In December 1995, at the end of my first semester as president of Concordia University in River Forest, Illinois, I delivered the address at the Winter Commencement of Valparaiso University. Little could I have imagined then that, within a decade, I would be serving on the Valpo faculty and would do so for the remainder of my career, for fifteen years. In any event, thanks to some diligent searching by staff in the VU archives, I was recently able to acquire a copy of my manuscript. I share it now for what it may be worth in our present context: brief reflections on race and racism from a quarter-century ago.
“Exorcising the Demon”
President Harre, Provost Austensen, distinguished deans and members of the University faculties, families and friends of today’s graduates, friends of this university, and especially you, the members of today’s graduating class:
It is both an honor and a delight for me to be with you today. I stand before you as one who has long admired Valparaiso University as a place of serious engagement with issues of both faith and scholarship, and now as president of another university which looks at this one, by turns, as rival, as model, and as partner in the task of Lutheran Christian higher education. True to your motto, you have looked to the divine Light for vision; going it one better, you have shared that Light with many others of us who are trying to make our way as citizens of the two kingdoms of Law and Grace.
Occasions such as this one can call forth a variety of types of addresses. Some speakers keep their remarks short and light, mindful that for much of their audience, their remarks are, at best, a diversion to be endured before getting to the real business of the diplomas and then the parties and gifts and other celebratory rituals. Tempting as such an approach is for you and for me, I’ve chosen another way this afternoon. I’d like to engage your hearts and minds just one more time as members of this academic community in what I promise will be a brief consideration of the fundamental social issue confronting us as Americans today. My objective is not comprehensive treatment, nor is it facile solution. It is rather to suggest that as you pass from these hallowed halls into your several vocations, or perhaps to still other hallowed halls, you dare not fall back into uncritical ways of thinking or behavior. For the investment you have made in your education here to have meaning, you will need to take with you and to use the values and skills and knowledge you have learned here, not merely to make a living, but to have a life.
That fundamental social issue which I mean to address with you today is, of course, the matter of race and racism. It is there, barely concealed, in so much of our public discourse and experience. It is there as an infinitely complicating force in so many of our interpersonal relationships. It is there as the greatest shame of our national past and arguably the greatest challenge to our future. It bids fair, in my view, to be characterized as the demon which haunts the American house, threatening to divide it against itself in ways exceeding President Lincoln’s most awful nightmares. Worst of all, I believe, we seem regularly to go through periods when we think it will all go away, if only we don’t talk about it. Whether or not you agree with even one of the ideas which follows, my objective, again, is to insist that you must bring to bear the best of your thoughts and skills and values as you go forth from this place, and that you must do so on this issue.
I come at the subject, self-evidently, as a white male and perhaps a bit less self-evidently, as one who spent his formative years in the 1960s in the culturally southern border state of Maryland. I do not discount that my background is part of who I am and how I come at this issue, but, then again, that could be said of us all. Most consciously, however, I approach race and racism as the president of a Lutheran Christian university who aspires to the vocation of Biblical theologian. It is above all from that perspective that I speak to you today. If race and racism are the demon which haunts America, how shall we exorcise the demon?
One of the most transformative insights in my own reflections on this issue came about five years ago, as l attended the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges in Washington. (As an aside to the deans among us, yes, those dollars spent on sending faculty to professional conferences can be worthwhile.) Addressing us was a historian, Barbara Fields, whom I knew only from her appearances in Ken Burns’s documentary series on the Civil War. Dr. Fields argued that, in fact, race has no biological basis; it is entirely a cultural phenomenon. Since then, particularly in the last year, this same argument has appeared in the popular press, and I continue to find it persuasive. All of the searches for genetic differentiations, be they based on bell curve distributions of intelligence or on, say, athletic ability, are simply nonsense. Race is a cultural construct. Racism, therefore–and here I enter as theologian–is something we have done to ourselves.
But what else does the Biblical theologian have to contribute to the discussion? The fact is, it is extraordinarily difficult to find anything in the Scriptures corresponding to our modem idea of race. I trust that by now we are all well past the point of seeing race in Noah’s curse of his son Ham, or actually his grandson, Canaan, and in the Table of Nations at the end of the Flood story in Genesis. It is tough to find race, but racism, or at least its motivating spirit, is certainly evidenced and confronted. That spirit moves from the fact of subdivisions of humanity along any number of lines to prejudicial treatment of individuals from another group, based on preconceived notions–and usually fears–about what members of that group must be like. It is the presence of that spirit which gives the extraordinary power to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ hearers, at very least his modem ones, are forced to face the locus of the problem. As is shown by the parable, the issue is not, “Who is my neighbor?”, that is, what are the theoretical limits of my obligation, but “Who proved neighbor to the man?”, that is, who responded to the present instance of human need with the gift of self. The implications for the present discussion are clear: if we have a problem dealing with another human being apart from some culturally defined category, it is our problem, not the other’s. And our choices are just as clear: we can confront this problem in ourselves, or we can, like another who encountered Jesus, walk away sorrowing, for we are unable to give up that which keeps us from the Kingdom of God.
In the case of that rich young ruler, the separator was, of course, his wealth. I am aware of the argument in the debate over race and racism that racism in America is entirely a white phenomenon, because “racism” is best defined as prejudice plus the power to act on that prejudice. There is much to be said for this view. There is no question that, as any number of colonial powers found, or as the Israelis are now discovering on the West Bank, sustaining the structure needed to keep another group under control is ultimately more corrosive to the rulers than to the ruled. Our best values must be temporized, and we must anesthetize our reluctance to do what must be done to maintain the status quo. I agree that we who are not daily and constantly reminded of our difference from what the popular culture sees as the norm bear a special burden for “proving neighbor” to those who cannot avoid that reminder.
However, in the end, I do not believe that it is either intellectually honest or pragmatically helpful to attempt to limit and solve the problem of race and racism by definition. The causes and effects of racism are complex and pervasive, even if not equally distributed. Ultimately, I would argue, they are theological, the most obvious modern manifestation of our inclination as humans to replace God with ourselves at the center of our universes and to see all things in motion relative to ourselves. Under these circumstances, we must each and all look first into our own eye for the beam of prejudice and then, by turns, give and accept both judgment and grace from others.
Obviously, I have not even begun this afternoon to deal with many of the fruits growing on racism’s poisonous tree or with the many difficult issues of social policy which have a racial dimension. That’s what we need to get at together, as you go out there. For now, I’d send you with a couple of observations to consider. First, it’s my experience as a theologian and more and more as a citizen that when controverted issues reach a complete impasse, it is often because the wrong questions are being asked. Focus on the questions. Second, as we seek after approaches and solutions, the real trick is to know how to combine the conceptual frameworks of the past and the values we hold as both heritage and truth with new needs and possibilities. To do that takes extraordinary vision, and the ability to gain perspective on both forest and trees.
But it can be done. The second most influential presentation I’ve ever heard on the subject of race came last year, when it was my privilege to visit the embassy of the Republic of South Africa in Washington and to meet their ambassador, the Honorable Frederick Sonn. Ambassador Sonn contrasted the multiracial vision which is increasingly prevalent in the United States with what he termed the non-racial vision which is the goal of South Africa. Obviously, there’s much more to be asked and said, and I don’t know myself how much promise such a vision holds for us. But I leave you with this: maybe there’s yet a better way for us, and maybe we’ ll have to look elsewhere, just maybe to South Africa, for the idea which, by the grace of God, those who sit where you sit in the year 2095 may see as self-evident in retrospect.
In a few minutes President Harre will confer upon you the degrees you have earned, with the challenge that you use them to the glory of God and to the betterment of society. For my part, and as part of that task, I offer you a commission as an exorcist, and I call you to drive out the demon of racism as Jesus did those of his own time, with fasting and prayer and with the moral force of those whose food it is to do the will of the Father of all the human race.
Congratulations, and best wishes to you and your alma mater in the years ahead!