The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

This piece is cross posted over at AUFS; please comment there (rather than here) if you feel compelled to do so. 

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology.

Supersessionism displaces Israel within the economy of salvation either (more virulently) by suggesting that God’s previous covenant with Israel is simply cancelled after Jesus, or (more subtly) by naming the church as a “new Israel” that, whether explicitly stated or not, renders the “old” Israel obsolete. Jennings demonstrates that the logic of supersessionism emboldened European Christians to promulgate and police racialized thinking in their encounters with the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and America from the fifteenth century onward. European Christians displaced the “old” Israel and erased its election in order to cultivate a self-understanding as representatives of a “new,” purportedly non-ethnic Israel. When they encountered people in Africa and the Americas, Europeans did not understand themselves as one batch of gentiles meeting another, previously unfamiliar batch of gentiles. Instead, they narrated their exploits in colonization and human trafficking as if they were God’s chosen people encountering outsiders. Examples of Europeans reading themselves into biblical stories in precisely this way—with disastrous effect—are in no short supply. The assertion that Jesus has made ethnic, racial, and geographic differences superficial and superfluous (before God, before the law) operated (and operates) as a screen that conceals the centering of white European norms, values, and profits. The displacement of Israel, then, gave powerful theological validation to the disavowed normativity of whiteness in colonial expansion, because at the colonial frontier it ‘just so happened’ that God’s (new) chosen people were white. Whiteness gained a theological-optical valence that could be alternately touted (as the presupposed and normative appearance of “real” Christianity) and denied (because the particularities of race, ethnicity, and culture are ultimately insignificant to God) as necessary.  Jennings demonstrates that the politics of white supremacy are the product of the marriage of a powerful socio-religious boundary with longstanding European-Mediterranean prejudicial aesthetics of skin-tone, concepts of blood-purity, and the temptations (never resisted) of economic exploitation.

The concepts of ethnicity, nationhood, and religion are deeply tangled in the emergence of Christianity from the traditions of Israel—see the work of Denise Kimber Buell, Benjamin Dunning, and Daniel Boyarin—and these concepts are pervasively deployed during European expansion, so it stands to reason that Christianity’s violently conflicted relationship with its roots in Israel is bound up with its production of a violently racialized anthropology. Jennings traces these bonds with admirable clarity. I have lingering concerns about Jennings’ typology of the ways that land and subject-formation intersect, but here, I’ll focus on his analysis of supersessionism and, relatedly, his constructive effort to jam the engines of white supremacist racialized anthropology by reconfiguring Christian identity relative to Israel.

Jennings’ analysis of the operations of supersessionist logic within the racialization of humanity in European colonialism and the slave trade strikes me as insightful and fundamentally correct. He never turns to consider, however, what I think is the historical grit that produces the theological pearl of Christian supersessionism: the failure to abide with the portions of Israel that gave a theologically grounded “no” to Jesus as the figure of messianic redemption. It is this “no” (either the “no” of studied rejection or the “no” of indifference) against which Jesus’ followers have shut their ears and their minds, construing it as evidence that “old” Israel’s covenant with God is invalid or obsolete. Large portions of Israel, both prior to and after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, said “no” to Jesus in one way or another, and Rabbinic Judaism has carried this “no” to Jesus into the present, through great persecution. To be clear, there are good theological and scriptural reasons for this “no.” If messianic redemption heralds the “Day of the Lord,” the establishment of true justice, the overthrow of tyrannical rulers, and the drawing together of all nations to worship Israel’s God, then one must admit that tyranny, injustice, and idolatry have hardly been in decline since Jesus’ day.  Jesus’ followers have numerous explanations at hand for this embarrassing continuity, but neither block-headedness nor defiance are required to question whether Jesus’ life and death actually ushered in the end of history. Jennings’ account of supersessionism never acknowledges this refusal as the catalyst for (basically reactionary) Christian supersessionism.

To my mind, that omission becomes a problem within Jennings’ constructive proposal insofar as he treats Israel as a single, undifferentiated entity. For Jennings’, “Jesus is Israel for the sake of Israel” and Jesus’ divine election “breaks open” Israel’s own chosenness, revealing a “deeper layer” at which the gentiles are invited in (260). In Jesus, we witness “the rebuilding of Israel” (267). In these passages (concentrated on pp. 259-271), it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that there is some form of supersessionism at play—Jesus’ life inaugurates a mode of ‘being Israel’ (n.b. all the “newness” on p. 265) that seems to render the former way of ‘being Israel’ narrow and provincial. Despite appearances, I do not think Jennings is actually pushing such a straightforward form of supersessionism. However, he only evades it through an equivocation that conceals a more subtle form. Following these passages, Jennings strongly differentiates the church and Israel, asserting that the church (contained in Jesus) is always “turned toward” Israel because of its “organic connection” through Jesus’ Jewish flesh (he explains this posture even more clearly here). It is difficult, however, to square this image of the church waiting patiently alongside/outside Israel with his earlier theological assertions of newness in Jesus.

Here’s the equivocation condensed as tightly as I can get it: Jennings’ argument lays stress on the Jewish particularity of Jesus’ flesh as the point of inclusion for gentiles into Israel. His effort to articulate the cosmic significance of Jesus’ life through Jesus’ Jewishness, through Jesus’ place in Israel, however, asserts (and, it seems, necessarily asserts) that Jesus’ life significantly changes the terms of Israel’s election as God’s favored people—even if only by “breaking open” a previously unseen layer of that election, a layer at which Israel’s election stands open to the gentiles. Yet, he theologically positions gentiles (read: Christians) as postulants seeking entry into “living Israel’s” ongoing relationship of election as God’s chosen people. So either Jesus’ life does not fundamentally change Israel’s election and the “no” to Jesus is theologically valid, in which case, whatever the cosmic significance of Jesus’ life, there are routes—perhaps more direct routes—to inclusion in Israel’s election other than Jesus (i.e. conversion to Judaism), or Israel’s election really is “broken open” by Jesus and those portions of Israel that ignore Jesus are (in some sense) missing out on the movement of God in history. Jennings does not move clearly in either direction but the tenor of his book would lead me to suspect that he would find the latter option more palatable. 

Either way, an ongoing “no” to Jesus as a pivot in God’s election of Israel seems to cause problems for Jennings’ argument. Functionally treating supersessionism as a theological idea untethered to any historical (but theologically reasoned) “no” to Jesus enables Jennings to present Israel as a single, undifferentiated whole. But Israel was not unified in antiquity, nor in the emergence of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, so Jennings’ historically attentive reader is left wondering which “Israel” is God’s chosen people and how one might adjudicate the terms of that election. He sidesteps these problems neatly by rendering supersessionism as a maneuver entirely contained within the conceptual world of Christian theology rather than as a messy historical-political reaction on the part of Jesus’ followers to those who continued to worship Israel’s God without regard for the changes that Jesus was supposed to have wrought.

A caveat or clarification: Supersessionism often appears as bogeyman in theological conversations, a contaminant that is supposed to sour a whole book, or worse, an author’s entire oeuvre. I want to avoid the invocation of such logics of purity in suggesting that Jennings’ book does not entirely escape the orbit of Christian supersessionism. Rather, I wonder whether supersessionism is simply ineradicable within Christian theology, and Christians’ best course of action is to resist the most virulent forms of supersessionism and unequivocally stand in the way of the violence that is has historically spawned.

In the end, I don’t think that my analysis weakens Jennings’ argument about the role of supersessionist theology in the formation of racialized anthropology and white supremacy in early modernity. It does, however, raise problems in Jennings’ constructive proposal for loosening the knots binding Christian theology and racialized anthropology together. If, as Jennings suggests (though one might question this conclusion), “the Christian social imagination…must be brought back” to the relationship between Israel and the gentiles for the sake of genuine communion beyond racial divisions, then I would suggest—at least—that resisting the operation of supersessionism in Christian theology requires ‘going back’ with the same attentive historical consciousness that Jennings brings to early modernity.  

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