Now that the crisis at Wheaton College has been more or less sorted out — though the repercussions will continue to be felt for years, and the lawyerly curse of “confidential agreements” means that we’ll never know exactly how it all went down — what should happen is the beginning of a long period of reflection by all involved.

But that’s not the tone of what I’m hearing — though I can only hope that what I’m hearing is not representative. Because it seems that many of the supporters of Prof. Hawkins are in no mood to forgive members of Wheaton’s administration. In a widely leaked email to the college community, Provost Stan Jones wrote, “I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College…. I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.” And so on. It’s a very full apology. But I have already read a number of comments from Christians that this apology is problematic because it does not acknowledge Wheaton’s history (and present) of structural racism and sexism.

This kind of response strikes me as uncharitable, unproductive, and shortsighted. And I say this as someone who believes that Wheaton really does have serious problems in knowing how to deal with faculty and students who are not white males.

What if, when a brother in Christ apologizes and asks for forgiveness, one were to grant that forgiveness — instead of immediately criticizing him for not having provided a fully adequate account of the reasons he went astray? What about that as a strategy? It has some advantages:

  • It’s a matter of obedience to a commandment: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And if the response is, “Well of course I forgive him” — no. Forgiveness is never a matter of course. It is too important, and too hard, mere to assume. When asked for and granted, forgiveness should, for a time, be the only air we breathe, we who have been at odds with one another.
  • To grant forgiveness to one who has offended against us is to open ourselves to the possibility of our sins against them. We may need to ask for the very benefit we have just granted; if so, it is good for us to know we have that need.
  • It is on the basis of forgiveness requested and received that we can then go on to explore, together, the deeper structural causes of our sins against each other. Those who have been reconciled in Christ can be bold in exploring these deeper causes; knowing the peace of reconciliation, we need not fear even the darkest truths.
  • To think in this way is to accept that reconciliation that lasts, reconciliation that bears spiritual and moral fruit, is an ongoing process. There is a sense in which the exchange of forgiveness instantly reconciles us to one another; but there is a deeper reconciliation that happens only over a long period of living in one another’s presence (and the presence of the living Christ within us).

So to those who say that Provost Jones’ apology is inadequate, my answer would be: of course it is inadequate. Every act of penitence, including yours and mine, is inadequate. We know ourselves in part, as if through a glass darkly, and in this world will make limited progress in understanding why we act as we act. But every act of penitence is also a beautiful thing, especially when it comes from those who have to do so in public, exposing their shortcomings and sins to the whole mocking social-media world. (Some of those who are currently lambasting or smh-ing at Jones should perhaps do better to be on their knees in gratitude that their own sins and shortcomings have not played out on so well-lit a stage.)

So why not see an apology such as this not as the conclusion to something, but rather the beginning of something? President Ryken has asked Wheaton’s Board of Trustees to begin an inquiry into this whole mess, to try to understand how it became such a mess. I think that process is more likely to bear good fruit if those who feel, and especially those who have genuinely been, most wounded by Wheaton are willing to be patient and hopeful and generous-spirited as the inquiry proceeds, not least because God has been patient and hopeful and generous-spirited with all of us.