A third of five engagements with James K.A. Smiths "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?" by Anthony Smith, a leader of the Emergent Cohort in Charlette, NC.,teaches racial reconciliaton for an inner ministry (Warehouse 242), is a participant with Emerging Theologians, and blogs at Musings of a Postmodern Negro.
If you would like to read it over the weekend, please
But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it? Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen! - W.E.B. Du Bois
The purpose of this particular engagement is to bring together conversation partners and philosophers James K. A. Smith, Michel Foucault, and George Yancy to examine the relationship and resonances between the Christian tradition, postmodernity, and race. Specifically this essay focuses on whiteness as an extension of the conversation on race. James Smith has done a great service by bringing to the conversation, the question, for some Christians, as to whether or not postmodernity, as expressed through the work of Continental philosophers (e.g. Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault) as something Christians should be afraid of. Is postmodernity the new Communism, secular humanism, a kind of philosophical or ideational terrorism?
Postmodern French philosopher Michel Foucault teaches us that the operative nature of
power has a disciplinary effect on human society. Power relations in societies create dimensions of knowledge and categories of ‘truth’. Foucault described this as the power/knowledge nexus.
A few thoughts from Smith on Foucault lay the groundwork.
Foucault. The seemingly disturbing, even Nietzchean claim that “power is knowledge” should push us to realize what MTV learned long ago: (a) the cultural power of formation and discipline, and hence (b) the necessity of the church to enact counterformation by counterdisciplines. In other words, we need to think about discipline as a creational structure that needs proper direction. Foucault has something to tell us about what it means to be a disciple. (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? p 23-24)
For Foucault, at the root of our most cherished and central institutions-hospitals, schools, businesses, and yes, prisons-is a network of power relations. The same is true of our most celebrated ideals; at root, Foucault claims, knowledge and justice reduce to power….Foucault’s postmodern axiom is that “power is knowledge.” However, Foucault himself resists any bumper-stickerization of this notion. As he clarifies, he does not mean that knowledge and power are identical; in stead, he means to emphasize the inextricable relationship between knowledge and power. Knowledge, or what counts as knowledge, is not neutrally determined. Instead, what counts as knowledge, is constituted within networks of power- social, political, and economic. p 85
One such knowledge or truth is the ubiquitous reality of race. Specifically, the ubiquitous reality of whiteness. Entering the conversation is African-American philosopher George Yancy, in an essay “A Foucauldian (Genealogical) Reading of Whiteness” (2004). A contribution from the book What White Looks Like: African-American philosophers on the Whiteness Question. Yancey uses the work of Foucault to craft a framework through which to analyze and interrogate race – namely the social reality of whiteness:
My sense is that Foucault has provided a helpful conceptual framework, particularly as developed in Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, for coming to terms with how whiteness, as a power/knowledge nexus, is able to produce new forms of knowledge (in this case “knowledge about black people) that are productive of new forms of “subjects.” p. 108
What I want to explore is how whiteness has disciplined and disciplines church. Yancy waxes Foucauldian-style on the question of “whiteness as the embodiment and production of specific truth claims, claims that are inextricably linked to a (white) regime of truth and modalities of power.” (p. 108)
Yancy gives us a genealogical reading of whiteness:
This will involve a process of coming to terms with whiteness’ historical “positionality.” In this way, whiteness, as a presumed “universal” value code, will be shown to consist of an embodied set of practices fueled by a reactive value-creating power. The aim is to call into question the idea that whiteness exists simpliciter. What will be shown is that whiteness creates values, norms, and epistemological frames of reference that unilaterally affirm its many modes of instantiation- political, institutional, aesthetic, and so forth…
I will also explore how whiteness attempts to hide from its historicity and particularity, which I maintain is a function of how whiteness represents itself as “universal.” In short, whiteness masquerades as a universal code of beauty, intelligence, superiority, cleanliness, and purity; it functions as a master sign. (p. 108)
This examination of the deep biases that bolster the creation of particular truth-claims is a method defined as ‘genealogy’ or archaeology. “…whose task is to uncover the secret, submerged biases and prejudices that go into shaping what is called the truth. There is no claim to truth that is innocent; there is no knowledge that simply falls into our minds from the sky, pristine and untainted. What might be claimed as obvious or self-evident is, in fact, covertly motivated by other interests-the interest of power.” (Who's Afraid? p.86)
What has this to do with the Church and the project that Jamie offers us? My engagement here suggests that race is a disciplinary power in the Church primarily through what I call the panopticon of ecclesial white-ness that has created the knowledge or ‘truth’ that white-ness is norm. Foucault’s image of the panopticon captures the power/knowledge nexus of whiteness and helps me see (apocalypses or unveils) the dominance of the white cultural pole in most of the American Christian aesthetic.
As one who speaks primarily from an Evangelical and Neo-Pentecostal context the white-breaded-ness of Evangelical ecclesial culture often overwhelms me (and much of modern American Christianity…even in some expressions of the Black Church!) and the way it is foisted upon others (think: The Passion of The Christ…even The Da Vinci Code). I remember as a child attending a traditional Black Baptist church with a stained glass mural of white Jesus behind the baptismal pool (a legacy of slave Christianity and racial Constantinianism). Or walking through the “Christian” bookstore (yes, I know, there is usually a black gospel section in the back.). I am also reminded of an episode in a Christian bookstore where I was formerly employed, the manager, by confession, ordered the wrong kind of praying hands. They were black praying hands! He ordered whites ones. He wanted the right (white) ones. How do I know this? I took the black praying hands and put them up front for display, then, came back to work the next day to find them in the store room out of sight out of mind. What kind of discipleship and formation has this particular Christian gone through?
Of course this is completely anecdotal but it brings out the way space and aesthetics in explicitly Christian spaces tend to primarily express a white racial/cultural pole. Specifically, this exemplifies the ‘knowledge’ of white-ness as ‘norm’ that created through the power nexus of white ecclesial-ness.
Jamie does not escape the panopticon as well. As an example of how the ecclesial habits of white-ness operate I offer a brief comment by Jamie. First, let me put this in context. This brief sentence is found in the middle of a passage about Derrida, text, interpretation, and community. Derrida’s famous axiom: there is nothing outside the text. In other words, interpretation goes all the way down:
To say there is nothing outside the text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak. But do we really let the Text govern our seeing of the world? Or have we become more captivated by the stories and texts of a consumerist culture? Is our worldview shaped by the narratives of a hip-hop culture more than the stories of God’s convenantal relationship with his people?
I will give Jamie the benefit of a doubt. Mentioning the “narratives of a hip-hop culture” as opposed to “the stories of God’s convenantal relationship with his people?” suggest that these narratives and traditions have no resonance and are mutually exclusive. Are they mutually exclusive? Are there no traditions within hip-hop that resonate with the stories of God’s redemptive acts in history? Of course this does not mean that Jamie believes this but this sentence make me wonder. Especially, when we read the next sentence:
One of the challenges of Christian discipleship is to make the text of the Scripture the Text outside which nothing stands. As U2’s song “When you Look at the World” attests, this is not always easy; sometimes I “can’t see what You see, when I look at the world.” But the sanctification of the Spirit is aimed at enabling us to see the world through this lens.
Apparently, a song and narrative by U2 best captures, for Jamie, how there is nothing that should be interpreted outside the text of Scripture. Evidently, the narratives of rock-n-roll, at least U2’s, aide us in governing our seeing of the world through the Text of scripture. But not hip-hop? Why not hip-hop? Hip-hop, an artistic expression and tradition (yes, it is a tradition), arose out of the inner city streets of subjugated knowledges and practices. Of course I cannot romanticize hip-hop. It has its expressions that do not resonate with the redemptive narrative of God’s Text, just like expressions of Rock-n-roll.
Why even mention this? Not to beat a dead horse but such habits reveal how the panopticon disciplines us according to the normativity of whiteness. According to Jamie, the narratives of hip-hop offer us no guidance toward the Text of God’s story. I beg to differ. There are traditions within hip-hop culture too numerous to mention here. Off the top of my head I could come up with a couple of hip-hoppers whose lyrics profoundly point us to elements of God’s story. I think about rappers and singers like Common, KRS-ONE, Talib Kweli, Lauryn Hill, Leela James, Public Enemy, etc.
Ignoring white-ness as norm and its disciplinary power within the church frustrates Christians seeking racial-ethnic reconciliation or harmony. Granted, much work has been done in the area, and much of it is to be commended, but it is clear that white-ness remains in the church even as race-ism and the assertion of white privilege operates more subtly. However, Foucault illumines for us that ignoring race as a disciplinary power blinds us to the realities that continue to hinder the church from moving beyond our racial impasse. We can look at our discursive practices in our respective churches and see how we, consciously and unconsciously, give credence to the universal code of beauty that is presumed to be white.
Power is knowledge.
Power structures produce knowledge or truth. They also produce, I believe, ‘worlds’ that discipline and form individuals into specific kinds of people. In his essay on Foucault, James K.A. Smith describes for us, using Foucault’s concepts regarding discipline and formation, how capitalism disciples, habitualizes, and disciplines people to become consumers:
In other words, marketing capitalizes on fundamental structural human desires for meaning and transcendence and presents products and services as ways to satisfy these human longings. It then utilizes the tools of disciplinary practice to inject these values into the very character of human beings-internalizing the values so that they become part of the person. (Who's Afraid? p. 104-105)
Smith’s description of market culture as disciplinary power that shapes and forms people into consumers provides the categories for us to discuss the power of race and white-ness as norm in particular.
When one studies the history of Christendom, especially during the 16th century, a modern narrative of race emerges. In particular, a racial hierarchy begins to emerge, with white people at the top. Such a world became a part of the DNA of Western Christendom and habits began to form. . One only has to do a genealogy of how the church justified racism with scripture and particular doctrinal formulations (e.g. the curse of Ham). Modern racism, a product of the Enlightenment, gave scientific justification for the hierarchy of races. Christendom, on the other hand, sacralized white-ness. Christendom sacralized or divinized a racial order that emerged out of 16th century Europe. Contextually, this had devastating consequences for how race would play itself out in American church culture. Power relations within Christendom created knowledge or truth that described ‘white-ness’ as norm or standard and non-whiteness or blackness as deviation or sub-standard.
A recent example of this is the popularity of author Dan Brown’s the controversial book turned into movie The Da Vinci Code. There were many books, articles, and commentaries written about this movie from leading Christian authors and leaders. Many sermon series preached about how the Code did not pass the historicity test in relation to the story of Christ. Good stuff. But one glaring reality stood out for me. I did not read one major Evangelical or Conservative Christian commentary that pointed out the whiteness question. Brown’s Jesus, the one pictured in his book, the white Jesus, is guilty of two sins: having male genitalia and using it. Of course in using it his progeny are, what? Europeans, of course! The book has been described as "controversial," but apparently there is nothing controversial about the aesthetic of Brown’s Jesus. If we honestly assess the concerns expressed by Evangelical Christians, I have to wonder: Are we really concerned about the historicity of Brown’s Jesus?
What this reveals, I believe, is the entrenched narrative or story, albeit conscious or unconscious, of whiteness-as-norm. There is much to say here. Little room. Jamie’s engagement with Foucault, I believe, can begin a new area of discussions of the reality of race in the church…and the vision set forth by Christ for us to be ‘one’ as Father, Son, and Spirit are one.