Message from the Dean: A Call for Witness, Study, and Self-Examination to Address Systemic Racism and Injustice
Dear Duke Divinity School Community,
These turbulent times call us at Duke Divinity School to focus on transformational Christian witness, study, and self-examination in new ways. As our society, and indeed the whole world, is engaged in a reckoning, so too Duke Divinity School needs to reckon with our own complicity in systems of oppression. Duke Divinity School must be a leader in examining and seeking to change systemic patterns of racism and other injustice. We are all called to address the centuries-long racism and injustice that have been exposed and intensified both by the pandemic and the police brutality and killing of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among many others in recent years. the Divinity School will be taking stock and finding ways to sharpen how the School witnesses to the Reign of God in our work and institutional life. This includes considering how we conduct our institutional life as well as prepare students for public ministry and Christian witness. All of this requires a new period of self-examination.
As people and an institution centered in Jesus Christ, Duke Divinity School must continually focus on the ways our work reflects Christ’s mission and how it impedes it. Duke Divinity School must explore new paradigms and possibilities with greater intentionality and clarity than the efforts already underway. We recognize that the issues that need to be addressed are systemic and, therefore, deeper and broader than police violence or racist attitudes: as the pandemic has exposed and intensified, this includes economic and health inequities that disproportionally harm people and communities of color, and longstanding systemic issues in such areas as education, housing, work, food security, criminal justice, and immigration. We cannot address everything simultaneously. Even so, this is a time for the Divinity School to exercise leadership as a keystone institution of theological education.
Empowered by the resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, we are focused on enabling people, communities, and institutions to discover hope and possibilities for new life and peace—in every area of life that cries out for the life-giving love and mercy of God. We draw a compelling example from the early church’s witness. The early Christians surprised the world in numerous life-giving ways. Their emphasis on Jesus of Nazareth as the full revelation of the true God lay at the heart of their message of salvation from death and the opportunity to live new and renewed life apart from the dominion of sin. Christians introduced an understanding of the human being that led to transformative social developments: ecclesial structures that produced powerful networks of new bonds across time and space (new “families”); economic patterns that generated shared responsibilities and benefits (radical provision for the needy); local practices and durable institutions that cared for the most vulnerable (e.g., the sick, the poor, the orphans); and rigorous intellectual formation that furthered this healing process (e.g., churches, texts, and schools).
We need similar boldness in these tumultuous times. Our study and self-examination must be oriented toward faithful witness. Toward that end, I am convening three task forces to co-lead these efforts. They will draw in and consult with others as they discern and propose paths forward. I am asking for interim reports by August 1, and full reports with specific recommendations by October 1.
The focus on “witness” will be on how congregations and pastors can serve as catalysts, conveners, and curators to address the intersecting challenges of our time. What will it take to design and implement strategies that effect transformational, long-term change in addressing such overlapping realities as racial injustice, health and economic inequities, the need for new jobs and new educational patterns? How can Duke Divinity School come alongside pastors, congregations, and other community partners? What will this require that Duke Divinity School be and do differently? How can this be sustainable?
The focus on “study” will be on how our curricula, degree programs, and delivery systems can be cultivated to equip wise Christian pastors and other leaders to address the critical intersecting challenges described above. How do our courses, our formation, our pedagogies, need to shift to equip faithful and effective Christian leaders? Even though the Divinity School has been a leader in theological education for many years, it is clear that what got us “here” isn’t likely to get us “there.”
The focus on “self-examination” will be on how Duke Divinity School's internal practices need to change for us to be more faithful and effective. What issues of systemic racism does Duke Divinity School need to address and what opportunities does the School need to seize? What practices might the Divinity School develop to work creatively toward a more faithful and effective embodiment of our Christian commitments? What implications might this have for our engagements across Duke University, and with other partners near and far?
Duke Divinity School has made many inspiring contributions toward doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Our humanity, however, makes us inclined to regressions and transgressions personally and institutionally, and there is much more that we must do. As we rejoice in the signs of hope that we have witnessed in our community, we seek to answer the call for repenting, reforming and recommitting ourselves to prepare leaders to help congregations and communities be the light of Christ for the world.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. L. Gregory Jones
Dean of the Divinity School
Williams Distinguished Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry