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After Whiteness: An Education of Belonging

Willie James Jennings
Eerdmans, 175 pages

Willie James Jennings offers a rigorous scholarly look at the plague of racial hegemony in theological education. Jennings believes that knowledge is, at best, an accumulation of secrets, misapprehensions and fragments; therefore, none of us have captured the totality of the “elephant of anything” in the room of knowledge and community. In the words of my grandmother, “It takes everybody to know everything.”

Jennings believes that colonialism and Whiteness are part of the reason for the current decline, closure and merger of theological schools. Nevertheless, this quiet regime rewards those blindly loyal to it — to survive the system, theological students cooperate and graduate!

Jennings investigates the colonialism that permeates American theological academies, specifically the myths of self-sufficiency and White masculinity, without sounding like an angry Black man. Instead, he demonstrates care and vision for the life and future of theological education in America. His non-violent, scholarly critique is reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. toward their respective empires.

In an interview with poet/writer Leah Silvieus, Jennings opined, “I could not understand how folks could be so Christian and so racist at the same time.” He weaves stories of those crippled and frustrated by this empire, but he is unwilling to give up; rather, he dares to be scholarly vulnerable, knowing that his work may not be appreciated by those whom he calls “interlocutors.” This systemic stranglehold is a hindrance to “radical imagination in unprecedented times.” I wondered if even this work will move the needle on institutional meanness.

Jennings’ voice is ensconced in the colonialism he critiques — he is employed by the academy (as a Yale Divinity School professor), but not compromised! He understands how the system recruits and nurtures all newcomers as unwitting gatekeepers. Therefore, I approached Jennings’ book with an unashamed hermeneutic of suspicion. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Yet, Jennings’ book offers hope.

I am encouraged by Jennings’ courage to dare speak this truth while anticipating its detractors. He writes, “This is a struggle against this old man and the world he has created for us.” I would add that the “old man” will never admit that he created this world, yet I pray that this work will allow for a renewal. Jennings stirs the imagining of theological education at its possible best, though thwarted by paterfamilias. In a scene from the movie “In the Heat of the Night” Detective Tibbs dares to interrogate an old White man concerning a murder. The old White man slaps him, but Tibbs slaps him in return. Similarly, Jennings offers institutional critique, anticipating the slap, but, through scholarly critique, slaps back. After Whiteness is an excellent read for those seeking change in theological discourse, pedagogy, and relevant praxis. It proposes the “we” of belonging as an alternative to the “me” of self-sufficient White masculinity. Through critical and appreciative inquiry, Jennings offers the hope of beloved community.

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