By Patrick B. Craine, ANCASTER, Ontario, January 29, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Redeemer University-College, a Canadian Christian liberal arts and science university in the Reformed tradition, hosted a keynote lecture on Friday by Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, who spoke on the topic of global health.
Lewis’ invitation by Redeemer, an institution renowned for its commitment to Scripture and traditional values, generated a controversy on campus due to Lewis’ history of promoting a liberalized vision of sexuality, including the promotion of abortion. Some 20 pro-life advocates protested before the event, holding signs and passing out literature.
In its communications with concerned students and others, Redeemer has maintained that, even though Lewis holds views that the university does not agree with, he is an expert on global health and Christians should be open to learning from him on that level.
“We said to ourselves, we do not support this man in terms of that particular dimension of his thought, but there are other dimensions [in which] we believe he can teach us things,” said Dr. Syd Hielema, the university’s chaplain and a professor of theology. “On the issue of health in Africa, [Lewis is] one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet.”
“I have no sympathy for his views on pro-life matters, and yet I supported that we at Redeemer invited him to come,” Hielema continued. “If we are Christians confident in the world, then we need to let the world address us. Because we have a God on our side. We can take it, and we can respond to them, and we can learn from them.”
In an effort to address the controversy, Redeemer organized a panel of Christians, with the goal of engaging Lewis in dialogue and presenting a Christian perspective.
“Mr. Lewis approaches these issues from a secular liberal stance; ours is a traditional Christian one,” wrote Richard Wikkerink, Redeemer’s Associate Vice President for Student Development, in a response to one pro-life complainant in October. “For that reason we made it a condition of our invitation to Mr. Lewis that we would have a panel respond to Mr. Lewis consisting of knowledgeable people who are able to engage Mr. Lewis and to present questions and an understanding of the problems raised by Mr. Lewis that will be consistent with a Christian world view and the mission of Redeemer University College.”
In Hielema’s opinion, the panel fulfilled its purpose. “The four that were there had a strong Christian voice and engaged [Lewis] from that voice,” he said, “and all five of them – Lewis and the panelists – were respectful of one another, but didn’t beat around the bush in wishy-washy ways.”
But Ben O’Brien, a member of Redeemer’s pro-life club, told LifeSiteNews (LSN) in an e-mail that “no mention was made of the critical issues either by Lewis himself during the talk or by the discussion panel afterwards.“
“Lewis was warmly welcomed both in the introductory speech and by members of the panel, all of whom sang his praises as a hero for the cause of social justice. The packed auditorium was held spellbound by Mr. Lewis, who came across as modest, funny and passionate.”
George Eygenraam, a self-described “supporting member” of Redeemer, whose children and grandchildren have attended or currently attend the university, also disagreed with Hielema’s assessment. Eygenraam, who is a member of the Christian Reformed Church, led the group of pro-life supporters outside, after which he attended the event.
According to him, Lewis’ active promotion of abortion and condoms was “never even touched.” One panelist, he said, was “effusive in her appreciation of Stephen Lewis,” even calling Lewis her “idol.”
While the university held a question period for the audience following the talk, the questions had to be written in, and were screened, said Eygenraam. “I know that questions pertaining to the issues of condoms and abortion were in the basket, but they were never taken out,” he said.
Eygenraam was also concerned that Lewis was given a standing ovation. “A lot of people that were pro-life walked away with a totally wrong impression of Mr. Lewis and so, in that way, he won them over,” he said. “Not that they would be not pro-life, because the issue was never discussed.”
“I love Redeemer,” he said. “I feel very sad about it, that they took that step.”
Joe Bissonnette, a high school teacher who also participated in the protest, agreed with Eygenraam. “There was no mention of [Lewis’] position on abortion, or anything like that,” he told LSN. “The questions that were fielded were written submissions that were vetted, so there was no chance for pro-lifers to push on those points.”
Bissonnette pointed out that Lewis was the first Canadian politician to seek the legalization of abortion, which he did in 1965 while with the Ontario NDP. “[Lewis has] been unrelenting in his promotion of abortion,” said Bissonnette.
Hitler, said Bissonnette, “was reputed to have been an expert at promoting the construction of highways. … Nobody would entertain the thought of giving a forum to Hitler or Mussolini in light of what they did, and likewise it’s foolish for us to pretend that this is just a small thing that we should overlook.”
Asked if he was concerned that the audience walked away from the talk with the impression that Redeemer supported Lewis’ views, Hielema responded: “This was a new event for Redeemer. To my knowledge, we have never before had a filled auditorium for an event Redeemer sponsored, where the platform speaker was not a Christian.”
“When you go into new territory, you’re pioneering,” he continued. “And when you’re pioneering, you do it with fear and trembling.”
He added that he was “thankful” for the pro-life demonstration and the fact that they passed out literature. “I’m thankful they were there, and I’m glad that people who entered the auditorium, they were aware that there was controversy around this event, and some uncertainty,” he said. “Because that’s part of the fear and trembling. That’s part of doing this.”
“We will do a lot of reflection and we will be discerning, and we will listen to all the voices,” he said.
Richard Wikkerink (Associate Vice-President, Student Development and Registrar)
777 Garner Rd East
Phone: (905) 648-2139 ext. 4298
E-mail: [email protected]