The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

Summary: When the sociological construct of race was developed, Christianity was the dominant intellectual force. Jennings traces how theology impacted and influenced the development of racism and how theology was used to justify racist acts. 

In the past 8 years since The Christian Imagination was released, I have seen a diverse group of Christians say that this is the most influential theology book of the last decade. I am not going to disagree, although I do not have the depth of theology of make that type of statement.

I do not usually quote the description of books when I am writing, but I am going to here because I cannot think of a better way to describe the book.

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.

I was aware of the concept of superssionism prior to this book (the idea that Christianity superseded Judaism and replaced God’s covenant with Israel by a new covenant with the church.) But it is just not something I have thought much about. Christianity has failed to reject supersessionism clearly and there has always been a stain of supersessionism, from the overt Marcionism and Manichaeism that were both rejected as heresy, to the much more subtle replacement theology that arose later. It has really only been since World War II and the Holocaust that Christianity has widely started seeing supersessionism as a theological problem. Jennings makes the case that the ethnic prejudice against Jews that was rooted in supersessionism and was strongly present throughout the middle ages, gave theological cover for a different type of ethnic superiority that gradually developed into the concept of race and the racial hierarchies that undergirded colonialism, race-based slavery and White supremacy.

The second significant stream that Jennings explores is the lack of connection to the land. When people mostly did not move except for a few traders or pilgrims, there was a connection to the land and large scale migration and colonialism destroyed that connection.

…when the Spanish arrived, they did not arrive alone. They brought pathogens, plants, and animals: wheat, barley, fruit trees, grapevines, flowers, and especially weeds; horses, pigs, chickens, goats, cattle, attack dogs, rats, and especially sheep. The world changed—the landscape became alien, profoundly disrupted. Daily patterns that depended not only on sustaining particular uses of certain animals and plants, but also on specific patterns of movement, migration, and social practices in certain places met violent disruption or eradication. This environmental imperialism was shaped around what environmentalists call ungulate irruptions. Ungulates, “herbivores with hard horny hooves,” when introduced to lands with an overabundance of food, reacted to this wealth of food as the Spanish themselves reacted to the wealth of gold and silver: “They increase[d] exponentially until they [overshot] the capacity of the plant communities to sustain them.”31 They ate everything in sight, decimating existing crops, destroying cycles of food growth and harvest, changing the biological regime of the New World, and altering the spatial arrangements of native life.

A third point of exploration is how the concept of providence and lack of empathy and viewing of Native Americans or Africans as fully human allowed Europeans to view colonialism as providential blessing from God. “He (Acosta, a theologian in Peru during early Spanish colonialism) calculates the dramatic increase in wealth to Spain and the church as irrefutable signs of the workings of God through them not just for the propagation of the gospel but also for the financing of wars against the enemies of Christianity.” Acosta and many other Christians did not see the death and destruction brought about by colonialism as harmful but a blessing. The early Puritans did not see the widespread disease that was introduced through Spanish and other invaders that left large swaths of North and South American unpopulated as a human disaster and tragedy, but as God’s providence that opened up space for them to build new communities that were dedicated to God.

The supersessionism (replacement theology) of European Christians allowed them to not see themselves as the gentiles that were being grafted into the Jewish covenant and therefore see the native populations of North American, Africa and Asia as also gentiles just like them; instead the European Christians viewed themselves as the owners of the covenant and therefore read Old Testament as justification for destruction.

Acosta perpetuates the supersessionist mistake, but now in the New World the full power of that mistake is visible. Acosta reads the Indian as though he (Acosta) represented the Old Testament people of God bound in covenant faithfulness and taught to discern true worship from false. Acosta reads the religious practices of indigenes from the position of the ones to whom the revelation of the one true God was given, Israel. Christian theology contains at its core a trajectory of reading “as Israel,” as the new Israel joined to the body of Jesus through faith. Yet by the time Acosta performs his reading, this christological mediation has mutated into the replacement of Israel as the people that make the idea of idolatry intelligible as a primarily Christian insight.74 From this position of holding an idea of idolatry resourced solely by a supersessionist Christian vision, Acosta speculates as to the possibilities of whether Indians as pagans under the control of the devil may be led to the light.

Throughout the 15th to the 19th centuries Christians of European dissent are following in Acosta’s footsteps and are not even sure that non-Europeans can hear the gospel message, both because they are not sure if non-Europeans are fully human and if they are fully human if they are worshipers of satan. If the invaded people are worshipers of the satan and controlled by satan, then they are to be overcome, not wooed into the Christian faith. The distortion of Christianity that views non-Christians without full imageo dei does not see all of humanity as brothers and sisters because they were all created in God’s image, but only views other Christians as brothers and sisters.

Part of what Jennings is making clear in The Christian Imagination is that what happened historically was not the only historical option. There were others throughout this history that called the church to a different way of thinking, a different Christian Imagination. Sometimes it is even the same people that over time, develop a different Christian Imagination.

These comments are already too long and I cannot flesh out Jenning’s full insights into a blog post, but this is not just history, but constructive theology. Jennings is inviting the reader to reconstruct our Christian Imagination in a way that rejects supersessionism, embraces the full humanity of all and the sibling relationship to all people in and outside of the church, and to reattach ourselves to the land and sustainable human sized practices.

Immediately after reading The Christian Imagination, I started reading Jenning’s commentary on Acts, which has many similar insights but from the perspective of biblical theology. The Acts commentary is much less academic and I think would make for a good bible study, or as I used it, personal devotional reading.

I have 53 highlights on my Goodreads page if you want to get a sense of the book.

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: