Insights from an ATS Panel on "Theological Education after Ferguson"

I am here at the Association of Theological School Biennial, and we are in the middle of a great panel on “Theological Education after Ferguson.”  (Did you know Ferguson is basically a suburb of St. Louis?  I didn’t.)  The moderator is NPR host Michel Martin, and the panelists are: Leah Gunning Francis, dean at Christian Theological Seminary; Mark Harden, incoming president of Ashland Theological Seminary; Gregory Heille, dean at Aquinas Institute of Theology; Willie James Jennings, professor at Yale Divinity School; and Loida Martell-Otero, professor at Palmer Seminary.

I just want to jot down some insights here==I’m at the back of the room (where all good Lutherans sit!), so I can’t always tell who is speaking.  So, I’m not going to try to identify the remarks by speaker.

How was Ferguson a wake-up call?  It wasn’t so much a wake up call for me as confirmation of what I already knew was boiling beneath the surface…[Especially given the awareness of what has been happening with black bodies and mass incarceration in the past decades…]

Why does it take such a dramatic public demonstration to get a response, for this country to be willing to confront the evils of racism?

How can we be catalysts for the uncomfortable conversations we need to have to change society for the better?

We are talking now about ministering to police officers–we need to attend to that as well; not all police departments have chaplains.

What are our institutions called to do:
     First, white people need to understand that people of color in this country live under a mantel of fear.  When you say, “stop talking about this”–you need to remember that you have the OPTION of saying that, you have the option of taking a break.  We don’t.  There are no safe places for us.
     We must keep learning the art of difficult conversations–we need to keep those conversations ongoing.  It is very difficult to sustain conversations about white privilege.
   We need to have ongoing contact & dialogue:  we can’t just come together to talk about this for a bit and then run back to our own little corners.  We need to teach people to function in a multicultural world!
      A problem is that people don’t feel affirmed in a group of people who are different from us; we have to teach people how to recognize that & get over that.  The engagement with “others” is important here!

It’s time for our institutions to become accomplices for dismantling racism!  Not just talking about it, but actually working to make it happen.

Saying “Black lives matter” emphasizes that black lives HAVEN’T mattered over time; that’s why it is important to keep saying that.

White religious faculty are well-meaning, and emphasize that they are not racist, they are “good Christians”–but they have not explored their own white privilege.

FEAR is at the seat of prejudice!!!

Comments from the audience:
     This is not just about white/black, but about sin–this was a comment from an audience member who has seen racism in different contexts around the globe.  He wants to hear more about grace and redemption.
      One of the panelist brought up Gustavo Gutierrez’s definition of sin as the breach of friendship with God–love that!
      A 70 year old black man, raised in the South, lifted up America’s “original sin”–the lingering treatment/views of black bodies as fully human; could they be full recipients of God’s grace, and were they equal to white bodies.  When you say to me, “I don’t see you as a black man, I just see a person,” you have made me white and erased me as a black person.  You are saying that you don’t see my history, you don’t really see who I am.
     People have to experience the other person’s humanity to break free of racism.
     Are we teaching people how to ask for forgiveness?
     It’s not enough to teach white people to be sympathetic; we need to teach them to be race traitors, in a way.

[I would just like to make an editorial comment here that some academics talk WAY. TOO. LONG. Especially white folks, when we are feeling guilty…]

Closing charges from the panelists:
     There actually are measurable competencies we can point to that demonstrate an individual’s willingness to confront racism and engage others about it.  We need to develop those in our theological curricula.
     Having different people in the room doesn’t equal diversity.  Diversity also must include equity.  We need to look at our institutional structures, and who has power; and where our money goes.
      The ball is in our court.  We have the power to make changes.  We can and we must!


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