The Christian Historian as an Agent of Christ’s Redemption: A Foucauldian-Pauline Philosophy of History
Kara Boda Harvey
First Published June 27, 2015
In a world where evil reigns, often the very powers of sin that enslave humanity are hidden, so that our blindness is a plague that perpetuates our enslavement. The task of the Christian historian in the world today, then, is to illuminate and thus empower the resistance of these sinful structures of evil which govern humanity. By exploring the murder of young Floridian Trayvon Martin in late February of 2012, a Foucauldian-Pauline approach to doing history will be explored within a broader perspective of the task of the Christian in the world today.
To first establish a context, Trayvon Martin was seventeen years of age when he was murdered on his walk home from the local convenience store. A native of Sanford, Florida, Martin was shot by the neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, who claimed to have felt threatened by Martin and to have acted in self-defense. Oddly, the youth was unarmed and did not display threatening behavior.
A media storm ensued immediately after Martin’s murder, when the Sanford police department failed to arrest Zimmerman on the basis of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. This legal concept permits self-defense even to the extreme of deadly force when “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony…” Zimmerman, appealing to this law, claimed he was justified by a threat to both the safety of himself and that of the community. As a result, the Sanford police department did not arrest Zimmerman until late April of 2012, despite Martin having been shot in February.
At the present time, Zimmerman is awaiting trial and public outrage persists. The prevalent explanation for Zimmerman’s actions has been racism. Toni Morrison, a black author and winner of the Nobel peace prize, represented popular opinion when she argued that Martin was not given justice due to racist vestiges from the slavery era in the United States. Widespread protest and condemnation of Zimmerman has supported this explanation; in a large part, Zimmerman has been characterized as a throw-back to a previous slavery era and evidence of a carry-over of racism from the past. Critics have sought to explain his actions through a progressivist framework; his behavior has been deemed to be out of place in the current North American, liberal society.
Popular explanations for Trayvon Martin’s death in February lend a means of delving into a Foucauldian-Pauline way of doing history. Rather than simplistic explanations, Foucault offers a more nuanced explanation of Zimmerman’s actions and thus empowers humanity through a more clear understanding of our present world. Progressivist understandings are challenged when Martin’s murder is re-examined through a Foucauldian framework that deploys the French philosopher and historian’s concept of governmentality. First, then, let us establish an understanding of this concept.
The basic idea within Foucault’s governmentality is that humanity is not free; in fact, humans are governed by and the product of a web of structures of power. In Foucault’s words:
It is my hypothesis that the individual is not a pre-given entity…the individual, with his identity and characteristics, is the product of a relation of power exercised over bodies, multiplicities, movements, desires, forces.
These forces, or structures of governance, are an invisible, de-centered, and complex web of power that defines individuals’ thoughts and actions.
When delving into how this process actually works, Foucault argues that structures govern individuals through discourses, which are a certain way of speaking which defines the “normal,” and argues “this is how things ought to be.” Individuals, then, accept that definition of normal and make choices in an effort to be normal – as a particular discourse defines it. The result is that individuals, governed by a discourse, construct a framework for understanding reality and act in a manner that is in accordance with that constructed reality.
In turning back to Trayvon Martin’s murder, Foucault’s governmentality is very helpful. His concept lends understanding to Zimmerman’s actions beyond solely racism. In fact, the neighborhood watchman was acting based on constructions of reality that were governed by powerful discourses in Western society: a discourse of freedom and a discourse of delinquency. Rather than a throw-back to a previous era, Zimmerman is very much a product of the present, liberal society.
In first order, the discourse of freedom has been prominent throughout the history of liberal societies and argues that particular freedoms are the inalienable right of an individual. In the United States, this discourse manifests uniquely through the reasoning that liberty needs to be protected. The freedom to bear arms, in particular, has been closely married to this construction of reality concerning freedom. Evidence of this discourse is woven into Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law; in the United States, violence is empowered to protect values of liberty so central to liberal society. Thus, Zimmerman’s actions in February were governed by a prominent way of thinking in the current American liberal society, rather than constructed realities from a previous era in the United States in which racism was the norm.
In addition to particular constructions of freedom, Zimmerman was governed by a discourse of delinquency. Between 1920 and 1950, this powerful discourse arose in Western society to define young, non-Anglo-Saxon, and lower class individuals as prone to dangerous and harmful behavior. Theorists like Granville Stanley Hall were influential in defining the adolescent life stage as a period of biologically-determined deviance and misbehavior. Furthermore, impoverished youth – particularly in urban areas – were believed to be predisposed to immoral, criminal, and violent behavior. Lastly, delinquency was also a racialized profile: “the foreign-born [were] felt to be more inclined to deviance at all ages.” Aged, class, and racial prejudices were stoked in the first half of the twentieth century by social tumult that spanned two world wars and the Great Depression. Out of this period emerged a powerful structure of governance which painted an image of the impoverished, foreign youth as the source of social disorder and danger.
Thus, Zimmerman’s choice to shoot Martin on February 26, 2012 reflects a particular understanding of reality that was governed by powerful discourses in liberal society. The neighborhood watchman perceived danger based on a discourse of delinquency that created a strong fear of violence, particularly from young black men of a lower socio-economic status. Furthermore, his actions were motivated by a discourse of freedom that legitimized taking violent action against that which he understood as a threat to his freedoms. Discourses prevalent in liberal society today collided in the governance of George Zimmerman to result in the unnecessary and tragic death of a young man.
Foucault’s concept of governmentality lends understanding to the murder of Trayvon Martin, yet how does this discussion speak to the task of the Christian historian? In first order, Foucault helps explain the task of the historian in particular. For the French philosopher, the concern is not that humanity is not free; this is a given. Instead, the real danger is in the invisibility of the structures that govern humanity, which renders humankind unaware of its governance. Resistance, the “act of not being governed in a certain way and at a certain price,” becomes an impossibility and humanity is left impotent when power proves to be harmful. Consequently, Foucault argues that:
The real…task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the…violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.
Just as Foucault’s philosophy is useful in defining the task of the historian, so too does the philosopher shed light on the Christian’s task. Oddly enough – considering Foucault’s vehement censure of Christianity – there are many parallels between Foucault’s governmentality and the Apostle Paul’s theology of structures. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Theologian Stanley Grenz discusses Paul’s understanding of forces, which the apostle defines as structures that govern human existence; they are not spiritual beings, but rather are quasi-independent, quasi-personal, and intimately tied to human life. Grenz argues that for Paul, these powers were created by God for the purpose of governance. In Colossians 1:16, Paul writes: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” However, because of the fall, these powers are now in opposition to Christ and govern and enslave humanity to evil.
Yet Paul offers hope, for he argues that Christ defeated the forces of evil through his crucifixion and resurrection. In Colossians 2:15, Paul writes: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Reflecting on Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:12, then, the task of the Christian historian is – through the power of Christ – to combat these evil authorities in the world so that humanity might be freed from enslavement and experience Christ’s redemption – a reality which will be completed with Christ’s return. Hendrikus Berkof offers an excellent summary of a Pauline theology of structures:
God reconciles the Powers – and not only men – with Himself through Christ’s death. This thought is strange to us; we usually think of reconciliation as an act relating only to persons. Here Paul uses it in a broader sense, as meaning a restoration of proper relationships. In this sense the Powers as well are objects of God’s plan of redemption. By virtue of this purpose they will no longer lie between man and God as a barrier, but can and shall return to their original function, as instruments of God’s fellowship with His creation.
Suddenly Foucault and Paul begin to share common ground and form an odd pair to shed light on the task of the Christian historian. Foucault’s structures of governance and call for resistance – though he certainly would not have agreed – draw many parallels with Paul’s “spiritual forces of evil” within the created order. In the case of Trayvon Martin, ways of thinking that were previously hidden are illuminated by a study of the past. History unveils structures of power that govern humanity. Furthermore, this better understanding provokes further questions that empower resistance: How do liberal understandings of freedom actually justify violence rather than instigate peace? In what ways does Western society today tie together ethnicity and criminal behavior in a manner that cultivates racial discrimination and hatred?
In a Foucauldian-Pauline approach to doing history, the study of the past illuminates structures of evil that govern and enslave humanity. Far from over-simplistic or formulaic interpretations, this task requires the historian to grapple with the complexity of the past. In the words of James Lagrand, historians must undertake the study of “the ‘messiness’ of history, its unexpected twists and turns, the surprise of finding evil people doing good things and virtuous, moral people revealing a fatal flaw in some of their actions.” In short, we must vigilantly and critically look into the past so that through our scholarship and testimony to history’s complexity, humanity might see the structures that enslave and resistance might become a possibility. The words of Kenneth Draper ring true: “I have no faith in progress but I believe the message of history is: this is not the way it has to be.”
This task of the Christian historian is simply part and parcel of the human temporal narrative, which is a dramatic story of God’s redemption. Created in God’s image in the beginning but enslaved to sin in the Fall, humanity has been the object of God’s saving work throughout the span of time. This task will be completed at the Parousia, when evil is overthrown and creation is made new. The ultimate hope, then, is “the hope for God’s renewal of all things, for his overcoming of corruption, decay, and death, for his filling of the whole cosmos with his love and grace, his power.”
As time moves toward complete redemption, however, God’s salvation is also being worked out in the present. Christ’s earthly ministry heralded the coming of the kingdom of God to earth: “The time has come,” [Jesus] said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” His life on earth began God’s saving work of making things new and setting wrong to right; as N.T. Wright puts it:
It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched…
The Christian historian is part of this saving work of the kingdom, for God’s salvation is incarnate throughout the earth through the Church. Wright argues: “Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice.” Thus, humanity – though enslaved to sin – is in the process of being redeemed even as it moves toward the ultimate redemption at the end of time. Christians, as the agents of this redemptive work of Christ, work within and as a part of the created temporal order to combat evil and bring God’s goodness to humanity.
As Perry Bush argues, “we need to reconnect our discipline to the needs and agendas of a broken world…as if peace and justice really mattered.” The reality of the human temporal experience is that though Christ has inaugurated the kingdom and is working out his salvation amongst humanity, evil continues to enslave and triumph. Consequently, as Christian historians called to be agents of Christ’s redemption, we must aggressively join in the struggle against “the powers of this dark world” and illuminate such evil so that humanity might resist, even as we eagerly await Christ’s return and evil’s defeat. And when we inevitably feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the task set before us, let us never forget Jesus’ comforting promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christ and the Powers, trans. John H. Yoder. Scottdale: Herald, 1962.
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