The past few weeks have taught us that we live in an age of moral and political confusion in academia. Administrators at elite universities do not know whether or how to offer moral clarity and wisdom about current events, such as the intentional targeting and butchering of civilians.
Unfortunately, the general practice of public statements has largely been reactive versus proactive. Universities tend to react in one of two ways. On one hand, if the event fits an undefined, but predetermined view of evil, they become moral prophets and denounce it. On the other hand, if the event does not fit their ideological boxes, they call for more education about the situation. For example, Stanford University has received criticism for following this problematic strategy (see first here and then here). Secular universities such as Standard are then rightly pilloried for their selection process about such matters since their choices appear to be political versus ethical. Understandably, some scholars recommend that universities avoid such statements completely.
My own Christian university initially appeared to take the same inconsistent approach as Stanford. For example, Baylor’s current administration has a recent history of taking the morally prophetic approach and made a public pronouncement related to the George Floyd killing and associated racial moral outrages, but it refrained from issuing similar statements about other issues, such as the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Oddly, in the case of Hamas, it initially took the educational both side-ism of Stanford. To the leadership’s credit, after negative reactions to the problematic paragraph, it recently issued a stronger and more theologically guided statement. The statement included a declaration from Yeshiva University signed by leaders from Baylor University, the University of Notre Dame, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the United Negro College Fund, and other secular institutions.
In this post, I argue that in order to prepare for these kinds of situations in advance, Christian universities would be best served if they set forth their prior Christian thinking about the purpose of public statements, laid the groundwork for such statements throughout the academic year, and made explicit the criteria by which they will decide to make public statements.
The Purpose of Public Statements
What is the purpose of a public statement from a Christian university about a current event? Almost always public pronouncements are about significant cultural events that have emotionally and morally affected or riled their constituency. Since we have a tradition that allows us to better order our loves and order our evils beyond partisan political categories, that tradition allows Christians to recognize that sometimes the Christian university can and should speak with a clear voice about major evils upon which the Christian tradition—or the particular denominational tradition of a university—is clear. Yet it also recognizes that some events need further study to understand and offer redemptive solutions. In this way, the Christian university can play a key role in educating its community and the Christian community as a whole.
What might be a beginning approach that lays the groundwork for discerning public statements?
First, a Christian institution should make clear that it recognizes evil exists throughout the world, but we are not in the business of making continual, and sometimes uninformed, public pronouncements about it. Instead, like Jesus, we are in the long-term game and have a long-term plan for overcoming evil. Education which includes the overall redemption and formation of humans made in God’s image is a key part of the long plan.
Second, they should make clear to their Christian constituency that our understanding and ordering of evil is different from the world’s. Christians look for and expose evil (Eph. 5:11) especially where humans made in God’s image are being killed, tortured, raped, and brutalized. This occasional identification of major evils around the world should then not simply follow the press cycle or priorities of North American news outlets or major political parties. That way, Christian universities do not act as if they blow with academic, journalistic, or political winds.
In other words, I would love to see a Christian university issue occasional statements that try and form their audience to order their evils according to the Christian tradition and offer redemptive solutions. For example, I would be interested in hearing about any evangelical or progressive Christian university that issues statements about genocide in China and Armenia or outbreaks of persecution of the church, such as recent Christian killings and church burnings in India, Pakistan, and Nigeria that are not simply a response to the latest cultural or political winds. Unfortunately, North American Christian universities tend to be hopelessly myopic and bound by the standards of the North American press and popular culture when it comes to evaluating and ordering evils. Granted, it could be worse. The recent reaction by some supporters of Hamas gives the impression that they are guided less by a concern for people groups experiencing genocide or evil, if so they would be marching in numbers against the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in China, but instead are driven more by certain kinds of politically fashionable concerns (and perhaps even antisemitism).
Third, the Christian university should be consistently clear about how it is already fighting evil in its community. It’s easy to make statements about various evils getting press attention to virtue signal at a key moment and jump on a bandwagon. It is much more difficult to engage consistently in the Christ-like work of suffering to overcome evil in the world in one’s local area. It should be made clear to one’s university family that these ongoing efforts receive the bulk of our long-term attention and not simply the fashionable evil of the day.
Finally, we should acknowledge that a valid reason an institution makes such statements is to signal to community members that it realizes the current events they are being exposed to through the news cycle are affecting them in some way. If an institution refrains from addressing certain popular topics, it signals to students that they are out of touch with the big concerns of the day.
So, what might be some standards for deciding whether to make a more prophetic announcement versus taking the more educational approach?
Standards for Statements
First, when making statements about moral evils, it would always be good to start with whenever one’s own university falls short in some area that has public consequences (Matt. 7:3–5). It is easy to make pronouncements about evil “out there” but a lot harder to get one’s own house in order.
Second, the evils should be ones on which the Christian or secular community is ignorant or confused and needs a clear, thoughtful voice—one that a Christian intellectual institution can provide. Right now, it is clear that significant moral confusion exists, for some demonic reason, about the targeted murder of civilians, such as women, children, and babies as targets of military action (versus bystander victims). I’m thankful my Christian university offered a clear voice about these issues.
Third, if the Christian university is going to make pronouncements about cultural evils, I would suggest that they order their categories of evils beforehand (in the same way they should order their loves in their mission statements). What evils are the most important and to which a pronouncement should be made? Undertaking that task will take away the temptation to virtue signal regarding whatever issues are prominent at the time or there is popular confusion and hesitancy about making pronouncements.
I would suggest a few criteria should be helpful guides. (1) Genocide—particularly the wanton slaughter or persecution of particular people group; (2) the systemic slaughter of innocents, whether in the womb or outside of it; (3) specific discriminatory policies around the world that create outrageous social injustices against particular people groups by dehumanizing them; and (4) the physical persecution of Christians around the world and the burning of their churches. By this ordering, we show that our first and primary identity is that we are all made in the image of God and are all part of the human body. When one part hurts, every heart hurts. Yet, we still prioritize the hurting of Christ’s body in important ways.
One of my graduate student editors suggested adding a fifth criterion, “I think there needs to be flexibility that allows for responding to unforeseen (and perhaps unordered) circumstances that seem to be particularly impacting the campus community. To not do so risks a clear communication to students that their concerns are neither seen nor heard by the university’s leadership.” I would agree with that addition and am thankful to Austin Smith for his insightful addition.
Finally, once there is agreement that an event meets previously determined criteria for a prophetic statement, what should be the content of a good pronouncement? I think Baylor’s recent statement exhibits the qualities of a good statement. The audience should be clear and specific (versus some ambiguous audience). Second, it demonstrates a turning to God for help through Christian practices (e.g., prayer). Third, it shows sensitivity to and concern for the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual distress of the wronged group before offering theological perspectives. Still, we should not shy away from placing the evil in a theological context through educational events.
In the end, redemptive solutions should be offered that stem from Christian practices, virtue, and imagination. We should be clear about the Christian steps and practices being taken to deal with the evil (e.g., confession and repentance if needed, restitution, and reconciliation) and offer specific, redemptive steps for how the academic community will address the evil. If the steps are not readily clear or the nature or the issue is not one in which there are next steps that can be taken by the institution, Christian education institutions should do what they should be doing best and brainstorm about redemptive solutions that require Christian imagination. Hopefully, this blog post provides some help with the first step: clarifying a Christian way to engage in moral pronouncements about current events.