Notorious Sinners & United Methodist Higher Education

United Methodist schools attract all kinds of people. I remember that from my days at Southwestern University. We had the usual representation from mainstream Christian denominations: Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Catholics, Pentecostals & Charismatics, etc. We also had Jews, Muslims, Buddhists & atheists. Many were only nominally affiliated with religious institutions. The most common philosophy on campus was likely variant of hedonism.

Two of the perpetrators of last month’s Alabama church fires were students at Birmingham Southern College, a United Methodist institution. Some of his fellow students report that Russell DeBusk was a low-grade Satanist. I doubt that the Birmingham Southern administration knew anything about DeBusk’s religious leanings. I even doubt that he wrote “Satanist” as his “religious preference” on his application form.

I don’t know if we had any Satanists at Southwestern – the most I ever heard about it was a report from a campus security guy that he’d encountered some people performing a “Black Mass” in the Chapel late one night. He didn’t recount any evidence that the participants had any connection to the school, and his story seemed too sensationalistic to be credible.

Why would a Satanist (or Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist) want to attend a United Methodist school? My guess is that it’s because they offer a good education. Birmingham Southern’s president describes their mission this way:
Our mission is to provide a liberal arts education of distinctive quality—one that challenges our students to think independently, to examine the arts and sciences aesthetically and critically, and to communicate clearly. We accomplish this mission through offering educational experiences that prepare students to be lifelong and participatory learners and leaders, to be active and successful in their careers and communities, and to be individuals who better understand and shape the world around them.
This mission statement looks a lot like the mission statements of other liberal arts schools. If my experience at Southwestern is indicative of the category, they likely do a fair job at achieving these goals.

But is there anything particularly Christian about such a mission? If there is, it’s in such coded language that I’d think a Satanist or an atheist would have trouble noticing it. In other words, if there were such a thing as a liberal arts school affiliated with a Satanist or Atheist group, their mission would likely be indistinguishable from the average UM school.

When United Methodist schools take their missional cue more from academia (especially an academia shaped by the convictions and values of modernity), gross public sins like burning down churches can only appear shocking. President Pollick observes:
“In response to the two students having been charged with arson of nine Alabama community churches, Birmingham-Southern College has suspended each student from the college and immediately banned them from campus awaiting further action by the authorities. The students, faculty and staff of our college are at once shocked and outraged, and we share the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represent the heart and soul of their communities.
“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community. Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct. Boundaries are all too often exceeded. The social use of alcohol moves easily and too frequently to dangerous irresponsibility. Innocent and healthy stages of interpersonal social encounters too frequently degrade to violent and personal acts of violation. We see symptoms of a culture of personal license so powerfully magnified in the actions of these young men.”
One of the advantages of the Christian tradition (and the United Methodist theological tradition when we remember we have one) is that we know people are sinners. We know not only that sinners sin, but that they work hard – even by sinning more (in this case, torching additional churches_ – to cover up their sin. We know this all too well, since it’s not just “those kind of people” – those subject to a “culture of personal license” who sin, but we ourselves.

What would happen if United Methodist institutions of higher learning would start taking sin seriously? Surely this would amount to more than a puritanical negativism (the bogeyman invoked by most moderns when the word “sin” appears on the scene). The Christian tradition declares not only that we are completely addicted to sin (we not only do it, but we do it willingly because we like it), but also that God has entered history in the person of his son Jesus Christ to do something about it. Some branches of the Christian tradition merely focus on the forgiveness of sin and the resulting life in heaven after death. That’s good. The United Methodist tradition, however, goes farther. We believe that the salvation Jesus offers ought to result in holiness. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and life together in the Body of Christ, we have all the resources we need to say ‘No” to sin and “Yes” to God.

What might this look like in a mission statement? Here’s a rough go of it:
This United Methodist University (TUMU) aims to:

  1. Challenge you intellectually so you can love God with all your mind
  2. Help you develop as a well-rounded person so you can love God with all your soul
  3. Give you tools to navigate the economy as a productive citizen who both trusts God for provision and seeks to be a blessing for the people around you and be good stewards of the creation around you
  4. Put you into relationships with people who are completely different from you so that you can learn how to love your neighbor as yourself
  5. Seek to demonstrate the attractiveness of Jesus so that you will be inclined to follow him all of your days

Such a school would be open to all comers be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, or Satanists. Of course they’d make sure all students and their families were aware of the institutional mission – no bait and switch – so they could enter into the challenging environment with their eyes open. When a student sinned – bad enough to make the front page of the paper – the University would gather around that student, praying for him or her, and seeking to demonstrate Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and call to repentance. Some student/prisoners may resist this move, but if the University kept on demonstrating its love for student/sinners even through the long years of a prison sentence, perhaps some would get the idea.

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One Response to Notorious Sinners & United Methodist Higher Education

  1. John says:

    Beth Quick and I went to a Methodist college — Ohio Wesleyan University.

    I recall that there were two chapels (one small and one large) on campus. The larger one was used as an auditorium.

    There was an evangelical clique on campus — elitist snobs who confirmed my agnosticism.

    Otherwise, I don’t recall any sort of Christian identity there.

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