Another wave of racist violence takes the lives of unarmed Black men and women (#AmaudArbery #GeorgeFloyd #BreonnaTaylor and too many others). Meanwhile, thousands of other Black bodies lay dead less from COVID-19 itself than from the structures that bear down with racist violence on black necks as cruelly as an officer’s knee.
As it leaves us all—and Black folks the most, by miles—holding more death, pain, rage and grief from oppression than we know how to bear, one question throbs out almost beyond hope:
How does it end?
When will Black lives stop being taken?
The termination of white supremacy, within its own logic, is either total enslavement for exploitation or genocide. Whiteness cannot abide by a genuinely free other which it does not accept as human and does not believe to possess equal rights and dignity. Free existence of Black life, by simply being free and alive and Black, is a short-circuiting blow to an identity, a project of meaning and belonging, that is premised on its exclusive right to freedom (better put: to liberty, libre—life itself) contra non-white bodies. That’s the end-game of whiteness.
What’s the alternative? Is there another end? Something more beautiful and human? Is the dream of beloved community always just eschatological self-reassurance?
I’m not sure. As Ibrim Kendi has demonstrated, anti-racist progress has always been mirrored by a counter-movement of racist progress in the history of this nation.
If another end happens, it will be thanks to anti-racist fusion movements that rise up and radically transform the structural apparatuses that do violence in this nation.
Still, we seem to need something more than even the best popular education training on racism, whiteness, and anti-racism are delivering. Something that runs deeper into the roots of who we think we are as humans and what we think we’re doing here on earth.
I’ve been stewing in the work of two theologians over the past few months: two colleagues who have furthered one another’s imaginations. Willie Jennings and J. Kameron Carter are charting a radical and creatively Patristic theological third way, highly informed by critical race theory and decolonial analyses. But they opt to seek passage into a new future by reverse engineering the theological architecture out of which the racial human was built. It seems to me that they may be onto something.
Much more needs to be said to unpack their remarkable books. But I find, in the distillation of my memory, their work is focusing down into something that could be put like this:
- Jennings and Carter are asking us to move from whiteness which deforms places (and all the lives that inhere therein), to places deforming—indeed, de-creating—whiteness.
- It is a call rooted in the conviction that intimacy cannot find maturity within an internalized anthropology founded on and co-terminus with enmity.
- Thus it (whiteness) must be put to death within the crucified and resurrected Jewish body of Christ as white people and Christians generally find ourselves once again as outsiders invited into the story of Israel (thus rejecting the antisemitism which prefigured racism and rediscovering a covenantal non-racial identity) and enter into union with God alongside the bodies of all creation.
- Through a two-part integrated movement occurring within the historical-material plane which, on one hand, re-configures relationship inside the Trinity and, on the other, refashions interrelationships emplace with plants, animals, watersheds and ecological seasons, a new (post/anti-white?) human(ity) can be born capable of performing a new logic of the social.
This sketch doesn’t begin to do their projects justice. What I am simply trying to show is how these two brilliant thinkers are demonstrating that if there is to ever be an end to all this pain, all this alienation and violence, it cannot come through the racial categories we have inherited. It is simply not possible to existentially or structurally disentangle whiteness and the racial hierarchy it created (with Black on the bottom) from violence, the exploitation of capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, the abuse of land and nature, and a fundamental posture toward life which isolates a fearful self into selfish pursuit of profit and power stripped out of all other life.
Without spending too much time hedging and nuancing their positions against critiques, it at least has to be said that this is quite the opposite of viewpoints which believe in a post-racial America or argue we should stop paying attention to race. Rather, we must attend to race in order to de-create whiteness and participate as co-creators with God in the inauguration of a new creation.
The theological, spiritual, communal, familial, social, and political-economic task of our time is forging new ways of being, of imagining the self, and caring for all the lives in this great community creation through a panoply of beautiful, true, and good forms “after whiteness.” It is a work we must advance and steward in this generation even while knowing we cultivate soil that may be our great-grandchildren’s to watch bloom and harvest.