Monday, December 30, 2013

Readings in 'Race': A Theological Reading of the Writings of Jarena Lee

This is the eleventh and last (apart from a postlude) in a series of chapter excerpts from J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account---a series I've been posting to help me keep track of the argument, and to encapsulate its intensity for the interest of those who might track along. (To access prior chapters start here). In the third and final part of the book Carter has been offering a theological reading of three different accounts of slavery that come from black writers, showing how they sought to re-interpret their situation (to some degree) from within biblical-theological narratives of Christ. The first two authors were men in the 1700s and 1800s; the third is a nineteenth century woman named Jarena Lee.

Jarena Lee's primary autobiographical narratives were her 1836 The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel and its republication (with additions) thirteen years later. About them Carter writes:

"[T]he curtness of Lee's opening words, which narrate how she came to be a servant in a white household and how in that state of servanthood she was introduced into Christianity, mimes the general notion of the times: namely, that black existence can become visible only as it is inserted into the narrative of Euro-American civilization" (317). However, by inserting herself into the Psalmist's prayers and interpreting her life as "a black woman's sojourn to 'Zion'", Lee then gives a Pentecostal nuance to her conversion which serves as a "disremembering of her childhood" and "a particular remembering or reconstituting of it as well" (314, 318, see 328-329).

Jarena Lee
If "autobiography was for Augustine (and Hammon) a theological feat," so, as far as her story goes, "Lee theologically rereads the world [as well as] the self" by having it "sociopolitically replotted within the scriptural narrative" (323). In contrast with Douglass's narrative of the self-made black man, what Carter finds so interesting about Jarena Lee's "exegetical imagination" is that it constitutes "an ethical performance of a newly 'imagined community'" (323). He explains:

"A nonmaterialist, mystical return to the solitary self, to the true and authentic individual, a return that leaves material structures in place as on takes mystical flight from them is what one is left with on [some] readings of how spirituality functions in Lee's discourse.... [But h]er discourse follows and in its own way displays the divine economy of God's incarnation. Far from being nonmaterialist, this economy is God taking up the structures of the world into God's own life and transfiguring those structures according to Jesus' cruciform existence. Put another way, Lee's discourse is 'mystical' because it follows the mystery of the incarnation, rather than the disembodiment of modern rationality and racial thinking" (326-327).

"What is interesting about Lee's narration of her call to preach is that she does not argue for her 'right' to preach in terms of a liberal discourse of 'rights.' Instead she makes a Christological case for her call as a woman to preach," via the Pentecostal birth of a new community invoking the prophecies of Joel (339, see 329).

What it comes down to is "life in God's covenant. If Douglass's discourse was unable to articulate this new form of life together to the detriment most negatively of black female flesh, then Lee's discourse is more successful. This is because her narrative of the self is embedded within a fuller Christology. According to this fuller vision of Christ, the flesh of Jesus is a social reality, a space into which one enters by the action of the Spirit. As the one who transfigures social reality by drawing creation into the space of Christ's flesh, the Spirit of Christ is the architect of a new mode of life together, that of the ecclesia, the church of Christ" (338).

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