"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near"
America is focused, for now, on racism because of the unjust deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others, and by the protests surging around the country. But for how long? Wesley is called to lead as an institution able to translate the urgency of this moment of protest into disciplined, long-term and permanent social change. Our campaign message should be the one Jesus used: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”
“Repent.” Most think of that word as old-fashioned and scolding, requiring regret and remorse for past sins. But every seminarian learns the original Greek word means something more and different. Jesus is summoning a change of heart and mind, a transformation in the way we look at the world and our place in it. More akin to learning and awakening than to shame and guilt. As with any education, “repentance” in this struggle is a process more than a moment. For many white people, for instance, I hope it yields a new perspective on such that phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” or “defund the police,” calls for “reparations,” or kneeling during the National Anthem and produce deeper conversations with greater empathy based on mutual understanding.
Why now? Certainly, because of the surge of videos and personal stories witnessing to systemic racism. And because of the protests across the nation. But also, because Wesley and the churches we serve are all struggling with the effects of the pandemic and the economic recession trying to find our way back to normal. And we have come to suspect there is no return to normal and that the old normal is not faithful. A teaching of the Chasidic Jews reads: A disciple asks the Rabbi, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The Rabbi answers, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So, we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until one day the heart breaks open and the words fall in.” This is a broken-hearted, teachable moment when the words of the Word may fall in.
“For the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” The promise Jesus offers is a better world and a more abundant life for all. This Kingdom is a place in the mind of God where all God’s children will one day be gathered, but it is also a model for how we can become more like what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” On earth, as it is in heaven. I often repeat the mantra: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” But I also know “good” doesn’t mean anything if there is no “perfect.” We must both preach in poetry, and lead in prose. Christian leadership is about fostering a shared vision and the wisdom and courage to take the next faithful step. Repentance of systemic racism is that faithful step. With it will come a new vision for our churches and their place in the broader community.
As president, I am determined that Wesley will lead in this work. Here are the actions I think we are distinctly, even uniquely prepared to offer in this soul-searching moment:
- Check our own biases. As an historically white institution, Wesley is embedded in the established structures and webs of relationships of the economy, the culture and the academy. This inevitably creates implicit bias toward the way things are. It is easy to say, “We are in it but not of it,” but be only half-right. We have enormous cross-sector wisdom in our community. I will contract with a consultant experienced in institutions of higher education to be a conversation partner with the faculty, administration, staff and Board of Governors to help strengthen our awareness and resistance to implicit racial bias. I will also direct the Diversity Committee to monitor this effort and review our Commitment to Diversity policy informed by this work.
- Survey our curricular resources and requirements. As an educational institution, we should be good at fostering metanoia – repentance. I call on the Dean and the faculty to review syllabi and degree requirements, our Course of Study and other non-degree offerings, and our structured spiritual practices, and the offerings in our Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion, to insure all our students have the intellectual and spiritual resources to see themselves as others see them, and imagine an alternative community.
- Continue to develop innovations and best practices in community engagement with particular focus on combatting racism and its effects. I call on the Community Engagement Institute and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, and our Lilly-funded research programs, to develop and disseminate concrete strategies for resistance to racism and repair of its effects.
- Seek true communion in our diversity. We should be proud to be one of the most diverse seminaries. In particular, over 40% of our students and staff, 25% of our faculty and 28% of our Board of Governors are African-American, and a strong contingent of Korean and Korean-Americans. And, we have robust relationships with Black and Korean-American church leaders in the mid-Atlantic region. This takes conscious effort. But we cannot stop there. Dulles airport is diverse, but there, everyone is headed somewhere else. I will structure closer and intentional conversations with all our stakeholders with the express purpose of struggling with what St. Paul would call the “principalities and powers” which sustain racism.
- Advocate in the public square for character and moral political leadership. Many are pleading for America to have a “national conversation” about systemic racism and white privilege. There is only one truly national conversation, and it culminates in elections Tuesday, November 3rd. I will speak out to advocate for candidates with a history of resisting racism and condemn those who incite this division.
- Engage the Metropolitan Police Department and the City of Washington to seek a more peaceful and just community. I am embarrassed that, after nearly 20 years as president, I do not know anyone operating from the 2nd District Station of the MPD and have no interaction with the elected officials of Washington, DC. I will take responsibility for developing these relationships.
President, Wesley Theological Seminary
June 26, 2020
I have been reluctant to say anything about the murder of George Floyd. Some other seminary presidents have rightly spoken of the need to address systemic racism. Certainly, this was an instance of that pervasive and fundamental problem. Wesley is in Washington DC in order to lead in addressing national issues such as this. And we will. But as a privileged white male I am inherently part of that system and, as an institutional president, I am complicit. So, for me to try to say anything high-minded or preachy at this moment feels like pious hypocrisy.
Instead, I’ve been haunted by the look on the face of the peace officer as he killed Mr. Floyd as if he was looking at me with that arrogant, hate-filled, cold-hearted “I dare you” stare. I’ve had to confront bullies in my life and I took that look as a personal challenge.
So, what I say here is what I am saying to other white males I speak with privately. First, we must step in. As the other officers that day should have. When we see overt acts of racism in progress, we must break it up. Usually, that only requires us to speak up. We’ve all been in many conversations where somebody engages in the rhetoric of soft racism. Now, for instance, trying to draw attention to the few people who are looting. Speak up and break it up. And we must step out in the public square. Vote against those politicians who have the same look on their faces as George Floyd’s killer, or who speak, write and tweet words that incite violence against people of color. Vote for efforts to enfranchise people of color. These are among the many personal acts necessary to change the system and build herd immunity to the virus of racism.
We must step in, speak up, step out, even against our own self-interest. "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" - Mark 8:36.
President, Wesley Theological Seminary