Thursday, April 21, 2011

the New York Times, an open letter, and my two cents

I think just about every ACU alum in my 500+ Facebook friends has picked this up and posted it, or hit the "like" button on someone else's link: "Even on religious campuses, students fight for gay identity" by Erik Eckholm in the NYT.

If you've read the piece, you know that it references Harding University and Abilene Christian University, as well as Baylor University, Belmont University, and North Central University (a Pentecostal university in central MN).

You may also know that in response to the occasion created by the NYT article, my husband wrote an open letter to the administrations of both Harding and ACU, speaking as an alum of both universities and as Rector of Grace Church in Newark. (Brent has followed up with a brief clarification, here.)

I have no wish to write an open letter (not sure that it would matter much to anyone what an unemployed theologian and mom of two who works unpaid from her home office has to say?), but both the article itself, Brent's letter, and the dialogue and personal responses from our ACU mentors and colleagues have prompted a lot of thoughts--exactly the kind of thing this blog serves as my dumping ground for. And so, since Baby Z seems content so far to ignore Google calendar's kind reminder that today is "DUE DATE" (lest we forget?!), I will do some cognitive dumping. (Yes, I expect that this scatty metaphor is entirely appropriate for the level of organization and polish this post will exhibit.)

No one knows better than two alums of both schools, Harding and ACU, how different these two institutions within our Church of Christ tradition truly are. (Y'all, we lived it.) The response that HUQP received, censorship and public condemnation from the chapel pulpit, was as unsurprising as it was disappointing. The point of The State of the Gay, according to HUQP, was to start dialogue about the presence and experiences of gay students at Harding--and while HUQP succeeded in starting a dialogue much bigger than they had originally anticipated, they did so despite Harding University's efforts to end the conversation before it even got started. This is starkly different from ACU's recent track record of actively, respectfully and officially engaging this issue on campus (read, for instance, this 2006 account from Robin Reed of SoulForce, entitled "Grateful for Abilene.")

Further, even at Harding, as the authors of The State of the Gay attest, there are individuals within both the student body and the faculty who are welcoming not just of dialogue but of actual gay people, even in all their gayness. I certainly know this to be true at ACU. But the NYT article, focused as it is on institutional policy and working with a broad and generic category of "religious campuses" that stretches to include everything from the largest and best-known Baptist university in the country to a small Bible college in MN, does not drill down to this level of (highly relevant) detail. Official spokespersons' statements of official policy are the end of that story; and this, as the HUQP's voices remind us, is just the beginning of the real story, and the reason for having a conversation.

For all that, I have to say that spokesperson reiterations of official institutional policy are significant. For one thing, they're what make it into print in the New York Times, and they're the articulation of the stance of the institution in the public square. Things may be much more complicated--they always are--on the ground of these "religious campuses" (and praise God for that!). But the official policy is not complicated. It is simple and straightforward, and it tells gay students that they are welcome...but their gayness is not:
“We want to engage these complex issues, and to give help and guidance to students who are struggling with same-sex attraction,” said Jean-Noel Thompson, [ACU]’s vice president for student life. “But we are not going to embrace any advocacy for gay identity.”
Many people, of course, find themselves stuck between an understanding of the Christian imperative to love and welcome all people, as Jesus did, and their understanding that the Bible clearly condemns same-sex relationships as sin. The uneasy, and unstable, result, is a compromise in the form of the mantra "hate the sin, love the sinner," a phrase which neatly sums up the reasoning behind the statement of official policy above, which walks the same fine line. You are welcome here, but your gayness is not.

This makes sense to a lot of people. And as far as I can tell, all those people are straight.

This is the problem: "hate the sin, love the sinner," and its official policy counterpart of insisting on reparative therapy and the characterization of all gayness as "struggle with same-sex attraction" only works as long as you refuse to listen to what actual gay people around you will tell you about being gay.

Are there people with ex-gay narratives? Yes. Are these people flourishing, at peace, spiritually blessed and transformed as ex-gay? I'll take their word for it. By the same token, if these narratives matter as testimonies and witness to the possibility of transformation, I must by my own reasoning take the word of the many, many more gay Christians I know for whom the demand to be ex-gay was soul-crushing and literally life-threatening, and for whom coming out was a salvific act. We can't pick and choose among the narratives our gay Christian brothers and sisters give us; they are as complicated a set of life stories and faith journeys as any other. We don't get to privilege the ones that tell us what we already believe to be true, while shutting out the ones that contradict our presuppositions. We have to face the necessity of reconstructing, over and over again, what we think the Bible teaches us and what God demands of us in our attempts to lead holy lives. Because that is what the Christian life is.

Is this sort of dialogue and attentive listening and faithful Christian living in community happening at ACU? Yes. But is it reflected in the official policy as articulated to the New York Times? No. 

And this is, as I see it, the point of the open letter. We know the kind of community and ethic that exists at ACU, and we know that the full realities of ACU's actions and attitudes towards its gay students is not reflected in a one-size-fits-all official policy of reparative therapy for the "struggle with same-sex attraction." And that is both encouraging and problematic, in that it indicates a disconnect between on-the-ground practice and policy. The point of the letter, as I see it, is to publicly urge the university to fix this disconnect. The point of the letter is that this is not a vain hope.

This may indeed get lost in the media's bottomless ability for amplifying conflict and ignoring the possibilities of reconciliation which are the heart of the Christian gospel. But we know better. The work of reconciliation is already evident, if not complete, and in this work everyone must discern and play their part. This is difficult, and sometimes we get it wrong--and yet, even so, my faith is unshaken that this, indeed, is not a vain hope.


JH said...

...does not drill down to this level of (highly relevant) detail. it highly relevant, to the NYT audience? I won't dispute your point that ACU is a better place than HU, but does the general NYT readership need to know about the subtle differences between two CoC universities that condemn homosexuality? I'm not even sure I care about the distinction myself, and I went to HU.

JJT said...

Well, that's a good question. My general feeling is that the NYT article can rest at that level of generalization because no, probably the readership isn't interested in going any further. But it means that the article reinforces the inclination not to learn more--sortof the opposite of what you'd think a purveyor of information ought to be doing--and I think here that the differences are rather more than subtle. Harding outright banned material and censored online access and publicly condemned the attempt to start dialogue. That is the opposite of ACU's ongoing dialogues on campus. Maybe that doesn't matter to an incurious NYT readership, but it makes a big difference to gay people on those respective campuses, I'd bet...which you'd think would be relevant to the bigger picture the article is wanting to paint.

Gil said...

It's futile to cite or quote those, undoubtedly familiar, NT passages which specifically include homosexuality in a list of sins. Equally futile is the call to "affirm the dignity of each human being and not condemn people for their sexuality or the expression of such sexuality in monogamous partnerships" as does the J. Brent Bates open letter to Abilene and Harding Universities. As noble as the latter call may seem it lacks (perhaps not surprisingly) the weight and pattern of the authenticity of scripture.

When the apostle Paul judged the immoral in the Corinthian church he upheld the man's dignity. Paul's judgment was not a license given to the disciples in Christ to harass the immoral or for the disciples to revel and indulge in a smug self-righteous carnal feast of their own. The immoral was neither denied nor stripped of his human dignity when the church removed him from their midst as Paul directed the church to do. Judging the immoral at Corinth is no more different than judging the homosexual. The judgment of the immoral, anymore than one should expect with the homosexual, was not to condemn, but to save him. One can anticipate the cynicism, sarcasm and rejection of salvation from anyone who in their own self-righteousness have no need for salvation from sin. The immoral did repent. He was restored. The church was then urged by Paul to affirm her love for the restored brother. The judgment of the homosexual (the sinner) and his homosexuality (his sin) need be pleasant neither for the one making the judgment nor the recipient of that judgment. It is the weight and pattern of the authenticity of scripture.

Paul emulated what Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery in John chapter eight. Although it is popularly said Jesus did not judge the woman His judgment is implied in his words: "Go, and sin no more." His judgment, unlike those who dragged her before him, was to judge her that she might be saved. The judgmental words He spoke to her carry in the same breath restorative words.

JJT said...

It's also futile to ignore that the issue on the table is whether or not homosexuality should be categorically labeled sin. If that's not actually under consideration or up for discussion, but remains a foregone conclusion, then sure, no language of dignity or any other articulation is going to "carry weight."

Gil said...

Who is it that put it on the discussion table? The New York Times? Anyone at that discussion table can not ignore the list of those unrighteous on both sides of homosexual(ity) as appear in First Corinthians. Then, apply similar consideration and discussion to those others (drunkard, thieves, etc). Whatever those at the table might conclude my point about dignity remains. Namely, Paul and the church did not deny or strip the immoral sinner in Corinth of his dignity.

JJT said...

It's up for discussion because this is the subject being interpreted. I'm quite familiar with the vice lists, a common rhetorical device among philosophers and moralists of the time, and Paul's lists reflect the common elements of those. But citing a vice list doesn't remove the interpretive task; it *is* an act of interpretation. My point is that other people, equally sincerely and faithfully, interpret differently, and therefore, that this in fact constitutes an occasion for discussion.

I am not saying that calling something sin is necessarily undermining human dignity. Nor is my husband. What I'm saying is that there is a genuine interpretive question here about whether all homosexuality should be interpreted categorically as sin.

Gil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gil said...

The discussion and interpretation task is fine. Just as we are familiar with "the vice lists" it would appear Paul was familiar with the "rhetorical device" of his time. Us citing or Paul referencing this list or device is hardly an act of interpretation, but these are not invalidated or devalued by their designations. Allowing there are sincere and faithful brothers and sisters in the faith on both sides of any given topic of discussion sincerity and faithfulness no more validates an interpretation than an interpretation by the insincere or unfaithful.

This brings to mind a different topic of familiar interest to both of us from which I would like to draw a point. The topic for discussion and interpretation on teaching and preaching in the royal priesthood (admittedly, my preferred term) afforded me an assortment of what are deemed, _ interpretations. It is these interpretations which keep me weary of anyone quick to claim their stake on the interpretation of passage or topic. No. This is not to advocate for any one single (with some undeniable exceptions as for example, God became flesh) interpretation, but that anyone who brings an interpretation to the discussion table ought bring their resolve to engage in the discussion and not merely dogged tenacity.

As a personal reference I underwent a complete one hundred eighty degree turnabout with respect to my sisters in the royal priesthood. It was not difficult. Furthermore, I found and drew very little by way of understanding and developing my interpretation on that topic from the staunchest advocates with whom I ended up in agreement. What I encountered time after time were interpretations without much basis. I was not looking for eloquence or a solid argument from the Greek, but the truth is I found a whole lot of shallowness, dogged tenacity and just plain carnal mindedness. I never doubted or questioned their sincerity or faithfulness.

I have already heard from numerous individuals on both sides of the homosexuality topic. No surprises. I seen this shallowness, dogged tenacity and carnal mindedness before. Please. I am not saying nor implying any of the like in either you or your husband's message. I state it in the general sense. It would interesting to see how and why the interpretation of any one of these "list" entries is or is not applied to the whole list.