The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

Written by Willie James Jennings Reviewed By Elizabeth Y. Sung

Jennings, Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, argues that contemporary Western Christianity suffers from a “diseased social imagination” (p. 6): it is “enclosed in racial and cultural difference, inconsequentially related to its geography, often imaginatively detached from its surroundings of both people and spaces, but one yet bound to compelling gestures of connection, belonging, and invitation” (p. 4). “Race” is a deleterious mutation thoroughly embedded within the doctrinal logic of modern Christianity. Hence, “Christian theology now operates . . . without the ability to discern how its intellectual and pedagogical performances reflect and fuel the problem, further crippling the communities it serves” (pp. 6–7).

Jennings analyzes this pathology in four “social performances” of theology that exemplify—and in several instances, actively contributed to—the racial conditioning of church life in general and theological scholarship in particular. They illustrate the claim that when “race” was created by colonial European theologians, missionaries, and churchmen, orthodox Christian theology itself was altered: the ostensibly ideal scholastic “tradition” (Alisdair MacIntyre) became a “traditioned imperialist modernity” (p. 71). Chapters 1–4 examine cases in the Roman Catholic and Protestant history of conquest and missions in which theological ideas were deployed to conceive of and promote novel evangelization, discipleship, and Bible translation practices. Each shows conditions whereby “race”—a discourse that positions the concept of whiteness as central and naturalizes separatistic arrangements within an institutional order—has come to constitute the status quo in the theological academy and the church alike.

Theologically, Jennings contends, this process depended upon late medieval European Christians’ use of a supersessionist hermeneutic, enacted, e.g., in the culmination of the Reconquista in fifteenth-century Spain. It was church leaders, theologians, and other intellectual elites who first conferred theological legitimacy upon—and continued to contribute to the advance of—the nascent nation-states’ projects of colonization and consumption, in the name of the church’s divine commission to bring salvation to the nations. In so doing, the doctrines of creation and Christology (among others) were revised, albeit “not the creedal substance . . . but the way in which [Christianity’s doctrinal] logic would be performed” in the new worlds (p. 71).

Jennings locates the root error in the forcible subjugation, dispossession, and removal of non-European peoples from their homelands. Displacement inflicted on them an incalculable loss of identity, which (in Jennings’s account) is fundamentally tied to the land. Trafficked as commodities, they could not resist their captors’ essentially docetic, ascriptive acts: reclassifying them with objectifying categories and monetary value gauged by proximity to whiteness, the entire enterprise allegedly justified by conversions to Christianity. The racial “formation of human identity in modernity . . . the reconfiguration of bodies and space [was performed] as a theological operation . . . heretical in nature, bind[ing] spatial displacement to the formation of an abiding scale of existence” (p. 24).

Jennings then sketches connections between past and present, observing numerous ways that the power relations historically expressed and engendered by the paradigms of race and “whiteness” continue to function today in theological scholarship (chapter 5, “White Space and Literacy”), in society (chapter 6, “Those Near Belonging”), and in the world interconnected by globalization. In the former chapter—challenging the positive accounts of Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls—the Bible translation and biblical literacy movements, print capitalism, and theological knowledge-production are linked to a largely intact hegemonic system: “Christian theology is trapped in the revised universalism that feigns the legitimation processes of ancient orthodoxy while being deeply committed to the literary supremacy and ‘universal human genius’ of the languages of the central literary powers—French, English, Italian, German (and sometimes Spanish)” (p. 232), such that “the center/margin realities of world literature deeply penetrate [theologians’] evaluations” (p. 233). The point Jennings stresses is that “Christian theology and segregationalist mentalities” are firmly entrenched within “a style of imagining social reality” that is “diseased . . . in the kind of community imagined—its scope, character, and materiality. . . . [These] thwart the formation of Christian community beyond the strictures of nation, language, and peoples” (p. 233).

Thus, the first part of the book addresses the question, “How is it possible for Christians and Christian communities to naturalize cultural fragmentation and operationalize racial vision from within the social logic and theological imagination of Christianity itself?” (p. 208). The final chapters outline a solution to the “interrupted social imagination” (p. 7). The “Christian-colonial way of imagining the world” (p. 209) ultimately expresses “loss of [the Christological] horizon and embodiment” of Christian doctrine (p. 106). To recapture a vision “more faithful to the God whose incarnate life established and establishes the contours, character, and content of Christian theology” (p. 10), “place” is thematized to reconstruct separatistic modernist schemes (racial, ethnic, and national identities) by way of Christology. The overall tenor of Jennings’s proposal is seen in the following excerpt (pp. 248–49):

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 . . . seeing place in its fullest sense. . . . One of the first factors in rendering the Scriptures impotent and unleashing segregated mentality into [Christians’] social imagination was the loss of a world where people were bound to land. Through this loss the complex revelation of God’s relation to land and people fell on deaf ears. The moment the land is removed as a signifier of identity, it is also removed as a site of transformation through relationship. . . .

The right transformation [entails] Christian faith receiving its heretofore undiscovered identities, which are found only through interaction with the social logics of language, landscape, and peoples. The right relationships . . . invite new patterns of life woven through and by means of the deep structures of Christian faith slowly opened through ongoing interpretation and struggle. Those relationships involve deep joining, the opening of lives to one another in love and desire. . . .

[M]issing [from the colonial-era church] was the central social reality that constituted a new people in the body of Jesus—their joining to Israel, and the power of that joining on the social imaginary of Christian life. If Christian existence stands on nothing greater than the body of one person, then . . . the only way for Christian communities to move beyond cultural fragmentation and segregated mentalities is to find a place that is also . . . a new person that each of us and all of us together . . . possibly, can become.

In Jennings’s explication of the story of Jesus and Israel, “Jesus did not seek to destroy kinship, to undermine its defining power rooted in story, memory, and cultural practice. Rather, he drew it to a new orientation, a new determination” in himself (p. 264). “To follow Jesus’ own trajectory” would result in “an advent of a new form of communion with the possibility of a new kind of cultural intimacy between peoples that might yield a new cultural politic” (p. 265). “These disciples of Jesus love and desire one another, and that desire . . . is the basis of their ethical actions in the worlds of allegiances and kinships . . . issu[ing] in a new network that transgresses life-threatening and life-diminishing boundaries” (pp. 274–75).

Practically, broader conversations are required—between academic disciplines; “between those deeply involved in the formation of space and those concerned with identity formation;” and “between Jews and Christians” (pp. 293–94). Such exchanges would consider “the reconfiguration of living space that might promote more just societies,” which, if undertaken, would convey “a compelling new invitation to life together” (p. 294).

Narrating “the origins of race” is an ambitious task. While the sample size is small, Jennings’s commentary constructs a multifaceted portrait of the development of racial logic within highly complex sociopolitical, intellectual and material processes. His recounting of the leading role played by the institutional church, theologians, and missionaries in justifying worldwide conquest and consumption and in constructing the fragmented modern world performs the valuable function of ideology criticism. It also strengthens his critique of the MacIntyrean and Milbankean models of Christian tradition.

This is a highly original study, “considering concepts, Christian doctrines, and events together that . . . have not been thought together” (p. 10). It is also erudite, appropriating insights in disciplines beyond the usual purview of evangelical theological scholarship (postmodern philosophy; postcolonial theory; critical social theory; cultural studies; and colonial-era political history, church history, and missionary practice). In a study of this extraordinary breadth, it is inevitable that readers will encounter matters of interpretation with which they disagree, and others requiring more argumentation to be persuasive. Several instances of this follow below.

Historically, “race” took distinctive forms in differing locales; it thus admits of more than one construal and method of analysis. This narration of its invention in Iberian Christian colonial expansionism needs to be weighed alongside J. Kameron Carter’s assignment of this responsibility to Kant (Race: A Theological Account [Oxford: OUP, 2008]) and other accounts (e.g., Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996]). Other details indicate a conflationary approach to the analysis of race, sometimes running counter to the evidence cited (e.g., the description of Linnaeus’s taxonomy, p. 193).

The argument that “race” turns upon the use of “supersessionist” theological beliefs also calls for refinement. Given the existing theological literature addressing the relation of Israel and the church employing differing construals of supersessionism, the sense that Jennings works with is rather loose, especially in his interpretation of Scripture. Other historical examples also are required to sustain this claim, since the Spanish Reconquista is not applicable to the development of “race” in northern European countries or in their colonies.

More importantly, compared to his extensive interaction with the Christian intellectual and theological tradition, historical studies, and contemporary theorists, Jennings’s direct engagement with Scripture is limited. In this reviewer’s perspective, his treatment of group identities assigns too high a value to land as such. This is not to diminish the horrendous, highly consequential character of the historical practice of imperialism, enslaving and displacing African peoples on a mass scale, many of whom died en route. It is, rather, to note that a close, extended reading of Scripture as the basis for developing a Christian doctrine of creation leads to a quite different paradigm of the interrelations of God, people, and land (e.g., Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God [Downers Grove: IVP, 2004]). Any estimate of the factor of land must reckon with the biblical depiction of God as Creator and Owner, such that even his own people are but “tenants” whose residency within a designated territory is not a natural birthright but a gift of grace, a blessing that remains contingent upon trust and obedience (Lev 25:23). A thicker canonical description is required to do justice to the distinctiveness, depth, and coherence of the Scriptural discourse, which is the norming norm for the construction of Christian doctrine.

Relatedly, in this account, theological anthropology and ecclesiology are not clearly delineated. “Race” belongs to the former, while Jennings’s appropriation of Christology is properly ecclesiological. His program for addressing the racially fragmented social world that Christians and their neighbors inhabit would benefit from further clarification.

Nonetheless, on the whole, Jennings’s specification of the paradigm of “race” (and “whiteness” within it) qua ideology is far more substantive and illuminating than other biblical, theological and historical-theological accounts presently available. His account of the active role (beyond mere complicity) of theologians, churchmen and practitioners in its creation and maintenance provides a bracing dose of sober realism. Finally, his call to Christians to move beyond voluntary racial and ethnic self-segregation, to follow Christ in “loving and desiring” and enfolding others—is provocative and inviting. As such, this study is highly recommended.

Note: This review draws on material from my forthcoming book: Elizabeth Y. Sung, Humanity Beyond “Race”: A Scriptural, Sociological, and Theological Account.

Elizabeth Y. Sung

Elizabeth Y. Sung
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA

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