A recent dust up at Duke Divinity school about inclusiveness and diversity, especially concerning the LBGTQ community has created more questions than answers.

Here is what is not in question.  During a panel presentation on diversity, Duke Divinity School Dean, Richard Hays stood and read from the Book of Discipline the official position of the United Methodist Church on Homosexuality.  This position includes the claim that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Following this, students planned a “protest” at which they gathered and handed out rainbow ribbons before participating in the school’s convocation, and Richard Hays released a letter defending his comments.

By itself, the fact that Hays read from the Book of Discipline is ambiguous.  In order to evaluate what was happening, we need more information.  What did he say before and after he read this passage? Was Hays endorsing this claim?  Was he suggesting that this was also the position of Duke Div School as a United Methodist Seminary?  Was he speaking as Dean, or just as another participant in the audience?  Was he speaking in reaction to particular statements by the panelists or audience, or was he making a general statement?  Did his statement (intentionally or unintentionally) undermine the authority of those who were on the panel?

Unfortunately, this is the point at which things become really, really muddy.  Part of this is to be expected.  This is a topic on which people’s passions are strong, and people are bound to perceive statements and actions through the filter of their own presuppositions.  However, the differences in accounts here appear, to my judgment at least, to go beyond this.

Take for instance the question of to what Hays’ statement was responding.  According to Lizzie McManus-Dail, a first year student at Duke, Hays was responding to a question she had asked about “how to combat heteronormativity.”  According to this account, Hays was concerned about the nature of the question.  Only after two faculty members had responded to the question did Hays feel it necessary to interject.  Hays’ own account entirely lacks this context.  In fact, it entirely lacks any mention of the panel on diversity at all.  Rather, Hays suggests the following context: “At the orientation session on Friday, Aug. 22, in my role as Dean of the Divinity School, I talked to entering students …”  This makes it sound as if Hays was offering a general statement external to any dialogical framework, perhaps to put the panel itself in context.

Now, Hays’ comments would certainly be less controversial if they were provided as such an introduction to the panel, but it would be odd to offer such a statement in the middle of panel discussion, or in reaction to a question addressed to the panel.  Indeed, if it was a question addressed to the panel, and Hays felt that this was the point at which he “in his role as Dean” should step in, it is hardly surprising that participants would perceive this as odd, and potentially overbearing.  Why would the Dean step in after two faculty answers unless he felt that something was not being properly addressed by the seated panel?  Inevitably, especially if Hays did attempt to insert himself as Dean into a panel on which he was not seated, he should have been aware that there would be problems, regardless of the exact content of his comments.

Then, of course, there is the question of the actual content of Hays’ comments.  It is clear that Hays read from the Book of Discipline.  But it is not at all clear what frame was provided for the reading.  Why, in a panel on diversity, did Hays feel it necessary to read a church document that condemns homosexual practices?  Did he think that the participants were unfamiliar with the position of the United Methodist Church?  Did he think that they were unaware that this was a hotly debated topic in the Church?  Did he mean to assert that those who hold the official position ought to be accepted as a part of the diversity in question? Clearly, Hays’ critics perceived his statement as intended to quash advocacy for homosexuals.  Hays’ own account proposes exactly the opposite; that he only read the Book of Discipline to point out that it was a hotly contested position, and that his full comments made clear that he was advocating for greater diversity on campus.  Here, it is easier to see how recollections would be shaped by presuppositions in the argument, but it is still hard to reconcile the two accounts of Hays’ comments.  If he was as adamantly pro-diversity as his own account suggests, it is hard to imagine that his comments would have been so completely misunderstood.  However, he would have had to be incredibly rash to take as anti-diversity a position as his critics suggest, and Richard Hays has never struck me as a rash person.

Unfortunately, all of the primary witnesses who are providing accounts of the incident are invested parties. So, what should we take away from this?  As usual, I suspect the truth stands somewhere in the middle of the claims put forward by the two sides.  At the very least, Hays appears to have been incredibly unwise in discerning his social location and in his deployment of rhetoric, and his follow up letter describing the event has done little to help him.  The tone of the letter is more defensive/self-justificatory than self-critical.  At the same time, Hays’ critics have probably ignored the context he provided for his own statement.

In the end, the whole exchange is yet another example of the harm we do to ourselves as a Church by making issues of homosexuality more essential than they are to the Christian faith. Instead of finding ways to reasonably disagree and focus on the central mission of the Gospel, we fall to infighting. I hope and pray that out Church is able soon to overcome this malady which has so thoroughly infected us.