Historian and religious studies professor Charles Marsh called on educators at a national conference of church-related institutions to “stand in solidarity with the poor and excluded,” and “with audacity tempered by love to enter into the movement of the era,” if they would be “engaged scholars.”
Speaking at the opening session of the 21st annual meeting of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts hosted by Samford University, Dr. Marsh answered the question “Are we still of any use?” by tracing the role of social activists in their efforts to help the poor and powerless.
Almost 200 educators and administrators from the 96 universities that are part of the Lilly National Program attended the three-day event Oct. 21-23.
A professor and director of The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia, Marsh built much of his message on the experiences of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in America. Bonhoeffer spent 10 months in the United States as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City during 1930-31. He arrived as a “straight-arrow academic” with little respect for American intellectual and religious life, and “left with a transformed perspective on social engagement, faith and historical responsibility,” said Marsh.
Bonhoeffer learned “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering,” said Marsh, who has written one book on Bonhoeffer and is at work on a second.
A course Bonhoeffer took at the seminary, “Church and Community,” opened the German’s eyes to the social ministries of Depression-era New York City. “I paid a visit almost every week,” he said, to settlements, home missions, children’s courts, asylums, youth organizations, the Association for Advancement of Colored People and other “character-building agencies.” He also traveled across the southern and eastern U. S., visiting Alabama shortly after the Scottsboro boys went on trial for rape in 1931.
Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer became involved in social ministries in Berlin, said Marsh. He began opposing the Nazi regime during the 1930s, and was ultimately arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and executed in 1945.
The Lilly Conference theme of “Reconciliation in History, Literature, and Music” examined aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. Marsh quoted Thomas Merton’s description of the movement as “the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” Marsh, the author of several books on the civil rights movement, added, “The lesson of the movement was that the revolution begins in the pews.”
The Lilly Fellows Program, based at Valparaiso University in Indiana, seeks to strengthen the quality and shape the character of church-related institutions of higher learning for the 21st century.
Founded in 1991, the Program sustains three initiatives—a national network of church-related colleges and universities of which Samford is a member; the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program for young men and women of exceptional academic talent exploring vocations in church-related higher education; and a residential, two-year Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship Program at Valparaiso.