Christ Divided

Antiblackness as Corporate Vice

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Katie Walker Grimes
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , November
     2017.
     344 pages.
     $39.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506427997.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Katie Walker Grimes’s most recent publication is an unapologetically radical reimagining of Catholic Christian theology and praxis. While expansive in its scope, it is fundamentally a methodological proposal. By centering “antiblackness supremacy,” in her analysis Grimes reveals how frequently Catholic theologians fail to adequately address the specific construction and consequences of race in the United States and points toward a better way forward. Grimes is under no sentimental illusions about what the path ahead requires. In the preface, she imagines herself as the apostle Thomas plunging his hands into the risen Christ’s wounds. This image foreshadows many of the major themes of the book: the prioritization of bodies in space, the common and damning distance between verbal assertions and embodied behavior, the incommensurability and the inescapability of wounds, and the need to attend to the specificity of the wounds we encounter. 

In an extended introduction, Grimes illustrates the insufficiency of current modes of antiracist thought in the Catholic theological tradition: “Prevailing categories cause theologians both to misidentify the operation of what we commonly identify as ‘racism’ and to overestimate the church’s racial innocence” (xvii). The language of white privilege and white supremacy both fail to recognize how the particular history of slavery in the United States makes antiblackness a unique and acute oppressive force. Grimes offers “antiblackness supremacy” as a way of naming the systems of power rooted in slavery and slavery’s afterlife and premised upon the oppression of black people. In part 1, Grimes further justifies this methodological shift by chronicling the development and deployment of white supremacy and antiblackness on global and national levels. Afropessimism heavily influences this section with special attention given to the work of Orlando Patterson and Saidiya Hartman. Grimes describes how antiblackness supremacy is embedded in spatial habits, from red-lining to the rise of suburbia to mass incarceration. This history demands a shift in ecclesial priorities: “The church ought to make a preferential option for black life and acquire a strategic detachment to white salvation and moral purity” (8). 

In part 2, Grimes begins to theorize the vicious habituation of antiblackness, giving special attention to the placement and practices of bodies. She not only criticizes the Thomistic inattention to bodily practices but also expands her focus on bodies to include corporate bodies as well as individual bodies. This grounds her analysis of the ecclesial body’s habituation into antiblackness supremacy. If the ecclesial body itself is habituated into this vice, Grimes argues, antiracist theological arguments that begin uncritically with an internal church practice as a locus of resistance and transformation are ineffectual. Grimes pursues the implications of this shortcoming in part 3 and reconsiders the relationship between liturgy and ethics by focusing on how the sacraments of initiation were leveraged to further the goals of the slaveocracy. Both baptism and Eucharist remain distorted by antiblackness supremacy in the afterlife of slavery.

Grimes offers “sacramental realism,” as a way to account for the distortions and promises of the sacraments in part 4. Within this framework, Grimes argues that habituation into whiteness and antiblackness supremacy is evident in where we put our bodies. As just one example, segregated parishes impede the transformative power of the sacraments. Overcoming the sacramental limitations imposed by the practices of antiblackness supremacy requires attending to bodies in space. Though the church will be unable to quickly or smoothly rectify its vicious habituation, it will at least begin to acknowledge and experience the sins that disrupt sacramental effectiveness. For the church to correct its vicious habituation and begin to dismantle antiblackness supremacy it must engage in concrete, material practices of penance in pursuit of justice. 

This book is a great boon to the academy, the church, and the broader society. Grimes illustrates that utilizing a sharper description of the operations of racial oppression in this country has repercussions for all Catholic theologizing and she persuasively argues that it is no longer possible to start with the church and attempt to account for vague notions of “racism” or “white privilege.” Theologians must now begin with analyses of antiblackness supremacy and prepare the church for the radical work of recognizing and dismantling it. 

Despite its success, parts of the argument could use further development. Though likely attributable to the necessary concessions of scope and space, it is surprising to find no treatment of reconciliation through the lens of sacramental realism. The focus on baptism and Eucharist is understandable, especially given the response Grimes is making to other scholars (namely, Stanley Hauerwas and William T. Cavanaugh), but given that the project is a meditation on sin it would be appropriate to include an analysis of the practice the church describes as remitting sin. Additionally, while Grimes greets her reader with a meditation on the wounded-but-risen body of Christ and correctly keeps her gaze trained on the specific wounds of antiblackness supremacy, she spends less time exploring the paradox of the wounds marking the resurrected body. Greater attention to practices of survival, resistance, and rebellion on the part of African Americans, including but not limited to black Catholics, could contribute to a richer sense of the paradoxically wounded and raised body that the church takes as its own identity. Finally, though the book was interdisciplinary at its core, some of the cross-disciplinary encounters were shallower than others. While Grimes touches on research in neuroscience, for example, to bolster her critique of Thomas’s disembodied moral theory, the engagement is brief enough to be superfluous. A more robust engagement at that disciplinary intersection would better serve the argument. Despite these few small qualms in the marginalia, this is a creative and incisive book that anyone interested in theology, race, or religion should read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly Humphrey is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katie Walker Grimes is assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. She is the author of Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery (Fortress Press, 2017). She has published articles on the relation of white supremacy and the Catholic Church in Political Theology and Horizons and has articles in the Journal of Religious Ethics. She is a regular contributing author to the blog Women in Theology. 

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