*Please join us for a discussion and lecture with Dr. Willie James Jennings on Saturday, March 16, 2019. Find more information here
Can white people be saved? For some, the question is deeply offensive. It suggests that there is a category of people whose existence raises the question of the efficacy of salvation. But for now I am less concerned about the efficacy of salvation and more interested in the status of two keywords in the question: salvation and whiteness. These terms point to a history that we yet live within, a history where whiteness as a way of being in the world has been joined to a Christianity that is also a way of being in the world. It was the fusion of these two realities that gave tragic shape to Christian faith in the new worlds at the dawn of what we now call the modern colonialist era, or colonial modernity.
It is precisely this fusing together of Christianity with whiteness that constitutes the ground of many of our struggles today. We have always had difficulty in seeing the deeper problem of this fusion. Beside bewilderment, the typical response I get to the idea that whiteness is a problem is a mixture of guilt and anger, and of course the inevitable pushback.
It is an ironic truth of Christian life that most people perform a faith, embody a faith, that is far more complex than they articulate. There is a vastness to our lives in faith that we cannot adequately capture with our words. The difficulty with racial existence and with whiteness in particular is that it has woven itself into that vastness, making seeing the fusion and seeing our way beyond the fusion very difficult work.
To speak of whiteness is not to speak of particular people but of people caught up in a deformed building project aimed at bringing the world to its full maturity. What does maturity look like, maturity of mind and body, land and animal (use), landscape and building, family and government? Whiteness is a horrific answer to this question formed exactly at the site of Christian missions.
Whiteness as we now know it and experience it emerged at a moment in human history when the world in all its epistemological density was opening up to those we would later call Europeans. Early Europeans entered worlds overwhelming in every way, not just in majestic beauty but also in stunning landscapes, not just with inexplicable animals in their mind-bending variety but with a vast array of differing languages carried by different peoples. These settlers in these new places asked themselves the question, Who am I in this strange new place? This is the right question, the holy and good question. The newness of place should provoke such questions. The question is never the root of selfishness. Selfishness grows from its answer.
These Europeans answered the question without the voice or vision of the peoples of the new worlds. They self-designated. This was bad enough, but the horror continued as they designated vast numbers of remarkably different peoples. As they did this, they quickly began to suture different peoples, clans, and tribes into racial categories. They, the Europeans, were white, and the others were almost white, not quite white, or nonwhite, or almost black, not quite black, or black. They created a viral world of designation between white and black, capable of capturing all people in racial identity. What began as harmless designating soon took its place in a matrix of harm, and these categories took on an aggressive life of their own.
But the work of these early Europeans naming themselves white and others not white was only one side of what constituted racial identity. The other crucial part of that constitution was the formation of modern private property and the destruction of place-centered identities.
For the first time in human history, peoples (especially in the colonized worlds) were forced to think of themselves in disorienting ways, to think of themselves away from land and away from animals and into racial encasement. They were forced to reduce their identities to their bodies and the activities of the body. Why? Because the land was being taken, the animals were being captured and killed at a monstrous rate, and the plants and the landscape were being altered irreversibly. Christian settlers understood themselves to be present in the new worlds only by the hand of God, through God’s ineffable providence. They were there for one central purpose—to bring the new worlds into maturity, mature use, mature development, and of course a mature perception of the world.
The goal of missionaries was not simply to bring new world peoples into the reality of salvation. It was also to see themselves as centered selves who project meaning onto the world and who may bring nature to its full purpose and use. This crucial educational hope was to disabuse Native peoples of any idea that lands and animals, landscapes and seasons carried any communicative or animate density, and therefore any ethical or moral direction in how to live in the world. Instead, they offered peoples a relationship with the world that was basically one dimensional—we interpret and manipulate the world as we see fit, taking from it what we need, and caring for it within the logics of making it more productive for us; that is, we draw the world to its proper fulfillment.
From the beginning of colonialism, salvation and the transformation of land and peoples have been coupled together, and that coupling turned Christianity’s creative powers against itself. Christian faith is about new life in Christ and forming life inside that newness. The new situation of colonial power enfolded the newness that is Christian faith within the newness of transforming land, people, earth, and animal.
This is an excerpt from an article by Jennings in The Christian Century online magazine published October 31, 2018. To go to the original article and finish reading, visit https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/european-christian-missionaries-and-their-false-sense-progress
Willie James Jennings teaches theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School and is author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press).