Monday, February 9, 2015

To Mr. Metaxas, On the Sewanee Community

Today's guest blog features Lauren Joca, a recent graduate of The University of the South. She wrote an open letter in response to the recent controversy over a speech delivered by an honorary degree recipient at the most recent convocation ceremony held on campus. It certainly deserves a read! 

Dear Mr. Metaxas,
We are all aware of the “controversy” incited by your Convocation address, a student’s response to your address, and your reaction to the student’s response. I hesitate to call it a controversy because it never should have become one. You wrote a speech that I fully suspect you wanted to be controversial. Inasmuch, it did not sit well with certain students and those students voiced their opinions, which you, frankly, encouraged them to do in the first place. The self-serving controversy you have created is deeply upsetting to an alumnus who has had to accept that The University of the South has given an honorary degree to a man who profoundly misunderstands the institution. Your misunderstanding is evidenced by the puerile response you had to a student’s opinion piece and your demand for an apology. While I would very much enjoy going into the hypocrisies of your speech and following actions, I believe those have been well addressed by my fellow alumnae, students, and University faculty. I encourage you to read the wonderfully written open letter penned by Lara Lofdahl, another young alum. I have been working on this letter myself to, hopefully, elucidate the values of The University of the South that you so clearly missed on your visit. I hope that I can help you see why your speech may have offended some, fallen on the deaf ears of others, and ultimately was inappropriate in the context of Convocation. Finally, I hope by now you recognize that you will not receive an apology from the University or from the newspaper because you are not owed one.

Sewanee: The University of the South is many things, not one of which is a close-minded institution, illiberal, and oppressive of free speech. Rather, tucked away on the Cumberland Plateau in rural Tennessee, Sewanee represents a bastion of faith and freedom of expression. The Convocation addresses that came before you have included such varied and influential minds as Desmond Tutu, Wendell Berry, Barbara Bush, Marguerite Kondracke, and Stan Brock. To put it simply, you were in exceptional company. Unfortunately, unlike your speech, their addresses have not been archived. Their words of faith and bravery in action can only be re-lived by those who were there to hear the speeches or through short Sewanee Purple reviews. These speeches did not seem to create such lasting controversy as yours has. This is not surprising at all considering these other speakers simply did not take to social media to disparage students of the University of the South or the University itself. There, sir, you are not in good company.   

One of the most impressive qualities about Sewanee is that it is a strong religious institution, but taught its students moral regard without using overtly religious means. As a freshmen, each and every student must sign the Honor Code. The punishment for failing to follow the Honor Code was expulsion. Classes were often discussion based with students graded on their participation. In this setting, we learned the skills of civil discourse and respect for opposing views in a well-constructed argument. The Passing Hello and Save Sewanee exclamation encouraged connection with your community, even if brief. We showed our professors respect through attendance and practicing class dress. We learned tolerance through hosting a myriad of organizations including Sustain Sewanee, the Gender and Sexual Diversity House, College Republicans, College Democrats, Beyond Sewanee, and the Posse-Plus Retreat. The carillon bells on Sunday never felt like ominous reminders that I was falling short on my faith by spending my afternoon in Shakerag Hollow, the ATC, or even on a couch outside with an adult beverage because the world had finally thawed. In Sewanee, that is something worth celebrating. No, in Sewanee, falling short on my treatment of the community felt much more like falling short on faith.

All this is not to say that people at Sewanee were not devout or felt uncomfortable expressing their devotion. It was almost a guarantee to have a class with a sacristan or a choir member. Students bore Ash Wednesday marks without worry. Lessons and Carols was one of the most popular and heavily-attended events in the community. Before this celebration, the Sewanee community, including students, worked together to decorate All Saint’s Chapel. If students were of another denomination or faith, they often travelled together to different churches or temples in the area. We explored faith together by participating in Growing in Grace. Our Outreach Office was housed within All Saint’s Chapel and practiced faith-based service.

For all of these reasons, I find fault with many of the sentiments you have supported on your Facebook page suggesting that we are a faith-fearing community, skittish around the mention of Jesus. I cannot assure you more that this is far from the truth. Where people may find fault with your speech in All Saint’s Chapel is using their religion to support intolerant ideas. While you are correct that we must be open to hearing opposing views, that opposition is necessary in open discourse, and speech must remain a protected freedom, we have no duty to be tolerant of the intolerant. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt that way, as did Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. Their faith gave them the courage to fight against injustice. Indeed in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King states, “One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’" To suggest that, “there is a particular move afoot on campuses and elsewhere to marginalize and even to demonize voices of traditional and historic Christian faith. That’s one of the big issues of our time,” is to seriously misinterpret these movements. In 1964, when some were interpreting the Bible to justify segregation, the exemplary basketball coach Dean Smith sought the guidance of his pastor to integrate Chapel Hill. Furthermore, I point you to the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina led by Reverend William Barber. He is not demonizing traditional Christian faith, he is fighting against hate, injustice, and disenfranchisement. We on Sewanee’s campus do not tolerate these either, nor do we accept these as precepts of traditional and historic Christian faith.

While I recognize that I will not change your own personal beliefs with my remarks, I feel it necessary to show you the faith that Sewanee taught me. It is a faith based in compassion. You say we should hear stories of women who regret their abortions. I agree, I think these women can teach us where we as a society have fallen short. I ask her, why was she so devastated by it? Was it a decision she felt forced into by the other parent? When she shared her decision, was she met with vitriol from friends, family, or her community? Was she forced to face the procedure alone? Did anyone tell her that they understand what she did and why she did it? That they understand, at that moment in time, it was the best decision she could have made for herself, and perhaps even the unborn? In the case of this deeply personal and difficult decision, we must hear, with a compassionate ear, all stories. Perhaps asking whether someone is in favor of marriage equality shuts down the conversation because it is meant to. Is it not prideful of man to assume they can interpret fully the word of God? Is it not ultimately up to Him how we will be judged? Why then should we prevent His children from experiencing, one of the greatest gifts He ever gave us, love?

I will not, of course, pretend that Sewanee is perfect. I have known students that felt slighted by the actions the University has taken on sensitive matters. I, personally, have been stuck in an unsavory position because the University mishandled a student conflict. When these things have happened, what did I do? What did other students do? I felt comfortable expressing my frustrations to a Dean and passing responsibility back to the University. Others formed protests and made clearly visible their own criticisms of the institution. One of the most celebrated events at Sewanee in recent years is The Sewanee Monologues. A prime example of freedom of expression that gives students the chance to discuss drinking and partying at Sewanee, the sexism found on campus, racism, body image, and even the hook-up culture. I assure you that the monologues written about these issues have rarely been celebratory and have introduced critical discussions about human relations on Sewanee’s campus. In short, Sewanee has its problems, but rarely are they shied away from. I have the inclination that when Sewanee makes a mistake, everyone, from the administration to the faculty to the students, is aware of it and feels free to discuss it in any medium they choose, no matter what side they have taken.

I had hoped that someone receiving an honorary degree from my alma mater would feel just that- honored. It is an honor to hold a degree from the University of the South. It is an honor to be a part of such a tight-knit community. It is an honor to have been able to experience the Mountain, learn on the Mountain, and grow on the Mountain. I hope now that you realize why your message may not have been well received, but, more than that, I hope you understand why it was criticized in our paper and why you will not receive an apology for it. Your actions since receiving a degree from The University of the South have insulted current students, past students, and the institution I hold dear. I hope you reflect on these actions and come to understand what makes Sewanee such an exceptional example of liberal arts education in the United States. It deserves your respect. Yea, Sewanee’s right.

Sincerely,

Lauren Joca, Class of 2013

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