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“We don’t believe in God, We believe in the People,” yells an impassioned woman to a crowd of protestors outside last week’s “Social Transformation By the Power of God” conference. The conference, sponsored by a Harvard Extension School student group, incited a sensationalistic controversy and invoked a group of students and community members to protest under the rhetorical banner of—according to one advertisement—“Hate Comes to Harvard.” In our haste to commence our own witch-hunt, we must understand that creating a safe space on campus does not mean shielding ourselves from tough dialogues. I have no sympathy for those who use the Christian faith as a justification for real bigotry. But let’s remind ourselves in the aftermath of this controversy that conflating people’s concerns about abortion and homosexuality with hate stymies wisdom, tolerance, and academic freedom.
Social Transformation conference speakers Dr. Lance Wallnau and Os Hillman, the targets of the protest, are not the greatest examples of tolerance or pluralism. But neither is the hyperbolic sentiment behind the campus response to the conference. A Harvard Crimson article covering the conference featured an interview with one student who argued that Harvard might no longer be a “safe space.” He ironically went on to say, “If I had my way, Harvard wouldn’t welcome people like this here.” Instead of imposing censorship in the name of safety and tolerance, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct, rhetoric, and pluralism.
It is the beauty of Harvard that we can drop by Transgender 101, attend “Meet the Mormons,” hit up a QSA protest, hear Senator Chuck Schumer’s take on winning the middle class for the Democrats, go to an NRA lecture, and then listen to a wide range of speakers at the Social Transformation conference all in the course of a week. By conscientiously engaging with Harvard’s—liberally slanted—microcosm of a pluralistic world, we may discover that life is rarely reducible to “us versus them.” Our stereotypes fall short when we stuff people’s beliefs into preconceived boxes. We make exhortations and espouse staunch beliefs often with little knowledge and even less mercy. This week, in the spirit of pluralism, go out on a limb, and give others the benefit of the doubt.
We read bits of online blogs and quotes distributed over email lists, but we don’t do ourselves any favors when we scoff at entire events that we don’t take the time to attend. I violate this advice as often as anyone, but last Saturday, I stopped by the protest and the Social Transformation conference. Both events boasted mostly community members; few students either protested or listened for themselves.
At the conference, Lance Wallnau illustrated the Seven Mountains approach to social change on the blackboard. I’m an evangelical-liturgical-Lutheran hybrid and hypersensitive to Christian theological disputes, but I cede that the barebones of this method of social change is hardly contentious. It stresses the infusion of values into religious communities, business, government, and media. On the Seven Mountains website, Os Hillman expressly writes that Christians are called to love all people, regardless of faith, lifestyle, or gender orientation.
On the small hill outside of Northwest Labs, a woman stood before the semi-circle of protestors and passionately raised her arm as she screamed, “We don’t believe in God, We believe in the People!” She received applause in full. The protestors’ renunciation of God under the guise of tolerance delegitimizes their mission to denounce hate speech. Tangled in the vehement spirit of the rally, protestors cheered over the worthlessness of God. I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone in the crowd would renounce God’s existence in another setting. But I wonder why they announced—and assumed that everyone shared—a disbelief in God.
People of nearly every major faith have received a powerful call to reform culture, and to encourage values in society. But consider the dichotomy between the religious and nonreligious spaces in our lives. We often limit our faith to the realm of morality and worship, but we assume a secular rhetoric in classrooms, discussions, and entrepreneurship. We attempt to solve human problems without the enlightenment of faith, even though many of our religious beliefs explain the source of—and solution to—social, political, and cultural problems.
People of faith cannot blindly accept secularism in the name of pluralism. It is the imperative of the modern world that we should seek the fulfillment of our own needs, and that humanity can solve the world’s crises. Most religions maintain that we cannot find fulfillment in the pursuit of our own wants and needs. They maintain that we cannot eradicate poverty, disease, corruption, and distress without finding meaning and sources of wisdom beyond our own transitory lives. Perhaps this is what the idea behind the Social Transformation conference can ultimately relay to Harvard: That our faith is relevant in every academic, social, and personal pursuit. We cannot leave our beliefs on the threshold or our experiences at the door. If we are creatures of faith, then we must embrace it, live it, and use it to inform our proposals, actions, and discussions.
Rachel L. Wagley ’11 is a sociology concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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