The Common Good

Our Most Segregated Hour: Church, Black Theology & René Girard

On March 31, 1968, a few short days before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

He spoke a phrase he had used on a number of occasions and which by now, 45 years later, has gained a hard proverbial ring: "Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of America."

The situation he described has stubbornly resisted any real movement, but the recent emergence of a radical theology dealing with violence itself is promising a crack in the walls that divide.

Black theologians such as James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas have recognized the work of the theoretical anthropologist, René Girard. They consider it one of the few frameworks able to illuminate the nature of the violence suffered by the African-American community.

Girard, a Frenchman who has spent most of his life in the U.S., proposed an understanding of human relations based on preconscious imitation or “mimesis,” a capacity so powerful it leads humans to copy each other’s desires and thus, almost instantly, to become deadly rivals. In order to deal with the near certainty of mutual destruction, the force of imitation then provides its own unfailing solution: we all imitate each other in picking on one individual or group, singled out as guilty for all the trouble — in other words, “the scapegoat.” According to Girard, it would be no accident that the Bible provided us with this telltale word, since it is the bible itself which consistently reveals the mechanisms of violence, beginning with Cain and Abel, through Joseph and his brothers, all the way to the execution of Jesus.

Dr. Julia Robinson, an African-American professor of religion at UNC Charlotte, says Girard's concept of mimesis is crucial. In a recent interview she explained that it helps “expose the ways in which conservative forms of white supremacy continue to flourish within American Christian culture.”

Dr. Robinson is a headline speaker at the upcoming Theology and Peace conference dedicated to promoting theology out of Girard’s thought. Theology and Peace is a recently formed organization, running annual conferences “to grow a living Christian theology of peace on the basis of a new understanding of human violence.”  Its 2013 theme is “Lynching, Scapegoating, and Actual Innocence,” a topic given relevance by the Actual Innocence Project of North Carolina.

Dr. Robinson has been a catalyst in opening Girardian scholarship to the question of racial violence and its intersection with religious ideologies. She tells how she had a “spirited conversation” with Girard himself in 2008 over the limited attention he had given to violence in African American history. She is now working on a book for Michigan State University Press titled Violence, Victimage, and Lynching: René Girard and the African American Experience. She says her research demonstrates “the utility of Girard’s theory in understanding the ways in which hate crimes, such as lynching, operated as a ritual of communal cleansing and identity construction within white supremacist southern communities during the Jim Crow era.”

But what about America’s most segregated hour? What about this most divisive moment which in gospel theory should be a time of coming together? I conducted an interview with Dr. Robinson while wearing my own hat as Theology and Peace’s in-house theologian. I suggested that one of the goals of the conference was for white people to come together with black people in a new sense of what God wills — the surrender of foundational violence in a new human community.

Dr. Robinson considered carefully. She responded:

“If the racial legacies of eleven o'clock on Sunday morning are to be transcended and heal, then Christians on both sides of the racial divide must be willing to enter into dialogue with hope for reconciliation and peace. The Theology and Peace Conference this year offers not just the space for such a dialogue … framed through the extraordinary arguments of René Girard, scholars, theologians, ministers, and laypeople from around the nation are invited to explore the first steps towards desegregating this most sacred hour in America.”

Dr. Tony Bartlett is the Theology & Peace Contributing Theologian. He blogs at the Theology and Peace Blog.

Photo: Tito Wong / Shutterstock

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