A Statement from President Van Dyk, June 2020
Dear Columbia Community,
Over the last few months, I have written to the seminary community at the beginning of each week so that we all can remain connected through this season of social distancing. In recent weeks, I have felt even more strongly a desire to connect – specifically, with black faculty, staff, and students – as we have learned of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The last few days have been extremely tumultuous. All across this country and around the world, millions have joined together to declare, once again, that Black Lives Matter. As a seminary community, we are fiercely determined to live in solidarity with black people and unapologetically join in the declaration, Black Lives Matter. The Psalms of lament are a constant companion to me and many others in this time. I think of Psalm 44:25 which seems to describe the actual experience of our black brothers and sisters: “We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.” Then the next verse calls out to God, “Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.”
Earlier this week, a pastor friend from Minneapolis said to me, “There is a difference between tragedy and atrocity. Tragedy – like an earthquake – cannot be changed and must be endured. Atrocity is something that should never have happened and must be changed.” The murders of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George are atrocities. Something must change.
While scrolling through countless, fiery images and videos of rioters and protestors around the world, it occurred to me: might these fires, in this season of Pentecost, represent, in a startling way, new flames of fire sitting on the heads of faithful disciples? Might the shouts from the streets for justice be the visible movement of God’s call on our hearts and lives?
The streets of our cities have been filled with protest, violence, and despair. I saw a news report that depicted a young black man sobbing from pain and frustration when he tried to peacefully engage with a police officer. The officer stood silently and the young man pleaded with tears running down his face just for a few words of human connection. The despair was so raw it took my breath away. While some things remain unclear concerning the impetus for the riots, it is clear that demonstrators who were exercising their right to protest were sprayed with tear gas and shot at with rubber bullets. Immediately following the riots, local and national officials acted to protect property, while leaving black people to fend for themselves yet again. Racist vitriol and callous indifference has come from the highest levels of our government. The President of the United States has antagonized and demonized black people and their allies who call for justice. Something must change.
No longer can we be shocked by the upheaval in our cities. No longer can we act as if the riots and protests that fan the Pentecostal flames of justice are unexpected or surprising. No longer can we critique and criticize black and brown people in their activism and expressions of anger. Trauma evokes powerful feelings of pain, rage, and grief. “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me,” say Psalm 55:3. This is what we are seeing on our news feeds. It is well attested by medical doctors and psychologists that atrocities exact an enormous toll on the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health of black people around the world – including black faculty, staff, and students at Columbia. I am committed to more intentionally bearing that burden at Columbia and beyond, so that this weight does not crush my beloved colleagues and friends.
As we continue to struggle for justice, I pray that this present anger and rage will be a messenger to us of God’s call on our lives, individually, communally, nationally, and globally.
May it be so,
Leanne Van Dyk President and Professor of Theology