Method as Identity: Manufacturing Distance in the Academic Study of Religion, by Christopher M. Driscoll and Monica R. Miller is here, at last. Dr. Monica R. Miller and I have worked on this monograph for the last four years, so we’re thrilled to see it in our hands. And your hands, too. Admittedly, the price is a bit high for students, and well, most scholars, too. But that can quickly be addressed if everyone asks their institutional library to purchase a hard copy of the book now. Then, in about a year’s time, a paperback will be released.
[A final email to my Is God Dead? Spring 2018 Rels/Phil students. Thought I would share it here.]
Rejecting the gift of death. That’s the title of my essay you read for today’s final class. I wanted the occasion of our final class to give you a sense of where the discourses surrounding the death of god stand today. My essay, taken from a chapter in my book White Lies, asks a philosophical question of white American Christianity: would the deaths of others ever matter more than as a way of ensuring victory over death?
To be honest, I trust that each of you have worked hard enough, and understood enough, and have been adequately motivated throughout the class to (mostly) make sense of the essay. I am happy to answer any specific questions you may have about it. And the same goes for any questions as you organize final essays, and outlying assignments. But something more important has happened in the last few days and it deserves our attention ahead of talking about my essay.
Everything in my essay, well, almost everything, is my effort to articulate a white, male response to many of the voices we’ve read over the second half of the class. With the exception of Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, none of these voices have been more influential to my research and writing than Dr. James Cone (and Dr. Cone was a mentor to Dr. Pinn, too). As we discussed in class, he gave voice and space to many of the thinkers we have read, such as William Jones, Katie Cannon, Laurel C. Schneider, Mark L. Taylor, and Monica R. Miller (to name only a few). Like many of these thinkers, my work is a response to Dr. Cone, and my very career and life rests on the foundation he provided.
This weekend, Dr. Cone passed away. He was 81.
Many of the thinkers you’re reading and writing about in your assignments are literally in mourning right now. Dr. Cone was a mentor and inspiration to me, my wife, our mentors and teachers, a friend to many of our teachers’ teachers, and a critic to our teachers’ teachers’ teachers. For all of us, it is very hard to imagine a world where Dr. Cone is not here to guide us. We are scared.
He fought white supremacy his entire life, and he died during a time when we all hang under an ominous cloud of racial hatred that was omnipresent and omnipotent in his life and ours.
What would we make of Dr. Cone’s death? At one level, “the gift of death” is a gift because it means an end to problems. Atheists and theists are united in the perspective that whatever else death may mean, it does mean an end to worldly suffering for the departed. Dr. Cone fought all his life, and death is one reward for that fight.
But death is only earned in the fashion described above when folks have the possibility of charting their own path in life. Dr. Cone ended up with such an opportunity, but far, far too many black and brown folk – and poor white folks, too – still do not have adequate or equitable access to opportunities and resources that would enable the life options that Dr. Cone, myself, and most of you will have in this regard.
As you know, Dr. Cone was of the mind that something about white American Christianity stacked the deck of life in favor of white folks. Indeed, there seemed to be a relationship between the Christian claim that “god loved the world so much that he gave his only son…that the world might have eternal life,” and, the seeming comfort that many white Americans have with the deaths of black and brown folks historically and today. For Cone – on this point at least – it wasn’t that all white people were guilty of lynching black folks or shooting them in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This actual brutality was easier to make sense of. It is as simple as noting that humans – all of us – can act like monsters, and we tend to act like monsters towards other humans who we regard as monsters. But no, this wasn’t a primary concern for Dr. Cone. Cone was concerned that white Christians transformed the story of a presumed prophet of god into a cause to be celebrated as salvific. This latter point is the other sense of the gift of death, emphasized throughout the chapter you read.
This second sense of death as a gift is a way to describe the white Western belief that death can be avoided if only we kill another. Our militaries and governments are set up according to such terms, and American Christianity is, too. Westerners, whatever else we have been and remain today, kill others and grow comfortable with and numb to the killing of others, all in service to a demand to not die, which is, of course, idiotic. We die anyway. And we turn ourselves into monsters on this fool’s errand.
Rejecting this gift of death means rejecting the notion that a death – whether of a black kid in the streets of Baltimore, a trans-person in Houston, a Syrian in Germany, or a first-century Palestinian Jew hanging from a Roman cross – would ever be excused, celebrated, or even commemorated on the grounds that it prevented “my” death, or “our” death as a culture.
There is the gift of death and then there is the gift of death: The first is a recognition that the problems of the world do have an end; all of us, even those who worked so hard fighting injustice in this world, will find rest in the next, even if only as stardust. The second is the death that our fear of death gives to others, exonerated by a Christian story that westerners celebrate as divine and righteous. This is the death of god Nietzsche spoke of, and warned us about, Christianity’s “stroke of genius.” That there would be worship of a dead god (in the person of Jesus) meant that Christianity had perverted the western world’s relationship to reality. This is also the gift of death that philosopher Jacques Derrida tells us, like Nietzsche, he simply could not reject.
Derrida knew. He knew. He, like white witnesses to lynchings before him and like many of us in sight of news stories of police shootings, white supremacy marches, and ongoing threats of intense global conflict, knows all of this. But rejecting the gift of death is easier said than done.
Will I, will each of you, or we (however you want to imagine this “we”) have the courage to reject this gift so that more of us might live a longer, fuller life?
Until we do, until we all do, I fear Dr. Cone and all of the white, black, yellow, brown, and red, women and men, trans and cis, queer and straight, rich and poor ancestors who have gone before us, will not rest easy. Their spirits, all of them, both the guilty and the innocent, perpetrators and victims, all of them are not free to rest, as much as I want to believe otherwise. Dr. Cone rejected this second sense of the gift of death through his unapologetic embrace of the blackness of god. I am an atheist. But I am forever a believer in Dr. Cone’s god.
Is god dead? And if so, whose god is dead?
You students were the last students I will ever have who I had the pleasure to teach Dr. Cone’s ideas while he was still alive. I cannot live up to the legacy left by Dr. Cone. But I will try. And I invite each of you to do so as well.
On June 13, 2017, I delivered a bit of new work to the folks at the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover (FIPH), where I've been a fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year. Below is the abstract for the talk, "On the Occasion of Joseph Conrad's Death: Anti-Heroes and Negative Dialectics in the Western Imagination, Still." The talk turns to some interesting data from Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford (and others) to think about Conrad's life and death as an allegory for contemporary anxieties surrounding the death or collapse of the West. Take a look here at shadesofwhite.org or at the FIPH Vimeo page (which has a lot of material you might find interesting).
“You will ask: Why death? Why not some alternative? Flight or prison? Well: prison would be an unendurable travelling through Time, flight an equally unendurable travelling through Time with Space added. Both these things are familiar: Death alone, in spite of all the experience that humanity has had of Death, is the utterly unfamiliar.” -Joseph Conrad
English Modern writer Joseph Conrad is a spectre, neither living nor dead, but a perpetual haunting for westerners in the form of his literary legacy and the anti-heroic stories he wrote, which force readers into a confrontation with the banality and smugness of western arrogance. By this reading, Conrad also serves as an analogy for western notions of loss, melancholy, and (cultural) death, writ large, today. At once alive yet under seeming threat from an “other” that over time has been rendered as “all” others, westerners – whoever we may be – might find wisdom in lamenting the death of Conrad. This lecture turns to lesser known works of Conrad just before his death (in 1924), along with fellow authors’ thoughts on Conrad’s death, to explore the relationship of anti-heroes, negative identities, and their god of death.
Thanks for taking a look!
On September 8, 2017, Palgrave Macmillan is releasing Humanism in a Non-Humanist World, edited by Monica R. Miller, and part of its Studies in Humanism and Atheism series. Humanism in a Non-Humanist World is filled with a wide-ranging set of humanist, atheist, and freethinker voices. If you're interested in identity and/or humanism, pick up a copy or ask your institution/library to purchase a copy. The essays are fun, informative, and accessible. I was humbled that Miller asked me to contribute not one, but two chapters to the volume.
The second contribution is "Rudy's Paradox: The ALIENation of Race and Its Non-Humans," where I ask if humanists might be willing to learn from "alien" voices of unlikely sorts. Here's a video from Rudy of Germany, the Tall White Alien. Believe it or not, humanists can learn a thing or two from Rudy:
Thanks for helping spread the word about the volume! Email with any questions!
Recently, I participated in a brief online debate for Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover, where I am a fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year. Along with another fellow, the brilliant scholar of religion Monica R. Miller, we discuss whether or not we have a "right" to hate? Check out the following excerpt below, then hit the link to read more.
Pro und contra: Do We have a Right to Hate?
Contra: Christopher Driscoll
Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. – Reinhold Niebuhr[i]
The same holds true of the law, and laws made from, and making, democracy in its varied iterations. Laws must be written and enforced that protect the citizens of a nation from those who would hate particular groups on the basis of belief, biology, geography, or culture. Anti-hate legislation is a powerful step in not only curbing hate-motivated violence, but in organizing the values that hold up any democratic apparatus.
Hatred is not an object in one’s heart, a disposition or ontological viewpoint. It is a verb, a “choice” according to Jean Paul Sartre.[ii] To be a “hater” is to be found “hating.” To be “hateful” is to be prone toward “hating.” Too often, we imagine hate to be a feeling. Even in framing this choice, Sartre, too, overemphasizes hatred as rooted in “passion”[iii] when in fact, expressions of hatred often – as was the case with the routinized Shoah – require a disjuncture between feeling and thinking or feeling and acting. We often fear emotional response will grow violent. However, where hatred is concerned, acute emotional catharsis may be a valve ensuring a community or individual does not succumb to hatred. Nevertheless, Sartre’s suggestion that “hate is a faith,”[iv] a particular kind of bad faith, does well to emphasize the action-basis of hatred but does little to emphasize the ordinariness of bad faith towards any given life. Bad faith is not something limited to the anti-Semite, but is a failure of action all of us (as humans) run risk of perpetuating.
continue reading at philosophie-indebate.de
Since the 1960s, many Americans have done the necessary work of pointing out past (and current) moral failures when it comes to race and gender. Yet, too few of us have taken seriously the psychical harm done to many voters by a half-century of (mostly) positive social changes in the country. Democrats have fetishized diversity to the extent many white Americans do not see themselves represented in the party, while the Republican playbook’s worst-kept secret is that they have carefully stoked racial animus among white voters. For decades, Washington told white Americans: “you don’t deserve to be angry” or “stay angry.” One result has meant a growing percentage of white Americans feel resentment that their voices, concerns, and pain do not matter. Progressives have acted as if white folks feel no pain, which is tragically ironic considering many white folks have thought the same thing about black folks. Whether phantom or hidden, pain is still pain, right?
Trump, Milo, Jones, Richard Spencer, and others from the “alt-right” are scratching an existential itch a lot of folks feel. But they aren’t offering anything akin to civic engagement. Trump is the latest name for an old white card played when it feels tougher to be heard. Historically, white Americans have made very bad decisions in these moments. Lynching, the KKK, Jim and Jane Crow Laws (segregation laws), and the incarceration epidemic all began in moments where rich white businessmen tapped into racial resentment and turned white anger into a special interest. Look up the Louisiana Gubernatorial race of 1872. Is this what Trump means by “Making America Great, Again?”
Our political failure to take white frustrations seriously has seen them fall prey to chicken hawks and us become hawks, as well; too smug (as Democrats) to show compassion to hurting white folks; or, too ashamed (as Republicans) that the party of Lincoln went the way of the Southern Strategy virtually assuring that race would end up the proxy war over far more fundamental American values. How difficult would it be for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to actually speak out against racism? And doesn’t Clinton’s ‘deplorables’ comment amount to building a wall of her own? All voters would appreciate moral leadership and leaders with morals.
Regardless of who wins or loses the election, when will Americans decide to stop playing a political game rooted in the rejection of others? White pain has been pimped out before, and many are being pimped again by Trump’s abuses — some of his biggest victims are his supporters. At best, rejecting these “deplorables” makes us their enablers. At worst, we have been their groomers.
My dad used to say that when people talk about the good ole days, don’t trust them, but don’t forget to love them, either. What Trump offers, by his admission, is a return to the past where rejections based on race and gender were rampant. He may soon be out of the news cycle, but his “deplorables” are not going anywhere. We might do well to greet them with the same toleration we expect so much from them. If we’re so certain American democracy is truly great, then let’s trust it is strong enough to hear all of its voices.
[Read the first parts of the interview at MRB.]
MM/CD: The early chapters of the book forcibly articulate the economic roots of African American religion in colonialism, and the economic roots of black dispossession within (and from) Atlantic empire, more generally. At once, through your attention to Elmina and Cape Coast, which had thriving centers of trade that were by many standards fairly cosmopolitan, you persuasively demonstrate that many Africans were complicit and/or actively engaged in empire, in that empire involved the trade of a host of commodities, including but extending beyond human cargo. Hence, Africans were a vital component of the establishment of trade networks. Yet, a racialized social hierarchy ensured that even this African involvement would never “pay off” for them in a way on par with Europeans. Why has it been difficult for historians to tell the story of Euro-American empire in a way that does not flatten or erase African involvement in empire? And what is gained from fuller historical portraits like the one you present here?
SJ: A terrific question, one that demands multiple layers of response. Among the reasons is the routinization of foregrounding Europeans as agential subjects par excellence. With rare exceptions, we have been conditioned to thinking about trans-Atlantic slavery through a moral lens that impugns Europeans for exercising power malevolently and while viewing Africans as mostly hapless victims. It is certainly true that this process ended with Europeans inflicting massively destructive conquest and domination against Africans. But that’s not how the story began. I open the book with a focus on the Kongo empire because this kingdom was older and more powerful than that of the imperial Portuguese merchants who wandered into its territory in the 1400s (those from Lisbon). The Kongolese adopted Christianity as a luxury import of sorts, not so unlike yoga or pilates for high-brow Americans of the present. It was for elites. For their part, Europeans were simply unable to dominate Africans, since the latter were militarily superior and ably defended their own territory. I frame the beginnings of these imperial relations within an account of commercialism because Africans and Europeans were mutually willing (even eager) trade partners who both profited handsomely from conducting business.
Europeans may have invented a virulent form of racism, but they did not invent slavery. Nor did they invent colonialism. In fact, I am compelled to conclude that Europeans were not the first to develop a system of racism. Europeans did, however, remake slavery as a racial institution. My aim is not to get Europeans off the hook. Rather, I want to explain how the world of Atlantic history came to be, and that requires taking seriously the fact that power is not the exclusive preserve of Europeans.
Think of it this way. There is a relationship between treating Europeans as the sole arbiters of conquest and domination and treating Europeans as the sole or essential arbiters of history and civilization (think of how Georg Hegel understood history). In actual fact, they have been neither. If it is no secret that Africans were already conducting a thriving slave trade before the 1500s and had their own empires, then that knowledge needs to become data for interpreting the history of power. I think Marcus Garvey understood this, and I think this is partly why he was conscientiously a self-proclaimed imperialist. Not only did some Africans willingly enslave other Africans with no sense of remorse, but also Blacks from the United States colonized and subjugated Africans through a process of racial domination. As a result, these Americo-Liberians enjoyed the sweet fruits of democratic freedom (they were really free in the way we are accustomed to thinking of White Americans as having actual freedom) while Blacks in the United States were in chattel slavery or were being decimated under White terrorist rule following the abolition of chattel slavery. I also explain how some Black Americans participated in US wars of genocide and colonialism against Indigenous American nations following the Civil War. This was a critical factor for Black efforts to integrate into the political community of the United States.
Power is not and will never be the special preserve of the White race. But for too long, we have become comfortable with the image of Blacks as sacrificial lambs bumbling along under the regime of slaughter at the hands of Europeans. There is a type of comfort in interpreting Black religion under the sign of innocence. This is a narrative perversion, a way of reading Black religious history to achieve a mythopoeic account of good versus evil that defangs the ambivalent militancy of Blacks while succoring Christian triumphalism. At this point, we have entered the poetics of race history. African American Religions is an attempt to demythologize racial Blackness and racial Whiteness by taking what we know—power is not the special preserve of Whites, and Africans administered empires, slavery, and conquest—as useful and essential data for interpreting the history of freedom and empire to show how they have been mutually constitutive.
MM/CD: Without giving away too much from the book, or at least giving you the option of what to offer here, you make some incredible, groundbreaking suggestions about the relationship between European mind/body, spirit/body ontology (i.e. duality) and the rise of the “fetish” as a popular and philosophical topic of interest for Europeans. Furthermore, you bring ontology to bear on economics and discuss the “spiritualization of money and the secularization of finance” as significant for the growth of the slave trade. You even draw some incredibly compelling genealogical connections between the European interest in the African “fetish” and Marx’s turn to the fetish for his theorization of political economy. What do you have in mind by the turn to “spiritualization of money” and “secularization of finance”? What are the implications of this section of the book for understanding the economic roots of Atlantic empire, the relationship between economics and black religion, and the limits of economics for ensuring black entry into the “marketplace” (broadly construed)?
SJ: Yes, that’s a great question. By the “spiritualization of money” I mean to denote the transformation of money from material entities (coins, bullion, other material commodities such as ivory and gold) to immaterial entities such as insurance, interest, and debt. These instruments of finance capitalism were invented as practical solutions for conducting the African slave trade. This accomplished a reinvention of money that transformed it into a spiritual (i.e., non-material) technology. So, today, it is no big deal to recognize that money has to be accounted for as wealth that can be tracked on a balance sheet. In fact, the money held by the wealthiest individuals and companies is not material cash but capital such as a share of ownership of a company, which is itself an immaterial entity. Even our cash is now typically a dynamic pattern of data that allows us to access it while traveling simply by authenticating our identity using a bank card or biometrics on a smartphone.
This exists in necessary apposition to what I call the secularization of finance. In the context of the fetish, I try to explain how finance came to be formed as an enterprise that could incorporate Christian subjects who viewed capital and commercial obligation in ways that resisted and ultimately defied the religious oaths that grounded African commercial practices—the latter bound commercial parties under threat of injury or death from an Orisha, a powerful extraordinary entity in African indigenous religion. Another prominent example of this is that loan interest (usury) became routinized as a Christian practice in Western Europe, rather than being treated as a religious breach suitable for only Jewish financiers.
The cultural history of so-called fetish religion, as William Pietz demonstrated in a pioneering series of studies, cannot be separated from material practices of commerce and the global trade in the millions of Africans who were abducted and forced into regimes of domination that dispersed them thousands of miles from their homelands. So, another take-away is that no study of Western capitalism is complete without attention to its intersectional history with African indigenous religion. (I should probably add that this is not a reductive claim. It is also essential to study South Asia and East Asia, for instance, to understand the full history of Western capitalism.)
Check out the rest of the interview here...
The following post is an excerpt from White Lies: Race & Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion (Routledge, 2015).
Whiteness, the racialized expression of a fundamental inability to accept limitation and uncertainty, has died.
Though the actual time and place of birth of Mr. Whiteness is unknown, it has been said that his "social" birth took place in the Southern part of the United States in the decades following the Civil War and word of his birth soon spread across the country. Conceived during the nuptials of Enslavement and Colonialism, Mr. Whiteness would go on to lead a storied life only dreamt of by his parents.
(Continue reading at The Huffington Post)
“What does it cost to be a Negro? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his sight.”
“What does it cost to be white? In Aiken, South Carolina, it cost a man his soul.”
The NAACP turns 107 today. February 12 also marks the anniversary of the brutal police beating of African American Isaac Woodard. In 1946, Woodard had been recently honorably discharged from the Army, and, while still in uniform, beat with such ferocity by “Officer X” of Aiken, South Carolina that it left Woodard permanently blind. Police brutality is nothing new. Neither are voices of resistance — black, brown, & white. Woodard’s case was publicized thanks largely to Orson Welles.
It does not take courage or a national platform to speak out against racial injustice. It takes willingness and anger at living in a world of white lies.
“I know what happened, it is very simple. They woke up the wrong man.”
#BlackLivesMatter #WhiteLiesMatter #WhiteLiestheBook