Forming a Place to Be

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We need at this moment a Christian faith that can start to break our deep connection to whiteness by resisting its vision of maturity. Suggesting a first step is all I have space for, but the first step is decisively the most important. The paths that have been formed by whiteness, carved on the earth and in bodies, cannot be undone, but they can be redirected, drawn into new paths that lead away from death and into life. It all begins again with the land, with dirt, air, water, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and homes. It begins with new kinds of intentional communities that challenge where people live and how people live in places. I am doubling down on what some people know and feel but are afraid to say—it all comes to rest in geography and living spaces. Whiteness comes to rest in space. The maturity whiteness aims at always forms segregated spaces. It forms lives lived in parallel, whether separated by miles or inches. It constructs bordered life, life lived in separate endeavors of wish fulfillment.

Segregated spaces must be turned toward living places where people construct together an everyday that turns life in health-giving directions. Overcoming whiteness begins by reconfiguring life geographically so that all the flows work differently; the flows of money, education, support, and attention move across people who have been separated by the processes that have formed us racially, economically, and nationally. We start with the communities that have been left behind in the movement toward maturity, those no longer imagined through the goals of ownership, citizenship, or productive labor, and we join them, we move to them, or we stay in them, or we form them, or we advocate for them, or we protect them. The we here are we Christians and all those willing to live toward a different formation of places. We fight against the segregation that shapes our worlds, and we work to weave lives together. Remember, this is only the first step; there are many more to follow. But the point not to be missed is that we should feel compelled to form what Gerhard Lohfink years ago called a contrast society, by forming contrast communities.1 But that contrast must be formed on the actual ground, in neighborhoods and living spaces.

Indeed, this is what the Christian mission at its best was always aiming at—following Jesus into new places to form new life, life together. So am I advocating compelling people to live together across all the lines of formation that divide us and have habituated us to be comfortable with those divides? Yes, because I want to turn us from a formation that is yet compelling people to aim their lives toward a vision of maturity that is bound in death. I want to save us from becoming or being White people.

Excerpted from “Can White People Be Saved? Reflections on the Relationship of Missions and Whiteness” in Can “White” People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission, ed. L. L. Sechrest, J. Ramírez-Johnson, and A. Yong (IVP Academic, 2018).

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Willie James Jennings is an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of numerous articles and the book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race and is an ordained Baptist minister.

We need at this moment a Christian faith that can start to break our deep connection to whiteness by resisting its vision of maturity. Suggesting a first step is all I have space for, but the first step is decisively the most important. The paths that have been formed by whiteness, carved on the earth and in bodies, cannot be undone, but they can be redirected, drawn into new paths that lead away from death and into life. It all begins again with the land, with dirt, air, water, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and homes. It begins with new kinds of intentional communities that challenge where people live and how people live in places. I am doubling down on what some people know and feel but are afraid to say—it all comes to rest in geography and living spaces. Whiteness comes to rest in space. The maturity whiteness aims at always forms segregated spaces. It forms lives lived in parallel, whether separated by miles or inches. It constructs bordered life, life lived in separate endeavors of wish fulfillment.

Segregated spaces must be turned toward living places where people construct together an everyday that turns life in health-giving directions. Overcoming whiteness begins by reconfiguring life geographically so that all the flows work differently; the flows of money, education, support, and attention move across people who have been separated by the processes that have formed us racially, economically, and nationally. We start with the communities that have been left behind in the movement toward maturity, those no longer imagined through the goals of ownership, citizenship, or productive labor, and we join them, we move to them, or we stay in them, or we form them, or we advocate for them, or we protect them. The we here are we Christians and all those willing to live toward a different formation of places. We fight against the segregation that shapes our worlds, and we work to weave lives together. Remember, this is only the first step; there are many more to follow. But the point not to be missed is that we should feel compelled to form what Gerhard Lohfink years ago called a contrast society, by forming contrast communities.1 But that contrast must be formed on the actual ground, in neighborhoods and living spaces.

Indeed, this is what the Christian mission at its best was always aiming at—following Jesus into new places to form new life, life together. So am I advocating compelling people to live together across all the lines of formation that divide us and have habituated us to be comfortable with those divides? Yes, because I want to turn us from a formation that is yet compelling people to aim their lives toward a vision of maturity that is bound in death. I want to save us from becoming or being White people.

Excerpted from “Can White People Be Saved? Reflections on the Relationship of Missions and Whiteness” in Can “White” People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission, ed. L. L. Sechrest, J. Ramírez-Johnson, and A. Yong (IVP Academic, 2018).

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Willie James Jennings is an associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of numerous articles and the book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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