Reflection: Wille James Jennings’ After Whiteness
Published: 28 October 2021
Hannah Swithinbank, second year ordinand, reflects on the reading group that met at Westcott during Lent Term and their discussion of Willie James Jennings’ recent book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging.
“Talking together then is a practice aimed at eternity, and it matters more than we often realize for bringing our hope into focus…” Wille James Jennings, After Whiteness, 157.
As someone who has spent their past decade working with activists and practically-focused people, I’ve been taught to regard talk with a certain amount of scepticism. What difference does talking really make? Action is what counts. It’s a fair question: if our talking has no impact on our lives — our thoughts, our practices, our relationships — then it is, indeed, cheap. But in my experience, it is rare to seeing talking together about topics that are deep, complex, and vital failing to make a mark on a person.
So it proved for those of us at Westcott House who met over seven weeks of Lent Term to discuss Willie James Jennings’ new book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Each week we met on Zoom, prayed together, and discussed a chapter of the book. Each week we left our conversations changed as individuals and as a group, committed to each other and to pursuing a hope that both education and church can be spaces in which everyone can flourish.
In After Whiteness, Jennings explores what theological education should be for: the equipping of Christians to encourage the communion of the diverse crowd amongst whom God wishes to dwell. He also diagnoses its current disease: a malformation of education by a colonialism that has idolised a particular type of person — a white, self-sufficient man, who has knowledge and therefore is able to act with power and control — and continues to encourage students to aspire to be this type of person. Jennings talks about the ways in which a rich curiosity can be warped into a fear of never knowing enough, and how the importance of knowing the right things leads to the marginalisation of voices and views that don’t fit. And he contrasts this with the diversity, the messiness, and the vibrancy of the crowds with whom Jesus spent his time and the revolution that God’s new world brings into our old one.
In our conversations we were able to recognise the ways in which the problems that Jennings’ identifies had harmed each of us in our own educations — but more importantly to start to see the ways that we risk continuing this harm ourselves. We identified ways in which things intended for good so easily end up doing damage if those involved forget that the end goal is always relationship and communion in the coming kingdom of God; and we challenged ourselves to think about the ways that we try and balance the demands of the current education system and the church to be formed in certain ways with our hope, desire and belief in their potential to be different — and better.
Sometimes our silence was as important as our talking; a mark of the depth of reflection that the book encouraged in us and our desire to articulate our emerging thoughts with care. For care and attention, to ourselves and others, are key virtues in Jennings’ view. He doesn’t offer action plans and things to do — in fact, the closing words of the book are the opening words of this piece. It is a deeply grown-up theology, that acknowledges the agency and ability of everyone to reflect, and be, and act, and asks us to be responsible to each other with these gifts — and especially to those who continue to receive the least care and attention in our worlds.
As ordinands, we are in a stage of our lives where we are being formed for ministries in which we will have an impact on those around us. It isn’t a space divorced from the reality of the world, but one where we are able to take the time to reflect on who and how we want to be once we are, God willing, ordained. And over the past couple of years the fact that the conversation about racism is one of the most complicated and at times controversial in the Church of England — and in the UK at large — has become unavoidable. Yet it is one of the most vital to the future flourishing of the Church of England: how will we work through our past and present with God to shape our future?
For me, and I think for all our reading group, a part of the answer is to keep on talking together, with God, and with theologians like Willie Jennings who challenge and inspire us. Talking together truly did help us bring our hope into focus, and we would all encourage you both to read the book, and to talk about it with others.