Choosing the Hard Work

For the second time in the past year, I find myself at a total loss for words.

Just as words seemed so inadequate last June when our country sought to come to terms with the circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd, so words seem so pitifully helpless in capturing the shock and horror of watching the recent events in our nation’s capital. Yet something must be said.

We can take the relatively easy approach of speaking generally about the tragedy of watching the normal peaceful transfer of presidential power that we have come to take for granted—and that has been an inspiration to the rest of the democratic world—give way to violence in the very spaces created for the working out of our carefully constructed and time-tested system of checks and balances. We watched the “Rule of Law”—a regulative principle at the heart of a liberal democratic Constitution that asserts that no one, no matter how rich or powerful, should be above the law—disregarded by individuals who have been entrusted to protect that very Constitution. We saw last Wednesday both the vulnerability and the resilience of the delicate balance of forces that guards the treasure of our civil society. We rejoice that order was restored as quickly as it was—and without even more loss of life. We pray for those seeking to determine how best to reckon appropriately with what has happened as we move forward to complete the normal succession of administrative authority.

We can also take the equally easy approach of speaking about the January 6th events within the predictable, polarized and insulated ideological frameworks of the right and left that have come in recent history to characterize our national discourse. In both frameworks, all the actors are clearly marked villains or heroes; there are no difficult questions; there are no complex or ambiguous issues requiring careful and sustained dialogue; there is no hospitable middle ground where parties can come to listen and learn from the insights of others—remembering that neither side has a monopoly on intellectual acuity or moral integrity.

In this moment, we dare not settle for either of these tempting approaches. We must venture into more difficult topics – and not just for our country or our institutions. We must begin with ourselves. On this day that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., someone who certainly chose to do the hard work of creating an America of justice and equity, I want to challenge us in three areas where each of us has hard work to do if we are to be prepared to be responsible citizens in our country and in our communities in the days ahead.

Remembering

First, we must spend some time with history. The kind of historical review we need in this moment is not to be had from asking Siri or Alexa. Nor is it a matter of evoking certain historical labels like “Nazi” or “Fascist” for their rhetorical power. Certainly, there would be value in reminding ourselves where democracy has gone wrong—such as in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. But I am suggesting we begin with American history. We need to review the painstaking way in which the founders of our Republic arrived at the wide array of checks and balances intended to protect our society from just the sort of thing that happened last week. While we may lament—quite appropriately—that the founders of our country were not more representative of our country’s diversity, and we recognize fully the painful cost of their blind spots in the subsequent history of our country, it is also true that they were suspicious of tyranny, of factionalism, of human nature, and of each other. They knew we needed a system that allowed both for the free exercise of the gifts of a wide range of individuals—and for limits on the dominance of the impact of any one of those individuals. If we are to serve this moment well, we must learn once again to recognize the dangers to liberal democracy and to treasure the safeguards that protect our civil society. So, today, let’s renew our commitment to spend some time with history.

Suggested Reading

Pursuing the Truth

Second, we must yearn after Truth in both the large and small areas of our lives. It has become fashionable to blame Donald Trump for his assault on Truth. (And he has certainly done his part.) But one does not need a course in History of Philosophy or Modern Intellectual and Social History to see that confidence in the existence of objective, external Truth, or at least our capacity to access that Truth, has been eroding for a long time in the Western world. In the end, we have lost trust even in those institutions and individuals who claimed to seek after that Truth. We saw the impact of this first in the areas of religion and morality, then in the arts, and finally now even in the realm of the sciences. (See Rand Corporation, Truth Decay). While this erosion in assertions of objective Truth have taken different forms inside and outside the academic world, in either case, we have been left in a world where every individual is a final authority. “My truth” is as good as “your truth.” We have no common understanding of rules of evidence. And, if individuals are the final authority on their own truth, then all critique inevitably becomes a personal attack. We are left isolated with our own views, surrounded by others who think in the same way, and supported by a foundation of theoretical assumptions that undergird our convictions. When our larger society came to understand what Christian theology told us long ago—that all of our actual human tools for getting at the Truth (reason, experiment, imagination, intuition) are tainted by the fallenness in those who use these tools—we traded in these tools and are left finally with only the tools of intimidation, power and violence.

It is at Christian liberal arts colleges like Houghton that we have sought (imperfectly, of course) to keep alive over the past several generations both confidence in the existence of ultimate and objective Truth available to us through the God-given gifts of reason, experience, culture and tradition, and revelation—all grounded finally in the person and work of Jesus Christ and humility about our capacity as fallen, finite human beings to access that Truth perfectly. It is in these communities, even today, that we seek to keep alive the tradition of vigorous dialogue in our classrooms and in our chapel that includes students, faculty and guests from multiple places on the political spectrum. We are struggling to maintain that hospitable, middle space of civility and mutual respect where individuals can gain insight and life-giving critique from those whose thinking and experience is different from their own, where, in short, we are able together to seek the Truth and not simply be, or be seen to be, merely attacking each other. Spaces like this are becoming increasingly rare in our world—and are little understood. It is our task at places like Houghton to cherish and treasure these spaces for the sake of the church, the academy and our world. It is this commitment that we articulate in our Credo of the Courageous Middle.

So, today, let’s dare to speak, even in some small way, the Truth as you see it—if possible in a person-to-person context rather than in the impersonal context of social media—and take the person seriously enough to honor them with an invitation to challenge what you have said!

Representing the Gospel

Third, for those of us who claim to be adherents of historic orthodox Christianity, we have work to do to reclaim the intellectual and moral integrity and the rich complexity of the Christian faith. We know the inextricable association in the media between the category of “white evangelicals” and the electoral base of the Trump presidency. We are painfully aware of the growing links in the public mind between skepticism of science and conservative Christianity. I am reminded often in academic contexts of the increasing disassociation of the “moral high road” and “Christian roots.” While we must recognize that our society has never been the Christian nation of “bicentennial lore” or of the current “Christian nationalist” vision, our larger society has lost any collective memory of the animating and renewing moral and spiritual power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is at least part of the history of Christianity in our national story. As a college in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, Houghton is well positioned to keep alive the complex story of Christianity in America and our world. We have a history of theological and moral commitments that cut across the divide of party politics. We know well both the moments when we have represented a large vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls for both personal wholeness and social transformation and when we have failed miserably to risk our own personal wellbeing for the sake of pursuing the justice and wellbeing of others.

So, today, let us, with appropriate humility and repentance, as disciples of Jesus Christ, find one small and faithful way to surprise and complicate the caricatured story of our faith that has taken over in our culture.

May we as Houghton alumni and friends be willing to do the hard work of remembering well, of seeking the Truth and of representing that Truth always with the Grace and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ—and to commit to this work, not just in the abstract, but in small concrete ways each day of our lives.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976
President