When Bishop Easterling started talking with the Rev. Willie Jennings about some of the deepest things they know, the conversation was so rich that it couldn’t be contained in one episode. Part 1 explored how the church thinks about God, the reasons why people read hierarchies of worth into God’s creation, the potential of us working together and the powerful gifts of understanding what we receive from indigenous cultures when we re-examine our conceptualization of ownership. In this second part of the conversation explore ideas about whiteness, home and belonging, and where the Holy Spirit may be calling the church.
The Rev. Willie James Jennings, an ordained Baptist minister, is an associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. He is the author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race and After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. He is now working on a major monograph provisionally entitled Unfolding the World: Recasting a Christian Doctrine of Creation as well as finishing a book of poetry entitled The Time of Possession.
Questions for Reflection and Extending the Conversation
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling: In your book After Whiteness, you talk about “people groups have always existed, but it was not until the modern colonial moment that those people were forced to think of themselves in the troubled togetherness of race, religion, and nation in a world being stolen, privatized, segmented, segregated, commoditized, and bordered.” Again, that's a lot of damage. That's a lot of damage. I first, though, want to start with this notion of Whiteness. I often teach and preach about bias, and in the work I'm doing on anti-racism, the minute I use that term, Whiteness, there are some folks that I know I've lost.
I've lost them in that moment because they can't get past the thought that I'm just talking about White people demonizing White people. First, help us understand what we mean by the philosophical construct of Whiteness.
Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings: This is always an important question. Everywhere I go, this is always the important pedagogical moment. I have to invite people, whether I'm here in the States or the UK, or Australia, wherever I am, I've got to invite them to think. Here's the problem we are in. The problem we are in is that the racial condition of the Western world that has come upon us is a condition that not all people have felt equally. From all people of color, not everyone individually, but I'm speaking global in a sense, they have entered the reality of a struggle that they're trying to negotiate.
What is that struggle? The struggle between what that racial designation is, whether it's Blackness, Asian-ness, that designation, and trying to understand who they are apart from that designation. That designation just isn't a few words. That designation is a set of stories, a set of practices that all try to capture who they are as people inside of it. Blackness, that is derogatory. Blackness, that is limiting. Blackness, that is constraining and confining and actually denying. All people, whether we're talking about Blackness or something else within the racial condition, have worked daily to separate who they are as people from that utterly complex derogatory vision.
That, in fact, dear Bishop, has little slivers of truth built on the multiple cultural realities of people who have been designated Black. What they're trying to do is that they have to try to pull out those little slivers of truth because it's really a part of them, pull it out of this derogatory thing. They've gone through this work. Some people, especially these days, are trying to say, "Look, I'm not even trying to do that. What I'm going to try to do is completely refashion what this is," and just, "I'm going to try to do a different work with Black." The folks who've been trying to pull it, they've been trying to do a different work with Black.
The point, is that they realize that there's work that has to be done to try to figure out who I am apart from the derogatory that's been placed on me that some people have internalized.I'm doing this work now. As I said earlier, not all people have felt the racial condition with that brutality and that strength. Whiteness, as I like to say, is a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world at the same time has been presented as wholly positive. For people who have wanted to identify in ways that are wholly positive and wholly compelling, they have allowed the joining of this.
The image of Whiteness, the image of it, the practices of it, the storytelling that goes around it, and they have never found a need or desire to do that negotiation that so many of us do every day. Because it's always been seen as positive, unless somebody like you or somebody like me shows up in the room and says, "Whiteness." Then all of a sudden, because it's always been seen as wholly positive, always been seen as not only not problematic, but something to be achieved, for me to say that this is problematic, that this is deeply, deeply anti-Christian, anti-life, for me to say that, they think I'm talking about them.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: "You said Whiteness. Are you talking about White people?" No. I'm talking about a way of being that many people, especially many people who identify as White have high inextricably to their way of being in the world, to their very bodies, to their very life. To suggest that, especially as a Christian, that you have to enter into the same process that so many other people have entered into because it's been derogatory, but for you, it's been actually affirming.
Bishop: Affirming, that's right.
Willie: That's for some people-
Bishop: It's been a currency.
Willie: -is so painful and so difficult. For many of them, they are completely unconvinced. "Why is that necessary, Dr. Jennings? Bishop, why is that necessary? Because it's felt so good. Why are you telling me that I need to do--" Many have said to me, and if we look at the history, this is the way it works, “my great-great-grandmother and my great-great-grandfather, when they came to this country from Italy or from Poland or from Ireland, they worked really hard. They worked really hard to make sure that they would erase from us any indication that being White, Anglo-Saxon American is in any way or shape different from who we actually are.”
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: They were proud of the fact. By the time they hit the third generation, we didn't know the tongue of the Old World. We didn't dress like they did in the Old World. We didn't act like they did in the Old World. We didn't carry forth the cultural practices they did in the Old World, except maybe on an occasional day in which we celebrate that.
Willie: For the most part, we are American and we are White. They're proud of the fact that they were able to erase any indication that there's a difference between this and this. Where we stand right now, especially at this moment, I'm so pleased that now at least that the idea of Whiteness is emerging as something that people can actually talk about. It is extremely painful to see because there are so many people who are being manipulated by political operatives. Who thought that there's an incredible power to use the claim that this has to happen as a way to absolutely articulate a threat to people who identify as White.
If I can show you that what people like Jennings and the bishop are saying is a threat to you, then you will vote, you'll follow, you as I say, because you understand that what they're asking you to do is painful. As far as you are concerned, they want to destroy you. When in fact --
Bishop: There it is.
Willie: -- we say over and over, "We're not --"
Bishop: There it is, want to destroy. Not only do they want to draw it out as painful; I think Christian nationalism wants to draw it out as antithetical to God.
Bishop: When, in fact, that contorted image and way of being in the world and that construct is what's antithetical to the God that we just talked about a moment ago, when we were talking about the land and all of that. In their mind, at least, what they're selling is this notion of dividing, that is what's antithetical, right?
Willie: That's what makes it such an important moment for Christians in the Western world. As I've said for many years, there are too many Christians that have never gotten the memo about their baptism. They never got the memo. They never got the memo that what died in that water and what came out is precisely the separation of that from this.
Bishop: My God.
Willie: They never got that memo. They never got the memo that what it means for the old self to have been crucified, it's precisely that. They never got the memo that when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus and said, "You must be born again." Nicodemus said, "What? How is that possible?" Jesus says, "What is born of the spirit is spirit." They never got the memo that there was a new reality. Of course, we know why they didn't get the memo, because they got those bad memos that told them that Whiteness is the Gospel embodied. Becoming White is becoming Christian and becoming Christian is becoming White.
When you become a Christian, you actually join this. There are so many people who have never imagined a Christian life apart from whiteness. For them, when we talk about this, their minds, literally cannot envision what we're talking about. I've had people say that to me and I said, "Listen, you're in this church, and there are these African-American and Latinx and Asian Christians right here. Why don't you ask them? Because it's not like you have to go out and try to figure this out by yourself. You're surrounded by Christians who do this every day." While it will be painful, it is certainly not impossible if you listen.
Bishop: If you're willing to listen.
Willie: You're willing to listen. Now, if you're not willing to listen, then what you're going to do is you're going to is that shock jock on the radio who sounds a little bit Christian, you're going to listen to him or her all day long because you think that they're speaking gospel truth. All they're saying to you is, "Forget people like the bishop and Jennings. They want to make you feel bad about being White. You don't have to feel bad about being White. Feel good about being White." [laughs]
Bishop: About that social construct, that created idea, that philosophical idea of Whiteness. Amen. I come back to the question that I started that whole part of our conversation, that's a lot of damage.
Willie: Is a lot of damage.
Bishop: How do we overcome it? How do we overcome this damage that has been a part of our Christology, a part of our theology, a part of all of this for so long? How do we wrest ourselves from it?
Willie: We enter into a different set of practices, and we enter into an enacted, different understanding of what the practices are going to do. I always say to people, we want to think about the racial condition not as a state, but as an arrangement of energy acting on our bodies constantly. You're in a house, and you got the air conditioning on, but it's turned on too high, and all those vents are blowing all this cool air at you in every direction. "How do I get out of this? Because I'm cold all the time." Because, no, we just need to arrange the energy here so that it actually works to bring you into a new state of being.
What we need is a different set of practices that invite us into a different way of being, and that has to happen with, as we said earlier, the multitude. They're with us telling new stories, understanding new stories, living in new ways, new configurations of the neighborhoods and the ways we live, that daily bring us into a different reality of existence. That's what's required because we have to understand what sustains it, we don't want to think about that like it's a wall or a building. We want to think of that as like it's a bunch of hands keeping something in place using energy.
What we want to do is to change the energy, turn it around so that the energy is not turned towards sustaining what would fall apart if it was not being sustained. We turn that injury around so that it starts to build a different reality of being in the world. This means we have to get honest to see how that energy is working. Come back to my analogy. "Where are the vents? Where is this air coming from? Oh, it's coming from over there. Over there. Over there. Oh, I see." Once we start to figure that out, the possibility of change is there.
I always tell my students that because we're Christians, we believe that the creation came out of nothing. That God created out of nothing. Which means that the creation itself was not eternal. That it was not always here. Immovable, unchangeable, impenetrable. We don't believe that. We believe that because it's creation, it's always malleable. It's always changeable. Now, what does that mean? Nothing is permanent except God.
Willie: Nothing is the way it has to be. Nothing.
Bishop: Has to be. Amen.
Willie: Now, for so many people because we are fighting against these things for so long, they give the impression that they're permanent, but nothing is permanent. It takes energy to sustain anything. Get a house and you know this.
Bishop: That’s right.
Willie: If you don't put the proper energy into sustaining that thing, it's going to crumble to the ground, and that house may look like it's impenetrable like it's going to be there forever, but it takes a whole lot of people to keep that thing the way it is.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: When we recognize that nothing has to be the way it is. The question is what energies need to be brought to it to change it -- because it can change, unless it is God, and it is not God.
Bishop: It is not God. Amen.
Willie: It can't change.
Bishop: It is not God. There's a different metaphor that I had been using. I have attributed this to you. I hope I didn't dream it up. You'll correct me right now if I have pulled this out of the ether somewhere. Somewhere, I thought I heard you talking about this notion that for too long when we think about, again, this equality, again, what God intended, that too many of us have been trying to pull a seat up to a misshapen table and that what we really need to do is dismantle the table. Because what good does it do for us to pull ourselves up to a misshapen table?
We'll just now be a part of something that wasn't constructed properly in the beginning anyway, but what we need to do is dismantle and reconstruct that whole table. Now, did I dream that up or have you used that metaphor as well?
Willie: I've used something like that. The way I've talked about it is that we have to have a different vision of what it means to share.
Bishop: There we go.
Willie: To be in a shared project. As I like to say, for so many of us, we have been taught that the goal–in order to sustain the integrity and authenticity of our people–is to know our story, learn our story, carry forward our story, love our people, exhibit that love for people, and announce that love for the people. That's right. But for Christians, that's inadequate. Let me explain what I mean by that. The goal is not that I know my story, remember my story, share my story. The goal is not that I know my people and love my people. The goal is that you do, that you know my story, that you share my story, that you love my people, that you know my people. That instead of me, don't come and take my story, and sell it, but you come alongside me, and you enter my story as one of my people, and I enter your story --
Bishop: Your story.
Willie: -- and that we share one another's story, we share one another's knowledge, we share one another's love for our people, so that what our people become is the multitude.
Bishop: Back to the multitude.
Willie: This is not loss. This is expansion. Now, of course, where there's expansion, some things will fade to the background or some things will come to the foreground, but that's going to happen anyway. The point is that what comes to the foreground is that which sustains life and love. That means it is a different table.
Bishop: A different table, Amen.[laughs]
Willie: Different table. It's a completely different table. It is that coat of Joseph, the coat of many colors. It's that coat. It's the pieces here and there and everywhere, and the coat's a beautiful thing, beautiful things.
Bishop: Amen. Amen.
Willie: Because they are made up of the fragments, the pieces that have been woven together. Here's the problem, my dear sister, we have not learned this because we have not figured out what it means to be together. Let's take that word, to be, to come to a form of existence that is constituted by the togetherness. We haven't come to that yet.
Bishop: See, now, you make me think about bell hooks when she talks about, "In a world without love, the passion to connect can be replaced by the passion to possess." Here we are right back again to this notion of possession. If I don't have love in the agape sense for you, then I will try to appropriate from you or, again, back to this notion of domination over, against, versus walking alongside appreciating your story and you appreciating mine.
Willie: Right. That's exactly right. Then allowing myself to become a perpetual learner --
Willie: -- and also a teacher, but a learner first. I once had a pastor, and you will certainly get a kick out of this, he was a United Methodist pastor.
Bishop: Oh, no. [laughs]
Willie: I was saying in regards to what we're talking about now, and he raised his hand in class, he was so proud of himself because he thought he just had a question that stumped the old professor. Said, "Professor, I need to understand what you're saying, but my bishop was going to put me in a church." He was very proud of the church he was going to get put in. "The church I was about to be put in, it has at least 15 or 20 different nationalities, ethnic groups who go to that church. Given what you said, which of the stories of those people should I learn?"
Willie: I said, "All of them."
Bishop: All of them. Amen.
Willie: He said with that in which you've talked about learning languages and so forth. "Which language should I learn? I said, "All of them." He looked at me, and he was about to say that'd be impossible, and then he said, "That would take forever." I said, "Exactly."
Bishop: My God.
Willie: I said, "In the process, what a witness."
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: "What a witness."
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: You and the whole church we're giving the witness that to be a part of this church is to enter the long, beautiful work. Learning the stories, languages, the ways of being of my siblings here. What a witness, what a witness.
Willie: What would it mean to have children raised in that context where they were literally in the midst of an educational process that involved everybody, in which their own stories were being honored and other stories were being honored right alongside? Not just once a year, "This Sunday we're going to celebrate the Filipino community in this manner.”
Bishop: And with some food. You're going to wear an outfit.
Willie: These young people see that they are actually being invited to expand who they are. That by the time they are young adults going into the world, when they step into a place, what people say is, "How do you know this? Who thought you that?" They will say, "In my church."
Bishop: My Lord.
Bishop: Wouldn't that be such a different witness --
Willie: Oh my God.
Bishop: -- than the church has right now? My God. I'm glad you situated us in your classroom because that's where I wanted to go next. Again, in your book, After Whiteness, you say that you give a speech every year to your new students, and you say, "This is your home. If anybody tries to make you feel unwelcome, please tell me." This notion of belonging and home, I want to come at it from this vantage point for a second, though. Tyre Nichols was trying to get home. He was trying to get home. Aren't we all on a quest to get home? In this particular point in history, as a brilliant Black man living in these United States of America, does it feel like home to you?
Willie: That's a really good question, my dear sister. I understand home to be the place yet to be created. What I have always been about is to open myself to the Spirit's work of creating a place that others will call me home. That means that the narratives, the stories, and the storytellers that have constituted America as a home, I've always resisted them.
Bishop: All right.
Willie: The reason I resisted them is because that vision of home cannot bring us to life together. We need a vision of home that is built deeply inside the body of Jesus. That vision of home, a vision of home built inside the body of Jesus, allows us to see home, it's a work of redemption. A work of redemption that is at the same time a work of restoration. A work that is creating the new right in the midst of what has been given. This, for me, is, as a theologian, it comes back fundamentally to the recognition that the world is held in the hands of God and that nation-states have the terrible habit of giving the illusion that people are held in their hands.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: That's a terrible illusion because a nation-state is a particular mapping of a desire on top of what God has actually done and is doing. God is holding the world in God's hands. What we always have to be careful of is imagining that we are sitting in what the nation-state has created rather than what God has created. I've always resisted, the word's “the home of –" [crosstalk]
Bishop: The home. Amen. Amen.
Willie: “-- the home of,” no.
Bishop: I want to be clear, though, that when you talk about this home that is yet to be constructed, you're not talking about an eschatological next life after a while and by and by. You are talking about in this present reality, reconstructing a home through the body of Christ.
Willie: Absolutely. It means allowing ourselves to, I'm working on this now, enter a reality of dwelling. What it means to dwell. What it means to dwell is to live in a place so that, first, we restore the alignment. What do I mean by that? Restore the alignment, a God that speaks to us and speaks to the land.
Bishop: There we go. Back to the dirt. There we go.
Willie: Then a God speaks to the dirt, and then the God that brings the dirt to speak through us, so that we there with the dirt do what we were created to do, to lead the dirt and praise of God and to create a place that first hears the singing of the dirt. That singing means that we have then a healthy reality of connectivity that will then open up a healthy sense of relationality that now, because the dirt is singing through us, I must see you. Your feet touching the same ground. The historian Calvin Luther Martin, I always quote this wonderful line from his book, The Way of the Human Being.
He says that so many of those missionaries, when they came to the new worlds and they entered on indigenous land, what they did not realize is when they put their feet on that land, they were putting their feet on those people's skin. The dirt is the skin. What we need with the reality of dwelling is that we return to that reality that we are with a place face. Out of that, we start to live a life that is fundamentally together. Togetherness, as I've often tried to say to people who misunderstand when I use the word togetherness, I'm not talking about a Boy Scout camp meeting or Girl Scout camp meeting. It can be a little bit of that.
I'm talking about something far more richer and denser than just sitting around looking at each other. Recognizing that we share a life. Now, the difficulty for us is that the way our lives are configured, it denies fundamentally that sharing of a life. Because of that, our vision of home really is a vision rooted in terrible delusion.
Bishop: Exclusion. You've got me, again, right back in that Scripture, "Can these bones live?" Getting back to that dirt and breathing new life into it. That it has a fresh vision. I was going to ask you, how do we rise from our stuck-ness? Yes, that is a term. How do we rise from our stuckness? You've just described how we do it. You have just described exactly how we need to do it. In that bringing, again, that dirt, that dust, that matter back together and breathing new life into it, then we can all find our place in the body of Christ. Again, there won't be any exclusion. Our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters are a part of that. Those that we call immigrants, as if we're not all wayfarers in this land together. We're all there together. There is no other. Even though we respect each other's stories and difference, there's a unity, right?
Willie: Yes. That's what we want. That's what we want.
Willie: We want a way in which we can actually inhabit God's desire for communion. That's what we're going for. We're going for allowing God's own desire through the spirit of God to move through us. This is how I read the biblical witness, especially the Book of Acts. What God is drawing these people who are hearing of God's son, Jesus, is into God's own desire. That's what Acts 10 is. God shows up to Peter to try to change his desire. Shows up at the height of his hunger. "I want you to desire that," that you have been shaped to not desire. That's what God is -- for so many people, they run past that story.
They run past what's present in the New Testament. They run past that struggle that it's not just God is dropping the wall between you and Gentile, and says, "Stop fighting." That's there, but God is saying so much more, "I want you to desire them." "What? I'm just going to promise I'm not going to kill him, but the desire thing, I ain't down with that God." "No, I want you to desire them." When we come to that Galatian story that Paul tells so powerfully, that Peter was enjoying the company of these Gentiles, having a good time, sharing a meal, and then some brothers came down from Jerusalem and Peter said, "Whoops, let me get back into proper form." "What are you doing, man?"
Willie: "What are you doing?" "Doing what I'm supposed to do." "No, you're not." Unfortunately, we have turned that into a very sterile discussion about the law. One important fact: what's at play there is the reformation of desire that this Jewish man, made to desire, not just the Gentile, but the way the Gentile is eating and living. Without eradicating who he is -- but there, that's the struggle.
Bishop: In this commentary, this book of Acts with your commentary, which I have right here, this belief series, and we've touched on a little bit of this, but I'm going to ask a question that I want you to help me understand a bit more. Again, you're emphatic that Jesus does inaugurate a new way of speaking about God and about life, and that Jesus' resurrection means something profound and intimate for the church. And yet you ask, "Could it be that the church weakens its grasp of the resurrection precisely in its timidity to present itself to be touched by the world?" I need you to unpack that for us, for me.
Willie: Absolutely. That it is a salvation of the flesh to join flesh. What that means is that we have not heard the call to intimacy, and then it comes back to the story I just told, that it's not a question of the end game. It's just that we stop, we don't kill each other any more. Though, that's good. I want that. I do want that. "We were enemies. I promise I'm not going to lob no bombs over on your side of the fence, and you don't lob no on my side of the fence. We're cool." That's lovely. With the Gospel, the wall of partition isn't just left, it's taken down.
Bishop: Not just a ceasefire.
Willie: The wall was taken down. That means there's now going to be intercourse going back and forth across that wall. There's going to be life together. Let's come to that image in Acts 10. That she comes down and God says to Peter, "These animals, you know what they are. I want you to kill them and eat them." Now, as I've said in the commentary, I try to point this out. In our moment, we don't hear the depth of this example. In Peter's day, like in so many other parts of the world, people are identified with their animals, my dear sister. They're identified with their animals. The people of the salmon, the people of the caribou, people of the black bear.
If I see that animal, I immediately know the various peoples that are connected to that animal. This is what I also know, that they eat that animal. That animal is imagined as a part of them. In fact, they're imagined as an animal. If I'm going to eat it knowing that I know, have known nothing about how to kill it, cook it, fix it, guess what I'm going to have to do? I'm going to have to go among those people.
Bishop: And ask, yes.
Willie: Not just ask. They're going to have to take my hands. Touched.
Bishop: All right.
Willie: They’re going to have to lead my hand, touched; move my hand; touched. They're going to show me how to cut it. Touched. They're going to show me how to prepare it. They're going to show me all the rituals around. I'm going to have to bring my body into all those rituals. They're going to have to sometimes say, "No, you're in the wrong position here. Move. Let me move your arms." Then they're going to say, "We're going to taste it now, see if it's prepared." Me, as someone who's been both theologically and aesthetically taught that you don't eat that under any -- you're telling me God saying, "No, you got to eat it now." Because that's what it means to be a part of us.
"I'm going to now put this in your mouth. Taste it. What it tastes like?" "It's a little salty." "It's not quite ready yet. Now, taste it." "That tastes pretty good. I've never tried that before. Wonderful." "You seem to be enjoying it." Yes. So glad that you now understand who we are because you're eating our food. Guess what? Our elders are going to say, 'Once you eat our food and enter our rituals of its preparation, its hunting, its care, you are saying that you wish to be a part of us.'"
Bishop: A part of us. That's right.
Willie: That's what Acts 10 is. It's bringing us into the lives of others through the reality of animality, through the reality of the animal. "I'm a part of these people." That passage that you mentioned that I wrote, it is the church allowing itself to be touched as a part of the church, becoming a learner spanning its life into the life of others, but it's also recognizing the need for the tactile side of being a disciple of the embrace, of the touch, of all that that implies, that I am a part of you. As I was saying in the company, the difficulty for us in the Western world is we have so sexualized.
Bishop: I was just about to say that. Yes. We can't get beyond the perversion of intimacy and touch, to be able to see it in it's sacredness.
Willie: We have so sexualized touch that we don't understand that touch is a wider register of communication than just sexual commodification. The reality of communicating, revelation by touch --
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: -- is completely void of us. This comes back to the reality incarnation. We know that God loves us because God has become incarnate and where we first see the love of God is actually when Mary touches her baby, when Mary washes her baby --
Bishop: My Lord.
Willie: -- when Mary brushes her baby and feeds her baby, brings her baby to the breast, that is the touch of God in being touched.
Willie: That we have completely lost any--
Bishop: Absolutely. We don't talk about that at all, for many reasons. There is sexism. As to why we don't talk about that deep prominence of Mary and who she is and what she represents in, as you said, that first touch with this incarnate being now. That's powerful. That is powerful. Dr. Jennings, I could talk to you forever. Unfortunately, at some point our time is going to come to a close. Before it does, I need to ask you this question. In light of all that we've just talked about, this United Methodist Church--
Willie: Lord, have mercy.
Bishop: Yes, Lord have mercy. We're in the deep throes of schism. What so many other of our brothers and sisters, our other denominations, have gone through, some see this as a time of failure, and in some ways it is; but I think all denominations, all of our brokenness in that way is a failure. They don't think anything beautiful can come out of this. I see this as a pivotal time in our history if we're willing to perhaps do something new and radical to emerge in a new way. What would you say to The United Methodist Church and this opportunity that we have that we might not lose the moment?
Willie: This is a wonderful question, my dear sister. Like so many of us who love the church, and especially those of us who know the beautiful legacy and history of The United Methodist Church who are in deep sadness over this moment for the church. I do think, as you have pointed out, that this is a marvelous opportunity. If the United Methodist Church can remember that it believes deeply in the workings of the Holy Spirit, that is where we have to return. As you know, the thing about Methodism is, I could tell my students, and I was talking about the Holy Spirit, is that the Holy Spirit always seeks to draw us into the guidance of God.
What the Scriptures do through the power of the Holy Spirit, is that they guide us to the guidance. Got that? They guide us to the guidance of God. My hope is that The United Methodist Church would remember the way it has learned to discern the working of God and to step fully into the working of God. What does that mean? It means that The United Methodist Church understood that God calls women to preach. It looked at the Scripture and allowed the Scripture to lead it to the guidance of God. It didn't ignore the Scripture, but allowed the Scripture to bring it so that it could see what God was doing in the lives of women.
Which then, allowed them to then look back at that text and all those texts that had been interpreted to say, "Women shut up," and realize, "No, that's not how the Scripture is guiding us to the guidance of God." We can see because the Scripture has taught us to see how God is guiding, how God is present, how God is affirming, how God is saying yes. I know because Methodism has this practice. It can do the same with LGBTQIA saints of God. It can see God all over our siblings, God all over them. God's speaking through them, God affirming their lives. God affirming their love and their love being present to us with our love as one love.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: One love.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: That what we are seeing is the same of God that is in us. In them, in the way they love one another and in the way they love with us. In their struggles, in their successes and failures, in being obedient that the spirit of God is there. Just like we saw -- “She's called to preach.” "I see problems in her life." So what? "I see problems in his life.” “He's called to preach, too.”
Willie: They're both called to preach. We can see that.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: Can I deny what the Spirit is doing? Why? Because we have been taught how to discern the Spirit. The difficulty, the reason we've reached this difficulty, it gets back to where we were talking about a moment ago, because we have lost a full sense of the redemption of the flesh. As not the escape from the flesh, but the redemption of the flesh, the caressing of the flesh because we've lost that sense. So much of Western Christianity treats the body as the first problem.
Bishop: That's right.
Willie: They treat the body as the first problem. I was telling my students just today that we have the inheritors of what I call a criminal anthropology.
Bishop: My God.
Willie: That criminal anthropology means that we have misread the truth that we are sinners. We are sinners, but we are first the creatures of God created by God before we say we're sinners, which is that we're creatures of God. The problem is that we have made sin the bottom floor. It's not the bottom floor. The bottom floor is that we are creatures of God –
Bishop: That's powerful.
Willie: -- and bodies loved by God, those bodies loved by God. Because God loves those bodies, that's why that Romans passage says while we were yet in sin –
Bishop: In sin.
Willie: -- yet, and God died for us, because God touched the bottom, touches the bottom floor. We are creatures, which means the body is not to be treated as a problem –
Willie: -- undomesticated creature that has to be controlled, that unless it is in a perfectly culturally established vision of a heterosexual relationship, what you have is a wild thing, a wild, dangerous, problematic thing wandering the Earth like a wild dog. "You better get that thing tamed," that very image continues to deny what we honor especially within the genius of Methodism-hat the spirit of God touches the body. I've been around enough Methodists to know that every Methodist knows that the work of the Spirit is a work of election. That is the Spirit touches who the Spirit will, whether the person is ready or not, whether we think they are worthy or not. The Spirit says, "I'm not asking your opinion."
Willie: "This is not a vote."
Bishop: Yes, that's right.
Willie: "It wasn't a vote on whom I call or more than it's a vote on who I love, nor more it's a vote on who I inhabit and feel and whose life I affirm. This is not a vote." God said, "I choose."
Willie: That's the reality of Methodism, I think at this moment has to be recalled. You and I start seeing this, we are watching so many Christians coming to the realization as they did in-- it's not to say that it's a subtle matter across the Christian community because it's not, but so many Christians who came to the realization that, "I can't deny that women are called to leadership at church. I can't deny that."
Bishop: Right. That's true.
Willie: "I can't deny that these two women who love each other are blessed by God. I can't deny that God is blessing their life together. I can't deny that they are serious Christians. I cannot deny that God is present.”
Bishop: There was another movement of that in our founding of Methodism, because John Wesley did not deny that African-Americans, Black people could be elected, called, served to speak a word, to be invited to teach and to lead. We have seen that movement of the Spirit through the Word, be the guidance to the guidance to reveal the truth to us. I'll tell you what, it's an amazing day when a brilliant Baptist theologian can crack open what the Methodists need to understand about this seminal moment in time. Beloved, who are listening and watching this, I hope you don't miss this because he has given us what we need to do, what we need to be remembering, what we need to recall in this moment as we move into God's preferred future for who we are. Amen. Amen.
Willie: Bishop, you’re preaching that. That's what we think.
Bishop: No, you're preaching.
Bishop: I'm just trying to say amen.
Willie: You put your finger right on it. The church is always trying to catch up, keep up. For the Spirit is trying to leave. The Spirit is like, "Come on, come on, come on."
Bishop: That's right. Exactly. "I'm waiting for you, but come on. Come on."
Willie: "Can we take a break, Spirit?" "No, come on, come on, come on."
[laughter] This is the challenge, we have to keep up, which is where the Spirit is trying to lead us.
Willie: If we will open ourselves to where the Spirit is leading us, we will see the power of God. We will see the power of God in ways that we have not yet seen the power of God move.
Willie: It requires us to say to ourselves, "I'm going where the spirit is leading." This is not a matter of me trying to control it. It's a matter of me simply watching the unfolding of God's love in what God is doing.
Willie: When I meet students who come, especially at my institution, they come, and they're not even sure why they're there. [laughs] They think they're there for this reason, and then once they get there, they start to sense that God actually is joining them somewhere else. That was where they thought God had stopped with them. "God, no, no, no. Keep coming." The struggle for them is to recognize that they are being led. That is a very difficult struggle as we see in the book of Acts, the way we know the Spirit, the Spirit is always asking the disciples to do something they would prefer not to do.
Bishop: Not to do. That's exactly right. We know that's when the Spirit has showed up. Because now you are asking me to do something I don't want to do.
Willie: "Can you get somebody else to do that?"
Willie: "No, no. I want you to do it. Oh, no, no, not me."
Bishop: That from your commentary and situated in the book of Acts is how I'm going to bring us to a close. In this postscript you say, "If Acts announces a new beginning with God, then I am convinced that we have not fully entered into that newness. That newness requires a new space in which to take hold of our freedomin the Spirit. Maybe our goal should be to form a common life along the lines of Paul waiting for his day before the emperor in a house where the struggle for justice meets radical hospitality and where people from every walk of life wander into a space filled with hope, surprise, and very good news."
Dr. Jennings, you have brought us very good news today. Thank you so much for your willingness to be in this conversation with me.
Willie: Thank you, Bishop, what a joy to spend this time with you.
Bishop: Amen and amen.