Mark Douglas, Professor of Christian Ethics, Columbia Theological Seminary
Over the past few years, many educational institutions in the United States have been trying to come to terms with their own histories and complicities with slavery and white supremacist behaviors. Georgetown University, recognizing that it had stayed financially afloat in the late 1830’s through the sale of several hundred slaves, initiated a process of investigating its own history and shaping a process of reparations for the harms it had been involved in. Columbia Theological Seminary’s sister institution, Princeton Theological Seminary, has recently done the same.
Even a facile familiarity with the history of Columbia Theological Seminary will highlight CTS’s deep complicity with the peculiar institution. It was only shortly after I arrived in 1999, that I began to hear of the seminary’s attempt to tread a “middle way” between supporting slavery and working to abolish it by defending a theological focus on the “spirituality of the church” as a way of avoiding the hard but necessary and deeply incarnational work of attending to the politics of racism and the mandate to pursue justice even as it worked to promote mercy and walk humbly before God. With the publication of emeritus professor Erskine Clarke’s book, To Count Our Days: A History of Columbia Theological Seminary occurring last year and, already, the start of preparations to celebrate our 200th anniversary later this decade, the time is rich–if past due–for CTS to dig deeply and honestly into its own past even as it imagines its way into the future.
Toward that end, this edition of @ this point takes up the theme of “Repair.” What does it look like to attend to the longstanding tears in our social fabric, the ruins upon which we have continued to build, the ongoing sufferings in which we continue to participate? What is the relationship between personal and institutional obligation to account for their pasts and prepare for their futures? How do we work with God to bring about repair and what role might specific acts of reparation play in that regard?
In his lead essay, Dr. William Yoo, CTS’s Assistant Professor of American Religious and Cultural History, begins that excavation by exploring the complicated and corrupted work of James Henley Thornwell, whose antebellum teaching at CTS played an important role in shaping our history. His respondents each bring their own rich reflections on the topic of repair in light of important work they each have done in the area. Dr. John White, who is not only the former Dean of Students at CTS and now the Dean of Student Life and Vice President for Student Relations at Princeton Theological Seminary but also the Chairperson of the Recommendations Task Force for the Historical Audit on Slavery at Princeton Theological Seminary, shares some of the work being done at our sister school. Dr. Hilary Green, who is Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama and is currently serving as the 2020-2021 Vann Professor of Ethics in Society at Davidson College, locates CTS’s history in the larger history of higher education in the American South. CTS’s own J. Davidson Phillips Professor of New Testament, Dr. Mitzi Smith, rounds out the responses with a fierce appeal to attend to the continued repercussions of white supremacy in and beyond higher education if we are, indeed, to work at repair. And their essays provide rich resources upon which current CTS student Emily Morrell has shaped four lesson plans that will not only help readers walk through the essays but bring them together for important conversations about their own lives and churches.
Much has happened at Columbia Theological Seminary, in the United States, and around the world since the editorial board of @ this point chose the topic of “Repair” in November of 2019 as the focus for this edition. President Trump was impeached. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic reshaped all our lives. And the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—among others—have ignited not only protests but increasing attention to police violence, racism, and the structures used to maintain white supremacy in the United States. Even with so much change going on, we believe that this edition’s topic and its essays prove to be every bit as relevant now—including with regard to these very issues–as they were in November and that their relevance, both for CTS and beyond, will only continue to grow.
The repair of deep wounds is not easy work but it is good work. We are fortunate to be guided so ably in that work by these writers. May their wisdom guide us all as we seek to participate in what our Jewish brothers and sisters refer to as tikkun olam, the repair of the world.