Confessing Faculty: Why I Signed (and Why I Hesitated)

It’s probably getting harder to believe my earlier claim that I rarely sign petitions, now that I’ve gone ahead and done so three times since last February. But please believe me that I don’t add my name lightly to documents like this “Statement of Confession and Commitment,” signed by a growing group of “Confessing Faculty” and inspired by earlier statements from professors at North Park Theological Seminary and Westmont College. Here’s how it begins:

Confessing Faculty logoThe United States has experienced a contentious election and post-election season marked by fear, polarization, and violence. The current political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, misogyny, nativism, and great economic disparity. As faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education who represent varying degrees of privilege and power (but who are not representing those institutions in this document), we, the undersigned, join our voices with those who are most vulnerable.

So in the hopes not only of encouraging even more signatures from other “Confessing Faculty” but of helping to “address our larger communities of faith as we all engage in dialogue, discernment, and action,” let me share a few reasons why I signed this statement — and why I almost didn’t.

Why I Hesitated

I did pause before signing. Not out of any serious disagreement with the statement, but because I wondered what it was meant to accomplish, and whether it would succeed in those goals.

Indeed, here’s what a fellow Christian college professor asked, when I shared the statement yesterday on my Facebook page: (quoted by permission)

I’m intrigued, and I really like the sentiment. However, what is the purpose of the document? Is there an end strategy to help ensure that the American Christian institutions actually act counter to the prevailing evangelical political ideas? Is there an audience to whom we are speaking? If so, how will it be delivered to them?

I’ll try to elaborate on my own hopes below, as I explain why I signed. But these are significant questions, whose answers could have been made more clear by the authors/organizers.

But even if the purpose, audience, and strategy are clarified, it’s hard to know how effective this initiative will be. “Petitions or open letters that are started and signed largely by academics have become increasingly popular over the last year,” reported Audrey Williams June last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “and have grown even more prevalent since Donald J. Trump’s election as president.” But she acknowledged that “It’s not clear whether petitions signed by academics have more heft than others or if they have much of an effect at all.”

Where they do seem to carry weight, they tend to be focused on issues more specific to higher ed. As in the case of the petition I signed last February, which may have helped bring about the resignation of the controversial president of a Catholic university.

That’s not the case here, but ultimately, I still felt it was important that I not only sign the statement, but try to recruit colleagues to do the same.

Why I Signed

First and foremost, I believe in the ideas stated in the first paragraph of the document:

We affirm the dignity of every human being as created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). We submit to the sovereignty of Christ who humbled himself unto death. As members of his body, we strive to consider others above ourselves (Phil. 2:2–8); to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15); to serve one another in humility (Matt. 20:26–28); and to honor and steward God’s good creation (Gen. 1:28). As one body, if one member suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26); if one weeps, the body laments with them (Rom. 12:15); even creation groans in bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-23).

Indeed, I think most Christians would affirm them, whatever their theological, political, or other differences. While hardly an exhaustive list of Christian beliefs, these convictions are nevertheless foundational to Christian faith, community, and mission. And, as the statement goes on to explain, such commitments need to be restated and acted upon in a time when there is “falsehood that seeks to undermine truth and any propaganda intended to obscure it,” when a “large portion of our communities is weeping” and there is genuine anxiety and fear among many of our neighbors.

A concern for truth is obviously important for academics, whatever their religious beliefs and doubts. Why our role as Christian educators would compel us to acknowledge “pain and woundedness” and then “entreat Christian communities to seek healing, reconciliation, and justice” may be less evident.

As it happens, I came across the Confessing Faculty statement while I was in the middle of revising the Christian formation chapter for our forthcoming book, The Pietist Option. Reflecting on what it means that we at Bethel seek to form “whole and holy persons,” I conclude:

…it’s not just individual wholeness or holiness that we’re after…. [among] the marks of holiness are humility, open-mindedness, hospitality, and love — the virtues most necessary for Christians living in a pluralistic society. Likewise, the mark of wholeness is personal integrity lived out in service to a broken world. Like our Jesuit cousins, Pietist educators form “men and women for others.”

So I think the concerns of this document are impossible to separate from the mission of Christian higher education, and of the Church more broadly.

And yet I can’t entirely blame non-Christians if they have come to believe that Christianity (especially, but not solely, its theologically or politically conservative wings) stands for principles counter to those named in the statement. I don’t think Sarah Posner’s recent New Republic article (“Amazing Disgrace“) captures the evangelicalism that I know, but I wish it were easier to dismiss her claim that “the religious right… has effectively become a subsidiary of the alt-right, yoked to Trump’s white nationalist agenda. Evangelicals have traded Ronald Reagan’s gospel-inspired depiction of America as a ‘shining city on a hill’ for Trump’s dark vision of ‘American carnage.'” I still think there were understandable reasons for conscientious Christians to vote for a candidate I strongly disliked, but it’s also become clearer that the 2016 election awakened corners of the American Christian soul far darker than concern for religious freedom or commitment to the sanctity of unborn life.

To call signers of this statement “Confessing Faculty” evokes an unpleasant historical parallel that remains a matter of considerable controversy. But even if you’re not totally convinced that the history of 1930s Germany may be repeating itself in 2010s America, the story of the Confessing Church can still inspire us to stand up and articulate our faith in a Barmen-like fashion. Like our predecessors, we need to publicly “reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him”; once again, the Church must refuse “to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

But third, I’m glad that this statement is one of both commitment and confession. Last summer I complained that an earlier statement invoked the “confessing” heritage without actually confessing any of its authors’ own shortcomings. “And that’s as dangerous as failing to speak prophetically,” I warned, “Precisely because so much of what he says is so abhorrent, [Trump] becomes a mirror in which we start to see ourselves as righteous.” So with the other Confessing Faculty signers, I am ashamed to admit that I “have, too often, failed in calling out injustice, in loving and knowing [my] neighbors, and in properly stewarding God’s creation.” In this lenten season of repentance, I “pray for genuine conviction to undo the harm [I] have caused.” If it’s true that “[m]any people of color, women, and other marginalized groups feel increasingly alienated not only in the current national context but in much of the white evangelical culture as well,” that’s partly because of what I’ve done and said and left undone and unsaid.

(In particular, I’m sensitive that I “participate in structural injustices” of a Christian institution that has not always been as hospitable as it should be to minorities within its community, be they persons of color or Roman Catholics or LGTBQ individuals or lower-income students.)

Fourth, and most simply, I signed because I can. Because not everyone who agrees with its principles and concerns feels free to add their name to such a document.

As much as I did last November, I believe that “it’s incumbent on professors — at least, the tenured ones — at Christian colleges to use that freedom in ways that might raise the hackles” of the “larger communities of faith” to which this statement is ultimately addressed. And here I feel like faculty can follow the example of some of our leaders in Christian higher education: people like Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and my boss, Bethel president Jay Barnes, who have added their names to more specific statements of principle and concern.

So that’s why I signed. If you’d like to join the list of confessing faculty (and university staff), click here. And if you’re not an academic, but resonate with the message of this statement, then please mention this to family, friends, and fellow church members, for the sake of helping us “all engage in dialogue, discernment, and action.”

If you did sign the statement and would like to share your rationale, motivations, and hopes, I’m inviting guest posts for a full Confessing Faculty series. Just email me at my Bethel address.

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