After a student at a prominent evangelical college questioned his school’s stance against homosexuality in an all-school forum on Monday, another student allegedly threw an apple at him “as a warning against insulting the Spirit of grace.”
The incident, which college administrators are now addressing, took place on Monday at Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater outside Chicago, during the campus’ traditional “Town Hall Chapel,” a campuswide question and answer session where the college president, currently Philip Ryken, takes questions from the student body. Wheaton holds marriage to be between one man and one woman, and requires students and faculty to uphold that sexual ethic. Christian colleges such as Wheaton have been at the center of the evangelical fight over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) acceptance, especially as younger generations grow increasingly more accepting on issues such as same-sex marriage.
The most recent conflict began when Philip Fillion, a class of 2015 organ performance major and married heterosexual, asked Ryken a question about the theological consistency of Wheaton’s position against homosexuality. He posted his question in full in a public note on his Facebook page:
“All students, via the Community Covenant, and all faculty, via the Statement of Faith, are required to affirm a sexual ethic that denies everyone except celibates and married straight people a place in the kingdom of God. This sexual ethic is not at all universal and depends on a reading of scripture that is incredibly narrow and ignores history, culture, and science. The Statement of Faith and the Community Covenant also lack any language about the sacraments of the Christian church. Why is it the case that our college, in documents we all must agree to or be expelled, insists on formally condemning and denying equality to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, on spurious theological grounds, yet completely leaves behind baptism and Eucharist, which Jesus Christ himself instituted to grow and strengthen the Christian community?”
As he returned to his seat, the college tells TIME, another student sitting nearby threw the apple at him, and missed. Fillion tells TIME it hit him on his left shoulder partly through his question. “There was no response when the fruit was thrown. No boos, no gasp,” he says. “A student was in line after me and when it was his turn to ask a question, he began his time at the microphone by calling out whoever had thrown the fruit, remarking that such behavior was inappropriate and disrespectful. There was restrained applause for this.”
“President Ryken did not see the incident and did not fully understand what happened until after chapel ended,” Wheaton College told TIME in a statement.
At first, the apple was the end of the story, though some students were bothered. Justin Massey, a senior political science major and a co-founder of the campus’ LGBT student group Refuge, was disturbed that the incident did not garner more serious attention. “I saw peers exert more effort into rationalizing the offense rather than demonstrating support to the LGBT community whose experiences were disrespected,” Massey wrote on his blog. “From three separate individuals I have heard that the disruptive student simply felt ‘the question was just too long,’ ‘the tone of the inquiring student appeared rude,’ and even ‘it was simply a joke gone wrong.’ Each of these answers has one thing in common: they take responsibility off of the offending individual in an attempt to absolve this student of displaying any prejudice against a minority group.”
But the situation escalated dramatically when a student claiming to be the apple-thrower then posted a letter on the campus’ public bulletin board, the “Forum Wall,” a space traditionally designated for student opinions, accepting responsibility for and defending his actions, Wheaton confirms. “Dear Enemy,” the note began. “In regards to ‘casting a stone,’ you would be mistaken to think that I threw the apple out of hatred. I have strong aim and could hit a head at fifteen meters if I wanted to. No, I threw it purposefully as a warning against insulting the Spirit of grace. Because Truth itself was maligned. For the destruction of those who ‘have the form of godliness but deny its power’ was written about long ago. And in regards to the story of the adulteress, have you not read what Jesus told the woman, ‘God now and leave your life of sin.’ ? So neither do I condemn you, but do fear God and live in righteousness! Do not choose destruction.” Signed: “Not ashamed of Truth, Roland Hesse.”
Late Tuesday night, Massey wrote a letter to Ryken and other campus leaders, alerting them of the Forum Wall letter and arguing that the incident was more than just a theological dispute. “Upon reading this letter I feel threatened and unsafe, and I know that I am not the only student who feels this way,” Massey, who is openly gay, wrote. “This action of throwing an item at another student is violent in nature and his sentiments reflected in the Forum Wall post are threatening….My peers and I strongly feel that prompt discussion, discipline, and communication with the student body must take place to explicitly call out these actions and properly deal with this situation.”
Massey and other students, LGBT and allied, met with campus officials Wednesday morning to discuss the situation. “The religious tone and justification that he voiced, that was really frightening to us,” Massey says. “That is why we are asking for the College to specifically recognize that this incident targeted a minority group of people, that this wasn’t just a theological disagreement—this was LGBT students feeling the weight of the actions.”
Ryken briefly addressed the situation to the student body in Wednesday’s all-school chapel. The incident comes the same week as another Wheaton student was arrested for allegedly secretly filming a female Wheaton student in her shower since October 2014. “He asked our community to pray for leaders from Student Development and the Chaplain’s Office who hold students accountable and work with them for repentance, healing, and reconciliation,” Wheaton’s statement to TIME continues. “Wheaton College unequivocally condemns acts of disrespect, aggression and intimidation. While expressions of disagreement are to be expected in a liberal arts learning environment, our expectation is that members of our Christian community express disagreement and debate important issues with courtesy, respect, and love for God and each other—values we express in our Community Covenant. This is especially important when we discuss sensitive and challenging topics, or when our convictions are disputed.”
Wheaton added that “students who violate community standards are held accountable for their actions” but that “federal privacy laws prevents the College from commenting extensively on disciplinary matters.”
However, Massey said that he learned the student has been disciplined.
“It has been confirmed to me that as of this afternoon, the offending student will no longer be on campus, and if he is on campus, LGBT students that feel threatened will be immediately notified,” Massey says. “I’m incredibly impressed at how the administration is responding—I’m very pleased to know they are taking this seriously.”
As Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.”
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