“Those Near Belonging”: Reflections of the 2016 CACE faculty colloquium
How does one encapsulate in a few short paragraphs the rich, challenging, cross-disciplinary discussions we have had at the 2017 CACE faculty colloquium on Willie Jennings’s, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race? Anthropologists and historians, musicians, physicists, political scientists, environmental biologist, writers and poets and even theologians sitting around the same table engaging in deep and sustained (yes, even sustaining) discussions on race and systems and stories, on the nature and witness of the Church and of each one of us as parts of those systems, as women and men of varying national, ethnic, and racial identities. Surely one cannot do justice to the richness of the experience or the manifold ways in which these discussions will continue to inform my teaching and writing as a historical theologian. That is why, in the limitations of this space, I will attempt to concentrate on one of Willie’s chapters and the thoughts it evoked in me.
In the chapter titled Those Near Belonging, Jennings comes to the beautifully simple conclusion: “Life inside this new space [the Church], then, carries uneasiness and even a discomfort as those within it attempt to negotiate powerful cultural claims of kinship. It is in the face of these tensions that Paul’s declarations of a new citizenship (Eph 2:19) indicate profound risk taking for anyone who wishes to claim identity in the new space, that is, to claim being Christian. This claim, in light of its risk, points to the essential nature of the new cultural politics inaugurated by Jesus’ life and announced by the Spirit. This new cultural politic is a complex new configuration of social alliance and political allegiance bound up in life together with the many. The implications of this new space in which a new cultural politic emerges are breathtaking. Imagine a people defined by their cultural differences yet who turn their histories and cultural logic towards a new determination, a new social performance of identity.”
This is a profound statement on, inter alia, race relations in this new oeconomia, this new reality, called “the Church,” the “body of Christ.” This is the witness of the Church across time and space. It is the witness of the earliest Christians, whose slow, patient, persistent witness changed the very structure of the world around them and made manifest the upside-down kingdom of God. By its very character, Christianity is narrative based: it is the story (stories, perhaps) of God and God’s people through space and time that Scripture presents as the enfleshment of God’s loving relationship with the world. And this is a new cultural politic indeed. In my own work, I have shown how the Christian stories of standing firm in the face of state and political power gave Christians a new vocabulary. Even from the narratives presented in the New Testament itself, the stories of the earliest Christians transformed profoundly deeply rooted ideologies about human beings, power, and socio-national identities of the world that surrounded.
Just as the earliest Christians transformed the deeply held classical Greek and Roman concepts of virtue from its signification of the ideal individual greatness to the example of Christ, so do the stories in The Christian Imagination reframe for us deeply held concepts of race and systems against which Christians stand, in imitatio Christi. In the time of the earliest Church and the Apostles, society held the firm belief that to “be humble was to be weak, poor, submissive, slavish, and womanish; it was the physical position of shame, humiliation, degradation and, therefore, to be understood as morally bad.” The New Testament revolutionized these values wholly by their total inversion. It presented Jesus who “endured the cross, disregarding the shame” (Hebr. 12:2) as the one Christians ought to emulate (1 Peter 2:19-20) and Paul’s boasting in his lowly status, tapeinos, and sufferings in imitation of Christ gave new meaning to humility, transforming it into a virtue. “In this new paradigm ὑπομονή, endurance, patientia replaced the ancient ideal of ‘glory,’ and humility (ταπεινοφροσύνη), the voluntary abasement of the self and one’s body, ‘to be low, base, prone, and exposed, was now at the heart of the definition of being good.’” In the theater of the national pornography of the Roman state – its public executions,” the new ‘economy of the body’ displayed by the martyrs transformed humility into power and virtus was manifested in the form of a slave woman, Blandina. This was a long and slow shift. And so is our long and slow shift in race relations. I have no doubt the result will be the same: again in imitatio Christi.
It was indeed such a joy and of immense benefit to me as a researcher, writer, theologian, and teacher to have spent these few days with colleagues who engaged issues of race and identity and systems together with the sole purpose of making each of us better witnesses to what it means to be Christians in the world.
 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 273
 George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 32.
 Kalantzis, 33.
 Brent D. Shaw, “Body/Power/Identity: Passions of the Martyrs,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 4.3 (1996), 304-305.