An wide-ranging interview with Jonathan Tran, focusing especially on race, but also touching on Vietnam, Michel Foucault, Stanley Cavell, and more.
TRANSCRIPT FOR EPISODE 45
My guest today is Jonathan Tran, Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor University. Jonathan is the author of The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory: Time, Eternity and Redemption in the Far Country, which he followed up a year later with Foucault and Theology.
Most recently, in November, he released Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism from Oxford University Press, and early in 2022 we will see the release of Christianity and the Promise of Politics, which he co-wrote with his doktorvater Stanley Hauerwas, coming out of the Encountering Traditions series from Stanford University Press.
Jonathan Tran, welcome to the Beatrice Institute.
Thank you, Ryan, for having me. It’s great to be with you guys today.
We are not actual acquaintances, but I saw you around the halls of Duke Divinity School when I was doing a master’s in theology there from 2003 to 2005, so I’ve been aware of your name at least. I think I was actually in a seminar that Stanley Hauerwas taught. I don’t know if you remember, but he was in such popular demand that the format back then was that there would be an inner circle and an outer circle, and the PhD students would be on the inner circle. As I recall, there would be about 15 PhD students, and then ranged around the edge of the room would be 20 or so master’s students, and we weren’t allowed to talk. I think you were one of the ones in the inner circle.
I definitely deserved to be on the outer circle if not outside the room. Yeah, I remember that. It was an absurd, rather embarrassing, somewhat self-indulgent set up. Stanley was at the height of his powers from the mid-1990s to the mid-aughts. And, unfortunately for all of us, we were pulled into that orbit.
I mean, it was also amazing, because him at the height of his powers was something to behold; but it issued in strange setups like this when there were A) too many students that wanted to be around him, and B) really no structure to set it up. So yeah, I remember that. And I remember feeling distinctly ill-prepared to be in the middle. Like, why am I being listened to versus these much smarter master’s students like Ryan? It’s time to shift the circle around.
Yeah, you guys were kind of put on the same plane as Stanley.
So what brought you to Duke to study with Stanley Hauerwas?
Before that, I’ve got to tell this amazing Stanley Hauerwas seminar story from back in the day, because this stuff needs to be recorded in the annals of scholastic history. So one year, it was like the seminar you were talking about, but it was a year long seminar on John Howard Yoder.
Yoder had proven so central in Hauerwas’s thinking and that brand of theology as I’m sure you remember.
So the setting is a Yoder PhD seminar meeting in the early evening, and as was sometimes the case, we had a prospective student visiting the campus. She was a Stanford senior from what I remember. And she was looking at several elite seminaries and divinity schools.
The list was Harvard Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Duke Divinity School. This was her Duke Divinity School visit. Hauerwas allowed her to visit his class. So, she’s sitting in there with a bunch of PhD students, and I think just a handful of master’s students, and then Hauerwas — not one to be sensitive to such situations — calls her out and asks, “So, where are you thinking about going after Stanford?”
And she said, “Well, I’m thinking about seminary because I’m interested in the ministry. So I’m going to be looking at Duke Divinity School, obviously; Harvard; and Princeton Theological Seminary.” And so Hauerwas then goes off on this and says, “Well, you can’t go to Harvard because they don’t believe in God. And you can’t go to PTS because they’re so uptight up there that if you put them on top of a flagpole, they wouldn’t move an inch because their sphincters are so tight.”
On top of that, he actually made the little hand gesture, finger to thumb, emphasizing how tight and small their sphincters were. I don’t know what happened with this person, but I know she never went to Duke Divinity School after that.
I mean, with Hauerwas, there were so many stories like that. I just had lunch with him a couple of weeks ago and he’s such a character. I mean, as I’m sure you know, too, he’s also very different than his public persona — incredibly generous. Keeps up correspondence of friendships with what I imagine to be hundreds of people; always responds to emails; as a teacher, super generous, super affirming; just a great human being.
And still really going strong in retirement from what I understand.
He and I are actually writing a book on politics, and we visited because he was visiting Dallas for a lecture he was giving, and he’s still sharp as a tack. I mean, he was talking about some very sophisticated, complex parts of Wittgenstein, and he’s over 80 now.
So to go back then, how did Stanley Hauerwas end up on your radar? What brought you to Duke? Did you consider PTS?
I did. I’ve considered PTS many times in my life. They keep on rejecting me. I’m not sure if that’s a comment on sphincterism! I love PTS. I have a huge amount of respect for the scholars and students there and their leadership. And they’ve been very generous to me in different kinds of ways. So I love that place; I just never ended up there.
I became a Christian my first year of college. I was raised outside of Christianity, outside the church. Our family had some initial run-in with the church, because we’re Vietnamese immigrants. We came in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. America had signed an emergency allowance — not unlike what happened in Afghanistan just a few weeks back — that allowed 10,000 Vietnamese friends of America to come over. And they were flooded with about 120, 140,000 Vietnamese. What America did was partner with major denominations to host families or sets of families and help accommodate them, assimilate them to America. Our family was adopted by the Lutheran church. So that was the first few years of life in America, was the Lutheran church.
I don’t remember anything about the church except for two things: one, sitting in the back of a Lutheran congregation and looking in front of me and seeing a sea of white-bluish hair, just really old folks; and secondly, even though they’re older folks, they’re super kind to our family, super hospitable. We experienced a ton of racism in America, but not at that church, at least we didn’t see it.
But I grew up outside the church. I became a Christian in college through a ministry called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a large college ministry in America; was involved in a very intensive form of Christianity, did that four years as an undergrad; served as a campus minister, interestingly enough, for five years after that. And then after the nine years with InterVarsity, I was utterly exhausted and had no idea what to do with the rest of my life.
So I did what many Protestant Christians do when they have no idea what to do with their life: I went to seminary. I asked around and people said, either go to PTS or Duke Divinity School, mainly because they’ll give you money to go. And I said, that sounds like a great setup. It came down to those two schools, and I went to Duke for the basketball.
It’s a good reason to go!
It was a great reason to go, I thought! I mean the two biggest figures in those days, as you remember, were Coach K and Stanley. I went for Coach K. I discovered Hauerwas early, though I had not really read anything by him. In fact years later, I spoke at his retirement. It was the great honor of my life to speak at his retirement, and I admitted that I had not really heard of Stanley Hauerwas before I got to Duke Divinity School — I’d come for the basketball. He’s just a really warm, generous person and I got to know him.
So going back to what you said about your family, when you became a Christian in college, did it seem to your family that you were converting to an American religion? What were their reference points for Christianity?
That’s a good question. Christianity has a long history in Vietnam because of the French colonization. Catholicism is part of the lingua franca of Vietnam, as are Buddhism and various forms of Chinese religions. So they were fairly familiar with Catholicism. They were somewhat familiar with the idea of Christianity from the Lutheran church.
But other than that, there really wasn’t a reference point. It was almost like I was leaving the planet in their mind. They couldn’t make sense of why I would become Christian. More specifically, they couldn’t figure out why I would be so serious about it, because they did have reference points of cultural Christianity that’s just kind of endemic in American life. But the type of Christianity I had was a really intensive one: high forms of Christian accountability, intentional communal living, financial accountability, lots of stuff on social justice. The reason InterVarsity, at least our InterVarsity, was so successful was because it was so narrow, and because it was narrow, it was very deep.
You could say things like: “This is what it means to follow Jesus, and only this.” Things like giving up lucrative careers; committing to living with people in under-serviced parts of the city; swearing off wealth; issues of racial reconciliation, gender reconciliation.[My family] were like, if you’re going to become Christian, why don’t you just become Christian like most Americans? The point where that really came to a head was in my sophomore year. Back in the day, when there used to be something called Blockbuster and people used to go rent something called VHS tapes, my friends and I decided to rent a VHS tape documentary about Mother Teresa. After watching that, we decided: Hey, let’s go and serve, with the Missionaries of Charity, the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India. I was 19, 20 years old, and we had no support, no infrastructure. We just had a bunch of cash that church people gave us to go over there with, and backpacks. Which when I think back on it now is utterly nuts.
I remember when I was talking to my mom about going to Calcutta, she had no idea what I was talking about. It’s one thing to serve at a soup kitchen on the weekend, especially if it’s during your break. It’s another thing to go to somewhere where you could die, much less go and hang around people who are dying, which is what the mother houses in Calcutta were about. That was the point where she realized, “This dude is really serious about this.” There was an increasing divergence between their picture of my future, and my picture of my future.
I was the most academically successful in my family, the most able to support my mom financially later on, which of course is a common thing within Asian-American cultures. Ironically, my brother and sister ended up doing fabulously well in terms of their careers and are in much better positions to support my mom.
But back then, I think my mom thought a part of her world was dying. Those were hard conversations, because my only ability to negotiate that was to try to convert her. I didn’t have the wherewithal to listen, to ask questions, to honor and respect her. That was kind of the dark side of the narrow Christianity. It was an important turning point for our relationship. Now I think they all think I’m the poorest of the siblings, but they recognize that we’re a pretty happy family, and I think that matters.
And are you the only one who identifies as a Christian?
Yeah, still. I think it’s much less bizarre [to them] because I have a career that’s a pretty legible identity. I’m a professor. What I profess — what I do research on — that’s less legible to them, but they understand “professor,” and they understand that our kids are comfortable and safe. We’re not in Calcutta. I do think there’s something strange to them, being native Californians, about us living in a place like Waco, Texas. They think that’s strange in the same way that Calcutta, India is strange. For the most part, there’s a lot of mutual love and respect, but I’m definitely the only one that’s Christian in the family.
Now I read somewhere — and feel free to just pass on this question if it’s too personal — but I read somewhere your family, because of the urgency of the evacuation from Vietnam, had to leave without your father. Were you ever reunited with your father?
My family is from the North. In the early fifties, the Communist Revolution happened, and part of what that meant was forcibly divesting the wealthy of their lands and titles and money. Our family was really wealthy. For example, they were so wealthy that it was not common for parents to raise their own children. Each of us had nannies; it was just part of the Northern Vietnamese culture. When the communists took over, they lost all that money. Another part of that culture was you had multiple wives and concubines if you were a landed, elite male. And that was the case with my father. So my mom and dad were actually never married. I didn’t know this — I mean, when you’re young, obviously you’re not aware of these things. I didn’t really come to terms with this probably until seventh or eighth grade. Seventh or eighth grade, I met my half-brothers, and they’re the exact same age as me. And then I was like: hold on, there’s something strange, yet awesome, about this arrangement. And then my brothers told me. So, they were never married.
In April of 1975 — and if you want to get a good picture of this Read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which is a brilliant novel in its own right, but its first hundred pages are about the last days of Saigon. We were in Saigon, my mom was with my dad. They were not married. My dad was traveling, doing Southern Vietnamese democratic stuff — he was involved in politics . They had four of us kids. And we were in Vietnam, Saigon, like a lot of folks, just waiting out the war. The war started quickly coming to an end in the seventies.
My aunt married a Naval Intelligence officer, and he was our way out. When the war was ending, everyone was scrambling to get out. (Again, read Nguyen’s book the sympathizer to get a sense of just how desperate this was. Hence the analogies to Afghanistan more recently.) In our case, my aunt rounded up all her sisters, including my mom, to take them to the airport and go to America.
But my mom refused to go without my father, who was out of town. And so my aunt was effectively saying goodbye to her sister, and my mom was saying goodbye to the rest of her extended family. My mom refused to go. But my aunt, at the last minute, decided to leave her spot in line at the airport — remember people were selling their kids to get out of Vietnam — she leaves her spot, goes into Saigon and pulls my mom and us kicking and screaming to the airport, puts us on a plane, and the rest is history for our family. My aunt just passed away, so I had occasion to talk about this. And at the eulogy, I just think, what our lives would have been like. Not necessarily worse, it would just have been very, very different.
Anyways, my father did not have that ticket out; he was elsewhere in the country. So he was imprisoned by the Communists because of his Democratic Party work — the term I think then was “reeducated.” Eventually he came over with the subsequent waves of Vietnamese folks, what was often called the “boat people.” When I first saw him in the early eighties, they had been apart for five years.I don’t think there was really desire for them to get back together; they had both moved on, and then he had his other family.
But when I first met my father, when he came to America, he was incredibly poor. I mean, you can imagine. And then years later he got increasingly wealthy, like ridiculously wealthy. I remember he drove a 560 AMG Mercedes, which at that time was $120,000 car, which is significantly more now. He would give me hundred dollar bills whenever we parted — I had no idea where this was coming from. Then he passed away my junior year.
We had this on again, off again relationship. He only spoke Chinese, French and Vietnamese, and I only spoke English. So we never had much of a relationship. But when he passed away, I had no idea how he passed away. And one of my half-brothers told me he died in prison. He had been involved in forms of organized crime.
So yeah, our family life is just really intense. Also when we first got to America, a huge tragedy — I should just tell viewers, this is a hard story. My brother and I were crossing the street; he was six, I was five. We had been in America just a couple of years, and he was killed by a car right in front of me.
Sometimes I ask my mom, how did you survive that? You had already left Vietnam, your homeland, your dreams. You get to America, to a strange place — it wasn’t a choice migration, she was a war refugee. So I often ask her, how did you survive that? There’s no words.
Your first book was about Vietnam and its place in American history and culture, and particularly thinking theologically about that place. At the same time, you’ve characterized your work, at least more recently, as genealogical. It’s interesting to me, because many theological genealogies of modernity point to watershed moments in the late Middle Ages/early Modern Period, specifically in Europe; but your work is geographically located elsewhere. It’s post-Enlightenment history, and you studied a part of the world that just doesn’t show up in any of these prominent theological genealogies. And you’ve done so from the perspective of globalized, liberal democracy and capitalism. I’m interested in whether you see any continuity between the theological genealogies of modernity that were quite prominent at Duke when you were studying there and the theological genealogies you have pursued?
Another great question. In some ways the reality in the first book was really about post-colonial legacies of Vietnam. The French were very interesting colonizers — they’re often referred to as clumsy colonizers, because they actually believed that they could be friends with those they colonized. To this day, my relatives — my Vietnamese aunties — talk glowingly about the colonial period. They talk glowingly about the colonial period in the same way some of them speak glowingly about Trump. There’s a really interesting phenomenon that was somewhat reported on, but a lot of Vietnamese people voted for Trump. Probably because on the one hand, the scourge of state Communism and its violence, and the way it upended my family’s life; but on the other hand, I think that Trump carried something of that colonial mystique, and my family was from the aristocracy. In the same way that Trump was attracted to a largely mythical, 1950s America, I’m guessing my family was attracted to Trump because he represented something like a European aristocracy or colonial mythology.
So when I think about the Vietnam book, it’s really the attempt to think about the long-term legacy of that colonial/postcolonial legacy, especially as it’s carried through American imperialism. The book was a genealogy on how time is imagined in the American psyche, and what that does for memory.
The interesting thing about the Vietnam War: it was the first war we “lost,” quote unquote. That’s quite a thing for a country that not only tells its history through its wars — Revolution, Civil War, World War I, World War II — but through its history of war victories. When you lose a war, and you lose it in a way that’s associated with atrocity and imperialism, then in some sense your storytelling comes to an end. You’re not sure what to say. And that was the legacy of the Vietnam War. If you look at, say, the history of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it was highly controversial, because how do you memorialize something you lost? How do you imagine it?
In some sense the turn to Vietnam, and the turn in this most recent book on American race and racism, is an extension of what’s often called narratives of decline, or genealogies of the west. Vietnam is a direct descendant of that colonial legacy. That plays out in interestingly intimate ways in terms of my family’s politics. You see the sense in which the totality, or at least the reach, of European modernity and its enforcement of modes of violence on other people, and how people make do. There’s a kind of agency in claiming the French mystique, and there’s a kind of agency in claiming Trump. Not an agency that we progressive liberals want to admit as much; but it’s part of the forms of subjectivity available on the other side of crushing forms of dominion.
When you were studying at Duke, John Howard Yoder was a major figure in the Duke School, and Yoder’s main genealogy is the genealogy of Constantinian Christianity: that when Christianity got a toehold on state power through Constantine’s conversion, that completely changed and corrupted Christianity. This is a pre-modern genealogy, but it strikes me that what you’re describing is in some ways an undoing, or at least the beginning of an unraveling, of the victoriousness of that particular compromise.
That’s right. Of course, as a reader of Yoder, I always need to acknowledge the credible forms of violence against women that he perpetrated and justified through his theology. But there’s a lot of Yoder that is hard to find somewhere else in terms of his insights on this question. The Constantinian throughline in his thinking is a good example, because it’s a very powerful rubric through which to understand not just Christian theology, but political life in general. Yoder had an interesting line where he said, when the church was being persecuted in its early years — and it wasn’t systematically persecuted, it was occasionally persecuted — but when it was being persecuted, it would have been important for some Christians to say, “It’s supposed to be like this.” That’s what Christianity promises and demands of its followers.
With that said, the temptation was that there was some other triumphalist narrative, and it had to do with taking over the empire. Then that became the picture of Christian discipleship or Christian faithfulness: that God would be faithful insofar as God converted the emperor, and the emperor converted the empire and all of its pagans, and heathens at the edges of the imperium. We didn’t recognize that while people were being crushed underfoot, then there’s naturally a fantasy for domination as a response to subjugation. I think that’s what Yoder was really good on: the genealogy of that project.
So then you push that out, say a thousand years, and you build out an empire that expands the range of that vision of Christianity — its triumphalism and the ontotheological identification of God with human affairs. What I describe is the clumsy Roman Catholic French version of that in decline, the attempt to hold onto that legacy — in the same way that say my aunts might hold on to a colonial mystique, or some people might with Donald Trump— to operate in the world, as Hauerwas often says, as if you’re going to get out of this life alive.
Whereas at least with Christianity, and the part that Yoder says we should have highlighted, is the recognition that that’s not the case. You’re not going to get out of this life without having to depend on God in some serious ways. The Constantinian temptation is to rely on forms of statecraft, and state mobilization with its forms of coercion and violence, that would insulate you from those kinds of commitments.
Ideas have consequences. That’s an axiom of a certain kind of intellectual history, and it’s an intellectual history that’s been very influential in modern theology. One example would be radical orthodoxies pointing to the metaphysics of John Duns Scotus, and then tracing a line from that to the reductive metaphysics of a capitalist modernity. But when it comes to “Bad ideas have bad consequences,” one of the things that Christian theology has to offer is an account of sin.
When it comes to race, you emphasize that bad ideas are not where racism begins. Really it begins with disordered desire, with the lust for domination — with sin. But sin seems to be missing from even the very materialist, practice oriented genealogy of Foucault and his disciples. Foucauldianism is not going to say “ideas have consequences,” as if there could be free floating ideas; it’s very much focused on the material realities in which human life subsists — and yet there’s still not sin.
You’ve written a book on Foucault and Theology. Where does the Christian doctrine of sin, and original sin come into contact with Foucauldian genealogy?
Foucault at this point has proven to be more of a master of contemporary thought than I think could have ever been anticipated. I believe I heard some reference that Foucault’s the most mentioned academic across the humanities and social sciences in the English speaking world. It’s quite a reality.
But I think downstream, the Foucault that’s been adopted is kind of half a Foucault, or early Foucault, which is the Foucault where it’s about power vis-a-vis domination and oppression. Whereas Foucault later on, especially around the histories of sexuality, the point of pointing out power was to point out agency.
Power is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. The point of that isn’t to say that domination is everywhere— I think he thought, obviously, that’s the case — it’s to say that forms of agency are everywhere, insofar as power courses through everything. And so you have in Foucault an account not only of oppression and domination, and the genealogies that go with them; it’s also to say that right in front of us, we are always more powerful than we may recognize. The histories of sexuality — especially the second, third, and fourth volumes — were to lay claim to the ready-at-hand options for humans under the terms of oppression. Some of these couldn’t help but take up the forms of oppression out of which they were emerging, but that’s not all they were.
I got from the University of Chicago’s Arnold Davidson, the translator of much of Foucault’s work, what he took to be the natural turn from Michel Foucault to Stanley Cavell. And that’s what I’ve done. I finished the Foucault book — I think I wrote it in about a year — and I quickly turned to Cavell, and I’ve been studying Cavell for about a decade now.
Cavell is a very specific reader of Wittgenstein. I think Cavell will go down as America’s greatest philosopher, or at least the most American of philosophers in the line of Emerson. And Cavell really taught me to understand human speech and language, and what it says about the human condition, in a way that helped me think in terms of how language operates.
To go back to the opening part of your question, which is about ideas having power and consequence: they do, insofar as they are conventionalized within material realities and institutions, structures and systems. It’s neither that ideas in themselves have consequences, nor do material realities proceed without ideas or concepts tied to them. Rather, they are co-emerging properties. That means it’s very difficult to pull out concepts, right? It’s not as easy as “Let’s just go after better metaphors or better concepts,” because they’re structured in. In the language of the historical sociologist, Audrey Smedley, they’re “conventionalized.” And that makes them very, very difficult to challenge, because they not only seem to make sense of some people’s oppression, they make sense of the entire world that we live in.
That was the terror of American slavery and racism. The racist ideas made sense of what we were doing to people, and made sense of our economy. It made sense of our future. It wouldn’t be as easy as taking out certain concepts and replacing them with more beneficial ones.
The great psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear has this amazing book called Radical Hope, in which he talks about Native American Indigenous folks for whom the Buffalo was the primary symbol, the conventionalized structure through which everything existed. Well, white people came along and slaughtered the buffalo. For these people, the one concept they had to organize their world — both in terms of the practical realities of their lives, but also how they talked about their lives — was taken away. What [Lear] calls radical hope is the ability for people to forge new identities in the midst of what he calls, from Heidegger, “world collapse,” which is what happens when we lose our concepts.
Inversely, the reason injustice procures and it’s so damn hard to get past these structures is that they’re conceptualized all around us.
How to re-describe Cavell’s account of language and structure of reality in terms of sin and redemption? I know nothing about Cavell’s theology, but to go back to Foucault, there’s no account of an original order and an original peace; there just always has been power that courses through and structures everything. It can be structured for domination; it can also be structured for liberation. But there’s no trajectory to that, no eschatology. How do you then give a Christian theological account of what you just described?
Cavell is interesting. He was raised a secular Jew; he passed away just in the last few years. He had some really interesting things to say about theology. Just to give you a sense of the relationship, Rowan Williams — who I consider one of the most important theologians in the world — when Cavell came to town, Rowan Williams was in the front seat. And when Rowan Williams gave lectures in America, Cavell was terribly interested in what he had to say. So there’s a friendliness and openness to Christian theology. But for the most part, he was a secular philosopher.
But Cavell has an account of a kind of fall in his narrative, which has to do with a failure in modern analytic philosophy to make the distinction between our metaphysical finitude and intellectual lack. We consistently confuse the two. You can map this onto a Christian theological account of idolatry: that is, humans are created, and therefore are finite, but that doesn’t mean we lack something. Think about the story of Genesis, where the serpent says to Adam and Eve, “You lack something. What God has provided is insufficient. You need greater forms of knowledge.” Cavell’s terribly interested in this human tendency to “chafe against our own skin.” In Christian terms, it would be rejecting the terms of creation.
Now, in terms of the account of racial capitalism I give in this most recent book, it’s a very different kind of story, but it’s still mapped onto what you described earlier as an account of desire. In the racial capitalist framework, it begins with Black Marxists who say: “Slavery and racism isn’t about us. So we’re not going to enter into recitals where we’re trying to prove our humanness. That’s not the issue. It’s clearly about forms of domination and extraction that then need to be justified.”
Racial capitalism is the way in which political economy utilizes and facilitates race language to create a certain state of affairs that goes on in perpetuity in American life, though in different forms. That, to me, is a theological story, or at least that maps onto a theological story.
And what is that story? That humans were created in sheer gratuity. God created us not because God needed something, but God created us out of the overflow of the Trinitarian life, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That means we live contingently — going back to Cavell’s notion of finitude — we live contingently, dependent on God’s grace.
What happens, though, is then we look for sources to sustain us that are not God, because God requires too dependent of a relationship. So we seek to depend on ourselves, which then turns us to sources of sustenance that can only be procured through domination of others and then domination of the earth. Those are continuous realities in my account.
In other words, I think there’s an obvious and often under-appreciated analogy between what we do to people, and what we do to non-human creatures. [For example] what we’re experiencing in the world around us, we’re headed to 3% global warming, which will prove utterly disastrous, when 1.5% was not exactly going to be a picnic. These forms of domination are the imploding of a creation that is meant to be linked to God, that now no longer turns to God for its sustenance. What it does then is look for other sources to meet a desire that can only be met infinitely in the life of God.
The other part of that story — and again, this maps back onto the Black Marxist story — is that we’re not so evil that we don’t recognize that there’s a problem with our evil. So there’s a moral, psychological need to get a fig leaf and cover ourselves. The fig leaf that covers this story of domination is a mode of ontological conceptualization that says, “Well, I can do that to that person because that person is not really a person. We can do that to the earth, because the earth lacks reason.” Or “God created us in a system of domination.” These are stories of a fall that I think map pretty clearly onto the Biblical narrative of what happens when desire is untethered from the end in which it’s fully fulfilled.
You have a new book coming out about race. Can you tell us what it’s called and when it will appear?
The book is called Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, and it comes out with Oxford in a couple of weeks.
Will there be race in heaven?
I don’t think so. My book argues that race is a mode of ideological justification used to facilitate material domination and exploitation. In my account, racism works rather like this: I describe it as not leading, but following. And I don’t mean a kind of ontological ordering — I mean that, for most people, the racism they participate in isn’t that they operate in the world with really terrible ideas about people of color. Rather, it’s a much more nefarious, subtle moral psychology. I drive around my city, you drive around Pittsburgh, what have you; there are certain parts of the city that are obviously under-serviced. They have less access to education, healthcare; property values are constantly being manipulated by the state government, the city government; et cetera, et cetera. And I say to myself, well, that makes sense. They’re brown. That helps me understand what’s going on. That alleviates me fromme asking the question: Why is our system so screwed up? That there’s a lot of poor oppressed people who are consistently being politically disenfranchised; what’s wrong with the system?
So instead of asking that question, we blame the people suffering it. It’s the ultimate form of gas lighting. American racism is this writ large, built out over an entire political economy that birthed modern day capitalism. What’s often called the history of capitalism — a story that’s emerged largely in the last 20 years, somewhat associated with the 1619 Project — these historians have shown that whatever we mean by capitalism — let’s say it’s very specific technologies around things like accountancy, financialization of loan structures, international trade — that this grew up at the same time as American chattel slavery.
In the stories we often tell, it goes the other way: first, we had an immature form of late feudalism that relied on slavery and property and labor. Then later on, we got mature and we entered into a true market system called capitalism. No — historians have shown that these actually are the same thing. The practices of accountancy [came about] because slave owners created ledger books so they could figure out how to extract the most value from their slaves. The historian Edward Baptist, who many people know from his book, The Half Has Never Been Told, tells a story of the parallels between the Debt Panic of 1837 that directly led to the Civil War, and the great recession of 2008. These are similar structured forms of financial speculation. Capitalism emerges at the same time that we produce a world of chattel slavery.
What I try to do in the book is tell this story, and then how race is used in a very sophisticated moral psychology where people whose desires are extraordinarily disordered — and are dominating the world as a product of that — try to offer a veneer of respectability by saying it’s really about black and brown people, or about yellow people who are coming from China. I try to tell a story of how racism operates as what the Black radical tradition has long called racial capitalism.
I fully gather that there won’t be racism in heaven. Race, though, according to our current understanding of racial identity, is a good. At least that’s what our university diversity training sessions teach us to hold. If my race contributes to my identity, and my identity is the means by which I am present as a person in society, why wouldn’t my race go with me to heaven, where I’m also going to be present as a person in society? For all we know, our individual histories won’t be erased when we go to heaven. So I’ll still be an Irish American to a certain extent in heaven. Or not?
My answer is, I don’t think so. In my account, if race is primarily a fiction used to cover over, ideologically, these forms of domination, then it’s not clear on the other side what race positively comes out as. It’s not like there’s some core that can then be rehabilitated in our conceptual thinking.
But your larger point still holds, which is: aren’t there modes of identification that are materially not only accurate, but appropriate? And the answer is, of course. It’s just that they don’t reduce to what we call race. In most of the world, there’s all kinds of ways that we are tied to place, to people, to language, to ethnicities, to histories, to experiences. In America, all those forms of differentiation, all those forms of identification, all of a sudden become about race. Which may work for some communities — but what can we do when we imagine the world not from the context of Europe and it’s idolization of white identity? What about Asian-Americans? In what ways can we talk about Asian-Americans as a race? It’s too diffuse as a reality. It’s a massive geographical region with hundreds of different ethnicities and languages and experiences and histories. To call all those people a race, and to fill it with certain kinds of substance — it doesn’t capture the historical, material realities of those people. It also tends to bend out of shape any working notion of identity.
Part of the problem with race identity is not simply that it lies about race. It lies about identity. This doesn’t take that much analysis of how identity works. I’m a very different person as a professional than I am at home. And my kids would say, “Thank God!” And my students would say, “Thank God!” Identities are constantly being negotiated. It’s not like there’s some core thing there that I’m carrying around, and that core thing can then additionally be mapped onto something called race. These are constantly negotiated realities.
In America, for some reason — probably, as I argue in the book, because of the way our political economy works — it’s race. Other people may say, yeah, of course I have a race; but I also have a family, and I’m also from this geography, and I’m also from this neighborhood. Race doesn’t work as we want it to.
The problem with a lot of diversity initiatives, especially DEI and increasing the language whiteness and white fragility, is it tends to reinforce the very category that we need to seriously interrogate, if not remove altogether. I don’t live under any delusion that we’re going to enter into a kind of post racial fantasy. That’s neither achievable, nor is that desirable, because we have to have some understanding and marking of identity and difference. I just don’t think race can be one of them. It’s too tied to a political economy of commodification.
Every time we find some kind of race, we find ways to add value to it, commodify it, and make a movie about it. Lately it’s been things in Asian-American culture, like Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings and Crazy Rich Asians — as if those people tell the story of most Asian Americans.
We need to find ways to mark difference and identity, but not ways in which they’re tied — habitually continuously, persistently — to modes of political economic domination. That is very hard to do, and that’s a statement both about the porousness of identity, but equally a statement about how powerful late capitalism is.
There’s a kind of anti-racist orthodoxy that says we’ll never be post-racial, and we’ll never be colorblind. Those two keywords are charged, especially right now. It seems to me that many times when Christians talk about race, they get their wires crossed with this aversion to the language of post-racialism and colorblindness, because Christians start from the apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.” They start with this eschatological ideal that could very easily be summed up as race-free, or colorblind. When Christians apply theological ethics to questions of race, that eschatology becomes an object of hope.
It seems to me that that can often come across as denying the racialism and color-based racism in the City of Man. Is there still a place for the language of colorblindness and post-racialism when talking about our life in the Saeculum, and not just what will be in heaven?
This is an excellent question. There’s a theological problem with post-racialism or colorblindness, and then there’s a material one, and they’re interconnected. The theological problem has been well laid out by teachers of ours: the brilliant J Kameron Carter and Willie James Jennings. In the former’s case, Race: A Theological Account, and Jennings’ magisterial The Christian Imagination. There, the idea of post-racialism maps onto a European Enlightenment notion of universality. What it really boils down to is what we might call anti-particularity. So what’s the problem with people of color? They’re too committed to their particularity. They can’t get out of their own skin — literally — and think with their mind, as elite, landed, European men can, through reason, insofar as they have bodies therefore have races. So they’ve shown how that’s not only politically problematic, but it’s problematic on theological grounds; it’s a form of antisemitism; et cetera, et cetera. It’s a brilliant argument and listeners should definitely consult those texts.
The practical problem is that to be colorblind is to take off the table the ability to chart the ways in which racialization works. If you look at our structures and systems, say around housing, you have to work backwards, and you’ll see how racialization works. To take racialization off the table is to blind oneself to how the material realities work out — say in housing, with redlining in the past, and what has recently been called problematic inclusion within housing markets. It’s to blind yourself from those realities, and then remove ourselves from processes of redress that will probably have to be directed back to people who have been disenfranchised by the various systems. This is a tragic reality, because we need to keep race in mind, to redress racism. So that’s one part of it.
The other part is, is there more that race identity can positively come to, other than to track systems of inequality vis-a-vis racialization? I don’t know the answer to this question. My inclination is, increasingly, to say no, at least when I think about Asian Americans. It’s hard to think of any way into that — namely, because race doesn’t quite name for Asian Americans what we would hope it to name. So there’s not a colorblind society, and there’s not a colorblind form of redress.
What I say in the book is that if race is used to justify domination, then what we need to do is de-racialize: quit thinking in terms of racial forms of analysis, and try to think about the larger political climate that produced race, which means taking account of how race works and how people are raced. Your picture of us getting to heaven would mean that I tried to imagine, remember, and honor the ways in which Ryan’s been racialized as a white person, and you do as well for me, racialized as an Asian American. But I think that’s a little different from saying that’s something essential about who you are. It’s part of who you are, and negotiating the difference is, I think, what it means to acknowledge these realities.
Last year Syndicate — which is this wonderful online forum on books and ideas — came up with this idea to publish a report on “The State of Theology,” which is pretty bold, but also very attractive that somebody would think that we need to pause and assess the state of theology.
It characterized academic theology as primarily a critical and activist endeavor. This is quite different from the role of academic theology through much of Christian history. It’s also of a piece with the broad shift in the academic humanities towards critique and activism, or at least political agitation.
I see this as potentially hastening the marginalization of theology in the mainstream academy, because it’s competing on other disciplines’ turf. What role can theology play in the university, and the academy more broadly, that’s not just a different flavor of critique and political action?
This gets to the future of the academy, the future of the humanities, and certainly the future of theology. We get to live in these interesting times, where we’re deeply — and rightly, it’s a good thing— deeply self-conscious of our history. That history has exacted untold forms and revolutions of violence and domination of people of difference. Oftentimes people of color, but certainly sexual, gender minorities, and so forth. All very often done in the name of truth, if not God; in the name of reason. We can trace out the various genealogies and figure out the ways the ontotheologies are operating in each of these occurrences.
With that awareness comes a very significant posture towards human life, and that posture is increasingly one of critique. We become little masters of suspicion. This is a pretty difficult thing for Christian theology. While it has modes of resistance and revolution as part of its repertoire, the primary key of Christian theology is proclamation, not critique. Critique is part of that: it helps us understand the world in which we praise God, or honor creation, or enjoy friendships, say. But if our fundamental posture is critique — and not critique simply of the world, but critique of even the posture of proclamation — then I think we’ve given up the game. I think this is true.
Not only in theology though; this is true literary studies. If you look at the work of Rita Felski — and Felski’s an avid reader of Stanley Cavell, by the way — Felski is worried that in American literature, the posture of critique undermines the work of criticism. Criticism as a posture, what she calls “an attachment to texts and textuality,” cannot be reduced simply to critique, to make us a little masters of suspicion. She worries that we’ve lost the language of how we appreciate and honor the forms of the commitment that we always already have; that we can’t help but render them suspicious, as if that’s the primary mode of intellectual life.
I think there’s something similar going on in theology. How do we give praise and honor to the world that we think we’ve been given as a gift, while also acknowledging the ways that we’ve run amok and acted violently against it? How do we retain our critical edge while also saying that, at least for Christians, our posture is towards witness, proclamation — that God has the last word in our world?
I think this is a really difficult thing. People in that Syndicate edition, especially Sarah Coakley, that’s the question she’s asking. Sarah is also writing a book — her second volume of her Systematics is on race — so we’ve talked a bunch about this question. If the critical mode is all that we’re able to come up with, if that’s all that we have left, then that leaves very little room for many of the forms in which we, as embodied creatures, inhabit this earth. We will have become too clever for ourselves.
I think maybe this is part of your point about Foucault — this is what I mean that Foucault’s turned out to be more of a master than he ever anticipated. If you read everything as oppression, versus forms of selfhood and agency … if it’s just oppression, then there’s very little room for any other kind of voice. And you’re right, then: if Christianity is going to just be another form of activism, well, it’s always going to be a paler form of activism. It’s always going to be suspicious on the very grounds of activism. If activism is simply tied to critique, there’s no better target than Christianity. It certainly has made itself a target. So this is a difficult set of questions for the future of the Humanities. It’s a really difficult set of questions for Theology, how we retain the voice of proclamation.
I imagine if people have a problem with my book, it’s in the second half. After I tried to diagnose the realities and to be deeply critical about racial capitalism, I actually tried to proclaim an alternative, and it has to do with Christian communities in forms of radical dispossession and solidarity. I try to read this from the perspective of those Christians, who are ordinary, regular Christians, not armed or encumbered by theology and professional academia. They just think this is what God has called them to. My worry is that the critique will be a basic suspicion of that — that God doesn’t do calling, and people’s lives, who are given to forms of generosity and charity, who offer different idioms of political economy — in and of itself, because it’s not just critical, because it seeks to proclaim or witness, that will be rendered suspicious.
I think if we do that, then we will have given up the game, not simply of theology, but of the Humanities.
So where is good theology happening that’s not in mainstream theology or religion academy?
You talked about these communities where it’s a kind of lived theology. The way your book is structured, it’s part ethnography, and it seems that in order to talk about the good news in the context of race and liberation, you had to go outside the academy and do qualitative interviews. Maybe we could conclude by talking a little bit about the theology that you encountered in the Bayview neighborhood outside of San Francisco?
There’s been a turn across the Humanities, increasingly, toward the social sciences. Some of that’s not good; I think we can all agree that it’s driven by material commitments of the university under extraordinary pressures. But a lot of it is good, because it offers us a return to regular, ordinary life. People not equipped (or encumbered) with theology are just living life and trying to be faithful human beings.
The community I looked at — which has a lot of folks who graduated from places like Cal Berkeley, Stanford, and UCLA— they got in their heads that Jesus loves the poor and oppressed, and makes his life with them— that’s just the doctrine of the Incarnation— and that they ought to do similarly. So they gave up lucrative careers— this is Silicon Valley, mind you— they’ve given up and entered into formal solidarity largely out of reception from Black churches that welcomed them into their communities.
And these are not Black Christians?
These are mostly Asian Americans, who have been racialized in their own way and have suffered the forms of racism. They gave up what’s often called “model minority lives,” and committed to living more justly with other people. Out of this church they created a software company, because a lot of them are electrical engineers and computer scientists. It’s a for-profit entity; they redistribute the money from the software company to the neighborhood, to support local businesses, neighbors, microloan networks. Another thing they did is create a school, because of the inequality of educational access in the city of San Francisco. So you have a little micro-ecology. And I wanted to know, what’s the theology? How do they talk about what they’re doing? How does it make sense?
I said that the problem with our racial capitalist system is it’s conventionalized, that is it’s constantly trying to conceptualize the world through categories of race to make sense of material inequality. Well then, you could think of this community as doing the converse: they’re trying to give language to a different world, but that language will only make sense if it’s materially instantiated and lived out. And vice versa, only if you live it out do you reach for concepts to make sense of what you’re doing. The description I give it is something called Deep Economy: the economy of the world tied into the divine economy, where justice is natural to the world because justice is natural to God, who gave us the world.
They don’t use that language. They use the simple language of worship and songs that most of us know, they read Scripture, and the common life that they have with one another and their neighbors. But when you step into that ethnography, you’re trying to say what I think most people would say, which is: Wow, this is really amazing. It doesn’t quite make sense, so let’s try to make sense of it. And then you piece it together. I offer in this book a complex theology, but they just live it.
That’s what I mean by conventionalization. That’s what I mean by saying, if racial capitalism works as I’ve described it, then we need to de-racialize so that we can deflate the power of racialization and its forms of justification and domination. But we need other idioms of political economy, other ways of imagining our lives more ordered towards justice. What I found in this extraordinary community is people who are living in a really unique way and have some concepts that help them understand it. My guess is that there’s a bit of this going on, that it hides under a whole different set of concepts and material reality.
Close to the end of the book you enter into conversation with Afro-pessimism. This is a disposition towards the evils of race that begins an account of reality with the evil of racism, and because of that, it has to end there. According to Afro-pessimist theory, any effort to de-racialize, as you say, is doomed to just reproduce the beginning, even the most progressive or radical effort.
It seems possible that a software company that is making profits and funneling those profits back into a neighborhood of racially marginalized people could very easily reproduce some of the same patterns of oppression. How does this particular community that you worked with, how does their theology of hope get out of that particular bind?
In some ways, we don’t know that they will. It’s not simply that they can reinforce the same concepts and forms of marginalization and domination; it’s possible they’ll make it worse. The Afro-pessimist view is that the modern world isn’t accidentally anti-black, it’s necessarily anti-black; that the ontological structuring, as they would put it, orients out of an anti-blackness. So it’s not an outgrowth of material history, it’s necessary to the system to be anti-black. That means, as you just nicely put it, that even our efforts to turn back anti-blackness will further entrench anti-blackness. Practically, that would mean something like the attempt to, quote, “educate” people would just introduce further forms of enslavement and domination.
It is a totalizing and utterly brilliant narrative and description. There’s no way out of it, and there’s not supposed to be. That’s the point of the ontological framing. As I quote in the book, “There are metaphysics, and there are metaphysics.” And this is an ontological picture of the world — as all ontologies are — that’s totalizing.
But then the question is, what kind of politics are we talking about then? What do we do? If the entirety of Western Civilization and all white people are, not just as an accident of history, but as white people, there to dominate; and they don’t simply dominate, they dominate for the sake of pleasure; then what are our politics? So your question about hope is both a Christian question, and a question about politics in general.
In my account, hope isn’t some expectation that something will turn out, and that’s why you push towards that end. It’s much more grounded than that. Hope is the hope that whatever you’re doing will yield some kind of benefit, without any guarantee that it will, without even much evidence that it will. You do it because you feel like it’s inclining towards goodness or truth or beauty, even against the majority of reports that it may actually go the other way.
The reason I bring in Afro-pessimism in the book is because I want to put as much pressure on what this church and community is doing conceptually as I can, and to see if they can answer those pressures and challenges. Because I understand the optics. The optics are that Christians have done a lot of bad stuff in the name of a lot of good stuff, and so anytime we see this, our critical posture comes out. So I introduced the strongest version of that through Afro-pessimism, which I think is utterly brilliant; and I try to show through a series of critiques, by mostly African-American scholars, why the Afro-pessimist claim empties out into a blank form of politics.
I want to imagine politics as putting one foot in front of the other, and hoping that every step that we take yields enough reasons to go on that we can, but open to the possibility that it’ll yield reasons to stop. But you keep on going until you run out of reasons. What you can’t do from the beginning is guarantee that you’re going to get there, or guarantee that you’re not going to get there.
That’s what politics seems to me to be about in its most radical, democratic form. We put one foot in front of the other with other people, and we try to make do with our lives, and there’s going to be tons of struggle and tons of problems. And we go forward as long as we can.
What I understand that church community to be doing is what a lot of good will people are doing: trying to put one foot in front of the other, and open to the possibility that they’re wrong, but hoping that they’re not.
But is their orientation substantially different though? There’s this analogy from a scholar who studied a progressive school in the same neighborhood. She sees the classroom as a reproducing state power; but in the hallway, it’s loud, it’s disordered, it’s where people are rubbing shoulders and laughing and putting one foot in front of the other.
The analogy there for the Christian community, you say, would be church on Sunday morning. But church on Sunday morning, I would imagine that it’s highly doxological, and has [the same] basic principle in the Book of Common Prayer: “All things come of Thee, oh Lord, and of thine own, have we given Thee.” It would only be in that movement of receptivity and re-giving that the work in the Christian school, the work in the community would be happening.
And so it’s not ultimately ordered, or even originally ordered towards the betterment or improvement of the neighborhood. That is just the pathway by which the gift is re-gifted. That would be my very optimistic account of what is happening. I gather that you don’t fully want to integrate the political work of what’s happening into the doxological work of the Sunday service. Am I right about that? And if so, why?
Yeah, that’s all right. What you described is what I call the proclamation. The proclamation evident in this community — what I call Deep Economy — is the belief that justice is natural to the world, and you only get there by leaning into the world.
Their modes of leaning into the world look like the things that I just described. If you look at how they give voice to it, it’s literal forms of singing, literal forms of worship. Those are reasons to go on, and insofar as those reasons connect into lives transformed because kids have access to education or money is redistributed, those are reasons to go on. But there are also reasons that cause despair or hopelessness or alienation or estrangement, and Christianity is this razor’s edge between hope and despair. To have hope without the witness of despair is often delusional, and to have just despair is masochistic. So it’s this razor’s edge, and I think that’s where our worship unfolds. It’s the promise of something better, even though there’s not a lot of material evidence that something better is actually going to turn out at the end of the day.
What I say is that Afro-pessimism gives us a lot of reasons to give up, and what Christianity says is that you can’t. And to be very careful about what it means to proceed by taking seriously the Afro-pessimist witness, which I think is also a form of witness.
These are deeply tied into, theologically, the story I told earlier about God having created us out of gratuity. We are contingently existing, but God has ordered creation towards goodness, truth, and beauty. Then materially, your life is going to have to look a certain kind of way. If we’re saved people, then that’s going to show itself now, and I think it looks like these people, and other forms of Christian witness. But it’s always going to be situated in a context of lots and lots of reasons for despair.
The persistence of anti-blackness in our society is a reason for all of us to despair. But so are the Black Christian tradition, and Black life, and Black dignity also articulations for hope. So how do we take in fully, as much as we can, the reality of anti-blackness, while also recognizing that Black people, throughout histories of extraordinary anti-blackness, have shown some of our greatest forms of humanity, our greatest witness to humanity?
I think this church is something like that: in the context of extraordinary forms of inequality and injustice, trying to reclaim humanity for others, but also for themselves.
Jonathan Tran, it has been a real pleasure. Thank you for the conversation.
Thank you for having me.