Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions? In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation—social, spatial, and racial—that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.
Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.
Using his bold, creative, and courageous critique to imagine a truly cosmopolitan citizenship that transcends geopolitical, nationalist, ethnic, and racial boundaries, Jennings charts, with great vision, new ways of imagining ourselves, our communities, and the landscapes we inhabit.
Rending New Life from These Mangled Places
WILLIE JAMES JENNINGS’ BOOK, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, is a revolutionary study in the ongoing conversation of the relation between race and Christian theology and practice. In my essay, I discuss key themes of the book, which include: the connection between land and identity, the role of whiteness as an evaluative form or racialized lens for interpreting others and the world, the injurious and dehumanizing effects of Christianity’s embrace of colonizing practices, and Jennings’ original insights regarding how such practices can be understood as expressions of de-formed Christian doctrines. Toward the end of my essay, I transition to a more critical dialogue, both for the purpose of furthering the conversation and for my own education.
Jennings’ book is divided into three parts, each of which contains two chapters. The major theme of Part I is “displacement,” and Jennings’ principal dialogue partners are Gomes Eanes de Azurara (henceforth, Zurara), Prince Henry of Portugal’s royal chronicler, and José Acosta, a late sixteenth-century Spanish Jesuit missionary in Peru. The “displacement” in view refers to the violent uprooting, trafficking, and enslavement of black bodies—actions that incriminate not only the Portuguese royalty but also expose how the church wed itself to colonial desire and altered its theological discourses in order to justify participation in practices it should have condemned.
As Jennings explains, “Zurara was a Christian intellectual at the dawn of the age of European colonialism, charged with offering the only real account of official history, a theological account” (161).In other words, through his theological historiography Zurara attempted to baptize the destructive, dehumanizing practices of colonialism. Although Zurara evidences momentary moral struggles as he sees firsthand the suffering of newly captured African slaves, he assuages his conscience and justifies Prince Henry’s colonial project by wedding a racialized evaluative lens to Christian doctrine, especially the doctrines of providence, creation, and salvation. This new hermeneutic allows Zurara to harmonize aspects of the Old World and Christian tradition with his experience “on the ground” of the New World, including the violent and exploitative practices required not only for so-called “progress” but also for the “salvation” and alleged “advancement” of the indigenes.
Acosta, a sixteenth-century highly theologically trained Jesuit missionary, continues the colonizing practices of land seizure and the “destruction of the connections between native spatial logics and identities” (113). With Acosta’s pedagogical project, we gain insight into the (violent) making of colonized theological subjects. Here the alleged theological “training” of the indigenous people can be understood as a variant of what Michel Foucault calls disciplinary practices, which are designed to create “docile bodies” fully subject to and offering total allegiance to the dominant pole of the power relation. Through Acosta’s “colonialist evaluative form,” funded by whiteness as the standard for intelligence, spirituality, morality, and aesthetics, native subjects are always found wanting. In fact, the only way to gain acceptance and respect is through assimilationist submission to the dominant group—submission that created what Walter Mignolo and Frantz Fanon designate the “colonial wound” (115).
Part II’s major theme is “translation.” In chapter three, “Colenso’s Heart,” Jennings narrates Anglican Bishop John William Colenso’s missionary activities with the Zulus in the nineteenth century. Again, Jennings unmasks the violence and racializing evaluative gaze at work in the church’s missionary efforts. In particular, he considers how the role of translating the Bible into indigenous languages has served not as a way to truly connect with different peoples and cultures but as a educative tool to “civilize,” domesticate, and recreate others in one’s own (ethnocentric and even nationalistic) image. Bishop Colenso arrived in Natal as a committed translator, eager to bring the gospel to the Zulus. However, as he spent time with Zulus and learned not only their grammar and syntax, but how to listen and hear their “voice,” concerns, and criticisms of the white colonizers, Colenso began to question former views and Christian colonizing practices. Soon he was faced with a choice: continue as a “colonialist collaborator” or become a “colonialist enemy” (168). Colenso chose the latter, and it cost him (and his family) dearly. However, Colenso made the right decision, and now “all the intellectual, political, social, and ecclesial tools he had honed in defining and defending his theological positions were placed in the service of the black body” (163). Thus, with Colenso we have an example of a Christian missionary and former active participant in colonizing Christian practices who undergoes a transformation—that is, a conversion—through genuine incarnational and reciprocal relationships (or to use Jennings’s term, a “joining”) with the Zulus. In the following passage, Jennings describes Colenso’s conversion.
Colenso became the translator against colonial translation. He became a translator bound to the flesh and bound to the plight of the African, and in so doing he interrupted a life of translation bound to the remaking of native worlds. This was a place his theology could not take him, but precisely where the Africans drew him. The practice of translation, the daily acts of sitting with black flesh seeking to say what the Scriptures say, opened Colenso to a path different from his own articulation of his work. His translated theology and his translated life were of different worlds. His translated theology was of a world already formed prepared to instruct, guide, and mangle. His translated life was of a world forming, moving inextricably toward binding, toward communion. (165)
In chapter 4, Jennings focuses on the life of Olaudah Equiano, drawing from Equiano’s book, Interesting Narrative. As a young boy Equiano was uprooted from his homeland and family and was forced to live on a cramped, disease-infested British ship until he was deposited in England with the rest of British’s newly acquired human “merchandise.” In the midst of this hellish nightmare, Equiano became a Christian and penned his own account of his life and experiences as a slave. Like many other slave narratives, the act of writing was simultaneously an act of self-writing, resistance, and re-narrating one’s identity over against dominant, racialized narratives scripting blacks as subhuman, intellectually inferior, and morally deficient. “Equiano’s powerful self-portrait of a human, an African, and a Christian presents a pivotal moment in the formation of Christian identity in nonwhite flesh, in colonized bodies” (170). Having highlighted Equiano’s intellectual, moral, and theological contributions, Jennings also provides an analysis of the shortcomings of Equiano’s position. Given the racialized, capitalist-inflected Christianity in which Equiano was formed, his own understanding of relationships and belonging was limited, offering at best an assimilationist “solution” to multiethnic coexistence. Equiano knew intimately that he belonged to God; however, his relationships with others, especially white others did not and could not provide him with the existential knowledge of what Jennings calls a true “joining” in mutual love and respect. The community Equiano experienced, Christian or otherwise, was built upon a racialized foundation; thus, such an environment precludes genuine intimacy, trust, and friendship. In short, Equiano’s life “is a powerful witness not only to the Christian origins of black intellectual life in the modern West, but also to the painful joining of a black life to the life of the crucified one” (201).
The central theme of Part III is “intimacy.” In chapter 5, “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings discusses the double-sidedness of literacy for the oppressed in a racialized social environment and how literacy serves both emancipatory and colonizing purposes (207). In particular, he highlights how the misuse of Scripture and the imposition of a Christian-colonial imaginary (both with respect to interpreting the Bible and the social and material world) helped to warrant, reinforce, and maintain the unjust sociopolitical and economic power relations between oppressor and oppressed. One of the most devastating effects of the Christian-colonial imaginary—and one that continues to impact the church today—is how it naturalizes segregationalist mentalities and practices (208). Such racialized ways of thinking, being, and interpreting the world see segregated schools, churches, and neighborhoods as “natural” and thus negate one of Christianity’s “most basic and powerful imaginative possibilities, the deepest and most comprehensive joining of peoples” (208).
Although Jennings does not devote significant textual space to an analysis of gender and feminist theorizing on these issues (a much-needed task), he does point out how white male landowners played a central role in forming and de-forming the social and geographic landscape. As Jennings explains, “[i]n antebellum America, the household stood at the center of the social world of the new republic, and at the center of the household stood the male landowner” (235). Given the entrenched patriarchy at that time—a patriarchy bolstered by sociopolitical, legal, and religious discourses and practices—not only slaves, but also free women (and children) were locked into harmful and degrading dependency relations. Here we find an example that illustrates and supports some of Jennings’ most important and original claims: 1) place and identity are intricately linked; 2) Christianity’s colonizing practices ignored that connection entirely in their treatment of indigenous people and their land; and 3) colonial Christianity is undergirded by a deformed doctrine of creation whose enactment in praxis has serious sociopolitical, ethical, theological, and environmental consequences. That is, just as colonial powers had completely disregarded the constitutive role of place in forming the indigenes’ identity, similarly the white male landowners’ colonizing view of space and the asymmetrical, dominating power relations structuring the household became naturalized and understood as the “proper” and even God-ordained order of things. Moreover, with the implementation of Thomas Jefferson’s Land Survey System, which transformed natural landscapes into grid systems of sellable plots of land, the link between land and identity is not only disrupted and fundamentally altered, but it also ushers in a distinctively modern instrumentalized vision of land qua potential private property for economic benefit. In other words, concern for the intrinsic value and beauty of trees, meadows, mountains, and how place, land, and animals constitute a peoples’ identity is judged a hindrance to modern progress and divine mandate. As Jennings observes,
[t]he grid pattern of sellable squares of land signified the full realization of property ownership. It also displayed the complete remaking of indigenous land. Now, under the grid system, each space of land could be surveyed and designated for purchase by measurement and location. All native peoples, no matter what they claims to land, no matter what designations they had for particular places, no matter their history and identity with specific lands, landscape, and indigenous animals, were now mapped on to the grid system. (225–26)
With his Christian-colonial vision of space, the white male landowner can justify his mastering of land (and people) as a God-given right and calling. Remaking the land into private property (not for the common good, but primarily for one’s own self-interest and benefit) was understood as a way to imitate God’s original creative activity. Interestingly, in this deformed doctrine of Christian-colonial creation, a new connection between body (people) and place (both social and physical) is constructed. Not only does the land become an extension of the landowner’s body, but also of his body’s vulnerability. Thus, he must fully possess the land and protect it from threats of any kind. Here property owner’s rights take center stage and become entangled in religious discourses about rights, divine sanctioning, and prosperity for the “elect.”
In short, in slave-holding America black biblical literacy in white space signified cultural and social fragmentation, as the slave was either forced to read the Scriptures through the master’s racialized (and gendered) hermeneutic or s/he had acquire literacy in stealth, via subversive maneuverings and often alone and isolated rather than in an ecclesial community. Thus, given the wider racialized and commodity-driven social context, we see the “impotence of Scripture to enact a community at a historical moment” (210). Yet, as Jennings argues, this failure of biblical literacy to unite diverse populations is intricately linked to the Christian-colonial vision of space, place, land, and identity formation vis-à-vis these “spatial dynamics.” By denying this connection between a “landscape and its realities—water, trees, seasons, animals” and replacing it with a view of the land as “identified with its white male owner,” Scripture’s capacity “to help people reimagine the world was severely limited” (240). Moreover, the Bible’s confinement within a “hierarchical literary space” must be understand against the backdrop of the confinement of geographic space, which signals a distorted doctrine of creation. As Jennings observes,
[w]hat connected these spaces was the racial imagination that permeated both the creating and shaping of perception and helped to vivify both spaces. The result was fragmentation, not simply one affecting the Bible but also one effected by the performance of Scripture itself in these mangled spaces. (241)
If Christianity is willing to acknowledge its failures and complicity in these colonizing and racialized practices, it can begin to re-ground, articulate, and live a doctrine of creation that respects the identity-facilitating connection between land and people—one that promotes a genuine and deep joining with others. “A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, and of divine and human interaction. It is first a way of seeing place in its fullest sense. Christianity is in need of place to be fully Christian” (248).
At this point, Jennings begins to gesture toward some of the key themes in his final chapter, “Those Near Belonging.” In this chapter, Jennings not only tackles in the thorny issue of supersessionism (a central concern of his book) and its relation to his analyses concerning the formation and consequences of a racialized, Christian-colonial imaginary, but he also presents his own constructive contributions.
Since I am a philosopher by training, my knowledge of the current literature on and debates surrounding supersessionism is limited. Thus, I welcome correction and the opportunity to learn more about supersessionism and its various expressions. First, granting that supersessionism, especially any variant that has promoted anti-Semitism, should be condemned and abandoned, it is not clear to me how Jennings’ conclusions (e.g., that Jesus “comes for Israel,” 260) avoid some form of, as it were, “mild” supersessionism (and obviously a variant that rejects anti-Semitism). That is, Jennings contends that Christ’s body is the new place that unites all people. Since many Jewish believers would deny the role that Jennings’ claims for the Jewish Jesus, how is this not another form of supersessionism?
Second, I agree with Jennings that “the election of Israel never significantly entered the social imagination of the church. Israel’s election has not done any real theological work for Christian existence” (254). I also agree with his claim that Israel’s election should not be understood as simply an expression of God’s divine freedom. In fact, to overemphasize God’s freedom (as well as his power) invites serious theological and ethical dilemmas. Is God’s divine freedom arbitrary? How does his freedom relate to his goodness, power, love, justice, and so forth? With these questions in mind, I find highly problematic Jennings’ claims regarding a God of violence. For example, Jennings writes: “By killing the firstborn of Egypt, both humans and animals, YHWH signaled that life in the land was completely under divine power. [. . .] This aspect of the story of Israel reveals a God who draws death and violence into a circle of contest” (256). This image of a violent, conquering God too closely resembles the colonizer and master. If we are to understand these passages literally, then it seems we have a picture of a God who commands his elect people to kill innocent human beings (as children were included in the slaughter) and to destroy his own creation. On the face of things, it appears the Creator has embraced the very de-formed doctrine of creation (and redemption) Jennings has so aptly criticized.
In addition, it is not clear how Jennings’ claims regarding Israel’s representative character resolves the ethical problems of a violent God who sanctions (even if this is an unrepeatable event) violence, murder, and destruction in order to demonstrate his power and thus gain his people’s absolute obedience—and primarily by means of creating fear and terror in his people. Again, such actions and intentions recall those of the slaveholding master.
My final point concerns Jennings’ description and conception of the Christian doctrine of creation. Instead of understanding the created order as fundamentally unstable because it is “contingent and held together by God” (28), why not understand it as contingent and held together by God, but also possessing built-in structures that are both dynamic and capable of exhibiting stability over time, and are thus amenable to temporal change and the “messiness” of history? On this model, trees, animals, mountains, and other entities and beings that Jennings includes in his notion of landscape and place, could be understood as having a natural integrity and inherent beauty that must be respected rather than instrumentalized, commodified, and reduced to what Heidegger calls “standing reserve” or more resources for economic profit and the furthering of so-called “progress.” On this model, the contingency of creation is upheld—God did not create the world from necessity—nonetheless, by acknowledging that things and beings have structures that are stable yet dynamic, one can defend a thing’s or being’s integrity and argue that there are certain ways that humans, animals, and the environment should and should not be treated.
In closing, Jennings’ book is a must read for anyone deeply concerned about Christianity’s participation in the social construction of race, as well as racialized and colonizing practices. However, this work is more than a critical analysis of Christianity’s failures (as important as that is); it also challenges and encourages Christians to seek and work toward a decolonized Christianity that is attuned to the “spatial dynamics at play in the formation of social existence” and is able to re-imagine a nonviolent, non-coercive joining in love of diverse peoples, places, and practices with the hope that these newly created spaces (both relational and physical) “might promote more just societies” (294).
Supersessionist Sensibilities, Supremacist Imagination
On Taking Seriously the Jewish Flesh of Jesus
PERHAPS IT’S A TAD ODD to state upfront the many ways a theologian has influenced a young academic. But setting aside worries that I may come across as some crazed fan—a Beyoncé or Beatles type of groupie, you know?—I find no need to deny the fact that Willie James Jennings—the teacher, the mentor, and the many other descriptors that can follow his name—has and continues to shape not only how I understand Christian theology proper (if there is such a thing), but also how I navigate the everyday complexities that is life and vocation in this our (post?) modern context. The truth is this: Jennings is a theological genius and a force with whom we must all reckon.
It is no surprise, then, that The Christian Imagination has been received so well, both with academic and non-academic readers alike. Maybe this is because, unlike so many who make a living teaching and writing about theology, Jennings has an uncanny ability to give flesh and bone to the often esoteric and ivory-tower-like conversations that academics are wont to have. He brings Christian theology “to the ground,” exposing its deformation and the ways it has, at times, wreaked havoc on lives, and then he asks us, his listening audience, to direct our attention back towards the tower, and to demand answers from its builders and its current dwellers.
The Christian Imagination, of course,is not the first work to theorize race, to trace the roots of colonialism, to illustrate the power of white supremacy, or much more. Jennings work stands with and on the shoulders of other great thinkers and doers who, as Howard Thurman put it, stood with their backs against the wall: the DuBoises, the Fanons, the Towneses.
And without minimizing others’ important work, I do sense in The Christian Imagination something different, something fresh.
Like an oncologist who diagnoses why the four-pack-a-day smoker of thirty years now sits in her chair with lung cancer, barely able to breathe, and has the wherewithal to create a treatment plan that might cure the patient, Jennings not only names the problem that is the condition of Western Christianity—our “diseased and disfigured social imagination,” as he calls it—but he also paints a theological vision that has the potential to alter the trajectory of our lives, maybe even healing some of our wounds in the process.
It is impossible to discuss all that I like about The Christian Imagination in one short essay, so I won’t attempt to go through all of the nitty-gritty details that I continue to mull over year after year. Rather, aside from a brief and rough summarization of the book, I’ll focus on key aspects I find illuminating, both as they shape theology and ethics, and, selfishly, as it relates to my own research interests.
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At the heart of The Christian Imagination is a simple question: how is that Christianity, a faith whose adherents believe Jesus Christ is God, legitimated and leaves unquestioned the logics of racial identity that divide and plague human communities today. The question is not simple, and, as Jennings shows, the answer is complex.
The Christian Imagination is divided into three sections: “displacement,” “translation,” and “intimacy.” In the first two sections, what one might call Jennings’ deconstructive move, he traces the origins of race—the “how in the world did we end up like this?” question.
Unlike other theorists, for Jennings it is not during the Enlightenment that we—or Europeans—begin to divide human beings into racial categories. Rather, he uses as a point of departure Prince Henry of Portugal’s capture of African peoples in the fifteenth century.
Drawing on Henry’s chronicler, Zurara, Jennings illustrates the ways in which black bodies were removed from the very geographical spaces that shaped their lives and existences. Their land, their relationship to non-human animals, and their beliefs, all were deemed illegitimate by a European vision that both saw and calculated black flesh as commodity and in need of salvation. Such a posture, Jennings suggests, brought about a distorted vision of creation that replaced human-identity-connected-to-God-and-earth with that of European Christians.
Such a posture brought about devastating consequences on dark, non-white flesh throughout the world. As European ships sailed to “new” lands—taking with them both soldiers, merchants, and missionaries—so, too, did they set in full force a hierarchy that placed Europeans on top and black bodies at the bottom. In the colonial moment, Jennings says, “European Christians, from the Iberians through the British, saw themselves as agents of positive, if not divine, change, as it were, the markers of creaturely contingency” (61).[ref]All page references to The Christian Imagination will be in the text.[/ref] This explains the life and work of figures like Jose Acosta and Bishop John William Colenso, to whom Jennings devotes individual chapters. Both are men of the cloth; both enter into foreign spaces with a supposedly divine purpose; and yet both, as Jennings shows, position themselves as those “first conditioning their world rather than being conditioned by it.” In other words, Acosta and Colenso—with their orthodoxy and missional tool kits in tote—helped create, organize, and facilitate a global landscape that made one’s non-Europeanness a key-identifying marker. Intellectually. Spiritually. Physically. Their influence, and the Western Christianity in which they were embedded, would go on to shape the lives of black Christians like Olaudah Equiano, a slave who tried making sense of a Christianity that brought him more pain than healing; more suppression than liberation; and, in an effort to survive in a racial terrain already laid out for him, an intensified “localization of belonging along cultural and racial lines” (202).
This is Christianity of the West, and Jennings notes that its “supersessionist sensibility, coupled with visions of life from within white supremacist imaginings,” has had a profound effect on the social performances of Christianity (292). What he means by this, and Equiano stands in for the many, is that Western Christianity’s denial of its Gentile existence—what it means to be a branch and not the root of the tree, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans—gave way to intellectual thought and ways of being human with others that engendered an anti-Christian way of living, even for the supposedly devout. Said differently, Christianity in the colonial age brought about a moment in which Christian theology ordained European conquest; where purity and lines of division were desired; and where Europeans decided what was good, true, and beautiful.
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If at the heart of The Christian Imagination is the question of how and why Christianity has fallen prey (and offered no balm) to the logics of white supremacy, then central to Jennings’ constructive work is the Jewish Jesus, the one who comes into the world in Jewish flesh as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel first,and only through the Gentiles second. The significance of this claim should not go unnoticed, as it—even in its constructiveness—does quite the disruptive work.
First, this Jesus rooted in the saga of Israel means that Gentile Christians are not, first, the disciples we typically understand ourselves to be, as Jennings notes. We are bystanders. We listen in to a story that is not primarily about us but about a God who does not forsake the descendants of Abraham.
This means our relationship with God can only be understood as a gift, one in which we are brought into God’s promise for Israel, despite being the vagabonds—the goyim—that we are. And if we are riff-raff, then postures that reek of dominance or purity stand contrary to our Gentile origins.
Second, in emphasizing the Jewishness and covenantal promise that is Jesus—his coming for the many of Israel—Jennings also names the ways in which a universalistic framework, one dislodged from Israel, can lead to a Christianity not only void of Scriptural truth, but also one that engenders haphazard theology and ethics.
I recall a time during a course at Duke Divinity School when I asked, much to some of my classmates’ chagrin, whether or not Black Jesus might be just as problematic as White Jesus. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the theological and historical importance of black Jesus in African American life. My grandmother, a domestic worker with little reason to embrace the white Jesus of her employers, had Black Jesus framed on her living room wall. It was he who told her to bring her burdens to the Lord and leave them there. It was he who gave her strength to make a way out of no way, even in the midst of systematic oppression. And it was this same Jesus who waded with me in the water at an early age.
But my point then, and what Jennings suggests in The Christian Imagination, is that a domesticated Jesus—white, black, Asian, Hispanic, etc.—removed from his Jewish body and context, has the capacity to continuously resist the kind of mixing and joining that Jesus sought to bring about. The colonialist moment produced a kind of universal Jesus in which all can lay claim to him.[ref]I believe Jennings’ section on adoptions in the chapter “Colenso’s Heart” speaks well to this.[/ref] And we see nothing wrong with holding on to our Jesus of various shades—in your church, in my church—despite the fact that, if we take his Jewish flesh and context seriously we can have no ethnic claim on him, only he on us.
To say that doesn’t mean that grandma’s black Jesus is altogether bad. Rather, and this is what I find so helpful and forward thinking about Jennings, we are called to welcome a Jewish Jesus who may not always validate what Jennings describes as our “normal patterns of human existence” (167). Instead, it opens us to a kind of relationality, shakes us up, letting us be more than—better than—we are told we are. Perhaps my own personal story bears brief mentioning.
Born in the 1980s South, my birth parents had little to no choice but to give me up for adoption, both for my safety and theirs. They were unmarried and in their early 20s, yes, but age nor marital status forced the possibility of adoption. What posed a problem were his blackness, her whiteness, and the intermingling of the two. And despite both being “raised in Christian homes” and “wanting the child to be raised in a Christian environment,”[ref]These are actual quotations from my non-identifying adoption papers.[/ref] the Christianity in which they were reared, especially my white birth mother’s, could not imagine the beauty of their joining—of being more than—let alone affirm the goodness of their son’s biracial body. What their Christianity demanded was purity, fine lines, and a world in which (white) Gentiles continued to regulate bodies and lives. In other words, the faith of my family offered no refuge and little hope for an interracial couple who, in their life together, represented the very messiness and mixing that constitutes the origins of our faith.
I share this not because I feel any particular need to be vulnerable to an audience of strangers, but to further illustrate how our “diseased social imagination” affects real lives. I also share because I think it depicts the opposite of what Jennings gestures toward in “Those Near Belonging.” He reminds us that, while Jesus didn’t come to destroy, replace, or even wash away Israel’s forms of kinship, he does draw them “into a new orientation, a new determination” (264). It is he who constitutes and redirects their lives; it is he who thwarts the dominant cultural and social mechanisms of their day; and it is through him that Gentile Christians, like Israel, are called to participate in this new way of living out our creatureliness. Plainly put: the buck stops at Jesus and Jesus alone (264).
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A moment to mention my current research interests, at least the quick and dirty version.
In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the intersection of child adoption and race, particularly as it relates to white evangelicals and what they now call the “orphan care movement.”[ref]“Campaign Calls for Christians to Adopt Needy Kids.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 13 May 2007.[/ref]
What is the movement? Well, according to Kathryn Joyce, author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, we can trace it to a pivotal meeting at the James Dobson’s Focus on the Family headquarters in 2007. The goal of the meeting, according to an LA Times article, was to saturate Christian media “with stories and ads touting adoption and foster case as a scriptural imperative, an order direct from God.” As one pastor put it, doing this would give them “moral authority in this nation.”[ref]www.therevealer.org/archives/17347[/ref]
Consequently, evangelical groups spawned numerous conferences on orphan care, like the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which draws famous evangelical pastors and politicians (like Michele Bachmann), now considered “the national hub” for what Christianity Today calls the “burgeoning Christian orphan care movement.”
On the surface, this may all appear altruistic and, at its core, utterly Christian. There are children who are without parents and homes, and Scripture does call us to take care of the orphan. I get it, and, as an adopted child myself, I understand the importance and blessing that is adoption. But a closer look at the movement proves slightly disturbing.
Putting aside that one evangelical pastor writes that the point in adoption is not primarily to be parents to orphans, but to put them in a position to receive the gospel[ref]Dan Cruver, Reclaiming Adoption: Missional Living through the Rediscovery of Abba Father (Adelphi, MD: Cruciform, 2011)[/ref]; and never mind that there appears to be a heightened emphasis on adopting children of color internationally (and at a great cost!), as opposed to say, adopting (and more cheaply) children of color domestically. What worries me is influential evangelical leaders like John Piper and Russell D. Moore of Southern Seminary, respectively, who speak on the subject in ways that fail to critically analyze white hegemony; and not surprisingly, their understanding of Jesus’ identity, or lack thereof, further perpetuates a Gentile posture that seems to ignore its humble origins and resist—overtly and covertly—deep, messy receiving of others. What we find is another form of cultural assimilation falsely described as a racial reconciliation and rooted in an overly spiritualized notion of Jesus.
In Adopted for Life, Moore barely scratches the issue of race. After posing the question, does race matter in adoption?, he suggests that the answer is, on a base level, no—with a few caveats. The first is that he recognizes it is “easy for the white American majority to speak of a ‘color-blind nation,’” despite the fact that we are “no more than a generation removed from color-segregating water fountains.”[ref]Russell Moore, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009) 154.[/ref] Second, he notes that trans-racial adoptions are rooted in a white paternalism, a kind of is-it-not-great “that those kids were ‘lucky’ to come into white privilege.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] But for what little he does say, and it is very little, it’s his own story that bears further reflection—and a Jennings diagnosis.
In describing he and his wife’s adoption of their two Russian born sons, Maxim and Sergio, (now Benjamin and Timothy), Moore, riffing on Paul’s words in Romans and Galatians, contends that it is through “Jesus’ spirit, not our flesh, [that] we share a common family with all those who also have this Spirit resting upon them.”[ref]Ibid.,35.[/ref]
He writes that when he and his wife went through the adoption process, “[they] were encouraged by everyone from social workers to family friends to teach the children about their cultural heritage.” To paraphrase his response to friends and family, he said this:[ref]A full quote can be found on page 36.[/ref] Russia and its songs and folktales are not their heritage anymore, but Mississippi—Faulkner, Hank Williams, their ancestors in the Confederate Army and Civil Rights Movement—is their heritage now. Their boys share their lives and their story, not anything prior to their joining them as a family.
Again, at a base level, Moore’s words may seem innocent—natural, even—and my concerns false cries in the wilderness. But if this is a largely, white Christian movement that seeks to literally draw children unto them, many of them of color, and for the sake of missional and (apparently) nationalistic purposes, then we might have a problem, Houston.
In the first case, Moore seems guilty of doing what Jennings names as problematic in his book, namely, articulating a form of Christology removed from Jesus’ Jewish story. Sure, to speak of a “common family” in the spirit is nice. But in over-spiritualizing flesh—Jesus’, Israel’s, or ours—does Moore not ignore the struggle that can be our physical, bodily communion with one another? In discussing the “common family,” does he fall prey to a posture that, in Jennings’ words, “is for everyone of necessity but joins no one of necessity?” (166).
In the case of Moore’s Russian-born children, it is true that they may easily assimilate into the dominant, white culture. This doesn’t make Moore’s adoption approach any better; it may just make the consequences less devastating, less visible. But replace them, say, with bodies and cultures that cannot fit so neatly in their familial and familiar framework—Kenyan girls or African American boys from Detroit, for example—and his posture may prove not only inadequate but dangerous.
In his chapter “White Space and Literacy,” Jennings writes that the plantation—or, “The White House,”—established “the contours of a house in which white intimacy set the stage and the play for all other forms of cultural intimacy” (242). For centuries, black bodies were subject to white flesh, to white readings of Scripture, to white nationalistic desires. And “all those who came to the (colonial) house of intimacy formed out of race and slavery had to live in that house.” There was resistance, he says, but if the house itself could not be torn down, “rooms could be occupied, “ and “blacks and all immigrant groups could occupy [them] and step out of the corridors of white intimacy and into private spaces of cultural belonging” (242).
Jennings notes that the reality of the plantation is a “fundamental aspect of the architecture of distorted cultural intimacy in the modern West” (242). Today we see its ongoing power, be it in film, novels, art forms, or magazine covers. Simply put, as he says, “white bodies function as the archetype of humanity, and all other bodies are drawn into an unrelenting comparison,” one covert and overt, but always suggesting one simply needs “to approximate what these white bodies have in consumptive mood, manner, and dress,” in order to live well (242).
I find his point here helpful because it further exposes the ways people of color—or women, LGBT individuals, etc.—must generally reckon with their bodies and notions of identity in relation to white bodies. Case studies already show children of color adopted by white families, even the most worldly of them, find it difficult to navigate the waters of their identity. And in cases in which the deep, perverted power of white supremacy is not named and/or challenged, children with dark flesh grow to believe that in order to be good they must hate their skin and the cultures it represents. They must, instead, assimilate into white culture to the best of their ability.[ref]See Sandra Patton-Imani. “Navigating Racial Routes.” In The Morality of Adoption: Social-psychological, Theological, and Legal Perspectives, edited by Timothy P. Jackson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).[/ref]
My ultimate point isn’t to be melodramatic, but it is to highlight, even if roughly, the problem that is Moore’s subtle yet powerful approach to his son’s Russian heritage. Why is his knee-gut reaction to make them mirror images of himself? And why can he not embrace it—or some of it—in ways that is it is not seen as contradictory to who they are or need to be as human beings, as Christians?
Moore is not the root of the problem, of course, and maybe not even be the worst-case scenario. He is emblematic of it, however. And if Kathryn Joyce is correct in suggesting that droves of white evangelicals are attempting to adopt—to bring, more often or not, brown or dark colored orphans into their fold—have we no cause for alarm, especially when the Christian world in which we all breathe has yet to reckon with our diseased imagination, one in which segregation and assimilation often seizes the day? Is there a way forward that sets us on the trajectory of Pentecost, as Jennings notes, “of entering into the lives of others in submission and tutelage—learning their language—for the purpose of binding lives together,” with all of its socio-political possibilities (293).
Perhaps The Christian Imagination can further help us. I believe it can.
* * *
By way of a non-glamorous conclusion, but in keeping with the panel-like format of Syndicate, I do have questions I hope Jennings can answer in more detail.
The first is whether or not Jennings can articulate a more specific notion of Israel that will not fall prey to misappropriation by those who do, in fact, take God’s convent with Israel seriously, but who express those convictions in Zionist ways. I ask this because I’ve often found favorable responses from the most unlikely of individuals, family and friends who, at their very core, find the remainder of my theological claims ungodly. Even as I prescribe to a Christianity that fully accepts its inclusion into Israel’s story, in the back of my mind I am left to wonder, “What do I even mean by Israel?”
Second, it seems that a theology rooted in Gentile’s surprising inclusion into Israel’s story can also speak on matters unrelated to race, namely, the topic of sexuality and same-sex relationships. In a cultural climate in which churches are dividing on the topic, and one in which real people with real bodies are being ostracized, can the vision Jennings articulates in The Christian Imagination also speak to this?
A final question, and one I know Jennings gets a lot, is what can we do practically? I imagine Jennings might tell me to go where the Holy Spirit takes me, or that perhaps I may be getting ahead of myself with the “do” question. But as a low-key pragmatist at times, one who currently serves at a New York City church in which we are always doing,I cannot resist asking the question. Thus, four years after its publication, has Jennings been able to think more concretely about ways Christians can embody what he so imaginatively proposes?
Peter Goodwin Heltzel
Cross the Sea and Cleanse the Temple
CHRISTIANITY IN THE AMERICAS is shrouded in a dark past of white supremacy and colonial violence. Given Christianity’s history of colonial captivity, is the Christian imagination exhausted or can it still speak meaningfully and creatively today? In The Christian Imagination Willie James Jennings lays out a persuasive case detailing the racist and capitalist underpinnings of colonial Christianity in Portugal, Peru, South Africa, and the United States, showing how this colonial legacy continues to dominate the establishment agenda of the theological academy. Despite these realities, he further argues that the Christian imagination can be fired once again if the church can reconnect to Israel, creation, and the Creator. His call to theological intimacy amidst a world of cultural fragmentation is prophetic, hearkening a post-colonial future for the world Christian communion.
This multifaceted theological argument is structured around four tales of the past, concluding with two chapters of constructive theology that call the church to intimacy, belonging, and transformation. In chapter 1, “Zurara’s Tears,” Jennings tells the tale of Zurara, the royal chronicler who records Prince Henry of Portugal the Navigator’s thoughts about his mission to Sub-Sahara Africa. Upon encountering the African people, the Christian colonialist describes the “monstrous darkness” of the African in contrast to the “glorious light” of the European. In this binary racist aesthetic inspired by biblical language, darkness is the negative anchor, while whiteness becomes the positive anchor. The white European male becomes the archetype of humanity. Yet, Zurara’s description of African life expresses a pathos that connects deeply with suffering and struggles of African slaves.
Jennings deconstruction of the colonial hermeneutic of white supremacy at its inception in Africa becomes a heuristic key to interpreting the colonial encounter with indigenous people in the “New World.” In chapter 2, “Acosta’s Laugh,” Jennings turns to the Latin American colonial landscape. When Jesuit theologian José de Acosta Porres arrived in Peru in 1572, his experience in the new world created a theological crisis. How could he reconcile the Thomistic tradition he was trained in with the realities of the New World? How would the native peoples of the Americas be reconciled with continental Catholic conceptions of personhood?
The New World destabilized Acosta’s theology. Schooled in the civilizing structures of European epistemologies, Acosta’s stabilization strategy involved not abandoning Aquinas, but upgrading him to the new colonial circumstance. Based on an Aristotelian hierarchy, Thomism pressed Acosta to appeal to a natural order to account for difference in the New World. Acosta theorized white supremacy through a racial typology structured around three levels of barbarism as a way of discerning the work of “the demonic” in the indigenous population. What Jennings unveils is that this racist colonial categorization system relied on Aristotelian and Thomastic logic; that is, Christian theology provided the social imaginary for the western project of colonization in the Americas. Acosta is theologically significant because he is the first Christian intellectual to execute the colonial project of stability in the New World reality. Acosta was trying to think Thomism inside of a new world reality, and his conclusions still haunt Christianity.
Throughout this chapter, Jennings connects Acosta’s New World Thomism with contemporary neo-traditionalist defenses of Aquinas after Vatican II. Vatican II opened up a choice: going in the direction of a Christianity that was opening up to the possibility of negotiating difference in New Worlds or retrenching and doubling-down to defend ancient thought ill-suited to New World realities. Acosta’s theology signifies an epistemological crisis in Christian theology that had been repressed within the Western theological imagination. Jennings writes, “It is a crisis that expresses a form of modernity in its denial of certain kinds of authority and in its connection to a refashioning of worlds. In this regard, one could fault MacIntyre but more importantly those theologians who have followed his thinking on tradition for not seeing the effects on the Christian tradition triggered by the modernist elements at the beginning of the age of Iberian conquest.” Jennings has fired a fierce broadside against neo-traditionalist theologians in Alasdair MacIntyre’s wake who seek to defend “orthodoxy,” while perpetuating theology as a project that seeks the moral redemption of western civilization, a form of theologizing that has moral resonances with Acosta’s basic theological moves.
These neo-traditionalist theologies share in common a collective blind spot to the racism and genocide underlying their stories of providential colonial expansion. European and North American Christianity often willingly accepted and promoted the benefits it gained as the religion of the political superpowers. From the genocide of Native peoples to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the logic of colonization turned the God-given goodness of creation and difference into tools for producing exploitation, fear, and the infrastructure of empire. Given this stubborn legacy of colonization and white supremacy, the rehabilitation of Christian theology in the Americas begins with confession and repentance of these sins of a white, colonialist past.
We see the systemic power of white supremacy in South Africa, the site of Jennings’ discussion of the missiological translation projects of John William Colenso (chapter 3). A bishop in the Anglican Church, Colenso had a heart for the South African people, but found it difficult to break out of the colonialist civilizing project in Africa. Jennings writes, “Colenso offers a highly refined vision of the whiteness hermeneutic, the interpretive practice of dislodging particular identities from particular places by means of a soteriological vision that discerns all people on the horizon of theological identities.” In this paradigm Africans who convert to Christianity are disconnected from their land and traditions and forced into a form of colonial identity. Given the resilience of the colonial strictures of identity, theological anthropology today must be de-colonized and become reconnected to particular places and non-western identities.
In the fourth chapter, “Equiano’s Words,” Jennings discusses the life and literary voice of a Nigerian slave, Olaudah Equiano. He interprets Equiano’s Interesting Narrative as a work of constructive theology, representing a “pivotal moment in the formation of Christian identity in nonwhite flesh, in colonized bodies.” In this chapter Jennings analyzes the slave ship as emblematic of the white colonizers reconfiguration of space and the commodification of black bodies. He interprets the captain of the slave ship ecology as the absolute authority figure, analogous to the owner of the plantation economy in the antebellum South, which he discusses in chapter 5, “White Space and Literacy.” In this chapter he discusses how Africans in the Diaspora actualize their subversive moral agency and theological subjectivity in a social ecology configured in whiteness. It is only when we begin to understand the depth of the architecture of theological economies imagined and deployed by Western, white males that world Christianity will be able to begin the process of resistance and mutual transformation. Dismantling racism is the beginning of building the beloved community through truth telling and practices of justice, walking together on a path toward deeper intimacy.
Approaching race as primarily a theological problem, Jennings’ work builds on J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press 2008). Both Jennings and Carter see the Christian imagination in large part responsible for the problem of white racism in the modern world, but Jennings further historicizes the genealogy of white supremacy. While Carter begins his analysis with Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment origins of race, Jennings further traces the problem into the early colonial moment with the advent of the Portuguese slave trade in 1444. Jennings also views race from four diverse vantage points: the experiences of Africans in the Diaspora, indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africans on the continent of Africa, and white colonialists in multiple theatres. Thus, what Jennings provides is the first theological treatise that fully engages race from an intercultural perspective in trans-Atlantic perspective. Because of its global Christian framing, historical density, theological insight, and artful style, The Christian Imagination would well serve as a foundational text for undergraduate and graduate courses across the humanities, including theology, literature, African American studies, and global studies.
Naming the idols of colonization and whiteness is the beginning of transforming Christian theology in the Americas today. Through the long, hard work of dismantling these idols, Christian theology can begin the process of living into a new prophetic, intercultural future. As Jennings reminds us in his final chapter, “Those Near Belonging,” in order to push ahead, we must recover a lost wisdom—the liberating reality of Israel, the covenant people of God. Since Jennings sees supersessionism as one of the primary problems with western colonialism, a theology of Israel becomes vital for the realization of a more prophetic Christian theology today.
Christianity is intimately joined to Israel. Israel becomes the primary covenantal marker of Christian identity, not whiteness that emerged as the primary marker of identity in modernity. Recovering a theology of Israel as God’s people does not lead to new kind of tribalism, but to an open, rooted, life-giving, and socially engaged faith in the God of Abraham. The possibility of intimacy lies in renouncing “the legacies of supersessionism and whiteness” and joining with the people of God through an activist faith in Jesus the Jew. This will entail a deeper meditation “on the racialized bodies of blacks and Jews in modernity. Such a meditation would allow us to peer through the cracks of the modern racial calculus and discern fragments of the original situation of Israel and Gentiles, of Israel and a Gentile church, of the Jewish body and the Gentile body joined.”
While the Christian Imagination does not shy away from a devastating diagnostic critique of a Christianity steeped in racism and concomitant colonialism, it does offer some glimmers of theological hope. The hope for the Christian imagination today is a robust doctrine of creation, the heart of Jennings’ theological vision.
This beautifully written book teems with glimpses of an emerging creation theology that echoes John Calvin’s conception of creation as a “theatre of God’s glory.” The drama Jennings shares is in large part a tragedy; however, the comic dimension of history in the community of creation is vital for theological transformation today. Jennings’ conclusion would have been stronger if he had tied together the streams of creation theology that were irrigating the text throughout. His theology of Israel and creation come together in the land that we all walk on, a land that has been traversed by others long before us. Deeper theological reflection on the land, especially in conversation with indigenous theology, is vital for the renewal of theology today. Jennings’ courageous call to Christians to return to the abundance of the good creation and God the Creator who sustains the world will be heard clearly in the academy and the church with great effect.
The community of creation is the place where Christians experience intimacy with God, with each other, with the land, and with other creatures. Christians are called to socially perform the doctrine of creation through working for justice within shalom. This prophetic performance should take place in deep solidarity with Jews, blacks, and people of all colors who have their backs up against the wall of a neo-colonial modernity. This means following in the footsteps of a Jewish prophet who journeyed across stormy seas to cleanse the temple. After Jennings, the task of prophetic Christian theology is to articulate and embody a theology of the good creation that is not out for saving the West, but incarnating love for the rest.
9.15.14 | Willie Jennings
A Response to Peter Goodwin Heltzel
I am deeply appreciative of Dr. Heltzel’s (Brother Peter’s) review of The Christian Imagination. He captured several themes that I hope will start to occupy the attention of more theologians and other Christian intellectuals. It is my hope that more scholars will focus on the colonial matrix of modern Christian existence. Unfortunately, this important focus is in danger of being marginalized in the way that liberation theologies were pushed to the margins of the theological academy in the last two decades. By marginalization I mean the way liberation theologies were narrated and in many cases continue to be narrated as a moment in historical theology. At the heart of that marginalization was a powerful act of conceptual framing that turned liberation theology’s fundamental critique of the theological enterprise into a point about contextuality in theology (e.g., we all do theology from a particular situation or context), thereby allowing many theologians to escape the serious moment of self interrogation concerning identity presented by liberation thought.
Such a moment of self interrogation has returned again with post-colonialist thought. In its Christian forms, it represents the Christian subaltern (Christians from and in formerly colonial sites) now speaking back to the West with great force. Many Christian historians, sociologists, and theologians have given lip service to the notion that Christianity has shifted its center of gravity away from its European and American theaters, but the significance of this shift is yet to break open new conversations about Christian identity within the modern racial condition. This moment is far more serious than many theologians realize for Christian theology.
Why is this the case? For two reasons, one is historical and the other is pedagogical.
First, Christian thought was a fundamental progenitor of the modern colonialist imagination; even more importantly, this founding moment of modern colonialism transformed Christianity into what we have now. That transformation, as Peter noted from my book, structured inside Christianity an abiding reality of displacement that has become a way of being in the world. That way of being drew Christianity into constellations of habits that turned us away from our deepest incarnational trajectory for life where we join the ways of life of others, becoming adaptable, malleable, flexible while yet having a continuity of identity through the expansion of our identities toward those the Spirit is calling us to love.
Modern colonialist thinking policed incarnational living and thinking and Christian theology has pivoted on colonialist thinking. While some scholars have attempted to point to examples of those who have pressed against the colonialist imagination (and we desperately need more textbooks that show this), the theological academy is yet to wrestle with this dynamic that is at work in our theological and educational endeavors. That failure means we have not presented at this critical moment a vision of the Christian intellectual that is more than a protector of orthodoxy or its critic. We do not have a compelling vision of a Christian intellectual cosmopolitan who imagines an openness of being that expands identity toward others without consuming them or becoming loss in the lives and cultural logics of others, but is able to maintain a continuity of story that is shared in love with others. Historically, Christian intellectual life has been robbed of its deepest riches and we must at this moment start to feel that loss in order to move toward its recovery.
The second reason this is such a crucial moment has to do with our current pedagogical crisis. Theological education in the West is in turmoil in large measure because we have not overcome the pedagogical imperialism that set the contours of engagement with others peoples, and ways of life in the new worlds. As I note in The Christian Imagination, Christianity entered the new worlds encased in evaluative mode. That evaluative mode was executed through an abiding performance of whiteness. European Christians entering the new worlds presented themselves as eternal teachers with eternal indigenous students. This is not simply the problem of paternalism in theology (which remains a serious problem), but more tragically it represents an asymmetrical relation in which nonwhite voices are rarely in the decisive roles of church leaders, teachers, or instructors in the faith. This meant that the deep lines of relationality that should exist between indigenous Christian communities and theological educational institutions do not exist. Instead many theological institutions mirror by their practices the prevailing white aesthetic regime with its regnant visions of the true, the good, the beautiful, the intelligent, and the noble all circulating around white bodies. We are in need of a pedagogical vision that overturns this pedagogical imperialism by helping students become teachers who are always learners.
Attention to these matters requires the kind of theological activism that Dr. Heltzel expounds in his work, one in which scholars, especially white scholars join in common work with those organizing for justice. Such activism has the potential to place scholars and others in contexts that would aid important self interrogation. This is why I am always hesitant to speak of the racial condition in terms of racism or racist behavior. While it is true that racism is a characteristic of modern colonialism and an immediate effect of its emergence, the modern racial condition presents a wider relation of structure and agency. What is necessary at this moment is not first the dismantling of racism, but the dismantling of whiteness and all its conceptual and material tentacles.
Such dismantling does require a new vision of creaturely existence that pulls up the carpet of whiteness exposing it as a set of technologies productive of a way of seeing the world and being seen in the world. The most challenging aspect of this work continues to be exposing the hidden desire to be white. Historically, whiteness took hold in America as, first and foremost, an achievement of hopeful immigrants looking to strip away the impediments of the Old World and be received in this new country, America, as safe citizens who can be trusted to participate in its work of civilization, both of the indigenous peoples but also of themselves. Whiteness only later became a given of an American identity, but even as a given, it was yet a work that required energy to maintain its stability. That stability was aided in part by a strategic distancing of immigrants from the African American body and other dark bodies, even if those dark bodies were like their own. We can see this tenuous effort at play in the work of fresh immigrants to these shores trying to show their ability to assimilate into whiteness. The work that yet confronts Christians is the work of choosing against whiteness, which will lead inextricably to choosing against the colonial matrix of Christianity itself.