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Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics

Vincent W. Lloyd and Andrew Prevot, eds.
Published by Orbis Books in 2017

Black lives matter. This phrase, since its debut in 2015, has sparked much debate and has often been the source for conversation regarding racism and police brutality in the last few years. With the resurgence of public protests following the deaths of many African Americans at the hands of police, young activists took to the streets to demand justice for black lives. In reflecting on topics of justice and religion, Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics seeks to ask: “How might we understand the Black radical tradition as a Black religious radical tradition?” (xviii). At the heart of this question lies the connection between religion and justice generally, and between anti-blackness and ethics more specifically. Seeing the term “anti-blackness” as the new key term for understanding racial injustice (“racism” was the term of the previous generation), Vincent W. Lloyd and Andrew Prevot seek to offer several contentions that shape the offerings presented by scholars from various cultural, professional, and religious backgrounds. They contend:

  1. Those struggling for racial justice would do well to reflect on religion, and specifically on Christianity (xviii).
  2. Christians discerning how to live ethically would do well to reflect on the insights found in struggles for racial justice (xix).
  3. To understand Christian ethics, studying the practices of black communities, particularly black communities struggling against injustice, is more likely to yield insights than studying the works of European theologians alone (xix).

Thus, they offer us this collection as a way to ethically address the “complexity, malleability, and persistence of anti-blackness in modern societies” (xxviii).

The book is divided into three sections: “Theorizing Anti-Blackness,” “Black Bodies and Selves,” and “Black Loves.” In the first section, the authors draw connections between anti-blackness and concepts such as American exceptionalism, coloniality, economics, and the slave trade. They situate anti-blackness against white supremacy and American identity so as to show the rootedness and power that exists within anti-blackness. To start, Kelly Brown Douglas addresses the violence in anti-blackness by situating it deeper than prejudice against skin color, but as the regulation of the humanity of a people. She argues that anti-blackness is a defining feature of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, which she argues is also American exceptionalism, and further contends that the only way to change this narrative of anti-blackness is to employ a counter-narrative of non-violence. Santiago Slabodsky takes this concept beyond the nation state, arguing that “patterns of domination that were developed during colonialism have transcended this temporary political context and have been reproduced until today under the rubric of coloniality” (20) and that bio-racism was preceded by theological formulations of racism, concluding that theology has been the problem rather than the solution.

Katie Walker Grimes replaces ideas of white supremacy with an understanding of anti-blackness supremacy. This understanding of anti-blackness works on several fronts, such as dissecting the afterlife of slavery from economics, and resisting the notion to place all people of color within the same racial narrative. Anti-blackness supremacy re-centers the conversation in helping us to understand how non-blacks can obtain power over and against blackness and can also be regulated as non-valuable as they are related to conditions of blackness. Finally, M. Shawn Copland situates this notion of anti-blackness with Catholicism, showing the European and American Catholic Church’s theological response to slavery: one that refused to teach people who participated in slave trade, but fell short of condemning the system as a whole; and the other that used theology to justify enslavement, turning the slave trade and white supremacy into an idol. As a unit, these understandings of anti-blackness from a theoretical standpoint help to provide foundations of thought for the remainder of the book.

In the second section, we find that anti-blackness works not only against black bodies, but also against black selfhood. In “Sources of the Black Self,” Andrew Prevot argues that “to understand the full scope of anti-blackness we need to think not only about violence but also very explicitly about the ways that selfhood has been limited and denied as a possibility for black persons” (78). Showing that Frantz Fanon’s final criterion of human freedom is consistent with Sojourner Truth’s theological anthropology, Prevot states that, “in order to resist anti-blackness at its roots, Christian ethics needs to affirm the possibility of black selfhood” (95). Ashon Crawley reminds us of the sonic hospitality that is the black storefront church. He situates this ethical crisis in the spaces deemed forgotten by white flight and names the anethical sound of black performance as one that repurposes location through the sonic concept of hospitality. Finally, Elias Ortega-Aponte calls us to rethink the concept of “neo-lynching” in digital spaces, that is, the ways we create front-row seats to the death of black life by way of the internet and how we then make those death events substance of debate and political discourse while ignoring the suffering of black life, often at the hands of police. These articles help us to understand the work of anti-blackness on the black psyche and the resistance found in black culture, both in the bended knees of prayer and the clapping of hands and singing of hymns, as well as in the resistance to the use of black death as political capital and to attacks on the black schema.

In the final section, Vincent Lloyd develops the ethics of love of Eldredge Cleaver and George Jackson as one that requires a break from the racialized social order and one that maintains life outside of that order. It is a love that critiques the way we see love, so that we may love rightly. Though Cleaver and Jackson’s notions of the reordering of love may resonate with Christian ethics, their source of reordering, that is, the “wholly other,” is the revolution. Eboni Marshall Turman looks at the erasure of black girlhood, a result of the gender terror at the hands of the anti-black state and church. Naming the loss of black girlhood as a deeply theological problem, Turman points to black girl disrespectability as the enfleshment of a black girl soteriologic. Disrespectability in this sense means “those strategies and acts that black women and girls employ where they live between the ‘diss’ of social moral crucifixion and the ‘respect’ that they seek” (171). Finally, Bryan M. Massingale sets the stage for an anti-racist sexual ethic by seeking to address notions of sexism and eroticism as inherently racialized, especially as they relate to the creation and curation of the erotic, namely in pornography. This section teaches us that the working of anti-blackness in black love is messy and complicated, rooted in anti-black political and theological systems. The work of Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics is deep, rich, and varied. Weaving together a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, political science, critical race theory, performance studies, and ethics—the authors of this book offer a deep analysis of anti-blackness, while naming Christian ethics as a potential space for providing a way forward. While some may critique the book for not having enough theological engagement, and others will want more clarity on the specific role of Christian ethics, those engaged in interdisciplinary work will appreciate the multifaceted and complicated ways that the engagement with anti-blackness is presented: as a work of introduction, often leaving the reader with more questions than answers.

As an African American woman, theologian, and ethicist, there was something unique I experienced while reading this book. I felt seen. Not in the sense that I was personally named within the stories of these texts (although that was the case for some), but rather that this book resonated with many of the questions with which I myself have struggled. Especially in light of recent stories in the media of the lack of Christian presence within justice movements, Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics maintains the connection between Christian theology and ethical concerns, particularly those of black communities. By naming the working of anti-blackness in its Christian and cultural contexts, young scholars like myself have resources available to us as we seek to contend with the limits of a rigid Christian theology that speaks to love generally but historically has not often times extended that love to my black body. Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics names the complicated history of blackness and Christianity without forfeiting the claim that “Christian ethics can function as a powerful, prophetic critique” (xxvii).

In all of these essays, whether implicitly or explicitly, Christian ethics can serve as a powerful force within the realm of anti-blackness. Whether its cause, or a part of the steps toward a solution, Christian ethics must recognize the work of anti-blackness—in theory, in our bodies, and in connection to others—in order to address the multifaceted manifestations of anti-blackness in our world. To say “Black Lives Matter,” then, is always a deeper state- ment than a hashtag, as it speaks not only as a way to dismantle white supremacy, but as a counter-narrative to the anti-black rhetoric and thought that undergirds white supremacist ideologies. It is my belief that this book helps us “to recognize the horror and intransigence of anti-black racism and, at the same time, to recognize that we have the opportunity to imagine otherwise—and we have the ability to build another world” (xxx).

Cite this article
Tamisha A. Tyler, “Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 193-196

Tamisha A. Tyler

Fuller Theological Seminary
Tamisha A Tyler, MDiv is a PhD student studying Theology, Culture and Ethics.