A good statement from the Wheaton faculty lounge

Warren Throckmorton highlights a very nice “Statement by Wheaton College Faculty Regarding the August 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ Marches in Charlottesville, Virginia.” The statement has so far been signed by more than 150 faculty from the school.

This is a Good Thing:

We … express our profound grief in the face of events which recently unfolded in Charlottesville, Va. We condemn the white supremacist ideologies represented among participants in and supporters of the “Unite the Right” marches and protests organized by members of the neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right and other white nationalist movements. We decry the violence against anyone in Charlottesville, deeply lament the murder of Heather Heyer and the deaths of law enforcement officers H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, and grieve the injury of others targeted because of their opposition to the marches.

As faculty members at a Christian institution of higher education, we stand for love and against racism and violence whether exemplified overtly and publicly or implicitly and systemically. While we have often failed in embodying these callings, the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us all to love our neighbor and to stand with those who are the objects of racial hatred and violence.

Although the crowds have dispersed in Charlottesville, we recognize that the racist ideology manifested on August 11 continues to gather and capture people’s minds and hearts across the country. Those who affirm that God is the Creator of all and that Jesus Christ died for all must embrace the radical alternative of love exemplified by Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as Christian professors committed to the gospel of Christ, we pledge to teach our students the ways of peace and inclusion. We will stand against racism and violence and help our students commit themselves to racial justice and peace.

We also call on our churches and communities to join with us in seeking truth and reconciliation.

This is timely and necessary. We could quibble with some of the wording or details (like the bit on “violence against anyone”), but overall this is good to see. It’s a powerful statement from Wheaton.

Or, rather, from Wheaton’s faculty. And that distinction is, we’ve learned over the past few years, significant, as we’ve repeatedly been reminded that Wheaton’s faculty does not speak for the institution and that the institution does not speak for the faculty.

This statement is — both figuratively and literally — representative of the views of the white evangelical “faculty lounge.” That’s my term for the academic and clerical wing of white evangelicalism represented by its universities and seminaries, by seminary-educated clergy, credible publishing houses and periodicals, and educated lay people. Alas, the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals.

Even worse, the faculty lounge cannot speak to most white evangelicals. That’s not something they’ve generally been able or allowed to do.

That’s a problem. It’s a problem whether the subject is “racial justice and peace” or the mistaken idea that Genesis “teaches” that the universe is only 7,000 years old. Faculty-lounge evangelicals are permitted to speak the truth, but only behind the closed doors of the faculty lounge — which is to say, in seminary and college classrooms, or in books and journals that few others read. But this is always with the understanding that they may get themselves in trouble if whatever is said or written behind those closed doors should start to cause “controversy” in the media or among the wider evangelical public. If that happens, institutional white evangelicalism will happily sacrifice them for the sake of avoiding any such controversy.

White supremacy is wrong and this painting is 17,000 years old. Faculty lounge evangelicals know these things, but they're not always allowed to say them.
White supremacy is wrong and this painting is 17,000 years old. Faculty lounge evangelicals know these things, but they’re not always allowed to say them.

This is why, for example, someone like Karl Giberson was allowed to teach real science at an evangelical college up until, one day, he suddenly wasn’t. It’s why Eugene Peterson’s numerous statements affirming LGBT Christians in faculty-lounge conference settings didn’t set off any alarms, but his repetition of those statements in the press did.

And it’s why this fine statement from the faculty of Wheaton College does not include the signature of any tenured black woman professor. Because the school no longer has any. It has only ever had one — Dr. Larycia Hawkins. Hawkins was dismissed, in disregard for the school’s supposed standards and procedures, when her truth-telling created “controversy” outside of the faculty lounge. Nothing she said or did was “controversial” within that faculty lounge, but the wider white evangelical community does not know what those inside the faculty lounge know. And white evangelical institutions seem determined to ensure that the wider evangelical community never comes to know such things. That knowledge and the potential reaction to it frightens evangelical institutions — particularly when it is expressed and embodied by a woman and a person of color. (Neither the institution nor its donor base freaked out when Miroslav Volf, a white male theologian, spoke the same truth as Hawkins from a podium at Wheaton College.)

L’affaire Hawkins sets the context for this statement from Wheaton’s faculty. It’s why it needs to be a statement from the faculty, and not from the institution as a whole. I don’t know if Wheaton’s president, the weasel-ish gatekeeper and culture-warrior Philip Ryken, was invited to endorse this statement by the faculty. I don’t know if he would have. It was probably prudent not to ask him to do so as, at this point in his career, his signature would seem to cheapen its impact.

The gulf between the faculty lounge and the wider white evangelical community is what makes this statement important and necessary, rather than making it just another example of self-servingly defensive, performative condemnation of obvious immorality. It nudges white evangelicals to look deeper than the simple Nazis Bad surface level to consider the possibility of less overt, implicit and systemic forms of white supremacy. At the same time, I think, it prods and challenges the gatekeepers of institutional white evangelicalism. Will they allow these faculty to say what needs to be said? How much truth will be allowed to be spoken? This statement is a part of that ongoing negotiation.

It’s good to see these faculty pushing back a bit in that negotiation. But the very existence of such a negotiation continues to be a dismaying reality. When a community is defined by the perpetual question of “How much truth will be allowed to be spoken?” then something is deeply, deeply wrong with that community.

 

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