There was a Washington Post article recently about a photo posted on social media of faculty members of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was meant to be funny, but instead, it was quickly found to be offensive and was immediately taken down with apologies.
The issue at focus for most is on racial insensitivity or unawareness, but there is slightly more to it than that. I like to think I have a sense of humor (some might call it warped!), so if I knew the men involved, I would probably laugh it off and think they were just clowning around. And it could easily be written off without much thought, as I think it already has. It’s just a joke; people need to lighten up.
But I think if we did that, we would miss a huge opportunity. We can chalk it up to people being ultra-sensitive these days, or… we can learn something incredibly valuable about what loving our neighbor really means.
The problem with the photo is the underlying subtext, the underlying mindset it betrays. Not only is it a racially insensitive photo, but the deeper issue is that the people involved had no idea that it would be offensive. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have posted it in the first place. I trust that the motives of those involved were good; they wanted to “relate” to a younger generation and maybe do something “cool” or “funny.” But it backfired in a huge way. And in certain ways I’m glad they did post it, because it creates an opportunity for important conversations to occur.
The problem is that these seminary professors in particular are so out of touch with the world outside of their own (a majority white, middle/upper class, conservative, evangelical world) that they have no idea that they reflect a very narrow perspective. The problem is further that they live in a very narrow and confined bubble, and as a result have lost their ability to relate to a larger portion of the (Christian) population.
If you happen to be one of these men involved in the photo, or relate to the men in the photo, I would ask that you take down your guard for just a few minutes and please listen to what is being said here.
It’s not enough for an apology to be issued. What is needed is awareness and education—a different type of education—for those who are in these types of leadership positions. These men need to understand the experiences of those who are not like them (even if it does not imply that they agree with them on everything). Ethnic minorities. Female. Low-income. LGBTQI. Disabled people. And not to converse with them as a superior with a subordinate does, but as someone who wishes to truly understand the experiences of others and to listen.
I would imagine if any of these men in the photo had at least one friend who had experience with gang violence, who had perhaps a relative or friend as a victim of violence, and had conversations with them, that they would find it odd to take that picture and would advise against it. This is strange and could be taken as offensive. Maybe we should take a different funny picture. None of these men at any point had this thought. But for those outside of that bubble, it’s so obvious.
That’s why it’s important for a seminary, if it wants to be an effective institution that educates and builds future Christian leaders all over the country and world, to have diverse leadership and faculty from various walks of life. And for those who are from a majority culture to engage, listen, and understand the experiences of those who don’t fit their own categories. If at least one of those professors in the photo were non-white, that photo would probably never have been taken. It’s not just about having a variety of skin colors on the faculty page of a school’s website, but about having different voices to contribute to the operation of the school. It’s about having different voices in faculty meetings, in dealing with students, in organizing weekly chapels, in even curriculum development, so that all types of students, not just one kind, are being cared for.
As I look to take up a career as a full-time professor in a theological institution one day, I do not wish any of my future students to feel like they do not fit in or that they are a foreigner, even those who are from other countries. I certainly do not want any of them to feel like I’m not respecting them or am making fun of them because of their race, gender, etc. even if my motives might not be bad. I hope that they can feel just as respected and valued as anyone else from a privileged background, since after all that’s how Jesus operated. And I wish that current and future professors and administrators in theological education would feel the same, by maintaining dialogue and asking questions to be informed about those who are different than themselves.
— David I. Yoon