When a Controversy is Not a Controversy

An oil platform under construction.
An oil platform under construction.

Home is where the heart is.  My wife regularly makes fun of me for being such a vocal advocate for my seminary, Duke Divinity School.  My friends that went to other seminaries give me grief, and I give it in return. This is all in good fun.  I appreciate my alma mater, warts and all, just as others do.  That’s why I have been disturbed at some of the hubbub surrounding recent events at the Divinity School, which occurred – strangely enough – before classes even began this year.

The basics: at a panel on diversity that was part of new student orientation, Dean Richard Hays – the guy who basically invented the faith of/faith in debate in New Testament studies – mentioned Duke’s identity as a United Methodist seminary and the UMC’s stance on homosexuality (i.e. that all are of “sacred worth” but that infamously ill-defined “homosexual practice” is not condoned in Christian teaching).  Depending on who you listen to, Dean Hays was either abusing his power as a straight white man or sharing the denominational position as one of many positions welcome at the seminary.  Opinions vary as to whether or not Hays’ timing was poor, whether or not he had a right to speak (when does the Dean not have a right to speak??), and whether or not the student who asked the presenting question was wronged by his answer.

To be fair, I was not present at the event in question. I have tried to read as much as possible (which is limited), and also talk to current Duke students and staff about what went on.  So while my take is not perfect, I have attempted due diligence.  I linked to a progressive perspective, shared by Reconciling Ministries Network and others sympathetic to the student, above.  Dean Hays’ open letter can be read here.  Part of the outrage seems to be that Hays did not offer an apology.  But Hays never claimed he was attempting to apologize.  The open letter  was written to clarify some misunderstandings, not apologize.

Moreover, this so-called controversy was a non-starter from the outset.  What does it say that Hays’ view (which, right or wrong, is also the view of the seminary’s denomination) was not welcome by some students at a panel on diversity and inclusion?  Perhaps the most significant factor in this matter is what it says about our larger relationship within the church.

We have come to a point in the sexuality debate where merely hearing a contrary opinion is seen as bullying.  For instance, the Tea Party of the UMC left, Love Prevails, claimed that “harm” was done at a Connectional Table discussion where one very, very tepid quasi-conservative spoke, simply because he had the temerity to half-heartedly defend the UMC stance.  I believe something quite similar happened here.  Much like Love Prevails’ prevailing strategy, a student was seeking to raise their own profile and influence through a manufactured controversy before the first lecture even occurred.

Why is it that all too often the people most ostensibly committed to tolerance are the least tolerant of anyone who dissents, and the first to demand punishment of said offenders?  Some of the resulting commentary from this incident has insinuated that Duke is not a friendly place for LGBT persons.  I fully agree that LGBT students, UMC or not, should be welcomed as any other students.  But that hospitality should also extend to conservative students and students from other traditions.  It seems that many of the critics would prefer to see Duke go the direction of many of our UM seminaries, which are not especially welcoming to traditionalist students.

Seminary is a wonderful, but often challenging environment.  As much as I love Duke and recommend it heartily, I had my rough patches there. I was a just war advocate in a place that seemed stuffed to the gills with Yoderian pacifists, some of whom look at all other Christians as sub-standard.  Sometimes I felt like one of the only students who wasn’t some kind of legacy (no one in my family is a pastor or big-wig in the UMC).  I felt like an outsider some days, and that isn’t fun.  For those reasons, I sympathize with those students who genuinely do not feel welcome in their seminaries of choice.  In diverse communities, friction – and with it, conflict – is going to happen.

Anywhere people are in relationship, including the academy and the church, conflict will rear its head.  But we have a choice as to how to handle such occurrences.  Will we, as Steve Harper suggests, sit down at the table and work things out – or will we issue press releases, organize rallies, and do everything but actually relate to each other as people?  Activism has its place, an honored place in fighting injustice and speaking truth to those who’d rather not hear it.  But within a Christian community – be it a seminary or a church – we should be quick to assume the best and quick to forgive.  In our social media and platform-driven world, I fear that more and more the gravitational pull is precisely the opposite.

All that said, I appreciate that I went to a seminary where I found some of my sacred cows challenged at the same time my faith was deepened.  I was grateful to get to know a lot of students from varying backgrounds: gay and straight, Yankee and international, Lutheran and liturgical Baptist (yes, they exist).  I could have gone somewhere that was more homogenous, that did not stretch me. I am glad I did not.

Duke Divinity School represents a rare find among United Methodist seminaries: it is a theological school dedicated to forming pastors for the local church, passionate about the faith once and for all given to the saints, and yet also tied to a truly excellent academic institution with concomitant standards for intellectual rigor.  The more pastors I meet from other places, the more glad I am that I went to Duke.  There are other wonderful theological schools, please don’t misunderstand.  For me, however, Duke was an excellent fit.

And maybe that’s what it comes down to, really.  In this day and age, it is a bit shocking when a United Methodist academic shares a tidbit from the Book of Discipline without apology, but it’s probably positive that this can happen in a few places.  That may not be for everyone, of course.  I respect that.  To each their own.  But there’s the rub:

When is a controversy not a controversy? When the real issue is a bad fit coupled with miscommunication, exacerbated by demands and public statements, minus relationship.  We are the Body of Christ.   We are family.  Let’s work things out as such.

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19 thoughts on “When a Controversy is Not a Controversy”

  1. BUSTh went through a similar event last year when a Korean-American UMC pastor was invited to speak at their chapel service. In his sermon he outlined his own personal struggle with the LGBTQQIA challenge and the way it is being lived out in the denomination. But because he ultimately sides with the denomination’s official stand, there was a strong and hateful reaction against him from the student body. Unlike you, I didn’t hold my alma mater in high esteem to begin with, so this was one more sign to me that the place doesn’t understand the nature of the gospel.

    I’m sure this sort of reactionary hate gets displayed all over the place in UMC seminaries all the time, but it is rarely reported. It is a real problem that you have identified time and time again: that increasingly the worst conversation partners are the ones being welcomed into the conversation and given a seat at the table. I’ll be interested in a future article on how to regulate our conversations and free ourselves from that level of discourse. If you ever write that article, please let me know. But thanks for this contribution, too. It’s important to call attention to those situations that illustrate just how absurd this situation has become…

  2. Jeffrey, thanks for this thoughtful reply. I recall the controversy at BU. After some digging, I found the video of the sermon in question and watched it a few months back to see what all the anger was about. It is still a mystery to me why that sermon garnered so much vitriole; the pastor in question was as gracious as one could be in sharing his beliefs and I thought he was quite respectful. He included a story I probably would have left out, but even still, that was another tempest in a teacup situation. If every church institution is going to bow down anytime someone gets offended, we are going to have a difficult time moving anywhere. I like your idea for a post. The best answer I know to your quandry is Steve Harper’s great little book For the Sake of the Bride.

  3. What I’ve noticed over the years at least within a chunk of the gay community is that ANY thing that smacks of opposition is doing violence. So if a church body is voting on allowing gay clergy, there will be are appalled that there life is up for a vote. I know a lot of gays and allies that cringe when some one speaks for a traditional view. Several years ago, after a vote that allowed for gay clergy in my Region of the Disciples, someone came up to me to apologize for all the talk that was opposed to the measure. I imagine they thought I was hurt, but I wasn’t. For a lot of progressives there seems to be no middle ground or place where people can commune with each other even if they disagree. I think some of that venom might come from past hurts which then dehumanizes the other allows gays and allies to give no quarter.

    I won’t say that my life has been easy, but I’ve tried to keep a few things in perspective. One is that while people might be talking about something that is a part of me, I know most of the time people aren’t talking about me if that makes sense. I’ve tried to learn that people can like you personally and yet take issue with behavior. Second, as a follower of Jesus, I’m called to love my enemies. That can be hard, but I think Jesus calls us die to our own desires. I’ve learned to see that the other is a child of God and is trying to do their best. I truly believe that modeling Christ-like love will be a far better witness than anger.

    1. Dennis, thank you for this great response. I agree that anger, while sometimes necessary, in general breeds more anger. Often social media seems to breed little more than an outrage contest.

  4. If Richard Hays was sitting in on a Christian ethics class with Amy Laura Hall and she said one of the many things that you and the other white guys in your class scoffed at, would it have been appropriate for him to stand up and remind folks that there’s a different point of view? He used his power abusively. Sure because he’s the dean, he can interrupt anything that anyone says at any time. He was not part of this particular program. He certainly could have requested to be ahead of time so that his perspective was represented. But he didn’t. So he shouldn’t have thrown his weight around carelessly in the moment like that.

    When you talk about conflict being handled with press releases, that’s exactly what Dean Hays did. He wrote a PR letter in which he belittled his critics in order to crisis-manage from a university policy perspective. None of this sounds like a pastoral response to the situation, even for someone with a stake in the conservative perspective.

    1. Maybe I’m seeing this wrong, but reading his letter it seems like he brought up the official stance on homosexuality and said that there is much debate on the issue, but he hoped both sides could come to the table in love. I don’t see how this was so offensive. He was stating what is the official stance and said that this stance is being challenged. If he said that gays aren’t welcome because of the rules that’s one thing. But it seems he was lifting up an example of two opposing views learning to respect each other.

    2. I’m not sure how you can speak to all the things that “me and all the other white guys scoffed at” in Dr. Hall’s class, because I had more than one class with her – because I did the certificate in gender, theology, and ministry. The context in question is not a classroom, which would be a very different matter (stepping on a professor’s lecture or discussion uninvited versus offering a perspective not yet given as part of a diversity panel). It may be that he was a bit “careless” as you say, even rude. But neither of those merits a full-scale demonstration and accusations that Duke is not an inclusive, excellent place to prepare for ministry.

      You rightly notice that I mention writing letters, etc. because I included Dean Hays in my critique. I think both parties were in the wrong in attempting to address this publicly and not personally. It was not handled in a charitable, Christian manner by anyone as far as I can tell.

  5. The problem is that a controversy is a controversy as long as people are willing to stand on the lawn and protest — especially when they have the megaphone of social media. The protest requires a villain. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Jason. I commented on that article. I don’t think it adds much substantial to the conversation except to say that Hays is in the process of trying to meet with concerned students.

      1. I found it more informative than the Herald Sun piece. In instances like this, little things make a difference, too. For example, I think it’s great that Sacred Worth is withholding comment until they meet with the Dean. Imagine that, forgoing an opportunity to air your grievances publicly until you’ve had a chance to talk face-to-face with the person who potentially wronged you! What a concept!

  6. I have several friends at Duke so it’s been interesting seeing this all play out.
    Ultimately I think this example epitomizes the woes of being in the middle–either side assumes that you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I couldn’t help but notice that Hays’ open letter could be just as easily scrutinized by conservatives (with his note on university policy on discrimination). Just a prime example of hyper-polarization…

  7. Stanley Hauerwas and others have argued for years that modern liberalism/progressivism is simply the other side of fundamentalism. I grew up in fundamentalism and it is my rejection of fundamentalism that leads me to reject current progressive expressions of Christianity. I no longer wanted to be a fundamentalist because I didn’t want to go through life always being offended and angry and having to have an enemy to demonize. I toyed with progressive ideas in the 1980s, but rejected them because I didn’t want to go through life always being offended and angry and having to have an enemy to demonize.

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