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.