October 9, 2006
— Martin E. Marty
Theo Emery revisited the theme of nonviolence in his story on the return of James Lawson, expelled Vanderbilt student, to the classroom — this time as a Vanderbilt visiting professor (New York Times, October 4; see References, below). It's an exceptional story, but it has to compete for attention among the current, often religiously relevant, headlined scandals and controversies. Here is some attention:
Controversy marked Lawson's youth, and he has never ducked it from 1960, when he came to prominence, down to the present. His problem: He is and always has been an advocate and embodiment of nonviolence. His mother taught him the nonviolent way. Lawson's ability to draw on the Bible, Methodist theology, and Gandhi allowed him to fuse them into his own developing theology, and action pushed him into central roles in the churchly and academic sides of the civil rights movement. He traveled to India to be closer to Gandhian teaching, and to Vanderbilt Divinity School to be closer to Christian theology with a Methodist stamp.
Unfortunately for his career, he there sat down to eat at the wrong cafeteria tables, sat in the wrong sections of the symphony hall, and sat around in circles of dissenting contemporaries and professors. All this at a not-then-atypically racist university in a mid-southern city, where the violent had power in church and state, press and university, including the divinity school. When the chancellor at Vanderbilt expelled him, much of the divinity faculty resigned. (We at Chicago profited because one among them, Langdon Gilkey, then taught here for decades.)
That was then, now is now. In the meantime, Vanderbilt desegregated and did some curricular atoning, beginning in the divinity school. Even the chancellor who booted Lawson repented and apologized as the university found ways to heal old breaches. Then came a surprise: The current chancellor appointed him to teach on the theme of nonviolence. He attracts eager students for whom the early civil rights movement seems as remote as the Middle Ages, and at a time when nonviolence rarely gets a hearing. Lawson bears no grudges, but he remains a lonely voice on the nonviolent religious or, for that matter, any other front.
Vanderbilt does not censor or fetter Lawson, or seem to worry about what his continuing nonviolent stance might "cost" the school. Emery reports, for instance, that after a talk on the Bible and Gandhi, Lawson responded to a student's question about nonviolence in a violent age. You will not understand Lawson and his movements unless I report that as he talked about the "international arms trade and how difficult it was to disarm a society armed to the teeth," he did some dangerous comparing. (Any of our readers who are disturbed by any quotation that might suggest equivalences between "Us" and "Them," please hold your fire. Nonviolence does provoke violent reaction, still.)
Lawson's answer: "I don't happen to think that Islam is the most violent religion. I think Christianity is. As a Christian, I think we need to think about ourselves first, and clean up our own act." There are obviously other things to be said on that subject, but this one comment at least should be entered into the record as we debate arms policies and both international and domestic affairs: "We need to think about ourselves first," and take it from there.
Theo Emery's article "Activist Ousted From Vanderbilt Is Back, as a Teacher" appeared in the October 4 edition of the New York Times and may be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/04/education/04lawson.html?_r=1&ref=education&oref=slogin.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.