The Four Traps: Dismantling Feland and Tschetter’s Petition at UNW

I’ve spent two days and one sleepless night thinking about the petition floating around UNW that was created by Joshua Feland and Hayley Tschetter.  I must have read it a dozen times in an attempt to understand the petitioners’ arguments, their basis for such arguments, and whether or not I believed they had any weight.  The question that nagged my mind the most, however, wasn’t about the petition itself, but by the wide gap in opinion that has split the UNW community.  How could such a petition be so heralded as biblically sound and fundamentally true by some, be also labeled as disgusting, racist, and anti-Biblical by others?  What causes such a disparate gap in belief? 

Naturally, how one perceives anything is going to be influenced by one’s worldview and presumptions to some degree, so here’s my bent in a nutshell.  Presumably, like all the people who signed the petition, I believe in the infallibility of scripture.  I affirm 2 Timothy 3:16 that says scripture is profitable for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”  From a socio-political perspective, I often find myself being conservative on some issues, liberal on others, and moderate on most.  I believe that in the pursuit of justice, one should not use anything unjust as a tool to further their cause.  I believe that any well-intentioned movement or social theory is easily vulnerable to corruption without rigorous checks and balances.  I believe it’s possible to both support movements like Black Lives Matter, while at the same time, be dubious of ideologies like Critical Race Theory. 

 In many ways, I imagine I align politically and theologically with many of the people who signed the petition.  But as far as the petition itself, I vehemently disagree with it.  And I suspect that many, but definitely not all of the (at the time of writing this) nearly 1,000 people who signed the petition would reconsider their stance if they were to look at it from a slightly different angle.  While the petition appears to be thorough and convincing, it easily falls apart under moderate scrutiny. Please consider the following traps in Tschetter and Feland’s arguments. 

Trap 1: Quoting a Lot of Scripture in an Effort to Sound Authoritative

Feland and Tschetter use a copious amount of scripture in their petition.  While this is a completely positive and appropriate thing to do, the lion’s share of the scriptures they used did nothing to bolster the crux of their arguments–which, curiously, wasn’t even stated in the petition until later in an update.  Before this update, the petitioners made three vague requests of UNW: do not undermine the authority of scripture, do not redefine the nature of humanity, and do not compromise the integrity of the Gospel.  

Of course, no evangelical would disagree with these things.  Each request was backed up with a litany of prooftexts that made the document sound more like a statement of faith than a petition.  Before the petition’s update, and after hundreds of people had already signed, there was no mention on how UNW was actually violating these things; the scriptures seemed to be used only as a vague argument against the “worldviews rooted in anti-biblical ideologies such as Marxism, Postmodernism, Social Justice Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Intersectionality.”  Using a myriad of scripture to string together a loose argument about “anti-biblical ideologies” and then making zero connection as to how UNW is actually espousing such ideologies is a poor argument at best, and manipulative at worst.

To give an example of how using scripture can be manipulative, consider the following true story.  Several years ago, I visited a church who incidentally had an evangelist preaching that day.  The evangelist’s sermon was full of different scripture that spoke of the wisdom and benefit of obedience and listening to instruction.  Each verse was met with nods and applauses of approval.  But at the end of the sermon, the evangelist used the very same scriptures to make an argument that the “wise instruction” of the day was to donate to his ministry.  This manipulative tactic set up a false dichotomy for the congregation: either donate or go against the authority scripture.

To be fair, I do not believe that Tschetter and Feland were being intentionally manipulative in their protest.  From the limited experience I have had with these students, I found them to be pleasant individuals. But manipulation, even when unintended, is still manipulation.  It is not a stretch to imagine that there were some individuals who read the petition with an authoritative weight due to the many Bible verses listed in it, and signed it without actually considering whether or not UNW actually committed the offenses they hinted at. 

Trap 2: Using Theological Gymnastics to Argue a Political Position

Even though I personally found Tschetter and Feland’s prooftexting of scripture to be a classic example of an eisegetical cherrypicking, it is not within the scope of this paper to argue in detail against their points of doctrine that I find problematic.  Although I disagree with their definition of biblical justice and their views on individual sin, I can certainly respect how one arrives at such conclusions.  However, even if one does fully align with their doctrinal nuances, it does not necessarily mean that one has to, as a result, ascribe to their political beliefs. 

Feland and Tschetter allocate a lot of space to arguing the inerrancy and authority of scripture, but use that same authority to argue boldly that verses such as 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 2:4, and 1 Timothy 6:3-5 speak to ideologies such as Marxism, Postmodernism, Social Justice Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Intersectionality.  It is ironic that the petitioners so passionately describe the Bible as a “singular lens” and a “cohesive, all-encompassing worldview” and yet fail to be humble about their interpretations that are evidently and heavily colored by their own western and conservative worldview. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we cannot take biblical principles to ascertain whether or not the above ideologies are problematic, but to use a verse like 1 John 2:4 to fully write off a complex ideology like Intersectionality without discussing any nuance, and describing it as a “destructive one-way road from which you cannot return” is disingenuous.  It is interesting to note that the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination known for its ardent fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture, calls Critical Race Theory a “set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society…and can be employed when subordinate to Scripture” (Christianity Today, 2020). Clearly, even the most fundamentalist of Biblical interpreters can have wildly different opinions when taking authoritative scripture and applying it to non-authoritative options on socio-political matters.

Trap 3: Making a Petition so Wordy That People Won’t Bother Looking for Proof

Even if one does subscribe to the petitioner’s theological beliefs, and believe that such convictions can be used to make a biblical case against the above ideologies, the whole petition falls apart as Tschetter and Feland provide zero proof that UNW is championing such ideologies.  As I stated before, the original petition does not provide even a hint of actual things that Northwestern is doing to merit such concerns.  As I read the petition over and over again, searching for some semblance of idea as to what Tschetter and Feland were actually talking about, it continuously reminded me of a certain Macbeth quote about “…sound and fury, signifying nothing.” 

 When pressed, the petitioners did include real examples in an update, but provided very little argument as to why they are unbiblical, and zero proof as to how these things actually champion the ideologies above.  For example, Tschetter and Feland list UNW’s mandatory bias training for staff and student leaders as something that “explicitly or implicitly endorses ideas of Social Justice and CRT.”  But how is something as commonplace and uncontroversial as bias training an endorsement of Critical Race Theory? They do not give us an answer.  The leaps one has to go through to first biblically prove that such an ideology is unequivocally evil and then empirically prove that bias training taken wholly from such an ideology is laughable.  If Tschetter and Feland are condemning bias training, should they not also be condemning sexual harassment training based on the same arguments? 

Readers of the petition should also be asking why Tschetter and Feland failed to include the very crux of their petition in the first place. It seems very odd to me that a petition that was the result of “careful and deliberate study,” “much prayer and consideration,” and was “reviewed and edited by several local pastors” did not even mention the one thing that makes a petition a petition: objective examples of things they want to see changed.   

 To be frank, I do not expect the 1500 words above to necessarily change anyone’s mind.  If you have fully considered these issues and still believe that signing this petition was a good idea, then I guess we can agree to disagree–but only in part.  Far be it for me to judge the thoughts and convictions of any person, so long as those beliefs do not result in actions that actively harm others.  But I am convinced that this is exactly what this petition is doing, which brings me to my fourth and most important point.

Trap 4: Believing You’re Free to be as Inconsiderate as You Want, so Long as You’re Speaking Truth

Near the beginning of the petition, Tschetter and Feland state:

We write not in anger nor in defiance, not out of prejudice nor malintent, not for attention or affirmation of man. We write not to bolster our reputations, assert some faux-intellectual superiority, or confound with needlessly complicated rhetoric. We do not demand anything; we write simply and solely intending to uphold and proclaim that which is true. We lay down our reputations, intellectual abilities, and vocabularies for that same purpose — to uphold the truth in a spirit of love.

While Tschetter and Feland do not make any acerbic statements towards anyone directly, their lack of a loving spirit is evident in the apocryphal way they describe the things they argue against. Destructive one-way roads with no hope of redemption, dreadful warnings and consequences, and implications that a failure to believe their biblical interpretations will forfeit your “promise of eternity with God” are plenty.  I believe it would be tactless to use this kind of language even when talking about issues of dogma, but the readers of this petition must be honest here—the content of this petition is neither dogma nor doctrine, it’s opinion—and that is completely okay.  We all have our theological beliefs that are not essential to salvation.  Such beliefs should not cause rifts in Christian communities and should be held with humility and the possibility that we could be wrong.

This is why I submit that this petition is, in fact, toxic and against the overarching biblical narrative of love: Imagine that you are a BIPOC student going to Northwestern.  This student may be feeling the weight of the George Floyd trial, the trauma of the Daunte Wright and Adam Taledo shootings.  They may be feeling exhausted and emotionally raw that Northwestern was once again in the spotlight for one of its students saying ignorant and racist things at a volleyball game.  Now, imagine that this student takes comfort in the fact that UNW is implementing things like a diversity and inclusion office and bias training.  Perhaps this student is starting to feel heard in their community instead of feeling marginalized.  Now, with all the racial tension going on, imagine how this student might feel if, all of a sudden, nearly 1000 people in their community visually agree through an online petition that the implementations that they find beautiful and meaningful are leading Northwestern down a dangerous path to hell.  How exhausted, how hurt and, how betrayed do you think that person would feel?

 If you can imagine the above scenario (which I don’t see how anyone couldn’t if they’re being honest with themselves), now ask yourself, is putting a student in this position actually honoring God? If this answer is no, that causing such feelings is not God honoring, then I encourage you to reconsider your stance with this petition.  I have heard that many people who signed it did so because they want reconciliation and unity.  It is unfortunate that such a hope was put into an action that did the exact opposite.  If you are one of these people, I submit to you that signing Tschetter and Feland’s was a mistake, but such a mistake can be corrected.  In the name of reconciliation and unity, I challenge you to find someone who was negatively affected, apologize, and seek to understand a different perspective.