From his long years in theology, Willie James Jennings has produced an insightful book, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Jennings speaks honestly about how he has been affected by theological structures governed by White colonial thought. His strong sense of historical consciousness leads to his main critique of Western theological education.
Jennings brings to our attention the injustice caused to people of Black origin in the U.S. and especially in Western theological educational environments. Jennings challenges the universally assumed role model of the “self-sufficient” White man. In five chapters, the author states his own and other non-whites’ experiences in the White theological world.
In the first chapter, Jennings begins with fragments, the basic component of a theological student. In his words, fragments are the “things that constitute the ground of educational work” (34). The fragment that should form a person is faith in the word of God, but impositions of colonial power reduce the human being to commodities. Thus, colonial and commodity fragments distort the human being, who should instead be formed by faith in the Scriptures.
Jennings argues that theological education should move away from the expected persona of the “self-sufficient young man” to consider the fragments that form each person. He says that, in the aim of achieving the most self-sufficient person, theological educators lose out on working together because we are guided by past narratives of colonial power. The aim of theological education is lost if the only goal is to produce self-sufficient men, not people who are willing to work and learn together. Rather than pursuing such a colonialist, individualistic agenda, theological educators and students should learn together in love.
The second chapter addresses the design that works with the fragments. At this point, Jennings clarifies that he is not referring to the design of theological curricula but another design that superintends all designs (51): individual “attention,” “affection,” and “resistance.” Each of these elements is essential for the formation of a theological student; however, Jennings shows that colonialism corrupts these elements.
For Jennings, “attention” is the ability to notice the nitty-gritty of things and to develop the skill of finding gaps via critical thinking. Jennings argues that “European colonial settlers” have demanded attention in such a manner that they have “raped” theological education (53). In the “rigorous, scholarly” perspectives of Western academics, White men dictate attention. There is nothing wrong with aiming one’s attention in a certain direction. But the fall out of Eurocentric attention is that theological seekers do not find their true selves but become lost in the White man’s world. This toxic, single-minded attention destroys the design of theological education.
Jennings struggles with the sense of superiority in this toxic form of attention. He claims that White men have authorized themselves over the very institutions that should serve the churches of Christ. At some point in Church history, the Church fell from its posture of worship to God and service to others so that the eye of the colonial designer now penetrates the corridors of theological education and of the Church. Students graduating from these colonial-dictated theological institutions enter the Church and enact the same colonialism among the laity.
Interlinked with attention is affection, one’s cultural predilections. Affection is how one leans in one’s thoughts and even in one’s physical mannerisms. Jennings narrates how he lost the trust of his students when he betrayed them by compromising with colonial power. He confesses, “As white colonial settlers built their worlds, they pulled native peoples into their world of aesthetic evaluation,” a process to which he succumbed (62). He goes on to say that “White education is designed within a forced affection, shaped to take all of us on a journey of cultural addition—add to the great European masters other thinkers who are not white or male but who approximate them” (63). The affection of the White colonial man so enveloped non-whites that they embraced it and embodied those alien qualities, dismissing their native strengths.
The third aspect of design is resistance, particularly intellectual resistance. The significance of resistance in theological perspectives cannot be emphasized too much. Jennings writes, “Theological education is also about resistance. It is the seed from which may grow beautiful habitation or from which may grow mind-bending captivity” (69-70). As beautiful as theological education can be for a person’s spiritual and intellectual growth, if one cannot discern between weeds and good fruit, then all of theological education will be vain. So Jennings warns that theological students must resist the devil by knowing him well.
Then, Jennings writes that effective educational designs should ideally form around healthy spaces – “Jesus space” or a space that cultivates a sense of service at all times. However, Whites have not shown an attitude of service but have abused the act of service to establish their authority. At this stage, Jennings takes us to his historical consciousness of his origins. He says that Western education, like the plantation, has a White master and an African slave. Although at first the slave may seem to be honoured as his master allows him to preach, the enslaved preacher only performs at the dictum of his White master, with a vague hope of freedom in an undefined future (73).
Similarly, Western theological education only gives its students an education on the White man’s terms. Jennings concludes, “The church and the academy, theological or otherwise, have been bound to the same whiteness since the advent of colonialism” (78). He notes that too often, in post-colonial nations, historians highlight the glories of the colonial power and its service to the conquered peoples; however, the narratives of the conquered peoples are hardly ever heard. I see this fact in India, my own context. Although we are grateful for the many theological educational institutions founded by Westerners, we know that they looked down on us with pity. To them, we needed to be “civilized,” which meant living according to their manners and leaving behind our “barbarian” lifestyle. They did not observe the rich Indian cultural heritage displayed in our myths and architecture.
In the penultimate chapter, Jennings takes the reader through the motions of theological education. These are spiralling, unending motions: “hope and desire, longing and fear” (97). He uses three categories to explain these motions: “assimilation,” “inwardness,” and “revolution” (98). He says that Western theological education has completely distorted this lovely ecosystem.
For Jennings, assimilation means “to be placed inside someone else’s way of life and to follow in that way” (98). For Jennings, assimilation can be positive, although he has experienced a negative side to it as well. Specifically, in theological education, assimilation can take place in two forms within the same building: master formation and slave emancipation. The master wants the slave to be formed in his likeness, while the slave wants to be freed from the master (98, 99). Obviously, these contrary desires create toxic tension.
Even in the second aspect of inwardness, or quiet introversion and introspection, Jennings sees a tendency to be poisoned by a self-sufficiency that can creep into our thinking (104-5). This tendency echoes his initial analysis of the ideal “self-sufficient young man” posited by Western theological education, the colonialist figure who obscures the true fragments that compose each human’s individuality.
Jennings hopes that revolution will somehow come to theological education (112-3). He offers an idealized picture of theological education built on the fragments of Scripture in a space where Jesus Christ teaches us to serve one another in an ethos of love. To share this hope, he describes how, during the communion of the Lord’s Table, the disciples came together to remember Jesus’s death and resurrection. Similarly, despite the crumbling and spiralling motions of theological academia, he calls his readers to assimilate, contemplate, and thereby revolutionize Christian thinking and practice so that future generations may see God’s work in the cultural mores of Africa or Asia.
To unfold this vision further, in his final chapter, Jennings discusses “eros,” the force that will unify theological education (122). Just as Jesus came to gather the crowds, so theological education should gather people. Jennings does note that it was the crowd that mocked and killed Jesus, and from that fact, he cautions that theological education should be careful to counteract conflict with gathering. The communion of bread and wine that goes beyond friendship embodies the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation (131-2).
Overall, Jennings speaks not from a hatred of Western theological education but from a deep sorrow for his people. Like Paul in Romans 9, he groans for the loss of his people as he watches the tears of confused students who must struggle to decide between Whiteness and their own cultural heritages. He grieves for his own personal cultural heritage, which he feels has been stolen and abused. To those of us in colonized contexts, his writing is an invitation to think indigenously and use culturally embedded tools for theological education. In all this, who is the self-sufficient man or woman? Where is God in the formation of an Asian woman or an African man?
This book will stir thinking in readers from various careers, not only theological education. Many of us from colonized contexts experience the dichotomy between Whiteness and our own cultural patterns; we still face neglect and unrecognition in our own countries. This book invites us to consider carefully how these experiences shape our choices. What are the limitations of theological institutions in the Global South that were founded primarily by White men? Are we in the Global South still carried away by a model of self-sufficient Whiteness? Or are we aware of our fragments and working toward building spaces where we can belong together? How might we recognize God at work in global theological formation, despite the wounds created by colonialism?