Willie James Jennings, author of the award-winning The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, argues that issues of race and the Christian faith are so entangled in American life that one cannot be understood without reference to the other:
Race in America is a form of religious faith, and we will never be able to understand or address it with the necessary knowledge, energy or commitment until we comprehend its true architecture. Indeed, race has a Christian architecture, and Christianity in the West has a racial architecture (see Racial Faith).
Jennings narrates the genealogy of race from a theological perspective. Throughout his narration of colonial modernity Jennings argues that the distorted relationship between Jews and Gentile Christians, as demonstrated in supersessionism and anti-Judaism in Christian doctrine and teaching, is a central contributor to the racial imagination which the West has inherited. In addition, Jennings builds upon a history of black and Jewish solidarity in America, arguing that there is congruence between the “racial struggles of blacks and Jews” (The Christian Imagination, 281).
While Jennings’ insights in the area of past and present Jewish-Christian relations are compelling and constructive, questions remain as to how Jennings’ work should be interpreted in the current theopolitical climate; a climate where American foreign policy, and much of the American evangelical church, remains largely uncritical of policies of the State of Israel, such as settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories which are condemned by the international community.
It is important to clarify that I do not equate the diversity of Jewish religious life only with the modern State of Israel. I also acknowledge the diverse range of Jewish opinion regarding the State of Israel and its policies. I further note Jenningsdoes not attempt to develop a robust political theology of Israel-Palestine.
However, the question prompted by Jennings’ identification of the connection between Western racism and supersessionism is how Christians are to respond appropriately to the modern State of Israel, particularly as it re-enacts its own version of supersessionism (by analogy) vis-à-vis the Palestinians in its midst. Similar questions have been put to Jennings by Paul C.H. Lim and A.J. Walton in response to his first monograph, The Christian Imagination.
Jennings is aware of the complexities involved in interfaith relations between Jews and Christians on both the theological and geo-political front. While cognizant that Christians must show a commitment to “a witness born of the Jewish Jesus toward Israel and all those whose lives encircle and are encircled by Torah”, Jennings nevertheless realizes that the modern State of Israel cannot be ignored in the context of re-claiming Christian and Jewish communion as a witness to reconciliation in a divided world.
Indeed, Jennings makes statements in The Christian Imagination, his commentary on Acts, and elsewhere, to the effect that a Christian commitment to “Israel” does not mean a commitment to the statecraft of the modern State or to Jewish (or Christian) nationalism.
The rise of the Jewish nation-state now profoundly articulated through Zionism created a challenging context for the articulation of a theological identity. Faithfulness to the Torah appear to be joined to the problem of ethnic violence, death, and the temptation of worldly power (The Christian Imagination, 285).
However, there is a significant lacuna in Jennings’ commendable project to restore a Christian–Jewish “vision of life together”: the omission of the Palestinian people and the failure to incorporate their voices and experiences.
The problem with Jennings’ omission of the Palestinian people, when held in conjunction with his argument that Christian theology is “unintelligible” without both “biblical Israel” and “living Israel”, (see The Christian Imagination, 251), is that it leaves his work vulnerable to mis-appropriation by those within the Western church who perpetuate an uncritical view of the policies of the State of Israel and who all too easily erase the Palestinian people and their history.
Referring to The Christian Imagination, Mark Lewis Taylor has similarly identified this missing piece:
For all its differences from the white racist and anti-Semitic forms of U.S Christian Zionism today, Jennings’ theology risks a similar revivifying of mythic narratives that sacralize Israeli national identity at the expense of Palestinian and other peoples. Jennings’ theology cries out for some address of the Palestinians’ site of colonial anguish, especially because of the theological ratification he gives to a Jesus who is linked to the land of Israel (325).
Building upon Taylor’s salient observation, I propose that Jennings work be read alongside the writings of Palestinian liberation theologians, such as Naim Ateek, Cedar Duaybis, Mitri Raheb, and Jean Zaru, whose theology interacts with and responds to a context of military occupation and land seizure, social and economic inequality and the decade-long siege on Gaza. This reading strategy would also go a long way toward redressing the lack of sustained engagement of contemporary Christian political theology with the political experience of the Palestinian Church.
Prominent biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann in his forward to Naim Ateek’s latest book, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice and the Palestine-Israel Conflict,summarizes the important role for Palestinian liberation theology in the context of the mainstream Christian theopolitical focus on the State of Israel:
The endlessly vexed circumstance of the “land of promise” cries out for our attention while at the same time that circumstance defies any hope for peaceable and just outcomes. The facts on the ground are sad enough. They are, however, made more intransigent by the grip of Israeli ideology that effectively defines that vexed circumstance for the Western imagination. Thus, almost all of the information (misinformation) that we receive in the West is filtered through Zionist ideological interest that holds in thrall much of the Christian community in the United States and consequently that holds in thrall US policy as well. In that articulation the current plight of Palestinians is kept invisible and the legitimate claims of Palestinians, grounded in historical and social reality, are left without articulation (xv).
Examples of the filter that Brueggemann identifies include the billions of dollars donated to the State of Israel by evangelical Christians, much to the dismay of Palestinian Christians, not to mention the theological discourses which accompanied the United States embassy move to Jerusalem earlier this year.
Brueggemann describes Ateek as an “honest and faithful witness.” Bearing witness, naming injustice, theological reflection in dialogue with Palestinian experience and non-violent resistance characterize Palestinian liberation theology. Ateek dedicates his most recent book to
Jews, Muslims, Christians, and all people of goodwill who believe in the power of nonviolence and possess the courage to stand and act for justice and peace for all the people of the land, and especially for the liberation of the Palestinian people.
A vision of sharing the land based on human rights, international law, the equality of all people and a commitment to justice, peace and reconciliation permeates every page. Ateek’s book is a call to action. The action takes the form of non-violent resistance that requires a collective response from both Palestinians and the global community – including people of faith.The insistence on non-violent resistance to injustice, exhibited by Ateek and other Palestinian theologians, provides compelling reason to pay heed to their message.
Furthermore, Palestinian liberation theology contains many points of convergence with Jennings’ theological program. Jennings, for example, incisively unmasks Christianity’s complicity with colonial agendas. In a similar vein, Ateek unmasks the role of Jewish and Christian Zionism in the displacement of Palestinians. Ateek and other Palestinian theologians remove the temptation to view settler-colonialist strategies of the Israeli government in an abstract fashion by grounding analysis of the conflict in Palestinian lives and land.
Palestinian liberation theology is informed by the Christian tradition and the Palestinian experience of exile, erasure and discrimination. Jennings’ theological project outlines the trauma of colonial modernity in separating people from place and re-locating identity within racial hierarchies – a mindset which has wreaked havoc in the lives of Jewish communities throughout the centuries. The irony is that the colonial agenda which Jennings’ articulates perfectly describes the Palestinian experience.
At this point it is helpful to refer to the work of J. Kameron Carter, whose thesis is similar to Jennings. Carter argues that anti-Semitism was a crucial factor in modernity’s racial calculus. However, the difference is that, while Jennings does not directly name the Palestinian people in his published work (to my knowledge), Carter does. Carter also, albeit briefly, makes a distinction between Christian interdependence on Judaism and modern Zionism:
At bottom, this shift from a medieval mode to a modern one is marked by Christianity’s refusal to envision its identity inside of YHWH’s covenant with the people of Israel. And even in saying this, I must ever so quickly add that a Jewish theological covenantalism is not be confused with modern Zionism in the state of Israel. I speak of the former, not the latter. In its own way modern Zionism is deeply problematic, particularly in relationship to the Palestinians. I will resist going down that road, and stick to what concerns me here: the taproot of what I am pointing to is the Jewish question as a theological matter tied to Christianity’s historical refusal to imagine itself as unintelligible, in an ongoing way, without dependence on the Jewish covenantal people (Race: A Theological Account, 398-399).
Elsewhere Carter separates his thesis concerning Israel’s covenantal identity from “a modern ‘Zionist’ understanding of Jewish identity such as one finds in various currents within contemporary American evangelicalism” (Race: A Theological Account, 435).
The work of Jennings and Carter is important as we grapple with racial tension in our time. By bringing Palestinian liberation theology into dialog with the likes of Carter and Jennings, who rightly emphasize the distorted relationship between Christianity and Judaism, we can avoid the inadvertent perpetuation of the erasure of Palestinian voices from the Christian-Jewish story.
Jennings’ omission of Palestinian voices in his work on race and reconciliation is surprising in light of the fact that black writers and activists in the US have identified the parallels between the Palestinian struggle for justice and that of African-Americans. Cornel West and Alice Walker, for example—along with the “The Movement for Black Lives”—have stood in solidarity with Palestinians and critiqued American military spending in the State of Israel.
Beverly Eileen Mitchell has also drawn parallels between black oppression and the oppression of Jews and Palestinians in different contexts. As a historical theologian, Mitchell has written powerfully in Plantations and Death Camps: Religion, Ideology and Human Dignity (2009) about the suffering and violation of human dignity of African-American slaves and Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Elsewhere in a chapter titled “Why the Caged Bird Sings”: Faithfulness in Exile, Mitchell argues that African-American slaves and Palestinians are connected by the quest for human dignity in dire circumstances. African-Americans and Palestinians have experienced “maltreatment which belies their full humanity” (123).
Mitchell argues that what connects African-Americans with Palestinians is human dignity and being made in the image of God. This is the same “theological tie that connects each and every human being” (123). Mitchell regards the cry that arises from the Palestinian people and African-American slaves and their descendants as indicative of the presence of “defacement” (124) which must be resisted.
Mitchell goes on to say that African-Americans and Palestinians are “more than their suffering” (124). They are people made in the image of God, many of whom who find strength in God’s presence and liberation in order to agitate for their own emancipation in solidarity with others within the global community.
Jennings’ work is indispensable for revealing that Christianity is indecipherable without Judaism. Gentile Christians come to the margins of the people of Israel as invited guests – not hosts – and the Jewishness of Jesus is part of the incarnation which Christians celebrate. Ateek stresses the life and death of Jesus who lived under Roman occupation in Palestine; however, the identity of Jesus is also forged as a child of faithful Jewish parents.
The challenge for Christian political theology vis-à-vis the Palestine-Israel conflict is to reject anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism on the one hand, while also naming the colonial and neo-colonial agendas of the modern State of Israel on the other hand, in order to heed the Palestinian struggle for human rights and a theology which seeks justice, peace and reconciliation for all. The work of Jennings and Palestinian liberation theologians provide vital resources towards that goal.
Katherine Rainger is a PhD candidate at the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia. Her research in Australian Film and Theology uses the work of Willie Jennings as a lens for interpreting the work of Australian filmmakers who explore the impacts of colonialism on-screen. She has taught in primary schools in urban and remote parts of Australia including three years as a guest of the Gurindji people in the Northern Territory. Katherine is an ordained Anglican priest and a member of Friends of Sabeel Australia Incorporated and the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Network.