Just before Easter, I learned that some of Bob Jones University’s loyal supporters have received a letter containing a very different message from the publicly posted apology that Bob Jones University released prior to BJUnity’s book discussion with author Matthew Vines in downtown Greenville on March 23.
The letter says:
What kind and encouraging friends you are. In a moment of frustration with the media and in the heat of controversy 35 years ago, I made a statement designed to be provocative — which was uncalled for and untheological. I don’t recall that it made even a ripple at the time; but now it appears in a petition from a ‘mob’ for retraction.
It is unhistorical for the University to respond to such petitions; but when I actually took the time to read the statement I made, I was struck with the reality that lest the Bible, the University, and my own testimony be reflected on, I needed to make an apology for the statement itself. It wasn’t the petition that troubled me — it was the wrong concept the statement left about the mercies of God to repentant and forsaking sinners through the Savior’s mercies, because it is not His will that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
It is always right to do right, and it was right for me to set right that statement regarding God’s view about sin and the sinner. I have no fear whatsoever of the petition or the petitioner, but I do fear God.
Blessings on you.
Bob Jones, III
This letter is extremely disappointing to read because it undermines the perception that BJU deliberately attempted to foster in the media that “Dr. Bob,” as he is known on campus, is sorry for saying that “gay people should be stoned to death” and for the harm his 1980 statement (and others like it that he has made over the years) has caused to countless lgbt+ lives who have been associated with Bob Jones University.
Instead of showing leadership in an area where Bob Jones University has been historically antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ (a point that he does concede, for which I am grateful), Dr. Bob and the University that bears his name have once again “conformed to the culture” of homophobia, transphobia, discrimination and violence against lgbt+ people in the United States; and this letter indicates they intend to continue to follow those cultural biases and prejudices rather than to lead BJU into a more Christlike response to their lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, questioning, intersex and straight affirming students, alumni, faculty and staff.
Because this letter misrepresents the truth about the petition and about the people who signed it, I want to address several key statements Dr. Bob made:
- “in a moment of frustration with the media and in the heat of controversy 35 years ago” is a curious way to describe the circumstances in which Dr. Bob found himself in Washington, DC, on the steps of the White House, speaking to an Associated Press reporter in 1980. The historical record shows that he went to Washington with a large and powerful coalition of evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to present a petition of their own to President Jimmy Carter demanding that the former President not extend Civil Rights protections to gender and sexual minorities… and they were successful in blocking legal protections for lgbt+ people;
- “I made a statement designed to be provocative—which was uncalled for and untheological” is a dishonest reflection on that statement given Dr. Bob’s continued and frequent use of inflammatory, dehumanizing, and sometimes violent rhetoric over the past four decades when talking about lgbt+ people, a subject which has been a frequent and recurring theme in his chapel messages, as anyone who has attended Bob Jones University since 1980 can readily attest and as this video presenting a collection of such statements shows;
- “now it appears in a petition from a ‘mob’ for retraction” is one of the most hurtful and patently false statements in this letter. While many people around the world signed the letter, and a great many of them are people he may not know, since Dr. Bob has received an email from change.org every time someone signed BJUnity’s petition and because I personally mailed a list of most of our petition signers to President Steve Pettit last month, Bob Jones University is well aware that many alumni and others who have had a long association with the school signed our petition, not the nameless, faceless “mob” that he suggests. Dr. Bob’s repeated attempts to dehumanize and thus delegitimize the people of BJUnity and our many supporters is one of the most insidious problems with the University’s reaction to BJUnity since we launched the organization three years ago. We are not nameless, faceless harpies in a sea of unknown people. We are not an angry mob of outsiders storming the gates of BJU. We are families, friends and neighbors who are personally known to him and to many, many people on the campus of Bob Jones University and who want to see an end to the harm being done to our lgbt+ brothers and sisters there;
- “when I actually took the time to read the statement I made” is a curious way to denote the passage of three years since BJUnity launched our petition and of nearly a decade since author Rich Merritt first publicized this particular statement. As I said previously, change.org emails the petition’s recipient when a petition is launched and every time someone signs it, so Dr. Bob was not suddenly made aware of our petition by the media or by my letter to Steve Pettit last month. It has been the subject of numerous national news stories over the past three years, but he has been notified personally about the petition from the very beginning, so it’s very interesting that Dr. Bob is pretending that this statement is just now coming to his attention;
- “the mercies of God to repentant and forsaking sinners”—it seems to me that Dr. Bob does not include himself in this category of people at all, and this is the major reason most of our people will have a lot of trouble believing that the apology is genuine. The gospel that BJU claims to preach and that those of us in BJUnity who identify as Christians believe is a gospel that identifies every single human being, including preachers and university chancellors, as a sinner in need of a Savior. It is not a gospel that categorizes lgbt+ people separately as somehow worse than the the rest of humanity, but rather acknowledges our common humanity and the breadth of God’s mercy and grace to all human beings. The ultimate effect of Bob Jones III’s violent rhetoric against lgbt+ people over the past four decades has been a distortion of this gospel message as it applies to lgbt+ people: a message that reinforces the persistent cultural message that lgbt+ people are less than human and “worthy of swift and certain death” because of our loves and our lives, portraying us falsely as decadent, depraved hedonists who are unable to receive the salvation Jesus freely offers to all who call on His Name. It’s no wonder that so many of the people BJUnity supports have turned away entirely from this message because of the words and actions of Bob Jones III and the university that he has led for nearly 50 years, no longer identifying as Christians or professing faith in Jesus Christ. This is the end result of the distorted gospel message still implicit in the letter Dr. Bob has sent to his supporters;
- “I have no fear whatsoever of the petition or the petitioner…”
Dear Dr. Bob,
We don’t want you to be afraid of us. That’s never been our intention. Rather, we want you to acknowledge us as human beings, as people you know and who know you personally, people with whom you have worked closely. We want you to be accountable for the harm you have done and to apologize to us, so that we can begin what I believe is the GOSPEL work of reconciliation and restoration.
There are families who are estranged because of your interpretation of the scriptures and the positions you have taken and demanded that your faithful followers take. We want to restore those families and those relationships. There have been young people who have committed suicide or attempted or contemplated the attempt because of the conflict between who they know themselves to be and the harsh message you have consistently given from the pulpit at Bob Jones University for so many years.
We want them to find hope and wholeness instead of the despair, depression, and isolation that so many of us endured while at BJU.
Three years ago, we launched BJUnity with the following message to you:
To the administrators of Bob Jones University: the time for change is upon us! For long years you have denied our existence, disparaged our reputations, and demonized our lives. We love you, too, as hard as that may be for many of us to say through all the pain. We have many fond memories of our time at BJU and count many of the faculty and staff among our long-time friends. Today, we are making our presence known, publicly and permanently. We long for dialogue with you. We long to help you change the way LGBT+ students at Bob Jones University are treated; many of them have known no other life apart from fundamentalism and yet wrestle daily, silently with feelings of despair and isolation because of the harsh words you preach and the misconceptions you have instilled. We love you. We love the students. We’re here to change the conversation!
That is our heart on this matter. We aren’t going away. We are here to change the conversation. We accepted your apology at face value, and we will continue to hope that it signaled the beginning of a change at BJU.
On March 23, we began a very public conversation in Greenville, SC, one we intend to foster and to continue. We invited you to participate in that conversation. We will continue to invite you to participate in the conversations we are having. We will continue to seek to meet with you and the other administrators of Bob Jones University to talk about ways you can make BJU safer for the many lgbt+ students who come to you for an education. There are many of your alumni who want you to participate in this conversation and the reconciliation and restoration of relationship that it can bring. Please stop ignoring them.
Please stop pretending that we don’t exist and that you do not know who we are.
Let’s begin a conversation, instead. We don’t have to agree on all points. We likely won’t. But we could begin to restore relationships by beginning a conversation. It’s what Jesus would do.