Richard X, The Woke Divine
At Yale Divinity School, a “Dear Theo” letter is an open missive to the YDS community, usually written anonymously, and sent in the school’s daily e-mail to students. Here’s one that went out yesterday. It is such a perfect specimen of the kind of thing it is that one ought to recite it aloud, as if it were a sacred text of an arcane crackpot religion:
The Amazing Grace of the White Theological Academy
Yale Divinity School is haunted.
Like all other white theological academic spaces, there is an ever-present ghostly specter that looms over the Quad, that dwells in the chapel, and sits in our classes. It is a remnant of a world that we love to pretend does not exist or only exists in the writings of yesteryears. However, slowly through the writings of Dr. Willing Jennings in After Whiteness: After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, this phantom comes into focus.
“there is an image of an educated person that propels the curricular, pedagogical, and formational energies of Western education, and especially theological education. That image is of a white, self-sufficient man, his self-sufficiency defined by possession, control, and mastery.”
At the intersection of what Jennings describes, there is a triad of terror, a haunting myth called meritocracy. However, it may be reductionist to call meritocracy solely a myth. It is an evil byproduct of what Emile Townes names as the “fantastic hegemonic imagination.” Meritocracy seeks to assign value and worth to bodies based upon their productivity and judge the inherent value of bodies based upon their utility. From politics to policing and most relevant to this letter, pedagogy, meritocracy has been a centering ethos for the project of anti-blackness.
Ah, so achievement is racist. Let’s continue:
This past week, this specter enfleshed itself in the soiled imagination of our faculty. A decision was made to offer students the chance to change their grading structure from letters to the credit or no credit format. The credit or no credit format allows students to receive a grade for passing a class with an HP- which roughly translates to an 80% or above. Yet, due to the advocating of students, faculty, and committees, some students will be allowed to choose between receiving the standard letter grade or the credit or no credit format.
The most unsettling part of this ethical conundrum is to hear members of the Yale community describe this decision as “grace.” Grace? How does one mistake a ghost for grace? What manner of grace is this?
What grace demands that bodies contort to the whimsical pretense that we sustain some matter of normativity?
What grace demands that bodies crash against and stumble over themselves during a season with unknown stress and anxiety?
What grace demands that the illusions of scholarship and academia remain unsoiled by the messiness of a dying world?
What grace upholds the name and prestige of Yale by demanding for students to “pull themselves up at their bootstraps” and produce work?
This is the ghost of white male meritocracy. This is the afterlife of the auction block manifest within the theological academy. This is not grace.
A change in the grading policy at Yale Divinity School has echoes of chattel slavery? Of course it does! More:
Grace ruptures our narratives about worth and worthiness. Grace throws into chaos our claims of personal achievement and success. Grace turns over the table of production. Grace is an ethic of counter living, a living over and against the capitalist impulse of production, and the ways it traffics in the maintenance of our exhaustion and anxiety. Grace is the response to what has already been done and not what we can do ourselves.
Since the demand of production remains central, and the subsequent; evaluative measures of said production persist, so then the claim of grace by Yale is empty, futile, graceless.
Extending final paper deadlines, no matter how flexible, is not grace.
Allowing students to use notes, no matter how copious, on final tests is not grace.
Giving fewer guidelines for final projects, no matter how creative, is not grace.
One cannot practice grace and meritocracy at the same time.
Grace is not a conditional clause. Grace is a promiscuous promise.
What then, is this “grace” that Yale has offered?
It is the “amazing grace” that Anglican clergyman John Newton wrote about while owning black slaves. A song that I have heard so confidently sung in spaces of white theology and academy. It is the grace that allows one to experience the warm embrace of white saviorism and to commit it to paper on the rhythm and soul of Black bodies, bodies whose lives never knew the grace Newton claimed so freely for himself. It is the amazing grace that allows one to see their individual practice as reform to a system filled with corpses. It is the amazing grace that proclaims that “not all professors” (just like “not all police”) have practiced violent pedagogy in an academic system of production that is inherently violent.
It is a cheap grace that doesn’t require us to confront our fantastical ideals concerning assigning value and worth to what bodies can produce, even our own. It is nothing but the latest example of the lukewarm euphoria of neoliberalism that allows us to pat ourselves on the back while at the same time still holding tightly to our illusions about who we are as scholars, illusions of Yale as an institution.
It seems as though our beloved Yale community will acknowledge the presence of systemic racism, sexism, heteronormativity and injustice everywhere but at its own doorstep, sitting comfortably at its own table and feasting on the bodies of its own students.
This is the “amazing grace” that Yale Divinity has offered its students and faculty.
We have been allowed the honor to choose the knot of our noose.
We must not.
I remind you, reader, that this is about a shift in the grading policy. More:
This choice is not manna from heaven, this is crumbs from masters table.
Yet, benevolent anti-blackness is still anti-blackness.
The only graceful response is to give every student an H for every class for this semester.
Anything less is sin.
Anything less is violence.
Anything else is worthy of rioting.
Anything less is worth nothing at all.
I have no nuance in this claim.
I offer no tension to think through.
There is no caveat or “what ifs.”
There is no ethical middle ground.
I offer no such comfort to a University that is hell-bent on the maintenance of its image rather than the mental health and stability of its students. A University that rather kneel at the altar of accreditation boards and regulations than take up the costly call toward radical discipleship. A University that presents itself as “Christian,” the same way America does, that is to use the narrative of a blood-filled story to legitimize the blood it so casually spills every day.
Every student, Every class. An H.
An H to honor that we are still here.
We are still here despite a disease called Coviod-19 that has claimed millions
We are still here despite a disease called Coviod-45 who too has clutched the lives of millions
We are still here despite the cannibalistic capitalist nature of theological academic spaces
We are still here despite the parasitic posturing of administers and deans
We are still here.
We may not be flourishing, blossoming, or rejoicing.
But we are here. Still.
While a universal pass would relieve the gut-wrenching anxiety of finals, it would do nothing to confront our pre-pandemic problem with worthiness and productivity. An H for all s would make the H, the prized possession of Yale’s grading system essentially worthless. It would irreconcilably defund its worth and utility. Without a doubt, it would mean the end of the grading system as we know it. Afterward, would require that we lean toward imagining something else, a way of grace to engage student scholarship without indicators or markers of performance.
The irony is all this talk about grace is that Yale is always asking for some.Grace for the racism black students experience in class every day.
Grace for their sexist microaggressions and mishandlings of transgender students.
Grace for its centering of Christian normativity and dismissal of other forms of spirituality.
But the grace they ask for is a forgetfulness.
A willingness to ignore their commitment to violence and students just be grateful just to be here.
We can no longer offer this. We can no longer settle for this. This is the only grace that I can offer:
Yale Divinity School, despite its behavior, is still here. Unbroken. Unburnt. Untouched by the cloud of witnesses consumed with righteous indignation at the sins of Yale University.
Grace by us students, especially black students abounds.
But how amazing, how sweet the sound will be, when that grace finally runs out.
Golly. Sounds like the white supremacist dog ate his homework.
OK, this is spectacularly stupid, and let’s be fair to Yale Divinity School: there is no reason to think that Richard X represents its entire student body. But after snorting at the Epistle of Richard X, I believe we should take it seriously. Our failure to take this kind of insanity seriously is one reason it has gotten so far.
As I point out in Live Not By Lies, no society can afford to ignore the thoughts and discourse of its elites. Twenty years ago, what we now call “gender ideology” was a niche academic concern. Today, we have the incoming President of the United States having recently voiced his support for transgendered eight-year-olds. Whether you are for it or against it, you have to admit that it is an extraordinary social change.
Similarly on race, Critical Race Theory is smashing the post-1960s MLK consensus on how to think about race in America. I mentioned yesterday that a reader who works for a large Evangelical Christian organization, one whose name and reputation even non-Evangelicals would know, told me in detail that the organization is swiftly radicalizing from within, around Critical Race Theory. The reader said that one of the most stunning things about this is that the radicalizing leadership is unwilling to accept dissent. Either you are on board with it, or you need to pack your bags, racist.
In the Richard X letter, notice the emotional hysteria. This is something I see a lot in statements by the Woke. They are exhausted, they tell us. They are usually in the most privileged environments in this country, but they write as if they are huddling in a barn on the underground railroad while armed Kluckers patrol the perimeter. Can you imagine trying to have a meaningful debate with Richard X? Think of poor Prof. Nicholas Christakis on the yard at Yale back in 2015, trying to have a rational dialogue with the Woke mob, which just shrieked and cursed and grieved and … carried on in the Richard X rhetorical mode.
It is shameful and undignified. It is childish. But it works. Why are these adult students so damn fragile? Why do they revel in their fragility, in their victimhood? I don’t believe it is merely a conscious strategy to gain power. I think they really do believe it. Where did they get this stuff?
More to the point: how do we stop it in its tracks?
After reading the letter, I put the question to a friend who is in graduate school in the humanities at an Ivy League college. He lives among the Richard Xs of the world, and said the stance and style of that letter is quite familiar. He is a conservative and a Christian, but one who, by his own admission, has kept his head down and “engaging in more ketman than I’d like to admit.”
(Ketman is the Persian practice of intentional hypocrisy and double-mindedness — of presenting yourself falsely to the world to protect yourself. I write about it in Live Not By Lies, as something that people had to do under Communism.)
My friend said he knew he was entering a Woke lion’s den when he started studying at that school, but that he had hoped when he arrived that once his leftist peers got to know him, they would at least be willing to listen to his views. After a couple of years, though, he has given up hope. They don’t want to know what people like him think about anything. They just want to crush them as evil.
I asked him what the Richard X letter, in light of his own experiences at an Ivy League grad school, tells him about the future of the Christian faith in this country. He replied:
Until something happens that proves the error of this kind of reasoning, there is no stopping it. These arguments, like Freud’s, are unfalsifiable. “You either see the pervasive blackness, or you’re too blinded by privilege.” The woke movement will either take over discourse, or it will eat itself alive, I can’t tell which.
I wonder, though, about the graduates of Yale Divinity School: where will the graduates of this program teach? The kinds of churches that embrace full-tilt wokeness are dying. On the other hand, opportunities are opening up in more mainstream Christianity, which is fast awokening among the younger generations. It is ultimately a sterile gospel, one that will put the nails in the coffin of Christianity. But it has the wind in its sails.
Last night on a webinar, a viewer asked me how we can engage the Woke in dialogue. I told the viewer that we could not. They are un-engageable. They are fanatics that cannot be reasoned with — watch the Christakis video if you doubt me — only resisted. As my Ivy League friend said, their arguments are unfalsifiable. If you disagree with them, that shows that you are not simply wrong, but also evil.
As I have written in this space before, a different friend who did graduate work in an Ivy — he’s European — said that the most striking thing to him was the fragility of American students. He said that these were among the most privileged people in America (and therefore the world), people who had no doubt at all that they were meant to rule. Yet they were ultra-fragile, emotionally and psychologically. He said this was a very bad sign for America’s future.
He was talking about Richard X, I see now.
These people are not liberals by any stretch. They are zealots who have surrendered their minds to an essentially religious ideology. Any organization that lets these people in and gives them authority is inviting its own destruction. If you see an organization, religious or otherwise, that gives people like Richard X standing, run the other way.