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"Gray Concrete Church" by Daniel Tseng
Body Politics

Attuning the Church, Debating What Lies Beyond Racial Capitalism

The true gift Tran has given us is a theologically provocative understanding of the church as a certain kind of deep economy. I will be thinking with it and learning from it for a long time.

My biggest worry about Jonathan Tran’s superb new book, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, is that readers will largely miss its upshot: namely, that the Christianity Tran advances in his book (and finds exemplified in the life of Redeemer Community Church of San Francisco) offers a viable economic alternative to our current late modern capitalist reality. Readers may be tempted to focus only on Tran’s critique of current antiracist mindsets and not see the fruitfulness of Tran’s alternative.

The first half of the book offers Tran’s critique of current “identarian” models of antiracism and outlines his alternative that builds on the work of the Black Radical tradition. Antiracism needs to learn to distinguish between race and racialization: postracial color-blindness is not a desirable goal (if even possible), but neither should we double down on racial identity, Tran tells us. Instead, we need to grasp the political economy of racial capitalism’s processes of racialization (xvi). “Deracialization, not postracialism, should be the goal” (10). This is arguably the more sensational aspect of the book and it’s likely to get the most attention. Tran subordinates racial identity to political economy. We need to focus on material processes of racialization rather than race itself. “What is racism for?” Tran asks us, except to justify racial capitalism’s world of domination and exploitation. Histories of difference and histories of value develop coterminously and one cannot have capitalism without racialization. Neoliberal capitalist economic practices are established and then are justified by white supremacist ideology. This is the use-identity-justification feedback loop of racial capitalism. Tran’s account relies on recent historiography of U.S. American slavery but its argument carries lessons forward. The presence of the past is ever with us; histories of slavery live on in what Tran calls, racial capitalist “aftermarkets” where today people horde opportunities afforded to them by racial capitalism (cf. housing markets that exclude African Americans and the history of redlining). Current antiracist thinking—insofar as it sticks to frameworks guided by racial capitalism’s racialized identities (largely guided by the binary white/black framework)—cannot get free of dominative exploitation of racial capitalism. Identarian antiracism is beholden to the “divide and conquer” strategy that justifies racial capitalism in the first place. 

Much of this account of racial capitalism rings true with my own experience as an interfaith organizer with immigrant Muslim communities in the U.S. South. In my experience, building political relationships of solidarity within an “identarian” antiracist framework can be awkward and frustrating at the least. In this context, political organizing is often forced into the dominant antiracist framework that can’t seem to make sense of a Muslim immigrant experience. Those in progressive and liberal-minded Christian communities seeking to build relationships with Muslims often cannot make sense of an economic and political experience that does not square with their antiracist historiography or political economy. Inevitably, the white/black binary takes over, where a Muslim immigrant’s experience is racialized through antiblack racism or white Christians adopt the requisite sensibilities of white guilt in antiracist thinking. Islam is racialized as black; Christianity is racialized as white. The larger political economic story is missing. Such antiracist frames don’t take racialization seriously enough. What is racism for?

But this is all just table-setting. It is certainly true that Tran has done a great service by bringing forward the lessons of the Black Radical tradition into Christian theology. But Tran’s story isn’t a Black Marxist one (see the Postscript for reasons why). Tran is after something larger, something more metaphysical. His is fundamentally an argument about the Christian story and the “divine economy”—the “deep economy”—that sits at the center of the Christian narrative. Against the narrative of reality forwarded by racial capitalism and against those current alternatives Tran critiques of antiracism and Afropessimism (cf. 271-290), Tran offers the Christian narrative. There are metaphysics and there are metaphysics, Tran argues, and the deep economy of the Christian narrative offers reparation of and liberation from racial capitalism (see chapter 6, especially 282-290). 

One of the currents sweeping through Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, might be called a Cavellian perfectionism. Tran’s analysis of racial capitalism is assisted by his pragmatism (78-79). In racial capitalism, racialization facilitates the emergence of an ontology of racial essence that justifies relationships of dominative exploitation. Racial categories are invented and latter supplemented with social ontology. In Tran’s analysis of race in racial capitalism, it follows a use-identity-justification cycle, where racial identity involves an ideology of racial categorization that “indexes” people for domination and exploitation in the political economy. “Race is about differentiation rather than difference, stratification, not diversification” (92). Tran’s alternative, the deep economy, is grounded in reality as it is in God. The church, in Tran’s account, is an eschatological category: a material community in between times, whose life emerges from a “magical realism”—a vision of the world as it is redeemed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (202). The racial capitalist world is superficial and a deviant of reality in the Christian narrative: “Liberationist act toward the world, [Pedro] Casaldáliga and [Jose Maria] Vigil believe, not as they want it to be but rather as it is in Jesus Christ. … The interconnections adjoining a Christian spirituality of liberation mean that the primarily political key of Christian witness is not resistance but proclamation” (202; 207). All of this leads to a question: What is the formative role of practices of proclamation in establishing this deep economy? 

At his most theological, Tran turns to formative language: of “seeing creation rightly,” of being “attuned” to God and the divine economy, of “inhabiting creation rightly,” of participating and enlivening creation to a deeper, more “natural” reality (208-211). Contrasting the superficial reality of racial capitalism and its use-identity-justification cycle is the participation-revelation-reparation cycle of the deep economy. The direction of these comments suggests that practices of proclamation —“Doxology as political speech”—have a formative role that presume standards of correct proclamation and attunement to them within a community (213). Identity is achieved by translating the practices and standards to our individual lives: “Identity, then, arrives as a revelatory achievement of participating with others. … Once inside God’s preferential option one sees the world anew… One comes in touch with how the Spirit’s infinite infusions perfect capacities for moral repair.” (212-213, emphasis in original). And a little later on: “Practices of confession, forgiveness, repentance, and accountability ease pretensions and check presumptions” (289). 

This first question about the formative role of doxological practices, the source of those standards, and how Christians are adequately attuned to this life, leads to a second question about what the deep economy amounts to inside Tran’s Christian “ellipse” (cf. Chapter 5, esp. 227-239). Tran’s Christian life is characterized by dispossession of racial capitalism’s use-identity-justification and a joyful embrace of participation-revelation-reparation in the Christian life (238-239). Using a member of Redeemer, Chi-Ming, as an example, Tran says, “The life Jesus invites, the one Chi-Ming has come to live, involves an ellipse between two points, dispossession and joy” (238). This sets up a contrast between the racial capitalist world and the Christian life in the ellipse: “Between this world and them, experienced together as an ellipse of dispossession and joy, arrives the world as it is in God, that is, as it really is, as Christ himself shows. Seeing as much is the trick—recall Casaldáliga and Vigil’s ‘magic realism’—a trick only achieved by living the ellipse, standing inside by which things come into focus” (239). The deep economy found in Redeemer Community Church, is foundin its “microecology”of a subsidiary technology company Dayspring Partners, its loan fund The Neighbor Fund, and its private school Rise University Preparatory. Daypsring is a good example of the power of social ventures, for-profit or non-profit companies that are social centered and driven by mission and impact. To put my second questions sharply: Does Redeemer’s microecology build economic power for those it seeks to serve, and if not, is Redeemer’s microecology just benevolent capitalism? And, relatedly, how does contestation work within this deep economy—who has a say and under what conditions? Social Ventures like Dayspring are not the only viable alternative to capitalism, as Tran knows, nor is it the only one that has been incorporated into Christian life. Tran’s account tends to underplay the role of debate and dialogue within Christian life as Christians seek to live into what they perceive the Spirit to be perfecting in them.

One way of responding to this second question regarding the political economy of Redeemer’s microecology is to pursue the relevant theological differences between Redeemer and those in other Christian anticapitalist movements like worker cooperatives. As Tran says, “Christ did not remain at the edge of history, proffering abstract principles to be theorized, nor was Christ an ideal to [be] emulated when convenient. … The church presents Christ’s life as a demand that the world should turn out a certain way” (283). And earlier, “Eschatologically, between the present that already is and the future that has not yet been realized is a material reality that inhabits and expresses the productive tensions emanating between the already and the not yet. This materiality Christians call the church, and its role is to witness to the reality that in Christ God has already triumphed over evil” (282). One additional way Christians have been witnessing to God’s triumph over racial capitalism is by living into economic practices that build economic power for workers: building companies owned and democratically governed by those who work in them

My point is not to dismiss social ventures like Dayspring Partners, but to push Tran’s point a bit further: the Christian life as Tran imagines it assumes the economic agency of workers over against the dominative exploitation of racial capitalism, but Dayspring largely leaves the capitalist labor relationship unchanged. The cooperative and solidarity economy can deepen this theological point: worker ownership is about creating structures and economic practices that embrace the equal voice and agency of all for theological reasons, which Cornel West so well summed up in terms of democratic individuality. Without democratic ownership and governance, no matter how benevolent our social ventures may be, there are fewer guardrails to prevent the deformation of Tran’s deep economy into newer versions of racial capitalism.

In some ways, I am repeating a lesson that the U.S. American left learned at the turn of the 20th century. After decades of fraught efforts to build worker power that were crushed by the U.S. Federal government, Eugene Debs realized that industrial movements for democratic socialism needed a viable political party. At the same time, movements like those in the tiny radical wing of the Black social gospel and in African American cooperative movements broadly were also internalizing a point that Jessica Gordon Nembhard aptly sums up: “Early on African Americans realized that without economic justice—without economic equality, independence and stability (if not also economic prosperity)—social and political rights were hollow, or actually not achievable.” Democratic political movements are weaker without economic democracy and one of the most vital movements of economic democracy can be found in the rich history of worker cooperatives, a history that might, in fact, be an excellent example of Tran’s deep economy.

Reviewers have already recognized that Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism will be landmark for some time to come, but not only because of the critical and constructive work Tran does regarding identarian antiracism. The true gift he has given us is a theologically provocative understanding of the church as a certain kind of deep economy. I will be thinking with it and learning from it for a long time.

Defending Racial Particularity within Tran’s “Deep Economy” of Grace

Racial identity as a source of cultural, political, and personal pride predates the North Atlantic slave trade; therefore, racial identity must be part of the calculus when articulating a theological anthropology.

Attuning the Church, Debating What Lies Beyond Racial Capitalism

The true gift Tran has given us is a theologically provocative understanding of the church as a certain kind of deep economy. I will be thinking with it and learning from it for a long time.

Beyond the Binary

The reality into which we are called to participate, to embody, and to invite others is profound in that it promises to create the very sociality for which we long. It promises to establish the Kingdom of God that is not yet our everyday reality and, at the same time, is present to us in certain spaces and in moments of profound connection.

Dangerous Memories, Costly Faith, and a Faithful Future

How I understand Tran’s story is that the script for Asian American Christian resistances to racial capitalism needs to be formed by the dangerous memory of Jesus Christ’s witness. Otherwise, Asian American theologies end up resisting identarian essentializations of Asian America that do not always speak to concrete challenges and dynamics that Asian Americans experience.

The Durability of Whiteness

Tran gifts his reader with the invitation to think generatively rather than prefiguratively about social and economic relations, setting aside that which cannot be refashioned for just use.

The Author’s Response, Part 1

I interpret the questions put to my political economic approach like this: While Tran’s racial capitalist emphasis on structures and systems seems mostly correct, rightly deflating individualists/personalist (“identarian” as I say in the book) accounts of racism and accordingly moving the conversation forward, it misses something crucial.

The Author’s Response, Part 2

Racialized white identity no doubt exerts enormous power, but that power and its meaning are hardly unchanging and self-interpreting. In our desire to disabuse whites of power we should weary of reifying white racial identity as something that determines history without answering to it.

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