Our post today is written by Mary Veeneman, a member of our BTS department here at North Park. Her chp focuses on the 3d chp of Race: A Theological Account. She’s got some good questions at the end.
Recently, I attended a panel on politics and voting in light of the upcoming election at North Park. The panel involved three faculty members from three different departments: Philosophy, Biblical and Theological Studies and Political Science. All three faculty members discussed grappling with the issue of how one should vote as a Christian given that the two major presidential candidates can be seen as each advocating policies that are very much in concert with the values of the Christian faith and policies that ultimately oppose the values held by the Christian faith.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to discuss the current election without getting to the issue of race, and it certainly came up in the course of this discussion, though perhaps in a somewhat unexpected way. One member of the panel mentioned Rev. Jeremiah Wright and questioned the judgment of anyone who would be closely connected to him. Another member of the panel made a claim which was likely seen as very provocative by most of the people present. He argued that Rev. Wright likely reads the Bible in a manner much closer to the way in which Jesus read it than the dominant white evangelical culture does.
Underlying this claim is a central component of Catholic Social Thought often referred to as the preferential option for the poor. This is the idea that because the original audience of the New Testament was an oppressed and often poor people, the poor and oppressed in the contemporary world have an advantage in biblical interpretation in that their social status is somewhat similar to that of the original audience. As a result, the Catholic Social tradition has called on the faithful to take very seriously the way in which the poor and oppressed read the Bible.
I bring up this instance not to weigh in on the claim made by the panel member. Certainly Rev. Wright has been controversial and I have no desire to ignite a discussion about him here. What I found interesting about this exchange is that it reinforces in different ways some of the same claims made by J. Kameron Carter in the third chapter of Race: A Theological Account, titled, ?Historicizing Race.?
In this chapter of the book, Carter discusses the work of Albert J. Raboteau, whose most well-known work is Slave Religion: The ?Invisible Institution? in the Antebellum South?. Raboteau, a scholar who researches American Religious History, has taught at Princeton University since 1982. Carter, in this chapter seeks to trace a development in Raboteau?s thought from Slave Religion, which he published in 1978 to An Unbroken Circle (1997) and finally to some lectures he gave in 2003. In tracing this progression, Carter is attempting to examine the relationship between faith and history in Raboteau?s thought. During the twenty-five years between Slave Religion and the aforementioned lectures, Raboteau?s position on the relationship between faith and history develops from his initial view that sees faith only vaguely touching history, where faith is essentially beyond history or any kind of historical analysis. Later, Raboteau will argue that history can challenge faith and help faith to appreciate both that which is unique in the faith and that which is particular to the faith.
Of course, history has another role for Raboteau and this is the role that Carter notes is particularly central to his own arguments. Raboteau discusses the tradition-making activity of history. This is the activity of locating the members of a particular group or country within that group or country?s history. In this way, then, Carter says, ?history does the work of identity formation? (145). Through history, he says, we read ourselves ?dramatically? as ?participants in a drama? (145). American history has failed to include African Americans in the drama of American history in any way other than as simply a problem for the narrative, according to Raboteau, and Carter adds that religious faith and Christian faith in particular has not improved upon this situation. In fact, he argues that both history and Christianity have promoted a religious myth of whiteness. This is particularly the case when Christianity is tied to and is used to support nationalism.
Question: In your learning of American (or your country’s) history, how much focus was there on ethnic minorities or marginalized people? Were the voices of such persons muted? valued?
Some people argue that the slaves and slave children essentially gave in to their masters in taking up Christianity. Carter argues that a more compelling case can be made for the realization, on the part of the slaves and their descendants, that ?American manifest destiny? (147) was based on problematic historical foundations. It understood America as the New Israel and equated the migration of Europeans to North America as an escape from Egyptian bondage into the Promised Land. In other words, Americans were understanding the move of their ancestors to North America and then the move west across the continent as the same as the move of the people of Israel from Egypt into Canaan.
Of course, the slaves did not read the movement of their ancestors from Africa to North America in the same way. America, in their eyes, was not Israel but was Egypt. American slaves appropriated the story of the people of Israel in Egypt to understand their own plight. Carter quotes Paul Gilroy who paraphrases historian Vincent Harding in making a point that is particularly apt: ?It is an abiding and tragic irony of our national history that white America?s claim to be a New Israel has been constantly denied by Old Israel still enslaved in her midst? (147).
The question Carter asks in reflecting upon this is, ?What kind of consciousness (and unconsciousness) is at work? These differences of interpretation ?result from the fact that history has served in the past and still serves today to establish and legitimate the identities of various communities…?? (147).
To return to the earlier anecdote, the panelist who made the claim about Rev. Wright?s reading of the Bible further argued that there are things in scripture that people who come from a privileged group (whether racial, economic or otherwise) will have a very difficult time seeing. His point seems to be that it is far too easy to pass through a passage of scripture, thinking that we know what it is about when we may have missed the main point altogether. This is exactly what happens with nationalistic readings of scripture that support what Carter has called the ?religious myth of whiteness.?
The questions I want to leave you with are:
1. How are some of our contemporary readings of scripture supporting this religious myth of whiteness?
2. What are other ways in which we read scripture too quickly and miss the underlying truths? These could be instances in which our initial read is not wrong per se, but has missed something important along the way.