One of the best analyses of fundamentalist thinking I’ve ever read
It is impossible to debate a fundamentalist….because their very language psychologically traps them into their frames of mind.
In saying it is impossible to debate fundamentalists, Race is saying that fundamentalists — to borrow a concept from Robert Jay Lifton‘s idea of totalism — load the language. They use language in a radically different way from most society, which enables them to control dialogue. They use “thought-stopping cliches” (which is also a term Lifton uses). Race explains that,
That’s why it’s impossible to debate with a fundamentalist. By replacing “my” with “God” and melding beliefs about authority with authority itself, fundamentalist vocabulary has left no room for humility, reason, openness, doubt or change.
And, in conclusion: fundamentalism values ideology over people
Yes. A crisp insight, one that’s vital to understanding current political discourse or my college years.
A few years ago, Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) under the direction of then-president Stephen Jones, invited the independent Christian organization G.R.A.C.E. to investigate its rules, policies, and actions when counseling students who brought tales of abuse to student life staff but found condemnation and blame instead. After a two-year saga and a lot of drama, in December 2014 GRACE presented its report to the University, who promised a response after 90 days.
The Report offered damning evidence from survivor’s stories, university records and policy files, and interviews with key personnel to support a case that BJU had sidestepped mandatory reporting law, cultivated a legalistic student culture which was itself rules-driven and abusive, and allowed untrained counselors to repeat the harmful and unbiblical counseling theories of Jim Berg. The report’s authors issued several calls for change at BJU, including the immediate dismissal of Berg and destruction of all his books along with the writings of Dr Walter Fremont; personnel action against Dr Bob Jones III and other leaders who failed to recognize or stop abuse, and the separation of counseling staff from disciplinary staff.
Today, the University presented its response to the assembled students, faculty, and staff today, and to the world via video and web page. BJU’s Response to the GRACE Report
Unfortunately, BJU failed to respond to the most damaging allegations in the Report, citing their own opinion that no laws were broken (when GRACE cited numerous examples of failures to follow mandatory reporting law), and that all the needed changes had been made.
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. The University doubled-down on its stance behind nouthetic counseling as they practice it as biblical and helpful.
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.
To be fair, I did appreciate that Pettit was as conciliatory as he was. The Greenville News article quotes several passages from the chapel message in their coverage. “He said it was apparent that the university was too focused on rules and not enough on people. ‘Over the years our system of discipline created barriers with many of our students. Some students reported that they were afraid to share their problems out of fear of facing discipline,’ he said.”
It’s a start. But when you watched this beast of a system chew people up for years with your own eyes (and for decades, if you take all the alumni stories together), we need to see BJU take action on the hard items, the ones that will cost them something to their constituents who (because of teaching from Berg and others) cannot see the errors the GRACE Report identified.
1. If you’re looking for a roundup of the allegations in the GRACE Report which BJU is choosing to ignore, here’s a start:
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.
Everyone from the New York Times to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in addition to local news outlets, have picked up the story of Bob Jones University dropping the G.R.A.C.E. investigation into how the University responds to claims of abuse.
[Update 2/15/14: BJU announced a meeting with GRACE next week to decide whether they will restart the investigation.]
In short: Alumni have realized, now that the Internet allows people to compare their stories, that they aren’t alone, that most of the counseling offered to students when they were at BJU has been extremely poor when dealing with victims of sexual abuse.
Many of these cases involve students who brought tales of past abuse to the dorm staff, only to have their stories doubted, blamed on their own actions (what a girl was wearing, for example), chalked up to bitterness and a lack of forgiveness, and swept aside by the excuse, “We don’t want to dishonor the body of Christ by bringing an accusation against your [pastor / youth leader / parent / teacher]. Your responsibility before God is to forgive your abuser and move on, not to report this to the police.”
I wish I were making this up, but I’ve been reading these stories from alumni for almost a decade now. A vibrant discussion form for BJU alumni used to exist on Facebook (before their new Groups pages killed the forum option) where many “survivors” met one another online and shared these stories for the first time. I wish I could say, this is not as bad as it sounds… but actually, it’s worse.
Mandatory reporting laws have regularly been ignored, and an institutional culture of handling everything internally, and blaming girls for unwanted sexual attention, continues well into recent years. Fifteen years after college, I’m still “processing” my thoughts on life in the girls’ dorm and my work as a hall leader. I saw a rough underbelly of abusive practice that I didn’t have the experience or maturity or even education to recognize at the time, but the patterns are clear to me now. Maybe sometime I’ll unpack that whole box of memories, but I’ll move on for now.
(The whole question of eschewing psychological research as Satanic in favor of practicing nouthetic counseling is its own huge topic. Others have taken up the discussion; if you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a post from The Wartburg Watch that I can corroborate – everything he mentions, I heard in counseling class at BJU.)
Returning to the current BJU/GRACE controversy – The conversation is muddy. “Camps” emerge rapidly and their arguments are stereotyped by opposing sides, making straw man interaction all the more tempting. Extremism begins to drown out the conversation on both sides, preventing people in the middle from taking the whole discussion seriously.
It’s easy for the critics of BJU to condemn everyone there as depraved and abusive and bigoted legalists, yet this monolithic condemnation doesn’t match the experience of many of us who honestly value the good that came out of our Bob Jones years. (Probably need to write a post on that too.) Or to borrow the Kuyperian perspective, the antithesis runs through and not around any human institution, including Bob Jones University. There are good people and bad. The battle for sanctification in this life produces awkward mixtures of failure and grace.
Likewise, the defenders of BJU should be faulted for ignoring mounting and overwhelming evidence that we cannot simply let BJU sort this out in their own time, or blame GRACE as if the investigator is the problem. (It isn’t.) Whether the critics are “bitter” toward BJU or not is irrelevant. Abuse has been tolerated, covered up, and mishandled by the administration for decades. The University has a deep racist history – even if you disagree that a particular action was motivated by racism, you can’t overlook the whole arc.
The middle has dropped out of the conversation about BJU and abuse.
When the discussion allows you to be a member only of the extremes, I think you get two things: 1) To an extent, clarity of the opposing viewpoints; but also 2) fog of war, which prevents us from seeing underlying causes as clearly as we might.
The question of abuse – how to define it, how to recognize it, how to ensure that victims and those accused of inflicting abuse are both given a fair hearing – has exploded into popular consciousness. Whether it’s the nightmare of priestly abuse in the Catholic church (helloooo….. maybe celibacy could go?) or Protestant preachers caught doing the dirty with a kid in the youth group, everyone seems to know now that powerful Christians sometimes use that power to abuse the people under their care. It’s shameful, and it needs to stop.
The culture of protecting the accused lies at the heart of the problem, but I’d like to point a finger at one underlying theological error that drives this behavior:
Defining government as “that which is evil.”
Conservative political theory has been wedded to Evangelical theology pretty tightly in the past 30 years or so, at least in my Evangelical circles. I think desegregation and the fight for racial equality galvanized some sectors of Christianity (not just in the South) to link their personal, cultural perspectives on American issues to their theological perspectives. Fundamentalism certainly shifted into a hardline separatism during the 1960s and 70s as the wider culture looked less and less like Mayberry, a mythical vision of America that looked enough like the way Americans tend to define “Christian living” to fool everyone into thinking they were the same thing.
Throw in the disillusionment of the Vietnam War, the Nixon tapes, the stagflation of the 70s, the decline of American manufacturing, Clinton’s inability to keep his fly zipped, and W’s foolish Iraq war — it’s not like our government has had a great track record over my lifetime for sure. Oh, and now the NSA spying scandal, the use of drones to kill terrorists without any kind of legal trial, Guantanamo Bay, and a completely inept Congress, and I’d say I’ve dug myself a pretty deep hole for trying to argue that government isn’t evil.
Looks like this needs to be a separate post. Stay tuned.
If you’re willing to walk just a little further with me on the idea, here is the point I want to make:
Because it’s cool now in conservative circles to bash government, churches / Christian organizations believe with all their hearts that the government isn’t good enough to do its job.
I’d argue that “it’s job” is to bear the sword (Rom 13) to ensure justice against evildoers. I also think the Old Testament firmly defines a righteous king as one who cares for the poor, defends the oppressed and weak, and defends justice, especially for those who do not have a voice.
We can argue about all other kinds of things the government seems to want to do (Obamacare, taxing, etc) but let me focus in on one major idea:
The institution God created to dispense justice is the State. That doesn’t mean other institutions (families, churches, schools, businesses) get to be unjust. It means that the state is given the responsibility to make sure injustice gets smashed.
When the Church absorbs the responsibility for determining justice and wrong-doing into its own mission, we get certain problems. Churches who stop trusting the government to do its job take justice into their own hands. So when a kid accuses her youth leader or parent of sexual abuse, pastors feel like it’s ok for them to “make the call” whether this is a “real” case of abuse.
I get it. I do. As a teacher, I lived in a world where word-against-word accusations could end someone’s career, often unfairly. Make a teenager unhappy and you find yourself facing a series of lies about your actions, your character, your motives It was a real risk and my only defenses were common sense and a lot of prayer for protection from El-Roi, the God Who Sees.
I’m not pretending that our state agencies get things right. You can pile up examples of child protective services bringing cases against parents because, for instance, mom swatted the toddler on his butt during a grocery store tantrum.
I get it.
But God didn’t establish the spheres of human institutions on a whim, and I don’t think you can succeed in arguing that American government is so broken that we have no hope of justice. Church courts do not supersede legal rulings. The DSS workers I know in South Carolina work very hard to protect children from horrific abuse. They don’t relish pulling children into the state’s hands. They see first-hand how much damage it does to a child…. but abuse is a serious charge and must be investigated seriously.
This is why pastors and teachers (and others) are required to obey mandatory reporting laws. Biblically, all of us are responsible to see that the weak and voiceless are not smashed by the strong, and we are bound to obey the government we live under unless it violates biblical mandate.
The real problem with trying to handle abuse accusations in-house is that neither the victim nor the accused will actually get justice. (I realize that the legal system sucks at sorting out these cases too — Dylan Farrow’s renewed accusations of sexual abuse by Woody Allen make this point well). [Excellent post on this point: Why Young Sexual Assault Victims Tell Incoherent Stories – Atlantic Mobile.]
But the Church cannot marshall the resources of the institution given the biblical mandate to uphold justice — the forensics, the investigators, the laws of evidence and testimony established within our legal system to look at questions of abuse and bring things into the light. Further, the Church can never impose the level of penalty that justice requires for a wrongdoer. God forgives and Grace heals, but sin carries penalty.
Alumni were happy because the G.R.A.C.E. investigation was going to bring light to the dark corners of BJU policy and administrative action. Realistically, that could result in civil and criminal charges. But when sin has been committed, if you’re going to argue that you follow a biblical theology, you can’t step back from the civil consequences of immoral actions.
We Protestants have no business smirking when another priest abuse scandal hits the TV news. Our own churches are awash in buried accusations of sexual impropriety, domestic violence, emotional abuse, educational neglect, and other crimes.
The PCA [Presbyterian Church in America], the denomination to which my church belongs, refused last summer to take up a resolution urging churches to implement wise policies within child care programs and church events to reduce the chances of abuse.
Let’s get back to the basics. Government isn’t evil; people are evil. God instituted the State to protect people from one another, to ensure justice, to penalize evil. Christians and people in the church can be evil. Outside eyes are good. Accountability is good. Following the law, even if you don’t like it, is biblical. Hurting children is bad. Withholding justice from both victims and those accused is bad. Trying to keep accusations of abuse “in the family” by handling a matter internally is bad – whether you’re a church or a Christian college.