Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The World's Biggest Sinner

(image source)

An outdoor preacher is preaching the bad news to Yale University. From this article in the Yale Daily News (via Homo Superior, who chose a different photo to highlight), you'd think that it's never happened before. Could that be? Here at Indiana University they're old hat, since the 1970s at least. Various student friends used to suggest that I go and debate them, but as I always told them, I don't have any objection to a Christian's giving Christianity a bad name. Jesus, after all, was also an open-air preacher who made respectable, complacent believers uncomfortable -- but that's different! It was okay for Jesus to attack the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees, because they were the bad guys, hypocrites, whited sepulchers, a generation of vipers. But Brother Jed and his colleagues are picking on decent people!

I still recall fondly a student who was quoted in the IU student paper once. He complained that he was on his way to class, minding his own business, when the evangelist pointed at him and bellowed, "There goes the world's biggest sinner!" "As a Christian," reported the affronted young Pharisee, "I felt like punching him in the nose." I still wonder where he got the idea that Jesus would have endorsed that reaction, but then, you're not supposed to take the Bible literally. When Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and pray for them that persecute them, we must understand his teaching spiritually: he meant you should punch them in the nose. Look at Christian practice in the real world, and you'll see that this student's reaction was truly Christian.

So were some of the reactions to Jesse Morrell's performance.
“I don’t think people should be pressing their religion on me,” Simon Cozzens ’13 said.
Of course, Morrell wasn't pressing his religion on Cozzens. All Cozzens had to do was keep walking. The people who stop to gape and jeer at outdoor preachers are revealing something about themselves. An old boyfriend of mine once explained to me that college students are still high school students at heart, and you learn in high school not to draw attention to yourself, not to stand out. Those who do will be mocked and harassed. So of course they're puzzled by someone who not only puts himself out there, but revels in the mockery. That's not just a high school thing, I know: adults are just grown-up high school kids anyway, and they're just as likely to react in the same way to people who draw attention to themselves. (Bear in mind that I'm not defending Christianity, whether Morrell's version or anyone else's: I'm talking about his right to stand up in public and make a fool of himself for his beliefs.)

But Cozzens may not even be a Christian, so listen to someone who is:
Rev. Andrew Cunningham, director of the International Christian Fellowship, said he does not know who Morrell is, what he preaches or what his motives are. However, he did question Morrell’s authority to judge others and emphasized that Christianity insists God is the only judge of peoples’ actions.
“You are sure to find dogmatism within members of every religion,” Cunningham said. “I think tolerance is a basic tenet of Christianity.”
I don't see that Morrell is judging others any more than Cunningham is. Preaching and denouncing "sin" is no more judging than sitting in one's office and accusing a street preacher of intolerance. Although Cunningham declared that he didn't know what Cunningham was preaching, he still felt free to disparage him, sight unseen. Maybe he was talking about his own dogmaticism?

Cunningham must also know that according to the gospels, Jesus' first public act was to go out preaching in public: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the good news!" Once he had some followers, he required them to do the same. As for tolerance being "a basic tenet of Christianity", you'll search the New Testament in vain for support for such a notion; if one has the truth, why be tolerant of falsehood?
Carmen Chambers ’12, a member of Yale Students for Christ, said she talked to him and realized he has the right intentions but is blinded by his own judgement.
Chambers said she fears Morrell’s style of preaching will magnify the ill perception that people may have of Christianity, but thinks it may help people reflect on what they believe in.
Actually, it's people like Cunningham and Chambers no less than Morrell who magnify my ill perception of Christianity, though my opinion is based as much on the Bible as on Jesus' human servants.

Not, to repeat, that I approve of Morrell's beliefs or claims.
In an interview Thursday, Morrell said the Yale Police Department issued him a trespass warning because students and University officials had complained about his preaching. As a result, he can no longer step foot on University grounds, he said, which is why he remained on the Wall Street sidewalk Thursday. (That warning could not be confirmed with any Yale officials.) ... He added that he has been “unlawfully” arrested many times and has taken his complaints to court. Last August, he won $25,000 in damages from the New Haven Police Department for unnecessarily interfering with his sidewalk sermons.
I think it's reasonable to doubt Morrell's honesty here, though I wouldn't trust the "Yale officials" either. I remember that when a right-wing church came to Bloomington a few years back to preach against homosexuality outside the Law School, local gay bureaucrats denounced them as "outside agitators" and sought ways to keep them from exercising their First Amendment right to be bigoted assholes. Messages went out on the gay students' center listserv, assuring recipients that "the staff in the GLBT office will be in touch with the police [!] and the Dean of Students Office throughout the day" and inviting them to come in for counseling if they felt "a need to process the hateful messages [the protesters] yell".

Still it would be nice if some enterprising young reporter were to investigate Morrell's claims. The flip side of the Yalies' schoolyard hysteria is what Graham Shaw, in his great book The Cost of Authority, called the "paranoid delight in persecution" that has been a recurring feature of Christianity since its beginnings.