a world of spin, no one expects truth from corporate executives or the
politicians who serve them, but many of us hold out hope that in the
classroom and sanctuary we can engage one another honestly in the
struggle to understand the world and our place in it. So, while I’ve
had my share of squabbles with schools and churches over the years, I
remain committed to them as important truth-seeking institutions.
As a university professor who has
recently returned to church membership, I have a lot riding on those
hopes, which is why it was particularly disappointing in recent weeks
to be scheduled for speaking engagements and then abruptly canceled by
a Catholic diocese and a private high school in Texas. In both cases,
some people in the institutions were eager to have me share my
knowledge and experiences, only to have the leadership give in to
complaints from conservatives.
My disappointment wasn’t personal -- I’ve been rejected enough to be
able to roll with these punches -- but about a concern for the future
if the institutions we count on to create space for dialogue are so
easily cowed. The problem isn’t that I lost chances to speak, but that
everyone lost a chance for engagement.
The first cancellation came from the Diocese of Victoria in September.
Staff members organizing the annual “Conference for Catechesis and
Ministry” asked if I would lead one session on media coverage of the
Middle East and another on strategies for speaking with children about
war. I signed on immediately, grateful for the opportunity to discuss
these important issues.
After the conference schedule circulated, staff members heard from a
conservative member of the diocese who objected on the grounds I am
politically radical (true enough), anti-American (a nonsensical
charge), and a promoter of anti-Catholic teachings (true, if one
thinks that all Catholics who support the full humanity of gay/lesbian
people and advocate abortion rights are anti-Catholic, too). The
threat that this person’s campaign would spark public protests led the
diocese to retract the invitation.
Last week, I received a similar call from an administrator at St.
Mary’s Hall, a college-preparatory day school in San Antonio. I had
been asked to speak about power and privilege, drawing on my book on
race and racism. I was looking forward to talking with young people
about an important subject, but once again a complaint about my
political writings and activism against U.S. policy led administrators
to cancel my talk.
In both cases, of course I can’t know exactly what was behind these
decisions. I assume the folks in charge decided it was safer to
exclude someone with left/radical politics than to risk the backlash
from more centrist and conservative constituencies. But I didn’t give
the cancellations much thought until last week at the end of a long
evening at a private school in California, where I had been invited to
speak about power and privilege. When the formal program ended, a
dozen people lingered, and we pulled chairs into a circle to continue
the conversation about race and gender, capitalism and empire.
When I finally suggested that I was running out of steam and should
head toward my hotel and bed, one of the parents from the school said,
“I realize you are tired, but I would stay here all night if I could
-- I’m so hungry for this kind of conversation.”
That remark led to more talk about how these conversations are too
rare in a depoliticized society where so many people are afraid to
speak their minds. Others agreed that they wished for more spaces to
talk honestly about fundamental questions: What it means to be a
person in a complex world, to be a U.S. citizen in a time of imperial
war, to be materially comfortable in a world where so many lived
without the basics.
I can understand why church and school administrators would take the
safe route and cancel a talk by me to avoid potential conflict; I
don’t feel any personal resentment or hold any grudges.
But I can’t help but be disappointed in those officials, not for
denying me the chance to speak but denying others a space in which
collectively we can struggle to get closer to the truth. Who among us
is not hungry for that? Even those who wanted to silence me -- at some
level don’t they yearn for that conversation?
As a university professor and freelance writer who is active in a
variety of political movements, I will never lack for spaces in which
I can be heard. I’m worried not about myself but about that man who
was so starved for ethical and political engagement that he was
willing to stay in that room all night to have that taste of an honest
conversation about issues that are so difficult and so important.
When such space for engagement is gone, what hope is there for faith
and education? Indeed, what hope is there for democracy?
Robert Jensen is a journalism
professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the
Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of
The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity
(both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at: