Nestled in the heart of Arkansas west of the mighty Mississippi, but east of the Ozarks lies a quaint Southern town with a big college atmosphere. It’s quiet and hot (the humid type!) during the summers, but is lively and thriving with youth during the fall and spring when classes are in session at Harding University, a 6,800+ liberal arts institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ. This is my alma mater. Four years of my life were spent in Searcy, Arkansas with daily chapel and nightly dorm roll calls. There was a lot to offer; the great outdoors, small classes, mentorship-style relationships with professors, close-knit friendships, what more could one ask for? Not much really, because I was a part of a little “Heaven on Earth.” An overwhelming majority of the students were white like me, Southern like me, Church of Christ like me, Republican like me, and heterosexual like me. It was the “Harding Bubble.”
I learned a lot, and I owe so much to my formation to this setting and institution. I was given a language here to worship, to be in awe, and to express immense gratitude for there being something rather than nothing. However, I now realize that the sectarian model of higher education that Harding University propagates had gravely failed me in preparing me to be a world citizen. Upon graduating, I remained deafened and blinded to all that was different from me. I knew so much about divinity, but I was hopelessly lost when it came to humanity. I had never learned to foster a relationship with any person that would potentially fall into a category of “other.” I majored in Psychology and Bible, which was taught from an evangelical, missions-oriented perspective. The only time I encountered a person of another faith was when I was introduced to other religions in order to learn more effective ways of evangelizing and converting the respected constituents. This same ethic was extrapolated and used in dealing with those that were of another sexuality; while there we tried to pray them into becoming like us. The lenses that Harding passes out with which to view the world are marred with binary oppositions.
Though I no longer subscribe to many of the tenets that would characterize this particular institution’s “flavor” of Christianity, I see why it gives meaning and structures one’s life. They attain the “greatest story ever told.” With good reason does one want to share the good news. Life is easily explained, quantified, and objectified when it is viewed as concrete, black and white- or even better with only one lens, one color. However, when monotheism is understood as monochromatic (here I credit a dear professor), and God and tradition are absolutized, the dynamism of God is chocked out, the living God is reduced to an idol that upholds ones own ideals and buffers one’s own insecurities. When does “in one accord” become life restricting??? What if there is dignity in diversity?
This week my alma mater has garnered national attention as can be viewed at The New Yorker Blog, Change.org, The Arkansas Times, the Advocate.com, the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, the New York Times and another graduate of Harding University, whose father is a professor there, Brett Keller who also writes about his experience as a past student at Harding and on what is currently transpiring on campus.
The administration has taken a strong stance to squelch out diversity and champion the dominant biblical interpretation with a sole brush of one dark color. It has publicly stated that, persons that do not identify as being heterosexual are offensive and demeaning and will not be permitted to convene openly. The administration has taken initiative in the past to allow for “safe spaces” where the LGBTQ community might meet publicly in what is called “Integrity Ministries.” Though I question the motives for creating these “safe spaces.” The administration made this statement in response to a student publication, The State of the Gay produced online by HU Queerpress. The school promptly had it blocked from accessing it via their campus while simultaneously calling for a cessation of bullying.
In the eyes of these students it is the university itself that is perpetuating the act of bullying. Their statement as it appears on the site is as follows:
We are made up of a variety of queers with varying affiliations with Harding University. The State of the Gay is a self-published zine that aims to give voice to the experiences of gay and lesbian students at Harding. It is part storytelling, part religious and political critique, and partly a manifesto of hope for Harding’s future. The voices enclosed are the unedited and uncensored voices of individuals who are all too familiar with censorship. In truth, there is no single, identifiable goal of this zine other than to put our voices out there. Our aim is that through reading these pages you might become the ones to create the zine’s ending—to usher in its full political, social, and religious implications. We fully believe in the potential of communities to be free of oppression, hatred, and misunderstanding of queer individuals—will you help us create that reality at Harding and beyond?
Many of the contributors describe their situation as “stifling, suffocating; We’re at a place that hides us behind lies.” One exclaims that “[We are] suffocating in closets, have a fear of expulsion, don’t know which professors or even counselors to trust.”
Many people have rightly stated that Harding University is a private institution and that it has a right to teach its own values and discriminate against whomever it wishes. This is valid. However, I wish to address the fact that President Burks in using an umbrella statement found within its student handbook (pp. 11-12) concerning a zero-tolerance policy on sexual activity prior to marriage when addressing the student body in chapel this week is completely bypassing the issue here. An administration that attempts to sweep the effects of its moral policies under the rug and offers complementary “counseling” which to me is suspect of unethical practices and a “Christian Home” course to correct same-sex attractions, is pure cowardice. When stories of suicidal thoughts emerge in direct connection with an environment that an administration upholds and maintains, I would hope that said administration would act accordingly, especially in the wake of last year’s string of tragic events. Perhaps it is time that the entire denomination become conversant with mainstream Christianity to explore more holistic ways of dealing with the “sexual deviant.” Demonization and expulsion of this population of students is a lose-lose situation. Also I don’t recall anyone being expelled from Harding on account of dancing (I remember Spring Sing), which is also prohibited in the student handbook (p. 11). Though the institution that employs double standards in interpreting biblical passages would only be seen as being consistent with itself in employing that same method in exercising discretionary disciplinary actions.
Others may note the fact that matriculation into this university is non-obligatory and that students who do not wish to remain enrolled may simply transfer. Many do, however it is not easy for many others. For many this school and its affiliated denomination is all that their social network consists of. For others their parents will only allow them to attend a Church of Christ school, and for others they can only afford college with the monetary support that they receive from either their Church or family or both. So it is not as if simply changing schools is a feasible option for many that live in the shadows. One contributor laments,
“If we don’t want to lose everything we have ever known, then we must conform to their idea of what God wants for us.”
And so they seek to change the system from within. I’ve left this tradition, it took years. I know, I can relate. It’s not easy, one must relinquish a whole world.
Harding University is unabashedly discriminative and all the while it hides behind the Bible. However, what I see when I read the contributions of the students in The State of the Gay is so encouraging, because they are not trashing their tradition, they are not damning their religion to hell. They are knocking on its doors, they are intending to widen the door frames so that their native house of religion will accommodate them. They are exclaiming that “we’re not going anywhere!” This is our house too and we can pray here as well (Isa. 56). We can co-create this story, life is big enough to share, and so is our God. Many of them meet their situation with profound theological insight and integrity, for example, “Z” states:
“Like Jacob at Bethel we must wrestle with God. When we triumph our name becomes Israel.”
What wonderful life-giving dynamic multivalent interpretations of Scripture they present. I admire their courage and integrity in demanding a full life and reminding all of us that we are all co-creating either hospitable or inhospitable indeed habitable or inhabitable environments. Viva la résistance!
”For You love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that You have made, for You would not have made anything if You had hated it.” (Wis. 11:24)
Check out soulforce.org for some food for your soul. There is dignity in difference and diversity.