I had a post on limited atonement lined up for today, but a controversy hit my school recently and I wanted to address it.
Social Media Fail
Yesterday, I bought Dr. David Allen’s The Extent of the Atonement for Kindle and scanned through some of it. I wholeheartedly encourage the reader to buy it also for a measly $10 (though the physical version is like $40). Little did I know that later that night, Dr. Allen would be apologizing for something outside the scholarly world. He and some professors posted this picture on Twitter:
Lol, wow. Predictably, cries of racism flew around the internet, both from within and without Southern Baptists, and the pictures were taken down. Everyone involved apologized. Dr. Patterson, the school’s president, also wrote a lengthy apology. Dr. Allen in particular gave an apology without qualification and said that “context is immaterial” for their joke picture.
And here is where I would disagree with Dr. Allen, though I understand his wish to give an unconditional apology. Context is not immaterial. We should always, always, look at context and also give charitable interpretations, even if we do still end up disagreeing with someone’s words or actions.
This picture was apparently given to a preaching professor here who recently got a job at a church and was therefore moving on. Dr. Vern Charette evidently raps as a hobby and even had a section where he rapped in a chapel sermon, so some professors thought they would give him a silly picture as a going-away gift. With this context in mind, does it make it wise to post a joke photo like that, knowing that the entire internet is not going to immediately know the context? No, it doesn’t. I’m actually very surprised none of those men thought, “Hey, this can easily get misinterpreted, so let’s either not do this in the first place or at least just keep it as a private joke among friends who know our intent and the context.” Given our hyper-sensitive culture these days, where even stating bare facts like “There’s a very high rate of single-motherhood in the black community” can draw accusations of racism, it was foolish to post that online. That’s not to excuse our hyper-sensitive culture, but surely a joke like that is not worth the controversy and potential damage to the witness of the professors as well as that of the seminary. It also does not help that the Southern Baptist Convention started on the wrong side of American slavery back in the 19th century and had to repent of that many years ago.
Accusations of Racism Unfounded
However, does it make it racist? Does this show secret, institutional racism at SWBTS? No, it doesn’t do that either. After a bit of context was explained, it was clearly a satirical jab at rap culture and a tongue-in-cheek photo for a good friend of theirs who raps. They all looked ridiculous and they meant to look ridiculous, so I honestly laughed out loud when I saw the picture (it’s a bit jarring to not see them in suits, much less dressed like that).
Perhaps many will still have problems with the fact that it’s satirical because it “perpetuates stereotypes” and whatnot. And of course not every single person who raps dresses like this or owns a gun. However, it would be absolutely disingenuous to not admit that rap culture often glorifies guns and gold chains, among other things that I won’t mention here but I’ve also satirized. I know this because, as my close friends can attest, I actually listen to rap music at times and make joke lyrics for songs because I find their lyrics and rhyming schemes to be hilariously absurd. This culture is also not restricted to blacks either; many Asians, whites, and Hispanics who have adopted rap or hip-hop culture dress in similar ways (vaguely similar, at least, because the professors obviously failed to dress in a convincing hip-hop manner, nor did they care to because again, it’s satire and meant to be over the top). Heck, many Koreans in Korea try to dress like this now. So does this really prove that these men have secret racist beliefs because they made a joke photo to a friend that includes a jab at a culture that perpetuates this kind of dress all by itself and that has been adopted by a plethora of different races? Are they somehow not allowed to satirize something that is real because they’re white?
This Washington Post article asserts that the picture points to “a history of dehumanization.” It does no such thing; it points to a very current, very real, and very proud aspect of rap culture. I challenge anyone to deny this with a straight face.
The author, Jemar Tisby, also asserts that if there was a minority in that group, they would have been far less likely to have made the picture. Debatable; then again, if there was a minority in the group, the internet would have been far less likely to create this much of a firestorm because, as we have routinely seen these days, there is a double standard for what white people can do and say and what minorities can do and say, which is silly and doesn’t help solve race relations. The fact that this was done by white (mostly older) men fueled this controversy further, but why should that matter? I’m fairly sure that if our Korean professors did this instead, some people still would have gotten mad but the controversy would have been way less of a national story. But darn those evil white men, right?
Tisby goes on to make very hasty and unjustified conclusions about institutional racism and the motivations of these professors:
As an African American, I look at that picture and wonder what these men are teaching in class. How are they compensating for the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty and staff? Are they responsive to the particular needs and concerns of minorities in their midst? How might their assumptions slip into their lectures, advising and preaching?
A joke picture makes you wonder what these people are teaching and not, you know, their actual public teachings and books? You know their hearts and their assumptions from that? Why don’t I do this: As a non-African American minority, I wonder if Tisby actually points people to the real issues of race relations, if he actually deals with race issues that aren’t African American, and if his “assumptions” slip into his preaching and talks. But that would be a bit unfair, now would it?
Tisby also argues that SWBTS should commit to hiring more ethnic minority professors. As a minority student at SWBTS, my response to that is twofold: 1. There are already some minority profs here and 2. I don’t care one bit about that. I study philosophy and every one of my philosophy profs are white. Who cares? As long as they are good at what they do, love God and the Gospel, and want to teach truth, that’s all that should matter. If they’re white, black, Asian, or purple, I don’t really care and don’t feel an ounce of sensitivity or insecurity over such nonsense. Now, if the seminary was actually hiring white professors over minority ones of equal or better merit, then that would be a problem, but there isn’t much evidence that that’s going on. I have my own criticisms of the seminary for a host of things, but the whiteness of the faculty is not even close to one of them; in fact, such a complaint may be seen as racist itself. One wonders what the reaction would be if a school that had mostly minority professors was criticized for not having enough white professors.
Those professors did an unwise thing; sometimes it’s easy to forget that the internet is technically accessible to anyone on the planet with a connection and that inside jokes are not exactly going to go over well on social media. They should apologize, and they have. I know these are men that love Jesus and probably feel sickened that their ill-advised joke has hurt people and has given ammunition to critics who want to smear the Gospel. They’ll learn from this, and that’s the end of the matter for me.
However, that doesn’t mean that the accusations of racism against them and the seminary are well-founded. When context is considered, it’s obvious what they were doing, however unwise it was to post the thing on Twitter. There’s no justification to jump to conclusions of secret institutionalized racism because the evidence just doesn’t support it.
This is not to say that people can’t become more knowledgeable and experienced about other races, and there are some people on this campus, due to their rather restricted experiences, who say ignorant though well-meaning things like, “Hey… you speak English really well!” to an American-born Asian. However, that still isn’t “racist,” as if these people actually believe they’re better than other races. Defaulting to the racist card when clear racism is not demonstrated is as damaging to race relations as anything, and the lack of desire to engage in dialogue and charitable interpretation is not going to help either.