Still the Old Boys Club: Race, Gender, Churches of Christ, and the Academy
June 18, 2010 5 Comments
I am a life-long member of the churches of Christ and a current doctoral student in religion (Christian social ethics) hoping for a future as a professor and scholar. A couple of weekends ago I attended the Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. I think highly of the conference and think it is a jewel in the world of CofC higher education. The annual conference is, generally, focused on different issues regarding the intersection of faith and culture. This year focused on faith and the arts, next year focuses on religion and science, and two years ago (the last CSC I attended) the focus was on faith and politics. The conference draws scholars, ministers, students and laypersons from around the country. Often CofC sponsored events are rather exclusive, meaning only people affiliated with the CofC attend, but this conference is different. Every year there are plenary speakers from outside the tradition, but the event still has a profoundly CofC ethos. It is, in my opinion, a shining example of one way people can be ecumenical, show hospitality to “outsiders,” have a true willingness to learn from others and still be true to one’s own tradition and identity. I was happy to attend and plan to attend many more in the future.
However, it is also a reminder of much of what is wrong within the CofC world – especially its circles of higher education. Due to professional responsibilities I was only able to attend the last day of the conference. During that one morning/afternoon I was involved in two events. The first was a breakfast for CofC graduate students in theological/religious studies. The second was a panel presentation. As I looked around the room of future CofC theology, Bible, and ministry professors during the breafast I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only person who was not, um, white. And I’m only halfway there! (Perhaps there was another barely noticeable multi-racial person in the room, but I couldn’t tell.) Also, among the 30 or so attendees there was only, if I remember correctly, four women. The room was as white and male as any room in contemporary America can be. Clearly, something (some-bodies) was missing. (As an important sidenote, I attended the conference free of charge because of an initiative the CSC has of providing $500 for ethnic minorities/graduate students attending the conference to encouarage diversity and future scholars.)
In my second event, the panel discussion, there was only one person who was not white (not including myself) in the entire room. He was of Asian descent. Oh, and there were exactly zero women present in the room. Zero. So, let’s count the number of black persons present at events I attended: 0. Number of Hispanic persons: 0. Number of Asian persons: 1 1/2. Number of women: 4. The CofC still has a problem with the “old boys club” if you ask me.
Now, these, obviously, aren’t the only experiences people had. So, what experiences did others have? Well, I heard one story of a luncheon held in an esteemed scholar’s honor in which a joke was made about the lack of women present, though there was at least one present, with some inappropriate reference to strippers. I’ve also read about an incident where an offensive joke about multi-racial marriages was made (as the product of, and current partner in, one, I wish I was there to show some, ahem, “righteous indignation”). Finally, in the panel session I attended one of the presenters referred to a group of people, literally, as “A-rabs.” So, while displays of overt racism were far from the CSC, ingrained bigotry and prejudice were more than present. In many ways, the CofC is decades behind the rest of the nation as far as the presence, and influence, of minority scholars of theology/religion is concerned.
I’ve been affiliated with two Methodist seminaries in my life. At both places concerns about racial/gender justice and inclusivity were the norm. They are consciously addressing the legacy of racism and patriarchy in American Christianity. Unfortunately, the CofC lags far behind. Take a look at the theology/Bible/ministry faculty at OCU, Harding, Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Lipscomb University, ACU, and Pepperdine University. Notice any racial and/or gender patterns there? (Special shout-out to Pepperdine and ACU for actually having TWO ethnic minorities on their faculty and to Pepperdine for having the FIRST woman Bible prof ever at a CofC school.)
In multiple ways the world of CofC theological studies is very much still an old boys club. Justice has yet to reach our version of the ivory tower. I have hope that the future will be different, but if the breakfast I attended at the CSC is any indication that hope is very dim. And if the attitudes represented in off-hand comments are any indication, many of those currently holding academic positions are blind to, or don’t care about, the problem.
It makes me sad, and angry, that this is the case in the ecclesial fellowship I am a part of. This experience is a stark reminder of how much work I have to do, and far we have to go, in the CofC. As a Christian I understand it to be my duty to seek justice in any context I find myself in. As one who has chosen to place myself in the context of higher education, one form of that pursuit is to work to open the doors of our institutions of higher education, specifically those doors in theological/biblical/ministerial studies, to those who have not been able to teach and lead the future generations of CofC’ers for far too long – women and ethnic minorities.
Will you join me in that pursuit?