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Fr. William J. Ferree Chair of Social Justice

Being Where We Are: The Land, Catholic Scholarship, and Anti-Racism

Full text of the lecture

University of Dayton Faculty and Staff Responses to The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings

Laban’s Watchtower

The beginning of Sunday School always ended the same way. My great aunt would lead us in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. It went something like this:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Without skipping a beat, we transitioned from the Lord’s Prayer into a short song and verse. Aunt Mary started; we joined:

And now we sing farewell.
May we be ever true,
To God, our country, and our flag,
The red, and white, and blue.

May the Lord watch between me and thee,
While we are absent, one from another.

We spoke the last two lines, and, to this day, I can’t hear the Lord’s Prayer without mentally looping into that final chorus. There, we were called to be true to God and country. In case there was any confusion as to which nation we owed our allegiance, we were reminded of the flag under whose banner we soon marched: the red, and white, and blue.

* * *

I still remember when my grandma caught me with the NIV. I was too young to know that I should have been hiding. She was livid and explained, in some detail, the dangers of reading a modern translation. She, a woman of God, kept her Methodism primitive. Not surprisingly, our humble nondenominational mountain chapel used the KJV. We read this text closely, because every word mattered. And yet, despite my grandmother’s vigilance, even our congregation—not to be confused with the liberal churches downtown with their bazaars (drunkenness) and bingo (gambling)—added things here and there. Take, for instance, that final chorus. The short song, seemingly innocent, imagined Christian life in a very particular way. To be a Christian, after the Lord’s Prayer, was to be an American.

It was to be a white American, which I now see a little more clearly. Reading The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings has helped me to articulate the dynamic. On the one hand, we sang about Jesus loving all the little children of the world—red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight—but, on the other hand, everyone at our church was white: and we had a mission. The whiteness of this mission crystalized in the ever-present sense of election, a version of supersessionism. The chosen people were, implicitly, white Christians, who love all the little children of the world from a position of mastery. As Jennings maintains—in the first of many aha moments for me—“in the age of discovery and conquest supersessionist thinking burrowed deeply inside the logic of evangelism and emerged joined to whiteness in a new, more sophisticated, concealed form. Indeed, supersessionist thinking is the womb in which whiteness will mature” (36). On this count, a sense of being chosen by God transfers from Jews to Christians and, in the heart of empire, takes on a white-supremacist cast. My Sunday School’s rituals oriented themselves according to this imperial logic: we were special, and we were American. Forward march.

My humble mountain chapel made an important replacement, then. The United States became the promised land, one that required a militant defense. Just as I was raised to abhor the suburban sprawl that threatened my grandfather’s farm, so too were we raised to defend the faith. In practice, defense from the corrupting influence of Catholics’ potato pancakes (that encouraged drink) and (non-primitive) Methodists’ democratic politics (that encouraged drink by way of encouraging the Kennedys) became nearly indistinguishable from the promotion of white supremacy in almost every facet of my life. Perhaps that last bit sounds like an overstatement, but I am no longer certain. Our closing plea for God to keep watch—between me and thee, while we are absent, one from another—is not without its blemish. And stains, then and now, tend to show even more starkly on what perceives itself to be washed whiter than snow.

* * *

I was in Meijer the other day—it could be any day, really, I am in Meijer a lot—and I saw these cookies: cheap, white, plain cookies, with the filling that you hope will be Canadian maple but is simply U.S.-American vanilla. They were exactly the 2/$4 cookies we had in Sunday School. I hadn’t seen, let alone tasted, them in years. But, without even cracking the seal, I was back in the church basement repositioning fig leaves on felt figures. I could taste the cookies: their flavor, texture, the reward for good behavior. If Proust had known the wonders of the Middle West, he and I may have shared a moment just then. 

But, you see, even my allusions are white. 

And I am the sort of person who, on the evening of 6 January 2021, had to go through a long list of relatives to figure out who was, and was not, at home that day.

* * *

While not as romantic as an evening’s reverie in front of the frozen-food aisle’s endcap, I was similarly brought back to my childhood when I cracked open The Christian Imagination. I returned to how I learned whiteness, how I was taught to picture the world racially, how I began to see myself as elect. Jennings insists, after all, that “whiteness must be analyzed not simply as substantiation of European hegemonic gestures but more precisely in its identity-facilitating characteristics, its judgment constituting features, and its global deployments of embodied visions of the true, the good, and the beautiful” (290), and I agree. Whiteness has to do with judgments; it has to do with how and what we value. It has to do with how and what we know. For this reason, it concerns education; that is, radically, how we are led.

I am in the business of Western education. I work at a Catholic and Marianist university. As an undergraduate student, I attended a Jesuit school. (Every day for four years my grandmother prayed for my soul.) Although matured in this womb of whiteness, I also learned, from the Church, how to think theologically. Jennings is right, it seems to me, when he insists that theology is necessary, that an analysis of “whiteness requires nothing less than a theological consideration” (290). To unpack whiteness, we need a framework that can account for value, for relationships, for Eros; a problem that is as moral as it is political requires a language that can do justice to our attachments, desires, and felt figures. The language of science and rationality, which discourses of secularism offer, often falls short of the task’s muddled complexity. A Catholic education might ready students for this value-added unlearning as it underscores the moral imperative to do so.

Undoubtedly, the Christian tradition has birthed a distorted, racist formation; however, it also holds potential within itself for a different orientation to others. It promises an intimacy otherwise. The first quotation from Jennings that stopped me dead in my tracks makes this point; there, he calls for “a faith that understands its own deep wisdom and power of joining, mixing, merging, and being changed by multiple ways of life to witness a God who surprises us by love of differences and draws us to new capacities to imagine their reconciliation.” Intimacy is here an openness to being changed. “Instead, the intimacy that marks Christian history is a painful one, one in which the joining often meant oppression, violence, and death” (9). Like Jennings, I have found that, all too often, “the body of another has remained at the center of our relational imagination, the body of a powerful, white, Western man, the image of self-sufficiency, social power, and self-determination” (286). This imagined body—and not Christ’s real body—sits at the center of most Catholic education. What is characteristic of this body of scholarly labor is its inability to be surprised, to be changed, to be loved.

* * *

The beginning of Sunday School always ended the same way. After the Lord’s Prayer and our patriotic pledges, there was one final song. Before we separated for our age-appropriate lessons, we marched. We paraded around our folding chairs, one behind the other, as we sang in perfect unison:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus,
Going on before.

Christ, the royal master,
Leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
See his banners go!
Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus,
Going on before.

Then, we sat down to learn about love.

Perhaps it’s no accident that I work at a university with the motto Pro Deo et Patria. You see, even my illusions are white.

Whose space is it?

To the left
Farther ... a bit more

Why these vexed utterances?
Why the indignation?
What did they say?
Who are they anyway?

Into that circle
Sit, and don’t move!
No, stand, and be still!
No, kneel!
Straighten up!

Why the screaming?
Why the malice?
Why the contempt?
Such repugnance ...
Such viciousness ... for what?

So, we move
And move
And move
And keep moving

To the left, or right,
Do we stand, or do we sit?
Do we crawl, or do we run?
Run from what?
Run from who?
Run to ... ?

Where are we?
Why the constant displacement?
Shift, relocate, move and remove,
Dislocate, supplant, transplant and dislodge
Sounds familiar?
Stop, stop, stop!

Stop in the name of ...
In the name of God, Creator of heaven and earth
Stop and ask yourself ...
Whose space is it anyway?
Whose space?

And Asaase Yaa retorts
Whose land is it anyway?
Whose land?
Whose space?

In light of this reading group, what do you want to say about the possibilities for UD as a Catholic institution also to be an anti-racist institution?

When I received Dr. Johnson’s (AKA “KJ”) call to participate in the spring semester reading group Catholicism, Colonialism and Racism, my interest was immediately piqued because I greatly appreciate cross-campus dialogues and the timing linked meaningfully with unfinished work from the fall semester. In concert with the COVID-19 and racial injustice #TwinPandemics, I engaged in a number of readings about developing anti-racist universities and practices supporting those efforts. Law (2017) compelled universities and their stakeholders to critically reflect upon institutional history and racist, oppressive, and systemic practices. I desired to participate in this important endeavor at University of Dayton (UD), yet set out to also engage in change as an outcome from this reflection (and hopefully participate in dialogic experiences).

In the fall, I had co-facilitated a section of the undergraduate Anti-Racism Challenge course with my friend and UD colleague Mary Niebler. This experience was fruitful, yet I was beckoning for more meaning and potential application for tying together the main aspects presented in the spring reading group call. Therefore, I aspired to participate in this experience to gain more meaning/salience in my own work in concert with contributing to the anti-racist conversations on campus with the ultimate goal of engaging in planful actions going forward. Spoiler alert: my aspirations were largely achieved! :0

Without a doubt, I greatly appreciated and gained meaning toward my aspirations through our UD staff and faculty cross-campus dialog centered on Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. What particularly struck a chord with me during our time together was the compelling dance between the book’s storytelling narratives and their unpacking through our dialogs. A major takeaway was rooted in the value of applying critical lenses to historical religious narratives and interpreting them in concert with current institutional practices regarding racism/oppression/colonialism. Moreover, processing these dialogs with a mix of theology experts and other staff/faculty with UD contextual/historical knowledge provided rich opportunities to consider possible practical applications for (re)orienting UD toward enhanced systemic reflection-to-action regarding anti-racist institutional goals and practices. Lingering questions I grapple with going forward include:

  • In reflecting on our Marianist charisms and characteristics in concert with historical narratives, how might our community better position themselves to engage in this important work?
  • What might that work look like?
  • What are some promising practices that can (re)orient UD toward continuously (re)adapting to the current contextual needs (of students, faculty, staff and the surrounding community) as a Catholic Marianist institution?

Advancing my fall and spring work forward about anti-racist institutional practices, I have the opportunity this summer, through the Ferree Chair of Social Justice’s multidisciplinary cohort on Catholic identity and anti-racism, to apply my growing knowledge through my campus service as a member of IBRAC (the Institutional Bias Response Advisory Committee). In concert with IBRAC co-convener Mérida Allen, we will conduct a participatory action research study where we collaborate with student committee members to analyze (and offer revisions to) the current bias response protocol and to co-develop a strategy for offering recommendations to the UD President for how to respond. We will be framing our work through the Characteristics of Marianist Universities (CMU) (2019). Process, dialog, and UD (history)/narratives in concert with the CMU can offer opportunities to critique and unpack history while engaging in promising practices that help UD continue its journey as an anti-racist institution. In closing, the gifts I received through the spring book reading will help orient the process in manners that I would not have had at my disposal without participating.


Fr. Ferree Chair of Social Justice

St. Joseph Hall
300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469 - 1442