Sunday, February 19, 2012

Three Things I’ve Learned So Far from #chapeltweets

We’re one week removed from #chapeltweets, in which a number of students tweeted negative comments following the Rhythm & Praise Chapel at Wheaton College on February 10. We’ve seen sit ins at the dining hall, prayer circles in front of chapel, impromptu teach-ins, and community forums. All good things that suggest we’re moving forward. I certainly want to help us continue moving forward, but I also want to do a quick retrospective on a few things I’ve learned through the happenings of the week.

1. Wheaton is a Christian community because Christ has made us one, not because we are perfect people.

Wheaton is a special place. I realize after all this, this might seem like a Pollyanna-ish thing to start with, but overall, I’m very humbled and encouraged by the care and love people are showing to one another. I’m grateful to be among my colleagues as they care for students and one another. I’m grateful for the administrators who have acted quickly to give care and love. But more than what we’ve done right, I am, as Bonhoeffer has reminded us, blessed to see again that Christian community exists not because of the ways we succeed to live out our ideals and the “wish dream” of human harmony; Christian community is in the grace of Christ that has already made us a community.

As we go forward, I know there are those who remain disappointed with the responses they have heard, and others who are frustrated that we don’t just let it all go and move on. I know there will be more difficult conversations and more hurt feelings. At the same time, I am more confident in Christ’s grace and love in which we abide. I have seen God’s hand in this and I know God is at work. It’s not necessarily characteristic of me to pull out the big Evangelical Jesus language in situations like this, but in this case, I have to call it like I see it. Speaking of which, lesson number 2…

2. It is important to call racism racism.

This is a big one, because there are a lot of people who very much resist using the word “racism”. We resist it because it is such a charged word, bringing up ideas of what those who tweeted may or must have intended. It seems to be an accusation that those who made the comments must be racists. We prefer the terms “racial insensitivity,” or even the gentler “misunderstanding,” “ignorance,” and “mistake.”

The problem is that all these other terms keep our conversation on the level of interpersonal relationships. By avoiding the term “racism,” we divorce the conversation from the cultural and social systems that keep us from seeing what’s going on. This became most clear to me among some of the healing moments in which we inadvertently reverted to some of the things that keep racism in place. Specifically, when we were praying together outside chapel, and when we closed our time together at #tweetunity, we ironically turned to the music that has become the default music of serious spirituality at Wheaton, Euro-American hymnody. Here were groups who were dedicated to redressing the hurt caused by the chapel tweets and we too fell into patterns of placing the Euro-American worship forms on the pedestal of spiritual superiority, or at least, cultural comfort.

I’m sure there are some who are now rolling their eyes, amazed that I would want to call something as innocent as this “racism.” Yet this is the system in which we live. Why, when our community is hurting precisely over the issue of African American worship being ridiculed and marginalized do we turn to “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” as our comfort? We have been taught, conditioned, and formed into a community with a hegemonic structure of preferences, in which implicit assumptions about what is best continually push their way to the foreground, unless and until we name it for what it is: racism. I am no better than anyone in this. Until one of my colleagues leaned over and say, “Let’s try to start singing ‘Amen!’” I was blind to the irony and racism myself. I suspect most of the black kids in the circle or the #tweetunity chapel didn’t think much of it either, so it's not just a White thing. This is racism at work. It must be named to be seen. And in the same breath (pun intended), point number 3 is…

3. Racism, sexism, and other exclusions are part of the same conversation.

It has been very interesting to hear many of my female colleagues, particularly those in male dominated fields (theology, economics, the natural sciences) connect their experiences at Wheaton College with the stories being shared by people of color. It’s not that they’re playing a game of “whose pain is worse,” but rather that they can, more clearly and personally than I, see how assumptions of culture and institutional structure work against the full equality of everyone in our community. Just as we have recently attended to race, we need to bring other forms of community stratification into the conversation.

Our culture, like all cultures, is both a good thing (as the God-given ability to express ourselves in symbol, form community, and relate in complex linguistic ways) and a fallen thing (in the ways sin infects every aspect of these capacities and practices). We have, written into our sociality, sinful tendencies towards domination and idolatry. Just as we continue to explore the ways racist hierarchies are promoted and defended in our culture, so too must we consider how our idolatrous hearts enshrine other preferences for masculinity over femininity, youth over age, and able-bodied over disabled.

I almost hesitate to write these words, knowing how some will see nothing but political correctness and liberal humanism, but I think instead of Galatians 3:28 that tell us that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These social hierarchies are taken away in Christ, yet we go back again and again to find ourselves worshipping ourselves and our cultural creations rather than the Living God and His good creation.

Where do we go from here? We’re going in some good directions already, but I hope that we can press on to the goal set before us. The Kingdom of God is not something we earn through our good work; nor is it something we bring about through constant vigilance to our cultural idolatries. Yet as we pursue holiness in some areas of our lives, let us encourage one another towards holiness in all this.

God is pleased, Wheaton College, that we have begun to hear God’s voice calling to us. Let’s keep listening, together.


Chuck 梦苏 Liu said...

My prof made an interesting point the other day, when we were talking about Jeremy Lin and "how many wins it would take before we called those who had passed him up, 'racist.'" I mentioned that bloggers and commentators had mentioned his Asian-ness as a reason for why he was passed up, without calling it what it was. My prof stated that in the American dialogue about racism, it's commonly (and wrongly) understood that for something to be racist, there needs to be intent and malevolence. It's this place where the culture heavily frowns upon racism, but the understanding of racism is limited to overt and hostile acts, conjuring images of men in white hoods, when in fact, it is much more common to perpetuate and experience racism in the form of the sentiments behind things like the chapel tweets. I think people still believe that if they didn't mean something to be racist, then it's misguided and ignorant at worst, but certainly not racist. That, unfortunately, is so far from the truth.

Chuck 梦苏 Liu said...

*ahem*... eloquently stated in your previous posts :)

John Markle said...

Professor Howell,
Would you mind advising what your definition of the word racism is. During my undergraduate time at Wheaton, I was oftentimes frustrated by people's use of the word "racist" because I felt a more accurate representation of their opinions would have been better summed up with the word "stereotype."

If you could clearly define your approach to this word, I believe it may help those who would otherwise oppose your opinion. Thanks so much.

Brian Howell said...

HI John,

You're probably right that in the ways people often use the word "racist," the word "stereotype" or "prejudice" would be more apt. I use the term racist as it corresponds to racISM. Racism is a system like other "-ism"s (communism, capitalism, communitarianism) in which a system built on an ideology is supported and enforced through institutional and cultural apparatus. The ideology supported by racism is the ideology of race itself; the belief that humans can be divided into a given number of racial categories and ranked/ordered by those categories. This ideology is then supported and enforced through cultural and institutional means. Many of the more obvious institutional support (segregation, Jim Crow laws, etc.) have been dismantled or at least addressed. Many of the cultural supports have been addressed, but it is in this realm, I would argue, that the most work remains to be done.

Wheaton College has relatively few institutional supports for racism, but we have many cultural ones. I would argue (along with many others) that cultural change, when pursued with intention, is best done through institutional change and active intervention. This is the strategy many now advocate at Wheaton and in U.S. society more generally.

Anonymous said...

I like this piece!