A serious conversation about Racism and the Meaning of Baptism

The writers at Covenant, Chris Wells and Craig Uffman, are no slouches when it comes to in depth theological reflection. The most recent post, by Craig, does not disappoint. Titled, "Racism and the Meaning of Baptism," the essay challenges the notion, proposed by William Kristol, that "the last thing we need is a heated national conversation about race." Craig points us to another essay, one that he believes does indeed try to open a conversation about race: an article by J. Kameron Carter. Craig takes significant excerpts from that essay and posts them on this blog.

I am still thinking about what Craig wrote, and what he referenced, and so don't want to do more now than point you to the blog post. Again you can access it HERE. Drop over and read it. Covenant gives in depth commentary on a variety of concerns and is worth the read.

One thing: Craig begins by saying, "The harsh anti-American rhetoric of Barack Obama’s former pastor, attributed by some to liberation theology, has been used by both sides of the aisle as an opportunity to gain political points in support of the three surviving campaigns." On the one hand I appreciate Craig's willingness to support Senator Obama's concern that we do in fact have a sustained conversation about race, and I am convinced that as Episcopalians we need to tie that in to the question of the meaning of Baptism. I am not, however, convinced that the connection between "harsh anti-American rhetoric" and liberation theology is at all useful. Whatever liberation theology means these days, when it has acquired a bad name in some Catholic circles, it may not now or in the past have had much to do with black liberation theology, which has its roots in very different contexts and grew out of very specific circumstances.

Well, read and let us know what you think.


  1. Mark,

    To be sure liberation theologies are contextual-- deeply so and by design, intended or otherwise. I think you're correct to point out the distinction between "whatever liberation theology" may be understood to be these days and the more specific moniker of "black liberation theology"-- or really, black liberation theologies (plural).

    That said, the meat of Craig's article really is his extended quotations from J Cameron Carter.

    I cannot but agree with Carter in principle that baptism into the Triune God transforms everything essentially, or "substantially," including all identity politics.

    But the "accidental" transformation (to borrow the other side of this term from the language of transubstantiation) remains unchanged unless we have not only changed essences, but changed individuals supported by transformative communities. In other words, unless we have an assembly, a church, that lives what it has been made and remade in God, and consistently proclaims this remaking in word and deed-- and not just in academic treatises-- I don't know how it does anyone much good or actually undoes the ongoing realities of racism.

    Part of the good news is that we do have such persons who gather in assemblies and seek to do just this-- even though imperfectly. I would number Jeremiah Wright among them, as a prophet who speaks not merely from some "black identity politics" but rather from the politics of the suffering who have no recourse but to cry out -- "My God, my God-- why have you forsaken me--" and in beginning that Psalm implying the naming of those who cast lots, pluck out the beard, and count us as good as dead.

    Yes, we have to talk about this. But more, we have to keep working to DO something about this that changes the old scripts out of which we'll continue to play our lines by default-- unless we write new ones, or remember the baptismal one-- and call one another to account to live and act in accordance with it.

    In the realpolitik of ecumenical dialog in the US, The African Methodist Episcopal Church and The African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion have walked away from Churches Uniting in Christ-- at least for now. And AME has walked away for now from considering full communion with The United Methodist Church. Why? They refuse to play by the old scripts. They're done with those. They're not going back until a different script is on the table. Maybe, just maybe, this witness, too, helps those of us who haven't stopped learning our lines from the scripts of mere niceness start to reconsider what it means to live as the baptized who will persevere in resisting evil, however it presents itself, strive for justice and peace among all peoples, and respect the dignity of every human being.

    May Christ's distressing peace redeem us all...

    The Reverend's Spouse

  2. Thanks for raising this issue of racism on your blog, Mark, and taking note of my post at Covenant.

    I appreciate your comment about the linkage between the harsh rhetoric of Wright and liberation theology. Actually, I agree with you entirely. I tried to signal that softly in the qualifying clause "attributed by some to liberation theology." I am not among those who make that attribution. While there are no doubt intersections between liberation theology and the theology that funds preachers such as Wright, I think those who claim that Wright is inspired by liberation theology are far off the mark.

    Thanks for pointing your readers to Carter's work. I think he has enormous resources to contribute to this conversation.


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Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.