taking the words of Jesus seriously

An Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida, Dr. Charles Negy, has struck a nerve by sending an email to his unanaesthetized “Cross-Cultural Psychology” students challenging the expression of “religious bigotry” in his course while they were addressing the topic of…wait for it: religious bigotry! His message was of course screen captured and posted online for all to enjoy (not sure if the original poster loved or hated this arse-whooping). Part of reads:

“Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot[s] or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).”

The rest is mostly motherly advice for behaving oneself in civilized society. Dr. Negy goes on to recount examples of actual [Christian] students’ outbursts. One challenged the validity of discussing religion in a class on “culture”—these topics of course have nothing to do with one another! Another encouraged his fellow Christians to “not participate” and, in the words of the instructor, to “just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with.” We all remember these types of students from our college days, past or present. Or, just maybe, you or I WAS that guy or gal.

As Dr. Negy challenges his own students, let us deconstruct this behavior and ask some pertinent questions. Why do we as believers feel this overwhelming need to disrupt the world around us whenever we feel our faith is challenged?

Is it because we are trained by parents, youth groups, and campus crusaders that it is the only appropriate response when under attack? (I am thinking back on my own teenage days for memories of trainings like this. I’ve also heard countless megachurch pastors praise from the pulpit college students for doing just this. This tactic reminds me of chopping an ear off to save Jesus!) Is it so we get some high-fives from fellow Christians when leaving the classroom? (As we brag to ourselves about our secret knowledge of the world that our professor and classmates reject or just don’t know about.) Is it because we feel condemned if we don’t “speak up” and defend the truth? Is it because we genuinely think this tactic will pay dividends in souls for heaven? Maybe we just don’t think—particularly about the fact that we might be wrong. I was raised in a practice that certainly praised spiritual revelation and condemned any philosophy or intellectualism as “traditions of man” (and Satan) and thus anti-scriptural.

I’m not sure what motivates each of us to act this way—I would think it is combinations of these forces molding our young minds to only accept select information that doesn’t threaten our “worldview” (or Weltanschauung, to avoid this horrible cliché that we have embraced to set apart our own ideas from our rivals’). Ordinarily this is called “indoctrination”—but only cults do that. We are just training our children in the way that they should go, right?

I think it also has something to do with politics (of course, I am a political science professor after all). The blending of Evangelical Christianity with the political right wing and the Republican Party has created a cosmic battle of “us vs. them.” One can feel guilty, and even be condemned by others including spiritual mentors, for taking the wrong position on a policy issue or even a campaign for election. And God forbid if our views evolve as we grow in our faith! Apparently everything we were told as new believers was the end all, be all of understanding.

I love the simplicity of getting back to the message of Christ crucified and risen, but shouldn’t that constantly change us closer and closer to the image of God? Shouldn’t our views evolve outside of that early box as we move on past spiritual milk and pre-chewed food? So long as Christ is our example and we are moving closer to His ideal, amen! But it sure can seem that as we give up infantile behavior our fellow friends and believers lose faith in our faith as if we have rejected the core truths of Christianity. No, far from it. We just begin to understand that the religio-political message preached from most pulpits in America is the real “tradition of man.”

It does seem that there might be scriptural basis for chastising one’s classmates. Jesus, Paul, and the other Apostles all preached unashamedly in the synagogues and town squares—similar venues to the university context today. But look at Jesus’ style. He often spoke in parables, stories that seem simple and self-evident to us (with our Sunday School degrees and easily-accessible internet commentaries), but often indecipherable to the masses of the time. Occasionally the learned few—Pharisees, Sadducees, and the like; the religious—said to themselves, “Wait, he’s talking about us!” So who did He challenge? The unbelievers? The sinners? Nope, it was the pious—those from His own tradition who thought they had all the right answers.

So how should we, as Red Letter Christians, respond to “religious bigotry” in the classroom? I would suggest by taking your brothers and sisters aside, as the New Testament orders, and speaking to them privately and reasonably. In some cases you may be labeled a heretic for challenging their God-given tactics, but hopefully once in a while—if you talk from a position of love—you may be able to help them avoid a public rebuke from the professor and, in the process, learn how to operate in society. (Remember, in some of our cases we’ve been there!) You may also wish to make a tasteful comment in class—you know, one that disarms both sides by revealing a simple truth. Such as, “We may have different beliefs, and we all think we’re right, but we’re all in this game of life together; hopefully all trying to make this world a better place.” That kind of thing certainly might go over better than covering your eyes and ears and acting Chimp-like. It might also help your grade…

What of my experience in the classroom? I have had the privilege of teaching “Politics and Religion in America” at a small state college. While I was warned by colleagues that any class with “religion” in the title usually attracts students with “fundamentalist” penchants for argument and disruption, I actually didn’t encounter that. In fact, most students rose to the occasion and discussed the topics and issues with passion but also with respect for one another. It was in basic American Government 101 that I got more of the religious rhetoric—but it was usually restricted to essays because most freshman (even 30-year-old nontraditional ones) are either shy or too tired for a fight at 9 am. I’ve read all sorts of fun essays on the Christian nature of our republic, Thomas Jefferson’s closet biblicism, and the church’s teachings on “the gays.” For once I wish they would speak up so I could go all Negy on them! Maybe I’ll have more luck at the private Catholic institution to which I’ve just moved. While classes have yet to begin this academic year, I have already found it refreshing that we opened faculty orientation with a prayer—a Catholic invocation. And guess what—I didn’t cover my ears and actually joined in and learned something! I’m glad I discovered years ago that none of us have a monopoly on the Creator God (or else my tenure here may have ended before orientation was over!).

Joshua D. Ambrosius, Ph.D., is an urbanist, religionist political scientist who is completing a book manuscript titled A Politics of Selflessness, a rethinking of Christian political theory and action. Holding graduate degrees in public policy from the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Louisville, he is currently an assistant professor at the University of Dayton, a Catholic Marianist institution in Dayton, Ohio. His latest research on religion and politics appears in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, downloadable for free here.

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