Shortly after Randy Beckum, chaplain at MidAmerica Nazarene University, delivered his morning sermon on Feb. 10, it seemed to have the desired effect.
He said in his sermon that America has a penchant for war and then he pointed to a contradictory Scripture calling for peace. It sparked intense and immediate debate, dominating dining hall conversations and becoming a focal point of social media.
And while there were plenty who disagreed with the message — some, apparently, found it to be anti-military — there was no denying that it had sparked a lively campus discussion.
Just a week later, however, Beckum, the university chaplain, would be relieved of his duties in a second position as vice president for community formation — a move that has been met with scrutiny by many who have come to view Beckum’s changed role on the 1,800-student campus in Olathe as a form of censorship.
“I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that this was not an intentional attack on free expression,” said Blake Nelson, a resident educator at the university who recently penned a widely read online letter in support of Beckum. “I can’t judge motives or intentions; all I know is that it was an attack on free expression.
“You can’t publicly demote a leader in the denomination and a leader at the university and not expect 100 percent of your constituents to put one and one together.”
University president David J. Spittal has said that Beckum had indicated his desire to be relieved of the vice presidency, but Spittal declined last week to elaborate. Beckum did not respond to phone calls or emails.
As the sermon began, Beckum, a one-time administrator of the year at the university, stood at a lectern wearing jeans and a blazer. After a brief introduction, he mentioned the box office success of the recent Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper,” which details the life of the man considered the most deadly U.S. sniper in history, and noted that it sold many more tickets than “Selma,” which addressed Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful tactics in the civil rights movement.
“I am extremely troubled,” he said.
“I don’t think it is an understatement to say that in our culture, in our efforts to be who we are, we are addicted to violence and guns and war and revenge and retaliation.
“Unfortunately, so are a lot of Christians.”
Beckum went on to say, “We have to be very careful about equating Christianity with patriotism,” and he spoke of the biblical call to peace and turning the other cheek.
“It is a scary, complicated world, I know,” Beckum said. “People want to kill us. We have an obligation to protect our children and protect out loved ones. … But (Christian) words are not revenge and retaliation; our words are redemption and reconciliation.”
Even before Beckum finished, his words had begun to stir unrest.
At least one student in attendance left midway through Beckum’s remarks, according to students. And those on campus would soon find their social media feeds packed with comments about the subject matter of that morning’s sermon, many critical of it.
While some took Beckum’s sermon to heart, appreciative of the topics raised, others were leery. One ROTC student would indicate that he didn’t feel his pro-military stance was being represented in chapel. Another would share his opinion that war was simply a reality of life.
Spittal, the university president, would be inundated in the coming days with concerns regarding the sermon.
Still, in those first days, Spittal was publicly outspoken about the need for what he termed “hard lessons.” In a statement to students, he wrote that difficult conversations like the one sparked by Beckum should be encouraged:
“At MidAmerica Nazarene University we encourage the exchange of ideas, and individuals are free to express their individual perspective and opinions, even when those opinions may not reflect the official policy or practices of our university, our core values or our affiliations.”
Then on Feb. 23, students received another statement from Spittal.
In it, the president announced that although he would remain the school’s chaplain, Beckum was being replaced as the school’s vice president for community formation, a position he’d held for several years.
Spittal also announced that Beckum would be replaced by Kristi Keeton, a longtime university employee who previously served as the dean of residential life.
The switch effectively removed Beckum from the President’s Cabinet, the university’s administrative body.
Spittal was quick to say that the personnel switch had nothing to do with Beckum’s sermon the week before and indicated that, in fact, the move had been made at Beckum’s request.
“Dr. Beckum has indicated that at some point he would desire to be relieved of the responsibilities related to the position of Vice President for Community Formation and, based on the increasing demands of both assignments, I have determined that a reassignment of duties is in the best interest of all involved,” Spittal wrote.
Almost immediately, the announcement drew the ire of some on campus. If it had been Beckum’s decision to step down, for instance, why had the statement come from Spittal and not Beckum himself? Many, too, questioned the timing of the personnel change.
“Even the people that were frustrated with what (Beckum) had to say in chapel, or wanted to challenge it, were confused and almost offended by the demotion,” Kristi Rose Jackson, a junior at MidAmerica Nazarene who was recently elected student body president for the 2015-16 school year, said in an interview.
Shortly after the president’s statement was released, meanwhile, Beckum’s daughter, Emilie Beckum, took to social media in support of her father:
“The statement sent to the students makes it sound like my dad initiated the conversation. He did not request to be relieved of his position as VP for Community Formation this week.”
Reached by email, Emilie Beckum said that out of respect for her family and the university, she would reserve further comment.
Citing privacy concerns, Spittal declined to address Emilie Beckum’s post.
“This gets into a personnel issue, and I am really not comfortable sharing conversations I’ve had,” Spittal told The Star.
Nelson, the resident educator who like all of those interviewed is quick to point out his respect for Spittal and the university, said he hopes the controversy can call attention to the issues raised by Beckum’s removal.
And indeed, on Thursday night an estimated 70 students and faculty members gathered for a panel discussion that ranged from Beckum’s sermon and the military to Scripture and free speech. Nelson, who served as one of the panelists, said afterward that the meeting had gone well.
But more than two weeks after Beckum’s original comments, many on campus are still searching for answers. There remain those who are uneasy not only with Beckum’s job situation but the perceived lack of information.
Said Jackson, the student body president-to-be: “We’re just ready for our questions to be answered so that we can move on.”