I’m here at Calvin College attending the Festival of Faith and Writing, one of the most amazing, one of the best, writing conferences out there. The quality of the speakers—Gary Schmidt, Jonathan Safran Foer, Marilynne Robinson–not to mention the different seminars I’ve already taken–gives depth and urgency to writers who hope to change the world. I have never felt such deep emotional responses to these calls and challenges to be good writers and write good stories. Calvin College does a great thing for writers of faith.
And yet…. I find myself, as I knew I would, disturbed by Calvin College’s policy towards GLBT students. It’s an ethical dilemma.
Calvin’s stance on GLBT issues
To their credit, Calvin is far more liberal than most Christian colleges. They do not run them off campus, as they did in my day. So by that measure, I should be pleased. I have read their FAQs on their policy towards homosexuality and GLBT students, and you can read it here: Calvin’s FAQs about homosexuality.
You’ll notice that it’s very kind and generous. It acknowledges that gays and lesbians are attracted to same sex people.
“While the orientation seems usually to lie outside the scope of an individual’s will, by God’s power and grace, behavior lies within it.
Calvin College is also concerned that homosexual members of our community are treated with respect, justice, grace and understanding in the Spirit of Christ. We recognize the complexity of current issues around homosexuality and desire to engage this conversation with courage, humility, prayerfulness and convicted civility.” (I use the quotation marks here because my pic makes it difficult to know where the quote starts and ends.)
It’s that sexual behavior that seems so SEPARATE to Calvin; it’s almost ridiculous. However, they want to frame a “conversation” in respectful terms. Conversation, of course, means that both sides are listening. But I appreciate their dedication to civility, a civility that they have the authority to enforce.
In the classroom, Calvin College notes that multiple perspectives may be explored by students:
In exploring the full range of human experience, faculty will certainly acquaint students with many perspectives that are inconsistent with the confessions, but will do so from a perspective of adherence to the confessions.
That policy– the adherence to confessions–can be found in the the newest document on academic freedom for professors and students. Mentioned in these FAQs, it addresses how faculty should approach difficult topics. The underlying conclusion, as you read here, is that the administration is not wrong, and that they are not the ones listening, but the ones correcting:
We have learned that the best outcomes for such conversations are those in which an inquirer later reports “I’m glad I asked. I really do see this now from another, more biblical, point of view,” or where the faculty or staff member reports “I’m glad you raised this. I hadn’t been aware of all the ramifications of my view, and I’ve now refined it to take other concerns into account,” or where both later say “we disagree, but we remain open to learning from each other” or “I realize that I need to learn more and think further about any position I advance.” Not every inquiry will end in this way. But we have learned to give such questions every chance to end with a positive outcome.
I like to point out that their “positive outcome” is one where there is learning on the inquirer’s side only. However, Calvin’s new policies on homosexuality do protect gays and lesbians from negative slurs, prejudice, etc.— however, they don’t realize the institutionalized creation of prejudice they engender by their different treatment of gays and lesbians. Watch the FAQs carefully:
[SAGA–Sexuality Awareness, Gender Acceptance] is not a ‘student organization,’ but a group of students with a counselor mentor from the Broene Counseling Center, who seek to educate others at Calvin about the challenges faced by homosexual students.
Gays are given groups within the auspices of counseling. “These are not student organizations” the policy says emphatically, thereby denying them student rights. They are, instead, places of refuge for gays and lesbians and places where they can, apparently, come to terms with the fact that God wants them to remain celibate–and teach others how to treat them better because of their “challenges”. *note the student response below for a great insight into SAGA and Calvin College that I didn’t know, and am very pleased to hear. While policy may be against gays at Calvin, the people there aren’t.
“Challenges” Gay Students face at Calvin College
I’m assuming that one of those challenges is that gays must stay celibate for life according to Calvin. They do state that Calvin College believes that sexual union is reserved for married couples (and since gays can’t marry in Michigan…)
I’m hoping that at least one of those challenges that is expressed to Calvin is that Calvin College is the biggest challenge. They are inadvertently teaching students how to discriminate, with biblical authority, against their gay and lesbian members. They show other students that it is okay for them to act as their brother’s keeper–reinforcing the dogma that keeps the gay students celibate and believing that God screwed up on them, that their feelings are a deviation from the norm.
Calvin may not approve of outward signs of disgust or discrimination, but they re-enforce the justification that starts that kind of discrimination. Calvin doesn’t expect, or allow, gay students to fall in love, date, nor do they counsel a gay student on how to find the right partner. This is an abstinence-only life for gays. Can you imagine how Calvin would be treated if it didn’t provide the space for its heterosexual students to do that? Space or not–they would fall in love, date, and marry–without counseling.
Though Calvin may see the policy as equal for heterosexuals and homosexuals on campus, their whole curriculum, student life awareness, and religious atmosphere is that gays are different, besieged by “challenges”, and must “struggle” with their faith and sexuality. That is not a good place for a gay to be. I’m sorry.
However, to leave Calvin College is to throw out an incredible Christian-oriented education. And this is the plight of gay Christians everywhere–that the Christian education they could receive puts them in shackles; whereas the freedom they could have on another campus leaves them abandoned by religion and faith. Calvin College is an excellent institution that gets most things more right than any other secular institution. But their stance on gays will be debilitating to us in the long run. Secular colleges and universities are not gonna get Jesus easier than one college could get acceptance and love for its GLBT members.
We don’t want your pity, and we shouldn’t ask for your permission to have any of the freedoms that are offered to heterosexual students. It will not be equal on Calvin College campus for gays and straights until gays are not only accepted for how they were made, but also encouraged and supported to live a full life–with the chance to date, fall in love and marry in whatever state will allow that. Having an atmosphere that restricts the “behavior” of gays, while pitying and lamenting their state, doesn’t make for fully-rounded, fully realized Christian students–and that goes directly against Calvin College student policy. Calvin College promised to treat students equally–and their biblical stance doesn’t allow that.
Calvin College tries to skirt the issues by saying–hey–no one gets to have sex outside of marriage, remembering that marriage is only allowed for heterosexuals. But surely, 80% of this campus I’m on right now is made up of non-virgins. I will bet money on it. So will they really throw them off campus if they have sex during their four years? Really. Thousands of students staying celibate for four years? That’s a stretch of the imagination. Anyway, the heterosexuals know that if they fall in love there is a natural progression of acceptable events: courtship, engagement, marriage. These traditions save sexually-active, or sexually wanna-be-active students, from being thrown off campus–they can marry and make it right! These things are not allowed for gays on campus.
What I Encourage Calvin to do as a Leader
Abstinence-only education has brought West Texas one of the highest rates of pregnancy and disease. Once students fail at being abstinent, they give up and just go whole hog sexually and think that they have magical immunity. They don’t have the skills, the knowledge, or the faith in the protection to be able to handle the sex, and consequences, they will have. The same will happen with gays who are taught to be celibate. When the urge continues to hit them, they will feel amplified guilt for breaking that celibacy vow, which will make them vulnerable to hating themselves, or to becoming promiscuous and careless.
If Calvin, however, prepared gays for monogamous relationships they could do a lot to help this world, transforming the problem through education and acceptance and thereby transform gays and society. More knowledgeable gays, with a Christian worldview, would be an amazing asset to this world. It would encourage monogamy among gays, coupling it with the kind of support that heterosexual couples get in every church and Christian college. That kind of support goes a long way to creating stable, confident Christian leaders. Confident, stable couples. And those couples would be liable to stay in churches–and this would bring back a lot of the fold we’ve lost. And if they adopt, as they so often do, they would keep bringing families into the church which passes on faith to a new generation.
The current Our Calling page on Calvin’s website is littered with battle-phrases, like these from CS Lewis:
As C.S. Lewis once said, we are trying to retake territory that has been captured by the enemy. We are trying to recapture society, culture, and all creation for Jesus Christ. We will need the right attitudes for this recapturing program, including the attitude of delight.
The ground we’re trying to recapture from the “enemy” is that they are better at loving than Christians are. Recapture the love. Recapture that ground and society and culture will follow.
This vision is doable–and transformational. Now, more than ever, I believe Calvin College is the institution that will take the lead on this. It’s inside their mandate; it’s tied to their Christian vision; it’s part of the excellence I see inside this Festival of Faith and Learning, pouring naturally out of the challenge to transform the world.
Why am I concerned?
I’m not even a Calvin student. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This injustice here should bother us. On a campus that wants to challenge the world, transform the world, their injustice taints their transformation of others. They can’t fight injustice with injustice.
I am asked at this conference, hosted by Calvin, to fight injustice with my writing, to beat back intolerance, to create a safe space for all people through Christ’s love. How can I do this when my people are held back? When my people are told that this is not God’s perfect plan for them. When I can watch a wonderful author embrace the “good and perfect gift” of her child with down’s syndrome, how can I do less for accepting the good and perfect gift of my sexuality–a sexuality which was never meant to be closed down.
I’m orthodox enough to believe that you need to be careful about having sex outside of marriage–that you need to wait–but waiting without the promise of a goal? Without the fulfillment of the body God gave us, the drives God gave us? You go force Monkhood out of your basketball team, Calvin College, and see where that gets you. No, that’s destructive to the human spirit. This conference is all about nourishing the human spirit. I want to write to free that spirit. Calvin College, in a sense, has challenged me, told me to do these things.
I love this Festival, and I appreciate and applaud and thank Calvin College for providing this festival. And now, I must do what they urge me to do.
I wanted to write the poem you see below and paste it up on campus, but the library watches the copies, and approves them, of people from off campus. So I couldn’t.
The Festival of Faith and Writing has taught me to take my words seriously–as power for good–and so we have to speak out against injustice where we find it.
I felt powerless and voiceless until I wrote this poem. It’s not a brilliant poem, but it expresses where I am–wanting to give lasting encouragement, and to be the transformative power that this Festival claims I can be as a writer. I can only do that if I speak.
gay at Calvin?
you are fearfully and wonderfully made and no sign I post on campus
will stay long enough to tell you this
so you must take the signs Calvin gives you—not the counseling
while watching friends kiss, hold hands, get engaged, marry,
all to shouts of joy and happiness that won’t be yours
how many future relationships destroyed here by telling you
this isn’t God’s best.
no, their SAGA only goes so far.
So, you hijack the other signs—the ones they can’t remove—to remind yourself
that God loves you
and wants you to find a partner to love as that perfect expression
of faith and grace. You were created to love.
When you see JOHNNY’S red neon sign on the wall
When you walk through the brick passages of Knollcrest Dining
Or count the basketball championship banners in Van Noord Arena
When any speaker says the words love or marriage
they are yours now. God whispers to you every time these signs appear.
Pass this good news–
like a bridge between hearts.
Sure. Go ahead and commandeer Calvin’s Crossing while you’re at it
–as a sign. Imagine it connects you
to the one you will love, and who will love you.
They can take flyers, and poems, but, baby,
that bridge isn’t coming down anytime soon.