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Attentiveness: Steps Toward Culture Change

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist


How does a seminary with a tradition going back over 130 years change its culture and ethos? Here is a good place to start.

…[F]riendships and conversations are necessary, but they are not sufficient to change the racial status quo. Christians must also alter how impersonal systems operate so that they might create and extend racial equality.[1]

Evangelicals have been focused on the heart and personal sin, often ignoring systemic sins,[2] what we might call a matrix of sinful patterns and relationships. In our society, and in our seminary, we have an opportunity to participate more intentionally in repenting of racist patterns and ideas and living more fully into the heavenly vision, a vision of all equal and equally blessed before the Lamb. (Revelation 7)

Jemar Tisby, in his best seller, The Color of Compromise; The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, provides a healthy place to start: history. We cannot fix what we do not understand has been wrong. And we cannot face up to this unjust past unless we have a history that fills in the gaps. Global Christian scholars are quite familiar with injustices and racism elsewhere, but we need to start with our own nation, our own house and our own Church. Tisby’s book is persistent in showing again and again when Christians had an opportunity to be courageous, but they mostly compromised, allowing black lives to be valued less than white lives, often as nothing more than as possessions. I found that even most of my heroes refused to be courageous when the opportunity presented itself to lead away from an unjust and oppressive past.

Tisby reminds us of another important element regarding racism. It is not just that we need to own up to the compromises of the American churches in the past, but we also need to recognize that we will not “fix” racism. We must change how we teach and what we teach, but recognize that racism, like bamboo, is an invasive plant that just keeps coming back. Its roots look for new places to sprout and take over the garden. “An honest assessment of racism should acknowledge that racism never fully goes away; it just adapts to changing times and contexts.” (p. 154) However, we are not without hope, because we can put new systems, structures, and relationship patterns in place to make racism unwelcome in our churches and our seminary.

And so, at Gordon-Conwell, we will be pushing against racism and its painful patterns through our systems and the community. We are encouraging conversations on a personal and small group level about race, ethnicity and our experiences of pain and learning. Student Association is organizing Wednesday lunches for this community building. Institutionally, both the Board of Trustees and the President’s Cabinet are on the long road of culture change at Gordon-Conwell. The Chairman of the Board has led the Board in personal sharing about “Awareness” (of our past), “Ownership” (our personal responsibility) and “Agency” (what we can do to make things right).

The Cabinet has begun by reading and discussing Tisby’s book. Next we will read a book by one of our own graduates, Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black. We will read other books and study Scripture together. Don’t expect us to read only books that you who are a segment of our constituency agree with. We are not afraid to engage in a variety of approaches and ideas. We are a graduate school and we encourage deep thinking about vital issues. The Gospel is not tame.

These are small steps to begin, but they are changes in the culture and culture changes slowly. We will not turn back. We will keep our eyes on Jesus.

As I have written before, please pray for us as we work together for change. What are we hoping to change? We hope to change the spiritual reflexes of our community around issues of difference and live into a new hopeful future that will be a model for all who come into the Gordon-Conwell community, online or on any of our campuses. We are hopeful, but ever attentive.

~Next week: More small steps toward culture change.

SWS

[1]Jemar Tisby,  The Color of Compromise; The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), p. 193. A fairly negative assessment is given by S. Donald Fortson III. His concern is that Tisby does not give a balanced historical narrative, which, of course is true and was not the intent of the book. https://journal.rts.edu/article/the-color-of-incomplete-history/

[2] Systemic or systems of injustice are often reflected as cultural norms that are divisive or oppressive.


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.