By Arthur L. Jones, III
Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brothers (and sisters) dwell together in unity. I don’t have to remind you that phrase comes directly from Psalm 133:1 of the Holy Bible. You know that. I don’t have to tell you that “Ecce quam bonum” is the motto of the University of the South. You already know that, too. Therefore, this open letter will be confined to The Sewanee Purple and its readers. This will not be published any place else. It is a very personal matter, and I promise to treat it accordingly.
I love Sewanee. I truly do. It is a beautiful place filled with wonderful people. That’s not just some clever catchphrase I say to impress folks in my travels. That’s actually how I feel about the University of the South. And that last statement is why I, a current seminarian at the Sewanee School of Theology, have been disappointed nearly to the point of speechlessness at some of the behaviors I have seen and heard about over the past couple of weeks or so.
The 2016 presidential campaign was a long, bitterly-contested, emotional, insult-filled, vision-challenged, political deathmatch between Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and billionaire businessman Donald J. Trump. While both candidates had many supporters in the Sewanee community, Trump won the General Election on November 8th. And that, friends, is when the so-called Trump effect began on our mountain.
Since then, African American undergraduates on Sewanee’s central campus have been harassed in a variety of ways. As a journalist, I’m aware of the sharp increase in reported incidents of racial intolerance: racially coded phrases referencing President elect-Trump being written or chanted on campus. White undergraduate students going so far as to ask at least one professor of color to which country he/she planned to move before Trump comes to get them.
I’m not naïve. I realize that no place on earth is perfect. But is this what Sewanee really is? How does such behavior positively reflect on the University of the South, its history, its motto, its culture, and its beloved community? Sewanee doesn’t have a beloved community so long as a single individual – regardless of that person’s faith tradition, age, gender, socioeconomic background, educational background, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or national origin – feels unsafe. That’s not brothers and sisters dwelling together in unity. YSR? No, not this time.
Need I remind you that the University of the South is an Episcopal institution of higher learning? Are you aware that these poor examples of loving our neighbors as ourselves are blights upon the Episcopal Church itself? Are these things pleasing in the Lord’s sight? I believe you already know the answer to that.
Do you actually believe that Sewanee’s honor pledge only extends to academic work?
Do we have students/scholars here so emboldened by Trump’s victory and so entitled by their own social status that they can do and say what they want without fear of either the Honor Council or the University’s administration?
My Pastoral Theology professor – someone I love and respect greatly – stated recently in class that evil must be named and confronted. That’s what I’m doing here and now. Since racism has no place in the kingdom of God, racism has no place in the Episcopal Church and therefore, no place on or near the University of the South campus.
Sewanee needs more radical hospitality: situations in which we love other, worship together, listen to each other, laugh with one another, and learn from each other because we want to – not because we have to. That’s how true Christian community is established and maintained.
This University could be a model of racial reconciliation nationally, but it isn’t yet. That remains a choice each of us has the power to make every day; in both what we do – and in what we say. Will we shine as beacons of light? Or further the spread of darkness?
If you have engaged in any of the aforementioned behaviors, I love you and forgive you. God loves you and forgives you. So repent and depart from those things in the future. Only then can Sewanee be stronger and truer. Only then can Sewanee be right. Not before.