Sometimes comments about the significance of a work within its field are left for the end of book reviews. But for three reasons, this would be an oversight in the case of Willie James Jennings’s book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.
First, I must highlight the fact that there are so few studied, theological reflections on race. One would think that with all the critical race theory, multicultural programs, and civil rights initiatives of the preceding decades, theology would have weighed in by now. Alas, no. Therefore—and second—I must note that because of the paucity of printed theological reflections on race, many will approach this book (and this review) from theological ground zero. This requires the reader to brace for impact as Jennings addresses “an intensely tangled mistake”—Western Christianity’s racial imagination. Third, when I was asked to review this book, a small part of me wondered, “Who would read a book on race, in the first place?” Jennings’s exploration of the Christian imagination answers that question: perhaps not many would—but many should.
Perhaps not many would because “if one has enough money, race does not matter now.” In fact, I heard Stanley Hauerwas (both he and Jennings teach at Duke) equate money and forgetfulness to similar effect a few years ago. The main theological forgetfulness in Jennings’s book, however, is not race, but place. He describes the problem this way:
I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence.
In other words, when place and space became commodities, Christian identity was displaced and went looking for a new, problematic home.
Jennings’s argument begins with the royal chronicler of Prince Henry of Portugal. Gomes Eanes de Azurara (referred to as Zurara) describes the arrival of Portugal’s first shipment of slaves using a soteriological motif—displaced slaves need saving, and Portugal will be used byGod to do this. No longer identified by their places of origin, “human skin was asked to fly solo and speak for itself.” We all know how that turned out. Whiteness came to top the racial scale in Zurara’s (and others’) descriptions, and black bodies were at the bottom.
The erudite Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta Porres (referred to as Acosta) had to find a way to make sense of the darker flesh he encountered in Peru. When he compared them to the only reference point he had (in other words, himself), intellection became his impossible measure. His educational mission ran parallel to colonial conquest and his target population was—as in Zurara’s case—displaced. Seeking to cultivate Aristotelian-Thomistic hexis, or Christian habits, among Peruvians, Acosta experienced difficulty in unseating native habits. So, he engaged in tireless education and thereby “produced a reductive theological vision in which the world’s people become perpetual students, even where and when faith is formed.”
Despite John William Colenso’s sympathy toward the South African peoples to whom he went, the influence of white supremacy and his own detached universalism rendered him unable to be transformed by his relations. Instead, he used relationships to answer questions that were not being asked in his missionary context—”Colenso turned native questions into occasions for theological self-absorption.”
Jennings’s last narrative is of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave. Having undergone a genuine conversion, Equiano found himself caught in between. He could not return to Africa, and intimacy in Britain would not be easy to come by. Many did not share Equiano’s Christian vision of cross-racial relationship. Instead, “the deep chasm that existed between the vision of what Quiano hoped would be possible and the vision through which his black body was viewed” became painfully clear.
Jennings suggests that the way to intimacy runs through Israel. Western Christians (under the influence of, for example, Isaac Watts’s hymnody) have become supersessionists, unable to see the significance of space and place for Jesus and for Christian theology. In this last section of his book, Jennings seems most comfortable. He argues fluidly and biblically that we are not to treat Israel as an ethnic group. Rather, “Jesus’ election is . . . an election in the heart of Israel’s space, displaying the trajectory of the Holy One toward communion with the elect.” Relatedly, what Jennings calls “Jesus-space” is most compelling. By this notion, he argues that “it could be that the only way for Christian communities to move beyond cultural fragmentation and segregated mentalities is to find a place that is also a person, a new person that each of us and all of us together can enter into and, possibly, can become.”
I have often been struck by the Apostle Paul’s frequent use of the phrase “in Christ.” Greek grammar leaves the precise “flavour” of these words up to the student’s discernment. I have come to find it helpful—now even more so—to consider these words as a description of the sphere, or place, in which the Christian finds him or herself. This is not merely association with Christ, but location with Christ. This makes sense of Philippians 3:20, which reads, “But our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Only two verses later, Paul uses the “in Christ” language to describe our footing in a tumultuous world. Thus, I agree with Jennings that Jesus-space is the place where Christians meet and from which we are one body.
What I am left wondering, however, is what happens to race when we get there. Jennings is neither an “advocate of race,” nor is he satisfied to simply assume the categories of race as a “default position.” He locates the origins of race earlier than those who treat the concept of race. However, might we not journey back even further? For if “from one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth,” and if “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” then perhaps there is something redemptive about “cultural fragmentation” that many of us should explore further.