The Death of Race

Building a New Christianity in a Racial World

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Brian Bantum
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Augsburg Fortress
    , November
     2016.
     176 pages.
     $16.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506408880.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World Brian Bantum alerts the reader to two critical theological truths: that God is a God of words, and; that being human is a journey of sorting out what those words mean in the world. Words can illumine points of difference, create barriers, and usher in opportunity for relational richness. Words form worlds.

Words uttered forth, and fashioned human life out of the dust—breathing complexity, co-existence, and interdependence into beings created to need one another. Humanity is God’s words coming alive. Being human is comprised of a life of waking and walking with God, other humans, and creation in love, mutuality, and curiosity. We learn that humanity, the dusty words of God, was created to embrace difference as a characteristic of God’s good intentions.

But we also learn that something threatens this reality: the misinterpretation of difference, and from this, the infectious power of race is born.

As a structuring marker, race emphasizes difference as a point of contention rather than redemption. Within these categorizations of human worth, individualism, greed, and personal pursuit bespeaks a desire for ontological aristocracy. The idea of race has hardened the heart of human relationship, transforming it into a rigid endeavor of violence and control. It resists the diverse truths inherent in being human.

Theological perspective founded on these principles will always cause harm. Bantum illumines how race as a category of life and livelihood is the enemy of God’s truth. Race rears its ugly head, threatening to divide and falsely determine the values of being human. Bantum pushes back against the stories that race-gone-awry have tried to tell us and store into our ontological memory banks, including its Christian branches. He, instead, advocates for seeing the salvific truths behind difference—that, in God, difference is a sign of love and learning, not of danger.

Bantum claims that difference is “always an opportunity to understand God, the world, others, and ourselves more deeply” (40). Difference is the place through which God’s creative power is most powerfully demonstrated. True life is found in difference. Life in God is known, taught, and flung into our bones and consciousness through learning how to live together as different beings whose lives are rooted in God’s creative action and love. Through the incarnation, God is putting on difference, and we see that difference is not an obstacle but gateway to God’s holiness (99). Difference is a space for learning what it means to be a human creation of God.

Bantum utilizes a Trinitarian approach to assert the integrity of creaturely life in difference. God resists the ominous powers of race using the activity of words to reform the systems of relationship away from injurious hierarchies, and towards recognition of the good in communal life. In announcement and proclamation, and preaching and presence Jesus Christ advocates for the true form of human life—a life inscribed with recognition and love for everyone, especially the unseen and forgotten. The Holy Spirit guides the church towards an understanding of its interdependence amidst the beauty of difference. Ultimately, Bantum reminds us that if the Christian church embraces its differences as gifts, it can live into the fullness of its intended purpose.

A reframing of difference is critical to the life of the Christian church, and the Christian faith as a whole. Through his memoir style of storytelling Bantum challenges himself and others to abandon the idea of difference as a good in itself—to avoid placing it on a pedestal of “I’m just me!”—in order to properly recognize and account for the stories that do, in fact, shape us even if we make no claim on them ourselves (48-49). But this sentiment of difference, as an overdetermination of uniqueness, can be reframed and thus turned towards working communally. As long as difference does not assume separation, emphasizing one’s distinctiveness can actually be a tool of empowerment, especially for those walking the line of liminal existence. Self-naming in light of and in life with others, and not apart from or in spite of others strengthen Bantum’s claims of joining as a demonstrative of God’s purpose for humanity (54).

There is room to both acknowledge individual conscience and collective character. The power of God’s creativity is in holding our individual and communal identity together as mutually important; both need equal weight and spacing in our life movements and understanding.

A masterful work of story as theological revelation and theology as story in motion, The Death of Race unapologetically speaks truths that the Christian church today needs to hear. Bantum poignantly asks the church hard—but necessary questions—In being in community what other stories are among us and how can we honor them? By being present in others’ lives, what other stories have we entered into? (40) He challenges us to consider whether it is actually possible to ignore a reality where stories are formed when greeted with new stories. If everyone impacts the direction of another’s story, another’s life, how important every single person must be!

The Death of Race is not only on the ground, it is in the dirt, and it has no problem describing the dirtiness of Christian life in the everyday. With deep care, Bantum makes accessible the gifts and curses of how the Christian faith has been practiced in the world. The Death of Race is a beautiful exploration of faith in the midst of the hard realities race deals us all. It is refreshingly honest and accessible. It is required reading if the Christian church, or the academy, hopes to shed façades, take a closer look at itself, and walk meaningfully in the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Oluwatomisin Oredein is a Th.D. candidate at Duke University Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Bantum is Professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University and author of Redeeming Mulatto. He is a sought-after speaker on the issues of Christianity and race relations.

Keywords: 

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