“I have two questions. Here’s the first: Why is Indiana Wesleyan University so white?” asked Dr. Rusty Hawkins, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the John Wesley Honors College at IWU, during a Feb. 27 multiculturalism-themed student chapel service.
The talk generated a bit of a buzz among students on the evangelical university’s Marion campus, with at least a handful of students utilizing social media to articulate their reactions to Hawkins’ 18-minute homily.
“the chapel speaker literally just broke the number one rule of mean girls: you can’t just ask people why they’re white. #iwu,” quipped Aj Hoke (sr) on his Twitter account @ajisnotahokes.
Other tweets were less humorous than critical.
“Once again diversity being shoved in our faces… #IWU,” said Zak Hubbard (so) at 11:14 a.m. via @zhubbard92.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal Mr. Chapel Speaker. #iwu,” tweeted Alana Newman (so), @lanaluvpink.
“this chapels retarted…If you can drop 30000$ a yr for iwu then sweet. Its got nothing to do with minority or diversity try Economic status,” said Valoree Nelson (so) to the 104 users who follow her Twitter handle @vnelly07.
“I do not understand why this chapel service is about racial diversity. That’s on you, IWU, not me. I wanna talk about Jesus,” said Chad Hoy (fr), @chadhoy, to his 617 followers, five of whom retweeted Hoy’s sentiment to their followers.
But these complaints totally miss Hawkins’ point.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons, I attend Hawkins’ history class “Martin, Malcolm, and the KKK: Competing Religions in the Civil Rights Movement,” during which my peers and I discuss race relations in the context of the civil rights movement and religious structures of the United States. In these discussions, Hawkins has made clear his perspective regarding the relationship between the white Christian establishment and the hegemony of racism and segregation in the U.S. These are the same ideas he attempted to present during that poorly received Feb. 27 chapel service.
“So why am I talking about this today?” asked Hawkins. “Because the extensive racial homogeneity that exists on our campus echoes a pattern of racial separation that exists within the American church as a whole.”
This transition is key. Hawkins was not, as Hoy had insinuated, suggesting that IWU students were responsible for establishing and achieving some racial diversity quota of enrollment for the university. Rather, Hawkins was speaking to a larger issue of separation that persists within the church. Each subsequent generation must actively challenge this separation.
“Racism, my friends, is our country’s original sin,” said Hawkins during his short sermon. “And with the exception of a few rare instances, the white church in the United States has been complicit in supporting this sin. When you take into consideration the racial history of the United States, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that the American church is deeply divided along racial lines. It’s difficult to build bridges between the races inside the church when, for so long, the white church helped to support the structures that kept the races apart.”
Hawkins explained that he believes 92.5 percent of IWU students are white – while the city of Marion is only 75 percent white, and United States as a whole is only 63 percent white – because a mere 5 percent of evangelical churches in the U.S. are “multicultural.” This means that most IWU students come from religious bodies that are more segregated than American country clubs, schools, workplaces and neighborhoods, according to Hawkins.
“Here’s why the issue of racial diversity should matter for us today: You just don’t move on from 400 years of an ideology that says one race is superior to all others with no lingering consequences,” warned Hawkins.
“Walls don’t fall down on their own accord. They have to be broken down,” he added.
“In the interest of breaking down the divisions between us, what if those of us who are white became more empathetic to the experiences that students of color have here at Indiana Wesleyan University?” suggested Hawkins.
In addition to the chronic problems presented by living in what Hawkins calls a “racialized” society, the reaction to his talk raised two problems in my mind: The first issue deals with effective and appropriate communication, while the second is a theological matter.
Are the discussions that take place on social media platforms as informed as face-to-face conversations? Are the stakes high enough online to require some level of circumspection and social accountability on the part of communicators who take part in these discussions? I think social media is very useful, but we have yet to fully understand its strengths and weaknesses in the context of society. (Please note that I was able to access all of the tweets quoted above while logged in to The Sojourn’s Twitter account.)
Secondly, Hoy’s distinction between diversity-talk and Jesus-talk is alarming and unfortunately common among evangelicals who prefer to sever the spiritual from the earthly.
Carl Henry, author of “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism,” addressed this dichotomy between spiritual and social causes in his 1947 book, which has become an evangelical manifesto of sorts.
“No study of the kingdom teaching of Jesus is adequate unless it recognizes His implication both that the kingdom is here, and that it is not here. This does not imply an ultimate paradox, but rather stresses that the kingdom exists in incomplete realization,” wrote Henry.
Spiritual causes and social causes are not mutually exclusive but, rather, are part of the Church’s singular mission. I believe that breaking down racial barriers in American churches is an important social cause, and I was saddened to learn that Dr. Hawkins’ well-stated sermon was poorly received by my peers.
To listen to Dr. Hawkins’ sermon via iTunes, click here, select “Chapel at IWU,” click “Chapel Services” and search for “Chapel 02-27-12.”