On Sunday night I had the opportunity to speak with a group of students. In the days prior to the talk I had several conversations with the youth pastor and with an elder from the church. It’s understandable, that the leaders of an evangelical church, who will also have to try to communicate with parents, would want to have clarification on my approach in coming to talk to their youth group. It was determined that one of the elders would open the meeting by communicating what the church’s leadership believed about homosexuality – which in this case was the affirmation of marriage being between one man and one woman and that same-sex sexual activity was sinful. Because the elder had clearly stated this position, that actually freed me to be able to present from a posture of generous spaciousness with this diverse group of students. Having felt like a misfit during my own teen years, I usually don’t feel incredibly comfortable speaking to a group of high schoolers. It tends to trigger all sorts of less than pleasant feelings for me. But over my years at New Direction I fairly regularly face my personal demons and try to serve this population to the best of my ability. Being able to speak from a posture of generous spaciousness made the task of speaking to students infinitely easier and more comfortable for me.
I could, for instance, say to the students that the elder had shared with them WHAT the church’s leadership believed – and I could encourage them to go and have conversation with the elders about WHY they believe that. I could challenge both the elders and the students to engage in dialogue together about WHY we think and believe what we do about the manner in which a same-sex oriented Christian should steward their relationships and sexuality. I could say to these students that each one of them needs to wrestle with Scripture, through prayer, reason, experience and in conversation with others in the Christian community to be able to own for themselves what they believe and why they believe it. I could talk to them about the fact that while WHAT we believe is important, it is also of critical importance to consider HOW we believe what we believe. That is, how do we convey our beliefs and values with others, including others who may disagree with us? And how can we do that in a manner that reflects the love of Christ for all people?
What was so refreshing about this particular talk was that our time together wasn’t sucked up by promoting, defending or refuting a particular theological position. We could simply focus on the reality that each one of us needs to grow in the maturity that owns what we truly believe. We can’t just inherit our beliefs – we need to really pray and think things through. We could focus on how a follower of Jesus can navigate the reality of complexity on this topic in a posture of humility and hospitality. And I could encourage these students to consider that asking questions isn’t a sign of a weak faith – but rather a sign of a faith willing to trust God to lead, guide and provide discernment.
The majority of our time together that evening was spent going through the questions that the students could anonymously text in. It was clear from the questions that the perspectives and levels of experience and use of language were very diverse in this group. I was able to encourage these students to learn the simple but important adage of entering dialogue ~ “This is what I believe ….. but I could be wrong….. tell me about what you believe.” And I could emphasize that the gospel is not ultimately about right belief ~ it is ultimately about right relationship: with God and with each other.
This generous experience with a group of students creates an interesting backdrop to the reminder that the Day of Dialogue is fast approaching (April 19). This initiative was formed in response to the GLSEN (gay, lesbian, straight education network) Day of Silence (April 20). The Day of Silence invites students to choose to refrain from speaking for a day as an act of solidarity with those whose voices are muted by unsafe environments of bullying and homophobia. Because this was perceived to be part of advancing an agenda of normalizing homosexuality in our society, the Day of Dialogue (originally called the Day of Truth) challenged Christian students to share with other students the traditional Biblical perspective that marriage is to be between one man and one woman and that there was hope for change for those who were same-sex attracted. Sponsorship of the Day of Truth/Dialogue has changed hands a few times from the Alliance Defense Fund to Exodus and now to Focus on the Family. The message has evolved slightly. This year’s cards (that students can download to hand out to other students) communicate this message:
I am giving you this card as a reminder that God cares about every single student in this school, including you—and to invite you to have a conversation about this concept. He knows your name, and He cares about your sexuality, your relationships and your soul. I believe Jesus Christ came to this earth to give his life for people like you and me. I believe He loves every person regardless of how they identify. That’s why as a Christian—someone who follows Jesus—I will stand up for students around me being teased, bullied or harmed for any reason. Because God cares so much about us, I also believe that He designed the best plan for our sexuality and relationships. And that He created every one of us, male and female, so that we could enjoy an intimate relationship with Him. Let’s talk about it!
I’m glad to see an acknowledgment that there are students who are bullied and that the card communicates that Christian students should stand up for those being mistreated. I’m glad the card articulates that God loves people regardless of how they identify. There’s no question in my mind that the card has been toned down from previous years. This is a sobering reality to take note of when one stops to remember that last year a gay student came home from school after the Day of Dialogue and hung himself in his bedroom.
When you go to the topic list under the “Dig Deeper” tag on the Day of Dialogue website, you see the following article links: God’s Design for Sexuality; Sex: A Gift & Responsibility; Hope for Those who Struggle; Having Healthy Friendships; Why We Should Stick up for Others; Why Male and Female Matter; Who am I? Finding Eternal Significance.
The website also listed some conversation starters: Does God really care about our sexuality and relationships?; What kind of advice does the Bible offer about this stuff – what does it say about the purpose of sex and God’s intention for it?; How is marriage reflected in God’s Word? How does the Bible present the idea of marriage as a spiritual picture? What is this important to think about?; What does it mean when the Bible says God made us in His own image, male and female?; How might masculinity and femininity reflect different things about God’s character?
As I looked through these articles, there was a very consistent tone. The articles were friendly, positive, and encouraging. They also presented a very consistent paradigm – one that can be described as an ex-gay paradigm. Such a paradigm not only views same-sex sexual activity as sinful, but it also discourages an individual from identifying as LGBT. The personal stories in the articles were consistently of those who felt same-sex attraction, some of whom had been involved in same-sex relationships or sexual activity, who turned away from anything associated with homosexuality to focus on a primary identity in Christ. The articles also had a strong tone of differentiation in gender.
When you consider the predominance of one paradigm and the conversation starters that point towards a particular discussion, one has to wonder why it is called the Day of Dialogue. It seems to me it might be much more honest to simply call it the Day of Defense of Traditional Marriage, Ex-Gay Response to Homosexuality and Traditional Gender Roles.
What struck me about the website was that I didn’t really see any guidance for high school students to understand what dialogue really is. I didn’t see any acknowledgement that they would encounter people with different views. I didn’t see any help for students to engage in conversation in a way that was open, humble and able to navigate difference and disagreement. I didn’t see any direction on listening skills. I didn’t see any acknowledgment that students may encounter a gay Christian.
Most promoters of dialogue have an emphasis on relationships. They recognize that dialogue happens over time with the goal of transformational, authentic relationships. There is an openness and often an expectation that dialogue will change us (note: not change the other person). Dialogue breaks down isolation and alienation because there is a mutuality and an opportunity to both listen and to share.
In the Day of Dialogue materials, I did not see much, if any, emphasis on dialogue taking time, on it being about building relationships, on a willingness to suspend one’s worldview to truly listen to another. There was no preparation for Christian high school students to really encounter difference and engage it in a manner that would open further conversation and deepen relationships. In fact, given the tone of apologetics and evangelism, it would seem to me that the drive-by conversation promoted by this initiative has the potential to create further alienation between Christian and gay students – with the additional sadness for gay Christian students caught in the cross-hairs.
It occurs to me that while gay-straight alliance students groups can easily be perceived as promoting a particular view of homosexuality, such groups are designed for open dialogue to happen in safe and positive environments. Students of majority and minority sexual identity have the opportunity to come together to hear one another’s experiences, one another’s beliefs and values, and learn to be supportive of one another despite any differences in perspective or experience. It occurs to me that the Day of Silence asks students to adopt the discipline of fasting from speaking as a tangible (and for some likely very challenging) sign of solidarity.
If the Day of Dialogue was actually encouraging dialogue that might be one thing. If it was willingly partnering with forums for ongoing conversation that might be something. But given the reality of its emphasis, one might do well to question whether this is really about concern for gay students, or the encouragement of Christian students, or whether the Day of Dialogue is an extension of the promotion and proselytizing of a particular worldview.
My hope and prayer is that on both days, April 19 & 20, students will pause and reflect on our interconnectedness one with another….. that we will remember my favorite quote from Desmond Tutu, “When I diminish you, I diminish myself.”