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So, like I did in the First Forum class last summer, I’ll draw this exploration of some contemporary Christology to a close by focusing in on one particular thinker, J. Kameron Carter, and his magisterial work Race: A Theological Account.  Carter contends that a well articulated Christology helps to solve our whiteness problem and set us free.  His book opens up a dialogue between the ancient Church Fathers and African American theologians of the last two centuries in order to develop his view of the Christ.  There is no way to easily summarize this rich text, so I’ll focus these thoughts on how Carter makes use of three early thinkers to articulate his Christology.

First up is Irenaeus, a Greek Bishop of the second century, who ministered in what is now Southern France.  Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics, who he accused of separating the spiritual from the material in ways that had damaging effects, including that they separated people into those who were higher and lower as well (early supremacism, even if not yet racial).  One effect of Gnosticism was to diminish the Old Testament and the Jewish history and identity of Jesus (a parallel to the anti-Semitism rampant in modernity).

To counter this dualistic tendency, Irenaeus stressed the physical body of Jesus as the incarnation of God and emphasized that it was a Jewish body.  Jesus’ flesh had a particular Jewish identity and history, and wasn’t just some vaguely universal human body.  And it was the particularity which actually made it possible for all humanity and the whole creation to be united with God through Jesus.  Irenaeus argued that to supersede the Jews and their particular history (which European modernism would end up doing) creates lines of “purity” in Creation that defy the intentions of God.  For God welcomes all people into covenant, making no racial distinctions.

Carter concludes that Irenaeus gives us tools for dismantling white supremacy by insisting on the particular, historical, and physical body of Jesus, particularly that body’s location as an oppressed outsider (which will be vitally important to 19th century black thinkers like Jarena Lee and 20th century liberation theologies like that of James Cone).

Next up in Carter’s presentation is the 4th century Cappadocian bishop Gregory of Nyssa who was the first European intellectual to argue for the abolition of slavery.  Carter points out that it would be 15 more centuries before another European intellectual is as clearly anti-slavery as St. Gregory.

Part of the power of Gregory’s theology is that he reads against the prevailing social order instead of with it, which is a method also employed by Black American thinkers.  The reason that Gregory opposed slavery is because he thought that only God can be our master; that no human can be master of another.  Because we owe allegiance only to God, all humans are therefore free.  Human freedom is a analog of divine freedom.  To sell a human being is equivalent to selling God, Gregory wrote.

For Gregory, to enter into Christ is to enter into God’s covenant with Israel, which ensures our freedom.  Christ reveals both true humanity and the image of God.  Carter summarizes what he learns from Gregory: “Christ as prototype frees creation in its fullness–from persons and their histories, to the ecological order, to the animal kingdom–to be a symphonic expression of the freedom of God. . . [Christ] is the tune–a jazz or blues tune of suffering divine things–that the symphony of creation, the many, plays.”

Finally, Carter enters into conversation with Maximus the Confessor, who lived in the 7th century in the nation of Georgia in the Caucasus.  Maximus wrote that through the incarnation God, taking the form of a slave, heals humanity and showed that love is how to refashion the human being.  When humans do not live in love, they do not live in God, and tyranny results.  Carter finds similarities in Maximus and the way that Afro-Christians address freedom, love, and tyranny.

Maximus argued that Christ “reopens humanity” allowing us to embrace the full diversity of humanity and creation.  We become more fully human, then, in giving and receiving, modeled on Christ.  This is the way to overcome divisive fragmentation.  And, for Carter, to exit whiteness.  If we truly embrace our identity in Christ, then we abandon the identity that white supremacy creates.

Carter offers this summary of what he learns from Maximus:

God in Christ is  the impoverished slave.  As such, God enters into the hurts of those who suffer so that from the inside those hurts, being fully identified with them to the point of communicating his divinity through them, he heals them.  It is the poor slave, one might say, who is closest to God and so reveals God.

Carter concludes that we must engage in the ascetic practices of surrendering power, control, and superiority, and instead unite with the poor and oppressed to realize a fuller expression of humanity and divinity.

I hope these summaries might help you to think about how to better articulate a Christology relevant to our time and place.  Merry Christmas!

For more reading in this realm:

  • Lilian Calles Barger, The World Come of Age: An Intellectual History of Liberation Theology
  • J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account
  • James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree
  • Gary Dorrien, The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel
  • Gary Dorrien, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel
  • Virgilio Elizondo, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise
  • Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation
  • Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
  • Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited


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