By Steve Clemens
Got this in the mail this week- it got me thinking:
December of 1971 was the time I completed my academic requirements to graduate several months early from Wheaton College. 50 years is a long time in looking back at that part of my journey – especially in trying to heal from the religious and theological abuse heaped upon my 21-year-old self from the “evangelical” movement as expressed by the school which prided itself as being the “Harvard” of such. I’ve come to realize in the passing years the damage wrought by what I now see as a form of Post Theological Salvation Disorder (or Delusion): PTSD.
Wheaton College prided itself with a motto: For Christ and His Kingdom and even had that motto emblazoned on the military uniforms the male students were required to wear twice a week for drill while carrying a gun, marching in formation, with spit-shined shoes and polished brass buttons. All this during the years of increasing slaughter occurring in South East Asia in Vietnam and then Cambodia. Only a few of us were also gradually becoming aware of the “secret” bombing of Laos – although it was hardly a “secret” to those recipients of US-made cluster bombs which continue to wreak havoc and destruction still today as farmers plow their fields or children find unexploded metal devices which often explode destroying limbs and lives.The theology espoused by that evangelical movement was smug and self-assured: “we” – and I was raised to embrace it – knew who was “saved” and who was “lost”. Amazingly, the saved looked a lot like us: overwhelmingly white, middle-class, good American citizens on a mission to “save” others by “sharing” the “good news” (the meaning behind the term evangelical) in a way that perpetuated the mythology of American (or Christian) Exceptionalism.
So much of the theology I embraced came from a place of fear; if I didn’t believe it, or practice it correctly, I was doomed to an “eternal lake of fire” (hell) by a God that “loved me”. But, if I just believed the correct things and did the required acts (confession of sins, “acceptance” of Jesus as my “saviour” -note the old English spelling because of the King James’ version of the Bible made it the norm -, and baptism), I could be “assured” of my personal salvation and an eternity in heaven. “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop, in that bright land where we’ll never grow old”, we sang with pride and confidence in my formative years.Oh, but there were cracks widening within that smug assurance which grew wider, especially during my 3 ½ years at that college. Maybe it was the Psychology prof who lamented the tendency of evangelicals’ failure to understand and embrace ambiguity. Or definitely my Bible prof who rocked our compulsory chapel requirement when Dr. Webber preached my junior year about his experience of “the silence of God” which created a crisis-of-confidence among many of us students and caused quite a few discussions on campus for at least the next week.
One of those cracks was initiated when I chose to become a Conscientious Objector when I registered for the military draft early in my freshman year only to discover that the college administration was loath to follow its own guidelines in allowing me to be excused from the mandatory US Army ROTC requirements. Another crack developed when I asked a fellow Black student to be my roommate and began to learn from him a very different perspective than my own upbringing. Then, between my junior and senior year, I signed up to go to Europe for the inaugural International Study-Abroad program. Part of that 10-week experience included a visit to the Dachau Nazi concentration camp outside Munich. Although at that time it was easy for me to reject any association with the Nazi horrors, it later became clearer to me how quickly one “righteous” group could turn on another and commit (or acquiesce to) unspeakable deeds. 31 years later, I would walk among the rusting ruins of Iraqi vehicles destroyed by US A-10 Warthog-fired depleted uranium bullets in the 1991 war and then visit a children’s hospital in Basra to see Iraqi children dying of cancers most likely caused by exposure to the radiation left by those weapons fired by my own nation’s military. By the time of the fall of 1971, my senior year, I had recognized the “cracks” in my religious and theological beliefs had now become crevasses or even canyons. Thanks to my Geology course, I learned much about glaciers, rivers, and other acts of nature which radically change the surface of our planet. Looking back the past 50 years, it seems like it took me years to recover from that old self and my rigid beliefs – a change that sometimes now appears to be at a glacier’s pace.
I got an invitation to attend my 50th Wheaton College class of ’72 reunion in the mail this week. I’d love to sit down with a few of those classmates and hear where their journeys had led them – but, having witnessed from afar the past 5 years how the evangelical movement embraced the Trumpian worldview, I’m not sure I want to subject myself to more theological trauma. If I go to the reunion, will there be buttons we can wear that proclaim, “I survived my years at Wheaton”?