Listen to Understand: Faculty and Staff Respond to Student Questions on Civil Dialogue

Campus tensions flared in reaction to the event “Should Christians Vote for Trump?” featuring David French, columnist and lawyer, and Eric Metaxas, New York Times bestselling author and radio host.

Students divided over the event, hosted by the Center for Faith and Flourishing (CFF) on Sept. 8, took to social media, sharing their thoughts and opinions in vigorous debate. Responding to the increased tensions and lingering questions, John Brown University faculty and staff hosted a talk-back session on Sept. 9 in the Cathedral of the Ozarks.

The talk-back panel, moderated by Emily Callon, area coordinator for upper-division housing, featured Daniel Bennett, associate professor of political science and assistant director for CFF, Trisha Posey, professor of history and director of the Honors Scholars program, Trevor Magness, resident director of J. Alvin, and Juan Rodriguez, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

Students submitted questions through Slido, a platform that allows users to send in questions with an option for anonymity. Students could ask questions at microphone stands, as well.

When asked how to disagree with others while remaining true to biblical virtue, Rodriguez emphasized focusing on the problem rather than the person. “It helps to disagree with the behavior, rather than disagreeing completely with the person,” Rodriguez said. “Because, when you do that, you’re able to acknowledge that the other is a person and that you’re not attacking them personally, but you are trying to get to the bottom of some truth.”

Many students asked questions about the disrespectful and dehumanizing language used by Metaxas during the debate. In one instance, Metaxas said, “The idea, for example, that [President Donald Trump] is using his business genius to fight against the demons in China, who have not just exploited this country, but have brutally oppressed their own 1.3 billion people. No other president dealt with that.” He also used statements such as “slut,” “damn” and “stupid little Muslim faith.”

Magness stressed the importance of examining each statement in context; however, he did not condone Metaxas’ choice of words. “As I’m talking with [others], I can talk about how I think that language is harmful and what that means for my friends, peers and colleagues, and students too,” Magness said.

Addressing student concerns about selecting Metaxas to come to the JBU campus, Bennett said, “We wanted to have someone who was making an enthusiastic decision saying, ‘Yeah I’m going to vote for Donald Trump and here’s why.’ It was difficult to do.”

Mentioning that students had shared that they knew of other potential speakers, Bennett shared the struggle of finding other options. “I’m asking you, if you know of someone with a similar profile to David French who is on the record as enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump from a Christian perspective—please, we’re begging you—tell us who that person is.”

Another student asked, “What if one side thinks they are ‘disagreeing with an idea,’ but they are actually denying a painful experience? For example, denying racist experiences of people of color.”

In his answer, Magness described a scenario where someone is sharing their personal experience and the other person denies the truth of that experience. “If you’re that student sharing your personal experience and someone is telling you that it isn’t true, I would encourage you … to leave. You aren’t beholden to changing everyone’s mind.”

Magness also spoke to the other side of the conversation. “If you find yourself saying, ‘That can’t possibly be true,’ I would encourage you to think about why. Why could that not be true? What about your experience up to this point has to mean when someone is telling you something that has happened to them, that you would disagree,” Magness said. “I would ask you to ask yourself, ‘Why can’t I trust a peer just based on the fact that they are willing to share this with me?’”

An anonymous student sought to know more about JBU’s stance on LGBTQ and whether the school’s stance aligns with what Scripture states. Emily Callon stated that the university’s official position is a traditional biblical sexual ethic, where a relationship is between a male and a female.

Addressing this question, Posey described how every person is a sexual human being, and, for college-aged individuals, it is natural to ask questions about one’s sexuality. “What does it look like to be an embodied human being and sexuality be a part of that? First and foremost, it’s important to recognize that we all are on this journey and that we’re all asking questions,” Posey said. “It is incredibly important for us to walk together on this journey and to do it with love and caring for each other. Because for some students, especially those who identify as sexual minorities, they already feel so far away from so many students because of this question.”

A student also asked, “Where do you believe the line should be drawn between protecting someone’s feelings and protecting our right to thought or expression?”

Posey draws the line when the statement is directed at an individual. “It’s important for us to feel confident in speaking our conscience when our conscience is telling us to speak,” Posey said, “but we also have to be incredibly mindful of the people who are hearing us as we are speaking and how what we speak will be received.”

Photo courtesy of Kate Kalvach