Much commentary afoot over Michelle Higgins, the Black Lives Matter activist given a prime-time speaking spot at the recent InterVarsity Christian Fellowship student missions conference. I wrote about it here, critically, and also mentioned critically that a student pro-life organization was not given space to exhibit there. Over the weekend, InterVarsity vice president Greg Jao e-mailed to say (I post this with his permission):
In your article, you criticize InterVarsity’s decision not to accept Students for Life as an exhibitor, citing Chelsen Vicari’s blogpost for IRD. Any suggestion that Students for Life was not accepted as an exhibiting agency because of their pro-life goals is incorrect. If a pro-life organization met our exhibitor criteria, we would be happy to talk to them about being an Urbana exhibitor.
Students for Life was not accepted as an exhibiting agency at the Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference because it did not meet four of the seven criteria required for Urbana exhibitors. Students for Life cannot affirm InterVarsity’s Doctrinal Basis. (You have written approvingly of InterVarsity’s decision to accept campus derecognition because we require our student leaders to affirm our Doctrinal Basis. I hope you understand why we would expect our exhibitors to affirm our Doctrinal Basis.) Students for Life does not belong to an accrediting or oversight body or network. It does not offer short- or long-term cross-cultural missions opportunities. These are basic expectations for exhibitors at a Christian missions conference. Students for Life was aware of this when they applied and acknowledged their non-religious status in their application. We also explained that exhibiting agencies must demonstrate that they advance the Gospel in word and deed. While Students for Life advances Gospel values in their admirable pro-life work, their strategy prevents them from making evangelism an explicit core commitment. We expect that exhibiting agencies at our mission conference do both. Urbana is not a generalized Christian job fair. Urbana is a conference focused on cross-cultural missions. As a result, exhibitors must either be a Christian missions agency or a Christian seminary that provides graduate programs in mission-related topics. Imagine the criticism we would receive (probably from the same parties) if Urbana allowed a non-Christian, non-evangelistic, non-accredited agency to exhibit at the conference even if they had otherwise admirable goals.
I hope, given the above, that you understand why I disagree with your statement: “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.” Urbana has a limited aim: to challenge this generation of students to engage in global, cross-cultural mission. The conference cannot reflect every Christian cause or value without losing focus.
In your article, you also make several claims about a speaker, Michelle Higgins, that I would like to engage
- You state that Michelle Higgins spoke as a representative of BlackLivesMatter. That is not correct. Michelle Higgins primary affiliation from Urbana’s perspective is as a minister of South City Church, a PCA congregation which engages in justice activism in St. Louis as part of its ministry. She spoke as a Christian minister (who does affirm our Doctrinal Basis) from the St. Louis area who has worked alongside the BlackLivesMatter movement. The distinction is important. InterVarsity did not invite BlackLivesMatter to provide a speaker. We did not design the evening to endorse BlackLivesMatter as a movement. (Several of their positions are incompatible with InterVarsity’s (including their inability to affirm our Doctrinal Basis.)) We did intend to invite Urbana participants to engage with the experience of the Black church in the United States, listening (thoughtfully and critically, we hope) to the challenges posed by that community to the wider evangelical church. For what it is worth, I talked to several students, all of whom said they had never really wrestled with the core concerns raised by Higgins’ talk (i.e., to protect the physical safety and dignity of the Black community). They all were able to articulate places where they disagreed with Michelle’s talk, as well as places where their thinking was challenged in helpful ways. College students have more discernment than many would give them credit for.
I have been asked: Why does Urbana have more criteria for exhibitors than speakers? The answer if, of course, that exhibitors are there to provide cross-cultural missions placements or cross-cultural ministry training. As a result, we expect them to fulfill that function. Speakers are not expected to provide those placements (e.g., Francis Chan or the multiple testimonies from Arab and Persian Christian ministers).
- Higgins did not criticized the existence of or the goals of the pro-life movement during the talk. She critiqued the pro-life movement in the context of a larger critique of the tendency of evangelicals to engage in the “easy” activism of protest while avoiding the “hard” activism of sacrificial lifestyle change. (And, I suspect, the tendency of Millennials to engage in hashtag activism without incarnating their concerns in everyday reality.) The larger context, of course, is the tendency of evangelicals to pay lip service to “racial reconciliation.” With regard to her criticisms of the pro-life movement, her primary point was that it is easy to pressure politicians and media about defunding Planned Parenthood, but it is much harder to adopt children in foster care into our homes. You may find that to be unfair, as I do. Prolife activists often have been at the forefront of the adoption movement. But you and I would agree, I suspect, that the church could and should do more to adopt children in foster care in addition to the marching and petitioning.
- You suggested that Higgins criticized missionaries for proselytizing Native Americans. I think this is a misreading of what she intended. She was engaging in a standard critique that most evangelical missiologists would affirm: far too frequently in history, evangelical missionaries did not distinguish between the Gospel and Western cultural practices. The tide has turned among most missionaries, I believe. But the historical critique is true, and it is important for potential missionaries to wrestle with. This explains, in part, why InterVarsity focuses on racial reconciliation at Urbana. We do so because it is a critical cross-cultural missions issue. North American missionaries are regularly asked: If your gospel cannot bring racial reconciliation in such a largely churched country, how can you think it would work here? (And they might be asking, “And what racial prejudices do you bring as you come?”)
I appreciate your concern that Higgins’ talk may have may have portrayed racial justice the single cause against which all parts of the church must be judged. I am concerned that your article does the same thing, just from the pro-life side. I would hope we could extend charity to one another. There are many issues the Body of Christ must address. I don’t think that any one organization can address all of them. Most of us will focus on specific issues (e.g., WorldVision on poverty; Wycliffe on Scripture translation; Compassion on children, Prison Fellowship on prisoners, etc. At Urbana, InterVarsity focuses exclusively on cross-cultural global missions, which, in our experience, includes cross-cultural issues here in the US.) It is only as the whole church works together that the whole Gospel gets proclaimed to the whole world.
I trust you and believe you when you say “I’m all for racial reconciliation” even though it may not be the dominant topic you address in your columns. I realize you have limited capacity to address every issue. I hope you would extend the same charity to InterVarsity when we explain why Students for Life does not meet the exhibitor criteria of our Christian cross-cultural missions conference and that our organization affirms the sanctity of life. There is no contradiction between the two.
I also received this from an Evangelical pastor who asks to remain anonymous:
I really appreciated your post about Michelle Higgins. I thought it was a fair-minded critique. I agree with your concerns, and as an evangelical I would point out some other items that for some reason have gotten eclipsed by the abortion discussion.
There really is no gospel in her sermon anywhere–at least not the basic framework like Paul summarizes in 1 Cor. 15:3-5. I think that almost every reference that she makes to the Bible distorts the Bible. She calls for an end to North American-based missionary efforts, which she alleges are irredeemably “euro-centric.” All of this should have been like fingernails on the blackboard for an evangelical missions conference. But for some reason it wasn’t. That concerns me deeply about Intervarsity. (Keep in mind Intervarsity’s sponsorship of the Wild Goose Festival, but I digress.)
Probably the most troubling thing to me were her remarks about gender identity. She says that evangelical diversity must embrace transgenderism. Perhaps you noticed Michael Avramovich’s comments about her sermon at the Touchstone website. He points out something that I was not aware of until recently. The official Black Lives Matter movement is unequivocally in favor of LGBT activism. From the Black Lives Matter own website under statement of priniciples:
“We are committed to embracing and making space for trans brothers and sisters to participate and lead. We are committed to being self-reflexive and doing the work required to dismantle cis-gender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.”
“We are committed to fostering a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking or, rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual unless s/he or they disclose otherwise.”
I knew that many of the activists affirmed these things, but I didn’t know that it was explicitly spelled-out in their statement of principles.
I think this is significant, and it puts Higgins’s offhanded remarks about “trans” people into an entirely different frame. Her sermon really did sound like a progressive parade of horribles. She really gave no grounds for interpreting her remarks as if they were coming from an otherwise confessionally orthodox believer. At every turn, she gave listeners every reason to think that she is Ta-Nehisi Coates at prayer.
I think evangelicals that choose to fly the #BlackLivesMatter flag have a responsibility to make clear their evangelical commitments. Higgins did not do that. In fact, she did the opposite, and that is the problem.
Continue the discussion below. Trolling will face the curator’s knife, so be thoughtful, and do not waste your words.
UPDATE: Carl Eric Scott comments:
Thanks for both these posts, Rod. The topic is very important. IVCF has long been the evangelical Christian student group noted for its simultaneous commitment to orthodoxy and to a certain strategic openness giving it trans-political character. When I joined, I was nearly a pacifist and a democratic socialist–and the great thing was that I felt I could join IVCF as such openly. IVCF was an organization that gave voice to both right-wing and left-wing Christian voices. It was careful, unlike so many evangelical organizations and churches, to not go very far into patriotic concern for America, lest it risk idolatry, and putting off lefty students like myself. It has also been on the pioneering edge of what it called “multi-ethnicity,” and not a few of its chapters now reflect this in their make-up, and not simply with respect to Asian membership, which has long been high. It is a group that should be granted some latitude with respect to the risks it takes to respect a wide spectrum of political views, and especially as these tend to correlate to ethnicity.
I must also remind readers that IVCF is the group that was DE-RECOGNIZED by UC, Vanderbilt, and a number of other craven universities, for refusing to alter its student leadership policies in ways that would permit practicing homosexuals to become officers. With respect to the threat to religious liberty posed by certain strains of LGBT activism, IVCF is on the front lines.
I appreciate the president’s letter to you. He has a number of important corrections to your original story. Maybe you should apologize a bit more for the first post. But he should know that past supporters of his organization, such as myself, are going to think twice about future support the more that things of this sort come up on our radar screens. I’m not an 19-year old leftist anymore, and it isn’t 1986 anymore anyhow… When I notice students on my facebook feed for SDSU IVCF talk about going to the “Solidarity with Mizzou” rally…well, coupled with things like Higgins’ speech, it really raises eyebrows.
What I wonder is…do student leaders and staff leaders in IVCF feel free to speak their minds about the quality of the Black Lives Matter movement? Is there a discouragement of IVCF students to take part in pro-life or conservative political activism, but an encouragement to take part in BLM-supporting activism? Beyond its suspicious Soros-funded origins, BLM’s reliance upon lies from very early on, and its willingness to implicitly threaten violence make it a very poor vehicle for IVCF’s commitment to “racial reconciliation.” No, we don’t want American missionaries importing American racism, or American refusal to talk about past (and some present) racial injustice, but we sure don’t want them INSTEAD importing the American penchant for race-grievance identity politics and trendy academic self-laceration theories like “white privilege.”
Some of us read our Shelby Steele along with our Brenda Salter-McNeil, after all.
I understand that IVCF has a tricky strategic road to follow when it comes to politics, campus politics, and ethnic politics. Part of the reason IVCF could reach me was that it did not close the door to dialogue with leftists.
Insofar as campuses become increasingly unhinged in a leftoid direction, however, and when the intimidation of contrary voices comes not simply from student groups (as in the 60s) but from entire academic establishments of diversity administrators, etc., perhaps strategy needs to be rethought. If IVCF is going to be silent about the deeply disturbing patterns of BLM, of general discouragement of free inquiry and speech on campus in recent years, and then is going to on the other hand talk up the Biblical reasons for supporting social justice and have its staff leaders tell their students that participating in events sponsored by BLM and such are healthy, fine to talk about on IVCF social media, etc., well, that’s an “apolitical” or “cross-political” stance that seems rather tilted to one side. If that’s what’s happening in most IVCF chapters now, that would be a capitulation to the spirit of the modern university, and not a witness that stands distinct from it.
Higgins’ Urbana speech, and the decisions that led up to it, require more explanation from the top leadership of IVCF. Reporting that a few students said they felt challenged by it even though they didn’t agree with it does not AT ALL suffice.