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Race Wars: Why Secular Conceptions of Race are Collapsing

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 12, 2017 6:41:00 PM

Dallas, Georgia, Michigan, Baton Rouge, now Milwaukee is in flames; revenge shootings in just the last month have killed twice as many police officers in the line of duty from last year. Even after five officers were gunned down in Dallas, the heated racial rhetoric from Black Lives Matter sympathizers continued unabated. Now, three more police officers lie dead from the trigger of black nationalist, Gavin Eugene Long, prompting the Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards’ plea, “The hatred just hast to stop.”

At the heart of this racial hatred is a secular mythology that is at its brink. All societies have some kind of race myth. Some are explicitly linked to a cosmogenesis, such as how the Japanese originate from Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the islands and ancestors, and Polynesians who stem from Rangi and Papa, or Heaven and Earth, the source from which all things originate. Others see race in terms of culture and society, such as the Greeks’ racial binary between the civic and the barbarous, those educated in paideia and the illiterate.

America has race myths as well, all of which have been intimately related to the nation-state project, which articulates and reproduces national identity primarily through state-sanctioned definitions of race. There are a number of tools at the disposal of states for articulating national identity, all of which involve the power to exclude and include in racially ordered terms: population censuses, birth certificates, marriage licensing, border controls, hiring preferences, subsidies and loans, urban planning, and education practices and institutions. For example, marriage licensing, such as the anti-miscegenation laws in the American south and South Africa, is an explicit means by which the state defines, manages, and regulates family formation and the definition of offspring as part of its own legitimation.

Today, the dominant racial myth in America is the emancipatory myth, a secular-inspired political idea that re-envisions the state as a grand liberator of individuals from traditions and customs deemed oppressive and discriminatory. In the 1960s, a new racial logic emerged from this emancipatory politics, one that reimagined culture as a binary of antithetical power distributions between a dominant colonialist power (often labeled ‘white’) that disenfranchises politically and socially minority cultures through sexist, racist, and classist exclusions. Racism itself was reimagined as something that applies only to those who have the power to dominate. Thus affirmative action officer Carolyn Pitts writes: “only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values . . . blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racists.”

The racial reactions to the police shootings of Brown, Sterling, and Castile as well as the revenge killings of police officers is nothing less than the logical outworking of this racial myth. As enforcers of a systemically racist society, not only are law officers the logical targets of violence and hatred, but violence itself is intrinsic to the myth. This is because our new racial logic is inextricably linked to the modern secular state, the key characteristic of which is the monopolization of violence within a given territory. The vicious and now deadly racism that has emerged from the last few decades is simply, to paraphrase Steve Turner, the sound of secular man worshipping his maker.

Thus, Louisiana’s governor, himself an advocate of emancipatory politics, can plead all he wants; there is no solution to this racial tension within the confines of this mythology.

Our Christian tradition, central to 1,500 years of Western civilization, has its own racial myth. From the New Testament onwards, to be baptized into the church meant that one was baptized into a new culture, which entailed a new racial identity. The Christian discourse of being “born again” entailed within it the birth of a new race, one that overwhelmed hostilities inherent in the racial, social, and sexual binaries constitutive of the Greco-Roman world. Moreover, in stark contrast to the hierarchical structure of the Greco-Roman social order, this new birth is not defined in relation to the powers and principalities of this world. Rather, the power of God is most explicitly on display in the powerlessness of the cross; the power of redeeming love is not the power of political might. Indeed, this new birth overturns the power structures of the world with a new dynamic of self-sacrificial service and an economy of grace.

As our secular mythologies continue to implode, perhaps it is time for a new mythology, one that looks toward that hill where all races of every tribe and nation may find peace; where animosity and death transfigure into fellowship and life; a true emancipation, wherein all things are made new.


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Featured image credit:  © 2015 5chw4r7z, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

Topics: black lives matter, blog, church and society, Traditionalization, secularization

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