2018 Convocation Address

Disruptive Witnesses and Restoring Dignity

“We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination. Silvery-headed age and sprightly youth, maids and matrons, had to undergo the same indelicate inspection. At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (Frederick Douglass; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter 8).

So wrote Frederick Douglass in his 1845 autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.”  Douglass was about ten or eleven years of age when his master had died and he was put on the auction block to experience the stench and brutalization of which he wrote in that passage. His life has fascinated me for many reasons; he is an example of overcoming, of resilience, of dignity, and serves as an example of someone who found purpose in life that was both personally liberating and yet primarily focused on the benefit of others. His voice was as a prophet against the injustices of his time. But what drove him wasn’t just a sense of justice, but the person of Jesus Christ, the gospel of Messiah, and the clear teaching of Scripture found in the Old and New Testament.

While many have noted the struggle Douglass had with the church and her preachers during the years of slavery and then the Jim Crow era, others have noted that it was precisely because Douglass found in the Word of God clear teaching against the inhumanities and indignities of slavery that he found reason for hope and eventual victory. Even in his disgust with the policies and politics of slavery, Douglass found hope too in the United States Constitution and the immortal words of her Declaration of Independence. Even though those who wrote, voted and ratified both may not have practiced their full promise, Douglass found in them too, the political courage to fight the good fight, believing that the promise was true that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

In his excellent book on Douglass’s life and faith, OBU alum Dr. D. H. Dilbeck wrote, “Douglass’s powerful prophetic words to America, especially its Christians might sometimes sound hopelessly hostile… But hope, not hate, fueled Douglass—not anger alone but love.  He did not lose faith in the true Christianity of Christ and the justice of the God of the oppressed.  Less than a decade removed from the lash of Christian masters…Douglass still insisted, ‘I love the religion of our blessed Savior…I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man.’” (D. H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet, p. 163).

Dilbeck wrote further, “…[Douglass] forever bore slavery’s scars…but he did not bear the scars as one who had no hope. Instead, Douglass spoke to his nation as the prophet Isaiah once spoke to his people: ‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow…” (D. H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet, p. 163).

What drove Douglass in his personal and professional life seems to be grounded in a conviction that God cares about all peoples and each individual person, and that God’s Word was authoritative for the life and practice of one who dares to take the name of Christ and follow Him.

As we begin a new academic year together, I want to challenge us to follow a similar path as Douglass, and in so doing pray that we always keep at the core of the paths we choose—whether professionally or personally— the person of Jesus Christ and His gospel, and the clear teaching of Scripture. Over the past several years, we have at Convocation focused on the need for clear thinking, on finding and fulfilling our purpose—the reason why we do what we do—in life, and most recently on reconciliation generally, and racially specifically. During this academic year, let us continue to focus on these areas as we consider our responsibilities, both individually, and as an academic community, as followers of the Messiah, as citizens of another kingdom.

This year, my prayer for us as a distinctively Christian liberal arts university is that we conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our heavenly citizenship. For those of us who are followers of Christ, regardless of whether we are U.S. citizens, or from one of the over thirty nations we have represented among our student body this year, each of us has dual citizenship. One is temporal, our earthly citizenship in the nation for which were born or naturalized, and that citizenship carries duties, rights, and responsibilities to our respective nations. Likewise, for Christ followers, we have a permanent citizenship in another county, another kingdom. That citizenship is an eternal one, for which we are even now being made ready. And that kingdom, ruled by King Jesus, also carries duties, rights, and responsibilities. Because it is eternal, because it is ruled by the King of kings and Lord of lords, we ought to care deeply about our responsibilities for both our temporal and eternal homes. As citizens of Christ’s eternal kingdom, we are His ambassadors in this world.

This year, let us conduct ourselves in such a manner as to reflect two firm convictions:

  1. As citizens of the kingdom of Christ, we are his regents and as such are commanded both individually and corporately to carry out the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19:. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. As His ambassadors, we are being prepared for our roles as co-heirs with Christ, and called to carry the Good News that through faith in Jesus as Messiah and the Son of God, who was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, are all people from every nation, tribe, and language saved to eternal life. We are to live our lives in such a way that our conduct, speech, and presence itself is so winsome, so different, as to arrest the attention of those around us. We are, as described by OBU’s own Alan Noble in his book by the same name, to live as “disruptive witnesses.”

  2. As Christ’s regents we are also commanded both individually and corporately to carry out the Great Commandment found in Matthew 22:37-39. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to live among our neighbors with the mind of Christ and with the love of Christ Jesus. We are to live out the Golden Rule found in Matthew 7, treating others as we would be treated. We are to recognize our neighbors and those we encounter daily as being made, like us, in the image of the Creator. And as image-bearers of the Most High God they are deserving of dignity.
We live in an era of deep division and constant outrage. People seem as addicted to offense and anger as they are to the smartphone in their pocket. People appear as hooked on their self-crafted personal images and avatars as they do to their physician’s prescriptions. And the idea of social engagement and making a difference in the world is more often than not about personal branding than it is about genuine involvement.

Virtue signaling and slactivism has replaced genuine involvement and action. Social media has made us less virtuous in dealing with fellow image-bearers of our Creator. Daniel Darling writes of this in his book, “The Dignity Revolution,” saying, “Arguing with an image on a screen instead of engaging in arguments face to face can dehumanize our opponents. People become avatars to be crushed.” He argues that what is often at work is really nothing more than “subtle narcissism,” where “we live for public approval” (Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity, p. 176). 

The reasons for this are many. But let me suggest a couple. First, there is a refusal to accept the truth that we are created in and bear the image of the Creator, and that those we so quickly ridicule, dismiss, and treat with contempt, are also image-bearers, precious in the sight of God—regardless of their current opinion, belief, or pronouncement on any given subject. And second, the opinions, beliefs, and pronouncements of most people are tied to emotions and what they hope to create as their own image—their own personal brand. In other words, most slactivists, and social media warriors are more concerned with what Alan Noble describes as “a kind of image-crafting game, than really seeking to deeply understand the internal logic and context; embodied practice, and robust application of the belief.” Noble calls these kind of emotional social pronouncements and feelings, “thin beliefs.” He notes they are easy to adopt and then toss away, so they are useful for crafting our self-image” (Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Trust in a Distracted Age, p. 45-46).

But we are Christians and called to excellence, especially in the Christian academy. We are called to deeper examination and study, more thoughtful consideration, and when called to action, as followers of Christ, we speak into culture convictional truth backed up by genuine commitment and meaningful action.  And always we do so from a biblical understanding of our role as Christ’s ambassadors, living out the commands of Jesus to love the Lord and love our neighbor, and to speak and conduct ourselves as living testimonies to the Gospel of Christ.

Meaning, we are not content to be slactivists but are moved to genuine action. We are not content with sloppy thinking and shallow, thin beliefs, but are committed to understanding and reason. We are not merely interested in political power and influence or to be mere culture warriors but to be change agents seeking the good of our neighbors and desiring for them what is a better story, a better way. And regarding our obsessions with our own self-crafted images, we ought to care more about what the Lord of the universe thinks about us than what the person across the aisle thinks, or what the anonymous avatar on social media thinks. The truth is some of those social media avatars we care so much to argue with are probably programed bots that have any opinion or ability to think of us at all.

Dan Darling, attempts to recast the “tired old ‘culture war’ trope,” arguing that no matter our political stance on a given subject, if we can’t locate our theory in Scripture, “we should be willing to disagree agreeably without besmirching each other’s characters or breaking friendship with each other.” Yet he rightly notes that, “…[E]very time we go to church, every time we change how we live based on what we’ve heard or read in God’s word, every time we sing a Christian song or read a Christian book, we are engaging in a culture war. When we live our lives for Christ, we are saying, like the apostles in the first century, ‘There is another King and another kingdom.’” (Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity, p. 206).

This is the point of being a “disruptive witness,” as Noble described in his book. Noble challenges us to live our lives as, “…signs to the watching world that life within the immanent frame does not require us to close off the transcendent, that there is a vision of fullness that doesn’t require us to hide from silence, and that we are not trapped in a market of endless worldview choices.” (Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Trust in a Distracted Age, p. 120). And he gives us concrete exemplars of how we might approach this way of living through disruptive personal habits, church practices, and cultural participation. Noble calls us to be the kind of witnesses in our world that “…defy secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbors from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return” (Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Trust in a Distracted Age, p. 180).

I am appealing for this very kind of secular-defying expectation and explanation in what is essentially a call for a Great Commandment resurgence. I tend to agree with Daniel Darling who argues that the fight for human dignity is the cause of our generation. He asks, “Will we be the people that, because of our faith in the risen Christ, point to the most vulnerable and stand up to declare: ‘There is a person here, worthy of dignity.’” (Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity, p. 218).

For those who would complain that I am merely advocating for social justice, let me be clear. Within the biblical mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to take the Good News of the gospel of Jesus to the ends of the earth, I most certainly am advocating for the same justice Jesus Himself proclaimed when He began His ministry in that little synagogue in Nazareth where he had been brought up.

“As was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.’” (Luke 4:16-19).

As Darling noted, “The idea of justice is not simply a progressive cause or buzzword, but a mandate for God’s people, living out our duty to love the vulnerable” (Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity, p. 101).

Even Baptist theologian, Walter Connor noted in 1973: “The Christian mission is to do all the good he can in every realm of life, in every possible way. He is to make regnant the will of God in the whole extent of human life and society. There is no conflict between serving God and helping men. Surely the Christ who healed the bodies of men and performed a miracle to feed the hungry multitude does not represent a God who is displeased with anything that makes this world a better place in which to live. The type of piety that thinks that the only function of religion is to cause a man to … save his own soul and let the world go to the devil—that type of piety belongs to the middle ages... Nor is the only function of Christianity to save the souls of men from hell in the next life; they need to be made righteous in every relation of life. The regeneration of the individual and the regeneration of society should never be put over against each other as antithetical things; it is not a question of one to the exclusion of the other. They are rather two things that are mutually dependent" (WT Connor, The Gospel of Redemption (Nashville: Broadman, 1973), 221–22).

For those who believe that our sole focus should be on justice alone and doing good works, Connor and others bolster our conviction that it is indeed the Gospel of Jesus, the saving of eternal souls, and preaching of Christ crucified and raised from the dead that is the driving force behind our good works and the motivation behind our efforts. We are more than just biological beings existing within our own time and space continuum. Eternity matters.

From my own field of study, even the eminent management theorist Peter Drucker noted that we are spiritual beings, writing, "The individual needs the return to spiritual values, for he can survive in the present human situation only by reaffirming that man is not just a biological and psychological being but also a spiritual being…and existing for the purposes of his Creator and subject to Him" (Drucker, 1959, Landmarks of Tomorrow).

Let no one be confused. Our commitments are rooted in Jesus’ own words as He testified of Himself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

So, my challenge to us is simple: At the individual level, let us commit to a better way forward of engaging those around us. Let us engage the world as winsome witnesses. Our very acts of kindness, logic, consistency, and approach to others as bearing the image of God and having value and dignity will be so disruptive as to arrest the attention of those we encounter. Let us find our identities in Christ, rather than in the avatars we create for public accolades. To quote Dan Darling again, “We are poor stewards of our own identities.  We are poor objects of our worship. God is a better Father, a better Lord, a better King, a better God” p.157). And as he writes, “Christianity offers a better story. It says I am an image bearer...” (Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity, p. 164).

Furthermore, most of the world is content with secondary greatness instead of primary greatness. Don’t settle for secondary greatness, which is based on superficiality, popularity, and fleeting attention. Insist on primary greatness which is rooted in character, dignity, and excellence found ultimately in your identity in Christ. It is often said that to be famous is to be known for doing something excellent. To be infamous is to be known for doing something wicked. And to be a celebrity is to be known. Refrain from evil, but don’t settle for celebrity.

Practically, we might consider in light of society’s current obsession with social media, the admonitions in 1 Timothy 5:13: “They learn to be idlers [posting on social media] and not only idlers but also gossips and busybodies saying what they should not” (that’s the Whitlock paraphrase from the Social Media Study Bible). Or consider the sage advice in a paraphrased selection from Titus 3 as we navigate life, work, and social media: “Be submissive to authorities. Always be ready to do good deeds. Speak evil of no one. Avoid quarreling. Be gentle. Show courtesy to all people. ...To all people. Insist on these things. As believers, devote yourselves to good works. These things are excellent and worthwhile. But avoid foolish controversies, arguments, and quarrels. They are unprofitable and worthless.” (Titus 3 Selections Paraphrased).

We can determine to live lives fulfilling God’s law as summarized in Romans 13:10 and Colossians 3: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10 HCSB). “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15 ESV).

Practically, we can adopt the admonition found in Micah 6:8: “God has told you O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

At the corporate level—as the academy—my challenge is the same. As we go about the mission of our university, let us do so with a commitment to think through the great questions of life, rather than settle for trivial clichés and platitudes. Let us seek to engage our faith and disciplines with serious study, taking advantage of this great privilege we have to devote ourselves to the work described in Proverbs 25:2 as the work and glory reserved for royalty: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” We are doing work the biblical writer considered reserved for the king—a privilege the vast majority of the world will never get to experience.

Therefore, let us go about our work with joy, knowing our great responsibility as individuals and corporately as a university to understand our role as a distinctively Christian academy. We are an educational entity of the church, but we are not a church. So often the church is confused with entities and organizations meant to serve and facilitate the purpose of the church, but that are not the church.  

As important as conventions, denominational entities, seminaries, and universities are—as valuable as they can be—God’s primary concern is about His church. Conventions will end. Denominational entities will end. Seminaries and universities will end. Their days will conclude. Not so the church. It is the church for which Jesus died. It is the church against which the gates of hell will not prevail. And in the end, it is the church that will be at the great wedding feast in glory.  

Yet, what we do here on Bison Hill has great consequence, both for the church and society. Our work together as faculty, staff and students is labor that has significance both for the common good and for Christ’s church. OBU was founded on the principle that its students would proceed to serve and lead in all areas of society—not just in missions and the pastorate. We were founded as a co-educational, four-year, liberal arts university that would prepare students for service and leadership in all areas of society in the state, nation, and world. We are about transforming lives for God’s glory and the common good. We are devoted to a more excellent way, the conviction that God is a better Father, a better Lord, a better King, a better God, and that genuine Christianity offers a better story, one that says each of us are image bearers of the Creator. As Christ followers, we are devoted then to the great cause of testifying to Christ’s gospel commission of restoring human dignity both in this world and in the next.

We are a university founded upon a commitment to the Great Commandment and Great Commission, based on a firm conviction that all truth is God’s truth, and unashamedly devoted to the Word of God.

Let us corporately be about quality in all we attempt. What we do has consequence. Our study and learning matters Our work matters. Therefore, let us make our work a commitment to excellence. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” Let us then, here on Bison Hill, make excellence a habit.

As we begin this new academic year together, we begin preparing for the futures of each and every student individually, and corporately we begin planning for a new institutional vision for our future. OBU 2020, our strategic vision, mission, and planning document begins to wind down and we record where we succeeded, where new realities have altered our course, and where we still have work yet to do. And we begin the work of seeking God’s direction for the next horizon.

My prayer is that as we finish, our current academic year together in 2019, and as we officially conclude our OBU 2020 vision, as we complete the cycle of education for each class present today, and when we conclude the next vision that God leads us to accomplish, that at each point along the way, it may be said of us that we were faithful. Faithful to King Jesus, faithful to the God’s Word, faithful to our charge as a Great Commandment and Great Commission University.

May we be found faithful to our purpose: to transform lives for God’s glory and for the common good.

May we be found faithful in our vision to be one of the "Leading Four" universities in Oklahoma and as one of the "Top Ten Distinctively Christian Universities" in the nation. 

May we be found faithful to our mission as a distinctively Christian liberal arts university, to transform 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.

May it be said of us that we dared to dream, that our vision was worthy of the kingdom.  May it be said of us that our purpose and mission was fulfilled.  

May we be found faithful to our heavenly citizenship.

Like Frederick Douglass, may we be found to be exemplars of overcomers, of resilience, of dignity; may we serve as examples of people who found purpose in life that is both personally liberating and yet primarily focused on the benefit of others. May our voice, like Douglass’s voice be as a prophet against the injustices of our time. And let what drives us be not just a sense of justice, but the person of Jesus Christ, the gospel of Messiah, and the clear teaching of Scripture.

Let our motivation for what we do be found and rooted in the Word of God’s clear teaching and there find our reason for hope and eventual victory. Even in our disgust with the policies and politics with which we disagree, let us find the courage to fight the good fight from biblical convictions and the knowledge that our political opponents are not our enemies but fellow image bearers of God. And let us move forward believing the great promise that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that everyone is worthy of dignity.

Let hope, not hate—not anger but love—fuel us as it did Douglass. Let us never lose faith in the true Christianity of Christ and the justice of the God of the oppressed. Let us like Douglass, not grow weary in doing good, but always echo his sentiment and confession that, “I love the religion of our blessed Savior…I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man.” 

In our battle as disruptive witnesses to restore human dignity let us bear the scars as those who have hope. Let us speak to our nation and world as the prophet Isaiah spoke to his: ‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow…”

This is a worthy calling. This is a labor worthy of our time and effort. This is a challenge worthy of the high calling of God in Christ.

May the Lord find us faithful, and may He bless our work together this year. Godspeed.