My alma mater is in the news again. Wheaton College. (Sometimes dubbed “The Evangelical Harvard.”) Five football players face felony charges in the assault of a freshman teammate in March 2016. They are accused of kidnapping him, restraining and beating him, and leaving him half naked in 45 degree weather, not knowing how to get home. There are also reports indicating attempts at sodomizing the victim with an object.

The headlines say “hazing.”

Hazing? Or assault. Torture. Kidnapping. Endangering a young man’s life.

I believe “hazing” has become a term we use to diminish the moral weight of the act. Much like “extrajudicial killing” (see President Duterte of the Philippines) or “enhanced interrogation. “Hazing” – you know, that thing drunk college students do that can turn a bit dangerous, but that’s really kind of inevitable, so we should just turn a blind eye most of the time. Kids will be kids. Boys will be boys.

Wheaton is known for its strict code of conduct for students. No sex (outside marriage), no drinking, no smoking. Young women who find themselves pregnant and unmarried usually find somewhere else to go. The school may not technically expel them – such details are never shared, of course, due to privacy laws – but a culture is created that, under normal circumstances, does not allow them to stay.

A culture has also been created – we must now admit – that has allowed these five football players to stay. Not only to stay, but to remain on the football team. (At least three of them were on the roster as recently as Saturday.) What kind of culture has been created that allows these men to stay and not the young woman facing single parenthood? (The victim, by the way, left campus the next day, never to return.)

I could follow many lines of thought here – clearly, the ethos around sex would be one – but for now I want to speak of second chances, of grace and redemption.

The Other Harvard

Because these double standards are not unique to Wheaton. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit devoted to criminal justice reform, reported recently on Michelle Jones, a woman accepted into – and then rejected from – Harvard’s Ph.D. in history program. Michelle spent 20 years in prison for the death of her 4 yr old son. She became pregnant through “nonconsensual sex” at 14, was beaten by her mother, and tossed about in foster homes. While in prison she acquired her undergraduate degree, and with the help of a former professor undertook a history project that won her awards and the opportunity to speak at conferences (virtually). While the history department fully backed her application – even typing it in on her behalf – two American studies professors raised concerns with the administration, which eventually led to the rescinding of the offer. Their concerns included how conservative media might respond when they found out that “P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority.” But they were also concerned that she didn’t show enough remorse in how she spoke of her crime.

Not enough remorse? How is one supposed to simultaneously apply for a Ph.D. program WHILE STILL IN PRISON and also show sufficient remorse over the death of one’s own child twenty years ago, sufficient to please unknown persons from multiple departments in an unfamiliar university? Isn’t it audacious enough that she’s applying in the first place? How does she think she could be worthy to get her Ph.D. from Harvard after what she did? Isn’t the fact of her application enough to show that she’s not sufficiently remorseful?

Or this is how I assume the thinking went, anyway.

As one of Michelle’s supporters at Harvard stated, “Michelle was sentenced in a courtroom to serve X years, but we decided — unilaterally — that it should be X years plus no Harvard.”

Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work in The New Jim Crow exhibits the many ways we force those in our criminal justice system to serve their time and __________. We remove their voting rights, prevent them (and de facto, their families) from receiving federal aid, and make it difficult if not impossible for them to find work. Two years served becomes, in reality, a life sentence. We give ourselves the comfort of feeling like we’re giving people a second chance, when in reality we make it almost impossible for them to succeed. When they fail, we blame them, not the system that set them up for failure.

This reality does not bother us because deep down we think, “They deserve it.”

Did I mention that Michelle Jones is black? And the five Wheaton football players? You guessed it: white. For some, second chances come easily. For others, they are hard-fought for, if they come at all.

Who are the virtuous?

U.S. society as a whole has come to associate suffering and poverty with vice, and wealth and status with virtue. Case in point: our current president. No matter how many times his full array of vices were on display, those who supported him believed he must have some redeeming qualities. What goes unsaid: because he’s wealthy and famous. Code phrase: “He’s a successful businessman.” (Who declared bankruptcy four times.)

And so the powerful are transformed into the virtuous. And we are happy to give them second, third, fourth…an infinite number of chances, because we know they have it in them to change.

But those on the outskirts of society? The poor? The struggling? The sick? They probably did something to deserve their lot. At the very least, they haven’t been able to take advantage of the chances they’ve already been given (this is America, after all, everybody starts with a chance to succeed!), so why give them another chance?

But Jesus said…

To the powerful:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. . . . Woe to you…For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.[1]

To the vulnerable:

Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.[2]

As Christians, we have a responsibility to the vulnerable and to the powerful. To the vulnerable, to invite them into a kingdom of upside-down values where the humble and poor are raised up. To place ourselves at their service, as Jesus instructs us in Matt 28.

To the powerful, to invite them into a kingdom of upside-down values where the humble and poor are raised up…which also means the powerful and rich are brought low. To prophetically denounce sin and idolatry where we see it.

To call all – including ourselves – to be converted every day to this Kingdom and its Good News, and to turn away from the anti-Kingdom and its efforts to destroy God’s work in the world.

The Church is called not to serve the whims of the powerful, but the needs of the most vulnerable. We believe a Gospel of second chances, yes. But second chances especially for the vulnerable and despised of society. And the reality is that second chances for the powerful often mean further victimization of the vulnerable. By giving the powerful a certain kind of second chance – not to say they are outside God’s reach, but giving them a material and social second chance – we reject the suffering of the vulnerable and are even complicit in it.

Not unlike Harvard, Wheaton College is a complex institution with multiple actors who do not always agree on decisions made or official positions taken. But all associated with the college can take responsibility for the path moving forward and for what kind of culture Wheaton will create. One that embodies grace and redemption for the most vulnerable? Or one that offers further comfort and cushion for those who already have an advantage in our society? In the words of Jesus, will we be sheep or will we be goats?

[1] Matt 23:23, 25 (NASB)

[2] Matt 11:28-30

This post has been edited to reflect the fact that the five have been accused of kidnapping and assault but that the charges have not been proven yet. Also, to clarify that the victim has claimed attempted sexual assault but that is not part of the formal charges.

6 thoughts

  1. For me, grace applies individuals. I cannot see how grace applies to groups (where the group members might hide culpability behind the group).

  2. The right to play football does not deprive them of civil liberties promised in any of our founding documents. These young men not only violated an individual, a fellow teammate, they violated his trust. They violated his security. They also violated the trust of the football team and the school. They lost their right to represent the team and the school when they proved they could do what they were supposed to do with the responsibility they were given. There are too many young men out there that would love the chance to play football in college. How would you tell other emotionally vulnerable teammates that these individuals would not violate them next?

  3. First the victim should not had to leave school, and those that have been accused should be suspended and let go of the school. Because if a girl that gets pregnant and is kicked out of school it should not be. She did not get pregnant by herself. But why should the victim feel so annihilated and shamed. Those that done this are the one that should be ashamed. Not lifting them up and letting them go on with their Sports. They should be suspended from their games. Until everything is settled with the courts. And about hazing and the ADULTS that are going to the school, because they are ADULTS, you are adults in college should be treated as such. They have committed a real crime. And on the outside away from a college they would be in prison such as they should be charged just like it was on the outside. Colleges and universities need to stand up and treat these students like adults that they are. do not justify because they’re in school. Do not treat them and think they are children because they are not.

  4. Fundamentalist/evangelical (call it what you will) Christianity has about as little to do with the Gospel of Jesus as the Pharisees of Jesus’s day had to do with genuine Jewish faith. Jesus condemned the Pharisees as hypocrites and vipers, and I would echo his sentiments in response to those at Wheaton College and the other mega churches and bastions of the self-righteous. They chose en masse to overlook the amorality of Donald Trump because they believed he would advance their fondest hope of a theocratic government that will force their crabbed “faith” onto everyone of the rest of us who does not share it. I am an alumnus of Gordon College, Wheaton’s “sister” college in Wenham, Mass. There’s where I first saw evangelical hypocrisy in full flower with a male professor who was ever-so-popular, married to a woman with children, yet made a regular practice of seducing young men, plying them with drugs and alcohol, while condemning to hellfire the gay men (myself included) who dared to own our truth and expressed our Christian faith in honesty and truthfulness. I have no use for fake christians, and even less tolerance when they circle the wagons to protect “their own,” no matter how heinous and shameful their behavior. Disgusting.

  5. I agree the boys should have been removed from the program immediately. I agree grace should be extended to pregnant girls even (gasp!) at Christian universities. But you 100% lose me on the Michelle Jones thing. I’m totally for forgiveness for even murder and the most heinous of crimes, but that does not mean that she should go on to be rewarded with automatic admittance based on some feel good story of redemption to HARVARD — a university that rejects all but about 6% of applicants that apply every single year. Come on, now. You can say Harvard rejected her about the optics, but then you conveniently leave out many of the lesser appealing optics of her story for your readers.

    “According to court documents, Jones left her 4-year-old son alone to attend a weekend-long “theater network conference” in Detroit with a friend. She told the friend she had placed a babysitter in charge of her son. But after that weekend no one ever saw the boy again. A few weeks later her landlord noticed “hundreds of flies covering the inside front bedroom window.” He went inside and discovered an empty child’s bedroom with a strong smell of urine. Jones told the landlord her son was wetting the bed. But after she moved out the landlord discovered a “brown stain” on the floor. Around this time, Jones was also seen repeatedly cleaning the inside and outside of her car. She told friends her son was living with his father. More than a year and a half later, Jones admitted to a friend that she had returned after the theater conference, found her son dead and taken his body to a wooded area to bury it. A month later she checked into a mental health center where she confessed to finding Brandon dead. Police investigated but were never able to find his body. Jones later admitted she had misled the police about the location of the body. Months later Jones returned to work and changed her insurance coverage to show she had no dependents. More than a year passed before she admitted to another friend that she had beaten Brandon before leaving him alone in the apartment. At this point, it had been more than three years since the boy’s death. Finally in late 1996, more than four years after Brandon’s death, Jones was charged with murder. As mentioned above, she was found guilty and given a 50-year sentence. But the story actually gets worse. Approximately two years into her sentence, Jones filed an appeal which argued that her conviction should be overturned on the grounds that Brandon’s body had never been recovered.”

    This has nothing to do with race. Harvard is one of those places where her race may have worked to her advantage. The truth is – she was sentenced to 50 years in prison, for brutally murdering her own son, and yet only served 21 years. A mere two years in, she tried to have her conviction overturned on the grounds that her son’s body was never recovered — b/c she never disclosed where it was. I applaud her for making the best of her time in prison, and for her good behavior, and I wish her well. But blaming Harvard for not accepting her into their very prestigious PhD program is beyond the pale, and making Michelle Jones out to be much more of a saint than she deserves while simultaneously casting Harvard as the sinner in this situation. UNFAIR.

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