Am I A
I have known and worked alongside Chris Hansen during my undergraduate. Chris’s thoughtful Theology and elegant verbiage has always reflected his intimate-relationship with his beautiful savior, Jesus Christ. In this artful theology, Hansen uses a term: “Whiteness.” Do not be fooled by the term. Chris is following in the work of Dr. Willie James Jennings, writer of The Christian Imagination and his controversial (but accurately) named sermon, “Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?” .
The problem faced with such a term is rooted in a fictional identity and the western way of life. In his sermon, Jennings defined, “Whiteness is a deformed formation toward maturity”  . Whiteness is a system of behavior and unbiblical identity. It demands that all foreigners conform to it, lest be exiled, enslaved, or killed. This thinking was rooted in poor Theology, namely through the Doctrine of Discovery.
People have been judged as white (the insider) and non-white (the outsider). Often, when people hear this word, the assumption is that Jennings is discussing skin color, yet the parameters of “Whiteness” have evolved with time. There was a time where the Irish, the Scandinavian, and the Germanic (all of similar pigment) were not considered ‘white’ but became ‘white’ overtime. ‘Whiteness’ is a way to identify and designate people, but as Jennings put it, “What began ... as harmless designating, soon took its place in a matrix of harm. In that matrix of harm these categories took on an aggressive life of their own” . ‘Whiteness,’ simply put, “is the forming toward a maturity that destroys.”
Biblically, “no one is born white” . We were created with diversity, meant for acceptance and embrace. However, through the imagination of ‘Whiteness,’ real pain and suffering is caused. A part of this pain is what Chris Hansen expresses in his art piece. What follows is Chris’s interpretation of his own work.
Am I a White Man?
The clouds of whiteness are being rolled back – I finally feel that I can see more clearly. Fog and haze are clearing, the clouds of whiteness are coming into view and so am I.
Jesus of Nazareth, please tell me who I am.
I created the piece “Am I a White Man” to express certain feelings and questions that have risen slowly during my time at the Moody Bible Institute. What does it mean to be white? How can I live rightly and Christianly in this world as a white man? What is my heritage? If whiteness is a problem, what do I make of my own fair skin and white culture? How can I embrace the particular of myself, my family, my culture, my heritage, without perpetuating the crimes and lies of whiteness?
It has become clear to me that whiteness, as a social construct and experiment, has been the lie of modernity, deceiving those who might possibly attain its goals, and dehumanizing those who cannot. Whiteness is a disease, a narrow vision of the maturation of mankind that invades the imagination. While I still have much to learn, I know enough to lament the ideology of my people and the blood they have shed (of which there is too much to recount). I know enough to begin to look at history as heritage, as something to claim, even if it is ugly. I know enough to want something more, to pick up that which remains and seek Christ.
This piece is an expression of feelings that I have found difficult to articulate. It is a response to the invaluable teaching of Dr. Michael McDuffee and Dr. Ashish Varma, as well as reading that has been significant, specifically Dr. Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination. I continue to learn of the problem of whiteness and the abuse of masculinity, and I ask myself, “how am I to be holy and righteous son of God when I am a ‘white’ man?”
In my creation, the medium of wood is the most significant. This particular board comes from a basswood tree. While there are many basswood trees in the world, being a specific species of tree, this board came from its own basswood tree. It bears all of the features of a basswood tree; the color, the bark, the straight grain, the softer make-up, etc; but each of these features are its own – completely unique.
Upon this plank, the clouds of whiteness are present. The bottom right corner shows the social construct in its complete form. All of the particular of the wood is covered up, the color, the grain, the texture, etc. It tries to take particular people and turn them into a universal idea. This universal ideal is a mannequin of sorts: bland, plastic, faceless. It even attempts to cover the bark, and thus control the earth. For whiteness, nature is not something that we exist in and with, but something we dominate and control. The hard streaks are the militant rains from the cloud. Whiteness is a conquering cloud and has sought to cover the whole earth. The red in the corner, the blood, is the inevitable result of whiteness. While the cloud will do all it can to forget its history and not repent of its sins, the blood stains cannot be covered. Whiteness has brought about the literal and theoretical bloodshed of countless men and women.
The clouds are rolling back though, and the light of Christ is illuminating the once cloud covered top-left corner. The particulars of this plank of basswood can be seen and appreciated once again. The white clouds may be gone, but the light color of the wood remains. The board is still ‘white’ so to speak, but it is ‘white’ as it should be. It is basswood. It has all of the qualities of trees, of basswood, but has its own unique spin on them. This corner is breaking out of the box of whiteness and embracing its particulars.
The oppressive nature of whiteness is not alone but is accentuated by domineering masculinity. The male sex symbol has been carved into this board. Maleness is an intrinsic part of whoever is male. It isn’t a guise or mask, it is not a physical shell to hide the spiritual, it is an essential part of whoever is a man. The carved symbol cannot be undone or wiped off like the paint can. Maleness, unlike the construct of whiteness, is not inherently bad; however, whiteness has left its mark on masculinity. It has seeped deep into the idea of manhood and used it for its will to power. For this reason, the arrow of the symbol is pointed to the top right corner, instead of the top left. The modern man is not the Christ-like man. For this reason, the top left corner is the desirable place on the board. It has not denied manhood, as it is carved into its very being, but it denies the direction that whiteness has given to masculinity.
I seek to live in the top left corner of this work, where I can see myself rightly, see my maleness rightly, and see the clouds of whiteness rightly. In this corner, it is Jesus of Nazareth who tells me who I am, not the modern, white world. In this corner I am able to see the world more clearly than I ever have. I was raised in middle-class, white, suburban America. All that was around me was white. My family and my friends lived into the bland fog that was void of much culture. I learned little of my family background and heritage. My education dissociated us from the sins of our forefathers and denied the lasting consequences of our transgressions. My church knew little and cared little of its history and heritage. My world was smothered in the cloud that does not rightly see itself, those around it, or its past.
But the clouds are rolling back, and I am asking Jesus of Nazareth to tell me who I am. I am seeking to accept my color, grain, and bark; my skin, culture, and heritage. I am seeking to engage with the history of my people, praising their accomplishments and lamenting their sins. I am seeking to be holy in how I see and treat those who do not look like basswood, but look like walnut, or mahogany, or cherry. I wish to appreciate the particulars of their color, culture, and heritage. So, I will keep pushing the clouds back, and I will keep asking Jesus of Nazareth to tell me who I am.
1. Willie James Jennings, “Can ‘White’ People be Saved | Willie Jennings and Mark Labberton” Fuller Theological Seminary, 1:32:29. Nov. 2, 2017.
3. Ibid. 25:48
4. Ibid. 36:00