Race at Baylor

Rod Dreher has a post today about a letter from Linda Livingstone, Baylor’s President. Rod’s post turned up a day after I got an email from a woman whose daughter is thinking of applying to Baylor — she had seen President Livingstone’s letter and wondered whether it constitutes Baylor’s official policy on race now. My correspondent expressed her conviction that racism is deeply embedded in American society and, tragically, in the Christian church also, but then asked: “Is it possible for a student to thrive at Baylor if she doesn’t think white people are evil and the source of everything bad in the world?”

I don’t think that anything in Baylor’s statements about race in America, and at Baylor,  indicates hatred of white people, nor claims that everything bad in the world is perpetrated by us. But the sins of white people are certainly the focus. There’s justification for that. We’re going through a nationwide reckoning on race that is long overdue. The problem is that it is not a very good or constructive reckoning. Baylor could help with that, if it wanted to. But I’m not sure Baylor wants to.

The problem doesn’t really lie with what Baylor says, even though most of Baylor’s public statements paint the situation with far too broad and coarse a brush. For instance, consider the several statements that denounce white supremacy. I think white supremacy exists and is demonic, but there’s a big difference between white supremacy and  garden-variety racial prejudice — which is more destructive, overall, but less wicked. White people who are bigoted against black people aren’t on those grounds white supremacists, any more than Christians who sin habitually are on those grounds Satanists.

But any quibbles I have about what’s included in Baylor’s statements are insignificant in comparison to my concern about what’s not in them. There is quite a lot about repentance, but I have yet to find one single word about forgiveness, or reconciliation, or hope.

Christianity has a lot to say about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It tells us that we all sin. It tells us that when we sin against a sister or brother, in thought, word, or deed, we must seek to make it right, and to ask that person’s forgiveness. And if we feel that someone has sinned against us, we are to tell that person so, to give them the opportunity to repent. The New Testament authors go on and on about these matters. 1 John 1: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”; but also we should take care to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3) — we must do more than speak words of penitence, but also pay our debt to our neighbor, the debt of love (Romans 13). And our overall daily approach to one another is prescribed by St. Paul in Ephesians 4: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another…. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Also in Colossians 3: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with 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 the one body. And be thankful.”

If you’re not a Christian, this stuff probably looks like a way to let people off easy. And in one sense it is. As Hamlet says, “Treat every man according to his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Christianity is all about people not getting what they deserve, and the grace of forgiveness + genuine repentance (in that order) is the engine that makes this happen. And, for Christians, them’s the universal rules: there are no exceptions.

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to denounce calls for reconciliation. Some say, “We don’t want reconciliation, we want justice.” But to Christians, reconciliation is what justice is for. When injustice marks our relations, then what is unjust must be repaired or healed in some way, insofar as that is possible, so that we may live peaceably and lovingly with one another. Walking away from one another is not, for Christians, an option. Forgiveness must be asked for and granted, ordered and received.

In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and — I cannot stress this too strongly — a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possible. I have many colleagues who believe the same, and students at Baylor can find us. We will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.

(And then we will sit down at a table and strive better to understand, and better to pursue, the good, the true, and the beautiful.)

But does Baylor University, as an institution, believe in any of this? If so, why is none of it ever mentioned in our administration’s public statements about race and racism?  Why do we strive to build an entire system of dealing with racism that doesn’t touch on the Christian Gospel at any point? Why don’t we offer a word of hope? President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.

(This is an updated and significantly revised version of the post I wrote yesterday.)