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‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’ takes up race and racism

Dr. Jonathan Tran: ‘God will take all the time in the world to make us faithful, and it will probably take at least that long, if not more’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Jonathan Tran (Photo courtesy of Baylor University)

LOUISVILLE — In the most recent edition of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” Dr. Jonathan Tran pushes against racial capitalism, a task begun in his 2021 book, “Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism.”

Tran is associate dean for faculty in the Honors College and Professor of Theology in Great Texts at Baylor University. He was the guest of the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong for a podcast that can be heard here. Tran comes in at the 23:10 mark.

Racial capitalism, Tran said, is a way of thinking about race and racism that begins with structures and systems. “It tries to push against what I call the orthodox view of race and racism, where you have individuals with prejudicial or racist beliefs or thoughts or attitudes … [Under this view], the primary site of racism is the individual racist mindset.”

That orthodox view “is woefully incorrect” on how race and racism work, he said. Then why would we tend to believe it? “It’s convenient to think racism is a series of bad actors somewhere out there,” Tran said. We think, “It certainly isn’t me, and it certainly doesn’t expand to the range of institutions, structures and systems.” But “it’s always structures and systems. It begins with the observation that we live in a world with breathtaking inequality.”

“Where race comes into the story is it’s race that’s meant to neutralize or justify what I called this breathtaking inequality,” Tran told Doong and Catoe. “We blame the victims. Once the race story enters in, it justifies everything else. It is the ultimate gaslighting move. We blame the oppressed for the oppressions she faces and endures.”

“The question I want to ask is, why does it persist?” Tran said. “My answer is it persists because it works. It facilitates the world we live in.”

The role of the individual is part of the equation but not the whole equation, and that’s one of the most important contributions that Christianity makes, according to Tran.

“Christian theology — its doctrines of Creation, fallenness and redemption — offers an impressively sophisticated, complex moral psychology that helps us understand the individual within the story of race and racism,” Tran said. “Racism doesn’t work for everyone — that’s clearly the point. But it works for a whole lot of us.”

Through the Doctrine of Discovery and in other ways, Catoe wondered, “How do we wrestle with the fact that the church was a main player?” in exploiting, among others, Indigenous people.

In response, Tran said his book tries to do three things:

  • Shift the conversation around race and racism “to what I call the political economy, the racial capital story, which lays out the possibilities for redress.”
  • Point out the complicity of Christianity in the story. “I try to tell a story in which the Christian church is not just a villain in the story,” Tran said. “It’s within the story of God’s ordering of Creation toward redemption, love and freedom.”
  • Situate all that in the lives of Asian Americans. “We tend to rely on the overly individual story and that tends to reduce to understanding race as largely a Black and white phenomenon, and of course that isn’t the case,” Tran said.

“Yeah, I’m a Christian and I teach at a Christian institution. I think the Christian church is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Tran said. “How do I square that with the deep, deep and ongoing history of the church’s complicity? This is where the sophisticated narrative of redemption, sin and Creation help us understand things.” It’s not as simple as many conservatives and progressives say it is, according to Tran. Conservatives tend to deny the history and progressives tend to reduce Christianity to the history. “Indeed, the church played a profoundly disturbing role,” Tran said. “But it’s also played some very interesting roles,” including oftentimes raising questions “about chattel slavery trade in emerging African nation-states.”

“Antiracism in the present moment generates a ton of political heat,” Tran observed. “But it’s not clear if it’s doing much work. We need to do the work in order to get work done.”

“The story of the gospel is meant to do two things to the reality of racial capitalism,” Tran said. “It’s meant to call time on it … That story is just a momentary story within the larger story of God’s redemption. No matter what form sin takes, God wins in the story that Christians tell.” The second thing is “We’re supposed to call time on a certain way of telling the story. We need to tell a story that appropriately brings out the problems but makes sure the problems are not the whole story … If we forget that, then we tell the story of things as destructive as racial capitalism as if God does not matter to the story. That’s what the power of the gospel is: It helps us come to terms squarely with the effects of sin in the world without the effects of sin in the world riding roughshod or taking up the entire story.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

“The Spirit works in the way the Spirit wants to work,” Catoe said. People who serve in the church “often aren’t equipped to take a breath because we are so in it.”

“One of the interesting things about God is God has made God’s people, those who claim God, both the best reason to be Christian and the best reason not to be Christian,” Tran said. “Of course, there are other ways God could have proclaimed God’s gospel truth, but it’s us humans, and that’s an extra weight to carry.”

“God will take all the time in the world to make us faithful,” Tran said, “and it will probably take at least that long, if not more.”

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