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People, Place, and Race: Situating Jennings’ Christian Imagination in Contemporary Context (Adam S. Borneman)

I recently finished reading Willie James Jennings’s earth-shattering book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. While Jennings’s primary aim is to drastically reorient our theological approaches to race and racism, his project poses much broader challenges to conventional theological methodology. He insists that traditional western theologians who have rightly been concerned with questions of orthodoxy and intellectual edification have nevertheless failed to recognize how land, language, bodies, and “literary space” informs theological construction and evaluation.

I recently finished reading Willie James Jennings’s earth-shattering book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. While Jennings’s primary aim is to drastically reorient our theological approaches to race and racism, his project poses much broader challenges to conventional theological methodology. He insists that traditional western theologians who have rightly been concerned with questions of orthodoxy and intellectual edification have nevertheless failed to recognize how land, language, bodies, and “literary space” informs theological construction and evaluation.[1]

The Christian Imagination, then, marks an attempt to penetrate more deeply into the geographic, linguistic, and social spaces which over the past half millennium have shaped our Christian imagination. Jennings’s approach to these spaces takes the form of a historical delineation, including several narratives of imperialism, colonization, and geopolitical construction.[2] Through this lens, Jennings analyzes the basic forms in which and through which western theologizing has taken place, and how this has impacted perception of the world around us. “Christianity and its theologians,” he writes, “live in conceptual worlds that have not in any substantive way reckoned with the ramifications of colonialism for Christian identity or the identity of theology. The intellectuals whom theological education in the West produces continue to have a massive gap in their conceptual imaginations.”[3] Jennings’s hope is that we can re-imagine the world in a way that reshapes our theology and social performance of identity as people made in the image of the triune God.

Jennings’s project does not venture into specific contemporary events, circumstances, or cultural analyses. But it is nearly impossible to read The Christian Imagination without simultaneous reflection on various forms of estrangement, alienation, segregation, and racialization that we consistently encounter in the world around us. In keeping with Jennings’ aims, let us consider for example the disconcerting current correlations between race, economics, and geography. Between 1980 and 2010, both lower-income and upper-income households became increasingly likely to live in tracts of land with other households of similar income levels. [4] Moreover, in 2010, the typical African American resided in a census tract whose population was 45% African American, though African Americans comprised only 12% of the population. The typical white person (63% of the population) lived in a tract that was 77% white.”[5] Yet these ostensible realities are perhaps not as troubling as their striking correlation with a vast range of mounting social and psychological concerns. Social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson demonstrates quite compellingly that in first world countries (and communities) with increasing economic disparity, there is less trust, less social mobility, less community involvement, more violence, more mental illness, and even higher infant mortality rates.[6] Jennings challenges us to consider the degree to which these disparities are the product of a metanarrative of displacement, translation, and dissociation that has its origins in colonization and, moreover, whether human identity is shaped within this narrative such that it is calibrated on a scale of blackness to whiteness.

These troubling realities come to the fore in instances such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The wide range of responses to Brown’s death and the lack of his shooter’s indictment indicated that people were not simply interpreting the events differently, they were actually perceiving them differently, through wholly distinct frames of reference which lacked a common language, history, geography, and social experience.

Many Christians will respond to Ferguson and similar circumstances with the conventional theological notions of racial reconciliation, liberation, and systemic sin. And indeed there is much to affirm along these lines. But Jennings would have us dig deeper in order to penetrate the foundational layers of spatial history, racialized bodies, commodification, cultural-linguistic logics, and their complex relationship to one another.  What is the distance – geographic, spatial, temporal, linguistic, relational – that persists between communities that have such widely varying and conflicting perceptions of such watershed events? How has our Christian imagination permitted and perpetrated those distances? More concretely, how did the so-called “Christian culture” of early to mid-20th century United States imagine a world including race-based housing policies that constructed Ferguson, MO?[7] What sort of theological imagination is blind to its own racist social engineering? And to what degree does this imagination persist? As Jennings puts it, “How is it possible for Christians and Christian communities to naturalize cultural fragmentation and operationalize racial vision from within the social logic and theological imagination of Christianity itself?”[8]

He writes,

“If place has become in our thinking, that is, in the thinking of peoples deeply touched by the multiple legacies of the colonialist moment, nothing more than the raw materials of potential development, of the constant turnings of spaces inside commodified existence – from residential sectors, to business sectors, to religious sectors, to education sectors, or back to “natural habitats” – then we can refer to the space of joining and communion only as having a possible corner inside commodified space. Yet if the space of joining and of communion is not first a possibility but a reality unrealized inside the identities and potential relationships between different peoples who have been convinced of the power of Jesus’ life, then this space may become a profoundly visible place on surprising spaces that give sight of a different world.”[9]

Thus, while we might rightly respond to the question “How could this have happened?” by musing on systemic sin, political theology, and the deficiencies of cultural Christianity, it also necessary to thoroughly examine the historical commodification of land, language, bodies, and the accompanying theological vision. Along this trajectory, Jennings ultimately draws us to consider Israel’s relationship to the land, to God, and to the particularity of Jesus as embodying those relationships. In short, we are drawn to recast doctrines of creation, incarnation, and the body of Christ.

“A Christian doctrine of creation is first a doctrine of place and people, of divine love and divine touch, of human presence and embrace and of divine and human interaction . . .

The right transformation [entails] Christian faith receiving its heretofore undiscovered identities, which are found only through interaction with the social logics of language, landscape, and peoples. The right relationships . . . invite new patterns of life woven through and by means of the deep structures of Christian faith slowly opened through ongoing interpretation and struggle. Those relationships involve deep joining, the opening of lives to one another in love and desire. . . .

If Christian existence stands on nothing greater than the body of one person, then 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.”[10]

Jennings’s work thus serves as a call not only to address the systems and structures that perpetuate sinful “distances”, but also to more broadly reimagine the world so that these structures might be reshaped through a renewed, comprehensive theological vision. This vision will not suffice if its function is to merely apply a so-called theology proper to historical and contemporary concerns. Rather it must start with the assumption that such matters are interwoven into the formation and shaping of that very theology. We are thus faced with whether it is appropriate to speak of “political theology” or “theology of x,” a concern resonant with Stanley Hauerwas’ resistance to “modifying theology with descriptors that suggest theology is the possession of certain groups or perspectives.”[11] Such modifications and distinctions run the risk of suggesting that theology proper exists on its own terms apart from the people, place, land, and language from which it emerged and by which it is constructed. It is theology in the abstract. Jennings addresses this problem head-on: “Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines a 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.”[12] The rejection of theological abstraction and the recasting of a Christian imagination which incorporates the vast array of elements of human existence requires a massive interdisciplinary effort. Jennings continues,

“A social imagination that begins to take place seriously begins to grasp the textures of the social in a comprehensive way.  At one level, I hope to open up a new dialogue between disciplines that rarely interact – geography, theology, postcolonial theory, race theory, ecology, Native American studies and so forth.  In this regard, I hope for a conversation between those deeply involved in the formation of space and those concerned with identity formation – urban planners, ecologists, scientists, real estate brokers, developers joined in conversation with theologians, ethicists, literary and postcolonial theorists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. … [My] hope is (that) we would be able to imagine reconfigurations of living spaces that might promote more just societies.  Such living spaces may open up the possibilities of different ways of life that announce invitations for joining.”[13]

Jennings’s appeal for interdisciplinary collaboration is within the scope of a broader call to reimagine social performance, human vocation, and the community of Christ’s body, the Christian church. He imagines for us what the outworking of this call would look like, as people, practices, histories, and places are interwoven:

“Imagine a people defined by their cultural differences yet who turn their histories and cultural logics toward a new determination, a new social performance of identity. In so doing, they enfold the old cultural logics and practices inside the new ones of others, and they enfold the cultural logics and practices of others inside their own. This mutual enfolding promises cultural continuity measured only by the desire of belonging. Thus the words and ways of one people join those of another, and another, each born anew in a community seeking to love and honor those in its midst.

The new people formed in this space imagine the world differently, beyond the agonistic vision of nations and toward the possibility of love and kinship. Aesthetics preceding ethics, these disciples of Jesus love and desire one another, and that desire for each other is the bases of their ethical actions in the worlds of allegiances and kinships. This enfolding is done not through isolate individual bricolage, but in the everyday realities of life together with others.”[14]

This “new cultural logic” described by Jennings is reminiscent of those theologies which have prioritized personal encounter and entering into the life of “the other.” And in many respects, his sweeping proposal is as simple as that. Attempts to reconfigure the Christian imagination without entering into the lives, spaces, and histories which the dominant Christian imagination has neglected or displaced will always fall short. This curtailed imagination is at the heart of national crises such as Ferguson, as well as a host of other economic, social, political, and ideological spaces. We ought not to assume that these spaces constitute mere secular problems in need of applied Christian theology and praxis, but that they are symptomatic of a broken world that has in many ways been imagined by the very theology we seek to employ.



[1] “This is one of the reasons,” he explains, “Christian communities and intellectuals outside the meridian of literature (and theology), who have been producing theological literature for centuries, remain virtually unknown and without due consideration.” Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Yale 2011.232-33.

[2] Part one, “Displacement,” relates the accounts of Portuguese trafficking of sub-Saharan African slaves as well as the Spanish conquest of Peru. Part two, called “Translation,” recounts the activities of British missionaries to the Zulus of South Africa, and includes an analysis of the educational efforts which alienated Christian Africans from their land, communities, and traditions. In part three, “Intimacy,” Jennings argues for reimagining intimacy with one another by way of intimacy with God and his creation through the particularity of Jesus, who is not an abstraction of Israel’s God, but who is bound up with God’s people, place, and space.

[3] Ibid. 291.

[4] “Since 1980, lower-income households have become increasingly likely to live in tracts with more lower-income households. In 2010, the average lower-income household resided in a tract with 41% lower-income households, an increase from 39% in 1980. Likewise, since 1980 upper-income households have become increasingly likely to live in a tract with other upper-income households. In 2010, the average upper-income household resided in a tract composed of 32% upper-income households, an increase from 25% in 1980. The Rise of Residential Seregation by Income. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/08/01/chapter-2-trends-in-residential-segregation/

[5] The typical Hispanic (17% of the population) resided in a tract that was 45% Hispanic; and the typical Asian or Pacific Islander (5% of the population) resided in a tract that was 21% Asian or Pacific Islander.[5]The Rise of Residential Seregation by Income. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/08/01/chapter-2-trends-in-residential-segregation/

[6]Richard Wilkinson, “How economic inequality harms societies,” TED Global 2011 · 16:54 · Filmed Jul 2011

[7]Richard Rothstein, “The Making of Ferguson Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles” Economic Policy Institute, 2015.

[8] Jennings, 208.

[9] Ibid, 286.

[10] Ibid. 248-49. Thanks to a review by Elizabeth Y. Sung for drawing my attention to this section of Jennings’ book.

[11] Stalnley Hauerwas. Can Democracy be Christian? Reflections on How To (Not) Be a Political Theologian, ABC Religion and Ethics  June 24, 2014.

[12] Jennings, 293.

[13] Ibid. 293-94.

[14] Ibid. 273-74.

2 thoughts on “People, Place, and Race: Situating Jennings’ Christian Imagination in Contemporary Context (Adam S. Borneman)

  1. Jennings work is enormous and its challenge to Christian thought today is as big as Luther was 500 years ago
    This work brings an important dimension to the debates around post colonial theology emerging in Australia
    The role the churches took in that process and the Waltham they have inherited from it.
    Bring it on Willie
    When are you com g to Australia?

  2. Thanks for the review of Jennings’ book. However, I am wondering with the most important question asked in the study of Theology and Culture (Theology of culture) that “Where God is at work in a cultural situation?” I am trying to find out how Jennings has responded to this question in his book. Somebody may assist me to respond to this question using Jennings exploration in his book. Thanks, Marco.

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