(Photo : Christianity Daily)
(From left to right: Willie James Jennings, David Choi, Laura Mariko Cheifetz, Cecil 'Chip' Murray, Oscar Owens, Jonathan Tran, Kay Higuera Smith) Willie James Jennings, an Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity, spoke at ISAAC's 6th Symposium on how issues of race were embedded in history since the time that European Christian settlers expanded and explored new lands. Panelists discussed the issues further after his lecture.

Though movements for equal rights have been continuously pushing forward for decades, the issue of race is still far from archaic. If anything, surges of racial unrest have caused severe consequences and the issue of race and discrimination is centrally prevalent in society even today.

These underlying tensions regarding race are just as relevant to Christians, and how they live out their faith. Some Christians of color may question why the most famous preachers, theologians, or worship leaders tend to be White men. And in many Christians, if not all, regardless of race, there is a subconscious “self-loathing” and constant desire to achieve a greater level of success or acceptance – but why that is, or where that comes from, are aspects that not many Christians quite fully understand.

Dr. Willie James Jennings, an Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School, spoke at the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (ISAAC)’s Sixth Symposium, “A Christian Vision of Belonging: Race and Gender” on November 3 on how race is relevant to how Christians view themselves and others around them.

Dr. Jennings used the term “racial faith” to describe “the entanglement of race and Christian faith,” and said that “the American story is the story of those entanglements.” He went on to describe how the history of America—which began as a quest by Christians—started and perpetuated this entanglement to have the kind of society that we have today, and said that there are four aspects to the “architecture” of racial faith, that built up and caused these entanglements.

First, he said that there was a “Gentile forgetfulness” by the Western Christians—English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, German, etc.—as they began their conquests into new lands. They had forgotten that their identity, as well as every non-Israeli person’s identity, is actually that of the Gentiles. In turn, their engagement with Jesus was an engagement from the margins.

“Gentile Christians were tired of being the thinking margin,” Jennings explained. “We started thinking of the world with us at the center instead of with a Jew named Jesus. We forget that we are Gentile heathens, and at some point in time, the Christian faith was turned upside down and made into our image.”

Jennings went on to explain that somehow, Christians started re-appropriating the promise that was given to the Israelites as though it were given to them, forgetting that they are in the place of the Gentiles, who received the promise by way of the Israelites, instead of having directly received the promise from God.

Second, Jennings argued that there was an emergence of Whiteness as a principality and power. He explained that similar to how theological concepts including grace and mercy are extended to every body and every kind of body, Whiteness also became “an invitation” that had been extended to everyone.

“Whiteness is an invitation—a becoming, a transformation, and an accomplishment,” he said, and added that one of the ways to understand the complex history of immigrants in the U.S. is to understand that there was “the quest for Whiteness as an accomplishment.”

“Whiteness” started becoming the standard for success, “a way of seeing and imagining the true, good, beautiful; a way of imagining one is the central facility of the world.”

“We live under the tacit agreement that White bodies may be the carriers of our fantasies of the good life,” Jennings said. This is a manifestation and evidence that Whiteness has become a goal and an embodiment of power.

Third, there resulted “a destruction of place and space in the minds and hearts of Christians as people became separated from their lands.” Jennings started explaining this aspect by first discussing the fact that for many native peoples in the new lands, their lives and their lands were one, and the land that they lived in played a huge part in how they formed their identity as a people.

However, when the European settlers came into the new world and started defining the indigenous people only by their bodies, this displaced them of their sense of identity with the land.

“I see in your totality who you are without you even speaking a word – You’re Black, White, Asian – your body speaks to who you are,” Jennings posed as an example of the attitude of the settlers toward the indigenous people. “I see who you are apart from the land – you carry your identity completely in your body.”

Jennings explained that this way of identifying the people caused them to become “encased” in a purely racial vision, displaced from their lands; and Christians became “geographically adrift” in the world.

A culmination of all of these three factors resulted in the fourth aspect of “racial faith,” which Jennings called a “pedagogical imperialism”. When these European Christian settlers started meeting new people in new lands, Jennings explained that their approach was far from humble—it was imperialistic, as though they only had wisdom to teach and never learn.

“When the European Christians were going into the new world, they read the Bible as though they were not the Gentiles; as though they were the bearers of the true faith; as though they were destined by God to be the teachers of the world,” said Jennings.

“Teaching, as you know, is at the heart of Christian faith – but it is not the first thing. The first thing is being a learner. At the heart of Scripture, for us, is this truth: we are those who joined the story of another people, of Israel. And in this way, we learned of our God – we learned through joining.”

But, Jennings said, the European Christian settlers changed the perspective of how Christians viewed themselves and the world around them.
“They enacted a reverse hospitality – rather than seeing themselves as strangers in a foreign world, in which they would be student and would have to learn, they imagined their primary work as bringing people into Christendom,” he said.

“For the settlers, the native people were pagan, either captured by demonic influence, or simply ignorant, and in need of guidance and in need of God … But what was lost was the incarnational process of making disciples, a process that only works by love.”

“The deepest tragedy we experienced together as Christians is that we have been taught by White Christianity to be teachers, and not to be learners,” Jennings continued. “We have been taught to look at each other in search of what needs to be corrected or changed, but not how we should change to be with each other – or how to yield to the Spirit’s desire to draw us towards each other, to join our lives together.”

This, he said, is the issue of what he calls “racial faith” – that it is a faith that has been altered by European Christians centuries ago as they went into new lands and encountered new people. Though the history of how it came about is bleak, Jennings points to a hopeful future.

“I do believe we can enter into a new reality of Christian belonging and overturn racial faith,” he remarked. “But that overturning would require a group of people who first reject imperialism – not only the imperialism of a nation, but the imperialism of Christianity itself.”

ISAAC has held annual “Asian American Equipping” Symposia on an annual basis to provide a third space of learning for Asian American Christians and churches to discuss various topics. In previous symposia, themes included “Living Out the Gospel: Asian American History—the Lost Coin”; “When Theologies Hit the Ground”; and “Healing of Memories, Healing of Finances”.

This sixth symposium is the first time that ISAAC has ventured to do a bilateral symposium with both African American and Asian American leaders. The symposium featured panel discussions about race, which further hashed out Jennings’ insight; a granting of a Legacy Award to Bill Watanabe, the Executive Director of the Little Tokyo Service Center; and another keynote session by Jennings and panel discussion regarding issues of gender and how it relates to Christian belonging.