The Heresy of Racial Theology

Race-based theology represents a direct attack on the very heart of Christianity, and certainly Catholicism.

Race-based theology is escaping esoteric graduate seminars and making its way into popular Christian culture. A prominent evangelical publisher this year released a book entitled Doing Asian American Theology: A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice. “Asian American theology is about God revealed in Jesus Christ in covenantal relationship with Asian Americans qua Asian Americans,” the book’s author declares. 

There is apparently a substantial audience for such Christian literature. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope won numerous major evangelical awards in 2020 and 2021, including Christianity Today’s “Book of the Year” and an “honorable mention” from The Gospel Coalition’s Book Award. In the book, author Esau McCaulley advocates for a “model of interpretation” in which “the particular questions coming out of Black communities are given pride of place…” There is similar literature for other so-called “persons of color,” including theology for Latin-Americans and Native Americans.

Lest you think this trend is exclusive to Protestants, consider Ryan Massingale’s 2010 Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (over 300 reviews on Amazon!), which claims the Catholic Church in the United States is “racist” because is holds “European aesthetics, music, theology, and persons — and only these [as] standard, normative, universal, and truly ‘Catholic.’” 

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Theologian Michael Jaycox in a 2017 article entitled “Black Lives Matter and Catholic Whiteness: A Tale of Two Performances,” argues that “Catholic ethicists of color […] write with comparatively greater moral epistemological acuity than whites about race and racism.” 

Patiently permit me (I know, this is painful) to cite one more, from J. Kameron Carter’s 2008 Race: A Theological Account. There Carter asserts that “any reading of Thomas Aquinas must be done…in relationship to the colonialist and racial side of history.” He explains: “modern colonialism and the world born of it arose within a Thomistic discursive space.” This is because much commentary on Thomas was done in the Spanish and Portuguese world, and the Spanish and Portuguese were empire-building colonialists. 

This is all, of course, complete rubbish. Apparently Massingale is unfamiliar with the prominent role of African theologians Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyprian, or Ephrem the Syrian in Catholic theology and practice. He appears ignorant of the fact that American Catholics every year celebrate the feast days of saints (including many martyrs) from Africa, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and many other places across the globe. Jaycox the anti-racist apparently thinks Catholics “of color” are better capable of writing about certain topics than their white counterparts, which, according to the standard definition, is a categorically racist opinion. 

And, pace Carter, that we must read Aquinas in the context of colonialism, a global political development that began centuries after his death, is patently absurd. Must we read the American Carter in the context of neoconservative adventurism vis-a-vis the Iraq War, since that was going on when he wrote his book on race and theology? Moreover, Carter provides not a single shred of evidence to substantiate his claim that later Spanish and Portuguese interpreters of Aquinas were informed by a colonialist mentality — he simply asserts it.

Theologian Grant Kaplan in his new book Faith and Reason Through Christian History notes that “the postmodern liberationalist project” — which describes just about all of the above — “prioritizes a faith that can be justified to the extent that it generates solidarity with oppressed groups.” Of course, the Gospel message has quite a bit to say about liberty for the oppressed, though, Kaplan observes, “postmodern liberationist approaches tend to begin by delegitimizing modes of theology not engaged in the same process.” Or, as Ibram X. Kendi might say, if you’re not participating in his anti-racist project, then you must be a racist.

I’d add to Kaplan’s perceptive analysis that the foregrounding of race in theology ends up reducing to Christianity to the same trite, predictable, unimaginative, anti-human thinking one finds across all identity politics. And if we’re talking about the Christian faith, a religious tradition that by its very nature is predicated on the concept of preserving and handing on something objective, true and good, race-based critiques of the Christian tradition represent a systematic assault of all of it. And that points to the most insidious quality of race-based theology: it undermines the very Gospel itself.

It was St. Paul who declared that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). The Gospel transcends the barriers of race and nation — we are all one in Christ by virtue of our baptism. That is why St. Paul was so emphatically critical of those Jewish Christians who demanded Gentiles embrace not only the Gospel, but those practices of their racial group. The “circumcision group,” as St. Paul called them, foregrounded the Jewish race, which they believed was superior to all others. 

Thankfully, it was St. Paul and not the circumcision group who won this first century debate. In time, Jewish Christians became so unrecognizable from their Gentile brothers and sisters, that there became no doctrinal difference between the Catholic Christians of Northern Europe, North Africa, or the Levant. Catholic, after all, means universal.

The Gospel is for all, embracing all cultures, and accepting any traditions and practices that are not antithetical to its teaching. To speak, say, of French Catholicism as superior to Byzantine Catholicism, or Polish Catholicism as superior to Coptic Catholicism is to entirely misunderstand the very nature of our faith. All are manifestations of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church bequeathed to the faithful.

As someone who has lived overseas, I’ve experienced this first-hand. When we lived in Thailand for three years, my family attended a Catholic parish staffed almost entirely by Thai Redemptorist priests. The architecture and art of the church was far more in the tradition of the Thais than the West, the building constructed in the fashion of Buddhist wats, and its symbology borrowed from Thai understandings of royalty, reinterpreted to honor the royalty of Christ the King. Frankly, I didn’t prefer it, and would rather worship in Chartres or Duomo di Milano, which I find more enchanting and beautiful. But I certainly could admire the thoughtful, intentional enculturation of Catholicism into an ancient Southeast Asian culture. 

Race-based theology, I would argue, thus represents a direct attack on the very heart of Christianity, and certainly Catholicism. To speak of “Asian American theology” or “Black theology” is to speak of something that is dressed up and paraded about as Christianity, but which is ultimately a counterfeit. “The mode of criticism exhibited by Massingale, Pfeil, and Jaycox seems to necessitate a wholesale dismissal of almost any canonical account of Christianity,” writes Kaplan. That being the case, I can think of only one appropriate response to racial theology: categorically denounce it for the heresy that it is. 

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