Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thoughts on Christian Scholars Conference 2012 (Part 1)

I still have not quite recovered from my insanely busy schedule at this year's CSC: 4 out of 6 concurrent sessions, three of them basically back-to-back on Friday, and one Saturday morning. Plus, trying to promote the book on the side...and then skedaddle back up to NJ for a week packed full of Clare's 6th birthday, kindergarten graduation, Family Field Day, annual church picnic...and poor me and baby Z are still trying to get back into some kind of normal rhythm. Believe me, at least at this moment, I am looking forward to SAHM status for awhile.

The really annoying thing about being so booked for a conference is that you miss all the really interesting sessions you want to attend, because you're giving a paper or running a session yourself somewhere else. And so I missed some of the most important things of the conference, and am quite grumpy about it; and so some of what I'm about to say is not firsthand. I was off talking about cyborgs while other people were slogging through some of the most important and crucial and difficult work of reconciliation elsewhere.

For those of you who aren't "CofC" or who are but are unfamiliar with the conference, a little background here. The theme for this year's conference, a conference for interdisciplinary Christian scholarship, was "reconciliation." It was a deliberate, and salutary--if long overdue--move to focus specifically on the topic of racial reconciliation, both broadly and specifically within our own Church of Christ denominational history. That history is, it's always seemed to me, especially egregious on this issue; I'm not a historian, and that's a personal opinion more so than a scholarly one, and it may just be that I'm more sensitive to the sins of my own people than those of others. It is, however, undeniable that our tradition and its representative institutions have a great deal to confess to and repent of, and we have been unpardonably slow in doing so.

In the session “Race and Reconciliation in Churches of Christ: Civil Rights Activism at Harding College, 1949-1964” convened by Jeff Baker and Michael Brown, a story which I (though an alumna) had certainly never before heard told emerged--a story of both moral conviction and courage and of moral cowardice and conformity. You can read that story here. In brief, it's a story of student activists making their voice heard, calling for integration of the university--and the story of the administrators of the time turning a deaf ear.

It's a stark contrast to another story that got told at the CSC, a story that I am pleased, not to have told myself, but to have aided in the facilitating of the telling. 

Two years ago I sat in Academic Dean's office at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, in a preliminary convo about an adjunct gig, and heard for the first time the acronym "ARTT," which stands for Anti-Racism Transformation Team. As the Dean, Dr. Renee House, described ARTT and its purpose, its importance to the seminary and some the changes within the seminary community that had come about through ARTT, I found myself thinking two thoughts: first, "I want this job. This is a place I want to be," and second, "this is something that my CofC alma maters need to know about." 

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself once more on the NBTS campus as a full-time prof...and the upcoming CSC's theme was "reconciliation." And I realized I might could make something happen, for real. 

So I started talking about it. And I enlisted the help of Jeff Baker and Jimmy McCarty, and I started twisting Jesse Pettengill's arm, and I started trying to figure out how one goes about organizing a session of this sort. It's not my strong suit. But as St. Paul says: God's strength is perfected in weakness, and if God can organize something through me then I think that's about the strongest argument for God's existence anyone can hope to come across.

And it came together. It came together at the last minute, and it involved some creative Plan B type thinking, but it came together beautifully, and it was, I think, a really powerful testimony to the potential of human beings and, importantly, human institutions, to hear challenging and unwelcome truths and to respond graciously, honestly, repentantly, and actively. See, at NBTS, the story also starts with students: students who courageously voiced an uncomfortable truth to the powers-that-be, that this institution, despite the good intentions of those who peopled it, remained racist in significant, systemic, structural ways. But unlike the HU administrators who found reason upon reason not to listen to those voices, those in power at NBTS listened, and took decisive action. The Board of Trustees created a mandate for ARTT--without even fully understanding what this action would mean, but knowing that it was necessary. And it has changed things. Not everything--and certainly not everything that needs to be changed. But NBTS offers an example of what it means to take the task of becoming an anti-racist institution seriously, and living with and through the consequences of that effort. We can do more than wring our hands. We can do more than raise our consciousnesses. We can do more than formally apologize. We can do more than just talk. That's what this institution's example can teach us in the C'sofC. 

The final word belongs, I think, to Dr. Warren Dennis: "We should not be afraid of this. We're bigger than this...we are much, much bigger than this."

No comments: