The Strange Fruit of Christianity and the Nuances of Inclusive Discourse

Book Review of Kelly Brown Douglas’s What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls

I have long been a fan of Kelly Brown Douglas ever since my introduction to her while reading her seminal treatise against the hegemonic discourse in the Heterosexist Black Christian tradition entitled, Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective.  After reading this first academic work, I noted to a professor that “this book has freed me.  I feel more confidence in my ability and commitment to being fully and intentionally myself.”  With this in mind, I was excited when I walked into the bookstore and found a new book with her name on it.  This book, entitled, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls was written as Douglas sought to wrestle with the question presented by one of her students, “How can you, a black [sic] woman, possibly be Christian… when Christianity as often contributes to your oppression as a black [sic] and as a female.”[1]

As she engages this question, Douglas does so by broadening the discourse beyond simply gender and racial terms and is intentional about being inclusive of sexuate realities within this dialog.  Per her characteristic, methodical nature, Douglas systematically and meticulously builds her case about the realities of a platonic Christian tradition that seems to be an affront to authentic Christian religious expression and she indicts this tradition as a main culprit for the ways in which the Christian faith colludes with hegemonic power and resulted in the historic oppression of bodies, particularly Black bodies.  Specifically, Douglas illumines the ways in which the American Christian tradition ostensibly condoned, if not actively participated in the lynching of Black bodies.  According to Douglas, this is done because of the flesh versus spiritual dualism that is present within the platonic Christian faith tradition (as expressed in the Pauline epistles) that offers sacred canopy for the attacks on the bodies of a sexualized people.

As she begins to conclude her argument, Douglas does so offering solutions that she proposes will help reframe the flesh/spirit paradox and help the Black Christian faith tradition speak about their faith in more inclusive, egalitarian, and communal terms.  The problem arises as Kelly Brown Douglas seeks to discuss Black(ness) in more inclusive, liberative terms.  As a student of James Cone, Douglas struggles to discuss Blackness as something other than a racialized reality.  Douglas does attempt to discuss the notion of ontological Blackness, that is, Blackness that is a state of being opposed to the hegemonic and oppressive forces of whiteness; however, her fluidity between these definitions exposes a lingering truth about the liberative theological discourse – the difficulty of engaging in liberative theological discourse that is inclusive while still maintaining the images, language, and concepts that are important to maintaining and affirming the agency of selfhood an oppressed community.  Furthermore, as currently constructed, Blackness is framed in opposition to whiteness, which still utilizes racialized \

gtlanguage to discuss the complexities of oppression.  This relationship precludes the other manifestation of oppression and serves to limit our discussion of oppression to chiefly, if not solely, racial terms.  Douglas herself says, “It is important to move beyond the boundaries of race and gender to confront the issues that involve the life, dignity, and freedom of black [sic] women and men in particular and other humans in general.”[2]  Despite her willingness to do so, she unwittingly found herself mired in problematic language that has the possibility of reifying the oppressive, hegemonic delineations that we seek to overcome.

Future and current theologians must then grapple with the task of framing liberative discourse in ways that both affirm the lived experiences and historical realities of persons and communities while offering an inclusive framework and language.  How can God be exclusively Black in a world where oppression is being framed along gender, sex, socio-economic, and sexuate terms.  Are we to reframe Black(ness) as the sum total of all oppression, and if so what does this say to all the other ways in which persons are oppressed?  What other language becomes possible in addressing the overarching principles and precepts of oppression while still acknowledging the particular nuances of oppression situated within specific contexts?  One should read Douglas’s What’s Faith Got to Do with It? with these questions in mind, and take seriously Douglas’s challenge to “move beyond the boundaries of race and gender.” One should also read this treatise mindful that this seeks not to be a final volume in the ever-increasing liberative anthology; rather, this work simply seeks to add more questions in order to help move the dialogue forward.


     [1] Kelly Brown Douglas. What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), xi.

     [2] Ibid., 210.

5 thoughts on “The Strange Fruit of Christianity and the Nuances of Inclusive Discourse

  1. To touch on a few points:

    You say: “Specifically, Douglas illumines the ways in which the American Christian tradition ostensibly condoned, if not actively participated in the lynching of Black bodies. According to Douglas, this is done because of the flesh versus spiritual dualism that is present within the platonic Christian faith tradition (as expressed in the Pauline epistles) that offers sacred canopy for the attacks on the bodies of a sexualized people.”

    And here is how (feminist?) Christian theology fails to confront its own corruption and denial through academic sugar-coated fantasies. You don’t seem to give us an answer to the question that was supposedly the reason why the book was written, “What is it about Christianity that allowed it to be both a bane and a blessing to black people?” Well, perhaps the problem is the human being’s incapacity to live the teachings of their Master who never fully rejected the concept of slavery or sacrifice. What is hidden in your quote above reveals a tacit approval of the suffering of the sacrificed black bodies as a result of a body/metaphysical tension that is at the heart of the Christian theology. This totally occludes the three reasons for the historical suffering of African slaves at the hands of their European slave holders. Money, money, money – the REAL “God” of this world.

    • Kelly Brown Douglas is a Womanist scholar, not to be confused with Feminist, and I think she does a good job exposing the ways in which platonic Christian theology colludes (to use her own words) with oppressive power which results in the degradation and destruction of certain bodies, in this case Black bodies. In this review I was not seeking to elucidate all the salient points of the book; that would require a blog 4 times as long. My intention was to introduce some of the basic concepts and offer questions for reflection and conversation. One thing Douglas does a great job is divorcing Christian thought from platonic influence (the Flesh/Spirit dualism). She makes clear what I’ve known for a long time, that the Flesh/Spirit dualism is not “Christian” as it denies the sacral value of the human body as shown in the incarnation of the Christ and the the resurrection of the Christ. Both of these events show the divine value of the body, a concept that is sacrilege to those who ascribe to the platonic Body/Soul dualism. Douglas seeks to reconstruct a Christianity that upholds the sacral value of the body as well as affirms that cultural realities and tenets of those in the African diaspora. Does Jesus come right out and condemn slavery? Perhaps not on the surface; however, if some of the parables are read as subversive speech (as proffered by William R. Herzog) then one can see the ways in which the teachings of Jesus were against the institution of slavery. As far as sacrifice, we can see several times in the Gospels where the “rituals” of the Jewish faith are reframed for his audience and the idea of human-sacrifice (Satisfaction Theory of Atonement) is a Pauline concept – i.e. Paul’s interpretation of the Christ event. This is definitely worth reading and if you haven’t done so, I would encourage you to. And as always, thanks for reading and for you challenges.

  2. “Does Jesus come right out and condemn slavery? Perhaps not on the surface; however, if some of the parables are read as subversive speech (as proffered by William R. Herzog) then one can see the ways in which the teachings of Jesus were against the institution of slavery.”

    That’s a mighty big IF. The surface is all we have to go on, which can be closely read to indicate what was the most important items the Gospel writers wanted to present. Slavery doesn’t seem to be high on the list, and in fact, as you well know, when Jesus discussed the only parable about slaves (“servants” in most translations), he did not explicitly state that the master-slave point was invalid.

    Luke 12:45-48: “The lord [owner] of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

    I’m sure this biblical quotation was used to justify many a beating upon slaves by Good Christian Slave owners. How could they not – the permission and justification for one human being to beat another human being who’s totally subservient is IN THE HOLY BOOK. I can only look at that verse as something terribly sinister.

    • It is a big “If;” however, it occupies the same conceptual theoretical model as any other hermeneutic that one can apply to readings and interpretations of the Biblical witness. You do offer critique, one that I wrestle with as well. Specifically, I am interested in the was in which slavocracy and associated language occupies space within the Biblical witness and how have these spaces been used to oppress persons throughout history in a variety of ways such as American slavery, American Jim Crow Segregation, South African Apartheid, European Colonialism throughout the world, etc. I cannot offer an answer to the question; however, what I can offer is an understanding that I have long wrestled with this use of the word “slave” in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament nd how does this relate to Jesus Christ and God. You are also right about the Bible being used to subjugate persons, and that’s what Kelly Brown Douglas does a good job of elucidating in this book and her previous book. The challenge Black religious clerics and scholars such as myself is to use the “hermeneutic of appropriation” that is a part of the Black Religious/Christian experience and to develop and frame an African American hermeneutic in which any reference to slavery is deemed in appropriate and anti-Christ. Those just a few concepts that I am wrestling with.

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