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Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Visit From Three University Students

The daughter of one of my closest friends from college is doing a Europe Semester as part of her education through Westmont College, a fine, fairly conservative, Christian college located in Santa Barbara, California. Lynne, my friend's daughter, was in Stockholm last week and we hooked up. Knowing what it's like to be on the road, living out of a suitcase, navigating a new city and environment every 3-4 days, I thought she might enjoy being in our home, seeing our dog, having a home cooked meal, free laundry and internet access! She brought along two friends, Mary and Martina, both who grew up in the Southern California area, one of them quite close to where I actually grew up.
They were lovely, all three of them, grateful, polite and interesting.
There were several things about our visit that lingered for me. All three of the students are seeking to live out their Christian faith in a serious and intentional manner. The two kids who grew up in Southern California come from conservative, mega-church experiences and this has obviously given shape to who they are as Christians. Their moms are stay at home moms, it seems as though there may be wealth in their families or if not significant wealth, a clear, comfortable upper middle class income. Lynne's parents, my close friends, divorced several years ago, so while Lynne was raised in a conservative church in the north suburbs of Chicago, she has had some exposure to "the life is not perfect" axiom. Her mom, my buddy, has worked full-time since we graduated from college and for the past several years has sought to raise her 4 girls, along with her ex-husband, in a sane, nurturing manner. I mention this because I think the background is instructive for understanding how kids lives get shaped.
I knew early on that these girls would be pretty conservative in their views so I wasn't feeling the need to venture into the political conversation with them. But after a nice dinner and hearing a bit about their semester in Europe, Martina asked me if we were interested in the political situation. Because one of my central concerns at this point is our inability, even as, or perhaps especially as, Christians to dialogue and disagree in a civil manner, I decided to just get way out there with my views. So I simply stated, "well, this may come as a surprise to you, but we are strident Democrats." I thought Mary and Martina might have heart attacks. Lynne knew a bit about me so wasn't nearly as surprised. I honestly think in these girls young lives, I was the first pastor and committed Christian they had met who had contrary views to the ones with which they've been raised. I am quite positive that I am the first Christian Democrat they have ever met.
True to form, they immediately asked me about abortion and homosexuality. I explained my views on abortion, assured them that I respected their opinion on the subject, but also explained that making abortion illegal just wasn't the most important issue for me as regards the candidates. I tried to help them understand that while I think abortion is wrong, morally, I don't think it should be against the law. It was a thoughtful, civil discourse and it was neat to see it unfold. As regards homosexuality, I simply explained that I believed that the civil rights that a marriage union gives to people in our society should be extended to all people...calling it marriage or civil union is immaterial to me. The rights granted by our current system should not be disallowed for same gender couples. They pushed me a bit on both topics, which was good! I realized how long it had been since I had actually been in a face to face conversation with others who held such conservative views and for whom abortion and homosexuality are the two most important issues in shaping why someone will vote a particular way. I tried to express to them that economic issues, the war in Iraq, health care and a more fair distribution of tax cuts and benefits were much more important to me than the two aforementioned items. They listened carefully and took it all in. It was very new to them.
Two comments linger for me in our discussion. Martina expressed that at a very young age she realizes that she was basically indoctrinated with a notion that if the Democrats are in power, life will be very scary and uncertain. She remembers feeling actual fear when Al Gore was running against George Bush. She had been taught that if Al Gore won the White House, life would be hell on earth. She also wondered aloud if Obama was Muslim. I assured her, that no, he was indeed a Christian and she could rest peacefully in that knowledge. I hope in some small measure I encouraged her to broaden her world view to include a less fear based opposition to the Democrats and instead investigate a bit more clearly what the Democrats are seeking to be about.
Lynne was quiet through out much of the discussion. She later admitted to me that she felt much the way we do but has a hard time giving voice to her opinions. The first Presidential debate happened to be on TV while they were with us and we watched some of it with Lynne. We were able to say more about why we felt the Democratic pathway was a much better pathway for us than to continue with the Republican way of doing business. She listened carefully, spoke of how meaningful it was to hear our thoughts and pondered much of what was being exchanged.
Their visit was interesting and great for me on a number of levels. It has been a long time since I have been around eager, American, Christian University students whose perspective has been shaped in large measure by the conservative, mega-church where abortion and homosexuality are seen as the only two issues that matter. This perspective often grows out of wealthy, homogeneous, white suburbs where protecting their economic success is also a high value, no matter what it may be doing to the poor or under privileged who live down the street. It was good for me to pushed by these eager, fresh, sincere perspectives and articulate with clarity why I supported legal abortion and gay rights, even from a Christian perspective. I also realized that I have a firm, well thought out perspective on these issues and don't feel the need to raise them as key ideologies in choosing my candidate. I am happy that the Obama/Biden ticket supports legal abortion and would fight for legal civil unions for all couples. I can confidently mesh who I am as a Christian with my belief that abortion should be legal and that gays should have civil rights . As a Christian, the traditional Republican view of the war in Iraq, economics and how our policies affect the poor, and our reputation overseas clash much more with my own value system than the two traditional issues that Christians tend to care about in politics.
These young kids engaged in a dialogue that, I'm sure, at times it was very difficult for them. They remained respectful, they didn't denounce me as a Christian or call into question my sincere desire to follow Christ. They, at least on the surface, accepted that I am coming at my politics from a different perspective, even though I am still shaped by my Christianity, just as they are. That we could land at such different places was kind of new to them. We weren't out to change one another's minds but rather to state clearly our point of view and challenge one another at the point of disagreement. I loved it and I think they did too.
What I most wanted them to walk away with was a model of how to respectfully dialogue on these tough issues and agree to disagree while not casting judgment on one another. They mentioned how hard it is to talk about this stuff on their campus because everyone just gets mad at one another and resorts to name calling. If for one brief moment in time, we could be a part of modeling what it means to dig in, think about issues, disagree and yet show one another that we still share the same faith center, then I think that's something to celebrate.
As Christians, we need to be part of restoring civility to our nation's dialogue. We don't do that by all agreeing to one standard of thinking but rather by thoughtfully learning to discuss issues and perspectives while respecting that another is landing in a different place. The notion that thoughtful Christians can disagree is something that must be lifted up.
I enjoyed our time and I think they did too. In fact, I know they did because Lynne sent me a great note thanking us for our hospitality and conversation and also mentioned that Martina actually told her that the little stop at the Christian Democrat's house in Stockholm is ranking in the top ten of her experiences on this trip.
I hope it encourages them to engage in thoughtful dialogue with others and promote the civil discourse among Christians that I feel is so lacking in the United States.