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.
Thanks to APS, who saw these thoughts-in-process on twitter a week or two ago and invited me to write them up for AUFS.
30 thoughts on “The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination”
For those of us working directly in the fields of the church, this is valued and needed. Thanks.
I have often been haunted by this problem. I’ve never wanted to say it, but it does seem to me to be intrinsically difficult if not impossible to envision a plausible version of Christianity that was not supercessionist. Your suggestion that Christians should own it and try to limit the damage may be the least bad option, for those seeking to maintain Christian identity.
The recent publication of Yoder’s posthumous lectures on missions is interesting in trying to develop a ‘migratory’ nonviolent model but in the end there is a hard core of who Jesus is (as defined by the church of course) that still positions the church’s other.
If I remember right, Boyarin says that Yoder is the most heroic effort to imagine a non-supercessionist Christianity, but he still ultimately fails.
I am on a few committees at the national level of the Mennonite church in Canada and it is like pulling teeth to try and get anyone to consider putting in print that we might actually *receive* something from outside the church. Sure, when we talk about it they that is what they *really* mean, but somehow it never finds its way into print.
For anyone interested here is my review of Yoder’s book,
Adam’s first comment is basically what I had typed and deleted. I don’t think it’s possible to maintain Christian identity without being committed to some form of supersessionism, however weak. It would be really interesting to see someone approach this head on. What would the “least bad” explicit supersessionism look like?
It seems to be really difficult for Christians to trace theological continuity with Israel while also dealing with the complexity of the first century (Roman occupation, the destruction of the temple, the end of temple sacrifice [though I’ve heard some people dispute whether sacrifice ended altogether], and the emergence of a contentious field of communities claiming a connection to Israel’s God). The Christian theological project, I think, requires this historical continuity, but can’t do much besides just assert it—and that assertion almost inevitably erases and displaces the other claims to theological/historical continuity.
One of the more curious proposals I’ve come across (this is definitely not my primary area of interest, so there may well be others) was for a kind of “two-track” economy of salvation, or rather, two economies of salvation. I’ve seen Robert Jenson push this line. So God’s covenant with Israel remains unchanged, but now there’s also a covenant with the church (on different terms). In the present, this option gets really complicated as soon as one starts dealing with conflicting Jewish and Christian claims about the God who makes these two covenants (i.e. trinitarian theology), but it effectively punts on the question of historical/theological continuity, and so stakes a certain claim to have evaded supersessionism. Supersessionism sneaks in the back door, though, as the rest of Jenson’s theology simply proceeds as if the other “track” of election (whose legitimacy he formally upholds) has nothing to say that could refute or alter Christian creedal orthodoxy. The repressed supersessionism returns, all the more insidious for going unannounced.
It also struck me that, in a certain way, Jennings’ effort to reclaim a gentile self-understanding for Christians could bear a resemblance to Dan Barber’s thoughts about a diasporic Christianity—though we’re clearly in the realm of counter-factual history here. If Europeans had understood their own Christian practices and discourses as being culturally and historically particular—in a way that was not normed by some transcendent and universal ideal form of Christianity—then perhaps they would have perceived American, African, and Asian Christians as enacting divergent, but in no way deficient forms of diasporic Christianity. Obviously, that hypothetical is still presuming the violent context of colonialism and the slave trade, in which conversions were coerced, but Barber’s diasporic Christianities resemble something that could answer Jennings’ initial question about counteracting the power of racial/colonial divisions between Christians as the product of a history of white supremacist machinations. Still though, it’s hard to imagine how each of the multiple diasporic Christianities (even with strong gentile self-conception) would avoid the kinds of Christian claims that are the seedbed of supersessionism. Of course, there are all sorts of differences between Dan’s project in “On Diaspora” and Jennings’, but there is at least a moment of resonance here.
None of that really answers the question of what a “least bad” supersessionism would actually look like—I’ve not spent much time with Yoder, maybe he’s got something better on offer—but at the least, I think it would have to start from a deep familiarity with (and suspicion of) the kinds of disavowed displacements and erasures through which Christians have hammered out a theologically tidy history.
George Hunsinger seems to be going for “least bad” supersessionism here: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/what-christians-owe-jews
This may be a bit adjacent to the topic, but: one of the things that i tried to get at in my discussion of diaspora was that Chrisitanity, in order to constitute itself as Christianity, had to foreclose / disavow / etc. the logic of diaspora. In this sense, diaspora is what is unthinkable by Christianity, but it is also that which marks (inesecapably) the millieu / matrix out of which Christianity made itself.
In a sense, this amounts to a “theory of Christianity.” And articulating such a “theory” allows an ethical (and methodological) critierion to be posed for Christianity — because one of the “tricks” of Christianity is that it’s always deciding on the criteria by which it’s judged. Along these lines: Jennings book, i really liked and learned from a lot of what he did, yet i always had the sense that he implicitly accounted for Christianity’s failures as a perversion of true Christianity. (Note that i may be wrong in this reading — this was a general sense, which i wasn’t able to explicitly tease out.) In any case, what is central for me in disapora is precisely to get out of this evaluation of Christianity in terms of Christianity — hence the ethical / methodological criterion.
It seems to me that supersessionism, in essence, is bound to this preclusion by Christianity of any ethical criterion other than those it has created. (And in this way Christianity, i think, is essentially supersessionist in its standard form.) Liberalism, secularism, they sought to introduce such a criterion, but in doing so they more or less inherited and transmuted / reproduced what Christianity had already produced. What is necessary is not to “supersede” Christianity as secularism sought to do, but to find a kind of immanent unthought to which Christian material may be subjected (because this material isn’t going away — the point then is not how to be Christian so much as how to put Christianity under a condition, a problematic, that would be irreducible to the inheritance of Christianity … and this is what i tried to do with diaspora, at least as a start).
Thank you, Dan, for elucidating some of the differences between your project and Jennings’ with a succinctness and clarity that I couldn’t have mustered. I think you’re right that there is a kind of normative or ideal Christianity in play for Jennings—-if nowhere else, at least in his introduction, which sets out divisions and impasses in Christian community and then suggests that things should not be this way.
Perhaps your clarification invalidates the connection that I was trying to make; admittedly I’m working with a memory of your book’s argument that is now a few years old. Still, at a gut level, I think there’s something in Jennings counter-factual supposition of what might have happened if mainstream Christianity had insisted on its gentile identity “alongside” the continuation of Israel that follows something like a logic of diaspora. There is an indeterminacy in the concept “gentile” that resonates for me with the logic of diaspora. That counter-history never took place, probably because, as you suggest, Christianity necessarily forecloses the logic of diaspora from the beginning (at least from any beginning that posits Jesus as some kind of concrete universal).
…and I’ll add that I find your last paragraph here (the suggestion to “find a kind of immanent unthought to which Christian material may be subjected”) to be a much more productive and generative direction for my critical explorations than does Jennings’ desire to somehow “go back” and reconfigure Christian identity relative to Israel in a gentile mold. I struggle to understand what such a return would look like and what politics it could possible produce.
I think this essay is on to something really important, and I also agree with Dan’s assessment of Jenning’s book. He is definitely working with the assumption that the Christianity he is critiquing is a “diseased” Christian imagination (I think he actually uses that phrase, or at least he did in a class I took with him) that is a perversion of the true gospel, which he generally articulates in Barthian terms. I wonder if the problem of supersessionism in Jennings and in a lot of other critical theology is the turn to theology itself, especially the way theology is articulated in its Barthian, Christocentric, and apocalyptic manner that necessarily reintroduces dogmatic and ontological solutions to the problem, even if ever so minimally. I think Jennings book is an incredible genealogy and critique of the problem of the western, racialized Christian imagination (really about as good as it gets), but it’s the turn to his Barthian theological solutions that I tend to find so unnecessary and counterintuitive to the rest of his critique.
As far as Dan’s suggestion of finding an “immanent unthought” to which Christian material may be subjected, I wonder if a turn to religion instead of theology via someone like Charles Long would yield different results, particularly his critique of “opaque theologies” like James Cone and Vin Deloria. Long affirms their political critiques of the world but argues that these theologies should not move forward in any kind of theological truth claim, but rather become what he calls “deconstructive theologies” that undertake the destruction of theology as a powerful mode of discourse. This all hinges on Long’s insistence that religion precedes theology (which might have interesting implications for questions regarding supersessionism), and he argues this deconstruction takes place primarily through attention to modes of experience and expression that formed such communities as they encountered the Western other as a kind mysterium tremendum, the experiences from which “gods were made.” For Long, going back through these experiences as the deconstruction of theology rather than moving forward with a constructive theology opens up a space of freedom that theology always already cuts off: “The affirmations “black is beautiful,” or “God is Red” are more than mere slogans. They are shorthand for the agonizing history of communities that have had to face the ultimacy of reality as a daily experience in the modern world. The matter of God is what is being experienced. This may be an old god (but all old gods are new gods). The expression of this god cannot be in the older theological language. This god has evoked a new beat, a new rhythm, a new movement. It is a god that must be commensurate with both the agony of oppression and the freedom of all persons.” (Significations, 212).
From a naive perspective, since all of the primary material of Christianity is drawn from Judaism and that a major claim of Christianity is that Jesus fulfils prophecies within Judaism, isn’t some element of supersessionism irreducible? Only echoing what everyone has said above.
I wonder if there is any comparative study of either Islam and/or Mormonism or any number of heretical sects, insomuch as they claim to have superseded Christianity and repositioned and re-ordered Christian promises and revelations in the light of further revelations. Though I am really wading out of my depth here.
David, I haven’t read Long yet, but I don’t understand the opposition being made for him between the constructive projects of Cone and Deloria and the destruction of theological discourses (colonizing?) power. It seems this is precisely where I would place Cone (it’s been a while since I’ve read Deloria so had to speak to that). That is, in making perverse theological statements about the name of God (God is black, God is red, etc.) they functionally stop theological language from working in its colonial direction. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Dan’s Deleuze book, so I’m thinking a lot about the ethics of the crack and re-expression. It seems that the experiences of colonialism are the site from which a re-expression of the name of God goes forth in such a way that a new imagination of God and who God is accountable to. For me, then, someone like Cone is the closest we get to a non-supersessionist theology in the sense that he (in my reading) doesn’t maintain Barthian ontological and dogmatic solutions but figures Christ in black. A figuration that can’t be thought of as superseding Jesus Jewishness. That is, black theology seems, in my mind, to be trying to articulate the diasporic nature of blackness in a way that is inherited from a kind of Jewish diasporic. Don’t know if that works but I’m just throwing it out to see what people think.
Eric, really appreciate this piece. I do think, as I say in my response to David, that there is potential for a non-supersessionist theology. I think Jennings’ problem here is that a critique of whiteness and theology isn’t the same as doing black theology. That is, I think there’s still a reconciliatory telos for Jennings theology that isn’t able to inhabit the instability black theology put forths. The instability I mean is that form of diaspora and antagonism that I think Cone’s first two works articulate.
Also, I’m researching and working on a reading of Cone that prioritizes Delores Williams’ diagnostics about the importance of Hagar. She points out how Hagar functions as the disinherited in Gal. for Paul. There, in Galatians, Paul’s articulation of supersession requires the Jews to become figured through Hagar who is the flesh to Sarah and Christianity’s spirit. It seems to me that understanding race as a marker of disinheritance is what ties Jewish flesh and Black flesh together. That said, I think Williams and Hortense Spillers pointing to the name of the mother that marks the disinherited vs the son inheriting the name of the father is precisely what it means to be a child of the spirit/promise for Paul. This also means Pauline issues of gender and sexuality play a large role in supersession and racialization, too (which is why that book you suggested Eric, Christ without Adam piqued my interest).
I’m glad folks are still commenting on this post as I’ve been out of town but wanted to respond. Put most simply, you seem to imply that a Christian claim that Jewish people are mistaken in a belief about God’s actions in history is a “subtle” form of supercessionism. Why would disagreement necessarily entail excision from or annulment of the covenant?
If we accept your initial definition of supercessionism, how has Jennings’ rendered “living Israel” (his phrase) “obsolete” (your phrase)? Certainly, he is claiming that living Israel is wrong in terms of its understanding of what God is doing in history (bringing Gentiles into covenant with God through the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth); but that in no way renders Israel “obsolete,” “missing out” (as if God is no longer engaging them), or even theologically naive. There is a newness, as you note, but this newness is Gentiles claiming to find their story inside of Israel as Gentiles, not the eradication or replacement of God’s covenant to Israel.
I’d also suggest that Jennings does not attempt to parse out “which Israel is God’s chosen people” because of (not in spite of) the historical complexity AND because he thinks Gentile attempts to define such borders are central to supercessionism and the racial logic, a logic that must circumscribe Israel so as to displace/overcome them.
Finally, I find the critiques and concerns of Dan and David to be answerable within Jennings’s account, a kind of fideistic response one also finds in Cone: those are well and good as external critiques but I’m not sure why they should be taken as *decisive* for someone giving a Christian theological account of the world in which we live. That is, the split between good/bad, genuine/false Christianity is one that is, theologically speaking, ultimately based on what God has been and is doing through Jesus Christ. Certainly, there are other ways these distinctions can and should be analyzed, but why should those analyses be *decisive* for me as a theologian (even though I find them important and beneficial)? And I’m even less sure that this kind of response *is* the logic of supercessionism, esp. given how strongly Jennings’ articulates the desire for joining (which gives a strong reason for attending to these criticisms from those with whom one desires to claim and form patterns of kinship/belonging).
Suffice it to say, the charge of subtle or lingering or ineradicable supercessionism in Jennings or Christianity as a whole seems to play on some divergent and rather loose uses of the term as well as a false dilemma. I’m not trying to convince you to be a constructive theologian but only to say that I am not convinced I should stop.
Thanks for your time and your post!
What I see Eric trying to parse out is what does it mean when Jennings says stuff about gentiles finding their story “inside of israel as gentiles” if the “no” of the “living israel” is considered a mistake by gentiles? How does that kind of judgement come from inside of israel’s story in such a way that it doesn’t become supersessionist? How does it assert its rightness against the jews mistake regarding jesus being messiah and still inhabit a within?
I guess I also don’t understand your not finding dan and david’s critiques *decisive*. As something of a theologian, too, it seems being made accountable for Christianity’s discursive “tricks” is quite important to understand the various modes in with a ‘desire for joining’ takes form. That is, I’m not convinced by Jennings thought on desire and intimacy that we can read them in a straightforwardly positive way. There is already a desire and a joining at work in the logic of supersessionism, already a making and unmaking of kinship. These have been highly problematic impositions of joining and desire and kinship. So it seems a bit disingenuous to posit those as eluding the critique of supersession. Indeed, from my view, they seem like a more affective articulation of reconciliation.
@David: I haven’t read Charles Long either, but I’ll admit that I’m a bit circumspect of the proscription of constructive theology altogether as an avenue toward liberation. The reductionist narrative that you sketch (all theologies are rationalistic hardenings of a deeper, more organic experience of a mysterium tremendum) has a European heritage and has often been pushed for colonizing ends. That’s not meant as an accusation toward Long in particular, only that I’d tend put my intellectual energy into the kinds of liberative projects that Cone, Deloria, Williams, and others have undertaken. The project of deconstruction does not proscribe a simultaneous constructive effort. I agree, though, that the last constructive piece of Jennings’ book doesn’t quite fit with the earlier historical material. It’s partly that friction between the historical moves and the theological moves that fascinates me.
@Amaryah — I’m really fascinated by your project on Cone and Hagar, and in this context I’m really curious how you’d begin to develop constructive moves that would be, as you say, non-supersessionist. Perhaps there’s a way that Black theology has an escape from the trajectory of Christian supersessionism that is simply not available to white theology. By that I mean that the constitutive disinheritance of American Blackness (i.e. after the middle passage) places Black theology with Hagar in a way that white theology (with it’s inescapable links to claiming the inheritance of others) can simply never claim. I’d still be interested in how such a Black theology would position Jesus relative to Israel, as that where I most often find Christian theology failing to evade supersessionism.
And I think you’re right that even though Jennings has some very strong words (and much needed words!) against reconciliation at the beginning of the book that there is a kind of reconciliatory trajectory driving the books argument. It’s a reconciliation that requires a reckoning with the pervasive white supremacy of Western culture, so it doesn’t come cheap, but I see it there too.
Thanks for your challenge! I’ll try to answer succinctly.
I don’t think it’s actually necessary or helpful for theologians to try to parse out the first century situation and adjudicate which splinter faction represents “true Israel,” I am actually glad that Jennings didn’t “go back” in that way. But if one is going to insist on the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with Israel, and one likewise insists that present day Jews are representative of that covenant, then I think that one is obligated to take the theological rejection of Jesus into one’s own theological account. That is to say, it’s not that there can’t or shouldn’t be any disagreement about Jesus’ status relative to salvation history, but in the midst of that disagreement, I think you’ve got to hedge on one of three claims: (1) that Jesus makes a significant alteration in Israel’s covenant with God (i.e. the inclusion of the gentiles); (2) that Israel continues in a living relationship with God (an anti-supersessionist claim); and (3) the people who exist in a living relationship with God have some theologically reliable concept of their covenant with God. I think that it’s easiest for Christian theologians to dodge #3, and I think that Jennings dodges it, because the project of Christian theology requires pretty strong confidence in Jesus as a figure of cosmic redemption and it’s difficult to hold assertions of that confidence in tension with an open ear to the ongoing “no” to Jesus. I frequently find that dodge taking place where there is a theological concept of Israel being invoked without reference to the messiness and multiplicity of historical Israels, because a it’s easier to foreclose that “no” when Israel is treated as a singular, stable entity. There is a subtle displacement or erasure taking place here, not a denial of Israel’s covenant, but a denial that Israel’s covenant gives them a voice that Christian theologians need to take into account with regard to Jesus’ place in salvation history.
Finally, I think Dan’s analysis is so important, not because it somehow invalidates the project of constructive theology altogether. I still rightly pass for a constructive theologian from time to time. What Dan’s analysis does is show how the supposition of a normative Christianity against which theologians can judge actually-existing Christianity functions itself functions as a novel way of extending Christianity’s reach. So rather than, say, proselytizing and trying to get people to express an allegiance to Jesus, theologians (and secular anti-theologians) extend Christianity precisely by critiquing it on the basis of norms internal to Christian logic. The widespread supposition of these norms (which are fluid and changing, but always internally) extend Christianity or its counterparts secularity and religion in a disavowedly colonial rather than an evangelistic manner.
I apologize if any of this is unclear, I’m typing this on the run, but I appreciate your pushback and I hope that I’ve understood and answered your concerns in some fashion.
I don’t see how the claim that Jewish people are mistaken about Jesus of Nazareth is equivalent to the claim that God has ended or bypassed God’s covenant with Israel (supercessionism), or that Gentiles are not bound to what Jennings calls “living Israel.” If we are using supercessionism to mean superiority over (which is a looser sense, it seems), I think Jennings accounts for it in terms of the weakness of the claims (we Gentiles claim to belong to Israel’s God and therefore to be bound to Israel on the basis of some specific claims regarding what would be very strange works of God, like resurrecting a crucified Messiah in the middle of history).
On Jennings and reconciliation: “the join(ing)” Jennings articulates requires the destruction of whiteness as the mediator of social-material space (land and bodies), which is to say, seems in line with what Cone would want as whiteness would not be the mediator of identity but white folk would enter the kind of diasporic, exilic, improvisatory mode of life Jennings connects with Jewish and black life as it unfolds in, under, and through whiteness (or colonial modernity). Certainly the latter point is downplayed in favor of the devastating critique of whiteness, but for Jennings this critical work is necessary so that this diasporic existence does not replicate the displacement of/as whiteness.
On Dan and Dave: yes, agreed on being accountable, meaning engaging such critiques. It was just that these critiques were also framed as if Christian theology were inevitably supercessionist or colonial, and that was more of an assumption/assertion than a conclusion to an argument that would make me question the viability or integrity of being a constructive Christian theologian.
Some really lucid presentations of difficult stuff going on in this thread.
Thanks Eric! On #1, the inclusion of Gentiles is quite often presented not as an alteration of the covenant but a dispute over timing (not whether, but when/how Gentiles come in); #2 is pretty straight-forward; #3 is complex and ambiguous, for in the Hebrew scriptures themselves there is debate about the scope, demands, promises, and divine fulfillment of the covenant. That is, while there is widespread agreement that Israel is in covenant with the LORD, there is less agreement as to what all this entails. I don’t think Jennings is that perplexed by the “no” of Israel but is more perplexed by the “yes” of some in Israel and the increasing “yes” of Gentiles, and then dismayed and disheartened that this “yes” of Gentiles became transformed into a Gentile “no” to Israel. That is, for Jennings, the inclusion of Gentiles into Israel through Jesus is not an obvious claim. And the cosmic scope of redemption does not simply bypass Israel’s no, for redemption (for Jennings) is this material joining of peoples, wherein Gentiles claim a peculiar kinship with Israel by claiming to share in Israel’s covenantal promises through Jesus.
My point on the “normative” Christianity claim is simply that for Jennings (and Cone, and myself, and many others), the distinction b/n good/bad or genuine/false Christianity is a performative distinction that attempts to articulate and enact a certain mode of Christian life as more faithful to the past, present, and future activity of God in Jesus Christ at a particular historical juncture than other forms. It is part of communal self-formation/creation, or more traditionally stated, discipleship. But whether this distinction is (sometimes) part of living faithfully to the present activity of God or whether it is (always) an ideological operation through which Christianity immunizes itself from critique depends, in part, on whether one is or is not committed to the truth of certain claims of the Christian faith (that God was, is, and will be with us in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, for instance). Basically, I was just trying to say that Jennings was being critiqued at some points for being a constructive theologian, for thinking that the point (for him) is still to imagine other ways of being Christian.
Amaryah, Thanks for the reply. And thanks all for an interesting thread. Long agrees with what you say regarding Cone and Deloria stopping theological language in its colonial direction, which he understands as the language of (white) “transparency as a metaphor for the theory of knowledge”, i.e. colonial knowledge as universal. It’s precisely in the “perverse” pronouncements that theologies become “opaque” and deny the white world the ability to define their reality. I agree with pretty much everything you say (although I’m not totally sure Cone is fully free of (Barthian) dogmatic/ontological solutions—but I’d like to hear you out on that point), and I think the Long quotation that I provided in my original post is actually getting at the crack and reexpression you name: “This god has evoked a new beat, a new rhythm, a new movment.” It’s just that Long thinks the deconstruction of theology into its religious source is the better way to get at that and one that prevents the discourse of the reexpression from mirroring what it seeks to resist. Since many have not read Long yet, here’s a lengthier passage (sorry!) from Long on this point:
“If God is red, if black is beautiful, then this modality of the godhead has always been the case and there are those who have lived this testimony. The opacity of God forms a discontinuity with the bad faith of the other theological modes. There is a theology of accusation and opposition which is to the fore in the theologies opaque. But it is precisely at this point that these theologies should not move forward to possess the theological battle-field wrested from their foes. It is at this point that theologies opaque must become deconstructive theologies—that is to say, theologies that undertake the destruction of theology as a powerful mode of discourse…The resources for this kind of deconstructive theology are present in histories and traditions of those who have undergone the oppressive cultures of the modern period. It means that attention must be given in a precise manner to the modes of experience and expression that formed these communities in their inner and intimate lives. I don’t have in mind here a romantic return to an earlier period. I am speaking of the resource that might enable us to generate another kind of meaning for the temporal–spatial existence of human beings on this globe. The designations post-Enlightenment, death of God [etc] are pronouncements that have come from the intellectual orders of the sophisticated west, and they may well be the most authentic statement about their intellectual resources for the definition of the human venture…But what would be a history stemming from the oppressed? Are they destined to imitate and repeat a destructive cycle of events? The appearance of theologies of the opaque might promise another alternative of a structural sort, but only if these theologies move beyond the structural power of theology as the normative mode of discourse and contemplate a narrative of meaning that is commensurate with the quality of beauty that was fired in the crucible of oppression. Those who have lived in the cultures of the oppressed know something about freedom that the oppressors will never know. Opaque theologies in their deconstructive tasks will be able to make common cause with folklorists, novelists, poets, and many other non theological types who are involved in the discernment of these meanings.? (Significations, 210).
I have no idea what Long would say about the problem of supersessionism, but I think that he might link the problem to something like a problem of theology as a kind of “battle-field” of ontology or abstracted identities, which is precisely what he wants to avoid. Long thinks the sort of deconstruction he’s getting at is actually there already in Cone—specifically in books like ‘The Spirituals and the Blues”—but he argues that this is overshadowed by Cone’s insistence on theology as the mode of discourse. Maybe he’s wrong on Cone, and maybe he’s wrong about the possibility of a constructive theology that can do this (Tim, I wouldn’t want you to stop!), but the critique makes sense to me, particularly in terms of a methodology that lends itself to a more materialist mode of critique.
Eric, thanks for the thoughts. I hear you on the European heritage of the mysterium tremendum theme. Long is certainly aware of this, and he too is concerned with the liberative projects that those theologians have pursued. He is interested in the moment of encounter out of which religious experience/expression emerges, and narrates the encounter with the Western colonizer as a “double mysterium tremendum” that is commensurate with DuBois’ double consciousness—the encounter with the colonizer/master as simultaneous with the discovery of one’s own humanity as a mode of critique against the colonizer. He does a really interesting comparison of the mysterium tremendum as accounted by William James and Dubois on this point.
Echoing David on thanks to all for this thread. It’s very helpful. I also wanted to just note that Amaryah also connected Jennings on “joining” back to questions / concerns via Keller on relation, something I find quite interesting (esp. given my own previous work at Duke and present work at SMU). There is a possible answer shared b/n them, namely, that the desire “to join” (or living in/as relation) is not presented as some kind of ethically pure response to the problem, and that what matters is a certain kind of trajectory or modality that has to be worked out and analyzed in concrete instances. However, Jennings I think wants something more than that. First, the impetus to “join” is a concrete, material response to the movement of the God of Israel in human history: that is, joining is a *theological* term, as it is the response to the present, material activity of the God of Israel in Jesus of Nazareth. Secondly, this joining is for the sake of life together as part of the Gentile Christian witness to God’s entrance and movement in history. The goal of witnessing to this God requires a habitation into the spatial-linguistic patterns of other particular modes of human life, for one is convinced not that the Gospel incorporates all cultures or is present in/as all cultures but that the living God to whom this Gospel speaks is active and at work in history, among peoples, drawing them, like us other Gentiles, into God’s covenant with Israel. And that discernment takes time, space, and relation, a mode of “giving on and with” (to use Glissant’s phrase) that whiteness denies and attempts to contain/constrain.
Perhaps then, the “join” Jennings articulates is not primarily ontological-ethical (as it seems in process thought) but Christological-aesthetic, the reformation of desires inside the spatiality that is Christ’s body (the enfleshment of God’s life as this opening/join, or in Barth’s and Cone’s terminology, as revelation). Which is to say, the question is not one of the application of a basic ontological-ethical framework to a concrete reality but of discerning the movement of the living God of Israel in our world. This latter claim is, to echo the title of Cone’s book, a risk of faith (and Dave, how’s that for not stopping!?!).
Thanks again for the conversation everyone.
I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a kind of supersessionistic silencing taking place in the notion of “joining.” To assert that Christians have been grafted into Israel’s covenant obviously presumes the ongoing integrity of that covenant (i.e. none of the abrogation or invalidation of virulent supersessionism), but it does assert a significant change in that covenant. I agree with your earlier statement that the dispute regarding the inclusion of the gentiles is a question of “when” and “how”—but it’s precisely on the question of this “when” and this “how” that Christian theologians shut their ears to the dissenting “not now” and “not like this.” Or, rather, if their ears are not shut, very few pages of Christian theology are devoted to serious consideration of the importance of this theological dissent. I appreciate Jennings’ use of language like “waiting outside” to describe gentile Christians’ relationship to Israel, but as I tried to point out in the post, I think he’s not entirely consistent. I’ve claimed that supersessionism is ineradicable within Christian theology because it seems like even in the most careful presentations (like Jennings’) there is still something like this claim being pushed: “We have joined your group no matter what you say about the terms of belonging.” That claim gets stranger when it’s paired with claims like this one from your last comment: “The goal of witnessing to this God requires a habitation into the spatial-linguistic patterns of other particular modes of human life, for one is convinced not that the Gospel incorporates all cultures or is present in/as all cultures but that the living God to whom this Gospel speaks is active and at work in history, among peoples, drawing them, like us other Gentiles, into God’s covenant with Israel.” There seems to be a nod here toward cultural-linguistic particularity—Christians are supposed to learn Israel’s language—but there’s a simultaneous refusal to listen to the theological “no” being spoken in that very language. Christians “joining” Israel seem to theologize Israel in order to join an entity that has no say one way or another over the terms of Christian joining. That’s not classic virulent supersessionism, but it’s still a displacement or erasure of people in a living covenant with the God of Israel that functions similarly.
So, I’m not sure what actual difference your distinction between an ontological-ethical joining and a Christological-aesthetic joining makes. Particularly if it only masks a maneuver that removes “Israel” from the category of history in order to reposition it as a category in theology—-i.e. “We aren’t really, ontologically part of Israel in a historical sense, but we trust that God has opened “Israel” in Jesus so that we can practice a version of “being Israel” anyway.” Does this distinction make any political difference?
I hope I haven’t distorted your argument by replying in stark terms. I’m hoping to attain clarity, not to be abrasive and I apologize if I’ve strayed into the latter.
Everything once again hangs on a rather loose sense of supercessionist (no longer using the definition you gave at the outset of your post) and on some simultaneously loaded and ambiguous terminology, e.g., “no say…over the terms of Christian joining.” The ambiguity is this: for Jennings, God is the one who is always drawing the boundary of Israel in history, and the Hebrew bible attests to it (e.g., the redrawing of the covenant through the Davidic line). So when you talk about “theologizing Israel” as if this were to be positioned over against the material/historical/messy reality of Israel, this misses that Jennings takes himself to be repeating a fundamental claim of biblical Israel that is variously attested by “living” Israel (I’m not sure about these terms but they are his and useful at the moment), namely, that Israel *is* theological in its materiality/historicity/etc. And given this theological pole, the disagreement is over what God is doing with Israel and not over who has control over the borders of Israel (the latter being, for Jennings, the reworking of Jewish theological identity within a racial logic). Which is why Christians can say Israel is wrong in denying that the LORD raised Jesus from the dead as its and therefore everyone’s Messiah without claiming that Israel has been erased or displaced from a living covenant with God. But again, for Jennings, this claim to be bound together is precarious and sustained by a weak claim about a “weak Word” (a phrase he takes from Bonhoeffer), such that its translation into a position of Christian “cultural strength” (Said) is a movement away from the opening/joining/intimacy expressed and enacted in this fragile flesh and blood in which God came to us and in which God will come again.
On the ontological / Christological, that was an effort to think through the differences b/n a process orientation towards relation and Jennings account of the desire to join. I’m not sure what to make of your latter claim, except that the kind of opposition you are placing b/n “theology” and “history” (or materiality or ontology) isn’t something I (or Jennings) would accept, and the notion that Gentiles are trying to be Israel anyways misses the fundamental point: they should not be trying to be Israel but rather should be trying to understand themselves as Gentiles. The loss of that knowledge, that Christians are Gentiles, is what Jennings thinks is central to the logic of supercessionism that built the modern racial world.
And likewise to you, I try to just cut to the chase and hope that doesn’t come off as being rude/dismissive. As I mentioned, I’m finding these conversations very helpful.
If it comes down to a question of whether or not I’m extending the definition of supersessionism, then I’ll readily concede that I’m doing so. I use language like “escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism” because I think that there’s a pattern of thinking/writing in Jennings’ book that functions so much like supersessionism that it’s worthy of the name. The basic logic of supersessionism enacts a displacement of Israel. In Christian theology that strives to be “non-supersessionist” there is no denial or negation of Israel’s covenant, there are no assertions that the church is the new Israel, so there isn’t a displacement of Israel from its covenant with God but there is still a displacement occuring. The living covenant of God with God’s people seems kind of dead and useless if it doesn’t actually mean that one should engage with God’s covenant people when one is making statements about what God is doing with the covenant. Israel is “obsolete” not in the sense that Christians are asserting that the covenant has been revoked, but in the sense that Christians theologians don’t give any pages, any consideration to the voice of God’s covenant people. It’s obsolete in the sense of being an interesting relic that doesn’t function in conversations about Jesus and Jesus’ significance vis-a-vis God’s work in history. That’s the dynamic that I see going on in Jennings’ book. Admittedly it’s pushing the initial definition of supersessionism in the post, but do I think the post explains why pushing the logic of that definition makes sense.
So it’s precisely in the “disagreement over what God is doing with Israel” that Christian theology gives very little consideration to the other side of the disagreement. There are endless assertions of the ways that Jesus reveals God’s relationship to Israel alongside endless assertions that Israel continues as God’s covenant people, but very, very few theologians who put the two together in order to consider what God’s covenant people have to say about Jesus relative to the covenant. That’s a silencing that Christian theology has inherited from centuries of more insidious and more violent forms of supersessionism.
I don’t want to separate theology and history at all—I’m endlessly fascinated by the frictions generated at the joint between them. I think the pair is helpful for the analysis taking place here because the binary offers two different modes of discourse, a kind of open door for equivocation. So emphasis falls on Israel as historical when asserting the importance of attention to cultural/ethnic/linguistic formation and emphasis falls on Israel as theological when asserting Jesus’ relationship to gentiles and the covenant. Of course Israel is both historical and theological, but holding it together as such (especially as a single, continuous entity) creates all manner of interesting tensions—some of which I was trying to explore here.
I have not read Boyarin so this may be well covered but have any of you read some good accounts that bring these theological/social questions into conversation with the movements accounted for within Hebrew scriptures (i.e. the overcomings, displacements, erasures, fractures, disputes, etc.)?
I can see this being done as a very Christian move to prioritize or justify our place. But it is still there in some form without having to look exclusively to parse out the ambiguities of late second-temple Judaism.
Thanks! I agree with a lot of what you said. There is a difference I want to make between claims Christians accept and claims Christians express. That is, the acceptance of a “Christological” claim about Jesus of Nazareth has certainly and quite problematically led to certain expressions that range from overt supercessionism to a more troubling disregard. At this point in history, it’s not clear to me that Christians *ought* to be expressing these claims to Jews and if they do, how they ought to be doing so. With much tentativeness, openness, and concern, to say the least. I think that there is a lot of work to do to detach Christianity from whiteness and begin to understand ourselves as Gentiles before ever thinking we as Christians need to be overtly attempting to persuade Jews that their God was in fact at work in Jesus of Nazareth. Conversations, and Jennings intimates this, might go down different lines between black Christians and Jews, but his suggestions seems to be focused firstly on the problem of whiteness and secondly on Christians learning to reread Torah (incidentally, this chapter does, in fact, draw on living Jewish thinkers, and this in a book that is primarily a critical account of the theological origins of race). Basically, it seems hasty and unfounded to claim that this book and perhaps Christianity itself is ineradicably supercessionist. Nevertheless, I think I share many more sympathies when it comes to deciding what Christians ought to do/say given the long and continuing history of Christian supercessionism.
Thank you for the intelligent post. I haven’t settled on this, despite writing a thesis in this world..
As someone pointed out above, Mormonism and Islam supersede Christianity. I think the case of Mormonism is better, where its restorationism completely negates the historic Christian community.
But it is also important to note that the religion of the Hebrews emerged out of paganisms, as they tell the story. And Judaism emerges out of the religion of Israel. A living competitor is the Samaritan religion, which shares the same parent. The anti-pagan rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible is explicit; anti-Samaritan sentiments are more implicit but still there in the later texts.
I think that 2nd Temple Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, Talmudic, etc. are all in evolutionary continuity. But is secular Judaism a supersession? I don’t know.
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