Standing With the Vulnerable

Liberal campus criticisms of the Trump administration and broader political environment are a dime a dozen. So a new denunciation of promised deportations and other rhetoric from faculty members at Christian and Catholic colleges stands out.

March 29, 2017
 
North Park University

Academics largely lean to the political left. It’s unsurprising, then, that so many have spoken out against threats facing undocumented and otherwise vulnerable students in recent months. But a new letter circulating in support of marginalized students is unusual in that it’s from a subset of academics not always visible in debates about academe: professors at faith-based institutions.

“The U.S. has experienced a contentious election and postelection season marked by fear, polarization and violence,” reads the statement. “The current political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, misogyny, nativism and great economic disparity. As faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education who represent varying degrees of privilege and power (but who are not representing those institutions in this document), we, the undersigned, join our voices with those who are most vulnerable.”

Regardless of where Christians stand politically, the letter continues, “the gospel demands we recognize vulnerable populations among us.” And as Christian educators, it says, “we affirm our deep resolve to pursue truth, to reason carefully and to rely on sound evidence. While now ‘we see through a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12), we stand resolutely against any falsehood that seeks to undermine truth and any propaganda intended to obscure it.”

The statement asserts that a large portion of the community “is weeping” and that the “fear of deportation is real,” as is the “anxiety of being assaulted” or “the fear of being forgotten or mistreated.” Many people of color, women and other marginalized groups “feel increasingly alienated not only in the current national context but in much of the white evangelical culture as well,” it says.

“Acknowledging that pain and woundedness may take many forms, we humbly entreat the Christian community to seek healing, reconciliation and justice. ...We confess that we have, too often, failed in calling out injustice, in loving and knowing our neighbors, and in properly stewarding God’s creation. We pray for genuine conviction to undo the harm we have caused."

The letter has been signed by hundreds of faculty members at dozens of Christian and Roman Catholic institutions and theological schools on secular campuses. It was inspired by two earlier, institution-specific statements: one from faculty and staff members at North Park Theological Seminary and one from faculty and staff members at Westmont College in California.

Lisa DeBoer, a professor of art at Westmont, a Christian liberal arts institution, said drafting the statement -- originally for students and alumni -- was a group effort. Gathering additional names was largely a face-to-face endeavor, she added. But soon after the letter reached its initial audiences, signers were contacted by those at other campuses who wanted to add their names.

DeBoer said while there are many Christians teaching and studying at more stereotypically liberal campuses, those who signed this letter did so “explicitly as scholars and as Christians who work in institutions whose mission is in part to deepen and bear witness to Christian faith in all its variety,” in the U.S. and beyond.

Such professors face “additional responsibilities regarding what we say and do,” she added. Not only responsible “to the standards of the academy and our guilds, we are also responsible to the highest calling of our faith.”

Hence the necessity for confession as well as commitment, she said; the letter is officially called “A Statement of Confession and Commitment.”

Christopher Gehrz, professor of history at Bethel University, an evangelical Christian college in Minnesota, said he noticed the letter last week and encouraged a group of campus colleagues to sign on.

“My first reaction was that the statement was just stating basic Christian beliefs,” he said -- namely that all humans are created in the image of God, called to be good stewards of creation, valuing truth and humility, and grieving with the suffering. Because of those convictions, he said, cautioning that letter signers represent the political spectrum, “I’m deeply troubled by the current state of American politics, starting with the rhetoric, behavior and policies of our president.”

While Christians and especially evangelicals are increasingly associated with the “politics of anger, fear and injustice,” he said, “someone needs to scream out that to be Christian is not to hate Muslims or to demonize immigrants.” To be Christian is not to ignore the problems of racialization or climate change, he added, nor to put “America first” or pledge “total allegiance” to any nation or its leader.

As to why Christian professors, specifically, need to speak out, Gehrz said their primary job “as scholars and educators is to seek truth,” especially in what’s been called a “post-truth” age. But if they bear the name of Christ, he added, “then we're also called to bring about peace, reconciliation and justice.”

He noted that Confessing Faculty, the domain name for the letter site, alludes to the historical Confessing Church that opposed Nazism during the 1930s. Over all, Gehrz called the statement “significant precisely because it's surprising.”

Kathryn A. Lee, chair of political science at Whitworth University, a Christian liberal arts institution in Washington, said she was impressed by the statement's "comprehensiveness." It draws attention "to the treatment of marginalized groups by white evangelical culture, as well as to structural injustices," she added. "I am grateful for that because in seeking justice, not just Christians, but all human beings, show love for our neighbors."

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities wasn’t involved in the drafting of the letter but did share it on its Facebook page. Shirley Hoogstra, president, said via email that she couldn't speak for the signers, but that citizens and “followers of Jesus believe that using one’s voice for those with less voice is a duty that comes with privilege.”

The Confessing Faculty letter “reflects the engagement in the public square by those whose job it is to think, write and teach about issues of Christian faith that undergird healing, reconciliation and justice,” she added. Letters are “rarely perfect or complete. But they do speak about commitments, ideals and aspirations and are the actions of a democratic process that listens to voices of concern.”

Hoogstra said her own organization “expects that others with differing voices will also speak into the democratic context.”

Nancy Phinney, a spokeswoman for Westmont College, said faculty and staff members work closely with students inside and outside the classroom and “seek to support them and serve them in all areas of their lives, especially when they face personal challenges.” No current student faces deportation, to the college’s knowledge, she said, but “we will always strive to balance upholding the law of the land with seeking to build a community that embodies the life and spirit of Jesus.”

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