The long-smoldering conflagration of American racism reignited in the summer of 2020 as the world watched multiple instances of police brutality and the extraordinarily adverse effects of COVID-19 in Black and Brown communities. In spite of the pandemic, protestors across the country marched with signs reading “Black Lives Matter.” Institutions and corporations responded to the moment with promotional campaigns and policy adjustments featuring their efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. Christian institutions and its leaders were no exception. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry called for a recommitment to racial justice and reconciliation, stating that the Church “will still be doing it when the news cameras are long gone.”
At the School of Theology, the work of discovering its past history with racism was in its infancy. The Roberson Project, a six-year initiative investigating the university’s historical entanglements with slavery and slavery’s legacies and named for the late Dr. Houston Roberson, Sewanee’s first tenured Black faculty member, had officially begun in 2017. Seminary students had called for several changes, including an increase in non-white representation in the School’s art collection in the Chapel of the Apostles and Hamilton Hall.
Additionally, in the Easter 2021 term, the whole seminary community will share reading a common book. Deborah Jackson, associate dean for community life, selected James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, a landmark work of Black theology. In her announcement of the selection, Jackson wrote, “Many members of our community signed a statement indicating our united commitment to becoming agents of change. We expressed our desire to expand training in anti-racism that equips church leaders to be catalysts for change. Studying and discussing this book together is one way that we hope to begin to have critical conversations for our learning.”
A Black woman herself, Jackson commented on why she chose The Cross and the Lynching Tree. “My selection of this book was a personally heartfelt decision for me; it is a book that I feel will facilitate important discussions in the seminary, and lay groundwork for even more conversations.”
These efforts show that recently Sewanee has begun to articulate the grave awareness that the University’s past and present have been bound up in the stories of colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, and racism.
That increasing awareness is also shaping the seminary curriculum. I spoke with five of the School’s instructors about how their courses have changed. Students now read more authors of color, listen to more Black preaching, and engage some of the most critical questions facing our church and society—the questions of racial justice.
For the Rev. Dr. Benjamin King, the past is not as distant as it would seem. King is professor of Christian history and serves on the leadership team of the Roberson Project. For many years, King has “deliberately not taught a Eurocentric story,” instead highlighting that Christianity’s roots are deeper in Asia and Africa than in Europe. But after a student pointed out that King’s slideshows still featured overwhelmingly European images, King redoubled his efforts to tell a fuller version of the story. He renamed his introductory courses Church History I: Asia and Africa and Church History II: America and Europe, with a focus in the later period on colonialism, though not, he hoped “to the exclusion of the voices of the people whose lands were taken from them.” With his work on the Roberson Project, King realized “that the African story needed to be told better, in particular the story of African-Americans.”
King teaches another course specific to the history of Anglicanism. But after the events of the summer, he told me, “I was convinced by what was happening, that I needed to change the way I taught the class.”
King sat down with his colleague, the Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga, Distinguished Professor of Global Anglicanism, to discuss team-teaching and transforming the course. “Recent events impacted me so that I couldn’t keep telling the same story about English theology. What James and I did was basically contract the English material into the first few weeks—we agreed that story needed to be told—but then expanded into the stories of the Pacific, of Africa. It was overall a less-white account of Anglicanism.”
In approaching Sewanee’s own past, King cautioned that “because one is learning that the history has been bad doesn’t mean that we have to demonize ourselves. It just means we have to do better going forward.”
For King, this history isn’t just an intellectual exercise, especially when it comes to parish leaders looking into their own place. “As Christians, it’s incumbent upon us to do this work. It’s not just about storytelling, but about reconciling with our neighbor who we’ve committed sin against or with whom we need to atone.”
Collin Cornell, visiting assistant professor, bridges the ancient and distant past (his discipline is biblical studies) with the recent and the local. Cornell expects that “in addition to demonstrating basic knowledge of biblical content, students would also deepen in awareness of the raced and placed nature of North American scriptural interpretation.”
Following the Black theologian Willie James Jennings, Cornell sees a shift from pre-modern identities, which were predominantly determined by human relationships to the land and geography, to the racial identities of the modern world. Race governs and shapes almost everything about our current society. Cornell intends to bring the notions of “race and place into the same field of vision.”
One example was the opening weeks of his Old Testament course in 2018, which he taught as a sabbatical replacement. Besides the “normal fare” of the text of Genesis and its critical interpretation, students read about the theory of 19th-century white scholars known as Pre-Adamism. Its adherents believed that Adam was white and that other races originated from entirely different genetic stock. Sewanee’s own first biologist, John McCrady, espoused this viewpoint in the lead-up and aftermath of the Civil War. For Cornell, this endeavor brings that troubling history “very close to us—brings that history home.”
In another sabbatical replacement, Cornell’s New Testament class taught students about the Passion narrative in Luke’s Gospel along with the history of the nearby route of the Trail of Tears, which is marked by a yearly commemorative event in Winchester. Afterward, student reflections “toggled between” the two stories with remarkable creativity and insight. Cornell hopes students realize “that each of these big, famous, or infamous events has taken place at a granular level. This small-level stuff aggregates into these giant historical events like the Trail of Tears that everybody knows. The history of race is about these very large realities—the powers of whiteness, white power, white privilege at the expense of Brown and Black people—but it’s also a cascade of really small, local decisions, and decision-makers. There were people in Winchester who watched Cherokee kids march through town—townspeople sold shoes for the children. It happened locally. So there’s a retrospective aspect, but also a present and prospective reality too: our own decisions have an impact, and they accumulate into being either pernicious or emancipatory.”
Dr. David Stark, assistant professor in homiletics, brings this present and prospective aspect to the foreground in training the next generation of Episcopal preachers. Students encounter Black homiletics in their core class, in every elective course, and especially in a dedicated elective, “Learning from African-American Preaching.” As Stark explains, “One of my teaching commitments is to center the voices of Black scholars and preachers through the texts we read, the sermons we analyze, and the conversations we have with guest speakers. Luke Powery, Lisa Thompson, Teresa Fry Brown, Michael Curry, Wil Gafney, Cleo LaRue, Donyelle McCray, Kenyatta Gilbert—these are just a few of the voices that are essential for understanding the history, theology, and practice of preaching. They help students better understand and proclaim the gospel, confront whiteness, speak truth, advocate for justice, and lead for healthy change in our communities. In these ways and many others, Black homiletical voices help form preachers and priests who are better prepared to lead the church today.”
Aside from his collaboration with King on the Anglicanism course, Tengatenga teaches a course titled “Missiology and World Christianities.” “That title tells you quite a bit. It’s not just the history, theory, and practice of mission. It also includes that term ‘Christianities,’ suggesting in a sense, ‘Mission accomplished!’ But it also means that global Christians are partners in mission. The continual spread of the Gospel and work of Christ, the mission of God, is not only done from the ‘traditional’ sources, which incorrectly assume that the West has accomplished this spread. It’s a rather clumsy expression, but ‘mission is from everwhere to everywhere by everyone.’”
Tengatenga’s experiences make him uniquely qualified on this subject. He is African, “which means not an American. I speak from a different perspective and language.” He was bishop of the Diocese of Southern Malawi and has served on many international Anglican bodies, including chairing the Anglican Consultative Council. Tengatenga participated at the highest levels in the global Church’s councils during controversies on women’s and LGBTQ+ issues. “Not only do I embody the hybrid of Anglicanism for an African, but also as a product of the institutions and training of these places.”
Finally, Tengatenga is Black. “Being Black makes you encounter the ugliness of the world in a way that a white person cannot imagine. Being able to express that in some minor way as a contribution to a student’s understanding of the world and its people is something that inspires and motivates me.”
Sewanee is in a moment of soul-searching, according to Tengatenga, who hopes that more people of color will eventually join its faculty “so that—as Desmond Tutu would say—the rainbow people of God are more visible in this space, and that the seminary reflect the diversity in the global church.”
This is to go further than mere “inclusion,” said Tengatenga. “To include assumes that there is someone—usually the dominant someone—doing the including. We are about participating in God’s world with God’s people and God’s church. It’s an invitation not only to the other but to yourself to engage with and encounter the other. We are looking for Sewanee to participate in and become that which is called to be.”
Andy Thompson, assistant professor of theological ethics, echoed his colleagues in being specific about terminology and approach. We acknowledged together—as I had with each of the professors I spoke to—the distressing situation that we were mostly white men discussing Black theology in the School’s curriculum, and we reminded ourselves that any improvements to the curriculum are still not the occasion for complacency or “patting ourselves on the back.”
It has been vital to Thompson to avoid any sense of tokenism, a merely perfunctory approach to diversity. “That’s the main thing I try to do—to avoid having one week or one class or one course where we talk about Black theology or feminist theology.” Rather, each course topic—eschatology, for example—is considered with Black theologians, Indigenous theologians, Liberation theologians. “Those voices are part of the corpus of theology, not alternatives or outliers. We aren’t teaching the breadth of Christian theology if we aren’t considering these voices alongside the dead white guys.” For example, Kelly Brown Douglas, Black womanist theologian and Episcopal priest, “represents the Anglican tradition as much as C.S. Lewis.”
Some students, more familiar with or attached to theologians like Lewis, can be skeptical. But Thompson makes a more fundamental point: “White Christians have a lot of work, a lot of reckoning to do, and we need to be listening to Black voices to understand what has happened, what is happening, and what to do about it. It’s the work of repentance that is incumbent on us as white Christians.”
For members of the School’s faculty, teaching Black, Brown, and Indigenous theology is not ultimately about inclusion. Inclusion is for the magnanimous, for those who perceive themselves as insiders, kind enough to include outsiders. But the task of the humble—the real task of the Christian disciple—is to open hearts and minds, beginning with one’s own, to the broad reality of God’s people, who are of many different colors, languages, and cultures. The task of the sinner is repentance. The task of the neighbor is to love the neighbor, including learning from the neighbor’s perspective.
Will this work continue—as Curry said—when the news cameras are gone? For now, it remains unaccomplished, the task unfinished, and the education unrealized. Humble steps in the right direction, however, are not inconsequential.
By: Ryan Currie, T'18
Photo Caption: New Testament students join in commemorative walk along local Trail of Tears route in Winchester, Tennessee.
Photo credit: Mercedes Clements.