Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Surprises in Racism’s Scope? Limits of ICS’s Calling?

by Henk Hart
This post is part of the series Uprooting Racism.

Now that we are seriously beginning to face up to racism, is it helpful to realize that what we see in racism is a broader phenomenon than discrimination focused on someone’s race? 

I thank Dean for starting off this blog series with a contribution that clearly outlines what some of the key issues are. I thank him also for being as critical as necessary. Necessary for the health of ICS, necessary also for assessing the integrity we need to address the obvious problems. Finally, I thank him for focussing on black racism, which in our time presents itself as the defining face of racism. By writing as he did he introduced us to a blog series on racism as both relevant and significant. Inescapably so. The intensity with which this evil presents itself and the tenacity with which it is being addressed by its victims and their supporters gives us hope that our time can become known as the beginning of the end of universal white supremacy.

I would normally experience this challenge as a divine calling that calls for an energetic response. Unfortunately, my personal circumstances are far from normal. So I limit myself to briefly addressing two issues I think I encountered in Dean’s blog. One concerns the scope of racism. The other is how an institution like ICS may be expected to take on racism as part of its calling.

Today, racism presents its ugliness in North America specifically as black racism. But what of fellow citizens who are Chinese or Indigenous? Indeed, what of the multitude in our multiracial society who experience racism in one form or another but are not black? Will they be forgotten and will that add to the racist pain they experience? Or can “black racism” serve as a temporary indicator of all racism? Or is “black racism” an unavoidable focus for our time, lest the momentum be lost?

Now that we are seriously beginning to face up to racism, is it helpful to realize that what we see in racism is a broader phenomenon than discrimination focused on someone’s race? Are trans people less vulnerable to painful discrimination because the police cannot spot them? Is it easier to be a lesbian than being black? Is racism not a specific manifestation of a deeper problem with a greater scope, namely discrimination focused on a dimension of who a person unavoidably is beyond that person’s ability to change? Is the average white male God’s norm for being human?

I believe these issue are more important than we customarily think. So I take it to be part and parcel of the second issue I wish to raise: is ICS just the kind of institution suitable to investigate in a practically relevant way what racism really is? Could that be as important as studying black authors or appointing black faculty? Dean emphatically challenges ICS by asking about the significance of our work: "not as a byproduct of themes or ideas we study, but directly?" The question is important beyond its rhetorical effects in a blog. Just what does "directly" mean? What does it mean for an institution like ICS?

I do not foresee my continuing participation in this blog. I deeply regret this. Doing so would add to the meaning of the last months of my life. ICS has always meant to me the kind of institution characterized by blogs like Dean’s. So I am grateful that after almost 55 years, the existential engagement with the key issues of our times remains.

Hendrik "Henk" Hart was the first Senior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, where he taught from its founding in 1967 until his retirement in 2001. Over the course of his career, Henk has explored such themes as, among others, the relationship between reason and faith, what the call to do justice means for Christians, and how the Bible might be read for the sake of wisdom in God's world.

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*Editorial Note, cont. from previous post

Since our last post, Henk has graciously expanded upon ICS's engagement with colleagues in South Africa, as well as his own experiences and time spent in South Africa during the apartheid era. The following note stems from a conversation with Henk on the topic.

Henk locates the beginnings of ICS's engagement with issues of apartheid in the controversial visit of pro-apartheid philosopher Hendrik Stoker to ICS in 1973. After this visit, Stoker encouraged Henk to visit South Africa for himself, which Henk and his wife Anita then did. Henk arranged a multi-week tour of the country through official South African government channels, and a parallel tour was privately arranged for him by C.F. Beyers Naudé. The goal of the government's tour was to propagandize the apartheid government, while the tour Naudé arranged put Henk into direct contact with some Black South African communities and took Henk around to various universities.
Henk describes then first becoming aware of the radically different narratives between the two tours, as well as the differences between the pro-apartheid government spokespeople and Afrikaner Calvinist universities, and the Black communities into which Henk was invited. So again in 1975, Henk returned to South Africa to spend a year's sabbatical there. Issue 9.3 (1975) of Perspective details the then-upcoming trip, and issue 10.6 (1976) of Perspective provides a post-sabbatical account of his journey. 

Henk's time in South Africa deeply informed his later work--especially his thought on justice. While lecturing, preaching, and visiting all over the country, he wrote the manuscript for what would become the book Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology. Upon his return to Toronto, he also delivered the lecture entitled "The Just Shall Live," at the Conference on Calvinism and Racism at Calvin College (now University) in 1985. Out of this conference, Calvin adopted its "Comprehensive Plan for Integrating North American Ethnic Minority Persons and Their Interests into Every Facet of Calvin's Institutional Life" (which continues to inform its institutional actions and goals today), and Henk went on to publish that lecture in the journal Catalyst and Christian Scholar's Review.

Henk suggests (as he does in this post) that other ICS Senior Members' wrestlings with racism throughout the years have often taken shape under the broader topic of justice, wherein issues of racism are considered specific examples of a larger/systemic problem. While many of our Senior Members' reflections on these issues have made their way into published forms like books and articles, many (like Henk's) were also delivered as addresses on speaking tours across Canada and the U.S., sermons in local churches, or academic symposia, and are no longer (or, at least, not easily) accessible today.

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