Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Responding to misconstruals of Ambrose University (with comments on systemic racism)

Last month some concerning things were published about Ambrose University, first in a blog and then in The National Post. While it is not my place to speak officially on behalf of the university, as a faculty member I want to respond to some misconstruals for those who are willing to listen.


The news article was written by Tyler Dawson for The National Post on April 27. Its headline says “Black Conservative addresses an Alberta Christian University and a free speech fight breaks out. The by-line explains, “In its apology, Ambrose University said the speech by Samuel Sey, a conservative activist, blogger and Christian who is Black, 'caused severe harm' to some students.” The blog in question is “My Response to Ambrose University”, written by Mr. Sey himself a few days earlier, on April 23.


Those headlines set the stage pretty well on their own, but let's be clear: The long story short is that a guest speaker in a worship event on our campus said that there is no such thing as systemic racism, and that such a concept is unbiblical. This undermined the university’s commitment to its students, so those responsible for the event apologized for what was said. The apology was accessible to students on the university website but did not name or defame the speaker publicly. However, this led some to denounce the university in social media and on radio, spurred mainly by the news article and blog. Here I will comment only on the latter two.


Let’s begin with the blog. Right from the beginning the university is said to have an “agenda”, which makes it sound as if something insidious is going on. To the blogger’s credit, however, the third time this word is used it actually links to a public statement from the University President that has been on the website since June 8, 2020. There we see not a hidden agenda but a clear position: “Ambrose University stands with those who experience the painful effects of systemic racism and racial injustice.”


Whether or not Mr. Sey knew about the university’s position when he agreed to speak at a student worship event this February, it is key to this whole situation. Some seem to think the university is ‘cancelling’ him (as that ambiguous expression puts it), but that is not the case. The issue is that students at a worship event were told that systemic racism does not even exist, and is contrary to biblical truth. That puts the university in a position where it either has to stand by the speaker’s statement or its own.


One way to tell whether the university was trying to ‘cancel’ (or publicly censure) the speaker might be to look at whether the apology publicly named him. It did not. This is interpreted by Mr. Sey as “cowardly”, but the omission only underlines the fact that the university is not publicly de-platforming anyone, let alone playing partisan politics in a culture war. As the university statement clarified two days later, the apology was intended to address what was said at the event for those in its immediate orbit, and not to denounce anyone publicly. In my view the apology was clear enough, but once this was publicly re-framed and denounced, it is understandable why a removal and explanation were felt necessary to address the concerns of onlookers. Thus, the university reiterated its commitment to academic freedom and owned up to its failure to include that reassurance in the original apology. Please note, however, that a failure to mention it is not the same as a failure to consider it, and is certainly not the same as a failure to uphold it altogether.


The university remains a place for rigorous academic discussion. This includes discussion about the variable manifestations of racism, and the proportion of their importance. It is true that if we focus entirely on the systemic it can be a means of shifting responsibility off individuals, thus enabling the evasion of personal responsibility. But the same goes the other way. Shifting responsibility off systems and putting it entirely on persons can be a way of evading responsibility for social dynamics. Once we know about such dynamics, ignoring them becomes an act of will, and a sin of omission is as much a problem of personal partiality as an intentional sin of commission.


I want to come back to some of the particulars noted so far, but will do so by turning first to The National Post, where we find the reiteration of several talking points. In the article Tyler Dawson does well to interview both the speaker and the student council that hosted him. For his part, Mr. Sey claims to have been attacked, and since in his view he is merely saying “what the Bible says on racism”, he calls this an attack on the Bible itself. This may be the kind of reading that makes readers of the Post want to reach for the popcorn, but it’s a pretty serious charge for a Christian to make. If a student made a claim like that in a paper they would need to provide evidence to back it up.


The article then says that the apology was “retracted”, which I think is a fair assumption to make, since it was my initial impression of the apology’s website-removal as well. However, the article then quotes from an interview with a student council member, who explains how the apology’s removal from the website was an attempt to rectify what Mr. Sey took to be a public denunciation of himself personally. As noted above, the apology did not attack the speaker but only took institutional responsibility for something he said, so I think the apology remains entirely defensible.  But I also think it is fair to seek clarification whether the university sought to censure anyone’s public platform, and whether it upholds academic freedom.


(Such acts of censure can be warranted in some cases, of course. Freedom of speech does not mean everything goes, or that there is no accountability for what we say. There are consequences if we shout Fire! in a crowded theatre, or shout There’s no fire! in a burning theatre for that matter. Freedom of speech also does not mean everyone gets access to every megaphone or platform. In academia there are multiple requirements and accountabilities in place to oversee and evaluate such things, but there’s a parallel to this in newspapers and blogs as well. The National Post has editors who decide what goes to print, and bloggers control what gets posted and approved on their blogs. To be clear, in this case it was not censure but was an institution taking responsibility for something said to its students from its pulpit.)


This is where we can begin to get into some further particulars. The article goes on to quote from Mr. Sey’s speech-notes, which include the assertion that the Bible is the “best anti-racist book today,” and that anyone who says otherwise is “completely and destructively wrong.” Again, if I were marking an essay that said this, I’d be asking the student to back up the claim. Otherwise, this is one of any number of logical fallacies (such as begging the question or the straw man fallacy). Why frame the issue that way? Did someone suggest that the Bible is not the best anti-racist book today? I’m not sure the Bible should be evaluated by the criteria of “best” or “better”or is it being implied that the Bible is the only book to read?but this is beside the point since Ambrose continues to uphold the authority of Scripture.


To be fair, I can relate to Mr. Sey here. It is easy to slip into rhetoric like that when we are trying to persuade an audience of the force of our convictions. But, as we discuss in homiletics classes all the time, we do have to own up to such temptations, recognize if we have unfairly stacked the deck, and work to speak truth in love. When we teach we should be ready to bring challenging and even prophetic words, but if we are rhetorically manipulative then we should expect to be called on it. At that point we can double down, clarify what we mean, or apologize and correct.


Unfortunately, the way Mr. Sey presents the issue forces attendees to either see it his way or be declared unbiblical—even “completely and destructively wrong.” The specifics of this are displayed in the article, where excerpts from Mr. Sey’s speech include mention of biblical passages found in 2 Timothy and James. According to him this is where we find “the Biblical definition” of racism. These verses are well chosen, and there is no arguing against their applicability to the topic at hand—but the problem is that, as he declares them definitive, he also imports an exclusively individualistic interpretation and excludes everything else as unbiblical.


It should become clear why the university’s apology was warranted. Mr. Sey reiterates for The National Post that these verses mean there is no such thing as systemic racism, unless someone in the room can “identify a single racist law” in the “political system”. I won’t get into the law-naming game here—other than to say that it is well established that racial bias was embedded in the formation of the Dominion of Canada and continues to manifest in the cumulative effect of that history—but suffice it to say we are already quite a few steps removed from the texts of 2 Timothy and James.


Like I said, there’s no doubt Timothy and James inform a Christian understanding of racism. But neither of them rules out its systemic aspect. Even if we define racism as “partiality or bias against someone because of their skin colour,” we can still speak of how this takes both personally intended and systemically embedded forms. These are not mutually exclusive. Systemic problems exist alongside (and feed off) problems of personal animus, and there is biblical warrant for the analysis of both. Along with James 2 (on sinful partiality) we can add 1 Corinthians 11 (on sinful sociality) and be well on our way to a fuller biblical treatment of the issue. We talk about this in our theology classes. The Bible is not being ignored or rejected here.


I am happy to give Mr. Sey the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t know about our position statement. In fact, it’s on us as an institution if nobody briefed him (hence the apology). But it's hard for me to understand how he can so unabashedly suggest that our faculty and staff are not Christians who take Scripture as seriously as he does. He jumps to the conclusion that we “didn’t want [him] to preach Christ”, do not “align [our]selves with the Bible”, and instead “preach Critical Race Theory”. These are unsubstantiated charges. The university continues to uphold its commitments to Christ, to Scripture, and to the rigours of its academic disciplines—which includes the study of social theories. Exodus 20:16 says “thou shalt not bear false witness.” I can only ask onlookers and detractors to keep that in mind going forward.


(Note: Critical Race Theory is one of many ways of discussing and treating the problem of systemic racism. It is part of the conversation, but that doesn't mean it is legitimate to reduce the conversation to this one relatively misunderstood legal approach and then denounce the notion of systemic racism altogether. Besides, social theories like CRT are not preached, they are taught in relevant classes by professors who have studied them carefully. Since CRT has been widely misrepresented in social media of late, I recommend reading this interview with Nathan Cartagena, this overview by Jeff Liou, or this intro by Brad Mason).


Bringing it back to Ambrose’s apology, the issue is simple. The host institution differs with the claims made at its worship event and, out of a commitment to its students, said so. Students who have had to overcome the social dynamics of racialized disregard even to get to university in the first place have a right to expect us to uphold our commitment to stand with them against the perpetuation of such things.


To dismiss this concern has more than an emotional affect; it also perpetuates ongoing material harm. When that dismissal is reified in worship and underlined as if it is biblical truth, it encourages racial dynamics to persist unchecked. Such dynamics can tend to go unnoticed by privileged people like me, but are very tangible to those whose voices are drowned out by them. Even if incidents are unintended, racially-infused dismissals pile up and have a cumulative effect, doing harm not only to the person’s well-being and belonging, but to their material ability to disern vocations as full participants in the learning community.


But the material effects do not stop there. As a Christian who believes in the gospel of reconciliation, I believe that the conditions which privilege whiteness are also not good for white people. The situation is worse for those students that the apology sought to support, of course, but it is also not good for me if I unwittingly perpetuate those social dynamics which hold back our mutual flourishing.


The rest of the article rightly talks about campus vetting processes, and about Mr. Sey’s correct assertion that we should not be afraid to challenge him because of his skin colour. The reason for not mentioning any particulars about the speaker has already been noted above. That said, while fear is not the word for it, I do think it appropriate for a white man like me to be careful not to speak into such issues hastily, lest it be from ignorance or privilege. There is a lot that a person like me can learn by listening to people of colour, not only in conversation but, as I have also often found, through thoughtful books and movies.


The National Post article concludes with the suggestion that our institutional support for people of colour seems to “ring hollow”, but I pray this does not prove to be the case. Indeed, that is why I think it is important for us to stand by our apology, and to stand by our President’s statement last summer on our behalf. Despite the article’s last sentence, it should be possible to be allies both with those who experience and oppose racism in its form as personal animus and partiality and with those “who experience the painful effects of systemic racism and racial injustice”. We can be together on this. It is not the university that said we cannot.