Statement from Wheaton College Faculty and Staff – A Hollow Repentance?


Earlier this month, an event happened that has very much dominated the news: protestors upset at what they viewed as election fraud protested outside the Capitol building. According to news reports as confirmed by photos, some illegally entered the Capitol building itself apparently intent upon disrupting the electoral college vote certification. During the protest, a Capitol policeman and a protestor were both killed. Three others died at the site.

I am not here to debate about what exactly happened on that day, the motivation of the protestors, the reporting on the event, whether it should lead to the impeachment or resignation of President Trump, or any other political matter related to the event.  In fact, I will delete any comments made to this post about the event itself.  I am writing about this because, in response to the event, Wheaton College in Illinois decided to issue a statement that I reproduce in its entirety below.

Concerning the January 6 Attack on the Capitol

The January 6 attack on the Capitol was characterized not only by vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership—especially by President Trump—but also by idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols. The behaviors that many participants celebrated in Jesus’ name bear absolutely no resemblance to the Christian teachings or ethics that we submit to as faculty and staff of Wheaton College.

Furthermore, the differential treatment displayed by those with a duty to protect in their engagement with rioters who trespassed on the Capitol grounds illegally, when compared to recent protests over police brutality in D.C. last summer, illustrates the ongoing reality that systematic racism in our country is tragically and undeniably alive and well. These realities are reprehensible. Our Christian faith demands shining a light on these evils and the simultaneous commitment to take appropriate action.

In the days and weeks preceding January 6, many more leaders, including many evangelical leaders, could have spoken truth to the disillusioned supporters of President Trump—diminishing the prospects for violence and bolstering the witness of Christian love and the call for justice in our civic life. Some did. However, many wittingly propagated lies, or were unduly silent in a just cause. Our Christian faith demands greater courage.

We repent of our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice, and we lament the failures of the Church to teach clearly and to exercise adequate church discipline in these areas. Moreover, we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian. We pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us all manner of idolatry, and we commit to speaking plainly against it wherever and whenever we find it. We commit ourselves to a more faithful witness in our callings as the faculty and staff of Wheaton College, and will work diligently to provide ample opportunities to show students, as well as the larger Wheaton College and Christian community, how to practice discernment in civic engagement, to demonstrate the connections between love and justice, and to courageously communicate the truth—even and especially when the truth is difficult to hear.

We pray that, in so doing, we will fulfill the Lord’s requirement of us: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8).

When I first saw this statement, I was unsettled about it. As a conservative both politically and in my view of the Bible, I found the strongly worded language at the outset little more than shouting from the roof-tops perspectives which I reject. Certainly, no one with any brains or any integrity believes that what happened on January 6, 2021 was acceptable behavior by the protestors. Any effort to “attack” the Capitol building ought to be unanimously condemned by everyone. There is no question that some of the protestors entered the building and should be charged with crimes to the extent of their involvement and motivation. That’s unquestioned.

But that does not mean I need to accept wholesale the strongly-worded charges found in the Statement. I am certainly willing to overlook the obviously one-sided nature of the statement. Not everyone (and certainly not me) would agree that the event was characterized by “vicious lies, … white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership—especially by President Trump—but also by idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols.” But that is their point of view, and I have no problem with this college making a strong statement (even if I disagree with the accuracy of the comments) about what happened. It is good for religious leaders to speak up against what they view as evil in the world, so good for them.

Nevertheless, I believe that the Statement should not have been issued as written because of the way it is written. Note that the following the initial three paragraphs that level charges of the evil things done by others, the Statement shifts to become one of repentance and bewailing. The principal statement of repentance is found in the first two sentences of the fourth paragraph: “We repent of our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice, and we lament the failures of the Church to teach clearly and to exercise adequate church discipline in these areas. Moreover, we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian.”

This Statement takes the easy way. It does what Christians, above all people, should never do: it repents for the sins of others. Of course, it couches that repentance in language of “our failures”, but the only thing it actually repents for is the failure to speak out more about the evil that those other people are doing or have done and the failure to better disciple and discipline so that those other people would not act that way.

This is very problematic to me. Repentance is largely a personal thing. God calls on each of us to repent for our own sins, not the sins of others. But the authors of this Statement spend the majority of the text ripping on the protestors that descended on the Capitol using pejorative terms to describe who they were and what they believed. Do the authors of this Statement say that “we” have engaged in “vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership” as well as “idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols”? No, that’s those other guys.

When we repent, shouldn’t we repent of what we have done?

C.S. Lewis wrote about this type of misguided repentance in his essay, “On the Dangers of National Repentance.” In that essay (which was actually a letter to the editor), Lewis commented on the young people who were seeking Great Britain to engage in an act of national repentance for acts against the German people that led up to the World War II. Lewis begins by noting,

Young Christians especially—last-year undergraduates and first-year curates— are turning to [the idea of national repentance] in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England. What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine. Most of these young men were children, and none of them had a vote or the experience which would enable them to use a vote wisely, when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done? (Emphasis added.)

This is an excellent question: Is it in any way legitimate to repent for sins that you have not done? The answer is that there are several examples in the Bible of the people of Israel repenting for the corporate sins of the people of Israel. But the Bible also makes it clear that everyone sins and falls short of the Glory of God, so this type of national repentance for the sins of the people as a whole has clear Biblical mandate. But that’s not what’s happening here. Rather, here they are pointing out what they see as the evil actions of those other guys and repents for those actions under the guise of saying we didn’t do enough to stop them.

That’s very similar to the situation confronted by England at the outset of World War II. Lewis continued his essay by noting that in calling for national repentance, the young people were seeking repentance for the actions of the country of England – a civil society. This leads to a complication:

When we speak of England's actions we mean the actions of the British government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England's foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity.  (Emphasis added)

This is my major concern with this statement and it is emphasized by the over-the-top language used to describe the protestors – most of whom had no part in the violence committed by a few. The first three paragraphs focus on and denounces the conduct of those other guys. Despite its language of repentance, the Statement is primarily condemnation disguised as Christian repentance.

Lewis continues,

A group of such young penitents will say, "Let us repent our national sins"; what they mean is, "Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy."

"Such an escape from personal repentance into that tempting region Where passions have the privilege to work And never hear the sound of their own names,"

would be welcome to the moral cowardice of anyone.

As I read these words of Lewis and read the Wheaton College Statement, I cannot help but believe that Lewis was prophetic. The wording of the Statement begins by attributing to our neighbors – many of whom are Christian – “every abominable motive” that comes to mind. From Satan? Yes, that’s true, too. Cowardice? I leave others to make that judgement.

But note also that the Statement proceeds from a college – the intellectuals of our age. Lewis had something to say about that, too. He continues:

But it [i.e., the desire to attribute abominable motives to our neighbors] is doubly attractive to the young intellectual. When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies, he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. * * * What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion. I do not mean that what you are asking them is not right and necessary in itself; we must forgive all our enemies or be damned. But it is emphatically not the exhortation which your audience needs. The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candor toward the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue. (Emphasis added)

This is the problem. If the authors of this Statement seek to repent, they should do so for their own sins; they should not repent for sins of others. And the idea that they are repenting because they didn’t do enough to stop those other people is a phantom repentance. This repentance costs them nothing while gathering them the praise of the others in their profession for their brave stance against those other people. It indulges their hatred of Donald Trump and the conservatives who support him. Like Lewis, when I see them repenting for their own sins (not merely the glib claim of responsibility for allowing those other people to act that way) I will take them seriously and not before. Cheap repentance is no repentance at all. As Lewis comments:

Is it not, then, the duty of the church to preach national repentance? I think it is. But the office—like many others— can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance. We know that a man may have to "hate" his mother for the Lord's sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony, over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her—that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, groveling below it in the unnatural—the spectacle becomes merely disgusting. The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard. (Emphasis added.) 


Comments

Wheaton collage has always been one of the leading sources of scholarship in he evangelical movement. It has always been one of the bright spots of that movement, It continues to be.

BTW I will make a statement on your statement on Metacrock on Monday it will be political.
BK said…
First, I have said nothing for or against the scholarship of Wheaton College.

Second, you are, of course, welcome to write what you want about what I wrote on your other blog. And for anyone who isn't already exhausted with discussing bad orange man should go there. The fact that you are going to do so only goes to show me that you missed the point of the essay. That's okay.
I didn't think you were attacking Wheaton. Not everything I say Is an attack Bill. don't be jumping the gun on what you think I'll say.

this was the point: "This is the problem. If the authors of this Statement seek to repent, they should do so for their own sins; they should not repent for sins of others. And the idea that they are repenting because they didn’t do enough to stop those other people is a phantom repentance."

I agree

going to do a thing on Metacrock because I need to say then not because I a. fighting you
BK said…
I didn't think you were attacking when you mentioned Wheaton's scholarship. I was just saying I didn't say anything at all about their level of scholarship.

I did think that (since you said it would be political on your blog and we know that you and I are very, very different politically) that you would be attacking what I wrote on your blog from a political angle. But I guess I jumped the gun. I apologize.
LoisW said…
Thank you for this, Bill. As an alum of Wheaton, ‘56, I am saddened but not surprised. Thank you for the excerpts from Lewis.s essay, Biblical and incisive as usual. I absolutely agree. My only quibble concerns the Biblical example of national repentance. Its context is the Old Covenant; Israel was God’s own, a theocracy,, with divinely ordained priests and prophets and anointed kings. While the Christian faith of many of our founders is documented, and we are blessed by it, America today is not a Christian nation. I am not convinced the OT example is applicable. Further, the letter is unworthy of Wheaton’s claim to intellectual rigor in its unexamined assumptions.
BK said…
Thank you, Lois. That's a good distinction.
LoisW said…
Thanks,Bill. But I thought I was commenting on Spare Oom. I have no idea how I got moved onto Cadre. But I have trouble with the new Spare Oom. I think I am not alone
Do both. Hope you come back.

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