The eminent scholar of African American history, John Hope Franklin, once commented that “We know all too little about the factors that affect the attitudes of the peoples of the world toward one another. It is clear, however, that color and race are at once the most important and the most enigmatic.” Though he recently passed, the truth of Franklin’s statement continues to live, especially this last sentence. The idea that color and race are still the most important and most enigmatic of issues that affect our interaction with one another is clearly a controversial assertion in a nation that perceives itself to have progressed beyond its macabre racial past. Even more, if true, it stands as a jeremiad against the faithfulness of our churches to a gospel that conquers divisions instead of creating new and powerful ones. Willie Jennings, professor of black church studies and theology at Duke Divinity School, argues that the church insufficiently perceives the extent of the disfiguration of its social imagination and that a deep-seated problem within orthodox thinking has rendered the church ill-equipped and often naive to this ugly fact. In this interview, Jennings discusses the historical and theological components that have led to our current misconceptions of race.

The Other Journal (TOJ): In the 2008 presidential election, there was much popular talk about America having already dealt with its race issue and thus not needing to attempt to get past or beyond it. Can you tell us why that type of thinking is so problematic, especially for people in the church?

Willie Jennings (WJ): That is a good question. I think most of the more thoughtful social commentators have already dismissed the sidebar comments about a post-racial America because of President Obama. I think everybody recognizes that having Obama as president represents a remarkable moment, but to try to calibrate that on the larger screen of America’s racial history at this point is a little premature.

I think that for the church it is especially dangerous for us to engage in any kind of historical mapping of the Obama presidency in terms of the racial condition of America because we have had such a significant role in creating these particular problems and because we have yet, as a church, to come to grips with our role. Martin Luther King Jr. said it many years ago, and it has been quoted many times, but we still have not gotten our minds around the depth of his statement. He said, “The most segregated hour in America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” We have yet to come to grips with the significance of what that means for us. So for Christians, we certainly cannot engage in any superficial reflection on what an Obama presidency means for that question.

The reality of the church, especially in North America, is one that is deeply indebted to a particular vision of ethnic and racial existence so that it is quite natural for us to imagine our church life in a culturally monolithic, racially monolithic way without in any way seeing that as an absurdity. So what you have in many places in the country are churches and different congregations sharing the same church building. There is an eight o’clock service for one particular group, an eleven o’clock service for another, and yet another group meets at noon or one o’clock to have their worship service. We imagine that that is not only quite normal, but in some instances, people actually imagine that to be quite noble—the sharing of one space by multiple communities—without realizing the absolute grotesque nature and absurdity of such a situation.

TOJ: Following along with that, what do you think then is one of the most important steps for the church to take in rectifying this situation or in moving toward reconciliation?

WJ: Let me say that I think the idea of reconciliation is overused and that it really is not helpful at this point because it is deployed in many ways that allow Christians to imagine that we are already moving forward. The issue really is not one of reconciliation. Now, this is not to say that the idea of reconciliation is not at the heart of the way the biblical writers in the New Testament imagine God’s relationship with us, but that is beside the point for our conversation here.

The crucial first move that must be carefully undertaken is to think seriously through the history, trajectory, and legacy of our immigrant transformations, that is, our immigrant past as we have come to America. It is the case, and many historians, especially those of the African American experience, for example, John Hope Franklin, have taught us that Americans have an incredible capacity to forget the past.

The positive side of this forgetfulness, obviously, in the legacy of America is that people in this country engage in the constant remaking or re-creation of themselves. For so many people that is a real gift; they function here without the legacies of a peasant trajectory, that is, without the legacies of a tight caste system that continues to exist in many parts of the world, especially Europe.

However, the downside of that fabricated freedom for us in this country is that we have no sense of the ongoing power of the past to shape our particular trajectories and the way we imagine life. So the first thing that needs to be done is for people to try to remember and understand the significance of having been immigrants. It is important for us to reflect on how we have changed, how we have been formed, and how we became communities in this country and, in doing so, to recognize what boundaries were set up, what ways of thinking about others were set up, and how we continue to function inside of those rubrics. Now, of course, a part of that is also recognizing the ways we function inside of class distinctions, which are often hidden to us. I think that is going to be the first crucial step. To do that means you suspend any conversation about reconciling various groups because in point of fact, the first issue is to recognize the formation of the groups themselves in order to understand how those things interact with, and in many ways control, the power, reach, and depth of one’s Christian identity.

TOJ: One of the things that I want to talk with you about is, given that the issue of race is obviously not something that is simply located within congregational life, how the conversation around race is and yet is not theological. I am asking you to clarify whether you think race is a theological category, and if so, how it functions as a theological category? For instance, if you pick up the systematic theology textbooks used in the majority of our seminaries and divinity schools, you might find a discussion of anthropology, but more than likely, you will not find a discussion of anthropology informed by the social constructions of race and the way in which race has played a role in the development of theology, et cetera. It seems to me that what you are saying implies the restructuring of theological education. That is to say, you seem to be implying that we cannot simply talk about anthropologies in a universal sense but that we need to begin with theologically thinking through how these distinctions were made.

WJ: I hear what you are getting at. There are two or three difficulties that we have to face in approaching this. The first difficulty is trying to get our minds around the conceptual quagmire that is the discussion of race. There is a lot of confusion surrounding this discussion, so let me explain why I think there is so much confusion. The reason is that, on the one hand, the idea of race seems to be quite commonsensical. Everybody understands, in a sense, what race is and what race is not at a basic layperson level. And in some ways, everybody imagines that they understand to some degree that race is and is not something. How we articulate that is and is not, however, is a quite confused endeavor.

The problem is, at this point, a problem of trying to think inside ways of existing while you exist within them. That is a fundamental difficulty. How do you think about something that in many ways you are deeply inscribed inside of, such that you always face the danger of, even as you try to describe it, your descriptions further entrapping you in the very thing you are trying to describe? And so, part of the first thing to do is to recognize that this is a very difficult matter.

The second thing is to see that although our conception of race is a matter of anthropology, it is also a matter of theological anthropology, but—and here is where this crucial problem of being caught inside the very thing we are trying to describe hits us—very few theologians have given and can give an adequate theological account of the origins of race. Very few theologians can give an adequate account of the ways in which their visions of theological anthropology have been intercepted, shaped, and performed inside of certain racial logics. So the difficulty in saying we need to have a categorical discussion about this or that we need to have in a standard systematic theology a certain kind of discussion about race is that all of those things, while noble, are problematic in and of themselves because many people are working with a very small conceptual toolbox to try to think through it.

The problem is that although there have been a few attempts to talk about race, the attempts seem to fall in one of two not-so helpful directions. Either they try to press very deeply the constructive, inventive nature of the idea of race without attending to what exactly that means. Or they simply transmute race into things like culture, ethnicity, and group identity. Hence, for this second alternative, although they have walked away from the issue of race, these conversations simply have reinscribed all its power inside of ethnic identity without ever really dealing with the issue at heart. Neither of these two directions can help us understand the ongoing generative power and imaginative power of race. What is required is a far more careful study of the origins of the racial imagination, which is a plug for the book I have coming out in a few months.

TOJ: We are really looking forward to the release of your book where you take up these themes in more depth. In light of that, maybe you can talk about how, in your own work, you attempt to discuss the power race has had and continues to have over our imaginations. Perhaps you could also point us toward a trajectory that would help us begin to work through the complexity of this issue.

WJ: The book I have written will be out, I anticipate, next year. It gives what I consider the first material account of the racial imagination. How did it come about? What were the circumstances that brought it about? How is it deeply imbedded in the theological imagination?

There are really three points I am pressing in the early sections of my book. There are other significant points I press, but in terms of the question of the origin of race and the racial imagination there are three things that I think are crucial.

First, we have to understand race as the result of a particular theological vision of the world that merged with the discoveries of the “new worlds” by Europeans and coupled with the transformation of the land and the transformation of peoples away from land-based and land-facilitated identities. Now, the difficulty for almost everyone as they imagine how to think about race is that no one has factored in the deepest and most important reality of the processes of identification, and that is the land. What is also crucial is that no one has thought very carefully about the way in which Christian visions of creation were profoundly altered with the advent of discovery.

The advent of discovery created serious problems for how those we would now call European Christians imagined the creation. Now they had to give an account of a created world that was beyond what they had imagined. They had to do this at the same time that the world they had “discovered” was being altered by them in terms of its fundamental transformation into nationalist/private property. The dual work of defining the earth in new ways and taking hold of it as new spaces of ownership transformed doctrines of creation in terms of a new utility, a new limited focus, and a new point of stabilization, European man himself.
This is what Christian theology from the fourteenth century forward was not able to adequately give an account of. That is, their theological vision of the world as created was not prepared to receive or explain how this concept of race was being changed and transformed by the encounter with heretofore unimagined realities of the world. So theology itself was being transformed beyond the ability of theologians from the fourteenth century forward to articulate that transformation.

TOJ: Now do you think that was to some extent due to a cosmology formed from Greek thought? Is that what you are speaking in regard to?

WJ: It is a larger development than that. It is not an adjusting of particular cosmological perspectives in relationship to the new world. There is a longstanding history of discussing that. The problem with that history is that it is too small and it continues to think from the top down. That is to say, it imagines a relationship between Ptolemaic and Copernican frameworks, the relationship between particular astronomical ideas in relationship to doctrine. All those things are important, but those things miss the point, those are top-down ways of imagining. This larger development has to do with several things: first, the relationship between merchants, missionaries, and the military as they together map out the new world and determine the value and place of theological reflection in relation to that mapping; second, the changed self-perception of these groups of people as they realize their absolutely power over the bodies of indigenes; third, spatial and temporal chasm that opens up in communications between the old world and the new and the significance of that chasm for how Europeans imagined their worlds, their responsibilities, and their communities.

To investigate the various theoreticians, theologians, and philosophers, to reflect on what they were finding out about the new world, that is skipping to the second step. The first step, however, which has not been reflected on, either historically or theologically, is to consider what was taking place on the ground. A change takes place then in how the priests in the colonies, the merchants in the colonies, the soldiers in the colonies, and the entrepreneurs coming to the colonies are imagining the world as they see it and to the extent that they are seeing things that they simply have no theological way of capturing at all.

More importantly, and this is the crucial point, in order to function in these new worlds, in fact, these people do not need a cosmology. What does it mean when you no longer need the Bible or theology to help you locate yourself geographically, because you can do so in other ways? It is precisely these effects that work themselves into the performance of a doctrine of creation which has a profound effect on how people will imagine bodies in space. For example, what happens when you cannot locate biblical designations in the new world where they might have been imagined – no Eden, no hell, no Kingdom of this or that King, no burning center to the world, no place where people walk upside down, or backward, and so forth. What does a doctrine of creation signify in such cases?

This is the second crucial element.

There is a third crucial element that we have not reflected on in these matters, and it involves a sort of Aristotelian trajectory. It is the fundamental trajectory that all things move from potentiality to actuality. What does it mean when that fundamental thesis is drawn inside the logic of the merchant? What does it mean when that fundamental theological Aristotelian vision is drawn inside the logic of the merchant and agreed with by the priest; that all things move from potentiality to actuality? It means that in the colonies, in the new world, nothing is stable. Nothing is prohibited from change. Now, a world that is bound up in its instability, moving toward its becoming, is a world that has profound effects on the identities of individuals and their peoples.

These three factors together are the matrix within which the racial imagination comes to be. The problem we have is that the vast majority of people who think about race have no idea about these factors, and so their reflections on race, their very concept and idea of race, and their understanding of the history of race are all superficial.

What I hope to do with this book is to reposition these conversations away from what I consider not only the superficiality but the circularity of the conversation. It is not going anywhere. To move from the idea that race is an invention to the idea that instead of race, let us talk about various ethnicities, is to move us precisely nowhere.

TOJ: Let me try to put this in my own words. To consider this Aristotelian vision of the movement from potentiality to actuality within the matrix of merchant imagination, is this to say that to some extent when European merchants encountered the new world and the inhabitants of the new world, they saw it as a land of people rife with potentiality, not necessarily personhood but potentiality, whose labor could be used to make products for sale?

WJ: That is part of it. The larger reality is—and now we must remember these are Christian merchants; we must never forget these are Christians—that they all foresaw no stability to which they were to be drawn, inside of which they were to live. This meant that no people and no place stood for them as permanent structures to which they must adhere or change their way of life. That is the deeper reality that we have to get our minds around.

TOJ: It seems to me that part of what you are pointing out with these three critical points is in some ways different, quite considerably different, from the way liberation theologies or black theologies have discussed the issue of race.

WJ: It is not only different, but I have a much wider circle of conversations in mind than liberation or black theologies in this regard. For instance, this is quite different from the way it is discussed in critical theory, in literary theory, in psychology, in cultural anthropology; it is different from the way it is discussed in critical law theory; it is different from the way it is discussed by post-colonial theory. What I tried to do in the book is, after having considered all these venues, to draw some clear typologies of the way this is done, showing the shortcomings of all of them.

Then I go on to show that the deepest problem is in the ongoing performance of basic orthodox Christian theology. That is where the deepest flaws are found, because in traditional orthodox theology the ability to even imagine the problematics from this point of view is sorely lacking. There is not, and I would welcome anyone to challenge this, a significant Anglo-American theologian able to think deeply about these matters, or who has thought deeply enough on these things and placed it in print. It just does not exist.

That is not a sign of an area of study no one has turned their attention to; this is not an issue of disciplinary interest. This is an issue of an inability to think, or the absence of thinking about these matters.

TOJ: Finally, with all this turn toward practices and the large discourse that has emerged on practices, why do you think so many of these theologians have skirted the issue of race or have given it such short shrift?

WJ: I wish the turn toward practices was tied to these possibilities, but unfortunately, it is not. I think the basic problem is that the American theological academy is still deeply mired in certain categories of opposition. Liberal/conservative, heterodox/orthodox, continental/American—the imaginative framework within which a lot of theologians do their work is still mired in these completely exhausted, useless, oppositional frameworks. The issue is that there is a sense in which, to borrow from George Will, theology is still imagined from the commanding heights down. As long as you imagine theology from the commanding heights down, you are going to imagine that your work has to somehow make a contribution to one of those oppositional categories.

TOJ: Is there anything in closing that you want to say? Maybe briefly for our readers you could answer the question of how we can truly do justice to racial difference, avoiding both a thin multiculturalism and making race into a full-blown, solidified ontology. Is there not something in the middle?

WJ: I’ll put it this way, the next step begins with opening our eyes and taking notice of those peoples among us who in many ways exist between the cracks, the peoples among us who, to borrow from a wonderful gentleman who just finished his work here at Duke, Brian Bantum, understand the significance of “mulatto existence,” the idea of “living between,” as well as what it means as a Christian to live between. This is something we just have not paid much attention. If you return to Ephesians 2, you find something very interesting in the new body, the new humanity that is constituted in the body of Jesus, bringing together multiple peoples to be something new. It is precisely our failure to imagine our lives inside of this that is the beginning point of thinking about this.

What we have to worry about is that there are so many strategies of escape on the table, especially for American Christians. The first thing we have to do is cut off the routes of escape, which we have all learned so well. An immigrant church is a church that has escaped, and we have yet to come to grips with how we love to escape. So I think the first step is to cut off from ourselves the escape. Then, we can begin to understand the new humanity. So let’s end there, my dear brother.