Per Caritatem

As Carter shows, Maximus the Confessor’s Christological vision has much to contribute to contemporary Frantz Fanon discussions on race, both theological and otherwise.  Love for Maximus is central to all actions, divine and human.  The “otherness” of creation came into being not by necessity but through unconstrained divine love and generosity.   Human beings, though the pinnacle of God’s creation because they image or reflect God in a unique way (imago Dei), chose to turn from their Creator, which resulted in a triple alienation.  Instead of intimate communion with God and one another, we experience discord, fragmentation and even hostility.  Instead of a respectful, cultivating relationship with the created order, we manipulate nature, giving little or no thought to its telos and purpose in God’s cosmic plan of redemption.  With God no longer our primary love, our “love” becomes self-focused and tyrannical.  This misdirected love is transposed into a dominating, monotone key in which polyphonic harmonies have no place.  Carter, in his appropriation of Maximus’ reflections on love, argues that distorted self-love (philautia) has the propensity to harden into a disposition of ‘possession’.[1] If such a disposition becomes entrenched in the social consciousness, we have at least one of the essential ingredients for large-scale mechanisms of oppression.[2] Carter believes that certain core teachings of the Enlightenment, especially those traceable to Kant, not only gravitate toward the possessive-tyrannical disposition, but are also integrally related to the emergence of various racialized mechanisms of modernity.[3]

For instance, in a colonialized situation, ‘philautia functions as a substitute for a doctrine of creation inasmuch as the self-constituting I creates a reality and draws all else into it by making it utility or assigning it a use value in the world of the I.’[4] Bringing Maximus’ theological critique to bear on the modern problem of racism, Carter interprets the modern self, driven by its misdirected self-love and armed with its Enlightenment, pseudo-scientific teachings of racial hierarchies, as a variation of Adamic transgression but translated onto the socio-political level.  That is, just as Adam (and Eve) unsatisfied with their sub-creator roles in God’s story, sought to become narrators of their own story, so too the Enlightenment discourse on race offers its own narrative of origins and human destiny.  This narrative, however, is rigidly monochromatic.  When taken up by certain misguided Christians, it transmutes into “a narrative of how human beings came to be bearers of race and how within this narrative whiteness became theologically supreme as a modality of religious dominance and world commerce.”[5]

As both ancient (Maximus) and modern (Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr.) Christian witnesses proclaim, the Christian narrative, which begins with creation out of love and climaxes with re-creation through the resurrected life of Jesus Christ, is not inherently a discourse of oppression.  It does, however, involve suffering, the shedding of blood and even violent death.  The Christian scriptural account does not present us with stories of perfect human beings.  Rather, it portrays humans—including those who are part of God’s covenant people—in their failings and achievements, in their faithfulness and recalcitrance.  Perhaps the most inexplicable part of the story is why a completely sufficient, content Trinitarian God willingly decides not only to begin and to continue the story but likewise to enter into the story and to assign himself a seemingly tragic role in which he suffers and dies at the hands of those whom he came to save.  Even so, when the Word became incarnate and made himself vulnerable to the vicissitudes and strains of human existence—misunderstanding, rejection, and even death-by-crucifixion—he proclaimed to the world that his Lordship was not the way of colonization or domination.  Rather, this omnipotent Lord set aside his privileges and became a slave, dying a slave’s death yet simultaneously conquering death, of which his resurrection is the definitive sign.[6]

With the incarnation and humiliation of Christ, the corporeal schema and the master/slave dialectic are undone, nullified and ultimately replaced by an inexplicable ‘logic’ of love wherein, paradoxically, a seemingly tragic death opens the way to life.   Christ’s particular, poor, Jewish flesh becomes, in Carter’s words, ‘the site of God’s wealth,’ the place where ethnic, class and even gender ‘binaries’ no longer serve oppressive purposes.[7] In other words, Christ’s flesh becomes the place where human diversity finds unity—a unity that saves difference.  We see this unity-in-diversity in the New Testament itself.  For example, Jewish Christians are not forced to relinquish their Jewish heritage and practices, though both must be re-interpreted in light of the Christ-event.  Nor are Gentile Christians compelled to become Jews and adhere to traditional Jewish customs (e.g., circumcision).  Rather, Christ’s particular Jewish flesh opens the way for all to participate in Trinitarian life.   Unlike philosophical schemata that flatten difference for the sake of unity (or vice versa), Christian conceptual categories, particularly those related to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, provide a model for a unity that upholds difference.  For instance, the horizontal one-and-many union between Christ and his people—people of diverse languages, ethnicities, and social classes—is an image of the one-and-many reality of the Trinity.  At the heart of Christian teaching is the proclamation that vertical and horizontal “communities” of unity-and-difference can (and in the case of the Trinity do) coexist in non-violent, non-dominating, reciprocal relations of love.

In light of the organic relationship that Christianity has with Judaism, the significance of Christ’s Jewish flesh must not be overlooked—a point that brings us back to Fanon.  In his critique of Merleau-Ponty’s generic corporeal schema, Fanon drew attention to the ways in which the white-scripted narrative (mis)colors black skin with multiple negative connotations.  Fanon’s analysis shares structural similarities (and dissimilarities) with the Christian’s emphasis on the importance of Christ’s particular embodiment as a Jew; however, the particularities involved are not racial in the modern, biological meaning of the term.  Christ’s Jewish flesh, nonetheless, exhibits the same polysemous and metonymic capacities—encompassing within it Israel’s covenantal history and reconfiguring that history in light of the central events of his embodied life:  Incarnation, death and resurrection.[8] Unlike the white-imposed narrative which closes off the black person’s freedom, Christ’s Incarnation and invitation to intimate union break down barriers of exclusion and thus open possibilities of freedom which transcend anything philosophy has to offer.


[1] J. Kameron Carter, Race:  A Theological Account, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 345.  Carter goes on to say that the ‘basic structure of colonialism’ is “grounded in a will-to-possess and intellectually sustained by a will-to-forget” (p. 345).

[2] Of course numerous other factors would have to be taken into account in order to give an adequate explanation of the rise of colonialism and racism.

[3] See also Robert Bernasconi, ‘Who Invented the Concept of Race?  Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race’, in Robert Bernasconi (ed), Race, (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2001).  Bernasconi argues that although Kant was not the first to use the term “race,” he was the first to give the term definitional precision.  ‘By setting out clearly the distinction between race and variety, where races are marked by hereditary characteristics that are unavoidable in the offspring, whereas the distinguishing marks of varieties are not always transmitted, Kant introduced a language for articulating permanent differentiations within the notion of species’ (p. 17).

[4] Carter, Race, p. 345.

[5] Carter, Race, p. 348.  See also Carter’s commentary on Maximus’ Epistle 2 and the ways in which it ‘becomes an interesting and unexpected resource for probing whiteness as a racial-colonialist way of ordering the world, that, in fact, deploys the discourse of Christian theology to do its work’ (p. 345).

[6] ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [ἁρπαγμόϛ], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:5-8, NRSV).  See also 1 Cor 15 and Rev 1:18.

[7] Carter, Race, p. 368.  St. Paul says something along these lines in his epistle to the Galatians.  Describing the new reality of God’s people, those baptized into Christ who now form an alternative community operating against the grain of the world’s logic, St. Paul says, “[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV).  Of course, I am not suggesting that this alternative community has been realized.  According to Christian belief, the full actualization of such a community will occur only in the eschaton.  However, even in the midst of the already-not-yet eschatological tension that characterizes the Christian life in via, the redemptive benefits of the Christ-event make possible proleptic glimpses of communal life in Christ’s kingdom.

[8] See Luke 24:27 where Jesus says that the law and all of Hebrew Scripture must be re-interpreted Christotelically.  In addition, though Carter does not develop this idea, the giving of Christ’s flesh in the Eucharist is another significant way that the many are continually made one in their present already-not-yet eschatological existence.

2 Responses so far

Great Post–my mind is reeling!
You say Carter accuses Kant of a possessive-tyrannical disposition in his teachings, but wouldn’t the categorical imperative militate against this very notion?

Hi Mich,

Thanks for your comment. I assume you have in mind Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative that states that we must always treat human beings as ends and never as means. “On paper” this of course sounds great. However, when you place it within Kant’s larger philosophical schema, it is problematic (at least for the Christian who rejects racism and all forms of racialized essentialism). E.g., as Robert Bernasconi has shown, Kant’s hierarchical view of race (where whites superior and all other “races” inferior to various degrees) does not sit well with his cosmopolitanism, unless one is willing to admit that the only true fully autonomous and hence free individuals are a particular group of white males. Also, the Christian claims that humans ought not to be instrumentalized because they are created in God’s image, which is of course a claim based on divine revelation. Neither in paradise nor in the eschaton are human relationships characterized by domination (slavery is a consequence of the fall). In his text, _Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals_, he speaks of the “kingdom of ends,” which refers to the moral universe created by rational humans willing the moral law (the moral law is willed from “pure reason”). Kant claims that in this moral universe/kingdom of ends, each rational person is equal and sovereign. People are equal in so far as they will the moral law in accordance with reason, and they are sovereign because by doing so, they each contribute to the building of this “kingdom” or “moral universe.” From this idea of a kingdom of ends, Kant comes up with a variation on his first formulation of the categorical imperative. This version states, “For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.” Here Kant explicitly articulates the sovereignty and dignity of the (rational) individual, and he states that we are always to treat others as ends not as mere means. (Again, this “in theory” sounds great). However, Kant’s claims here that we must never use other people or treat them as tools for our purposes because to do so is to disallow their participation as equal, sovereign individuals in the moral universe and likewise to deny their dignity. Yet, in Kant’s writings on race that is precisely what he does to Indians, Africans and more or less any non-European (white) people group (not to mention what he says about women). For Kant, American Indians are “uneducable”; the “race of Negroes can educated, but only to the education of servants”; Hindus are “educable to arts and not to sciences. They will never achieve abstract concepts”; however, “the race of whites contains all motives and talents in itself” (of course he means white males of a certain sort) [_Menschenkunde_ 1781/82].

Best wishes,