xbn .
The Brink

Race, Equality, Citizenship, and Belonging: Reading James Baldwin and Wong Kim Ark

In the end, we think that this collaboration of journals has produced an interdisciplinary exchange that deepens and complicates categories of race, equality, citizenship, and belonging that are salient in different ways to the fields of Law and Religion and Political Theology.

This is an introduction to a roundtable featuring an exchange of essays between the Journal of Law and Religion and Political Theology. The articles under discussion in this piece may be found in Political Theology volume 23, issue 5, and include “On Slaves, Aliens, and Other Threats to the Body Politic” by Robert A. Yelle; “Race, Immigration Law, and Christianity: Reflections and Tensions Raised by United States v. Wong Kim Ark” by Jennifer Lee Koh; and “Blood Power: US v. Wong Kim Ark and the Theo-logic of Belonging” by Franklin Tanner Capps and SueJeanne Koh.

The following essays are part of a collaboration between the Journal of Law and Religion and Political Theology. Editors from both journals selected the two texts interrogated and interpreted here—James Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris” and the United States Supreme Court decision in the case United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898). The purpose of the collaboration was twofold. The first purpose was to see what new interpretations arise when scholars working primarily in law read the essay by Baldwin, who has been a touchstone in much contemporary Black theology, and when scholars working in religious studies read the legal decision in Wong Kim Ark, a case in which the Supreme Court extended citizenship to the child of Chinese immigrants who conceived and bore him on American soil. The second purpose was to divide publication between the journals, with each journal publishing three of the six essays, with a view to building bridges between readers of each journal over a topic at the intersection of both law and political theology.

In publishing this symposium of articles, we seek jointly to achieve the mission of both journals. The Journal of Law and Religion publishes cutting-edge interdisciplinary, interreligious, and international research on critical issues of law and religion. JLR publishes articles in textual, historical, social scientific, and cognate fields related to law and religion, with a wide space for normative political and ethical inquiry. Political Theology investigates the connections between religious and political ideas and practices. The journal is interdisciplinary, drawing on many subfields of religious and cultural studies reflects the diversity of religious and theological engagements with public and political life. The editors selected the Baldwin and Wong Kim Ark texts because they raise and interrogate notions of race, ethnicity, citizenship, and justice, questions that have swirled amid so many recent social controversies and movements, particularly in the United States, but with global manifestations and resonance in other national contexts, and in ways that address core topics of both journals. It should be noted that while the legal and political dimensions are evident in both texts, neither the Baldwin essay nor the Wong Kim Ark decision takes up religion explicitly as a primary focus. Thus, we challenged our contributing authors to find the religious or theological dimensions implicit in these texts and contexts. Creative reading and interpretation of texts is at the heart of our interdisciplinary fields, and our journals share a commitment to the ongoing importance of religious and theological thought and categories, even when it is more subtext than text.

We began this collaborative project by envisioning, in an interdisciplinary way, that scholars of political theology who participated in our project would read and comment on the Wong Kim Ark decision from a political theological perspective and law and religion scholars would read the Baldwin essay from the perspective of law. We would, in other words, invite scholars to reflect on a text more commonly analyzed in the other discipline. We were eager to see what lessons a talented and interdisciplinary group of law and religion scholars and political theologians might distill from these texts and what the concepts, contours, and conclusions of such analysis might suggest about the common concerns of our respective fields. As the project evolved, we made the decision to juxtapose different readings, having one scholar from each field offer a reading of the more familiar genre of text and two scholars offer a reading of the more unfamiliar genre of text. But those distinctions, like many conceptual categories, grow intrinsically fuzzy at their edges. The essays solicited for this symposium reflect the ways in which the assembled scholars are conversant—sometimes even dually trained—in both law or politics and theology or religious studies. They employ both disciplines in their analysis, and the depth and ingenuity of interpretation in these essays attest, we feel, to the richness of this conversation.

Baldwin’s essay “Equal in Paris” was written in 1955 as the civil rights movement in the United States was cresting toward its peak. In an era in which travel by Black citizens in the United States was still subject to many restrictions under segregation—one thinks of The Green Book that Black travelers used to navigate the potential peril of being on the road at home—some Black expatriates from the United States could live abroad and experience a measure of freedom and equality. And yet, Baldwin discovered that equal in Paris might not be that different from equal in America. What was different were the dividing lines of equality.

The Wong Kim Ark decision of 1898 parsed the differences among residence, domicile, and citizenship of Chinese immigrant parents and their US-born offspring under the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Under those laws, Wong Kim Ark, even though born in San Francisco in 1873 to resident but not naturalized parents, was considered with his parents to be subjects of the Emperor of China. While Wong Kim Ark had traveled to and back from China without incident in 1890, when he journeyed to China a second time in 1894, upon return he was denied permission to land and reenter US soil on grounds that he was not a citizen of the United States. Wong Kim Ark’s denial of entry prompted the case that led to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision recognizing jus soli citizenship of all persons born on US soil.

The Baldwin and Wong Kim Ark texts could not be more timely in the issues that they raise. The questions raised by Baldwin’s experience in Paris resonate with current concerns about the status of Black people in the United States raised by the Black Lives Movement and visible in concerns about the alleged teaching of critical race theory in public schools. The value and method of taking a critical perspective on one’s nation while at the same time remaining a loyal critic has come into question more and more in recent years and is now roiling state legislatures around the United States. Moreover, the United States remains consumed by legal debates over citizenship, whether at the southern border that has seen Central American and other migrants fleeing north to escape violence and poverty or of the “American Dreamers,” young immigrants, often brought by the family as infants and young children to the United States and knowing no other home, who have faced disruption of education and threats of deportation. And in Europe, citizens of various nations have eagerly welcomed white-skinned, Christian refugees from the Russian war on Ukraine, even though some were less willing to accept brown-skinned, Muslim refugees from Syria just a few years earlier. Race and religion clearly matter when it comes to just and humane treatment of refugees in Europe and in other parts of the world.

The essays on Baldwin’s “Equal in Paris,” appear in a companion issue of JLR, beginning with an essay by Brandon Paradise. Bringing a perspective to the Baldwin essay that is informed by his law and religion framework, Paradise writes of the way in which Baldwin’s essay prefigures many of the themes of critical race theory in articulating “a vision of law and legal justice as historically and socially conditioned by the underlying morality of the society in which the law is administered.”[1] In theological terms, Paradise argues, “Baldwin articulates a view of law and Christianity as simultaneously serving as instruments and sources of hypocrisy and injustice while representing critically important, if difficult to achieve, standards of justice and love.”[2] Themes of privileged perspective, hypocrisy, and injustice swirl in Paradise’s retelling and interpretation of Baldwin in ways that struggle to reconcile law and love.

Mona Siddiqui’s exploration of the Baldwin text focuses on Baldwin’s experience as an expatriate. As Siddiqui, being herself a Pakistani immigrant to Britain, describes it, “It is reasonable to contend that all migrants are looking for some kind of escape or refuge, whether physical or intellectual, but leaving home always comes with personal challenges and costs.”[3] In Siddiqui’s analysis, what leaving home gave Baldwin was the “experience of what it was to live as an alien, a migrant, or an expatriate, all terms which imply a leaving and searching for new horizons.”[4] It is a dynamic in which an expatriate’s separation from their home country gives them an experience in another culture, but in ways that can make them even more aware of their racial and national history of their home country. It is a context in which the right to criticize emerges from the duality of rage at and love for one’s country. As Baldwin put it elsewhere, in words that Siddiqui quotes, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”[5]

Writing from France, Nadia Marzouki, a political scientist of identity and politics, describes how Baldwin draws the reader into his experience of imprisonment in Paris, drawing on theologies of damnation and redemption. Marzouki begins her essay with an account of the recent honorific reburial of another famous Black American expatriate in Paris, Josephine Baker, in the Panthéon in 2021. The ceremony was received controversially in some quarters as a too clean disavowal of France’s own history of racial and colonial injustice and the persistence today of white nationalist and equalitarian legal values that may be only imperfectly realized. Marzouki recounts how Baldwin, with Richard Wright and other prominent Black artists and authors of the 1950s, debated whether Paris really was such a place of refuge. Baldwin’s account of his dissociative experiences and imprisonment in Paris reveals how his is a bi-ocular rather than fully binocular perspective. This perspective, Marzouki argues, leads Baldwin to the realization that “Paris is not a safe haven from the United States. It offers the same ills and evils in a different style.”[6]

The essays on Wong Kim Ark are published in the issue of Political Theology. Robert Yelle, a political theologian, takes up the Wong Kim Ark decision as a problem of both ambivalent loyalties and alienation within the legal system, both of which he sees as common to the experiences of both Baldwin and Wong Kim Ark. These problems, in turn, raise questions of belonging and equality. The experiences of Baldwin and Wong Kim Ark are occasions to recall the power of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of equality of “citizens” and, more broadly, of “persons” within US borders. Yelle takes the discussion beyond the rights of citizens and aliens to address questions of allegiance, in both the Baldwin essay and the Wong Kim Ark decision, as a “a religious power, a mode of submission or dependence that confirms or even calls into being the sovereignty of the state.”[7] In both texts allegiance serves as a common kernel of law and religion, as well as the underlying concern in the fear of aliens and divided loyalties that animates much domestic and global politics today.

In their essay on Wong Kim Ark and the American “theo-logic of belonging,” theologians Franklin Tanner Capps and SueJeanne Koh take up and creatively reinterpret the notions of “blood power” and “blood and soil” citizenship that have heretofore been mostly the province of white supremacist rhetoric. Their essay explores the “limits of blood discourse, both theological and political, in connection with the notions of blood purity, mixture, and contamination,” while also examining the “constructive theological potential of the nature of blood and land relations as they bear on legal and political renderings of experiences of acceptance, belonging, and alienation.”[8] Blood discourse, with its foundations in early Christianity, can establish boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, but it can also descend and devolve into rigid polarities between the “pure” and “impure” that are at odds with the Galatians 3:28 notion of equality. Furthermore, the transfer from blood to soil citizenship came with the emergence of the modern liberal order and its primacy of the sovereignty of the state in which the state is a figurative “parent” to its citizens and other blood relations are subordinate to the “blood relation” to the state. Even so, Capps and Koh observe, “The extent to which the presence of actual blood circulating between bodies is necessary for kinship has been a contested point across Christian and other religious traditions.”[9] This means that the appropriation of “blood power” by the state over its citizens may be theologically suspect. Ultimately, Capps and Koh note, “blood power” has both the “ability to divide and exclude as well as merge and join disparate parts of the political body” and the “potential to fluidly include those who are deemed different, but only through its ability to substitute difference for sameness, and not always to benign effect.”[10]

Finally, Jennifer Koh examines the Wong Kim Ark decision from her perspective as both a scholar and practitioner of immigration law, as a second-generation Asian American, and as a Christian, though not a theologian. Koh reads Wong Kim Ark as an indication of how racial animus and racial exclusion can shape an area of jurisprudence, but she also points to some limits of relying on racial equality as a source of remedy. Interestingly, Koh notes that the majority in that decision was motivated significantly by the fear of excluding US-born children of white immigrants and that it did not address the continued exclusion of Native Americans from citizenship. The alignment of Wong’s rights with those of white immigrants also left untouched centuries of anti-Asian sentiment that continues to manifest in American politics and society today. In that way, Koh observes, the Wong Kim Ark decisions serves as “precursor to present challenges over the meaning of racial equality, the strategies used to achieve progress, the meaning of merit and membership, and the role and relevance of solidarity across communities.”[11] From a religious perspective, when it comes to whether and how the situation of Asian Americans is addressed, Koh maintains that “Christianity can serve as either a source of despair or of hope, depending on one’s perspective and which aspects of American Christianity receive emphasis.”[12]

In the end, we think that this collaboration of journals has produced an interdisciplinary exchange that deepens and complicates categories of race, equality, citizenship, and belonging that are salient in different ways to both fields. Scholars of law and religion have been introduced to the field of political theology, and political theologians have been introduced to law and religion. These essays have highlighted a range of different—but also complementary—perspectives that come from the core of both fields. Having collaborated so well in this instance, the Journal of Law and Religion and Political Theology look forward to future collaborations with each other and with other journals besides to elucidate and illuminate common concerns.

Silas Allard 
Managing Editor, Journal of Law and Religion                    

M. Christian Green                                                                
Special Content Editor, Journal of Law and Religion

Vincent Lloyd
Member of Political Theology Editorial Collective

David True
Member of Political Theology Editorial Collective

[1] Brandon Paradise, “Confronting the Truth: The Necessity of Love for Justice,” Journal of Law and Religion 37, no. 2 (2022).

[2] Paradise, “Confronting the Truth.”

[3] Mona Siddiqui, “Belonging in Exile: James Baldwin in Paris,” Journal of Law and Religion 37, no. 2 (2022).

[4] Siddiqui, “Belonging in Exile.”

[5] James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes,” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 3–9, at 9, as quoted in Siddiqui, “Belonging in Exile.”

[6] Nadia Marzouki, “The Great Gray City of Light,” Journal of Law and Religion 37, no. 2 (2022).

[7] Robert A. Yelle, “On Slaves, Aliens, and Other Threats to the Body Politic,” Political Theology 23, no. 5 (2022).

[8] Franklin Tanner Capps and SueJeanne Koh, “Blood Power: US v. Wong Kim Ark and the Theo-logic of Belonging,” Political Theology 23, no. 5 (2022).

[9] Capps and Koh, “Blood Power.”

[10] Capps and Koh.

[11] Jennifer Lee Koh, “Race, Immigration Law, and Christianity: Reflections and Tensions Raised by United States v. Wong Kim Ark,” Political Theology 23, no. 5 (2022).

[12] Koh, “Race, Immigration Law, and Christianity.”

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!