Can “White” People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission

Can Summary: Provocative and helpful look at how race impacts Theology and Missions.

I have been VERY slowly reading Can White People Be Saved. Over the past three and a half months that it took me to work through a little over 200 pages actual text I spent a lot of time thinking and re-reading.

I did not do this with every single talk, but with most chapters, I would read the chapter, then watch the talk and then sometimes read the chapter again. I think I watched most of the talks and responses and Q&A periods that are online. And I read all of the text.

Any conference book will have some chapters that are more interesting to a particular reader than others. But I was pretty engaged in most of the talks. The first two I think were the two that I spent the most time on. The title talk Can “White” People be Saved by Willie James Jenkins comes round about the subject to say yes ‘White’ people can be saved, but similarly to the rich young ruler whom Jesus said needed to sell all that he had. Jenkins, as is common among many that are talking academically or from an activist position is not talking about all people that have light skin color that most call White, but of those that have claimed White identity as their marker, an identity that views racial superiority as implicitly true. There is nuance and care here, but I think the basic talk, as provocative as it is, is also essential. Many people that call themselves White do not understand the cultural assumptions that they are bringing to their Christianity, and how those assumptions impact how they think about Christianity. As Jesus said to the rich young ruler, you may have followed the law, but there is something that is hindering you from God.

The second chapter, by Andrea Smith, is talking about Decolonizing Salvation and processing Christianity through Indigenous eyes. This is probably the chapter that I felt most blindsided by. I have read a little bit about Indigenous theology, but only a little bit, and the issues brought up, like how Indigenous people tend to not identify with the Exodus story as many Liberation theologies do because of the history Indigenous people in the US. This is a chapter that completely makes sense to me once I read it, but it also concerns theological areas I had never considered because I did not have enough cultural awareness of Indigenous issues.

I just cannot talk about every chapter (but I have 74 highlights in a book that is only a bit over 200 pages and you can go read all of them on my Goodreads page.) So I will only highlight two more chapters.

Andrew Draper has a chapter on Decentering White Identity. That particularly intrigues me because I am part of a private Facebook group that is attempting to do that, PTM 101. This is not about ‘hating ourselves’ as White people, but about trying to Decenter ‘Whiteness’ from our identity and to center non-White, especially Black issues in how we think about culture. Because I have some attachment to Draper’s topic, this is the chapter other than the first two that I had the most highlights in.

Draper’s opening was clear,

“Throughout this paper, I will make the claim that whiteness is best understood as a religious system of pagan idol worship that thrives on a mutually reinforcing circularity between the image (the ideal or the form) and the social constitution of those who worship it.3 As idolatry, whiteness must be dealt with like any such cultic system: its high places must be torn down and its altars laid low.4 The purpose of this paper is to offer a few concrete practices in which White folks must engage to begin casting down our White idols.

And maybe even more clear just after that when he says, “Reconciliation is not reconciliation if the normativity of whiteness is left uncontested.” Draper affirms that liking things that are associated with White culture is not the problem, the problem is when people make those things culturally normative.

He then proposes (and later details) five recommended practices.

Toward this end, I propose five practices in which White folks must engage to resist the sociopolitical order of whiteness: first, repentance for complicity in systemic sin; second, learning from theological and cultural resources not our own; third, choosing to locate our lives in places and structures in which we are necessarily guests; fourth, tangible submission to non-White ecclesial leadership; and fifth, hearing and speaking the glory of God in unfamiliar cadences.

As a White person, Draper’s chapters was helpful both to encourage me in areas where I have already started down this path and even more to push me in areas where I have not done enough to get started.

The fourth chapter I want to highlight is Jonathan Tran’s chapter that looks at Asians voluntarily giving up their spots at Harvard for the common good. There was extra awareness brought to this chapter because of the college admissions scandal and Harvard’s disclosures about admissions because of a current lawsuit. In addition to walking through the details, the thought process on voluntarily giving up a good thing for the greater good was particularly helpful as a White person that is thinking through issues of race and privilege.

There are a number of other really good chapters here. And a short fictional piece at the end that riffs off of CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and talks about the gift that the concept of ‘Whiteness’ has been to weakening Christianity in the US.

This is book collection of theology papers and so it is oriented toward academics. But with few exceptions, the papers are very accessible. The book is not particularly cheap, but it is worth reading and the videos from the conference are on YouTube if you want to just watch then instead of reading.

This is a book I really do recommend and I hope I will pick it up again and read through at least a couple of the chapters again sometime before the end of the year.

Can “White” People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

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