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Body Politics, Essays, Justice

The Theological Anthropology of ICE’s “Priority Enforcement” Program, Pt. II

The telos of border imperialism as described by Walia and served by policies like the Priority Enforcement program is manifestly blasphemous on any number of levels. The most obvious, and the most commonly identified by theologians is that it denies the presence of Christ in the persons of exploited, oppressed, colonized, and working people.

(See Pt. I here.)


The telos of border imperialism as described by Walia and served by policies like the Priority Enforcement program is manifestly blasphemous on any number of levels.  The most obvious, and the most commonly identified by theologians is that it denies the presence of Christ in the persons of exploited, oppressed, colonized, and working people.  On Good Friday 2013, in the middle of the campaign for Jose Maria Islas, over 200 of us gathered on the New Haven Green for a rally against Secure Communities under the banner Deportation Crucifies. The claim was simple: racist state violence is crucifying violence against the body of Christ, whose very flesh is the people.  Christ identifies with every person in a deportation process, every person whose wages are stolen because they are undocumented, every person who is racially profiled by the police, every person under arrest or in detention, and, in so doing, reveals Barack Obama (and any other deporter-in-chief) to be a modern day Pontius Pilate.

A theological claim such as this is important, but it is far from complete.  Writing on the political theology of whiteness as credit Amaryah Shaye Jones-Armstrong helpfully reminds us, it is impossible to think about racist state violence without thinking through white supremacy as a deformed theological anthropology.  Much like Walia, Jones-Armstrong sees whiteness as intersectional, an event taking place in multiple systems and institutions – specifically, for her, both creditor-debtor relations and mass incarceration and the criminal (in)justice system.  Whiteness and blackness, on this account, express credit and debt, and each is fundamentally necessary to produce the other.  Jones-Armstrong writes, “the promise of value is dependent on the promise of debt – the promise that the black will never be able to repay its debts and that the overwhelming debt accrued by blackness will be the principle of money’s promise.”  At the same time, however, there is a “difference between having debt and being indebted.”  In fact, it is precisely because blackness so firmly signifies permanent and absolute indebtedness that white subjects can have debt without being constructed as debtors.  Thus, “what it means to be white is to be included within relations that traffic in credibility” — to be able to have credit while still being deeply in debt (hence, for example, the greater difficulty that black people in America have faced in getting home loans).  The criminal (in)justice system acts, on this account, as an enforcer of these scripts, as well as a stage on which they are played out.  In a society where legal rights derive from property rights, credibility in court (for example, the ability to be believed when a police officer shoots your loved one) is similar, if not identical, to credit-ability in the financial system.  Courts and creditors construct two kinds of people: black and white bodies are made to line up to indebted and credited finances, and incredible and credible legal standing.  This black-white binary governs the way that immigrant bodies are known in the US.  Given the role of the criminal (in)justice system, it is no surprise that, in addition to being credit-able (able to receive loans) and credible (able to testify in court and be believed), whiteness is, in immigration debates, the ultimate “legal” reality as well.  This also helps to make sense of why PEP and Secure Communities before it sought to bring policing and incarceration into the service of immigration enforcement: the institutions tasked with reproducing the credibility of whiteness (both senses) are now tasked with reproducing its “legality” as well.

We can see from Jones-Armstrong’s work that whiteness, the telos of border imperialism as described by Walia, is thus the source and norm of a deformed theological anthropology.  It is a theological anthropology because it makes a claim as to what the normative human being is: a credible, legal citizen-subject.  It is deformed because, as Jones-Armstrong lays out, it depends upon the production of non-persons – of black bodies as indebted/uncredible, criminal, and of immigrant bodies as “illegal.”  The borders of empire are not just physical and geographic (nor have they ever been).  They are financial and legal, born within the bodies of white citizen-subjects, and enforced by the criminal (in)justice system, the arbiter of whiteness as a destructive, violent, and ultimately blasphemous vision of what it is to be human.


White supremacy, then, is a deformed theological anthropology born within the structures of border imperialism, and is the telos of the system as a whole.  ICE policies like PEP, which bring the immigration and criminal (in)justice apparatuses closer together, solidify this claim by moralizing the boundaries of the human/national community along lines of whiteness/credit vs blackness/criminality.  What is most needed in this present moment—and what is our present duty as Christians, and most especially as white US citizen Christians—is to answer this degraded theological anthropology with a reconstructed one, born, as all theological claims ultimately must be, within a material force in history.  Where the practices of state violence instantiate white supremacy as the definition and good of the human person, our praxis must make a counter-affirmation of that definition and good as grounded not in whiteness (nor in maleness, nor in heterosexuality, nor in any other matrix of power and domination) but in the Grace of God known to us in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.  If we are face to face with imperial deporters-in-chief (and incarcerators-in-chief, and drone-murderers-in-chief, and wall-street-bail-outers-in-chief, and colonial-free-trade-deal-makers-in-chief – for all these roles are necessarily connected) who have taken the place of Pontius Pilate, we must, at all costs, learn to walk the via crucis.  It must be said of us, “you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9b-10).

Back at the New Haven Peoples’ Center that August evening, such practices were on full display, as they often are in that building.  As I have already said, the bulk of those gathered were rank-and-file members of the New Haven Workers association (often better known by its spanish name and acronym, Unidad Latina en Accion or ULA).  In contrast to the dominant American ethos, which tends towards a mixture of service provision and policy analysis/advocacy by a specialized class of “professionals” and “experts” (both of which only strengthen the moral and political economy of whiteness) this organization works on principles of grassroots organizing, mutual aid, and direct action to build power and defend the community against wage theft, gentrification, police brutality, deportation, and other human rights abuses.  For these workers, “an injury to one is an injury to all!” is not just a slogan, but a praxis: when a worker is being denied their wages or threatened with deportation, as in the case of Jose Maria Islas, the group leverages the power of direct action to nonviolently coerce the decision-maker (whether a boss, a cop, or an immigration official) into respecting the community and the individual worker’s human rights.  In this way, ULA has amassed an impressive track record of stopping deportations, securing the repayment of stolen wages, and holding police accountable for instance of racial profiling.

This is the kind of material force in history that bears within itself a reconstructed theological anthropology.  This is the sort of way of life in common – the sort of politics – that can participate in the process of building a new world in the shell of the old, in the shadow of racialized empire that has distorted what it means to be human and hijacked history.  It is politics in the first person, politics which names itself as legitimate instead of asking the system for legitimation.  It is also a politics which has shown time and again to be effective in New Haven.  The ULA members gathered at the People’s Center that night knew that they had the ability to challenge PEP, to fight to keep ICE out of Connecticut, because they had done so before.  They had won deportation cases, wage theft cases, police brutality cases, landlord-tenant cases, and, from that perspective, the federal government looks like one more bully who doesn’t know when to back off.  The members voted unanimously that evening to launch a campaign against PEP, and similar campaigns have been launched all across the country.

The existence of this sort of politics – politics in the first person performed by ordinary people of different races, languages, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, united in collective defense of all of our communities (including white working class communities) – is reason to hope not only for an end to PEP building upon previous victories against secure communities, but for the creation of an entirely new social order altogether, one built upon a restored vision of human life in common, for an end not only to deportations, but to borders, to prisons, to nations, to the whole system itself.  With God’s help, may it be so, Amen.

Greg Williams is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and an incoming ThD student at Duke Divinity School, who writes out of his experience doing grassroots community organizing and nonviolent direct action from an anti-colonial/anti-capitalist perspective on the non-statist democratic left. He has been particularly active in anti-globalization, anti-poverty, labor, migrant justice, prison abolitionist, LGBTQ and indigenous and Palestinian solidarity work.  He is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and the environmental group Rising Tide North America. He is an Ashkenazi Jew, a radical reformed Christian, and an Anarcho-Communist.

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