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Racism and the Vocation of the Theologian
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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 2.1 (2002) 15-29

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Racism and the Vocation of the Christian Theologian

M. Shawn Copeland


In an effort to awaken us to the increasing drift in U. S. culture and society, just prior to the 1992 presidential election, political scientist Manning Marable observed that we were living in the "age of Clarence Thomas and David Duke." Marable spied a downward pull not only in Thomas's sexist behavior and Duke's unmasked exercise of white privilege, but in a cultural life lived in thin, nearly amoral air and bereft of humanity's essential humanness. 1 Since then, Benjamin Barber, Pierre Bourdieu, Susan Haack, bell hooks, Charles Mills, Arundhati Roy, and Cornel West, among others, have gone on to uncover the intensity and scope of the efforts of the culturally and socially (i.e., politically, economically, technologically) privileged few around the globe to frustrate the aspirations, hope, even the survival of marginalizedothers. 2 Most recently, Morris Berman, along with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have exposed a most egregious result of this cultural and social breakdown--the takeover of our spiritual life by the coarse, the corrupt, and the commercial. 3

In Berman's sobering account, we Americans find ourselves in the "twilight of [our] culture." Persuasively, he argues that American culture is collapsing underneath

accelerating social and economic inequality; declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems; rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness; and spiritual death --the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing or repackaging of it in formulas--kitsch, in short. 4

Read from "Ground Zero"--be it the gaping wound in Manhattan, the ironically named café at the Pentagon, the scarred Pennsylvania countryside, or shattered hearts and lives--Berman's analysis challenges us to new and critical understandings of America's place and role in the precarious ordering of global relations, of our accountability to "others," and to a deeper understanding of ourselves as human beings and our all too often unexamined desire for a spiritual life.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, theology can make a contribution not only by exposing ways in which structures and systems are disordered and deformed, but also by turning a light on the ultimate and transcendent solution to the problem of evil, to the realization of a common human good. [End Page 15] That solution is found absolutely only in the darkly luminous mystery of the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If the prophetic praxis of Jesus reveals the transcendent passion of an eschatological imagination active in the midst of human finitude and limitation, the cross shows us that same imagination's radical risk, love, and hope.

Theology has a contribution to make; just what that contribution will be is contingent on who we are as theologians. Indeed, the tremors of late imperial culture require those of us who are called to the mediating ministry of theology to interrogate and reflect on our vocation. How are we theologians to speak God's word in these times? How are we to understand our theological vocation? How are we to offer what we have to the struggle for authentic human liberation from within our culture? How shall the next generation of theologians remember us and the age in which we have come of age? Shall we be shamed into confessing that our shoulders sagged in recognition of the cost of truth? Shall we surrender our most cherished principles and values to expediency? Shall we be forced to admit that the cost of our own religious, moral, and intellectual conversion was too steep? What do our times call on theologians to become?

Revisiting the Problem of the Color-line

As never before, the virulence, intensity, and scope of ethnic and racial violence in our world have propelled us to a razor-wired border. Here we confront our theological responsibility and encrusted social sin. The memory of the victims of such malevolence pleads with us...