Why do white evangelicals like our vice president Mike Pence continue to feel the need to “correct” others who say black lives matter by saying NO, ALL LIVES MATTER? Is it just racist dog-whistling or is there something deeper going on? Though I realize I cannot know anyone else’s heart, I would like to hypothesize a meaning for #AllLivesMatter based on the work of my seminary theology professor J. Kameron Carter.
What #AllLivesMatter communicates is that all human life is generic. Cultural particularity, racial difference, etc, are illusions because the human condition is actually fundamentally the same for everyone. This ideological commitment to human nature being generic is paradoxically the foundation of white supremacy. Bear with me a moment while I explain.
In J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, he explains that modern European racism (a.k.a. white supremacy) is an entirely different phenomenon than ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism looks like saying because I’m Eritrean, I think Ethiopians are stupid or because I’m Hutu, I hate Tutsis or because I’m Comanche, Apaches suck.
Historically white supremacy didn’t come from Germans feeling superior to French people or any other ethnic chauvinism. It came from European elites coalescing around a vision of acultural rationalism developed by thinkers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant in response to many years of brutal warfare between Catholics and Protestants as well as rivalries between different European nation-states.
The hope was that coming together around reason itself would lift Europeans out of their quarrels over religious or ethnic differences. In one sense, it worked. Though Europe continued to have nation-states who each built colonial empires that competed with each other, a unity emerged around the notion that Europeans as a whole had a duty and mandate to “civilize” the rest of the world as those who had seen the light of reason and/or the Christian gospel. They became ‘the free world,” or “the West” as a binary was created with “the East” which was the domain of exotic culture and later communism.
So European missionaries, pilgrims, colonists, and conquistadors set about their global mission as they understood it in varying degrees of sincerity and cynicism, and depending on who’s telling the story, they either lifted the rest of the world out of ignorance and savagery to drag them kicking and screaming into the superior ways of democracy and capitalism, or they pillaged, massacred, enslaved, and stole land and resources from just about every other culture on the face of the Earth. The truth is of course a messy story in which a mix of evil charlatans and well-intentioned, sincere European people did a variety of good and evil things individually, which altogether comprised one of the most tragic chapters of human history: the age of colonialism in which many indigenous cultures were irretrievably erased as their people were either wiped out entirely or assimilated into the generic humanity of the global capitalist market.
Thus the European Enlightenment created a concept of generic humanity, a people who do not think of themselves as being French or German or British, but just rational human beings who live by logic and science (and the free market). We could call this creature homo rationalis. He is what came to be known as white man. He was the individual modern subject, unbound by cultural particularity: a generic everyman. When this white man traveled the world to “discover” other cultures, he did so not so much as an Italian or Spaniard or Frenchman, but as a man of science and reason who could study and tour exotic global cultures since he transcended culture and could thus be a connoisseur of every other culture.
To the degree that national, cultural identity still exists for European people, they have not been absorbed entirely into generic acultural whiteness. But in the United States of America, where every distinct European national identity is boiled off in a melting pot of whiteness, the only thing that remains of European culture (aside from family heirloom food recipes) is our legacy of acultural rationalism, which is articulated quite perfectly in the sacred documents of our Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
White supremacy is the belief, either explicitly professed or implicitly lived, in the superiority of acultural rationalism, which is to say the myth that every human can eschew his ancestral cultural traditions and become a generic individual everyman who lives by logic and science (and/or the Christian gospel in the not-fully-secularized version of the myth). Obviously when this trickles down to the hollers of white Appalachia, it becomes something much more crude and tactile like an actual prejudice based on skin pigmentation, but at the highest level, white supremacists are powerful, privileged white men who experience themselves to be reasonable and good-natured, so that anyone who opposes them is simply ignorant and “stuck” in cultural inferiority of some kind.
Now here’s what generic acultural rationalism looks like as the Christian theology of #AllLivesMatter proclaimed by the white Jesus. When we contend that in relation to God, every human has a generic nature that can be reduced to innate, ahistorical total depravity from which the only salvation is a single, generic solution provided by Jesus, then we have an #AllLivesMatter theology.
This is the teaching I received in white evangelicalism. I suspect it doesn’t seem controversial at all. It certainly didn’t feel that way when I was learning it. We simply operated under the assumption that every human on the planet is wired exactly the same way as a sinner, regardless of all the intricate cultural differences throughout the world that give things like pride and greed radically different meanings and manifestations in cultures that aren’t rooted in the acultural individualistic rationalism of the European Enlightenment. We presumed cultural difference to be as detachable from individual human experience as winter coats that can be taken off and left on a hook by the front door.
I understand this may be difficult to get your head around, but what makes white Christian theology “white” is the claim that Christianity offers a generic, one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, regardless of whether they have an ancestral legacy of centuries of trauma from being slaughtered, beaten, and dehumanized or an ancestral legacy of centuries of guilt for having slaughtered, beaten, and dehumanized others. Whiteness is the presumption that human nature is fundamentally generic and then the resulting prejudice against humans who prove to be less than generic whether because their skin pigment is different than the default shade of pinkish beige or because their culture is louder, ruder, snobbier, or more emotional than the acultural rationalism of calm, confident white men.
A #BlackLivesMatter Christian theology might say Jesus’ cross shows black people that every time they are lynched by white people, Jesus has been lynched with them (c.f. James Cone’s The Cross and The Lynching Tree), and that moreover this solidarity is central to how Jesus’ cross saves black people, rather than understanding black salvation as coming from the same generic atonement through which Jesus’ cross exonerates white people for having lynched black people (if we should even think of it as having done that at all, which seems reprehensibly monstrous). When some white evangelicals hear someone like James Cone talk about Jesus’ cross as solidarity with the oppressed rather than just exoneration for the oppressor, they say he’s not a real Christian because his culturally particular theological appropriation of Jesus’ cross is incompatible with their generic #AllLivesMatter theology.
So in conclusion, I would say that it’s very understandable to me if white evangelicals like Mike Pence are clinging to #AllLivesMatter as a slogan because questioning the presumed generic individualism of human nature seems like it would remove a brick that causes the Jenga tower of white evangelical theology to topple and shatter into a million pieces. I don’t think they’re just trying to be obnoxious or racist. They belong to a subculture (that seems from my experience to be) invested in the belief that human nature is generic.
I understand if it seems very innocuous and self-evident that human nature is generic and the Christian gospel should be exactly the same for everyone, regardless of their cultural background or ancestral legacy. But this belief that human nature is generic and that everyone should eschew their cultural particularity to join the multitude in white robes is what historically created the superiority complex that manifests itself each time white police officers kneel on the necks of black men on the pavement.