“Who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, the Spirit gives life.”
2 Corinthians 3:6
Part of understanding a society is knowing what it is not okay with. Learning what society sees as wrong, or taboo, can shed light on the values that the society holds. In most cases, it takes a while to discover the taboo of a society. At Trinity Western University, that’s different. Although the general norms and nuances of Christian evangelical society may be present in the background, TWU provides clear rules on what is and is not acceptable in the form of its community covenant.
Ideally, the covenant is a tool used to shape the community. It clearly defines how the students in the community should act and behave so that the community will be healthy and happy. However, the reality of the community is that it struggles to meet the covenant’s expectations. Much of the covenant focuses on what is not allowed. When something taboo happens on campus, the instinctual response is to cover it up or hide it at the risk of being shamed by the community. The effect is that those that enforce the covenant are obliged to either punish the perpetrators or to turn a blind eye. This limits the covenant to being a punitive tool to shame others into obedience, rather than a tool that encourages restoration and redemption.
The reality is that this happens regularly at TWU. When I was living in dorms, it was not uncommon for students to have alcohol or weed on campus or to party on the weekend. Relational problems would arise between students who broke the covenant and Resident Assistants, because they would not feel open to talk to them. The possibility for close relationship, as well as the opportunity to teach the covenant-breakers what they ought to feel, is lost due to the fear of shame, judgment, and punishment.
In the Mars’ Hill a few issues ago, the results of a survey showed how well the community covenant was being followed. We saw that it is common for students to break the covenant. With a high moral standard and a community covenant to back those standards up, there is a lot of pressure to never admit to falling short of the standard. Whether it is sex, alcohol, or drugs on campus, or even something as simple as swearing, instead of being a tool to come alongside people and care about them, the covenant can only tell people that what they did was wrong. It shames people into following the rules rather than fostering morals that would make them want to follow what is in the covenant.
The distinction I am trying to make is between shame and guilt. Shame will tell you when you are in the wrong; while guilt will tell you why you want to be in the right. Shame is a social concept which promotes denial and secrecy while Christian guilt is predicated on love. If you love God, and those around you, you will endeavor not to harm or disappoint them. The community covenant can only tell you what you are doing wrong but it cannot tell you why you should try to do what is right. If you are only following the rules, you are compliant—not necessarily good.
We should look to Paul as he writes pastoral letters to different Christian communities. Though he has a lot to say on what people should be doing better, much of his instruction revolves around forgiveness and redemption. In Romans 7, he himself admits that he does things he hates, but is ultimately redeemed because he is freed from the old written law and is now committed to a life of the Spirit. Paul’s letters aspire to the highest standards of being conformed to the image of Christ, but he is plainly aware that humans are fallible creatures. A law forbidding “coveting” makes us want to covet all the more. Human transformation is possible, but only through the Spirit and love. Perhaps TWU’s “covenant” needs to be rephrased in two distinct parts. First, as values to which we aspire, while admitting human weakness and the need for God’s help. Second, as bottom-line prohibitions of behaviours that clearly harm the community and deserve enforcement, such as theft, plagiarism, harassment, and drunkenness. In so doing, TWU would promote a community founded on love rather than shame.
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