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Wanted: A book on the theological origins of race that combines Willie Jennings's historical emphasis on late medieval European colonialism with J. Kameron Carter's constructive theological proposals.
Though, if I'm honest, what I *really* want is Jennings's history + Carter's theoretical work + a theology that is neither postliberal Barthian (Jennings) nor natural revelation (Carter).
(Carter is obviously a lot more nuanced than that, so don't @ me. I much prefer Carter to Jennings theologically in basically every way. But the Race book is messy and inconsistent.)
Jennings tries desperately hard to avoid natural revelation, but it doesn't really work in my opinion. He shoehorns Barth into his argument in a way that feels forced and inconsistent with the rest of the argument.
His (brilliant) analysis of space—in which the defining characteristic of the White racial optic is that it separates Indigenous people from their preexisting connections to geography, plants, animals—lends itself perfectly to a natural revelation.
So his appeal to Barth's christocentric rejection of natural revelation makes little sense. He does not seem to appreciate the way in which Barth's theology could (and does?) provide ample theological support for the displacing White gaze that Jennings opposes.
Probably the feature I dislike most about Jennings's book, apart from the support of a genocidal YHWH, is the rejection of antiessentialism. Jennings thinks the answer to Whiteness is a kind of renewed essentialism, and he thinks Barth helps him in that.
While blaming the origins of race on supersessionism, Jennings argues that Jesus "rebuilds" Israel in himself and so corrects Israel's election: "[Jesus] recapitulates the reality of Israel in a fallen world in order to overcome the power of the world in Israel" (263).
If that's not supersessionism, I don't know what is. The supersessionist angle in Jennings is the least convincing part of the entire book. Like the Barth material, it feels like it's in here only because he did his PhD at Duke (under Wainwright) and that's what you do at Duke.
The entire 6th chapter is one of the most pure expressions of postliberalism I've ever read, even going so far as to claim that Jesus inaugurates a "new cultural politics" of "social alliance and political allegiance" (273). This could be Peter Leithart or William Cavanaugh.
I'm having my students read this book because there isn't anything better available at the moment, but there needs to be. Jennings has great stuff on the origins of race in the first two chapters, but the last chapter goes wildly off the rails.
Even the middle chapters, with their rejection of translation, are problematic. He goes after Lamin Sanneh as a supersessionist who gives support to coloniality, and yet Jennings's own proposal at the end is almost indistinguishable from another cultural imperialism.
I'm still working through my alternative to Jennings, but I think he misdiagnoses the problem. He seems to think the underlying issue is colonialist Christianity's rejection/forgetfulness of the **stability** of election in Israel (or in Jesus who recapitulates Israel).
The loss of this stability of election corresponds to the implicit belief in the instability of creation that then justifies the church's co-creative act of transforming the world—this is the racial optic or white gaze that displaces the Indigenous Other.
Jennings's argument amounts to: European gentile Christianity thinks it is the elect people of God who can judge who is idolatrous, but in fact only Israel (including living Israel) can do so. There's still a normative culture; it's just not Europe.
I'm sure for some folks this is helpful, but I would go in the opposite direction: not towards a new stability but in a deeper embrace of instability and antiessentialism—not as something in creation that needs to be stabilized but as something in God that destabilizes us.
Jennings fears that antiessentialism gives rise to colonialism, but this is only the case if one assumes from the start that some kind of stable essentialism is the goal.
Jennings also fears that antiessentialism will separate people from their places and locations in creation, their communities of intimacy. But the point of antiessentialism is not that our bonds of nature and culture are destroyed but that they cannot be rendered normative.
Unfortunately, Jennings *does* want a normative culture into which all people must be conformed. It's just that this culture is "canonical/living Israel" and not imperial Europe. An improvement, to be sure, but by no means the answer.
I'm working my thoughts out on this in real time. Hopefully by the time I finish this course, I'll have something worked out. END
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