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Race: A Theological Account

By J. Kameron Carter,
Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies
Oxford University Press, 2008
Hardcover, 504 pages, $35.00

Reviewed by Cheryl J. Sanders

In his impressive first book, Race: A Theological Account, J. Kameron Carter pretty much accomplishes what he sets out to do, namely, to expose and explain how Christian theology and theologians have served the interests of slavery, colonialism, and other manifestations of white racism from the 18th century to the present. His account, however, involves much more than a critique designed to dismantle oppressive structures and ideas; he boldly exemplifies some new and different approaches to theological discourse that actually seek to remedy the problem of race. Carter respectfully acknowledges prior efforts of leading scholars of black religion and theology to address the racial dilemma in theology and culture. Yet, he demonstrates a welcome awareness of the shortcomings of black liberation theology and historical religious studies because of their failure to engage the depth of theological investigation and inquiry necessary to leverage a recovery of scholarship that is neither defined nor limited by the cultural and intellectual dominance of those who discount the humanity of the darker peoples of the world.

I found the scope of Carter’s work to be absolutely breathtaking. His bibliography of ancient, modern, and postmodern sources spans many centuries and vantage points, supplemented by thorough text notes and a fairly comprehensive index. I frequently turned to the index to review key topics and names that surfaced in the text. Carter’s train of thought is explicitly Christocentric, and the reader with little or no recent acquaintance with Christology and the history of Christian thought may struggle through the text, especially Part I.

But patience will be richly rewarded by a wealth of insights and analyses that cohere in a passionate investigation of how Christianity facilitated European conquest and policies of racial subjugation. Carter’s tone is neither strident nor arrogant. Given that the nature of his topic demands extensive explication, he intersperses the text with prologue, prelude, interlude, postlude, and epilogue to keep the reader apprised of various twists and turns in the flow of his argument.

Carter brings a relentless logic to his analysis of the problem of Christology and race. His overall approach to the topic bears a striking symmetry, which comes across as clever but not contrived. What he does is to interrogate the writings of three figures from classical antiquity, Irenaeus, the anti-Gnostic intellectual, Gregory of Nyssa, the abolitionist intellectual, and Maximus the Confessor, the anti-colonialist intellectual; three early Afro- Christians from the slavery period, Briton Hammon, Frederick Douglass, and Jarena Lee; and three contemporary African- American scholars, Albert Raboteau, James Cone, and Charles Long. Rather than put all nine into conversation with each other, Carter enlists and interprets each of their contributions in light of his goal of recovering the radical Christian humanism needed to unravel the toxic merger of Christianity and Western civilization.

In each case, he provides a succinct overview of the key texts associated with the figures under discussion. I was especially grateful for his critical readings of the works of Raboteau, Cone, and Long. With a deep appreciation for the value of their contributions, he respectfully unveils the points where their work falls short of the desired liberating and humanizing discourse that can unseat the prevailing logic of white theological thought rather than mimic it.

Carter’s project would have been greatly enhanced had he given attention to the work of Howard Thurman, who deftly articulated a vibrant and liberating Christology six decades ago in his classic little text Jesus and the Disinherited. In addition, Carter’s omission of the contributions of womanist theologians and religious scholars signals a significant blind spot in his otherwise comprehensive theological field of vision.

The epilogue cites the story of Michael Eric Dyson, a tenth figure who embodies the overall symmetry with which Carter arranges his discussion of the nine thinkers evaluated in the book. Dyson is a 21st-century Afro-Christian public intellectual who has published his autobiography and contributed other writings to the corpus of modern African-American religious scholarship. He recalls his experience of one day reading Sartre’s autobiography and then rushing to the corner store in his native Detroit to purchase a cigar in an effort to capture “a whiff of the Parisian café life,” just in time to be caught in a robbery and to feel the jolt of a sawed-off shotgun in his back.

Carter reflects upon this lesson that “learning takes place in a world of trouble,” drawing from it wisdom for restoration of relevance to modern theological discourse with respect to focus and locus:

The value I want to take from Dyson’s autobiographical story lies in how it illustrates the need for theology, insofar as it has functioned as a scholastic universe animated by the theological problem of whiteness, to reevaluate how it does its work . . . in company with and out of the dispositions of those facing death, those with the barrel of a shotgun to their backs, for this is the disposition of the crucified Christ, who is the revelation of the triune God.

I receive these words as confirmation of my own work as a professor at a historically black theological school and as a pastor of a Holiness congregation that ministers to the urban poor, as I strive to fulfill a scholarly vocation while inhabiting a real-world environment where the pain, suffering, violence, and death that characterize urban existence bear urgently upon my pastoral ministry on a daily basis.

Moreover, it is my sense that the release of Carter’s radical representation of the audacity of theological imagination is perfectly timed for our critical moment in history, now that the election of an African American as president of the United States of America has made the audacity of hope the order of the day. Race: A Theological Account lays the groundwork for a new generation of Christian intellectuals in our churches and seminaries to come to voice as witnesses for racial justice, healing, and reconciliation.

Cheryl Sanders is professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity and pastor of Third Street Church of God, Washington, D.C.