Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wheaton and the Challenge of Modelling Christian Community in Higher Education

This story crosses two of my interests - higher education and Christianity:
Wheaton Gives Community Service to Players Facing Felony Charges
Wheaton is an avowedly Christian school. It advertises this widely, makes its identity clear on all of its communications from its website to the signs on its campus, and presumably recruits students for whom living in a Christian community is a part of what they want in a college. The college also has a code of student conduct rooted in Christian theology and ethics.

The behavior described in this article is thus doubly disturbing. This would be unacceptable on any campus, and at a state school would likely lead to suspensions from the football team if not expulsion from the university as a whole. Due process must be followed, of course, and it would be appropriate for any college or university to follow that process before deciding on consequences for the perpetrators.

It appears that Wheaton has already followed whatever on-campus process they are going to follow, and has chosen to mete out what looks on the surface to be a fairly minimal punishment: the students in question have been assigned to write an essay, and to some hours of community service. This seems pretty minor even in a secular context.

There are obviously a lot of details missing here, but the optics are terrible for an institution that claims to be an intentional Christian community. This kind of assault, in that context, is a fundamental violation of trust and a gross offense against any reasonable sense of Christian ethics. Because of the nature of the community, it is an offense not only against the assaulted individual but against the entire community. And it sends a signal to the rest of the world: those "Christians" over there aren't any different from anybody else. Their faith doesn't mean anything.

If you were particularly inclined to be uncharitable, you could conclude that they have revealed their true religion: football. In that sense, they're not very different from the rest of the world.

Here's another unfortunate comparison: some avowedly Christian colleges (not Wheaton, but schools with a similar identity) have been known to expel students for having (consensual) sex outside of marriage, or for declaring a different sexual identity. Those things are unacceptable, but kidnapping and assault is OK?

What would a Christian response look like? It's not so much about the punishment - if anything, a Christian response should leave far more room for forgiveness than the world usually wants. But it is about repentance, examination, and transformation. And since the offense was against the community, some parts of that should be visible to the whole community.

Administrators at Wheaton will undoubtedly cite FERPA and a range of other laws and regulations protecting privacy and due process. Those regulations are good things, but they are not the only thing.  What the college chooses to do in terms of its community process is up to it. At minimum, student offenders can be offered a choice: based on a finding of facts, participate in a process of repentance and reconciliation - one that is visible - or leave.

Sometimes, Christian communities come together and behave in ways that really do show the world that faith matters. Several years ago after a tragic shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, the community came together and publicly forgave the perpetrator and his family. The process of that conversation was difficult but also moving. They did it in public, not because they cared about the publicity or what anyone else thinks of them (the Amish are famous for being indifferent to what we English think), but because it was the right thing to do.

I think Wheaton missed a real opportunity here to live out its faith in public. Perhaps they will reconsider, as I suspect they're going to be facing negative publicity for a while.

1 comment:

  1. Well-stated. In my time there, which is now some 25 years ago, it was widely suspected that a certain portion of the basketball and football players Wheaton recruited were not at Wheaton for any other reason than the chance to play college sports. And there were also many that took their faith seriously as well. Thanks for your thoughts on this.