Last Halloween a student organization at Yale put fellow students on notice against wearing insensitive costumes like Pocahontas or Al Jolson-like blackface. Erika Christakis, a Yale teacher with a background in child development, wrote a thoughtful e-mail voicing respect for concerns about demeaning stereotypes and causing offense. But then, as an educator of children and youth, she wondered if exercising administrative control over student choice was truly such a good idea.
Halloween is a subversive time for children and youth to test the lines, she wrote. If blonde little girls want to wear a Mulan costume, so what? Isn’t pretend play the basis for learning to think? Should we say yes to girls age 8 and no to late teens? Why is no one concerned about the skimpy clothing that religious conservatives on campus find offensive? Erika was making the most of an educable moment.
This caused such a firestorm that by the end of the year, her husband had to resign as Master of Silliman College and she was relocated within the university.
Someone said colleges in America are completely open, tolerant environments …except toward those who don’t sign on to all the liberal biases concealed there. As a pastor who migrated from a moderate evangelical church into the UCC, I’ve noticed some of the same dynamics at work in our wider denomination. When deciding between ordination as a UCC or Presbyterian, the Unitarian wing of the UCC gave me pause as did southern Presbyterian fundamentalists. I decided on the UCC in part because I figured liberals would be more “open.” I was wrong. In many ways, liberals and conservatives are closedminded about different things.
I’m aware that some of the criticism of “PC” comes from racists who want to be free to vent ignorance and hatred. But I am also aware stand-up comics hardly want to work at college campuses anymore. When I was in college, free speech was a militant cause where no compromise was brooked. Witness the humor of Lenny Bruce, much of wasn’t so funny. When a comic wants to explore “crossing the line” and the jokes aren’t funny, then everybody rejects him or her. But back then, the police would bust Lenny. Today college crowds have built in censors.
Chris Rock, for example, avoids stand-up anymore at college campuses because students are so shielded by trigger warnings and safe spaces “you can’t even be offensive anymore on the way to being inoffensive.” Let’s face it, a free and open exchange of ideas—dear to us Congregationalists—languishes in the chill of PC.
One reason I’m sensitive about this is that much is scandalous about the gospel. The incarnation—that God in Jesus was born in one place at one time and not everywhere for everyone at all times is scandalous. The crucifixion—that God chose to save us through the instrument of death called the cross is scandalous.
I have not and do not soon plan to sanitize our story despite its power to offend. Its power to offend our ways of saving ourselves, while thinking them adequate, is gospel power. Church is where we are meant to hear more truth—not less—than the world seems to allow. That takes on whole new meanings today. Maybe people who are easily offended shouldn’t attend college, attend comedy shows, or go to church. But that feels like the diminishing of our life, not its enlargement.