Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The “Do Right BJU” Protestors: Bob Jones University's Own New Tank Men of Tiananman Square

The average young college student today will not be old enough to recall the events of June 1989 and the iconic photo that appeared in the media all over the world. The death of a Chinese government official, Hu Yaobang, who promoted free speech, freedom of the press, and free market trade sparked mass sessions of mourning in the streets and an eventual meeting of students to object to the government's lack of esteem for the work he had done. Students (100,000 of them) began to gather regularly in Tianaman Square for months after the first gathering in April for Hu's memorial service.

China declared martial law quite quickly, but little was done until June 3rd when tanks rolled into Tiananman Square, opening fire as they progressed to clear the path through the protestors and bystanders, thus ushering in a violent government crackdown throughout the city. As a column of tanks rolled through on June 5th, they started to break formation, what many people saw as a flagrant act of arrogance, mocking the people and their powerlessness. Suddenly, an unknown man took it upon himself to bravely walk out in front of the tank that lead the column, stood in front of it, and even crawled up on it and banged on the hatch. A single man stood alone in front of the Chinese Army, and for a few moments, stopped its progress while the world held its breath. The tank tried to turn to avoid him and did not open fire. Men from the curb of the street stepped in to usher the young man away quickly, and some unverified sources reported that he was executed publicly in the many executions that were aired on Chinese television over the next weeks that followed.

The momentary, bold act of courage shown by this one unknown man changed both China and the world. His act inspired the people of China from all walks of life to step forward to call for acceptance of the principles of basic freedom. The image of the lone man was later said to have inspired those who participated in the dismantling of the Soviet Union. (“If Tank Man could stand up to those Chinese tanks in Tiananman Square, I can stand up to endure my opposition.”) As a direct result of this one man's example, free trade and capitalism widely expanded across China which greatly benefited the people there and gave them expanded opportunities for free speech. (Not to say that more progress there is not still desperately needed.) That single man took an opportunity that the moment and circumstance gave him to stand up to oppression. He literally changed the world and became one of “the most important people of the [20th] Century.”

The Asch Conformity Experiment demonstrates the great power that social expectation creates for us and how difficult it is to resist conformity with the consensus opinion when we find ourselves in groups. As the Asch Experiment and other studies like the Milgram Study point out to us (studies that sought to understand how the WWII Holocaust could have possibly have taken place), the majority of people will follow not only group consensus most of the time, they will also follow the direction of an authority. Apart from the pressure from others, we would often offer a different response, but the influence to conform becomes quite difficult to resist, even when we are pressured to behave unethically. It is a part of our human nature.

Studies show that only an approximate 10% of people will resist these influences, offering an opinion or response to the contrary of the pressured consensus, and something wonderful happens when they do resist. That 10% of people who step forward create a safe place for others to also resist, just like Tank Man of Tiananmen Square. Dissidents encourage others to step forward with them. In her book, Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches, Margaret Jones offers an insightful review of the parallel findings that come from the studies concerning bullying. The first person to resist the pressure to keep silent and steps forward to challenge a bully changes the whole dynamic of the group and takes undue power away from the bully and equalizes it a bit for the group. When one steps forward, generally step forward as well. Philip Zimbardo encourages all people to become “everyday heroes” who will cause that 10% to grow and to become the consensus. If we can conform to evil, we can surely learn to resist to support that which is good.

To those who had the courage yesterday to wear red to Bob Jones University to protest the abusive attitudes toward women and victims that the institution promotes, facilitates, and thus, teaches, today, I deem you the Tank Men (and Women) of your own Tiananmen Square. You did not brave death, but you braved fear, intimidation, and threats from authority. You've taken another great step of many recent ones to change that which is acceptable on campus at Bob Jones and admirable within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist group.


The sanctuary in a church that has served as an oasis of love for me in the past displays a slogan discretely above the cross that reads, “Little is much when God is in it.” The words of a popular song also echo this message when it says that “little becomes much when you place it in the Master's hands.” And as Chaucer said in Troilus and Criseyde, “an ook [oak tree] cometh of a litel spyr [a young, small sapling].”

Keep, protect, and nurture these small beginnings, taking joy in them, though they are yet small. Find the still place of peace and strength (and the work of tension) that the Holy Spirit holds for you between justice for the abused and love for BJU – between righteous anger and the most honorable of behavior (Ephesians 4:26). In your heart, see that place grow through patient eyes of expectation of the good that will come in its time. Look to the Author and the Faithful Finisher of it – of all that He is doing and all that He seeks to do in you.