Last fall, I was labelled a “radical,” and my name was added to a list of “college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” As I’ve written elsewhere, this was surprising to me. I teach at Calvin College, in the heart of the Midwest. I am a Christian in the social work department at Calvin. At many points in my own academic career, I was the conservative student in the classroom. I consider what I teach to be evidence based and in line with the truth of the gospel, not “leftist propaganda.”
Nevertheless, myself and around 200 other academics were profiled on a website called Professor Watchlist. The list was compiled by the conservative non-profit Turning Point USA. Turning Point says it is simply trying to advance free speech and protect conservative students on college campuses, but the watch list has been compared to George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” in the 1950s.
My inclusion on the list was largely the result of an Op-Ed I wrote for my campus newspaper, The Chimes. That piece explored themes of white privilege and white supremacy in response to an incident where a student had drawn a swastika and wrote “white power” in the fresh snow on the rear window of a parked car on campus. Somehow, my campus newspaper article was picked up by Tucker Carlson’s website The Daily Caller under the headline “Professor Blames White Privilege For The Existence Of Michigan.” From there, it went viral around the alt-right and hard right web.
Christianity is often discussed as counter-cultural. That’s certainly true. Against our culture of consumerism Christianity claims it is the poor who are blessed (Matthew 5:3) and that we ought not worry about what we will eat or drink or wear (Matthew 6:25). In a nation that often exalts the affluent and the powerful, we hear Mary sing in Luke 1:52-53 that:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
These are, of course, also some of the ideas at the heart of social work as a profession. Social workers are concerned about vulnerable and marginalized populations, seek social justice for the oppressed, and believe that every human has inherent dignity and worth. Social work is counter cultural as well.
What this list has made clearer to me is the extent to which the ideas of Christianity and social work are not only counter-cultural but also dangerous. As I wrote on Sojourner’s website, this list “is part of a long and violent history of power trying to silence prophetic voices.”
Within both social work and Christianity there are pressures to tone it down, to avoid speaking hard truths. As the people say to the prophets in Isaiah 30:10, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions.” All too often in the Bible the prophets are exiled or killed and the people return to Baal or to Babylon.
Social work has faced similar pressures. Social work, a profession that has sprung from the social gospel and other progressive social movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, is often accused of amounting to little more than social control. As Saul Alinsky once observed:
“They come to the people of the slums not to help them rebel or to fight their way out of the muck……most social work does not even reach the sub-merged masses. Social work is largely a middle class activity and guided by a middle class psychology. In the rare instances where it reaches the slum dwellers it seeks to get them adjusted to their environment so they will live in hell and like it. A higher form of social treason would be difficult to conceive.”
I should note that I’m proud to be a social worker. I think Alinksy, in true Alinsky fashion, is being a little hyperbolic, but I’m sympathetic to his argument. Social work has sometimes lost its radical edge. When I was working on my MSW at the University of Michigan, my advisor was Dr. Michael Reisch, co-author with Janice Andrews of “The Road Not Taken: A History of Radical Social Work in the United States.” As Reisch outlines, many of the earliest heroines (and some heroes) of the profession were labelled “radicals.”
Most prominently, Jane Addams was once declared “the most dangerous woman in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime head of the FBI. Addams was labelled dangerous because of her strident pacifism, and her refusal to put the politics of corrupt Chicago aldermen before the interests of the immigrants in her community. One page of her FBI file, ironically a report on a lecture she gave in Toledo, Ohio to a women’s group on issues facing children in Europe, is stamped “RADICAL” with the date underneath it, “Jul 21, 1920.” Social work was seen as a threat to law and order.
Under Hoover’s direction, the FBI would go on to brutally harass one of our great modern day prophets, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., calling him in a letter an “evil, abnormal beast,” and giving him 34 days “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” In a pretty clear reference to suicide, the final paragraph includes “There is only one thing left for you to do… You know what it is.”
Both King and Addams were working towards similar ends. They were pacifists who wanted to break the bonds that held the poor, to work towards the common good, the justice and shalom of the Beloved Community – in other words, “to proclaim good news to the poor” and “to set the oppressed free,” as Jesus states it in Luke 4:18. I include King and Addams here not to compare myself to them in any way, but to point out that when both Christianity and social work are at their best, they tend to be labelled radical and dangerous by the powers, by the empire.
Indeed, having just come through Christmas, it is worth remembering that the coming of the son Mary sang about in the passage from Luke above was so threatening to the Roman collaborator Herod that he was said to have had every male child under two around Bethlehem killed.
As we enter into an uncertain new year, may we as Christians in the social work profession have the courage to boldly speak truth to power. May we work for the common good, for shalom. May we embrace the danger that comes from challenging the empire. This may get us labelled dangerous, or radical, but we serve the Triune God, who tells us through the prophet Isaiah (41:10), “do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.”
Joseph Kuilema, PhD, teaches in the social work program at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. He has been a member of NACSW since 2009, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of NACSW.