Over the last few days InterVarsity has received a great deal of criticism for a message delivered at last week’s Urbana 15 missions conference. Michelle Higgins, a Saint Louis based worship leader and activist, issued a clarion call for the evangelical community in general and the InterVarsity community in particular, not only to work against racial injustice in our country, but specifically, wherever possible, to partner with the Black Lives Matter movement. Several of the worship leaders that night wore ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirts. I have included the video itself below and I would encourage you to watch it for yourself. Watch it prayerfully, with an open heart and an open mind. If you have criticisms of what she actually said (not just what you may associate her with), feel free to comment below.
Many feel that it was unwise and untimely for InterVarsity and the Urbana leadership to sponsor this particular talk. As some of InterVarsity’s critics have rightly pointed out, some of the stated values of the Black Lives Matter movement clash with the stated values of InterVarsity. According to their website, some of the BLM movement’s guiding principles are the dismantling of “cis-gender privilege” and “heteronormativity,” as well as being “queer affirming.” InterVarsity, on the other hand, still strongly affirms Christianity’s historic ethical consensus on sexuality and marriage, namely, that the sole appropriate context for sexual activity is within marriage, the lifelong covenantal bond between one man and one woman, a position which presupposes real and significant differences between the sexes. While InterVarsity affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or preferred gender identity, InterVarsity does not affirm every chosen lifestyle or sexual practice. Indeed, InterVarsity’s unwillingness to budge on these stances has cost us access to numerous college campuses across the country (the most prominent case being that at Vanderbilt). To take Higgins’s call for Evangelicals to support the Black Lives Matter movement as somehow compromising InterVarsity’s integrity with respect to our doctrinal standards or our sexual ethics is simply not accurate. Nevertheless, some still feel that any sort of participation in a movement with different values in the crucial areas of sex, gender, and marriage is unwise and (this being an election year) untimely.
But InterVarsity is neither the first nor the largest conservative Christian organization to lend support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Last month the nation’s two largest Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ both endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement. Like InterVarsity, both of these denominations affirm the traditional Christian understandings of marriage and sexuality (for statements on these matters from the AG and the COGIC, see here and here), and thus face similar tensions in partnering with BLM. But clearly for these predominantly Black denominations staying on the sidelines in order to avoid such tensions was not an option.
While some seem to believe that we cannot in good faith collaborate on anything unless we agree on everything, InterVarsity has instead decided to encourage students and staff to work within the tensions, choosing to be in the BLM movement but not of it, cooperating for the cause of justice without compromising our core convictions.
Others, particularly those within the pro-life movement, have taken offense at Michelle Higgins’s comments critically contrasting the American church’s consistent outspokenness on abortion with our relative laryngitis on matters of race. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Urbana leadership denied the application of Students for Life, one of the nation’s largest pro-life advocacy groups, to have an exhibit at the conference. However, in an interview with the Christian Post, InterVarsity’s Executive Vice President for Campus Engagement Greg Jao explained that because Students for Life is a non-religious student organization and all exhibitors at Urbana are required to endorse InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis, the organization did not meet the criteria for hosting an exhibition at Urbana.
It is doubtful that this statement will satisfy anyone who was not already inclined to give InterVarsity the benefit of the doubt. Many of us are locked into a partisan Culture Wars mentality that associates advocacy for racial justice with left-wing politics and pro-life advocacy with right-wing politics, pitting the two against each other as though they were mutually exclusive. To such a mentality, even the banal and undeniably true observation that Evangelicals have been remarkably silent on racial matters while being extremely vocal and unflinchingly supportive (at least in the voting booth) for the pro-life movement is felt as a forceful and threatening yank in a tug-o-war over Evangelical support. To my mind, this situation is lamentable. Pro-life advocates should lament their lack of bipartisan support, not assume it. We should not fear that the rising cry for racial justice will drown out our cries for the unborn. Indeed, we should celebrate Higgins’s call to consistency in our ethics of life. If you believe, as I do, that the gospel demands we be consistently pro-life from womb to tomb, then we must enter the tension together and acknowledge that we have been silent when we should not have been.
Justice is not an either/or and cannot be served by a spirit of partisanship and tribalism. As Martin Luther King put it in another “unwise and untimely” letter:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
For my part, I am grateful that InterVarsity has been willing to enter the tensions of our cultural moment, to address these matters head-on, and to take a stand against racial injustice. I thought Michelle Higgins’s address was a timely, prophetic, and necessary wakeup call for all of us in the Evangelical world. Black Lives Matter is admittedly a complex movement espousing a range of ideas and using a range of tactics that neither InterVarsity as an organization nor I personally can endorse in toto. But who can argue with the movement’s central theses? That Black lives matter because all lives matter. That Black citizens deserve, at a minimum, equal protection under the law and the right to due process. That Black people are disproportionately jailed, killed, economically and educationally disadvantaged, and stigmatized. That our country has an oppressive, racist history, the negative effects of which continue to shape our society today. That we cannot stand on the sidelines saying “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. To the extent that BLM is about truth-telling, reconciliation, giving a voice to the voiceless (particularly Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the many others whose voices have been silenced forever), and the defense of the inalienable rights of our Black brothers and sisters, friends, and neighbors, you can count me in.
P.S., If you want to follow this conversation more, you can find helpful articles here from Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today, here from Katelin Hansen at Christianity Today, here from Ram Sridharan, here from Sojourners, and here from John Inazu at The Washington Post.