incarnation, race, reconcile

The Incarnation and Racial Reconciliation

Over at Christ, My Righteousness, the series on racial reconciliation is now onto its sixth guest post. Mine was a few days ago and you can see it below. Still, be sure to give the other ones a read. As James Cone once said in class, “You’ve gotta talk about it!”

While this small essay is oriented towards racial reconciliation, I want to begin with a brief foray into incarnational theology. The incarnation, the particularity of Christian life, is not founded simply on a covenant, although we must always remember constantly that it is within promise that God acted and continues to act.[1] The Christian particularity is the action of God herself living (not only as participant, promise-maker, or covenant redeemer) within the human story – the joining of divine and human stories in Jesus of Nazareth.[2] Therefore, God truly is with us, Emmanuel: “He is not a symbol for the apex of our existence which is lost asymptotically in the infinite. He is Emmanuel, the God of an historical hour. Transcendence itself has become an event.”[3] In human flesh, in Jewish flesh, God joined with human existence in a space and time.[4] Still God and also human, the divine and human stories were forever joined together: “God act[ed] in such a way in relation to the world that he accepts it irrevocably in his Son.”[5]

The incarnation is only intelligible within Jewish covenant, as well as the reaffirmation of previous, divine promise: “he proves to be God’s own autobiography, God’s writing of Godself.”[6] Thus, Lieven Boeve is right to say, “[t]he truth of the incarnation indicates, rather, that the particular is constitutive of the truth, essential and indispensable. Truth is real, concrete, incarnate, and can only be grasped as such.”[7] The truth of God living in the world and the truth of what God’s living affirms and reforms, is to be understood within the stories and promises as creator, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the one who invoked the tetragrammatron in response to Moses’ question, “Who are you?” J. Kameron Carter states the particular of Christianity succinctly, “Christ’s flesh as Jewish, covenantal flesh is a social-political reality displayed across time and space into which the Gentiles are received in praise of the God of Israel.”[8] Indeed, to know God alive is to know the truth of God, and vice versa. And then to know the mind of the Creator, is to know creation’s proper telos. Carter summarizes the reconciling work of the incarnation and its implications well:

Christ’s divine-humanity transforms the meaning of humanity in its totality. The call of the gospel, then, is for human beings to enter into Christ, whose humanity is open to receive them and, thus, to (re-)name them and to confer a new identity on them as gift. Hence, the Jewish humanity that the triune God receives in union with the trinitarian Son is, at the same time, the humanity that now redemptively receives Gentile-others into itself. Consequently, in pressing this insight theologically, one might say that Jesus’ Jewishness is always already positively disposed toward receiving Gentiles. Conversely, it shows that Gentiles, too, are positively disposed for being received by Jesus and, thus, for entering into his Jewish humanity. This mutual disposal of Jews and Gentiles for each other in Christ may serve as a parable both of the way in which God holds nothing of himself back in his positive disposition to receive the world and of the way in which the world finds its own proper identity only in being received in God. The Jewish humanity of the trinitarian Son, Jesus Christ, is analogically central in this reciprocal movement of giving and receiving. Thus, far from being inconsequential, Jesus’ Jewish humanity is, in fact, a crucial element in what it means to exist concretely.[9]

With a good understanding of who Jesus was and is, then we can re-understand and perhaps begin to talk better about race and racial reconciliation, because we will begin to rightly understand how the church is supposed to understand identity. To this, Carter has also written, specifically on the theme of baptism for the beginning of Christian identity:

Inhabiting or being received into Christ’s actual body in such a way that one lays no claim to naming oneself and, therefore, in which one holds nothing of oneself back in self-possession-this is what baptism represents…. Baptism…involves handing oneself over to God in Christ so as to receive oneself back as gift. This is the deeper meaning of Christ’s baptism, which cannot be severed from the event of the Cross.[10]

But, importantly, this is not a “color-blind” Christianity, or where skin pigmentation ceases to exist, or where the church turns a blind eye to racial injustices outside of itself. Instead, this is a call for the economy of God to wash over the church – the body of Christ formed by the memory of the incarnation and the acts of the incarnation – so that we take seriously our baptism out of Babylon and Mammon and into the basileia of God. To do so, I believe, would force us to take race and racial reconciliation far more seriously than we do now, as we would take more seriously our participation within the economy of God. To quote Carter at length one more time:

The story of God’s journey with God’s creatures occurs, then, in history—the history and flesh of Israel, which culminates in Jesus of Nazareth. For in Jesus God has brought Israel’s history to an irrepeatably unique pitch, whereby Christ becomes translated into the languages of all nations. In brief, what emerges within this new economy of divine love is a self that is known in, through, and as another— a transformation which entails a re-imagining of identity on both personal and cultural levels. All of this means that the destiny of a given nation, its sense of peoplehood. Indeed, this sense of “co-peoplehood” or “inter-nationalism” is theologically rooted in the unfolding of Christ’s existence in history as an eschatological movement towards the Kingdom of God, an unfolding in which the church haltingly and imperfectly, but for all that no less truly, participates.[11]

With all the above – the importance of the reconciling work by the embodiment of the incarnation – in mind, we can actually deal with topics that the wider society cannot find the words to even address. Consider Obama’s hybridity as a specific instance in the racial pluralizing of white America. Christian theology has the tradition and doctrine to draw on for the reforming of identity, rather than ignoring the significance of hybridity behind the desk in the oval office, while at the same time, acknowledging and valuing plurality with the goal of living as a Christological people.

Now, the real questions are, “Why we do not do this?” and, “How do we implement this?” Such questions are difficult, but must be taken with the utmost seriousness, otherwise this is simply intellectual, theological masturbation.

I see one major culprit that lingers in the background: capitalism and its notions of private ownership. The selfish “Mine!” and the idea that material goods and class status are deserved or un-harmful, drive a wedge between Christians, as the dollar bill and commodified economy dictate identity and the relationships there in. The movie Crash comes to mind. We drive around in our fortresses, never meeting another human being until we have a crash. This also is seen in white flight, giant houses with large lawns, and the churches who are formed by such an economy. So the answer to this is to live together, to live close to on another, and not to “run” from others or react in a manner that treats others as less than human. We have the solution in the incarnated creator who came to live with the creatures: we cannot reconcile if we do not know one another and we cannot hope to reconcile if we do not take care for one another. Quite simply, we are to live a Christological-hospitality for our community that is full of different people.

[1] I am not trying to deny the divine promises that some may see in the Hebrew Bible to foreshadow the incarnation (i.e. Genesis 3:15). Instead, it was the incarnation that helps us re-understand the promises of God, while at the same time, the incarnation was not a new covenantal promise that required two parties to keep the promise to one another. The incarnation was an act of asymmetrical grace.

[2] When talking of God by pronoun, I will alternate between himself and herself where applicable.

[3] Johann Metz, Theology of the World, translated by William Glen-Doepel (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 22.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Ibid., 22.

[6] J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 33.

[7] Lieven Boeve, God Interrupts History: Theology in a Time of Upheaval, (New York: Continuum, 2007), 176.

[8] Carter, Race: A Theological Account, 30.

[9] Carter, “Christology or Redeeming Whiteness: A Response to James Perkinson’s Appropriation of Black Theology” Theology Today 60:4 January 2004, 532.

[10] Ibid., 538.

[11] Carter, “Race, Religion, and the Contradictions of Identity: A Theological Engagement with Douglass’s 1845 Narrative“ Modern Theology, 21:1 January 2005, 58.


One thought on “The Incarnation and Racial Reconciliation

  1. Pingback: Love is the Movement (of Freedom, Justice, Reconciliation, and Solidarity) « flying.farther

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