On August 22, during a Divinity School orientation panel on diversity, Dean of the Divinity School Richard Hays asserted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” in response to a question about resources for LGBT students. Hays reminded students that the United Methodist Church, the Divinity School’s affiliated denomination, does not ordain homosexual clergy or recognize same-sex unions. In his subsequent “apology” letter, Hays accused critics of “gravely misinterpreting” what he had said while continuing to stress the school’s connection to the United Methodist Church and its outdated teachings.
Those who defend Hays argue that he did nothing wrong in simply sharing a Methodist position.
But that argument falls short when we remember that many divinity school students are not Methodists—indeed, at least 30 different denominations are represented in that student body. The Divinity School chooses to accept and hire non-Methodists, and they must be aware of the realities that come with that. LGBT students at the Divinity School often hope to be ordained in their respective denominations. Hays failed to respect this, instead of sending the message that the Divinity School is hostile toward these students and their pursuit of a career in ministry.
Unfortunately, over the last month, outside of the Divinity School and Chapel communities, this outrageous incident has received little attention. When a prominent figure in our community makes a destructive and prejudicial statement, we have a responsibility to pay attention to. And yet, unless we’re talking about the Refectory, most Duke undergraduates tune out when we hear the words “Divinity School.”
But this event troubled me. I see my identity as a Christian as not only compatible with but as inextricable from, my identity as a feminist and an ally with the LGBT community.
That said, there are times when I feel uncomfortable identifying as a Christian because of the cultural baggage wrapped up in this identity.
I fear that being forthcoming about this affiliation may lead others to brand me as the type of person who would block women’s access to reproductive health services, who would defend the use of phrases like “no homo” and “tranny” and who would alienate and condemn the LGBT community (as Hays has done), all of which are practices that I see as distinctly un-Christian.
It may come as a shock to some that a 2013 Gallup poll found that 48 percent of Catholics and 40 percent of Protestant/Other Christians self-identified as “Pro-Choice” when asked their views on abortion. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 92 percent of Catholics and 87.5 percent of Protestants supported comprehensive sex-education. A sizeable number of mainline Christian denominations ordain openly gay clergy, including such big names as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the Presbyterian Church and the United Church of Christ. Many of these denominations support and perform same-sex marriages.
Why, then, has the church allowed a fundamentalist minority to define and dominate the narrative of what it means to be Christian in this country? Why are we silent as the right wing continues to co-opt the idea of “Christian family values,” focusing not on unconditional love but on the policing of female and so-called “deviant” sexualities? Why do we allow an excessive–even pornographic–focus on issues of sex and sexuality to undermine basic Christian teachings about love and grace?
Progressives have a responsibility—to ourselves, to our communities and to any higher power we may believe in—to fight against threats to our values.
Instead of being lost in the debate, liberal churches must fire back at attacks on our basic liberties. We must respond with the same level of fervor and zeal as those who try to silence us.
Thankfully, many progressive Christians at Duke aren’t keeping silent. Divinity School students and faculty, outraged that an unelected dean would speak for them, have organized in solidarity with the LGBT community. Groups like Blue Devils United and Sacred Worth, the school’s LGBT student union, have used community-organizing tactics–demonstrating at convocation and pressuring the administration to hire a queer theologian, for example–to send the message that there is a place for gay students and clergy in the community.
Starting next fall, the Chapel will be under renovation for a year. It’s also time for a renovation of Christian teachings and “morals.” Just as we expect a building built in 1932 to need refurbishment, so too must we understand that the church and its practices cannot stay relevant without their own adaptations.
If we fail to stand up for those silenced by prejudice, I worry that the Chapel, and the American Christian Church as we know it, will soon be relics of a bygone era.
So let’s look to the Divinity School’s inspiring mobilization as an example of how Christians–and all those who care about social justice–should respond to injustices on our campus and in our world.