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Karen Johnson

 Karen Johnson  We are shaped by our contexts – theological, geographical, class, race, family, and national contexts.  Sometimes we begin to really see the water in which we swim by stepping into another stream.  Other times, reading about our stream's origins, its headwaters, can help us see our stream more clearly.  I study American history, and my research is primarily in the twentieth century.  Willie Jennings's The Christian Imagination and this year's CACE seminar took my colleagues and I back farther in time, as together we explored western Christianity's and the western academy's headwaters.  We came to see more clearly the source of the waters we swim in, an evangelical Christian academic institution in Wheaton, IL.   

I have written about place before.  I learned the importance of where one lives when I moved to Chicago's Austin neighborhood, which was radically different from the wealthy suburb in which I grew up.  In Austin my husband and I attended Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church, a neighborhood interracial church, and attended closely to what it meant to live in as white people in a black neighborhood with many people living at or below the poverty line.  We were pleased when families moved into vacant houses, we paid attention to who was standing on the corner, and we knew the impact of a homeowner dying, potentially leaving a house vacant.  Perhaps because living in Austin was such a cross-cultural experience, we became immersed in the place, aware of how different it was from our home towns every time we came back into our neighborhood.  We bought a house, and, in my own mind, my identity became intricately tied up in the place we were putting down roots.  When I saw other white people in the neighborhood (besides those I knew), I wondered what they were doing there because they didn't belong.  Perhaps they were up to no good.  I walked the neighborhood daily, either with a neighbor to exercise or going to the bus or the train.  When people asked me in casual conversation why I was there, I responded that we went to church in the neighborhood, we owned a house.  We belonged. 

Chicagoland's racial geographies play a prominent role in my own scholarship, and I know – and want to teach others – that the segregation I experienced growing up and in the Austin neighborhood was created.  It did not just happen.  Its consequences, for wealthy and poor people, white and black people are significant.  As Soong-Chan Rah argues in The Next Evangelicalism, without one another Christians of different backgrounds are held in cultural captivity.  Rah explores white evangelicalism in particular, arguing that we – my tradition, my people – are held captive to the broader American culture's history and practice of racism, individualism, and consumerism and materialism. 

Jennings, partly because his work begins earlier, goes a step further.  He shows how the racial hierarchies westerners imagined as they interacted with people living in South America and Africa, hierarchies that were inseparable from a theological pedagogy that assumed a one-way transfer of knowledge from the educated to the ignorant, deformed the Christian imagination.  These racial and pedagogical hierarchies developed in the context of mercantile capitalism, and the combination commodified bodies and land in new, and detrimental ways.  This complicated history has mangled the Christian imagination, leading Christians to imagine that God's call on our lives is to relate primarily to Him, not to one another, and so has limited the possibilities of Christians from different backgrounds joining together in intimacy, being with one another in what he calls "spaces of communion." 

For Jennings, Christians must identify as Gentiles, as people grafted into Israel, outsiders adopting a new way of life, submitting themselves to that life.  When we were at Rock Church in the Austin neighborhood, we were part of one of those rare spaces of communion, spaces where people from different backgrounds loved and valued one another.  There, my academic work mattered, but was not the only source of knowledge and wisdom.  There I flourished as I submitted to those different from me out of reverence to Christ. 

After Wheaton College hired me, my husband and I moved to Wheaton.  I was pregnant and we left not because we wanted to raise our child in the suburbs, but because I am a working mom, and if we lived close to where I worked, we could integrate our lives our lives more easily with work and neighborhood.  People sometimes think we left because we thought it was dangerous in Austin.  I think it might be more dangerous in Wheaton.  Here, delightful, loving people can easily, and sometimes unintentionally, require those different from its powerful inhabitants to conform.  There are fewer spaces of communion.  Here, what might appear to be flourishing may too often ignore the history of American places, which is a history of race.

Perhaps I am at Wheaton in part to help my students, my colleagues, myself, other evangelicals, to reckon with our racial past, and the ways it can be mapped on to places and spaces.  In doing so, we might be able to live better in this place that is Wheaton.  After all, as the black author James Baldwin wrote in 1963, "to accept one's past – one's history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it."

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Random House, 1992), 81.

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