Should “love” define a Christian university?

Ted Grimsrud

[The following was shared as an opening meditation at a Eastern Mennonite University faculty assembly, November 16, 2015.]

Critiquing North American higher eduction

I listened to Henry Giroux, a political philosopher at Canada’s McMaster University, on the radio a couple of weeks ago. He detailed crises in higher education in North America—and focused, among other things, on how higher education’s work of fostering genuine democracy is increasingly subordinated to the ever more all-encompassing corporate agenda. We have seen these issues dramatically illustrated in the recent student uprising at the University of Missouri.

I am quite sympathetic with Giroux’s critique and think it is relevant for how we think of our work here at EMU. Whatever it all is that “Christian” higher education might be about, it seems like it must include many of the things Giroux talks about—confronting our “cold commodity culture” for the sake of social wholeness, justice, care for the vulnerable, a stronger and more vital democratic public sphere.

But I also felt something was missing in his presentation. That I have a hard time naming what I missed might reflect my own failure of theological imagination. The best I can do is say that there is not much talk about love in his vision. There’s not a lot of talk about compassion, servanthood, turning the other cheek, a Martin Luther King-style sense of “self-suffering” for the sake of social justice.

As I think about what it might mean to be a genuinely Christian college, shaped most of all by the core convictions that the Bible articulates for us, I think of a call to combine social critique with love; to combine saying no to empire, no to corporatism, with saying yes to compassion, to care, to kindness, to valuing each person.

I am not fond of our EMU statement that we aspire to be “A Christian university like no other.” For one thing, it kind of pits us against everyone else; as if we want to be unique. I would rather we think in terms of, say, “A Christian university that seeks to love like Jesus loves”—and to be in solidarity with others that seek this path—so that there are ever more Christian universities like us.

Revelation’s call to combine love and social critique

Let me highlight what I have in mind with a brief mention of the book of Revelation, perhaps not the first (or even the last) place many would look for guidance on how to be a Christian university.

Revelation, however, brings together a vision for Christ-like love with a powerful social critique. We learn in chapters four and five that the victory of God that Revelation so powerfully proclaims comes through the persevering love of the Lamb. He follows a path of resistance to the domination system, which is also a path of consistent love, all the way to the cross (the empire’s form of execution). God vindicates this faithfulness through resurrection, and Revelation four and five contain probably the strongest picture in the Bible of the direct link between the Lamb and the one on the throne—they both are worshiped by all of creation.

Despite its popular reputation as a book of violent judgment, Revelation throughout shows that God’s ways in the world have to do with persevering love, albeit love that confronts the powers while it remains consistently peaceable. This vision is perhaps presented most directly in chapters 13 and 14. Chapter 13 portrays the Beast, mighty, powerful, seemingly irresistible—“who can stand against it?” People from all nations bow down before it. And it has an extraordinarily sophisticated propaganda apparatus, linked with the all-pervasive economic system of the day. All this seems way too similar to our American society today. But the point is not to encourage fatalism and acquiescence. It’s a critique that is meant to empower the Lamb’s followers to resist. The Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”) is created a Beast empowered by Satan himself—to realize this is to resist; the almighty empire does not represent God.

And there is someone standing. “Who can stand” against the Beast”? The Lamb stands. The beginning of chapter 14 insists that the Lamb is victorious. And with the Lamb is an assembly—here numbered 144,000. But we know from an earlier vision that this 144,000 actually symbolizes an uncounted multitude of those who share the pattern of Jesus—faithful witness, suffering, even death, and vindication.

So, John’s message—which is as relevant today as 2,000 years ago—combines critique with a call to the path of love. Christian communities—including Christian universities—do well to heed this message. The big question with Revelation for me, as I have studied it over the years, is not whether it actually gives a message of peace (I have explained my certainty that it does here). The big question is whether we accept its insistence—with the rest of the New Testament—that Jesus’s way of love of neighbor, of enemy, applies to all of life at all times.

If we believe it does, I imagine that belief would have a powerful effect on how we teach, how we research, how we embody life in our community here at EMU. Let’s pray for strength and encouragement to say no to the dynamics in our world that diminish the beauty of creation in all that we do. And for strengthen and encouragement to say yes to love, that we might be agents of healing in all that we do. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Should “love” define a Christian university?

  1. Well said Ted! Thanks for your true imagination of Christian university and interpretation of John’s Revelation And thanks for sharing it with others of us outside EMU on your “Thinking Pacifism” blog!

  2. Ted, I am wondering which part of your remarks created the most creative dissonance within the audience that first heard it. Your call for compassion to be part of what a Christian university is about? Or your call for the searing social critique of Revelation to be part of what a Christian university is about?

    In the social contexts where I am active (mainly congregational), it would be the latter.

    Thank you for publishing this!

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