2017 Convocation Address

"Seeking Shalom: The Christian University and Racial Reconciliation"

Shalom. 

Of all my hopes for you this year—success, joy, victory, wisdom—I am praying for your shalom. Completeness, contentment, wholeness.  Peace. 

As I age, each new year fills me with nostalgia so that amidst the excitement of new and returning students, syllabi, social clubs, and collegiate sports, I often find myself reflecting on my own experiences so long ago. Reflecting and contrasting.

When I was a freshman in college for example, the president of the United States had just halted grain supplies to Russia and the US Olympic Committee had voted to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympic Games in Russia. Why?  Because Russia had invaded Afghanistan. Today, the United States is increasing its troops being sent to Afghanistan. 

When I was starting my freshmen year in college, the hostage crisis was in full bloom and there was talk of full scale war with Iran. A new Republican president had just defeated his Democratic opponent, and corruption of public officeholders was well known and documented. Operation Abscam had just indicted 30 officials for public corruption—including six congressmen and one U.S. Senator. Public confidence in elected officials was at an all-time low, and many lamented that America’s best days were past. Today, I hear many of the same laments.

The year I began college was a year of international unrest, national anxiety and angst. The year I enrolled in college was also the year that I began to understand that the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet realized.  It was the year of my rude awakening about race. It was the beginning of a lifelong education about race relations, an education that continues today.

One of my best friends in college was black. One night we were eating at a local restaurant when I became aware that the waitress was intentionally ignoring us and serving others who had come in after us. I became irritated and when my friend noticed, he cautioned me to never offend a person who handled my food. There in that dive of a burger joint, I saw my friend and his reality with a new perspective, and my heart dropped. It was if scales had suddenly dropped off my eyes and I saw for the first time what was happening. She was intentionally behaving this way because he was black. And it dawned on me that what was new and offensive and so troubling to me, was nothing out of the ordinary for my buddy. So began a deeper set of conversations the two of us had, and so began a greater awareness of the realities around me when it came to race and race relations. 

The year I began college was a year not unlike this year is for students today: one full of anxiety and political intrigue; personal hope and even some angst; a new academic year begun in a world of social unrest including a time great divisions and tears in the social fabric of our own nation.  Sadly, these tears are still evident in our race relations. As far as we seem to have come on so many fronts, there is the tragic reality, that we still have so much to do when it comes to race relations in our country, in our churches, in our university, in our homes.  I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but what was missing then is missing still—shalom.

As we commence another year of study together, I want to focus our attention on the hard work of racial reconciliation. I know some may argue that this problem will never be solved, and that focusing on such difficult subjects only exacerbates the problem. To those who question why, I want to be absolutely clear.  

I reject the notion that this topic is too difficult to solve, or that we should ignore the subject because too much focus exacerbates the problem. We must address this because reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. We cannot ignore this, because we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. We are called to address it because we are Christian scholars, equipped and prepared to think through, work through, and lead through the hard issues of our day.  Furthermore, it is incumbent upon us to speak out when events unfold such as those that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.  We must not equivocate, either as Christians or as Baptists.  Let us always be clear. We reject white supremacy as unchristian, anti-gospel, and antithetical to the Word of God. 

We echo the words of ERLC President, Russell Moore who wrote, 

“White supremacy does not merely attack our society (though it does) and the ideals of our nation (though it does); white supremacy attacks the image of Jesus Christ himself. White supremacy exalts the creature over the Creator, and the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against it. This sort of ethnic nationalism and racial superiority ought to matter to every Christian, regardless of national, ethnic or racial background. After all, we are not our own but are part of a church — a church made up of all nations, all ethnicities, united not by blood and soil but by the shed blood and broken body of Jesus Christ." (Russell Moore, "White supremacy angers Jesus, but does it anger his church?" The Washington Post, Aug. 14, 2017).  

We must remind ourselves of the message of reconciliation and unity found in the gospel.  In 2 Corinithians 5:16-21 we read:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:16-21 ESV).

Stan Norman reminded us in his Hobbs Lecture in 2014:

“Reconciliation with God brings reconciliation with one another.  You cannot have one without the other.  In fact, the biblical witness is that the reality of reconciliation with God is demonstrated by the reality of reconciliation among His people… Racial barriers and hostilities are a festering wound in the body of Christ.  The perversion of both active and passive racism must be confronted and removed.”  (Stan Norman 10/29/14 Hobbs Lecture).

Because we are a university, charged with thinking, charged with scholarship, charged with leading, it is incumbent upon us to work through these issues. Wolterstorff described a college as a place where disciplined study is at the center of its project, but where shalom and the delight that is found in right relationships energize its work.  He writes, “A college is a school, and as such, it places disciplined study at the center of its project.  But the lure of shalom will direct and energize it.  The goal of the Christian college, so I have begun to think, is to promote that mode of human flourishing which is shalom.” (Wolterstorff, “Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education). 

As a university, we must speak out on these issues because they are matters of great import and relevance for our culture.  We must speak to these issues because we promote that mode of human flourishing which is shalom.  But because we are a Baptist university—because we are a Southern Baptist university—we are especially accountable for speaking out on this particular issue. When an individual or a group has committed a particular sin, there is a commiserate burden. Given the Southern Baptist Convention’s founding, its particular sins of racism in its past, the Convention and its entities and organizations carry the added weight of responsibility for speaking out often and repeatedly against racism. Not just because it’s right.  Not just because it’s needed.  But because we bear particular responsibility. 

Pete Menjares challenges Christian universities seeking to be more racially and ethnically inclusive, writing, “This inclusive model for the kingdom has practical implications for spiritual formation, chapel programming, and leadership. Looking to the future, will the Christian college be directed and energized by the lure of shalom, and will it seek the shalom of the individuals and places it serves?” (Pete Menjares “Diversity in the CCCU: The Current State and Implications for the Future,” in Diversity Matters: Race, Ethnicity, and The Future of Christian Higher Education, Longman, Gen. Ed., ACU Press, 2017).

My answer is yes, the Christian university must seek the shalom of the individuals and places it serves.  So what does that mean for us as believers in general and what might that mean for us as a distinctively Christian university? 

Returning to Dr. Norman’s lecture, he reminded us, “We are people of redeemed words, redeemed feelings/passions, redeemed thinking, and redeemed actions…As a Christian university, OBU is to reflect the reality of the Kingdom of Jesus.  OBU must be a place where the ideals of Jesus are lived, taught, declared, and practiced.  As a Kingdom university, OBU should be a place where the power of the gospel transforms enemies into neighbors, where those who speak, look, and act differently are transformed into brothers and sisters. (Stan Norman 10/29/14 Hobbs Lecture).

So, I believe that as Christ followers, as people of redeemed words, redeemed feelings and passions, redeemed thinking, and redeemed actions, we must continue to speak out on issues of racism when it rears its ugly head.  When Nazi, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups march and demonstrate, we must clearly condemn such groups.  But positing on social media is insufficient. Posting on social media is often the extent of lazy activists who falsely believe that 140 characters is somehow equivalent to action and personal responsibility. It isn’t

Speaking out, should be followed with actions, and for Christians, that begins in the church and in the local community. Jarvis Williams, in “Removing the Stain of Racism,” offers fifteen exhortations related to removing the stain of racism from the SBC which are good starting points for Southern Baptist to consider as we begin to think through our responsibilities. I summarize them in brief:

  1. Be quick to listen and slow to speak on race when we do not understand the issues; spend more time listening instead of trying to speak to, at, about, or for black and brown brothers and sisters.
  2. Pray for and support multiethnic church plants in our cities and communities.
  3. Stop making excuses for why our denomination still has the stain of racism.
  4. Stop limiting the racial reconciliation discussion to the black versus white divide in our convention…there are many gifted and underrepresented minority groups in Southern Baptist life.
  5. The movement of gospel-centered racial reconciliation within the SBC does not need an African-American savior, An Asian savior, a Latino savior, or a white savior. But we need a multiracial partnership of churches working together. 
  6. Enlarge our ethnic circles to include more black and brown believers.
  7. Recognize that black and brown people can minister to white people and teach them many things about many subjects including race.
  8. Understand that black and brown Southern Baptists need white allies in the work of gospel ministry.
  9. Understand that the kingdom of God does not revolve around whiteness or blackness or brownness
  10. Recognize that whiteness is not normal and everything else abnormal…Neither the vast majority of the world’s population nor the vast majority of those who still need to hear and respond to the gospel are middle-class white Americans
  11. Do not claim to view all people in a color-blind fashion. …Black, brown, white, and everyone else in the SBC must acknowledge our differences and pursue love, unity, and reconciliation in the gospel in spite of them. 
  12. Do not play the race card just to serve our political agendas, to get television appearances, to increase Twitter followers, to gain more friends on Facebook, or go get invites to the big white or black and brown conferences. 
  13. To gain credibility in black and brown contexts on matters of gospel reconciliation we must befriend black and brown people lacking celebrity status.
  14. Recognize that the evangelical movement generally and the SBC specifically still lack credibility with many black and brown communities in part because of their historic failure to do the things mentioned above.
  15. Black and brown Southern Baptists are not of the hook….Black and brown Southern Baptist churches need to become more diverse and inclusive as well. The message of racial reconciliation in the gospel is a universal message for all people throughout the world who claim the name of Jesus Christ.”   (Williams & Jones, Removing the Stain of Racism, B&H Publishing, 2017).

The authors in that same book also caution us against easy fixes, including simply defining or thinking of racial reconciliation as simply diversity. Williams and Jones write, “To define racial reconciliation as simply diversity is misleading…The gospel includes both entry language (repentance and faith, justification by faith and reconciliation with God…) and maintenance language (walking in the Spirit…reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles…and loving one another in the power of the Spirit…).   (Williams & Jones, Removing the Stain of Racism, B&H Publishing, 2017).

I think too, that those of us from the white American culture have much to learn about corporate identity. In this sense, we are very unlike most of the rest of the world around us.  We understand the world largely from an individualistic, highly personal worldview. The concept of being identified with and within a larger group or a culture is very foreign for most of us. And because of this, white American culture struggles mightily with the concept of corporate responsibility, the concept of systemic racism or systemic evil. 

Permit me a lengthier quote because Tim Keller has, in his essay, “Racism and Corporate Evil,” gotten to the core of the issue. He writes:

“In Romans 5, Paul goes way beyond the idea that you are responsible for what other members of your family did and he goes way beyond the idea that you’re responsible for what other members of your culture do. He says you are responsible and you are condemned for what your ancestors Adam and Eve did. That is, just by virtue of being in the entire human race, you’re responsible for things that you didn’t individually do. You are condemned for what they do and then of course he turns around and says, ‘But by connection to Jesus Christ, you can be saved not because of what you have done, but through your connection to him by faith.’ The whole structure of the gospel is based on corporate responsibility. If you really want to go all the way down and say I’m only responsible for what I have done and only I have done, there is no gospel…At the very heart of protestant understanding…salvation ends up being corporate. It’s not something we earn. It’s something that comes to us by being joined with Christ, but our sin is there not just because of course we do sin ourselves, but we’re also sinful and condemned because of our being part of the human race. 

At the very, very heart of the Bible, at the heart of theology, not just what the Bible says about you and your family, not just what the Bible says about you and your culture, but what the Bible says about you and the human race — how sin happens, how salvation happens — there’s corporate responsibility. …[T]o some degree, Western people and white people in particular don’t realize to what degree they filter out all kinds of things the Bible says. They just don’t see them or they resist them because of that individualism. It’s not biblical. It’s not gospel.

Let’s talk then about systemic evil. Here’s what I mean by systemic: if you’re part of a community, there are systems that the whole community participates in. Things get done by the system, and you, by participating in the community, are to some degree getting that done… You might be in the community and know exactly what the system is doing and be happy for it and actually actively doing it. Or secondly, you might kind of know what’s happening in the system and you don’t think too much about it, but you’re in favor of it. Or…you know what’s happening but you don’t do anything to stop it. Or…you don’t really know what’s happening and you don’t care and you don’t even care to try to find out about it.

[Take] for example, the Holocaust. At the top of the system, at the most responsible, you had people had set up the death camps. Underneath that, you have guards and people who are in the death camps who were…following orders … Underneath that, you had people in the town, civic leaders who know what was happening there but they didn’t want to know… Then you go down to the citizen, the German citizen who had heard rumors but didn’t want to know, and didn’t do anything about it, and just [paid] their taxes and worked. 

[A]t the one end, you’ve got people who are more corporately responsible, at the bottom a little less corporately responsible, but…all those people died because the whole system was working and everybody who was in the system, everybody who wasn’t resisting the system, was part of it, because the system couldn’t kill all those people unless everybody was doing their job, even just looking the other way.” (Tim Keller, "Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective," http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/racism-and-corporate-evil). 

I share this lengthy quote, because it gets to the heart of one of the biggest failures of American Christianity, particularly white American Christianity: a failure to understand the biblical perspective of corporate responsibility. Because of our rugged individualism and our love for the priesthood of “the” believer as opposed to the “priesthood of believers,” we carry in protestantism a bent toward and unhealthy understanding of autonomy. In so doing, we often then miss the obvious when talking about issues of systemic problems when it comes to race in society. I share this quote also to suggest that beyond the starting points—the fifteen suggestions offered by Williams—that we as a University must begin to look at our own systems and structures honestly and openly. 

Outside of that, I don’t have a set of fully developed answers. I am convinced that we must use the creative skills, talents, and intellectual gifts that God has granted us as a community of scholars, to work together toward solutions that foster shalom. I believe those fifteen suggestions offered by Williams are good starting points. But I do believe there are three additional specific areas where we must focus attention within the University community. 

Academically: Academically, we have made great strides in diversifying our faculty and professional staff. But more must be done. This will require renewed efforts to enlarge our searches and proactively reach into ethnically and racially diverse communities. And we must consider ways in which we can provide support and encouragement for an increasingly diverse faculty and student body. Toward that end, I challenge our faculty to reexamine your own cultural biases to determine whether you have unintentionally disregarded or ignored scholarship—historical or contemporary—in your field of study due to systemic prejudice, or outright, overt exlusion of minority scholarship. I wonder for example, how many of our courses have systemic bias and therefore ignorance built in, and marvelous history completely ignored because it doesn’t fit the prevailing narrative. I remind us, that we are academicians, and that all truth is God’s truth, and that we are not afraid of truth, because as Christian scholars, we know Truth and Truth has a Name: Jesus. 

Socially: Socially, we have much work to do. I find it encouraging that our student body is over 30% racially and ethnically diverse. However, we have much work to do when it comes to leadership opportunities and social opportunities on our campus. Our Student Government Association and our Social Clubs and organizations are simply not reflective of our diversity. This is an indictment. Honest evaluations are necessary to examine why. We must give each other the freedom to have open discussions as to what is stopping or limiting the ability or the feelings of invitation or inclusion to greater diversity within our student social life. 

At a personal level, we can all engage socially as well. Part of our calling as brothers and sisters in Christ is to love one another. Yet too often we don’t even get to know one another. And the more different we appear to be, the more difficult it might seem to be to get to know one another. But we are missing out on rich and deep and meaningful relationships with each other when we let mere skin tones and ethnic backgrounds limit our friendships. The world is a much lovelier place, and a place where shalom is most deeply felt when we open our hearts to genuinely love one another, fellowship with one another, enjoy one another. 

Culturally: Culturally, we have a mandate in our mission statement to engage a diverse world.  Several years ago, I challenged the faculty and spiritual life office to significantly grow our cultural engagement. Specifically, I reissue that challenge anew. One of the ways to prepare a well-educated graduate who is more fully self-aware and more fully human is to expose them to diverse cultures. A student who travels to another country is better informed and a more mature believer and citizen. I so desire that every student at OBU either study abroad, or participate in a global mission or service trip.  To the extent that faculty and deans can lead in these efforts to incorporate such experiences in the curriculum, I applaud those efforts.  To the degree that faculty can promote existing programs and work with spiritual life and the global outreach team at OBU, I encourage you to do so even more. And I pledge to work with faculty and deans and our study abroad team to develop several new international study programs over the next two years.

Culturally, we also must learn to celebrate when we get things right. As Southern Baptists we haven’t always gotten it right in the past. But we seek to get it right now and in the future. We need to find ways to celebrate the accomplishments of all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of skin tone or national origin. Our students need role models who look like them. So we must find opportunities to celebrate those pioneers who blazed trails. That is why we celebrate great men like Dr. Eric Mayes who was the first African-American graduate of OBU earning a Bachelor of Arts in 1963. He co-organized One Church, One Child Adoption of Oklahoma. He served as a member of the board of directors of the National Baptist Convention and as treasurer at the state level. He was a member of the Baptist Ministers Association of Oklahoma City and the first president of Concerned Clergy for Spiritual Renewal. He was a great man, a tremendous leader of whom OBU is most proud. He is a pioneer most worthy of emulating and celebrating.

Our students need to know our stories and our people and that is why we celebrate men like Sunday O. Fadulu who received his degree from OBU in 1964 after watching his older two brothers die in Nigeria of sickle cell anemia. He dreamed of coming to America to study medicine and discover a treatment for the deadly disease and was accepted to OBU. After completing his doctorate at OU, he went on to obtain the patent for the treatment of sickle cell anemia and serve on the faculty of Texas Southern University. When he received an honorary doctorate from OBU in 2000, he reminded students, “God has a purpose and a plan for everybody,” and he challenged students, “I want you to come back here and encourage the next generation.”  Sunday Fadulu is a pioneer whose life is worthy of emulating.

We have much to celebrate and like Dr. Fadulu, we want all of our students, every one of you, to find and fulfil God’s purpose and plan for your life. And we want you to come back and encourage the next generation. We want you while you are here, and after you leave, to find shalom.

At OBU, we seek shalom.  It is at the root of who we are. OBU is a distinctively Christian university that transforms lives by equipping students to pursue academic excellence, integrate faith with all areas of knowledge, engage a diverse world, and live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.

In seeking shalom, we own up to the failures of the past. We reject outright the wrongs of our present state—and in the context of our message today, we reject the ungodly, evil vestiges of racism. We confront areas in our lives, in our institutions and in our own university where we find systemic bias and prejudice. We pledge to be patient with one another as we have frank and open discussions, allowing each other to make mistakes and learn from one another. May we remember as we navigate the waters ahead that love covers a multitude of sin, and so let us determine that we are going to love one another. May we embrace the best of our history and build upon the good foundations constructed by brave builders who have gone before us. We recognize those who have pioneered the way before us and who have set examples for us.

And so it is I am reminded of a story I heard a few years ago: 

“It was a bright Saturday afternoon in April, 1922 in the Briary farming community near Rosebud, Texas. Children were walking home from choir practice. One girl, without looking carefully, stepped into the road directly into the path of a horse-drawn buggy. She jumped back to avoid an impact while the driver swerved. She was completely unhurt, but her dress was splashed with mud. When the driver (an African-American man) saw that she was fine, he continued on his way.

The girl's older brother was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Filled with hate and a desire for vengeance, he notified the others. The story was exaggerated more and more at each retelling. A lynch mob was formed. They armed themselves, secured a rope, and headed toward the farm cabin of the man who drove the buggy.

Someone called the Deputy Sheriff. He wasn't home. His son, a nineteen-year-old ministry student at Baylor, took down the information. Knowing he would never be able to reach his father or others in time, he decided to act alone to try to save an innocent man's life. He grabbed his father's Winchester and galloped bareback to the man's cabin. As he was knocking on the door, the Klan arrived. Over twenty of them, armed with pistols and shotguns. The young man, all 5'7" of him, turned and stared into the face of evil. He likely knew most of them, but could not see their faces.

"Step aside, boy," the leader said. Thinking very quickly, the young man said: "In my father's absence, I am acting as an Assistant Deputy Sheriff. I have come to arrest this man and take him into custody." They responded: "He's already been tried and convicted, boy! Step aside now!"

This was it. The moment of truth. The crucible. The event that defines a life one way or another. Holding his rifle steady, and staring directly at them, the young man who wanted to be a pastor someday said: "You'll have to kill me first."

There was no sound. No one spoke. Then the young man took off his hat. He said: "I can only think of one thing to do, and that is to pray to God for guidance and strength." He bowed his head and began to pray. The men, who claimed to be Christians themselves, had no choice but to pray with him.  No one knows the exact words of the prayer. But when the young man finished, he helped pull the buggy driver up onto his horse and the two of them rode through the crowd to the young man's home.

The buggy rider, of course, was never charged. The young man and his father, when he returned home, made sure that the community knew he was completely innocent.  (John Wesley Raley, III, Personal Story and Letter, August 15, 2017).

That young man was John Wesley Raley, whose statue most of you walked by this morning, and for whom this Chapel was named. His grandson shared the story with me the day we dedicated the statue of his grandfather, who served as president of OBU for 27 years. 

May we have the courage to forge ahead boldly in tearing down old walls that separate us, and building new structures that unite us. May we do so with great love for one another, following in the footsteps of Raley, Mayes, Fadulu, and others who dared to be different, who dared to be good.  May we seek, and may God grant that we should find, shalom.