An Education in Belonging
By Willie James Jennings
Eerdmans, pp. 175. $19.99
Review by Joseph Dewey
Theology is caught more than taught. The potency of proclamation is only as powerful as the prayerful practices of the community. This pedagogical reality — assumed in the prayer book tradition — is embedded within the scathing and poetic critique of Western Christian educational institutions from Yale Divinity School’s Willie James Jennings in his After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Jennings pulls no punches and transcends simplistic conservative/liberal theological binary, calling out curriculum-controlling conservatives as well as self-contradictory liberal seminaries who parade banners about diversity while engaged in the formation of “plantation masters.”
Central to Jennings’s critique is his account of “whiteness.” For many conservative-leaning white Christians, the sociological depiction “whiteness” is met defensively and with skepticism. To be sure, on the surface, such uses of “whiteness” can be troubling, as its meaning is hardly self-evident and in fact runs counter to many of our expectations. This is compounded by the ways that conservative pundits react against “Critical Race Theory,” building up and attacking “woke” strawmen. However, Jennings’s racial critique goes deeper than the trendy caricature with its nihilistic views of human history. He inhabits rich Christian imagination about sin, communion, and hope that should be trusted by theological conservatives.
For Jennings, whiteness depicts “the self-sufficient man… defined by possession, control, and mastery” (p. 6). Just a cursory reading of Pauline theology leads to a contrast between Jennings’s account of whiteness and the Christian virtue of faith, defined as a kind of relational dependence upon God and his gracious promises. This frames Jennings’s broader theological critique of the diseased imagination of Eurocentric colonial Christianity. It is this sickened imagination that utilized Christian doctrine to justify the displacement of Black bodies from their land and relocate them for exploitative gain in a new land. While slavery and Jim Crow have been abolished in America, the intoxicating disease of whiteness persists in the board rooms, faculty lounges, and classrooms of educational institutions — even seminaries and divinity schools set on diversity.
You might be thinking: higher education has never been so awakened to issues of race, nor so eager to accept, support, and hire people of color. This may be true, but Jennings argues that these changes have not dealt with the central problem of the “racial paterfamilias.” Consider the drawing above of slaves worshiping on a plantation in South Carolina, the Black preacher performing within the constraints of the master’s gaze. His homiletical moment is controlled by the rules and values of the master. Jennings’s critique includes but extends beyond the admissions and hiring process and its pursuit of diversity. He addresses the feeling of an institution; the inner circles and their secret shibboleths, which call every person to conform and assimilate.
This picture of plantation worship depicts the control of whiteness. Diversity — even Blackness — might be trending in higher education, but not in a way that loosens the grip of control. A contemporary example might be the 2018 Oscar-nominated post-woke horror film, Get Out, as a frightening illustration of utilizing the trendiness of Blackness to maintain the control of whiteness.
If whiteness represents the cultural control of a white-male master, After Whiteness represents an intimate multi-cultural communion of diverse peoples sharing agency, learning each other’s stories and languages. For Jennings, this communion finds its supreme expression in Christ and is captured most powerfully on Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church and the apostles proclaimed Israel’s Messiah in the native tongues of other cultures. These many cultures are engrafted into the olive tree of Israel and become the fragments gathered into one, making up the Body of Christ.
While Jennings offers a deeply Christian critique of systemic racism in higher education, his constructive proposals are lamentably light. Perhaps absent is the role of Church and sacrament to educate and form cross-cultural communion. In the Catholic Christian tradition, in which I would include my own Anglican context, the Eucharist reflects an accumulation of the Church’s prayers throughout many cultures in time and space. These prayers are engrafted into the story of Israel’s Messiah, Christ Jesus, who has become our peace. While the Catholic tradition is equally liable to Jennings’s critique, I believe it uniquely has the theological resources to undermine the control of whiteness in higher education and western Christianity.
The Rev. Joe Dewey is associate rector for worship at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, TX.
Editor’s note: An previously published version of this review inadvertently omitted two paragraphs. They have been restored.