Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities at Rice University, where he is founding director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning. His interests span liberation theologies, black religious aesthetics, religion and popular culture, and African-American humanism. He is the author or editor of over 35 books, including Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion, and Popular Culture.
What does one make of democratic possibility, with all its promises, as black bodies pile up? Based on my interest in the study of religion, that question generates for me another: Christianity is so intimately connected—through doctrine and performance—to the workings of this nation, can it or should it survive the demise of U.S. delusion currently underway?
The Flexible Nature of Ritual and Theology
Christianity’s entanglement in the sociopolitical efforts of the United States has come to define much of this religion’s nature—with its grammar of meaning equated to political inclinations. To be clear, this statement is not to lament the loss of some type of essence, the assumption that Christianity can or has ever been more than a particular coding of mundane interests and concerns.
Both the “right” and the “left” find comfort and confirmation in the use of its infrastructure, rendering it of no moral or ethical distinctiveness. Affirm life or take life—each can be justified using the same religious-theological language. That is to say, the “magic” of faith shrouding religious-theological performance fails to constitute a difference. Defined by this ritual-theological infrastructure, Christianity offers nothing unique to service the demands of this particular moment that seeks racial justice.
I imagine some will object to this characterization. Still, when applied to the deadly circumstances despised populations face in the United States, through its primary and most widely noted tools, Christianity affords no sustainable and articulated moral-ethical distinction between murderer and murdered. The grammar of right-ness is applied to those who might be said to safeguard the arrangements of death by not opposing white privilege (“All Lives Matter,” for example) and those who seek to demolish the tools of death (“Black Lives Matter,” for example).
Mind the “Gap”
Back to my initial question: Is there anything of Christianity that can or should be preserved during this time of lucid challenge to the deadly arrangement of collective life? More to the point, what of it is left in the aftermath of the pull on its rituals and perceptions—its theological grammar of faith in/against the world—from both the right and the left?
I suggest if there is anything remaining of value in Christianity it has to do with its grammar of the “gap”—that is, what remains after the push and pull on its thinking and performance, when all else has been stripped away. The gap, if one turns to the existential thought of Sören Kierkegaard for instance, might be represented in the affective space when, in his first telling of the story, Abraham takes Isaac to sacrifice him in accordance with the will of God, and Sarah watches as the husband and son leave. It is the space between familiarity and the uncertainty of disappearance, when “Sarah looked out of the window after them until they had passed down the valley and she could see them no more” . It is the space of the radical turn—the “instant” between Abraham’s “turn[ing] away” from Isaac and Isaac’s seeing him again when “Abraham’s face…was changed, his glance was wild, his form was horror” . Thinking of Abraham and Isaac, the gap is the place of “contradiction” . It, the gap, is that which faith—Kierkegaard would have us believe—covers; but faith easily bends to the mundane needs and explanations of collective life.
From Kierkegaard’s world to ours, there is cultural distance to cover. And so, while Kierkegaard speaks of Abraham and Sarah, there is also Hagar. Her son with Abraham, Ishmael, is destined to be in relationship with a community, but he is denied status as “being” of divine and salvific promise. The gap, so powerfully described by Delores Williams, is the location of anguish experienced by Hagar between the promise associated with Abraham and acceptance of exclusion through her return to Abraham’s camp . It is wilderness as space of collapse (what Williams calls “women’s alienation and isolation, economic deprivation…” ), before effort to reconstitute relationships . Furthermore, the gap can be understood as the “space” of paradox between the cross and the lynching tree narrated by James Cone . It is the geography of affectively arranged obtuseness just before Kelly Brown Douglas’ question: “What are we to hope for?” . Pushing forward from Douglas, and using the language of demise defining the current moment, the gap is the dissonance between white lies and black life mattering.
So, what might religion, in this case Christianity, offer at this moment is a call to acknowledge the gap as poetic negation of our assumed grammar and vocabulary for describing life, and instead recognition of the profound distance between what we are and what we want to be. Yet, what religion can’t provide at this moment is a viable way to fill that gap. The gap isn’t adequately captured or filled through theological and doctrinal pronouncements of care and comfort. (I think something of this realization is to be found in the early critique of recognized religious leaders and their efforts to “lead” the struggle offered by Black Lives Matter advocates.) Recognition of the gap before an effort to fill it with anything doesn’t promise transformation, no more than protests against injustice necessarily translate into new modalities of living together. But it does honor the awful nature of the problem we face. In other words, perhaps what religion offers—all it can offer—at this point is a highlighting of vulnerability and uncertainty as the place from which we work.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling (Dublin: Merchant Books, 2012), 11–12.
- Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling, 12.
- Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling, 25.
- Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013).
- Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 26.
- James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 74.
- Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015).