The Gustavus Homecoming festivities of 2013 were vandalized through an abhorrent act of targeted racism. According to a statement made public by the Dean of Students on September 30th, an unknown individual spray-painted a racial slur, accompanied by the name of a current Gustavus student, on a campus sidewalk. As reported by The Gustavian Weekly on October 4th, the exploit was labeled a “hate crime” under its federal classification, and the incident continues to be investigated by the Campus Safety Office and St. Peter Police Department.
So what does this mean?
In light of all that often surrounds such deplorable acts of race-based hate, the Lutheran roots of Gustavus are both informative and formative as we seek a framework to name and claim the pain that accompanies this difficult moment in time. In other words, for us to accompany the victim(s) and repair that which appears to be broken, we are compelled to reflect upon what we are as an institution of higher education, and more specifically, consider what kind of community we were first created in 1862 to be. Along these lines, the following are some brief reflections – from the (admittedly limited) perspective of a Gustavus newcomer seeking to interpret Lutheran theology – that may allow us to pause, ponder, and even proceed to plot a path forward.
To Condemn is to Confess
When the darkness of racism was brought into daylight on Homecoming weekend, not only was it an assault against a specific individual at a particular moment, but the entire foundation and composition of our community was vandalized. As stated by countless faculty, staff, students, and administrators, the ignorant and cowardly exploits of racism must be condemned openly and repeatedly, for not only does such bigotry violate the core values of Gustavus, but the acts committed require a full dosage of accountability. We cannot tolerate racist assaults under any circumstances, and we cannot rest until those responsible are discovered, sanctioned, and rehabilitated.
While we should offer a steady stream of condemnation against racism in all of its forms, we must also commit to the practice of confession, especially among those (like myself) who are racially privileged. As our Lutheran tradition reminds us, there is a measure of goodness in the worst of us and a degree of evil in the best of us, for we all fall short yet continue to be raised up (and the cycle continues, over and over again). As stated by Martin Luther, we are simultaneously both saints and sinners (simul justus et peccator), thus we have the authority to condemn the hate of others but also the humility to confess the hate within our own hearts and minds. As a result, we are indeed compelled to rebuke the recent events on campus, but we do so with the honest recognition that we all possess the capacity for such dreadful acts.
To Heal is to Hurt
When such deplorable events take place in our midst, a natural tendency is to immediately push forward, as if we are trying to separate ourselves from the awful stench of injustice. While it is understandable to seek rapid solutions to such racist foulness, to do so prematurely is like sprinting on a treadmill: We move quickly but go nowhere. And so, instead of trying to push past the toxicity of racial violence far too prematurely, the time is upon us to consider in detail the various public and personal conditions that allow for such attitudes and behaviors to exist. If we resist the temptation to rush and push aside our pain, and if we move forward with deliberation and purpose, together we may find bold and creative methods to create a more conscious and compassionate campus environment.
The Lutheran theological tension of Law and Gospel (found in Article 4 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, 1531), is illuminating under such critical circumstances, for just as death predates resurrection, conviction comes before liberation, and truth precedes reconciliation. In other words, it has to hurt before it heals. And so, while we are tempted to immediately move past the uncomfortable stench of a race-based incident, the best first step may be to take no steps at all, for we must stop, reflect, and allow ourselves to fully absorb the awful odor of racial discrimination in order to ensure that we do all that is necessary to prevent such transgressions from happening again.
To Respond is to Restore
While retribution is a frequent response to such repulsive racist activity, we recognize that resentment corrodes its container, and because hate in response to hate creates more hate, we affirm restorative justice as method of collective and corrective engagement. The restorative justice model, as the name itself indicates, is designed to “restore” that which is broken in our community. In other words, instead of retribution through retaliation, to respond through restoration is to recognize that such immoral acts are grounded in something far deeper than a broken law or social norm, thus justice is not merely “paying the perpetrator back”, but it is more about “paying the community forward”, for as Cornel West stated, “justice is what love looks like in public”. And so, when the identity of the alleged perpetrator is eventually discovered, we are called to prevent revenge and promote reconciliation, for responding to racist hate with hate for the racist will only push us backwards.
One can argue that restorative justice is grounded in a “Theology of the Cross” (Theologia Cruets) articulated by Martin Luther in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Among other things, Luther showed that violence can be opposed without being mirrored, oppression can be resisted without being emulated, and as modeled by Jesus, enemies can even be loved as fellow Children of God. Perhaps most of all, a Theology of the Cross shows that violence can be defied with non-violence, hatred can be countered with grace and love, and ultimately none of us “get what we deserve”, for we receive love, grace and mercy from God even when we dish out hate, violence, and aggression toward God and one another. And so, regardless of whether or not one is a Lutheran, Christian, or a person of any faith tradition, we are shown that real power is displayed not through racist hatred on a sidewalk, but with a communal embrace for the sake of reconciliation.
So What Does This Mean?
As Martin Luther asked repeatedly through his Small Catechism of 1529, we are called to consider, “So What Does This Mean”? In response to all that has occurred over the past weeks, what does this mean for the victim(s) trying to live and learn in our midst? So what does this mean for the alleged victimizer(s) potentially still living among us? So what does this mean for underrepresented students, faculty, staff, and administrators at Gustavus Adolphus College? So what does this mean for the racially privileged (like myself) who rarely – if ever – live in fear of race-based hate?
In addition to providing comfort and care for the victim(s) of this recent racial attack, we should continue to consider the numerous questions that now surround us, for we cannot address that which we do not fully observe, and we will not move past that which we do not openly acknowledge. And so, the time is upon us – all of us – to name and claim our pain, for in a connected community of companions such as Gustavus, hate expressed against anyone anywhere is felt and mourned by everyone everywhere, thus we cannot ignore the blatant assault which has occurred in our midst. While some may seek to hide this event from plain view, our role is bring it to the surface and allow the bright light of who we truly are to expose it, shine on it, and burn it away. We are Gustavus, not hate, which means we are not defined by this uncharacteristic act of hatred, nor are we held captive by it, for we have what is needed to overcome it. Through our continued commitment to seeing ourselves in the lives of each other, and with a renewed communal pledge to pursue the principles of justice and peace, we may face our harsh realities together, and in doing so, be set free to bring a new tomorrow more fully into being.
The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol