews and Gentiles alike.”  Instead Kant credits Jesus with the overthrow of Judaism and empowering the human species to “make itself into a moral creature.”  According to Carter, “Kant’s ultimate concern is with the success of the universalist project of modernity, the project of Whiteness as the advance of cultured civilization (which is the advance towards the perfect race of humans).”  His greatest fear was that “miscegenation, or racial intermixing” would derail the White race from its destiny by raising the “possibility of the mulatto, of ‘impure’ interracial existence.”  On Carter’s reading, Kant believed that “oriental” Jews, “the alien within,” posed an especially high risk of “mulattic contamination.”  Indeed, Jews were “the sole negative racial other” in Kant’s lectures on anthropology; as such, they were made to “stand in for all nonwhite flesh.”

Strangely enough, Jews play the same role in Carter’s theology.  Accordingly, he presents supersessionism as the original sin lying at the root of the modern Western racism and colonialism.  At the core of Carter’s “theology of participation” lies YHWH’s “covenantal relationship” with “the people of Israel.”  Carter rejects any suggestion that the Old Covenant with the Jews was suspended by the New Covenant creation inaugurated by Christ.  Whiteness and the modern racial imagination, he charges, were “built upon the severance of Jesus from the covenantal people of Israel.”  To resolve the problem of Whiteness, it will be necessary to understand “Christian existence as ever-grounded in the Jewish, non-racial flesh of Jesus and thus as an articulation of the covenantal life of Israel.”  It is through communion with Israel that all nonwhite peoples enter into communion with God.  The inner logic of Jesus’ identity as the Word made flesh is “the inner logic by which Israel is already a mulatto people precisely in being YHWH’s people.”  According to Carter’s anti-White logic, “Jesus himself as the Israel of God is Mulatto.”  In effect, Carter implies, “white” folks alone must reject their identity as Whites to enter into communion with Israel. There is a massive irony here, since traditional Christian theology contrasted “carnal Israel” as an entity based on biological kinship with the Church which was universal and therefore not based on biological kinship (e.g., Eusebius; see Separation and Its Discontents, Ch. 3, p. 106).

Carter provides little or no biblical authority to support the suggestion that the Old Covenant remains in force today.  Certainly, he seems altogether uninterested in the apocalyptic meaning of the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70.  But, by any standard, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple was an event of world-historical significance; not least of all for Jews since it was accompanied by the death of over a million of their co-ethnics and forced exile for countless others.  The destruction of the temple did not come out of the blue; the prophets of Old Israel, as well as Christ and the apostles, repeatedly predicted just such an event as the inevitable consequence of God’s righteous wrath towards his stiff-necked and unfaithful people (eg Matthew 24:2).  Preterist writers such as Don Preston have shown that all of the biblical prophesies of a new heaven and new earth, not just those in Revelation, were fulfilled when the temple, the physical centre of the old heaven and the old earth, was destroyed in AD 70.

Moreover, the Catholic traditionalist writer, E Michael Jones, shows clearly that the arrival of Jesus created a radical discontinuity in the history of Israel.  Indeed, the “confrontation between Jesus and the ‘Jews’ leads first to a redefinition of the word ‘Jew’” (39).  A term that once referred “to the chosen people now refers to those who reject Christ.”  Indeed, the Book of Revelation calls the Jews who reject Christ “the synagogue of Satan.”(Revelation 2:9 and 3:9)  Carter denies Jones’ conclusion that the “Church is now the true Israel.”  Nor does he believe that “the people who profess to be Jews” will die in sin so long as they continue to reject Christ and deny the truth of his gospel message (27–56).

Such mindless ecumenism cannot be good for Christians.  Nor is it good for the Negro race in America.  It is a great pity that Carter has no interest in an African-American Christian ethnotheology that goes beyond “Black liberation theology” to promote the economic, political, and cultural unification of an autonomous Negro ethnonation.  Fifty years ago, Harold Cruse warned Negro intellectuals not to accept Jewish leadership in a civil rights struggle focussed on the promise of racial integration.  Integration and assimilation, Cruse warned, “have all to do with individuals, but very little to do with ethnic groups.”  To foster a self-sustaining group identity, he added, Negro intellectuals must declare independence from Jewish influence and commit themselves to “cultural nationalism—an ideology that has made Jewish intellectuals a force to be reckoned with in America” (476-498).  Refusing to recognize the need for Negroes to marry racial solidarity with a binding sense of collective moral responsibility securely grounded in political autonomy and economic self-reliance, Carter prefers to blame “Whitey” for the shortcomings and failures of his own people.  Indeed, Carter is doing the devil’s work when he finds something Christ-like in Black America’s descent over the past half century into a dysfunctional and degrading culture of rampant welfare dependency, drug addiction, soaring rates of illegitimacy, escalating violence, and chronic criminality.

Drew Fraser retired from his position as Associate Professor in the Department of Public Law at Macquarie University in Australia in the midst of controversy over his views on immigration and race differences.

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