GCU statement on Christianity and race/ethnicity

January 04, 2021 / by / 0 Comment
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The three crosses next to the Quad, outside GCU Arena, serve as a symbol of faith.

Grand Canyon University is posting the following statement to address comments made during a racial reconciliation workshop on campus that portrayed Christianity as a platform for White supremacy and White privilege, as well as defamatory comments that were published in a one-sided Arizona Republic article about a faculty member whose contract was not renewed in the aftermath of that profanity-laced workshop. This statement will also provide an update on GCU’s review of complaints that have been made against that faculty member and another within the dance department of the College of Fine Arts and Production (COFAP), as well as take a deeper look at the role Christianity plays in race relations.

Christianity is absolutely NOT a platform for White supremacy or White privilege, as we’ll explain in more detail below. The teachings of Jesus Christ are clearly the exact opposite. And while the Church, at certain times, has been fallible, the overwhelming body of work has helped to eradicate inequalities, many of which are centered on race and ethnicity.

GCU is an example of that. While the University’s primary goal is to educate students, as a Christian institution it has been relentless in its efforts to recognize problems related to inequality and has put together meaningful action plans that are having a tangible impact on our community.

We won’t address specific comments the Arizona Republic chose to publish that portray GCU as a “bigoted” community “upholding White supremacy.” Frankly, those are ridiculous and do not line up with the facts. The story also painted the picture that difficult conversations regarding racial inequality do not occur on campus, which could not be further from the truth.

GCU’s commitment to follow Jesus’ words and deeds by addressing issues of racial inequality, both on and off its campus, were heightened 10 years ago and have been amplified further in the wake of recent issues of racism that have been brought to light in this country.

On our campus, the University has expanded the scope and staffing of its Multicultural Office to help students better cope with diversity challenges in today’s society, understand that every human is precious to God and should be treated with the dignity and respect appropriate to creatures who bear His image and likeness, and create a welcoming community that celebrates our differences. Events during the fall semester such as racial reconciliation workshops, a Parade of Nations, One Love Awareness Walk, Hispanic Heritage Week, Un1ty One Week and other multicultural events have put diversity at the forefront of conversations.

More than 90 different cultures and nations are represented in GCU’s student body, of which 47% are people of color. The same can be said of the very diverse and somewhat poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhood that surrounds GCU. To address inequalities of opportunity in this impoverished environment, GCU has a multitude of initiatives in place:

  • Serving as a needed economic catalyst by bringing 14,000 jobs to the community and also launching 10 new business enterprises that employ an additional 500 students and neighborhood residents.
  • Providing free tutoring for any K-12 student who needs academic assistance to ensure they not only graduate from high school but can see a future for themselves that includes a college education. More than 4,700 students at 329 K-12 schools have taken advantage of this opportunity in the past six years, accounting for more than 60,000 visits and 140,000 additional hours of study.
  • Launching a Students Inspiring Students scholarship program that, in the last five years, has provided 361 full-tuition scholarships to high-achieving low-income students who otherwise may not have been able to afford college. The overwhelming majority of those scholarship recipients are people of color, not because it is a criteria in the application process but simply because it is a reflection of the demographics of the neighborhoods in which we reside.
  • Assisting homeowners through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity in which more than $3.5 million has been raised and 26,000 volunteer hours have been contributed to renovate 324 homes in our community. Homeowners have seen the value of their homes rise more than 300% in the 85017 zip code since 2011.
  • Protecting our neighborhood residents through an 11-year, $2.2 million partnership with the City of Phoenix to make the neighborhoods surrounding GCU safer.
  • Providing 2,160 food boxes to families in need during the pandemic through a partnership with CityServe that will be expanded even further in the coming year by creating a 35,000-square-foot warehouse on campus that will distribute household goods and other much-needed necessities to the community.
  • And serving hundreds of volunteer hours every week at agencies such as the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter, Phoenix Rescue Mission and Phoenix Dream Center.

We want to thank GCU’s students, staff and faculty for their relentless commitment to these initiatives. The problem of inequality of opportunity based on race is real in our country, but we believe we can be part of the solution by maintaining our focus to replicate the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

GCU REVIEW OF DANCE DEPARTMENT COMPLAINTS

The University has completed a review of complaints against two dance instructors, who will be placed on a Corrective Action Plan should they return to the University for the spring semester. Further, GCU is making personnel changes in leadership positions within its Fine Arts programs in order to better cultivate a culture in which those programs are equally impactful to the University’s mission.

The two faculty members are being placed on CAP, in part, due to the lack of civil discourse and the use of profane and abusive language during a racial reconciliation workshop on Nov. 12 in which they were involved. Other racial reconciliation events occurred throughout the fall semester and included the expertise of individuals in GCU’s Multicultural Office. That invitation to the Multicultural Office was not extended for this event.

The use of profanities was rampant during the Nov. 12 workshop, which is not an example of the civil discourse and respectful dialogue that faculty members are expected to uphold in classroom settings. The faculty members failed to guide the conversation and engage with students in more appropriate, respectful and helpful language. Students should not be subjected to that in a University setting.

Beyond the use of profane and abusive language, the workshop included many statements that portrayed Christianity as a platform for White privilege and White supremacy. The accusations themselves will be addressed below, but an important distinction must be made about such comments.

Both Christian and non-Christian students are welcome on our campus and they are free to share their worldview on such topics in classroom settings, regardless of whether those viewpoints coincide with the stated beliefs of the University. In fact, students are encouraged to do so in the spirit of open discourse. That freedom of expression is part of the learning environment at GCU and we have taken many steps to train faculty members on how to facilitate civil discourse on such topics.

Faculty members, on the other hand, must adhere to a different standard. All GCU faculty members are required to sign a Statement of Expectations that acknowledges they understand the University’s Christian beliefs that are outlined in its Doctrinal Statement. While the vast majority of faculty members agree with those positions, faculty members who do not are expected to provide a positive example to students by supporting those viewpoints and not exhibiting actions that would contradict, discredit or undermine those University positions. The vast majority of families send their young adults to GCU with the expectation they will be taught from a Christian worldview perspective, and faculty are expected to uphold that expectation.

GCU recognizes that critical thought, open dialogue and a fair presentation of all major views are vital to higher education but are indispensable for genuinely Christian instruction. As a result, the University affirms that a proper balance between academic freedom and responsibility must be maintained at all times. Furthermore, faculty are encouraged to sustain an appropriate balance between liberty and responsibility at all times but especially when engaging potentially controversial topics. Over the past two years the University has supported faculty efforts to balance free discussion responsibly by hosting professional development opportunities and forums related to civil discourse.

Civil discourse may be understood as purposeful conversation that involves discussion of various perspectives in an attempt to promote mutual understanding and establish common ground. Discourse of this kind enhances understanding, removes existing barriers rather than creating new ones, and upholds the value and dignity of all involved. Within the context of a Christian university, this also entails moving beyond simply tolerating others to truly growing in our ability to love our neighbors as ourselves even as we engage challenging topics.  

As it relates to public performances outside the classroom in COFAP – theater productions, dance recitals, music concerts, etc. – in which students are representing GCU, those performances will be reviewed to ensure they are representative of the University’s stated mission. For example, if students want to perform a dance recital that expresses their viewpoint on racial injustices, the University supports that freedom of expression as long as it is done so in a civil manner that, while it may need to be graphic to get its point across, does not need to be profane. If that performance veers into subject matter that portrays Christianity as a platform for White privilege or White supremacy, faculty members will interject and have a conversation with students in order to find a way for them to express their viewpoint on racial injustices that is consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus as depicted in the New Testament.

In its review, GCU has also addressed a separate incident in which there was a complaint that an aforementioned dance instructor incorporated sexually provocative dance choreography into a classroom setting. While overtly sexually explicit routines may be acceptable at other universities or dance settings, they are not appropriate at a Christian university.

CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW AND RACE/ETHNICITY

In His first public sermon, Jesus Christ taught His early followers to pray for God’s Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth just as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Many Christians who have thoughtfully offered this prayer over the past two millennia have recognized the difficulty of perfectly doing God’s will in a broken world where oppression, discrimination, evil and injustice are far too common. In part this difficulty stems from the individual brokenness of every human being, Christian and non-Christian, which blinds us from seeing clearly where we personally sin and fall short of God’s will. In part the difficulty stems from the fallenness of human cultures and societies, which can amplify the sins of individuals by establishing patterns and systems of brokenness and injustice.

Thus, we begin by humbly acknowledging that GCU is imperfect in its ability to engage issues of race, racism and injustice. Navigating discussions of race, ethnicity and justice in ways that are entirely satisfactory to all parties involved is extremely difficult. Nonetheless, as a Christ-centered university, GCU is committed to a continual and intentional pursuit of truth and justice through civil discourse, social action and compassionate service even if the results are partial and imperfect. Christ alone was capable of living a life of sinless perfection and He alone is able to guide individuals and communities toward renewal, reconciliation and restoration. We look to Him for guidance as we seek to grasp truth, experience grace and more fully demonstrate His love to one another and the neighboring community.

  • Jesus on Race and Ethnicity

A brief survey of Jesus’ life and teaching provides a few key insights into Jesus’ views on race and ethnicity. To state the obvious, He was born within the tribe of Judah and thus identified as a non-White male who adhered to the Law of Moses. His lineage can be traced back to various Jewish ancestors including King David and, before David, to at least one Gentile woman resulting in a mixed racial heritage. Indeed, throughout His ministry within the land of Israel He regularly encountered Gentiles, or non-Jewish people, whom He treated with dignity and respect that ran counter to the norms of the culture into which He was born. He showed compassion to a Roman centurion (Matthew 8), kindness to an outcast among the Samaritans (John 4), and grace to a woman from Phoenicia (Matthew 15).

Jesus’ embrace and inclusion of non-Jewish men and women comported perfectly with the clear teaching of Genesis that all human beings have been created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of dignity, respect and value (Genesis 1:28-30). In this way He extended the blessing of Abraham (Genesis 12:3) to “all families of the earth.” As a result, He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which envisioned the coming Messiah as one who would be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6) in addition to the Savior of Israel.

The resolve of Christ to include all races and ethnicities in God’s Kingdom enables His followers to grasp more clearly the breadth and depth and height of God’s love. God, according to Jesus, is not merely a White man’s God nor is He merely God of any single race or ethnicity. Rather, God’s vision for humanity encompasses those from every “nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). All are welcome in this Kingdom and no single race or ethnicity may lay claim to superiority or supremacy over others.

As can be imagined, this way of speaking of God’s will was not acceptable to the religious and cultural authorities of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ embrace of all races and ethnicities was met with persecution, aggression and violence that would ultimately cost Him His life. His kindness and mercy toward all was not acceptable to all. The broken systems and authorities in power subjected Him to a series of unjust trials and finally crushed Him on a Roman cross. But through His death, burial and resurrection to life He accomplished something that His enemies could not have envisioned. His victory over the powers and authorities of His day gave rise to a new, albeit imperfect, people made up of many races and ethnicities that we now call the church.

  • Race, Ethnicity and the Church

Those who follow Jesus often pray for His will to be done in their lives and in the communities they inhabit, which includes His will as it relates to race and ethnicity. Near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He instructed His followers to go and make more followers, or disciples, of all nations by teaching them the things that He had taught and lived (Matthew 28:18-20). For the first followers, this initially meant telling those in the nearby city of Jerusalem, then the surrounding area of Judea, followed by the area of Samaria, and eventually by spreading Jesus’ message to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). They were to share the good news that those who were once “far off” and alienated from God had been brought near to God in Christ. He had accomplished the unthinkable by “breaking down the wall of hostility” that had formerly separated Jews and non-Jews in order to make them one (Ephesians 2:13-14). He has made peace between groups that were previously hostile to one another and has reconciled all to God and to one another (Ephesians 2:15-20).

This reality has proven challenging throughout the history of the church, and the struggles of Jesus’ followers to perfectly live out this ideal are evident even in the pages of Scripture. Within the early church, Jewish disciples of the risen Christ struggled in relating to men and women of Gentile heritage. At times they excluded those they should have embraced and counted as their equals in the household of God. At other times factions arose that included power struggles, cultural misunderstandings and matters of conscience that were ostensibly connected to various rituals, traditions and cultural norms.

Regardless, members of the early church grappled with the challenges that a God-size vision for race and ethnicity demands. As was to be expected, unlike Jesus the church has been imperfect in its pursuit of this vision. But, even with limitations, the impact of the Kingdom has been undeniable. The message of Christ was carried quickly into parts of Judea and Samaria before His followers entered Gentile regions such as Syria. In short time the message began to spread throughout the Roman empire and churches sprung up in major cities. A learned man from Ethiopia became intrigued by the writings of Isaiah and asked to be baptized in Jesus’ name. Afterward he carried the message into Africa.

Others carried Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation to the ends of the known world before New Testament narrative comes to an end. The rest of the story of race, ethnicity and the church would play out over the centuries that followed in Europe, Africa, Asia and eventually the Americas and Australia. On each of these continents different racial and ethnic groups were offered the same message of truth and grace. And each group had to grapple with the vision of God as it relates to peace and reconciliation for themselves and their societies. In all cases, racial and ethnic strife had manifested itself in various ways prior to the arrival of the Christian message. In the best cases, the message of Jesus subverted hostility and injustice, replacing them with peace and reconciliation with God and others.

  • Challenges in Our Day

Sadly, in many cases race, racism and injustice have not been adequately addressed and the biblical vision of racial reconciliation has not been realized. To deny this grim reality would be a lie and unbecoming of a Christian institution. Consequently, we must work together by first doing what all Christian communities are called to do: namely, speak the truth to ourselves about these matters so that we can address these realities in Jesus’ name. Knowledge of the truth provides the only path to genuine freedom (John 8:15). Second, we must speak truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:15) as a way of moving toward reconciliation. And third, we must put those words into action in ways that bring peace and prosperity to those around us. GCU affirms that redemption is ultimately possible through Jesus Christ alone and that the Christian life must involve compassion and care, not only for the spiritual needs of mankind, but also for needs that stem from poverty, oppression and injustice. The University humbly engages in conversations and activities that meet these needs and will continue to do so to the best of its ability. As Paul wrote to early Christians in Galatia when they were experiencing trying times, both with physical persecution and racial/ethnic internal divisiveness caused by inequality: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

For its part, GCU will not give up on its commitment to do good by continuing to follow Jesus’ word and deed in addressing issues of inequality.

 


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