“… they press us into a soul-killing performativity aimed at the exhibition of mastery, possession, and control with the tacit assumption that this ongoing work of exhibition illumines talent and the capacity for leadership…. The problem here is that it cultivates an abiding isolationism at the heart of this view of performativity, which infects everything and everyone in the academic ecology of a school. Everyone is caught up in an exhibition that pushes us always toward isolation.” [1] – Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness

Anyone who has lived with a mysterious illness will likely tell you that there is almost as much relief in finally getting an accurate diagnosis as there is in receiving treatment. Willie James Jennings’ book After Whiteness was just such a moment for me: reading his diagnosis of the disease of theological education was a moment of palpable relief.

Jennings’ thesis is two-fold: first, that theological education—and Western education more broadly—was formed in the avaricious stranglehold of European colonialism, a heritage that distorted and atrophied academic and theological formation and haunts us still; and, second, that together we can enact an alternate vision. Jennings explores the varied ways that the colonial project of envisioning the “white, self-sufficient man”[2] (the slave master, the colonizer) as the ideally educated human being has sickened theological education from the beginning. The academy’s “energies have been drawn into a distorting creativity that slowly drains us of life by pressing us to perform a particular kind of man.”[3] And in embracing this vision, Jennings argues, theological education works against the grain of its own deepest calling—the calling to “communion” with one another.[4]

Reading Jennings’ book was a relief for me because he gave me words for experiences and intuitions that I have had but could not fully understand or articulate. As I am a white woman, I know it sounds like white presumption to claim that Jennings’ book applies to my experiences. But I’m hopeful that instead it honours precisely what Jennings is aiming at in this book. Our racist colonial heritage “infects everything and everyone in the academic ecology of a school.” It is a sickness unto death, a sickness that harms even those who profit most from the world it has created (even if they are not aware of it). This is not to minimize the greater harm experienced by people of colour, but rather to show just how wholly and entirely destructive this legacy is.

Jennings describes a white male theological student, someone from a successful and highly educated family, born with all the ingredients for success in the academy. Yet the student comes to Jennings for guidance, asking how he might inhabit academic space differently, be a different kind of person than his father and grandfather have been. To do so, Jennings knows that the student will “have to resist a world organized to build itself freshly on his body, making all things old through his newness.”[5]  

I feel this statement in my bones. This is what some of my professors have wanted from me, this is what granting agencies have seen in me, this is what the academy expects of me: to have the old order reinscribed in my (relatively!) new, feminine body. My voice is valuable—but only if the cadence is familiar. My ideas are welcome—as long as the right words are used. My questions are invited—as long as I don’t question the institution itself. Perhaps non-white scholars would be extended these same courtesies—as long as they, too, perform to the letter the demands of whiteness, disguised as “the theological tradition.”

Like the student Jennings described, I do not want to allow myself to become the site for all things to be made old again. Whatever role I may have in the academy or in theological institutions, I want to be part of God making all things new—what Jennings describes as the “crumbling” and “overturning” that are always simultaneous with God’s work of “building up.”[6]

What is less clear to me as I move forward is what this will look like. As parts of my academic community have proven to be unhealthy and unsafe, I feel the liberating power of Jesus’ words to his disciples: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave” (Matthew 10:14, NRSV). The invitation to leave altogether is a gift.

But Jennings’ call to hope is compelling, primarily because it is evident how deeply he has felt and seen the reasons to despair. The book is peppered throughout with stories—stories of students, faculty, administrators, schools, churches. Stories of those whose vocations have been twisted by the subtle or not-so-subtle requirement to strive toward the white, self-sufficient master of European colonialism’s dreams. Stories of those who have resisted that call, but have been broken in the process. Stories of people hoping for something different, but all too often shut out or shut down.

Somehow, despite all that he has witnessed and all that he has personally experienced as a black student, faculty member, and senior administrator in a world shaped by whiteness, Jennings is still able to hold out hope for something new—for a theological academy that brings people together in true, authentic communion with one another. How exactly to do this—how to take apart the traditions we have received and divest them of the racist, misogynist roots that have buried themselves so deeply—is an open question. But Jennings reminds us that “God offers us an uncontrollable reconciliation, one that aims to re-create us,”[7] not a destination preset and controlled by white masters. This is a journey toward God and toward each other,[8] the unfamiliar waiting to take shape as we journey together.

[1] Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 18.

[2] After Whiteness, 6.

[3] After Whiteness, 49.

[4] After Whiteness, 152.

[5] After Whiteness, 128.

[6] After Whiteness, 124.

[7] After Whiteness, 152.

[8] After Whiteness, 155.

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