This is not an angry rant. That’s not really my style.
This is me, scratching my head and thinking out loud. This is me wondering if an incident that flew a bit under the radar may be indicative of the biggest problem facing the church today. This is me chiming in on the curious case of Jonathan Martin and Liberty University.
If you missed it, here are the particulars:
- Jonathan Martin is an evangelical pastor and author. I don’t know him personally, but he’s well respected in many circles of influence that I’ve been exposed to.
- Liberty University is an evangelical Christian university in Virginia, which offers a “world class education with a solid Christian foundation.” I don’t know it’s leadership personally, but I have known students and families of students at Liberty, who all speak highly of it.
- Martin, who has an activist bent and speaks openly about socio-political issues as they relate to the Gospel, advertised on Twitter that he would be hosting a prayer meeting on Liberty’s campus.
Obviously, many would take exception to Martin’s claim that Liberty University is one of the “most hostile environments to the Gospel,” but knowing what he believes about the Gospel and how nationalism, oppression of the poor, and other traditionally politically conservative views oppose his belief about the Gospel, I can accept that it is his opinion.
Nevertheless, the rest of the particulars:
- Martin repeatedly tagged Liberty University and Jerry Fallwell Jr. in his tweets leading up to the event. There was nothing threatening or surprising about his intentions.
- Martin did, in fact, go to Virginia.
- The night before the prayer meeting was scheduled, he attended a concert featuring friends JOHNNYSWIM, at their invitation.
- After the show, while visiting with the band in their green room, 3-5 police officers/security personnel interrupted, photographed Martin, kicked him off campus, and banned him for life.
Martin left, and lots of folks have opined on the situation since:
The excellent Jonathan Merritt made his case for The Atlantic, and it is in his piece that we arrive at the importance of this event.
Martin, who has been critical of president Donald Trump’s policies and of Liberty president Jerry Fallwell Jr.’s support of those policies, was forbade from peacefully protesting those views and having a “prayer & praise meeting” on Liberty’s campus. Merritt, who himself was dis-invited from a speaking engagement at Liberty in 2015 for writing a piece critical of Hobby Lobby, whose founding family has donated millions to Liberty University, remains fair and makes a valid point regarding Liberty’s right to censure:
“Liberty is a private university, so I don’t have an inherent right to speak there. And Martin doesn’t have a right to use its property for his protest. But these kinds of crackdowns undermine Liberty’s claim to be a nationally competitive and non-partisan university with a commitment to the free exchange of ideas.”
I would go a step further and say that this kind of behavior — of silencing and stamping out dissenting voices — may be one of the most damaging behaviors I observe in the church today. It hinders our witness, it fractures our unity, and it pits friends against one another–quite unnecessarily, I might add–as foes.
What are institutions like Liberty so afraid of? How did we arrive at such a fear-based methodology? How could we let political loyalties become so divisive within the Kingdom? It makes you miss the good ol’ days, when we bickered about the color of the carpet or the style of worship music.
Why aren’t more conversations permitted within the Church? What has caused us to become so defensive, like protecting an institution is more important than treating each other with true Christian affection? Does it really have to be this way?
I don’t think so.
Imagine a scenario where instead of escorting him off campus, the security personnel at Liberty escorted Martin to a cafe where Falwell was waiting with coffee and a generous spirit. Would they leave that coffee agreeing on everything? I sincerely doubt it. Would Martin talk Falwell out of his support of Donald Trump, or Falwell convince Martin his support was defensible? I hardly think so. It is not important that we change each other’s minds (though we all have areas of belief where our minds need to be changed). What is important is that we trust each other, talk to each other, and bear with each other.
What would we model for non-Christians, how would we benefit as the Church, and who could we become as a people if we were willing to have those types of dialogue? I think much could be gained.
Martin invited the discussion, but Liberty wasn’t having it.
This is far too common in the Church.
For it’s part, Liberty University responded with a hard-to-argue with statement regarding policy and procedure and campus safety and etcetera. There are finer points and word choices with which one could elect to quibble, but I will refrain. It defeats the purpose of this blog.
Because what Liberty did is already done.
It is what Liberty does next that I think is so vital. If they choose to continue to hold Martin at arm’s length, they are sending a signal of what kind of Church they believe in.
It is not the kind of Church I believe in, and it’s not the kind of Church I believe any of us should want to belong to. Merrit concludes his piece with a question I think we should all wrestle with — are we being consistent in our opinion about tolerance, dialogue, and belief?
“Conservative Christians often complain about so-called liberal “snowflakes” being intolerant of differing views on secular campuses. The question for leaders like Falwell is whether they are willing to do unto others as they would have others do unto their fellow Christians.”