“The challenge is to trust again the beauty of life together.” Professor and author Willie James Jennings talks with Amy Julia Becker about the beauty, promise, and hope of Christianity, especially if and as we are able to untether Christianity from whiteness and reimagine institutions and relationships built upon mutual dependence.
“Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. His book The Christian Imagination won the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion and the Grawemeyer Award in Religion. He has also published the book After Whiteness. He is an ordained Baptist minister and served as interim pastor for several North Carolina churches. He received in undergraduate degree from Calvin University, his M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D in religion and ethics from Duke.”
On the Podcast:
- Books by Willie James Jennings:
– Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible
– The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
– After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Theological Education between the Times)
“The Beauty and the art of Christian life—the way people live in many ways, a faith, more beautiful, more rich, more sophisticated than they can even articulate. And just to see it and behold it, especially in the face of suffering, in the pace of inexplicable difficulties and events that mangle life—to see how people are able to, with a brilliant improvisation—grasp life and hold onto life in the midst of massive contradictions, I’ve always been drawn to that Beauty, the Beauty of the art of living in the face of difficulty that Christianity, I think more than any other reality on this planet, shows us how people can do that.”
“From the beginning of the colonial moment in the 15th, 16th century, we have really struggled to recognize the full humanity of all God’s creatures.”
“Reality of displacement…we live on the surface of place. We don’t see and sense a deep connection to any place…the level of connectivity we sense with a place has direct bearing on the level of relationality we believe we’re supposed to have.”
“The land is turned from a part of who we are. The land is turned from a co-creature as it were. And by land I’m also including water and animals and so forth. It goes from being seen as a deep companion that tells me who I am to simply being a tool for my youth.”
“The world is a tool, a resource that I can get out of it what I want. Which another way to say that is the implication of this long history is that we, we all function in relationship to the world like vampires.”
“We live with a legacy of violent geographies.”
“We’re in the midst of what will become in the next couple of years a new pandemic in homelessness.”
“[Whiteness] is inside a long history of formation so that people begin to see it as natural. And the only way people can start to see it as something that’s not natural is to be in conversation with people who’ve had to struggle at the other end of it. That is people who’ve had to struggle with non-white existence.”
“They’ve had to make a distinction between the image, the racial image that they are have been given that’s filled with stereotype and derogatory elements, and who they actually are. And the challenge is that there are little snippets, little pieces, little aspects of their cultural realities or their languages that have been embedded inside those derogatory images.”
“Whiteness is a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world at the same time. Whiteness is a way to organize the world, a way to envision the world a way to, to make sense of the world. And whiteness is having the power to order one’s world by that effort.”
“Western education has been shaped to move us toward one image of what maturity looks like…that image that’s at the heart of our education. That image that’s at the heart of what we understand formation to be is the image of a white, self-sufficient man who shows those three virtues I mentioned earlier, what I call dismal virtues: possession, control, and mastery.”
“It is not independence that is a mark of maturity. It’s mutual dependence. It’s not self-sufficiency that’s a mark of Christian maturity. It’s interconnectedness. It’s not autonomy. It’s mutuality. It’s life together.
“The challenge is to envision a new kind of life together, the kind of life together would mean that we not only accept each other, but we live for and with each other. And in that regard, the goal of mature life, the goal of full life, is never a goal of isolation…That’s freedom from. It’s always freedom with. And that’s the challenge for so many people to imagine freedom as a freedom with.”
“While we do want to underscore the together, the together has to be, if we’re following where the spirit of God is leading, the together has to be in the multitude, and it has to shake and break open the ways we understand our safety, comfort and normality inside homogeneous, homogeneous realities.”
“The work that the Spirit of God is calling us to open ourselves to those we would prefer not to be with, and that becomes the basis of creating a new reality of Belonging…the weaving together of many ways of life to create something new. It’s a reality of Belonging that should be at the heart of the Christian life.”
“What we want for people is no matter what you do in your life, what kind of vocation you have, no matter what it is, that what defines your work is that you are able to gather people together, people who would never really want to be together, but because of the way you do your work, the way you live your life, you draw together people across boundary and border and hostility and history. They come together, and they become friends through what you do. Now that, that’s the reality of Belonging that we want not only for those of us who are Christian, but for those of us who live in societies racked with the kinds of divisions that we are racked with right now.”
Season 6 of the Love Is Stronger Than Fear podcast connects to themes in my latest book, To Be Made Well, which you can order here! Learn more about my writing and speaking at amyjuliabecker.com.
Note: This transcript is autogenerated using speech recognition software and does contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
The Beauty and the art of, of Christian life, the way people live in many ways, a, a, a faith, more beautiful, more rich, more sophisticated than they can even articulate. And just to see it and behold it, especially in the face of suffering, in the pace of inexplicable difficulties and events that mangle life to see how people are able to, with a brilliant improvisation on grasp life and hold onto life in the midst of massive contradictions, I’ve always been drawn to, to that Beauty, the Beauty of the art of living in the face of difficulty that Christianity, I think more than any other reality and on this planet, shows us how people can do that.
Hi, friends, I’m, I’m Amy Julia Becker And. This is Love is Stronger Than Fear A podcast about pursuing hope and healing in the midst of personal pain and social division. Today I am talking with Willie James, Jennings Associate, professor of Systematic, Theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School. Dr. Jennings is also the author of the Christian Imagination and After Whiteness, as well as a Commentary on the Book of Acts. They are all really commendable in very different ways. And I particularly appreciated his Commentary on Acts, which you’ll get to hear us talk about in a little bit. Dr. Jennings And I had this conversation actually when the podcast was on vacation, which is to say over the summer, that was when he was available because of his school schedule.
Becker (1m 46s):
And you’ll hear me make reference to going to summer camp, even though I’m sharing this conversation with you in October. So sorry for that. What’s it called? Anachronistic aspect of this show. Anachronistic is a word I learned just this past year with my children in, in school. Anyway, you also might notice that my voice is a little scratchy in this interview because I got a cold at that very same summer camp. And. I was sniffling my way through this conversation, but I want to share it with you now because it is a conversation about Beauty and promise. It’s a conversation about the hope of Christianity if and as we are able to untether Christianity from whiteness if and as we are able to reimagine institutions and relationships that are built upon mutual dependence instead of hierarchy and power.
Becker (2m 39s):
So I’m excited for you to hear what Dr. Jennings has to teach us today. Dr. Jennings, it is a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you so much for your time.
Jennings (2m 51s):
Glad to be here with you, Amy.
Becker (2m 54s):
So I wanna start by trying to introduce our listeners to you. And, I’ve struggled a little bit with how to ask a question because when I look at your Bio and from what I know about you, it’s like, okay, you’re a professor and you’re a minister. You’ve worked in the north, you’ve worked in the south, you grew up in the Midwest. You’ve written about history and Theology and sociology. You’ve written academic books. You’ve written what I consider a very accessible lay person, Commentary on the book of Acts. So what I came to as maybe by means of introduction, could you talk about what holds all of your work together? Like what, what are the themes that you, again and again, and where did your interest in those themes come from?
Jennings (3m 38s):
Well, Amy, I tell you the, the questions that I’ve always had about the Christian life and what actually constitutes authentic Christian life. Hmm. Raised in the context where people were intensely Christian. And I was raised in intensely Christian town, filled with Christian bookstores, filled with Christian churches. The airways were permeated with Christian programming and, but it was an incredibly race field, racist race conscious place. And I was trying to make sense of Christianity and And that relationship to, to race and the realities of race.
Jennings (4m 27s):
But I was also deeply interested in how Christians think and the, the idea of a c a thinking Christian has always fascinated me, not only how people think their faith, but how they think their life through their faith. And I’ve always been fascinated by the, by both the beautiful and the weird ways, people who are thinking their faith and trying to think their life through their faith, how they live. And so in many ways, I’ve been like a junior anthropologist and sociologist all my life, just trying to understand how, how, how do you come to that?
Jennings (5m 10s):
You come to that way of seeing the world. And so trying to understand the, the reality of that, that life of faith has been a part of it. And then I think a third thing that’s always drawn me is the, the Beauty and the art of, of Christian life. The way people live in many ways, a a faith, more beautiful, more rich, more sophisticated than they can even articulate. And just to see it and behold it, especially in the face of suffering, in the pace of inexplicable difficulties and events that mangle life, to see how people are able to, with a brilliant improvisation of grasp life and hold onto life in the midst of massive contradictions.
Jennings (6m 6s):
I’ve always been drawn to, to that Beauty, that Beauty of the arts of living in the face of difficulty. That Christianity, I think more than any other reality on this planet, shows us how people can do that. And so those are the themes that have just run through my life and run through my work. And I continue to be incredibly fascinated with people of faith, the things we believe, how they’re formed and how we, how we live them out.
Becker (6m 42s):
I love hearing that. I was, you know, again, having read a lot of your work, I expected some of what you just said, but I wasn’t really expecting the Beauty part. And I. Wanna pause there for a minute? I just came away, I told you from a camp in Alabama, and the camp is called Hope Heals. So it’s a camp that is for families that have been affected by disability of all sorts. So we were there with our daughter who has down Syndrome, but you also have people who have been affected by, you know, diabetes and are going blind, or you’ve got people who’ve had strokes or people with cerebral palsy or autism, like a whole range of different disabilities and conditions and the sense of coming together in a place to care for one another and serve.
Becker (7m 35s):
It’s the, the day we were leaving, the person who’s the director of the camp said, You know, you, we talk about it as if you’re about to go out into your real life, but actually being here is more real than anything you’re gonna find back at home. Yeah. Because we are actually caring for one another in a mutual relationships of giving and receiving. I mean, we were there as volunteers even though we have a child with a disability, you know, because there was such a sense of fluidity and there was so much Beauty there amid that hardship and pain. And it does feel like a, a more real taste of what it means to be human, of what it means to know God there than almost anywhere else. And that’s just what your comments about the beauty of the Christian faith that again, cannot always even be put into words, but is so attractive to me.
Becker (8m 24s):
And, I think something that I keep coming back to. But what I’m curious about for you is you also write about some of the horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of Christianity. And so, and, and the ways in which even some aspects of Christianity have enabled that type the thinking that leads to the horrors. Right? So how do you, how do you reconcile those contradictions? Or are they contradictions? Like where does the, how does the Beauty in the horror within our history, at least as Christians, how do you think about that?
Jennings (8m 58s):
Well, Christianity has always been a struggle. And it is a struggle at, at its very heart, a struggle to follow where the spirit of God is leading. And we, human creatures are caught up in the gracefield action of God to draw us toward life with God. And we struggle, we struggle mightily to, to follow where God is leading. And some people have designated that with the, with the term sin. And I think that’s correct. But often to use the word sin doesn’t really help people envision what’s really going on.
Jennings (9m 39s):
But it, it is that, that’s at the heart of these contradictions for us on, in one sense, that is in terms of what we do, in terms of our agency and our actions, we struggle to follow where God is leading And. That struggle has taken different forms at different times of history. But in our time, by our time, I mean, from the beginning of the colonial moment in the, in the 15th, 16th century, we have really struggled to recognize the full humanity of, of all god’s creatures that are human.
Jennings (10m 18s):
And you know, I think one of the, the great problems we’re, we are yet in the midst of is that so many Christians don’t really understand their faith. And I mean by that is that so many Christians are unaware of the, the history you’re pointing to Amy, there is a Christian architecture to modern racial reasoning, and there is a racial architecture to modern Christianity. And so many Christians never got the memo about either one of those things.
Becker (10m 56s):
So when you say more about both of those statements Yeah. That, yeah. Can you dig in a little bit? Sure.
Jennings (11m 2s):
Absolutely. So when I say that there is a Christian architecture to modern racial reasoning, I’m pointing to the history established by Christians nurtured and created by Christians, the history of how racial, racial identity, racial reasoning, and race came to be. Christians were at the very heart of that, of that creation and the way in which they understood the peoples of the, what we call the new worlds. And so Christians were at the very heart of, of that. And Christians did two things basically, and I’ll keep it pretty straightforward for your audience.
Jennings (11m 43s):
They did two things, basically. The one is that they came to the new worlds. And by the new worlds, we mean what we would call the Americas, what we would call subsi in Africa, what we would call the Pacific Islands. Australia came to the new worlds, and they, on the one hand, they designated, they identified who these people were. And then in that designation, they tried to organize who they were in relationship to themselves. And so that designation had to do with the way they saw them, describe them and describe themselves at the same time.
Jennings (12m 24s):
And they drew on some of the languages, ideas from the old world to do that. And so the ideas of black and white became important utility in helping them figure out how to understand themselves, relationship to all these peoples. But that designation, it, it began really as a kind of, let’s say a kind of harmless comparison. It quickly became a hierarchical vision of, of full humanity with the European who called themselves white being at the very top. Now that that piece goes along with another thing they did And, that is that they quickly separated people from land and they separated people from land in two senses, Amy Amy.
Jennings (13m 13s):
The one is that they took the land, which is the basic sense. They took the land and, and their, their rationale for taking the land is that the land, if it is not being cultivated, if it’s not being made productive, then it’s no man’s land as it were. And the, the, the famous phrase is terror nus, that it is empty land. And then, but on the, in the other sense of taking the land, they denied what so many indigenous peoples around the world said, And, that is, that who I am cannot be separated from this place.
Jennings (13m 53s):
That my identity is tied fundamentally to this place. It’s tied to the animals, it’s tied to the land, it’s tied to the water, it’s tied to the trees, the wind, the season, it’s tied. Th this is a part, a fundamental part of who I am. It’s not me plus the land. It’s one reality. Me and the land for the, for those colonialists who came and said, No, that’s ridiculous. You carry your identity holy on your body. And so where you are is inconsequential to who you are. Where you are is just a place who you are is something different. And so they forced so many indigenous peoples to see their identities as disconnected from the land.
Jennings (14m 38s):
Why? Because they wanted to turn the land into property on its way to becoming private. So Christians, I’m sorry, go ahead.
Becker (14m 47s):
Well, no, I’m just curious cuz I think that has implications. Obvi, I mean the, the implications for indigenous peoples seem like, okay, yes, that is obvious, but it seems as though there’s also implications for the European Absolutely. People who are leaving their, their land, right? Like their place of origin and coming to a new place. And I’m just thinking even in terms of some sense of, you know, people even ask me where I’m from, And I don’t always know how to answer the question, Right. Because I’ve lived in so many different places. And so I’m curious just to draw that thread forward, you know, five or 600 years in terms of how you see that affecting that particular, and again, maybe I’m wrong, but I think it, it’s a, like many people have learned a lot about how the racial hierarchies have been harmful to all of us.
Becker (15m 39s):
But this idea of separating place from person, what do you think the implications are for us now, especially as Christians? Yeah, go ahead.
Jennings (15m 49s):
Yeah, there are myth and, and the first thing is you wanna hold those two things together. Most people don’t. So most people don’t hold the problem of the hierarchical formation of racial designation to the transformation of land in the private property. Yeah. And, and the reason why they have to be held together is because those two things are always together. And the, the one makes possible, the other always, but the implications are, are right in front of us. The first crucial implication is that where we are, and by we, I mean most western peoples, most peoples who have been shaped inside this colonial legacy where we are, is inconsequential to who we are.
Jennings (16m 32s):
We can be. And so the first thing is that it creates what I call a reality of displacement. That we’re, we all live with, that we live on the surface of place. We don’t see and sense a, a deep connection to any place. And that’s, that’s, that’s a, that’s an incredible problem because the level of connectivity we sense with a place has direct bearing on the level of relationality we believe we’re supposed to have. Yeah. In a place.
Becker (17m 11s):
Jennings (17m 12s):
So if I think, Oh, I’m just, I’m just here. I have a job, you know, I’m going to school, but I’m just here and then I’m elsewhere, You know, then our sense of not only responsibility, but a kind of deep ethical and moral commitment to one another will always be shallow. So that’s the first incredible and very important implication. The second is what’s tied to what I said a moment ago, And, that is the land is turned from a part of who we are. The land is turned from a coal creature as it were. And by land I’m also including water and animals and so forth. It goes from being seen as a deep companion that tells me who I am to simply being a tool for my youth.
Becker (17m 60s):
Jennings (18m 1s):
And so it opens up the possibility for an extractive vision of the world. I mean, by that extractive vision of the world means that I go to a place, And I, ask the question, What can I get out of it? And we are living, as you all know, as you know, we are living in the midst of the proliferation of that vision of the world. The world is a tool, a resource that I can get out of it what I want. Which another way to say that is the implication of this long history is that we, we all function relationship to the world like vampires.
Jennings (18m 43s):
We suck out of it what we want and give back only to the extent that will enable us to suck out more.
Becker (18m 52s):
Jennings (18m 53s):
And. That, that is a, that is a incredible problem. But then there’s a, there’s a third very important implication for us And, that is, it has undermined any real doctrine of creation for right, For those of us who are Christian, we don’t really have a doctrine of creation because a doctrine of creation would involve us in thinking about the shape of our living and what’s known as the built environment. That is the way we build neighborhoods and cities and communities. It, it would involve us thinking much more intentionally in terms of what I discipleship means for the shape of our living.
Becker (19m 36s):
Well, And, I, And, I, do think there are so many very, yeah. Kind of pragmatic implications to that final point you’re making about the doctrine of creation and the ways in which our relationality and responsibility could be embedded in places. I’ve thought a lot about disability and the church when it comes simply to architecture. And I, remember a friend of mine who’s done a lot in this area, Bill Gnta says, architecture is evangelism. If you, the way your buildings are structured communicates who is welcome. And he’s not only talking about ramps, he’s also talking about, you know, who is being held up as a model of the person who is meant to be here.
Becker (20m 20s):
And, I think this can extend into some of those racial categories as well. If you’ve only got pictures of white men on the wall, as the exemplars of who has come before, well who do we think is welcomed and honored here? If you’ve only got, you know, people upfront who look a certain way or dress a certain way or behave a certain way, then again, what are we communicating about who is not just who is welcome here, but also who belongs here, who is valued here? And then I think similarly about, we were walking, actually, I was with my family walking through New Haven a couple of weeks ago, and we were walking through a neighborhood that had been populated during the great migration from the south, so predominantly by African Americans.
Becker (21m 4s):
And one of the things my youngest daughter noticed when we walked from that neighborhood back towards the Yale campus, she said, Mom, it’s so much cooler now. And what she essentially noticed was the presence of larger shade trees. And so again, this built environment was communicating a different sense of welcome once you got to one part of the city from then another And, I. Think all of those things do speak to your point as far as where we live, very much informs who we are. Even if we try to deny that.
Jennings (21m 40s):
That’s exactly right. We, we live, we live with a legacy of violent geographies. Amy That violence, that violence is as real as somebody taking a brick or a stick or a gun and coming after you by the shape of the neighborhoods. By the way, bus lines function, as you said, by where trees are, where there are parks, where there are libraries, swimming pools. Yeah. All of these things are, and here we have to remember the, these, these things don’t happen by kind of natural rock formations or something. These things are intentional. And so we have to understand even, and that’s an intentionality that, that reaches through the decades, through the centuries.
Jennings (22m 25s):
So a city or a community or a neighborhood is shaped inside the logic of a few people And, that logic will run forward for decades, for centuries. And so while you might have wonderful well-meaning people who live in these communities, if, if they have not done two crucial things, understood the history of how this, this community is coming to be shaped this way. Yeah. And number two, thought about the new intentionality necessary and how we build anything. Then they’re, they’re sitting at the heart of the problem and they are part of the problem.
Jennings (23m 7s):
They’re, they’re ignorance and inactivity continues to let legacy of violent geographies. So that’s why it’s so important to understand not only where we live, but the shape of that living, the shape of that neighborhood and how it has come to be and, and to pay attention now to the way things are being built. Right now, we are in the midst of a global struggle over real estate. We’re in the midst of a global struggle, global struggle over gentrification. Hmm. And we’re in the midst of what will become in the next couple of years a new pandemic in homelessness.
Jennings (23m 52s):
There are, there are, there’s homelessness occurring all over this planet because people are buying up, taking over land at a monstrous rate. And along with that, a lot of churches right now, churches are churches in this, on this planet, own more property than almost into any entity. And we are in the midst of a massive transfer of churches property into private hands as churches are closing, selling their property and trying to, trying to survive. And so we, we have to pay attention to this.
Becker (24m 36s):
Yeah. Thank you for that. And. I’m curious, so one of the things that you write about this is in after whiteness is whiteness does not refer to people of European descent, but to a way of being in the world. And, I think we’ve already been talking a little bit about that way of being in the world, but I would love to just hone in there for a minute on this, this idea of whiteness as a way of being. Like, what is whiteness when you are writing about it or talking about it and how has it Yeah. How does whiteness show up in spaces even that aren’t considered to be white? And how has it formed and shaped the culture that we’re talking about?
Jennings (25m 13s):
Right. This is one of the most challenging things for some people to, to think about. People they’ve never, ever had to think about whiteness as a thing. Yeah. And, and the reason, the reason so many people have never had to think about it is because it is inside a long history of formation so that people begin to see it as natural. And the only way people can start to see it as something that’s not natural is to be in conversation with people who’ve had to struggle at the other end of it. That is people who’ve had to struggle with non-white existence.
Jennings (25m 56s):
And so for so many people where they, whether they be black or Latinx or Asian or however they have been designated in, in in non-white categories, everybody has had to do this important working. They’ve had to make a distinction between the image, the racial image that they are have been given that’s filled with stereotype and derogatory elements and who they actually are. And the challenge is, is that there are, there are little slippers, little pieces, little aspects of their cultural realities or their languages that have been embedded inside those derogatory images.
Jennings (26m 41s):
And so they’ve had to do the really painful work of pulling, pulling those things out of that derogatory image so that who they actually are can be seen over against that derogatory image. And so And that in many cases say, Okay, well yeah, call me, call me black. But what I mean by black is not all this mess that you have in here, I’m gonna pull out these little pieces. Okay, call me Asian, whatever you think that is. But, but I’m gonna plug out of the, out of all that derogatory, stereotypical mess, these little pieces and elements that are part of who I am, but I’m not that.
Jennings (27m 22s):
So, so many peoples have had to do that work all their lives. Right. But whiteness was presented as something positive, as an image thing was an image that’s positive, always positive, always beautiful, always right? Always in the imperial position of knowing. And so people who have wanted from the very beginning to see themselves that way, what comes with that is that, you know, think of, think of two hands, People can see what I’m doing, right. And so people have said, Well, there, there’s really no reason given it’s positivity.
Jennings (28m 5s):
There’s no reason For me to ever imagine myself that’s different from that until someone says it’s not all positive. It’s, there’s problematic aspects to it, and so will to, But if, if someone has so identified with the image Yeah, so identified with the, the vision, then for someone to come along and say, No, that’s really not who you should be. That’s incredibly painful, Right? Because this has been really comfortable. So why would I want to create, create a distance?
Jennings (28m 47s):
So that’s part of the reason why it’s been so difficult for people to even to think about the matter of whiteness. But now to come to the, what you asked me a moment ago, what is whiteness? Whiteness is a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world at the same time. Whiteness is a way to organize the world, a way to envision the world a way to, to make sense of the world. And whiteness is having the power to order one’s world by that effort. And whiteness takes as it’s kind of cardinal, it’s crucial as foundational aspirations, possession, control and mastery, possession, control and mastery of my world to make sense of my world, to organize my world, to run my world.
Jennings (29m 41s):
And so whiteness is an aspiration of really of control, of, of, of providence, of being able to live one’s life in the way God Ima God has imagined you should live your life and do it from a position of utter control. And by, and, and by that I don’t mean that you control everything that happens in your life, but that you’re always able to make sense of it. And in many ways been reality to make sense. And so this has been the aspiration for so many people coming to the western world.
Jennings (30m 22s):
And the western world is formed in this aspiration. And so whiteness is a fundamental problem because whiteness is built inside of these aspirations for in, in a sense, for imperial dominance that never imagines itself as being dominant.
Becker (30m 44s):
Well, and For me, you know, as a white person, the way that I think I’ve been invited into seeing the problems of whiteness has actually been through the lens of disability. Because I have a daughter with down Syndrome And, that is where for when Penny was first born. And some listeners have heard me say this before, but I really saw, I saw these barriers to access for her in the world. That the social world that I lived in And, I thought my job was to knock down those barriers so she could come in and be like me. And over time I began to recognize that, wait a second, there’s some problems with what it means to be like me.
Becker (31m 24s):
And they come up with what you were just saying, this sense of individualism, of control, of productivity, achievement. And, I saw all of those as kind of unquestioned goods. And I began to recognize that actually her way of being in the world, which involves vulnerability and dependence and mutuality, it’s a way of love instead of control. It’s a way of, yeah. Dependence rather than individualism. And, and it can be mutual dependence. It doesn’t need to be, you know, simply going in the direction of her having needs. But that sense of, oh wait, What, if I too recognize myself as a needy, vulnerable human who has gifts to offer and who needs to be in and among others in order for my full humanity to be expressed What.
Becker (32m 16s):
If I really don’t understand everything, And, I never can. What if love is actually a laying down of my life rather than a ordering it and controlling it in such a way that I am the master of it. So all of those things have come to me, or at least begun to come to me by way of disability and helped me start to understand, I think this concept of whiteness as, yes, of course this has a racial history to it, but it’s not simply about, you know, skin color or ethnicity. There’s a concept here that I’ve been playing into that is tied up in, you know, being an American, being white, educated, affluent, all of those things, having grown up in the institutional spaces I’ve been a part of.
Becker (33m 4s):
And I’m wondering if you can speak to the idea that we, that there are ways in which the Christian imagination has been shaped by forces that separate rather than build bridges among peoples like, and what, what would it mean from a Christian perspective? What tools do we have for a work of reimagining, of, of reshaping beginning to build?
Jennings (33m 31s):
That’s a great question. We, the, the legacy we’re inside of is a legacy of a particular kind of formation of a human. And. I talk about this in af my book After Whiteness, It all, all Western education has been shaped to move us toward one image of what maturity looks like. Amy. And, you know, you, you mentioning your your child is really important in this regard because it, it highlights what you said, highlights the problem of that image, And that image that’s at the heart of our education. That image that’s at the heart of what we understand formation to be is the image of a white self-sufficient man who ha who shows those three virtues I mentioned earlier, what I call dismal virtues, possession, control, and mastery.
Jennings (34m 28s):
And so all of education, all of formation is aiming to move us toward that reality because that, that person imagined is one who is able to exhibit independence and is the one who is able to build a world, sustain a world, maintain a world, and in and in fact build a world better. So whether we’re talking about men or women or, or, or those who are non-binary, we’re still talking about a reality that can capture everyone. That is what we’re aiming people toward is this self-sufficient, autonomous, independent person able to not only control and possess, but master their world.
Jennings (35m 21s):
Now the difficulty, of course, is that for Christians, that image has been embedded deeply inside of what we understand salvation to be about. We are being saved, we are being cultivated into that image. And so the resources we have, our inside of our faith is to challenge that sick vision of maturity, that sick vision of what it means to be formed as a human being. What it means to be formed as a Christian. And what, what you said earlier is really the heart of it for the Christian, it is not independence.
Jennings (36m 3s):
It is not independence. That is a mark of maturity. It’s mutual dependence. It’s not self-sufficiency. That’s a mark of Christian maturity. It’s interconnectedness. It’s not, it’s not autonomy, it’s mutuality, it’s life together. It’s, it’s not independence, entanglement. These are the realities that constitute Christian maturity for us. But now what I’ve just said, for so many people, they’ve never gotten a memo, any of that. Their vision of what it means to, to grow and mature and become a Christian, is that you become utterly independent.
Jennings (36m 48s):
You can stand on your own two feet, as it’s often said, And, that that image by itself is so deeply problematic. And when we, we think about how we come to stand on our feet, we, it starts by people holding our hands, starts by, you know, two people at, at, at either end of a space and say, Walk, walk to mommy, walk to daddy. It, it, it continues with those showing us where to walk and how to walk. And then as we get older, it, it becomes those helping us walk. And so it, it, our lives speak against that saying.
Jennings (37m 29s):
But the reality for us is that the, the tools within the Christian life that would help us do this have been in many ways subverted and turned into tools that helped to underwrite this sick vision of formation.
Becker (37m 47s):
Yeah. I re remember when Penny was first born, my husband, And I would often think about what she would be like in heaven. I mean, that was kind of our vision at the time of what, you know, what, what happened, what would happen after she died? Would she still have down Syndrome? And what actually helped us to reimagine her and our ourselves was recognizing, well, wait a second. If I’m saying that she might not have down Syndrome in heaven, what am I saying about myself? Like, I’m essentially envisioning myself in a perfected form like Superman, where I have no needs for other people.
Becker (38m 28s):
And I can do everything for myself. And I was like, that’s like the antithesis of a Christian vision of humanity because the whole point is even from the very beginning, like we were made for each other to exist in loving relationships with God and with one another of mutual dependence and care. And so if anything, I will look more like my daughter when I’m in heaven rather than the other way around. And so there has been a, a real reshaping of my imagination, which I don’t know what, you know, what that’s all gonna look like. It’s just helped me to really understand, I think what you’re talking about as far as not envisioning a maturity that looks like me becoming more and more strong and capable and productive, but a maturity that actually involves me becoming more and more aware of my need for other people and for God’s love to sustain me in all that I’m doing and for my interconnectedness.
Becker (39m 28s):
And I. Yeah, go ahead.
Jennings (39m 30s):
I was just gonna say, I’m so glad you say that because I think at the end of the day, for all of us who are Christian The challenge is to trust again the beauty of life together. Hmm. There’s so many people who are, who don’t trust it, and we know why. I mean, if you’ve been raised in a really painful and harmful community or family or environment, you know, the stuff we’re talking about now is, you know, like, I don’t know about any of that. You know, you’re suspicious of, of the, the together. Hmm. Or, or if you’re someone who’s, you know, you know you are LGBTQ and you have, you know, you’ve been, you’ve been treated so poorly in community, you distrust this kind of talk.
Jennings (40m 19s):
So we, we understand that the, the challenge is to envision a new kind of life together, Kind of life together would mean that we only accept each other, but we live for and with each other. And I in that regard, The goal of the goal of mature life, the goal of full life is never a goal of isolation. And it never is a d definition of freedom. That’s freedom from, it’s always freedom with And. That’s the challenge for so many people to, to imagine freedom as a freedom with.
Jennings (41m 1s):
Now of course we have to press this more Amy because the, the reality is, is that in this country there are a lot of people who have community, but it’s community that’s deeply homogeneous. And what I mean by that’s community of color can, and kind as we used to say in the south, it’s communities that remain predominantly white preda, predominantly whatever ethnic group you want to name And, that the, the reality of life together continues to be short circuited for the Christian because we continue to fight against the multitude that God is trying to, to bring the bow. And so I think it’s important for us to recognize that while we do want to underscore the together, the together has to be, if we’re following where the spirit of God is leading, the together has to be in the multitude, and it has to shake and break open the ways we understand our safety, comfort and normality inside homogeneous, homogeneous realities,
Becker (42m 1s):
Which is so challenging in light of, again, just institutional history. The place which we’ve just been talking about, the way our neighborhoods and towns and, you know, churches have been formed and shaped. One of the, I I think this will help us maybe get there, you’re the subtitle for After Whiteness is, and Education and Belonging. And in that book you write, the cultivation of Belonging should be the goal of all education. And so I’d love to hear you speak a little bit about what you see. Like what does Belonging mean and how do we, how do we know if Belonging is what’s happening? How could education be shaped in order to create a sense And that spaces of Belonging?
Becker (42m 47s):
Because I think that might speak to the multitudes actually coming together rather than being isolated.
Jennings (42m 54s):
Well, let’s think about this first for the Christian, and we then we can open it out to other peoples. But for the Christian, the, the image I want us to, to hold on is Jesus and the crowd, Jesus And that crowd, Jesus draws a crowd. And I to remember is that the crowd are people who come from all walks of life who would normally not want to be together. Many enemies in that crowd, many people that if you turned your back date, there would be a knife being, being thrown across the room at somebody else. And, and, and fist would be be thrown. These are not friends who are gathering to hear Jesus. These are people from every walk of life, many of whom are, are unhappy, that they are shoulder to shoulder with these other folks.
Jennings (43m 43s):
But this is the crowd Jesus draw. And what’s so important about that is that the crowd is not Christian, but it is the basis upon which a Christian could form.
Becker (43m 58s):
Jennings (43m 59s):
The crowd is not in agreement, but is the basis upon which life together could form. And it is a group of people who are only there because they want something from Jesus. But Jesus in turn wants them to want each other. And so part of the deal with him is that if you want For me, then you must take what I want for you. It is that it is that reality of this uneasy mixture, this uneasy gathering that becomes the basis upon which to think life together, to think life together as church.
Jennings (44m 50s):
Now, why this is so important, because this is exactly the work that the spirit of God is calling us to do, to open ourselves to those we would prefer not to be with And, that becomes the basis, that becomes the basis of creating a new reality of Belonging, a reality of Belonging that is not tied to one single story, but the weaving of many people’s story that’s tied to one single way of life. But the weaving together of many ways of life to create something new. It’s a reality of Belonging, that that should be at the heart, be at the heart of the Christian life.
Jennings (45m 37s):
But to, but to move beyond the reality of the Christian life and to think about education more broadly and to think about formation more broadly as I do an after whiteness. You know what I, what I’m suggesting is that what we want is to move away from that image I talked about earlier. That has been the heart of Western education for all peoples, no matter what your race Religion or background or gender you, that, that, that reality of what we’re forming you toward. And to ask this question, what would happen if we and took away that image of the way self-sufficient man and inserted a different reality And that is not the image of another person, but the image of this gathering Jesus in the crowd.
Jennings (46m 27s):
And to put it this way, that what we want for people is no matter what you do in your life, what kind of vocation you have, no matter what it is, that what is what defines your work is that you are able to gather people together, people who would never really want to be together, but because of the way you do your work, the way you live your life, you draw together people across boundary and border and hostility and history. They come, they come together and they become friends through what you do.
Jennings (47m 9s):
Now that, that’s the reality of Belonging that we want not only for those of us who are Christian, but for those of us who live in societies racked with the kinds of divisions that we are racked with right now.
Becker (47m 28s):
Well, and as we kind of come to the close of this conversation, I’m curious whether you have seen that happen and, and or if there are ways you can imagine that happening in terms of schools or churches that I’m thinking particularly of institutions that have been historically shaped by what we’re talking about when we talk about whiteness and what steps those types of institutions can take toward, towards becoming spaces of Belonging or even creating spaces of Belonging within what, you know, what might take many more years to, to actually become full spaces that way.
Becker (48m 10s):
Like have you seen that happen or can you imagine that happening and, and if so, how?
Jennings (48m 15s):
I have seen it, but it’s always episodic. It’s always, you know, this pocket of people here, this relationship there, this group here for a time, they, they reach and there are some, there are some abiding characteristics that run from group to group person people to people, episode to episode. It’s people who decide they want each other. Amy it’s people who decide that they want to be together. They, they, they don’t, they may not agree on everything. They, they’re, they, you know, make mistakes. They say things to each other that they have to apologize for.
Jennings (48m 58s):
They, they misstep. But at the heart of it, what you see are people who have committed their lives to each other. They want to be together. And so they do extraordinary things because they have made this commitment. And so what’s necessary for institutions and for churches, you know, I I always say they’re like three things. The first is that they, they have to learn the history we’re talking about now. And many of them don’t. They, they have to learn the history of the way in which races come about. The the and they, they have to also learn the history of how their, their racial isolation and segregation continues to function, how it’s come about and how, and the ways it continues to function.
Jennings (49m 47s):
The second thing is that they have to make a commitment to understanding their own formation. How they’ve come to be who they are and what aspirations yet drive them forward. That that’s, as you were saying earlier when you talked about, you know, what you imagined for your daughter in heaven and And, that kind of deep thinking about who I am and who we are, each person has to, has to do that work. And then the third thing there has to be, as I always say, as a theologian, there has to be a, a basic decision to stop resisting the spirit. I mean, I’ve been at this a long time and, and here’s what I know.
Jennings (50m 28s):
I’m, I’ve, I’ve been doing this a very long time. And wherever I go to talk to people, I always say to them, There are, there are people that the spirit of God is trying to get you to connect to, to, to move your life toward, that you are resisting. Hmm. And what you have to do is stop resisting and Amy. I have never had someone say to me, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Every time I’ve said that, people almost immediately ha it comes into their mind, those group of people that they have been avoiding, that they know, they have been avoiding, and they know somewhere in their spirit, somewhere in their heart that the spirit of God is tapping them and saying, You, I want you to connect to them.
Becker (51m 21s):
Jennings (51m 22s):
And so the, here’s the thing I, you know, you mentioned the Commentary in the Book of Acts. One of the amazing things about that, that book in scripture is that when the spirit comes, one of the fundamental signs of the spirit is that the spirit is pressing people to do what they don’t want to do. Yeah. And what’s at the heart of doing what they don’t want to do is very often connecting with people they would prefer not to connect with. But that’s the spirit saying, No, go, go, go.
Jennings (52m 2s):
And so my, my plea to, especially to those who are Christian And that stop resisting the spirit because the, the spirit of God is present trying to build community And that we, we have become experts at war team the will of God by resisting the spirit. So my hope is that we would, we would yield. And for Christian that should be, that should be second nature.
Becker (52m 29s):
Hmm. Well, I think that’s a perfect way to end this, just with that exhortation to not resist the spirit of God. And also I think And I think you’re going back to your initial comment about Beauty as a motivating force for your work and the work that you’ve done really points to that. That on the one hand, it’s scary to make those overtures, to trust and to let go of control and to relearn and get to a place of honesty about the past and humility about the present. And all of those things can be really scary and risky.
Becker (53m 9s):
And yet the, for lack of a better word, the payoff of the Beauty and richness and possibility that exists in these unexpected places of community and Belonging and re understanding ourselves as humans are and more connected to the love of God as a result of it. It’s really worth it. I mean, it’s a very exciting generative set of possibilities, even though it also risks a lot of what we’ve known. We put a lot of that on the line in terms of making those moves and, and yeah.
Becker (53m 50s):
Heading in that direction.
Jennings (53m 52s):
Becker (53m 54s):
Well, thank you again for your time. And I will make sure in, you know, various places to point people towards, especially I guess we’ve really talked about after whiteness the most in this conversation, But also your Commentary on Acts and the Christian imagination is also such an important book in terms of understanding all of these things. So thank you for your work and thank you for your time today. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you.
Jennings (54m 19s):
My pleasure. Amy. Amy, great. Great to talk you. Good to you as well,
Becker (54m 26s):
As always for listening to this episode of Love is Stronger Than Fear. Check the show notes for links to books and passages and articles we mentioned. And I’ll say it again. If you’ve listened this far, maybe you’re willing to take another two minutes and give this podcast a rating, a review, share it with other people who might benefit from these conversations about hope and healing in a fractured world. I will always say thank you to Jake Hanson for editing the podcast and to Amber Beery for supporting this show in every way, which is to say the show notes and all of the media that goes around getting it out into the world and telling people about it. So thank you, Jake. Thank you Amber. And thank you for being here and listening as you go into your day today.
Becker (55m 10s):
I hope and pray you will carry with you the peace that comes from believing that love is stronger than fear.
Learn more with Amy Julia:
- To Be Made Well: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope
- S5 E14 | The Beauty and Wounding of This Here Flesh with Cole Arthur Riley
- S5 E12 | Racism: Can Learning History Bring Healing? with Lisa Sharon Harper
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