What the Thunder says

What the Thunder says October 5, 2017

This story is horrible. It’s a football hazing story. Like all such stories it’s not primarily about sports, but about the way our sports are infected by the same ugly toxic masculinity that pervades the rest of our culture.

Five … college football players face felony charges after being accused of a 2016 hazing incident in which a freshman teammate was restrained with duct tape, beaten and left half-naked with two torn shoulders on a baseball field.

The Chicago Tribune’s report has more details of the assault, all of which are unpleasant to read and to contemplate.

The school where this happened responded as most schools do:

College administrators learned about the incident shortly after it happened from coaches and other team members, according to the school’s statement. It immediately launched an internal investigation and college trustees retained experts to lead a campuswide review of its “anti-hazing policy and of the culture around how students treat one another in our campus communities, athletic teams and organizations.”

Yada yada. The report, from nearly a year after the incident, also notes:

Three of the accused played in [the school’s] victory … Saturday, and all were listed on the team roster as of Monday afternoon. The Division III program is ranked fourth in the country.*

This always seems to be a feature of stories like this. It’s usually cloaked in high-minded talk of due process, but lurking behind that always seems to be a desperate, reflexive concern that whatever such process finds, it shouldn’t be allowed to affect the team’s prospects for winning games. “Due process” often seems to mean putting off any conclusion until after football season is over.

I’m being delicate here in not mentioning the name of the school (even though, obviously, you can find that out easily by clicking the link above — or just reading the URL). That’s partly because I know that some folks there at Wes Craven’s alma mater think I’ve got some kind of personal agenda against their school.** But mainly it’s because the point here is not to single out this one school. The point here is that nothing about this story is singular. The ugly details of the bullying, abuse and assault may vary from story to story, but it’s all depressingly familiar.

That failure to stand out as any different stands out as different in this particular story because the school in question is a sectarian white evangelical institution. It’s a place that seeks to be distinct — to be marked by something special that sets it apart as a peculiar people and a marvelous light that shines in contrast to the surrounding darkness (1 Peter 2:9).

“Christian” schools (and churches) try to demonstrate that they are set apart from “the world” by banning drinking, dancing, card-playing, R-rated movies and “secret societies.” They formulate lengthy statements of faith for faculty, students and everyone else. They mandate attendance at chapel services. They even sometimes try to create whole new tribal markers of distinction — like, for example, the president of this school’s decision to suddenly make a rejection of the science of birth control a central pillar of faith.

It’s not that all of these things are bad (although some are terrible — in execution, or in concept, or both). It’s that they are vastly inadequate. They wind up not counting for much when it comes to really being any different from the actual “powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” All these things just nibble around the edges. They are not enough to equip us to acknowledge — let alone challenge or stand against — the fundamental, pervasive evils that we absorb and breathe like the air around us. When it comes to that, to the big stuff that shapes us at our most basic level, we remain indistinguishable from our “secular” counterparts. (Well, mostly indistinguishable. By giving those evils a sheen of “biblical” justification, Christian schools sometimes actually strengthen and intensify the worst of those pervasive cultural sins.)

The horror story in that Tribune report is not an exceptionally evangelical story. It’s a typically American story. And when it comes to the typically American sins and injustices — toxic masculinity, racism, consumerism, resentful punching-down — it seems that white evangelicals are just like everybody else. Or perhaps more so.

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* Meaning that if they keep winning and the brackets line up just right, they have a shot at getting crushed by Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor or Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Division III championship game. (I edited coverage of perennial D3 Top 20 Wesley College for 10 years at the paper — there’s not a lot of suspense in D3 football playoffs.)

** I have written about this school quite a bit — for several reasons. One is that their current president keeps spastically attempting to enter the culture wars, repeatedly showing he’s not very good at it. Another related factor is that the school itself has been in the news quite a bit in recent years, mostly for Not Good reasons. But the main reason is because this school often lifts itself up as a representative standard-bearer for all of white evangelical American Christianity. You can’t want to be an icon known as “the evangelical Harvard” while simultaneously complaining about the attention and scrutiny that goes with that.

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