I started preaching in Christian college chapels after returning from Iraq in 2003. George Bush was President, and white evangelicals still overwhelmingly supported his “war on terror,” which had led to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I had been there with the Christian Peacemaker Teams to try to interrupt the violence Iraqis were suffering. After the US bombed a hospital in Rutba, Iraq, a doctor there saved three of our American friends when Iraqis pulled them from a wrecked car and brought them to him. He wouldn’t accept payment for his help. “Just tell people what’s really happening here,” he said to me.
We’d lived the Good Samaritan story in Iraq, and as a recent Christian college graduate, I thought it was important to preach that parable’s good news to Christian colleges. Chaplains invited me into their pulpits, and we often shared conversation over lunch with students and faculty about what it means to live the gospel of Jesus in a violent world.
The culture on white Christian college campuses skews conservative, and there were always people who were uncomfortable with my messages—even those who publicly protested them. But as the occupation of Iraq drug on and the truth came out about the lies that had been told to justify the initial invasion, the common sense about that war changed. I had the chance to preach Jesus’ Way of nonviolent love, beloved community, racial equity and economic justice on Christian college campuses. I taught students to sing the freedom songs of the civil rights movement and introduced them to the vibrant faith of Fannie Lou Hamer and Dorothy Day, Clarence Jordan and Rosa Parks. Over the course of two decades, I’ve had dozens of conversations with chaplains and administrators about the challenge of young people who grew up in the Christian faith rejecting it as young adults because they do not see the church living out Jesus’ commitment to love, justice, and mercy. I’ve loved preaching in Christian college chapels because it’s given me the chance to watch faith get reborn in some of those young people.
Because of this experience, I was troubled when I heard from my friend Jemar Tisby that the Board of Trustees at Grove City College had commissioned an investigation that singled out a sermon he gave in their chapel two years ago. The language the report uses is common in right wing political circles right now. It demonizes “critical race theory” as a threat to faith, then finds signs of this imagined enemy in any efforts to address racial justice. Without naming any theological or hermeneutical error in his message to the students, the report names Dr. Tisby as a representative of its boogeyman, then recommends restricting access to the pulpit to prevent others from committing the same perceived error. If you’re interested in the details of all of this, Dr. Tisby has written a gracious response that includes links to the report.
What concerns me about this official action to single out Dr. Tisby and purge a Christian college campus of conversations about racial justice is the answer it implies to the question of what mission Christian colleges serve. Like I said, there have always been people on these campuses who would disagree with me or Dr. Tisby. This is what a college campus is for: critical reflection and honest debate about how we make sense of the world. At a Christian college, that debate is shaped by the shared conviction that the Bible and Christian tradition shape conversations about how we understand the world.
At least, that’s what I’ve always assumed. But in their zeal to appease extremists who’ve made “CRT” their boogeyman, the Board of Trustees at Grove City College seems to have made a public confession that the shared commitment which shapes conversation on their campus is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, but the conversative political ideology that racial equity challenges. Given the reach of the religious right into white Christian institutions, I suspect this board is not the only one that will have to decide which side of this ultimatum it is on.
My guess is that most of the members of the Board at Grove City aren’t happy they were forced to make this choice. The board chair, who also serves as CEO of DuPont, has made public statements on behalf of his company in support of racial justice, and he claims to be implementing a company-wide initiative to achieve racial equity in their workforce. It’s awkward to be put in a position where you publicly contradict yourself, but some powers and principalities persuaded the Board to accept and approve this report.
But having spent time on Christian college campuses, my heart aches for the young people who thought they were learning to follow Jesus and the faculty and staff who show up every day assuming that their mission is to pursue God’s kingdom, not the success of the Republican Party. The Board of Trustees hasn’t only singled out Dr. Tisby in an unfair and un-Christian way. They have also let down a community whose primary obstacle to faith in recent years is the hypocrisy of its leaders.
Since our friend Tony Campolo first called us together 15 years ago, Red Letter Christians have been preaching Jesus and justice on college campuses and in churches and communities around this country. In this moment, we have a chance to say #IStandWithJemar, and to challenge other Christian colleges and institutions to make clear whether their primary commitment is to the gospel of Jesus or to a political ideology. I hope we can do it not only for Dr. Tisby’s sake, but also for the millions of young people in this country and around the world who are genuinely asking whether an authentic Christian faith is possible.