Theology in the Hands of Racial Colonialists
“The central effect of the loss of the earth as an identity signifier was that native identities, tribal, communal, familial, and spatial, were constricted to simply their bodies, leaving behind the very ground that enables and facilitates the articulation of identity. The profound commodification of bodies that was New World slavery signifies an effect humankind has yet to reckon with fully - a distorted vision of creation. . . . Before this agency would yield ‘the idea of race,’ ‘the scientific concept of race,’ the ‘social principle of race,’ or even a fully formed ‘racial optic’ on the world, 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 the signifier of identities.” - Willie James Jennings
What, exactly, went wrong with the colonialists? What was beneath the racism, arrogance, and ignorance? How could even the most well-educated classes be engaged in such tragedy? It’s too easy - and boring - to lazily throw more outrage at the grave errors of the colonialists. I hope to do more in my next few blogs. Thinking precisely and deeply on a blog can be a fools’ errand, but I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the many insights from a new book, “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race,” by Professor Willie James Jennings. I’ve had the privilege of reading it with a few fellow college pastors, and it combines astute theological work with breathtaking - albeit tragic - historical narratives. Rather than looking down on the obvious mistakes of the past with historical snobbery, the more worthwhile discussion involves in-depth analysis that humbly learns from history toward a hopeful future. Jennings is a master of this.
His first part tackles the topic of displacement, and all of the ways that not only colonialists, but also subsequent Western theologians have unknowingly displaced whole groups of people from their source of identity. This point, too, is not new. Jennings argues, however, that the grave theological mistake stems from an upside-down understanding of Creation and Pentecost. The above quote exemplifies how the imperial missions begun in the 15th century took Christian theology and twisted it to their own ends. Rather than understanding God as creator in order to affirm all humanity as made in the image of God, with inherent dignity, the Roman Catholic Church actually usurped the unique Creator’s role in defining all standards according to “whiteness” and the “commodification of bodies.” As Jennings writes, “a creative authority, a creative regime, gets channeled through white presence. . . . European colonialists in acts of breathtaking hubris imagined the interlocking nature of all people and things with their own independence of those very people and things.” They assumed the position of the transcendent creator God, rather than one among many of God’s diverse creatures!
We see a similar instance in inverting what Christians call “Pentecost.” As told in Acts 2, God performs a great act of liberation after Jesus ascends to heaven having completed his earthly mission - God offers the gospel of grace to all peoples of the known world in their own language. Seeing it as an undoing of the story of Babel, God’s redemptive presence and message can now be global, rather than restricted to one language or culture. The colonialists so grievously failed to see this sort of universalism. Instead, they understood the Church as taking the place of God (what Jennings names “supersessionism” because it makes God’s purpose in Israel obsolete), and becoming the standard to which all peoples must conform in order to receive God’s presence. That is the precise opposite of what Scripture reports at Pentecost. Rather than celebrating the unity in diversity that Christ came to establish, Christians undermined the diversity in order to define the unity according to their human standard.
In addition to the theological missteps that undergirded such atrocities, Jennings points out that the natives were reduced to “commodified bodies.” Why is that? If humans, rather than God, become the standard, it seems like the Church fell into the trap of making the natives serve their own prideful interest. They assumed that they were the standard, given by God to be the cultural, linguistic, and even “skin-color” standard, to the point that the closer one was to being European, the more likely one is to be redeemed. Whether this takes a Christian form or not, our tendency becomes manipulating other humans to our own ends. How do we do this now?
I know that the Church has committed untold amounts of suffering and evil in the name of Christ. (There is no religion, philosophy, or worldview, for that matter, that hasn’t, all to greater or lesser degrees of distortion). I also know that I am naive and unaware of how I personally have been silent on these issues. The least we can do is repent of it in solidarity and commit to learning from it regardless of the shame it brings upon our ancestors in the faith and therefore ourselves. I am at least hopeful that we are able to discern these mistakes now, and pray that God would give the Church insight to humbly cling to the gospel of grace, rather than to all the messages we want to turn it into. I look forward to exploring more insights toward this goal from Jennings’ book soon.
Originally published at HuffPost