Racism and redemption on university campuses

Race Issues
by Jarvis J. Williams

Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2015, at 1:01 pm

On Friday night University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides suspended a student for writing a racist slur on a campus whiteboard. The student had written what’s become known as the “N-word” as part of a list of negatives about the university that included “incompetent professors” and an “overpopulated campus.”

This was the latest of several recent incidents that show America’s current racial strife is not limited to Ferguson, New York, or Wisconsin. Weeks ago, a racist video that went viral led to expulsions and the closing of the Oklahoma University branch of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Last week, students at Duke University found a noose hanging from a tree on the Durham, N.C., campus, and university President Richard Brodhead told several thousand people in front of the school’s Gothic chapel building, “One person put up that noose, but this is the multitude of people who got together to say that’s not the Duke we want.”

Universities often proudly promote institutional diversity amongst their students, faculty, and staff. But these university presidents’ sharp responses to racist speech or acts on their campuses show limitations on how much diversity and equality an institution wants or will tolerate. All three presidents disassociated themselves from the culprits of racism.

Of course, the president or leader of any institution has a responsibility to protect the integrity of that institution. He answers to a board of trustees, friends of the institution, alumni, and financial supporters. Consequently, when those associated with the institution compromise the integrity of the institution, they are subject to immediate discipline. But can the expulsion of a student from the university either for racist actions or speech redeem the student’s racist behavior or change his racist heart? The gospel of Jesus Christ suggests no.

In the examples mentioned above, students committed public acts of racism. Their racist acts flowed from hearts dominated by the power of sin (Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus says that evil deeds come from one’s heart (Mark 7:14-23). If racist speech or actions are the product of one’s spiritually dead heart (Ephesians 2:1), then only spiritual heart surgery will transform the offender’s speech and actions (Ephesians 2:1-10; 4:17-20).

Jesus died and was resurrected to purchase redemption by His very own blood for all who believe and receive His gospel by faith (Ephesians 1:7-13). His redemption will result in Spirit-empowered obedience (Galatians 5:16-26), the chief of which is love for God and for neighbor (Galatians 5:13-14). Although necessary and appropriate for the institution to flourish, expulsion is not the solution to racism on university campuses—the solution is redemption by faith in Jesus Christ. 

Jarvis J. Williams

Jarvis is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and the author of Christ Died for Our Sins: Representation and Substitution in Romans and Their Jewish Martyrological Background. Follow him on Twitter @drjjwilliams.

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