I attended Baylor University. I didn’t just attend. I am a graduate. And I’m proud of that.
I’m not proud, however, of events which happened on campus in the wake of Election Day. Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected President of the United States, completing a long campaign which inspired many citizens to involve themselves in the political process for the first time. This election marks a major milestone in race relations in this country, but as Taylor Branch (MLK’s biographer) notes, it does not indicate an, “explicit achievement or accomplishment in race relations in the lives of everyday Americans.” Branch continues, “I hope we don’t get into a tailspin where everyone calls this the racial promised land.”
Reports that a noose was found on the Baylor University campus (read this piece in the Baylor student paper) at 9:00 a.m. on Election Day show that while the nation as a whole may have made progress, there are white “everyday Americans” who continue to harbor racism against minority groups in this country. Other reports from the Baylor campus, including the occurrence of a small bonfire utilizing Obama campaign signs as fuel and a shouting match between black and white students, point toward a much deeper problem. While Dub Oliver (whom I consider a friend) might assert that “What we are seeing is one person – or a very small number of people – that are acting out in ways that are inconsistent with our community,” these events should cause the Baylor administration to ask big questions pertaining to race relations on campus and explore whether the university is doing enough to open spaces for dialogue, expose prejudice, work toward reconciliation, and yield a more faithful embodiment of obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the Lariat article linked above Baylor Chief of Police Jim Doak is cited as saying that the shouting match between black and white students is an example of people being “a little tacky,” which is a vast understatement and fails to take seriously the issue at hand. The witness of Baylor University deserves more than curt dismissals or even well formulated statements such as that from Interim President David Garland, who wrote in a campus-wide email, “These events are deeply disturbing to us and are antithetical to the mission of Baylor University…We categorically denounce and will not tolerate racist acts of any kind on our campus.” The denouncement of racist acts is not enough. More action is needed–action which addresses those attitudes and prejudices which lead to such acts. As Martin Luther King noted, “When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.”
Members of the Baylor NAACP on Wednesday wisely issued a statement saying, “We have faith that the Baylor community will come together and bridge differences to create an environment of inclusiveness, understanding and acceptance [of] all members of the Baylor family. We look forward to campus support of forthcoming initiatives.” I echo their call. It is high time that Baylor University not only claim to be an inclusive community, it is time that the university undertakes the hard work required to move toward reconciliation and true racial justice. The root of the matter must be addressed. In a spirit of humility and love, university leadership should issue a call for repentance where we have committed acts of hatred toward our minority brothers and sisters, open spaces for dialogue where conversations of healing can take place, and seek to overcome the obstacles which hinder true reconciliation. I’ll be the first to repent, and I pray that my friends belonging to minority groups will extend forgiveness, welcome me in love, and walk forward with me in hope that one day our children will grow up to love and value one another despite the differences in the color of their skin.
As I reflect on my time at Baylor I know that racist attitudes were present but rarely, if ever, addressed prophetically. It was not until after my time at Baylor University that my eyes where opened to the truth found in Genesis 1 that God created all people, male and female, in the image of God. During my time at Dallas Theological Seminary, an African American friend named Torrey shared with me and my classmates his perception that within a community of men and women training to be leaders of Christ’s church that racism still persisted. As a result I examined my own deep seated prejudices and attitudes which led me to false beliefs about persons possessing a skin color different from my own.
When I read New Testament passages where a Jewish Rabbi extended compassion for Samaritans (a racial “enemy” of the Jews) it was as though the scales began to fall away from my eyes. I read of Peter, who in Acts 2 witnessed the gospel being heard and received by both Jews and proselytes–Elamites and Medes, Parthians and those from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene and even Rome–and I saw that the gospel united those of many nationalities, speaking many languages, coming from many different lands and cultures. Phillip, in Acts 8, is sent to a man from Ethiopia who upon hearing the good news about Jesus becomes one of his followers. In Revelation 5 I was awed by the angels worshipping the Lamb that was slain, singing, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
I grew up in East Texas, and I am deeply aware of the tensions which still exist between people who are black, white, hispanic, or otherwise. Having grown up in this environment, I am deeply aware of the reluctance to speak of such issues. Exposing a wound always brings pain. This particular wound, however, bears exposing, for only through examining what lies at the heart will we be able to address our maladies, our sin, and elevate together to a high place, a place which is in greater accord with God’s will that all people should be reconciled to their Creator and to one another. As 2 Corinthians 5:18 makes clear, we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation.” What an opportunity to bring about great joy, seeing brothers and sisters united together to do the will of God regardless of race, nationality, gender, or economic status. What a great opportunity to witness to the Kingdom of God. What a great opportunity to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
While my call for reconciliation may be considered extreme, it is no less than what our times demand. As noted by Taylor Branch above, the Obama victory does not mark the end of racism for “everyday Americans.” But my primary concern is not everyday Americans. It is everyday Christians who are called to show everyday Americans what God has called them to be. This includes everyday Christians called Baptists. It is everyday Christian people, particularly the Baptist people to whom I owe so much, that I hope will undertake extreme measures to address the prejudice and hateful attitudes which brought to the fore the ugly events of these past few days. Mild statements and curt dismissals will not lead us to the healing that we so desperately need. We will need leaders who desire to go to the extremes. We will need extremists. As Martin Luther King, Jr. boldly challenged:
So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preseveration of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
May the leadership of Baylor University, and all Baptist people everywhere who love that university’s great name, live extreme lives in accordance with the demands of the gospel to seek justice, love mercy, and humbly walk with their God. May we thereby realize that hoped for attainment of true reconciliation. The light shining upon Pat Neff, representative of our witness to the watching world, will only shine brighter and truer as a result.
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