Telling the truth

On a beautiful fall day two weeks ago, fifteen hundred students and faculty gathered in chapel to hear Allan Boesak, theologian, political and anti-apartheid activist from South Africa. The massive hall was enthusiastic and at times filled with laughter, but as Dr. Boesak began to delve into scripture a hushed silence fell over the crowd, spell-bound as he preached on just four short verses in Genesis 25:

Abraham lived to the age of 175.

Abraham took his last breath and died after a good long life, a content old man, and he was placed with his ancestors.


His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave in Machpelah, which is in the field of Zohar’s son Ephron the Hittite, near Mamre.

Thus Abraham and his wife Sarah were both buried in the field Abraham had purchased from the Hittites.

After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, and Isaac lived in Beer-lahai-roi. (7-11)

Two sons. Two different mothers. Sons, separated by distance and hatred, reconciling to bury and honor their father. In a small lunch discussion following chapel, Boesak talked about what is needed on such a journey of reconciliation. He talked about many things, but one statement toward the end of our time, has stayed with me, running through my head time and time again. True reconciliation, he said, can only happen when people are willing to engage in honest conversation – in truth-telling. Truth telling by necessity demands that parties be willing to listen with an eye toward understanding. Too often we hear various groups on the other side of an issue bemoaning, “Can’t we just move and get along? I didn’t do any of these things.” The truthful answer is, “no.” Moving on without understanding the narratives of peoples’ lives is embarking on a path of dishonesty, of asking all sides to ignore their history and pretend, deny, the reality of narratives that bring them to the need for being reconciled. Truth telling is:

  • Not about blame, but acknowledgement.
  • Not about punishment, but healing
  • Not about judgment, but about forgiveness

I thought again about Boesak’s words this week, when I read a CNN article about Emory University’s apology to Jewish students who were discriminated against in the 1940s-1950s.

The individuals that perpetuated the mistreatment of Jewish students are long gone from Emory; many have died. As well, many of those who were harmed have died or tried to move beyond that painful time in their history. And painful it is.

“Between 1948 and 1961 . . . . 65% of Jewish students either failed out or were forced to repeat up to two years of coursework in the four year-program” at the now defunct Dental School. The dean of the school during those years, John E. Buhler, facilitated a system of discrimination where professors insulted Jewish students, accused them of cheating, and failed many of them even when they performed admirably. A few left Emory and went on to great success in dentistry at other universities. Some were so traumatized by their experiences, they changed professions altogether. Few women or African-Americans were even admitted during these years. For them, discrimination kept them on the outside. For Jewish students, discrimination happened inside the walls of the dental school.

Last week elderly formal dental students and family members gathered at Emory to receive a formal apology and recognition for the wrongs done. In its recent history, Emory has apologized for its involvement with slavery, as well as in “fudging data to boost its ranking.” And now, it has formally acknowledged the wrongs against Jews. “institutions—universities—are as fallible as the human beings who populate them, and like individuals, universities need to remind themselves frequently of the principles they want to live by,” President Wagner said. “The discrimination against Jewish dental students undermined the academic integrity of the dental school and ultimately of Emory . . . . I am sorry. We are sorry.”


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About Pamela Erwin

Pamela Erwin (DMin, Fuller Seminary) has a long-time interest in how culture and theology intersect. She studies the global church and issues of reconciliation and diversity. She is also interested in how young people form an understanding of identity and purpose.