Interview: James K.A. Smith on Public Theology and Racial Justice

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith. (Photo: YouTube/Baker Publishing Group)

James K.A. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the award-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church and Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Dr. Smith serves as editor-in-chief of Comment magazine.

Faithfully Magazine interviewed Dr. Smith by email about his newest book, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, focusing on topics of the church’s role in racial justice conversations.

Your latest book, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, is the third and final installment of your Cultural Liturgies project. Can you give our readers a bite-sized breakdown of the goals of the project and what you hoped to bring to the table in terms of Christian engagement in the world?

In many ways, the project is trying to diagnose the cause of evangelicalism’s cultural assimilation. How is it that American Christians have come to largely mimic the dominant culture?  What I suggest is that all of our “worldview” analysis hasn’t done much to stem the tide of our assimilation. That’s because it focused on the “messages” in the broader culture and completely missed the rituals of the cultural waters we swim in. Or as I put it in You Are What You Love, too much of evangelicalism wrongly assumed that we are “thinking things,” mere brains-on-a-stick, fixated on ideas, beliefs, doctrines and messages, completely missing how these cultural rituals—cultural liturgies—bypass our intellects and instead captivate our hearts and imaginations. The problem isn’t what we know or what we think as much as what we love, what we want. And our wants are shaped by the rituals we give ourselves over to. So the Cultural Liturgies project tries to provide a new lens to look at our cultural immersion, highlighting the formative—and de-formative—power of cultural liturgies like the mall and the stadium.[emaillocker id=60875]

Who has your intended audience been for the Cultural Liturgies project, and has that changed with the final installment, especially as you dove down into public theology?

Well, when I started the project in Desiring the Kingdom, I suppose the target audience was assumed to be those in Christian higher education. But then, much to my surprise, it ended up being read by audiences well beyond that, including pastors, K-12 educators, those engaged in a range of ministries and vocations. So volume 2 (Imagining the Kingdom) tried to address both worship leaders and artists, and volume 3 (Awaiting the King) is hoping to reach pastors as well as a range of folks who work in vocations devoted to the public good, including those working in the spaces of government and civil service.

One of the repeated themes in Awaiting the King is the idea that Christians should see the State as “religious” and the Church as “political.” What ideas or assumptions are you responding to when you make these statements, and how do you think that “political” aspect of the Church has affected the life and witness of the Church in the U.S.?

I should clarify that my use of the term “political” here is not synonymous with being partisan. My point is that, in some sense, Christians have been deformed and assimilated to the defaults of polarized partisan politics precisely because they missed the liturgical nature of these institutions and practices. “Politics,” in that sense, isn’t just something that you do; it does something to you. But because Christians marched out to “transform culture” equipped with their “Christian worldview,” they didn’t notice how much the culture of politics was transforming them.  I think this is true on both Right and Left, but obviously the Right is very pronounced right now, especially amongst White Evangelicals.

James K.A. Smith Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

On the other hand, I think we missed the “political” nature of the church in the sense that the ekklesia, the called-out body of Christ, is not just some club of rescued souls. It is a people constituted by the Spirit as an outpost of the city of God. In other words, my first and primary “political” identity is as a citizen of the city of God, and the liturgy of the body of Christ is the civics of the city of God. I spend a lot of the book trying to describe how this self-understanding would change the sense of our political center of gravity—not because we would retreat into the church as some alternative enclave but because it would be from this centered identity in Christ that we would then be sent into the shared spaces of public life, forging a commonweal alongside our neighbors and for the sake of the vulnerable. (I point to the Civil Rights Movement as an example of this.) It is precisely God’s call to care for widows, orphans, and immigrants that won’t allow us to withdraw into the church as some alternative society. To do so would leave them vulnerable to the unjust who would only be all too willing to fill the vacuum of power left by sequestered Christians.

James K.A. Smith

In several key moments in Awaiting the King, you cite and reference individuals in Black theology and the Black church tradition. As a White scholar coming from a different theological perspective, what caused you to begin familiarizing yourself with these individuals, and what important perspectives do they bring to the discussion about Christian social engagement?

I should say that, really, I have no right to be talking about this. My experience knows nothing of what people of color experience in this country. So for a long time I remained silent because it seemed like gross interloping for a White man to speak to such concerns. But then I started to realize that if only people of color talked about these issues, White Christians could write them off as if they were some kind of marginal concern, only pertinent to people of color—when, of course, the very opposite is true. So I have tried to tentatively raise these questions for the audiences I’m in. But when I do so, I have to note that my thinking is derivative and dependent upon all of that I’ve learned from scholars of color over the years—from Gustavo Gutiérrez and Cheryl Sanders (especially Empowerment Ethics For a Liberated People: A Path to Afican American Social Transformation), back when I was in grad school, through the challenging work of theologians like J. Kameron Carter and Brian Bantum and Vincent Lloyd. But I would especially point to the work of Willie James Jennings, who for years led a consultation of African-American Christian scholars at Calvin College, and whose Christian Imagination (Theology and the Origins of Race) is just one of the magisterial works of theology in the past decade. An important part of this has also been grappling with sociological insights about systemic and structural racism (Smith and Emerson’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America remains a helpful entrée into these issues for White Evangelicals). In that sense, I would say being part of engaged congregations in the core city, alongside fellow parishioners working on the front lines of housing policy, mass incarceration, and racism, has been an ongoing education. Finally, I’ve also been challenged by “secular” Black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead. While I might ultimately disagree with what I fear is a nihilism at bottom in their work, I don’t think that gives me the luxury of dismissing or ignoring them. Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is one of the most affecting accounts of race and racism I’ve ever encountered; it’s a book that burrows its way into your gut.

What all of these voices challenged me with—and convicted me of—was the depth and extent of American Christianity’s complicity with a racialized worldview or “imaginary,” as Willie Jennings calls it. This wasn’t just an aberration, a kind of “bad apple” theory of racism. There are ways that structures of injustice have been inscribed into the rhythms and repertoires of Christianity in North America. So this isn’t an issue just for Black Christians or Latino/a scholars, it is something Christians need to grapple with.

And it’s not something that is addressed under the rubric of “reconciliation,” which is what White Christians prefer to talk about since we want to try to not feel guilty as quickly as possible. If you focus on “reconciliation,” then you can pride yourself on your diverse group of friends; but if you’re talking about justice, and systemic racism, you’re not off the hook quite so quickly. That’s not to say guilt is the goal, as if Christian public theology is successful insofar as it engenders some kind of sadism (White guilt can generate all kinds of very deformed Christianities as well). But any approach to this that skates over systems of complicity is bound to be a kind of cheap grace.


“There are ways that structures of injustice have been inscribed into the rhythms and repertoires of Christianity in North America. So this isn’t an issue just for Black Christians or Latino/a scholars, it is something *Christians* need to grapple with.”


You also have an extended case study in your book about the Church’s role in the creation of the idea of whiteness and race in the West. Can you expand on your observations in the book, and offer your assessment of the current status of Evangelical and theologically conservative Christianity regarding race relations, racism, and racial justice?

Again, here I am very reliant on the work of Jennings and Bantum and just try to translate it for audiences who might not otherwise run into their work. There are two layers of concern here. First, we have underestimated all the ways that “Christian” has been taken to be synonymous with the invisible default of “whiteness”—which is the configuration of spaces and societies that privilege White control and systemically marginalize and destabilize non-White agency and expression. As Jennings puts it, we don’t realize the extent to which the entirety of society has effectively been made to echo the plantation.

Second, we need to recognize that racism is operative more on the order of a liturgy than a worldview. If you merely treat racism as a worldview—an “ideology”—then you can confidently congratulate yourself that you “don’t believe those ideas.” That is, by reducing racism to an ideology, you can dismiss it as a set of beliefs that you reject and isolate it to some cultural fringe. But if racism is more like a cultural liturgy, a repertoire of rituals that are part of the water we swim in, then I’m absorbing a racialized imaginary without even realizing it. That’s why I think a “liturgical” analysis of culture reframes our analysis of racism.

As a follower of your Twitter, I’ve noticed that there have been several instances where you’ve received heavy pushback from Christians and Christian organizations whenever you’ve brought up topics such as anti-racism and systemic racism. What has been the root of the pushback, and what has your response been?

Oh, any irritation I’ve experienced on Twitter doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned. It doesn’t cost me a thing, and most of my life I enjoy unmitigated privilege and comfort. I’m more disheartened when I see folks like Jemar Tisby or my colleague Christina Edmondson raising these questions and then having their voices dismissed or demonized because they’re told they’re not sufficiently “focused on the gospel.” What gospel makes matters of justice and wholeness and righteousness tangential?! I can’t fathom that. Sounds like “another gospel” to me.

I’ve often recognized a hesitancy for Christians in theologically conservative circles to read or engage with individuals and ideas outside of their own traditions. Why do you think this might be, and how would you encourage Christians in these circles to become familiar with the Church’s role and responsibility for race relations?

It’s a good question; I’m not sure I have a good answer. I do worry that too many Evangelicals prize a kind of “safety” that seems both anti-intellectual and antithetical to what the gospel calls us to. There are lots of Christian leaders who effectively make themselves a kind of theological police force, telling people who’s “safe” to read, who can be “trusted,” who’s part of “our circles.” That is a recipe for preserving the status quo.

Confident in Christ’s grace, I think following Him means making myself vulnerable. I don’t really have much interest in being “conservative.” I do have an interest in being faithful, but I think being faithful means following where the questions lead, and following Jesus into broken places where I get uncomfortable because I’m not in control. And then it turns out I find sisters and brothers there who followed Jesus into those places long before I did.[/emaillocker]

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    Contributor

    Written by Timothy I. Cho

    Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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