Friday, February 04, 2011

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of RaceReview

Title:  The Christian Imagination:  Theology and the Origins of Race
Author:  Willie James Jennings
Reviewed by Kristine Haglund for the Association for Mormon Letters

The thesis of Willie James Jennings "The Christian Imagination" is not just provocative, but shocking: Christian theology and practice created the necessary conditions for racism and slavery.  Or, more subtly:

"Europeans established a new organizing reality for identities, themselves.  ...[They] enacted racial agency as a theologically articulated way of understanding their bodies in relation to new spaces and new peoples and to their new power over those spaces and peoples.  Before this agency would yield [the concept of race], it was a theological form--an inverted, distorted vision of creation that reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies.  In this inversion, whiteness replaced the earth as a signifier of identities" (58).

Jennings posits that in making Christianity exportable from the places where it developed, by extracting creeds, liturgies, and practices from their native ground (in obedience to the commandment go ye into all the world), missionaries enabled the capacity for abstraction required to imagine whole groups of people as so other that they can be enslaved or killed.  Where an authentically Christian narrative of creation "is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace, of divine and human interaction," the Christianity that was exported by colonizing missionaries distorted that connection to place by substituting theoretical categories for connection.  That is, where people are marked by binary concepts like sinner and saved, righteous and wicked, heretic and saint, believer and heathen, and finally, black and white, it is inevitable that their full humanity will be lost, that the spiritual violence of this theorizing will eventually be worked out in physi-
cal violence, including the brutality of racism and slavery.

Jennings structures his presentation neither by systematic argument nor by chronology, but through the voices of four historical figures.

First, Gomes Eanes de Azurara, (Zurara), who was the royal chronicler of Prince Henry of Portugal, the Navigator.  Zuraras description of a slave auction is the major focus of this section, in which Jennings argues that something urgent and life altering is taking place in the Christian world, namely, the auction of bodies without regard to any form of human connection.  Not just slave bodies, but displaced slave bodies, will come to represent a natural state.  From this position they will be relocated into Christian identity.  Jennings posits that dislocation, dis-placement, is the necessary first step toward enslavement, and at the same time the first step towards conversion.  In Zuraras narration, the slave auction becomes a type of Christs crucifixionas Christ was taken outside the city gates for the state to exercise power over his body and visit upon him punishment that separates his soul from his body, so those being auctioned are first taken out of the environment that is natural to them by the force
of the state (or the market), and then they are treated as soulless, their humanity divorced from their bodies.  Enslavement is thus, perversely, reimagined as a sort of imitatio Christi, the slaves suffering transformed in the minds of their Christian masters as somehow redemptive.

Jenningss second historical narrator is Josée Acosta Porres, a Jesuit teacher who worked in colonial Peru in the sixteenth century.  As an early product of Jesuit education himself, Acosta is instrumental in bringing the Jesuit model of education to the Americas.  This intellectual colonization, on Jenningss account, is inextricably connected with the physical, geographical colonization undertaken by the Spanish and Portuguese.  Although church and state maintain separate, parallel structures of authority, both require and are complicit in creating a theological rationale for imperialism.  Jennings indicts Jesuit pedagogy for imposing a mode of theological formation abstracted from both place and timethat is, for insisting on Christianity as a set of practices and disciplines, meant to inscribe a body of timeless, unembodied knowledge on the physical body.  And that intellectual discipline of the body is the first step towards the exercise of more violent forms of discipline.

"Acosta, the Jesuit pedagogue and Aristotelian-Thomist, recognizes that faith is in a fundamental sense of matter of formation, of habit, of training.  Acosta believes that natives can be trained in the faith, but only with much struggle, much effort, and with their world shaped in disciplinary realities.

"Put bluntly, these disciplinary realities for Acosta transform the New World into one large, ever-expanding classroom with no beginning or ending period, an unrelenting pedagogical eternality.  This is the optical illusion, but its effects on native bodies are very real.  This is the ground upon which the ideologies of white supremacy will grow: a theologically inverted pedagogical habitus that engenders a colonialist evaluative form that is disseminated through a network of relationships which together reveal the deep sinews of knowledge and power." (108-109)

Third among the voices Jennings reproduces is that of John William Colenso, an Anglican bishop who went to South Africa as a translator, determined to bring the gospel to the native people in their own language(s).  He taught himself Zulu and Nguni languages and worked relentlessly to translate the Bible and other theological materials Jennings describes him as an overwhelmed theological teacher caught in the middle of the intensely challenging situation of a translator (149).  And while he often seems more sympathetic to native peoples than other missionaries and colonizers, in the end his sympathy is condescending and infantilizing: Colenso, however well-intentioned and considerate of the African, rendered that Africana theological novice, one whose thinking will only bring him to the same conclusions reached by white theologians.  Africans were, for the missionaries and the emerging anthropologists, at the beginningof civilization, of knowledge, of maturity.  Yet the marriage of Darwinian evolutionary
thought and white supremacy meant that the African would remain, through representation, theologically infantile.  The native voice speaks only to substantiatewhite presence.  Late in his life, Colenso broke with his missionary colleagues and took the side of Africans who had, after a series of terrible mistakes and miscommunication between them and white settlers, taken up arms to defend their land and crops.  Ultimately, Colenso was convicted of heresy and cut off from his church.  Jennings describes Colensos conversion eloquently:

"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)

The final voice in Jennings historical chorus belongs to a freed slave named Olaudah Equiano, who narrates the horrifying alternative to Colensos choice to be transformed by his encounters with the humanity of those he taught.  Equiano narrates the voyage of a slave ship and also his own conversion to Christianity, even in the face of the utter negation of Christianity represented by the slave trade.  Jennings depicts the slave ship as the ultimate end of the distortions of Christianity engendered by colonialism and missionizing.  Here all human kinship networks are destroyed, and being shipboard represents the ultimate displacement:

"The slave shipperforms translation, displacement, and disordered creation.  The original story is refashioned on the slave ship through the bodies that lay within its holds and the bodies that suffered on deck.  The slave ship also captures all other forms of translation: translation of languages, of spaces, of life to death, of innocence to guilt, of joy to unrelenting sorrow." (187)

Not coincidentally, relationships on the ship are racialized.  Unmoored from place, family, and culture, whiteness and blackness become the organizing logic of slave ship culture.  On land, the sailors and the captains belong to different tribes based on ethnicity and economic class, but the slave ships economy is readily explained in terms of white and black.  Ultimately, this distinction is justified theologically, by an appeal to the necessity of inscribing Christianity upon the body through discipline and, if necessary, sufferingEquianos narrative is notable for being a spiritual autobiography, an account of the effects of Christian theology on black minds as well as black bodies.

And if the slave ship is a distortion, a perversion of Christianity, Jennings insists that it is the inevitable, inexorable conclusion of a process of distortion that began very early in Christianity, with the possibility of deriving a theology untethered from geography, and from kinship networks, centered on the relationship between the individual and God, and promising the possibility of total conquest of all earthly connections, even to ones own body:

"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." (293)

This, finally, is the burden of Jennings argument--that Christianity as it was exported in the process of colonization, provided theological rationalizations for plainly immoral practices necessitated by colonialist economic imperatives.  The final sections of the book are devoted to exploring possible ways of re-imagining the body of Christ in a way that allows the transformative power of intimate hospitality to work in our churches.

Jennings proposes that the way forward in imagining real communion is first to look backwards, towards Gods covenant relationship with Israel and the particular ways in which Jesus opens that covenant to the Gentiles.  Christians have erred in reading themselves too readily as supplanting Jews as Gods chosen people.  We ought to pay more attention to passages like Matthew 10:5, Luke 7:1-10, and Matthew 15:21-28, which make it plain that Christians inhabit the space of supplicants.  And he insists that we ought to attend more to our creatureliness, to our physical connections to one another and to Christ:

"There is a communion taking place in the gathering of listeners to Jesus.  For some the desperation of life, the torment of the evil one, and the signatures of death drove them to seek out his words and his power.  Others sought the deliverance of Israel, its emergence as a self-determining political power, and freedom for authentic, unadulterated worship of the one true God, the God of Israel.  Others simply heard that something new and unheard of was at work in Israel, and old hopes and dreams might be planted in fresh soil.  So they sought out Jesus, and in the seeking, in the straining to hear and see him they were forced to stand together.  Jesus, in forming a new Israel in the midst of Israel, positioned himself as the new source of desire.  Jesus positioned his body between Israel and the world, between Israel and Gentile (ethnic) existence, and called the people of God into the scandal of choosing Jesus and thereby choosing a new reality of kinship" (264-265).

This is Jennings best prosehis preaching in the conclusion doesnt get bogged down in jargon the way his argument does at some points in the book, and his ideas are both compelling and lovely.  The intricate discussion of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and the effect of the person of Jesus on that relationship, is also a good entry point into the argument for Mormons, who share the tendency to view themselves as uncomplicatedly adopted into the House of Israel.  Jennings arguments about the colonial aspects of mission work are salient, too, although not as directly as the discussion of adoptionism.

This is a difficult book.  It is densely argued and assumes some knowledge of theoretical work in anthropology and ethnography.  Ultimately, I think Jennings fails to entirely make the case that Christian theology and practice led inexorably to the slave ship, and, in particular, that the terrible history of racism and slavery is best explained theologically.  Nonetheless, I think it is a valuable book for Mormons, with the complicated racial history of our church, and our current missionary ambitions.  Jennings arguments are provocative, and our naï missiology is in desperate need of some productive provocation.

Title:  The Christian Imagination:  Theology and the Origins of Race
Author:  Willie James Jennings
Publisher:  Yale University
Genre:  Theology, Religious Studies, Anthropology
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 356 + index
Binding:  Hardcover
ISBN 10: n/a
ISBN 13: 978-0-300-15211-1
Price: $35.00

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