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Ethics and Religion Talk: Should racist comments by teenagers affect their adult lives?

Kyle Kashuv was rejected from Harvard due to racist comments made as a 16 year old and in spite of an apology he has made. Question: How many of us would survive into adulthood were we made responsible for errors committed in our teens? Should we be held responsible for everything we did as teens?

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“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

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Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

“I think this issue boils down to how we deal with moral responsibility and forgiveness. In Islam, as soon as someone reaches puberty they are morally responsible for their actions. Meaning that being a teenager does not mean someone's actions do not have adult consequences. However, at the same time it is understood that every human being in fallible and makes mistakes. Mistakes, or even sins, are only bad for someone of they do not learn from them. As it is mentioned in a Prophetic narration: every son of Adam sins, and the best of those who sin are those who repent. I think it is important that as society we teach our youth to take responsibility for their actions from a young age and appreciate that they have real world consequences. At the same time we have to provide them with an environment that allows them to grow and learn from the mistakes they have made.”

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

“Because current brain science tells us that male brains are not fully developed until about the age of 25 years, it is not fair, nor just, to punish anyone for statements made at the age of 16. Certainly, persons should be accountable for their actions. But comments made during puberty ought not be held against anyone. Mr. Kashuv should be judged according to the person he is today. Not the immature 16 year old who behaved foolishly.”

Father Michael Nasser, who writes from an Eastern Christian perspective and is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church, responds:

“There are two principal teachings of Jesus that I think apply to this situation. The first is that we are not to personally engage in judging others. There is, of course, room for societal safeguards such as law enforcement and the legal system, but on a personal level Jesus admonishes us to ‘judge not, lest you be judged.’

“The second principle that comes to mind is repentance. Jesus's first word of preaching was ‘repent.’ He teaches that we can and should change when we find ourselves having committed wrong doings and we should each honor each other's repentance not hold each other to previous transgressions.”

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“I don't agree that we should be punished for the mistakes we made in our teens. Educated yes; but not punished. It is a fact that our brains are not even fully formed until we are past our teens. How then could we hold teenagers to the same standards of accountability that we would hold anyone else? Our present ‘cancel culture,’ so popular in our day, is anything but sympathetic, empathetic, considerate, or thoughtful.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“With the immortality of The Web we can freeze people in time, not seeing whatever growth may have taken place over the years. While I do agree with the premise that we should not be judged by everything we’ve said and done in our teen years, there is a big difference between accessing one’s personal growth between, say, 19 and 35, and making the same kind of determination of someone at 18 who may have erred in judgement at 16. This seems to be the case here. A quick of search of Mr. Kashuv online does lead me to question his sincerity. While Harvard may have made the right choice in this instance, the greater question still needs to be addressed in general.

“Of course, it can be easy to apologize for things said decades back, but beyond apologies which may or may not be sincere, I would look to the actions of the person. What might he or she have done in the ensuing years (and not just immediately before they might believe eyes are upon them) to indicate that a true change of heart and mine has taken place?

“Case in point: former US Representative Tulsi Gabbard (who happens to be Hindu) was raised in a conservative home, and did sign onto anti-gay movements as a teen. She later apologized, and the legislation she supported once in office clearly indicated that she meant what she said.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I think most older adults have some regrets of mistakes being made in our youth, it is how we make ourselves accountable for our actions that matters most. Harvard or any school is looking at all potential students based primarily on their high school behavior, that is a standard practice. I think what is most important to this question is the timing of the apology. Kyle Kashuv issued his apology after he was rejected from Harvard. Had he owned his behavior in the application process things may have been different for him. I think by the age of 16 a person should know using the n-word 11 times in one text is horribly offensive and wrong.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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