Per Caritatem

Intersecting Music and PhilosophyMy new book, Intersecting Music and Philosophy. Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Makingis available for purchase via Amazon.com for a special discounted price of $9.99 (at present, in electronic form only). Below I provide brief chapter sketches to spark your interest.

In chapter 1 I discuss and analyze several concepts, theories, and practices that challenge us to rethink the nature of music and the roles of composers and performers. In particular, I focus on what Bruce Ellis Benson calls, “musical places of indeterminacy,” and what I call, “built-in flexibility” and music’s “flexible” or “dynamic ontology,” and argue that this “open nature” of a musical work is found not only in jazz improvisation, where one might expect it, but also in multiple musical genres, including classical music. If such is the case, then commonly held views of composition and improvisation are in need of revision. That is, we should understand composition and improvisation as overlapping, situated on a continuum, and expressed in degrees rather than as distinct and unrelated practices. This recognition of music’s flexible ontology and the overlapping and interrelated character of composition and improvisation opens up a new paradigm for understanding what music is. In other words, a musical piece is not a static product created (once and for all) by a single composer. Rather a musical piece is dynamic and is (re)created by many performers qua co-composers. Consequently, music is also profoundly communal. That is, it comes into being and is maintained in existence through practices and traditions which themselves develop and change. Yet, as I argue, to acknowledge a musical work’s flexible and dynamic ontology does not destroy or nullify its identity, as certain melodic and harmonic relations structure the piece while simultaneously allowing for multiple instantiations and diverse interpretations.

In chapter 2 I show how jazz aesthetics and inflections of jazz such as bebop are socially conditioned, dynamic, and hybrid in character. Such a model, on the one hand, permits us to affirm jazz as an historically conditioned, dynamic hybridity. On the other hand, to acknowledge jazz’s open nature and complex lineage in no way negates our ability to identify discernible features of various styles and aesthetic traditions.  Additionally, my model affirms the sociopolitical, legal (for example, Jim Crow and copyright laws), and economic structures that shaped jazz. Consequently, my articulation of bebop as an inflection of Afro-modernism highlights the sociopolitical and highly racialized context in which this music was created. Without a recognition of the sociopolitical import of bebop, one’s understanding of the music is impoverished, since one fails to grasp the strategic uses to which the music and discourses about the music were put.

Chapter 3 is the longest chapter and focuses more on philosophical rather than strictly musical concepts, questions, and concerns. I examine the complexity of Michel Foucault’s thought through an analysis of the diverse philosophical traditions—from Kant, to Nietzsche, to Foucault’s phenomenological lineage via Cavaillès and Canguilhem—that influence his own distinctive project. In addition, I identify key Foucauldian concepts worthy of continued reflection and offer, as my own contribution to the dialogue, various musical analogies as hermeneutical and analytical “tools” that (1) illuminate and clarify Foucault’s ideas and (2) provide a coherent way to understand episteme change.

In my final chapter I discuss several seemingly disparate topics such as the practice of jazz improvisation and how jazz musicians develop a musical voice, Michel Foucault’s later work on active self-formation, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of what constitutes a practice and how one might understand the internal and external goods of a practice. Although many might see these thinkers and topics as utterly unrelated and ultimately too dissimilar to bear any legitimate fruit, I have shown how at various points their work and ideas can be harmonized and how creating a dialogical fusion among them advances our understanding of the relevant topics. For example, the activities in which jazz musicians engage in order shape their own musical voices and styles is quite similar, as Foucault’s later writings make clear, to Seneca’s description of self-craft. In addition, MacIntyre’s account of practices complements and deepens my analyses of the practice of jazz improvisation and creating one’s musical voice and enriches Foucault’s study of Greco-Roman self-making. Lastly, I show how aspects of MacIntyre’s notion of virtue-development as it relates to acquiring a practice and maintaining its integrity, as well as his distinction between a practice’s internal and external goods, can be brought into fruitful dialogue with Foucauldian resistance strategies.

 

I am happy to announce that Philosophy Imprisoned. The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration, edited by Sarah Tyson and Joshua M. Hall, is now available for preorder via Amazon.com. Below is a brief description of the book taken from from Lexington’s website (an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield) and a list of contributors, including myself.Philosophy Imprisoned

Brief Description:

Western philosophy’s relationship with prisons stretches from Plato’s own incarceration to the modern era of mass incarceration. Philosophy Imprisoned: The Love of Wisdom in the Age of Mass Incarceration draws together a broad range of philosophical thinkers, from both inside and outside prison walls, in the United States and beyond, who draw on a variety of critical perspectives (including phenomenology, deconstruction, and feminist theory) and historical and contemporary figures in philosophy (including Kant, Hegel, Foucault, and Angela Davis) to think about prisons in this new historical era. All of these contributors have experiences within prison walls: some are or have been incarcerated, some have taught or are teaching in prisons, and all have been students of both philosophy and the carceral system. The powerful testimonials and theoretical arguments are appropriate reading not only for philosophers and prison theorists generally, but also for prison reformers and abolitionists.

List of Contributors:

Eric Anthamatten; Anders “Andy” Benander III; Natalie Cisneros; Michael DeWilde; Vincent Greco; Timothy Greenlee; Spoon Jackson; Arlando “Tray” Jones III; Drew Leder; Chris Lenn; John Douglas Macready; Lisa McLeod; William Muth; Cynthia Nielsen; Aislinn O’Donnell; Andre Pierce; Atif Rafay and Ginger Walker

 

 

Syndicate Theology’s symposium on Willie James Jennings’s book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, begins tomorrow, July 21. Below I have copied (from Syndicate’s website) an overview of the book and the opening paragraph from each panelist’s review. Please join us for what will be, no doubt, an excellent and lively conversation. Christian Imagination @ Syndicate Theology

Overview

Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions? In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation—social, spatial, and racial—that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.

Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.

Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.

About the Author

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, where he previously served as academic dean. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

PANELISTS

Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Cross the Sea and Cleanse the Temple” (July 21)

CHRISTIANITY IN THE AMERICAS is shrouded in a dark past of white supremacy and colonial violence. Given Christianity’s history of colonial captivity, is the Christian imagination exhausted or can it still speak meaningfully and creatively today? In The Christian Imagination Willie James Jennings lays out a persuasive case detailing the racist and capitalist underpinnings of colonial Christianity in Portugal, Peru, South Africa, and the United States, showing how this colonial legacy continues to dominate the establishment agenda of the theological academy. Despite these realities, he further argues that the Christian imagination can be fired once again if the church can reconnect to Israel, creation, and the Creator. His call to theological intimacy amidst a world of cultural fragmentation is prophetic, hearkening a post-colonial future for the world Christian communion.

Cynthia R. Nielsen, “Rending New Life From Mangled Places” (July 23)

WILLIE JAMES JENNINGS’ BOOK, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, is a revolutionary study in the ongoing conversation of the relation between race and Christian theology and practice. In my essay, I discuss key themes of the book, which include: the connection between land and identity, the role of whiteness as an evaluative form or racialized lens for interpreting others and the world, the injurious and dehumanizing effects of Christianity’s embrace of colonizing practices, and Jennings’ original insights regarding how such practices can be understood as expressions of de-formed Christian doctrines. Toward the end of my essay, I transition to a more critical dialogue, both for the purpose of furthering the conversation and for my own education.

A. J. Walton, “Supersessionist Sensibilities, Supremacist Imagination” (July 28)

PERHAPS IT’S A TAD ODD to state upfront the many ways a theologian has influenced a young academic. But setting aside worries that I may come across as some crazed fan—a Beyoncé or Beatles type of groupie, you know?—I find no need to deny the fact that Willie James Jennings—the teacher, the mentor, and the many other descriptors that can follow his name—has and continues to shape not only how I understand Christian theology proper (if there is such a thing), but also how I navigate the everyday complexities that is life and vocation in this our (post?) modern context. The truth is this: Jennings is a theological genius and a force with whom we must all reckon.

Mary McClintock Fulkerson, “The Colorblindness of a Diseased Social Imagination” (July 30)

AFTER DOING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC study of a white southern Protestant church that decided to become multiracial I have seen how crucial it is to better understand and complexify the subject of “race” and Christianity. Initially thinking this church was a real gem, given how few significantly interracial churches exist, I discovered all sorts of problems, including continuing white obliviousness about race. Some of the white members who intentionally formed this interracial church, performed racist behavior. Some decided the church was getting “too black” and left. Other whites reacted negatively when the founding white pastor was replaced by a black pastor. Many white members just did not want to talk about race. As a southern white girl raised in a white church in a family that totally ignored race issues, I did not think I was either racist or privileged. Not until this experience as an adult did I even begin to discover my own obliviousness.

 

With the generous help of several of my theology friends and other academic colleagues, I have put together a list of classic, contemporary, and secondary texts on Liberation Theology. The numeric list does not indicate ranking, prominence, or suggest an order in which the books should be read. However, the books marked “classic texts” were recommended multiple times by my colleagues and are seminal texts in the tradition. Lastly, I encourage you to leave comments suggesting other key works on Liberation Theology (or related liberating/emancipatory texts) that you have read and found valuable. Enjoy!Oscar Romero

[N.b. The book descriptions below are copied directly from Amazon.com and Goodreads unless otherwise noted.]

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own: The Spiritual Journey of a People. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “After twenty years, We Drink from Our Own Wells remains a classic expression of Latin American spirituality by a pioneer of liberation theology. Starting from St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s counsel to root spirituality in one’s own experience, Gustavo Gutierrez outlines the contours of a spirituality rooted in the experience of the poor and their struggle for life. His aim is to reflect on the contemporary “road to holiness” — the passage of a people “through the solitude and dangers of the desert, as it carves out its own way in the following of Jesus Christ. This spiritual experience is the well from which we must drink. From it we draw the promise of resurrection.”

  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent.

Brief Description: “On Job asks a direct and profound question: How, in the face of so much suffering among the human innocent, can we talk about God? Theodicy is, of course, the business most central, intellectually, to liberation and theology, and Gutierrez is first and foremost a liberationist Christian. While On Job does not unravel the mysteries of evil (nor should it, Gutierrez observes), it does follow clearly mid with integrity Job’s progress toward God-talk and understmiding. In doing so, the author, by analogy, states movingly and potently the spirituality of Latin American Christians today. In his conclusion, Gutierrez offers us an explicit summary of his ministry and of the volume’s: “…for us Latin Americans the question is not precisely ‘How are we to do theology after Auschwitzt …In Latin America we are still experiencing … the torture we find so blameworthy in the Jewish holocaust But Christianity everywhere, Gutierrez continues, will be matured and perhaps even “…scandalized at hearing a frank avowal of the human and religious experience of the poor, and at seeing their clumsy attempts to relate their lives to the God in whom they have such deep faith.” All in all, not a shocking book; not an exciting book, not an easy book. Just an instructive, compassionate, graceful book, and one lacking in all politics save that of our shared humanity.”

  1. Oscar Romero. The Violence of Love. [Selections from Romero’s sermons]

Brief Description: “These selections from the sermons and writings of Archbishop Oscar Romero share the message of a great holy prophet of modern times. Three short years transformed Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, from a conservative defender of the status quo into one of the church’s most outspoken voices of the oppressed. Though silenced by an assassin’s bullet, his spirit and the challenge of his life lives on.”

  1. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Twenty years ago, when the civil rights and “Black Power” movements were at their peak, James Cone introduced a revolutionary theology based on the African-American experience of oppression and the quest for liberation. The book brought a new perspective to theology in the United States. Cone contends that theology grows out of the experience of the community; the community itself defines what God means. Western European theology serves the oppressors; therefore theology for African-Americans should validate their struggle for liberation and justice. In seven brief chapters, he argues passionately that God must be on the side of oppressed black people and develops the concept of a black God, noting: “To say God is Creator means … I am black because God is black!” The anniversary edition recognizes Cone’s contribution to U.S. theology with a 50-page section of critical reflections by six leading theologians including Gayraud Wilmore, Robert McAfee Brown and Rosemary Radford Reuther. Cone responds to these commentaries in an afterword. The foreword points out Cone’s influence on Latin American liberation theology. The interplay among text, commentaries, afterword and preface provides a lively discussion and analysis of developments in black liberation theology over the past two decades. The book should be read for the clarity with which it demonstrates the relationship between theology, oppression and liberation, and for its historic importance in raising the consciousness of its readers about the possibility of viewing God from a black perspective. Anyone concerned about U.S. social history, liberation theology and racism will find the book of interest. It is particularly suitable for university and seminary libraries.”

  1. James Cone. God of the Oppressed. [Classic text]

Brief Description:God of the Oppressed remains a landmark in the development of Black Theology—the first effort to present a systematic theology drawing fully on the resources of African-American religion and culture. Responding to the criticism that his previous books drew too heavily on Euro-American definitions of theology, James Cone went back to his experience of the black church in Bearden, Arkansas, the tradition of the Spirituals and black folklore, and the black history of struggle and survival, to construct a new approach to the gospel. In his reflections on God, Jesus, suffering, and liberation, Cone relates the gospel message to the experience of the black community. But a wider theme of the book is the role that social and historical context plays in framing the questions we address to God, as well as the mode of the answers provided. Revised, including a new introduction by Cone, God of the Oppressed remains invaluable for scholars, students, clergy, and everyone concerned with vital, contemporary God-Talk.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, Christ the Liberator: A View From the Victims. [Classic text]

Brief Description: “Jon Sobrino continues the magisterial christology begun in Jesus the Liberator. In that book Sobrino examined the identity of Jesus in relation to his message, his interlocutors, and the conflict that led to his death. In this second volume he takes up the Resurrection of Christ, the Christology of the New Testament, and finally the christological formulae of the early church councils. Throughout Christ the Liberator Sobrino writes from the reality of faith, as set in motion by the event of Jesus Christ, and from the situation of the victims — the “Crucified People” of history — particularly the poor of El Salvador, with whom he works. With Christ the Liberator Sobrino’s christology takes its place among the most significant contributions of Latin America to the church and theology today.”

  1. Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays [Classic Text]

Brief Description: The provocative title of these essays plays on a traditional Catholic slogan: “No salvation outside the church.” Insofar as it implies God’s response to a world marked by suffering and injustice, then the poor represent an indispensible test, a key to the healing of a sick society.”

  1. Jon Sobrino and Ignacio Ellacuria, Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary source].

Brief Description: This book features a series of essays focusing on the history and key concepts of liberation theology. Part I deals with history, method, and distinctive features of liberation theology. Part II deals with the systematic contents of liberation theology.

9.  Leonardo Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “This work deals with the basic questions that are tackled by liberation theology – oppression, violence, domination and marginalization. It then goes on to show how the Christian faith can be used as an agent in promoting social and individual liberation, and how faith and politics relate.”

10. Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Wikipedia]: “A primary reality to which Juan Luis Segundo responds is the fact that liberation theology, like any theological movement in its developmental stages, performs theological work in traditional ways: by looking to the biblical and dogmatic traditions. Segundo explains that liberation theology performed its theologizing while “feeling a responsibility towards both the problems of real life and the canons of worldwide theology”. However, it did theology in the only way it knew how, with the “means at its disposal”. While liberation theology did not adopt the learned style of academic theology and conform to its standards of detail and form in presentation, it also did not theologize in an aggressive, abrupt, way in order “to meet some inescapable pragmatic necessity”. In other words, Segundo sees a need for a critical evaluation of theological methodology and seeks to aggressively attack all the inconsistencies and contradictions that fill the myriad sociological and theological understandings of the world. Segundo is not interested in the content of liberation theology as much as he is trying to think about “the method used to theologize in the face of our real-life situation”. Segundo is primarily concerned with the liberation of the theological process, and notices a problem with the way theology is done that constricts liberation theology from flourishing in Latin America.”

11. Christopher Rowland (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is widely referred to in discussions of politics and religion but not always adequately understood. The 2007 edition of this Companion brings the story of the movement’s continuing importance and impact up to date. Additional essays, which complement those in the original edition, expand upon the issues by dealing with gender and sexuality and the important matter of epistemology. In the light of a more conservative ethos in Roman Catholicism, and in theology generally, liberation theology is often said to have been an intellectual movement tied to a particular period of ecumenical and political theology. These essays indicate its continuing importance in different contexts and enable readers to locate its distinctive intellectual ethos within the evolving contextual and cultural concerns of theology and religious studies. This book will be of interest to students of theology as well as to sociologists, political theorists and historians.”

12. Ivan Petrella, Beyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Beyond Liberation Theology sets the stage for future liberation theology. Within, Ivan Petrella provides a bold new interpretation of liberation theology’s present state and future possibilities. In so doing, he challenges a number of established pieties: Instead of staying within the accepted norm of examining liberation theologies individually as if they were closed worlds, he dares develop a framework that tackles Latin American, Black, Womanist, and Hispanic/Latino(a) theologies together; instead of succumbing to the fashionable identity politics that rules liberationist discourse, he places poverty at the forefront of concern; instead of seeking to carve out a small space for theology in a secular world, he shows that only an expansive understanding of liberation theology can deal with contemporary challenges. The end result is a wake up call for liberation theologians everywhere and a radical new direction for liberation theology itself.”

13. Robert McAfee Brown. Liberation Theology: An Introductory Guide. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “In a manner that is vivid and lively, Robert McAfee Brown explains and illuminates liberation theology for North American readers who may have no previous knowledge of this dynamic Christian movement. Growing out of the experience of oppressed people in Latin America, liberation theology lends a transforming power to both the study of the Bible and the Christian duty to work for justice for all God’s people. With heartwarming, terrifying, and humorous stories, Brown shows the strength and significance of one of the outstanding developments in religious faith today and for the future.”

14. John J. Markey, Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North America. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “North Americans are enslaved by a false sense that self-centered idealism is morally good and necessary for achieving the common good. Moses in Pharaoh’s House: A Liberation Spirituality for North Americans explores how those living inside the oppressive structures of the First World can be freed from false ideologies to achieve personal and socio-political conversion. Using the story of Moses and the Exodus, the book presents a spirituality of conversion for the privileged and develops a connection between the liberation of the oppressed and conversion of the privileged.”

15. Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. [Secondary text]

Brief Description: “Liberation theology is a school of Roman Catholic thought which teaches that a primary duty of the church must be to promote social and economic justice. In this book, Christian Smith explains how and why the liberation theology movement emerged and succeeded when and where it did.”

16. Ivone Gebara. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Gebara’s succinct yet moving statements of the principles of ecofeminism shows how intertwined are the tarnished environment around her and the poverty that afflicts her neighbors. From her experiences with the Brazilian poor women’s movement she develops a gritty urban ecofeminism and indeed articulates a whole worldview. She shows how the connections between Western thought, patriarchal Christianity, and environmental destruction necessitate personal conversion to ‘a new relationship with the earth and with the entire cosmos.’”

17. Mary Daly. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. [Classic text]

Brief Description [from Google Books]: “In this text, Mary Daly examines religion as a major cause of women’s repression over the last 3,000 years. From Genesis to the writings of contemporary theologians, she exposes the misogyny which still continues to flourish in Christianity.”

18. William R. Jones. Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology. [Contemporary text]

Brief Description: “Published originally as part of C. Eric Lincoln’s series on the black religious experience, Is God a White Racist? is a landmark critique of the black church’s treatment of evil and the nature of suffering. In this powerful examination of the early liberation methodology of James Cone, J. Deotis Roberts, and Joseph Washington, among others, Jones questions whether their foundation for black Christian theism—the belief in an omnibenevolent God who has dominion over human history—can provide an adequate theological foundation to effectively dismantle the economic, social, and political framework of oppression. Seeing divine benevolence as part of oppression’s mechanism of disguise, Jones argues that black liberation theologians must adopt a new theism that is informed by humanism and its principle of the functional ultimacy of wo/man, where human choice and action determine whether our condition is slavery or freedom.”

19. Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Eduardo Mendieta (eds.), Decolonizing Epistemologies: Latino/a Theology and Philosophy. [Reference, secondary text]

Brief Description: “Decolonizing Epistemologies builds upon the contributions of liberation and postcolonial theories in both philosophy and theology. Gathering the work of three generations of Latina/o theologians and philosophers who have taken up the task of transforming their respective disciplines, it seeks to facilitate the emergence of new knowledge by reflecting on the Latina/o reality in the United States as an epistemic locus: a place from which to start as well as the source of what is known and how it is known. The task of elaborating a liberation and decolonial epistemology emerges from the questions and concerns of Latina/os as a minoritized and marginalized group. Refusing to be rendered invisible by the dominant discourse, the contributors to this volume show the unexpected and original ways in which U.S. Latina/o social and historical loci are generative places for the creation of new matrices of knowledge. Because the Latina/o reality is intrinsically connected with that of other oppressed groups, the volume articulates a new point of departure for the self-understanding not only of Latina/os but also possibly for other marginalized and oppressed groups, and for all those seeking to engage in the move beyond coloniality as it is present in this age of globalization.”

20. William T. Cavanaugh. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. [Contemporary, secondary text]

Brief Description [from back book cover]: “In this engrossing analysis, Cavanaugh contends that the Eucharist is the Church’s response to the use of torture as a social discipline. The author develops a theology of the political, which presents torture as one instance of a larger confrontation of powers over bodies, both individual and social. He argues that a Christian practice of the political is embodied in Jesus’ own torture at the hands of the powers of this world. The analysis of torture therefore is situated within wider discussions in the fields of ecclesiology and the state, social ethics and human rights, and sacramental theology. The book focuses on the experience of Chile and the Catholic Church there, before and during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1973-1990. Cavanaugh has first-hand experience of working with the Church in Chile, and his interviews with ecclesiastical officials and grassroots Church workers speak directly to the reader. The book uses this example to examine the theoretical bases of twentieth-century ‘social catholicism’ and its inability to resist the disciplines of the state, in contrast to a truer Christian practice of the political in the Eucharist. The book as a whole ties eucharistic theology to concrete eucharistic practice, showing that the Eucharist is not a ‘symbol’ but a real cathartic summary of the practices by which God forms people into the Body of Christ, producing a sense of communion stronger than that of any nation-state.”

 

Jennings Christian ImaginationIn August I will participate in Syndicate’s online symposium focusing on Willie James Jennings’s landmark study, The Christian Imagination. Theology and the Origins of Race. What follows is a preview of my discussion of key themes in Part III of Jennings’s book. I encourage you to check Syndicate’s website regularly for additional information, updates, and future symposia. Lastly, I hope that you will join us in August for the actual Syndicate forum dedicated to Jennings’s outstanding and timely work.

The central theme of Part III is “intimacy.” In chapter five, “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings discusses the double-sidedness of literacy for the oppressed in a racialized social environment and how literacy serves both emancipatory and colonizing purposes (207). In particular, he highlights how the misuse of Scripture and the imposition of a Christian-colonial imaginary (both with respect to interpreting the bible and the social and material world) helped to warrant, reinforce, and maintain the unjust sociopolitical and economic power relations between oppressor and oppressed. One of the most devastating effects of the Christian-colonial imaginary—and one that continues to impact the church today—is how it naturalizes segregationalist mentalities and practices (208). Such racialized ways of thinking, being, and interpreting the world see segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods as “natural” and thus negate one of Christianity’s “most basic and powerful imaginative possibilities, the deepest and most comprehensive joining of peoples” (208).

Although Jennings does not devote significant textual space to an analysis of gender and feminist theorizing on these issues (a much needed task), he does point out how white male landowners played a central role in forming and de-forming the social and geographic landscape. As Jennings explains, “[i]n antebellum America, the household stood at the center of the social world of the new republic, and at the center of the household stood the male landowner” (235). Given the entrenched patriarchy at that time—a patriarchy bolstered by sociopolitical, legal, and religious discourses and practices—not only slaves, but also free women (and children) were locked into harmful and degrading dependency relations. Here we find an example that illustrates and supports some of Jennings’s most important and original claims: (1) place and identity are intricately linked, (2) Christianity’s colonizing practices ignored that connection entirely in their treatment of indigenous people and their land, and (3) colonial Christianity is undergirded by a deformed doctrine of creation whose enactment in praxis has serious sociopolitical, ethical, theological, and environmental consequences. That is, just as colonial powers had disregarded completely the constitutive role of place in forming the indigenes’ identity, similarly the white male landowners’ colonizing view of space and the asymmetrical, dominating power relations structuring the household became naturalized and understood as the “proper” and even God-ordained order of things. Moreover, with the implementation of Thomas Jefferson’s Land Survey System, which transformed natural landscapes into grid systems of sellable plots of land, the link between land and identity is not only disrupted and fundamentally altered, but it also ushers in a distinctively modern instrumentalized vision of land qua potential private property for economic benefit. In other words, concern for the intrinsic value and beauty of trees, meadows, mountains, and how place, land, and animals constitute a peoples’ identity is judged a hindrance to modern progress and divine mandate. As Jennings observes,

[t]he grid pattern of sellable squares of land signified the full realization of property ownership. It also displayed the complete remaking of indigenous land. Now, under the grid system, each space of land could be surveyed and designated for purchase by measurement and location. All native peoples, no matter what they claims to land, no matter what designations they had for particular places, no matter their history and identity with specific lands, landscape, and indigenous animals, were now mapped on to the grid system (225–26).

With his Christian-colonial vision of space, the white male landowner can justify his mastering of land (and people) as a God-given right and calling. Remaking the land into private property (not for the common good, but primarily for one’s own self-interest and benefit) was understood as a way to imitate God’s original creative activity. Interestingly, in this deformed doctrine of Christian-colonial creation, a new connection between body (people) and place (both social and physical) is constructed. Not only does the land become an extension of the landowner’s body, but also of his body’s vulnerability. Thus, he must fully possess the land and protect it from threats of any kind. Here property owner’s rights take center stage and become entangled in religious discourses about rights, divine sanctioning, and prosperity for the “elect.”

In short, in slave-holding America black biblical literacy in white space signified cultural and social fragmentation, as the slave was either forced to read the Scriptures through the master’s racialized (and gendered) hermeneutic or s/he had to acquire literacy in stealth, via subversive maneuverings and often alone and isolated rather than in an ecclesial community. Thus, given the wider racialized and commodity-driven social context, we see the “impotence of Scripture to enact a community at a historical moment” (210). Yet, as Jennings argues, this failure of biblical literacy to unite diverse populations is intricately linked to the Christian-colonial vision of space, place, land, and identity formation vis-à-vis these “spatial dynamics.” By denying this connection between a “landscape and its realities—water, trees, seasons, animals” and replacing it with a view of the land as “identified with its white male owner,” Scripture’s capacity “to help people reimagine the world was severely limited” (240). Moreover, the Bible’s confinement within a “hierarchical literary space” must be understand against the backdrop of the confinement of geographic space, which signals a distorted doctrine of creation. As Jennings observes,

[w]hat connected these spaces was the racial imagination that permeated both the creating and shaping of perception and helped to vivify both spaces. The result was fragmentation, not simply one affecting the Bible but also one effected by the performance of Scripture itself in these mangled spaces (241).

If Christianity is willing to acknowledge its failures and complicity in these colonizing and racialized practices, it can begin to re-ground, articulate, and live a doctrine of creation that respects the identity-facilitating connection between land and people—one that promotes a genuine and deep joining with others. “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction. It is first a way of seeing place in its fullest sense. Christianity is in need of place to be fully Christian” (248).

 

Frederick Doulgass Statue (1)As scholars such as Bill Lawson and Nicholas Buccola have observed, Frederick Douglass embraced and advocated for many of the central tenets of “classical liberalism” (e.g. individual rights, freedom, equality, and so forth). However, his liminal experience as a slave compelled him to articulate and develop a more consistent, inclusive, and robust liberalism. As Buccola explains, “In order to close the gap between the promises of liberalism and the realities of American life, Douglass infused his political philosophy with an egalitarian ethos of inclusion and a robust conception of mutual responsibility” (The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, p. 12). For Douglass, freedom is not understood merely negatively as the ability to act without constraint; true freedom must be construed positively as the freedom to flourish and to develop one’s potential in community with others. Thus, human freedom entails a social dimension; it is expressed and lived concretely in relation with others and requires citizens, legislators, and all who participate in our communal life to live an “I am my brother’s [and sister’s] keeper” ethos.  In short, Douglass argued that as members of a common human family we must embrace our obligation to stand for those suffering injustice and to stand against institutions and practices that promote and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities.

Although Douglass had been scripted as subhuman property, he refused from a very early age to accept white society’s discourses and engaged in creative and strategic acts of resistance. Such acts included transforming mundane (and extremely harsh) workspaces into educational sites for hisown betterment. Well before Foucault foregrounds the knowledge/power complex, Douglass emphasizes the intimate relation between knowledge and power, knowing firsthand how masters maintained their dominating role by denying slaves formal educational opportunities. In other words, Douglass is acutely aware of the fact that the dominating master/slave relation requires knowledge to flow unidirectionally—from master to slave. The slave must be rendered mute and docile; the master must maintain continually the delicate and unsteady balance between creating a completely passive slave subjectivity and a slave with just enough agency to remain useful to the master. Douglass likewise grasped the co-constitutive character of the master/slave relation. That is, he saw that the master’s authority and socially constructed superiority depends in part upon his ability to keep the slave ignorant. Such an arrangement, of course, allows the master’s dominance in the relationship to rigidify on the personal and societal level. For example, since the master has denied the slave educational opportunities, he will de facto possess more knowledge than the slave. This is in no way to affirm any inherent intellectual inferiority on the part of the slave; it is rather to highlight the concrete, “on the ground” situation, given the fact that slaves were denied access to formal education. Likewise, in light of the structural racism prevalent in nineteenth-century America, the master was able to exercise local as well as socio-political and legal disciplinary actions should the slave choose to rebel.

Given Douglass’s context, he had to devise and “perform” improvisational resistance maneuverings in order to advance his education. For example, as a young boy of twelve, he was required to carry out various errands for his master. In order to make the most of his errand-runs, Douglass made sure to carry along two important items: a book and extra bread. Having completed his task with lightening speed, he would approach poor and often hungry white schoolboys playing along the roads and surrounding areas. He would then offer them bread in exchange for incognito “reading lessons”—unbeknownst to them, of course, as they had no clue that they were working to further his educational program. Through such intentional subversive acts, Douglass was able to transform mundane activities and otherwise socially prohibited activities—i.e. whites teaching slaves to read—into classrooms “on the fly” (see also, Nielsen, Foucault, Douglass, Fanon, and Scotus in Dialogue).

Douglass engaged in similar subversive acts of resistance for his writing lessons. For instance, he was acutely aware of the fact that white schoolboys would find it particularly humiliating to be “shown up” by a black slave. Consequently, Douglass put his social astuteness to work and challenged them to write a letter of the alphabet, stating that he could “out-write” them. As he expected, the white lads took the bait, and Douglass’s ability to write improved with every duel.  From the day he overheard Mr. Auld’s commentary on keeping slaves ignorant, Douglass determined to “level the playing field.” Having created improvised classrooms wherever he went, Douglass achieved his goal of literacy over the course of his seven-years with the Auld family.

However, Douglass’s literacy becomes a double-edged sword, piercing his heart with the master’s (Mr. Auld’s) seemingly prophetic words: an educated slave is a discontented slave. On the one hand, Douglass’s ability to read allows him to devour texts such as The Columbian Orator. There he encounters powerful speeches and arguments against slavery. In particular, Douglass singles out a man named, Sheridan, whose speeches he read repeatedly. As Douglass explains, Sheridan’s writings “gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for wont of utterance” (Narrative of the Life, p. 42). Continuing his commentary on Sheridan, Douglass states that his speeches articulated not only “a bold denunciation of slavery,” but also “a powerful vindication of human rights” (ibid.). On the other hand, however, Douglass’s intellectual achievements heightened his sense of lost opportunities—or more accurately, opportunities intentionally blocked, closed off, stolen from him and other slaves, just as his captors had stolen them from their homeland.

In some ways analogous to the “knowledge of good and evil” Adam and Eve gained through their transgressive act of attaining “knowledge” that produced great sorrow—Douglass’s hard-earned intellectual virtues intensified his awareness of his wretched, unjust condition. His inability to return to his former state made him at times envy his uneducated counterparts (ibid.). If only his mind would cease its churning and allow him a reprieve. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it” (ibid.). Describing in eloquent prose the cruel paradox of (inner mental) freedom amidst (outer socio-political) unfreedom, Douglass writes:

Freedom now appeared, to disappear […] forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed (ibid., p. 43).

In short, Douglass’s literacy, while no doubt providing him a new and invaluable mental freedom, nonetheless, was insufficient for a concrete, embodied human being to flourish in this world. As philosopher Lewis Gordon puts it, Douglass’s initial effects to gain freedom through literacy fail to translate into a full-orbed freedom. These early attempts “create an epistemic rupture, but without a material/historical rupture, there is a gap that must be closed” (“Douglass as an Existentialist,” 218).1

Yet his personal experience of unjust suffering did not result in a spirit of resignation or an acceptance of the status quo; rather, just a few years after his escape from slavery and his resettlement in New Bedford, Douglass not only participated in the abolitionist movement but became one of its leading and most profound voices. His own experience of brutal suffering and the social death he and countless others endured fueled his social activism and compelled him to develop and defend a political philosophy whose central components consist in mutual responsibility and a sense of obligation for the other’s good. Stated otherwise and drawing from an instance of Douglass’s reverse discourse par excellence entitled, “What is the Slave to the Fourth of July,” he writes: “the mournful wail of millions, whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday” are today “rendered more intolerable by […] jubilant shouts”—misplaced, triumphalist shouts proclaiming America’s tainted, blood-stained history as something of the past and that true democracy had finally arrived. For Douglass, the “mournful wails of millions” never grew faint but resounded repeatedly in his soul, piercing him with an existential memory that refused to celebrate half-freedoms, partial rights, and second-class citizenship.

In closing, by embracing a positive, full-orbed view of freedom, Douglass was compelled to insist upon a political philosophy of social interdependence and obligation. For Douglass, genuine freedom cannot turn a blind eye to those suffering injustice; my freedom to flourish as a human being is intimately tied to your freedom for the same. Our belonging to one another and the maintenance of our individual moral character require that we act on behalf of others. Failure to do so injects a pollutant into our shared “moral ecology” (Buccola’s phrase), and this pollutant can in turn poison the social body as a whole. Douglass’s experience as an ex-chattel slave made him acutely aware of the detrimental effects of overexposure to a contaminated moral environment. We today would do well to tune our ears and our hearts to Douglass’s political philosophy of mutual responsibility and, as he so aptly and ardently urges us, to live a philosophy of “each for all and all for each.”


1. Gordon goes on to say, “Douglass recognized at a certain level his situation by learning to read and write. But what is more telling is the crucial moment when he fights for his self-respect in his encounter with the slave-breaker Edward Covey” (ibid.).