Hope-Filled Dissent: 20 years later

September 11, 2001 was the day of Opening Convocation at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. It was my first day of seminary (or at least, I think it was, so we're going with that. Maybe class had begun the week prior. It has been a couple decades.)

Following the closing of BTSR, former seminary president Ron Crawford and admissions director (and graduate) Melissa Fallen put together a book of essays from students, staff, and faculty. Below is my submission. Most of you won't know the handful of names I recall here, but the essay will still read just fine.





It was a Tuesday. The September morning was “severe clear,” sky all blue and grass wet with dew. It was the first morning of my first semester in seminary. Greek class presented problems from the first moment: we were struggling merely to understand the present tense. We did not know, while conjugating the verb “to be,” that just 100 miles north a passenger jet was becoming a missile, nor that that terror was being repeated in other places. We did not know yet that our languages would fail us for the rest of that day, nor that our ability to describe the world truthfully was becoming desperately more important, even while we wrestled with basic grammar.

The following day, students’ minds still choked with dust, Dr. Biddle stood in front of our first Introduction to the Old Testament class. Our brains were swiveling in the way those classroom chairs did – wanting to focus up front, at the same time ready to turn and head out the door. Sleep did not come easily that week, nor did concentration. Biddle knew the right words for the day. What he said went something like this:

“I know it is hard to be here now, and to engage in a classroom at such a crucial moment. So you should know that the Bible is filled with stories of people seeking faithful understanding amid the rubble of their cities and their lives. Neither should you miss that the attacks that took place yesterday were visited upon the centers of economic, political, and military power of a mighty empire. The subject of violence done either by, or in retaliation to, cruel imperial powers is not foreign to the Bible. Rather, it is the Bible’s near-constant story. What you have seen is not new. It is the story you have come here to study. In that light, there is no other place for us to be. Let us begin.”

Biddle’s words were rain to settle the dust. On live TV, structures that deeply shaped my life had crumbled. The wreckage still smoldered. In the coming months, the work of wrestling with text and context would expose the foundations on which those structures were built. Those first days were crucial opportunities for being formed into a vision other than Empire. I searched for the language that would describe a journey into the wilderness, toward the liberation I was just beginning to learn that I needed. The classroom opened space for the prophets’ critiques of the domination systems of the world, and at the same time planted a prophetic imagination that we might build, in Dorothy Day’s phrase, “a new society in the shell of the old.”

In classroom and library and chapel, students, friends, and faculty joined together seeking to understand the world God created and keeps on redeeming. We came to know God’s work among us by “welcoming God and other strangers,” as Beth Newman taught. We learned, with Stephen Brachlow, to make time for “holy leisure.” A few of us took the seminary to the street, resisting the violence of two wars staged by a Bush administration whose mouths, in the language of the Psalms, “were filled with deceit.” BTSR helped grow within me the seeds of a hope-filled dissent.

And yet, I look back troubled by some of what we missed. We were a primarily white institution in the context of majority-Black Richmond, a city conflicted and divided against itself along the fault line of Monument Avenue. My daily bicycle route to school began near the grave of Jefferson Davis, went past the monument to Robert E. Lee, and then up Brook Road to the seminary. That same Brook Road, in August of 1800, was the path that the insurrectionist Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith, took into Richmond in his campaign for the cause of liberation. Imagine: there between us and Union Seminary was a path marking an unfinished insurrection against white supremacy. What a splendid metaphor for our work! But that story stayed hidden. We gathered around the worship of an ancient insurrectionist. We missed, in large measure, the opportunity to help finish building the revolutionary road that ran through our front yard.

It was not for lack of a spirit of dissent that we missed it. One might say that principled religious dissent is one of the most Baptist things there is. BTSR existed because of such a spirit. Our people had stood up for the right in other places and times, especially during the Southern Baptist takeover of the 1980s. The hurts laid upon them were still tender, even as the two-decade mark approached. But those were not the only wounds that needed our attention. The Baptist wars of 1845, and the resultant split over enslavement between Northern and Southern Baptists, were rarely the source of reflection. Our southern Baptist ancestors used that conflict to establish that a political economy built on slavery was a righteous religious effort. We had not come close to dismantling the theological and economic disasters of that time period. To this day, we still have not. Nevertheless, reflection on that theological crisis remained on the far periphery. The harms that did to the bodies of the enslaved and their descendants, and to the souls of white people and their descendants, remained unexamined. BTSR contained within it the courage of those who departed one sort of empire is search of freedom, but freedom remained elusive. There were still some lands we would not journey into, but that we could not be free without visiting.


________________________________________



Those of us at BTSR in the early 2000s will recall The Matter Of The Donuts. Certain Fridays, the whole community gathered to discuss matters of import, and to eat donuts. Both of those are fine activities.

But someone has to buy the donuts, and the donuts have to come from somewhere, and thus a crisis was born: From whence the donuts?

Most folks sided with the recently opened Krispy Kreme shop. They made this choice, I assume, because a warm Krispy Kreme donut is, without question, one of the finest creations the Good Lord ever made.

But a few of us could not resist the underdog – Rainbow Donuts. The little shop stood in an ugly, low-slung building in Scott’s Addition, not far from the school. It needed a paint job and some air freshener. Daniel Glaze swears that the proprietor stirred the batter while leaning over it with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The shop was struggling, but it was old-school: local, handmade, without the taint of corporate capitalism. The whole setup was perfectly charming, even if the end product was only good, not great.

Over several months, an argument grew over where the Friday donuts should come from. The stakes were low, but the argument was serious. Factions formed. T-shirts were purchased. A forum got planned to talk about consumption under capitalism and the ethics of money and local economics. Folks had stronger feelings about donuts than they had about Barth, and they expressed them. With gusto. In the end everybody won, because we talked and we kept eating donuts, though I cannot remember now where they were from.

Years later, I remember the donut fight better than Greek vocabulary. I do not suppose that this is a good thing. But now I suspect I have a clearer sense of what the argument was about, which was not donuts, of course. The issue is never the issue. When things are crumbling around you, when institutions and systems are failing, you grab what you can. You hold a small thing and use it to help you make sense while you move through the dust. You are a figure skater spinning and spinning, and one single spot holds everything together and keeps you upright. The world around you teeters out of control, collapses even, and the dust coats your eyes and burns your lungs. You just need to be able to see, to breathe, to know which way is up. You hold onto that one spot, while everything else tumbles down.

The simplest explanation is that we argued about donuts because seminarians argue about everything. But also, we lived then, as we do now, in the crushing load of an Empire buckling under its own weight. Its collapse may yet lead to freedom, but that outcome is not clear. It is certainly not guaranteed. There are still many tears to cry along the way, many words to be said on the journey into the wilderness. So it was that September morning with Biddle. Since then the institutions that made our world have not yet stopped crumbling. They will never stop.

But that story is not new. Our ancestors in the faith knew this well: Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah; Rahab and Naomi and the Blessed Mary. Uncertain, they walked forward into the dust of their worlds. As with them, so with us: let us begin.

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