Tribute to Erskine Clarke
by Walter Brueggemann
It is known to his intimates that Erskine Clarke has very poor hearing in one ear. It is known to all of us that, through his long, brilliant career at Columbia Theological Seminary, Erskine has been an uncommonly good listener:
• He has listened well to the deepest impulses of his beloved southern Presbyterian Church;
• He has listened well to the cries and hopes of the world that yearns beyond the way things are;
• He has listened well to the promises and commands of God that have propelled him to a vocation of passion and erudition and service to the coming kingdom.
Through its long history, Columbia has had more than its fair share of intellectual, ecclesial luminaries. In his generation, the seminary has not had any faculty person who has exhibited and enacted the gifts of mind and heart and spirit with the same sustained energy and institutional effectiveness as has Erskine. Every one of us at Columbia has an inventory of matters for which he is to be commended at retirement. I am glad to line out my list with appreciation and gratitude.
Erskine’s scholarly life is one of steadfastness and of acute perceptiveness. Since he published Wrestlin’ Jacob (1979), he has been preoccupied with
“The American Dilemma” of racism, the ways in which that malady continues to vex and debilitate both church and society. Good historian that he is, he has worked with primary sources to trace the way in which racism has been at the heart of our society and the way in which it has permeated the life of the church in every dimension. His remarkable focus on the family of Charles Colcock Jones has permitted him to articulate the anguish and intractability of the issue for women and men of good will. His recent works, Southern Zion and Dwelling Place, have placed him in the forefront of scholars on this issue, even now as he is at work on linkages back to the slave trade in Africa. Erskine’s careful and remarkable recovery of hidden data and his capacity to draw narrative coherence from that data is witness to the cruciality of careful, imaginative research for the health and faithfulness of our society, and not least for the Seminary.
Erskine’s commitment to the life of the church is evident in many ways, not least in his vision and persistence with the Journal for Preachers that he founded and continues to edit. It is no small matter to sustain such a publishing project with only a very thin infrastructure and with finances that are thin enough to match the infrastructure. Because of his passion for the life of preachers, Erskine has evoked and nurtured a cadre of writers and contributors to the Journal who make it—issue after issue—a first-rate publication with uncommon pertinence. Erskine’s capacity to continue to identify and explicate cutting-edge issues in the life of the church and in the life of the preacher attest to his practical sensibility.
His passion for the life of the church is most recently evidenced in his singular devotion to the project of bringing to Columbia a significant portion of the archives and library that had been housed at the Presbyterian Historical Society's Montreat branch. Erskine’s efforts in this regard, alongside that of other members of the seminary community, assure that in time to come the church and its scholars will have access to first-rate memory.
Beyond his scholarly life and beyond his passion for the church, it is his work as an institutional citizen of the seminary that I most wish to celebrate. Every seminary, like every congregation, finally depends on a few steadfast “carriers” of the institution who put extra energy, resources, and imagination into the life of the institution in ways that run beyond normal obligation or expectation. In recent decades in the life of Columbia, Erskine has been that institutional carrier who has been informed by the deep rootage of tradition, propelled by a large vision, and has been willing to put in effort and energy to move the seminary toward that vision.
As Columbia began to reach beyond its more-or-less self-contained history, it was Erskine who dreamed the possibility of what became “alternative context” whereby middler M. Div. students—along with faculty members—are dispatched for an extended January term into church settings around the world. Venues for such education in the life of the church have included Mexico, Jamaica, Hungary, China, Appalachia, and a variety of other contexts. And recognizing our own urban context as a missional environment, the alternative context program regularly includes a venture into urban Atlanta.
As the faculty worked a decade ago on a fresh and explicit “Statement of Purpose,” Erskine was among the faculty colleagues who formulated the lyrical statement that continues to be a primal guide for institutional planning. That wondrous statement that takes seriously the missional demands of the new century and dares to imagine Columbia’s role in the renewal of the church.
When the seminary received the enormous Campbell endowment, Erskine was among the faculty colleagues who insisted that a portion of the endowment should be “tithed” in some way in a generous investment beyond ourselves. That conviction eventuated in “The Campbell Scholars,” a periodic and well-funded program that regularly brings church leaders from other contexts of the world church to the campus for an extended period of sustained study and reflection. Erskine has invested untold amounts of time and energy with the seminar that has been an uncommon benefit to the seminary. On the one hand, the seminar has brought a steady stream of representatives of other church contexts to our campus and to the collegial life of the faculty. On the other hand, these visitors to our campus have enormously enriched, broadened, and deepened the educational process for our students.
With memory from the ancient days of the seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, Erskine has reflected long and well on “the middle way” that has characterized the seminary over its history. One can conclude, moreover, that the “middle way” is how Erskine has understood himself in our midst, midway between a settled, treasured tradition and a demanding missional summons. For some among us Erskine is too much a traditionalist because he attends to the mind and the heart of the seminary constituency. For others among us, Erskine has pressed the issues of responsible theological education and scholarly excellence too insistently in order to bring that memory to its full stature concerning the most stringent public questions that now face U.S. society.
On all counts as scholar, churchman, educator, and institutional citizen Erskine is a prize among us. His departure from the seminary faculty means, moreover, that others will need to “step up” to carry on much of the work that he has shouldered. In the midst of his multi-faceted work among us—that he does with grace, dignity, generosity, and largeness of spirit—what comes through is Erskine’s own genuine piety and faith. Academics are notorious for being disconnected from reality in church and in world. One has the sense that it all “connects” for Erskine. Our common debt to him is enormous, and perhaps will become more visible through his absence. The good news is Erskine will continue his passionate research in ways that remind us all of who we are, from where we have come, and where we are going. We may anticipate that his continued interpretive gifts will trickle down from North Carolina into the life and faith and work of the seminary. We expect, moreover, that he will continue to do that with his self-deprecating good humor.
With his one bad ear, Erskine has listened well and has acted on all he has heard. He is, back behind his South Carolina legacy, a child of Mount Sinai among those who pledge to “do and hear.” The rabbis have made much of the fact of the word order in Exodus 24:7, first “to do” and then “to hear.” Maybe that is the inevitable sequence for people with a bad ear, to do and then to hear. Erskine has done well and heard well. Would that we could all listen as well as he has listened!
Walter Brueggemann is professor emeritus, retiring from Columbia’s faculty in 2003 as the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament. Erskine Clarke, professor of American religious history, retired at the end of the 2007-2008 academic year. He and his wife, Nan, live now in Montreat, North Carolina.