Getting the order right

The BJU controversy: Facing up to some unpleasant business

Issue: "1st-grade murder," March 11, 2000

The little conjunction but, when used as a rhetorical device for changing directions in your conversation, is by itself a fairly innocent word. But watch out for how you place the clauses on either side!

For example, I connote one thing if I say to my wife, "I really do love your parents-but we've already been to see them once this year." Yet if I say, "We've already been to see your parents once this year-but I really do love them," it sounds as if I'm already packing my bags to go back. The order is all important.

I've been listening for that little but word a lot in the last couple of weeks as people have discussed the prominence in the news of Bob Jones University of Greenville, S.C. And I've thought how much difference there is between this complaint, which I've heard quite often:

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"Well, naturally, I don't agree with BJU's racial stance and the school's prohibition of interracial dating-but I can't stand how inconsistent and selective the media are in beating up on BJU and saying nothing about the moral shortcomings of the big public educational institutions."

And this, which I've heard much more rarely:

"Well, naturally, I don't agree with how inconsistent and selective the media are in beating up on BJU and saying nothing about the moral shortcomings of the big public educational institutions-but I can't stand BJU's racial stance and the school's prohibition of interracial dating."

The order is all important. Statement No. 1 whines about the enemy, implying that when they get things right, then we as God's people will take a look at our own obligations. Statement No. 2, on the other hand, acknowledges that the first move needs to be taken by those who take the God of the Bible most seriously. "Judgment," that Bible says very plainly, "must begin at the house of God."

To be sure, you don't have to be an ardent supporter of Bob Jones University to have been both frustrated and annoyed over the last several weeks by the blatant unfairness of the liberal media. While claiming the high road against bigotry and prejudice, the media have been scurrilously heavy-handed and biased in their own portrayal of an institution that would surprise them in many positive ways if they ever bothered to visit it in person.

On the other hand, there must be thousands of BJU backers- administrators, faculty, alumni, and students-who know deep in their hearts that the university's policy of banning interracial dating is an albatross around the school's neck and an offense to the God who created the races and who declares that in Christ "there is no difference." Both pragmatically and in principle, the policy is wrong. It is time for those of us related to BJU, however tangentially, to say so plainly.

So to our friends at BJU, we entreat you: "For the testimony of Christ, whom we believe you want to honor, forsake this harmful policy. Tell all those who are listening that you have examined the Bible afresh, and that you have concluded you were wrong. Surprise them by doing the very last thing they expected you to do."

Unthinkable? Can BJU do this without forfeiting its whole feisty past? Maybe-and maybe not. Almost unnoticed in all the recent brouhaha was the fact that Bob Jones III, president of the beleaguered school, had called recently for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol building.

But for too long, many of us who are in that big evangelical no-man's zone between BJU and the unbelieving world have been too quiet and too coy. We have distanced ourselves from fellow believers at BJU when we should have engaged the discussion about issues that divided us. If their attitudes were wrong, so was our distance. We should have been there pleading earnestly that such matters be made right-and confessing our own sins along the way. Instead, we've tried to talk our way out of the mess with ambivalent responses like: "Well, of course, you know, it's clear, I hope, and everyone should understand that BJU doesn't speak for us Christians on matters of race-but at the same time aren't the liberal media awful?" So the secular world is conveniently able to tar us all with a single brush. And much of it is our own fault.

The effects of such a step by BJU would reverberate through the worlds of politics and racial reconciliation. But the biggest sonic boom would be a brand-new demonstration to the whole watching world that right at the core of what it means to be a Christian is the willingness to admit our mistakes-and to ask God, right in front of everybody, to make them right. What on earth would we evangelicals do if the Bob Jones crowd led us in such a radical exercise?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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