Thursday, May 1, 2014

The JFA Seminar: "Sometimes religion happens."

In yesterday’s post I wrote about the Justice For All (JFA) training seminar. I enjoyed the seminar because I appreciate JFA’s relational approach and substantial arguments. In today’s post I’ll explain one more reason I enjoyed the seminar: the people running the seminar made a clear effort to be religiously inclusive. That means a lot to me.

JFA is a Christian organization. When Ellen and I were originally invited to attend the training, we were told that there would be some religious aspects to the day. A few days before the training, JFA sent brief reminder emails to everyone registered for the seminar. The emails explained that the purpose of the seminar was to have “participants learn conversational and intellectual tools to engage pro-choice ideas while being effective ambassadors for Christ.” (Emphasis in original.)

I want to make an important distinction here. I wrote a blog post in February trying to explain the alienation and mental exhaustion I felt after what I considered a highly religious SFLA conference. I think part of my frustration with that aspect of the (otherwise excellent) conference was that I had the wrong expectations heading into the conference. To my knowledge, SFLA doesn’t present itself as a religious organization, and even that day conference leaders said the conference was not a Christian event. So I attended the conference thinking it would be a religiously-neutral event (neither religious nor anti-religious), and I wasn’t prepared for the level of religiousness I experienced there.

In contrast, JFA was upfront about being a Christian organization putting on a Christian event. Ideally (for me) there would be a non-religious pro-life training seminar I could attend. Absent that possibility, I suppose I’m left with (a) attending a religious event knowing in advance that it’s a religious event and choosing to attend anyway or (b) attending a religious event not realizing what I’m getting into and feeling caught off-guard and out-of-place once I’m there. Of those two options, I’d rather go with the first, so it helps that JFA is clear about where they’re coming from.

Plus, despite being explicitly Christian-based, the seminar was conducted in a way that welcomed Ellen and me (and, I hope, any other non-Christians anonymous among the attendees). In my blog post “Everyone Welcome” I compiled 10 suggestions for increasing pro-life religious diversity. For example, fellow pro-lifers can (1) talk about diversity, (2) use inclusive language, (3) refrain from evangelizing, and (4) strengthen the voices of pro-life minorities. Josh Brahm, who lead the seminar, and other conference leaders and attendees put each one of these suggestions into practice throughout the day.

Josh began the seminar by talking about diversity. He welcomed everyone in attendance but made a point of welcoming certain specific groups. First he welcomed any pro-choicers who may have attended out of curiosity. Then he welcomed any non-Christians, explaining that the seminar would be primarily secular pro-life apologetics but that, as Josh put it, “sometimes religion happens.”

Mere moments later, Josh introduced the first speaker, Clinton. Josh listed some of Clinton’s experience in the pro-life movement and said he believed Clinton’s talk would make the conference attendees “feel really blessed.” Then he paused, chuckled, and exclaimed, “See! Religion just happened!” and a lot of people, including me, laughed pretty hard. Josh made the same joke a few other times throughout the day, to laughter each time.

It may seem like a very small gesture, but even a comment like that (“Religion just happened!”) is a way of using inclusive language. There would be no need to point out when religion happens if Josh were in a group composed exclusively of fellow Christians. Instead, the comment acknowledges the presence and feelings of people who may not be 100% comfortable with religious language or practices. That acknowledgment makes a difference.

Later in the day, when Josh was explaining the Equal Rights Argument, he talked about how some people ask why we should value any human beings at all. Josh explained that he, personally, believes human beings have value because we are created in the image of God. He then pointed out that this is not the only explanation for valuing human beings. He specifically said there are plenty of non-religious people who value human beings for totally different reasons (“two of which are sitting in this room right now”).

Another JFA speaker, Clinton, also used inclusive language. Twice during the conference Clinton began prayers by saying “Pray with me if you follow Christ.” To me, the words “if you follow Christ” make a big difference! The phrase acknowledges the presence of non-Christians by showing Clinton isn’t simply assuming everyone in the room follows Christ. It also shows Clinton isn’t entreating people who don’t follow Christ to pray or pretend to pray. With those four little words, Clinton showed that he isn’t ignoring non-Christians and he isn’t asking us to hide our secularism. It’s a small but important gesture.

Also early on during the seminar, Josh (with our permission) introduced Ellen and me to the rest of the conference as representatives of Secular Pro-Life. That meant everyone in attendance knew Ellen and I are secularists. Sometimes that foreknowledge leads to awkward conversations; I’ve had people tell me, unprompted, why they believe Christianity is true or how they think I’m great/nice/smart/whatever and they’ll pray for me to come around to their truth. If you’re a Christian reading this and you’re not sure why those conversations might bother me, imagine the reverse scenario. Imagine you’re in a group of people you’ve just met who happen to know you’re a Christian, and, unprompted, people come up to you and start telling you why they think Christianity is false and how they hope you’ll leave Christianity soon. Their intentions may be good, but can you see how that might be awkward, or downright irritating?

Happily, that didn’t happen even once during Saturday. No one evangelized to me or Ellen. In general people were friendly, and we exchanged stories about our different experiences in the pro-life movement. And it’s not that people felt they had to hide their faith either. I spoke with other attendees who talked openly about how their beliefs gave them hope and encouragement, and I’m glad for them. There’s a big distinction between people talking about how their faith affects them and people trying to get me to agree with their faith. Saturday had some of the former and none of the latter, and that was really nice.

Finally, once or twice during the seminar Josh also took opportunities to ask Ellen and me for our perspective. Really, this approach is part of Josh’s overall style. He was clearly aware of at least some of the experiences and perspectives of various conference attendees, and when appropriate he asked people for input based on their particular histories (for example some attendees were post-abortive or worked in pregnancy resource centers) or fields of interest (some attendees had particular knowledge about philosophy or biology). In this way Josh not only strengthened the voice of pro-life minorities (us secularists) but strengthened the voices of everyone. Maybe he’s good at being religiously inclusive because he just wants to be a generally inclusive guy.

SPL promotes religious diversity in the pro-life movement. Occasionally religious pro-lifers express concern that this goal implies they’re being asked to deny their faith for the sake of the abortion debate. Last Saturday, Josh and Clinton demonstrated how Christians can affirm their faith while still including non-Christians in the conversation. I still hope for an increasing secular presence in the pro-life movement, to the point where pro-lifers like me can have non-religious programs to learn through. However, if you’re a Christian pro-lifer looking to hit that balance between religious inclusiveness and your own faith, last Saturday’s JFA seminar was a great example of how to do it.

The author's interpretation of the JFA seminar.


Greg Peterson said...

Thank you so much for writing this article. This really does help me to understand how I can be more inclusive in my different programs that I lead. It would be awesome if SPL would put on something like JFA and I would totally be there. :)

m17l6s85 said...

I'm so glad you found it helpful. :)

Bethany said...

What an interesting article. I found it through a link posted on Facebook and read through it out of curiosity. I am an active pro-lifer. I am also a Christian. I regularly talk to people about their views on abortion, usually by going out and having conversations with strangers at schools and public places. The majority of the pro-choice people have I met and discussed abortion with told me that they would never personally get an abortion, as they couldn't stand the thought of it, but still considered themselves pro-choice. When I enquired why, they stated that an abortion would be wrong for them, but they would never try to oppose their opinion on someone else, as people were free to do what they liked. I've even had some conversations where I was able to get the people to admit that abortion was probably killing a baby, but they still supported the availability of abortion. Quoting one conversation: "If my girlfriend got pregnant, she could still have an abortion, as long as the abortion wasn't wrong for her. It could be wrong in my mind, but if she doesn't think it's wrong, then she should be able to have one." I thought the point of the person I was talking to was an interesting one. Who is to say that there is something inherently wrong with abortion and that it must be stopped, if there are no absolutes? I think the only way there is absolute truth (read: killing people is wrong) is through God. So if you don't believe in God, then it doesn't surprise me that a person can tell me that while they dislike the thought of abortion, there is no real reason to ban abortion.

Sorry, this was super long. I guess my point in all of this was to ask you: Why are you more than just personally pro-life? What do you think gives life value and what gives you the right to tell people that they should believe the same? Thanks!

Toby said...

Good article. Secularism should be religion-inclusive, not anti-religion. And the pro-life movement should also be inclusive of everyone who opposes abortion, regardless of their religious or political beliefs.

I'm a Christian, and I currently attend a conservative Bible college. But I'm a big fan of Secular Pro-Life because the pro-life movement often forgets about people who oppose abortion, but don't fit into the typical conservative Christian stereotype. In order to put an end to abortion, the pro-life movement needs to include minorities. Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, apatheists, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people, conservatives, centrists, liberals, socialists… let's all unite against the evil of abortion.

LN said...

"Who is to say that there is something inherently wrong with abortion and that it must be stopped, if there are no absolutes?"

But pretty much all these people are totally ok with laws preventing people from rape and murder. They only selectively apply this whole "it's up to them" thing.

The point is you don't need to argue for objective morality to bring people to the pro-life stance. You don't need to convert people or talk about God at all. You just need to draw a connection between their willingness to stand up for other moral values.

Guest said...

Someone needs to explain all this to those AHA whackos. But I'm clearly not patient enough, and they'll probably never get it anyway.

Chandler Klebs said...

I would attend a pro-life event if I could no matter how religious it may be. It is the best example of how religion becomes irrelevant if I am able to relate to people.

Rachel Anne Enders said...

I feel similarly about SFLA, but for me SFLA has always been more concerned with political conservatism. I voted for President Obama, and they're constantly campaigning against a lot of what he does.