Don and George’s excellent conversation with Chris Sanchez last week got me thinking on a number of questions, but in particular Don’s question to Chris about anti-Jewish readings and racist ideas.
This came up when Chris had been answering George’s question about how Scripture has been used as a weapon against people of color. Historians have documented this quite well in the modern period – e.g., Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Don’s follow up question got me thinking, especially in our present context.
You see, I had just listened to a two-hour conversation between Vox.com’s Ezra Klein and Sam Harris. It was ostensibly a debate about the science surrounding some of Charles Murray’s controversial claims concerning race and I.Q. In reality it was Sam Harris trying to fight a great battle (in his view) against “identity politics.” He explains what he means by this:
what I mean by identity politics is that you are reasoning on the basis of skin color, or religion, or gender, or some particular trait, which you have by accident, which you can’t change — you fell into that bin through no process of reasoning on your own, you couldn’t be convinced to be white or black — and to reason from that place as though, because you’re you, because you have the skin color you have, certain things are true and very likely incommunicable to other people who don’t share your identity.
For Harris, the basic problem is that if something is true, it’s true for all people, and so the best type of conversation is the one where personal identity is completely erased, our stories have no bearing on the data, we look at the facts completely blind. It’s a learned ignorance of the story of a person’s life, a kind of naiveté about the conditions that produce ideas. He mentions John Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” in this connection.
Harris doesn’t seem to realize that Ignorance is one of secret perks of being a member of the dominant social group. Ignorance especially of the boundaries of your own identity, the roots of your own thought and perception, and the paths that have led you, and still lead you, to your position in the world. You do not need to know that your neighborhood is almost completely white because of red-lining. You do not need to need to be aware that because your name sounds “white” your job application will get more consideration than a name that sounds “black.”
I mention this because I was so struck at the moment of Don’s and Chris’s discussion of how the interpretation of Judaism in the history of Christianity has perfectly prepared us for this moment. You see, the basic problem with Judaism, from a “Christian” perspective, is that it focuses on “the temporal” rather than the eternal, as Justin Martyr put it in his Dialogue with Tyrpho the Jew (circa 150 A.D.). By the time of the Enlightenment, figures such as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel could argue that Jewish “particularism” stands in stark contrast to Christianity’s “universalism,” or rather Jewish are focused on the “letter” at expense of the “Spirit.”
It is no accident that this interpretation of Christianity eventually made its way into discussions of race in the modern period. In fact, the problem with black Americans, as Ibram Kendi documents so well in Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racists Ideas in America often focuses precisely on their “slavery” to the sensual, their inability to rise above their “base” desires, in short, their stubborn particularity.
This contrast – between Judaism’s/people of color’s particularity and Christianity’s/white European’s universality or reason would be familiar to anyone who has read any philosophy, science, or theology of the modern period. The founder of Biblical theology, F.C. Bauer, famously used Hegel’s understanding of Judaism as a dating method for the Hebrew Bible. The disciples of Charles Darwin couldn’t help but see the term “adaptation” as a word of praise, and of course who has adapted the best among humans but white Europeans, who have raised themselves by reason above mere subsistence to culture?
But what happens when people of the dominant group cease being ignorant? What happens when we take Jesus’ Jewish context seriously? What happens when we no longer seek the veil of ignorance.
Here’s a moment in my story. I am a white male from upstate New York. I was working with youth who were African American in Kansas, and I was trying really hard with them – I was teaching, and telling a story about a black minister who dealt with a KKK member, and non-violently converted the man. I was trying to show that I wasn’t like other white people, that I was aware of myself, that I am “woke,” that I get it. I needed them to see that I was concerned for all people, not just my group.
It was truly embarrassing when next week they called me out on it. They felt it was fake. In fact, what they wanted to hear from me was my story – the story that formed me, Austin Eisele, in all its particularity. A fellow youth worker told me just to be me – and after that I just was myself. Eventually we found points of commonality between my story and theirs, and I realized at that moment that my own particular story is so powerful I didn’t need to somehow assume a standpoint outside myself, in some “universal.”
So here’s my question: can we learn to read the stories of Jesus in his context without resorting to the universal/particular dichotomy? What would that look like? How can we reason from story?
This to me is a critical question in Biblical literacy.