Searching for Shalom

Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and history professor Ruben Rivera spent the better part of 23 years educating the Bethel community about the biblical value of shalom. He retired on December 31, 2020.

By Jenny Hudalla ’15, lead communications specialist

January 19, 2021 | 10 a.m.

Ruben Rivera, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion and history professor

Ruben Rivera, longtime history professor and vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, retired in December 2020.

Ruben Rivera, longtime history professor and vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion, retired in December 2020. During his time at Bethel, he worked to increase Bethel’s demographic diversity, helped establish the Cultural Connection Center, played a pivotal role in bringing the Act Six scholarship program to Bethel, and developed the Shalom Seminar, which has educated and equipped employees to engage with issues of diversity in meaningful ways. His unequivocal commitment to grounding Bethel’s reconciliation work in the life and teachings of Jesus is a legacy that will serve the Bethel community for years to come. 

Since you came to Bethel in 1997, you have focused on bringing about shalom in our community. What is this concept, and why is it important to you?

The Hebrew shalom and New Testament Greek eirene (often translated as “peace”) are large terms. I will summarize them as the community of harmony and wellbeing of all people and things under God’s just and loving rule. It is quite unlike so-called peace in this world, even as practiced by many Christians. In true shalom, none are safe while others are in danger. None are protected and served while others policed. Leisure is not built on the labor misery of others. Love is not favoritism. And goodness is not transactional. Biblical shalom is a key feature of remarkable Christianity—and Christianity is either remarkable, or it’s not much of anything.

What drew you to Bethel in the first place?

I earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies at Vanguard University in California, a Christian liberal arts institution like Bethel. I had teachers who were not only scholars but models of what I call remarkable Christianity. My professors helped me see God larger than I ever had—a God who embraced you, whoever you were, whatever your background. This was a revelation to a Latino person of color who grew up invisible in the public school curriculum, politics, movies, and even churches. I came to Bethel—a faith-based liberal arts institution—because of my experience in one. I wanted to be a professor to give students what was modeled to me.

How has your experience as a history professor informed your approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

I see the history of the United States as an ongoing and fragile experiment to close the gap between what America says it is and what it is. Exposing that gap raises painful cognitive dissonances between traditional majority narratives and minority realities. It is similar for Christians. Because it is not possible for anyone to only be a Christian and because of the problem of cognitive dissonance, a core part of my work in diversity, equity, and inclusion gradually took shape around taking people through a process I call an “eye exam,” where we discover who we are, with all the baggage of biases we carry as culturally invested beings—baggage that, despite our genuine love for Jesus, can make our Christianity unremarkable.

"Students challenged me to find ways to help them grow in remarkable Christianity, but the truth is, some pretty remarkable students helped me find it in myself."

— Ruben Rivera, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion

You have often said that God calls us to remarkable Christianity. What does this look like lived out, and how have you seen it manifest at Bethel?

Remarkable Christians recognize that Christianity is not just about being vertically reconciled to God, but working ceaselessly for horizontal reconciliation with people different from us, with whom we disagree and are in conflict. Jews in Jesus’ day knew the sum and heart of the commandments to love God and your neighbor as yourself. But they created what I call “Samaritan loopholes” that allowed them to “love your friends and hate your enemies.” At Bethel, I have seen remarkable Christianity in colleagues and students who understand that it is not remarkable to favor your political party and dehumanize or hate the other. They work to rid themselves of their Samaritan loopholes. This is hard work, and not the norm in our society. But the alternative is unremarkable Christianity, which is no Christianity at all.

What has been most challenging and most inspiring about this work?

Christians can be the hardest people to reach. Becoming Christian in no way means we become immune to prejudice and blessed with cultural competency, emotional intelligence, and objectivity in all things. The hard reality is that—depending on one’s politics, denomination, race, class, education, etc.—one’s Christianity can reinforce ingroup prejudices so that one cannot challenge them without also insulting their Christianity. But I work to engage people in ways that do not alienate or shame. It is inspiring to take people through constructive self-discovery, leading to a deeper transformation in Christ and a desire to move from unremarkable ingroup Christianity to remarkable intergroup Christianity.

What will you miss about the Bethel community?

In my diversity work, it is the educational role that has been the most rewarding. I will miss that profoundly. I will miss my dear friends on the president’s cabinet, deans, faculty, and staff who supported me when the air at Bethel got perilously thin for a person of color. I will greatly miss faculty partners and friends. They give and give for the benefit of their students and they inspired me to be excellent. Above all, I will miss the engagements and relationships with students over the years. Students challenged me to find ways to help them grow in remarkable Christianity, but the truth is, some pretty remarkable students helped me find it in myself.

Looking back at your service to Bethel, what are you most proud of?

If I had to pick one thing, it would be the creation of the Shalom Seminar. The years of trials and tears that led to it and its continuing refinement as “God’s Call to Remarkable Christianity,” has become the rubric under which I do all faith-based diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Over the years, many participants have told me that it expanded their vision of what Christianity can be. I have learned and been inspired as much as anyone in giving the Shalom Seminar across the U.S. If remarkable Christianity has not been normal everywhere, neither has it been entirely absent anywhere. That fills me with happiness and hope.


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