By David Leong, Assistant Professor of Missional Theology
In late January, SPU was privileged to host two important scholars who came to campus for different but related purposes. Though Michelle Alexander’s visit and J. Kameron Carter’s Palmer lectures were not intentionally scheduled for the same week, the connections could not have been better planned.
For those who were not able to hear from either of these brilliant voices, Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Carter’s Race: A Theological Account are both excellent reads rooted in substantial research, the details of which I will not engage critically here. Instead, I will briefly explore two questions that face us in consideration of the complex issues of racialization that their work brings to light:
- What potential points of connection are there between the creation of a racial caste system through mass imprisonment in the U.S. and the ways in which our Christian theology has been distorted by a kind of “modern racial imagination”?
- Given the questions that arise in this broader conversation, what practical implications are there for Seattle Pacific University’s “signature commitment” to “practicing radical reconciliation”?
Segregation and theology
To begin, the very assertion that there are significant connections between Alexander’s and Carter’s work is to engage in a certain kind of interdisciplinary reflection, bridging the language and categories of a legal scholar and a theologian. But this is precisely the kind of thinking that is needed to unpack the complexity of “race” in our contemporary society.
Our perceptions of, and presuppositions about, racial phenomena are intimately intertwined with what it means to be human in the modern world. And our North American context has shaped those perceptions and presuppositions in very particular ways.
For example, the existence of structured segregation in the form of mass incarceration is evidence of the deeply dysfunctional racialization that plagues our society.
In other words, The New Jim Crow points to the concrete realities of a society marked by race; Carter suggests that this is a distinctly theological problem. It is theological not only because it demands an ethical response from the church (important as that is), but also because it forces us to examine our own complicity in constructing this society.
Thus, the deeper theological question is this: How have our narratives of theology and race become so entangled that our Christian identity actually contributes to enforcing a modern-day a racial caste system? Moreover, how has our current perception of what it means to be Christian prevented our ability to see ethical issues such as mass incarceration as racial?
A different “theological imagination”
I am answering my first question with more questions, but if there is anything that we can conclude from bringing Alexander and Carter together, it’s that the roots of these interrelated problems run deep into the heart of what it means to be both human and Christian. How can we move toward, as Carter suggests, cultivating a new and different kind of theological imagination, one that sees the Christian faith as opposed to the injustices and dehumanization all too common in our racialized society?
Moving from asking this question to acting on this question is an essential task for a Christian university. If we are unable to facilitate this movement, then we are not living into the true purposes of either education or discipleship. As we think about the challenges of engaging the racialization around us, there are two practical implications for Seattle Pacific as it seeks to be a place committed to reconciliation.
First, the rigorous racial dialogue begun by Alexander and Carter must call us into much more than a fleeting, temporary consideration of the challenges before us. Too often, when confronted with the realities and complexities of issues like mass incarceration, we are overwhelmed into apathy. Our initial discomfort gives way to either “analysis paralysis” or a new and different social crisis vying for attention.
But rather than moving on too quickly, we must allow the challenges issued by Alexander and Carter to compel us to sustain this racial dialogue. We must deepen our cultural and theological resources as we continue this discussion across disciplines inside and outside of the classroom.
Acting on the dialog
Secondly, in our sustaining this dialogue, we must remember that a Christian community engages this conversation in a particular way. Our faith informs not only the character of our discourse — which we seek to embody as gracious, charitable, and rooted in love — but our faith must also catalyze our active expression of this dialogue in our choices, relationships, and experiences.
We cannot merely talk about racialization as if it is disconnected from our bodily existence. We must talk about racial realities in such a way that our understanding of its importance is translated into praxis, a term used in liberation theology to connote the transformative combination of action and reflection that changes the world around us.
The First Epistle of John reminds us to “love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18), while the Epistle of James admonishes us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (1:22). These scriptural texts encourage us to remember that the particularity of our Covenant-keeping community forces us to wrestle with the working out of our Christian identity and vocation in a world indelibly marked by race.
Given the challenges before us, in what new ways can we inhabit the Christian story so that our embodiment of discipleship subverts the racial imagination of modernity with a new community of transformed people?
David Leong is an assistant professor of missional theology at Seattle Pacific University, where he oversees the global and urban ministries program. Prior to this, he spent seven years serving in churches in urban Seattle through ministries focused on community groups, youth, college students, and young adults. Leong, his wife, and their young son live in Seattle.
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