Bob Jones and Race

| | Comments (10)

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.

10 Comments

I'll believe BJU is actually contrite when they remove these notices from the front of their library books on such incendiary topics as urban planning. Ugh.

It's a bit silly to put such notices on your library books, but that's pretty typical of fundamentalism. It doesn't seem to me to have any obvious bearing on this issue, though. Having displayed some hesitancy about a book that you nonetheless think your students ought to be able to read, and not having gone back to undo such notices, doesn't remotely indicate any immoral position about race, especially when there doesn't seem to be any obvious connection between the two. One is political philosophy about the role of government without respect to race, and the other is cultural opposition to interracial marriage based on a false sense of what the biblical text teaches. How does the acceptance of a much more mainstream view on one require the acceptance of a much more mainstream view on the other?

Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures.

Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

I would be more impressed if BJU did not sound like it was trying to portray these as sins of omission rather than commission.

If you look at the whole statement, it's clear that they do call it a sin of commission. They said they'd gotten the institutional policy from culture rather than from the Bible and that they shouldn't have committed that positive act. For later generations not to remove it, it's accurate to call it a failure to do something. Those who continued to justify it as a positive act continued to fall under the first part of the statement, and those who disagreed with it but failed to remove it fall under the second.

Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

Do you believe that blacks were treated any differently on the Bob Jones campus than they were treated elsewhere in South Carolina during the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s? Personally, I am highly skeptical about this claim.

I will concede that this constitutes an actual apology as opposed to the “I’m-sorry-that-you-misunderstood” variety. Nonetheless, I still find it pretty mealy-mouthed.

I'm not sure any blacks ever were on the Bob Jones campus during that time, since they didn't admit black students until 1971, and I don't know if they had any black employees during that period. But I'm open to hearing about any reports of any instances when someone black chanced to roam onto campus. Once they were admitted I'd be surprised if there was anything like lynchings or racist epithets. What I know is that there was a policy of endogamy enforced even at the level of dating and that this continued once they admitted black students. What I don't know of is any evidence against what the statement says.

Sorry, but any suggestion that BJU was adhering to some sort of "social ethos" is a flat out lie. They base their policies on the Bible, as they repeat over and over again. I attended the school in the late 80's early 90's. Racism was very much a topic. One of my best friends was "socialed" because he was seen in "dating situations" with a highschool friend of his--he is Korean, she is caucasion. Anyone, and I mean ANYONE, who knew those two, also KNEW there was no romance in their relationship. But because the school felt it was morally wrong and scripturally prohibited to mix the races, then he and she were both "socialed" (not allowed to interact with the opposite sex for a specified period).

Then in 2000, under political pressure, the school altered its interracial dating ban by allowing students to date outside their race IF they obtained a letter of permission from their parents and filed it with the school administration. Wow, what open-minded progress that was!

Now that the elder Jones' are out of the way, Stephen offers an apology, excusing their past racism by blaming "social norms" which the school consistently claims to NEVER adhere to without first consulting the Bible. This apology is followed by the lie that racism was a dead issue (even in 2000), had been a dead issue for several generations, and that they're just basically updating their offical written rules (which they update annually anyway, usually to add more rules).

Sorry, as a former student, I'm simply not buyin' it.

Casey, the evidence you've presented ignores the distinctions I've carefully made (between excuse and explanation, for instance, particularly given that they use the language of sin and moral wrongness to describe what you're pretending is an excuse). You also make several claims that seem in tension with each other:

1. They overtly based it on the Bible (which they would admit).
2. They couldn't have in any sense actually had non-biblical (i.e. cultural) motives.
3. This policy was racist (and, presumably, therefore, motivated by something other than the Bible).

So whatever we should make of their motivations, I'm certainly not going to accept your reconstruction uncritically. I'm not too fond of contradictions, you see. For my part, claim 2 seems the least plausible given the milieu the institution has mainly occupied. I've definitely heard things out of Bob Jones grads that involved racist assumptions that had nothing to do with the Bible (e.g. that rock music is evil because it has an African witch doctor beat).

I'm particularly unclear on why it's supposed to be so impossible in your book for someone who claims only to follow the Bible and not culture to end up following culture and not the Bible but not to realize it. I could probably rattle off ten things in a minute that Bob Jones follows some culture or other on (whether it's the Southern culture, some fundamentalist culture, a particular theological perspective's way of thinking, or whatever). If you don't agree with them on everything, you've got to have some explanation of why they think something follows from the Bible when it doesn't.

Since I'm not a dispensationalist, for instance, I'm going to suspect that their adherence to it is cultural in some way, even though they think they derive it directly from the Bible. Since it's not what the Bible teaches, it's not just the Bible that they get it from. The Bible doesn't tell me that I have to wear a tie when I'm near a place where people gather to worship God, but Bob Jones (last I knew) had a policy saying such a thing. They didn't get it from the Bible. They say they get everything from the Bible. By your logic, they do get it from the Bible even though it's not in there.

The same goes for their rule of staying at least an inch apart from someone you're dating and always having a chaperone on any dates. Their institutional preference for the King James Version is certainly not present anywhere in the Bible. So why should this not be true for some immoral policy that they have? Surely the correct answer is that it's not in the Bible and therefore requires an explanation from some other quarter, and the most likely candidate is the fact that the culture at large in the circles they run in tends to believe that this view is taught in the Bible. But that's a cultural view that they've adopted then, right?

I didn't see anything claiming that racism was a dead issue, just that any incidents of racial antagonism on a personal level that might have occurred (if any even did, which I'm unsure of) were not tolerated by the administration. Racism is much broader than racial antagonism, though, and I don't think they claimed otherwise. As far as I can tell, what they said is consistent with the evidence you've mustered.

Reconstructing their motives via your discourse on the theory of justification, etc., removes the discussion from the reality of the situation and dillutes the school's culpability.

Your response to my comment did not refute my statements.

1. They overtly based it on the Bible (which they would admit).

2. They couldn't have in any sense actually had non-biblical (i.e. cultural) motives. (Yes, this is their stated belief before the current apology was issued--even for rules governing ties and 1 inch separation during dating (which they admit is Biblical but not found in the Bible chapter and verse; its "godly".)

3. This policy was racist (and, presumably, therefore, motivated by something other than the Bible). (Is the school basing their current apology on this presumption? If their policies are racist, and the Bible (God) is not racist, then their racism came from culture? That would be fine and dandy, except that while enforcing these racist policies, they were studying scripture and claiming it WAS scriptural. Now, are they apologizing because a cultural mindset caused them to misinterpret the Bible? No. They are apologizing for allowing culture to direct their policies rather than finding scriptural support--they are re-writing their history.

"I'm particularly unclear on why it's supposed to be so impossible in your book for someone who claims only to follow the Bible and not culture to end up following culture and not the Bible but not to realize it." They didn't "end up following culture and not the Bible" without realizing it because they constantly examined their policies to ensure that the school remained free from worldly influences. They believed their policies were scriptural.

During the 2000 Bush "controversy", they compromised with the pro-interracial culture of the day by allowing interracial dating for students who have parental consent. The school STILL felt it was a scriptural ban, but bowed to political pressure. This wasn't incidental cultural influence. They chose to appear to change their views.

I've read several comments posted on other blogs by people claiming to be closely linked to the school who say that the "interracial thing" was a dead issue. It could not be a dead issue when the school was still actively enforcing their racist rules.

I'm not against the apology--in fact, its past time it was given. But, as the school attempted to instill in its students, we should always take responsibility for our actions. By claiming that culture created the racist policies, they are denying the truth. An accurate apology smacks of sincerity. They should've said that their misinterpretation of scripture led to their racism, and then apologized for the harm caused by the misinterpretation of scripture.

I've said my piece. If you post this comment you will no doubt attempt to refute it. So be it. The truth is plain. The current school administration may or may not be sorry for the past racism, but they still do not understand how it came about or are in denial of the truth.

As I said, it does not dilute their culpability for them to say that they wrongly got their views from culture rather than from what the Bible really teaches. They never said it was ok to get your views from culture, so there's no reason to pretend they did. They were explaining exactly what was so wrong about what they did, not trying to provide an excuse for it. You yourself have admitted that they emphasize getting views from scripture, so for them to have admitted also that they didn't in this case is a huge admission of wrong.

You seem to think that, because they didn't admit any non-biblical influence in their thinking, that they couldn't later realize that there was. That's simply a crazy view and contrary to all empirical data about how people are motivated and about how people come to understand their own biases over time.

Now, are they apologizing because a cultural mindset caused them to misinterpret the Bible? No. They are apologizing for allowing culture to direct their policies rather than finding scriptural support--they are re-writing their history.

Actually, you've added something that isn't in their statement. They did not say that they were apologizing for letting culture direct their policies rather than finding scriptural support. It's obvious that they did offer scriptural support. But what they said isn't that they never gave scriptural support but that the ideas ultimately came from culture. The said BJU early on "was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it." They didn't say that the scripture played no role in their overt arguments, just that their policies were conformed to the culture rather than what scripture really teaches.

I simply don't see how that's a re-writing of their history unless you assume from the outset that it's impossible to be shaped primarily by culture when providing biblical arguments for something. Since that wouldn't be a true assumption, and they seem to know that even if you don't want to recognize it, I just don't think your charge is compatible with a very charitable reading of their statement (something I think we have an obligation to assume whenever we can).

They didn't "end up following culture and not the Bible" without realizing it because they constantly examined their policies to ensure that the school remained free from worldly influences. They believed their policies were scriptural.

Are you serious? They surely did constantly examine their policies by scripture, but it was scripture as read through their hermeneutical grid, which came out of a particular interpretive culture. By your argument, they could never have had any misinterpretations or false views.

During the 2000 Bush "controversy", they compromised with the pro-interracial culture of the day by allowing interracial dating for students who have parental consent. The school STILL felt it was a scriptural ban, but bowed to political pressure. This wasn't incidental cultural influence. They chose to appear to change their views.

Were you at these board meetings? I'll ssume you're accurately reporting their public statements, but you're going beyond that to speculate about motives. It's consistent with everything I've seen that they did consider it wrong but were willing to back down and treat it as a non-central area of debate, which I would still applaud them for as a step away from their fundamentalism. I respect weaker brothers who won't listen to rock music because they think God doesn't want them to who nonetheless follow Paul's command to treat the stronger brother who is ok with it as a brother to be in fellowship with. I have less respect for the weaker brother who thinks their views so sure that they exclude people who do the thing they can't do in their weakness.

But another possibility is that the board had ceased to be unanimous on the issue, which would explain a messagew of welcoming some allowance while expressing the view of the majority that it's wrong.

Leave a comment

Contact

    The Parablemen are: , , and .

Archives

Archives

Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff

    jolly_good_blogger

    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible


    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)





  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04