Gay Red, Gay Blue.
Flannery O’Connor + Agatha Christie too.
These two see people as people (imagine that?!)
There is no issue that has so deeply and passionately divided Americans in the last decade than sexuality – specifically, gay marriage. The treasonous friendship of this dynamic duo has been forged in the fires of over 40 years of combined experience building bridges between conservatives and progressives on this, possibly the hardest disagreement of them all.
You heard it right: As long as Moses and the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, eating quail and manna…that’s how long these two have been cumulatively working to bridge this divide. For a public that is quickly forgetting what it means to hold respect and disagreement simultaneously, the affection these two share ought to be front-page news.
Justin, who writes about “faith, culture, and nuance” on his website Geeky Justin, is the author of two books about what he’s learned along the way. (Alas poor nuance, we knew ye well once.) Meanwhile, Ron is blogging over at Spiritual Friendship about God, sexuality and relationships, and – oh – doing little things that result in being referred to by the National Catholic Reporter as the “official face of gay Catholicism.” Read on, that is if you even need to know more before you book them.
Evangelical, Author, Geek, Blogger, YouTuber, Bridge-Builder, Board-Game Lover, Promoter of Empathy and Nuance, Gay.
Ron on Justin: Justin has taught me more than anyone else what it means to be patient and charitable in an intellectual discussion. He is very empathetic, and able to see the world from someone else’s point of view, even when he thinks that person is deeply wrong. He cares very deeply about other people, and is a peacemaker, a person who strives to reconcile those who are in conflict.
Christian, Reader, Storyteller, Teacher, Writer, Philosopher, Programmer, Nerd, Handyman, Gay.
Justin on Ron: If everyone were as kind to their philosophical opponents as Ron is, the world would be a much better place. Ron is a brilliant, nuanced, deep thinker. Although we disagree on some things quite strongly, I’d trust him more than just about anyone else I know to give both sides a fair hearing and treat people on the other side with respect and grace.
A Little More About Justin & Ron’s Unorthodox Friendship: These two met online about 20 years ago, when they were both writing about homosexuality and Christianity. Initially, they argued a lot. However, as they put it, “Although we disagreed with each other’s positions, we appreciated each other’s nuance on a subject that often isn’t treated with enough nuance.”
A grasp of that nuance certainly didn’t arise ex nihilo – out of nowhere. Justin and Ron have each immersed themselves in the difficult American conversation on sexuality, in all its glory! For instance, Justin is the author of “Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate,” and founded “the Gay Christian Network,” which he ran from 2001 to 2017 – often described as the largest gathering of LGBT Christians in the U.S. He just released another book, “Talking Across the Divide: How To Communicate With People You Disagree With And Maybe Even Change The World.” [Learn more at geekyjustin.com].
“We must never let our theological disagreements get in the way of showing God’s unconditional, overpowering grace to everyone we meet.” -Justin Lee
And once called the “official face of gay Catholicism” during Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., Ron was recognized at the time as the “only openly gay person invited to speak about homosexuality during a Vatican-approved convention, the World Meeting of Families.” As Ron once described it, an overarching theme of his work is to “simply be moving away from the culture wars’ focus on ‘us versus them,’ and saying, respond to people as people.” He also admitted that “there’s a lot of pressure” in trying to address the many aspects of such a contentious issue, but has been determined to not just speak to those “who agree with me.” [Learn more about Ron here at his blog, Spiritual Friendship].
It’s not just Christianity and sexuality that bring these two together, for heaven’s sake. Thanks to other vital common interests (like Agatha Christie mysteries & computers), they have persisted in challenging conversation to the point of reaching that elusive “promised land” where people start to actually learn from their political opposite. For instance, Justin introduced Ron to Flannery O’Connor, who became one of Ron’s favorite authors. They also both participated in an internet group dedicated to bridge building, after which they wrote articles online in which they expressed respect for one another while also staking out the ways they disagree (you can find those two articles here and here). Over the years, Ron & Justin have maintained a close friendship, even while continuing to talk about issues from differing perspectives and expressing empathy for one another’s views.
Their Talk(s): “Friendship Across the Divide” (for general audiences) OR “Gay and Christian: Transforming the Conversation” (For audiences interested in having them dig more into the sexuality debate). Two good options. They note that “the content of our message would vary, of course, based on the audience. On predominantly Christian campuses, we have one version of our presentation that we’d use, with a different approach at more secular universities. For any audience, they plan to begin with personal stories, sharing a few key experiences that shaped them as individuals and the experiences that brought them together as friends, highlighting their similarities as well as their differences.”
At that point, the overall scope would diverge, as follows:
Ron is on the right. And Justin is on the left. Although these two are most known for their work on sexuality, they have a lot to say about other divides as well. Ron taught Medical Ethics at St. Louis University from 2008–2014 and has extensive experience navigating classroom discussions of controversial topics surrounding abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, and stem cell research, as well as ethical challenges regarding treatment of persons with disabilities or serious diseases. Because of his work in Medical Ethics, he was invited by the New York Times to discuss the question, “Can People With Dementia Have a Sex Life?” with John Corvino.
And Justin’s new book from Penguin Random House, Talking Across the Divide, is about how to navigate all sorts of disagreements, whether political, religious, personal, or otherwise. As he says in that book, “Whether the issue is Donald Trump, healthcare, abortion, gun control, breastfeeding, or even DC vs Marvel, it feels like you can’t voice an opinion without ruffling someone’s feathers. In today’s digital age, it’s easier than ever to build walls around yourself. You fill up your Twitter feed with voices that are angry about the same issues and believe as you believe. Before long, you’re isolated in your own personalized echo chamber. And if you ever encounter someone outside of your bubble, you don’t understand how the arguments that resonate so well with your peers can’t get through to anyone else. In a time when every conversation quickly becomes a battlefield, it’s up to us to learn how to talk to each other again.”
For general audiences, then, Justin and Ron would focus less on the details of this specific cultural debate and use it instead as an illustration of how to respectfully disagree on all sorts of issues. As they write, “This version of the presentation is built on a series of anecdotes—how we learned to bridge our divide, mistakes we made that hurt our friendship, ways we overcame those mistakes, and how we’ve handled attacks from others. Both of us have had to take heat from our own sides for refusing to throw the other under the bus, and we’ll talk about why we’ve made those decisions and why that’s important in a polarized world.”
They add, “Ultimately, we’d like to leave our audience with some specific tips about how to bridge cultural divides on controversial issues—and illustrations from our own friendship of what that looks like in practice. For general audiences, we’ll make our dialogue tips more easily applicable to a wide variety of issues.”
When it comes to Christian audiences, Justin and Ron note, “we typically spend some time digging into the nuances of the church’s sexuality debate. We talk about the ways we agree and the ways we disagree, delving into questions about the Bible, how to use respectful language, and tips for building bridges on this subject in particular – while preserving space to disagree about important questions. For Christian audiences, our dialogue tips may be more specific to the sexuality debate, but for general audiences, we’ll make them more easily applicable to a wide variety of issues.”
The time-space continuum to consider: Ron is in the greater Seattle area, and Justin in Orlando, Florida.
What the pair would need to come to your school: They are happy to negotiate directly with the event planners (and remember, they’ve both got generous Christian hearts, to boot!) (: