A Review of
Heathen: Religion and Race in American History
Kathryn Gin Lum
Hardcover: Harvard University Press, 2022
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Reviewed by Joshua E. Livingston
“Decolonization, we know, is an historical process: In other words, it can only be understood, it can only find its significance and become self coherent insofar as we can discern the history-making movement which gives it form and substance.”
-Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there are two camps of people who still care at all about the American church. There are those who are actively and anxiously seeking solutions for an ailing religious institution and there are those who might suggest we haven’t even scratched the surface of how devastating the depths of our unfaithfulness to the way of Jesus has been.
I would imagine that the historian Kathryn Gin Lum would fall in the latter category. In this expansive, and at times overwhelming volume, Gin Lum spends nine of the book’s ten chapters, meticulously documenting the history of what she calls “heathen worlds.” Beginning with early “precedents” of paganism in the ancient world up to our contemporary challenges with the Covid-19 pandemic, this involves skillfully tracking the religious discourse of the “heathen,” that conveniently amalgamated “other” created and conjured up in countless Western imperialistic missiological texts.
Appropriately, the book begins in psychoanalytic territory as it refers to returning the “gaze” of the colonizer and the creation of imaginative worlds. The invisible thread that runs through the entire book, not unlike the way it runs throughout the entire world, is desire, that is, the global fantasy of Western religious imperialism throughout history. As someone who studies communications, I appreciate Gin Lum’s awareness of how heathen worlds are constituted. As much as this book is about the historical underpinnings of religious colonialism, it is also about how the circulation of texts — in the form of ethnographic research, Western classics, religious propaganda, and scripture — give imaginative shape to worlds. For instance,
“The revival of the classics in the colonies paralleled their rebirth in Enlightenment Europe. From the Venuses and Apollos that decorated Versailles and the royal library in Vienna, to the “coy little nymph or a cavorting satyr” that flitted across the fine china of Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, the classical gods were everywhere. Europeans and Americans devoured the words and sought to emulate the worlds of the Greek and Roman philosophers, which informed everything from republican political theory to the appropriate education of women” (64).
The world today, as we know and experience it, is man-made. On a planet that organizes itself by the ways it circulates media, one of the most important vehicles for world-building is fantasy. Every world we inhabit was created and belongs to somebody, according to ways that somebody wishes to see, understand, and move through the world. Most of us, for instance, spend most of our time in worlds created by Apple and Google, who in turn, desire for our practices of consumption to be executed as swiftly and efficiently as humanly (and if not, technologically) possible.
If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, we should pause and give some thought to the desire of its Creator. What does this say about the worlds that we’ve created according to our own privatized, religious desires? Gin Lum does not mince words in relaying how religious worlds used heathenism to justify racialization rooted in, Gin Lum explains,
“…an ongoing process of differentiation between supposedly “superior” and “inferior” groups. Whiteness signified “superior” status based on “right” religion, which was supposed to have reverberating effects on governance, gender roles, education, medicinal practices, clothing choices, and labor on the land. For nineteenth-century Protestants, their religion was the master key that unlocked the other benefits that made White Americans the self-appointed teachers of the heathen” (123).
In communications studies, we talk about publics. Publics can be loosely defined as the imaginary group of people that are called into existence when perfect strangers unconsciously organize themselves around media of any kind. Publics are the social worlds that are created around cultural texts. As much as we might want to characterize our Christian religious groups as “communities,” in reality, the churches in America are more structured as publics. The very fact that, as relative strangers, we continue to call ourselves diverse faith “communities” is itself evidence of the ways we function as a public. We are a public that is mediated by privatized institutions that project fantasies of the ways we want to see church structured — “diverse,” “multi-ethnic,” “multicultural,” “communities.”
I’ll never forget when a black man who was mentoring me at the time once told me, “Think about what it costs for a black person to join a multicultural church.” In other words, if we don’t understand how the worlds of Black and Brown church were created, we probably don’t understand the American church at all (and woe to those, who not understanding, would then try and reform it). Gin Lum hits the nail on the head when she writes about G. Stanley Hall’s characterization of heathens as “adolescent races” who serve as a convenient antidote to “sameness” (1924), anticipating the current trends of multicultural and diverse church with its “paternalistic protection of the quaint and nonthreatening in other traditions for the amusement, cosmopolitan improvement, consumption, and humanitarian concern of the cultivated Anglo-American” (205-206).
Throughout history, one of the most effective “texts” used to constitute publics is law. Today, we simply call this public policy. Gin Lum, in quoting Steven Newcomb (Shawnee-Lenape), director of the Indigenous Law Institute, writes,“ ‘Legal thinking is a product of the human imagination.’ The imagination of Native people as incapable heathens, and of colonists not only as Christians but as God’s New Israel, rendered Native lands subject to takeover, just as the heathenness and idolatry of the Canaanites was supposed to have justified the Israelites’ violence against them and their lands” (77).
This is all vitally important if we are to understand what Gin Lum refers to as “heathen worlds.” These are not simply haphazard spaces that unknown others happen to take up and live in. They are cordoned off spaces constituted through the colonization of consciousness. They are worlds inhabited by peoples that were created by another people, not for the sake of the inhabitants, but for the sake of the creators.
And so who are these creators, these world-builders, exactly? Wouldn’t it be convenient to just say “the man?” Maybe it would be even more satisfying to say “the white man?” Perhaps there would be some real truth in such a characterization. But that’s not what this book is about. Indeed, what is most disappointing and heartbreaking about this book is how all of this is motivated through religious conviction. And not just religion, but Christianity. Christianity is not just a particular component of the colonialist mindset, it’s the fuel for the fire.
What’s truly remarkable is that, as humans in the image of God, we are designed as world-builders. So, in a way, throughout the centuries, we have simply been doing what we have been created to do. Only, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). The kingdom of God is the world being built through the Spirit of Jesus, as desired by the Father. Radical submission to God’s desire requires humble recognition and repentance for the worlds we’ve created in God’s name.
People groups have always been motivated by political and economic interests. But Gin Lum’s account reminds us that these were consistently undergirded by imperialistic theology. It’s one thing to say that racism is “more than people’s feelings and intentions” (274). It’s important to address the “structural inequities that privilege one group over others (275). It’s another thing to explicitly say that systemic racism is an aftermarket effect of capitalism (As Jonathan Tran does). But it’s an entirely different thing altogether to say that in America, systemic racialized capitalism has primarily been fueled by Christianity.
I actually spoke with Dr. Tran himself about this book. Of the two camps I mentioned earlier, he, the consummate Hauerwasian, might fall in the former category. Of Heathen, while he mentioned his particular appreciation of Mark Charles and Soong Chan-Rah’s devastating critique of the Doctrine of Discovery, returning the gaze on White Americans, and calling them into racial conciliation, he lamented the dearth of writings offering creative imagination for the future of the American church. Tran’s frustration of the purely critical mode of ecclesiology is precisely my appreciation. Heathen is not going to fly off the shelves of Family Christian Life book stores. For all the ways that Christians have tried to convince others about Jesus, nobody actually wants to hear the naked truth of what we’ve done to others in His name.
If our world is primarily constituted and characterized by those who have the capacity to circulate their mediated fantasies through politics, religion, economics, law, etc., then the question remains, What is the voice of the “heathen?” In a world where do-gooders actually still claim to be able to give a voice to the voiceless, what might it look like for the American church to account for its history? In a world where “racial reconciliation” isn’t even possible because there was never a moment in its history when races were conciliatory to one another in the first place, what does the reconciliation of all things actually mean? In a world where another world needed to be created (and enacted upon) in order justify the convictions of the first one, what does that say about its convictions?
The answer, according to Gin Lum, is to listen to and center, the “counterscripts,” or subaltern narratives, of those that have been historically been deemed heathen. Queer theorist Michael Warner calls this sort of circulation the constitution of “counterpublics,” or publics that are consciously or unconsciously aware of their subordinate status within the public sphere. Not only should churches take the time to listen deeply to counterpublics, they must confess that a truly faithful following of Jesus necessitates that they become a counterpublic. In quoting the Black cultural historian Charles H. Long, Gin Lum writes,
“If Americans have believed themselves innocent, “this innocence is gained only through an intense suppression of the deeper and more subtle dimension of American experience.” Such suppression has been enabled by the “religion of the American people,” which “centers around the telling and retelling of the mighty deeds of the white conquerors.” By ignoring the experiences of “Indians and blacks,” White Americans reveal a “void or deeper invisibility within [their own] consciousness. . . . The ordinate fear they have of minorities is an expression of the fear they have when they contemplate the possibility of seeing themselves as they really are” “(264).
Towards the end of the book, Gin Lum contrasts the violent resistance to colonization advocated by the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon and the redemption of the “wretched of the earth” through hope in Christ, as envisioned by the poet Sun Ai Park. What Fanon gets right is that, regardless of how it happens, decolonization and liberation requires violence. Jesus understood and felt this within his own body. And this is precisely why the American church is resistant to looking at, let alone owning, its history. Changing is going to seriously cost us, perhaps everything.
Joshua E. Livingston
Joshua E. Livingston is a writer and community developer currently residing in Indianapolis. He is the director of Cultivating Communities and the author of Sunrays on the Beachhead of the New Creation (Wipf & Stock, 2021).
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