Two Cheers for the Wheaton faculty!

The last time I looked, 284 faculty has signed a statement called  Statement from Wheaton College Faculty and Staff Concerning the January 6 Attack on the Capitol.  See the Appendix for the full statement. Other Wheaton friends of mine grumbled that this statement was not put on the college website or supported in any visible way by the trustees, but I think that is asking a lot.  The faculty are more liberal than any administration of an evangelical school can afford to be and more liberal than any collection of rich conservative trustees will want to be.  From the standpoint of institutional politics, I think it is wonderful that the faculty and staff drafted this, signed it, and published it.

I say good for them (Two Cheers!)  and I speak as a member of the Class of 1959 [1]  I no longer feel at home with the political, theological, or biblical commitments of the college, but I got a very good education there from some superb teachers.

I’m going to take the faculty statement apart a little, just for the purposes of admiring it more analytically.  I hope none of that seems critical.  I am a fan.

First, I notice that amid all the general handwringing, there is a specific confession of error.  These are things they say they have done wrong—have failed to do what is right—that are daring.

The Failure of Evangelicals

This is an important point because it positions Wheaton—“Wheaton” as these faculty and staff see it—with reference to evangelical institutions nationally.  All over the U. S., evangelical leaders either accepted the attempted coup as just or minimized its importance.  Surveys show that self-identified evangelicals support Trump by 80% or more.  The stance taken by this statement distinguishes Wheaton from that stance.  “The Wheaton we know,” says the statement—making special reference to the Christian teachings or ethics that we “submit to” [2]—is not like that. Having said that, they have given the institution itself—not themselves—a place to stand.  It is good to do that first.

Failure of Leaders

“…many evangelical leaders…wittingly propagated lies…or were unduly silent.”  As you can see by all the ellipses, that is an excerpt.  It is the spine of the condemnation contained in paragraph two in the Appendix.  It is, in fact, all of the charge except for a little throat-clearing.  And the cause of their behavior is given as “a lack of courage.”

This is a powerful charge on the merits.  It is always easier to blame someone else, of course, but it is hard to escape the bluntness of “Many evangelical leaders lied.”  The deeper charge is that many were silent.  It is deeper because it puts the condemnation of a president who is hugely popular among evangelicals right at the heart of the ministry of evangelical leaders.  It demands that the standard of “the right thing” be substituted for the standard of “he’s one of us.”  That is a shift that evangelical churches, by and large, have not been willing to make and the writers know that.

Our Failure

The final paragraph is where the power is.  These faculty and staff have established a place for Wheaton—the Wheaton they see and value—to stand to criticize.  They have used that place to condemn evangelical leaders for their lying and their cowardly silence.  At this point, you wonder what else there is to say by way of denunciation.

I want you to look at these four verbs.  Consider each in its own right; consider the sequence. [3]  We repent; we lament; we grieve; we commit.

Of what do we repent?  We repent of “our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice.”  I think this is worth saying because of the contribution it makes to the argument, but it is not a strong condemnation.  “Justice” is deeply debated.  “Failure to speak and act” is, accordingly, weak. [4]

Next, we “lament.”  What do we lament?  We lament the failures of the church.  “Lament” is a weak word; it connotes hand-wringing.  But the setting to which it is applied makes it a kind of evangelical molotov cocktail.  The statement laments the church’s failure to “teach clearly” and to “exercise adequate church discipline.”

This is not a condemnation of silence.  This calls on the churches to actively teach justice and also to act justly.  It might call on the members of the church to act justly as well.  Certainly that is the direction “church discipline” moves the argument.

Let me pause briefly for a little political setting of the scene.  Most American political issues are matters of balance.  This is obscured by the rhetorical practice of raging against the extremes of either side.  Who’s for autocracy?  Who’s for anarchy?  These are silly slogans.  The real argument is how much power should be exercised over whom at what level for what purposes.  How much support should be given farmers?:  What responsibility for balanced accounts of events should be required of the media?  Where should the bulk of the burden fall for ameliorating the damage done by an increasingly erratic climate?

So it is good to lament the failures of the church, but what, exactly, should they teach about our politics?  And how will “church discipline” be brought to bear?  I have never, in a lifetime of listening to evangelical rhetoric, heard this argument posed.

For what do we grieve?  Here, the risky step taken in “lament” is powerfully expanded.  We grieve “over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior.”  We are considering here not what the church might consider doing in the case of failures in the cause of justice.  We are considering here leaving no room for such failures.  

In this picture, the resources of Christians and of Christian churches are so fully engaged with X that there are no resources left to spend on injustice and deceit.  “Leaving no room” is very aggressive.  Bad behavior is crowded out by good behavior.  There is no question that that works at the individual level on goals that are clearly defined and for which resources are available.  But what is X?

In a religious context, you could oppose sin to righteousness.  That gives us the rhetorical questions that echo the set on anarchy and autocracy.  Who is for sin?  Who is for righteousness?  But this is not a religious context; this is a political context.  This is a context where most of the issues are issues of balance and emphasis as the examples of farmers, media, and climate establish.  Rhetorically, the political goal of any congregation could be “justice.”  But this is not rhetorical.  This has to do with church discipline and a life so fully committed to “justice” that the congregation has no room for “injustice.”

What on earth?  What in heaven?

To what do we “commit?”  Well…“We commit ourselves to a more faithful witness in our callings as the faculty and staff of Wheaton College.”  This would be much more aggressive if it applied to the church, as the previous three verbs have done.  But this applies to themselves, so although the level of interaction is even more intense, the playing field is small.

And what is the more faithful witness?  Slowly the trial balloon begins to come back to earth.  Faithful witness requires “discernment in civic engagement,” and a “communication of the truth.”  That doesn’t seem so bad.  Who is against discernment?

Notice that it also commits them to demonstrate the connections between love and justice..  I wish them well with that.  I myself believe, as does Reinhold Niebuhr, that “justice” is as close to love as one can come in the pursuit and use of political power.  You could argue, I suppose that love for unjustly treated people requires that you work for justice for them.  That would work. But love here is a private motive.  You can always do that.  Justice is a public standard, the character of which will always be in contention between two parties, even two parties of good faith.

I think we will have to do more.  But I am nearly overwhelmed that the faculty and staff of my alma mater have done as much as this.  Good for them, I say.  “Two cheers!”

[1]  As the class song says, “We’re the class of ’59/In all things we really shine.”  Not advanced poetry but if you sing it loud enough in the right setting, it works fine.

[2]  I think their choice of the verb “submit” jumps out in that statement.

[3]  As you see, I am leaving out “pray” from the series.  It is theologically crucial, of course, but it gets no grip at all on political critique, unlike all the others.

[4]  Although it is possible that in that setting the use of a religiously powerful word will resonate.  It is the first word of Jesus’ ministry, for instance, and it has lately been interpreted more cognitively than emotionally.  “Repent” has come, in church circles, to connote “changing your mind,” rather than just feeling sorry.  The Greek noun metanoia, which is commonly used in sermons, literally means “to change your mind.”  That might be the implication the drafters of the statement were hoping for.

Appendix 

Statement from Wheaton College Faculty and Staff
Concerning the January 6 Attack on the Capitol

The January 6 attack on the Capitol was characterized not only by vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership—especially by President Trump—but also by idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols. The behaviors that many participants celebrated in Jesus’ name bear absolutely no resemblance to the Christian teachings or ethics that we submit to as faculty and staff of Wheaton College. Furthermore, the differential treatment displayed by those with a duty to protect in their engagement with rioters who trespassed on the Capitol grounds illegally, when compared to recent protests over police brutality in D.C. last summer, illustrates the ongoing reality that systemic racism in our country is tragically and undeniably alive and well. These realities are reprehensible. Our Christian faith demands shining a light on these evils and the simultaneous commitment to take appropriate action.

In the days and weeks preceding January 6, many more leaders, including many evangelical leaders, could have spoken truth to the disillusioned supporters of President Trump—diminishing the prospects for violence and bolstering the witness of Christian love and the call for justice in our civic life. Some did. However, many wittingly propagated lies, or were unduly silent in a just cause. Our Christian faith demands greater courage. 

We repent of our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice, and we lament the failures of the Church to teach clearly and to exercise adequate church discipline in these areas. Moreover, we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian. We pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us all manner of idolatry, and we commit to speaking plainly against it wherever and whenever we find it.  We commit ourselves to a more faithful witness in our callings as the faculty and staff of Wheaton College, and will work diligently to provide ample opportunities to show students, as well as the larger Wheaton College and Christian community, how to practice discernment in civic engagement, to demonstrate the connections between love and justice, and to courageously communicate the truth—even and especially when the truth is difficult to hear.

We pray that, in so doing, we will fulfill the Lord’s requirement of us: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8).

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Two Cheers for the Wheaton faculty!

  1. hesskw says:

    I just found the “Two Cheers” post. I hadn’t seen the statement and had pretty much forgotten about Wheaton. It was a brave, even audacious, statement. I hope they don’t suffer much for it. Can you see any way to support them beside sending money?

    Karl

    >

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