Walking Between Intolerance and Imperialism

“What is your group’s view of homosexuality?” I sat across the desk from the Vice President for Student Life as she asked me this direct question in the midst of a campus access issue in 2010. To this day, I'm not sure  if my answer was a dodge, or sheer inspiration, or just fumbling.

I said something like, “That would probably take a longer time to answer than we have. I do think we have different narratives around sexuality represented on our campus. I think it is a good thing that people should feel safe no matter what narrative they hold and have opportunities to encounter and learn from those who think differently. I would hope the university wouldn’t privilege one narrative in such a way that those who think, believe, and act differently would feel less safe.”

As I said this, I certainly was thinking of North American students who hold to a redeemed sexuality perspective, which is the traditional and historically orthodox perspective. But I work with a graduate chapter that is between 30 and 40 percent international students. Many students from Asia, South America and Africa come from cultures with traditional narratives of human sexuality, and some come from churches that hold to a redeemed sexuality perspective. As I spoke in my meeting that day, I was thinking of them, and their sense of being safe on our campus. Indeed, I also was thinking of Muslim students who had similar concerns about university policies.

In the years since that meeting, I’ve learned of students in our chapters who identify as LGBT and who remain committed to a redeemed sexuality perspective. One Christian LGBT student put it to me this way, “I’m grateful there is a safe place in our chapter for someone like me. I would be the first to go to the Office of Student Life to defend this safe place, were this to be threatened.”

My university has done a commendable job of making our campus a more physically and emotionally safe place for LGBT students, for whom this has often not been the case in the past. Yet I wonder if for others, and particularly for the international students who come to our campus, this feels a bit unsafe, and perhaps imposes on them a form of Western cultural imperialism.

There is an implicit privileging of a sexual narrative that is occurring here against the consciences of those who hold a different narrative. It essentially is saying that all groups who intersect with public life must adhere to this new sexual orthodoxy or else be removed from the public square. One of the more troubling aspects of this struggle for sexual hegemony is the Western secular cultural imperialism that it imposes, not only on those who hold more traditional views in the West but especially upon those who come to our colleges and universities from other more traditional societies in South America, Africa, and Asia.

In conversations with IFES staff at World Assembly this summer, and in an IFES listserve, I’m struck by the anger many feel when they see Western churches, which are part of global communions, imposing western positions on sexuality without consulting their brothers and sisters who are part of the same communions in other parts of the world. They stress that where tensions with other religious groups are particularly high, this can provide added fuel for attacks upon “immoral” Christians. Many of our IFES sisters and brothers consider this imposition on the part of Western churches a form of cultural imperialism and colonialism in a post-colonial world.

In our doctrinal basis, we in InterVarsity confess, “The value and dignity of all people” and “The unity of all believers in Jesus Christ, manifest in worshiping and witnessing churches making disciples throughout the world.” On the one hand this commits me to seek the safety and human rights of LGBT persons, women, blacks, and others on my campus. On the other hand, I believe that our unity with believers around the world constrains us to take great care to avoid unilaterally redefining Christian belief and behavior.

It is an interesting tension in which we walk and work, isn’t it? I think many of us wish it would go away; but to wish the tension away is to settle for the either-or polarities that characterize some secular public discourse. I believe our doctrinal basis calls us to find a more nuanced third way—one that walks thoughtfully between intolerance and imperialism.

About the Author
Senior Area Director

Bob Trube is Senior Area Director for the GFM Ohio Valley Team. Bob has worked with InterVarsity for 39 years in both undergraduate and graduate student ministry, currently working with both graduate and faculty groups at Ohio State. Bob would describe his life passion as "bringing the love of God and the love of learning together in the lives of students and faculty." In his free time, Bob blogs on books, reading and life at bobonbooks.com and participates in a local community chorus, Capriccio Columbus, and a plein air art group with his wife Marilyn, who is a painter.