Amaryah here. I’m going to be writing what will probably be a three part series on refusing reconciliation due to its anti-blackness and supercessionist white theology, and black disbelief and black theology as necessary to the struggle against white supremacy and anti-blackness.
This series is inspired by many things, but I wanted to note Andrea Smith’s essay “The Problem with ‘Privilege,’” Daniel Barber’s recent paper presentation on immanence and the refusal of conversion in Malcolm X and Taubes, Jack Halberstam’s introduction to and the entire collection of essays in the Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey, the film The Best Man Holiday, James Cone’s “A Black Theology of Liberation”, Delores Williams’ “Sisters in the Wilderness,” and Ashon Crawley’s collection of tweets on blackness and disbelief.
Racial reconciliation Sunday was an odd liturgical interruption every year growing up. Primarily because it was always a failed interruption. For those who have never heard of racial reconciliation Sunday, it is a Sunday, usually in February, when congregations that are predominately one race, usually black and white, come together for something of a liturgical mixer. The host church rotates each year between the two congregations. The guest pastor preaches and the guest choir leads the musical selections. The host congregation welcomes and provides refreshments for the awkward social mingling that happens afterwards. (It’s possible this is just another terrible idea Southern Baptists invented. I am not sure.) The intent of racial reconciliation Sunday is to make people friends across racial lines because of our aspiration to unity in Christ. It’s supposed to celebrate the diversity of our liturgical styles. It’s supposed to interrupt the homogeneity of weekly church gatherings. Instead it is a failure.
Racial reconciliation Sunday’s failure is not primarily due to the awkwardness of the gathering or the inability to appreciate different worship and preaching styles. The failure is built into the framework of reconciliation itself. That is, reconciliation is always already a failure because it is always already white (More on this further on).
But it’s failure is precisely what becomes it’s biggest asset as a Christian framework. Within a Christian narrative of a hope-filled eschaton that will eventually bring about a perfected vision of reconciliation, reconciliation as a framework is an extremely successful failure because it is able to reproduce itself through Christian narrative’s of hope and futurity. It is always able to paint itself as the best, most logical, most reasonable, most possible choice for ameliorating our contemporary racial situation because it will eventually be completed in Christ. Like many Christian ideals, it sounds so good albeit a bit challenging. How could any one be against it?
Supercession, Reconciliation, and Anti-Blackness
I want to be clear here that conflict resolution at an interpersonal level is important for life together, but the framework of reconciliation, even when it attempts to speak about justice, values the confession and the future to come above the present. Reconciliation displaces structural analysis for narratives of various experiences that end with a unity in Christ and a theological vision that is white. These narratives are used to imbue hope for the possibility of reconciliation but they actually prevent the possibility of ending white supremacy, anti-blackness, and racism because it is the supercessionist framework itself that is the problem. Reconciliation thus becomes a way of displacing structural dominance and oppression to the level of inter-personal conflict and confessions of privilege, moving our focus away from the ways Christianity itself structures racial domination and racial formation. Because reconciliation is never able to call Christianity itself into question as a problematic framework, only white people. Reconciliation continues to reproduce an inability to recognize itself as that which produces the division in the first place through its narration of identity as things to be superceded. Rather than clarifying relations of power, reconciliation mystifies them.
One of the main ways this mystification of power happens is through the idea that multiculturalism is a remedy to racism. A large vision of reconciliation frameworks is multi-racial congregations. But uncritical deployment of multiracialism as the solution to racism ends up as only representational politics without a confrontation with the larger narrative of reconciliation that erases violence by requiring unity. In many ways, then, the reconciliation framework is emotionally manipulative and ethically bankrupt. It deploys the rhetoric of reconciliation and assembles christian narratives of racial frustrations leading to hope, laments and confessions that reproduce the worst of white guilt, and a religious formation that is a white racial formation, in order to subdue the retaliation to actual repeated abuse blacks experience because of Christian logics of reconciliation, unity, and conversion. Reconciliation is a framework beholden to white theology and, thus, is not capable of confronting the violence of white supremacy. Instead, it must always find hope beyond the now. It must always find a way of turning the narrative of violent erasure into one of Christian triumph. Reconciliation is primarily a narrative trick that deters us from seeing the ways practices of confession, reconciliation, and Christian religious formation, are one of the primary ways white supremacy is maintained and repeated.
Reconciliation is profoundly uncritical in its inability to see that the constant in white supremacy is Christianity and Christian religious formation as unity in Christ that transcends earthly identities and thus holds the logic of the world together. This universal and totalizing logic of reconciliation is precisely the problem. For it is not able to imagine a world that would actually value blackness as blackness, only a world that is able to transform blackness into a lesser whiteness, to transform unreason into reason. Similarly, it is not able to hold a concept of whiteness as a violent and violating unity. It can only think whiteness as a repetition of forgetfulness, or the unthinking itself, that whiteness always performs (present currently in the “post-racial”). It can only think whiteness as a present failure that is not really a failure. A failure that will be made right in the future. For example, John Piper’s recent chat with Douglas Wilson [with brilliant twitter commentary by Sarah, here] had Piper applauding Thabiti Anyabwile because he bent over backwards to try and “understand” Doug Wilson’s racist treatise defending slavery. In the framework of unity and reconciliation, this is the mode in which blackness can be valued—in how much it defers to and submits to whiteness as the organizing logic around which we must confront race. A secular example of this could also be noted around Mandela’s death and the utility Mandela’s writings about peace and reconciliation quickly found themselves divorced from his radicalism and one-time support for armed resistance in order to shore up neoliberal ideals regarding democracy, global capitalism’s expansion, and hope in capitalism as the harbinger of democracy. In each instance, It is the same position blackness must hold—a thing to be reformed and transformed until it can speak in the language that recognizes whiteness as the savior and the structure of the world’s reason.
Because it is not able to recognize itself as a reproduction of the violence of white supremacy and anti-blackness, reconciliation discourse and frameworks encourages the emotional abuse of people of color for the benefit of white supremacy and for the benefit of white people as the primary people who must be borne with in order for the world to really change. It encourages the redemption of a white supremacist world through a reconciliation that extends the white supremacist world in a nicer more inclusive form. Reconciliation sets itself up as the only solution to the problem it creates, as the only remedy to the violence it produces.
In the end, the model of racial reconciliation posits a white positionality. Like James Baldwin’s critique of Norman Mailer (“There is a difference . . . between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose.”), Racial reconciliation still thinks it can save whiteness and white theology through its transcendent white Christ. It still thinks it can save black people and other people of color from blackness, too, through the same figure. It can only figure identities as things to transcend through the unitive figure of incarnation, Christ.
This white redemption and this white Christ is what is refused when reconciliation is refused. The extension of global white supremacy in its Christian and secular forms must be refused. In order to refuse reconciliation, we must first refuse conversion. We must first stop trying to convert people, especially white people, to a framework of reconciliation.
In my next post, I’ll think through how black theologies refuse reconciliation and offers us a concept of Christianity that, in this refusal, opens us up to solidarity and life together not based in conversion but based in the now.
Thanks, Amaryah. This is a helpful exposition. As a person of color, my model for reconciliation its modeled rhetorically after Isaiah’s: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” The privileged and the oppressed both have roles to play and they aren’t the same. More here: http://jonnyrashid.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/on-mlk-day-an-everyday-post/
Johnny, thanks for your comment. I read your piece and disagree with most of it for many of the reasons I name here. It seems to perform a violence through a narrative of conversion that, in addition to privileging the interpersonal as the solution to white supremacy and anti blackness, erases Jesus’ Jewishness in order to position him in transcendence. I think both those things are inheritances of white theology and need to be gotten rid of.
I don’t think I only rely on the interpersonal to undue racism, but I do need Jesus to transcend earthly identities and declare Him Lord of All.
Thanks for this, Amaryah. I wonder if you’ll say more about the connection you see between supercessionism and reconciliation as a model for dealing with race. I agree with your identification of reconciliation as an inherently white mechanism that maintains white universality and supremacy. And I have read some stuff that deals with race and supercessionism (e.g. Jennings, Carter), but I’d like to read your take on the whole thing, specifically as it relates to the concept of universality and reconciliation as a model for universality.
Hi Matt, thanks for your comment. I think Dan Barber’s presentation that I link to has a lot of helpful ideas regarding coloniality and conversion that inform my understanding of reconciliation as a universalizing project.
My primary take away from Barber wrt this piece is that narratives of reconciliation and their figuration of Christ’a incarnation requires a disappearance of the now in favor of this narrative that, as Barber says, puts the now to work for its own ends which are conversion which is coloniality. I could say more but does that help a bit or is there something in particular I’m not getting at?
Thanks for this post Amaryah!!! I wrote about the Genealogy of a White American Jesus and think it relates to your post.
“In my opinion, the root of white evangelical color-blind racism is insidiously hidden in the history of pro-slavery “Christianity.” An analysis of pro-slavery “Christianity” will elucidate the Christological differences between Black and White Church traditions today. W.E.B. Du Bois described how Christianity in the Colonies functioned to justify slavery (2000). White Christians claimed that “slaves were to be brought from heathenism to Christianity, and through slavery the benighted Indian and African were to find their passport into the kingdom of God” (Du Bois 2000:70). Eventually, whites were confronted with “the insistent and perplexing question as to what the status of the heathen slave was to be after he was Christianized and baptized?” (Du Bois 2000:70). Many slave owners questioned whether to expose their slaves to Christianity due to “the implications of equality in the Bible and…the fear that education might cause the slave to fight for his freedom” (Cone 1997:75).
The measure taken by white Christians to appease this contradiction is still with us today—that is, the “White” Jesus of the slave master was completely divorced from any implications of freedom or justice related to civic matters (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). As such, “It was expressly declared in colony after colony that baptism did not free the slaves” (Du Bois 2000:71). The crux of pro-slavery “Christianity” was to ensure peace, by creating “good slaves” that would emulate “White” Jesus’ “meek-and-turn-the-other-cheek” side. While many abolitionists were eventually motivated (in part) by their Christian faith, the majority of the White Church then, as the White Church today, was silent about the oppressive and racist structures of America (Cone 1997; Emerson, Smith, and Sikkink 1999). Like the slave masters’ “White” Jesus, the “White” Jesus of evangelicals today is not concerned with ameliorating the plight of the oppressed on Earth as much as he is concerned with “order” and “saving individual souls” (Cone 1997).”
Amaryah, I have been thinking about this off and on all day. Can you unpack this for me:
“Reconciliation is profoundly uncritical in its inability to see that the constant in white supremacy is Christianity and Christian religious formation as unity in Christ that transcends earthly identities and thus holds the logic of the world together.”
It has been a while since I have been in the evangelical world so it would also help to know the contours of the “reconciliation” as you mean it?
It seems that the “constant” of Christianity particularly as an eschatological vision which transcends our current reality and identities is the problem you are identifying, yes?
Hi Amaryah Shaye,
Thank you for writing with honesty and conviction!
I am still new to thinking about racial reconciliation, so bear with me as I hope to affirm and challenge some of the points you made!
I think that you are right to name the phenomenon of racial reconciliation as a (primarily) white endeavor. This presents many dangers of minority assimilation or domination in a very benevolent form – which is the ecclesial wolf in sheep’s clothing (or perhaps the devil masquerading around as an angel of light?)
I agree with your argument and conclusions, but only if racial reconciliation is considered in a certain way, the predominant way. To me, typical modes of racial reconciliation can be turned on its head if approached from a certain angle. In other words, the place where I disagree with you is the content of racial reconciliation presented to minorities. I do not doubt the possibilities of racial reconciliation, I primarily mourn the form in which it takes, for it only comes from one place. Therefore I think that minorities interested in the idea of reconciliation should have a say in its re-definition.
I think that desire is key here (a la Jennings). If reconciliation takes a form of say, majority persons resisting power and joining minority spaces, then something may be able to blossom. If racial reconciliation is truly desired (from the predominantly Caucasian churches who purport it), then the majority would join a minority church and allow that experience to inform what reconciliation truly is instead of insisting that it is one set thing that they themselves designed and created.
Which goes to your point about intention. If the intention from the majority is to live into this fantasy of reconciliation as harmony (complete with: a lack of identity, ignoring culture, refuting anger, etc.) then I doubt what they want is reconciliation. I would call it supremacy, since, as you named, they get to set the terms in how others can relate to them.
What I’m calling for is considering racial reconciliation as something bigger than what we have seen in the past. I dare us to allow our conception of it to leave “what we’ve seen” and enter into “what we can imagine” (and the “we” here is equal parts cultures, ethnicities, etc.) Racial reconciliation, at least in my imagination, is distinct, yet pressing to gain understanding of one another. It is hearing and telling (most of the telling from the minority side, most of the hearing from the majority). It has not been seen yet so there is no paradigm with which to assume we’re doing it. It is figured out and seen and known as we go. It gives space for black theology, and all other minority theologies, to be all that they are. It does not hope to eliminate spaces of rage, anger, despair, and mourning – it embraces them as part of its uncovering in the earth.
Racial reconciliation allows itself to be more uncomfortable than the majority even thought it was. But it requires re-location. It requires the majority to leave a place of power and enter into a life-long space of learning. It requires minorities to speak, to listen, to be changed and to welcome.
But fortunately (unfortunately?) it’s going to require something from everyone – and of course, it poses the grand question of “why would a minority be interested in reconciling to the majority in the first place?” This is a big question, but I don’t think it’s unanswerable (which does not translate to my having the answer!) And of course, how we see and experience everything relates to our position in the world.
My apologies for such a long response, but you generated some interesting
thoughts about the form and method of racial reconciliation for me.
I wish you the best in your work and look forward to more of your writing!!!
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