The Story of Race Our Culture Engraved on Our Bodies, the Story of Jesus We Are Engraving on Our Bodies—Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race
Let me begin with a personal experience for reviewing this book. When my family first came to America, we immediately got our drivers’ licenses and bought our family car. Soon after my father and I had a chance to go to LA downtown. I was driving and we were very nervous about our first experience in the big city. Fortunately, everything went well, and we were on our way back with a bit of traffic jam. At that moment we saw a black man looking like a homeless approaching our car, and my father gasped and told me to lock the car doors, which I did. It turned out that the guy was not walking toward us, and we were relieved.
Stories like this are very common, but on another look it shows how deeply ingrained the category and story of race is on our bodies and stories. At the same time, this also shows that it is not just one or two of us who are affected by this, but everyone who calls themselves a member of American society. Sadly, this is also true of churches and Christians, whose religion is primarily confined to church activities. One of the blind spots in American Christianity is that we are unable to discern the evil patterns persuading us and dwelling in our lives through our culture, which are entirely different from that of Jesus’ story and the patterns of life the story is enacting in our lives. In that regard, Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race is an important book.
Bantum begins the book with personal memoirs, which have to do with his racial and religious conversions. First, his racial conversion. His mother is white, and his father black. For this reason, Bantum thought of himself want to be more like white, instead of his skin color, black. But when he turned 19, he had to confront his pretending to be white. While he does not go into detail as to how such confronting happens, it might have been a snowball effect of avalanche of experiences similar to the one I just recounted. Second, in his religious conversion, his father plays an important role. It all began with his father who left the house after divorce suddenly came back home, announcing that he’s got a terminal cancer, leaving him only three months to survive. However, Bantum clearly witnessed that his father is now a different person, perhaps due to the Christianity he now claims to believe. Although it was a short period of three months, Bantum seems to have experienced what it means to be loved by his father, what it means to love his father, and slowly came to accept the Christian God as his own.
These two conversions helped Bantum see through the obvious conflict between the racial narrative and Jesus narrative. For the story of race stratifies everyone according to the colors of their bodies, while the story of Jesus debunks and collapses any such stratification. Bantum wrote this book as a result of his long fathoming. The big merit of this book is that it is based on a close analysis of contemporary reality of race and an equally close reading of the Bible accompanying a sharp reinterpretation of Christian doctrines. Penetrating all these complex analyses is Bantum’s metaphor of “the body does the work.” What does that mean? Let me tell you.
Stories are melted into bodies, showing its effects wherever those bodies go. Our bodies are something to be seen, and whenever we see bodies, whether ours or others, we see stories melted into such bodies. That is why our bodies do work. What kind of work? Bantum goes back to his personal stories to illustrate what he means by that. When Bantum walks on the street, people stare at him with a suspicious look, sometimes with racist remarks. Even though Bantum has never spoken to them, they have in their bodies and in Bantum’s body already internalized all the complex stratification of the story of race, enabling them to read any body with that racist narrative framework. This is exactly the kind of experience I have had with my father when we went out to LA. Our bodies do the work. But the problem is, some bodies are shut down from voicing their stories even before they do anything just because they have nonwhite bodies. This is our culture closing off some bodies, while opening up broadly to other bodies.
Jesus’ body counters this evil culture. According to Bantum, Jesus’ body does work too. His body was the body of neglect and disregard, a Jewish body. Even if his was a male body, it still liberated all the oppression women had to go through at that time. Bantum shares Tom Wright’s concern here. Tom Wright is a renowned New Testament scholar working and publishing in England and America. In his How God Became King, Wright explains that the four gospels, the only documents dealing with Jesus’ life instead of his death and resurrection only, have been read and understood in light of Pauline and the traditional creedal perspectives. For Paul and other traditional creeds focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection instead of Jesus’ life. Perhaps Christians with relatively traditional leanings have problems in looking into reality through the eyes of faith because they have been trained in looking at reality only through Jesus’ death and resurrection, which in this case is so other-worldly that people who choose to believe only Jesus’ death and resurrection lead lives focused in on going to heaven.
That is why Bantum continually emphasizes that we have to be immersed in the works Jesus’ body did, and the story behind such works. For body is not just a body, but always contextualized in a certain narrative. Jesus’ story gives people’s bodies to be seen just as they are, instead of shaming them and blaming them just because they have non-white bodies. This also suggests that Bantum has spotted right on one of the important problems of racism—a structural shame. What racism does to people of racial minority is that it pesters their bodies with public shame. What’s interesting about Bantum’s use of language is that he keeps mentioning “Being seen” among racial minority. This is a language of shame, which I am deeply interested. However, one of the disappointing things about this book is while Bantum keeps on talking about “being seen,” he still reduces the sin of racism down to that of guilt only, barely connecting shame to sin.
Other than this, Bantum’s book is an amazing feat to chew over, digest, and meditate on. I highly recommend this book to anyone who might be interested in the issues regarding Christianity and racism.