Reflecting on growing up in a conservative church, Jia Tolentino writes that, although she’s no longer a Christian, Christianity gave her “a leftist world view.” I’m still a Christian, but I can relate. I became a leftist at a small, conservative Christian university I attended because professors assigned readings from liberationist theologians like St. Óscar Romero, Walter Brueggemann, and Cornel West.
If “leftist” sounds like a synonym for voting along the Democratic Party ticket, let me assure you that ain’t it. As West said, being a leftist is a broad way of thinking about the world that includes a willingness “to fight against and try to understand the sources of that social misery at the structural and institutional level and at the existential and the personal level.”
To most folks, embracing this kind of thinking at a conservative Christian university seems like an oxymoron, considering the message of these schools can be summarized as one of those godawful, kitschy yard signs: Come as you are, embrace repression, chapel is mandatory, join our culture war.
Some recent examples include Christian campuses that have forced faculty to affirm anti-LGBTQ statements, welcomed administrators opposing diversity and inclusion initiatives, and appointed a provost who claimed “critical race theory” and “the gospel” are incompatible.
My school tried to purge any evidence of liberation theologies, Christian critiques of the economy, or radical solidarity with the poor, hoping to indoctrinate students with a conservative ideology. But there was an underground community at my school that helped me make a pivotal realization: By Christian college standards, Jesus would be labeled “an extreme leftist” because he embodied class solidarity with the poor, damned the rich, and imagined an alternative community. That gospel appealed to me in college; it still appeals to me today.
I’m grateful for the people who risked being expelled or fired to teach me what I know today. Below are five personal examples of how I became a leftist while at a conservative Christian college.
Love of money
My school once dedicated a chapel service to the addition of a sports facility. During that same school year, the school declined to dedicate the chapel service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to King’s life. Several students and I brought this to the attention of administrators. We made it plain: Dedicating a chapel service to sports but refusing to dedicate one to King’s Christian witness was not only nonsensical, but racist.
Prima facie, this seems like an ordinary example of racism. But upon closer inspection, the logic of honoring a sports facility while ignoring King becomes clearer: Sports programs attract students which can bolster a university’s budget. But dedicating a chapel service to the radical, anti-capitalist King might inspire students to embrace his politics or even question our entire economic system. Therefore, refusing to celebrate King was not only racist, but an example of what philosopher and writer Toni Morrison identified as powerbrokers’ proclivity to maintain a system of inequality so long as the accumulation of wealth remains unimpeded.
The army recruiting tent
The army set up a recruiting tent smack-dab in the middle of campus. They were looking for Christian soldiers. When I think of Christian soldiers, I think of Charles A. Graner Jr., former prison guard at Abu Ghraib, the Iraq facility where the U.S. Army and CIA tortured and abused their captives. Graner, who reportedly self-identified as a Christian, once said: “I love to make a grown man piss himself.”
It wasn’t until college that I learned King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech was written by Christian activist Vincent Harding. King and Harding helped me realize the military uses violence to perpetuate racism and economic exploitation. Knowing this, I couldn’t just let the army pitch their tent. The other people who found the army’s presence troubling were a small contingent of students best described as “Shane-Claiborne-again” Christians: ex-conservative Christians, now politically unmoored, but certain in their messianic nonviolence. Although we saw things from slightly different angles, we built a coalition to confront the recruiters, passed out anti-military tracts, and loitered in the middle of campus until the army retreated. Was the military-industrial complex defeated? No. Were any students dissuaded from enlisting? I hope so.
The “progressive Christian” label
After my freshman year of college, I knew I didn’t identify as a conservative Christian. But what was the alternative? There was an emergent church that met in an old mall, and I knew friends and professors who identified as “progressives” had found a home there. I started attending as well. But eventually, I realized “progressive Christianity” was just as vacuous as conservative Christianity.
For me, both then and now, the progressive Christian label seems like a covert way to adopt some radical talking points while mostly retaining shallow politics. For example, I’ve heard a lot of self-identified progressive Christians talk about “the poor” ad nauseam but they rarely, if ever, talk about why people are poor. I believe “progressives,” Christian or not, want to sound radical on some issues, but remain too committed to current systems and institutions to act on that radicality.
Some people characterize leftists, Christian or not, as being myopically focused on critiquing politicians and institutions; I think this is inaccurate. For example, leftists played a crucial role in getting Joe Biden into the White House despite knowing it would likely be a disappointing presidency. Leftists are also “building life-affirming institutions” of mutual aid networks (inspired by activist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore) and joining with workers to form unions across the nation. If you’re a progressive who believes we need to build, know that there’s an open invitation to join leftists working to build a just society.
An anti-LGBTQ climate
I’d never had anyone come out to me until college. Like many Christian schools, my college had an official policy against same-sex relationships. I remember anti-LGBTQ diatribes by professors, chapel services with “ex-gay” speakers, and students using slurs to refer to LGBTQ people. I went into college with the naïve belief that it was possible to view “homosexuality” as a sin without hating the “sinner.” The anti-LGBTQ climate of my campus convinced me otherwise, as did friends coming out to me. Were those people really bound for hell? Now that I knew some LGBTQ people, I hoped not. More than that, I stopped seeing them as hell-bound sinners and started seeing them as human beings.
Retired Whitworth University professor Kathy Lee explains that, after coming out at Whitworth, Christians in her life had to approach her in a different way — LGBTQ people were no longer a theoretical issue. It wasn’t until college that queer people were no longer a theoretical issue for me. I remain grateful for the friends who came out to me, inviting me to confront and denounce my Christian homophobia.
Obsession with the afterlife
Where were you when John Piper tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell”? Piper’s tweet was prompted by Bell’s book, Love Wins, which questioned the existence of hell; people who loved the idea of hell gnashed their teeth. Being in western Michigan, I was surrounded by a bevy of young, restless, and Reformed types who were arrogantly certain of their “election” and callously self-assured that Mahatma Gandhi and other “non-Christians” were damned. I pitied them.
Before college, questions about heaven and hell never stirred me. My parents once said to me when I was a kid, “Being God — having to decide who goes where — seems inconceivable.” If the business of eternal judgment sounded unimaginable for my righteous parents, I couldn’t imagine either place existed. (My parents would tell you I acted like it, too.)
But college made me reconsider the existence of heaven and hell. Do I believe in hell now? Hell yes. I realized I believed in hell after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin dead on Feb. 26, 2012. That was hell. I would’ve damned Zimmerman myself if I could’ve. But upon meditating on that wish, I realized wayward desires are what make the world a hellish place.
What about heaven? Brueggemann, a Calvinist, writes in Theology of the Old Testament that when people are parched for justice “the claims of heaven must be deconstructed.” Right now, I’d say people are dying of thirst. Whether it’s heaven or hell, opining about the afterlife distracts humanity from what should be our ultimate obsession: justice in the here and now. I’m saying this somewhat tongue and cheek, but taking a world religions course with a bunch of John Piper wannabes helped me sort this out.
In Elite Capture, activist and philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò articulates the case for a “constructive politics,” imagining a diverse coalition of people committed to organizing and building “a different, and better, world system” than our current system of racial capitalism. Of course, before Táíwò, Jesus of Nazareth imagined an alternative community, authorizing his disciples to organize, build, and expand that community (Matthew 5-7; Acts 8:26-40; 10:1-48). Trying to stop Jesus, and prevent the alternative community’s growth, Rome crucified him. Considering I’m writing this now, it’s safe to say the empire failed at containment.
When I wonder whether to laugh or cry at Christian schools’ Sisyphean attempts to purge radical ideas, students, and professors from their institutions, I’ve gotta laugh. Why do their futile efforts make me cackle? Because the “barbarian” is already inside the gate. And by “barbarian,” I do not just mean the offbeat professor or the brave LGBTQ student or that one weird guy who wore sackcloth to “protest” the Columbus Day chapel. The real barbarian I have in mind is Jesus of Nazareth, whose radical ideas included bringing heaven to earth; and until they cut Jesus out of the curriculum, I’m confident there will be more Christian leftists graduating from Christian colleges and universities.