Forgive and Forget After Bob Jones’ “Stone the Gays” Apology?

At Religion News Service, Kevin Eckstrom reports on a rather unexpected, much belated apology. In 1980, during a visit to the White House, former Bob Jones University president Bob Jones III suggested that the United States should consider stoning homosexuals.

“I’m sure this will be greatly misquoted,” Jones said. “But it would not be a bad idea to bring the swift justice today that was brought in Israel’s day against murder and rape and homosexuality. I guarantee it would solve the problem post-haste if homosexuals were stoned, if murderers were immediately killed as the Bible commands.”

Three years ago, BJUnity, an organization of LGBT alumni, launched a petition asking Jones to apologize for the remarks. This past weekend, he did:

Upon now reading these long-forgotten words, they seem to me as words belonging to a total stranger — were my name not attached. I cannot erase them, but wish I could, because they do not represent the belief of my heart or the content of my preaching. Neither before, nor since, that event in 1980 have I ever advocated the stoning of sinners.

To take Jones at his word is to grant that his comments were an aberration, not just in the mainstream discourse of the time, but also within his own thinking. His advocacy of stoning was the product of one moment – divorced from anything before or since – in which he misspoke and misrepresented himself terribly. It was an inopportune moment to be sure, in that he happened to be speaking to the President of the United States.

There are reasons to doubt Jones’ sincerity. Critics will be quick to observe, for instance, that his comments were delivered alongside a petition opposing legal protections for gays and lesbians. They will also observe that Bob Jones University continues to forbid all same-sex dating, and that it forbade interracial dating up until 2000. There are thus grounds for the claim that prejudice is more rule than exception in the Bob Jones universe.

Still, Jones’ apology is important and conciliatory to those students and alumni alienated by his words.

For the rest of us, it may be useful as a synecdoche for the rhetorical posture of conservative evangelicalism writ large. Burdened with a history of vicious anti-gay arguments, these speakers and advocates hope to simply disavow it, to proceed against equality movements in the present as though their opposition has always been purely intellectual and well-intended, as though they don’t even recognize the noxious forms it has until recently taken.

But this is not the case. Current arguments against equal rights for the LGBT community acquire new dimensions when understood in light of that history. This is a point I’ve made before, and I understand that saying it again runs the risk of redundancy. But I believe it is central and vital to any accurate reading of contemporary conservative discourse on LGBT issues.

BJUnity has forgiven Bob Jones, which strikes me as a very Christian thing to do. But in forgiving, we should be careful never, ever to forget.