Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Race Matters in Political Theology

Race plays important roles in political theology, whether implicitly or explicitly. Its invisibility simply signifies the whitewashing or Eurocentric nature of political theology.

Many people begin with Carl Schmitt when they discuss political theology. What would it mean if Wu Yaozong (1893-1979) of China had inaugurated discussions of political theology instead of Carl Schmitt?

To ask this question is to contest a Eurocentric trajectory of political theology and a notion of race constructed primarily out of Western experience. It underscores the importance of using a comparative lens to look at racial construction in the modern world and the complexities it poses to political theology.

When Schmitt was working on his treatise Political Theology, published in 1922, Chinese students and workers were demonstrating in the streets against the results of the Treaty of Versailles signed after the First World War. The Treaty awarded the German rights in China’s Shandong Province to Japan, even though China had entered the war on the side of the Allies.

Wu Yaozong was radicalized and began to ask the fundamental question if Christianity could save China from foreign aggression. He was a YWCA secretary, author of many books, and one of the most prominent leaders of the Chinese Christian Church after 1949.

If Wu had inaugurated the discourse of political theology, the discussion on race would not have focused simply on the difference between the Caucasians and Asians, because of Japan’s imperial aggression in the first half of the twentieth century.

As Nami Kim has shown, Japan was able to use racial and cultural affinities between the Japanese and other Asian peoples to construct a pan-Asian identity to argue for Japan’s commitment to “liberate” Asia from Western aggression. In this particular case, racial similarity has been deployed as propaganda to serve political gains and to obfuscate differences.

I have always been surprised by how the national histories and identities of Asians are conveniently obscured under the racial label “Asian and Pacific Islander” in the US. Even the 1.5 or second-generation Asian Americans still carry memories of their national origins, sometimes through the actions of their parents.

Wonhee Anne Joh uses the term “haunting” to describe this nagging feeling of one’s past. She asks, “How do our still-present pasts continue to haunt us? How is it that the place one has left continues to haunt even as one tries with every effort to belong to a new place, despite its latent and sometimes overt hostility?”

Asian Americans and the Asia Pacific religion seldom feature in anthologies of political theology. Race and Political Theology, edited by Vincent W. Lloyd, contains several chapters from the Jewish experience, which are important given Schmidt’s anti-Semitism, while adding a few chapters that touch on African Americans. The 800-page volume Political Theologies: PublicReligions in a Post-Secular World edited by Hent de Vries and Lawrence Sullivan contains no single Asian or Asian American author, as far as I can tell.      

This oversight continues to amaze me. I can’t help but ask: “Are we dealing with political theology in the twentieth century or the twenty-first century?” During the American presidential campaign, I did not hear EU mentioned as many times as China. At the present moment, there is really no excuses for American political theologians not to take the Asia Pacific region, especially China, seriously, no matter to which race you happen to belong.

If it were Wu Yaozong and not Carl Schmidt who had inaugurated the discourse on political theology, how would political theology in the U.S. look different? Let me offer three observations.

First, it would be quite obvious that we would pay much more attention to the overlapping histories between the US and the Asia Pacific region. As I have written, “before [Asia] emerged as a market for U.S. capital, Asia was seen as a war zone. Beginning with the Spanish American War over the destiny of the Philippines, the United States has fought successive wars in Asia. During the Cold War the United States pursued a containment policy against China and the former Soviet Union.”

Today, Asia Pacific has become a strategically important military theatre for the U.S., especially during the disputes among Asian countries over the control of islands and resource-rich waters in the South China Sea.

We will be curious to know during the lengthy political and military engagements with Asia Pacific, what American theologians have said or written about the region. American theologians’ perceptions of Communism and China, for example, have changed over time. As is well known, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism led him to be suspicious of the promise of Communist revolution and its belief in human agency.

But the Chinese revolution has inspired supporters of the Black Panther Party and black intellectuals, such as W.E. B DuBois, Malcolm X and Manning Marable, to name a few. During the 1960s and 1970s, some in the New Left were fascinated by the Chinese communes and the new egalitarian society that was allegedly being created in China.

Today, quite a number of seminaries in the US have organized trips and travel seminars to China. For Lamin Sanneh of Yale and Richard J. Mouw of Fuller, the phenomenal church growth in China is worth paying attention to, since it is changing the shape of world Christianity.     

Second, Wu Yaozong would have pushed for a much more robust class analysis in American political theology. The encroachment of the West, the Japanese invasion, the corruption of the Nationalist Party, and China’s dire poverty led him to embrace Marxism gradually. He challenged the capitalist powers for their aggression, which had resulted in wars and conflicts in China and elsewhere. Similar to other Chinese radical intellectuals of his time, he advocated social revolution to save China and condemned the exploitation of the bourgeois class. 

In the current discussion on race and political theology, class seldom surfaces or is touched on only tangentially. Meanwhile, the wealth gaps between the different races in the US have grown to their widest levels since the government began tabulating them a quarter-century ago. New census data shows that the net worth of white people, on average, is 20 times that of the blacks, and 18 times that of Hispanics.  

If political theology is concerned about the common good, it cannot be oblivious to the growing disparity between the races in the US and between the have and have-nots worldwide.           

Wu would also be very suspicious of the so-called Beijing consensus and the kinds of state capitalism practiced in China or Russia. He would be right to suspect that Mao and other Chinese revolutionaries would be turning in their graves to see the capitalist transformation that is happening in China. He would urge public intellectuals and political theorists and theologians to find a more sustainable system of economic and political development.           

Third, Wu Yaozong would be allergic to the rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and human rights used by Western politicians and often endorsed by liberal political theologians. He would point out, as other postcolonial thinkers have said, that in the name of the promotion of democracy and human rights, wars and invasions have been justified by President George W. Bush and his neocon advisors.  

It is futile and often self-serving for the West to impose their political systems or governmental structures on the religious other or racial other. The recent presidential election in the US shows the weakness of the democratic process, when a few billionaires could exert so much influence.           

For Wu, the freedom of the individual must be balanced by the collective commitment for the common good. His vision of political and economic liberation predated that of Latin American liberation theology by several decades. If Latin American theologians have used the Exodus as their biblical paradigm, the Sermon on the Mount was fundamental for Wu.  

For him, the central Christian message is God’s love. “Love does not condone evil, instead it is the enemy of evil.” Political theology influenced by Wu will not just champion individual rights, but will focus on the evil nature of interactive oppressions, based on race, gender, class, sexuality, and so forth.           

The constructions of race and racial identity in the modern world should be investigated with a comparative perspective. With the shifting geopolitics, the Asia Pacific region should receive greater attention, and Western political values must be scrutinized through a global and transnational lens.
* Paper presented at the panel “Race Matters in Political Theology” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Chicago, November 18, 2012.