I recently discovered that I am a “radical professor.”
Just before Thanksgiving, my name was added to a list of “college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
This came as some surprise. In many ways, I do not fit this profile, and certainly my institution does not. I teach social work at Calvin College, a mid-sized Christian liberal arts institution in Grand Rapids, Mich. As president, George W. Bush gave the commencement address at Calvin in 2005. President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a Calvin alumna.
I am proud to teach at Calvin. I am a Christian, and I love the freedom to talk about my faith in the classroom. I think my students would tell you that I am rarely happier than when wrestling through the implications of theology for the ways we as social workers engage with our clients and communities. I am not part of the supposedly “godless East Coast Ivy league elite,” and in terms of a national profile I am certainly no George Yancy or Cornel West.
Yet here was my name, alongside theirs and around 200 others, on a website called Professor Watchlist. The list was put together by the conservative non-profit Turning Point USA, a project founded by Charlie Kirk. Up until this point, one of Turning Point USA’s main claims to fame seems to have been its catchy slogan, “Big Government Sucks.” But this new list has been — rightly, in my estimation — compared to the dystopian truth policing of George Orwell’s classic 1984, and the all-too-real "Red Scare" from Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
As a Christian and an academic, I think this goes back further. This list is about truth confronting empire. It is part of a long and violent history of power trying to silence prophetic voices.
What earned me a spot on the list? Here is my entry, in its entirety:
In response to a swastika and several racist messages found on campus, written in snow, Joe Kuilema, an instructor at Calvin College, condemned all white people for being white supremacists. “As a white male, I benefit tremendously from institutions and systems that have been built by and for people like me. This is how the social sciences define racism, not as merely the product of prejudice, explicit or implicit bias, but a system of power based on the invention of the ‘white race’ by people in power.” According to Kuilema, any institution, including Congress and the college itself that were founded by white people is inherently an example of white privilege.
While I might frame my views differently than Turning Point USA did, I stand by what I said. I should also note that I appreciate that they acknowledged what prompted me to say what I did, and that they quoted me. Yet what I wrote, framed to its local context, never intended for a national audience. It was an op-ed in our school newspaper, The Chimes. I wrote it because many of my students were dissatisfied with the institutional response to the racist incident.
How it landed me on this list is in many ways the scary part.
The day after it was published online by Calvin, it was picked up by Tucker Carlson’s website The Daily Caller under the headline “Professor Blames White Privilege For The Existence Of Michigan.” How that happened, I suspect I’ll never know. From there, the news ricocheted around the far right and alt-right web. It was picked up by InfoWars, TeaParty.org, Patriot News Daily, Campus Reform, and dissected and discussed on white supremacist sites like Stormfront.org and Shitskin Plantation. Charlie Kirk, when contacted by Slate, attempted to distance himself from the alt-right or other hate groups. But if that’s so, I’d like to ask him how I ended up on his list. I don’t think he reads The Chimes.
Even if Mr. Kirk is telling the truth, he ought to be confronted with what he has done. The dog whistle has been blown. The websites pushing fake news about “pizzagate” includes InfoWars, where my post was also shared. These sites may have only been attempting to generate more revenue. They may have been motivated by nothing more than greed. But the shots fired in that D.C. restaurant were very real.
The Professor Watchlist is clearly intended to quiet the prophetic voice. To instill fear. To encourage more cautious language. But as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently wrote in the New Yorker, “Now is the time to call things what they actually are.”
My own discipline, social work, emerged in part out of the social gospel movement of the early 1900s. One of the great minds of that movement, the Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch, once gave the conference sermon at a gathering of social workers. “Social work, the kind that deals with the causes of misery, is today almost the only form of Christian work that involves the risk of persecution,” he said.
He offered this not to counsel social workers away from such work, but to urge them toward it. That has always been the call of the prophet: To speak the truth. To call it what it is.
Too many white Americans would rather not listen to the call to repentance from our brothers and sisters at Standing Rock. We would rather not confront America’s original sins of genocide and chattel slavery. We would rather not think about the black bodies broken at the hands of the state in the name of justice, the failure of that same system to return verdicts, and the mass incarceration of people of color and the poor.
As in Isaiah 30:9-10:
We are a rebellious people,
children who will not hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, “Do not see”;
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
So, tell us that we will Make America Great Again. Do not remind us that for many, a return to some imagined point in the past is a return to oppression and violence. Pay no attention to the thick cloud at the top of the mountain, the thunder and lightning (Exodus 19:16). Look at this golden calf, this gold-plated skyscraper. Ask with scorn, as Pilate did, “What is truth?” Do not concern yourself with an answer. Give the people what they want.
If it is “leftist propaganda” to talk about the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant, to talk about justice and love for God and neighbor, to talk about humility and grace — in short, to talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ, then let us do it all the louder. Otherwise, we trade the truth for power. We trade our witness for the respect of the empire.
As Rauschenbusch said of the Christians of his day who rejected his social gospel, “Their religion has made them respected; all men like them for their goodness. But their goodness was never so good that it waked up the devil.”
If in speaking prophetically we wake the devil, let us not be afraid. For the devil is a liar, and we serve the truth.