Dr. Emilie Townes answers questions during her lecture series, “Premeditated Indifference: Facing (In)Justice With the Power of Hope.” Photo courtesy of The University of the South’s Flickr.
By Samuel Carter
As the clapping to welcome Dr. Emilie Townes to the stage of Guerry Auditorium died out, she approached the podium, humming. The song was an old gospel hymn, “The Storm is Passing Over.”
The song was written by Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, an African American pastor who led one of the largest Methodist congregations of the 1920s. Townes used this song to open her second lecture of three, all entitled “Premeditated Indifference: Facing (In)Justice With the Power of Hope.”
The DuBose lectures, which are part of the School of Theology’s homecoming events, have had the same theme for the last three years: racial reconciliation. Townes was the perfect speaker for the week, as she has pioneered the study of African American women’s insights into the traditions of Christian theology.
As the current dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, she leads future clergy people in growing their faith and understanding how they can use it to spark change.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of Townes’ lecture was how modern Christians can bring about such change. She sees the need for change through the works of the Church as important now as ever: “you and I look out and live in a troubled country,” she said; “we are not happy with one another.”
To shed light on this lack of unity, or the storm, Townes referenced the 18 fatal faith-based shootings that have taken place across the globe, then decried warring political parties that leave everyday citizens in the wreckage.
She proceeded to recite the last words of the aforementioned hymn, saying, “thanks be to God, the morning light appears, the storm is passing over.” The reason for her using the hymn, she said, is because it reminds her that “it is our responsibility to work for peace and justice in the world.” She believes that justice can be achieved if the church takes courage and, with God’s provision, works toward the morning light.
As to what work is needed to achieve this justice, Townes quoted the author James Baldwin, saying that we must “do our first works over.”
To prepare to do these works over, Townes said that “an honest, personal inventory” is first needed. Doing so will reveal the unconscious bias in everyone’s life.
Taking notes from a recent workshop held for the Vanderbilt administration by social advocate Howard Ross, Townes analyzed the steps everyone must take to recognize their unconscious bias. “Everyone has bias,” she told the audience, “but to deny that we have it gives it more power.”
“Let’s begin to see the humanity in each other and in ourselves… and recognize that some people have suffered more in society because of the institutionalized bias,” she said.
But Townes doesn’t want the recognition of bias to bring about guilt; she instead encourages everyone to take responsibility and to evaluate the road they have traveled, understanding their bias and acknowledging where they and others have been. This act of doing first works over is, for Townes, each Christian’s “spiritual homework.”
This homework includes acknowledging individual reactions, impressions, and thoughts. These should then be confronted by immersion in new communities and befriending those whom bias has labeled as “other.” Townes said by doing this, “we will get to live in the fullness of knowing who each of us is.”
Townes cautioned the audience to avoid this becoming “Christian tourism,” which is the result of appropriating a culture instead of appreciating it. For this reason, and to better understand bias, individuals should receive feedback to see where they are excelling and falling short in their trek toward the clear skies of justice.
Townes realized doing all this can be challenging and require hard choices, but she warned, “we should not hoard our comfort… This may sound like a daunting task, and that’s because it is. That’s why you don’t do it alone.”
With final words of encouragement for the audience to work together toward reconciliation, Townes concluded her lecture to a roaring round of applause. The air seemed lighter, and with hope for the future, it seemed possible that the storm could indeed pass over—hallelujah.