The Common Good
July 2011

A Stand for Freedom

by Cathleen Falsani | July 2011

None of us is free until all of us are free.

In July, as Americans we celebrate our freedom. It's a word and a concept that many of us toss about without much thought, but on the occasion of the independence hard-won by the United States some 235 years ago, perhaps it is appropriate to give it closer inspection.

Freedom means the "absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action," according to Merriam-Webster. It also connotes the ability to speak frankly and honestly, a certain boldness, and a political right. I would argue that it is moreover a spiritual right, inalienable and God-given.

Not unlike the Jewish celebration of Passover, which commemorates God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt -- the Hebrew word for which means "narrow place" -- on Independence Day we remember our country's deliverance from the clutches of tyranny’s oppressive fist. Still, there are myriad things, personally and institutionally, that threaten to keep us bound in narrow places of fear and human-made judgment from which God is ever ready to rescue us.

Earlier this year, a group of alumni from my alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois, took a bold stand for freedom and justice when they launched One Wheaton, an organization dedicated to showing solidarity and love for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students at the institution whose motto boasts that it is "For Christ and His Kingdom."

While in the evangelical Christian milieu Wheaton is hardly the most conservative and clamped down of places, for gay students and those wrestling with their sexuality, it can feel more like a gulag than the promised land. By and large, evangelical Christianity as a culture is not the most welcoming place for gays and lesbians. Wheaton, historically at least, is no different.

Still, much has changed in the 20 years since I was an undergraduate at the self-styled Harvard of Christian schools. The "pledge" I was required to sign -- promising not to engage in activities such as drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, having sexual relations outside of marriage, and social dancing (square was okay, dirty was not) -- has been replaced by a "covenant." Students and faculty are now more or less free to dance -- and even, on occasion and under certain circumstances, enjoy a social drink harder than iced tea.

But the school's take on sexual behavior remains unchanged. In keeping with traditional Christian morals and ethics, sex outside of marriage (defined as a union between one man and one woman) remains verboten. While students today are less likely to vilify lesbians and gays out of hand and more likely to exchange in free discourse about the issues surrounding homosexuality, the culture at Wheaton falls far short of welcoming and affirming.

The year before I enrolled at Wheaton, a gay student from my home state of Connecticut, who was struggling mightily to reconcile his sexuality with his faith and the campus community, gave up the fight. He stepped in front of a train. The specter of that tragedy still looms vividly in the hearts and minds of many of my college friends. So when a spate of suicides by gay and lesbian young people recently made national headlines, a number of alumni -- gay and straight -- decided it was time to speak out.

The deepest desire of members of One Wheaton (www.onewheaton.com) is that current students know they are loved -- by us and by God -- precisely for who they are. They are valuable, beautiful, and precious. Life, as fraught as it may seem now, will get better. They will find love. They will find more than just acceptance. And they are not alone.

Our aim is not to engage in psychological, cultural, or theological debate about homosexuality. Nor is it our goal to be right. We simply want to love them. Powerfully, without caveat, and as a unified voice.

To its credit, the administration at Wheaton, under the leadership of new president Philip Ryken, greeted our efforts with ample grace. While it restated the school’s institutional and moral stand on homosexuality, it saw our efforts to take a public stand for love for what they are.

This Independence Day, may we all remember that there is no true independence without interdependence. And may we recall the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said, "None of us is free until all of us are free."

Cathleen Falsani is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.

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