Lariat Letter: Concerning racial dialogue on campus

By Dr. Bill Gernenz | Alumnus

I have great grief today.

Division and injustice, pride and arrogance, confusion and chaos … not only are these things covering our nation, but they are increasingly present at my alma mater of Baylor University.

Make no mistake, it has been unavoidable and, in many ways, completely appropriate. Some of us would even argue that these issues are long past due, having been persistent and ignored realities for generations. It is right for these topics and conversations to happen on college campuses where the leaders of tomorrow are gathering and preparing for the future.

So, why the grief? Well, honestly, because these conversations and debates, the issues and rhetoric, don’t sound any different in the Lariat than they do in the Times.

I’m not writing to persuade a position. My plea to the Baylor community is not toward a decision. Rather, my appeal is for a different conversation. If you continue this conversation as it is currently constructed, we will only reap the present returns. But if you are truly going to be leaders, find a new way – a way the world has ignored, methods the world has avoided, and attitudes the world has not discovered. If you can do that in Waco, if this change can take root with you, then Fifth Street may just become an epicenter of hope for a needy world. And wouldn’t it be most appropriate for an institution that claims Christ at its center to offer hope to the world?

My first plea is to today’s student body to learn to listen to one another, to understand, and to empathize. Search out real forward-thinking solutions that outlast the moment and invest in the future. It’s not about winning today’s debates but about shaping your children’s world. Avoid name-calling and uncharitable pejoratives. These things shut down dialogue as they lock people away in categorical cages. Labels become hurdles to understanding and barriers to fellowship.

You will need to be intentional, humble, and forgiving for real dialogue to happen. It takes time to cultivate a deep exchange of ideas. Your culture is not preparing you for this kind of conversation, rather it models the opposite. We think today in soundbites and pithy slogans, we cherry-pick facts, and distrust disagreement. The atmosphere you breathe on social media only reinforces this distrust with algorithms that insulate us from contrasting positions. Confirmation bias might keep us engaged with our phones but it only polarizes people.

It will be with great difficulty that you must cultivate a heart that can empower change.

Ultimately, this is an issue of the heart and our questions must be aimed at the heart.
Dismissive attitudes and demanding rhetoric rob us of genuine dialogue. More than that, defensive postures keep us from seeing one another. We can’t see our neighbor through our fists, and our neighbor is too scared to recognize that our fists are raised in defense, not offense. Instead of looking for the “mic drop moment” where our opponent is shamed and silenced, let’s enter into genuine dialogue where even past shame can be atoned for and past wounds can be healed.

In Martin Luther King, Jr’s iconic speech, he said he had a dream that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” So much wisdom in that speech. Let’s consider, what is the best way to bring about that dream and vision? Are the solutions being offered and the arguments being presented moving us closer? Is the path we’re on getting us there? I am not convinced it is. Yet, it is not because we lack methods, theories, or platforms. We need new hearts, hearts of compassion and mercy, of grace and courage, of wisdom and humility.

How can we hear one another with gracious intent? How can we listen to the stories, fears, concerns, and desires of others and then consider their needs alongside our own? How can we listen for understanding and not for argument? So much more can be said, but this is a start.

To the faculty of my alma mater, especially those who claim Christ as their Lord: we all need guidance, how much more do these students who are trying to do something our world cannot achieve. Show them a better way. Give them what they need to challenge prevailing winds and counter the predominant cultures. As representatives of Christ’s Kingdom, we must seek to motivate and be motivated by His heart. We must instruct and be instructed by His Word. Please lead, speak, and instruct faithfully. My prayers are with you.

If a former slave ship captain can pen the words of a hymn that would later become closely associated with the African American community, then there is a very real and powerful hope for us. But then again, that’s “Amazing Grace.”