The (Im)Possibility of a White Christian Capacity for Intimacy

In tossing a coin, the possibility of either heads or tails remain equally viable options as the coin remains suspended in midair. In this moment, there is no way to be sure which way the coin will fall. However, the moment the coin lands on heads, the possibility of its landing on tails collapses. Until that moment the two possibilities were equal; the outcome was neither predictable nor inevitable. The way in which history unfolds, similarly, is neither predictable nor inevitable. Willie James Jennings invites present-day Christians to consider historical examples of moments of suspension, moments in history where multiple possible paths forward lay ahead on the horizon. In these moments of suspended tension, Jennings asks readers to consider the possibility of what he calls the “Christian capacity for intimacy,” which, though presented with multiple opportunities to flourish throughout early US history, failed time and again to do so.[1]

The analogy of a coin toss is, of course, imperfect. A coin toss is value-neutral with no external contingencies affecting the results. The way in which history unfolds, on the other hand, has multiple external factors bearing upon the results. The pursuit of wealth, land, and power acted as a weighted coin that curtailed any Christian capacity for intimacy. Instead of intimacy, responses to moments of suspended tension led to the dehumanization of the other, the siloing of communities, and the creation of racial categories used to justify a thriving economic system based on exploitation. This pattern unfolds time and again throughout the history of the United States, leaving modern Christians who have inherited an utterly fragmented society to wonder what might have happened if the coin had not been weighted.

There have been several pressure points in early US history, important moments in which multiple possibilities lay on the horizon. However, capitalism – here understood as the pursuit of private wealth, land ownership, and power – nearly always curtailed any opportunities for Christian empathy and intimacy to flourish. Modern Christians—especially white Christians—must be rightly oriented to history. White Christians have a responsibility not only to lament what could have been, but also must see themselves as a player in the story. Cultivating a theological imagination to understand what could have been compels modern Christians to engage in the current reality with greater urgency. It’s a Christian responsibility to understand how the capacity for Christian intimacy was thwarted in the past to understand the barriers that prevent Christian intimacy from flourishing now.

Jennings says that “Christianity, wherever it went in the modern colonies, inverted its sense of hospitality. It claimed to be the host, the owner of the spaces it entered, and demanded native peoples enter its cultural logics, its ways of being in the world, and its conceptuality.”[2] This is especially true of the fledgling colony at Jamestown, established in 1607. The newly arrived English colonizers anticipated full cooperation among the native population to support them in their pursuit of wealth. As their obsession with the pursuit of mineral deposits grew, it became clear that the settlers were either unable or unwilling to grow and gather their own food. Their pursuit of wealth and lack of attention to their physical wellbeing led to widespread death and illness. They eventually resorted to cannibalism out of sheer desperation. The native people, observing the plight of the starving invaders, brought them corn and other food. The English interpreted this as divine providence, as God striking terror into the hearts of the native people and submitting to the settlers. However, they fundamentally misinterpreted this action; in Powhatan political culture, the gift of food signaled the subordination of the recipient.

This moment in history, which was called the “Starving Time,” is a moment of suspension in which multiple horizons lay ahead of the white settlers. What if, in this moment, the citizens of Jamestown had recognized the gift of food as a humbling grace, recognizing that they were in fact guests in a new, foreign land? What if they had asked the Powhatan community to teach them about agriculture, so they might produce food for themselves? What if they had laid their pursuit of wealth aside until they ensured they could harness the agricultural skills necessary to sustain provisions for themselves and their families? Through the residents of Jamestown’s continued reliance on native peoples to produce their food and demand that they be subject to the colonizers’ authority, their prioritization of wealth stifled their capacity for intimacy.

Distrust continued to grow, especially as it became clearer to the native peoples that the settlers at Jamestown were intending to expand further. The conflict culminated in the Great Massacre of 1622, in which the Powhatans burned fields and houses, killing more than 350 people, about a third of the settlement’s total English population. Here, too, there was a pivotal moments in which multiple horizons may have been possible. However, one prominent English voice, Edward Waterhouse, deeply shaped the settler’s response to the massacre in a widely-spread pamphlet called A Declaration of the state of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia.

Waterhouse effectively spun the massacre into an opportunity to justify dividing and conquering the native peoples, to instigate famine, and to persuade settlers to perceive native peoples as savage enemies. If settlers did not have to view native communities as potential Christians – or even as people – the settlers perennial labor problems would be solved: “this Massacre must rather be beneficiall to the Plantation than impaire it.” Waterhouse encouraged settlers to use the massacre as a window of opportunity for economic gain, arguing for new justifications for the English colonial enterprise that revolved around the intentional dispossession and enslavement of natives. The ends he hoped to achieve were clear: the intentional dispossession of native land, for them to be enslaved, so they might produce food and wealth for the residents of Jamestown. Once again, the possibility for intimacy was stifled by the pursuit of private wealth, land ownership, and power.

As the 17th century progressed, the captive labor force continued to grow as planters began importing enslaved West Africans to the shores of the New World. The economy of the plantation was beginning to take shape. However, enslaved people began to understand English attitudes regarding Christianity, especially regarding conversion and baptism. In the 17th century, this was a crucial way to distinguish themselves from non-Christians. Enslaved communities picked up on the implied link between baptism and freedom, and many began to use baptism as a justification to argue for their freedom from slavery. This led to another moment of suspension, in which multiple paths forward existed. White Christians were forced to face the tension between their beliefs and obligations as Christians and their need to maintain control of a captive labor force.

Ultimately, the bottom line won out. This tension led to the passage of the 1667 Baptism Law, which changed the meaning of baptism for native communities and enslaved Africans. The Virginia General Assembly passed the law, providing that “the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.” White Christian colonists held a paradoxical theological conviction, simultaneously believing that their neighbors of color were both property to be owned and yet also humans created in the image of God. With the passage of this law, their theological convictions did not have to be at odds with a thriving economy. By excluding enslaved Africans and natives from baptism, the white colonists laid the groundwork for what would later be called “hereditary heathenism,” which led to the formation of racial categories in themselves. Their pursuit of private wealth to guide and justify their actions through changing the significance of baptism further stifled any potential capacity for Christian empathy.

Why does this matter? Why do we need to understand how Christianity and baptism laws contributed to the creation of racial categories? Modern Christians who believe in the possibility of a flourishing society within the bounds of capitalism have as limited an imagination as the early white settlers. It is a failure of imagination to see how the pursuit of wealth and power obscures the humanity of black and brown neighbors. The United States today is irrevocably enmeshed in a capitalist system, built upon the backs of arbitrarily created racial categories to justify oppression in pursuit of capital.

The coin is still weighted, now even more skewed toward the ultra-wealthy. The impulse to prioritize wealth and power over vulnerable communities’ interest and wellbeing has grown stronger than ever. A true Christian capacity for intimacy is impossible so long as we consent to breathing the air of a capitalist system.    

[1] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Yale University Press, 2010. 9

[2] Jennings, 8


Willie James Jennings, A Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. Yale University Press, 2010.

Rebecca Anne Goetz, Baptism in Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 2016.

Emily Wilkes (she/her/hers) is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). Her vocation lies in the intersection of ministry, farming, writing, and activism. A graduate of Davidson College, she was awarded a Lilly Fellowship to work in a small, politically-engaged church in Washington DC. She then served as a two-time Young Adult Volunteer: first as the Farm Steward at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, then as a teacher at the School for the Deaf in Moyobamba, Peru. After completing her Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary, she began working at Interfaith-RISE, a refugee resettlement agency in New Jersey, as the director of the Refugee Farm and Food Sovereignty program.

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