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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Repentance and Reconciliation

I read an article this week about a resolution submitted to the Southern Baptist Convention on racial reconciliation. It was billed as a follow-up to the apology for complicity in slavery that the SBC issued in the mid-1990s. The gist was to acknowledge and celebrate the accomplishment represented by the election of Barack Obama as President. Although the resolution goes on to ask the President to support restrictions on abortion, etc., many have speculated that the convention may refuse to consider the resolution because of the political alignments of many convention leaders. That sounds to me like more of the same-old same-old.

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in deed and action (1 John 3:18).
I appreciate the significance of resolutions, especially those which take on critical issues such as this one. On the other hand, I also know (it's a kind of professorial occupational hazard) that making these kinds of statements also has severe limits. Efforts at racial reconciliation will still have far to go, even if such a statement gets approved by a convention. The reorganizing of ecclesial space, habits, practices, and politics is much harder than voting on a resolution.

This has been made real to me this week through a letter I received in my mailbox from the Dean of Duke Divinity School. The letter described the effects of the economic downturn on the work of the Divinity School. A great drop in the value of the endowment will mean a drop in income for the school. The Dean asked me to make a donation to help them sustain their good work.

I greatly appreciate my alma mater for many reasons. I have many close friends who teach, study, and work there. I wish the best for the school and want them to continue paying my friends and doing good work. I like that they have a Center for Reconciliation which is deeply engaged in examinations of race, class, and international peace. I believe in all of that. I appreciate that they have hired me several times to teach as an adjunct professor, which helps pay off my education loans.

I get phone calls from my undergraduate alma mater a couple of times a year. Baylor, like Duke, is well-organized to raise funds from their alumni, and students call to tell me all the good things that are happening at Baylor. I agree that these are good things. I want Baylor to succeed and become better. I want them to continue paying my friends and relatives who work there. I want them to awaken students to the broader world and God's work in it.

However, the issue of race always comes to the front of my mind when I get these contacts. Baylor and Duke grew and prospered on the backs of a slavocracy and apartheid system which they and their constituents only gave up when they could not endure further humiliation for their exclusion and repression of African Americans. All the while, separate institutions offered education to African Americans in the shadow of these powerful majority institutions. Shaw University made due with what they could scrap together. The Duke family empire placed its name on the school by funding Duke University with the largest donation ever to an educational institution, and the Duke Endowment has grown to over $2.9 billion. Shaw received its name from a donor who gave $5,000.

With virtually no endowment, Shaw has made its way, and done good things. Shaw Divinity School became the third graduate theological institution in North Carolina to receive accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools, preceded only by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School. Now many more have joined the ranks of these historic institutions. But the legacy of a history of oppression continues to yield a great disparity of funding for Shaw and Duke. The same can be said for Baylor and the defunct Bishop College, or Paul Quinn College which continues to strive toward its educational mission in Dallas.

And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors (Matthew 23:30-32).
What am I doing besides whining? Maybe not much more than that. I am writing about reparations. Let me tell you what I think ought to happen.

Schools like Duke and Baylor, who have become so proficient and successful at fund-raising, ought to enter into partnership with historically disadvantaged schools. Duke Divinity School and Shaw Divinity School have worked alongside one another in central North Carolina for a long time. One has grown wealthier and wealthier while the other has pressed on with limited resources. What if Duke Divinity School would tithe from its fund-raising to build the financial strength of Shaw Divinity School? What if Duke and Shaw would work together to overcome historic disparities? What if Duke's successful fundraising program would take on a mentoring relationship with Shaw's fundraising program? Wouldn't that be a real step toward reconciliation?

Reconciliation must be about more than wishing good for those from whom we are estranged. It must mean a coming together. It means that one seeks the good of the other. A true effort toward race reconciliation in theological education would not perpetuate the power of some institutions by trying to absorb to themselves the accomplishments of those they previously excluded. This is the usual strategy of the progressive white churches. Realizing finally that they have a shameful history in race relations, they try to figure out how to get the excluded people to join their organizations.

Why not work toward strengthening the one who has previously been starved? A stronger peer institution at Shaw Divinity School would not be a threat to Duke Divinity School. Such a peer institution would be an asset, and it would allow for partnerships that could benefit both schools. Shaw is not the weak school in the shadow of the strong school. It is the underfunded school alongside the well-funded school. It does not have to stay that way.

So I hope they pass the resolution at the SBC. But what I hope for more is that the repentance would go beyond words.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance (Luke 3:8).

1 comment:

haitianministries said...

Thanks for sharing this, Mike! I think this is precisely the type of action that can move talk of reconciliation from orthodoxy to orthopraxis.

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