by William Trollinger
Last weekend Sue and I were at Westmont College (Montecito CA) for the 18th annual Conversation on the Liberal Arts. The theme of this year’s conference was “High Anxiety: Liberal Arts and the Race to Success,” for which we contributed a paper on the ways in which academic rigor and an interdisciplinary first-year curriculum can actually work against undergraduate anxieties regarding future careers.
Interestingly, we were invited by a small group of Westmont administrators and staff to show up early for an informal conversation regarding the “white Jesus controversy” which has roiled Westmont’s campus community this academic year.
First, some background. In December 1959, Westmont student Nancy Voskuyl died in an automobile accident. She was the daughter of Westmont president Roger Voskuyl, and, as a memorial to her, the Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel was erected on campus. In this chapel there is a stained glass window featuring a Jesus who is light-skinned with Anglo-Saxon facial features, and who is standing on what appears to be North America.
This year “white Jesus” has become a point of contention. In the fall, various notes were taped to the window, pointing out that – to quote one of these notes – “Jesus wasn’t white.” But the controversy picked up steam in early February, when three Westmont students sent a letter to Westmont administrators – which was then posted online with an accompanying petition – in which they expressed concern about the “symbolic and theological impact” of the white Jesus and called for dialogue with the administration and board.
Since then there has been an evening presentation on white privilege at Christian colleges, a faculty forum on both the white Jesus window and the racial climate on campus, and a round-table discussion on “how should we depict Christ on campus?” And the student newspaper, The Horizon, has been filled with articles and responses, starting with a February 14 op-ed piece written by the three students who drafted the letter to administrators. Entitled “Westmont needs to face its White Jesus,” the authors asserted that “this image (and other representations of Jesus as White) comes out of a troubled chapter in the evangelical church’s history,” in which “evangelical Christianity aligned becoming Christian with becoming like White Europeans.” They conclude the article by asserting that
We believe it would be healthy and healing for Westmont to repent of colonialist imagery and embrace its commitment to “diversity in a biblical vision of God’s Kingdom.” In our view, removing a White-appearing Jesus from the spiritual heart of Westmont would be a manifestation of Westmont’s commitment to witnessing to the entirety of the kingdom of God, and would therefore be an “act of restorative justice.”
A few weeks later The Horizon devoted an entire issue to the topic. In a thoughtful article entitled, “A Westmont to belong to,” historian Alister Chapman – author of Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement – and sociologist Felicia Song praised the students for having “expressed [their] concerns with grace and self-restraint, thanked them for “raising these knotty matters,” and called on the campus community to “see this as an opportunity to live into God’s reconciling work.”
At the other end of the spectrum was an article by Professor Emeritus and Scholar-in-Residence Robert Gundry, entitled “Why objections to a white Jesus are only skin deep.” In this piece Gundry asserted that Jesus “may well have been fair-skinned,” asked if the authors of the petition and op-ed would really have us “conclude that all non-whites suffer oppression at the hands of whites?,” and complained that “to darken the skin of Jesus . . . would spoil the symbolism of his identifying himself with Nancy Voskuyl.” He even invoked a very familiar trope:
My first friends and playmates were exclusively black as black can be. My later friends and colleagues were often Hispanic. Knowing them as I have, I can’t take seriously – or as accurate – the OpEd’s implication that for them as people of color “salvation became about being or becoming White.”
So, what did we have to say to the administrators and staff persons with whom we met? In keeping with Chapman and Song, we noted that we were impressed with how articulate and thoughtful the student complainants were, especially as regards calling on Westmont College to live up to its stated commitments. More than this, these students were simply and rightly pointing out the ways in which “whiteness” remains the default position not only at Westmont, but within white evangelicalism (and not only white evangelicalism!) in the United States.
But what to do about the stained glass window? We acknowledged the fact that it is the job of college administrators to keep the institution afloat; given that many of the parents and donors supporting Westmont (and supporting other evangelical colleges) are conservative evangelicals/fundamentalists, it would be financially risky (without the savviest of rhetorical campaigns) to replace or alter the chapel window. That said, what about adding – in the chapel and/or other central locations on campus – a variety of ethnically diverse portrayals of Jesus? Why not add a black or brown Jesus in the chapel?
But that leads to a final point that I don’t think we made in our meeting. Evangelical colleges are forever trying to thread the needle, moving to become more progressive (or, better put, more Gospel-oriented) while at the same time not alienating their fundamentalist constituency. Will there be an evangelical college that simply decides to quit “looking over the right shoulder” and instead remake itself in the hopes of creating a new constituency?
Given the rapidly changing demographics of white evangelicalism in the US, this seems to us to be a crucial 21st-century question for evangelical colleges and universities.