April 20, 2024

“Eurochristian”, Or What Are We Going To Do With White People – Revisited (Tink Tinker And Roger Green), Part 1

The following is the first of a four-part series.

What exactly is White? Black? Or American Indian (the so-called Red race)?

One’s presumed skin color designation has functioned for generations now in the eurochristian world as an appropriate signifier for one’s racial identity—even though the biological roots of race have been thoroughly debunked by biological science. The more one pushes the boundaries of the color-code however, the murkier the waters become. In colonial virginia, one could legally qualify as White even though one had up to 1/16th degree of Indian blood. Exactly what is, then, a “degree of blood”? On the other hand, in the u.s. well into the second half of the 20th century, there were laws on the books that ensured that anyone with a “drop” of african american blood was legally determined to be Black, no matter how light the person’s skin appeared. 

Even without reference to blood, some american Jews contrast their ethnicity with ambivalence about “becoming white.”[1] [Compare this with note 11 below].  While some might argue that it is well-nigh time to avoid any mention of any person’s race, it is equally clear that racial categorization continues to make a significant difference in the treatment of people across the u.s., in other european colonial invader states, and across europe itself. For the latter, one only needs to tune in occasionally to european or u.k. football news to see how dark-skinned footballers are treated.

Some sixty years ago, as the story goes, “doc duvalier,” the infamous haitian dictator, was interviewed by a reporter from new york city. The reporter asked what percentage of the haitian population was White. “Ninety-eight percent,” reported duvalier. When the obviously light skinned reporter looked and sounded incredulous, duvalier further explained, “You know that “one-drop” rule you have in the u.s.? We have that here too!”[2] While Black americans have persistently suffered under the notion of hypodescent, American Indians, of course, have suffered the reverse fate. American policy wonks in the nineteenth century invented “blood quantum” precisely in order to reduce the number of people who might claim to be American Indian, so Indians could be denied some federal services if they could not demonstrate a minimum blood quantum in a single American Indian “tribe.”[3] In canada, the infamous “Indian Act” of 1876 (still considered “good law” today), legal language was devised to declare certain persons under certain conditions “no longer Indian.”[4]

What seems to be clear is that there is no direct relationship between skin color and the color-code generally used to signal race identity. Indeed, even the two most common binary distinctions between Black and White never quite work. While these are clearly metaphors, the truth is, Tinker reports, “I have never yet seen a really white human being; nor have I ever seen an incontrovertibly black human.” And, of course, American Indians are not red. To the contrary, those who might be identified as Black run a gamut from dark (but not black) to lighter skinned, even passing for so-called White.

And White-identified people can range from really light (but not white) skinned to pretty dark and even orange in the case of congressman john boehner, when he was speaker of the u.s. house, or donald trump—both evidently due to make-up artistry. In particular, we want to argue in this book that the color-code signifier White is so imprecise and inadequate that it is a relatively useless metaphoric signifier. The color-code simply lacks precision. What is it about Whiteness that so intently signals racialized identity, racialized thinking, racialized politics, racialized modes of discourse in our social whole? 

So, White people. Pioneers? Immigrants? Settlers? Colonizers? Invaders? What will we call this Beast—who rises up out of the sea? That is, those who came from across the big waters, suggestively using their own religious mythology[5] and speaking from a Turtle Island Native perspective.  We propose we call this category eurochristian. This is not a claim to religious identity on the part of the authors of this book, but rather that the worldview of these invader peoples was indeed shaped by and developed enmeshed with european christianity. Teaching in a liberal christian school of theology for three and a half decades, Tinker persistently argued that colonialism is christianity. And christianity is colonialism.

They go hand in hand so that the violence of colonialism is the violence of christianity. Often enough, students, training for christian ministry would object with one or more strategies for rescuing their christian tradition, but Tinker was not talking about their church or their faith. He was actually talking about something even more deeply rooted, their culture and worldview. So, even as we use the word christian in the compound eurochristian, we need to be clear that this usage is NOT about religion, per se, but insists on recognizing the historic influence of religion on the worldview that grew in and out of europe.

Let us then be more specific about what we mean by worldview. By worldview we mean something deeper than ideology, culture, or religion. In broader discourse, the notion of worldview itself has a complex history, which Mark Freeland (Sault St. Marie Anishinabek) has recently tracked.[6] In addition to giving a rigorous overview of historical uses of ‘worldview’ with an aim to develop a better cross-cultural analytic, Mark Freeland writes:

I define worldview as an interrelated set of cultural logics that fundamentally orient a culture to space, time, the rest of life, and provides a methodological prescription for relating to that life.  In this definition there is a brief description of what a worldview is (interrelated set of cultural logics) and four components to which those logics associate (relationships to space, time, the rest of life, and a methodological prescription to relate to life).  With this definition I am positing that each culture has a set of logics that allows its constituents to negotiate the world.  These logics orient the culture to a consistent trajectory of thought organized around relationships that must be addressed to be able to build a meaningful life.  Each culture must have some type of relationship to the lands they occupy, to time, to the rest of life, to be able to live in the everyday.[7]

Freeland’s description gets us partway toward our articulation of eurochristian worldview, but we have also said it is deeper than culture. For instance, the different european powers that colonized Turtle Island may have different cultures, yet they all employed a theologically christian justification for their “right” to rule.  As we will argue, the persistent embedding of such a worldview in legal and political discourse and decision-making evidences a continuity in deep framing influences that exceed what we normally mean by a religion or an ideology. 

We are recognizing that all the discourses from philosophic or political discourse to street corner talk are deeply shaped by the dominant religion of the european continent even as those discourses also help shape christian discourses across europe. In sum, european and christian cannot help but be thoroughly interwoven with one another.  We must see this not as an identity-based discourse influenced by nationalism but something cognitively woven into daily habits that operates over many generations, even over enlightenment-oriented narratives of secularization.

Like all academics, we want to insist on certain usages of language and the accompanying conventions in the interests of maximum accuracy. Most significantly is the choice we are making with regard to references to the socio-political (i.e., military, social, legal, ecclesial, and philosophical) opponents of the Native Peoples on this continent when these Others began their long and sustained invasion of our Lands. In one sense, everyone knows who or what we’re talking about when we say, “White folk,” or just “Whites.” While this may summon immediate images or emotions in each person’s mind, it really does not identify very much other than where tensions in the social whole are at the moment.

The use of the color White functions only loosely as metonymy. Somehow, we must move beyond the color code system of racialization so that we are naming something more than some physical trait. While others have described the historical process that led to the adoption of the metaphor White, our volume wants to shift the discourse to a more discrete and accurate description of the historical and social Sitz im Leben of Whiteness.[8]  What were and are the social factors that generate the color-code metaphors and in particular the metaphor White in reference to the socio-political categorizing and segmenting of human beings?

The term eurochristian, then, is a socio-political signifier that we find much more descriptive and accurate than the usual adjectives that are applied. Actually, the one thing these so-called White people have in common is deeply rooted in a complex cultural whole that we might call worldview—in a technical sense—which distinguishes them much more discretely as a complex whole than the tone of their skin or any other morphological feature. Moreover, the ability to see such a complex whole helps us to articulate the different worldview of those who have been actively erased from eurochristian discourse and dramatic tensions between entities such as nation-states that derive from a eurochristian worldview that collaboratively, if agonistically, developed a notion of european civilization out of its religious wars.[9] Various fictions followed the dramatic situations in western europe.

For American Indians, referring to these oppositional Others as White or euro-western or euro-american, settlers or pioneers, etc., are all descriptors that have a certain usefulness, even as each is an inventive fiction and proves to have generated significant negative affects. White, for instance, is a term, an adjective, that these invaders constructed for themselves, probably [largely? I have some earlier sources but the legal situation in “New England” seems to seal the deal for me. Yes, my equivocation is not that it did not happen in the 17th century, but that it may have begun in the 16th…. But let’s go with “largely” here.] in the european seventeenth century, and unquestionably as part of their self-justifying invention of legally owning other human beings kidnapped and stolen from Africa and American Indian communities.

Yet, the metaphor “White” certainly fails to accurately describe these european invaders, just as the color “Black” can only suggest a large group of human beings with darker skin—who happen to have originated from the african continent. None of these humans actually have “black” skin; indeed, they have black skin only by social and legal definition. The corollary is true for so-called White people, who are only white by legal definition.[10] Indeed, the range of skin tone eventually even overlaps one another, so that the more powerful group was forced to invent yet other fictions, fictions with legal force, to help differentiate themselves, fictions like the “one-drop rule.”[11]

If the color-code is always ambiguous and can only be decoded in terms of superficial surface level physiognomy, at best, then how will we determine difference rather than simply falling into patterns of stereotyping? The Elizabeth-Warren-ist DNA gambit surely is also deeply ambiguous and certainly fails to prove community belonged-ness or cultural competency, let alone demonstrate behavioral performance in an American Indian cultural whole. Indeed, DNA results are merely a more pseudo-empirical-hard-scientific game-playing example of NewAge past-lives claims. DNA results can never determine whether or not one is an active participant in one or another community and has nothing to do with culture or worldview.

DNA, for instance, does not make one American Indian or African or Irish; moreover, culture and worldview are never measured in terms of gradation–typical of the DNA small percentages reported for applicants.[12] A human person lives out of only one culture and one worldview and not some combination of eight or twelve or whatever the test might report. DNA profiles are the foolish side of modern eurochristian science and only prove the reality of homo ludens, the human at play.[13] We have to remember that blood quantum gradation was a colonialist device invented by eurochristians (to wit, the BIA) to help them control their colonial empires.

As we strive for greater precision in referencing “White people,” there seem to be three things these invasive Others generally hold in common: 1) their attachment to or historical derivation from one or another european denominational construct of Christianity; 2) their derivation as invaders from one or another european countries; where 3) they were deeply embedded in cultures that are shaped by the customary and habitual thinking and acting of all its inhabitants over time. Thus, the social whole was indelibly marked by a millennium or more of the development of european Christianity and its concomitant, inherently christian, socio-political thought and action, something that continues in their development of a “new” european society in north America.[14]

So, proposing to use eurochristian as that more accurate descriptor captures not only present cultural realities but ties the reality back to its historical roots. In making this move, we are determinedly not making a “religious” claim per se. Nor are we interested in rehashing the oversimplified weberian doctrinal identification of puritan ethics with capitalism.[15] Rather, we propose eurochristian as a deeper cultural-sociological designation—even when a particular eurochristian person may identify as post-christian or non-religious; or may have converted to hinduism or buddhism or even to atheism.[16] We are naming a cultural whole that is indeed deeply rooted in a religious tradition, even as postmodernist claims are made for secular humanism.

The secular whole of north America is indeed eurochristian—inclusive of its social, economic, scientific, academic, and political currents.[17] While marxian thinkers might prefer to frame the socio-political whole (including racism) in terms of economics, we would argue that marxism itself is equally deeply rooted in the eurochristian culture and worldview. While marx may have developed some disgust for religion qua religion, he still articulates his political vision in terms of what Mark Freeland calls an

…implicit reliance on the sin-salvation-eschaton linear trajectory. For marx, the sin of capitalism is saved by the communist revolution so that the eschaton of workers owning the means of production can be realized. This is, of course, wildly ironic considering marx’s open disgust of christianity and religion in general. These examples are helpful for a more refined definition of worldview because they help to demonstrate the tenacity of deeply, largely unconscious, systems of thought.[18] 

Tink Tinker is wazhazhe, a citizen of the Osage Nation. For 33 years he was a professor of American Indian studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, where he still holds the title emeritus professor. During most of that time, Tinker also was the (non-stipendiary) director of Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver. Tinker has abandoned christianity as a colonialist and Genocidal imposition on Indian Peoples in favor of recapturing the traditional worldview of Native Peoples. Although Tinker was trained in eurochristian theology and bible, he has come to see the Native experience of the interrelationship of all life and our ideal of cosmic balance and harmony as totally incompatible with eurochristian colonialist imaginary of hierarchy, one that sees reality as a manichaean hierarchical struggle of good versus evil. He is the author of American Indian Liberation (Orbis, 2008).

Roger Green is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) and the recent dissertation Ayahuasca in the Wake of the Doctrine of Discovery (2020).  He has collaborated musically with Anne Waldman on Untethered I (Fast Speaking Music 2017).  He is also contributor to an edited collection by Miguel A. De La Torre, The Colonial Compromise: The Threat of the Gospel to Indigenous Worldview (2021), which celebrates Tink Tinker’s career and teaching.  He’s currently co-authoring a book with Tink Tinker on eurochristian worldview.

[1] Of course, overt white supremacists do not want to see Jews as “white” either, yet a recent New York Times article asks, “Has the median American Jew — Ashkenazic, native-born, lightly religious — become a white person who knows a potato pancake is called a latke?”  Marc Tracy, “Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism,” The New York Times Magazine, November 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/02/magazine/israel-american-jews.html. Howard winant already powerfully problematized the “Whiteness” of american Jews in The new politics of race: globalism, difference, justice (university of minnesota, 2004).

[2] Barbara J. Fields relates one version of this likely apocryphal story in her “Ideology and Race in American History,” Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward, ed. J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 146. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/essays/fieldsideolandrace.html.

[3] Jack D. Forbes, “Blood Quantum: A Relic Of Racism And Termination,” Native Intelligence Column, The People’s Voice (November, 2000): https://web.archive.org/web/20101228003418/http://yvwiiusdinvnohii.net/Articles2000/JDForbes001126Blood.htm; Maya Harmon, “Blood Quantum and the White Gatekeeping of Native American Identity,” California Law Review, April 2021: https://www.californialawreview.org/blood-quantum-and-the-white-gatekeeping-of-native-american-identity/.

[4] Jerry Wetzel, “liberal theory as a tool of colonialism and the forced assimilation of the First Nations of newfoundland and labrador,” dalhousie journal of legal studies, 4 (1995), 105-152: https://digitalcommons.schulichlaw.dal.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1080&context=djls.

[5] While there are almost countless traditions vying for a stamp of authenticity, it seems clear that some Native people in 1519 Mexico connected the arrival of the spanish conquistadors with their own ancient expectation that the god/goddess Quetzalcoatl would return to life by emerging out of the sea. An early eastern mediterranean christian community had a similar apocalyptic expectation of, in this case, an evil beast emerging out of the sea. Rev. 13:1. American Indians have long used the descriptor “those who came over the big waters (Atlantic)” to refer to euro-christian invader peoples and their descendants. 

[6] Mark Freeland, Aazheyaadizi: Worldview, Language and the Logics of Decolonization (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2021).

[7] Ibid., 23.

[8] The german term Sitz im Leben (“situated in life”) derives from formalist biblical criticism and the work of protestant theologian, Hermann Gunkel.  It is meant to emphasize the lived context in which a text or object is produced. While we are, in a sense, discussing Whiteness in its current context, our emphasis on worldview accounts for more transgenerational context. As an historical signifier affording social privileges to certain people, Whiteness of the seventeenth-century is different than that of the nineteenth or twenty-first century. Indeed, but the underlying motivations for the irruption of modern concepts of race prevail and influence even our current-day living contexts. 

[9] Contrary to commonplace narratives, the 1648 westphalian “peace” did not end the religious wars.  It was not until rousseau in the 18th century and more political thinkers during the 19th century that the Peace of Westphalia came to narrate the triumph of the nation-state in bringing “peace” and stability to “the world.”  That said, it is undeniable that our everyday discourse casts a gaze on the world framed by demographic associations about nation-state borders, even if political theorists and economists speculate on the possible end of the nation-state.  See Derek Croxton, The Last Christian Peace: The Congress of Westphalia as a Baroque Event (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2013).

[10] Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law 10th Anniversary Edition: The Legal Construction of Race (Critical America), (NYU Press; Anniversary edition, 2006).

[11] F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition (1991), reports that in the u.s. “a black is any person with any known African black ancestry.” Cited from PBS-Frontline: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html. This gave rise to the so-called one-drop-rule that was prevalent through the first half of the 20th century and was legally codified in several state laws. About 1960 a New York journalist interviewed “Doc” Duvalier, the dictator of Haiti. When he asked what percentage of Haitian population was White, Duvalier responded, “100 per cent.” When the reporter expressed incredulity, Duvalier answered, “You know that one percent rule you have in the U.S.? We have that here too.” While the one-drop rule was never a federal law, the state of Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, determining that a person with “any” black blood was legally categorized as colored. The category of White person was reserved for one “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Racial_Integrity_Act_of_1924. The case of Susie Guillory Phipps in Louisiana was not resolved until 1983. Frances Frank Marcus, “Louisiana Repeals Black Blood Law,” NYT, July 6, 1983, online at: https://www.nytimes.com/1983/07/06/us/louisiana-repeals-black-blood-law.html.

[12] Tinker, who is a lighter skinned American Indian, is often asked (by eurochristians, never by Natives) what percentage Osage his is. His regular answer is, “I don’t know. The u.s. government keeps track of that. By the way, what percentage american are you? As a citizen of the Osage Nation, I’m probably the same percentage Osage as you are american.”

[13] Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (english translation: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1949 [orig., 1938]), makes the argument that the play element must be an important part of understanding the human being and culture. Sam Gill carries Huizinga a giant step further and makes play the analytical essential in his own discipline and discourse: “No Place to Stand: Jonathan Z. Smith as Homo Ludens: The Academic Study of Religion Sub Specie Ludi,Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 66/2 (1998): 283-312. In this essay, Gill casts the corpus of his own teacher’s interpretive work as a structured form of play. This seems to be a clear admission on Prof. Gill’s part that he has really only been trolling us all these years—but with a great benefits package.

[14] We should add here that the argument could be made that american jewish folk are also culturally eurochristian—by long association. At least Howard Winant makes the collateral argument that american jewish folk are White. See his The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (Basic Books, 2001). Leora Batnitzky’s work is relevant here as well, seeing the notion of jewish religion as a modern phenomenon. She writes of Zionist movements in the context of nineteenth-century nationalism, but also states that “before Jews received the rights citizenship, Judaism was not a religion, and Jewishness was not a matter of culture or nationality. Rather, Judaism and Jewishness were all of these at once: religion, culture, and nationality. The ultraorthodox rejection of the Jewish religion is an attempt to return to a preemancipation. It is worth noting, however, that several important historical studies have shown in great detail that ultraorthodoxy is quite unorthodox in its understanding of many tenets of Judaism as it has been historically understood and practiced, including first and foremost its conception of Jewish law.”  Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction into Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011): 186.  Writing about the context of emergent Christianity, Daniel Boyarin argues, “While Christianity finally configures Judaism as a different religion, Judaism itself, I suggest, at the end of the day refuses that call, so that seen from that perspective the difference between Christianity and Judaism is not so much a difference between two religions as a difference between a religion and an entity that refuses to be one.” Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004): 7-8.  

[15] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905 german/ 1930 english transl.).

[16] One colleague co-teaching a doctoral seminar with Tinker, responding to his critique of the eurochristian social whole, protested that Tinker’s critique did not apply to himself because, after all, he was an atheist. In his response, Tinker argued that his atheism was indeed formed by negating what he knew culturally and habitually around him all his life, namely the christian male sky god and all of the cultural whole that revolves around that sedimentary notion. You, Tinker replied finally, must be a christian atheist (i.e., a eurochristian atheist).

[17] And, of course, the very term “secular,” as Charles Taylor (among others) has highlighted, had a christian meaning for clergy dealing with lay people “of this world” as opposed to those in monasteries well before the nineteenth-century connotations in opposition to religion.  See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). 

[18] Mark Freeland, Aazheyaadizi: Worldview, Language and the Logics of Decolonization (Michigan State Univ. Press, 2020), p. 189, annotation lvii.

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