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'The house of your church is burning’: Race and responsibility in Marilynne Robinson’s 'Gilead'

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Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of American Studies
Early online date18 May 2016
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


This article examines Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead in dialogue with her speculative reflection upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology to read the novel as a radically ambivalent text which exposes an aporia at the core of the Reverend Ames's Christian ethics. This ambivalence appears in the way that Ames's version of his own family history works assiduously to expiate the perceived violence done to ethics by his grandfather's support for abolitionist violence while remaining haunted by the thought that in the unforgiving context of Bleeding Kansas simply to insist upon an absolute distinction between violence on the one hand and ethics and law on the other may be irreconcilable with the workings of good faith and the ends of justice. Reinterpreting Ames's narrative in the light of Jacques Derrida's reflection on the paradoxical structure of ethical responsibility, the article argues that the violence done to Ames's ethical reflection by the memory of the grandfather, John Brown, and the excluded black body reveals the agonistic location of the ethics of abolitionist history between two kinds of violence on the uncertain border between justice and law which defines the ground of every genuinely ethical decision.

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