Wednesday, March 6, 2013

"Thy Daughters True": Feminism at OBU - Part 3

Feminism at OBU Series
"Thy Daughters True": Feminism at OBU - Part 1
"Thy Daughters True": Feminism at OBU - Part 2
"Thy Daughters True": Feminism at OBU - Part 3
"Thy Daughters True": Feminism at OBU - Part 4

On Monday, I wrote about a chapel message that contained two illustrations that were degrading to women. Today I will share the story of our protest and the administration's response.

FAIR held meeting as soon as possible to discuss the chapel message. We were all outraged at Dr. Gillham's statements and knew that we needed to do something about it. Only two of us had heard the message firsthand, so someone tried to get a recording of the chapel service. All chapel services are recorded and archived, but this one was not. Dr. Gillham didn't allow OBU to record his message because he copyrighted his material. We knew that the administration needed to respond to the situation and uphold all the nice things they put in the Green Book about not discriminating or harassing persons because of gender.

During the discussion, one of the group members said, "Imagine being a rape victim sitting in chapel and hearing that message." It was a chilling thought. We all knew the statistics about reported rapes versus unreported rapes, the challenges of reporting rape and assault, and how colleges sometimes poorly responded to sexual assault on campus. What about OBU? How many students knew about preventing sexual assault, fighting against rape culture, and supporting victims? What about students who were quietly coping with the aftermath of sexual assault and domestic abuse? What sort of chilling effect would Dr. Gillham's message have?

We outlined a course of action. First, the two members of FAIR who heard the message firsthand would write editorials to The Bison. I wrote about the egg illustration, while the other member of FAIR wrote about Lois and Joe. Second, we would hold an open meeting in the common area of the Geiger Center and speak to students and faculty about the incident and respond to Dr. Gillham's message. We wanted to be visible and make our voices of protest loud and clear, and we wanted to be orderly, well-spoken, and even-tempered. Picketing the chapel, waving handmade signs, and chanting slogans wouldn't do. After all, OBU had taught us to use rational discourse, not protest theatrics. Third, we would find ways to educate students and faculty about domestic abuse and sexual assault and what they could do to fight against it. For the survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault, we wanted to let them know that they were not alone, and we wanted to encourage others to support them.

It seemed so easy. Who wouldn't be against domestic violence and sexual assault? There were quite a few feminist-minded students and professors who would be outraged, and OBU had plenty of Christians who claimed to have compassion for those who are hurting – a category that certainly included victims of abuse and sexual assault. At the same time, we knew it would be a challenge. We were confronting the fundamentalist patriarchy at OBU. Indifference and even opposition were likely.  

The following Monday, we held our open meeting in the common area. Anyone walking through the student center to get their mail or visit the cafeteria could overhear our speeches and see how many people had gathered to listen to us. I don't remember how many people attended, but I remember that there was a small crowd of students and faculty, both men and women. We pointed out the problems with the offensive illustrations and asked the university to issue a formal apology.

On Tuesday, members of FAIR met with Todd Ream, the Dean of Students. Dr. Ream was very supportive and sympathetic. He was troubled by the incident and willing to back us up with the administration.

On Wednesday, February 27, we attended chapel service and hoped that OBU would issue an apology as we had requested. Before Dr. Mark Brister introduced that week's chapel speaker – I have since forgotten who it was, but it was yet another middle-aged man – he took a moment to address the previous week's chapel message. I do not recall his exact words, but he stated that some people complained about statements made in last week's chapel and that OBU wanted to apologize if anyone was offended. At that point, Dr. Brister turned to look at the man behind him, who had sat through the entire apology with a bewildered look on his face. They exchanged glances, and Dr. Brister chuckled and shrugged his shoulders at him. The speaker chuckled too.

Not only was the "apology" dismissive and not much of an apology at all, it ended with two men looking at each other, laughing, and shrugging helplessly over a bunch of women getting hysterical over something said in chapel.

At first, I thought that it was good that we at least got a response and an apology, but then I realized that it was more of a dismissal. The administration had all but told us through PR-speak to sit down, be quiet, and let the men talk.

After chapel, everything unfolded in the pages of that week's issue of The Bison. An article about the controversy and our meeting in the GC appeared on the front page of volume 89, number 19, right next to an article with a headline that read, "Women's conference to feature several OBU alumni, faculty." An excellent quote from Dr. Todd Ream appeared next to the article about FAIR's meeting in the GC:
The members of FAIR are correct in asserting that gender discrimination and sexual abuse, at whatever level, are contradictory to the [sic] our identity as a Christian people. We must work together to affirm the created image of God present in all of humanity, male and female alike.
Unfortunately, statements from other male authority figures paled in comparison. In the article, Dr. Dick Rader stated that "he is sorry for any offense caused by students misconstruing Dr. Gillham's statements." Dr. Gillham told The Bison that he "acknowledge[s] FAIR's concern about male mistreatment of females and [he shares] that concern." He also said that the only thing we should take away from his lecture was Christ.

On the second page of that same issue, FAIR members' dual editorials about the chapel message appeared right across from an excellent editorial that outlined harassment policies in the Green Book and a strange editorial complaining about the sexism of an on-campus Valentine's date auction.

Letters to the editor from OBU's administration and Dr. Gillham appeared in next issue of the Bison, volume 85, number 20, on March 4, 2002.  The letter from OBU's administration was signed by Dr. Mark Brister, Dr. Joseph R. Weaver, and Dr. Dick Rader. It began by acknowledging that "a speaker presented illustrations which were deemed by many in our campus community to condone domestic violence, sexual abuse and victimization of women." However, the letter went on to say that Dr. Gillham told the university that "he did not mean to convey the message as perceived by a significant number of people." It also emphasized OBU's nondiscrimination policy and stated that "the impressions taken from the illustrations of Feb. 22 are not consistent with the position of the University's administration, faculty and staff." The choice of words really struck me: "deemed by many," "perceived," and "impressions." The administration stood with Dr. Gillham and seemed to suggest that we did not actually hear what we claimed to have heard. The letter also pointed out that the service was not recorded, indicating that it was our word against Dr. Gillham's.

The last section of the letter outlined the administration's course of action: they would "study gender related issues at OBU." Privately, they had told FAIR that they would form a gender studies task force as well as inform authority figures at Dr. Gillham's future speaking engagements about the controversy that erupted at OBU. They did not mention the latter in the letter and we never knew if they followed through.

Dr. Gillham's letter addressed FAIR directly and opened with "My Dear Sister in Christ," even though it was supposed to address the editor. He stated that he "share[d]" our concerns about "male mistreatment of females" and that "it was not [his] intent to address male/female relationships, social inequalities or sexual abuse" in his chapel message. He claimed that the illustrations were meant to show that "real life is hard" and that Christ "is God's Provision to express His life through each Believer," which "includes living with an abusive husband and how to overcome temptation." He acknowledged that "the two males were portrayed as abusive," but followed it up with an accusation: those who misconstrued the illustrations were "naively undermining the work of the Holy Spirit." Our takeaway was that he meant we should sit and learn in silence and submission instead of protesting. He ended the letter by saying, "I love you and pray for God's best for you."

Again, I couldn't help noticing his choice of words. The use of the phrase "overcome temptation" emphasized the way that he blamed Lois for what happened, and "living with an abusive husband" left no room for the woman to seek help or a divorce. In addition, if he did not want to address the issues of abuse, why did he bring them up in the sermon? Should we see those issues as inevitable facts of life rather than injustices we must fight?

As dismissive as these two letters were, there was still hope. Right below Dr. Gillham's letter was a lengthy and outstanding letter from OBU professor Dr. James Farthing, who was also a Deputy Sheriff for Pottawatomie County, about the legal definitions and issues related to assault, battery, rape, and domestic abuse. He completely backed up FAIR's assertions and lent his authority to our side. He pointed out that "those who deal with these issues on a regular basis understand that they are complicated well beyond the understanding of those who make jokes about them or otherwise treat them lightly." Dr. Farthing then went on to say that "[t]o even imply that God blames victims, even if they have acted foolishly, is to remove the responsibility from those who commit these crimes."

Amen. Blaming the victim is reprehensible, period.

Tomorrow, I will offer some concluding thoughts on our student group and the need for continued vigilance, especially in male-dominated institutions inclined toward sexist outlooks on religion, culture, and family life.


  1. Two quick comments: 1) I remember that phrase, "naively undermining the work of the Holy Spirit," even after all these years. 2) God bless Jim Farthing. I mean that literally. If anybody could address an OBU audience with credibility about the reality of sexual assault and perp responsibility, it's him.

    OK, a third: some of FAIR's responses were organized in my apartment, and I'm VERY proud of that fact.

    1. Hey Chris! I remember that you were right there with us back then. I really appreciated your support even though I don't think I ever got the chance to tell you.

      And yes, God bless Jim Farthing. His letter to the editor was probably the most powerful response to that chapel message. It was a thunderclap of authority!

  2. 1) All you wanted the students to take away from the lecture was Christ. That was the problem...they didn't.
    2) Then you placed the blame on "naively undermining the work of the Holy Spirit." No, Dr. Gillham, you naively undermined the work of the Holy Spirit when you failed to listen to the effect your words had on their listeners. That's how we do it every single time.


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