This guest post by Dr. Kyle Brooks responds to the article by Dr. Rufus Burnett in the newly released special issue on intersectional methods and theology in the Journal of Moral Theology. This is the fifth blog post in our current series engaging authors from the special issue.

Rufus Burnett’s article “Cartographies in the Wilderness: A Decolonial Reflection on Intersectionality,” is a timely meditation that models a way of attending to the valuable insights of critical theory while maintaining a fidelity to theology’s commitments to the revelation of God in history. Burnett’s decolonial theological approach questions how the concept of intersectionality is leveraged to produce a moral imagination caught in the tension between Black identity and state power. A decolonial approach, he argues, can “delink [intersectionality] from the idols of racial identity and state power” and recover its alternative usefulness beyond the reinforcement of colonial domination (pg. 23).

Burnett takes up Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality with respect to the American legal system, specifically focusing on how anti-discrimination law systemically impeded Black women’s ability to obtain legal redress by virtue of their status at the intersection of legally distinct categories of Black and woman (pg. 24). While seeing the value in how Crenshaw’s intersectionality highlights individual and corporate forms of vulnerability and oppression, he notes that it still operates within the realm of state jurisprudence (pg. 25). Through the decolonial work of Aníbal Quijano and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Burnett makes the case that intersectionality must be decoupled from colonial arrangements of power and gender. This decoupling, he suggests, can be pursued through a spatial theological option that “delinks hope and divine presence from the idolatrous political economy of the nation state (pg. 30).”

Burnett’s chosen title – “cartographies in the wilderness” – is a two-fold gesture towards 1) his concern with the spatial consequences of moral imagination and 2) his engagement with the pivotal work of womanist theologian Delores Williams in her text Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God Talk (1993). He engages the remarks of Atlanta, GA, mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a 2020 press conference in response to protests following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Burnett reads Lance Bottoms as invoking certain symbols – Blackness, motherhood, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others – in a way that underscores her moral authority and speaks to her spatial vision of Atlanta (pg. 20). This vision is characterized by Black entrepreneurial success and the legacy of the civil rights movement, symbolized through the maintenance of private property and state power (pg. 21). Burnett contends that Lance Bottoms’ framing of Atlanta constitutes a moral imagination through which she leverages intersectionality, holding her vulnerability as a Black woman and mother in tension with her authority to implement police violence against protestors (pg. 22).

This political mapping of Atlanta stands in stark contrast to Delores Williams’ theological mapping of wilderness. Burnett highlights Williams’ characterization of the wilderness journey of Hagar as an inclusive juncture where Black experience and biblical revelation dwell together (pg. 30-31). He argues that Williams’ imaging of the wilderness hints at a spatial relationship to God that is not predetermined or fixed, and as such, it makes room for decolonial theory and theological reflection to encounter one another.

I believe Burnett’s work is at its best and most novel when he engages the work of Katherine McKittrick and Sylvia Wynter, two critical theorists whose projects deal with Black geographies – in other words, alternative relationships between Blackness and colonial space. Through McKittrick and Wynter, Burnett identifies how the spatial dimensions of Black struggle confer a different vantage point for rethinking humanity, politics, culture, and identity (pg. 35-37). McKittrick and Wynter offer ways of pursuing decolonial cartographies through what they term “demonic grounds.” Demonic, in this instance, is not a theological or religious reference; rather, “in physics, the demonic refers to a mathematical problem that can only be solved with respect to a non-human vantage point and is thus essentially unsolvable (pg. 37).” The concept of demonic grounds, then, offers a way of differently thinking about spatial reality and the geographical dimensions of oppression.

For these reasons, Burnett interprets Williams’ treatment of wilderness experience as a theological analogue to these geographical practices. In the wilderness experience, there is room to imagine a relationship to space, identity, and the divine that is not bound to colonial logic or hierarchy. One can sit with intersectional identity without capitulating to the demands of the nation state. One can map a new relationship to the world that does not require legitimation within a colonial framework. Burnett sums it up neatly:

“Unlike the legitimation and civility tactics deployed by Lance Bottoms, this decolonial reading of Delores Williams offers a way of framing intersectionality with respect to alternative possibilities of imaging political struggle. Such an invitation is not one begging for the inclusion of difference within a Eurocentric, male dominated theological canon or the political economy of the nation state. It is an invitation to see God’s revelation within cartographies of struggle (pg. 40).”

One meaningful question that Burnett’s work raises for me is the distinction we might make between space and place. I think of the way Christian education scholar Randy G. Litchfield writes about place: “Place is not simply the setting in which identity and vocation are expressed nor is it the backdrop to the divine-human-creation drama—place is the fabric of the drama itself, the unfolding web of relationships between God, humans, and creation.”

How might the reorientation to space that Burnett argues for lead to a different formation of place? I can’t help but think of how particular histories and geographies condition the sorts of practices and responses that people produce across space. We could imagine how the spatial vision for Atlanta, for instance, might have some meaningful overlaps and distinctions vis-à-vis other Black enclaves such as Detroit, which itself has a significant history of Black political leadership, protest movements, and entrepreneurship. Certainly, each of those cities evokes a different sense of place owing to their unique cartographies of space and struggle. Burnett’s piece prompts me to consider how the project of decolonial thought invites a different understanding of a systematic theology, wherein the goal is not a mere reproduction or extension of an intellectual tradition, but perhaps a calling into question of the very colonial grounds on which the study of theology has rested.

This article would be beneficial for graduate students and professors in religious studies and theology, as well as any students and scholars interested in the linkages between religious studies, Black studies, and Black critical theory.

Kyle Brooks, Ph.D., a native of Detroit, MI, is an Assistant Professor at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He received his B.A., M.A., and M.Div. degrees from Yale University and Yale Divinity School as a fellow in the Institute of Sacred Music. He completed his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. His current book project engages Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology as a lens for interpreting the recurring historical and contemporary roles of Black clergymen in social movements, ultimately disputing the mythology of Black male charisma and rhetorical performance as the core mechanisms of sociopolitical change. His research interests include African American religious cultures, the intersections of Black creative arts and religion, rhetoric & performance studies, and Black cultural studies.

For previous blog posts in this series, see posts by Ramon Luzarraga, Matthew Shadle, Simeiqi He, and Ronaldo Zacharias (in both Portuguese and English).