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Talking in a Different Tone
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Talking in a Different Tone

Spring 2018

Jessica McBirney

Take a brief glimpse at the headlines in the news or the arguments on social me­dia feeds and it’s obvious: Political divisions are deeper than ever. This is particularly true in the U.S., where a recent Pew Research study found that Americans believe there are stron­ger conflicts between political parties today than between racial groups or economic classes. The gaps in survey responses between members of politi­cal parties have risen from 15 points in 1994 to 36 points in 2017.

That division spills over and creates a unique tension on college campuses. Students, faculty, and staff alike have proven they want to be involved in the issues that shape our national dialogue, but an increasing number of speakers or events have caused such controversy that any possibility of civil dialogue – conversation meant to enhance un­derstanding of others who hold differ­ent views, even if they still don’t result in agreeing with each other’s views – seems impossible.

CCCU institutions, however, strive to be different. They seek to face these realities with courage and conviction. As Christians, we know that we can­not shy away from the hard questions of our day nor placidly accept division or schisms within the body of Christ. Jesus said that we will be known as his disciples because we love one another (John 13). Thus, our institutions are working to create spaces where honest conversations about contentious issues can occur, but within frameworks that foster love, build relationships, and seek to make peace. This article highlights just four of our colleges and universi­ties who have had great success creating space for civil dialogue on campus.

 

From left: Justin Lee, an author and LGBT Christian activist, Jason Moyer, associate professor of communications at Malone University, and Christopher Yuan, author and professor at Moody Bible Institute, were part of the panel, “Gay and Christian: A Dialogue on the Faith-Driven Life” at Malone University.

MALONE UNIVERSITY

When Malone University (Canton, OH) launched the Worldview Forum in 1999, it was designed as a space for thoughtful conversations about theolo­gy. However, the Forum soon expanded and encompassed a different goal.

“It became a way of tackling social and political issues and really trying to better understand what a Christian per­spective is,” says Nathan Phinney, a pro­vost and professor of biblical studies at Malone. “[We want] to construct those conversations not as debates with win­ners and losers, but as thoughtful con­versations that explore the issue.”

Each Worldview Forum event features a panel of faculty and outside voices from the community. The university seeks re­spected experts who hold opposing view­points to come together in a conversation moderated by a faculty member.

For example, the 2015 Forum “Black Lives, Blue Lives” featured local law en­forcement officers and church leaders. In 2004, Malone invited leaders from a pro-life crisis pregnancy center and the local Planned Parenthood for a conversation on “Fetal Life, Abortion, and Choice.” Other recent Forums have addressed Christian perspectives on capital punishment, the role of the U.S. in world affairs, and politi­cal partisanship.

Phinney says the Worldview Forum is one of the reasons he chose to work at Malone. “What impressed me is that [Malone is] intentional about rec­ognizing those voices that aren’t well-respected on campus. And they don’t just talk about those views; they talk to people who actually hold them.”

Opening the door to explorations of alternative opinions and worldviews is a critical piece of the college experience for students. Phinney noted that the Inter­faith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) both show that Malone students benefit from a deeper examination of oth­er worldviews during their college years. The conversations held each year at the Worldview Forum also spark class discus­sions that give students the opportunity to engage with the opposing perspectives they hear on stage, making it an integral part of the Malone experience.

“It’s about our learning mission,” says Phinney. “The only way we can learn is by encountering difference.” And as a Christian university, Malone has additional skin in the game, he says. “It’s also about loving our neighbor – it’s about loving a person created in the image of God, and that starts with knowing about them.”

All Worldview Forum events are open to the public. Those who partici­pate hope to model healthy, respectful civil dialogue to the wider community in Canton.

GEORGE FOX UNIVERSITY

At George Fox University (Newberg, OR), Jenny Elsey, associate dean of in­tercultural life, often heard students of color express the need for a safe space to talk about the issues and tensions they faced. In response, Elsey and her team created Mathetes, a series of monthly seminars on controversial issues.

The use of the biblical Greek word for “disciple” as the seminars’ title is in­tentional, Elsey says, because it sets the tone for each event. “We want to ask, ‘What is our role in these conversations as disciples of Christ?’ We’re not here to debate. We want people to walk away understanding the human aspects of these topics.”

The programs are now student-led with support from Elsey and her team. Students pick the topic and speakers each month.

“Students generally know who on cam­pus is the best person to speak into an is­sue,” Elsey says. “We help them find com­munity members who can also contribute to the conversation.”

The meat of each event is in the ex­tended Q&A time after brief comments from the panel. Students verbally ask questions from their seats. The group of about 70 people is just small enough to support a lively discussion in response to each question, and it’s not just the panelists who get to respond – it’s any­one in attendance.

Such an interactive setting is not free from contention. Often what Elsey calls a “pain point” arises – a point of tension that makes people on one side of the conversation feel slighted. Rather than immediately step back from a pain point, Elsey says, moderators encour­age students to dig deeper: “What is it about this comment or terminology that’s so sensitive?”

Mathetes facilitators also read a list of ground rules at the beginning of each eve­ning and repeat them if necessary during the group conversation.

George Fox also involves student leaders in their efforts to create space for civil dialogue on campus by holding an­nual training sessions. Resident advisors and student government representatives watch the video series Convicted Civil­ity (created by former Fuller Theologi­cal Seminary president Richard Mouw) and learn how to engage in respectful dialogue with others without compro­mising their own values. They then par­ticipate in diversity training seminars, where they learn how to ask good ques­tions and relate with students of differ­ent racial backgrounds.

These efforts humanize the “other” in future conversations between students. But they also build a culture of openness and dialogue on campus. Elsey recount­ed one incident when a political club in­vited a conservative speaker to campus. Some liberal students were concerned that the school was supporting the views of this guest. Elsey encouraged liberal students not to disengage and critique the conservative event, but to show up and ask questions. “That we had other outlets for a broad range of viewpoints was helpful to them,” she says. “Students could see us actively working on repre­senting a variety of viewpoints.”

Whitworth University president Beck Taylor (right) created the three-part President's Colloquy series to equip students with the skills and opportunity to engage the Christian approach to truth and disagreement.

WHITWORTH UNIVERSITY

Whitworth University (Spokane, WA) first recognized the need for intentional civil conversation when an informal poll revealed that students, regardless of po­litical ideology, were dissatisfied with the level of discourse on campus. They felt they couldn’t talk to their friends about important issues.

Whitworth president Beck Taylor saw an opportunity. “Christ calls us into these messy issues to be peacemakers,” he says. “Christian schools are shaping their students for leadership in diverse, plu­ralistic settings.” This year he set up the President’s Colloquy on Civil Discourse, a three-part lecture series on the Chris­tian approach to truth and disagreement.

“We didn’t want to inundate students with weekly opportunities,” Taylor ex­plains. Instead, each of the three events addresses a carefully selected question. The first lecture asked, “Can we still speak the truth in love?” and laid the foundations for dialogue in Christian community. Professors from three de­partments gathered to discuss the dis­tinctive resources Christians have in the midst of difficult conversation.

The second installment was designed to give students practical tools for dis­agreement, tolerance, and intellectual virtue. The final panel applied Christian foundations and practical skills to a con­temporarily relevant topic: the nature and parameters of free speech. “We picked free speech in part because the issue doesn’t divide people neatly on political lines,” Taylor says.

Each of these three lectures features faculty from different departments on Whitworth’s campus. The departments are diverse – from philosophy to physics to political science. “We want to approach this in an interdisciplinary way,” says Tay­lor. “Each one of those people can bring in their own insights and experiences.”

The President’s Colloquy is already having positive impacts in the student body. The student government, Associ­ated Students of Whitworth University (ASWU), holds Town Hall events where students gather to discuss difficult issues facing the campus. They had already identified the need to carve out a space for dialogue on campus, and the Presi­dent’s Colloquy provided the perfect partnership opportunity.

Despite some concerns that the stu­dent body would be hesitant to confront these challenging topics, ASWU Presi­dent Jeff DeBray was sure the Town Hall series would succeed. “There’s never a good time. But with the current politi­cal climate, we felt it was necessary to have these conversations, and we felt confident we could do it.”

Each Town Hall covers a topic se­lected by students and starts with a re­fresher on guidelines for civil conversa­tion. After an introduction to the topic, participants break into small groups to talk through a list of questions prepared by a panel of knowledgeable students. The small groups reconvene to share their thoughts and discuss action items with faculty members. For example, in a recent Town Hall on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), speak­ers ended the session with tips on how to contact legislators about the issue.

“The biggest challenge is always get­ting a diverse turnout,” DeBray admits. He has sought out different political and issue-based clubs on campus and in­vited their members to the Town Halls. “People are busy. But I want to seek out diversity to avoid groupthink.”

The President’s Colloquy and the Town Hall series have been launching points for continued conversations among Whit­worth faculty and students. They have al­ready begun brainstorming future events and spaces for dialogue on campus. Taylor says, “Whitworth will continue to host debate and discussion on difficult issues – that is the role of any university, but I think as our current colloquy has instruct­ed, it is of particular relevance for institu­tions that proclaim Christ.”

Students at Gordon College engage in a discussion hosted by the student organization ALANA, which provides support to students of color and works to increase campus knowledge of their history, culture, and contributions.

GORDON COLLEGE

Gordon College (Wenham, MA) has long been a campus bustling with diverse political viewpoints and activity. Howev­er, in 2015, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Student Life staff noticed another form of diversity that was not quite as prevalent.

“Seventy to 80 percent of white Amer­icans don’t have a person of color in their group of friends,” says Nicholas Rowe, dean of student engagement at Gordon. “This is critical, because the demograph­ics of Christianity, in the U.S. and the world, are changing. People of color are already the majority of U.S. Christians ages 19 to 29, and they will drive the con­versation of Christian faith expression in the future. How will our white students be part of it?”

Gordon’s Office for Student Life cre­ated a Come to the Table program as one step to engage this reality. Come to the Table assigns students to a small group that meets for dinner four times during the semester with other students of dif­ferent backgrounds, cultures, and race. Groups are comprised so that half are white students and half are students of color. A pair of trained student facilita­tors, one a person of color and the other white, leads each meeting and assigns readings about race and reconciliation. It is an opportunity for participants to redirect and educate one another; a safe environment where even uncomfortable questions are welcome.

“We hope it’s a launching point for non-structured conversations, too,” Rowe says. “There’s been considerable interest from white students, which is encourag­ing, and students of color who are willing to engage.”

Beyond these open table dinner dis­cussions, Gordon cultivates a culture of thoughtful discussion and disagreement through a shared faith in Jesus Christ. Political and issue-based clubs are en­couraged to come together across the aisle to hold events and formal debates for students. Davis Metzger, president of the Gordon College Student Association (GCSA), says, “There’s a vibrant culture of discourse here that’s student-driven.”

GCSA is highly active on campus, voicing the opinions and concerns of students to the administration and working out points of tension. This puts Gordon in the unique position to model respectful dialogue directly with the stu­dent body.

Recently, with the help of GCSA, some students at Gordon passed a res­olution asking the college to address actions and policies that have inadver­tently “caused hurt to the LGBTQ+ community.” Gordon’s leadership did not feel they could honor all of the reso­lution’s requests, but instead of leaving the students with a simple “no,” Student Life took the opportunity to start a big­ger conversation.

“We wanted to honor the spirit of the resolution, because we are committed to helping our students know how to en­gage in touchy subject matters with re­spect and dignity,” says Rowe.

In response to the resolution, Stu­dent Life staff partnered with GCSA to host a series on human sexuality en­titled “LGBT+ in Christian Communi­ty: A Series on Sexuality, Scripture, and Inclusion.” Its focus is to delve deep in the historic theological understanding of sexuality, while recognizing the need for better care for those who are part of the LGBTQ community. Rowe believes the event will place the original student resolution in the much broader context of the theology of human sexuality as a whole.

Rowe and GCSA consider the com­promise a success on the whole. “Every­thing GCSA wants may not necessarily be implemented,” Rowe says. “Our student body elected representatives are think­ing sincerely about how our programing and staff can better listen and understand these rising questions. We want to help students feel like they belong.”

The Office of Student Life at Gordon hopes all these campus groups, discus­sions, and programing serve as models of peaceful and civil discourse for students. Ultimately, these conversations rest on a shared faith that seeks truth and un­derstanding across diverse backgrounds and beliefs. For young Christians, Rowe says, learning how to participate in dif­ficult conversations is a non-negotiable. “Our responsibility is education,” he says, “but also formation.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

These are just four institutions that have recognized and met specific cam­pus needs with grace and creativity. Every school will face its own chal­lenges and devise its own tools to ap­proach those challenges. However, a few common themes ran through the advice gathered from each of these ad­ministrators and students.

  1. Think broadly about campus engagement

To be effective, efforts to teach and en­courage civil discourse must be campus-wide. Get academic depart­ments, student activities, and spiritual life involved. If students are expected to engage in civil discourse, university leadership must also practice it.

  1. Meet students where they are

Some campuses are bustling with students eager to dive into political conversations. Some have students who pre­fer to fully process ideas be­fore they speak their minds. Others have students who were raised to avoid divisive topics entirely. Regardless, it is important to lay the foundation for healthy dialogue by reminding the cam­pus community what civil discourse and good thinking look like, as it will help set the stage for later conversations that can be challenging and painful. (For a pos­sible resource, see our excerpt and review of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Baylor University pro­fessor Alan Jacobs on pages 60-61.)

  1. Lay the Ground Rules

In addition to helping students better understand what healthy dialogue and civil discourse are like, event facilitators can help create a good environment for dialogue by reminding event attendees of some guidelines that will help the conversation move forward. Some ex­amples include speaking from personal experience and using “I statements”; speaking truth and personal conviction from a position of love, not of anger; and not interrupting others or cutting off moments of silence when they might be appropriate in the conversation.

  1. Get students as involved as possible

Whitworth’s Jeff DeBray and Gordon’s Davis Metzger both spoke about the benefits of proactive student govern­ments that plan events to help students engage in difficult topics. But even if a student government is not in the posi­tion to plan civic engagement strategies, utilizing student leadership in the plan­ning process can help administration-led efforts be more effective and interactive.

  1. Remember the purpose: Loving God and loving your neighbor

Jesus instructed us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Learning more about God and about each other helps us under­stand how we can better obey this com­mand to love.

Jessica McBirney is the presiden­tial and government relations fellow for the CCCU and a graduate of Biola University.