So last Friday singer/songwriter Josh Ritter played at Messiah College, a Christian college here in PA. After his set he came back for up his encore and gave a short heart felt plea for Messiah to end it’s policy outlawing “homosexual behavior” in it’s school covenant. He also explained he would have not played the show or his previous show in 2007 had he known the language of the covenant. Ritter finally said he would be donating the fee for the show he was paid to The Trevor Project, which is an anti-suicide organization for LBGTQ teens. He then finished his set and the show was over. That evening Ritter released a similar and much more matter of fact statement on Facebook explaining that he will never play Messiah again until they change. He thanked the schools students for being gracious to him but asked them to try and get that one part of the covenant changed. Surprisingly many of the comments were defending Messiah’s right to have such a policy as they are a private religious institution.
So here is my take on what went down as I was there and I am also very familiar with Messiah College. Ritter’s comments at the show were genuine and respectful, he was met with mostly applause. He seemed to be shocked by the policy despite him being at a Christian college. Now this is a very key point, he was shocked. I think many of us in the Christian faith, especially those who attended Christian schools, assume everyone knows these covenants or policies exist. Well apparently guys like Josh Ritter did not so let’s be gracious and understand that when he played Messiah in 2007 he did not know and came back in 2013. The only reason he found out is he came across a student handbook while on campus. That is that. So now he knows and he is never coming back. That is fair and that is to be expected by someone who is not Christian and does not share the schools feelings towards homosexuality.
Here is a few things that you should know about Messiah College. The school is a Christian college that was founded by The Brethren In Christ church, an Anabaptist group that is a direct offshoot of the Mennonites and further removed from the Amish faith. The BIC is a denomination that I am a member of and my wife grew up in. It is a peace oriented denomination like the Amish but unlike them it is much more modernized and dare I say, liberal. Liberal as it may seem to the church world it is still a conservative Christian institution which prides itself in being a place that young Christian men and women will receive a good education but not be exposed to the distractions or dare I say “sins” of the world. Students and faculty must sign an agreement or covenant that states they will obey the rules of the school while attending or working there. I attended Eastern University near Philadelphia, it was very similar. So everyone signs and goes about their college career. Here is the rub, many do not read it closely, many are kids who have been sheltered their whole life so it makes no difference and many are simply going to break the rules anyway. The covenant exists to keep them accountable and if they were to be removed from the school they have their signature stating they would not breech the contract. Simple as that.
Now in the covenant at Messiah there are policies regarding conduct. Such as no drinking, no smoking, no use of illegal drugs, no pre-marital sex, and no gambling. These are all pretty standard Christian operating procedures. I must admit the gambling thing seemed a bit weird but hey I went to Catholic school as a teen, they love to gamble! In any case this is the basics. Where Josh Ritter and others have had issue is the part that says “Homosexual behavior”. Now this is again a pretty common Christian belief that being gay is sinful and should be avoided. Now could they simply explain that all sexual behavior outside of a marriage is prohibited on campus? I guess but they would probably take heat for that as well from the Christians who give them money so it is in there. When I was at Eastern we had a similar code of conduct. Was there drinking, sex, drugs, and other rules violations happening? Oh yes, and much was very open but that was by a minority and the punishments were always handled by the dean with grace and often a huge dose of forgiveness.
The gay issue at Messiah however has been a hot one for a few years as the student body has been face to face with it after a few articles in there paper a few years ago. This sparked debates, statements from the administration and a lot of discussions that were healthy but often very heated. As someone who has guest lectured and spoke at various events on campus I have to say the students and faculty are open people and willing to discuss things. They have differing views of a lot of issues including homosexuality. I recently spoke in a class of freshman at the school and we discussed how to minister to people we may disagree with or better yet how do we befriend people the church has pushed away. Of course the LBGTQ community came up and the kids were quite open and honest about their feelings. Some students are on one side and some on the other but it was a good discussion as many of these kids are for the first time in their lives thinking for themselves. The thing that happens at many Christian colleges is that students enroll because their parents send them there. Many kids were home-schooled or went to private Christian schools their whole life so this is the next logical step. After a while they realize mom and dad aren’t here to check on me so I can breath a little. Sure some rebellion might happen but also there is an awakening of their own spirit and mind. The kids begin to read books outside of their upbringing and they are faced with professors who challenge their belief systems. I mean face it when we are 18 we are ignorant and pretty narrow minded no matter what we grew up believing. So even after singing a covenant their process is constantly changing them so in a few years they do not agree completely but they also want to finish their schooling and honor their commitment. College is important for many and the relationships and community is too. So simply leaving that school after 2-3 years over one rule you have ignored for that time is not worth it t some.
Then there is the issue of the Josh Ritters. Messiah in recent years has become a place to catch major secular artists for cheaper prices than at major venues. In the past the school has welcomed artists like Wilco, Band New, Counting Crows, Iron and Wine, Bob Dylan and most recently Josh Ritter. These concerts are open to the public and therefore the school realizes that not everyone will be in “covenant” with them. You can be a non-messiah student and still go see a rad show without signing any agreement. Whatever rules that are for the show are clearly posted on the walls around the venue. None of it is anything out of the ordinary for a concert. The artists themselves are not forced to sign the schools covenant either, in fact they don’t even see it unless like Mr Ritter they come across a copy. The reason for this is that these events are open to the public and therefore the school is not trying to hold everyone to their standards. That actually, believeit or not, is a Christian principle. Not judging the world and not holding non-Christians to the standards of our own faith, In the same way Messiah doesn’t hold it’s concert goers from outside to the same rules as it’s students. In fact I have been to shows in the past where the non-smoking school has put out ashtrays for it’s smoking guests. That to me is rather hospitable and gracious.
So what do I make of this Rotter vs Messiah thing? I think it’s great. I think he had the right to speak his mind as it was a public event in an open forum. I think the school did the right thing by allowing him to speak freely and they did have a Q&A session afterwards. I think his decision to not return is fine too as he should stick to what he feels just as the school will likely do the same. I am a passionate person, I am also a Christian who doesn’t always agree with everything Messiah or a lot of the American Evangelical culture does. I speak a lot of places and have been removed from a lot of places for being honest and sometimes being immature about how I presented my feelings. Josh Ritter was composed and very well spoken, he was not out of line so he did good. Now like I said I am passionate about things and will speak up but I am also a realist who knows I might not get my own way. That is part of being an adult and being free. We have freedom to speak out but Messiah has freedom to practice their beliefs as a private institution. Students do not have to sign the covenant because students can always pick a different non-religious school. I have very different views on things than what is in the Messiah covenant, as I did when I attended Eastern. I broke several of Eastern’s rules as did a majority of the students who attended the school. I am sure, and somewhat positive, the same goes for Messiah students. I bet even when caught, like at Eastern, the administration is very merciful and gracious and few students ever get booted for messing up, because guess what they are kids.
I support LBGTQ rights and have since I was teenager because I had gay friends. People may or may not know that about me because while I do have very strong convictions it is not the essential part of my life. I support equal rights for all people, regardless of their affiliation to my church. My views on homosexuality have gotten me in a lot of trouble but mostly when I was immature about expressing them. I also am a person who admits I do not have all the answers when it comes to God and gays and anything else for that matter. What I do know is a lot of my friends now in Harrisburg are gay, a lot of my friends growing up, in college and elsewhere are also gay so I love them as I love anyone else. I am not really concerned about the “SIN” question because I could point that out in everyone if I decided to live with in a religious mindset. Every time I heard gossip, a lie, a dirty joke, a curse word, a hateful term or if i witnessed anything sinful I would be able to blow my righteousness whistle. I do not feel the need to defend the Gospel against a gay or liberal agenda because I just have no conviction to do so, God defends himself pretty well. I have conservative beliefs about things and liberal ones. I am a moderate really when it comes to most issues in the church. Do I beleive homosexuality is a sin? The short answer is NO, but I realize I am biased because I love my friends so if it turns out I am wrong and the opposite is true God will hopefully see that I erred on the side of love and let me go with a few hours in purgatory. Seriously though, homosexuality is not a big issue for me because I have been around the gay community for most of my adult life and have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly from inside of it. Guess what though? I have also been around the church for most of my life and seen the same from it. The great thing is the beauty and love outweigh the messiness of it all. I love gay people, I love straight people, and I love the church. All of these groups are people with issues and things that drive me crazy but I love them because Jesus did. Gay people are not sin, they are people like anyone else, because no one is “sin”. We are sinners saved by grace in the church and we are beautiful creations of God, no matter what we beleive. That is what I want people to know! You are beautiful, you are worth something, you are amazing and you are loved. If that is wrong, I will take it up with God when we talk next time. I am not a gay rights activist, I am a Christian who longs for the day that sexual identity is not even something we care about because we know how perfect God made us. I am also a Christian who cares more about seeing people realize their true identity then crusading for or against an issue. It is a way bigger world than just LBGTQ issues honestly, so while I care I also care about a lot of other things too.
In conclusion I think Josh Ritter did what he felt was needed, I applaud him for being speaking his mind. I applaud Messiah for allowing him too and for being gracious to him and so many other artists before him. I also commend students for being open to hear a different side and discuss it as I have in class several times at Messiah. In the end Messiah will go on and kids will still come and go, signing the schools covenant. Also Josh Ritter will go one and play many more amazing shows and write many more great songs. Hopefully Messiah continue to take risks and brings in secular artists and controversial speakers to challenge and engage students as well as the world around them. There is no reason to shelter yourself from the world and if your faith is never challenged what good is it. We may never get our way all the time but the great thing about freedom is we can always find places that we can. Maybe that is also our problem, we are spoiled so when something is not the way we want we think they should just change immediately. That is not real life and that is not gonna happen. Learn to choose your battles and exercise grace when things don’t go your way.