Yesterday I came across a blog post by Justin Massey, a gay Christian student at Wheaton College. He reflects on a recent disturbing episode during a “Town Hall Chapel” Q&A session with the college’s president, Dr. Phillip Ryken. From Massey’s account, the discussion was lively and positive, until the moment that Philip Fillion, a heterosexual, married student, asked a question to Dr. Ryken regarding what he (the student) perceived as theological inconsistency in its covenant documents. As a recent Time article reports, Fillion asked, “Why is it the case that our college, in documents we all must agree to or be expelled, insists on formally condemning and denying equality to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, on spurious theological grounds, yet completely leaves behind baptism and Eucharist, which Jesus Christ himself instituted to grow and strengthen the Christian community?” When the student sat down following his question, the apple flew in his direction. Here’s how Massey describes the experience:
The student body showed great respect, occasionally applauding, as these students spoke. However, there was no applause for one student who spoke against the injustice he has witnessed his LGBT peers experience. A brother in Christ and ally to the LGBT community, he boldly questioned the oppression and exclusion that has harmed a demographic we should be embracing and loving. Instead of being greeted by support, he faced mostly silence before an apple was thrown at him by a peer in the crowd. No matter why this individual decided to throw the apple, it was more than simply disruptive. It was hurtful. For some of us in Wheaton’s LGBT community, it felt as if this student was spitting in our face as this ally voiced the deep pain we experience day-to-day.
Throwing an apple during chapel? Was this an outburst of homophobic hate? Was this a manifestation of where the study body is as a whole on this issue? Was this just a “bad seed” (forgive the pun). Was it simply a bored and frustrated student who was agitated at the length of the question or comment? A defense of the president in the face of a direct challenge from an “inferior”? Whatever the particular reasons for the fruit toss, Massey goes on to say that for him, the problem runs deeper than this one solitary incident (whatever the motivations for the ridiculously insulting behavior):
Interestingly, the response of others following the incident disturbs me more than the action itself. I saw peers exert more effort into rationalizing the offense rather than demonstrating support to the LGBT community whose experiences were disrespected.
Yes, that seems to be the key problem. How can the culture at Wheaton (and many other conservative evangelical institutions) be such that the default response to this action by many within the community is to “rationalize” it, rather than immediately denounce it as hateful and exclusionary?
Wheaton College led the way, among other like-minded Christian Colleges, in successfully challenging the HHS mandate, arguing that separation of church and state and freedom of religion should create protections for religious institutions in living out their convictions. And there are legitimate reasons, theologically and practically, to challenge the reach of government into private institutional policies when it comes to religious and moral convictions. There are also good reasons (theological and practical) to submit to government policies, but let’s leave that issue for another day. In any case, as the cultural marriage equality movement continues to gather steam, Wheaton–no doubt–will be looked to as a model for other schools in how to address the issue, both internally and externally (in terms of its interaction with the political and legal processes). But the difficulty Wheaton faces, is this: to the extent that Wheaton asserts itself as leader in these cultural debates, and to the extent that it insists upon its right to maintain its moral distinctiveness on sexuality and thereby to denounce homosexual practice as a sinful lifestyle, it will continue to foster a culture in which gay persons will be marginalized, mistreated, and even become targets of fruit throwing.
As a Wheaton student myself, in the early 90’s, I sadly admit that I probably would have been one of those students trying to “rationalize” the action. Or if not that, I might have just laughed it off. But even if I had been bothered by it, I wouldn’t have seen it as indicative of a fundamental posture of injustice toward a vulnerable and marginalized group. Not a single class, not a single chapel, not a single professor, that I can remember, challenged me to think differently about it. There were no attempts to help those of us students coming from conservative evangelical backgrounds to gain any sort of nuanced understanding about sexual orientation or to question our received assumptions. Homosexuality just wasn’t talked about in public at all–that I can remember. The situation seems to have changed over the past two decades, reflecting shifts in the culture. Now, you can’t not talk about it at some point, right? So those conversations seem to be taking place to some degree at Wheaton (though I’d love to hear from current students about whether that’s the case). My hope is that the administration, despite its likely continued principled insistence on heteronormativity with respect to its hiring practices and lifestyle statements, will do its very best to insist that students, at the very least, will respect their gay colleagues and fellow Christians–as well as those who speak up in their defense–enough not to throw fruit at them.
Update: Time magazine has a piece covering this incident. The article details Wheaton’s swift response to the issue. The president addressed the situation to the student body and disciplined the offending student (who also apparently wrote a pretty horrific “justification” of his action in a letter posted to the student forum wall). The student has apparently also been dismissed.