Last night I chose to RedBox the Oscar-nominated film Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It was a bit out of my comfort zone, I usually prefer science fiction and fantasy, but I watched the movie having no idea about the plot or characters. I had heard and read so much praise for this film that I actually had my doubts it would be any good. Good thing I don’t listen to my doubts that often. BOTSW was a great film, it was well-written and well-executed overall. I don’t want to give away any spoilers for the film, but wanted to say I highly recommend it.
Aesthetics, Race, and The Faces of Oppression & Resistance!
I have taken the opportunity before on here to address negative racial and sexual stereotypes against black women in the past, for example, see the first of my series from last year on William Paul Young’s The Shack and the story of Mammy, the asexual submissive black female house servant. Today, I would like to address the other major racist stereotype against black women, the Venus Hottentot/Jezebel.
Whenever we look at the history of music and dance, we always seem to go back to folks telling a story. What story are we telling when we look at a musician or actor for that matter? Last year, I commented on an appalling trend in black Celebrity culture, that of bleaching their skin to make them pass as whiter. The notion of passing has a long history in the United States in terms of African Americans. In the early 20th century, sociologist W.E.B.DuBois advanced his idea of the Talented Tenth, the idea that there would be an educated elite of African Americans to lift the black race out of Jim and Jane Crow fascist rule. The faces of resistance for DuBois were mulatto and light skinned blacks; the closer to white skin a person was, the closer they were to divinity. Frantz Fanon, in Black Skins and White Masks, he argued in his introduction that blacks strive to be white, and white strive to be human. In other words, whiteness and universality is the definition of what it means to be human in a racist society.
A concrete example of this is the racism of Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and Voltaire. Voltaire argued in his Essay “The People Of America” that blacks were not human, that like the species of dogs, blacks were cocker spaniels, whites were more like greyhounds. David Hume and Thomas Jefferson firmly believed blacks were born inferior(for more analysis on this, read chapter 2 of Cornel West’s Prophesy Deliverance! as well as David Theo Goldberg’s Racist Culture). The foundation for the normative gaze that sides time and time against black people is classical Greek aesthetics. As West puts it, “The principal aim of natural history is to observe, compare, measure, and order animal and human bodies ( or classes of animals and human bodies) based on visible, especially physical, characteristics. These characteristics permit one to discern identity and difference, equality and inequality, beauty and ugliness among animals and human bodies” (page 55). The Classification of human bodies, whether we start with Francois Bernier (humanity divided into four: Africans, Orientals, Europeans,and Lapps)or Linneaus’ Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Homo Afer, and Homo Americanus, these lists were predicated on the idea that black skinned people were of “little genius,” and that white skin was the natural skin of humanity (the DEFAULT).
Galileo and Descartes brought back classical Greek aesthetics to the center of European culture. This white supremacist gaze held that the beautiful body was inseparable from the beautiful soul. West puts it this way: “Lavater [the father of physiognomy] believed that the Greek statues were the models of beauty. [...] blue eyes, horizontal forehead, bent back, round chin, and short brown hair” (page 58).
Over the centuries the classical Greek turned European ideal evolved from brown hair to blonde hair, but as for being essential to the Western identity,the Western Gaze remained relatively the same. Any monstrosities who were deemed out of the norm were put through scientific research. Case in point: Khoi-Khoi, known by her slave name as Sarah Baartman. “She was the black African who was put on public display because of the “immediacy” of her sex to European audiences–male and female–who had never seen such an ass as hers.” (Emilie Townes, “The Womanist Dancing Mind” in Deeper Shades Of Purple). After being exploited for years, Khoi Khoi died at age 25 years of age. It was then that Napoleon’s surgeon general was able to use her corpse as a museum display. The power over Khoi Khoi’s body that Napolean had is the same power that Pepsi Incorporated offers young black girls who look up to Beyonce.
As Townes puts it,
“Oppressions are rude because they do not simply give a damn about people or the rest of creation, they are only concerned with the acquisition of power that dominates and bullies. Those who participate in it will sell their souls and anything else they can get their hands on or snatch out of someone else’s hand to possess power because oppressions work to make all of us commodities that can be bought and sold, discarded and annihilated.”
Womanist ethicist Kelly Brown Douglas noted that it is the experience of Khoi Khoi that remains the quintessential definition of the Black Jezebel: black females were bought and sold according to their reproductive capacity; ” By distorting black women’s sexuality, the Jezebel image protected the White Slavocracy and fostered the exercise of tyrannical White power” (Douglas, Sexuality and the Black Church, p 40). White male masters could play the victim, since they were seduced by their enslaved black Jezebels.
The bodies of black women then historically have been used for entertainment, with just a few body parts being singled out.First Lady Michelle Obama is being ridiculous for her backside, leave it to Rush Limbaugh to relish in the Jezebel stereotype. The body image of women which racist thinkers such as Limbaugh are attached too are ironically not like his lovers in the Dominican Republic, but rather at the ones from Greco-Roman antiquity. Black beauty is seen as a form of lack, rather than anything that should be affirmed.
So, what story does this performance of Beyonce at the Super Bowl embody? I would argue the story of Sarah Baartman. The mythos behind the music and dance which I could enjoy while at the same time, stand at a distance and be just as leery. Of course, I grew up in a home where mom disapproved of the term “bootylicious.” After reading the story of Khoi Khoi, I am just a tad suspicious too, of what it means to use one’s sexuality for power. The power that Beyonce embraced was the power to appeal to the men of PepsiCo. It is the Napoleonic power of Corporate domination in the public and private sphere. I contend that gender power is not found in exploitation, nor is it found in the puritanical mores of conservative Christian male hierarchy that guilts people for being sensual creatures.
Rather, gender power, from a Christian perspective, should be found in the imago Dei, something that is at once ineffable as well as disclosed in the life of our Lord Christ Jesus. The definition of beauty which finds as its source the Trinity, Unity in Diversity, cannot accept limitations from white supremacist culture. Yet, we can recognize what is beautiful and true by experiencing the presence of Jesus, the joys of worship as well as in the midst of suffering. To the wise, famous, and beautiful, the Cross is foolishness, grotesque, heinous; but to the marginalized, the Cross is a wonderful delight.
In the article McKnight link, research was showing that our willpower has its limits. In contemporary Christian culture, its popular for folks to have studied narrative theology and virtue ethics , much like written by Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre. I agree with Scot, who contended that New Testament ethics was about the development of the moral agent through grace and the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christian ethics starts with Christology + pneumatology, and NOT ecclessiology, which plays a larger role in the Christian life for RadOx theologians. Scot is NOT arguing for an abstract, disembodied form of ethics; on the contrary, if one starts with Jesus and the Holy Spirit (second and third persons of the Trinity), one cannot help but talk about embodiedness!
Virtue ethics frames its ethics based on communal formation; Christ, however, as the Logos comes in the form of a demand, a burden on us in every situation. The Word as Duty has its theological founding in the words of the prophets; just as YHWH is duty bound to the divine promise, so are human beings in right relationship with God bound (by covenant). Theologically, as I am working back with Clement of Alexandria and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Logos (CoA)/the Word (DB) encounters the faithful and works to create us into responsible subjects before God and between us and our neighbors. Talking about the role of the church and its pedagogical benefits is good, but this type of conversation when it comes to moral action definitely has its limits. The trend towards virtue ethics does not take into consideration (or does not like to) issues relating to power within the community. Christian ethics is quite a complex topic, but I am now leaning more towards a pneumatological + deontological (duty/law) way of thinking about things.
What say you? Is virtue ethics (even with some talk of Spirit/Grace) a helpful way to talk about Christian ethics?
Unseating The Chairs Of Hierarchy Through Trinitarian Rhythm!
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies [YHWH], and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” [...] He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”- Luke 1:46-17;52
Merry, Christmas, one and all, and goodwill towards men ….and women (thank you, Batman Returns)!
Today, I would like to reflect on the Trinitarian logic of Mary’s Song, in her praise for YHWH and what YHWH does for the faithful in Israel and Judah. Mary’s song is not unlike Hannah’s Prayer in 1st samuel 2. How many Christians got to hear Hannah’s name mentioned from the pulpit? Hummm, anyone? Anyone? Anyone?
Normally, when we read Luke 1, Hannah is an after thought, but, like Mary, they have a YHWHistic spirituality that allows them to see things that God is going to do. The passages I briefly quoted do actually go together, and should not be separated arbitrarily (as some do with spirit/body). Mary’s spirit rejoice IN God; Mary is just not the passive recipient of divine action. The Blessed Mother’s Yes to God’s spirit, as well as her joy in knowing who God is and what God is going to do. It is this joy as a gift from the Spirit of God that is something that is not kept to Mary’s self, but that is shared with, with persons like her cousin Elizabeth, who’s child leaped for joy in her womb (Luke 1:39-45).
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah’s like:
Now, like Zechariah back then, there’s a lot of well meaning folks who get offended when someone brings up perichoresis as a divine dance, and they start falling out of their chairs.
They claim there’s an “AGENDA” behind Christians and theologians viewing perichoresis as a dance since it’s not “historical” trinitarian language. Uh hmmmmmmmm okay, right dude…..
Perichoresis doesn’t mean dance in the Greek, it’s vaguely related to another term, yes we get it! However, Perichoresis has historically been translated into not ONE, BUT TWO Latin words.
Leonard Boff notes this, and argues that circuminsession, “derived from sedere and session, being seated, having its seat in, seat.” (Trinity and Society, page 136). It is this vision of communion, of sitting in YHWH’s life and God being seated in our everyday existences that inspire a Christian vision for liberation from oppression, and a liberation for justice.
Of course, when the “orthodox” gatekeepers use scare words like “social justice,” “feminists” or “liberationists,” they make their displeasure obvious. The gatekeepers show their pettiness (much like their forefather Zechariah) in showing shade for others’ joy:
No doubt that arguments against Perichoresis/Circuminsession as dance come from a place that fears change, but language changes, the Trinity for Christians is a historical truth inspired by revelation in God’s Word, Jesus Christ, but the language throughout the centuries used to convey such a mystery is limited and changing. Mary’s, Elizabeth’s, and the child John the Baptist’s resounding joy in the form of dancing with the divine:
This dancing is out of joy that only YHWH can provide, the freedom from the thrones and hierarchies of this world. Advent is that radical season where Transcendence has arrived, where we experience the movement of the Triune God in the universe, as the Most Moved Mover works through the bodies of the poor, women, and children. Evangelist Billy Graham once asked, “Can you see God, can you see Him? We can’t see the wind, but we can feel the effects of the wind.” Not only can dances of the Spirit be found in charismatic and Pentecostal churches, but also in homeless shelters and in prisons and in public schools where God is leading people to take care of the less fortunate. And that is truly something to dance and celebrate about.
AT THE INTERSECTION OF CULTURAL INTERPRETATION AND THEOLOGICAL EXEGESIS
We have all probably sat either in a classroom or church, and hear the teacher or preacher, so smoothly announce that she believes that the Acts of the Apostles should be renamed the Acts of the Holy Spirit. This is a good observation that has quite frankly worn itself out. Of course, I maintain my continuationism, but a focus on pneumatology in Acts causes exegetes and honest Christians to skip Acts 1 and start with Acts 2. I say that if a person begins with Acts 1, she could find a emphasis more on all three persons of the Godhead and their relations to each other. The Risen Christ maintains the Trinitarian distiction between himself, the Father, and the Holy Spirit while acknowledging their equality. Jesus informs the 11 apostles and company that the Father alone knows the time that Israel will be restored (Luke 10:22; Acts 1:7) and to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit that the Father had promised to send in Jesus’ name (Acts 1:4; John 14:16).
Theologically, the mission of the Trinity is important in sending the apostles; the sending of the Son and the Spirit corresponds with the sending of the apostles from Jerusalem and Judah and into the world. In terms of occupying space within the universe, and within the canon itself, one could understand the immanent Trinity to be hidden within the witness of the prophets of Israel and the economic Trinity and its life unfolding (and connected to the mission to the Gentiles) as we see in the pages of the New Testament. This approach, I believe, gives me sufficient reason to avoid so called “Christo-centric” readings of the “Old” Testament, where everything is allegory while the history of the Jewish people is superseded. The Trinity remains the same deity throughout Scripture, just one remains primarily hidden, the other primarily disclosed. At the heart of this possible Trinitarian hermeneutic is an emphasis on the difference between the Economic and Immanent Trinity, something that needs to be maintained contra Karl Rahner and certain conservative evangelical theologians who agree with him.
Now, one space where theological interpretation meets the cultural appropriation of the Acts of the Trinity (the Incarnation) is African American Christian traditions. In early colonial America, Quakers, Baptists and Methodists who were abolitionists tried to teach free blacks Christianity with passages such as Acts 10:34-36–”God is no respecter of persons” and Acts 17:36–”he hath made of one blood all the nations of men [and women].” It was these same passages that [one time] Calvinist 18th century black preacher Lemuel Haynes refuted “the great” Jonathan Edwards’ claims that it was God’s will for blacks to be enslaved. Demetrius K. Williams in his contribution to True To Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, notes that 19th century preachers such as Bishop Reverdy Ransom found their goals for social justice for the Negro Church from the Acts of The Trinity (page 216). The stories such as the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-40) to the Jerusalem Conference (13-14:28) show that there is a movement from the inner life of God to the economic workings of the Trinity to bring the Good News to all of the world. Because of the essential unity of YHWH and the Messiah (the Incarnation, both God and Humanity), the theological can indeed be reconciled with the cultural, without these being mutually exclusive as we have now in biblical studies.
*Edit*: suffice has been changed to sufficient. Thanks for the correction, Joel!