by Aaron Edwards.
It has become customary at theological conferences nowadays to include a panel discussion on race. These tend to revolve around the problem of “whiteness”, with the invariable outcome that the white people present should become, in one way or another, less racist. If we’re unsure whether we are in fact racist, we’re told it’s probably in there somewhere, covertly submerged within our very deepest theological convictions.
This intensity of focus is not difficult to understand given the parallel tensions within western society at present, exacerbated by the viral responses to the death of George Floyd, an event which seemed to take on cataclysmic significance, catalysing a new “great awakening” of racial consciousness. Many theologians and preachers even saw the phenomenon in divinely revelatory terms. Pulpits usually reticent to preach socio-political issues suddenly found their sermons saturated with Critical Race Theory alongside numerous apologies for white privilege.
The super-charged narrative means any theological panel discussion tends to become significantly less “discursive” than expected. In one recent panel I attended, an influential black theologian lamented the lack of BAME representation in UK theological institutions, stating this was, in no uncertain terms, “a demonic apartheid”. Thus, any white theologian within UK theology is necessarily a perpetrator of deeply oblivious systemic oppression, the kind Hannah Arendt called “radical evil” (think Eichmann et al!). How does one begin to respond to such claims within such a climate? The person making this comment then added that the time was over for yet another panel on race – radical action was the only solution left.
I’m certainly not unsympathetic to homiletical rhetoric on significant issues, nor to critiquing inconsequential virtue-signaling panels. Indeed, the academy often seems to specialize in prolonging debates precisely to avoid transformative action! But what if you don’t agree with the premises – let alone the conclusions – of the discussion? What if you do need to talk more? What if the idea that most-white-theologians-are-unknowingly-racist-especially-if-they-think-they’re-not is wrong? How could someone articulate such a belief without incurring the charge of “whitesplaining” (an always-pejorative term connoting an essentially undefendable accusation)?
It was Robin D’Angelo’s bestselling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism (2018), where the astonishing claim was made that “rational argumentation” was a typical “behaviour” of white people when accused of racial privilege or bias. Charitably, this likely refers to the stacking-up of countless propositions purely to enhance one’s invulnerability to critique. But the obvious problem with D’Angelo’s observation is that only via some form of “rational argument” could we have any hope of being persuaded that such diversionary filibustering was even wrong. The notion that rational argumentation is an ethnically particular “mode” of engagement is an alarmingly racist claim with disturbing implications – yet robust discussion of such problems has become virtually impossible.
This problem echoes the ill-fated era of Unconscious Bias Training, eventually scrapped by the Civil Service after it was discovered that, far from reducing racial tensions and inequalities, it often made them worse. Meanwhile, churches who already came somewhat late to the systemic antiracism party continue to roll out such training in the vain hope it offers some pneumatological magic to heal deep-set wounds which fall within the purview of the Gospel alone. Whenever someone tentatively points this out – say, at a conference – the increasingly common response is that “the Gospel” is itself a “white” construction (thus, just the kind of thing a white person would invoke in general to avoid confronting racism in particular).
The Church rightly wrestles with its own problematic legacy on race, a problem still bearing wounds for many communities in today’s world. But Christian theologians and churches have too swiftly adopted strategies of racial reconciliation which not only find their basis beyond the Gospel, but often actively undermine it. The adoption of such strategies grates against much of what was revealed and achieved in the Cross and Resurrection (obvious examples include new birth, expiation of guilt, divine grace, and paradoxical forgiveness – there are many more!).
It’s not coincidental that just when academic theological conferences are hosting panels debating systemic whiteness, the very same debates were already occurring in other subjects (decolonising mathematics is the latest iteration). Regardless of reverse-engineered public statements, it’s clear that the principal lens through which much of the Church views race today is not the Gospel. Our theology must always remain attentive to the cries and laments of injustice in our world. But it’s concerning when the roots of such attentiveness are identical to what was already happening before the Church “caught up” with the appropriate rhetoric/paradigm/programme.
Tertullian’s famous warning of the irreconcilability of Jerusalem and Athens can often be overstated, but it should never be far from our minds today. True, the Church has always made use of non-Christian wisdom, but usually via annexation rather than wholesale adoption. We live at a time where western Christianity’s ingratiation in worldly systems of thought and action is epidemic. To even hear the declaration of “worldliness” today often brings patronising eye-rolls rather than honest Biblical self-reflections on the indistinctness of the Church’s prophetic witness.
Ironically, the Church’s historic complicity with racism is rightly deemed heinous precisely because it was “worldly”, because it repudiated the logic of the Gospel. In our fretful attempts to confront this legacy today, we inadvertently allow a worldly ideology (“antiracism”) to become a gospel unto itself. We must allow the Gospel to interrupt us on its own terms, however inconvenient such terms may be at any given point. If not, the light that the Church alone is given for the sake of loving the world is hidden under a bushel for the sake of pleasing the world.