When the Right Thing Means Everything
If you are wise and usually avoid all headlines referring to BJU, let me summarize the latest news so you will know what I’m talking about. Like many institutions of higher education, BJU has an on-campus counseling center. Last year, it came to light that some students who had sought counseling there for sexual abuse that had occurred earlier in their lives were told not to report the abuse. Doing so would, if the abuser had been from a fundamentalist Christian community, harm the body of Christ, the students were told. For instance, if a young woman reported being raped by a pastor at her home congregation, exposing him would damage the cause of Christ. So it would be best to keep quiet and
Christ, who stood for truth and love. Christ, whose churches are supposed to be, among other things, refuges for the lost and hurting.
Anyway, BJU initially appeared to do the right thing. They brought in Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (or Grace), a Christian consulting group that empowers Christian communities, through education and training, to recognize and respond to the sin of child abuse. The investigation was to take about a year. But last week, BJU acknowledged that just before Grace was to have concluded its investigation, BJU fired the consulting group. Stephen Jones, current BJU president and great-grandson of the school’s founder and namesake, eventually explained that “…Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions.” He has not elaborated. Meanwhile, people are outraged, and rightly so.
In eighth grade, I was attending a conservative Christian school in the South. It was not a fundamentalist school like BJU, but there were rules that our public-school friends thought were ridiculous. We couldn’t have dances. Cheerleaders had to pay extra to have their skirts made longer than they way they came from the uniform company. All school employees had to be members of the denomination with which our school was associated. We had daily chapel that was mandatory. We could not worship with musical instruments during chapel. We had a strict dress code. Girls who became pregnant had to leave. (This particular rule had an unfortunate by-product. When any girl abruptly transferred to another school, rumors spread that she was pregnant—whether she was or not.)
During the spring of my eighth-grade year, a boy who was older than me began showing me extra attention. I liked it at first, because I was suffering from that typical middle-school awkwardness and was not used to attention like that from a guy. I was 13, and when he went out of his way to talk to me, it made me feel good. Attractive, even.
One night during a function away from school, he got me alone. He wanted to touch me in ways I knew he was not supposed to. He said everyone at school was saying that my best friend and I were lesbians. If I did what he wanted, I would prove the rumors were false, he said. He was older and more popular than I was. So I believed him. And it happened more than once. I knew it wasn’t right, but as is typical, I thought it was my fault.
Eventually, I told my two closest friends. We ended up writing a series of notes about it to each other. (That’s how teens communicated in school before texting.) Someone found one of the notes, read it, and had the wisdom to take it to my parents. The boy’s dad was in a position of leadership at our school. My parents met with him and told him what they had learned. He and his wife were mortified, assured my parents it would never happen again, and made the boy apologize to me. It was a forced apology, and he was seething as he spit the words out, but I took it. I had realized he had never found me attractive, and I was feeling more horrible about myself than ever. The whole thing had been hurtful and confusing, and I just wanted it to be over. A year or so later, the boy and his family moved away.
Should more have happened? Should he have been kicked off the sports teams he was on? Suspended from school? I don’t know. What he did to me would have been impossible to prove. But what did happen was that truth came to light. There was confrontation. There was acknowledgement that what the boy did was wrong. There was an apology.
And all of these things were right and should have happened.
You can have a conservative Christian school with uptight rules. And that conservative Christian school can respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. If an institution is truly seeking to follow Christ, doing the right thing will be the only option.
Bob Jones University is completely indefensible. The school’s leaders have no excuse. If BJU wants to show that Christ is truly its focus, its leaders will respond to this tragic situation in a Christ-like way, the way my own school did.
Responding in truth and humility is BJU’s only option. If the school’s leaders fail at this, BJU can remain open and function as a college. But they need to remove all references of Christ and Christianity from the school’s identity. Because the way they have gone and are going is not the way of Christ.