Can "White" People Be Saved?

Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission

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Editor(s): 
Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramírez-Johnson, Amos Yong
Missiological Engagements
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , November
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830851041.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Can "White" People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission is a fine, if slightly unwieldy, volume of essays largely germinated from Fuller Theological Seminary’s 2017 Missiology Lectures with the theme, “Race, Theology, and Mission.” The volume partly takes as its cue the racialized current that weaves together politics and evangelicalism in the United States, but then pushes further to critically reflect on how Christian theology and missions have played profound roles in creating the discourse of race. This ground has been excavated more expansively by both Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2011) and Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008), respectively. However, this book provides a range of more localized issues and themes, and accounts of specific colonial and racial inheritances bequeathed by historical missionary encounters around the world.

More specifically, this book explicitly attempts to bring into conversation language and concepts that are already present in ethnic and racial studies—“among them racism in its various forms . . . whiteness, white supremacy, and race” (11)—with missiological and theological scholarship. So, while the themes and history presented in this volume have been addressed in other scholarship, this volume specifically addresses the problems of race as a discourse inside of Christian missions and yet given theoretical flesh elsewhere. Said differently, it is primarily addressed to those who have connections to evangelical Christianity, but may not be familiar with the theoretical apparatuses around race and ethnicity and desire some constructive synthesis. Simultaneously the volume may also be valuable for those who want an introduction to how Christian missions has variously contributed to racial formation around the world in order to ultimately suggest points of solidarity between Christian racial justice efforts and other similar efforts more broadly.

The entanglement of the Christian vision of salvation with whiteness is punctuated in the book’s first offering, written by Willie Jennings and from which the title of the volume gets its name. Framing the relationship between whiteness and salvation as mutually constitutive reveals three interrelated logics. One, by articulating Christian salvation as a project of maturity rather than necessarily located in one’s skin color, Jennings opens up an analytic that points to how whiteness is an aspirational undertaking in which non-white persons can, and have, participated. Second, the very malleability of whiteness translates to its persistence and ability to mutate across cultures, and this is evidenced in the multiple histories of racialization that are shared in this volume: in the subcontinental Indian context (Daniel Jeyaraj), the African context (Akintunde Akinade and Clifton Clarke), and in the Latin American context (Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Angel Santiago-Vendrell). In Puerto Rico and India especially, colonial and Christian racial hierarchies mapped onto or adapted extant religious and cultural hierarchies—hierarchies that were created to justify the exclusion and oppression of certain peoples but then were magnified in the colonial encounter.

Third, however, framing the triangulation of race, theology, and mission as one that has been centered on the project of whiteness and salvation also suggests that Christianity need not mean whiteness, but the interrogation and decentering of whiteness. The decoupling between the two is evidenced in indigenization movements, both in Africa as well as the United States. It is, as well, illustrated in how the concept of mestizaje—originally deployed to reinforce Christian identity as one of racial purity—has been taken up by certain Latinx theologians to point to its constructive potential for theological identity. Racial fluidity or mixedness translates to or suggests the possibility of alternate positionalities that can potentially disrupt the pairing of whiteness and Christianity in its various forms. For example, Andrew Draper’s firsthand account of ministering and living in an “ethnically diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood” (179) describes how decentering whiteness is an ongoing process that requires one’s repentance from the idolatry of whiteness by critically centering non-white voices and perspectives. Jonathan Tran’s essay offers a different perspective by discussing the possibilities for Asian Americans in relation to affirmative action. His proposal is provocative; what his essay successfully highlights is how whiteness expresses itself not only in terms of the black-white binary but also in shades of ambiguity. White supremacy, in other words, often functions by creating antagonistic relations between minoritized peoples, deferring privilege to some over others by articulating whiteness in terms of moral achievement. Tran’s essay subsequently underlines Jennings’ point that whiteness is not biology but a kind of subjectivity that privileges a deformed kind of maturity.    

The last few essays by Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, Love L. Sechrest, and Amos Yong differently reflect on how particular resources—scriptural, theological, and in cognitive science—can constructively bear upon the legacies of race and Christian missions on both the interpersonal and structural levels. Sechrest’s reading of Matthew 15: 21-28 is a fresh reading of the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, as one that opens up antiracist possibilities through identification with the marginalization of both actors in the narrative. Both she and Yong especially encapsulate how the project of decentering whiteness in Christian theology and missions is not about the recapitulation of whiteness or the desires of empire in non-white bodies, but about excavating our racialized histories for possibilities of newly formed empathies and solidarities for racial justice.

This book steps into a lacuna, particularly but not only in evangelical Christianity, in conversations on Christian missions, race, and theology. It invites slow and deliberate reading and would do well in a book discussion group for readers who have some familiarity with how these themes relate, but who also are interested in delving more deeply into the histories of Christian missions and seeing how they intersect with broader discussions on race and ethnicity. It is an invitation to critically examine one’s participation in these ongoing legacies while breathing new spirit into these structures for the possibility of something different.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

SueJeanne Koh is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Asian American Studies and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Love L. Sechrest is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of Faculty, and Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. She previously served as associate professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, and she is the author of A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialectics of Race.

Johnny Ramírez-Johnson is Professor of Anthropology in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary, where he also teaches in the Hispanic Center (Centro Latino). His books include A Way Up the Ladder, Motivation Achievement Via Religious Ideology: An Ethnography of a Seventh-day Adventist Puerto Rican Church and AVANCE: A Vision for a New Mañana.

Amos Yong is Professor of Theology and Mission and Director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

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