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Opinion: Out of Anguish, We Commit to Change

"Until our lives reflect a gospel powerful enough to eradicate roots of racism and violence, the faith we proclaim will be a marginalized impertinence."

Published on Monday, June 29, 2015 | 1:34 pm
Mark Labberton is President of Fuller Theological Seminary

Again. Again and again, we face the tragedy of violence and the agony of racism in our national life. Charleston, an iconic American city, is the latest place of horror where racial hatred has spilled blood and ended precious life. The evil stench and destruction of this hatred is not new to Charleston or to America. Not far from the site of a primary 19th century slave market, nine black lives were violently ended this week.

Desperate for perspective, we inevitably or longingly enter at such a time into talk about “our nation.” Such talk can assume a romanticized national unity while failing to grasp the blindness that makes broad statements problematic. With that risk in mind, I humbly venture some generalizations here. We are in anguish over the loss of the lives of our brothers and sisters in Charleston. Our enduring crisis as a nation, however, is that we are a country sick at heart. Our history reveals, in varying and persistent ways, a willingness to tolerate the insidious cancer at work in our personal and systemic lives where long-term racial prejudice is an unjust and entrenched practice. For all our pride in the tenets of freedom and justice for all, our national story, told as recently as this morning, must include the pervasive impact of racism and violence. Many white people among us say this is not the real story. But I don’t know a single person of color among us who has any doubt that it is. We are heartsick.

To admit this in our nation will be difficult enough. The truth lies even closer to the bone, however, for those among us who claim to follow Jesus Christ. We must admit that the heartsickness of our nation is nowhere more painful than when we discover it in our own churches. When white Christians adamantly claim that a post-Civil War, or post-Jim Crow, or post-Civil Rights era means the race conversation is over, we are complicit in ongoing patterns of racial bias by which we utterly fail to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

The temptation to white evangelicals, whom Fuller Seminary has especially represented and served, is to be defensive or denying of such admissions. Self-explanatory and self-justifying arguments are easily mounted rather than vigorous, sustained self-criticism. Are we willing to look courageously into the patterns of our common lives in our churches, colleges, seminaries, and organizations? Are we willing to ask hard questions about our practices and attitudes that prejudice some racial backgrounds over others? What are the operative racial assumptions evident to people of color but invisible to those of us who are white and privileged by them? What would it take to do what has already been asked for, let alone to go further in order to change these things? Do we have the will to do it?

Fuller Seminary holds our racial, ethnic, and international diversity as a sacred commitment. We have good reason to celebrate and relish the vividness of God’s creative love in one another. But that does not make us exempt from the nation’s, and the church’s, heartsickness, which becomes clear when more than a few faculty, students, and staff of color say that they feel like “ghosts”—“invisible,” “unwelcome,” “voiceless,” “excluded.” Even as our campus hums with significant racial diversity, our systemic cultural assumptions and our actions as a well-meaning, often healthy, but sometimes heartsick community reveal we have a long way yet to go. We must see. We must repent. We must change.

What will it look like for Fuller to face our own need for self-critique? How will we acknowledge and repent of our own complicity in racial prejudice? I am personally convinced that our commitment to individual and systemic transformation in race relations is one of the most urgently needed evidences of the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our nation and world. A church that reflects God’s new humanity is one only God can create (Ephesians 2). But we can and must be eager, open, and ready to be healed and to change. After all, this is the thriving life for which we all have been made and for which we are called by Jesus Christ.

The horrific tragedy in Charleston rips open our hearts. Equally staggering are the powerful expressions of forgiveness extended to the perpetrator by the loved ones forever grieved by his murderous acts. I have seldom felt the gospel more palpably. Their extraordinary words of forgiveness, however, do not preempt the need for naming white complicity in the sins of racism, nor venting the anger and pain it has produced, nor unmasking and ending practices and systems of prejudice, nor repenting and seeking God’s healing and justice. I call upon Fuller Seminary to commit afresh to know and to live out a transformative gospel power, especially in the midst of a church, a nation, and a world of racial violence and injustice. If we cannot do this, are we doing what matters?

We have work to do. This letter is not the work itself. That belongs to all of us together. It’s why we need the Pannell Center for African American Church Studies, the Centro Latino, the Asian American Initiative and other similarly focused centers at Fuller to help form us all. It’s why the Ogilvie Institute’s Micah Groups were created to raise up wise preachers in the pursuit of radical worship and public justice. It’s why we have ongoing campus panels, lectures, and conversations about race. It’s why emerging student efforts will help lead and guide us in issues of race facing a new generation. It’s why this conversation will be part of our fall faculty and staff retreats. It’s why this letter is going to be followed by others in which we will seek to provide tools to use individually, in groups, and in congregations to help us be self-examining and engaged in personal and systemic change. As a seminary, we are accountable for practices that nourish a new people of God who are less and less affected by the heartsickness that cripples us now. By God’s grace, we are not without the capacity to live differently, to affect change, and to help heal the church in our nation.

May God grant us the courage and wisdom to do what will matter. It will be long-term, urgent work—the most difficult and necessary combination. But unless the roots of unity grow deeper than the roots of racism, change will not be long-lasting. The prophetic forgiveness of our brothers and sisters at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston gives us tangible evidence that God’s reconciling love can and will be made visible in our weakness.

Mark Labberton, President
Fuller Theological Seminary

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