Strange Fruit that Hangs from American Seminaries

Editor’s Update: The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has since contacted us to inform us of two articles released by their organization on August 14 speaking to the death of Mike Brown. At the time of this article’s publishing on August 14, the writer was not aware of these published releases.

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Strange fruit currently hangs over many seminaries in the United States of America. Though unity and solidarity are extolled as corporate virtues within their hallowed halls, many seminaries are governed by a racial hegemony that has historically been indifferent to the narratives of minorities. Indeed, there is a functional impotence in regards to issues that besiege minority communities. Though many days were spent discussing how the Hobby Lobby verdict would forever change the landscape of religious liberty, I have yet to hear the atrocities of police brutality or gentrification openly discussed in a lecture hall. I firmly believe that, for many, the murder of Mike Brown may very well be the drop of water that breaks the proverbial levee that, as of right now, holds the anger of many seminarians of color at bay.

When I first learned of the murder of unarmed Mike Brown, I thought that, perhaps, many of my white colleagues and professors would join me in empathizing with the Brown family and would, collectively, discuss what measures could be done to show solidarity with this lamenting community. I expected the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Committee to offer words of condolence to those who were grieving. Though I did not expect anyone to go on record decrying the actions of the officer in question, I did expect those who profess unity and solidarity to image it forth during a time when so many souls are in need of consolation and empathy. Needless to say, I was gravely disappointed. Tragically, I am not the first black seminarian to be disappointed by the indifference of his white colleagues.

My anger over the silence regarding Mike Brown is only buoyed by the recognition that seminaries have historically been silent on issues pertaining to minority suffering. For instance, how many seminarians and professors stood silent in the fall of 1955 when Emmitt Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi? How many professors and seminarians spoke out against the brutal murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in the summer of 1964? How is it that these custodians of the gospel of peace were too busy studying Greek syntax and Hebrew exegesis to notice black bodies being hanged beneath the shadow of their seminaries? Is this an ancient phenomenon or has the sins of the fathers poisoned their offspring.

When I enrolled into a private Christian college the fall of 2008, I had utopian hopes for unity and intercultural solidarity. I had recently committed my life to the cause of proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ and looked forward to being a part of, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously coined, “the Beloved Community.” Within 6 months, I regretted even enrolling. Though I always was aware of the fact that I was black, I did not feel like a n—er until I enrolled into a Christian college in the American South.

I hoped for many of my white colleagues to suffer with us when Oscar Grant was murdered in 2009. Only a remnant was willing. I hoped for some to suffer with us when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012. Only a few were willing. I now wait for the remnant to acknowledge that Mike Brown did not deserve to die Saturday afternoon. I am sure they will trickle in eventually. Though I have befriended many whites during my academic journey, I must say the road has been long and weary. Some of my black colleagues have been called apes while on Christian campuses. Some of my friends have been spat upon during their time of study. As a result, many of my colleagues have withdrawn from school and switched majors altogether on account of the suffocating racial hostility.

I have learned through this painful process, however, the value of not expecting other groups to affirm the pain and suffering of your community. I no longer look for any professor or colleague to publicly speak up on behalf of the suffering of my people. However, for a constituency who prides themselves on living in “covenant faithfulness” to the ethic of the Jesus Christ, their silence is both deafening and indicting this hour. Though I had hoped the many seminaries that ignored the cries of black suffering in the 50’s and 60’s would do everything in their power to publicly make amends, it appears that far too many of them not only are complacent in their silence, but possess the same atrophied will as their predecessors. Black bodies are still perishing under the shadow of many seminaries and seminarians are, still, too busy studying Greek syntax to render aide. What a bitter fruit to behold.

 

James Howard Hill, Jr. is currently a graduate student at Southern Methodist University where he is completing his Master's degree in Theological Studies. A subversive theologian who considers himself ontologically Hip-Hop, James is an activist-scholar called to labor beside those commissioned to bridge the gap between the Academy and the community. He is lover of Dostoevsky novels and a connoisseur of 90's black sitcoms.