Book Review: ‘The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race’ by Willie James Jennings.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the early Christian community is told that Christ

is our peace; in his flesh he has made both [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are… members of the household of God. (Eph. 2:11-22).

The community formed by and around Christ should be one of strangers brought into intimate communion, a new kind of family. But what has happened to this original vision of the Church? Willie James Jennings captures the failure of this vision in a story from his childhood. White Christians from a nearby church approached him and his mother, to tell them about Jesus. What they didn’t know was that Jennings and his family were highly active in another local church. No introduction to Jesus was necessary. Reflecting on this incident, Jennings asks ‘Why did they not know us? They should have known us very well.’[1] The Church has moved from being a community of intimacy to a community of strangers, strangers who don’t even recognise one other as fellow Christians. In his book ‘The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race’, Jennings describes the roots of this ‘distorted relational imagination’[2] of the Church, a distortion that is found in theological colleges as much as in congregations.

Jennings book is too rich a tapestry for me to summarise in this blog post, and I highly recommend reading it for yourself. Here, I will only attempt to draw out some key threads that may be of particular interest to liberal Quakers.

Whiteness and creation

The first thread is the relationship of land to race created through the colonisation of the world by white European Christians. When the colonial powers of Europe encountered indigenous populations, they met people for whom the landscape was part of their identity. Jennings writes about Native Americans who cannot say who they are without talking about the land and animals that surround and sustain them. Colonialism requires the disruption of this connection between land and identity. In order for the European coloniser to take control of land and indigenous people, the indigenous population’s identification with the land needs to be severed. This is a difficult concept to grasp because the modern world is built on the idea of land as private property and the independence of personal identity from our environment.[3] We are used to living in close proximity to people we don’t know and have no intention of knowing.[4]

With land divorced from identity, race fills the gap. Race becomes a marker of identity. Who we are is no longer predicated on where we are, but on what we look like. Race replaces the land, with whiteness as the bedrock.[5] White Europeans created a racial scale, with white at one end and black at the other, in order to categorise bodies. This meant that people from very different parts of the world can be joined together in the minds of the white European. Africans and Native Americans are seen as united in their blackness, and so are decoupled from their specific landscapes.[6] Thus these black bodies can be moved according to the economic interests of colonial powers. This racial scale creates distance between white and black bodies. They may inhabit the same space, but when the space is racialised they can no longer enjoy true intimacy.

One of the many ways colonialism has distorted the Christian imagination, is the understanding of creation. Jennings names this reconfiguring of land and identity as ‘a revolt against creation’.[7] Colonial-Christianity assumes an ‘inherent instability’ to creation that must be taken control of.[8] European Christians assume the role of ‘those first conditioning their world rather than being conditioned by it.’[9] Whiteness means being in the land but not of the land. Thus, whiteness becomes ‘co-creator with God.’[10] In assuming authority over the land, whiteness restructures space as white space. The whole world becomes like a slave ship, or like the ‘Big House’ of the plantation owner. The architecture of whiteness sets the rules for intimacy and belonging for those within it. Wherever colonial-Christianity ‘went in the modern colonies, [it] inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host.’[11] In short, colonial-Christianity assumed the role of the creator God.

To forget that God is creator is to forget that we are creatures. Jennings writes that when we see our Christian identity as independent from the landscape that surrounds and sustains us, we lose ‘a sense of our own creatureliness.’[12] We are cut off from the communion that ‘is always ready to appear where the people of God reach down to join the land and reach out to join those around them, their near and distant neighbours.’[13] Here we can see how racial justice is caught up with climate justice. The distancing of people through the creation of race is related to the distancing of people from the land.

Supersessionism

The second thread goes back further than the era of colonisation, to the relationship of the Church to Judaism. The Church’s attitude to Israel (and here Jennings is speaking of the Israel of the Bible, as distinct from the modern state of Israel) has generally been one of ‘supersessionism’. This is the belief that the Church has ‘superseded’ Israel as God’s chosen people. Whereas the Biblical narrative states that God chooses Israel in order to save the world, or as Jesus puts it, ‘salvation is from the Jews’ (John 4:22), supersessionism says that salvation is from the Church: ‘the church exists for the sake of the world.’[14] Jennings names supersessionism as ‘the most decisive and central theological distortion that exists in the church.’[15] Without Israel at the centre of God’s covenant with creation, European Christians centred themselves and thus centred whiteness. As Jennings puts it, ‘supersessionist thinking is the womb in which whiteness will mature.’[16] With the centring of white European Christians as God’s elect, the bodies of Jews, Muslims, and other black bodies are considered outsiders, ‘reprobate’ and impure. Indigenous religious practice are seen as inferior and demonic, because if the Church is the new Israel, then anything outside the Church must be pagan.[17]

Supersessionism has distorted how Christians read the Bible. Once European Christian nations began to translate the Bible into the vernacular, it became a ‘cultural Bible’, a sacred national text. In order for it to function as a national text, any Jewish claim on the scriptures had to be rejected. We can see this explicitly in hymn writer Isaac Watt’s translation of the Psalms published in 1719, where all references to ‘Israel’ and ‘Judah’ are replaced with ‘Britain’. With this sort of thinking, the vision of Ephesians is lost. God no longer brings different peoples into a new, unified family. Individual nations experience their own salvation, and remain separate.[18] When theses national texts are them imposed by colonial-Christianity onto indigenous people in the form of biblical literacy, this leaves ‘little room or energy for a vision that joins, mixes, or fuses peoples and their languages.’[19]

Jennings writes that the mistake of the Church is the forgetting of its Gentile identity.[20] In the Biblical understanding, God chooses Israel, a particular people in a particular place, and in the story of Jesus the boundaries of God’s promise to Israel are expanded to include Gentiles. In Jesus, ‘the God who created the first family Israel is now in Israel recreating the family.’[21] White colonial-Christianity has positioned itself as the host, as the centre, as the one who invites in, but this forgets that Gentile Christians are first and foremost outsiders, foreigners who are invited into the space of Israel. When the Gentile Church reads the Bible, instead of identifying with Israel, or even with Jesus’ disciples, we would do better to identify with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28) who ‘stands in for all Gentiles who would presume on the grace of God… [and] recognizers that even those outside of Israel may benefit from the gifts of God for Israel.’[22]

Jennings states that Christianity is ‘unintelligible without Israel’[23] and this is a supreme challenge for contemporary Christians because ‘the election of Israel never significantly entered into the social imagination of the church.’[24] I think this is the case with Quakerism too. Although I think the Jewishness of Jesus is easier for modern liberal Quakers to acknowledge, we still are unable to say with any confidence what the Jesus’s Jewishness means. To admit that the specificity of his Jewishness has any bearing on his significance for us today causes particular problems for the liberal Quaker commitment to pluralism (or universalism) – the belief that all faith traditions reveal who God is.

Universalism

This sort of universalism is the third thread. Jennings devotes one of his chapters to the story of Bishop John William Colenso from England, who arrived at Port Natal, Durban (in what is now South Africa) in 1854, and, among other things, translated the Bible into Zulu. Jennings discusses Colenso’s own form of universalism, and how it relates to colonialism and supersessionism. Colenso, like the first liberal Quakers, was shaped by the religious thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the currents of German Romanticism. This led him to espouse a form of universalism that said Christianity articulated universal moral truths that could be discovered through the natural world, outside of Christianity.

We’ve already seen that colonialism disconnects identity from place. The universalism of Colenso also makes this disconnection. If salvation is equally available to all people everywhere, then the specifics of place have no bearing on what it means to be saved. A God who is revealed everywhere and at every time cannot be specially revealed in one particular time and place. Therefore, Colenso saw God as opposed to the election of Israel. Israel has nothing to offer the world in his theology. Israel may recognise God as a loving Father, but the rest of humankind can recognise this without entering into any relationship with Israel. Colenso sees the Bible as narrating the growth of this religious consciousness, a growth that eventually leaves Israel behind. Israel is dispensable. Similarly, in his relations with the Zulu people, Colenso didn’t see the particulars of Zulu identity as having any bearing on being a Christian, and so Zulu culture had no bearing on his own theology.

In disconnecting identity from place, colonialism makes whiteness the bedrock of identity. Similarly, Colenso’s universalism makes European Christianity the blueprint for understanding what universal religious consciousness is. At first glance, this universalism might appear to be a unifying force, transcending race, but in seeing all people through his understanding of religious consciousness, Colenso is still centring white European identity: ‘What looks like a radical anti-racist, anti-ethnocentric vision of Christian faith is in fact profoundly imperialist. Colenso’s universalism undermines all forms of identity except that of the colonialist.’[25] In Colenso’s universalism there is no joining together to create a new people, no encounter between or merging of cultures that learn from and shape each other. The story of God entering into relationship with specific, particular people (Israel) is erased. In announcing that God is everywhere in general, and nowhere in particular, the Church is again forgetting their status as Gentiles.[26] I think this criticism of universalism is of particular importance to a liberal Quakerism that wants to maintain a commitment to both universalism and at least some corporate connection to Jesus. I don’t believe we can hang on to Jesus with any integrity without wrestling with the ‘scandal of particularity’ that is his Jewishness.

Pentecost

I have found this an important book to read, especially as Quakers in Britain wrestle with our corporate and individual responses to climate change and our own entanglement with racism and colonialism. It leaves me asking: what might a coherent, decolonised Quaker universalism look like? If Christianity is unintelligible without Israel, what does that mean for a liberal Quaker community that maintains (at least for now) that Jesus is of significance? With all the intimate ways in which Quakers speak about the divine – talk about ‘that of God within’, ‘centring down’, and going ‘inward’ – can we translate that intimacy into how we relate to those who are ‘foreign’ to us. What would it mean to see ourselves as the guest, the stranger being invited in, and not as the host?

Quakers have always valued the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on ‘all flesh’, fulfilling the prophecy of Joel. The followers of Jesus ‘were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:4). Jennings’s gives a powerful interpretation of this story, emphasising that it is a story about speaking, as well as hearing, each other’s language. If the story is just restricted to hearing our own language spoken (which is perhaps the most prevalent reading of the story), then that means we remain separate from one another. To learn to speak the language of another is to enter into their life. It is an act of intimate joining.[27] This is the difficult but necessary work, to fully enter into the life of others, to desire to be communion with the stranger, to recognise ourselves as strangers and aliens, to pray for the breaking down of the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.


[1] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2010), 3.

[2] Jennings, 4.

[3] Jennings, 289.

[4] Jennings, 294.

[5] Jennings, 58.

[6] Jennings, 30.

[7] Jennings, 248.

[8] Jennings, 29.

[9] Jennings, 60.

[10] Jennings, 62.

[11] Jennings, 8.

[12] Jennings, 293.

[13] Jennings, 286.

[14] Jennings, 26.

[15] Jennings, 32.

[16] Jennings, 36.

[17] Jennings, 97.

[18] Jennings, 217.

[19] Jennings, 218.

[20] Jennings, 252.

[21] Jennings, 259–60.

[22] Jennings, 262–63.

[23] Jennings, 251.

[24] Jennings, 254.

[25] Jennings, 145.

[26] Jennings, 167.

[27] Jennings, 266.

One thought on “Book Review: ‘The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race’ by Willie James Jennings.

  1. Thank you for a very interesting post.

    The language we need to speak, in my view, is that of the ‘Kingdom of God’ which I call ‘The Way’. It was the central idea (even orthopraxis or halakhah) of Jesus and came out of his Jewishness which, as you know, he never abandoned. Understandably, it was the central understanding of the early Quakers since they were ‘Jesus devotees’ as Jesus was a Torah-devotee. They gave it many names including ‘the Inward Light’. They well understand its universality. The Way, properly understood, is quintessentially ‘Quaker’. It brings us together and never divides us (1 Cor. 1: 13). It actively fosters peace, justice and compassion. It compels us to follow truthful ways in honour of the Truth. It demands simplicity and equality between ‘all people on the Earth’ (Fox) and between people, the Earth and all its inhabitants and things. Its goal is ‘Love unfeigned’ (Nayler). It is found in all religions and beliefs, and in ‘right action’. And lies at the heart of the principle of ‘radah’ (Gen. 1:28).

    Hope this helps.

    Thanks again, Mark.

    Much peace to you,

    Gerard Guiton

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