As the leaves start to fall on campuses here in Tennessee, we are treated to the ongoing spectacle of Vanderbilt University using its nondiscrimination policy to progressively ban Christian student organisations from campus. There are so many logical nonsequiturs to this move that it’s hard to know where to start: will they extend this to Muslim groups? Is anyone forced to join these organisations? How can they say with a straight face they’re welcoming to all of their students while they are banning groups?
I have no desire to divine the mind of Vanderbilt’s administration. What I would like to do is pose a more immediate question to my Christian readers: what are we going to do about it? The usual first reaction is to sue. The results of previous lawsuits have not been encouraging. Given the style of mind prevalent in our upper reaches, this is unsurprising. To take this in another direction, I’d like to start by turning to the religion that always seems to get a pass these days: Islam.
One of the most interesting people I have ever known was a fellow graduate student (mid 1990’s) from the Sudan. A warm and open person, we were able to spend a lot of time discussing Christianity, Islam and many other subjects.
One of the first thing I found out about him was that he was a Sunni imam. He had been elected same by some of his fellow students while studying engineering at the University of Khartoum, leading their studies of the Qur’an.
I still find this fact amazing. A group of students elected one of their own to be their religious leader, and we as Christians spend so much time trying to figure out how to compensate our ministers and set up all of these fancy ministries to reach out to people. As I pointed out, that informality of organisation–a hallmark of Sunni and Sufi Islam–was and is one of the roots of groups such as al-Qaeda. Nobody (other than them) likes the result, but we need to appreciate the fact that there is a result.
Evangelicals pride themselves in having jettisoned so much “churchianity” such as the priesthood and the liturgy, and yet are still mired in a compensated ministry paradigm that both robs the laity of its God-given role and forces too much of the system to revolve around the compensation rather than the ministry. American Evangelicals also are very dependent upon “official” recognition of one kind or another to operate in the manner they are accustomed to.
But the truth is that, when you have enemies in high places who think you’re an existential threat, your ability to operate in the open will be restricted whether you like it or not. To some extent that drives the situation in Islamic countries. People say that Islam is a political religion, and no one knows that better than Muslim leaders. Saudi Arabia has as little (or less) use for al-Qaeda than we do, and they have the tough security apparatus to back it up. To allow these groups to operate in the full open is potentially suicidal, as Hosni Mubarak found out the hard way. When you can’t operate in the “official” open, you do it some other way.
In spite of legal successes, Christians in the U.S. need to understand that, as tolerance spreads to others, it will be cut off for us. Part of our response needs to be to prepare ourselves organisationally to operate in a more informal–and under the radar–way, especially in institutions such as universities. That involves training our people more thoroughly in the basics of the faith so that they can lead others in situations where our anointed/compensated (there’s a difference, but that’s for another post) leaders cannot get in and official recognition would only lead to trouble. Universities always provide places for students to “hang out,” where official recognition isn’t necessary.
In other words, we need “Christian imams” such as I described earlier, and I don’t mean Chrislam either.
It’s true that operating in this way won’t show up on your resumé on earth. But it will in heaven. May show up on someone else’s, too, and that’s the whole point.