|The university's new interpretation of the Bible marked an about-face from a 1986 pamphlet, "Race Relations," written by a Bible department faculty member, Marshall Neal, who argued that racial segregation was based on the authority of the Bible.
A school in the independent Baptist tradition known for its theological fundamentalism and limited civic engagement posted a statement of apology on its Web site last Thursday.
The statement admitted that like most of American Christianity for two centuries, the school in Greenville, S.C., "was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture."
"Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it," said the statement.
"In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry," said the document credited to the school's new president, Stephen Jones, who is the son of Bob Jones III, the grandson of Bob Jones, Jr., and the great-grandson of the university's founder, Bob Jones, Sr.
The statement began: "At Bob Jones University, Scripture is our final authority for faith and practice and it is our intent to have it govern all of our policies. It teaches that God created the human race as one race."
While the university recognized the decisive role culture played in shaping its interpretation of the Bible to justify its stance on race, the school did not reference the pressure from alumni to apologize.
"We are troubled … by certain aspects of the school's reputation regarding its attitude toward the topic of racial discrimination. The school is widely known as segregationist, bigoted, and racist," wrote an alumni group in an open letter to Stephen Jones. "Some of us were not aware of this reputation while we attended the university and were baffled when we encountered negative perceptions from others after we graduated."
Pointing out the "stigma" that they encounter as Bob Jones University graduates, Please-Reconcile.org said that the school had never apologized for its mistake and made a commitment to change.
"We can find no record of a statement that admits that the university's historical position on the topic of racial discrimination, while sincere, was mistaken, and God has granted a better perspective," said the letter. "We are writing to request that such a statement be made, backed up by concrete actions that demonstrate its seriousness."
The request for signatories to the open letter was closed in part on Nov. 19. The university issued its statement on Nov. 20.
The university's new interpretation of the Bible marked an about-face from a 1986 pamphlet, "Race Relations," written by a Bible department faculty member, Marshall Neal, who argued that racial segregation was based on the authority of the Bible.
Neal used the so-called "Curse of Ham" as part of his biblical justification for the treatment of blacks, a myth criticized in the newly released, award-winning documentary "Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism."
"In Genesis 9:25-27, Noah gives divinely inspired predictions of the future of the descendants of each of his sons," wrote Neal. He noted that one of Noah's sons, Ham, had a son named Canaan, whose descendants were to "be lowly servants."
Neal wrote: "When the time came for Abraham to find a wife for his son Isaac, he made his servant swear that he would not let Isaac marry a woman of the Canaanites …This shows both the wickedness of the Canaanites and Abraham's God-given desire to perpetuate his own race. Abraham descended from Shem while the Canaanites descended from Ham."
Following the biblical chronology, Neal interpreted the text in which Moses' brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam, "complained against Moses 'because of the Ethiopian woman whom he married' (Numbers 12:1)."
"This passage is clear proof that interracial marriage causes troubles, splits families and is not good," said Neal.
He cited Samson's marriage to a Philistine woman and Solomon's foreign wives as biblical examples of why intermarriage was wrong. He wrote that God's displeasure with Solomon was so great that God allowed Solomon's kingdom to split.
Neal concluded: "All efforts to eliminate nations and races in favor of an ecumenical one-world system are of satanic origin. Therefore when racial distinctions are rubbed out (as they are through intermingling of bloodlines), men are, whether they realize it or not, at war with God's perfect program. Therefore no Christian should be a party to encouraging interracial marriage or entering into it."
Bob Jones University's apology followed other recent Baptist statements or events related to slavery, segregation and racism.
The Baptist Union Council of Great Britain apologized in November 2007 for the involvement of British Baptists in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
"We acknowledge that we speak as those who have shared in and suffered from the legacy of slavery, and its appalling consequences for God's world," the statement said. "We offer our apology to God and to our brothers and sisters for all that has created and still perpetuates the hurt which originated from the horror of slavery."
At the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in the summer of 2007, some 400 global Baptists held a memorial and reconciliation service focused on slavery and racism at Cape Coast Castle, a slave depot in Ghana.
"We affirm that racism and ethnic conflict are contrary to God's Word," read Baptists in unison.
After the service, Denton Lotz, BWA's retiring general secretary, said, "Let the word go forth that Baptists repent and ask forgiveness and seek reconciliation with one another for freedom and justice."
Neither Bob Jones University nor the Southern Baptist Convention, two different historical Baptist traditions grounded in theological fundamentalism, participated in the three-day meeting earlier this year of the New Baptist Covenant.
That meeting brought together black, brown and white Baptist clergy and laity in North America in an effort to kindle better relationships and forge new ties for cooperation in the pursuit of social justice.
Similar meetings will be held in 2009 in different regions across the country.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
DVD: "Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism"