Our Racist Inheritance: A Conversation Kuyperians Need to Have

A report from the Kuyper Center for Public Theology's recent conference on "Faith and Race".
May 14th, 2015

History can be a harsh judge. A recent conference on "Faith and Race" held at Princeton Theological Seminary invited scrutiny on the legacy of Abraham Kuyper's theology and political thought when it comes to race. The resurgence of interest in Kuyper among so-called New Calvinists, including hip hop artist Lecrae, raises questions about whether Kuyperian theology today entails the same racialized problems which have initiated decades of objections. Can a theologian who made derogatory generalizations about entire ethnic groups and whose work was taken up by supporters of Apartheid (i.e. some Dutch Reformed denominations in South Africa) be taken seriously by those committed to seeking (and rapping about) racial justice? To pose the question from another angle: Can Kuyperians take up the cause of racial justice with the tools they currently have? With these questions in view, theologians and students shared papers about the problems today's Kuyperians face as well as some signs of hope for moving forward.

Problematizing Our History: Uncovering the Roots of Racial Division

Can Kuyperians take up the cause of racial justice with the tools they currently have?

The conference theme exposed a disconnect between two perspectives. On the one hand, there are those we might clearly identify as champions of racial justice, like this year's Kuyper prize-winner, Representative John Lewis who serves Georgia's fifth congressional district. Lewis marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and his time at Fisk University included a formative small group gathering of those who committed themselves to loving non-violent action. On the other hand we have Kuyper, a man who recorded the loftiest of affirmations about God's delight in pluriformity and a gloriously unified, multiethnic human destiny, but says little about race that is not deeply troubling. Vincent Bacote described the personal "crisis" this disconnect created for him as he began to take up Kuyper's theology for his own work in public theology: How could we sustain Kuyper's concerns about the Japanese whom he saw as a rising "yellow" threat, while at the same time affirming Kuyper's love for the diversity of birds and flowers in creation? What is wrong with this picture?

One troubling result of the Kuyperian legacy is the bifurcation of our social lives into different spheres and sequestered conversations, where some groups attend to "race issues" while others focus on theology and economics without attention to this racialized legacy. But the problem here is not merely one of abstractions, for the names Michael Brown and Freddie Gray ring out as a piercing reminder that lives are at stake.

Opening plenary speaker Yolanda Pierce reminded us that in order to understand how racial inequalities endure in our legal and theological systems we must attend to the lessons of history. For instance, she observed that theological proponents of slavery once argued on the basis of a prosperity that helped establish many significant institutions, including her own Princeton Seminary. She then challenged us to consider how theological language continues to follow the racial assumptions of an earlier age, pointing to troubling statements recently issued by Christian leaders instructing submission to authority as a response to African American deaths at the hands of police. Pierce's point undercut one of our avoidance strategies: It is no longer enough to name historical figures as "racist," a term that is often applied to Kuyper. The critical task must include identifying the way past prejudice has become embedded in institutions from which we now benefit. When the problem is an enduring structure rather than a historical scapegoat, reading a racist should become a far more penitential task.

Only a "Man of his Time"? The Problem of Unintended Racism

One conference paper went straight for Kuyper's "most awkward text" on the theme of race. James Eglinton offered a critical reading of Varia Americana, Kuyper's observations on American society written in 1898. Eglinton demonstrated that Kuyper's intent was, in part, to criticize racism in American societies. "Now, the evil consequences of hard slavery can be seen here," Kuyper observed, going on to describe the servility of African Americans in order to judge what white Americans had done to them. Kuyper's very terms of description, however, perpetuated the racist categories he was seeking to challenge. Eglinton argued that we should not simply avoid these compromised materials, but hold them accountable to a thinker's "deep logic"—in other words, to read Kuyper against himself. Eglinton concluded that duly Christian love is not that of an "uncritical fan"; rather, it takes up Paul's rebuke to Peter over his inconsistency in drawing racial lines through the early church.

Many presenters contested whether Kuyper's "deep logic" could provide an answer, claiming the problem ran just as deep, and so opted to look elsewhere. Either way, Kuyper was clearly not going to be excused for merely being a "man of his time." As Pierce pointed out, abolitionists were also men and women of their times and they evidently found their way to better theological resources. In that pursuit, some of the papers explored a broader Calvinist stream, such as James Bratt's treatment of how Henry Highland Garnet, a prominent black abolitionist, drew extensively on early-modern Calvinist political thought for his bold acts of resistance. Though Garnet's religious interest is often sidelined, Bratt showed how his beliefs offered provocative resources with which to confront racial inequality.

The Problem of the Enduring "Colour-Line"

In order to describe the problem of racial division, several presenters made reference to W.E.B. Du Bois, an African American scholar and activist who claimed in 1900 that the the twentieth century would be characterized by "the problem of the colour-line." Du Bois foresaw the way in which differences of skin colour or hair texture would continue to be the basis for denying "over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization." His diagnosis is taken up in a recent lead article in Foreign Affairs, which shows its endurance through a century of globalisation.

Although the conference focus was on America, some papers explored different national contexts through which the colour-line is drawn. Michael Wagenman interrogated the shameful legacy of Canadian residential schools for First Nations children, questioning whether Kuyper's "sphere sovereignty" can bring accountability to such collusion between government and the institutional church. Meanwhile, Daniel José Camacho critiqued claims about a shift of the so-called global "centre" of Christianity expressed in claims about "the next Christendom." He asked how such talk neglects well-entrenched flows of capital and theological legitimacy. Would such enduring lines of privilege allow those people previously ignored or subordinated by "public" theology to become subjects in their own right?

Churches are also guilty of the perpetuation of the colour-line ...

Returning to the American context, Peter Paris reminded us that although race is not a scientific category it remains a powerful social construct through which communities, and their police forces, are ordered. In an especially poignant moment in the concluding panel, this eminent scholar disclosed that, "I join with all black men in saying, when the police pull us over, we fear for our lives." His comment revealed the terror still visited on those who suffer through this political division, as much as a liberal country might want to see itself as "postracial."

Churches are also guilty of the perpetuation of the colour-line insofar as congregations can be described as "black" or "white" in how they are outraged by racial injustice. After the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, for instance, Pierce was asked how "black churches" would respond. She answered, "African-American churches are well-acquainted with sorrow; what will the white churches say?" Insofar as Kuyperian theology is associated with "white church" assumptions, her question provokes a response if race identity is not to take precedence over familial bonds in Christ.

But a well-intentioned answer is not enough; in order to avoid racializing patterns in the tradition, new critical tools are needed.

The Promises of Critical Race Theory and Neo-Kuyperian Eschatology

In the hopes of finding some valuable tools to assist Kuyperians in their thinking about race, help might come from some aspects of Critical Race Theory, a movement that shares Kuyper's focus on the political sphere and his criticism of political-philosophical liberalism. Critical Race Theory aims its critique at the threads of our social fabric that weave racism into ordinary life in the United States, a critical task modelled in the conference plenaries. Focusing primarily on the legal system, Critical Race Theory tells the stories of racial minorities who are not protected by the kind of "neutrality" that is supposed to make the constitution and national life fair and just for all. This neutrality demands racial non-recognition, which is now sometimes referred to as "colour-blindness," in jurisprudence and also in national life.

Christian responses to racial injustice also display colourblind tendencies. Today, when faced with the ugliness of racial animus, the assertion that every individual is created in the image of God still says little about race beyond its lack of priority. For example, if #alllivesmatter is thought to better reflect the inclusiveness of the doctrine of the image of God, it is because #blacklivesmatter is considered too parochial or dismissed as politically partisan. Generally speaking, such non-recognition denies the real consequences of race and marginalizes black lives—not just in the Twittersphere, but in every "diverse" city divided by streets which are essentially colour-lines separating neighbourhoods by racial groupings.

As a way forward, Kuyper's emphasis on pluriformity and Bavinck's collectivist description of the image of God are indispensible, as argued in a previous Comment essay. But now it seems clearer that Kuyperians throughout history have, for some reason, said the most beautiful things about diversity without being intentionally race-conscious. To this point, universality has overshadowed particularity. Those of us who identify as neo-Kuyperians join with Bacote, Richard Mouw, and Nicholas Wolterstorff in seeking to redress this imbalance as part of the ongoing argument that is our tradition. Without such reparation, the historic emphasis on universality can appear in both hegemonic demands for assimilation ("same-ifying") as well as the supposedly multicultural "politics of recognition."

Fortunately, this correction is well supported by other structures in neo-Kuyperian theology. Neo-Kuyperians draw on the serious consciousness of particularity displayed in Christian and Jewish Scriptures. For example, Mouw has called attention to the prophets of Isaiah and Revelation who envision that the "wealth of nations" includes the best of what human cultures offer up to be redeemed in the transformed city. At first glance, we might be tempted to value the greatness of cultural achievements like jazz, or the ubiquity of cultural artifacts like jeans as they are brought into the presence of God. However, such celebration can easily tend towards an emphasis on universality when so many achievements and artifacts carry forgotten stories of the oppression often borne by those on the wrong side of the colour-line. If our cultural goods are to be truly redeemed, the culminating story of jazz cannot forget those who sang the blues and the cultural record of jeans cannot ignore the brown bodies buried beneath collapsed sweatshops.

Critical Race Theory's intentional race-consciousness is a tool that could have fit naturally in Kuyper's hands and should fit naturally into neo-Kuyperian hands today. If affirmation of pluriformity includes an approval of racial diversity, then the stories of God's redemption from the pain of racial injustice—even "wounds yet visible above"—should fill a treasure house within the body of Christ. And Christians should energetically seek out and steward such stories of pain and redemption, because such stories would help to ensure that minorities and marginalized lives matter when Kuyperians call governments to enact justice for the citizenry. This consciousness enables Kuyperians to speak a better word of justice than all the grand juries or states' attorneys ever could. Such stories would allow them to boldly proclaim that shalom can even break into the all too ordinary racial pain of our national life.

 

Jeff Liou is adjunct faculty and Ph.D. candidate in Theology and Culture at Fuller Seminary. Influenced by and responding to neo-Calvinist theology, his research explores what God has done and is doing by making humanity raced and ethnic. Jeff has been working with college students and young adults for the past 14 years and is currently a pastor at a diverse church in southern California.

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David Robinson is a Visiting Scholar at Regent College and a Research Associate at Vancouver School of Theology. His current research focuses on the reception of Greek tragedy, particularly notions of “fate,” in the work of German Lutheran theologians who lived and worked between 1919-1945. Entitled After Tragedy: Conflicting Social Orders and the Unity of God, the project explores a period in which strident nationalism arose out of cultural and material crisis, even as the Luther Renaissance led some theologians to question the rule of fate as “law.”

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