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WORLD magazine gets it wrong on Wheaton College

I last wrote about Wheaton College in February, when over a hundred students peacefully demonstrated in response to the school bringing ex-gay speaker Rosaria Butterfield to speak at an all-campus chapel session.

This past week, the school was targeted by World Magazine’s Julie Roys, who wrote about school employee Julie Rogers, the celibate gay Christian (which the article defines as “someone who identifies as homosexual but does not act on her same-sex desires because she also believes such behavior is sinful“) who currently works in a chaplaincy office that provides spiritual direction and pastoral care for Wheaton students.

The article has already received quite a bit of backlash from students (one of whom is quoted directly by Roys) who claim that the piece manages to simultaneously misrepresent their perspectives, malign a trusted friend and mentor, and under the guise of orthodox journalistic tactics manages to discreetly promote ex-gay “reparative” therapy.

world magazine

From WORLD’s website: “We stand for factual accuracy and biblical objectivity, trying to see the world as best we can the way the Bible depicts it. Journalistic humility for us means trying to give God’s perspective.”

How accurate are these claims?  If the scare quotes in the article’s title or the strikingly antiquated discourse around reparative therapy are any indication (not to mention the author’s description of “former lesbian” Rosaria Butterfield’s story as “eloquent” or Roys’ subtle framing of ex-gay advocates as the embattled faithful ), these students may just have a case.

Yet it has been particularly disheartening to see the approach that the author and others have taken to actively defending the way WORLD went about writing this piece.  This article is not necessarily advocating for a practice that has been proven destructive to human life, Roys and others seem to be saying, she’s just giving an equal voice to all perspectives.  Roys herself has tweeted similarly several times in defense of her work, saying “[my article] was very fair and had both sides” and “reporting both sides of a controversial issue is not encouraging either side.”  (To be clear: the “sides” here are a) allowing a celibate gay-identifying person to exist as an employee on a college campus and b) promoting hope in “changing” one’s sexual orientation through prayer and pseudoscience.)

Perhaps it is not surprising that an article as cold-blooded as this might emerge from the depths of a very conservative and entrenched religious publication.  But what is truly dumbfounding are the author’s claims of supposed objectivity.  If her claims of mere impartiality and adhering to industry-standard journalistic practices are to be believed, it would be the first time in WORLD history that her magazine took this approach.

My statements here aren’t intended to be provocative or hyperbolic – anyone familiar with this publication, headed by former political advisor Marvin Olasky, is likely to understand that Roys’ claims of fairly reporting “both sides” ring awfully hollow.

Olasky, the editor-in-chief, founder, and visionary behind WORLD magazine, has repeatedly gone on the record rejecting traditional journalistic commitments that seek an impartial or unbiased presentation of facts.  Speaking to his organization’s operational ethos, he remarks that on some things, “the Bible is very clear, so we are not going to be even-handed in the sense of balancing subjectivities, which is what ‘objectivity’ often [comes] down to.”

In his landmark work, “Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism,” Olasky argues that Christians in the field of journalism must recognize that in some areas, popular understandings of fairness in reporting must be jettisoned.  In his book, he calls this kind of journalism “Biblical objectivity,” and gives the example that, among other things, this “means showing the evil of homosexuality.”  His logic?  “Balancing…stories by giving equal time to gay activists is ungodly journalism.”  After all, “in an article showing the sad consequences of heterosexual adultery there is no need to quote proadultery sources.

It would be unimaginably vapid to assume that Olasky’s philosophy here doesn’t hold any particular sway when it comes to reporting on a gay-identified individual who works on what is widely considered evangelicalism’s flagship campus.  Whether Roys knows it or not, WORLD’s founding paradigm drenches every aspect of this article, and she should apologize for suggesting that she has taken a fair approach in reporting on this non-issue.

share lines

If we remember the ethics that informed the construction of this article, it makes more sense why there are no LGBT affirming quotes present, and why Roys’ share taglines are almost entirely comprised of quotes advocating for reparative therapy

I am beginning to understand a bit more how this report was constructed.  The author appears to have gone out and interviewed a few individuals under false pretenses, then found enough random people to talk about a celibate person having a job nearby.  As evidenced by her inclusion of the guy who works at a church a mile off campus, she wasn’t really concerned if these people went to Wheaton or were related to the issue at all as long as they were willing to parrot “pray the gay away” talk couched in intentionally vague rhetoric around “healing,” “faithfulness,” and the “possibility” of “change.”

Then she shared the piece with WORLD’s readers (who generally hold to the impossible position of both anti-sexuality and anti-celibacy for gay Christians) and feigned indignation when she was accused of presenting a report biased towards the discredited practice of trying to “convert” a gay person into a straight one.  It seems inappropriate to use the word agenda here, but either Roys was intentionally employing the wicked language of implied gay-no-more miracle cures to advocate for the practice (and therefore appease her readers), or she simply forgot the publication she works for and elapsed by reporting in what she really believes was an objective manner.

* * *

Actual LGBT Wheaton students are already responding to Roys’ work, so I won’t take up much more space here.  Part of the valid criticism I received after folks read my last article on Wheaton was that because I’m not on the ground, I don’t have the full perspective on what happens there.  This is more than true.

One final observation I will make though is that we’re sure to see more conservative pile-ons when it comes to non-issues at Wheaton.  Because of the institution’s stellar reputation in evangelical circles – and because of its historic commitment to espousing conservative religious and political ends – supporters are likely to feel a territorial sense of defensiveness for anything smelling like liberalism that comes anywhere near campus.  Wheaton students are holding a silent demonstration in response to a potentially harmful message?  How dare these uppity young people think to protest the Gospel.  The campus office holds to the stance of the vast majority of conservative churches by hiring a non-heterosexual person who is celibate for life?  They’re believing the lie that God cannot change anyone.

These pundits are correct when they predict that we can expect to see more of these “liberal” trends (such as affirming the leadership and scholarship of women in the church, respecting the human dignity and agency of lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gay people) as they continue to impact public life at institutions of Christian higher education across the country.

But for one reason or another, Wheaton seems to draw the fiercest critics.  While, for example, Mercer University’s Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life can write a book about his journey of becoming LGBT affirming, and fairly conservative Calvin College can host a brave series of articles and discussions showcasing the stories of their openly LGBT students, because Wheaton is often framed as the national cradle of evangelical academia and theology, my feeling is that fewer such moves could be made here without immediate pushback from powerful donors and supporters.  Maybe that’s because, in the end, it simply feels like the stakes are higher when it comes to Wheaton College.

While significant disparities and problems certainly plague some aspects of life there, the Wheaton students I’m privileged enough to call friends have shown me that though support is sometimes lacking, the special home that the school holds in the hearts and minds of so many should be enough reason to stand against the kind of muckraking apparent in Roys’ recent reporting.

To these students, I can only say that while it may seem like there is little hope of shifting the sordid stance of your school and its “defenders” when it comes to the LGBTQ conversation, WORLD magazine wasn’t wrong about one thing: the times are indeed changing, and God can certainly move mountains.  Anything is possible.

faith through life and death (a letter to grandpa Sykes)

I wrote this letter to my grandfather on October 30th or so of last year, when it looked like he might be dying.  I emailed it to my mom who printed it out and read it to him in his bed.  He held on for another thirteen months, though, as his health slid down and deteriorated in a painful, helpless way.  He just passed, a week before Thanksgiving.  I want to thank everyone who has been there for my family through this time, and I had the inkling to share this letter on my blog because I recently unearthed it (rather by accident) and I think it captures a lot of things I will always care about, including my grandfather.

I remain happy to have known one of the kindest men to ever walk this earth.  I stand by every word of this today:


hey grandpa,

I really wish I could have come up this weekend so I could see you tonight, but unfortunately I won’t be able to make it home until next week.  I’ve heard that although your mind is still as sharp as always, your body’s health is really failing you now.  And that’s really unfair and it makes me so sad and angry because you are one of the best people I know, grandpa.  One of the humblest, surest people I have ever met.  And you deserve a body that listens when you tell it to.

I wanted to write you a letter saying what I would say to you if I could have seen you tonight.  I asked my mom to read it to you and make sure you understood it.  I really hope to see you soon, but hopefully this will get across want I want to tell you for now:

I want to thank you for everything you have done for me over the years.  Thank you for the unconditional love I have always felt from my Sykes side of the family for all of my life.  Thank you for babysitting us as kids.  Thank you for being my sponsor when I was confirmed into our Church, despite your body not allowing you to be there for the ceremony.  Thank you for raising us up and teaching us about God and for praying the rosary for me years and years before my mom and dad ever met.  Thank you for sending flowers to my Kuramitsu side of the family when you didn’t need to and for keeping us always in your thoughts and prayers.

Thank you for praying for – and this still blows my mind – my children’s children.

I wanted to especially thank you too, grandpa, for listening as my mom, your wife, and I talked together a few months ago, when we had that conversation about forgiveness and hurt and heaven and hell and gay people and how God’s love is big enough to cover everyone.  I know that when I was telling you stories of my gay friends and when my mom was telling you and grandma about her story, some of this was really totally new ideas to you.  But you listened, and we talked about things, and we prayed together afterwards, and it was one of the most  spiritually healing nights I have had in a long while.  I want to thank you for listening with us then, for modeling for me personally what our Lord Jesus would look like if only he were here physically with us today.

Your faith inspires me so much, grandpa.  It reminds me that I am an irrevocable part of something way, way bigger and more ancient and mysterious and loving than myself.  The faith you model for me is one that I try to cultivate in my own life.  It connects me with my past and it pulls me forward into my future.  It makes me appreciate the divine presence and the sacraments and the gift that it is to be alive loving others, both in this age and the next.

You know, if I thought this was the last chance I’d ever get to see you, I would have canceled work, missed my shifts tonight and tomorrow, and made a mad dash for home, where I would have said a depressed and hopeless goodbye.  I’ll be honest, we are all going to be devastated when you leave us, grandpa, but I also cling to the hope that you have taught about for my whole life: I know Jesus is waiting to meet you, and that this is not the end.  I know we will see you again, and it will be a million times better and – in the presence of God – our bodies and minds will be a billion times stronger than they are now.  Though I am in tears writing this now, I remember everything you have taught me about Jesus, and I know that the life He promised us is bigger than death or hell or any other scary thing that sin or the devil can cast at us.

I rest in the hope of the resurrection, and I believe with all of my heart that you will be warmly welcomed, John, straight into the heart of God the moment you pass from this earth.

Because you really don’t fit in that body, and everybody knows it.  Your mind knows it, your spirit knows it, and all of us who have ever known you and are furious that this is happening to you know it.  I have great trust that you will be getting a new body soon, one in which, like it says in the Bible, you can “run and not grow weary, walk and not be faint.”

I guess, all that to say, if I know only two things, they are this: that I love and remember and thank you with all of my heart, and that I will see you soon.

All of my love,

Ryan

grandpa and me

stop praying for peace in Ferguson

On Monday night, St. Louis county prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch held a press conference to announce the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th of this year.  McCulloch began his prepared remarks by first choosing denigrate and shame (mostly black) social media users, inflammatory journalism, and unreliable eyewitness testimony, then proceeded to proffer a lengthy defense of officer Wilson’s actions.  To many on both sides of the decision, McCulloch’s words came off as a condescending, careful way of crescendoing to a conclusion that had become apparent by his second or third sentence.

I know I am not the only one who sat there that night with tears running down my face, scolding myself for holding a sliver of hope, as I watched the attorney’s rhetorical shifts begin to spiral towards a sentence that seemed predestined from the moment those six lead bullets entered Mike Brown’s black body.

I quickly turned to social media, which was feverishly lit up with demands for justice juxtaposed alongside the familiar boasts of the powerful. Predictably, “I’m glad he got off!” and “see, trust in the system” comments were couched neatly alongside tweets and statuses condemning those scary “angry rioters and looters” who are “destroying their own communities like animals.”  Accompanying and underlying many of these comments were solemn cries from many Christian friends urging people to (stop protest and dissent and) just pray for peace in Ferguson.

notice: protestors=violent they–not white supremacists–are destroying our country

notice how protesters are painted as both violent and anti-God. They, not white supremacists, are what is destroying our country.

I saw Christians of all colors propose prayers for peace, rest, healing, removed and spiritualized calm. Many publicly urged the dispersal of crowds of protesters, telling people to stay at home, to go to sleep, to quell their obviously overblown rage. Many quoted Martin Luther King Jr to drive their commitments home, tossing out some of his classic lines (remember: hate cannot drive out hate!) to suggest that those who take to the streets in protest are only causing more problems for themselves.

Lost in the midst of this wilted discourse is the sacred biblical commitment to communal lament, towards protest and prophesy and social action. Forgotten are the Christian tradition’s clear commands to stand in solidarity with the suffering, to resist destruction, to shout a resounding NO to the powers of death, as Christ did through his resurrection.

Instead, we have a people of faith praying as gnostics for the return to a status quo that continues to dehumanize and oppress millions of American citizens. We have Christians asking God to stick Band-Aids on gargantuan, multigenerational fissures, as pastors and parishioners are making it abundantly clear that they have no other desire than to re-mask the powers, to smooth over the surface ripples and obscure those who are flailing and drowning beneath the water.

The prophet Jeremiah (who is often whittled into safe, digestible chunks as the “I know the plans I have for you” guy) has a strong word for those who practice this kind of myopic behavior:

To whom can I speak and give warning?
    Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
    so they cannot hear…

They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,

    when there is no peace.

Peace, peace, they pray for you: go home and calm down and stay quiet and submit to authority (and dress nice!) and keep letting the system strip you of your dignity; don’t march in the streets, don’t fight, don’t release your anger, don’t act like animals, don’t stay woke, don’t remember, don’t cry out for justice in the wilderness.

And yet anyone who has taken a nominal glance around the state of our country’s criminal justice system has seen that there is no peace. Anyone who has heard the voices of the thousands upon thousands of protesters who are marching across our country each night–anyone who has witnessed the masses in Ferguson who have been demonstrating for over 100 consecutive nights–they have surely seen that there is no peace.

Meanwhile, culturally complacent Christians quote Martin Luther King in order to try and placate and shame into silence those who are hurting and rightfully outraged. These believers quickly condemn rioting and looting while paying little attention to the naming of powers and principalities: here, white supremacy and systematic racism.

separate but equal?

I want these Christians to know that Martin Luther King also acknowledged that riots are the language of the unheard – I want them to know that rioting happens when a desperate and battered community believes it has exhausted every other viable form of resistance. Broken bottles are stand-ins for broken bodies. Shattered storefronts and cracked windows become reminders of the forgotten communities that have been systematically deprived, incarcerated, and otherwise preyed upon by those who were supposed to protect them.

Don’t hear me attempting to justify the actions of those brazen, disturbed few who take advantage of these protests in order to fuel their own personal fetishes towards thrill, arson, unfettered chaos. But hear this: there are few things more despicable and unhelpful for Christians to be doing right now than condemning the “violence” of protestors while simultaneously ignoring the violence of the system.

That is, if you are more worried about preventing property damage than you are about unequivocally affirming the fact that black lives matter, your priorities are hopelessly skewed. If you decry those who march angry with God in the streets, if you share photos and lament the horrid destruction “they’ve” caused while glossing over the fact that these people have reason to be angry, you have chosen to reject the gospel by supporting a racist system that applies the death penalty to human beings made in God’s own image.

By all means, pray for God’s shalom and lasting peace to fully reveal itself in our nation, and in Ferguson. But if your praying for peace means silencing righteous outrage, then it means praying for the continuation of a status quo that has repeatedly proven itself to be destructive to black lives.  If that’s what you mean by peace, then you are literally praying for more violence.

Because praying for peace without protest means praying for more white supremacy.  Praying for silent grief means advocating for an established anti-Christ agenda – asking God for more death, more dehumanization, more destruction of your fellow image-bearers.

This is what your God asks of you: fill your ears not with imposed silence, but with the cries of the oppressed. Do not condemn black Americans for daring to reassert their humanity in the face of a system that leaves them uniquely disenfranchised; rather, realize that the brutalists have been shaking, poking and prodding at this soda can of a situation for centuries.  Admit that maybe shouting is sometimes the only way to be heard.

Those crying peace, peace and appealing to higher things easily forget that their Martin Luther King also taught that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see—an opiate of the people.”

How do we faithfully reject this weak-willed, dry-as-dust, opiate-of-the-masses kind of Christianity?

We might start by forcibly divorcing Christ from Caesar, by admitting that as disciples of Jesus, our primary loyalties lie not with the empire of the United States, but with our citizenship in the kingdom.  We might remind one another that while Caesar breaks our bodies and spills our blood and calls our neighbors gangsters and thugs, Christ breaks nothing but his own body, spills naught but his own blood, and calls us only to the margins.

How might we know if we’re getting closer to the answer, if our triune God is actually stripping away our prejudices and privileges and keeping present with us in these thorny spaces?  What sort of journey might we begin to expect?  The answer has something to do with action, corporeality, incarnation, and protest.

God present with the crucified, the dispossessed.  This is what theology looks likea grieving father lost in pain; a child swinging from Auschwitz gallows; a black body left burnt and hanging from a poplar tree; a ragged figure nailed to a Roman cross; a young man shot six times and lying broken and bleeding in the street.

on (liberation) theology and (white male) privilege

Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently posted about the intersection of theology and privilege:

I’m not saying white, educated men are uniquely biased. I’m saying we’re ALL biased (myself included!), and that our theology is made richer when we engage it with a diversity of people, especially those to whom Jesus first brought the gospel. The problem is, in our culture, white/male/Western is often considered the “default setting,” with other perspective relegated to niches or discounted as too personal/emotional/biased..theology matters and belongs to everyone, not just the privileged and not just those who do it for a living.

I think her point is a salient one, and I find the conversation about where privilege intersects with theology to be fascinating, so I wanted to write a few thoughts and observations here.

As Rachel observes, being a white man is often treated as the “default” setting in society.  Notoriously, whites and white men are simply seen as “people,” while everyone else is a “______ person,” with a variety of other “secondary” signifiers branching out from there.

While I agree that no one approaches the Bible with an entirely unbiased lens, I think it’s too generous to suggest that the most privileged groups are not “uniquely biased” in their approaches.  That is, there remains something particularly dangerous about the potent combination of privileged identities (male, white, etc) when it comes to teaching theology as Christ demonstrated it.

As Christians, we have been taught to look to white men to teach us proper theology.  Historically, our most popular and intellectually-acclaimed religious thought comes from male theologians working in European settings and entirely white contexts.  Theological “contributions” from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and other regions of the globe have not been centered, but dismissed and “contextualized” as important to their own particular time and place, shelved as secondary for not being as objective and Enlightened as White thought.  (Thinking here of the time my old Bible study leader told me to avoid “the Korean and black churches” because their theology was “not as pure” as Bill Bright’s.)

What is unfortunate about the constant re-centering of exclusively male (and white) writers by the mainstream Church is this: when people in relative positions of societal power offer their theological reflections, as brilliant as they are, their readers receive a very limited package.  Not only are a) other diverse voices absent from the conversation, but b) the very idea of trickle-down theology simply isn’t the way Jesus went about things.

claudio

Earlier this week, I interviewed Brazilian American liberation theologian and liturgist Claudio Carvalhaes for the Theology of Ferguson project.  Many parts of our conversation stuck with me.  One thing in particular that Professor Carvalhaes–who grew up “a shoe shining boy in São Paulo“–continued to insist upon was this idea that “theology starts where it hurts.”

Liberation theology (which notably did not emerge among white European theologians) echoes this commitment to searching for the lost voices when it comes to beginning theological discourse.  Some call this logic God’s preferential option for the poor–primarily fielding the concerns of the oppressed before airing the complaints of society’s upper echelons.

For liberation theologians like Claudio, scripture’s polemics against the powerful aren’t simply trite cautions against excess or flashes of ultimate eschatological hope.  Rather, declarations like those found in Mary’s Magnificat–God’s promises to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, exalt the humble, and send the rich away empty–represent God’s commitment to starting theology with those on the margins.

This must remain core to what the Church teaches when we’re having modern conversations about privilege and who’s instructing us on how to live.

This is why I believe that (contrary to traditional wisdom) classically-trained white men might be among the least capable of teaching sound theology.  Those who hold positions of unqualified social privilege must naturally be counted among the last to declare freedom from outside influence when it comes to proclaiming the good news (which centrally, in Christ’s own words, is “good news for the poor“).

While many individuals (especially LGBT persons, immigrants, people of color, women, and those with disabilities) are traditionally disadvantaged in numerous spheres of daily life, white men since birth have been soothed and affirmed by American society at every turn.  They don’t “start at the bottom” of the social ladder, so they’re spared bumping up against the grain of dehumanizing scandal and humiliation.  Instead, they can remain “impartial” and begin at the top of the food chain, already with a seat at the table.  In this, they are indeed “uniquely biased” to talk about a kingdom where the first become last, where the honored guests are the beaten and disenfranchised.

Think of how many of our highest-lauded preachers and teachers fit this mold.  Think how few exceptions there are to this rule (and here, progressive churches have been performing as atrociously as conservative ones).  I’m not doubting the talent, earnestness, and intelligence of white men in teaching theology, but I am calling for them to a) make room for other voices and b) examine how their social advantages might uniquely blind them to the struggles of the poor and the maligned (read: Christ’s own people).

What would it look like for (educated, straight, English-speaking, able-bodied) white men to humble themselves by intentionally stepping aside and creating space for traditionally marginalized perspectives in theology?  This move should not be motivated by outside pressure (or by some misguided sense of liberal guilt) but because the homogeneity of the privileged in Christian theological discourse is literally distorting the beauty and application of the gospel.

When we gather around the pulpit or the communion table, it is our imperative to ask: who is missing here?  What voices are being talked over?  More importantly: who might we need to move aside (the answer may be ourselves!) and what tables need to be flipped (once again, it may be ours) in order to welcome the dispossessed into the body of Christ?

Instead of privileging (maleness and) whiteness above all other theological perspectives–a philosophy sometimes called white supremacy–may we learn to follow God’s heart in showing preference for those who are poor and despised; not only for their sake but also for ours.

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