You appear confident, but are unsure. You appear angry, but are afraid. You appear righteous, but are morally adrift. You are a college student, and showing confidence, anger, and righteousness is part of coming of age. This is not a period of exploration, as the authorities in your life euphemistically say. It is a time of rebellion. At its best, rebellion is liberating; at its worst, it crushes the soul.
Rebellion seems like an utterly personal act of self-expression. It is not. It takes forms that are given by the world. Its means, its targets, and its styles circulate around us, shaping words and actions of those whose time it is to rebel. When we are twenty, we believe our rebellion is our own; when we are forty, we lament that youthful self-deception.
One form rebellion takes today at campuses across the nation is the call for racial justice. At Princeton, my own alma mater, students have made four demands. They have called for the university to renounce its former president, Woodrow Wilson; for faculty and staff to respect the concerns of minority students; for the creation of race-specific housing options on campus; and for all undergraduate students to complete a class on minority cultures. When these demands were not met, students occupied the university president’s office for thirty-two hours until an agreement was reached.
I once stood in the same place. I printed fliers, chanted slogans, spoke at rallies in front of Nassau Hall, and entered its eighteenth-century doors to present demands to the president. I suffered from self-deception, but I also participated in something beautiful. I want to invite you to look for that beauty, a beauty that pulls you beyond yourself.
The rebel sees that the ways of the world are arbitrary, that they could be otherwise, and that the world nonetheless sanctifies these ways with oughts. It says that we ought to dress in these ways, talk in these ways, worry in these ways, aspire in these ways, analyze in these ways. We are tempted to confuse the ways of the world with the ways of God, the arbitrary with the absolute. You are right to challenge those older than you to remember this.
What worries me is not the instinct to rebel, but what follows so quickly: the domestication of this instinct, the turn from rebellion that directs you beyond the world to rebellion that directs you back to yourself.
You claim that you are not getting what you need. You tell us you need to feel comfortable, safe. You tell us you need your identity to be acknowledged, however you choose to define it. You believe you know what you want, which means you believe you know who you are. You want your university to acknowledge your black experience, or your immigrant experience, or your disabled experience. You want safe spaces where you can gather. You want class material that affirms your identity, and if challenging material is used, it must be optional and flagged.
This is entirely understandable, for all that remains when we rebel against parents and elders and social norms is the self. When we abandon all that gave structure to the world, it becomes necessary to manufacture a “safe space.” We have found a language with which to speak of ourselves, but it is provided by peers and social media and certain departments at our universities. It is the old language of identity, though today this language has achieved a new level of subtlety and sophistication. Identities are plural and “intersectional”—the oppression suffered because of one identity is refracted and magnified by each additional identity marker. The language of identity tells us what we are. In the process, that greatest of questions is forgotten, the question that undergirds human dignity, the question that points beyond the world: the question of who we are, irreducible to any what.
Rebellion, at its truest, its most beautiful, is motivated by the struggle to answer the question “Who am I?” We all know that the answers offered by the world are unsatisfactory. How can anyone be given his due if the world misnames each of us? We desire certainty, but know that the world does not offer it, and so we question, challenge, and attempt to overthrow all false certainties. This is the root of rebellion.
Here we face a difficulty. On the one hand, the ways of the world are arbitrary, offering false assurances. On the other hand, we are formed by the ways of the world, by our years of immersion in the words, ideas, and actions of our parents, community, and society. As we struggle to discern who we are, we strike out against falsities. But our struggle is expressed in the words, ideas, and practices of the same world we despise.
You know this, even if you cannot say it: hence the intensity of your anger. The world that forms you includes great books written by dead white men. It includes America, with all its ideals and flaws. It includes the English language, with its arbitrary rules—rules that, incidentally, make poetic greatness possible. It includes the Jewish and Christian tradition, whose stories and concepts and spiritual insights have shaped each of us. Those at my own alma mater know that it includes Princetonians who came before: It includes me, and Michelle Obama, and Ted Cruz, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, yes, Woodrow Wilson. We are all here, whether you like it or not, haunting you, speaking to you, and speaking through you. The more firmly you renounce us, the tighter our hold is on you—for you are nothing without us.
You recoil. You feel soiled, disgusted. You object that things cannot be so simple. You were formed by much more. You have your own culture, with its own flavor, its own sounds and dances and words and ideas; these are what formed you. And anyway, you continue, those dead white male authors surely were influenced by the women and minorities in their lives and in their worlds more than they let on. You are right, but let’s be real. You are an undergraduate at a liberal arts college. Regardless of where you came from, you have been formed by those great intellectual and cultural currents of the West.
The men whose names are on campus buildings committed grave moral errors, but so do we all. The more we police representations of the past, of those who have formed us, the more convinced we are of our own moral righteousness. The more we create spaces that seem safe for us today, the more we forget about the violence that continues to be committed in those safe spaces, violence of which we are not yet aware. We forget that we live in a tragic world, a fallen world. We imagine ourselves in Eden—not as Adam and Eve, but as God.
You will tell me that I lack hope, talking about the fallen nature of the world while ignoring the specific, systemic violence that affects our world, violence that we can name and end without claiming to enter a land of milk and honey. You will tell me about the depths of racism in the United States today, drawing connections between the legacy of slavery and segregation, mass incarceration, police brutality, “microaggressions,” and your freshman English syllabus. You are correct that we must not allow vague talk about sin and violence to foreclose specific, concrete, historically grounded, culturally aware analysis. You are correct that racism is a great moral challenge that we must neither ignore nor reduce to one more item on a laundry list of social ills.
You are right to rebel, and right to demand that wrongs be righted, but you must never forget that you are formed by that which you abhor. Because of this, you cannot simply push it away or condemn it outright. You must master the intricacies of the institutions, individuals, and histories of the world in which you live. You must study, study, study. If you do not, your public intervention will merely serve to satisfy your immediate desires; it will not push in the direction of justice.
Like you, I have met my share of racist police officers. I have left high school summer camp with a bruised face because fellow campers wanted to keep the camp all-white. I have felt utterly alone. The challenge you face is to resist those who would ease the pain you have felt, the pain you feel, with an easy label and a prescription to follow. You must feel that pain, stay with that confusion, strike out in rebellion, but remain suspicious of those who would cast you as characters in stories of rebellion that have already been written.
I know what it feels like to have my own humanity denied, to identify with those who suffer indignity, and to have an instinct to fight it. But we must be ever vigilant to see that this struggle does not become merely our struggle, that it does not become a struggle for worldly satisfaction of our personal desires. There are many ways to maintain this vigilance, which is the opposite of the now fashionable practice of “self-care.” First among them is participation in religious community that directs us to something greater than this world, something beyond ourselves.
Unless, that is, we can find another source of solidarity. Our secular age does not equip us to understand community rightly. Secularism offers a false copy of community, a belief that identity markers bring together self-contained individuals, a belief that we can “imagine” community and so create community. Religious visions of community differ. They are held together not by physical characteristics or individual preferences, not by collective imagination, but by a shared commitment to the transcendent. If we wish to identify with “the least of these,” with poor blacks or immigrants or those with disabilities, the only true way to do so is with a commitment to a world-transcending vision of justice based on belief in a divine that is wholly other.
During my four years taking classes in McCosh and Fine, eating meals in the Rocky-Mathey dining hall, and making late-night trips to the Wawa convenience store, I was thoroughly confused—though I would never have admitted it. I was a church youth group advisor, and I was also in the atheist club. I wrote for the left-wing student newspaper, and I editorialized against campus feminism. My most stimulating intellectual experiences were at lectures and discussions organized by Robert George’s James Madison Program and at the precursor to the Witherspoon Institute, but my most stimulating social experiences were at the 2 Dickinson Street vegetarian cooperative. I concentrated in the religion department, but I could not stand the pragmatism of the faculty, preferring classes I took down the road at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The two public lectures I remember the most were given by Richard John Neuhaus and Cornel West.
Like you, I was involved in campus activism. We sought a living wage for campus dining hall workers and janitors, who were sometimes paid less than student employees doing exactly the same job. I had the chance to stake a claim and defend it in front of a room full of peers, professors, and deans. I stepped into maintenance buildings and the back rooms of cafeterias, for the first time hearing men and women I had seen every day talk about sons and daughters, hopes and worries. I found out that my mentor, an English professor I imagined had been conceived and birthed in some Ivy League seminar room, was from the Ozarks and had a brother working as a college janitor. I learned to look beyond myself—the first and most important rebellion of all, which is the one against a false self-love.
I ventured off campus to Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, once pastored by Paul Robeson’s father, where congregants who were sympathetic to our cause translated it into their language, the language of Christian faith. I began to see the limits of secular community, the possibility for community oriented beyond the self and the world, though I did not have the knowledge or courage to make sense of this then. But I knew enough to want to know more. I began studying religion intensively, delving into a thesis on medieval mendicants. They taught me about the struggles and possibilities of religious community, and how to combine the intellect of a
St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Bonaventure with the zeal of a St. Francis or a St. Catherine of Siena.
We live in a world that is deeply flawed. We must struggle to see this without forgetting that each one of us is no less flawed. Those whom the world captures with the language of race have it especially hard, but we also have a special privilege. Rebellion that involves beer and debauchery rings hollow when one bears the bruises of racist violence. Our rebellion tends in loftier directions than that of your peers, but the risk of self-satisfaction is also greater.
You, my campus activist, have the misfortune to live in a secular age, an age when rebellion against the world means embrace of the self—which really means embrace of the worst that the world has on offer. Be careful. Seek out communities and relationships that orient you beyond yourself, toward others and toward the God who promises peace and justice. There is no single roadmap to rebelling rightly, or to living rightly, and we all inevitably fall short. I pray that you fail better than I did.
Vincent Lloyd is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.