Email arrives at Westar sometimes fast and furious, and I try my best to answer everyone as sincerely as possible. Sometimes the emails concern a controversial idea, program, or claim by a Westar scholar or other member of the Westar community. It is important to note that if Westar does not cause some controversy, good controversy, it’s not doing its job.
Still, sometimes a controversy needs to be thought about seriously and understood before there is an expressed reaction.
Recently Westar’s Praxis Forum, which is a professional form of membership in Westar, promoted an event addressing “whiteness” as a problem in American culture and as a blockage to embracing our honest humanity. I have felt compelled, in response to difficult emails in reaction to this event, to clarify a few matters.
It is important first to define the Praxis Forum as a Westar professional membership. Professionals are people who are paid to work as religious leaders, usually in church but also in other institutions and careers. The Praxis mission is to take Westar scholarship into the churches and religious communities to address issues in society today.
Praxis is not a seminar. It is not composed of scholars. It is defined as a forum. The role of the Westar Board and staff is to support Praxis in its mission. The role is not to decide for Praxis what issues the forum can or cannot address. Praxis issues emerge from Praxis members and are addressed to professionals who work daily in religion in society.
Since the issues arise out of the Praxis membership and are addressed to the Praxis membership, the role of the Westar Board is a supportive and consultative role. Praxis, on their part, freely invites other members of Westar (scholars and associates) to their events. There is no requirement to accept their invitation to address issues that the members identify as affecting the practice of ministry in society today.
In order to address questions and concerns regarding the particular event on August 5 about whiteness, this issue requires frank but thoughtful consideration.
Some people have claimed that “whiteness” is a racist term. This claim can appear to be true, but it is not really correct.
Whiteness refers to privilege, and it refers to a reading of the world from a privileged perspective or worldview. The term comes from Black Liberation Theology. It identifies a system of privilege but not necessarily particular people. So, Blacks can also suffer from “whiteness” as much as anybody else.
It might seem strange to White people that this term “whiteness” is now an accepted analytical term in sociology and liberation theology, but it is. Again, it does not mean “being White” as opposed to being Black or Asian or Indigenous.
Whiteness refers to the privileges of settler colonialism (the privileged children of European colonialists who may or may not be White) and the assumptions that go with a colonial mindset.
It is not an idea foreign to Westar scholars at all. The Christianity Seminar’s exciting new book project After Jesus, Before Christianity has benefited from postcolonial studies and from understanding the Roman Empire as a colonial power. “Whiteness” in our time was “roman-ness” in Jesus’ time.
Not every Roman necessarily suffered from “roman-ness.” Some of the Jews and Greeks were also part of the “roman-ness” problem, but certainly the assumptions of privilege, the exercise of violence, and the practice of oppression defined “roman-ness” for people who were not Roman. If you were Roman, you might be insulted to hear oppressed people suggest that you need to identify your roman-ness and work a little bit on your humanity.
If you were not Roman and were subject to roman-ness, you might be hard-pressed to think roman-ness deserved the dignity of being called human. If you were not Roman and suffered under roman-ness, your critique would not be of a Roman person. It would be of the system of roman-ness.
It is difficult for White people to admit, but the same inference applies to the term “whiteness.” If you have benefited from the colonial heritage that defines whiteness, it is difficult to understand why there is any problem at all. But if you are the one who has received the violence of whiteness, it is hard to imagine how people cannot see the problem.
Equally, we have to remember that whiteness is not just a problem for America. The term “whiteness” also critiques other colonial nations like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. America is not alone. The family of colonial nations faces a shared struggle of reconciliation when it comes to race relationships and social equality. Whiteness as privilege is one of the central issues to face on the road to reconciliation that does involve struggle, misunderstanding, controversy, and, at times, offense.
The language of reconciliation is tough. It can challenge us to question our worldview. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the language of reconciliation, no matter how it sounds, is not about race. It is about justice.
If you are reading this blog before August 5, 2020, I invite you to attend the Praxis event called “Whiteness and the Challenge of Becoming More Human.” If the title offends, imagine you are a disciple of Jesus and standing with him, and the title of the talk is “Roman-ness and the Challenge of Becoming More Human.” You would have to say that the parables of Jesus address this challenge and that such a challenge is not addressed just to Romans. It is addressed to all of us who are tempted by roman-ness.
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