The Gary M. Heidnik Student Life Center

The Gary M. Heidnik Student Life Center October 15, 2020

My Gary Heidnik joke, I’ve been told, was in poor taste. That’s likely true given that it was, you know, a Gary Heidnik joke. One of the most horrifying murderers in Philadelphia’s history probably shouldn’t be used as fodder for jokes.

That’s actually the point I was trying to make. We cannot and should not make light of Heidnik’s monstrous crimes or of the cruelty suffered by his many victims. So if we’re going to invoke his name, we shouldn’t do it for the sake of levity, but for the sake of gravity.

Gary Heidnik’s example provides a  general reference point for extreme cruelty and unambiguous evil, but I brought up his name for more than that. What matters here is the gut-wrenching specificity of his crimes, the details and the meaning of those details and the instinctive horror and unquestionable repugnance that every decent person instantly has when hearing of them.

And but so, here was that gravely serious joke:

The hook here was Adelle M. Banks’ RNS report, “SBC seminary votes to retain slaveholders’ names on buildings,” relaying the latest stuttering steps taken by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary as it tries to grapple with its identity as a school founded by — and for — white people who enslaved non-white people:

The flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention decided Monday (Oct. 12)  to maintain the names of campus buildings named for school founders who had connections to slavery. At the same meeting, the trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary created a multimillion-dollar scholarship fund for African American students. …

The seminary trustees also declared vacant the Joseph Emerson Brown Chair of Christian Theology. … Brown, governor of Georgia during the Civil War, earned a substantial part of his fortune from the exploitation of mostly Black convict-lease laborers and gave a gift of $50,000 to the seminary that helped save it from financial collapse. …

In an eight-page report outlining the board’s decisions this week, [seminary president Al] Mohler quoted Scripture and secular scholars who warned against attempts to “erase history.” The report, titled “The Burden of History & The Blessing of Heritage,” opened with a verse from the biblical Book of Deuteronomy: “And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage.’”*

He noted that founders with links to slavery who were honored on campus buildings were instrumental in the seminary’s development. James Boyce donated his personal library while Broadus was instrumental in creating the school’s academic reputation and Basil Manly Jr. wrote the school’s confession of faith.

Mohler, who has declared his plans to seek the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, also noted leaders of the Christian church could be considered “both saint and sinner,” starting with the apostles.

It’s certainly true, as Mohler says, that every Christian leader, even the apostles themselves, were guilty of sins. Every saint was a sinner and all the sinners saints. Pleased to meet you.

“Nobody’s perfect,” is inarguably true, but also so tepidly beside-the-point that it’s not worth arguing for or against. In response to calls for the seminary to stop celebrating enslavers like Boyce, Broadus, and Manly, though, it’s woefully inadequate. It’s a refusal to face the reality of this history, a refusal to allow ourselves to think about what it means — specifically and in detail.

That detail and meaning is hard to imagine. But the problem here is not a failure of imagination, but a refusal to imagine — and, thus, a failure of courage.

What does it really mean, in endless daily detail and relentless reality, that these sinner/saints “had connections to slavery” or that they “owned slaves”?

To begin to understand that, I suggest we think of Gary Heidnik.

Heidnik was arrested after one of his captives escaped in 1987, exactly 100 years after Southern seminary founder James Petigru Boyce published his Abstract of Systematic Theology. That may be the first time those two names have ever appeared in the same sentence, and Al Mohler would doubtless object that any such comparison is unfair.

It is not.

Yes, I’m sure that Boyce and Broadus and Manly were not as sadistically perverse in their personal treatment of the people they enslaved as Heidnik was of the women he held captive. But they were participants in and militant defenders of a system that included — and that relied upon — thousands of others being treated just as cruelly. Electrocution wasn’t available to American slave-keepers during the years in which their cruelty was legal and constitutional and church-sanctioned, but every other detail of what Gary Heidnik did to those women he enslaved in 20th-century North Philadelphia was something that was done, repeatedly, all over America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This is where we flinch, quaver, and look away. It’s almost impossible not to. Al Mohler’s inability or refusal to cast more than a passing glance at such horror is perfectly understandable. But if we do not make ourselves look, we will never come to see.

Seeing would mean, among other things, that we would come to appreciate that the ghastliness of this history is not something that can be shrugged away with vague generalities about how we’re all flawed sinners. Nobody stood up at Gary Heidnik’s trial to point out that, hey, let’s not forget that even the apostles were sinners too.

Heidnik’s former home on Marshall Street in North Philly is gone now. After his trial, once it was no longer needed as criminal evidence, they tore it down and nothing has been built in its place. It stands as an empty lot walled off by cinder block — a place where no one ever wants to live ever again.

Image via Google street view

That is as it should be. That is what it means to confront a monstrous history with open eyes rather than with empty platitudes about the “blessings of heritage.”

* Mohler’s abuse of this passage here is a prime example of the concordance-ism taught at SBTS in the years after his hostile takeover of the school in the 1990s.

Here is the verse in question, Deuteronomy 9:26, “I prayed therefore unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, destroy not thy people and thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed through thy greatness, which thou hast brought forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Mohler’s paraphrase twists the meaning of that verse in two large, flagrantly blasphemous ways. He replaces God’s chosen people with “your [Southern white] heritage.” Then he clips off the ever-present refrain of Deuteronomy, the reminder that God’s people are the people that God “brought forth out of Egypt.” And he does this in order to reverse the meaning of that refrain, making God’s people out to be the enslavers, rather than those God has liberated from enslavement.


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