I was on a distinguished panel with four international and national scholars pontificating about the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. in the modern time. We each gave a lecture, and then the audience was given the chance to respond, ask questions, and dialogue. After several questions that were answered with insightfulness and clarity and the panel was feeling good about itself, an African-American woman rose to speak. Her question was this: “I would like to know why there are no women scholars on this panel?” She asked it with righteous indignation, and several in the audience roared with approval. My first response was anger and defensiveness. I never like public confrontations, but it was not about what I liked. She chose the public venue, and with the tone of her question, public confrontation. When I calmed down, I could see that she was right. Each panelist gave the mea culpa that it was an oversight and would never happen again. Even though I said the right thing, I was still angry and mad. After all, I did not put the panel together. I just showed up. Up to that point in my consciousness, it had not occurred to me to ask where the women scholars were when initially informed of the design of the panel.
I began to grapple with her question by remembering the question King Zedekiah asked the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 32, after putting Jeremiah in jail for prophesying a stinging critique, the king asked Jeremiah, “Why dost thou prophesy and say?” Zedekiah is asking, “Why are you saying such hard things?” I began to grapple with the question of whether I can be critiqued. Can any of us be critiqued? Why dost thou prophesy to us?
Prophecy is often a form of critique. Most of us like to be prophetic, that is, we prefer to prophesy against unjust systems and people. Very few of us like to be prophesied against, or to be the object of prophecy. Can my behavior or my ideas be publicly critiqued? Can any of us be critiqued? Can those who sit at some level of the center of privilege, power, and influence be critiqued? And even those who critique the ones at the center of power and hegemony, can they be critiqued? Can the woman who critiqued us publicly, can she be critiqued? How well do you deal with critique? How well do you deal with public critique? Can you be critiqued?
It is important to define critique. I do not mean the forms of critique known as negative and belittling criticism. I mean to "review or discuss critically," that is, careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something for the purpose of constructive criticism. Can people make careful judgment and give their opinion about the good and bad parts of my thought, work, or opinion as constructive criticism. Can I be critiqued?
To be critiqued is never easy. It calls for soul searching and honest self-assessment. All of us have so many blind spots. Places that are outside of our experience and the experience of our preferred group. If we are not careful, we will become indifferent to that which is outside of our experience and the experience of our group. At some level, most of us have privilege, power, and influence. And if you operate in your privilege, power, and influence alone, it is hard to be critiqued. Can you be critiqued?
We operate our privilege, power, and influence in and on behalf of the experience of our group. We become indifferent to the effects of our privilege, power, and influence of our group on others outside the group. Sometimes someone from outside our group, who has a different experience of our power, privilege, and influence, must critique us. They must prophesy against us. Is indifference to others outside our group unwillingness to be critiqued? An unwillingness to go outside of one’s experience and include another?
In truth, in my anger and pain at being publicly confronted, I soul-searched long and hard the comment. I concluded that there was indifference and insensitivity on my part to the plight of women preachers and scholars who have been and are being discriminated against. I remembered that I come from a people who have been systematically excluded, treated with indifference, relegated to second class citizens, ostracized, treated as mules and the wretched of the earth. I have felt the pain of those who wield privilege, power, and influence on behalf of their group and ignore the effects of those not within their group. I did not want to contribute to the exclusion of another human being regardless of their race, gender, religion, or sexual preference. So I concluded that I can be critiqued. I can be prophesied against. Critique is how we come out of our own worlds and learn to respect the worlds of others. Critique is how we overcome our blinds spots and how we grow. Thank God for critique. Thank God for prophets. Can you be critiqued?
In my next blog post, I will attempt a critique of those who critique. Can prophets be critiqued?
Frank A. Thomas is the director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration and the Nettie Sweeney and Hugh Th. Miller Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary.
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