Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wrestling with Angels and Demons

I will completely upfront about this: My daughter, Julia, went to high school with Brandon Davies.

I remember watching Brandon run up and down the court at Provo High, when it looked like he had borrowed his grandfather’s size 17 feet, socks and shoes, and was trying them on his 6 foot 4 inch body for a Halloween skit. In my mind’s eye, I see him sitting in the hot tub, lounging around the pool, and hanging with Julia in the Courtyard of Provo High. I see him shooting hoops with six-year-old Adam in Gym 1, tolerating a rug rat who couldn’t even heave the ball up to hit the net. We watched the Super Bowl together at my brother-in-law’s house and Brandon plowed his way through carne asada, guacamole, and more Sweet Tooth Fairy cupcakes than is healthy.

Brandon’s a sweet and gentle soul. We don’t really make them any other way here. Adopted by a single mother, he’s been raised by committee and community and incredible resilience in Provo, Utah. Having won the gene pool lottery, and grown to 6 foot 9 inches with the wingspan of an albatross, and the demeanor of a golden retriever, he plays basketball for BYU. Make that, played basketball until two days ago, when he was suspended for having violated the Honor Code at BYU. He is, at most, barely 19 years old.

For the totally disconnected from current events, the BYU men’s basketball team is currently ranked third in the country. Prior to Brandon’s public whipping (thought the village stocks went out along with Puritan witchhunts), commentators and bracketologists had the Cougars possibly securing a No.1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Within hours of BYU administration making the announcement that Brandon was suspended, it was national news. I looked up from my workout on Wednesday morning to see film of Brandon as the background for the ESPN morning show. I was horrified. I still am.

Brandon is, for me, the blemished lamb sacrificed on the altar of policy and public relations. I am utterly unable to find any genuine concern for the individual amongst the decision that purported to save Brandon Davies’s soul and BYU’s reputation by dismissing him from the third-ranked basketball team in the nation in the final week of the season. In the process, they blindly, callously exposed this poor child to the scrutiny of millions.

Could they not see what would happen? Are they so without imagination as to not realize that this man-child, with the gentle heart and soul, would be analyzed, dissected, speculated about, and run up and down every talk show and online chat board? Are they so committed to procedures and consistency that it is impossible to contemplate a kinder, gentler way to discipline, one that takes into account the totality of the circumstances? If that were their child, would have they acted so ruthlessly? Does God really require such sacrifice?

Honor Code Office and other suited officials, meet me in the lobby of the Kimball Tower or whatever glass building you take refuge in these days, to explain this process. You have no clergy-parishioner privilege that would preclude you from answering such questions. Explain how it is—without divulging any personal information—that such a decision is arrived at. What harm would there have been in waiting until the end of the semester, waiting until Brandon can privately make his penance?

I was and am still horrified at the shortsightedness of an administration that would expose this child in such a way. It’s humiliating enough to make your slow way to a bishop’s office in the back corner of the church house and pretend you’re there to talk about Tithing Settlement or an Ecclesiastical Endorsement. But to have your attempt to make a right way through life exposed to millions because the policy manual calls for a certain action, and calls for it now, is horrific, medieval and certainly not Christian in any shape or form.

I’m sure I can anticipate the justifications that were made: These are sacred funds; these are the rules; these are the promises each student makes when they sign the Honor Code; he signed the agreement saying he wouldn’t do whatever he did. (And I don’t know what it is or care, for that matter. But one thing I do know, there’s thousands of other freshman at BYU who having those same learning experiences.)

1) Sacred funds.

I publicly promise that my tithing funds can be used in the education of 19-year old boys who are making their way through life, learning how to use their bodies and minds for good, making and admitting to mistakes, making those adjustments that turn them into more reasoned, seasoned and disciplined adults. The same sacred funds are, after all, used to pay for the treatment of pedophiles, porn addicts, abusive spouses and parents, and gamblers (many of them BYU students and alum) through LDS Family Services. I don’t know of any more sacred way to use these funds than to make a place of education where a teenager can be taught and mentored along his way to adulthood with space and tolerance built-in for error. I’m sure there are others who feel like I do: our sacred funds can be used to pay the tuition of those children who don’t quite know how to be perfect yet. Here’s hoping when they are the bishops and branch presidents of the next thirty years, they will show an equal compassion and tolerance for my children and grandchildren’s frailties and flailings.

Just in case you’d actually like to use my tithing to build a chapel in Voortrekker’s Rus, South Africa, make a separate fund, like you did with the Perpetual Education Fund. Call it the “sinning-but-hoping-to-get-it-right-one-day” scholarship fund. I’ll put my money into that. I’ll make a special contribution every month, writing it in under “Other” on the Contributions slip. I’m sure my children will fit into that category when their time comes to be a freshman in college.

2) Have a policy; can’t make an exception blah blah blah!

Policies, procedures and rules are lines in the sand. They can be altered, redrawn, or erased altogether. Policies, and especially procedures, are just best attempts at making principles flesh. Rules are ways to make us feel safe about ourselves. If we follow the rules, then we know we’re in the right way. Neither policies, nor procedures, and especially not rules, are set in stone; all are of our own making. They have not been revealed, nor are they engraven on tablets of gold. There are always moments in which rules are suspended—even God’s lower laws give way to the application of higher laws when miracles take place.

In bankruptcy law, when a debtor petitions for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the court determines whether to confirm the repayment plan by looking at the totality of the circumstances. There are a myriad of factors the courts can look at to determine whether to grant a petition, and not every factor has to be considered. Sometimes, courts get lazy and fail to really look at the totality of the circumstances. They apply several factors in an analysis that looks more like a formula than a really in-depth analysis. The holdings of those courts which take a short-cut in their analysis can be sent back for a review that considers the total circumstance of each, individual debtor. Using a totality of the circumstances analysis, the outcomes are not easy to predict. Each outcome is individual to the petition.

It's far easier to apply an equation. But the law does not allow it. It's hard to perform a totality of the circumstances analysis. It requires the judge to put thought and effort into the deliberation, to examine without preconception, and to allow for individuality. Seemingly inconsistent decisions will need to be defended, if appealed.

I promise you, the rest of the world is able to live with the ambiguity and differing end results that a totality of the circumstances analysis brings. I would expect different treatment, even if just in timing, for Brandon Davies than for Tiffany Rogers, age 18, from Sandpoint, Idaho, majoring in Math, and living in Liberty Square, who lines up every home game for admission to the All Sports Pass student section. Tiffany doesn’t have to figure out her life in the public eye. She can sleep with her boyfriend, indulge in online gambling, cross-dress, snort cocaine, get raving drunk or even, evil of all evils, get a tattoo or a second ear piercing in Park City, then make her confession to her bishop in the make shift bishop’s office in the Testing Center. She will not be exposed; not held up for examination. Not discussed on every sports channel across America, and at the circulation desk of the Law Library.

Tiffany is not Brandon; Brandon is not Tiffany. And BYU is bigger than both of them, and can embrace and allow for difference in the application of the principles of confession, repentance and forward progress. Like the ark that crosses the Jordan, the gospel of Christ and the university that supposes to embrace its principles does not need the steadying hand of consistency, of rules to make sure that the university is not caught harboring fugitives from perfection on its sporting teams.

3) The Honor Code

The Honor Code does not make BYU unique. BYU is not the only university with an Honor Code. For example, Haverford College, a liberal arts college with Quaker roots, has one. It’s administered by the students, and created each year by common consent in an all-student caucus.

Perhaps what makes BYU unique is the heavy handedness with which the Honor Code is wielded, like a Sword of Damocles. Do you know that it’s a violation of the Honor Code to take the shopping carts off the Creamery premises? The Creamery is a little corner market that abuts the residence halls. The signs attached to the carts actually threaten to turn the offenders into the Honor Code Office! For using carts to take groceries home.

The Honor Code system and the application of punishment as it now functions at BYU deters the living of an honest, seeking life. It encourages lying, covering up and living with deceit by any BYU student, or faculty for that matter, who represents the university in any capacity. I can imagine that athletes, performers or any other student who is excellent in any way, soon realize that they will have to keep their normal, course of life errors and off-track moments to themselves for the four years it takes them to graduate from this university.

While they’re here, they’ll have to keep their stories straight and their issues under wraps. Any other honest attempt at reconciliation is sure to meet with the modern-day equivalent of a public whipping and then banishment from the village. Sort of like a shunning really. (Dwight would be proud.) So, athletes, dancers, cheerleaders, and Vice-Presidents carry with them the effects of sin—the remorse, the self-doubt and loathing, the inability to completely move forward without looking back—until they leave. The hope is that they still feel to make right once they have left the institution that, out of any institution, should have allowed them to do so within its walls. After carrying the heavy load for so long, it starts to feel normal, the way life is. It’s hard to imagine a different, better way.


The God I know, and the one I hope Brandon knows, is a God of exceptions. Not only is He exceptional, defying predictability and process, He makes exceptions. His prophets, whom he continues to use as prophets and kings, commit adultery. His disciples, even the one upon which he builds his church, deny their Savior. His people try his patience and build golden calves. Yet, he stays his hand. He is not a God of rules or of consistent outcomes. Perversely, we, who call ourselves his people, take pride in an external, consistent application of the law.

A certain woman, taken in adultery, was brought by the Pharisees before Jesus. They told him, with what I am sure were very earnest faces, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” We all know what Jesus said, as he drew and redrew lines in the sand.

On hearing his reply, each man, “being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one.” I can imagine the weight of the stones the scribes and Pharisees had secreted in their pockets suddenly became very heavy. If I were one of those Pharisees, committed as I would have been to the strict observance of the law and the avoidance of any contact with things gentile or unclean, I would have looked for some private corner in which to empty my pockets. It would have ruined my public image to be seen relenting in the “strict observance of the law” and avoiding the application of the “multiplicity of ceremonial rules” to which I normally devoted myself.

And while I am emptying my pockets and counting my own sins, the crowded village square empties until it is no-one but Jesus and the woman. In a motif as old as time and as timeless as every act that ever wanted righting, Christ and the woman have an intimate exchange about her heart and his perception of her and his faith in her ability to move on: “Go, and sin no more.”

The conversation is as these conversations should always be: just the two of them. No Pharisees, no scribes, no press, no public whipping, no stoning, no flagellation.

Surely there was a better way?

[There is no song that reflects what I feel. Perhaps a funeral dirge, with a lone bagpiper, piping my sorrow and disillusion]