Witnessing Whiteness: Hauerwas & Cone and the Challenge of Black Theology for Postliberal Ecclesiology

Norris, Kristopher, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Marsh, Charles, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation argues for racial reconciliation as an integral matter of political ecclesiology. Accounts of the church, the church’s politics, or its public witness that fail to address the ways the church has been shaped and shapes the world by this history of racial harm risks offering incomplete, disordered, untrue, and harmful assessments and prescriptions. Drawing on the common resources of Stanley Hauerwas and James Cone, I propose a model of costly reconciliation that attends to the complexities of reconciliation noted above, yet locates that process of reconciliation within the church community. This dissertation appeals to white theologians like Hauerwas to suggest that blindnesses to our own whiteness inflect the character of our theology and ecclesiology and train us to either avoid the issue of race or seek a cheap form of reconciliation that projects our selves too easily onto others. This dissertation contends that white Christian avoidance of the difficulty of race including the promulgation of a culture of colorblindness are strategies of abstraction that only enable and perpetuate white supremacy. Colorblindness not only signals the pretense of white people that they “do not see color” and occludes the realities of race behind a veil of universality; it is the projection of white people’s uninterrogated whiteness universally onto other particular bodies, persons, and communities. Only sustained and critical attention to our whiteness will permit the type of reconciliation that seeks to repair not only relationships, but also the power structures that oppress those perceived to have color. To those on the other side, skeptical of calls for racial reconciliation, it argues for a costly and chastened form of reconciliation consistent with the liberatory aims of black theology, while recognizing the difficulty of such work. To do this it turns to the church, identified with the wounded Body of Christ, as the site suited for practices of racial reconciliation. In order to make this ecclesial context and argument more concrete Part I offers a close reading of the ecclesiologies of the two most prominent representatives of these threads: Stanley Hauerwas and James Cone. I argue that both theologians draw on the same underlying conceptual themes to shape their visions: the role of story in the formation and mission of the church, the particularity with which the church understands its identity and mission, and the concreteness of its attention to reality and practice in the world. I submit these three sources as resources for the church to better attend to the racial realities of our time. Part II then analyzes these three resources through a critical assessment of Hauerwas’s evasion of race and Cone’s proposal for racial reconciliation: that whites can “become black” by siding with the oppressed. I contend that any ecclesiology that takes whiteness and racism seriously and offers any adequate and costly practice of reconciliation must be an embodied ecclesiology that understands the church as the wounded Body of Christ, whose flesh bears the marks of a long history of racial violence. I then argue that an understanding of reconciliation as a kind of conversion is only capable of addressing these fleshly realities and promoting healthy practices of reconciliation, while still maintaining an appropriately tempered outlook on what reconciliation is possible in the wounded Body on this side of the eschaton. Hauerwas and Cone’s relentless attention to concrete reality (when they are at their best) and the particular narrative formation of community, identity, and mission provide the resources necessary to sustain a robust vision and practice of ecclesial racial reconciliation. The dissertation concludes with a proposal for practices of memory, confession, and hospitality as essential ecclesial practices for a conversion model of racial reconciliation.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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