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Hated on Both Sides of the Aisle: Overcoming the Tension between Christian Foundation and Present-day Social Advocacy

A. Gillian Stewart-Wells, Judson University


Heeding the imperative of recent social movements calling for racial justice, university educators are faced with the challenge of developing curriculum that eliminates cultural stereotypes and mobilizes students toward social action. There is an imperative (Smith, 2015) to increase Anti-Racist Pedagogy (ARP) (Ladson-Billings, 2005) and refine Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) (Gay, 2000) in our education systems, leaving university faculty and administration with the daunting task of designing curriculum that reflects both an understanding of and respect for all students’ identities. The author shares how she blends the social justice research she conducts, the education courses she teaches, and her Christian faith in order to forego her passive nature for the greater urgency of eradicating prejudices that are rampant in our society. How she has done this has not been easy, but the results have exceeded expectations.


Often when I am addressing an audience at a conference or similar academic event, I introduce myself by explaining that I teach at a Christian institution and I am an advocate for and professor in the social justice world; (pause) hence, I’m hated by those on both sides. This typically garners a courteous laugh; after all, aren’t these two sides often seen as incompatible? Sure, Christians have long been social advocates – for some, but not always for all. In fact, we have an unfortunate history of using God’s Word to rationalize the oppression and ostracism of a number of non-dominant cultural groups. This imbalance has often been presented to me by non-Christian friends and colleagues as the hypocrisy of Christianity, and some of the evidence they use to support their case is hard to argue with. And yet, instances that are smashing this perception of Christians as hypocritical social advocates are occurring with more frequency in my corner of the world, and I am seeing my self-deprecating presentation icebreaker as soon-to-be outdated. This is good news for those of us who would like to eschew the judgment of others in favor of truly welcoming all children of God.

I’ve been chipping away at this for quite some time. When I began working in high schools back in the late 1980s, I saw that expectations of students were often based on their race or ethnicity and cultural and language minority students were disproportionally placed in special education or remedial classes. So often decisions were made that had negative repercussions on students’ lives – not only for while they were enrolled in school, but for future opportunities once (if!) they graduated. My struggle with this caused me to seek a master’s program with a multicultural focus, and my experiences as an educator in the culturally diverse state of Hawaii, and then later in Southern California as I pursued my doctorate, enlightened me even more to the injustices not only of people of color, but of those living in poverty, those living with special needs, those worshipping different gods, those who are marginalized just for being born in another country, for being female, for being gay. In my graduate programs, I began to hear terms like white privilege, marginalization, unconscious bias, micro-aggression, and critical consciousness. I began to see how my own privilege informs who I am and how I see the world.

How these experiences have informed my teaching practice has changed over the years. Although I have been teaching social justice courses at the college and/or graduate levels since the mid-1990s, primarily to pre- and in-service educators, I believe I spent the better part of my first decade doing it wrong. You see, I used to teach my students theories and strategies grounded in research-based best practice, most notably James Banks’ four-tiered model (see Figure 1); yet I would dwell mainly on the lowest, and most simplistic, level: the Contributions Approach. As a white woman, this seemed the least contentious for me. I felt my position of privilege would be perceived as audacious in the realm of diversity education and – to be frank – I feared backlash. So, instead, I substituted conversations of depth and meaning with superficial lessons on how to be tolerant and understanding. Still, even in my albeit unconscious and unintentionally-formed comfort zone, my avoidance of the other tiers felt negligible to me. Of course, the Additive and Transformative approaches seemed better, but they were more work for my students, and I made plenty of excuses for not requiring more of them or of myself. I certainly didn’t want to inconvenience already-overwhelmed teachers and ask that they change all of their lesson plans; teachers are so busy and, especially of late, have so much they need to do besides teach. How could I ask them to take on one more thing like transforming curriculum? Transformation like changing their reading lists to include texts by and about minorities, redesigning their classroom aesthetics so not all posters on the walls represent the dominant culture only, preparing classroom management plans to reflect an understanding that minorities are disproportionately represented in principals’ and deans’ offices, etc.?

Figure 1

Level of Approach Description
Level 1:

 The Contributions Approach

In this approach, ethnic content focuses on heroes, holidays, and discrete cultural elements and is limited primarily to special days, weeks, and months related to diversity events and celebrations (i.e., Cinco de Mayo, Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday, and Black History Month). During these celebrations, teachers involve students in lessons, experiences, and pageants related to the ethnic group being commemorated. When this approach is used, the class studies little or nothing about the cultural group before or after the special event or occasion.
Level 2:

The Additive Approach

This approach allows the teacher to put multicultural content into curriculum without restructuring it, a process that would take substantial time, effort, training, and rethinking of the curriculum and its purposes, nature, and goals. Although simplistic, this approach can be the first phase in a transformative curriculum that integrates multicultural content, perspectives, and frames of reference. However, this approach shares several disadvantages with the contributions approach. Its most important shortcoming is that, because it does not involve a restructuring of the curriculum, it usually results in the viewing of ethnic content from the perspectives of mainstream historians, writers, artists, and scientists.
Level 3:

The Transformation Approach

This approach changes the basic assumptions of the curriculum and enables students to view concepts, issues, themes, and events from a number of minority perspectives and points of view. The mainstream-centric perspective is just one of several perspectives from which curricular components are viewed; it is neither possible nor desirable to utilize the points of view of the cultural, ethnic, and racial groups that were the most active participants in, or were most cogently influenced by, the concepts, issues, themes, and events being studied.
Level 4:

The Social Action Approach

This approach includes all the elements of the transformation approach but adds components that require students to make decisions and take actions related to the concepts, issues, themes, and events being studied. To empower students and help them acquire political efficacy, educators encourage them to become reflective social critics and skilled participants in social change.

 Adapted from James A. Banks’ “Approaches to Multicultural Curriculum Reform”

Read a little of Geneva Gay or Lisa Delpit, Gloria Ladson-Billings or Sonia Nieto, and you’ll see how their voices, over time, find a way to finally break through. While I never – ever – believed that multicultural education was just something to be squeezed in when we could, until about 10 years ago, I had not found the ideal way to get around the limitations of Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo (please!). Read a little Isaiah 1:17, Jeremiah 22:3, Luke 10, or 1 John 3 (shoot! Read the entire New Testament) and you’ll see how it is not only secularly moral but biblically ordained that we, as Christians, care for our fellow human beings. We are called to be allies to those who have been oppressed and marginalized and forgotten. Even if I could sweep aside the prompting of researchers in the field who call for educators to be “agents of change” (Freire, 1993), who am I to ignore what is also right and just in the eyes of God.

Heeding the imperative of recent social movements calling for racial justice, university educators are faced with the challenge of developing curriculum that eliminates cultural stereotypes and mobilizes students toward social action. There is an imperative (Smith, 2015) to increase Anti-Racist Pedagogy (ARP) (Ladson-Billings, 2005) and refine Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) (Gay, 2000) in our education systems, leaving university faculty and administration with the daunting task of designing curriculum that reflects both an understanding of and respect for all students’ identities. Ignoring this imperative will not make issues of injustice go away; in fact, we as a society have tried the act of ignoring, and the disparities between those in positions of power and those without have been amplified all the more. This call, of course, requires intentionality on our parts: consciously planning each and every aspect of our courses – from the texts used to the question prompts; from activities practiced to assignments expected. Media clips must reflect a variety of viewpoints and perspectives – even ones different, perhaps, from our own. Since I have been converted to this work ethos, I’ll share that it does, indeed, take extra time; yet, isn’t this what I am asking my students to do for their own K – 12 classrooms?

In blending the social justice research I was conducting, the education courses I was teaching, and my Christian faith, I realized the need to forego my passive nature for the greater urgency of eradicating prejudices that are rampant in our society. How I have done this, in my small corner of the world has not been easy, but the results have exceeded my highest expectations. First, as the director of a doctoral program at a Christian university, I’ve used my platform to build the social equity course I now teach; second, I designed the course with a theoretical framework blending both critical race theory and culturally responsive pedagogy (theory into praxis). The course demands that we look at issues we have seen for decades (centuries perhaps) in American society and then flip them to view them from an entirely different perspective. My doctoral students are primarily white and few have looked at Brown v. BOE, for example, as if they were a black parent or black student or black teacher at the time; naturally, they’ve typically looked from a stance of privilege – education has always been a given – so this is often an eye-opening exercise for them.

Few of my students have had to tell their own children how to respond if they hear gunfire outside their homes; few of my students have had to tell their sons what not to do if they are pulled over by a police officer; few of my students have had national leaders clamoring to deny them citizenship; few of my students have been denied the right to marry whom they love. In my course, these issues are talked about openly, honestly. The conversations are raw and difficult; students cry and plead and wonder why they never had these discussions in their teacher preparation programs before (thinking of the years I, myself, have taught education courses, it is hard for me to not feel ashamed at my past failings in this area). And the students in my class who do come from marginalized populations have found a safe place to share their stories and have their voices heard… sometimes for the first time.

As part of the course, the students are exposed to a variety of exercises and assignments intent on broadening their understanding of cultural groups often under-represented and/or marginalized in American school success stories. In addition, the candidates (a) reflect upon their experiences, observations, identities, and viewpoints that have positioned them where they are in spaces of privilege and power; (b) lead and contribute to weekly reflective conversations related to current social justice issues and events; and (c) utilize a validated instrument (Culturally Responsive Instruction Observation Protocol [CRIOP], Powell & Rightmyer, 2011) to evaluate educators’ culturally responsive practices. Finally, by looking at a variety of literary and academic publications, the course presents ways to inform public discourse regarding social equity and determine ways to best portray a powerful voice in transforming the materials and intellectual conditions of all students.

This course, more than any other course I’ve taught, has finally shifted the needle toward reducing prejudices and prompting my students to do something specific and intentional in order to reduce the disparity between and among marginalized groups. In a doctoral level course, I believe it is essential that the professor’s voice is not the only one heard; thus, the students and I spend a considerable amount of time preparing for discussions that dive more deeply into issues, allowing complex ideologies that may have taken root to be upended. By fostering an environment of care in our doctoral program, the students’ evidence a willingness to be vulnerable and honest about difficult and often volatile topics. Isn’t that what we as educators are aiming for: provoking thought, spinning long-held beliefs upside down? I certainly don’t expect all of my students to think as I do or believe what I do – and I’m sure they don’t – but if I can get them to think about their own previously disguised and unconscious prejudices and how those prejudices affect their school environments, I feel like I’m making an impact that matters.

While the incongruence between communities of privilege and those which are underserved grows, there is a sense of urgency that educators find ways to foster meaningful dialogue that works toward bridging these gaps. If only one of my students took what we discuss in class on Tuesday nights back to his/her school environment, I’d be happy. My students, leaders and advocates in their own right, have developed ways to transform what they do and how they do it. I have been astonished by their initiatives from implementing home visits in order to bring in the cultural capital of their students’ families (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzales, 1992) to creating and implementing professional development for community organizations that serve those who are all-too-often under-represented.  So profound have my students’ insights been, so powerful their actions, that I included an additional step in one of my assignments this term, Banks’ fourth approach: developing an action plan for social justice. This is something I hope they will utilize when my course is long over.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” (Tutu). Desmond Tutu’s words resonate with me as I believe Christ calls on us to be his hands and feet in the movement for a more just society.  Our work as Christian educators is essential to combatting long-held misconceptions, negative stereotypes, and biases against marginalized groups. In our small corners of the world, I believe we are able to use our platforms to inspire others who will then set social advocacy in motion in their small corners of the world. The fact that students of mine, at a small Christian institution, have found their voices against the odds gives me hope that social justice advocacy in the Christian community will be viewed as it should be: complementary to Christ’s teachings and not the opposite. And who knows, at the same time, we may just win over those who have long-viewed some Christians as hypocritical of Christ’s teachings; then those of us who teach in Christian higher education and who are advocates for social justice will no longer feel like we are straddling two sides of a fence.


Banks, J. A. (1989) Approaches to multicultural curriculum reform. Trotter Review, 8(3), 17 – 19.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2005). The evolving role of critical race theory in educational scholarship. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 115–119.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzales, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households and classroom. Theory into Practice, 31, 133–141.

Powell, R., & Rightmyer, E. (Eds). (2011). Literacy for all students: An instructional framework for closing the gap. New York, NY. Routledge.

Smith, D. G. (2015). Diversity’s promise for higher education: Making it work (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Suggested Readings Referred to in This Article

Delpit, L. D. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280–298.

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2012). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.