Excellence Beyond Standards (Is.25:6-9; Phil.4:4-13; Mt.22:1-10)
by Delores S. Williams
Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 17, 1990, p. 931, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
We who teach in seminaries, colleges and universities often hear the issue of standards and excellence raised. Time and again I have heard colleagues, deans and presidents say, "We can’t compromise our standards." Usually this statement surfaces when the discussion is about increasing ethnic minority enrollment or increasing the number of women and ethnic-minority faculty. I have also heard these same colleagues and administrators augment this remark with another statement: "We have to continue to be excellent." I get confused about what excellence can mean from institution to institution, given the American practice of grading colleges; even the much less than superlative schools claim to be excellent.
This discussion of standards and excellence has caused me to examine my own view of the issue. I discovered that I sometimes prefer a flexible approach to standards, one that supports change when change is needed. I rather like the feminist notion of the need to change standards so that inclusiveness can happen, so that differences can be appreciated and elitism eradicated.
I especially like some of the biblical notions about excellence and changing standards. In Philippians Paul defines excellence in terms of justice, honor, truth, purity and graciousness (4:8) He suggests that these virtues, as the "soul" of excellence, yield the peace of God for humankind. Philippians doesn’t mention the fierce and alienating competition or the rigid standards that constitute what we today call excellence. Paul helps me get in touch with and openly affirm my belief that justice, honor and kindness should be part of the criteria for determining what is excellent.
I advocate high standards for scholarship and all work. But the parables of Jesus demonstrate that sometimes we may be forced to change our standards so that important traditions can be made accessible to more people. We may have to give up our elitism in determining who gets exposed to the tradition.
In the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, the king invites to his son’s feast those he considers desirable: property owners and businessmen. Because they would not honor the king’s invitation to the feast and because some of them committed violence against the king’s property, the king destroyed the murderers and burned their city. In order for the traditional wedding feast to occur, the king had to change his standard about whom he would consider desirable company. When the property owners and businessmen would not come, the king said to his servants, "Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find." The text reports that they "went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests." Thus the wedding feast was made accessible to more people.
What I like best about this parable is that even though the king had to change his standards about who is desirable company and who is not, he did not relax all standards. There were still criteria for determining how a person should be dressed at the wedding feast. "When the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness"’ (22:11-13)
Though we may think that the king’s treatment of the guest is a bit harsh, the message implied, here is that one must find a way to become properly equipped for what the occasion demands -- even if one is not so equipped in the beginning. Of course, with this parable, Jesus makes the point that many, many people are called but few are chosen. But this chosenness has nothing to do with elitism. It does have something to do with preparation.
I have also discovered that those people who use the "standards" and "excellence" language most are those who attempt to make oppressed people feel guilty for their own victimization. So I am always delighted when I come across a biblical passage like that in Isaiah 25:6-9 where the prophet says: "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of fat things . . . . And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations . . . the Lord God will wipe way tears from all faces, and the reproach of God’s people the Lord will take away from all the earth." Citing this text is my way of saying to people who use standards to oppress rather than to enhance: the abused, exploited and denied people of earth will be vindicated.
The black women in my family taught me something valuable about standards and excellence. They schooled me according to a black folk tradition that taught that trouble doesn’t last always, that the weak can gain victory over the strong (given the right planning) , that God is at the helm of human history and that the best standard of excellence is a spiritual relation to life obtained in one’s prayerful relation to God. They taught me that this relation gives oppressed people the self-esteem and courage to strive and to achieve great heights. These biblical insights and these black women’s teachings should help keep me alert to what standards should be and what constitutes excellence.