Is it possible a routine emphasis week on a university campus could shift the current cultural norms of divisive verbal attacks taking place across many segments of society?
Samford University Provost Mike Hardin is counting on it. “Love Thy Neighbor: A Week-Long Emphasis on Civil Discourse” begins March 21, and he believes this could be the start of a renewed Christ-centered style of leadership as students embark on the world after graduation.
“We can’t talk to each other. We can’t dialogue any longer, and I see this as a point of pain,” he said. “We need conversations, not to throw rocks at each other. We need to truly see each other as made in the image of God.
“How do you step into a nation divided and help them come together? It can’t be what we have right now with throwing word rocks at each other.”
The “Love Thy Neighbor” initiative came out of Hardin’s commitment to his definition of a Christian university: “a community of Christian scholars bound together by an ethic of agape love.”
“Love is a decision, a commitment that we make to each other,” he said. “As Christians, that’s how we were first known — they were known by their love (as reported in the Book of John).”
‘Our better angels’
One of the presenters — Pulitzer-prize winning author and noted presidential historian Jon Meacham — became a featured lecturer for this emphasis after receiving pushback last fall. Initially invited to participate in inauguration events for Samford President Beck Taylor in early November, Meacham was rescheduled after a group of students, parents and community leaders vocalized concerns over him speaking at a Planned Parenthood fundraiser in Texas in October.
Taylor assured those concerned that having a guest lecturer on campus does not mean Samford endorses the perspectives or viewpoints of the speaker. And Meacham’s lecture would not have addressed then, nor will address now, sanctity of life versus abortion-rights issues, Taylor said.
Meacham will speak on “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” — the title of his book that debuted at number one on the New York Times bestsellers’ list in 2018.
He will apply what he has researched from other pivotal moments in history to the current state of civility and discourse, Hardin noted. “He sees we can’t talk to each other and will provide insight in how to come together in a divided nation … that there really is something we share together, the better angels of our nature.
“We can disagree with him on many issues, but that doesn’t mean we have to discount the insights he has in this area,” Hardin emphasized.
Lisa Hogan — executive director of the Birmingham-based Sav-A-Life, Inc. — was one of those originally concerned about Meacham’s invitation.
“Even though I personally disagree with Jon Meacham on a lot of levels, I understand what the event is about and, in theory, understand what they are trying to accomplish,” she said. “We live out ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ every day here at Sav-A-Life. We meet the women and men we serve right where they are … no judgment, no condemnation, just unconditional love and respect. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all practiced that!”
Hardin believes it is possible and wants to witness Christians turning heads again, like what Jesus did in the first century. He especially wants that for those associated with Samford.
“My dream is that Samford as an institution becomes a place where people look at us and say, ‘What are they doing?’ Just like in the first century when the disciples were with Jesus and people would look at Him and ask what He was doing.
“The spirit here is not to be controversial,” Hardin explained. “The spirit here is to be loving and informative and try to bring forth out of what we have in the nation and world — a battleground — to seeing the difference being a Christian can make. … If it doesn’t make a difference, then we need to go out of business. It ought to make a difference that we are Christ-followers.
“What do Christ-followers look like when they’re engaged? We all have differences of the way we see the world and the way we experience God. We should be able to share that out of a sense of joy and abundance.”
Learning to process, discuss controversial topics
Instead of showing up where the world is hurting and working to help it heal “under God’s leadership with Christ who’s living in us … we are throwing rocks at each other with our words,” he said. “We are hurting each other. We are bloodied and beaten up.
“I hope we truly see each other as made in the image of God and respect each other,” he said. “I want our future leaders of this country to be able to talk to each other … and understand how to bring forth good from potential evil.
“I want our students to have answers to questions that haven’t been posed,” Hardin continued. “The only way you are going to do that is to help them learn to take in what’s going on, think about it, take their Christ following seriously and arrive at answers. … That’s kind of what education is about — the ability to get the answers to the problems we haven’t even had to find yet.”
Hardin advocates for a Christian university environment where students are surrounded by people who love and care about them as they work through the issues in front of them.
“With the controversial topics of our time, I would want my child to be in a community to hear the discussion on those things followed by the dialogue among Christ followers so they would have good models,” he said. “It is much better for them to deal with it here than when they get out in the world. This is to help them be ready.”
Along with Meacham, Taylor and members of Samford’s faculty and student body will speak at a variety of special events centered around the week’s topic.
Beeson Divinity School Dean Doug Sweeney also has invited a panel of spiritual leaders to discuss “Living Christianity in a Polarized, Us-Against-Them World.” Panelists are: Cokiesha Bailey Robinson, associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana; Scott Sauls, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville; and Thomas Wilder, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham.