Protests Challenge Oberlin Students to Provide Unreciprocated Tolerance

CJ Blair, Columnist

I was sitting in Professor Erik Inglis’s Art History class last week when he proclaimed the goal of the day’s lecture was to ask how Jesus came to be represented as he is today. He meant this, of course, in a pictorial sense, but my mind flashed back to 18 years spent living in the Bible Belt, inspiring me to consider that question more generally. When events occur like the picket staged by Brother Jed and his fellow preachers last week, it can seem all too easy to deem one particular display as the “accepted” representation of God, and therefore of Jesus. However, this situation is no different than other controversial topics, in that there’s much more to it than meets the eye.

My opinion, of course just a single voice, is that my lifelong encounters with Christianity are sufficient to address the bizarre nature of last week’s demonstration. I’m from a small city in central Kentucky, a reasonably conservative dot in an aggressively conservative state. In my town alone, there are mega-churches with congregations in the thousands where pastors drive Porsches and the youth don’t know a single line of scripture. Then there are churches so small and so secluded that they serve the dual function of being A.A. meeting places because there’s no chance the meetings will be walked in on. Amid all that, I sit in a bit of a theological limbo. My upbringing and ethics point me towards atheism; however, the amicable encounters I’ve had with middle-of-the-road congregations have allowed me to consider what religion does aesthetically and emotionally for its followers, even if I never hop on the bandwagon myself.

One of the greatest difficulties non-Christians face is seeing some of the hostilities and displays of bigotry from certain Christians and trying not to label all of them narrow-minded and backward. That’s a considerable challenge if the sample is a group like the demonstrators last Wednesday. But maybe this personal experience can make some small progress toward redeeming that image.

My grandmother is a member of a Presbyterian church in my hometown, a denomination known for its progressive politics. Occasionally I go there, usually to play saxophone along with the choir. This is a group of very down-to-earth people, deeply involved in the community, who you wouldn’t know were Christian unless you asked them. Few of them, if any, take the Bible literally, and anything that doesn’t read as a morality story from which they can learn and better themselves is disregarded, especially if it promotes hate.

I say all this to address a growing argument — one that I often find myself associated with — that suggests that Christians really don’t do anything but spread hate and ignorance in a world that doesn’t have time to hear it. Let my grandma’s quaint little congregation be the anomaly, the counterargument that begs people like myself to reconsider their stance. While there are too many Christians like the ones who spread hate and condemnation, there are just as many who take the sense of community and spiritual fulfillment they gain from their religion and apply it to living a wholesome life. Why does it seem like there are fewer of the latter type? Because they don’t go around waving their beliefs in your face like they would a new Rolex.

I had a saxophone teacher in middle school who went on to be a missionary in Thailand at the height of the political turmoil following the 2007 elections. I found this odd, because he was a very spirited guy who never once mentioned religion to me in our lessons. All the blog posts he wrote about his work never mentioned that he was a missionary. He only ever spoke about educating children, providing food and making sure schools were kept safe. I consider this a golden example of practicing what you preach. It’s an example many Christians need to follow, one in which the interpersonal aspects of their religion take precedence over the spiritual elements without compromising them.

With my personal feelings at a place as liberal as Oberlin, it’s incredibly difficult to fight for Christianity. Not doing so, though, would be hypocritical. Of course, the more inflammatory followers are harder to support, but the only real way to approach that hostility is to listen and to be polite. If we attack it head on like some students did last week, nothing will be accomplished. If we just remember that there are in fact well-meaning and progressive Christians, maybe it will take us one step closer to hearing the opinions of the radical ones, and in turn, maybe they’ll hear ours.