Back when the Supreme Court was debating marriage equality I was sitting in a restaurant. An elderly couple was seated directly behind me, and, as loudly as they were talking, I couldn’t help but overhear their fascinating conversation.
They were against marriage equality on religious grounds, but they were having a difficult time of it. Their belief that God hated gay people was unsettling to them, just too harsh, and this new definition of one man/one woman marriage existing solely for the purpose of procreation was equally unsatisfying. You see, each of them, now in their sunset years, was on their second marriage, and they were now much too old to have any children. By this latest, desperate homophobic standard, even the comfort of their heterosexual married companionship would be considered illegitimate–no better than “those gay people” getting married.
As the old man braced himself against the table to help him stand, I heard him say while shaking his head and looking down at the floor, “We just need to come up with a better reason for why they can’t get married.” And so my little essay begins: Bob Jones University needs to come up with a better reason to hate gay people. You see, their original reason seems a bit harsh to folks today.
Back in 1980, Bob Jones, III, made it OK, even “Biblical,” to assail people who are not heterosexual. I don’t feel compelled to spell out the details of his “stone the gays” diatribe to a journalist at the White House in Washington back then, most people reading this are already familiar with the details of that specific ache on God’s heart. What I want to call attention to is the fact that he, representing the fundamentalist Christian brand, at the very least perpetuated a foundation of murderous hate, intolerance and just plain meanness.
But today, the nation has moved even further away from his extremist position. Christianity itself is rethinking this foundation of hate, exclusion, intolerance and meanness, and more and more are finding this fundamentalist, anti-gay, religious, lifestyle choice to be incompatible with a walk with and for God. People of many different faith practices realize that main street America, literally in record numbers, is turning away from religious ideology that excludes people or finds them inferior simply based on their sexual orientation. The impact of this stark rejection is notable. Even Bob Jones University itself appears to be shriveling up and finding itself in dire financial straits, struggling to keep its doors open.
The long moral arc of the universe does in fact bend toward justice.
The current president of Bob Jones University dedicated this entire week to reframing the university’s stance on homosexuality and same sex attraction. Oh, to be sure, they certainly would not characterize this week of bullying, marginalization, and intolerance as “reframing,” but that’s exactly what it was: a repositioning to seem less hateful.
In 1980, Bob Jones, III then-president of BJU said hateful, violent, murderous things against gay people. No one can justify or lend legitimacy to his statement. His statement is inhumane and indecent. His statement reveals his heart.
In 2013, some 33 years later, Stephen Jones, the president of Bob Jones University now, began HomoCon, 2013, by reading this letter apparently written by a student at Bob Jones University to another student at the university:
“You ____.1 You don’t belong here. This is a Christian school. Get out. God doesn’t love gays. You don’t belong or deserve to be here; so, go burn.
From: Wouldn’t you like to know.
P.S. Do us a favor and just end it. No one likes you anyway.”
The president then said:
“Well that was last week, and we still don’t know who wrote it, but the Dean of Men’s office is looking into it. And I am telling whoever wrote it, even if it is the person himself2 looking for attention, you have 24 hours to talk to your supervisor about it and own up to it. If you don’t, and we figure out who wrote it, you won’t be part of this student body because that represents nothing of the spirit of Christ, and that will not be accepted here. And there’s 24 hours from now for whoever wrote that to come clean.”
This stunned me. This represents an extraordinary change in position! You see, I view this letter in light of what Jones, III, did 33 years ago. He himself laid the very foundation for this young man to write this letter!
Just 33 years ago the university president himself declared from the White House to a reporter that stoning gay people to death would solve the problem of homosexuality. He then, in a chapel message to the faculty, staff, and student body bragged about making his statement. I was there. I heard it. Now, a student writes an anonymous note suggesting another student commit suicide because s/he is gay and then spend an eternity in hell, and now the university president goes crazy, threatening expulsion, and saying: “that represents nothing of the spirit of Christ, and that will not be accepted here.”
But wait. Hate speech that has nothing to do with the spirit of Christ has been the accepted norm at this institution for these past 33 years! In fact, in my opinion, this type of homophobic hate speech has been exalted as high and holy, the moral high ground, the very word of God. The student who wrote this letter to a classmate probably thought he was doing what the chancellor would do, what Jesus would do. If the university is going to make such a dramatic shift in its position3, then should not the now chancellor of the university, Bob Jones, III, who made this type of hate speech acceptable while he was president, speech that “has nothing to do with the spirit of Christ,” at least recant his statement?
Bob Jones, III, has been and still is called on to recant his statement, to apologize for his statement, and he has not done so. He has not done so! Why?! This is a serious question worthy of some serious explanation on the part of the university and Bob Jones, III, himself.
Why should he, in such a public and influential position of leadership, be treated any differently than this anonymous student, who, if caught after his 24 hour turn-yourself-in-or-else period (which has now expired) be expelled from the university?!
So what has changed? Why has the university now taken greater care to choose the hate language it will condone when discussing the issue of homosexuality and same sex attraction? Why does the university now find a need to distance itself from being thought of as homophobic–”almost the worst type of accusation that they can make.4” My best guess: Bob Jones University probably believes it will not survive if the institution does not receive accreditation5, which they are desperately seeking. And Bob Jones University has a tremendous problem on its hands: sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, and looking the other way about it all. Now, in light of the investigation by G.R.A.C.E., these two examples of sexually focused hate speech/verbal assault (the anonymous student AND Jones, III) can not be tolerated.
Those who lack the love of God in their hearts often lack empathy. Bob Jones University, in my personal opinion, lacks empathy. I know of specific faculty and staff at the university, who had to sit through this week of hate speech and misinformation, who have members of their immediate families that are gay. Some of the students who sat through this week of hell, young and impressionable, are gay themselves. And I know of straight students sitting through this week who are deeply troubled because of the recent loss of a gay peer/friend to suicide. How utterly insensitive can these men be?! (Why were no women selected to speak on this subject? Oh, I know…) I had planned to listen to all of these chapel messages and try to offer some ray of hope and heart-felt compassion to those sitting there, gay and straight, but I just couldn’t get past this very first thing the president of the university said.
Young people, moms and dads, the Christian life does not have to be this way. It really doesn’t! In fact, the Godly Christian life actually isn’t at all this way, just this peculiar brand of religious hate is!
For every person that will tell you being gay is a lifestyle choice there is an enormous body of research that states emphatically that sexual orientation is not a preference, not a choice. This issue has been settled in the scientific community for some time. But with dismissive condemnation, the university has never hesitated to simply toss scientific knowledge inconsistent with its private revelations.
For every teacher and Bible scholar that tells you God hates homosexuality and condemns gay people in the Bible, there are more who will tell you that is not at all what the Bible teaches. People on both sides of this issue can thump the Bible! But, again, the university has some private revelation as to what is absolute.
For every fabricated study about the success of homosexual conversion therapy there are numerous professionally peer-reviewed studies that debunk them and decry such therapy as seriously injurious. Toss those. For every crackpot that says gay people are going to hell, there are hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of souls in heaven that were gay people on earth. Cue up the denial machinery. And as for this characterization of gay people as wild, sex-crazed, drugged up, hedonistic party animals: that certainly doesn’t accurately describe me and my husband or our many friends. Hello, fundamentalist world! Ordinary, run of the mill, just your average “Adam and Steve” gay people are all over the place. I’m here! Really, I am.
Why has this institution been so invested in these lies for so long? This branding has failed. This branding has blood on its hands. This continued fixation is peculiar, to say the least.
Don’t take this hateful nonsense to heart. Once again, to perpetuate their religious branding, they have turned the truth on its head: This hate speech is what is evil and condemned by God, not you. God could care less if you are gay or straight! God just wants each person to know love and acceptance.
Stephen Jones got one thing right: There is hope. I still hold on to the hope that Bob Jones, III, will apologize for his hateful promotion of stoning gay people to death. I still hold on to the hope that one day all people of faith will understand that God loves and accepts gay people as much as he loves straight people. I still hope that the parents who have thrown their own children out of their homes and hearts will find the wholeness of unconditional love and full restoration in their lives by embracing their gay children or gay spouses just as God does. I hope, still, desperately, that the university will abandon a way of thinking and speaking that causes young people to kill themselves because they are simply gay. God loves everybody, gay and straight. After all, she6 made gay people, too!
But most of all, I hope that each gay person who has suffered through this week of sanctioned, full-tilt homophobia on display for all to hear7 will find a partner of the same sex that brings to his or her long and happy life the bright glow of God’s love on earth, till death do you part.
Also by Tim Tyson: About that lifestyle choice…
1. Before he began to read he stated that he would not read every word. Was this an expletive? ↩
2. How often does this university blame the victim of abuse? ↩
3. I’m assuming that the university presidents through the years, all of whom are direct descendants of the founder and immediate members of the Jones family whose name the university bears, do in fact speak for the university. ↩
4. This was Stephen Jones statement about being called homophobic, followed by an offensive “I know lots of wonderful gay people” defense. I’m actually rather confident he does, which makes HomoCon, 2013, all the more heart breaking. I’m also rather confident his father and grandfather used similar constructs when discussing the racist policies the university had for many years. ↩
5. When I was a student, the university emphatically and repeatedly stated it would never seek accreditation. Given the proper motivation, things do indeed change over time. Why can’t these men touch the heart of God on this issue of homosexuality and same sex attraction and open their hearts to tolerance, inclusion and acceptance? ↩
6. OK, I had to make the point that God isn’t male or female! Let that one sink in. ↩
7. Well, not really. The university routinely publishes all chapel message audio to their web site. However, they stated this week’s messages would not be posted. Hmm. I wonder why… ↩