Bob Jones University, self-identified as The World’s Most Unusual University and the Fortress of Faith, has a very public history of many atrocious things. Racism and homophobia have topped the list thusfar, but now, thanks to the 300 page report from the Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) that is gaining national attention, mistreating victims of sexual abuse is another claim BJU can make to fame.
Frankly, I’m thrilled that the report has been released. I’m pleased with how thorough it is, and I’m even more thrilled with the press it’s getting. Please don’t mistake my joy that the voices of my brothers and sisters and me are finally publicly vindicated as rejoicing in BJU’s public censure. I wish more than anything that they would take to heart the criticism they’re receiving, offer a sincere apology, and make their campus and staff safe places for victims of abuse. However, I’m simply not hopeful to that end.
While I’ve skimmed through two thirds of the report already, I’m currently undertaking the task of reading through every page and footnote. Clearly, I’m personally invested. I actually gave GRACE a written statement, though I’m not sure that it was used in this final report or not. (More on that later). I just need to read it myself, think through it and analyze it myself. And I’m going to provide my exhaustive notes and analysis here, starting today.
These thoughts are my own. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my perspective, but I think it’s valuable to share my thoughts as a survivor, former student, participant in the investigation, and skeptic. Every quote that I reference will have the page number (and footnote number, if applicable) relevant to the report.
And so I begin.
“The report is not bound by courtroom standards of evidence or burdens of proof, as this project has been a voluntary investigation initiated by Bob Jones University. The investigation is not, nor has it ever been, an attempt to bring about any legal action.” pg 21
GRACE is a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to educating the Christian community on sexual abuse. They’re a pretty solid organization, and clearly they’re doing a great job bringing attention to a topic that the world at large struggles dealing with, let alone Christian communities.
However, and this is important:
GRACE is not a legal entity.
That isn’t to say that they are an illegal entity. It simply means what they themselves say on page 21 of the report: their investigation is not a legal investigation.
In some ways, this concerns me. As a non-legal investigation and report, I have to wonder how much weight it can hold as far as affecting real, meaningful change at the university. It’s not like this is a federal investigation, or even a state or county investigation.
But on the other hand, this report will hold more weight for BJU and their supporters than it might if it were a legal investigation.
Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians (of which BJU and its supporters are most certainly the former) have what we might call a persecution complex, along with a really convenient way of always making their actions seem above reproach. You see, if they experience lots of support and admiration for their Christian service, it’s just God working through them and rewarding them for their obedience. But if they’re criticized for their Christian service, then it’s prophecy being fulfilled that “the world” will misunderstand and persecute them, but God is still on their side. This makes criticism and even punishment from “secular” institutions, including governmental institutions, pretty much roll off their backs like water, because it still serves to reinforce their belief that pushback equals persecution, and persecution means they’re doing something right.
A report this scathing from a secular or governmental institution would be easily dismissed by Christian fundamentalists as persecution. But coming from “brothers in Christ,” complete with the sheer amount of Bible references and theological explanation that GRACE provides in their report, makes the contents of this report harder for them to dismiss. It doesn’t mean that some won’t still dismiss it, but it does mean that the intended audience for this report will take the contents therein more seriously.
The language of the report.
Language involving BJU’s role in the report and the findings of the report.
“In November 2012, Bob Jones University took a bold step forward.” pg. 3
Something I noticed in my initial skim through the report and am noticing even more as I read it carefully, is that GRACE takes a very friendly, non-accusatory tone with BJU. I’ll be honest, this makes me a bit uneasy. Throughout the report, they give BJU too much credit for decisions that seem to have clearly been made under duress, and often hedge their statements about BJU’s failings in such a way that gives the university way too much room to wiggle out of owning responsibility for the harm they’ve caused.
“…the findings are based on the experiences of survey respondents occurring over more than a 30 year time period. The findings, therefore, may not adequately reflect the impact of changes in BJU’s policies and practices in the last several years or the university’s reply to the issues raised.” pg. 28
I read this as I first scanned through the report, and my heart sunk. “BJU will latch onto that as proof that the report findings don’t matter as much because changes have already been made.” And what do you know? I was right. In BJU’s Initial Overview of the GRACE Report, under “observations” on page three, in what I find to be an incredibly self-serving observation dismissive of the victims that interviewed with GRACE, BJU states as their first observation:
The report spans approximately four decades and GRACE invited participation from any person who has attended BJU since its inception and any friends or families of those students. As the report notes, its findings “may not adequately reflect the impact of changes in BJU’s policies and practices in the last several years or the University’s reply to the issues raised.” (p. 28)
This sort of caveat-making and hedging of statements in imprecise language (repeated language of “findings support a possible conclusion,” emphasis added), while understandable in some ways, seems to serve more to enable BJU to dismiss the findings of the report rather than take responsibility for their actions.
Language involving biblical and psychological texts.
As a former fundamentalist, I take notice when people use the Bible in ways that I would have found unacceptable and therefore dismissable. GRACE skews far more Evangelical than BJU or its supporters do, which in their minds makes GRACE liberal and untrustworthy. There are repeated instances just in the introduction where GRACE references the Bible in ways that a fundamentalist would disagree with. For example,
“Indeed, scripture records that Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is a descendant of a sexually exploited woman.” Footnote 14: “Rahab was a sexually exploited woman from Jericho who hid the Israelite spies, was converted to Judaism and eventually became part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. See Josh. 2; Josh. 6:22-25; Heb. 11:31; Matt. 1:5.” pg. 4
From my memory of a few sermons and classes in which Rahab was mentioned during my time at the university, BJU absolutely does not view her as a sexually exploited woman so much as an immoral temptress that God in His mercy chose to save from her debauchery. I know that if I had read that description of her while I was still a conservative Christian, I would have reasoned, “They got this wrong, so how can I trust that their exegesis is accurate or applicable in other areas?”
They also repeatedly cite psychological texts and experts in regards to situations of victim’s mental health in the wake of their abuse or disclosing their abuse. BJU and fundamentalists in general in my experience utterly discount psychology as unreliable. All mental health problems are viewed instead as spiritual problems. I’m afraid this will also make it easy for BJU and their supporters to dismiss entire swaths of the report, despite all the evidence and expert psychological analysis there is.
Before I close this introductory post, I want to address something that might come up in the minds of many friends or allies reading my thoughts on the report.
Why so critical?
There are three primary reasons I’m being so critical of the report.
- I want to be as honest in my approach as I can be.
I deeply appreciate the report, as I’ve said already. It’s a monument to the hundreds of people who have longed for transparency regarding BJU’s treatment of abuse victims. But I don’t want to give uncritical praise and ignore any faults it may have. I don’t find that to be an intellectually honest approach, and I don’t wish to be accused of ignoring important data in favor of a specific agenda.
- I want to prepare people for responses that BJU and its supporters may have to the report and the victims represented.
As a former fundamentalist, it’s pretty easy for me to notice areas where I would have said, “Well, if they say this, then the report is flawed and untrustworthy.” When I document these areas, I’m not finding fault with GRACE. I’m pointing out the logical fallacies many will employ when trying to refute their findings, along with showing how nitpicky they can be if they want to find fault in information they clearly don’t want to believe in the first place.
- I think it’s important to have a public, critical analysis from someone who was once an insider and is now an outsider.
I think I can provide a unique perspective that could be helpful both to those on the inside who are beginning to wonder if BJU or fundamentalism are safe places and helpful to those on the outside who want to know how to understand people from such an insular environment.
I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on Chapter One of the report. Feel free to comment with any observations you may have had, either from the report or from this post!