Dr. Serene Jones serves currently as president of the historic Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York — the first woman president in the institution’s 183 years of existence. Among her many illustrious achievements, Jones also served as president for the American Academy of Religion, the world’s largest association of scholars in the field of religious studies. Jones grew up in Oklahoma with her family, which she describes as “progressive and deeply Christian.”
I recently read Jones’ new book, a spiritual memoir titled, Call it Grace: Finding Meaning in an Fractured World. I knew while reading it that I wanted to sit with her to learn more about her personal journey, especially after learning of her family’s complicity in racism, white supremacy, and public lynchings in Oklahoma. We discussed all of these topics — and more — in a transparent and illuminating conversation. The excerpts below have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview on my podcast, Spirited, on any of the major podcast apps: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Simran Jeet Singh: You describe your upbringing in Oklahoma as being rooted in love and progressive Christian faith. Can you tell us more about where this comes from?
Dr. Serene Jones: My values come from my family. I grew up in Oklahoma, in a progressive family that was an unusual part of a rather larger conservative family that were Christians. But that was just an affirmation that sat there in every everything we did — whether we were learning it in church or around the dinner table or simply in conversations that we had — that you are fundamentally loved. It affected everything you did, because in affirming that character of grace that envelops you, you affirm it for everyone. So it changes the way you interact with the world and in deep ways affects your politics because everyone is wrapped in that love.
Singh: How do these values tie to your grappling with racism in your family’s history. You write a lot about what you uncovered through this process. But how did that work affect you personally?
Jones: The most difficult story, of the many family stories that I tell, is of a discovery I made while a professor teaching at Yale Divinity School. I was listening to a lecture by a candidate for a position in African-American studies, and as the backdrop to his lecture he had pictures of postcards of lynchings. I had seen some of them before, but, much to my shock in the middle of his lecture, a postcard dropped and a picture that was the size of the whole wall of the classroom, and itwas a young woman who had been lynched, and at the bottom of the postcard it said, ‘Okemah, Oklahoma, 1911.” And in Okemah, Okla., 1911, my Jones family made up most of the town. I had never heard that this lynching of Laura Nelson and her son had ever happened. It was impossible to avoid the reality that if my family had not participated in it, we would have told the story. I realized that the silence is in many ways, is part of the way that history is reckoned within the context of white supremacy.
(We share the story behind this incident on the podcast episode)
Singh: Some might say that you’re airing your family's dirty laundry or soiling their name or digging up the past. Why does it feel important to you to bring up that painful story?
Jones: It's absolutely crucial that white communities in the United States stop acting like the legacy of Native American genocide and slavery and the awful sins of the past that still live with us are something that, because our family did things two generations ago, we can hold them at arm’s length and say they did that. But that's not me. It's time that we actually tell those stories and admit our own participation in those legacies.
Because of those lynchings in Oklahoma, very important actions were taken with respect to who owned the land, who eventually was able to accumulate money, who got mineral rights and oil rights, which families survived over the long run, and which family legacies completely disappeared.
So here I am today in 2019, an heir of that act. And until we stop being ashamed in a way that says, “I'm so ashamed, I'm not going to talk about it and act as if it didn't happen” — we should feel shame, but it's part of the country coming to grips with who we are. Until we can take that step and say that this history is not just about building museums that recognize the history of lynching; we need a museum that tells the story of the lynchers and how they became lynchers, and what happened to white people that could make them into these, brutal, heartless, desperate, and cruel souls that they became.
Singh: You talk a lot in your book about the concepts of grace and sin, both of which you tie to experiences like this one. What do those concepts mean to you and how do they shape the way that you view the world?
Jones: Grace and sin are probably the two most basic concepts of the Calvinist Protestantism that I was raised with. The first affirmation of that faith is that God creates the whole world and loves the world. And that's the fundamental disposition of God towards all that exists. Then the second claim is, for reasons mysterious, and often rooted in pride and greed, as creatures of God we turn from that love and we do massively destructive things to ourselves and to the world around us. And sin names that.
In working in predominantly Christian communities, I feel that people have become so afraid of talking about “sin” because unfortunately it's been equated over time with sexual deeds that are devious or bad in any way. Whereas, in reality, in the Christian tradition, it refers to all of the ways in which we act destructively, and it can refer importantly to whole social systems. We need to talk about the history of chattel slavery as sin, as sin in a forceful and a humongous measure. That kind of language makes it not just a political issue, but a moral and ethical issue that has to do with our very existence as human beings.
Singh: I think so many people in this country and around the world are feeling that kind of pain right now. We all feel pain, but we don’t always know how to feel grace. What have you learned that you can share with us?
Jones: First, you have to recognize the pain. You have to embrace it for what it is and not be afraid of it, not live in the la la land of, supposing that if you're a spiritual or faithful person, you're supposed to be happy all the time. I think the despair that's so prevalent in our nation right now lives inside of me too. But it's not until you admit that despair, that you can actually situate it in the context of a grace that says, “Yes, that pain is real. And the breaking of lives that is happening is real. And all of it is surrounded by the love of God.” The language I use for it is that our ultimate destiny is love. At the end of the day, the final word about all this big mess that we're in, is love.