some uses of words

Last week, here at Wheaton College, we had a chapel service led largely by African-American students. In the last year or so it’s become common for some of our students to live-tweet chapel services, sometimes with earnest gratitude but more often, of course, with snark — and this particular chapel got an extra helping of snark, much of it either subtly or overtly racist. The students who led the chapel were wounded. Who in their situation would not be? To lead a worship service is to put yourself in a particularly vulnerable place; for your fellow students to take advantage of that to mock you is pretty nasty, and it’s nastier when they’re mocking you precisely for those traits that put you in a very small minority on this very white campus.

Those who know the students who were mocked should offer all the support they can; those who know the students who wrote the offensive tweets should encourage them to repent and apologize. We should all offer up prayers for reconciliation. Our President or Chaplain should say, “Please stop tweeting in chapel, and please stop using chapel as a venue for commentary.”

And then, I think, most of of should be quiet. That’s not what our administration is encouraging us to do: all faculty have been asked to explore the “issues” arising from this sad situation in class. I probably won’t; I’ll probably point my students to this post instead.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this post, because I don’t think that words serve us very well in these situations. What people who want to “talk it out” rarely realize is that “talking it out” provides so many opportunities for posturing, signaling, and grandstanding. See how seriously I take racism? See how angry it makes me? See how humble I am, when I acknowledge that I too have been guilty of racism?

My preference is to offer words only to those who ask for words, because prayer is more valuable than talk. But who knows, maybe I’m fleeing from an uncomfortable topic. I just know that I have used a great many words on these issues over the years, and I’m not sure that many of them have helped anyone. I think we need something other than a “talking cure” for racism, snark, and general uncharity.