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.
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.
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?
 Matt 23:23, 25 (NASB)
 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.