Appreciating the Richness of Diverse Relationships

by Melanie Springer Mock
(with responses by Kendra Weddle and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

My husband and I made an intentional choice to send our boys to public schools. For us, it really was a choice, given the number of Christian schools in our community. We might also have homeschooled, as both of us are also capable of teaching content to our kids, even if we lack the temperament or patience to do so. But we wanted our children to interact with kids from different backgrounds, to learn alongside folks whose life experiences are different than their own.

Six years into our public school journey, we are grateful for the choice, love our little down-the-block elementary school, appreciate the good education our boys have been given. Despite the relative homogeneity of our school in terms of race, my sons have become friends with peers whose families are quite a bit different than ours—and by extension, we have befriended parents we might not have otherwise, given the fairly small circumference of our lives around church, work at a Christian institution, and home.

Because our school system has given us a small taste of the richness provided by diverse relationships, I was happy to hear that Newberg High School—the school my boys will attend in four years—is participating in Mix It Up Day, slated to take place on Oct. 30. Mix It Up Day is part of the Teaching Tolerance project initiated by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which aims to encourage students to “identify, question, and cross social boundaries.”

The premise is simple: On Oct. 30, students at participating schools will be encouraged to sit with someone new over lunch. That’s it. According to the Teaching Tolerance site, the small act of having lunch with someone different has “profound implications,” because doing so can erase biases and misperceptions about others.

The premise is simple, I should say, except to some evangelicals, who see a homosexual agenda lurking in every corner of the public square. To these folks, asking high school students to eat lunch with a new crowd is synonymous with forcing kids to become gay. Or so it seems.

On Oct. 1, the American Family Association (AFA) published a press release on its website, claiming that Mix It Up Day was “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools to its members,” and that “The Southern Poverty Law Center is using this project to bully-push its gay agenda, and at the same time, intimidate and silence students who have a Biblical view of homosexuality.”

The AFA then asked its readers to research whether their school district was participating in Mix It Up Day, and—if they were—readers were encouraged to write the school districts, letting schools know that Christian students would not be participating in such an evil endeavor.

The evangelical group’s opposition is a real head-scratcher for me, in a way. If you look at the Teaching Tolerance site, nothing suggests students will be forced (gasp!) to sit by a gay person; indeed, the site does not mention homosexuality at all, beyond a phrase suggesting the Mix It Up Day will create an inclusive and welcoming school community for all students. “Inclusive,” I guess, is evangelical code word for “gay agenda.” (It goes without saying, of course, that Christian students already are sitting by gay students in the cafeteria. In fact, some of the Christian students may be gay themselves.)

In the weeks since AFA first published its release, some schools have bowed to the pressure of conservative constituents, and have cancelled Mix It Up Day. Some school districts—like my own—have vowed to continue the one-day program, despite complaints, for which I am truly thankful.

Thankful, but also increasingly irritated by AFA and by evangelicals who cannot see this for the good thing it truly is. Because, in the last few weeks, AFA has concentrated its attack on Teaching Tolerance. On CNN, and later in his Rightly Concerned blog, Bryan Fischer suggested the Mix It Up Day is about “promoting perversity,” that it is “toxic,” that it “turns students into mind-numbed PC robots programmed to do the thinking and willing of their cultural overlords.”

I cannot read Fischer’s blog, nor listen to his interview, without feeling intense anger and embarrassment: that this is the Christian witness some people will see, rather than the love, the grace, the inclusive welcome provided by many Christians, including those in EEWC-CFT.

It’s really hard for me to get past my anger at AFA right now though, so I’m hoping that Letha and Kendra can talk me down. Or, perhaps, suggest I have lunch with someone completely different than me: like, say, Bryan Fischer.

Kendra’s Response:  When the Bible is an accomplice in bullying

I have a terrible confession to make, one that deeply embarrasses me. As a high school student, I was serious. Serious about getting good grades; serious about working hard after school and on weekends on our family farm so that I would have money for college; serious about God and the right way to read the Holy Bible (poring over intricate passages mostly in the Epistles).

Yep; I was one of those. I believed several of my friends were going to hell and therefore it was my duty to ambush one or other of them after school, after basketball practice, even during lunch. I’d memorized the Roman Road (for those of you who don’t know about this, it is THE way of salvation) and made sure my friends heard all about this road many times, always in the hope-filled context that “if you die tonight, like while driving off the road, will you go to heaven?”

The evangelical Christianity in which I was reared taught me several things: I was special because God had saved me; the Bible, while difficult to understand, had all of life’s answers somewhat like a massive encyclopedia; I was right about all things faith related while all those who disagreed with me (which really meant the youth pastor) were most likely in the death-dealing grips of the devil. Armed with a palpable sense of mission, I was determined to get my friends to see the Light—to fall in love with a God who, if they rejected the Roman Road to heaven, would send them straight to hell where they would suffer a painful and very hot eternity.

In short: I bullied my friends. And the tool I used as my accomplice was my red-letter Bible.

When I hear Bryan Fischer rail against Mix It Up and other excellent programs designed to help us embrace those we might normally ignore or fail to understand, I see a bully wielding his hefty Scriptures as a weapon of mass destruction. And, I wonder if God isn’t grieving the whole notion of having holy writ.

Hiding behind the catch phrases of “biblical values” or a “biblical worldview,” Fischer and others with similar agendas are twisting Scripture to support their narrow beliefs. And, even though I used to subscribe to the same kind of thinking, I’m always struck by how far afield people wander from the vision of Jesus presented in the gospel tradition.

Study most any pericope or parable and you will find Jesus asking people to follow him in living out a life of compassion and justice. He never asks people to ascribe to a particular belief nor does he set some kind of belief exam as the requirement for joining in his mission. From Zacchaeus the tax collector who is asked to provide hospitality, to the disciples who drop their nets, leaving their livelihoods behind, to Mary Magdalene who loyally ministers to others right along with Jesus, there is no litmus test of belief, but rather an acknowledgement that to join the Way of Jesus is to seek justice on behalf of all people, including the poor and the invisible, and to show compassion, a true posture of God’s love.

But instead of this vision of Jesus and his message, the Bryan Fischers of this world make following Jesus a mere willingness to believe certain hard-to-believe things about a Jewish peasant who changed the world. You can hear this even in the language used to describe Christians. Believers. As if ascribing to a certain list of ideas means one knows anything about God or love, compassion or justice. And, when this focus on believing is paired with the arrogance of certainty, the prescription is created for nothing short of bullying in the name of Christianity.

On my optimistic days, I think this kind of bullying can be overcome by understanding it arises out of a place of fear, as Karen Armstrong so thoroughly traces in her book on fundamentalism called The Battle for God. If I recognize this fear and seek to build a bridge with another person by helping to assuage the terror of living in a world of rapid change—usually seen as negative change—then I might have a chance, I tell myself, of assisting someone in moving beyond biblical idolatry and into the grander story of living God’s dream of compassion and understanding.

And on my realistic days I think progressive Christians at least need to do a couple of things to begin changing the Christian bullying that is becoming far too prevalent and far too abusive. First, rather than dispensing with the Bible altogether (although I must admit on many days I think this is a very good option) we need to be more biblically literate. We need Christians who are determined to interpret Scripture as good news for all people; to be driven by a hermeneutic of radical inclusivity.

Second, we need Christians who will challenge Bryan Fischer and other individuals and groups for their supposed biblical principles and call them to account for the oppression they create in the name of Christianity.

Finally, we need to embrace the vision of the Southern Poverty Law Center of learning to cross boundaries, of making friends with people who are different from ourselves, to make the art of friendship an intentional practice of living out the faith of Jesus in this world. In short, we must Mix it Up.

Letha’s Response: Bible bullies don’t like anti-bullying programs

Melanie and Kendra have written so powerfully about Bible bullying that it’s hard to add much more!  But I want to pick up on a couple of points they made: one about knowledge of the Bible and the other about the experience of fear.

Misusing scripture as a weapon
I once heard theologian Rosemary Ruether quote someone who said, “You can’t hit someone over the head with a Bible unless you keep it closed.”  Those who quote a few select Bible verses to beat up people are essentially using a closed Bible; they are ignoring the central message of God’s love for us and what it means to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I agree wholeheartedly with Kendra’s point about the need for us to be knowledgeable about the Bible and to help others become biblically literate as well.  Such knowledge dispels ignorance and inoculates against the propaganda of self-appointed “prophetic voices” who claim to be declaring God’s intent by pulling out a few “proof texts.”

We need to find ways to get a different message out.  Groups such as the American Family Association, which Bryan Fischer represents, have tremendous resources for getting out their message and have a considerable following.  Many supporters of such groups are sincere but uninformed people who are easily frightened and manipulated. They don’t know how to question and think critically. Commentators and writers like Bryan Fischer want to keep it that way, wielding power by frightening their devotees with far-fetched claims of lurking danger. (I am writing this in the middle of Hurricane Sandy and already some members of the Religious Right are declaring this monster storm is a sign of God’s wrath pouring out on America for—you guessed it—tolerating homosexuality and allowing marriage equality.)

What parents and schools need to realize
The annual Mix-it-Up Day program was launched by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project ten years ago. I’m disappointed to hear that because of  the American Family Association’s conspiracy warning this year, some schools cancelled plans to implement it, and some parents with children in other schools vowed to keep their children home rather than have them participate. Fischer somehow convinced them that eating lunch with a different group and making new friends was part of a plot to indoctrinate children into homosexuality! Interviewed on CNN, the director of Teaching Tolerance, Maureen Costello, called Fischer’s claim “ a bizarre preoccupation.” She said, “Bryan Fischer sees ‘the homosexual agenda’ in a dish of ice cream.”

I’ve followed the absurd rantings of Fischer for some time, and my guess is that one reason for his extreme anti-gay rants is related to anxiety about gender in general.  He is obsessed with stereotypical ideas about masculinity and the importance of a “muscular Christianity” in opposition to a “feminized” faith and culture. He was fired from a church he pastored because of his strong objection to having women in leadership positions.  And I remember when a couple of years ago President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to a soldier for heroically saving the lives of other soldiers, Fischer wrote a troubling blog post about it, saying the Medal of Honor was being “feminized” because at one time the medal was awarded to soldiers who had killed enemies rather than those who had saved lives. His view of Christianity is very distorted—to put it mildly.

As a People for the American Way article points out, “Fischer’s unabashed bigotry is on full display throughout his writings and on-air rants. His entire career is based on leveling venomous attacks against gays and lesbians, American Muslims, Native Americans, progressives and other individuals and groups he detests.”

How fear is used to promote bigotry
So why do some people take him (and others like him) so seriously?  The simple answer is fear. Society is changing rapidly — demographically and in so many other ways. Things are not the clearcut, orderly kind of world that Fischer and other extremists want to imagine things once were and ever should be, a world in which every person and every category of people had a designated place in a hierarchy of assumed worthiness— and kept in it. Contact with “the other” as a social equal cannot be fitted into this worldview.

One way to convince people to avoid a demonized group is to convince parents that a particular “out-group” ( the “other” as defined by them) wants to harm their children.  Most parents would do anything to make sure nothing happens to their children, so they believe the lies of people like Fischer who tell them that gay people are bad and that anti-bullying and Mix-It-Up type programs are part of a “gay conspiracy” or “gay agenda” to make their children gay, too.  For those who don’t understand anything about sexual orientation, it may seem that homosexuality is somehow contagious!

Prejudice of any kind is not innate but learned, usually in families. When I was a very young child, my father, reflecting his early 20th century upbringing in a poor white working class family that took him out of school to work in a factory when he was a sixth grader, displayed a strong prejudice against black people.  (Thankfully, he changed his mind many years later.)  But in 1939, when I was four years old, he wanted to make sure I stayed away from people of color, so he told me that if I ever touched or was touched by a black person (he used the N word), my skin would turn black.  One day, as I held on to the hand of my aunt as she rushed me through a crowded department store at the Christmas season, I accidentally bumped into a large African American woman. I didn’t want to tell my aunt or my parents (and I don’t think I ever did), but the rest of that day I kept waiting and watching for it to happen.  Would the blackness start on my feet or legs or arms or fingers or where? It was an extreme example of the ridiculous contagion-by-contact idea.  It is nothing more than a control mechanism to keep members of an “in group” in line by teaching that an “out group” is a threat rather than recognizing the common humanity we all share.

What social contact can do
The goal of Mix It Up Day or any similar effort is to bring together people whose background is different from ours in some way–racially, ethnically, religiously, in sexual orientation, or any other way.  Getting to know each other can be one of the richest experiences imaginable.  Social contact and engaging in common tasks together helps us see how alike we all are, how much we have in common as human beings made in God’s image, how much we can learn from each other.  And it helps us see how utterly wrong have been the claims of bigots who have spread lies about whole categories of people.  Getting to know new people who are in some way different from us exposes people like Bryan Fischer to be the false prophets they really are. That’s why he wants parents and schools to be all mixed up about Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

FemFaith Authors
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches religion at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth. Her first book, "Preaching on the Plains: Methodist Women Preachers in Kansas, 1920-1956," was published in 2007 by University Press of America. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. In 2003, Cascadia Publishing House published her book, "Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors." And in 2011, Barclay Press published "Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World," a collection that Melanie co-edited with Rebekah D. Schneiter. Kendra and Melanie co-wrote "If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be," published in 2015 by Chalice Press. Letha Dawson Scanzoni has authored or coauthored nine books, including "All We’re Meant to Be" (in 1974, with Nancy Hardesty), which many scholars consider to have played a major part in the launching and spread of biblical feminism. She served as the content editor for Christian Feminism Today from 1994 to 2014.

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