I’ve decided to start a series of blog posts on Willie Jennings book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, as a way of transitioning away from Duke / Durham and preparing to begin PhD work (!) at…SMU! I’ve started reading some of the books by the faculty I’ll be working with there but it seemed fitting to mark this exciting transition by reading Jennings’ book, finally.
So, enough of the exciting news…and onto the exciting book.
“Mary, my mother, taught me to respect the dirt.” Jennings opens with this statement and it sets the tone for this first chapter (and presumably the book): theological arguments emerge within the context of stories and histories, specifically, histories of dirt, land, earth, ground. I can’t do justice to Jennings complex retelling and interweaving of multiple stories here, so please, pick up his book.
In tracing the opening moments of Christian colonialism and slave trade (the book begins by analyzing an account of a Portuguese slave sale in 1444), Jennings seeks to discern and interpret the theological contours of this new, emerging, racialized, dominated, and commodified world. In these moments and at these sites, theology reconfigures itself and the world, the body and the land.
The deepest theological distortion taking place is that the earth, the ground, spaces, and places are being removed as living organizers of identity and as facilitators of identity (39).
Severed from the land, identity is reconstituted by and around White European life. No longer do specific geographical markers signify or claim us. As Whiteness expands and relocates itself in/as mastery, Blackness is forcibly relocated and enslaved. In this reconfiguration of space, Whiteness emerges, as it were, as the new landscape of identity, the new ground on which human life remains stable in its very transitoriness. New peoples are encountered and oriented within a bi-polar order of salvation, the saved and the damned, meaning, the civilized, beautiful White Christian and the uncivilized, ugly Black Heathen.
Jennings offer two substantial accounts of more geographically grounded identities that give us a sense of this other, spatially rooted understanding of human life: the Ju/wasi in southern Africa and the Native American, particularly Western Apache. The incursion of European Christian domination in both locations carried with it
a loss almost imperceptible except to the bodies of those for whom specific geography and animals continue to gesture to them deep links of identity. The loss is the overturning of space that is modernity” (58).
Jennings account, at times, may seem melancholic, imbued with this nostalgic sense of what it might have been like to touch the earth and feel kinship with trees and deer. He warns us against this interpretation at multiple points, saying:
The point here is not simply the loss of indigenous stability. I am not positing an immutability of native existence. The loss here is of a life-giving collaboration of identity between place and bodies, people and animals. The loss here is also of the possibility of new identities bound up with entering new spaces (63).
The reiteration of “loss” is helpful, as Jennings is trying to surface, as it were, a deep and hidden wound that must be grieved–the destruction of specific geographical ties that profoundly and painfully mutilated and reordered social and psychic spaces. The quote also illuminates that, for Jennings, the loss here is also a loss of life-giving collaboration between peoples, bodies, land, and animals.
Whiteness is reciprocal but within an order of domination: it judges and demands a specific response from those judged (or, following Jennings’ language of creation: it “confers” reality to peoples insofar as they submit to its creative, organizing power, exercised over them and the land, see p. 60-62). It is collaborative only within the sphere of its power to define life and control land. It is this refusal of intimacy–as the theological origin of both race and land-commodification–that Jennings will continue to explore.