I hope I am wrong about this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy at Duke Divinity School. The facts at the heart of the controversy are contested right now, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the events, so rather than attempt to summarize the matter here are a couple of news stories about it: 1, 2.
Some of my colleagues in the Methoblog and Twitterverse have reacted as if this is no big deal and will blow over. Richard Hays is a respected scholar. All he did was quote the doctrine of the United Methodist Church as dean of a United Methodist seminary. This is Duke, after all.
I hope so.
What I have seen among those who call themselves moderates and conservatives in the UMC in recent years, however, is a shocking lack of understanding how political and protest movements operate. One of the first goals of a successful protest is to have a clearly defined enemy. This is often a person, someone on whom the protest can focus attention and use as a symbol. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role. Whether he seems like a villain to many Duke alumni or the many pastors who read and admire his books is beside the point. He is being nominated to wear the black hat in a drama that will play out mostly before people who have no idea who Richard Hays is and have never read a word he has written.
Perhaps he will succeed in declining the invitation.
Another rule that I fear is not understood at the moment is that in politics the norms of academic debate and discussion have no authority. Dean Hays appears to be attempting to respond to the crisis as if it were merely an internal seminary concern. If he succeeds in keeping the controversy on that ground, then he will likely resolve the crisis with little long-term damage to himself or Duke. But already the engines of political action are in gear. People are spreading versions of events designed to provoke outrage. People are throwing around words like “abuse of power” and other people are repeating them. People are reading the letter Hays wrote and accusing him of attacking the woman who asked the question that led to the controversy: A white man with power using his power and privilege to attack and silence a dissenting female voice. The narrative builds this way.
One of the news stories linked above says Hays has invited key student leaders to sit down and talk about the issue. If the students — or others — demand a public spectacle in the place of personal conversation, you can rest assured that the demands of the protest are driving the agenda.
I hope I’m wrong.
I recall a story at another United Methodist seminary where a successful pastor was lambasted for sharing his honest efforts to honor his convictions about biblical morality and pastoral care. Interestingly, that story also involved the quotation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The school responded by apologizing.
Hays has not apologized. Indeed, he has been criticized (in a post Tweeted by the Reconciling Ministries Network) for seeking to clarify rather than apologize. I hope he and Duke are able to work on the issues internally, but I worry that such hopes are naive.