Monday, April 25, 2016

I'm an Ex-Debater and a Christian, and I Support the Liberty University Boycott

More than anything else--even more than my life-saving, life-changing four years in high school band, because this impacted my college and graduate school years as well--participating in both high school and college speech and debate molded me into the sort of student that I remain today as a doctoral student at Seattle University.  Speech and debate taught me how to examine evidence critically, weigh the importance of different consequences of action (or inaction), and how to research a given topic effectively and deeply.

It is an activity that I owe a debt of gratitude that I will never be able to fully repay, despite my own brief time spent coaching speech and debate on the high school level in Oregon, and on the college level in California.

In order for a debate to take place at any of the dozens of tournaments I competed at, coached at, and judged at over my decade of involvement in the activity, the debaters themselves had to be in a safe enough place to be able to argue for any perspective they felt, in their judgment, would win them the debate they were engaging in, one round at a time.

What this meant, in functional terms, was judges telling the debaters beforehand, often in detail, what exactly their own worldview is.  Nobody comes into a debate as a blank slate, we all carry our beliefs and our prejudices, our values and our idiosyncracies.  There are few worse feelings as a debater than losing a round and learning after the fact that you never stood a chance because your judge was innately predisposed to chucking your argument out with the wash...and you never knew.

The attitude of judges in speech and debate is partly a top-down phenomenon.  Teams may not be able to provide enough judges of their own to cover their entries, and tournaments must hire judges from the community of the school hosting the tournament.  This, combined with the simple fact that most schools simply cannot afford the costs to travel extensively, has an effect of creating judging pools that can vary greatly based on geography, even within metropolitan areas (for a great case study of that effect, check out Joe Miller's book "Cross-X," in which my high school alma mater's tournament unfortunately features in a chapter entitled "Debate Hell").

Long story short: where a debate tournament is held matters, even if the venue is only providing the space, rather than organizing the tournament outright.

Why am I writing about any of this on a blog that is mostly dedicated to Christian mission, ministry, and social justice?

Well, speech and debate exists in Christian schools and universities as well, and perhaps none so prominently as at Liberty University, whose chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr., I have already had to take to task a couple of times before for his inexcusable Islamophobia and his inexplicably boneheaded endorsement of Donald Trump.

Because of Falwell Jr.'s conduct, one of the top high school debate partnerships (an all-female partnership, too, which is of particular note in what has traditionally been a male-skewed activity) has elected to boycott Virginia's state high school debate championship this year because it is being hosted at Liberty University.

One of the two women in this debate partnership, Fatima Shahbaz, is Muslim, and she and her family are understandably worried for her well-being in potentially going to a school whose leader has said,
I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed us."

Falwell Jr. argued in response that his comments were taken out of context by the media (ah, that ever-reliable bogeyman, the pesky media!), so here is the full context of what he said, verbatim:

Anyway. I’ve always thought if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they, before they walk in and kill us, [applause] so I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit–we offer a free course. And let’s… let’s… let’s teach ’em a lesson if they ever show up here [more applause]. So… Thank you, and you’re dismissed.

I am quoting Falwell Jr. from the point at which he says "Anyway," which most reasonable people would agree generally constitutes the moving from one fully-formed thought (Falwell letting everyone know that he's packing heat) to another (we could end those Muslims), and he is quoted all the way to the end of his remarks (thank you, you're dismissed).

I took the presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to task in my sermon yesterday for wanting to ban Muslims and/or place them under police surveillance, but even those two mean-spirited cranks manage to make a distinction between "radical Islamic terrorists" as they call them and simply "Muslims."

Falwell Jr., apparently, couldn't be bothered with a similar level of nuance, even as he would later to try to walk back what he said by saying "he couldn't have been more clear" which Muslims he was referring to.

Except he could have been.  Because just as there is a big difference between "Muslim" and "radical Islamic terrorist," there is likewise, I think Falwell Jr. would agree, a big difference between "Christian" and "Robert Lewis Dear" or "Dylann Storm Roof," the white Christian terrorists who shot up Colorado Springs and Charleston (I originally and mistakenly wrote "Columbia" -E.A.), South Carolina, respectively.

Why am I even playing that card, though?  Apparently, one of Liberty's professors, a biology professor named Daniel Howell, had his feelies hurt enough by the boycott by Shahbaz and Boyer to write a letter to the editor of Liberty's student paper, in which he penned--in reference to the debaters' desire to see the state championship moved to a nonsectarian venue--this priceless line, "One might reasonably conclude that her (Shahbaz's) proposition is Christophobic."

Oh sweet wounded Jesus have mercy.  Howell--who at the outset of his letter said that seeing Falwell Jr.'s statement as Islamophobic would be "grossly misinterpreted" and that in doing so, the debate parternship "displays ignorance or a willful disregard for truth"--has apparently no compunctions or qualms about grossly misinterpreting a religious minority's desire to see her state championship hosted at a religiously neutral venue as "Christophobic."

It's the whole Gods-Not-Dead-Persecution-Complex debate all over again, only with Muslims instead of comically obtuse atheists.  Muslims apparently aren't victims of Islamophobia because the leader of the largest Christian university in the country casually lumped them in with jihadist terrorists, but Christians are the victims of Christophobia because it was civilly and thoughtfully suggested that maybe there might be some net-benefit to having a high-profile debate tournament held at a neutral venue.

I don't have a doctorate (yet) like Dr. Howell does, but I've got a couple of degrees in religion plus a lifetime of Sunday School under my belt, and I'm pretty sure there's a certain saying about logs and splinters that ought to come to mind.  Before Dr. Howell concerns himself with Fatima Shahbaz's moral compass, he ought to take a long, prayerful, and introspective look at himself, who he works for, and whether he is in fact living out Jesus's dictum to avoid removing splinters when entire logs still remain.

And I haven't even gotten into the irony of a *biology* professor at a school that insists that young earth creationism somehow constitutes science.  I've no qualms about teaching creationism in school, but I have plenty of qualms about teaching it in the context of a science class rather than in the context of a humanities class.  Creationism is a demonstrable part of Western religion, culture, and thought and should be taught as such.  It is not--so far as I can see--a demonstrable part of *any* credible scientific consensus.

Jumping to such unsound conclusions has the same effect of stifling the debate and dialogue that Falwell Jr. and Howell purport to uphold, but no matter.  We have taken poor Kierkegaard's brilliant leap of faith concept and turned it into something utterly vulgar when we say that imagination ought to trump human experience in how we meet people in faith.

Dr. Howell needs to stick to his lane of teaching fake science on behalf of a chancellor who shows little regard for science, sound Biblical exegesis, and plenty in between.  Jerry Falwell Jr. needs to spend some very real time in prayer to seek the humility to simply be able to say "I was wrong about Muslims" instead of continuing to excuse his appalling remarks.  All of us Christians need to be able to take a step back and consider whether we really are the oppressed ones in America, or the ones still doing the oppressing.

And I'm going to get back to doing the work that such teachers and leaders would likely see as heresy: studying, teaching, and proclaiming Scripture in such a way that the marginalized and oppressed peoples of today might hear at least a crumb of comfort, solidarity, and welcome as the marginalized and oppressed peoples of Jesus's time heard in His teachings.

While I do so, I will continue to give thanks for all that speech and debate has given me, because those skills aid me in my ministry now.  My prayer for Fatima Shahbaz and Jessica Boyer is that debate likewise empowers them as it did me.  To that end, I support their decision to boycott their state championship, and if I were still coaching and my debaters approached me with the same decision, I would support them too.

This advocacy matters to me.  I hope you see why, and that it may matter to you as well.

Vancouver, Washington
April 25, 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment