Update: Joseph Celucien has posted this at Christ, My Righteousness as part of a series on racial reconciliation, so it might be worth looking at the comments there as well.
Bob Jones University, founded in 1927 in the nexus of racial segregationism and the religious separatism of the early fundamentalist movement, took until 2000 to revoke their ban on interracial dating. Eight years later, they've issued a Statement about Race at Bob Jones University that reflects a fairly healthy view of race, admits to having based their policies on the surrounding cultural norms rather than the Bible, and admits to the wrongness of their institutional policies on race. I was glad in 2000 when they revoked their ban on interracial dating, and I'm glad to see this statement today.
Not everyone is happy about it, though, and I'm not talking about white supremacists. There are some people who simply refuse to accept this as genuine repentance. See the comments at Justin Taylor's post on this for some examples.
The reactions in that comment thread led me to think about a set of related concepts that people often don't distinguish, sometimes to the point of philosophical confusion on important issues. I've sometimes used a paper by Jeffrie Murphy on forgiveness that draws a four-fold distinction between justification, excuse, mercy, and reconciliation. I would now add to the list mitigating factors, explanations, and what Laurence Thomas calls moral deference. Justification is an an explanation why an action isn't wrong (presumably when someone is assuming or arguing that it is). A justification for killing someone, which is normally wrong, might be that I'm defending my son from a vicious murderer. It's a defense of the rightness of something that would otherwise be wrong. An excuse is an explanation of why we shouldn't blame someone who did something wrong. Someone who does something that's wrong but couldn't understand the relevant moral issues because of a diminished capacity to engage in moral reasoning would be excused. Mercy is the removal or diminishment of punishment. If a judge reduces a sentence or a governor or president commutes a sentence, it's mercy. Reconciliation is the restoration of normal relations, for instance if a divorced couple reinstated their marriage or two estranged friends resumed a relationship of friendship. Murphy distinguishes all of these from forgiveness, which is the willingness to put aside one's resentment.
Two related but yet distinct concepts that occurred to me in reading this discussion are mitigating factors, explanations, and moral deference. Mitigating factors can be the basis for some of the original list. A mitigating factor may explain why something normal wrong is right, or it might explain why someone shouldn't be held responsible for doing the wrong thing. It might make it right to reduce a sentence, or it could be the grounds for forgiveness. But the mitigating factor itself is just a condition that makes it worth considering a situation as more complex than the straightforward case of wrongdoing that deserves a certain simple response. An explanation of someone's behavior is simply an account of what led to it. Sometimes it's helpful to understand what led someone to do something wrong. Sometimes the explanation includes mitigating factors. Sometimes it provides some level of justification or excuse. Sometimes it's an attempt to justify or excuse but one that's not entirely successful. But sometimes when someone offers an explanation all they want is for you to understand how they could have ended up in that position, and it might be useful to know about in order to help prevent the person being in the situation that occasioned their wrong act. So I think this is a distinct category, and it's good to be able to think of it as separate. Someone can offer an explanation without necessarily seeing that explanation as an excuse, justification, or call for mercy. Finally, moral deference is when you admit that you don't have a good grasp of what it's like to be in someone else's situation, which leads you therefore to extend them some level of mercy, forgiveness, excuse, justification, or reconciliation. It's a particular reason for doing one of those things, namely that you can't put yourself in a position to judge as easily because you haven't experienced what they've experienced.
What seems to me to be going on in the Bob Jones case is that they've issued an apology that includes an explanation of how they ended up engaging in institutional racism, and they've indicated that they think it was wrong, even giving very clear reasons why it was wrong. I see no attempt to justify or excuse it. They don't even ask for mercy, forgiveness, or reconciliation, but I do assume that they expect Christians to forgive, since Jesus did command it, after all. It's funny, then, to see people in the comment thread pretending that their explanation is really an attempt to offer a mitigating circumstance, as if they deserve less harsh a treatment because they were only going along with their culture. They're very clear that their going along with culture was a very bad thing, because they should have gone along with the Bible.
I do think the detractors ought to show a little moral deference. I'm not in a position of heading up an institution that had overt institutional policies that make sense only with racist ideology. I'm not in a position where I have to abandon those policies and move forward based on the realization that such policies are evil. It's hard to know how best to proceed in such circumstances. I'm not sure what the resistance to Bob Jones University is supposed to amount to, though. Is there a punishment that they don't think should be reduced via mercy? Is there some divide that they don't think should be bridged with reconciliation? Is there a level of resentment that they refuse to put aside in forgiveness? I'm not sure what the goal of the critics of this statement even amounts to, given these categories, and I'm not sure how a Christian can defend it if I don't even know what it is.
I don't think any of the possibilities I just listed are defensible for a Christian, though. Keep in mind that we're not even talking of the kind of divisiveness of segregation, which didn't allow blacks and whites to worship together as brothers and sisters in Christ. It's been decades since Bob Jones might have contributed to that. The recent policy change that went on far too long as an offense, because it didn't allow dating between the races, but it doesn't actually split the body of Christ in terms of worship or anything of that sort. It's a serious offense, but it's one they've repented of publicly and shown a track record of eight years since removing the policy, and it's not as if they outwardly taught the inferiority of either race. If anyone actually believed separate but equal, it was Bob Jones, who genuinely exhibited a spirit of good will toward black people in the U.S. and around the world, all the while holding on to a policy that was rooted in the idea that God created races separately and wanted all of them kept pure in some sense, since each stems from a different son of Noah. On this view, it isn't as if whites are purer or better, as white supremacists who hold such a view think, and it isn't even as if the separation is to be worship separation, just family separation. It's a false view with bad consequences, but it's not as if they were denying the bond in Christ between blacks and whites or treating whites as having a special relationship with God as a race that non-whites can't have.