It was a conversation about the Rev. Willie James Jennings’ work and his book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, that prompted Bishops Gregory Palmer, Michael McKee and LaTrelle Easterling to begin thinking about hosting a podcast.
The ideas presented by this associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale were “genius” and provided a provocative and insightful glimpse into the church’s relationship with race. The bishops wanted to learn more.
Their six-episode podcast, The Unfinished Church, will close with this conversation with Jennings, titled “Growing in Cultural Humility. “
One of the first ideas the bishops lifted up was Jennings’ notion of “hope as a discipline,” that could be practiced on an ongoing basis. They were also struck by Jennings’ focus on intellectual curiosity and the need to be a life-long learner “who can talk across the aisle, across cultures, across genders, across all these demarcations of difference.”
But ultimately, the conversation revolved around the idea of cultural humility, and being able to recognize oneself in the margins, rather than being central in someone else’s story.
“Wholeness begins by starting to see the full picture,” Jennings said in an interview with “Christianity Today” about his book.
“Humility begins with a recognition that we have entered into the story of another people, a story that was not ours, which requires an ongoing humility,” Jennings said. “We were not at the center, but we were brought in by grace.”
Many Christians were formed without that humility and sense of vulnerability and gratitude for having been brought inside the story. “They have no sense of what it means to be an outsider. What if we had all been inculcated with this deep sense of humility, of what it means to enter into another people? And what if we had cultivated over the centuries the ability to enter into the lives of other peoples without either trying to take their lives over or losing ourselves?” Jennings said.
Jennings equates this sense of being centered in the story and the world with whiteness.
“Whiteness is that sick sense of centeredness that the whole world revolves around the way I see the true, the good, the beautiful, the noble, and I have been charged by God to bring the entire world to maturity. God is counting on me to do this. Now, this is the legacy that we as Christians in the West inherited from what’s known as modern colonialism,” Jennings said.
“Whiteness is not appearance. Whiteness is not culture, and whiteness is not even a part of creation. … Whiteness is a way of imagining though how the world should be, organizing the world, how the world should be shaped. And whiteness is having the power to realize that organization. And one other little element-whiteness is also a way of feeling comfort, safety, and normalcy, based on that reality, based on a world organized in the way I think it should be organized.”
Christians, and those who are white, need to begin to more deeply understand what it means to come from the margins. But decentering oneself seems to take some kind of Herculean or religiously heroic effort, said Jennings. “Where we should begin, individually and collectively, is reintroducing the church to the story of what it means to be a Christian: the constant entering into and becoming a part of other peoples for the sake of love.”
This episode will be released on Thursday, July 28. For additional resources and information about this episode and the previous five episodes, visit theunfinishedchurch.org.