AHA Member Spotlight: Rachel Johnston-White
Rachel Johnston-White is a postdoctoral fellow at the Vienna School of International Studies. She lives in Vienna, Austria, and has been a member since 2009.
Alma maters: BA (history & French studies), Emory University, 2010; MPhil (modern European history), University of Cambridge, 2011; PhD (history), Yale University, 2017
Fields of interest: modern France and the French Empire, modern Europe, warfare and violence, history of Christianity, Christian-Jewish relations, political history, human rights and humanitarianism
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where Christianity was—and remains—an important social force. It did not occur to me to research religion, though, until I worked with Sarah Howard at Christ’s College, Cambridge for my MPhil. She suggested I look into a French Protestant humanitarian group called Cimade, which had evolved into a left-wing, politicized organization over the course of its 70-year history. The discovery of “left” Christianity in Europe was a revelation to me after growing up in the Bible Belt, and I have been interested in the interplay between religion, politics, and human rights ever since. I have been lucky to have great mentors along the way, especially at Yale, but also in the various places I have lived, studied and worked—including in Paris, Glasgow, and now Vienna.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Vienna offers a particularly interesting vantage point from which to study the intersection of religion and politics, especially in the current political climate. I really value the interdisciplinarity of my current institution, the Vienna School of International Studies. I have enjoyed designing history courses that integrate law, theology, and political science, and appreciate teaching accomplished and highly motivated students from all over the world.
What projects are you currently working on?I am currently working on two projects. I am wrapping up a book manuscript adapted from my dissertation, which explores how “left” Christians in 20th-century France understood their relationship to the state and their obligation of obedience as citizens. It argues that the politicization of conscience offered a challenge to the postwar European human rights consensus, in which state sovereignty remained relatively unchecked, especially in the colonial sphere.
I have also started work on a second book project, which looks at how Christian “Third-Worldism” shaped relations between Christians and Jews within and beyond France. “Third-Worldism” as a theology links the suffering of Christ to the oppression of the Third World; I am interested in the political aspects of how Christians perceived suffering—does one have to suffer to be righteous? What happens when someone who was oppressed ceases to suffer? These questions seem to have particular resonance in the case of (European) Christian ideas about Jews and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although this project is only in its early stages, I see it as a continuation of my exploration of the relationship between theology and politics in my first project.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? While doing research at the BDIC (in Nanterre, outside Paris) for what would become my first article, I came across a collection of trial records of French conscientious objectors in the late 1950s and 1960s. I was not surprised to find that many objectors justified their actions, which were illegal at the time, on grounds of faith, but was floored when I found that a prosecutor representing the French Fifth Republic—which remains the example par excellence of a secular state—referred to the teachings of the Catholic Church and examples of Christian warrior saints in order to condemn conscientious objectors. This discovery has opened up a number of questions on Christianity, secularity, and the degree to which religious ideas influence politics and political thought beneath the surface.
What do you value most about the history discipline? Studying history involves trying to get inside the head of a person or people who are often living in dramatically different circumstances from what I have known. Thinking historically can be a form of empathy. On the other hand, history offers a set of tools to understand and explain change over time in the broadest possible sense. The discipline brings these two aspects together, linking intimately personal actions with the macro socio-political. It shows us that individuals matter and that what happened in the past was not preordained—just as the future depends on our choices today.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? I value the work that the AHA does in representing and advocating for historians in the public sphere.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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