4. White redemption, Black mystery
In the end, Williams achieved manhood and mastery. But not quite. He did achieve broad popular acclaim, but he was still in a prison cell, and then he was executed. The world had the last word, and, from a theological perspective, Williams’s story ends equivocally. Did he demonstrate world-transcending love? Or did he erect himself again as a god, making his own religion, composed of beliefs and practices that pleased him? (Among his spiritual practices, he prays facing toward Africa seven times a day ‘or more, depending upon the spirit that moves me’, 293.) How do we tell if redemption is motivated by desires for manliness, desires to make up for a compromised member, turning redemption narratives into a tool of masculinity rather than a means of overcoming masculinity?
Or, put provocatively: Does Williams’s aspiration to be a good man really mask an aspiration to be a white man? His narrative might be read as advocating that excessively virile Black manliness, led by emotion and ultimately self-destructive, be traded in for a masculinity that is self-possessed, untroubled by excessive emotion, but also unexcited by the surprises and delights of the world. Traded in for a masculinity that loves self and family and friends, that believes in oneself, but that has too much faith and not enough hope.
‘You can bend the most oppressive system to your will’ (vii), Williams urges, but what of that which is uncertain, and of those powers that are mysterious? Could it not be that the rage Williams is so eager to keep in check is divine, pointing to the world’s limits and the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of glimpsing beyond?
If there is a moral here, it is to avoid the genre of moralizing, and to be suspicious of the psychic dynamics that make moralizing attractive. It is tempting to lay out a path to redemption, at the social level through the termination of masculinity or white supremacy, or at the individual level through suppressing irrationality or rage or selfishness. Patriarchy, white supremacy, and other systems of domination are so grave that prediction and prescription necessarily entangle us in these same systems. Critical analysis of interlocking systems of domination is, indeed, necessary, but it must know its limits, and it must know where to direct its hopes. Those hopes must not be directed inward, at ourselves, but outward, at the struggles of communities most affected by domination. Their angry words and actions against domination form sacred texts, but like all such texts they are deeply opaque, deeply mysterious. The more we attempt to bring clarity rather than respond to mystery, the more genuine hope is lost.
Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He co-edits the journalPolitical Theologyand directs the Villanova Political Theology Project. Lloyd is the author of Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, with Joshua Dubler (2019); In Defense of Charisma(2018); and Black Natural Law(2016). He also co-edited Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics(2017), with Andrew Prevot.
Address: Department of Theology and Religious Studies, 800 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova, PA 19085, USA.