How “Race” Emerged from Colonialism | A Long Repentance Post #4 | New Humanity Institute: Sangwon Yang & Mako Nagasawa


Pictured:  The Cathedral of Quito, Ecuador, built by Spanish Catholics from 1562 – 1567.  It is the oldest cathedral in South America.  Photo credit: Putneymark, Creative Commons 2.0.

The Purpose of A Long Repentance Blog Series

People talk about issues of race and justice in the United States as issues of ‘justice and injustice.’  Sometimes we launch into debates about ‘the proper role of government.’  But is that the original framework from which these issues were asked and debated?

The purpose of the blog post series called A Long Repentance: Exploring Christian Mistakes About Race, Politics, and Justice in the United States is to remind our readers that these issues began as Christian heresies.  They were at variance from Christian beliefs prior to colonialism.  Since Christians enacted and institutionalized what we believe to be heretical ideas, they were very destructive and harmful, then as now.  And we bear a unique responsibility for them.  As a result, we believe we must engage in a long repentance.  We must continue to resist the very heresies that we put into motion.  Thus the title of this blog series, A Long Repentance.  The journey is long and challenging.  It may be impossible to see the end.  But along the way, it is also inspiring and sometimes breathtaking.

We also encourage you to explore this booklet, A Long Repentance: A Study Guide, for further reflections and discussion questions.

Read Post #1.  Post #2Post #3.


Colonization and the Formation of Racial Identity

Willie Jennings thoroughly investigates the history of Christian colonization in his book, The Christian Imagination.  Jennings recounts how the modern notion of “race” was invented by Christian theologians.  He argues that they laid the foundation for using race as an identifier of people by distorting the traditional Christian understanding of creation.

In ancient times, before people started having “family/last names”, their place of origin often signified their identity.  We speak of Jesus of Nazareth, Augustine of Hippo, Leonardo Da Vinci, etc.  The Bible also relays the significance of place by identifying not only human communities, but divine and human interaction.  Hagar named the well where God encountered her, ‘Beer-lahai-roi,’ which means “the well of the Living One who sees me” (Genesis 17:13 – 14).  Jacob named the place where he wrestled God and glimpsed His face, “Peniel,” which means, “face of God” (Genesis 33:30).

Europeans started to develop other ways of interpreting human beings, however.  Most notably in Spain in the Middle Ages, Christians suspected that former Jews or Muslims were not actually Christians, even though they confessed a conversion to Christian faith.[1]  Nervous, the Spanish Christians started to focus on bodily pigmentation as a new way to categorize people.  European, white bodies became their “norm” for both “Christian identity” and human identity.

As European colonizers entered Africa and the Americas, they developed different ways of interpreting human beings.  The colonialist began to transform the land, cultivating it and shaping it to their own capitalist production. The transformation of the land by white colonizers was detrimental not only to the livelihood of the indigenous people, but also the identities of the people which depended on the land.[2] For the indigenous population, their communal identity as a people was lost as they were stripped from their lands, or as their land was stolen. The lens through which the people understood themselves was utterly displaced, and as their identities were being destroyed, a new form of identity was imposed on them.

European colonizers projected their understanding of human identity, one that strictly located within the body of the person.  As Jennings is quick to note, this reform of human identity was a task of “flawed theological” re-imagining of not only land and its significance, but of how human beings related to one another.  Human identity was no longer conceived in relationship to their land, but in relationship to white European self-identity and white bodies.[3] And it was in this moment when the previous foundation of human identity was destroyed by colonialism, a new way of understanding human identity began to take hold around the white European, an artificial construct called “race.”[4]

This distorted view of creation, which found traction in Europe in the late 1300’s, abstracted the land as merely an object, a commodity, a resource only valuable for its human utility. This view of creation distorted the significance of land and how it informs human identity even to this day. In our contemporary transient world, who would think that that the land we live on, the neighborhoods we inhabit are essential for our identity? This view of creation as commodity laid two crucial functions for racialization: human identity separated from the land and a “theological” substance for racial identity.

The distorted view of creation that only valued the land as a commodity or property provided a foundation for racial identity to overtake and eventually determine human identity – i.e., racial identity defines intellectual capacity, social status, musical preference, criminality, choice of career, etc. Human identity abstracted from land may seem normal given our increasingly global and transient world. Land or spatial reality have a little to no impact on our identities except as merely the context of a particular memory – i.e., Boston College is where I (Sang) met my wife, I grew up on Richmond Hill Road, etc.

Identifying land with human identity was not unusual for most human communities before Western colonialism.


Christian Theologians Construct Racial Identity

Some Christian theologians also connected “race” to “intellect” as a way to identify people.[5]  Theologians were the first to work with European colonizers and rulers, to justify the racial identity and colonization long before anthropologist or scientists.[6] The Jesuits Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) and José de Acosta (1540-1600) placed the “new” people of Africa and Americas into a new “theological” category.

Black indicates doubt, uncertainty, and opacity of saving effects. Salvation in black bodies is doubtful, as it was in (Christian) Jews and Moors. White indicates high salvific probability, rooted in the signs of movement towards God (for example, cleanliness, intelligence, obedience, social hierarchy, and advancement in civilization). Europeans reconfigured Christian social space around white and black bodies. If existence between Christian and non-Christian, saved and lost, elect and reprobate was a fluid reality that could be grasped only by detecting the spiritual and material marks, then the racial scale aided this complex optical operation.”[7]

Racial identity became married to, and filled with, (false) theological significance to the point that race pre-determined one’s ability to convert to Christianity and the sort of “evangelistic” methods that were necessary for one’s conversion.

For example, Acosta, in his influential work De Procuranda, lays out three types of “barbarians” and appropriate evangelistic methods for their conversion.[8] In the first group are “barbarians” such as the Chinese, Japanese, or East Indians, who showed intellectual capacities through their established system of government, a “complex” written system of language, and intellectual pursuits of “reason.” Acosta recommended not to convert this group of barbarians by the use of force but through arguments of reason. (It is important to note that although this group of “barbarians” were granted the ability to reason, they were not seen as equal to or on par with the white Europeans; they were identified as “barbarians” and thus inferior to the divinely elected Europeans.)

The second group of “barbarians” consisted of Mexicans or Peruvians, who lacked a system of writing or philosophy, but exhibited a system of organized government. This group of “barbarians” could be converted through the guidance and reign of (European) Christian princes.

The last group of “barbarians” were the Africans, who exhibited “animalistic” characteristics of hunting and gathering with no system of organized government or written language.  Acosta believed that this last group of “barbarians” could only controlled and forced to convert through Christian dominance.

For Acosta, “race” indicated intellectual capabilities and biological superiority or inferiority.  It is important to take a step back and recognize that this is a priest, a pastor, who is recommending that people of color be converted to Christianity through force and dominance. Acosta’s work was translated into multiple European languages, distributed in Europe as a guide for understanding the Americas for centuries, and later used as a resource for the development of Enlightenment science.[9]  Jennings rightly states that Acosta is one of the first (but certainly not the last) to employ theology as an evaluative tool for racial identity.

“…Acosta may be seen as articulating not primarily a new form of theology, but theology in a pedagogical form that constantly reimagines the world and especially native subjects by gauging their intelligence and intellectual capacities…In Acosta, the Augustinian-Anselmic dictum faith seeking understanding mutates into faith judging intelligence.”[10]

Through Acosta’s distorted theological thinking, racial identity is now correlated with faith and human intelligence. Racial identity now becomes not only a signifier of theological significance (i.e. whites Europeans are able to be “saved”, but “black barbarians” need to be forced into faith), but also a signifier of intelligence/rationality. This aspect of racial identity continues to be evident in racist stereotypes and caricature that depict various indigenous people as “primitive”, “irrational”, or “unable to perform in higher education”. The colonizers through their partnership with the European Church actively created the new theological foundation for identity and hierarchy, race.[11] Race is not just a social construct. Race is a Western Christian construct.

Sadly, José de Acosta and his contemporaries are part of the history of the Christian movement, and how Christianity began to be practiced in the Americas.  In our next post, we will trace how the racial identity and hierarchy was translated into the American colonies.


[1] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination:  Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), p.79; and Barry Harvey, Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldliness of Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), p.188

[2] Jennings, p.43 :“Everything – from peoples and their bodies to plants and animals, from the ground and the sky – was subject to change, subject for change, subjected to change. The significance of this transformation cannot be overstated. The earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.”

[3] Jennings, p.58: “Europeans enacted racial agency as a theological articulated way of understanding their bodies in relation to new spaces and new peoples and to their new power over those spaces and peoples. Before this agency would yield the “idea of race,” “the scientific concept of race,” the “social principle of race,” or even a fully formed “racial optic” on the world, it was a theological form – an inverted, distorted vision of creation that reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies. In this inversion, whiteness replaced the earth as the signifier of identities.”

[4] Jennings, p.58: “When you disrupt and destroy the delicate and contingent connections of people’s’ identities bound to specific lands you leave no alternative but racial identity.”

[5] An example of this change in the Enlightenment philosopher Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes’ statement highlights that it is the “mind” or human thought that defines human existence and identity.  Following Descartes’ example, European philosophers began to abstract and isolate human identity to the “intellect”, social status, or ecclesial status – simply located in the individual.

[6] Harvey, p.188

[7] Jennings, p.35

[8] José de Acosta, De Procuranda Indorum Saltue: Pacificacion y Colonization, ed. L. Pereñ et al., 2 vols, 1:60 cited by Jennings, p. 103

[9] Jennings, p.85

[10] Jennings, p.108; emphasis added

[11] Jennings, p.29; “Church and realm…stand between peoples and lands and determine a new relationship between them, dislodging particular identities from particular places. Through a soteriological vision, church and realm discern all peoples to exist on the horizon of theological identities.


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