In 2008, I was invited by the student chapter of the ACLU to participate in a debate on same-sex marriage at the University of California, Berkeley. I was told that I would be joined in the debate by another Christian from a large pro-family organization and we would be facing two homosexual activists from two organizations working to advance same-sex marriage.
Now, before you think I was some sort of spiritual superman, the fact is; UC Berkeley was the last place on earth I wanted to go to defend the biblical perspective on marriage. As I was flying to Berkeley, I was praying like a monk for courage and wisdom! I confess, I was afraid and by no means “enthusiastic” about what awaited me later that evening.
As I was praying, I noticed the “safety information card” in the seat-back pocket in front of me. Specifically, what was at the top of the card: REV. 11/3. I thought, “Lord, are you telling me to read Revelation 11:3? Of course, my rational side tried to push this thought aside, but the Lord persisted and I finally relented (see, no spiritual superman here) so I cautiously opened my Bible to read these words: “I will give power to my two witnesses…” Seriously? Suffice it to say, I was now a little more enthusiastic.
As I continued to pray, the Lord illuminated the differences in our respective goals for this event. I wanted to win! I wanted to systematically, methodically, and intellectually destroy the opposition—demonstrating the superiority of the biblical perspective (or so I told myself). However, the Lord helped me to see that this might not be His purpose. In essence, I believed the Lord was asking me if I was willing to trust Him to the point of public humiliation in order to demonstrate His love. Honestly, I was not fully on board with this plan. Nonetheless, He changed my attitude from that of polemic combat to one of trying to commend the truth in an attitude of love and not opposition.
As I entered the auditorium, there was not an empty seat in the house, every inch of floor space was occupied as well as the walls. The place was packed and they were ready for blood! This was the most hostile audience I had ever seen and the debate hadn’t even begun!
Following a few comments from ACLU moderator, the debate began and I led off. I tried to limit my statements to the social/cultural benefits of marriage and the natural family as supported by the historical and sociological evidence. I avoided any overtly religious or moralizing language. Once the crowd saw that I wasn’t going to satisfy their Evangelical stereotype, they began to settle down. Then it was the opposition’s turn and their approach began by slinging insults and sarcasm, which incited the audience into a frenzy. Suffice it to say, this was not turning in to a good time!
Then it was my partner’s turn and his first words were, “the Bible says…” and the reaction was unlike anything I had ever seen. The audience was screaming, mocking, booing, hissing—it was almost demonic. The debate continued for another hour but honestly I was ready to leave after the first outburst. This had turned into a spectacle intended for the amusement of the audience, who in this case wanted to be “entertained” by the public excoriation of these two “Christians.” I was thinking to myself, “Lord, where are they seeing your love in this?” I was grieved by the whole experience and I was ready for it to end.
Thankfully, it did end and as I was preparing to leave the stage I noticed a crowd of students pressing toward me. Somewhat uncertain at this point, a young woman pressed forth from the crowd wearing a t-shirt that clearly and graphically expressed her sexual orientation. However, to my surprise, she thrust out her hand and said, “Mr. Craven, I want to thank you for coming. I didn’t agree with everything you said but you made some good points and I really appreciated the way you spoke, unlike this @#*&! here,” referring rather uncharitably to my partner.
This same pattern was repeated as student after student came forward to express their thanks. Then, a young woman came forward who said she was a Christian—a Christian who had been living in a same-sex relationship for more than three years. She went to say, “I don’t understand how something that feels so right to me could be wrong in the sight of God” and she began to weep.
Without going into great detail, I began to gently explain the biblical admonitions against her lifestyle while sympathizing with the reality of her attractions. I likened these to the same attractions that anyone might have toward someone of the opposite sex outside the context of the biblically prescribed sexual relationship. I explained that acting upon these attractions outside the marriage relationship as God designed was an act of disobedience and fraught with a whole host of personal and societal consequences.
At this point, I realized that I had reached across the podium and placed my hand on hers as she continued to weep. My heart broke for this young woman who was so obviously conflicted. It was at this moment that I looked and saw this group of 80-90 students fixated on this exchange. It was if the Lord was saying to me, “This is what I want them to see—that I love them!”
I spent the next hour and a half with this group of young people in the most productive and respectful dialogue. It was as if they wanted to ask questions about Christianity but had never met a Christian, or at least one with whom they were willing to speak. As the evening ended, these students cheerfully walked me outside and across campus to my rental car.
There are two things that strike me today as I reflect on this experience:
The first is, I never would have had the opportunity to have these conversations if I hadn’t been prepared to speak confidently and intelligently on the topic from a consciously Christian worldview. I never once said same-sex marriage was bad but rather demonstrated how marriage and the natural family were indisputable goods as evidenced by their correspondence to reality and human experience. Equipping the Church to understand and speak truth in response to these issues is at the heart of our mission here at the Colson Center and in particular, the Colson Fellows Program.
Secondly, I am struck by the fact that only a decade ago, students, faculty and the administration at one of the most leftist universities in the country were still willing to allow dissenting views and opinions on campus. They may not have liked my perspective but they weren’t so hardened as to suppress the opposition. I cannot say I’m confident that I’d meet with such a reception today. The ideological lines of Western society have hardened to the point that few from one side will respectfully accept a representative from the “other.”
This isn’t just sad, it’s dangerous in that it signals the rise of tyranny, specifically “ideological tyranny.” When we refuse to listen to others and count all opposition as beyond the pale, we’ll inevitably regress into power politics where we try to use force to silence whatever dissent we encounter. More importantly for Christians, the Apostle Paul described such ideological tyranny as having a power “that keeps people from knowing God” (2 Cor. 10:5), which is why the Christian takes seriously the charge to “demolish arguments and every proud pretension” that strengthens unbelief.
This kind of work is not something that we can continue to outsource to the experts, because each of us can face it in all areas of our lives. Maybe, once upon a time, when society followed what Francis Schaeffer called the “Christian consensus” and the only outliers were found in obscure intellectual hideaways, we could leave it to the professionals. But now, as more and more it is the Christians who are the minority, each of us must be prepared to give an answer. The acquisition and development of a cogent Christian worldview can no longer be considered an “elective” of the Christian faith but essential to every Christian’s witness in the world. This is our calling in our day.