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Reimagining Race: Ferguson in the Shadow of Advent

Posted by Steve Turley ● Apr 28, 2015 6:12:00 PM

In light of the tragedy of Baltimore burning, this article is just as relevant today as it was last year.

On August 9th, 2014, an 18-year-old unarmed black man was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Almost immediately, a firestorm of protest and civil unrest ensued, demanding a federal investigation of the Ferguson police department and its history of violence against black men. When the police department released a video showing the 18-year-old robbing a convenience store just minutes before he was gunned down, a counter protest followed, claiming that the young man was a violent thug who got what was coming to him. After a three month investigation by law enforcement and a county grand jury, Robert P. McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney, announced the jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson, the shooter of Michael Brown. Needless to say, the reaction was visceral on both sides, fostered all the more by the destruction and looting that followed.

The discrepancy of reactions to the Ferguson tragedy resides in the difference of culturally-specific race narratives. On the one side, there is what we might call the “postcolonial narrative.” This is a racial narrative that has emerged over the last several decades that seeks to overcome the apartheid-like policies of the past by promoting public policies inclusive of the historically disenfranchised. The postcolonial narrative thus entails a new cultural memory that interprets present predicaments in light of the dislocations of the past.[1] This cultural memory seeks to transcend our past racial divides with a new era of liberal democratic participation.

On the other side, there is what we might call the “post-racial narrative.” This involves those who believe that race should no longer matter, and thus see the vision of a postcolonial society as little more than a ruse. Rather, civil rights leaders use race as a political weapon, such that the ethnic reasoning that was responsible for past injustices doesn’t disappear, but in fact takes on new forms. The invention of such conceptions as “affirmative action,” “racial justice,” “white privilege,” and “racial profiling” are themselves cultural constructions that privilege certain races at the expense of others, and thus indicate that racial negotiation and mythology continue to serve as agents of political organization and power contestations. In short, the promise and practice of postcolonialism is simply a new form of state-sanctioned racism.

From the post-racial vantage point, the facts of the Ferguson case speak for themselves. It was a tragic event that nevertheless involved an officer operating well within his rights and a grand jury objectively determining probable cause. But from the vantage point of the postcolonial narrative, Ferguson cannot be interpreted as an isolated tragic event. By definition of postcolonial sensibilities, it is an event that reveals the painful truth about the “ongoing crisis of police-on-black crime.”[2] Even after the autopsy results revealed that Mike Brown was not shot with his hands up in a surrender position, it continues to serve as the symbolic posture of protestors, and organizations such as “Hands Up United” and the “Don’t Shoot Coalition” continued to demand that the Justice Department launch an investigation into the Ferguson police department. The postures of protestors and names of the organizations are indicative more of the racial narrative than the facts of the particular case.

However, the differences between the postcolonial and post-racial sensibilities should not distract us from their similarities, in that both narratives serve a common master: the legitimation of the power of the secular nation-state. From Weber onwards, nation-state scholars have observed that the key characteristic of the modern state is the monopolization of violence within a given territory. As such, the nation-state is the symbol of ultimate authority, with no power or principality, secular or religious, above it.[3] This system of domination entails the fact that some values and interests are promoted at the expense of others, to the degree that some groups are able to successfully integrate their interests with the institutions of the state. The extent to which a group is successful in implementing their values and interests over others is determined by the degree of legitimacy brought to bear on those interests or values. Legitimation in effect justifies the privileged position that some values and interests receive over others.[4] Political power struggles are thus ongoing and never quite complete, since legitimation is always contested by the disenfranchised group.

What needs to be appreciated here is that race has always been a part of the power dynamics inherent in the nation-state. The South African-born scholar David Theo Goldberg has made the sustained argument that the nation-state by its nature is a territorial sovereign that articulates and reproduces national identity primarily through state-sanctioned definitions of race.[5] The definition and negotiation of race has thus been one of the primary constituents of legitimation within the nation-state system of power contestations. 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.

And so this conflict between two seemingly incompatible racial visions brings to the surface a fundamental congruence: the Ferguson event reveals the fact that both sides cannot imagine race apart from systems of domination. We have two very different race narratives that are nevertheless both bound up with the same system of ultimate authority. As inheritors of the nation-state complex, we in modern America simply have no memory of race being defined and negotiated in any other way.

Or do we?

It is not insignificant that the grand jury decision and its aftermath occurred within the shadow of Advent, for Advent invites us to reimagine race apart from the dynamics of domination. Denise Buell’s study on early Christian rhetoric demonstrates that a key distinctive in Christian identity formation was the way in which Christians defined themselves as a new race.[6] For example, the apostle Paul declared to the baptized Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). We must appreciate how radical Paul’s negation of the Jew/Gentile distinction was for the first-century world. Circumcision generated a social order made up of Jews and Gentiles, those with and those without the Law (cf. Gal 2:15), and served to identify with whom female Jews may have sexual intercourse.[7] Baptism, on the other hand, revealed a world of new creation and old creation (cf. Gal 6:15), no less than the dawning of the messianic age itself. Those who have been baptized into Christ, both Jew and Gentile, no longer belong to the old order of the “present evil age” (Gal 1:4); their faith has made them “sons and heirs” (Gal 3:26, 29), inheritors of a new world (Gal 6:15). Thus, Paul could refer to the Corinthian believers as having once been Gentiles, but are no longer (1 Cor 12:2). They now belong to the one body of Christ, the new Adam, having been baptized by the one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13).

For Paul, as with the Greco-Roman world, race was not biological or genetic, a matter of ethnicity or skin color; rather, race was bound up with culture, status, and class. To be baptized into a new social system, a new culture, entailed a new racial identity. The Christian discourse of being “born again” entailed within it the birth of a new race, one that overwhelms 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.

We are seeing this vision lived out in our own time. In Rwanda, the church continues to play an indispensable role in rebuilding the lives of Hutu and Tutsi neighbors in bonds of trust and forgiveness. In South Africa, the church was central to liberation efforts and continues to be a source of healing and reconciliation. Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, embodied the compassion of Christ in their touching the untouchables. And on a transnational level, the church is drawing together the West and East in new paradigms of partnership between churches in the global North and South.

Advent therefore calls us to reimagine our racial categories and preconceptions. Advent provides the occasion by which we may inhabit a new racial narrative, one that begins in a garden of paradise lost, the restoration of which is promised in the coming of a seed, and fulfilled not in a secular state but in a Bethlehem stable. Advent reminds us that true racial redemption and reconciliation cannot occur apart from a hill called Calvary, the space of forgiveness that incorporates the totality of the cosmos into itself through the ministry of the shared life-world of the church. By eclipsing the signifiers of power with the sign of peace, the church has the redemptive resources that can bring about a true and enduring racial healing so desperately needed in our day, a healing that is but a foretaste of paradise fully restored. Through this witness, the flames of Ferguson will be overwhelmed by the light of an evening star, one that beckons the world to kneel in humble adoration of our newborn King.

[1] Barnor Hesse, “Forgotten Like a Bad Dream: Atlantic Slavery and the Ethics of Postcolonial Memory,” in David Theo Goldberg and Ato Quayson (eds.), Relocating Postcolonialism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 165.

[2] http://www.handsupunited.org/.

[3] Felix Stalder, Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), 105.

[4] Ibid, 106.

[5] David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

[6] Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

[7]J.M.G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 439, 411-12.

Featured image credit: © 2014 Debra Sweet, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Originally posted on The Imaginative Conservative: http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/12/reimagining-race-ferguson-shadow-advent.html

Topics: race, blog, statism

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