Safety culture ingrained at Calvin
Every year, it seems, the Princeton Review’s ranking of Calvin College as one of the most LGBT-unfriendly campuses in the United States raises protestations from Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) leadership and the administration.
This publication dutifully reports on such matters, and for the last two years has used the same photograph of smiling and colorfully dressed students as the header photo for the articles.
Of course a college that is officially inhospitable to sexuality in general and tied to a church with a restrictive position on LGBT sexual expression is going to rank poorly compared to institutions free of those constraints.
This is, however, not a piece about the college’s college rankings, but rather the nature of their statements, which reveals how the mantra of “safety” has become ingrained into the college culture.
SAGA’s leadership issued a statement noting that “we are very proud of … the consistent support that Calvin’s administration has shown in the pursuit of a safer campus for all.”
Julia Smith, the director of the Sexuality Series, also noted that safety was the primary concern: “We fully recognize that Calvin needs to become a more hospitable campus for minorities of all kinds.”
Furthermore, Smith noted that the opportunity to have Wesley Hill and Justin Lee on campus was a positive development because both of them resist “polarizing” rhetoric. I feel fairly assured in thinking that the primary goal of the administration, at least on this issue, is focused around making the campus safer.
At one level, of course, everyone on Calvin College’s campus needs to have basic personal security. Making the campus a safer place for LGBT students would certainly be the first step to improving the quality of life here and allow those students to acquire a more assertive and active voice on campus.
Closely tied to this rhetoric of safety, however, is the consistent message from Calvin that it is a moderate place that seeks to avoid extremes. You see this latter message appear everywhere, from Smith’s positive appraisal of Hill and Lee to the SAO’s mission to develop a “third way” between separatism and accommodation in cultural studies.
At Calvin, the middle is the privileged position: civility, moderation, discernment and safety are high priorities on campus. Even the official Christian Reformed position on same-sex relationships is characterized in official material as a moderate position, despite its continued prohibition of all sexual activity between two people of the same sex.
The college finds it advantageous to characterize itself as seeking reasonable, moderate positions because of its strange and often paradoxical position as an institution. Because it wants to be taken seriously as a place of learning, it permits professors and students to embody a much wider range of views and behavior than an institution like Liberty University.
On the other hand, it is still ultimately beholden to the policies of the conservative Christian Reformed Church (CRC). This places the administration in an unenviable position, having to balance between the liberality of liberal arts education and the unencumbered pursuit of knowledge and the entrenched political-religious interests of a church whose members often champion Christian education as a means of sheltering their children from the world.
Calvin, therefore, embodies the tip or surface of an evangelical, Reformed bubble. It has to educate us, the students, in a credible way so that we will not be overwhelmed by the horrors of a world that thinks evolution is a broadly settled question and that nothing is wrong with watching movies that contain swearing. On the other hand, they have to push us through this delicate membrane slowly, so that all of this new learning won’t threaten our faith too much.
Everything has to be carefully manicured and padded so that the bubble students, whom I characterize as coming from the CRC but who actually come from many conservative denominations these days, feel comfortable and don’t complain too much. It helps that, right down the interstate in Holland we have Hope College, where a more radical gay-straight alliance has been alienated from that institution’s administration.
It serves as a lovely warning for what might happen at Calvin if we rock the boat too much. Those who question the foundations of their faith or even leave the church while attending here are in for an even more stressful time.
Every student, I reiterate, needs security. Given that security, however, we should not simply acquiesce to whatever the college preaches to us, going this far and no further. As we find ourselves growing more confident in our identities, we need to poke our heads out of the ground and start asking questions.
If, like me, you come from a church bubble, start poking and prodding it. Ask whether the college’s “moderate” positions are really so moderate and whether moderation is truly the best position to take on a given issue.
Work hard and excel in your classes, but don’t forget to interrogate the professor’s assignments, to challenge them even as they challenge you. Take the heralds of the incarnation seriously when they say, “Be not afraid.” Remember the world is often a more beautiful and fulfilling place when looked at from the margins.
What we need to do as students is recognize that, as bodies yet living in this world, we have the capacity to resist, to question and to go further than what appears acceptable.
I hope that, as this new school year continues, we will kick the walls out of our padded comfort zones and realize that another world is possible, even if it will require risk and sacrifice to bring even a sliver of that world to light.