International / Politics / Short Stop / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Redeeming Royalty

Camille Silvy Portait of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonneta Sarah Daves

Image Credit: Camille Silvy, Portait of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonneta (Sarah Daves), 1862, “God-daughter” to Queen Victoria, National Portrait Gallery

The recent union of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle served as a reminder of a much more long-standing union between theology and politics. As an originary power couple in the history of the West, theology and politics pervaded the spectacle of the royal wedding, illustrating just how much they retain the unprecedented ability to shape, captivate, and mystify the social order. For all the talk of Christianity’s decline, we are living in an odd moment when its power is sought—both the power of its brute force and the power of its beauty. A small library could be filled with recent articles on white evangelicalism and its role in christening Donald Trump’s presidency and the revanchist agenda of the right. But with the royal wedding, a more seductive picture of Christianity’s union with politics is on display.

The problem here doesn’t lie so much in the enjoyment of the spectacle. The sense of tradition, pomp, and circumstance that has become so irregular in many of our political rituals appears as a happy break from a crude union of theology and politics that is explicitly intent on stealing healthcare or wages from the most oppressed. The spectacles and celebrations that this longer-standing tradition of theology and politics enables is more intriguing because it is more beautiful. The gospel choir, the black cellist, the black bishop proclaiming the Word, all serve as signs in a story of love and love’s power to overcome the deepest of divisions. The social divisions that permeate our sense of self and other. The divisions of colonialism. The divisions of capitalism. The divisions of race.

The royal wedding is a case study in how naturally Christianity’s redemptive narratives can dramatize the reconciliation and overcoming of the divisions that the political engenders—leaving the status quo intact while producing the feeling that things have changed. Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon, with its emphasis on love, especially how black slaves experience God as a source of love, worked as an affective boost for such a narrative. And this is not just a private religious feeling. News headlines and social media commentaries quickly drew on the form of this redemptive narrative through the juxtaposition of Bishop Curry or Meghan Markle with the situation of the enslaved.

Such juxtapositions recall Galatians 4:7, where Paul announces that those with faith in Christ are “No longer slaves, but children of God, heirs.” The negation of the former status as slaves and the announcement of the new status as heirs is a narrative of conversion and the establishment of a claim to legitimacy that is still powerful in its modern deployment. In this narrative, black people (collectively represented through the bishop, the gospel choir, Meghan’s mother, the black cellist) are no longer slaves, but children of God, children of the Western world, providing a challenge to those many white faces and institutions represented in St. George’s Chapel, the heart of white colonial Christianity. What they provided was a more beautiful story of the gospel’s meaning, when love weaves the enslaved into a tapestry from which they are all too often left out.

And it is not only the bishop’s sermon that is run all the way through with an affective boost built on making the invocation of the enslaved an on-ramp to reconciling the seat of royalty. Meghan Markle’s entrance into the royal family itself was also subject to these redemptive narratives. She is the fulfillment of some enslaved ancestor’s dream. No longer slaves, we have come all the way to having a black princess now, the meaning of which is painstakingly extracted from royalty’s contrast with the abjection conjured by the enslaved. These narratives of black overcoming, where descendents of slaves are now witness to the beauty of some undefined and ephemeral love, or the inclusiveness of the royal family, seems like a challenge to the seat of power. But could there be any greater legitimation of royalty than to open its doors to blackness? How beautiful, how expansive, how progressive, how legitimate. The power of this narrative of overcoming the legacy of slavery is precisely how the union of the theological and political weave the discontinuity of black enslavement, of colonialism and antiblackness, into a fiction of Western civilization’s progress. The enslaved, here, are the means by which a story, or perhaps the lack of a story—some break in a story, that is at a slant with Western civilization’s narration of itself as on the side of justice, or marching towards the good—is reconciled with the rule of those who were already the rulers.

There is a level of hermeneutical violence that is required to make the enjoyment of black people in spectacular situations equivalent to black overcoming or subversion, black radicalism and authenticity, black freedom or liberation struggle. The lengths to which people are invoking enslaved people as props to recuperate royalty as a concept are disturbing—as though Meghan entering into this royal family proves something about blackness being worthy and dignified when what it really proves is something about the whiteness of the world we still live in. The enslaved are not an emotional tool in a redemptive narrative. They did not exist to give a story about love overcoming or to provide a boost when folks are feeling low or scared because Trump is president. They were people with lives and imaginations that we can never exhaust. Given that slavery, as an institution, desired to exhaust their persons by making them produce meaning for a white supremacist world, it behooves us to find ways to talk about the enslaved—to talk about how we are students of them and inspired by them—in ways that are not predicated on forcing them to produce meaning for our exhausting redemptive narratives, whether that’s in the name of love or hate.

We have to do justice to the enslaved by trying to give them the dignity of being worthy of attention and study simply because they were, not because of who their descendents are. Not because one of their descendents is now a princess. Their existence does not find its meaning in us. There is no narrative, no matter how beautifully robed in royalty, that can redeem that violence, and it is high time we stopped trying

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