Bob Jones University and Theological Rhetoric that Mishandles Sexual Abuse Victims

Greenville, S.C. (February 6, 2014) – In the fall of 2011, the national news was filled with a steady stream of heart-breaking revelations of sexual abuse on college campuses. These events prompted Bob Jones University to evaluate its processes and procedures for responding to reports of sexual abuse and specifically to ensure the University maintained best practices for a legally compliant and loving, scripturally based response to such reports.

To accomplish this, the Board of Trustees appointed a committee external to BJU to review our policies and procedures. The committee recommended some policy revisions and also that the University appoint an independent ombudsman to review past instances in which it was alleged that the University may have underserved a student who reported they had been abused at some point in their lives.

BJU subsequently engaged GRACE as the ombudsman. In addition to working with GRACE, BJU independently implemented a number of initiatives to raise awareness of sexual abuse. BJU provided live Sexual Abuse Awareness Training to all 3000+ students and 1000+ faculty/staff members—unprecedented in institutions of higher education—and is creating guidelines to assist present and future students who work with minors in the community and on campus. BJU also is working to provide a comprehensive Child Safety Workshop for local church leaders this spring.

Over the last several months, we grew concerned about how GRACE was pursuing our objectives, and on Jan. 27, 2014, BJU terminated its contract with GRACE. It is BJU’s intention to resolve its differences with GRACE, and we are disappointed a resolution could not be reached before our differences were made public. Both BJU and GRACE desire to raise sexual abuse awareness and minister to victims whose lives have been ravaged by abuse. GRACE has been helpful in assisting us in focusing our efforts in this area.

BJU sincerely appreciates all current and former students who participated in this initiative thus far, and the University regrets any delay BJU’s cancellation of its agreement with GRACE may have on this important project.

We grieve with those who have suffered abuse in their past, and we desire to minister the grace of Christ to them. Our prayer for the abused is that God will be their refuge and strength.

This is a press release issued by Bob Jones University announcing the early termination of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organization they hired to look into sexual abuse allegations on campus. One month before GRACE was scheduled to conclude their investigation BJU, without explanation, terminated their services. BJU claimed that they didn’t like the way GRACE was “pursuing our objective” but, to me, it sounded like GRACE was digging up a lot of dirt which would have made it harder for BJU to hide. The sexually abused might finally find a voice with the help of GRACE but an institution in size and stature such as BJU might crumble and the higher-ups couldn’t let that happen. So, better to continue to sweep the sexually abused  dirt under the rug than to have a large Christian institution come under fire. But this post isn’t about speculation but dealing with the press release posted above, particularly the last sentence, which I believe perpetuates the silencing of people who have been sexually abused through the use of theological rhetoric.

“We grieve with those who have suffered abuse in their past…”

This might be the only thing the concluding sentences get right about the role of the community with persons who have experienced sexual abuse. The phrase suggests  solidarity with persons who have been sexually abused, an active, emotional solidarity of being present in their suffering and taking hold of the fact that if one of us is broken and wounded, we all are because we are part of the same body. This is significant in a society that largely sweeps these persons away when it should embrace them and standing in solidarity with them. In the context of a Christian community this should be a primary deed done toward those persons. In sharing all things in common, joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness, etc, we partake in gospel work. Yet this is not the role of many churches and it surely doesn’t seem to be the role of Bob Jones University. Why? The next phrase may provide some insight.

…and we desire to minister the grace of Christ to them.

Here the theological rhetoric begins. By this I mean the style of speech or writing used in Christian spaces that projects Christian altruism as a method of persuasion but that concerns rarely results in any effective action. Not action that ends up helping anyone but the utilizer of such rhetoric. It’s in the vain of “I’ll pray for you,” which sometimes sounds like the thing to say so the person can escape an otherwise hard conversation. In this case, BJU establishes persons who have suffered abuse as those in need of the grace of Christ but does a person who has suffered abuse need the grace of Christ? What does that even mean in this context? That was my first question. I imagined that the last thing a person who has suffered abuse wants is for someone to minister the grace of Christ to them, at least not as a first response to an experience of abuse they have lived with in silence for years. This person doesn’t need grace in the way I believe this statement is suggesting. Context can shape interpretation and in this context it seems that ministering the grace of Christ is BJU absolving themselves of any stake in the healing process of persons who have been abused. As a close friend remarked, “The word ‘grace’ doesn’t do any actual work except to satisfy BJU’s conservative compatriot’s desire that certain words are used in dealing with this type of situation.” To be clear, the grace of Christ is effective and can soften our hearts in a world that has hardened them, but the person who has suffered abuse may need and require a different kind of healing work altogether. A work that puts their community in contact with them in tangible ways and doesn’t leave them to their own devices. This has to do with solidarity and consolation, not grace, at least not immediately. Indeed these persons need to be gracious with themselves throughout the unearthing and healing process and they will need to distribute grace to their abuser, but initially grace isn’t sufficient. I confess this is hard to say because it could be interpreted as me not believing in the grace of Christ to heal, but what I am getting at is a larger concern about how some religious institutions use theological rhetoric as a substitute for good work. For years we have watched churches of all stripes sweep the accounts of persons who have been sexually abused under the rug and, in the cases where the abuser is in the church, we have watched how the abuser gets more attention than the abused. In the midst of all of this, God is like a supernatural salve who heals everything on contact without God’s servants ever having being responsible shepherds of the flock God entrusted to them. God is like the ‘Tussin you apply to everything even when it makes no sense to do so, God and prayer…

“Our prayer for the abused is that God will be their refuge and strength.”

Take a young woman who has told you that she was sexually abused and tell her that your prayer for her is that God will be her refuge and strength. Your prescription for prayer may sound good in theory–and if you ask me it actually doesn’t sound good–but in practice it is weak. As in the case of ministering the grace of Christ to a person who has suffered abuse, prayer can be interpreted as yet another absolution of responsibility. In talking this through with a friend I initially came to the conclusion that “prayer and other things” are needed in situations such as this and in a split second I changed my response to “other things and prayer” are needed. Moving prayer as the last thing that a victim of abuse might need is to suggest that someone who has experienced intimate violence is sometimes in need of more than prayer can provide. Furthermore, praying that God, the God who is traditionally perceived as male presence, become a refuge and strength to a woman who has had an experience of sexual abuse by a man, may do more harm than good. How does this work in situations when the woman was abused by a male figure she loved and trusted? How does she suspend her distrust of male figures long enough to put trust in her God traditionally narrated and given as patriarchal figure? I bring this up given discussions of how inclusive language and understanding about God aids in healing work for those who have suffered abuse at the hands of men and can no longer put their trust in a God who has always been a “He, Him, His.” This is not me being a person of little faith, it is acknowledging that as a people of faith there is hard work we have to do on behalf of our fellow brothers and sisters and it requires carefully measured deeds, not just words that can potentially be interpreted as empty. This is significant given how sex abuse scandals are handled in the Christian church and how the world outside of the church observes what it is we do to help one another–and really it doesn’t appear that much is done. Maybe the whole problem is that many want desperately to believe that the only thing they need to do is minister grace and pray instead of sitting with the broken and wounded and sharing in that space with them for however long it may take. I don’t dismiss God in this process and don’t want to suggest that God can’t handle healing all on God’s own, but I believe, more often than not, God expects God’s people to also roll their sleeves up and do some hard work in the healing and recovery process of abused persons. I believe there is a particular responsibility that we, as a community, have toward one another and BJU is yet another example of a shirking that responsibility in favor of giving victims of abuse, empty theological rhetoric.

Now, I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill. A close friend, whom I also talked through this with, brought this to my attention as we worked through our thoughts on the matter. Overall we agreed that “grace” as referenced in the press release does no real work and that solidarity is necessary but he added this,

But maybe this is just me imposing upon Bob Jones and its representatives my elitist assumption that words, particularly theological words, actually mean things.

The elitist assumption that theological words actually mean things is a longstanding one that stares us–the Christian community–in the face every time we stand before our sacred text. It stares us in the face when we make theological claims. And here it stares me in the face as I wonder if all I have written about BJU’s words is in vain because I’ve assumed that their words mean something. I’ve thought about this throughout the weekend and have come to the conclusion that when it comes to speaking on behalf of a Christian institution or tradition about how to handle victims of sexual abuse you must measure your words carefully because words can do violence. One can never be certain of how their words will be interpreted in general, but when those words are the focal point for a wounded community, those words must do no further harm. I am concerned that BJU’s words–and of course their actions–are doing more harm to persons who have been sexually abused. I am concerned that the language they used throughout this press release continues to hold people who have been sexually abused at a distance instead of bringing them into community. It also makes those persons seem more like cases to be handled than persons to be cared for. I can say all of this because I feel the harm as someone not many degrees of separation from persons who have been sexually abused. It’s time for the empty rhetoric to stop and the rigorous work to start.

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Boy Scouts, the Church, Inclusion and Love

druidhillsbaptist

Druid Hill’s Baptist Church, Atlanta Georgia

Yesterday afternoon I posted this photo on my Facebook page and to my surprise only two people liked it. Two people out of the hundreds of friends and family I have on Facebook which includes a large number of those who would identify themselves as Christians. One of those two isn’t even a self-identifying Christian, she is a Unitarian Universalist who, if my memory serves me correct, also has a Jewish background. I also posted this photo on Instagram and three people liked it, three people whom were my classmates in the theology school I graduated from in May–the second person to like it on Facebook is also a graduate. A grand total of five people liked this photo of a church essentially doing what a church should be doing in the first place, opening the doors and extending hospitality to everyone. Now, in case you have already forgotten why a church would even feel the need to welcome the Boy Scouts in particular, let me jog your memory back a few months…

In January the Boy Scouts of America were considering lifting its ban on gay members and leaders. In April, a proposal was drafted to lift the ban on denying membership based on sexual orientation, and in May that proposal went forth and the ban was lifted. But since then many churches have either been getting on board with the new ruling by allowing Boy Scout Troops who use the facilities to continue their meetings, or by banning the Boy Scouts from the church. North Druid Hills Baptist is one of the first churches here in Atlanta that I have seen explicitly announce their support of the Boy Scouts but it also isn’t surprising since the church is located in a fairly liberal community and it leases out its space for yoga classes, plays that don’t have anything to do with the Gospel–at least not explicitly–and other activities that most churches would frown upon. But aside from the church doing what is par for the course for them in welcoming the Boy Scouts, I was sad. I was sad not for the church but for the fact that this is even something I would be excited about.

I thought about this as the picture made its way through cyberspace and situated itself on my Facebook page, my Twitter feed, and my Instagram account. Is it stupid to be excited about a church welcoming Boy Scouts, including those members who are openly gay? Yes I think it is stupid to be excited about this because I believe the church should be in the business of being the community that embraces everyone. I’m not going to make the “Jesus hung out with sinners and tax collectors” argument because I think it is trite and I’m not certain that openly gay boy scouts are the sinners in this situation. And let me just pause here for a moment…

One of the things most interesting to me about how the church treats LGBT concerns is that they, sometimes, are obsessed with the sex lives of persons in the LGBT community while being totally uninterested in their love lives. As if all gay men do is sit around looking for and having sex rather than or without love. As if sex is a bigger part of the experience than establishing a lifelong relationship in love. And sure, there are some people who are just looking for some sex but they are not the general profile of the community. I’m not a gay man or lesbian but I know enough to know that sex is but a fraction of the LGBT experience that may amount to the same percentage that it is among heterosexual people, so get out of people’s bedrooms and get into their hearts. But this is also an issue with the church as it regards heterosexual people, lots of interest in what does or doesn’t go on in the bedroom to ensure folks aren’t booking quick trips to hell. And I digress…

I’m more concerned in the fact that churches are closing their doors, doors that are supposed to be open to perform the most radical hospitality that can be performed in this sick world that is often too ready to shut people out because it is more interested in clinging to itself. The church, in my understanding, is not a space for exclusion but inclusion driven by love. This is something that should be a given but it isn’t. I remember sitting in a Watchnight service and hearing a pastor speak of family only as that unit which represents the biblical definition of family, man and woman. The pastor repeated this a few times and I remember tuning out of the service because all I saw was the church closing its doors.

Now I understand that this is what some would consider the “biblical” perspective on this matter, but that biblical perspective often seems to leave out love. Love, which is a part of the revelation of God as shown in Jesus Christ. In shutting out those whose lifestyles don’t match up with the so-called biblical definition of family or those openly-gay boy scouts, the church compromises itself and misses the opportunity to love. This is not about tolerance which, as I have stated before, suggests a mere “putting up” with different perspectives rather than a real shift. In the church’s case it would need to be a shift toward love, outwardly expressed. Love that isn’t just spoken about but love that is actually performed. Love that isn’t just prayed about in the way that a prayer can be prayed about something like this such as, “We pray that ‘they’ discover God’s love.” But love that expresses God’s love, the love we all have access to, the love that was bestowed upon us long ago, and the love that we have responsibility to share out. Love that can be expressed through something like say, opening or keeping your doors open to the Boy Scouts. It’s a “Don’t (just) speak about it, be about it” kind of love. Otherwise, the church is no different from the world if it closes its doors on the Boy Scouts, or members of the LGBT community or other communities that would be considered marginalized. Actually, nowadays, the world is exercising a little more openness to inclusion when it comes to persons in the LGBT community so it may be the church who has to keep up. And understand me well when I say this, I know that “keeping up” may sound like you have to be on board with it all, but what I’m suggesting in “keeping up” is being sure that the world doesn’t outdo you, because the world may be able to open some doors but the church and the people within in it, those supposed people of God are (supposed to be) part of the few and the proud that show forth God’s love, and only that kind of love is credible.