The organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E) released their report today detailing a two-year investigation of how the victims of sexual abuse were mishandled by counselors at Bob Jones University.
Honestly, folks, that report is a rough read. And I should have waited. But honestly, I didn’t expect it to have the effect that it did. I don’t have “triggers” because —thank God— I’ve never been abused. That’s an honest ‘Thank God’, a recognition that I’ve been spared the horror that victims of sexual abuse have lived with.
So I didn’t expect this, not when I sat down during my extra moments of lunch time to read the gist of the central findings.
Didn’t expect to be sick to my stomach, to feel pounded and nauseated. To feel wrath and anger and sorrow down in my abdomen.
Visceral. Painful. The reality of seeing all of the truth heaped into a single report.
Thing is, nothing in that report surprised me. I was at BJU as an undergrad for 4 years in the 90s, a graduate student for 2 more years, and 4 years on staff. Ten years total. I saw the place inside out and outside in. And since now it’s more than a decade in my past, I usually go throughout my day with little thought for the Bastion of Fundamentalism up the road.
I knew, based on what I saw and what I heard from fellow students, that the counseling offered by BJU via untrained grad-school students in the name of “dorm counseling,” along with the official student life counselors (dean of men/women, dean of students, dorm supervisors) was harmful and unhelpful, often leading the counselee into guilt, shame, and self-loathing.
I know (now) the narrative of the Gospel that BJU tells is one of law-keeping for the sake of maintaining righteousness for a God who is angry, who is harsh, who finds sin everywhere with His searchlight. You aren’t safe anywhere, really. Not unless you can prove to Him that you’ve been good.
Even the Lord’s Supper became a device for guilt and shame at the Fundy church I attended in Greenville. You weren’t supposed to approach the Table until you’d convinced your conscience that you were sin-free The pastor called it “unpacking all the boxes” — his advice was to sit in silence and beg the Holy Spirit to bring to mind a sin you had committed, then repent, and ask Him to bring out another box. It was Judgment Day in miniature, every month. Not a love-feast. Not a table of Grace for redeemed children of God. Only the “worthy” got a seat.
I knew, personally, two people who lost their minds because of the guilt and shame piled onto them by Fundamentalism. And a third, who was not a personal friend of mine, but I heard his story too. Mentally ill. Hospitalized. Suffering.
I knew that the rule structures were abusive and well beyond the Bible’s definitions of obedience or morality. Glorifying the informant was wrong. Confronting a girl walking up the sidewalk in front of me because their skirt slit was two inches above their knee was self-righteous assholery. That never really fit my personality; the few times I “confronted” left me in a cold sweat and feeling like a major douche. I knew the rhetoric: “upholding the rules” was the work of the Kingdom. But my gut knew it was wrong, unloving, graceless snobbery.
I destroyed a relationship with my best friend (unintentionally) because, as a 20-year old, I was asked by a dysfunctional and legalistic dorm structure to make the final assessment of whether she was “spiritually fit” for “spiritual leadership” in the dorms. I knew she’d been abused as a kid and was kind of unstable (never occurred to me to tell anyone though; it’s not like the University liked her much anyway). And I knew she didn’t deserve the pressure cooker of being a “prayer captain” in charge of the “spiritual health” of 3 other girls, held accountable for their “sins” before the administration and dorm staff. Christianity built on perfectionism destroys people. But she knew that not being granted a position of leadership was a public humiliation — and she hated me for that humiliation, and my lack of courage to face her directly. I simply let the dorm spiritual evaluation process run its course.
Truth is, the GRACE report about Bob Jones tells me a lot of things I already knew — that it is a college who fixates on rule-keeping rather than Grace in an environment driven by a powerful administrative discipline structure. That the people who really bought into BJ’s culture believed snitching was godly because all behavior is a discipline issue, even being late for class. That it was kind of weird for an entire department of counseling to reject all scholarship completely, all psychiatry, all psychology, all medication (oh, they paid it lip service but we all knew that depression was the fault of the depressed person’s sin).
I was complicit. I was part of the dorm structure for a few years, even being a “hall leader” (like an assistant RA), and it was a soul-sucking experience. I constantly had the dorm staff on my back about KEEPING THE RULES while trying to keep the girls on my hall from being crushed by what I could even see were petty and unfair expectations.
There was little Grace.
But actually, there was.
My BJU story is complicated. It really is. Because my professors were, for the most part, great people. They invested in me. They were themselves victims of a college who paid them nearly nothing, stripping them of social capital or any sense of financial independence, and pounding down any independent thought or person brave enough to speak it.
Because my years there were actually very good for me.
Because it was under Barrett and Bell and Rude and others that I saw Jesus. I saw the Gospel. I found Reformed theology. I learned Greek and Hebrew and an allegiance to what the Bible actually SAYS, not what some man says it says.
And then I woke up. And I saw for myself. And we left.
But today — years later — I weep.
Bob Jones University has one choice. They must change, or they will die. And dying is actually better than the judgment God will pour out on an unrepentant institution if they stubbornly cling to unbiblical, legalistic, harmful definitions of sin, grace, and righteousness.
It is a very hard day to be a Bob Jones University graduate.
Unfortunately, BJU failed to respond to the most damaging allegations in the Report, citing their own evidence that no laws were broken (when GRACE cited numerous examples of failures to follow mandatory reporting law).
Even more egregious to me, the University not only failed to acknowledge the abusive nature of its culture of legalism and rule-keeping, President Pettit reaffirmed Jim Berg and other counselors as “biblical.” If you have read the GRACE Report, you know that the investigation centered on Berg as a significant source of gross error and negligence in counseling, recommending that he immediately be fired and his books entirely removed.
I’m not surprised that BJU, whose motto has been “Standing without apology” for most of its 90 year history, failed to apologize meaningfully to victims or own up to its problems. But I’d hoped for more.
You can read this one without knowing the full context, other than John is several years into living it up in the Far Country (to borrow language from the Prodigal Son parable) at the opening of the tale, about to embark on a cross-country journey.
But do go back to January on his blog and start reading the whole series of posts. Unflinching honesty paired with remarkable grace.
“The law offends us because it tells us what to do–and we hate anyone telling us what to do, most of the time. But, ironically, grace offends us even more because it tells us that there’s nothing we can do, that everything has already been done. And if there’s something we hate more than being told what to do, it’s being told that we can’t do anything, that we can’t earn anything–that we’re helpless, weak, and needy.
The law, at least, assures us that we determine our own destiny—we get to maintain control, the outcome of our life remains in our hands. Give me three steps to a happy marriage and I can guarantee myself a happy marriage if I follow the three steps. If we can do certain things, meet certain standards (whether God’s, my own, my parents, my spouse’s, society’s, whatever) and become a certain way, we’ll make it. Law seems safe because it breeds a sense of manageability. It keeps life formulaic and predictable. It keeps earning-power in our camp. The logic of law makes sense. The logic of grace doesn’t.
Grace is thickly counter-intuitive. It feels risky and unfair. It turns everything that makes sense to us upside-down. It’s not rational. It offends our deepest sense of justice and rightness. It wrestles control out of our hands and destroys our safe, conditional world.”
Which is why this story of a bakery that won’t serve gay couples is really just symptomatic of a deeper problem that nearly all of us in the church suffer from – a lack of real, genuine, embodied love.
More often than not, love for enemies has become something we merely affirm intellectually, not something we actually incarnate with our lives.
Worse yet, many of us in the church are embracing this sort of us vs. them mentality as a bizarre form of persecution in which the response of the faithful must be to fight the enemy so the church can remain pure.