The overall cost — room and board — to attend Smith College, an elite women's college in Northampton, Massachusetts, is in the neighborhood of $78,000 per year. An allegation of racism, made by an African-American student against a school janitor in 2018, has prompted a complex cultural discussion there that is full of worldview implications. It also exposes the significant limitations of critical theory and intersectionality, the dominant lenses by which our culture discerns issues of race, privilege, poverty and discrimination.
The New York Times called the situation a collision of "race, class and power." A Black female student was eating lunch in a dorm that was supposed to be closed for the summer. When a janitor called security, the student claimed that she was questioned for "eating while Black." The janitor, whose entire annual salary would barely cover half a year's room and board at Smith, was placed on leave. Another janitor quit after the student posted his picture online, calling him a racist coward.
Smith College responded by issuing a public apology to the student. Months later, an independent law firm released its report on the entire incident. They concluded that there was no evidence that anyone acted with racial bias.
One of the embedded myths of American culture is the goodhearted, perhaps unlucky, but ultimately victorious "little guy." Almost every sports movie or war movie features an unlikely hero with a big heart but little chance of success, yet who nevertheless comes out on top: the Cinderella team in March Madness, "Rudy," the nerd who gets the girl, the hockey team of misfits, the basketball team with the actual dog on it. Most of us cheer for the underdog.
The problem lies in assigning virtue to underdogs simply because they're an underdog. The modern world, said G.K. Chesterton, has far too many virtues that are "wandering wildly" and doing "terrible damage." In other words, our virtuous instincts can go awry when they're not anchored to the Truth.
This at least partially explains why this situation at Smith College has thrown off so many people, including The New York Times. Who's the "Good Guy" in a story in which everyone is the underdog? Who should win when an ethnic minority student and a blue-collar worker fall at odds? Who should win if we're not allowed, or don't even know how, to issue moral judgments on behavior because we're issuing them simply on social class, ethnicity or race?
Jesus chose the uneducated and unpopular as his disciples: fishermen, tax collectors, zealots. Viewing this through the myth of the "perfect-hearted" Little Guy, it's tempting to conclude that though the disciples didn't seem important or wise, Jesus must have known the real story. Perhaps the Twelve were the first-century equivalent of the lead character in a high school romantic comedy. Maybe the nerd who's ignored and bullied until he takes off his glasses and everyone realizes how good-looking and bighearted he really is.
But that's not true. The disciples, at least according to the Gospels, were kind of pathetic. When they weren't angry, jealous or power-hungry, they were confused and scared. Jesus had to say, "I came from the Father," about 400 times before they even kind of grasped what he meant.
When Paul says that God chose the "foolish things of this world to shame the wise," he wasn't saying that fools are secretly wise and just haven't enjoyed their deserved moment in the sun. He uses the foolish and the weak to display his glory. By choosing these 12 disciples, outcasts and underdogs, he gets to say, "See what I can do?" After all, how great is a God that can save the world and build a kingdom using any of us?
The fatal flaw in our current cultural discussions on oppression and justice is a misunderstanding of our common humanity: our common dignity as created in God's image, our common frailty as fallen from his grace, our common foolishness after the fall and our common reliance on his grace for wisdom and help.
Without a doubt, the young woman at Smith College shouldn't be profiled because of her skin color. Neither should a janitor be falsely accused of racism.
Virtue is action, not category. And no one is virtuous or guilty simply because they are an underdog.
From BreakPoint, March 10, 2021; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, www.breakpoint.org.