Briefly Noted: On Affirmative Action and “Wishing You Were Black”

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[Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on December 9, 2013.]

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education Angela Onwuachi-Willig argues that many whites do not understand affirmative action because they do not understand racism.[1] Moreover, she claims, some whites do not understand race itself. The occasion for Onwuachi-Willig’s essay is the recent Supreme Court decision on Fisher v. Texas involving the student, Abigail Fisher, whose initial complaint resulted in the case.

Fisher sued the University of Texas for denying her admission. She claimed, “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.” To this comment, Onwuachi-Willig responds: “ . . . many whites spend so little time having to think about, much less deal with, race and racism, that they understand race as nothing more than a plus factor in the admissions process.” Whites such as Fisher fail to see the various systemic disadvantages many black students face simply for being black, according to Onwuachi-Willig.

Onwuachi-Willig details how she encountered a student who lacked this understanding. “During my senior year,” she states, “a classmate who had the same SAT score as I did remarked, ‘I wish I was black!’ after he learned I had received.” She recounts her shock and explains how she actually had a better GPA, more leadership positions and student activities, and had a job while he did not. Rather than list these, however, Onwuachi-Willig corrected him: “‘I wish I were black,’ I said. ‘And, no, you don’t.’” The correction reveals the fundamental point of Onwuachi-Willig’s argument. Her classmate did not understand, or was not aware of, the realities: the reality that she had worked harder than him; that she had spent weeks researching and applying for scholarships.

Furthermore, “my classmate failed to think for even one moment about what being black may have meant for his life. He never considered what it would have meant to sit all day in classrooms where he was the only white student in a sea of black faces.” As such, Onwuachi-Willig claims, he distorted her achievements, ignored her fortitude, failed to see her cultivating extra skills, and ignored the extra work she had to put in because she did not have a parent with “college knowledge” to guide her through the process. Because he did not recognize these realities, he ignored the broader disparity between whites and blacks.

Onwuachi-Willig finds the same sort of unawareness in the comments of Fisher and the Supreme Court decision on Fisher v. Texas. She argues that Fisher has an assumption that reveals her lack of awareness. Fisher thought her better resumé put her in as good or better standing for admission to UT than her black counterparts. For Onwuachi-Willig, Fisher overlooked the privileges that made her resumé possible, and that these privileges are not accessible to many students, especially to many blacks. Cello lessons, volunteering, and even AP courses are privileges not universals. So Onwuachi-Willig avers, “Nearly 25 years after my own high-school experience, we have not moved much beyond the ignorance reflected in my classmate’s remark about wishing to be black. . . . It is disappointing to think that students have learned so little about white privilege . . . that they still continue to wish that they were black.” In sum, privilege should beget at least awareness of the situation of those who are less than privileged.

In response to Onwuachi-Willig’s article, I wish to affirm her observations that many whites do not understand racism nor have we given much attention to privilege. (I’m not attempting here to weigh in on the merits of that particular Supreme Court case, as I know there is a good deal of complexity going into these issues. What I do wish to affirm is how many whites are blind to privilege.) We misunderstand racism in many ways, but in no way more than when the scope of racism is restricted to individual offenses committed by one person against another person. Racism is certainly perpetuated by individuals, and sometimes by one person against another. But it is not limited to that. Racism also can be structural. Societies can organize themselves in ways that their cultural institutions exclude, marginalize, and otherwise handicap and denigrate those of a certain race.  Furthermore, the same structures that marginalize some simultaneously offer advantages and privileges to others in the same society.

In addition to misunderstanding racism, often we have not even reflected on race itself. A good place to begin is with creation, where it is made clear that God’s creation is good, and it contained within it a diversity of colors and kinds. His creation order issued forth in a profusion of races, and those races are beautiful and good. In fact, in the aftermath of the fall, God crucified his Son in order to provide salvation for people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. In so doing, God leveraged his divine privileges in Christ on behalf of those in need. Thus, he undercut hierarchies of racial pride and made clear that he does not elevate any tribe, but is Savior of all. In fact, we will not know him in his full glory until we know him as the king of all nations.

All of which brings me to my final point. “Colorblindness” is not the best model for dealing with race. Colorblindness assumes that race is a value-neutral, but in God’s eyes race is a value-positive. For this reason, it is not inappropriate for churches or seminaries to recognize and place value on a person’s race. Predominantly white churches, for example, might actively look for non-Anglo candidates pastoral and ministerial positions. A pastoral leadership team composed of white, African-American and Hispanic leadership is much more likely to be able build a multi-colored church, and a multi-colored church is a resplendent picture of our eternal state with our Savior. Likewise a predominantly-Anglo seminary is well-served to recognize the value of a potential faculty member’s cultural heritage in the spiritual and ministerial formation of its students. That’s a type of affirmative action that doesn’t get much “air time” but that we can and should support.



[1] Angela Onwuachi-Willig. “‘I Wish I Were Black’ and Other Tales of Privilege,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 1, 2013: B20–21).

Some Reflections on the Seminary, the Church, and the Academy

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Should the theological school be considered an “academic” enterprise? Or is it a “churchly” endeavor? Yes and yes. Or, so says Richard Mouw in his recent monograph, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship. In the next-to-last chapter, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” Mouw argues that the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom, and yet it is a manifestation closely related to the church.[1]

Mouw begins the chapter by providing a concise overview of the struggles within the Christian Reformed Church in the late 19th century, in which the Free University of Amsterdam (associated with Abraham Kuyper) promoted an essentially non-ecclesiastical model while Kampen Theological Seminary (where Herman Bavinck spent the large portion of his career) operated under ecclesiastical control. Kuyper was anti-ecclesiastic because of his doctrine of sphere sovereignty, which argues that each sphere of human culture (e.g. the academy) has its own unique integrity and should not be controlled by another sphere (e.g. church).

Mouw notes that the “theological school” is an interesting case study for proponents of sphere sovereignty (of which Mouw is one), and argues that the theological school’s ontology is of the academy and for the church. For him, the theological school is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. It is a kingdom manifestation not because it is a church, or is essentially churchly, but because it honors God in the way it conforms to God-given principles and norms for academic-type work.

He further argues that both churches and theological schools are manifestations of the same kingdom of Christ. “To emphasize,” he writes, “that the church and the theological school are together accountable to something larger than either of them is to guard against the impression that either entity exists simply to serve the other’s interests. A theological school may be accountable to a specific ecclesial body, but it also has other accountability relationships—not the least being its relationships to the larger world of theological education.” For this reason, there exists a special pattern of accountability between theological schools and the church: “the theological school is indeed in the academy; but it exists there to make the benefits of academic life available to the church, and out of a deep love for the church’s life and mission.”

Theological schools, Mouw argues, should be accountable to church bodies because ecclesial concerns necessarily should shape and inform its curricula. Although the theological school might also focus on other constituencies such as relief organizations, occupation-specific laity groups, parachurch organizations, etc., its most significant focus should be on the struggles and challenges of congregational life. In exactly this manner, the theological school is “more than” an academic institution. The church should expect its theological schools to complement the church in spiritual formation, community involvement, psychological training, etc. In fact, in doing these “more than” activities, the seminary can impress upon the broader academic world the significance of such matters.

Toward the end of the chapter, Mouw provides a nice summary and distillation of his view when he writes, “Theological education needs to be free to pursue its unique functions in the context of the kingdom of Christ. In insisting on this I am not espousing an unbridled ‘free inquiry.’ As an evangelical Calvinist I am convinced that theological education will be at its healthiest only when it is grounded in a deep commitment to biblical orthodoxy. I firmly support the maintenance of confessional boundaries that define and safeguard that commitment to evangelical institutions. Theological educators ought not to lust after a promiscuous intellectual freedom. We are bonded to the Word of God, and to the cause of the Savior whose cosmic redemptive mission is infallibly revealed in that Word. This means that our academic callings can never be pursued in a way that distances us from the church over whom the Savior reigns as Lord.” For Mouw, the theological school is “an academic manifestation of the rule of Christ” which is accountable to the church.

My response will be limited to a brief reflection on the hybrid nature of theological schools such as the institution at which I am employed, the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Although we are indeed an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom, the seminary is essentially church-related.  We exist at the pleasure of the SBC and in order to train ministers for SBC churches, missionaries for the IMB, and leaders for the convention entities. We operate faithfully and gratefully within SBC confessional boundaries. We want our education grounded in the worship and witness life of the redeemed community. For this reason, we require our students to be meaningful members of their churches. Further, we build “churchly” elements into the seminary’s life and curriculum: we have chapel services, promote spiritual formation, community life, and evangelism.

And the seminary is not a church. A seminary is distinctively different from a local congregation. We do not baptize or administer the Lord’s Supper. We do not endow any members of the seminary with pastoral authority. Unfortunately, however, seminary students can (either consciously or unconsciously) allow seminary to replace church. The chapel services become congregational worship, the professors become functional pastors, and a student’s peers become the members of their “covenant” community. If and when a student allows seminary functionally to become his church, he warps and distorts God’s purposes for the seminary and does so to his own detriment.

Although the seminary is church related, it is an academic manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. SBC seminaries are called forth by Southern Baptist churches in order to serve the church in the academic aspect of its discipleship and leadership training. Our education includes academic elements: we deliver lectures, administer exams, seek accreditation, publish journals, require Chicago style for our papers, and participate in conversation with the broader academy. These are essentially academic elements of seminary life; they are not “churchly,” and yet they count as “kingdom work.” For each aspect of the seminary’s life is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ and normed according to his word.

And yet the seminary is not purely academic. It is called forth into existence by the church and in turn serves the church. It does not bow to secular norms for the academic disciplines. For each academic discipline which has a counterpart at state universities, we ask at least three questions: What is God’s creational design for this discipline? How has this discipline been corrupted and misdirected by human idolatry? In what ways can we bring healing and redirection to his discipline? By asking these three questions, we are able to transform (or in some cases, reconstruct) disciplines such as biblical studies, counseling, or ethics in light of God’s normative word.

I’ve limited myself to a few brief reflections, and wish to hear our readership’s reflections on this significant topic. Do you agree with the basic thesis of the blog? Is there anything you would add or modify? Do you see further dangers of misunderstanding the seminary’s place in between church and academy?



[1] Richard Mouw, “The Seminary, the Church, and the Academy,” in Richard Mouw, The Challenges of Cultural Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 191-205.

 

Praying For Our Seminaries

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Today marks our fall commencement exercises at Southeastern Seminary. In a couple of hours, I’ll sit with my faculty colleagues as we proudly watch our students walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. I’m so thankful for these students, dozens of whom I’ve taught in my classes. It will be an exciting day.

Graduation always reminds me of the strategic importance of theological seminaries. Southeastern Seminary is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, an ecclesiastical tradition that doesn’t require a seminary education for ordination or ministry placement. The educational requirements for pastors and other ministry leaders are left up to the autonomous local churches that call them. Nevertheless, most Southern Baptists agree that seminaries are beneficial; that’s why we fund six of them through our denominational budget, the Cooperative Program.

In his excellent book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper includes a chapter titled “Brothers, Pray for the Seminaries.” In that chapter, Piper lists twenty-one ways that he prays for seminaries such as Southeastern.

  1. That the supreme, heartfelt and explicit goal of every faculty member might be to teach and live in such a way that his students come to admire the glory of God with white-hot intensity (1 Corinthians 10:31Matthew 5:16).
  2. That, among the many ways this goal can be sought, the whole faculty will seek it by the means suggested in 1 Peter 4:11: Serve “in the strength which God supplies: in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”
  3. That the challenge of the ministry might be presented in such a way that the question rises authentically in students’ hearts: “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
  4. That in every course the indispensable and precious enabling of the Holy Spirit will receive significant emphasis in comparison to other means of ministerial success (Galatians 3:5).
  5. That teachers will cultivate the pastoral attitude expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:10 and Romans 15:18: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. . . . I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles.”
  6. That the poverty of spirit commended in Matthew 5:3 and the lowliness and meekness commended in Colossians 3:12 and Ephesians 4:2 and 1 Peter 5:5-6will be manifested through the administration, faculty, and student body.
  7. That the faculty might impress upon students by precept and example the immense pastoral need to pray without ceasing and to despair of all success without persevering prayer in reliance on God’s free mercy (Matthew 7:7-11;Ephesians 6:18).
  8. That the faculty will help the students feel what an unutterably precious thing it is to be treated mercifully by the holy God, even though we deserve to be punished in hell forever (Matthew 25:4618:23-35Luke 7:4247).
  9. That, because of our seminary faculties, hundreds of pastors, 50 years from now, will repeat the words of John Newton on their death beds: “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great Savior.”
  10. That the faculty will inspire students to unqualified and exultant joy in the venerable verities of Scripture. “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:8
  11. That every teacher will develop a pedagogical style based on James Denney’s maxim: “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
  12. That in the treatment of Scripture there will be no truncated estimation of what is valuable for preaching and for life.
  13. That students will develop a respect for and use of the awful warnings of Scripture as well as its precious promises; and that the command to “pursue holiness” (Hebrews 12:14) will not be blunted, but empowered, by the assurance of divine enablement. “Now the God of peace . . . equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).
  14. That there might be a strong and evident conviction that the deep and constant study of Scripture is the best way to become wise in dealing with people’s problems. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
  15. That the faculty may not represent the contemporary mood in critical studies which sees “minimal unity, wide-ranging diversity” in the Bible; but that they will pursue the unified “whole counsel of God” and help students see the way it all fits together. “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27).
  16. That explicit biblical insights will permeate all class sessions, even when issues are treated with language and paradigms borrowed from contemporary sciences.
  17. That God and his Word will not be taken for granted as the tacit “foundation” that doesn’t get talked about or admired.
  18. That the faculty will mingle the “severe discipline” of textual analysis with an intense reverence for the truth and beauty of God’s Word.
  19. That fresh discoveries will be made in the study of Scripture and shared with the church through articles and books.
  20. That faculty, deans, and presidents will have wisdom and courage from God to make appointments which promote the fulfillment of these petitions.
  21. And that boards and all those charged with leadership will be vigilant over the moral and doctrinal faithfulness of the faculty and exercise whatever discipline is necessary to preserve the biblical faithfulness of all that is taught and done.

You can read the entire chapter online for free at the Reformation 21 blog. Also, be on the lookout next year as B&H Academic releases an updated and expanded edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.

I hope you’ll pray for me, my faculty colleagues, and our students at Southeastern and other similar schools. And if you think about it today in particular, pray especially that the Lord will use our graduates to boldly proclaim Christ, advance his church, and make disciples of the lost here, there, and everywhere.