A Path Forward: BJU and sexual abuse survivors

In November 2008, three Bob Jones University alumni—Beth Murschell, Tim Tsuei, and Jonathan  Henry—organized a petition called “Please Reconcile,” enlisting friends and alumni of BJU to ask the school to apologize for its policies and actions on race relations. There was no malice, no contempt and no angry demands. Within a few weeks, BJU issued a public apology. As Greenville Journal put it, “In the end, it appears a plea from within Bob Jones University’s own community did what years of criticism and vilification couldn’t.”

The petition explained its rationale in a way that serves as a model in the current controversy over how BJU has treated sexual abuse survivors. “Please Reconcile” organizers wrote, “We believe in undertaking this project, we did what we were trained at BJU to do: to lovingly confront wrong doctrine and practice wherever it exists and to remove every impediment to our Gospel witness in the world.”

Because it matters how change is made, I appeal to two groups to participate in constructive change.

To those inclined to be friendly

It’s time to recognize that wrong has been done. The GRACE investigation primarily concerns BJU students who have reported sexual abuse, in some cases while they were students, in many others, before they came to BJU. There is plenty of credible evidence that BJU did wrong to these students in how it responded.

Many of us have little in our experience to equip us to understand and respond to sexual abuse survivors. Even given the disturbing high levels of abuse, the majority of us did not experience or deal with it. As abuse survivors continue to speak up, their understandable anger often comes through in very harsh and hostile language. We do well to remember that in addition to their traumatic experiences, victims of sexual abuse have pled and waited for years, even decades, for BJU to acknowledge their abuse and how it was treated. With that in mind, and with grace from the Holy Spirit, we who can speak with calmness and good will are well-positioned to speak for justice on behalf of those who were hurt.

Recently, a rabbi in Greenville, SC, provided helpful perspective on BJU and the GRACE investigation. In the past, he has been strongly and publicly critical of BJU. This time, he was not. He wrote, “No one—no  one, owns the high ground on this.” While I appreciated his honesty and fair-mindedness, I was also distressed. Of all people, we who are Christians should be on the high ground. It is a tragic failure that we are not! It is time that we model and lead in redemptive change rather than be pushed into it. Our silence has left a vacuum filled by cynicism.

To those inclined to be cynical

Much of the support for sexual abuse victims from BJU has come from others who are deeply antagonistic toward BJU. Their tone and words are usually cynical. Cynicism is scornful of another’s motives, assuming them always to be selfish and incapable of change. Cynicism might accomplish a short term goal that seems positive, but it ultimately destroys more than it builds. It is inherently corrosive.

Cynicism also alienates those who could give real help in long term, constructive change. They are not eager to join voices with those who openly wish for BJU’s demise, use personal insult, and try to attach irrelevant issues and personal grudges to the legitimate claims of abuse victims. Posting links to sources that are hostile to Christianity, such as The Young Turks, another self-defeating tactic, does not help either.

Some Christians have tried to justify the cynical approach by arguing that BJU could have forestalled the hostility by responding in a more timely fashion. I do not argue with that. But at the same time I find no instance in Scripture where Jesus reacted with cynicism, even toward His most implacable tormentors. In light of that, here are a few questions for the cynics to consider. Does Jesus need or want our malicious words to accomplish His purposes? Are we trying to bring truth to light and healing to the wounded because the Father has told us to do it, or because we think we can make it happen? Where did Jesus give any of us authority to judge the motives of our brothers and sisters?

I believe that what is needed is BJU alumni who speak with good will and want good changes to continue. I appeal to them to engage in humble, loving confrontation. Only a few days ago Pastor Ryan Ferguson, a former BJU student, gave us an example worthy of following. Watch his video “open letter” below. Speaking to BJU’s leaders, Pastor Ferguson says, “It is my opinion that even your greatest critics would be stunned by a simple and forward statement of responsibility.” I agree. Please contact BJU and urge them to do that. Even before the investigation is complete, such a statement would go far.

As of this posting, no public announcement has been made regarding the BJU/GRACE talks to restart and complete the investigation. Regardless, the outcome is not inevitable. God can accomplish His purposes with or without us, but our participation with Him does matter. How we speak and how change is accomplished also matters.

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17 Responses to A Path Forward: BJU and sexual abuse survivors

  1. Tewjr says:

    I am one of those alumni who attended the school, enjoyed it, and was shocked to hear the stories about abuse and the cover up of abuse when they started coming out a few years ago. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I kept hearing more and more information and gradually came to realize how big the problem really was. My first inclination was to urge the survivors to confront the school directly, until I realized with dismay that that had already been done, many times.

    Some of the survivors are angry, even furious, at how they have been treated, and sometimes their anger goes into vicious attacks on peripheral figures, cruel ridicule, and outlandish comparisons (Dr Bob is as bad as Hitler? Really??) I want the anger without the savagery.

    On the other hand I have also been at odds with family members and lost friends who refused to admit that the university has a serious problem. I have also confronted the school directly, several times, and received nothing back from them.

    There is no middle ground for people like me.

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  2. Gene says:

    BJU and GRACE have come to an agreement to reinstate original contract and it will be moving forward immediately for a conclusion. Praise the Lord for this, and now time is needed to allow this to move forward. It still seems those intent on vilifying BJU are still having a “Yea, but……” kind of attitude. This is not healthy, and we need to gracious in desire for this to be a genuine move forward.

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    • A follower of God says:

      Gene,
      I cannot speak for each of the victims. It is not my place and is not my intention to do so. I am incredibly thankful that BJU has reinstated GRACE. As for those who have a “Yea, but…” attitude, I would have to count myself among them.
      Please let me explain. Many have pleaded to God to move the hearts of those at BJU to allow the investigation to continue. A lot is at stake here – the victims, the perpetrators, those who covered for perpetrators, biblical truth about perpetrators and victims, God’s name, etc. It is incredibly important that the truth come out. I am hoping that it comes out in a way that is healing to victims and repentant for those who did wrong. For now, BJU has responded in a way that indicates that they have not done wrong, that this investigation is simply due to the desire to improve their responses, etc. – something proactive, not reactive.
      I know differently b/c of my own experiences and interaction with the school. The way they have responded is disappointing. It is disappointing on behalf of the victims, but also on behalf of the school. I WANT good for the school, but I think that can only come from their being honest, transparent and repentant in the areas where they have erred.
      I can’t judge the hearts of others, but I do hope that God makes Himself known. I hope that all are able to see his character, his love and compassion, as well as his judgement towards those who are unrepentant (not for their destruction, but so that they can see their error and repent of it).

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      • Follower of God,

        I agree with everything you said. I would like to suspend judgment on why BJU has acted as they have regarding this investigation, but I admit that things have not smelled good in the last few weeks, until today. Thank you for your gracious tone and careful words. No doubt it is difficult for you to speak with restraint, given the experience that you reference. What is needed is speech that invites others to speak up, reject cynicism, and encourage more positive change. Thank you for adding your voice!

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      • Gene says:

        What I’m saying is this…. there are some who have an attitude they will never be happy until the gates are padlocked. It appears that no matter what steps are taken “some” immediately look for the negative response. To them, I would ask…what would you have them do? Some things never seem to be enough no matter what. Those that have legitimate issues are different from those who have an ax to grind (which I am trying to differentiate about). What I desire is for both sides to settle down, and “allow” the process a “short” bit of time to move forward, and pray in the mean time that God is glorified thru all……………

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        • Beth says:

          Gene, it may be helpful for you to know that those who praise the small steps get shouted down by the people at Truth. There is a wide divide between the BJU bloggers, which may not be apparent from the outside.
          I personally hope for reconciliation with INDIVIDUALS at BJU. I believe in hope for change for people I love. Individuals.
          As regards the INSTITUTION, they’ve been given so many chances…I have said for several years that they are done. I will not be sad if they close. I have prayed for it.

          “I can’t stand your religious meetings.
          I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
          I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
          your pretentious slogans and goals.
          I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
          your public relations and image making.
          I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
          When was the last time you sang to me?
          Do you know what I want?
          I want justice—oceans of it.
          I want fairness—rivers of it.
          That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” Amos 5

          Is there a huge difference in the *behavior* of some Truthers and the school?

          No.

          Is there shunning/banning/blocking/blacklisting by both sides?

          Yes.

          Does either side see it?

          No.

          Do they both believe UTTERLY in their cause? That they are the ones doing right?

          Yes.

          (Is there anything more ugly than an idealogue who leaves love behind?)

          Have I been guilty of it? Yes, to my great regret.

          I wish I had known sooner that I was not worthless, that I did not need to feel shame, that I could set boundaries, that I could be assertive, and that it was okay that I made unfortunate choices along the way. I’m still worth being loved.

          And so are all of you.

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          • Beth,

            I deeply sympathize with your sentiments and now understand the reasons for them better than ever. Gene and Tewjr also made valid points in a balanced way. I agree with all three of you, with one exception. Beth, your distinction between the individuals and the institution of BJU would be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible to maintain in practice. I don’t see the need or value in separating all the complex strands that comprise the institution vis-a-vis the individuals. Maybe you are right, but we don’t know for sure. None of us has sufficient knowledge or wisdom to issue a judgment that the institution is done.

            Just to clarify, I think you are referring to the FB page, “Truth seeking graduates of Bob Jones.” You are right, “those who praise the small steps get shouted down by the people at ‘Truth.'” But in the end, I say, so what? While they are asking some good questions and providing some helpful information, they do not have a monopoly on the discussion. And, as with others, the malice keeps intruding and skewing their credibility. Has anyone else noticed that to date, there is not a single website, blog or FB page that is materially different? I say it’s time to try something new.

            How about a sustained, concerted effort of BJU friends and graduates who can speak with truth and good will directly to the school and say, “We love and appreciate the good that BJU did in our lives. But BJU, as your friends we tell you plainly, there are some serious problems that must be fixed. We lovingly insist that they be fixed. We lovingly insist that as God gives you grace, you make right the past wrongs. We will stay with you until these matters are fixed and made right.”

            It’s going to be painful and probably very messy for BJU to act responsibly fully on the GRACE report. Presently, I don’t know that there is a group of alumni who understand the gravity of the problem, what is at stake and what it will take to support BJU in finishing the job. The rock throwers certainly aren’t up to it.

            Beth, why can’t there be a permanent “Please Reconcile” kind of movement of BJU alumni and friends? There is more at stake here than BJU’s longevity, or even reconciliation between it and its estranged community. What about the testimony and effect on the body of Jesus? Do we write off every school and every church that has messed up badly? Remember what the rabbi said: “No one, no one owns the high ground on this.” If BJU doesn’t own up and set a new kind of example, what kind of message does that send to others? I think the message would be: “Go ahead. Keep stonewalling, sandbagging, downplaying, and postponing.” And one day it will blow up in their faces.

            Follow-through will be painful and it will be messy. But the alternative is unthinkable. And I have this suspicion that Jesus might have something better in mind.

            Like

            • Beth says:

              I’ve heard it said that the one with the burden is the one with the call. 🙂
              I think it’s exactly the time for people who do want the school as an institution to do right and stay solvent to say the things you are saying.
              It will be painful and messy, more than you can possibly imagine.
              As bad as things have been, the message I’d like everyone to get is this:

              “I, Jude…writing to those loved by God the Father, called and kept safe by Jesus Christ. Relax, everything’s going to be all right; rest, everything’s coming together; open your hearts, love is on the way!”

              No matter what happens to the school, there’s no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Love is on the way. Everything is going to be all right.
              “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian)

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            • A follower of God says:

              I want to respond to this, but am having a hard time finding the words to respond adequately. I have asked the question hundreds of times, “Why does no group, no church, no one with a voice that can be heard loudly plead for the school to repent, to humble themselves, to speak truth?”
              So far, I have seen NO one willing to do so. Why is that?? I don’t understand. Where are the friends of BJU? I hear them speaking. I hear them defending the school and condemning those who have reported. I have felt their scathing comments tear into those of us who are already hurting. I have not heard any calling the school to do what is right.
              Victims have attempted to call the new president, Mr. Pettit, to attempt to talk with him and try to understand if he will lead the school in a direction of perhaps helping to begin down a path of healing. Either he refuses to talk with victims or is not permitted to talk with victims. His staff state that he is willing and available to talk with all alumni, with the exception of victims. I don’t understand.
              As for reconciliation. I looked up the definition to make sure I understand clearly what that means. This is what I found, “the restoration of friendly relations,” and “the action of making one view or belief compatible with another.” If that is the definition, I don’t expect that to happen. BJU does not have a history of friendly relations with abuse victims, so it isn’t something that can be restored. As for making our views or beliefs compatible with each other, I suppose that it is possible, but don’t see it as probable. There are strong belief systems there that form the foundation that led to victims of abuse being treated and counseled poorly and also led to their form of counseling that in my opinion, is destructive. Are they willing and ready to change that much?
              I don’t know. I suppose I still hope for it, but I don’t know that it is possible.

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  3. Just looked at the original Please-Reconcile group. We comprised fourteen people. So you’ve got 20% of us there.

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    • Camille,

      I’m sorry for the omission. I was going on the information I had, which was from newspaper clippings. I am happy to give credit and appreciation to you, Jon Henry’s wife, and all the others who contributed.

      Like

  4. There are a few more historical facts you are missing. For one, it wasn’t just those three people although they were a major and vital part. I document the facts here:

    https://www.academia.edu/2389121/Standing_Within_and_Without_Apolgia

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  5. Beth says:

    I just saw a link posted that mentioned my name as well. I would like to clarify that, although I was part of the petition group, Jon and his wife are the heroes who got the ball rolling and did the yeoman’s share of the work. There were others as well, some of whom (like Camille) are still involved. Some support the cause but can no longer be part of the current effort. I walked away to heal myself.

    I am only now seeing a beginning level of understanding by some in the “middle” of the pain caused by BJU and its teachings. The outrage we felt years ago when we were yelling into the silence is beginning to percolate into a wider audience.

    The exposure by the media can only help the cause of the victims, in my opinion.

    “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!”

    as to the personal toll, this psalm resonates on more than one level:

    “God, if I’ve done what they say—
    betrayed my friends,
    ripped off my enemies—
    If my hands are really that dirty,
    let them get me, walk all over me,
    leave me flat on my face in the dirt.”

    No institution of man is worth hurting innocent people. Not one. Even if (or especially if) it is a “religious” institution.

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  6. Jonathan,

    Thank you very much for your perspective.

    Threatening emails? Attempted hacks of your website? Accusations of bitterness? That’s very sad! Pathetic!

    Well, five years later, I haven’t had any of that. The links to my posts are still up on the BJU General Alumni page. I think that things are different now, though I recognize that there is a lot of work to be done, by us and the Holy Spirit.

    There is no doubt in my mind that “Please Reconcile” was directly responsible for BJU’s apology, and I want to thank you directly for working for that. There is a lot of disagreement both ways on this, but I believe that there is a lot of good at BJU worth keeping and improving. Your background info is distressing, but I refuse to be cynical. I agree that things are not as they appear on the outside, but that cuts both ways. So I don’t agree that those confused by the tone and rhetoric of the current discussion should stay out of it. If they are Christians who care about Jesus’ reputation and the care of His children who have been hurt, we should be helping them understand and speak up.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jonathan Henry says:

    As someone named in this article, I wanted to add a different perspective. Back in 2008, I remember hearing that I was unbiblical, bitter, and sinful for both the content and style of our criticism (as you point out, the whole thing was all rather polite). Our character was maligned, and occasional scare tactics were used by militant defenders of the school (threatening emails, and attempted hacks of the website). Then, when all was said and done, the administration took great pains to state that their statement on race had nothing to do with our alumni effort – despite coinciding exactly with the publication of the “Please Reconcile” letter. While I was glad for their statement, it was a bizarre glimpse into how carefully guarded the university’s reputation is, and the lengths to which “they” (whoever that is) will go to guard it. This includes, in my experience, making statements that are not only untrue, but stunningly false.

    Fast forward to today. We are looking at a tremendous upsurge of awareness about how to protect vulnerable populations from abuse, and hopefully how to help those who underwent horrific treatment in their childhood. Considering that many abusers are still alive, are possibly serving in churches right now, and that those who are shielding them are likewise aware of their complicity, I would consider this something of an emergency effort on the part of those seeking justice (and protection for younger siblings, etc.). If these survivors are experiencing even a fraction of the opposition which I felt in our relatively mundane, tame little project of 2008, then I can only imagine their frustration is at a boiling point. I suspect that they are experiencing more than a fraction of this opposition – in fact, I bet they are experiencing exponentially more. Those who abused and those who are covering their tracks are all bound to be trying every trick in the book to keep their disgraceful secrets from ever seeing the light of day. If there were lies emanating from from BJU’s administrative building in 2008, how much more now?

    My recommendation for someone confused by the tone and rhetoric of today’s battles: stay out of it, because you likely don’t know either side as well as you think you do, and things are certainly not as they appear on the outside.

    Like

    • A follower of God says:

      I saw this post quite awhile back, but have just now seen some of the comments. Now, it is several months since the original post and my heart is breaking over all I have seen and heard since.
      Jonathan, your words are encouraging. I don’t know the details of all you faced when working on the Please Reconcile petition, but I do know my own experiences in pleading for right to be done in the areas where the school has done wrong in facing sexual abuse and it has been incredibly painful. I am devastated by the responses that have come out so far. I am deeply concerned about the offenders who are STILL currently serving in Christian leadership positions. The school knows about them and has seemingly done nothing at all to address these issues. I wonder often about those who could be being victimized now while the school does nothing.
      I’m not sure anymore what exactly is Christianity? Didn’t Jesus talk about protecting the weak, binding the wounds of the broken, healing the sick, feeding the poor.
      I am sad. I am heartsick.
      IF BJU had any intention of actually making wrongs right, they could have started long ago.

      Like

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