I had just started on my long-postponed homework when I got a buzz on my phone – a few of them. My friends and others told me that the Diag-dwelling street preachers had once again come into town. I am a Christian, and I make no secret of it, but nothing makes my blood boil quite like people stealing and co-opting the Christian identity to spread hatred and drive people further away from Christ and the Christian community.
When I arrived on the scene, I could tell this was much different from a similar commotion that took place last year; instead of a lone preacher, there were five, and instead of a crowd of 15, it was at least 50. Members of the group were shouting things at the sweat-covered man, so I stepped into the small circle he had mostly kept the students out of (save two girls that seemed to be perpetually flipping him off). I asked him a few Biblical questions, I threw a few Bible verses to him, and I asked why he thought this kind of rhetorical bomb-throwing would get him anywhere. He refused to answer any of my challenges and ignored me most of the time – save to tell me that I was a sinner, “just as bad as” everyone else standing around.
This, however, was not the end. As I withdrew to the rest of the crowd, I noticed the tenor of those surrounding him change. Instead of disdain, disgust, and a little bit of good-natured sarcasm, the crowd mimicked his hatred. They started chanting “Hail Satan” and yelling “I hate God,” along with other sacrilegious taunts. I wondered why they felt the need to group all Christians with this small group of hateful people.
Nonetheless, the event continued, and I continued watching. By going up to the group of self-proclaimed Christians and asking them questions, I could ascertain more about their group, their youtube channel, and their strategy. Although woefully thin on theology, their material was just as hateful and loud as they themselves were. The students had all the materials and information to defeat them in a discussion or debate about what they were saying but chose instead to go down to their level of hatred, ad hominem, and generalizations about groups of people.
Regardless, things heated up again. People started playing loud noises, two armed policemen showed up to keep the peace. And just as I had finished talking to one of their number, the one who gave me the website, a fellow came up to me and asked why I was talking to them. I replied, “To learn more about what they’re doing. After all, this wasn’t spontaneous.” Accepting that as an answer, he told me that he is communist and that the police were “tools of the capitalists, only used to suppress brown people.” I was quite intrigued by his perspective, and I discussed it with him for a while. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist.” I nodded. He and a few people departed and went off to a different part of the protests soon thereafter.
I continued to watch the scene descend into chaos. I was well and truly shocked that nobody tried to debate him since he ignored me. Instead, people shouted at him, called him names, etc., I could not help but be a bit off-put because they became guilty of hatred – the same hatred they were trying to defeat instead of targeting the hate-preachers they targeted Christianity at large. While some told him that hatred had no place here, most just shouted at him, “Sex! Sex! Sex!” which, although not too bad, was odd. At that point, they shouted at him, “Your mother doesn’t love you!” and the cry of “Hail Satan” returned.
By now, that communist fellow I mentioned earlier and his friends had grabbed a Bible and begun to rip it apart. Being disgusted by this display, I went over and grabbed it – hoping to spare the book on which my entire faith and that of countless others are based from the flames of a lighter. He who had just held it protested that I should give it back to him so that he could burn it. I told him I could not let him, I could not stand by as he did it. Then, I experienced a moment of hypocrisy so jarring that I almost had to laugh in sheer disbelief. He then went to the police officer – the one he had just called a “tool of the capitalists” and the racists and told the officer that I had taken it from him. The officer then walked up to me and told me to hand the young communard the Bible. I was shocked. I reluctantly handed it over (a decision I still regret), and he burned it within moments. I was deeply saddened to see that display. But, I could not help but find it highly ironic that he, a white communist, had just used the police to ensure he could burn my sacred texts.
Although I continued to mill about with the others watching, it never heated up again, and people kept shouting, and the Diag preachers called back. But, unlike last year, there was no productive discussion; there was no effort by the students to prove him wrong and defeat him intellectually, with a frank and perhaps even passionate discussion. There were only efforts to make this event into a bigger spectacle, to say more and more outrageous things, which he returned in kind. Although the vast majority of people in the audience were bystanders and did not participate in some of the anti-Christian rhetoric that makes all Christians on campus keep their heads down, it worried me. These so-called Christians come here, make people hate Christianity, and leave. All they leave behind is a group of people emboldened in anti-Christian actions and words; they leave bystanders unsure about religion, more confident that Christianity is a religion of bigots and lunatics. They do not have to deal with the consequences of their words – people on campus do.
As Barack Obama once said, we “have these values of free speech. And it’s not free speech in the abstract. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words . . . you don’t have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue them. ” And I earnestly hope my fellow students take that to heart. Don’t take the easy way out. Don’t burn Bibles (or books in general!). Don’t shut down discourse when you can win the argument.