Remembering a legendary teacher
Engaging Gay Activists on Campus: A Primer
The name of Jesus made me recoil in anger. Oh, I was OK with a certain range of “live and let live,” but I was also in a war against stupid. “Live and let live” meant to keep your religious practice in the closet. While Freud considered the Christian faith pathological, I considered it applied cultural phobia, and it was not welcome in my classes.
It was 1998. I was a newly tenured professor in the English department of a large university. My field was queer theory.
From a Christian perspective, I was the vampire and you were the fresh blood. Let me be clear. I had a lesbian partner and I wasn’t cheating on her. I didn’t want to hop into bed with you. I wanted you to hop the worldview fence and see the enlightened path that feminist theory and LGBT advocacy alone could offer you. I wasn’t thumping tolerance. Nothing short of a cosmological paradigm shift was my focus.
I taught a large “Introduction to Women’s Studies” class for our university’s core humanities requirement. This class served as a bridge between the university and the community through service learning, and between radical ideas and domestic life through the texts and assignments that I gave. No longer was gay and lesbian culture some marginalized, sexually perverse subculture. We were the face of a new social decency, and we knew this. We were the new thumbprint of civil rights.
My PhD was in English literature and critical theory. I was trained to read books and make sense of them. The Bible was on my radar as a book that needed a good public spanking. That the Bible claimed unearned ontological “true truth” was laughable to me back then. Christians had one book that maintained this status on its own terms. I had a hundred that tore that argument apart.
Oh, I wasn’t hard hearted—not too much. I saw young Christian students try nobly to hang on to their sentimental ideas. But their emotional beliefs were no match for me. My heart went out to students for whom “knowing Jesus” meant not knowing anything else; I wanted to help liberate them into a more enlightened path. On my “Intro to Women’s Studies” syllabus, I reminded students that all papers must be written from a feminist life- and worldview. That was the law, because worldview and hermeneutics mattered to me. I wasn’t just interested in your ability to draw feminist conclusions about literature and life. I wanted you to have an integrated knowledge.
The integrated feminist hermeneutics that I taught drew a stark contrast to what the Christians on campus were doing. They told me what the Bible said but could not defend why it was true. They used the Bible to answer a question and to stop a conversation, not deepen it. After trying that tactic in my class, even the most devout young Christian saw the hermeneutic futility. Or perhaps they just got tired of arguing with me.
“Well, are you saving any of your prayers for the chess club there on your other side? Or do only queers serve as the beneficiaries of your prayer life?” I asked once.
I don’t know what offended me more: the misogyny, racism, and homophobia of the Bible, or the Christians who thumped it, with their presumptuous diagnoses of sin and solution.
All that changed when a Christian pastor and his wife became my friends. Our friendship began in an odd way. I had written an editorial in the local newspaper protesting the Promise Keepers. Pastor Ken Smith wrote me a letter in response. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Our correspondence led to dinners together and book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics. My new Christian acquaintances did not act as though such conversations were polluting them. They encouraged me to read the Bible (which I needed to do to write my book on the Religious Right anyway), and they discipled me in real Christian grace (by being my neighbor and my friend). They showed me how people leaned hard on the Bible. And after two years of meeting with my Christian neighbors, getting to know some of their church members, and reading the Bible multiple times through in a year, I noticed something about this text.
It was different from all the rest.
It had an integrated revelation, a vast and capacious philosophy about sin and redemption, and a God-man who was no effeminate runway model or martyr. I also noticed something about these Christians: they had an inner capacity to withstand trials and agonies without blame shifting or depression. Finally, I noticed something about me: I was a lot like Eve. The Bible promised understanding after obedience, not the other way around (John 7:17). That stopped me in my tracks: Did I want to understand why homosexuality was a sin from God’s point of view, or did I just want to argue with Him? After two years of this, the Bible got to be bigger than me. It overflowed into my world. I realized that the Bible was my holy highway to a living God; that through it I could learn what God wanted of me and why, and through it I could send my pleas to His throne of grace. The Bible transmitted the language and lexicon of a Holy God, transforming me to grow in His likeness. It truly was the only way.
It was a shock to realize that my zeal for feminism exemplified the deceptiveness of sin and that I was really persecuting Jesus the whole time.
When Jesus claimed me for myself, I learned that repentance unto life meant turning around—my sexuality, my career, my scholarship, my hopes, and my dreams. In conversion, I lost everything but the dog. My feelings had nothing to do with it. God’s truth superseded all, including my feelings.
I share with you my background because if you want to engage gay rights activists on campus, you need to know where they are coming from. While there is diversity in the LGBT community, because I was once a member of this tribe, I open my life to you here so that you can better understand your audience.
I am now a wife, a homeschooling mom, and a writer. My feelings caught up to my Christian faith. My husband is a pastor, and together we try to prepare Christian students to lead lives of Christian faith-based intellectual integrity on college campuses. I believe the following list of Dos and Don’ts will prove useful for students in secular as well as Christian schools, because sin lurks in our hearts, and temptations flourish everywhere.
1. Don’t neglect the fellowship of the saints and the formal worship of God every Lord’s Day in a solid, orthodox church, one where the clergy know you by name and are willing to come to campus to hear lectures, serve on panel discussions, and lovingly bring Christian life and worldviews to the campus.
2. Don’t get careless about modesty, in speech or in dress. The unbelievers and believers around you may struggle and be tempted by you. Don’t give others a reason to stumble or to lust. Your body and your speech are precious to a holy God. Don’t act on campus differently than you would act in your home or in your church.
3. Don’t give your heart away to unbelievers. Be intentional about building strong Christian friendships on campus. Hold yourselves accountable to good spiritual practices. Do not engage in “missionary dating.”
4. Don’t witness alone. I have counseled college students who find themselves suddenly in gay and lesbian relationships when they started out witnessing to a gay or lesbian activist on campus. Remember that sexual sin is predatory. I am NOT saying that your gay and lesbian colleagues on campus are sexual predators. I AM saying that Genesis 4:7 defines in a broad way the predatory nature of sin. In this verse, God says to Cain: “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” So, don’t desire the pleasures of the world; don’t think that sin is dormant; DO know that sin has agency and knows your name.
5. Don’t indulge in pornography of any kind, and if you do, repent and turn away. DO tell your pastor/priest what you have done so that you can have some helpful accountability.
6. Don’t be surprised when your own feelings of sexuality emerge in ways that you didn’t expect. God made you, and He made sexuality for His glory. How you struggle with sin and even your repentance gives God glory. Keep the Lord close to you as you navigate this new world. Don’t think for a minute that the Lord has abandoned you or does not understand you. Remember: He was tempted in ALL ways, but without sin.
7. Don’t engage gay rights activists on campus without a thorough examination of your motives, your spiritual integrity and maturity, your spiritual community and its support of you, and the thickness of your skin.
8. Don’t get sidelined on rabbit trails. The only sin that you need to focus on is a heart in enmity against a holy God. How sin manifests itself (homosexuality, adultery, etc.) should not become larger than life for you.
9. Don’t forget that people are image bearers of a holy God. Don’t define people by their sins even if they do this to themselves.
1. Do tie in with a local church and develop a hermeneutically sound defense of the Bible. You need to know why it is true, not just what it says. If you merely bring with you sentimental Christian epithets as a spiritual defense, you will be giving blood to the vampire that I used to be. And you will be in a war zone, alone, with a kid’s squirt gun for defense. You need the Bible to be the sword of the spirit and to know how to wield it in love and power. To do this, you must know it better than you do today, and you must hone and sharpen your knowledge in a community of believers within the church (not just the campus Christian community).
2. Do study rigorously and work hard to understand your academic disciplines from a Christian perspective. God made all things, even your course of study. Renew your minds and give God glory by working hard to see His hand in all creation.
3. Do pick your core courses carefully and avoid those classes that demand conformity with worldviews that the Bible rejects. It is hard to “try on” ideas and not be tempted by them. The first step of seduction is trying on an idea just to see if it fits. Remember: all powerful lies contain within them a large dollop of truth. This holds true for gay and lesbian worldviews as well. Be careful about putting yourself in places where you can only advocate for half the story.
4. Do share your faith in ways that are hand-on-hand, heart-on-heart, and Bible-on-experience. Do invite clergy to come to campus and meet your friends, serve on panel discussions, and help create an ongoing, vital dialogue that shines the light of truth into your relationships and activities. When debates about gay marriage arise, do know that God created marriage as an ordinance to reflect Christ and the church, not merely as a moral arrangement to curtail promiscuity. Ask your pastor/priest to help you think about the ideas that circle around you in biblical ways.
5. Do get your church involved when you are called to engage gay rights activists in a public way. See if your pastor, elders, or priest is willing to serve on a panel discussion, with a moderator who will fairly distribute questions. Bring the church to campus and have the church take the direct heat of the debate. Why? By letting your church set up the terms of the questions, you can do rich work in the field that is most ripe: in coffee shops, classrooms, and on the quad. By letting your church initiate the vocabulary of sin and grace, fall and redemption, individual rights and Christian community ethics, this allows you to define and shape these terms in the context of your academic disciplines and your personal lives. Public debate is tricky. It sets people up to use their performance-face. But Christ wants our hearts.
6. Do remember that you must seek peace with those with whom you disagree (Romans 12:18). While we are to obey all lawful commands, if there is a conflict between the law of God and the law of man, we must always obey God (Acts 5:29). So, if your Christian group is picketed, threatened with closure, or denied university funds, you must prayerfully make your strongest biblical case for your vitality on campus. You must do so remembering that the college campus is not the church. You might appeal to the core liberal value that undergirds postmodernism or to the university’s diversity clause. You should find fluent ways to talk about sin and grace. For example, a Christian’s group adherence to the 10 Commandments is similar in foundation to the Math club’s adherence to numeracy. If you lose all your funding, don’t close shop. Appeal to churches and the local community for help. Perhaps your seemingly shut door is God’s open highway to heftier allies?
Finally, remember: Your prime motivation in engaging gay activists should be God’s glory alone. Every conflict or personal struggle is an opportunity to glorify God. But God does not promise temporal blessing in each conflict.
Christians befriended me when I was their staunch enemy. They didn’t identify with me. They identified with Christ, and then walked the long and winding road to me. They trusted that God was bigger than me—and they were right. Don’t ever doubt that in the smallest act of faith and obedience you are planting, or watering, or tilling, or harvesting a legacy of Gospel truth. To God we give the glory!
Dr. Rosaria Butterfield lives in Durham, NC, with her husband, Kent, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Durham, and three of their four children. Author of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria is a homeschool mom, public speaker, and writer, and can be reached at rosariabutterfield.com.
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