In The Death of Race, Brian Bantum explores the theological underpinnings of cultural understandings of race and gender.
What inspired you to write The Death of Race?
Truthfully, this wasn’t the book I had wanted to write right now. There is a tendency for theologians who write about race to become penned in. My first book, Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity, is certainly a book about race. But even more, it is a Christology. For my second book, I wanted to write something that would be read apart from the primary lens of race. But then Ferguson happened, then Baltimore, and every successive summer seemed to press the reality of race and the church. There are so many good books that have come from folks in or associated with the Black Lives Matter movement that I wasn’t sure what I could add to the conversation.
But as I taught and read and listened, I began to see how various Christian responses to police brutality—and racism and sexism more broadly—were grounded in various theological stories that shaped American Christians and how they saw the world. At the same time, I was thinking about my three sons, who were 17, 15, and 11 when I started writing. We had been talking about everything that was happening in the world, and I wondered how I could help them understand the Christian story in the midst of this. Why was the world like this, and why does Jesus matter?
The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World
I wanted to tell a new story, a theological story that could help people begin to understand how some of the complexities of race and gender are theological problems that are connected to fundamental questions of how God created us and how we account for what seems so broken in the world.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
The most important take-home message is that our bodies are essential to what it means to be made in the image of God. Whether it is race or ethnicity, gender or sexuality—if we do not take our bodies and their differences seriously as necessary for what it means to worship and love God, then we have missed something. I think this idea is so important because the centrality of our bodies as beautiful and essential to this “image of Godness” also helps us make sense of what has gone so wrong in our world.
I hope readers finish the text seeing that their bodies are not extraneous to what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus and that being a faithful follower means that we will encounter new ways of embodying faithfulness that will challenge us. In each of these encounters we are presented with an opportunity to embody love, or to embody the broken patterns of being human signified in deadly social constructions such as race.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
So much! But one set of ideas that I really wanted to press was the interconnectedness of race, gender, and sexuality in the theological story we tell about who God is and who we are. When our theology easily disentangles who we believe God to be from the beauty and materiality of our lives, our likeness to God becomes impossible to discern and in that gap we see evil and violence emerge.
I began my work on questions of race, but again and again was drawn into the intersections of gender and sexuality. I wanted to tell the story in a way that connected these explicitly. But as the book unfolded and I realized the need to tell my own story alongside, it felt both incredibly complicated and disingenuous to tell a story that wasn’t mine. I hope I told it in a way that was invitational though, that speaks in a way that makes room for others, with gaps and spaces that are meant to be filled. I realized that what was left out was actually important because the work is ultimately an invitation for all of us to ask how people of faith can confess God’s presence in new ways. By trying to re-center the body in our theological imagining of how to move forward, I hope I invited us to consider the various embodied ways God works through us and in the world.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
I would say one of the biggest misconceptions about race, especially among Christians who critique our work, is that those of us who do this work are determined by “culture” rather than by deeply held theological convictions. I have heard again and again a desire to “just get past this race stuff” or that this is just the latest grievance and can we just get back to the fundamentals or to history or to some notion of a tradition.
Another misconception is that race must be either a social construction and therefore not “real” or an essential category. In reality, it is an idea that has shaped so much of how we think about ourselves, and even more, structured the order of our lives together. What I love about the title, The Death of Race, is that it initially elicits what folks seem to hope for when they talk about race—to either overcome division and point towards a “post-racial” future, or they hear the resonances of race’s deathly consequences in our lives.
The last point I would add is that as we talk of race we are often pressed into a corner to describe the way we have been marginalized in society, as though that is the entirety of our identity. The processes of racism reduce us to one or two moments, co-opting our attempts to name racism and making our protests into the totality of who we are. But our identities are complicated braids of joy and overcoming, everyday struggles and humor, mistakes and failings—like everyone else.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I dedicated the book to my three sons as they were truly my audience, and young people like them who are growing up in a moment where the everyday church seems to have so little to say about the realities of racism or sexism or homophobia. I was thinking about the folks teaching Sunday school, or the 20-year-old who knows there is something off about the story their church has been telling. When I listen to my children’s questions, or talk with my undergrad students, and even my seminary students, I realize that they are all trying to get out from under a story about our beginnings and our ends that has been hyper-spiritualized. Somehow the story of Christianity they learned about did not adequately capture the world they found themselves in.
I wanted to offer a story of God’s interaction with the world that spoke to the beauty and pain of our bodied lives in this world. But it needed to be a story that could help them see how vital our bodies and our differences are to a loving God, and how racism and sexism are two examples of how human falleness distorts the beautiful possibilities of our lives together.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?
When I think about our current political, social and theological moment, I can see competing narratives about what it means to be human, what it means to be a people. I hope this book begins to offer churches a way of reframing the theological story that shapes how they see the world. But by incorporating my own story I hope that people can begin to see these theological ideas are present in all of our lives. I hope they come back to Scripture and to their conversations with one another seeing the texture of their own and other people’s lives. Perhaps they begin to see new possibilities for what it could mean to follow Christ.
What alternative title would you give the book?
When I first submitted the manuscript, I was very attached to Bodies of Christ: The Death of Race and the Rebirth of Christianity. The idea of our bodies as central to what it means to be made in the image of God, to love God and one another, is the center of the book. The book’s title captures the ambiguity so many of us feel about race as an idea, encapsulating what I think many people hope is the end of race as a concept, but also what many of us feel as the violent consequences of race in our world.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love the cover. It captures the gravity of the idea, but the intersection of lines along the black also indicates there is something hopeful happening. Brad Norr, the designer for the cover, did a wonderful job.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
There are too many, really. But more recently Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom is just a phenomenal book, both in its accessibility and in its depth. Of course, I am not the person who can even try to write that book, but it is something I aspire to. I also re-read Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind whenever I start a new project to remind me that essays can be insightful, researched and beautiful—all at the same time.
What’s your next book?
There are two projects that I am chipping away at right now. The first is a collection of essays exploring how the economy of the icon reverberates in the visual history of the West, and how those patterns are reflected or disrupted by contemporary artists and images. The second is an attempt at what I am beginning to call a ‘literary theology’ that seeks to explore theological ideas, but through literary craft and approaches—character, point of view, metaphor, etc. It’s still a bit of an experiment at this point, but it’s something I am excited about writing and seeing where the journey takes me.