J. Kameron Carter, race

Carter’s Race Reviewed

From The Christian Century, Peter J. Paris’ review of J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account:

Carter is primarily interested in how theology contributed to the process by which humans came to be viewed as racial beings, and thus was a willing ally in the modern project of empire building. He contends that theology reconstituted itself in order to establish race as the defining characteristic of modernity. This shocking claim establishes Carter’s argument as a revolutionary critique of theology’s affirmation of modernity as a racial project.

More specifically, Carter argues that modernity’s racial imagination originated in the process by which Christianity was severed from its Jewish roots. The modern West began viewing Jews as an alien, inferior race and their religion as the nemesis of Christianity. This type of reasoning implied the natural supremacy of white European peoples and the corresponding superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Carter’s thinking dovetails to some extent with Cornel West’s critical race theory and Michel Foucault’s theory of sexuality.

… Carter’s call for a new kind of theological imagination that moves beyond the traditional theology that strips Jesus Christ of his Jewishness is an insightful approach to the difficulty that confronts 21st-century theological discourse. Few scholars have demonstrated so convincingly how ancient theologians such as Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Great can be helpful resources for current theological discussions about race, colonialism, slavery, tyranny and oppression—to mention only a few major problems we have inherited from the theology of race and modernity.

As an ethicist, I look forward to future writings by Carter that relate his theological enterprise to the thought and practice of the social gospel movement, the various African-American religious struggles for racial justice, and especially the work of Martin Luther King Jr. It is more than a little troubling that Carter did not discuss such figures and events in this major work. Nevertheless, it is a great book by any standard. Its breadth and depth are impressive beyond measure.

For those of you having a difficult time with certain assertions made about modernity and racism on this blog, it would do you well to read through this book very carefully. I have found it very helpful and informative and one would probably misunderstand anything more than the general thrust against modernism’s inherent colonialism without exposure to this book.


9 thoughts on “Carter’s Race Reviewed

  1. Knowing the backdrop of black thought for this book better than most, would you say that there are any books that one ought to have read before sitting down with Carter’s? My own reading of Cone has been sporadic and inconsistent, for example–would I do better to familiarize myself with Cone first, or can I dive into Carter without missing too much?

    • This book is fairly daunting in scope and resources used. Both Cone and Paris have mentioned this. It would be safe to assume that most people will have to study up for at least a section in this book. Thankfully Carter introduces his subjects well. However, if you’re unsure as to what is specifically going on with Cone, after reading the chapter that addresses him, look into Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation for his understanding of becoming ontologically black. God of the Oppressed would help as well if you’re still unsure about Carter’s critique. Race is the kind of book that requires a bit of going back and forth, so its probably safe to assume you’ll want nearby the books that he is citing.

  2. dave says:

    David, this is perhaps a little too vague and a little too off topic, but do you think that there would be any intersection between this work and Pauline studies? I’m in a search for an interesting topic to write a short (2000 words) paper in a class I have on Paul. I’ve been meaning to get to this book for a while, although I am quite sure a lot of it will be over my head.

    • Unfortunately I’m not on the cutting edge of Paul studies, and I don’t think Carter is either. The chapters on Maximus the Confesser and Gregory of Nyssa may be the closest to what you’re looking for, but it doesn’t directly intersect with Paul. And to make it intersect, you’d probably have to write a great deal more than 2000 words.

      • dave says:

        That’s what I was thinking. Thanks. I’m aiming a little too high for this paper. Since we can do it on anything we want to, I keep trying to find topics that are better suited for something like an MA thesis or dissertation.

        Thanks for the link to the review as well. It seems like it gives a pretty good overview of the book. I’ve read through some of the introduction (or preface? where he outlines the argument), and I mostly understand where he is going. Even though books like this are very detailed and you get more out of them if you read many others simultaneously, I enjoy the challenge.

  3. Scott W says:

    There is a lot that could be done with Carter’s thesis in terms of current Pauline studies. Carter himself references “New Perspective” scholars such as NT Wright and OT scholars such as John Goldingay as being constructive in developing his thinking on the fudamental issue of the severing of Christianity from its Jewish roots.

    It seems to me that what Paul tries to forestall in Romans (a sense of Gentile privilege due to the supposed rejection of largely unbelieving Judaism)is brought to fruition in the modern era, where the theological critique underlyinh supercessionism transoforms itself into a scientific “racial” one,which is concommitant with the ascendancy of the colonial West.


    • Scott, thanks for the heads up. I’ve been wanting to share this video for quite some time. You can actually see me in the video as part of the audience. It was indeed a great lecture to hear.

  4. Pingback: J. Kameron Carter’s on Language and the Theological Roots of Scientific Classification « flying.farther

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