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SCOP president defends panelist

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Editor’s Note: A correction has been made in this article following the review of the transcript of the SCOP panel to reflect the exact words of Bishop Jackson. The direct and correct quote is included.

In April 1963, a group of eight white clergymen penned “A Call for Unity,” which criticized the efforts of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “unwise and untimely.” That letter noted a particular concern about “outsiders” who were disturbing the peace of their community. Rev. King responded to these “men of genuine good will” in his justly famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which explores great themes of justice and law with characteristic charity and eloquence.
In a recent Letter to the Editor, PrismND — whom I assume to be students of genuine good will — has objected to the presence of an outsider on this campus, who has disturbed what they perceive to be the comfortable limits of conversation. Even recognizing the difference in gravity of the situation (and in virtue of the respondent), this is a sad and serious development.
On April 3, Students for Child-Oriented Policy (SCOP), a secular organization, hosted a conference to explore the definition and importance of civil marriage. As part of that conference, we invited Bishop Harry Jackson, Jr., presiding bishop of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, to speak to the importance of marriage from the perspective of the African-American community. In the course of a 45-minute session, Bishop Jackson made one comment that, in a form they have altered (unintentionally, I presume), the officers of PrismND find objectionable. Drawing on the experience of his Washington, D.C. community, Bishop Jackson asked, “How many have been hearing that there are all kinds of folks coming out these days…?” He then noted his impression that coming out as gay is “becoming almost, if I can use the phrase, the flavor of the week.” As a supporting example for this claim, he noted that the wife of the current mayor of New York City started her career as a writer identifying as a lesbian.
Bishop Jackson made no disparaging comment about the dignity of any person, same-sex attracted or not. His overriding point was to distinguish the present movement to redefine marriage from the Civil Rights Movement, about which he speaks with some authority. As he noted in his presentation, his father was threatened at gunpoint by local law enforcement in Florida merely for registering African-Americans to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

Now, Bishop Jackson was an invited speaker, not a spokesman for SCOP. We endorse not his every word, but his credibility as a worthwhile contributor to the discussion about marriage. As SCOP noted in the Notre Dame Marriage Petition, “We … affirm the inherent dignity and special vocation of every human being” and we have never understood the definition of a human being to be in any way affected by same-sex attraction. Then again, neither does Bishop Jackson, and we are troubled that PrismND so uncharitably interprets his words. PrismND claims that this Evangelical clergyman has acted contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, appropriating a recent remark by Pope Francis in support of this view. SCOP does not object to its critics’ use of religious argumentation on principle, but we must ask: Would Pope Francis carelessly misinterpret the words of a fellow Christian as a discussion that “degrades the lives of those who identify as GLBTQ?”
I do not claim to be wise in the ways of the world, but I have lived in Washington, D.C. There, in a city still sharply divided by de facto segregation, I had the privilege of meeting heroic women who had overcome early and persistent sexual abuse and drug addictions with the help and support of Evangelical Christian communities. These good women came from fatherless families and continued the cycle of bearing children out of wedlock into terribly unsafe and unstable circumstances. They would be the first to say that their children deserve a society that promotes the right of every child to be raised by his or her mother and father, a society that makes such a situation possible, even likely.
I do not know Bishop Jackson’s circumstances. I do not share the experiences that lead him to phrase things as he does, but I consider the possibility that he may speak as one from a field hospital trying to stop the bleeding in a society whose marriage culture is decimated, whose children too often go without fathers. This makes me hesitate to suggest — based on one comment in relation to a movement he thinks would exacerbate the problem by redefining marriage — that he does not “keep in mind that behind the issue are GLBTQ-identifying people who hold God-given dignity.”
Moving forward, if we are to conduct any academic discourse at all on this campus, we must realize that to criticize (however well or ineptly) an action, a lifestyle or a concept is not the same as demeaning a person. Easy examples of what the latter looks like were offered by Bishop Jackson in his discussion of the Civil Rights Movement. While one should not intentionally hurt the feelings of another person, one’s primary commitment as a student and a scholar is to pursue the truth, not to accommodate sincerely held views to the dictates of a self-appointed board of censors. If criticisms are equated with deliberate harm, it is difficult to see how the academic life is possible. Come, let us reason together.

Tiernan Kane
Ph.D.  student
Students for Child-Oriented Policy
April 7

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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