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Do #UnbornLivesMatter to InterVarsity?

Pro-life student groups banned from exhibiting at Evangelical missions conference -- but #BlackLivesMatter centerpieced
Do #UnbornLivesMatter to InterVarsity?

At its recent missions conference, the big Evangelical ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship hosted Michelle Higgins, a speaker from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Why? According to a press release from InterVarsity:

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA has a 75-year dedication to the gospel, orthodox doctrine, and missions while also sharing the message in a way that resonates with the current student generation. Scripture and the gospel are non-negotiables for us. Some of our chapters have been denied access to campuses because of our dedication to core, orthodox Christian doctrines.

We chose to address #BlackLivesMatter at Urbana 15, InterVarsity’s Student Missions Conference, because it is a language and experience of many college students. Many Black InterVarsity staff and students report that they are physically and emotionally at risk in their communities and on campus. About one-half of those at Urbana 15 are people of color, including more than 1,200 Black participants. InterVarsity chose to participate in this conversation because we believe that Christians have something distinctive to contribute in order to advance the gospel.

InterVarsity does not endorse everything attributed to #BlackLivesMatter. For instance, we reject any call to attack or dehumanize police. But – using the language of Francis Schaeffer and Chuck Colson – we are co-belligerents with a movement with which we sometimes disagree because we believe it is important to affirm that God created our Black brothers and sisters. They bear his image. They deserve safety, dignity and respect. InterVarsity believes all lives are sacred – born and unborn. Interim president Jim Lundgren says, “Scripture is clear about the sanctity of life. That is why I’m both pro-life and committed to the dignity of my Black brothers and sisters.”

We see racial reconciliation as an expression of the gospel (e.g., Ephesians 2:14-18), and as an important practice in preparation for global missions. The need for reconciliation is obvious in the Middle East and other global mission fields. It is just as obvious in the United States. InterVarsity has been involved in this conversation for decades. We believe it is important to stand alongside our Black brothers and sisters.

That same #BlackLivesMatter activist, addressing the 16,000 students present, said that the pro-life movement is “a big spectacle.” At about the 13:30 mark in her presentation, she began denouncing pro-life Evangelicals as hypocrites:

“We could end the adoption crisis tomorrow. But we’re too busy arguing to have abortion banned. We’re too busy arguing to defund Planned Parenthood,” charged Higgins. “We are too busy withholding mercy from the living so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn. Where is your mercy? What is your goal and only doing activism that is comfortable?”

Her entire talk was more or less progressive boilerplate, some of it worthwhile, some of it absurd (e.g., praising pro-Soviet radical Angela Davis as an apostle of “hope,” accusing white Evangelical churches of being racist if they don’t embrace exuberant African-American worship styles), some of it bizarre coming from a confessing Evangelical (e.g., blaming missionaries to North America for “proselytizing” Native Americans), all of it intended to convince her audience to be ashamed of themselves if they have not joined #BlackLivesMatter.

Here’s something especially interesting: Students for Life, a college pro-life organization, was refused permission to exhibit at that same event because, according to Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America:

Students for Life and Rock for Life were denied the chance to exhibit at the conference because, according to an email from the Exhibits Manager, “… Students for Life does not align with Urbana’s exhibitor criteria. One of our key criteria for exhibitors is to have advancing God’s global mission as the vision and purpose of their organization.”

Chelsen Vicari of the Institute for Religion and Democracy contacted the events manager for an explanation:


To be fair, I reached out to the Urbana15 team for greater context. And I will say that the Urbana15 team responded quickly and obligingly. They pointed me towards their exhibitor’s criteria page.

But from the list of seven prerequisites, including being a reputable agency registered with the IRS, I found no cause to deny SFL while highlighting #BlackLivesMatter. SFL promotes diversity, provides training, builds coalitions with parachurch ministries, works with Christian college campuses, and advances key components of God’s mission: every life is precious. SFL does all those things, just not in the typical churchy way. That’s a good thing.

So why then did Urbana15 deny SFL a booth in the lobby yet devote an entire evening to #BlackLivesMatters, whose keynote never once addressed abortion’s innate racism? This, I believe, is because among faithful student ministries we have a Millennial generation moving into leadership positions who prioritize leftist political policies over traditional teaching to make themselves feel more compassionate.

Millennial readers, does Vicari have a point?

Remember, the interim president of InterVarsity said that Scripture is clear about the sanctity of life, and “that is why I’m both pro-life and committed to the dignity of my Black brothers and sisters.” That’s what he says. But it seems that some lives are more sacred than others, and the cause of defending them is no longer part of God’s mission, according to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Why does one negate the other? It doesn’t make sense to me. If you want to have Black Lives Matter, fine, do it — but why not pro-lifers?

And look, I’m all for racial reconciliation, but I fail to see how a half-hour harangue by a left-wing church lady who tells white Evangelicals in the audience that they ought to be ashamed of their pro-life activism, and of their ancestors for evangelizing Native Americans, is going to build bridges. But that’s me. I just don’t get what’s so reconciling about the message, “Here are a hundred ways you people suck, but you will be absolved of your suckiness if you join my movement.”

UPDATE: Thought of Michelle Higgins’s diatribe when I read Damon Linker’s latest column, which is about the pathologies of identity politics. Specifically this:

And there you have it: the identity-politics-addled mind at work. Its first thought is always an ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological category, like “white privilege,” which it uses to size-up the world in an instant. Next comes judgment, usually quick and severe, using a single measure: relative power among the various ethnic, racial, gender, or ideological groups. And then there is the final ingredient: the moralistic edge tinged with grievance that makes the American style of identity politics so potent and distinctive, an obsessive fixation on justice understood as equality.

Put it all together and we’re left with the only form of moral evaluation that identity politics can manage: the indignant denunciation of double standards.

That’s very good — and it describes the Higgins speech perfectly. There is nothing in the talk to invite others in. It’s all about rage and public shaming, along with some manipulative self-praise, along the lines of, “I know this is going to make a lot of you uncomfortable, but I have to tell the truth.” If you’re the kind of Evangelical who masochistically likes this kind of identity politics display, then this is the kind of thing you like.

Seriously, though, I don’t know why people think this kind of rhetoric is successful. I mean, it is plainly successful, to a point. But then you run into people who aren’t swayed by moral harangue (as opposed to moral suasion), and eventually, they will push back. If you’re lucky — if we’re lucky — they will not rely on the same tactics. I wouldn’t count on it. One legitimizes the other. But #BLMers and progressives are so caught up in the rapture of their own righteousness that they don’t see the risk.

(And by the way, if I heard a pro-life speech using the same rhetoric, I would find it very off-putting and counterproductive, even if I agreed with the point being made.)

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I went to (a conservative Reformed) college with Michelle (though I knew her sister better while we were there), worshipped at the church that her father pastored at the time (New City, Chattanooga), and am a member of the (theologically and, generally speaking, socially conservative denomination) that Michelle is currently working in (she’s with South City Church, St. Louis; the denomination is the PCA).

That shared context means that I’ve been a part of many of the same conversations within our denomination and circles in the Reformed church that Michelle has. For instance, when she is speaking about “civilizing and proselytizing” Native Americans, the critique is of a missionary method that didn’t distinguish between culture and gospel. This is true, and it is a critique that is now widely shared among the missionary community in evangelicalism (which, again, I know well; I grew up in a church that was basically attached to a missions base). It is not a critique of sharing the gospel.

I can tell you that her talk about the adoption crisis is not empty rhetoric or mere point-scoring; rather, it is born out of the lived practice of New City, where the church’s commitment to a pro-life stance was backed up by a church-wide commitment to adoption (and economic development; you can look at the nonprofit started by New City, “Hope for the Inner City”, to get a better sense of the full breadth of the church’s commitment to the lives of people trapped in poverty). That’s where the critique of “only doing activism that makes you comfortable” comes from: from a church that ran in the opposite direction, into the deeply uncomfortable place of living among and with the poor of its city.

I can also tell you that racial reconciliation is not a minor part of her family’s lives; it is at the center. There are very, very few churches in our denomination like New City, churches which are genuinely multiracial. (At least at the time that I was there, New City was roughly 40% black and 40% white.) When I say “genuinely multiracial”, I don’t mean that both black and white people attended. I certainly don’t mean that white people listened to haranguing messages and assuaged their guilt by assuring themselves that they aren’t like those bad racist white people who can’t accept the racist history of our country. I mean that deep relationships were formed across both race and class boundaries, to the degree that those relationships were reflected in the mixed ethnicity of many of the third-generation children born in the church. This character took work, and the church understood it as a primary component of their ministry (alongside preaching the gospel and ministering to the poor in the neighborhood and city). Sermons frequently addressed the racial history of the city directly. (Chattanooga is a city in the deep south; I’ll trust most people can fill in the details of that history for themselves.) I’d love to think that “teach[ing] children that it is evil to judge others on the basis of their skin color or ethnicity, that people must be judged as individuals, by the content of their character” is sufficient to achieve racial reconciliation, as you suggested in a previous post (on Oregon State). But in a country marked both by a legacy of racism and on-going racial discrimination, that’s sadly insufficient. Neutrality is insufficient when we begin in place that is tainted by the past.

Michelle’s family has lived a way that is sufficient. I doubt it is the only way that is sufficient, but their ministry and testimonies deserve more respect than your post offered. By that, I don’t mean that what she says is above critique. I mean that she deserves to be extended the grace of assuming she is arguing in good faith, not “all about rage and public shaming” or “manipulative self-praise”. I mean that any summary of her talk should acknowledge how deeply it was inflected with the gospel. Her comments from about 13:10 to 13:30, for instance, right before the part about adoption and abortion:

“This is our dirty wretched affair that we’ve been hiding. This is our time to craft our narrative into one of repentance. To say, God, I don’t want to bear this burden, of being in control. I don’t want to define justice, because I already know the man who does.”

Reducing that to “progressive boilerplate” is deeply unfair. I hope you’ll listen again.

Thanks for the interesting background. I genuinely appreciate it.

UPDATE.2: I’m closing off comments and moving the discussion to this new post.



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