Thinking about Race and Discipleship

“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.” -Beloved, Toni Morrison


If our discipleship to Jesus Christ is to be truly embodied, then we must account for how race has shaped each of our lives. To avoid dealing with the problem of race, to reduce the Gospel to a certain kind of knowledge that doesn’t touch our flesh, is the most sinister of Gnosticisms.

The topic of race has come to the forefront of many conversations within this country: Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, the trial and verdict, President Obama’s response, “Stand-your-ground” laws, Paula Deen, profiling, crime, Chicago, Detroit, Rep. Steve King, immigration reform, Riley Cooper. Pick your poison. Like many others, I’ve been struggling to think about how to best navigate through these conversations. A recent Pew Research study shows a big racial divide over the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial. While 78% of Blacks think that the verdict “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” only 28% of Whites think the same. Do Christians fare any different? I doubt it. It appears that most churches are either silent or mirroring these national trends. The Zimmerman trial verdict did not divide the church along racial lines as much as reveal the deep divisions that persist.

One of the biggest obstacles to thinking and talking about race is the way that “racism” is often framed in heated debates. Look, the racist! News segments and popular conversations would have us think that the problem of race is the really the problem of the blatant racist. One individual. One conscious and deliberate act. One moment. If those are the standards, it is easy to avail ourselves. In a country where race has played a significant factor in genocide, slavery, xenophobia, the housing market, segregation, and incarceration, many are eager to declare America a post-racial society where race exercises little influence. In the recurring public game show of “Is So-and-So a racist?” we wait to hear Maury-like pronouncements: “Upon further review, we have determined that So-and-So is NOT a racist.” Such public exposés mostly mask the problem that they seemingly try to uncover.

What if the problem of race goes beyond the conscious acts and explicit beliefs of an individual? Recent research, such as Jason Silverstein’s study on the “racial empathy gap,” has confirmed what many have long suspected. Racial bias operates in us, and in our actions, apart from our conscious awareness of it. Race is not so much an idea we hold in our worldview, but something that has seeped deeply into our imaginations and desires. As such, race is more like a habit that is inculcated in us through practices in a life-long formation process. If we want to talk about race in our lives, we have to talk about the neighborhoods we grow up in, the dolls we play with, the movies we watch, the books we read, the people we date, the music we listen to, the schools we go to, the churches we go to, the histories and assumptions that have trickled down to us in a thousand little ways. To single out the “racist” (and one can insert here: the “sexist” or “homophobic”) moment of an individual is not enough; we have to talk about how each of us have been formed over the course of a life, starting from birth.  

How our bodies are formed, and what our bodies are taught to “know” and to “do” in their own ways, does not lie neutrally outside of our discipleship to Jesus Christ. As Brian Bantam has demonstrated in his book Redeeming Mulatto, society shapes our desires and imaginations along certain lines of purity and ideals of beauty that often run contrary to who Christ is and what his Body is called to be. Nevertheless, in the suspicious conception of God in Mary, in the suspicious flesh of this child, we are challenged in how we—our bodies—assign suspicion or innocence to all flesh.

It is easy to disconnect our bodies from our faith when Christianity is reduced to being mostly a “worldview.” In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith argues that an idea-centric or belief-centric Christianity fails to grasp how things like shopping malls and patriotic rituals, or what he calls “secular liturgies,” train us in our desires and in what we ultimately love. If this is true, then race easily slips under our radars because it does not operate primarily on the level of a worldview; race has been woven into the fabric of our society’s bodily rituals, itself functioning as an implicit liturgy (explicitly articulated in things like the Anti-Miscegenation and Jim Crow laws). Yet, race as a kind of social liturgy has never been primarily a secular phenomenon but has been a phenomenon that has emerged from within Christianity, one that the church has not come close to overcoming.

Addressing the problem of race within the life of Christian discipleship will require us to pay greater attention to our bodies, to the particularities of our bodies, to the identities formed in and around our bodies. It is a mistake to simply “affirm the goodness” of our bodies and their materiality without also practicing the self-interrogation needed to detect the idolatries of our bodies. St. Paul expressed the need for bodily vigilance when he wrote:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:1-2)

If our body is a text, then scripture is claiming that our body is a liturgical text. Our bodies, in what they do and in their various meanings, are meant to worship God.  Yet, we must continually ask: how have our bodies conformed to the pattern of this world rather than to the Kingdom? How has my body been catechized byAmerica’s racist god,” and not by God?