Crushing Liberating Theologies: From the Vatican to InterVarsity
I wanted to join InterVarsity when I was in college.
As a fresh-faced evangelical student newly arrived on campus, I signed my email up for half a dozen Christian fellowships on Quad Day: Young Life, InterVarsity, Cru, Christians on Campus, and local Catholic, Baptist, and Pentecostal mailing lists and student groups. When I eventually visited InterVarsity large group, I heard worship in four languages, saw a plethora of people of color, and witnessed someone of my ethnic identity preaching for the first time.
A few weeks later, my Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) assigned mentor listened quietly as I recounted my excitement at visiting these new groups of Christians. He listened attentively and paused before responding quietly: “well, whatever group you choose, just stay away from the Korean and black churches…their theology is weighed down by cultural baggage, and isn’t as pure as what you might find in our fellowship.”
I felt pressured, and chose to stay in Cru. I’ve written before how I was later forced to leave that ministry over my LGBTQ family structure and issues of queer and transgender inclusion on campus. I try not to relive the days when I was physically threatened by my Driscoll-wielding mentor, shunned by my closest friends, sent Bible-quoting blogs written by fellow Cru members asking for our community to pray for my death. As that loss opened up fully before me, I would look longingly at the multiethnic, questions-welcome sort of community that my friends in InterVarsity seemed to have, and I would weep, lonely, feeling like I had fucked myself over by making the wrong choice.
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Five hundred years before my birth, conquistadors in gleaming armor landed on the shores of the islands and lands we now call “the Americas,” and began a centuries-long campaign to plunder, enslave, mutilate, rape, and ethnically cleanse this land’s original inhabitants, justifying it all with a theology that proclaimed the godliness of the empire. Countless stories of religious resistance and complicity, faithful hope and prophetic undoing, have indelibly marked these lands in the many decades since.
During the mid-20th century, members of the dominant religious tradition in Latin America (Roman Catholicism) began to more explicitly articulate a way of talking about God (a theology) that challenged economic inequality, which always seemed to make sure that wealthy politicians, priests and bishops went well-fed while poor masses teemed in squalor.
Priests and laypersons began prophetically interpreting the Christian story in light of the suffering of the poor, the colonized, and the oppressed. Figures like Gustavo Gutiérrez voiced a theology of Catholic conscience that demanded broad, structural changes and an end to international colonial exploitation rather than simply maintaining traditional pietistic practices of charity; no longer would the disenfranchised be the cheap outlets for the rich to periodically purge their consciences by on occasion sending the hungry away with a few crumbs.
Instead, God was now described as actually having a “preference” for the poor, whose exploitation is an insult to Jesus Christ. Salvation, argued these prophets, wasn’t God saving your “soul” and whisking you off to some lily-white, country club heaven after you die, but God literally liberating the marginalized from social, political, and economic oppression in this world as an anticipation of Christ’s ultimate deliverance.
TIME Magazine recently reported that the parachurch ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) is now explicitly asking all staff members who support same-sex marriage to leave the organization (including employees at their publishing house, IVPress). This decision is so heartbreaking. I count dozens of LGBTQ IV students and staff as beloved friends: fellow believers with whom I’ve fellowshipped in dining halls, in our homes and churches, in clubs and bars, and at Urbana Missions, Reformation Project, and Gay Christian Network conferences.
InterVarsity has meant so, so much to these people over the years. For the LGBTQ women, men, and nonbinary Christians who have loved or been loved well by IVCF in the past, this news isn’t some abstract, quaint new source of outrage. They don’t have the luxury of claiming objective distance here: this conversation is the intimate text of their lives splayed out in increasingly sharp and painful ways. This is flesh and blood: real loss and public shaming, broken and strained relationships, bruised faith and lost financial security. It represents the culmination of so many nightmares and dashed hopes.
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Before long, these new currents of Latin American theology, themselves influenced by global movements of resistance to totalitarianism, began to uniquely flourish. As this movement of the poor, campesinos, women, merchants, laborers, indigenous leaders, and tentmaker-priests began to challenge their status quo of religiously-justified political oppression, the Vatican took notice.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was one of the movement’s harshest critics. Ratzinger declared that these theologians were fundamentally corrupted in arguing that Christ’s teachings on the poor could be applied to current social situations, rather than serving as metaphors for judgment after death. He accused the third-world-driven movement of “cultural imperialism,” and wielding the Vatican’s influence prohibited Catholic seminaries and theological schools from teaching this kind of “Communist” God-talk.
The Vatican began to decisively legislate life out of its own ranks. Sri Lankan, Brazilian, and Indian priests were excommunicated and silenced for politically deploying the Eucharist and the Bible against the cheap grace and disembodied wealth of European colonialism. Indigenous leaders were pushed out of their beloved churches by higher-ups afraid of what this “liberating” theology would mean for their claims to trickle-down power. Others fared much worse: many liberation theologians were incarcerated, tortured, disappeared, dismembered, and murdered, often on orders from colonizing powers who went so far as to inaugurate new reigns of military terror to quell this movement.
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Being raised in the US evangelicalism of the 2000s, I have grown up only knowing the Southern Baptist Convention as a bastion of right-wing, literalist, and exclusionary theology. The story of the denomination’s late 20th century shift rightward via a national takeover by fundamentalists who systematically eliminated more measured voices from church leadership goes too often untold. The spiritual homes that many had previously found in the Southern Baptist tradition were bulldozed, caked over with no-cracks-here theological concrete, leaving millions of believers unmoored and adrift.
In that same spirit, it grieves me to think that entire generations of college students will be deprived of the opportunity to know IVCF in the way some of my peers have known it. InterVarsity’s calculated purge designed to systematically root out latent support for same-sex marriage among its staff is the theological equivalent of the #Brexit. What thousands of untold future friendships, kinship relationships and “Jesus encounters” will be missed out on as a result of this move?
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Any theology that insists upon the total dignity and inclusion of LGBTQIA people, in a context of institutionalized heterosexism, is a liberation theology. To affirm the validity of queer identities in a setting that is attempting to legislate them away is to participate in this challenging, life-saving theology.
There’s nothing more terrifying to comfortable purveyors of doctrine and power than a home-grown theological movement, nurtured right under their noses, which in advocating for those most pushed to the margins challenges existing discrimination. As the historical record shows, those who are talking about what God is doing in Christ in liberating ways are quickly cast as a threat. They are silenced by (para)church leaders, cauterized as cancers, swept aside by a proud system unable to see the very harm it is inflicting.
Faithful dissenters, themselves motivated by the testimony of scripture, are seen as dangerous radicals infiltrating the flock with an outside agenda. “Communists! Liberals! Heretics! Wolves in sheeps’ clothing!” This is why my Cru peers were able to tell others in good conscience that I had been deceiving them all from the outset, merely pretending to be a Christian.
Remember that those attempting to ebb the tide of God’s liberating spirit are fighting a losing battle. As the scripture says, “we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies.”
May God burst forth in our midst, keep our treasured faith and protect these sacred clay jars that we call our bodies. Our wonderful, physical, fleshy, soft and embodied, queer and colored bodies. May God’s liberating spirit be born anew among us in these days of turmoil, breaking walls that bind, liberating us from captivity to power and exclusion.
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I wrote this post only after speaking with LGBTQ staff, current students, and alumni of InterVarsity to make sure sharing my thoughts here would be helping and not hurting. These people are the ones whom this conversation most affects. Let’s center their voices in this time of grief, challenge, and lament.
Below are voices of a few such leaders, for whom I offer my prayers, love, and unqualified support. I will continue to update this post with resources and the latest campaigns related to the #InterVarsityPurge conversation.