God, Race, and History: Liberating Providence
A 2020 Pew Research survey found that twenty-seven percent of all American adults thought Donald Trump’s 2016 election was “part of God’s overall plan.” Five percent thought it was evidence God approved of Trump’s policies. These responses highlight a question at the heart of Matt Jantzen’s fresh and insightful God, Race, and History: Liberating Providence. Can finite and fallen humans discern God’s work in history?
Jantzen begins the work with a similar connection, articulating how nationalism and capitalism have taken on providential narratives. What might Christian theology have to say in response to these “racialized counterfeits of the doctrine of providence” (p. 2)? First, it must have something to say about providence at all. Jantzen describes the oft-lamented neglect of providence in theological studies, arguing that such laments fail to interrogate how the doctrine has animated and sustained racialized conceptions of human history. Rather than merely recover the doctrine of providence, Jantzen wants to liberate it: from the racialized vision of humanity that has justified colonization and slavery.
Jantzen turns to three theologians—G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Barth, and James H. Cone—for identifying the necessary corrections. Hegel provides the primary contrast: his conception of the divine spirit’s movement toward self-consciousness through history abstracted the doctrine of providence away from Christ and put European man in his place. Jantzen then describes Karl Barth’s account of providence: a “radically Christological doctrine” that could confront Christian captivity to a wayward political imagination (p. 70-71). Finally, Jantzen turns to Cone, who sought an account of providence that could describe the place of Black Power within salvation history. Cone ventured the “risk” of making specific and contingent judgments about what Jesus Christ is doing—not in abstract “human history,” but in Newark and Detroit, in Black rebellions against forces of suffering and death (p. 128).
Most of Jantzen’s constructive work is an account of the Holy Spirit as mediating Christ’s continued presence and providing for human participation in divine action. Jantzen draws on Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk to identify the work of the Spirit: attending to the material conditions of marginalized bodies, creating surprisingly intimate communities of difference, and pointing towards the end of time.
In his conclusion, Jantzen applies these insights to the fraught task of discerning the Holy Spirit in human communities today. He gives two examples: community organizing work in Durham, NC, and the North Carolina NAACP’s Moral Movement. He describes the history of racial politics in Durham and how the Spirit is today attending to marginalized bodies, creating communities across racial and class lines, and anticipating the end of the injustices these groups address. It is interesting that Jantzen chose two similar examples, both community-sized movements and coalitions of people from different faith communities and neighborhoods. What might it look like to discern the work of the Spirit in smaller places, or in other forms of faithful work, such as in the worship and teaching of the church? Given that both Barth and Cone emphasize the church as a special site of the Spirit’s work, how could this account of providence illumine another biblical question: who is really hearing the Spirit speak, and who is a false prophet pretending to align with divine revelation?
There is also a surprising absence of attention to Scripture in God, Race, and History. This is not merely an area outside the scope of Jantzen’s project, but a doctrine closely related to that of providence. Both Barth and Cone focus heavily on revelation: the revelation of God in Christ, but also revelation as it is received as Scripture by Christian communities. Barth was concerned with the relationship between revelation and Scripture, and Cone cited Scripture not merely as authoritative text but as identification with the people of God across time and space. When Cone quotes Jesus in Luke 4 quoting Isaiah 61, God’s work in human history is revealed as continuous and coherent, even if human efforts at discerning it remain partial and contingent.
The question of Scripture is also central to Jantzen’s corrective focus on the Holy Spirit. This is one area of doctrine where Christ and the Spirit are distinctly relevant: Christ is revealed in Scripture, and the Spirit aids readers in understanding and applying Scripture to the moral demands of their moment. Engaging Barth and Cone on this would strengthen these insights and contribute to Jantzen’s conclusion: how could Scripture help guide our discernment of the work of God today?
Jantzen’s careful work is a model for how theological recovery can be liberating: by joining theologians of the past in the ongoing work of discerning God’s action in the past and present.