A speaker at an evangelical Christian college urged students to accept the views of Black Lives Matter and consider themselves as having benefited from white privilege while looking to the Palestinians for inspiration in how to get along with one's adversaries.
The Rev. Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist who teaches at Duke University School of Divinity and authored the book "Disunity in Christ," brought a message of reconciliation and "love without exception" to Biola University in Los Angeles last week.
At a conference titled "Love No Matter What: Politics, Sex, Race and the Way of the Cross," Cleveland touted the contributions of Black Lives Matter and said Christians should be more loving and accepting of the LGBTQ community, Muslims and others who don't share their particular vision of biblical truth.
Biola broadcast the conference to thousands over the Internet on March 24. The goal of the conference was to get Christians to "stretch your capacity to see different perspectives and different issues in a unique way," said Tim Muehlhoff, a professor in Biola's communications department who also serves on Biola's Center for Marriage and Relationships.
One of the more controversial conference speakers was Cleveland, a 35-year-old professor whose most recent blog on her website is titled "Trump, the White Man's Last Gasp, and the Resurrection."
Cleveland's message was so antithetical to the conservative mission statement of Biola University that some critics are calling out the university for sponsoring a "Bernie Sanders-like" message of humanistic socialism.
Historically, humankind has gravitated toward hostility whenever it's "competing over scarce resources," Cleveland told students, and the stiffer the competition the more hostile people become.
This happened after the Civil War when black slaves were freed and entered the marketplace. It spawned the Ku Klux Clan. It happened again during the collapse of cotton prices in the 1930s – fueling an upswing in black lynchings.
Today is another one of those periods, she said, as Americans grapple with big changes – the first black president, the shifting of populations out of Central and South America northward, and the advances in LGBTQ rights.
"A lot of research has been done more recently looking at the United States and Western Europe," she said.
She said the hostility she sees coming from Christians who believe strongly in traditional marriage and the security risks of mass immigration is rooted in fear and in competition for scarce resources.
"When things are going well economically, unemployment rates are low, and everyone feels secure, people more or less have really favorable attitudes toward immigration," Cleveland said. "They're like 'bring them on in, it would be great to have more diversity, it would be great to have, you know, a lot of different people in our community.' But when unemployment is high, when resources are scarce, all of a sudden you see that hostility, 'don't let anybody in. They're gonna take our jobs.' There is so much fear."
The advent of a black president and the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a pushback from the old order, she said.
"As the United States has changed, a little bit, we have the first black president, we have young, educated black students who've benefited from affirmative action and historically black colleges who are leading a very powerful movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, have a voice in our society in ways they haven't before, and what's the response? More often than not it's hostility," she said. "It's 'I'm not going to listen.' It's fear."
If a person is blinded by fear they cannot see God in those they've labeled as an enemy, she said. They remain in bondage and need to be set free.
"How can this be something that God is teaching me so I can be set free?" she asked the audience.
Confronting white privilege is 'painful'
"When I talk with people who've gone down this journey, you know, I've talked to the white man who for the first time is learning that maybe he didn't earn everything that he has," she added. "And that is earth shattering. It's painful. It is truly painful to face that ambiguity for the first time...
"I've talked to people who have faced that ambiguity and they say things like, for the first time I feel like I have flesh on my bones. No matter how hard it is to go forward I can never go back because there's something here for me," she said. "There's truth here for me when I open myself up, there's God here for me, there's the presence of the Spirit here for me, when I open myself up, when I live out of love, not fear."
What is truth?
Perhaps the most strenuously contended "scarce resource" is a society's perception of truth, she said.
"Human beings hate, hate, hate ambiguity," she said, and will naturally get hostile when confronted with a narrative that differs from their own on important issues.
She exhorted her audience to "live out of love, not fear."
Watch video capturing part of Christena Cleveland's presentation to Biola University:
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"Fear and hostility are something you naturally do when you're faced with ambiguity, when you're competing over scarce resources," she said.
But she said there is hope when people are brought into conscious awareness of this natural tendency to fear that which is different.
"What am I afraid of? Am I afraid because I'm a 65-year-old white man, and the world is really different from when I was growing up, and now my grandkids have a boss who is Latina, or they have a boss who's Muslim?" she told the audience.
"And that wasn't the way it was when I was young. White people were the bosses when I was young."
She then extended the hypothetical reaction of her 65-year-old white man to the rise of the LGBTQ community.
"Is it because I grew up in a Christian home that was traditional on issues of sexuality, and now I'm coming face to face with someone who claims to love Jesus as much as I do and my definition of being a Christian excludes that person?" she said. "And now I have to come to terms with this reality. Am I going to shrink back in fear and hostility or am I going to name it and say 'what's at stake here for me is my perception of truth.'"
She encouraged her audience to "lean into that" and 'start to ask bigger questions?'"
"Is the God who created this complex and multifaceted world big enough, wise enough, complex and multifaceted enough to handle this ambiguity, to help me navigate this ambiguity with kindness, with a love where there's no exception?" she said.
But we have to pay attention to the processes that are making it so hard for us to be kind. This ambiguity. This competition that leads us to be fearful and hostile."
Look to Palestinians for guidance
She cited the Palestinian people as an example of those who have done a good job of facing the "ambiguities" of what is true.
"I've spent a lot of time in Palestine with people who have to come face to face with another group that they have conflict with. There are scarce resources like land, and power and money," she said. "And what I've learned from my friends who are Palestinian is so poignant. They believe that God, Jesus, calls us to love our enemies. Yes for the sake of loving our enemies so that they can feel love and so they can experience God's love, but also so we can experience God. And my friends who are Palestinian say we discovered God in our enemies because we are all created in the image of God. If I'm blinded by fear, how can I possibly see God in my enemies?"
Throwing cold water on culture wars
Cleveland said hostility is the norm in today's culture wars. Rather than confronting and standing against what traditional Christianity sees as sin, she suggested sitting down and having a reasoned discussion with the perceived enemy.
"But sometimes I wonder if the scarcest resource of all, particularly within the Christian church, isn't around truth, with a capital T, and who gets to decide what's true and what's not true. And that's one where, we really do think that love, that we can make an exception about love, right?" she said. "We can say, you know what, the stakes are pretty high here. We have access to truth and they're threatening that."
She said it's never OK to respond with hostility, even when we feel like "our definition of truth with a capital T is under siege."
She said it's normal to think it's OK to be hostile "because we're fighting for what's right. And you know I think one of the reasons why we're so passionate in our hostility around battles for truth, as Western Christianity becomes more diverse, you know we see the global South moving here. We see lots of different perspectives on biblical interpretations, on theology, as we see more and more people from the LGBTQ community having a voice in the Church."
Channeling Bernie Sanders?
Some critics of Biola's choice of speakers say Cleveland's message sounded like it was taken from a Bernie Sanders stump speech, albeit dressed in more religious language.
"As I listened to Ms. Cleveland speak in the video presentation, I couldn't help but think, 'This woman sounds like a female version of Bernie Sanders,'" said Carl Gallups, a Christian author and speaker who hosts a weekly radio broadcast while pastoring a Baptist church in Florida. "It was uncanny, it was as though she had taken many of his campaign talking points and superimposed them upon her speech's foundation -- wrapping Sanders' rhetoric in a pseudobiblical guise."
He was particularly struck by Cleveland's claims about Black Lives Matter and the Palestinians.
Suggesting that the Black Lives Matter campaign has positively "contributed" to America's overall well-being is outrageous, Gallups said.
"I would love to see the empirical evidence for that, and for her ubiquitous interjections of overtly sexist and racist innuendos (White privilege, White male's fear, the White man's last gasp, etc.) into her "Christian" perspective," said Gallups, author of several books including his latest, "Be Thou Prepared: Equipping the Church for Persecution and Times of Trouble."
"I found her speech to be largely laced with biblical hypocrisy mixed into a deadly elixir of a feel-good and watered-down 'Christian' gobbledygook," he said. "Her illustration of the Palestinians as the shining example of 'Christian love' was particularly absurd, lacking in historical accuracy. It appeared to me that she was attempting to invoke a 'White Christian = American shame' upon her audience in the name of a more globally acceptable and politically correct Christian presentation."
Gallups said he does agree with Cleveland's position that the true Christian response to the rapidly changing world should be that of overall love and charity.
"I too believe this kind of response must be extended, wherever possible, to people of all persuasions of lifestyles and theological beliefs," he said. "However, the foundational and contextual truths of God's Word must never be compromised in the process of extending basic courtesy and respect. It comes back to the old adage of 'speaking the truth in love.' Perhaps the phrase is a bit banal, but it is a defining truth of daily Christian living."
Gallups also took Cleveland to task for her "squishy" view of biblical truth, evident in her question: "Who gets to decide what's true and what's not true?"
"This was a telling question, revealing the true condition of her thought process and her grasp of the basic foundational principles of biblical Christianity," Gallups said. "Of course the contextual rendering of God's Word and a true born-again relationship with Jesus Christ is the answer to her question. Jesus said it like this, 'Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.' (John 8:32)."
Given Biola's deeply conservative statement of doctrinal beliefs, Gallups said he was surprised the university would sponsor a guest speaker such as Cleveland.
"Hopefully there was a follow-up question and answer time, or at least an attempt on the part of university officials to straighten out some of the abject biblically false teaching Ms. Cleveland shoveled out upon the audience," he said. "If they ever invite Ms. Cleveland back and she is unable to oblige, Biola could simply ask Bernie Sanders to speak in her stead. I doubt if few would notice."