Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics

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Editor(s): 
Vincent W. Lloyd, Andrew Prevot
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , November
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982512.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“We are angry.” So begins Vincent W. Lloyd and Andrew Prevot’s edited volume of essays, Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics. Given this overture, readers of the volume might fairly expect a litany of hot jeremiads levelled against the collective authors’ central analytic paradigm: anti-blackness, primarily in the contemporary United States but also globally and historically. What follows, however, is far more useful in today’s shout-it-out discursive climate: a kaleidoscope of theological, historical, and ethical perspectives, thought-provoking in depth and range, that refuses to succumb to pat moral demands in the face of unambiguously immoral thought and action in our raced social “order.” 

Of course, this refusal does not preclude moral demands; instead, it lends them their proper complexity and weight. As Lloyd and Prevot rightly note, the affirmation that “Black Lives Matter” is both necessary and insufficient to the cause of justice. Accordingly, the essays that comprise the volume stipulate the affirmation and ask further, “how do we accomplish it?” “How have we before and how do we now bring it to life?”

Part of that calculus requires a sturdy account of what has made and what now makes the destruction of black life a central feature of American culture and society. Here, the various authors of the volume deftly specify their terms to make their case, particularly in the book’s first third—its introduction and “Part 1: Theorizing Anti-Blackness.” Racism is too abstract. White supremacy, like the racially uncritical accounts the term targets, continues to center attention on whites. Anti-blackness, on the other hand, analytically zeroes in on those most effected and prioritizes—takes seriously, in the vernacular of Religious Studies—black experiences and black voices. This analytical precision is often absent in contemporary scholarship on “race and religion” in the United States, so its inclusion here is much welcomed. While the essays never stray far from other, more common terms, each author is clearly grounded in a commitment to define, critique, and move beyond the ideology and social actions of specified anti-blackness. 

The three sections of Anti-Blackness—including “Black Bodies and Selves” and “Black Loves,” in addition to theorization—surprise with a diversity of lenses through which the volume achieves its aspirations. Prevot’s chapter typifies a more traditional “scholarly” approach, as he portions Charles Taylor, Frantz Fanon, and Sojourner Truth to exact the possibility of an authentic black self in Christian ethics. Elias Ortega-Aponte convincingly modernizes the old spectacle of lynching by appeal to present-day meme-ification of anti-black violence on social media, asking us to consider whether the phenomenon is, as it is often portrayed, a method of raising anti-racist consciousness or, more tragically, another enactment of ritualized participation in the destruction of black bodies—or both at once. Bryan Massingale offers the most provocative site for reflection with an unflinching analysis of erotic possibilities for racial justice through Catholicism’s triune God over, and against police sexual assault and explicit racist fantasies of contemporary pornography.

Many of the volume’s most remarkable essays are so due to their ability to call the entire effort of a Christian ethical response to anti-blackness into question—an internalized critique one rarely expects but which nevertheless seems at home in this self-aware compilation. Santiago Slabodsky neatly traces one strain of Christian theology, ethics, and philosophy’s role in producing anti-blackness through its still-unretracted claim to authority that defines what counts and does not count as human. Slabodsky celebrates contemporary Christian solidarity with anti-racist movements, but calls for Christian collaboration with grassroots movements, rather than leadership of them. Ashon Crawley reminds us of the anethical labor of Black pentecostals in 20th century Detroit, highlighting spaces and sounds of love and community so often sought by Christian ethics, but created, in fact, by exclusion, both forced and self-determined, from the “juridical universality” of white, Western, Christian thought. Importantly, Crawley also reminds, albeit indirectly, that the anti-blackness of the 20th century transformed in religious spaces of urban decline and suburban sprawl, between the formative eras of slavery or Jim Crow and contemporary Facebook Live streams—a much needed historical intervention. Finally, Eboni Marshall Turman approaches the jeremiad in her critique of black churches and their active collusion—in parallel with state violence—in what she calls the crucifixion of black girls. Marshall Turman convincingly argues that no Christian ethics of black love can function in churches that promote or remain silent in the face of paedocidic anti-black misogyny.

The aforementioned essays are only a sampling of the diversity of frames that Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics offers to its readers as they question the foundations of anti-blackness and formulate adequate responses. However, if readers expect straightforward constructive solutions in these works, they may be frustrated. While most of the essayists suggest tentative paths forward, Lloyd and Prevot tell us that the book deigns not “to offer the final word,” but rather to “be a spur for further reflection and action” (xxix). As a site for reflection, the book is exemplary, and it would be well used in classrooms for students of ministry, theology, ethics, critical races studies, and American religious history. As a site for action, time will tell.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Greg Chatterley is a doctoral candidate in Religions in America at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vincent W. Lloyd is Assistant Professor of Re­ligion at Syracuse University. His most recent book is Black Natural Law (Oxford).

Andrew Prevot is Assistant professor of tThe­ology at Boston College. He is the author of Thinking Prayer (University of Notre Dame Press).

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