The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

Author: Willie Jennings

Willie Jennings tells the story of the diseased (fractured) social imagination of Christianity in the West that continues to be impotent in its ability to address the challenges of racial conflict. Instead of the creative bringing together and appreciation of difference, Jennings argues that Christianity has contributed to and sometimes created separation, segregation, and racism. His argument is that “race” is a modern invention of the Western world that is oriented around the color and external features of a people–with European “whiteness” as the plum line for “normal.” Jennings maintains that Christianity contributed to (created) “race” as a way to classify and subjugate difference as Western peoples explored and experienced new worlds; and the consequences of the classification and commodification of bodies run deep through the social imagination of the West.

To make his argument, Jennings tells the story of four people: (1) Gobes Eanes de Azurara (or Zurara), Prince Henry of Portugal’s royal chronicler (1444). The Royal chronicler is the authoritative voice for the ruling family, and thus for the Portuguese people; And how [he] interprets events gives those events meaning. The key event: August 8th, 1444—235 slaves were sold in Portugal with a Christian Ceremony that included a tithe of slaves to the Prince. (pg. 15). (2) Jose de Acosta Porres (Jesuit from Spain to Lima Peru in 1572). Acosta was one of the most highly educated priests and brought the desire to “educate” and “civilize” peoples of the new world with the traditions of the old. In his educational efforts he disassociated Christian faith and theology from everything that was sacred to the native people. The Andean people had a word, pachuti, that meant: “World turned upside down.” Jennings argues that: “In effect…[t]heology will indeed become the trigger for the classificatory subjugation of all nonwhite, non-Western peoples.” (3) John William Colenso, an Anglican Bishop/Missionary to Durban at Port Natal, South Africa (1854). Like the Spanish and Portuguese before him, Jennings argues that Colenso continued the trajectory of assessing the possibilities of theological education and Christian formation in terms of the classification of people through their description of body difference (skin color, hair texture, manner of dress, customs, physical ability, etc…) with whiteness assumed as the invisible norm. Jennings states that “Colenso exhibits a pattern of turning away from indigenous theological questions, shunning the necessary intimacy needed for serious grappling with those questions, and drawing indigenous voices into forms of utility not only in Western theological struggles over orthodoxy or heterodoxy, but also in the project of nation building” (150). Finally, (4) Olaudah Equiano, 1745, Nigeria. Equiano was a slave, who landed in England. He became a Christian in England, bought his freedom, educated himself, and wrote a memoir, Interesting Narrative. Jennings argues that Equiano was the first to articulate the formation of a Christian identity in a non-white, colonized body.

Central to Jennings’ thesis—that Christianity in the West was a major contributor to the formation of race—is a theological framework that failed to wrestle with how the church was to fit into the narrative of Israel (supercessionism) and a colonial framework that wedded the progress of nation-states with the Christian formation of the gospel. Native peoples were stripped of their land, stolen, and commodified as “useful” to the white (European) project of progress and expansion. Jennings argues that these two frameworks helped to replace space with race. Where once people were identified by their sacred spaces, those spaces were carved up and redistributed to the colonizing nation. So identity became associated with external features (skin color, strength, hair texture, etc…). Jennings argues that the church in the West still hasn’t come to terms with its contribution to the race problem.

2 thoughts on “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

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  1. Can you please send me your source on Jesuit de Acosta Porres . The was NOT the inculturation of Catholic Jesuit in general that was Protestant evangelistic method in general (replaceTHE FEATHERS for the TOP HAT so to speak .. Catholic method was to TRANSFORM what was sacred in their tradition, in general. You might have discovered a lemon.

    1. Hi Steve, On this blog I only do summaries, not value judgments on the book. I appreciate your defense of the Catholic tradition, I think there are some important things to learn…You might pick up his book and track down the footnotes to see how firmly his argument rests in the historical record. Certainly on both sides (Protestant and Catholic) there have been many mistakes and also many great things.

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