A partial fulfillment of a response to early questions on “What is a University?”

GFM H2O BottleIn my earlier post, I received a couple of comments, as well as some off-line responses that I will initiate a reply to here. As some of the readers know, I posted a link for my colleagues in IFES to read and respond to. Thanks to the nifty statistical apps embedded in WordPress, I learned that the post has been read throughout the globe, presumably by those in IFES. The post proper, regarded the question of “What is the University?”, and to be sure, I only intend to start a series that will respond to that question, and I observed some of the severe problems existing within the university.

Towards the end of the post, I raised some questions for Christian ministries. I serve within InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a Christian ministry in the USA that serves on college campuses among students and faculty. I raised questions at the end of the post that asked why InterVarsity would have an exclusive focus upon developing ministries of evangelism and chapter planting in light of the pervasiveness of the many problems that are both unique, intertwined, and interlocking on the largest of the R1’s down to the smallest of the community college campuses.

I suggested—missed by some readers, I hasten to add—that all of those involved in university life, including Christian ministries, would do well to “hit the pause button”, take a deep breath, and ask more penetrating questions. In the case of InterVarsity and its allies, I am of the mind that we are well equipped to perform such tasks: of reflection, of listening, and of self-critique. I must add here: It turns out we are well-prepared and well-equipped for such tasks, and I would posit our range of influence possesses a greater radius among administrators, faculty, and students than we understand: or risk to understand.

If you scroll down to the comments on the post, you’ll observe Bob and Vinoth’s comments; the latter’s questions take on a much more focused appraisal of the dedication to evangelism and chapter planting made by the senior leadership of InterVarsity. However, both Bob and Vinoth have questions that overlap with each other. I’m going to risk here a conflation of their questions, and then, with future posts, disentangle that merging.

To wit: The Gospel of Jesus Christ makes enormous claims upon our lives while simultaneously offering the human person a remarkable breadth of freedom to respond to such claims. What outcomes might follow from acting on those claims in the kind of initiatives and responses in the university that promote human flourishing, interrogate and develop disciplines, and construct academic, student, and faculty structures?

Well… If you’re on InterVarsity Staff or you’re a faculty member, or students, or even an alumnae/alumnus, one might expect some signal in the ministry that makes reference to the Statement of Faith, and you’ll find a couple of items that are worth your attention. First, a linking statement gets made: “our beliefs lead us to these core values”, and second, a statement of context:

College and University
We are called to be a redeeming influence
among its people, ideas, and structures.

So, if you’re a missiologist like myself, or a missionary like myself, or merely one who pays close attention to statements like these and watches what follow, you likely have some questions. Such as: What is this movement from “beliefs” to “core values”? The core values, as you no doubt have observed, are inventoried below the context statement. But, how is that movement made from beliefs to core values? And, why is the “context” inserted?

As almost an afterthought, the statement of faith realizes: “Oops! No faith is ever falling from the sky! Our faithfulness to the Gospel always takes place in some socio-cultural community, and ours overlaps with the university.” OK. Good. Perhaps, the context statement serves as a bridge to the core values. Let’s assume that to be true for the moment. And, let me insert something that the authors could not have known, although possibly anticipated: Their notion in the year 2000 of the answer to the question, “What is the University?”, can hardly serve in 2018. If pressed, I trust the authors would assent to more of a dynamic, living version of the answer. Let’s return to the bridge proposal.

The calling presents as vital, and from my social location: exciting! Such is my evangelical heritage: The winsome, non-oppressive, proclamation of the Gospel flows from an initial, now-enduring, encounter with the risen Jesus, who has given us the Holy Spirit. Without diverting too far from the post, let me suggest that the calling could plausibly contribute to energizing the most flaccid of evangelical communities. But, here is where Bob and Vinoth’s questions return to us.

As of now, in conversations with senior leadership of InterVarsity, one hears two distinct messages. One message recently declared a new sense of calling for the fellowship is to reach every corner of every campus. This “reaching” will be empowered by ministries of evangelism and chapter planting. A variety of resources, from cultivating prayer that both transforms people and intercedes for the campus, to increasing funding and to fund in more equitable ways, to developing training resources for staff, students, and faculty, to establishing new and renewed partnerships with other campus ministries: will be cultivated, grown, and deepened for the fulfillment of the calling. All of this sense of calling and the manifest resources has its origins in the senior leadership. All of the executives and management have oriented themselves toward interpreting and establishing plans to fulfill this calling.

The other message, though, fascinates me. When asked about “who” in the senior leadership has assumed responsibility for developing the redeeming influence for the ideas and structures on campus, the reply has continued to present remarkably and uniformly: “It is best if this development comes from the field staff.”

Many, many affirmations and critiques can—and should—be made of both messages. If we take up the conflation question I posed earlier, what we can mildly state is the following: Responding to Jesus Christ as Lord presents as a form of human flourishing. Recognition of the fallenness in a human person that occurs in the movement towards the healing, deliverance, liberation, and forgiveness offered exclusively in Jesus can surely receive affirmation as a form of human flourishing. Insofar as InterVarsity participates in a joyful and crisp declaration of the Gospel and such responses continue: Amen. One can hardly deny the enduring importance of such transformation. Indeed, such proclamation remains as an on-going imperative for Christians of all cultures and traditions.

But, what of the ideas and structures? Both Bob and Vinoth, coming from different angles, wonder about this. Vinoth makes the historical observation of campus outcomes, of which have power exerted throughout the globe; Bob asks about a long-term influence and (sorry Bob to put words in your mouth) the massive “what if” InterVarsity staff took on a longer emphasis to their respective campus context that would move the disciplinary content and university structures toward increasing human flourishing. Vinoth wonders if the senior leadership even has this concern for ideas and structures in their purview, the publication of the contextual statement notwithstanding.

It will come as no surprise: I wonder about this daily.

I fear the relative silence about ideas and structures runs in parallel to the lack of conversation and consultation between senior leaders across InterVarsity with their IFES colleagues. Let me identify or make transparent here a commitment and its attendant idea that dwells in an exclusive focus upon becoming a redeeming influence among people in a North American, evangelical context: When you commit to evangelizing and planting among a specific people, you can both inventory and identify who fulfills the commitment and responds to the efforts.

Of course, such has biblical sources for the commitment: that goes uncontested here. But, what frequently remains involved includes the tacit overlay of enlightenment and positivist ideologies that animate the commitment and the idea. Here, we find that the “decisions” can be counted; the timing of such can be made relative to specific ministry events; narratives assist in identifying the movements of persons toward life in the reign of God. Such efforts represent valuable synthesis: but, have their priorities aligned with positivist tendencies.

Of which, tend to flatten out context. Such an overlay (1) drapes expectations that may not fit with the university in its present historical context, (2) empowers urgency, and (3) diminishes thoughtful engagement with the university context. In strong contrast: Time, open-ended and undemanding, needed for careful, prayerful listening to the university; conversations and reading about ideas; observations of historical judgments, policy decisions and regulations that form the university structures: all of these and much more will raise expectations for learning about how a university lives and breathes.

In contrast to an enlightenment overlay, the above approach has remarkable history, traction, and credibility among contemporary mission partnerships. Those partnerships with local congregations allow the missionary the leisure to watch, listen, learn language, develop relationships, and discover the vitality of the existing institutions, as well as observe the remarkable and sordid breadth of the human condition in another culture. Suffice it to say: no rush is made to make the missionary competent in the culture, even if the agency and the local congregation agree that, of the many goals, the evangelization and establishment of witnessing communities rests in that partnership.

That kind of approach, while coherent to most modern missiology and mission education, fails to gain a hearing and traction in many campus mission agencies in North America. Thus, it should come as no surprise that: any dialogue about strategic ministry within the USA with those from outside does not have any mutual commitment; InterVarsity staff and students, once returned to campus from mission partnerships with IFES movements across the globe, have little-to-no challenge to demonstrate learning or advocacy for those who host them; and, thus: we have no commitment from senior leadership to developing a redeeming influence for the ideas and structures of the university that parallels the one to influencing people.

To face some possible objections, let me take some of those here. First, what about an alleged influence, or even dominance, of enlightenment upon our leadership? It does none of us any good to deny or ignore the social and cultural influences upon us. That such exist and have indeterminate power upon us cannot be contested. That we can resist such influence is also uncontested: which is why I bring the matter up to begin with. Lesslie Newbigin often observed that we have a conflicted relationship with the enlightenment: we’re products of it, and for that we can be glad (consider the alternatives); we’re also aware of how it has power upon us, and sometimes we feel helpless in the face of it; we’re also unaware of how the enlightenment exercises power upon us. When we make discoveries of how that tradition has contoured our thinking or expectations, we can recoil, and sometimes quite strongly.

And that leads to another objection: One doesn’t ordinarily repent of the influence of an idea or a structure. To which I reply: Thank you. So much of our contemporary reading of the word, “repentance” or the verb “to repent” (Gk., metanoia and metanoiete) involves one well-bounded meaning: turn from your personal sin. Conversely, when one reads such usage in the NT, say, the Second Gospel, we find a far-greater scope called upon by Jesus: “Repent, and believe the Gospel.” Such a call does not merely confront unbelief, as though that were the problem of his largely Jewish audience: surely they were a people with a long history of belief in YHWH.

No, the call to repent involved a much deeper confrontation with their ideas, how they operated upon those ideas, and the kinds of social forms generated from those people holding those ideas. Note well: Ideas and the people who hold/use the ideas are distinct from each other, but often conflated. To continue, the point made by Jesus here and elsewhere involved the investigation of what the people thought, and how they used such thoughts: and his invitation to reconsider both given his presence and his proclamation. Everything they knew was about to be called into question with the one person who could be trusted. Suffice it to say, his influence was and remains remarkable and trustworthy.

I’ll conclude on a couple of notes. The objects of InterVarsity’s redeeming influence,  “people, ideas, and structure” have a remarkable counterpart in sociology. The primary question of the entire discipline, according to Margaret Archer, involves the analytic discernment of the interplay of “structure, agency, and culture.” Let that one sink in for a moment.

Finally, let’s face it: it’s hard to count influence upon ideas and structures. But, once you’re living through an enlightenment perspective, it’s hard to even imagine what could constitute reporting on changes in ideas and structures, let alone empowering staff to exercise Gospel influence upon such ideas and structures in the University.


Happy 125th Birthday, Martin Niemöller!


Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Martin Niemöller, Lutheran pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazis. You can Wikipedia his bio. What I continue to find fascinating about Niemöller regards his development as a disciple of Jesus. When the Nazis came to power, initially Niemöller was some what neutral, even quiet, about their presence, power, and agenda. As time developed, and he observed the growing incarceration of Jews, followed by those who dissented from the arrests, Niemöller’s conscience pushed him to preach against the Nazis. He originally, on the basis of a meeting with Hitler, articulated strong anti-Semitic views, believing that both Jews and the German church would not be harmed. Soon after his preaching opposed the Third Reich, he was arrested and imprisoned. Once in prison, with a Jewish cellmate, he admitted routinely that he was duped and completely wrong-headed in his thinking. Although on the threshold of a death sentence, he was liberated, having been imprisoned for nearly 7 years, including a stay in Dachau.

What Niemöller is most remembered for involves a saying that has only intensified in its hortatory and prudential power. Confession: I used to believe that we needed to pay attention intensively during Obama’s presidency, and I would encourage people to reflect upon Niemöller. Obviously, that was merely a warm-up to the present.

Clearly, we need to revisit Niemöller’s saying—and as I write “we”, I imagine all Christians and other people of faith, and especially any of my immigrant friends, no matter what your status is in the USA— as Niemöller has this sense of how easy it is for people like ourselves to: dismiss the rhetoric of the White House, trust promises made and emerging from that executive office, and assume that we will not be harmed or betrayed by the current president. Here is a link to the source

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The voice of a fallible, growing disciple speaks to us across the years: Pay attention, and do not be quiet, my family and friends. We need each other’s voices in this season of life.

“What is the university?”: The beginning


As my “About” identifies, I’m a campus staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I’ve been in this ministry now for most of my adult life! I’ve loved the calling from Jesus, and I’ve loved the people I’ve met and served with on campus. I’m sure that some of them might venture to say the same about me! The experience, history, and cultivation of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus in a Western academic context continues to fascinate and delight me; the Lord has been kind to chasten, correct, and empower me, colleagues, students, and faculty for the kinds of witness and service that both indicate the transcendent presence of God and demonstrate the power of the Gospel in a variety of university settings. I’ve enjoyed this work, and the efforts require much of my emotional, intellectual, and social energies quite unlike other work that I can inventory in my short lifespan. Some reading here will be aware that InterVarsity has had some important changes in leadership over the last few years: I won’t rehearse that now, but it’s all out in the open for anyone to read up on.

But, a question has emerged for me, and I know I’m not alone, and the question largely popped out during my service in Texas, and continued throughout my doctoral research: “What is the university?” I mention this as one who, obviously, works as a Christian missionary on campus; the leadership changes within InterVarsity that produced the twin emphases on evangelism and chapter planting have also contributed to my curiosity about this huge educational institution. Apparently, I’m not alone in wondering what the answer to my question is, and could be. Within 24 hours of each other this week, two independent essays came up, and yet, the overlap between these authors in itself suggests a closer look for contributions to answering the question. First, the history behind these essay authors, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith.

Emerson and Smith wrote the landmark study on white evangelicals and racism in the USA, Divided by Faith. Of the many findings and layered conclusions, one befuddling element continues (regrettably) to this day: the inability of evangelicals to see/perceive/understand social structures and culture because of a default to reducing all human relations to matters of the individual. Without even a hazy vista of how institutions, policies, and the histories that explain the people, motivations, and powers behind such, evangelicals remain in the dark about how racism endures in North America. Both of these men possess a robust and critical Christian faith; both have their unique affirmations and criticisms of evangelicals. But, their independent essays published earlier this week both shed some light upon my question.

In Emerson’s irenic examination of the faculty in elite sociology departments in the USA, he observes a hiring pattern: the elite departments hire faculty from those who graduate from elite departments. His analysis is remarkably simple, but devastating in its results. Emerson concludes:

My sociology advisor’s advice [If you want to work in a top-ten department, graduate with your Ph.D. from a top-ten department], given in the 1980s, holds true today. Top ranked departments, with almost no exceptions, hire their faculty from highly ranked Ph.D. programs. In fact, we might wonder if there isn’t a rather strong correlation between the average ranking of one’s faculty and a department’s ultimate ranking in the hierarchy of Ph.D. programs, perhaps stronger than actual publication productivity or influence. We also learned that the large majority of Ph.D. programs in sociology—perhaps 100 of the nearly 130 programs—do not place their graduates in top programs. Their students often instead go to teaching schools, regional state universities, and the private sector.

In the final analysis, for a discipline which often sees understanding and overcoming inequality at its core, we have managed to create it rather well.

I had heard rumors of this kind of hiring pattern, but not until Emerson’s post did anyone have the beginnings of some empirical investigation of the rumors. Lest I be misunderstood here: the kinds of inequalities that Emerson has demonstrated exist all across the disciplines and departments of any university. It’s not only a “sociology” problem described by Emerson, nor would I assert it, either. Google any engineering faculty page, and you’ll quickly observe: the kinds of Ph.D. institutions that educate the faculty (and the kinds that do not…); many more men than women; many more whites than POC; and often those with tenure are white males constituting the majority of the faculty. What is going on here? And, mind you: this just describes most engineering faculty. How does this contribute to answering the question? For one, inequalities can be found throughout the university; how those manifest in policies, curricula, pedagogy, and student services deserve further attention.

In Smith’s essay, we have a broader, yet incisive critique of the university. The sense of odorous despair that Smith writes about is “actually painful and morally complicated” for himself.

But calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

Ideas and their accompanying practices have consequences.

Smith zeros in on a given that often gets some attention in evangelical ministries like InterVarsity but deserves a better engagement: encountering a given that pushes past the entrenchment of individualism and moves to a higher level to learn to observe how structures both constrain and enable students and faculty, viz., that people involuntarily receive from university structures and academic content empowerment for transformation.

As Smith describes, and your own personal history will confirm, not all of that transformation is neutral, benign, or productive of developing an ongoing theological competency that sets Christians on a journey with Jesus for participation in witness and service in the world. That is how powerful the encounter with the university is, and the results are abundantly evident without having to swivel one’s head.

What might we do? A suggestion: we all need to hit the pause button, so to speak, and ask more difficult questions about the “ideas and accompanying practices” that have generated some remarkably awkward, immoral, and divisive social relations. This can and should include the presence of Christian ministries like InterVarsity. Merely reducing the problems of outcomes to aggregations of individuals, and then applying an exclusive blanket solution of evangelism and chapter planting may be contributing to the reproduction of the same social relations of racism, as well as sustaining inequities and injustice. Surely the Gospel deserves publication by those of us committed to Jesus (N.B.: This is already my personal practice): but, is that the only intervention? How well, beyond an agreed understanding of the human condition, have we understood the context of our ministry, that the only service available to us on campus must be winsomely demonstrating in word and deed that Jesus is Lord for the aim of individual transformation and new trust in Christ?

But: we still haven’t answered the question, “What is the university?” We are gathering evidence, but no explanation. Yet.

So, I will aim to create a series here for everyone to read, and you can contact me (you know how to do this) with your questions and comments.

Grief On Display and For Manipulation

I can have some aims in a post like this that can go awry, and so, knowing that in advance, for you and for me, might help in both truth-telling and in acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice that some make that people like myself can live in relative security and comfort.

For the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, and the family of 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, the words of comfort cannot replace the wonderful, joyful, and courageous lives of your son and husband. Clearly, they committed themselves to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” in ways that few citizens of this nation will ever know, and even among their colleagues, that commitment extended to an honorable end. The sadness that you feel, I pray to the Lord, will be accompanied by the enormous sense of pride, the exchange of love, and the recall of fond memories of life together.

For the rest of us reading here, however, we need to pause. In a brief time— what?— 14+ days, 4 Army soldiers were ambushed in Niger (“nee-zh-air”, not “ny-ger”). While the specifics of who attacked them and why they would be ambushed remain clouded, what is transparent is the remarkable silence of the POTUS. Not until confronted by the media, did he immediately swivel and talk about Obama. This lead to an admittedly controversial phone call, one that was on speakerphone, and we learn that the POTUS did not use the name and rank of the deceased Sgt. La David Johnson, and apparently claimed that “he knew what he signed up for.” The widow, a mother of two and currently pregnant with a 3rd child, and Sgt. Johnson’s mother were aghast and further agonized. Suffice it to say, we continue to observe here that, in what might have been a private call (hardly secret), this episode of attempted condolence discloses that 45 still has all of the empathy of a sidewalk.

Enter the POTUS Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. Yesterday (10/19/2017), Kelly came to the podium of a media briefing, using both his office, and his agonizing experience as a parent of a deceased military officer, to defend the POTUS, and to excoriate the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla): who was also present when the POTUS called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Listening to Kelly’s briefing was just horrible: no parent should have to disclose this kind of detail to the media. Thankfully, those in the audience had the decorum and smarts to both carefully address the CoS with questions that left behind the loss of his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, and focus on the most important question of all, and one that General Kelly completely dodged:

Why is the US Army in Niger?

It is worth acknowledging that at least we still live in a nation in which freedom of speech extends to the media. For those who have never travelled to other nations in which media reporting gets filtered and crafted to only allow for specific messages and thought to be publicly circulated, the banality and tedium of such “journalism” cannot be overstated. Having moved throughout China in the early 1980’s, reading the English paper, China Daily, I finally had to stop reading it after a few days: the template used for each article simply reproduced how great the government is/was, and how worthy any sacrifice made for “the people” can be. You can only read about agricultural-output goals fulfilled province-by-province so many times before you just close the paper.

So, when we see General Kelly defend the POTUS for his clumsy, unprepared efforts at comforting the widow of and the mother of Sgt. La David Johnson, we should all pause at this moment. I won’t try to imagine the emotional energy required by General Kelly to expose his grief before the media: my son is alive. But, not unlike the China Daily, we receive from the White House a careful, defensive, media message: “Don’t ask about Niger.” Kelly completely dodged the question. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of communication, in parallel with the comments of POTUS regarding Obama’s lack of offering condolences to grieving families of military personnel (completely false), represents political diversion of the most insidious kind. This grief on display represents the worst kind of political manipulation.

So, please, especially if you think of yourself as Christian, pray. Pray for peace. Pray for truth-telling. Pray for sane journalism: to continue, and to be wise about the questions raised and the topics considered. Pray for renewal from the Holy Spirit. None of the Christian community can possibly sustain awareness of this kind of destructive governing without the promised, indwelling Spirit: Nor can we merely stay on the sidelines, claiming “soul care”, while political decisions continue to be made in the shadows that result in people losing their lives. Indeed, any soul care we participate in deserves to include prayers and the reading of Scripture so that we can both fruitfully participate in the Kingdom of God locally and globally, and resist those powers—in love— that attempt to rival the salvation offered us in Jesus Christ.

Pan-Asian American Ethnicity

This. See also below quote…

As a Vietnamese American who is married to a Filipino American, I have a personal interest in pan-Asian American ethnicity. This personal interest has led to theoretical questions: How, under what circumstances, and to what extent can groups of diverse national origins come together as a new, enlarged panethnic group? …

After four years of researching, thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, I still find pan-Asian American ethnicity a complex and changing topic, often defying sociological interpretations and generalizations. This is because Asian Americans are a complex and changing population: far from homogeneous, we are a multicultural, multilingual people who hold different worldviews and divergent modes of interpretation. Thus, although this book tells the story of the construction of pan-Asian ethnicity, it is not about obscuring our internal differences, but rather about taking seriously the heterogeneities among our ranks. Only in doing so can we build a meaningful solidarity as a pan-Asian group—one that allows us to combat systems of chauvinism and inequality both within and beyond our community…

Yen Le Espiritu, Preface
Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities

Just swap “Multi-ethnic American” for “Vietnamese American”, and exchange “Chinese” with “Filipino”, and you get a partial lens into my life and my research.

I was ransacking this book for understanding “reactive solidarity”, and, as custom, I browse the Preface. Often, you learn of some of the “questions behind the questions of the book” in the Preface. Occasionally, you also get some personal stuff: like the above. Beautiful. I am sideswiped. This prefatory section captures so much of my life! Thank you, Yen Le Espiritu!

Preaching at Advent

“And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure,
for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.”
Micah 5:4-5

This time of year is always my favorite for preaching. No, I don’t have anything scheduled! But, it brings back some memories that won’t go away: and I don’t want them to leave me.

Several years ago, through the unfortunate passing of a colleague, I received a call as what the Presbyterians call, “Temporary Pulpit Supply.” This call began in early fall of that year, and ran through the end of December. Thus, it fell to me to preach through Advent.

On another day, I’ll argue for why evangelicals (what’s left of them…) should preach from the Lectionary. But, as one who was already convinced, when early November showed up, and I cast my eyes ahead to Advent, I was delighted to discover: Every week contained a text from the Minor Prophets.

Not sure how else to explain this, other than: it was effortless study to reflect upon christological and eschatological themes (regarding the latter: it is “advent” after all…), as well as how such inform and empower a communal life that collaborates with God in mission. The ease at addressing evangelism and justice, as mutually informing responses to the anticipated coming of the Christ, really stood out as cohering well with the text of each week.

The feedback to my preaching was remarkably constructive and affirming. While all preachers admit to that being important, my overall sense was that God was drawing me into his mission, affirming my “temporary” status, preparing the local congregation well for their mission, and empowering me for service beyond the term of service. In short, God had a word for me about my anticipation of the coming of Christ.

So, for those pastors who haven’t committed themselves to an Advent series: the Revised Common Lectionary offers both the weekly texts and the resources needed for giving praise and witness to the Christ who has come and will come again.

Drugs, Asking, & Depression: On (the Rest of Us) Having a Moral Compass

I am interrupting this series on freshman in their faith commitments. Yesterday, Robin Williams was discovered dead of asphyxia. Williams had a long history of depression and drug addiction. In particular, Williams used illegal drugs, such as cocaine. Williams acknowledged many years ago that the death of his friend and colleague, John Belushi, from drug addiction had awakened him to his own problems.

More recently, his struggle with depression reemerged, as did the use of illegal drugs. Although quite open about his struggles with addiction and depression, apparently his transparency about these debilitating problems did not have sufficient power to alleviate the pain of depression or keep him from (allegedly) taking his own life.

I caught part of an interview on KTLA this morning, and that viewing prompted this post. An actress made an astonishing apology for Williams’ drug abuse and alleged suicide: and I mean apology in the traditional sense of justifying his actions.

I want to err here on the side of grief: I will assume that, like so many others I’ve heard over the years, when we grieve, we say things that are totally out-of-bounds and so exceptionally offensive. Were it not for the overwhelming feelings of loss and sadness within grief, we would banish such thoughts from our heads before ever allowing them upon our tongues. Yet, I could not help but think, “Wow: Why doesn’t the journalist intervene right here? This kind of talk on TV is unacceptable.”

Although completely independent, I could not help but think of the overdose death of Phillip Seymour Hoffmann earlier this year. Hoffmann also struggled with addiction to illegal drugs; in his case, the struggle was with heroin. He was also alleged to have problems with depression.

Both Williams and Hoffmann were adored and celebrated for their astonishing acting abilities, and the range of characters that they inhabited in film, theater, and TV. They had a cadre of professionals who served them, conducted business on their behalf, and empowered their convictions regarding the arts; they both had friends and family who were aware of the troubles and maladies that each suffered from. Indeed, although only one with a lay understanding, it occurs to me that those in closest proximity also experience some social conflicts and emotional fatigue.

But, that is where I would like to draw some attention. My lack of “professional” qualifications should be enough warning to you to confirm or investigate what follows. First, I wonder about the relocation of announcement of depression. In the last 24 hours, about every other FB post or tweet made some version of the following request: “If you’re depressed, please tell someone about it.” Or: “If you’re thinking of taking your life, please stop what you are doing, and tell someone about it.”

At one level, this kind of straight talk assumes that explicit, linear, no-nonsense announcements will introduce safety, intervention, and promote healing. And, I am inclined to agree. What little I know from my friends, however, who have depression tell me: Just declaring they are depressed often takes an enormous amount of energy and courage, both of which are often in short supply. So, the above requests hold the best of intentions: but, no one should believe for a moment those announcements will solve everything. Relocating the responsibility to the one with depression is no guarantee we’ll hear anything.

For there is some dispute as to whether depression can be healed. Again, I’m not the one to consult, but if you google “depression healing”, you’ll quickly observe the astonishing range of responses; what kind of depression, and what kinds of healing are possible within any particular version of depression: and you get my point. Just making announcements can’t be the solution to alleviate pain or divert someone from making an attempt on their life.

But, we need to probe in the midst of this historical moment about culpability. Even here, we need to look and listen carefully about what we say and do. I’m always more than aghast when I learn about artists who overdose on narcotics (or die from other causes precipitated from drug abuse), especially those for whom they previously received some of the best medical and psychological treatments available. Who are the people who sell these narcotics and other illegal drugs to these artists? If by chance or serendipity, you are one of those people: Stop.Now. You are setting up your colleague for an early demise, one that is completely preventable.

But, it would be far too easy to merely point fingers at drug dealers, no? I am thinking now of those of us who know someone who has depression. Not everyone should routinely ask this question: but, at least once, checking in: “How are you doing with depression? (Listen.) May I ask you about this again in the future? Who else knows this about you? (Listen) May I have permission to tell that person I spoke with you?”

I feel some anguish here; I have had some students and colleagues over the years who suffered from depression in a variety of forms, and some hid it so well, that my surprise, in hearing from some friends, still has emotional power from the disclosure. It is easier to remain quiet and “keep to ourselves.” I am not proposing anything heroic: far from it. I know at least two or three of you reading here who routinely practice my suggestions: and have been surprised by the worst possible outcome.

Still, I want to recover my “moral compass”: just remaining silent agrees to everyone wandering along in any possible direction. Join me in asking our family and friends, especially those we know who suffer from depression: “How are you doing today?”

Last thought on asking that moves to other forms of intervention. I had a student leader who was too close to a freshman student of the opposite sex; it was the freshman’s first term in the university. She became very despondent about her academic performance, and began isolating herself. The student leader, initially offering pastoral care, learned that the freshmen was considering ending her life. She followed this announcement by telling the student leader that if she learned that he disclosed this to anyone, she would instantly take her life.

So, the student leader kept this agonizing secret for more than a month. I would run into him, or her, sometimes together, and it began to be obvious from their body posture, tone of voice, and forms of communication with me and others that something was being hidden. A private confrontation with the student leader finally yielded the energy-sapping secret.

Now: I can move over to more of my professional experience for you: In short, anyone at anytime who declares to you their intent to take their life is also announcing that they need to be made safe from suicide. They will typically follow this declaration with the threat to fulfill that intent if you disclose it to anyone. You need to swiftly–if possible discreetly–contact law enforcement and get their help. Anyone who declares their intent to end their own life has given up the right for that to be kept secret. For clergy, medical and psychological professionals, and law enforcement personnel all know this: swift intervention is needed. Which is what I did, albeit based upon what little I did know about the freshman and the disclosure by the student leader.

There’s nothing heroic about this kind of action. She’s alive today, married (to someone else), and enjoys being a mother. I’ve had to intervene on behalf of international students as well; those experiences are culturally awkward, and, much to my disappointment, have not resulted in healed relationships over the years.

So, don’t let your family or friends just wander around in their depression. I realize: We all have our limits. It’s the keeping of silence and secrets that contributes to our lack of moral compass: Ask your friends and family with depression how they are doing. Throwing some light upon all of this will contribute to the journey of life. (Jn. 12:35)