Visiting professor speaks on racism in Christianity

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The Office of Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs at the University of Indianapolis hosted Duke University Associate Professor of Theology and Black Church Studies Willie Jennings in McCleary Chapel on April 2.

The lecture, entitled “Step Up and Imagine: How to Overcome the Disease of Racism in Christianity,” was part of the Diversity Lecture Series and was sponsored by Englewood Christian Church on North Rural Street. Jennings, who won the 2011 American Academy of Religion award for his book “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race,” said that he loves what he does for a living.

rascism lecture

Theology and black studies professor from Duke University Willie Jennings speaks to students about racism in Christianity. (Photo by Khiry Clark)


“I’m a professor, and I spend my life being with students, and it’s the greatest joy in my life,” Jennings said. “So to be in the presence of students, … this is it for me.”

During the lecture, Jennings told a story with three important elements. These elements, he said, helped explain his idea of how people today “function inside a deeply diseased [form of] Christianity.”

“The first is an emergence of a new way of seeing the world; second, the birth of a new way of seeing the self, built around whiteness; and third, the loss of any sense of gentile existence as the basis of our faith,” he said.

Jennings stressed that these three important elements were not necessarily in chronological order. The lecture discussed not only the racism against African Americans, but also about the racism against the Jews and numerous other groups, such as people from Latin America or Native Americans.

To explain how the racism was affecting Christians, Jennings told the hypothetical story of a Jewish man named Gus. Gus hated Christians but was brought into a Christian church because the Bibles were all in Hebrew, and no one could read them. So Gus preached what was written. However, the church elders were mortified and made it a point to learn Hebrew, just so they would not have to rely on Gus.

“It’s an amazing thing to love the word of God but hate the people to whom the word of God came,” Jennings said.

Freshman human resource management major Jessica Pierce said that she learned a valuable lesson from the lecture.

“Racism is very apparent in today’s society, and I learned about how society sees it in connection with Christianity,” she said.

Dean of Ecumenical and Interfaith Programs and Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion Michael Cartwright said that he also learned a lot of valuable ideas from this lecture.

“Because I’m familiar with the book, and I’m familiar with the author, and none of this was new to me,” Cartwright said. “What I got out of it is that the cumulative effect of his argument is very challenging and requires his audience to rethink certain assumptions that they have.”

Cartwright also hopes that the people who attended the lecture left feeling challenged and with many different ideas.

“I hope they also connected with his personality,” Cartwright said. “He [Jennings] is not someone who’s operating out of an ivory tower, where he’s disengaged from the ordinary struggles, and I think he’s very much embedded in the ordinary struggles.”

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