On Charlottesville

It’s mid-August, and like schools across the country Wheaton College will soon kick off its fall semester. Also like schools across the country, we have our share of annual pre-semester rituals and events. Orientation sessions and on-campus job fairs and banquets and… professional development workshops for faculty.

Today’s faculty development workshop was focused on diversity and inclusion, and I had been asked to introduce the speaker – a friend and advisor – Dr. Nicholas Pearce. In light of recent events in Charlottesville, I had also been asked to make additional remarks, providing some additional context and comments about the timeliness and importance of the topic.

Below are my remarks, edited slightly. (I’ve removed the part where I tell people what I do, provided context or links for those who are not part of the Wheaton College community, and removed the actual introduction to Dr. Pearce, because you can find that online.) I offer these as my remarks on Charlottesville (which is not to say they will be my only remarks on Charlottesville).

It
is truly heartening to see everyone back together after a summer apart. I’ve
been invited not only to introduce our speaker for the morning, but also to
provide some additional context and comments about the timeliness and
importance of our topic.

I
had the pleasure of working with many of you at Passage for the past six days,
and while that means that my academic year began a week earlier than it
otherwise would have, I do mean that it was a pleasure. This was my ninth time
at Passage, which for me has come to represent much of what is best about
Wheaton College. I participate for the love of the students. I participate for
the love of my colleagues. And I participate for the annual reminder of what
we’re about – community, spiritual formation, service and work, and the life of
the mind are wonderful themes, not just for kicking off four years of undergraduate
study, but also for kicking off year of work on this faculty. It was a
refreshing and restorative time, not least because I had just taken two years
off of Passage, and they might have been the two years in which I needed it
most.

While
HoneyRock is, as we all know, “a place apart,” and while our devices and
screens were for the most part left behind in cabins or at least discreetly
tucked away in pockets and backpacks, news from the outside world nevertheless
trickled in. We celebrated with colleagues who learned of births in the family,
grieved with colleagues who learned of deaths, and processed with students and
colleagues who had heard of this past week’s events in Charlottesville,
Virginia.

Events
in Charlottesville put racial and ethnic diversity front and center in the
daily news just as we are entering into a Faculty Development Day on the topic
of diversity. I won’t recount the details, but in an effort to preserve
monuments erected to commemorate the Confederacy, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan,
and other white supremacists descended upon the city for marches titled “Unite
the Right.” For days they hurled xenophobic slurs and racist epithets. They
chanted the anti-semitic “Jew Will Not Replace Us!” and the Nazi slogan “Blood
and Soil!” They embraced symbols associated with some of the most vile
movements and saddest moments of the past two centuries in this country and
western Europe, including especially slavery and the Holocaust. Encounters
between these forces of bigotry and hatred, on the one hand, and counter-protesters,
on the other, resulted in many injuries, the incidental deaths of two law
enforcement officers, and the murder of Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer
in an act of domestic terrorism.

For
many evangelical Christians, including many of the faculty, staff, and students
I spoke with, the distress of racial injustice was painfully and dismayingly
exacerbated by the failure of so many professing evangelicals to clearly
condemn white nationalism and supremacy at the heart of the protests, intimidation,
and violence. Though the people of God should stand for peace, reconciliation,
and the dignity of every human being made in the image of God, some of the
loudest voices seemed to excuse or explain the dehumanizing ideologies and
practices that drove the protests. Many stood silent or worse, equivocating,
rationalizing, legitimizing, or minimizing racial hatred and violence when
whole-hearted repudiation and full-throated condemnation would not only have
been appropriate, but was necessary. The aftermath of events in Charlottesville
have answered in definitive fashion any questions about whether we have, as
some have been wont to say, put issues of racial injustice behind us.

While
conversations were unfolding about protests and monuments in Charlottesville,
Durham, and around the South, I recall another conversation about monuments. A
student group asked me and two others colleagues to tell them about favorite
place on campus. My answer: The base of the stairway in Blanchard Hall. I told
them about the obelisk once erected to memorialize James Burr, a pre-civil war
abolitionist and donor to the college who suffered much for the cause of
justice. The monument had been disassembled, torn down, buried and then found
again after 83 years, and finally re-erected
as a symbol of Wheaton’s identity
and legacies, a symbol of its mission to be for Christ and his kingdom, because
we are not ashamed of good news that calls us into reconciliation not only with
God, but with our neighbors.*

We
have not always lived up to that mission or honored our founding, as the story
of the obelisk itself demonstrates, but our current institutional priorities are
an opportunity to pursue justice with whole hearts and for the glory of our God
who unites people of many tongues, tribes, and nations in his kingdom. And this
Faculty Development Day, even if it is just a moment, is an integral part of
that effort.


*Incidentally, those same students also asked about our favorite quotes. I said that “favorite” might be too hard a question, but that the one currently capturing my attention is this one this one, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which deserves our careful consideration this week.

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