Kuyper and the Square Inch
In these posts, I’ve been reflecting on denominational life. My focus has been on my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), especially the CRC after Synod 2022, but I intend these reflections to be applicable more broadly to denominationalism in general. Which said may make you wonder where I am going in this and the previous post. Allow me to explain briefly how these reflections might guide us into a richer denominational life.
In the previous post, I examined everybody’s favorite quotation from the great Dutch theologian and politician (a combination you are not likely to see anytime soon on this side of the Atlantic) Abraham Kuyper, his often quoted, as often misquoted, “square inch” comment: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
This quote is usually taken as a stirring call to claim the sovereignty of Christ over all things, especially things of the mind. It’s a favorite of Christian academics. But, for all that, the quote, perhaps unintentionally, betrays a habit of mind that is, I think, imperialistic. It’s for that reason in the previous post, I set alongside Kuyper’s “Mine!”, a papal bull issued in 1455 by Pope Nicholas V that authorizes the taking of lands and people in the name of Christ. In the papal bull, Christ also calls “Mine!” This “Mine!” is intended to be literal, a claim on land, people, and treasure. This so-called “doctrine of discovery,” promulgated by several popes, soon spread beyond the Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal to other European nations. Closer to home, it is the theology that underlay the idea of manifest destiny in the United States, permitting native lands to be seized and redistributed. In this theology, Christ cries, “Mine!” And his servants do the work of claiming what belongs to him.
My question at the end of the previous post was whether Kuyper was so tone deaf in his “square inch” comment that he failed to see how his comment resonated with European imperialism and how it could be (and would be) misused over time. As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m not enough of a Kuyper scholar to answer that question definitively, but I suspect that the answer just might be yes: Kuyper was indeed that tone deaf. But it’s not just Kuyper. We—I mean myself and all of us reading this blog—have also been just that tone deaf. We have failed to see that our theology is infected with colonialism. What we have thought of as the Christian truth turns out to be a mix of the truth of the gospel with much that is not of the gospel. For that story, I need to turn to another theologian. This time story begins in our CRC backyard.
Willie James Jennings and the Christian Imagination
Willie James Jennings, now professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale divinity school and a graduate of Calvin University, among other schools, tells a story in the introduction to his 2010 book, The Christian Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press) that every CRC leader ought to read. The story is a parable for everything that follows in the book.
The story is set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sometime in the 1960s. Jennings was a boy playing in his own backyard when he heard footsteps. He looked up and saw two white men walking towards him and his mother. This was alarming. To reach the Jennings’s backyard, the men had to walk up a long drive, cross a graveled area, and come across the lawn. He looked for his mother, who had been in the far part of the garden. But she was already there, putting her body in front of his body in an act of protection. White men did not bode well for an African American boy.
Whether the men understood her action or not, Jennings does not tell us. They asked her name. She responded in that minimal way one has when one is not certain of why you are being asked. “Mary Jennings,” she said. The older of the two white men introduced them by saying, “’Hello, I am_____ and this is_____. We are from the First Christian Reformed Church down the street.’”
What followed was an extremely awkward encounter. The men, as Jennings tells it, “proceeded to talk about their church, the activities they had for kids, and what they were hoping to do in the neighborhood.” The speech sounded to him oddly formal, as if it had been rehearsed. It probably had been.
It was a decidedly one-way encounter. Not only had the two men intruded into the Jennings’s space without asking permission, they asked nothing about the Mary Jennings’s faith or church. Had they done so, they would have discovered that she was a lay leader in the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, that she and her sister Martha made a regular practice of visiting the sick and the shut-ins, that she was a woman of spiritual depth and learning, and that perhaps there was much they could have learned from her.
Their failure to ask betrayed a deeper lack: they had not until that moment seen the Jennings, even though they lived in the immediate neighborhood of the church, only two hundred yards down the street. Willie was regularly on the church property. He frequently played basketball at the church. He and his friends rode through the neighborhood on their bikes. It was their neighborhood, but in this encounter the two men acted not as guests wanting to know the Jennings and their neighbors but as owners who had a prior claim to cultural and religious authority. They acted as, well, bosses.
In the book, Jennings tells the story better and in greater detail than I have (I’m hoping you will read it), but perhaps for our purposes perhaps this is enough. Those of us who grew in the CRC are cringing even with only my shortened telling of the story. But I don’t hold the men from First CRC entirely responsible for awkwardness of the moment. I’m sure they were put up to it by one of those periodic calls to evangelism, usually accompanied by some new evangelistic technique, that occasionally spread like wildfire through the CRC. They had been told that they should reach out to the neighborhood, and they went about doing it as they had been instructed. They were equipped to tell; they were not equipped to listen.
A problem with every one of those evangelism programs that the CRC adopted and then abandoned is that they commodified the gospel. They made it a product to sell. The payoff was souls in heaven. Get someone to pray the prayer at the end of the four spiritual laws, and they are home—home being heaven—free. The gospel is in this way of telling it divorced from real relationships, from love, from justice, from God. Such a gospel is no longer transformative. No kingdom of God comes from it. Only a kingdom of churches.
A question worth asking of Jennings’s story is where Christ is in it. The men from First CRC assumed they were the ones who had Christ and that the Jennings needed to know—needed to learn Christ from them. But if the New Testament is a guide in these matters, one might suspect that it would be more profitable to look for Christ in Mary Jennings, Willie’s mother. According to the New Testament, it’s the poor of the earth who reflect the presence of God.
From this story of his own life, Jennings in his brilliant first chapter takes us to the 15th century and the tears of a certain Zurara. Zurara (Gomes Eanes de Zurara) was a theologically trained writer whose job it was to write up the exploits of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, a sort of 15th century professional publicist. Henry’s headquarters were in Lagos. The incident at the center of Jennings’s reflections happened on August 8, 1444.
A ship had come into Lagos with a very valuable cargo. “Black gold,” Jennings calls the cargo. They—the cargo–were enslaved Africans. This was not the first time such a ship had arrived, but this time the number of enslaved people was greater than ever before: 235. Henry and his advisors decide to hold an auction. It’s the auction with all its horrors—mothers being separated from children, husbands from wives, villagers from their friends and neighbors—that prompted tears in the eyes of Zurara. Tears and, uncharacteristically, a prayer of confession. Zurara writes, “I pray Thee that my tears may not wrong my conscience, for it is not their religion but their humanity that maketh mine to weep in pity for their sufferings.”
The petition strikes me, probably you, too, as odd. How would Zurara’s tears wrong his conscience? Perhaps what he has in mind is that the enslavement of these 235 people was in the theology of the time doing them a favor. As slaves, they would hear the gospel, and thus their souls would be saved. Jennings calls it “an ordo salutis [order of salvation]: “African captivity leads to African salvation . . ..” To weep would seem to doubt this justification for slavery.
But the gospel is powerful. It is less theological propositions and more a story, a story that anyone who has heard the gospel can tell. It’s the story of Jesus, the one in whom in that entirely mysterious way God fully dwells, who goes to the cross, suffers and dies, and then three days later is vindicated by the power of God on Easter Sunday morning. As Zurara witnessed the events of August 8, 1444, the suffering of the Africans, he, a Christian, could not help but see in their suffering the figure of the savior. Despite himself, as Jennings has it, “Zurara wrote a passion narrative, one that reads the gestures of slave suffering inside the suffering of the Christ.”
From this point in the book, Jennings takes the account of how colonialism comes to infect the Christian witness in many directions, ranging in this chapter alone over not only the Portuguese mission under Prince Henry but the visit of the Jesuit Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) to Japan with a black slave by his side, the sufferings of the native peoples of the Americas, especially the Apaches, to the inculturation of the bushmen of the Kalahari. Throughout the chapter and the book, he weaves together three themes that connect and reconnect: the loss of the land suffered by those who were conquered and frequently enslaved; supersessionism, the idea that the church has replaced Israel, separating Jesus from the Jews; and Whiteness, by which Jennings means not simply the color of one’s skin but a way of thinking that privileges the ways of Europeans over all the other people of the earth. Allow me to touch on each of these briefly.
In many traditional societies, land and identity are tied to each other. Jennings has a lovely section on the way the Apaches framed their history not by time, as we would do, but by places. To go to a certain place is to invoke the story of that place. When the Apaches were displaced from the land, they were thereby displaced from their history.
This attachment to the land is a way of being embodied. Jennings quotes Calvin Luther Martin who says that in this view our skin is bound to the “skin of the world.” For the native peoples of my own area, belonging means belonging to an entire ecology: to the land and the water and the salmon and the bears. Imagine, if we had retained any of this sense of belonging, how differently we have would treated the earth, how much more we would have respected the ways of the plants and animals around us, and how we, as a result, would have made less of a mess of things. In losing our connection to the earth, we have lost our connection to life itself.
There’s more. In separating people from the land, Western societies introduced the commodification of the earth. The land can be parceled out and sold. One can own one’s own piece of the earth. You hear the argument among some in our society that this ownership of the land gives one the right to do whatever one pleases with it. It’s just dirt, my dirt. And in this view it’s not the only the land that is commodified; it’s people as well. Taking the Africans off the land permitted their captors to also commodify them, putting a price on their bodies.
Jennings has much more to say about this in subsequent chapters, but this first displacement, the people from the land, is reinforced theologically by a second displacement, the displacement of Christianity from Israel. Supersessionism, as this view is known, is the account of the faith I was taught in the churches in which I grew up. The story is that Israel was originally elected by God, but it failed and has now been replaced by the church. God’s elect people in this view are no longer the Jews but Christians, especially European Christians and their descendants.
In this way, supersessionism separates Jesus from the Jews with all the consequences that separation has had in history, not least the murder of six million Jews by Germany, at that time one of the most “Christian” nations of Europe. What’s more, it makes it possible for gentile Christians like myself to suppose that instead of being guests, invited in by sheer grace, we are the hosts, the ones who own the faith, who have been entrusted by God to represent the faith. It permits the sort of evangelism practiced by the two men from First CRC. Imagine if they had recognized that they were guests in someone else’s house—the house of Israel or even the house of Mary Jennings—how differently they may have approached their mission.
Together, Jennings argues, these two elements of colonial theology, commodification of the land and supersessionism, provide the seedbed for “Whiteness.” “Whiteness” is not so much a matter of color—although it does place all humans on a scale from white to black—but a matter of claiming that everything else—everybody else—can be judged in relationship to what is “White.” “Whiteness” is the idea that the value of others can be established by how much or how little “they” resemble “us,” with “us” being those who possess the quality of “Whiteness.”
The gospel in Western Christianity, Jennings says, has gotten tangled up with and distorted by “Whiteness.” The Christian imagination, as he puts it, has become diseased. We have come to assume that our form of Christianity is pure, and other forms of Christianity are mixtures of truth and falsehood. This assumption has led us to assert our truth as the truth. It’s the assumption behind the style of evangelism practiced by the men from First CRC. It’s the assumption I learned along with the theology I was taught. In a subtle and powerful way, in this theology, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Jew, is replaced by an abstraction, a Jesus divorced from place and history. The abstraction is what Jennings labels as “Whiteness.”
I said at the outset that this long digression is on the way to thinking about denominationalism. Here’s how I think that is true. A denomination that in the manner of Abraham Kuyper says for Christ, “Mine!” is likely to confuse Christ with our own claims. Our theology will become—no, has become—imperialistic, top down. It dictates to people rather than listens to them. It’s the men in the Jennings’s garden all over again.
Such a theology will, for example, say to gay people: you must follow our reading of the Bible, and say this to them without having spoken to a single person in a same sex marriage. It’s a theology that will say to others among whom we live, including the indigenous people of our lands, that you must learn from us, not we from you. It’s a theology that cannot grow deeper because it cannot listen to others. It cannot hear the Spirit of God. It cannot hear those who are our spiritual betters. It cannot even hear our own hearts.
There’s more to be said, but let end this post with a confession: much of this theology still infects me and still compromises my own understanding of the gospel. And with a prayer
Lord, help me and all who read this to listen anew to the strange and wonderful story of your time among us and, in listening to your story, to learn how to listen to others and how to live among your people, not as those who own the gospel but as grateful guests, always ready to venture into new understandings of your truth and new ways to serve. Amen.