Karen TEEL. Racism and the Image of God. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. pp. 216. Reviewed by Joseph S. FLIPPER, Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY 40205. $84.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-230-622277-7.
The human body has held an ambiguous place in the history of Christian thought. On the one hand, the incarnation of the Son affirms the dignity of the body; on the other hand, the body has been seen as the source of vice. Indeed, within the western Christian tradition, the body has been largely neglected as the site at which human beings image God. As a result, Christian reflection on the “image of God” has left unchallenged the torture, abuse, and oppression of bodies enshrined in western racism. In Racism and the Image of God, Karen Teel argues that those whose bodies have borne the brunt of racism—namely black women—developed strategies and anthropologies that affirm their dignity and agency. Never permitted to forget the role of the body in determining one's place within society, black women have had to affirm their dignity in the most difficult of situations. Drawing from the well of resistance, Teel relies on several womanist theologians to outline an antiracist and antisexist theology that provides a positive view of the body’s imaging of God.
The first three chapters explore racism as a Christian, white, and theological problem. Teel traces a history of European exploitation of African bodies that contributed to the social formation of racial identity and the association of moral and mental attributes with those bodies. These racial categories were internalized and turned into a system of moral formation. Despite the perennial Christian affirmation that all human beings are made in God’s image, this theological insight did not curb Christian participation in the history of slavery, segregation, and racism. Teel’s historical narrative is a prolegomenon to an antiracist theological anthropology to be sought in the work of womanist authors.
Teel’s subsequent chapters engage the work of womanist scholars Katie G. Cannon, Delores Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas, M. Shawn Copeland, and Emilie Townes. These scholars correct a tradition of Christian Platonism that marginalized embodiment. As Teel indicates, womanist contributions to anthropology recognize that communion with God and others is mediated bodily and bodies are the loci of God’s revelation. Teel shows that in recent literature the image of God is not only innate in human beings but also enacted by solidarity with the suffering and the poor. According to Teel, the critical problem is that active struggle is often construed from the standpoint of those with privilege. Womanist theologians argue that people whose agency is often circumscribed enact the image of God by struggling for survival and human flourishing. The enactment of the image of God is not primarily the action of the privileged on behalf of the oppressed; it is exercised by the oppressed in ways often overlooked by others. Womanist authors suggest a rethinking of agency where one's freedom is severely limited. Finally, Teel argues that conversion and solidarity with suffering is what white people require to actively image God.
Throughout Racism and the Image of God, Teel attempts to appropriate womanist voices without usurping them. She is cognizant of her position as a white woman drawing upon womanist authors. Encouraging those of European descent to confront the history of racism and its legacy existentially, she narrates this history in the first person plural. For example, Teel writes, “We believed that Africans were inferior, incapable of directing their own lives, and that we could be good masters to these people” (21, emphasis added). While the hermeneutic and pedagogical intent behind using the first person plural is laudable, the style is uncomfortable and could appear to address a white audience exclusively.
The initial chapters of the book (1-3) introduce the issue of racism in a theological context and would be beneficial for undergraduates and graduate students. The following chapters (4-9) would be more suitable for a graduate setting. Unfortunately, the cost of the book is prohibitive.