Thursday, May 02, 2013

An old story for the National Day of Prayer

An autobiographical story about prayer on the National Day of Prayer. Those who know both of us, at least through our writing, know that the young literary critic Michael Schaub was once my student at Texas A&M University. If I had anything at all to do with Michael’s development into such a promising critic, he is my greatest achievement in twenty years at A&M.

On Twitter, Michael and I tease each other a lot about our teacher-student relationship, now more than a decade and a half old, but neither of us has ever told the full story of how we became more than just names on a class schedule to each other.

Every semester, the A&M Christian Fellowship would bring an evangelical preacher named Tom Short to campus. He would preach in the central plaza on the College Station campus while students milled around, some listening, some jeering, some merely passing by. In the fall of 1996, Short was embroiled in a controversy over an antisemitic remark that he allegedly directed at a Jewish student. The next semester, shortly before Easter, I staged an unannounced protest during his spring visit to campus. But let Michael tell it. A sophomore at the time, he was writing for the Battalion (the student newspaper), and this is the story he filed with his editor:

      On a hot Thursday afternoon, David Myers walked to the mall in front of the Academic Building with his prayer shawl and prayerbook and began to recite his afternoon prayers. Yards away, evangelist Tom Short was speaking to a small group of students.
      “I was unfolding my prayer shawl, and Short said, ‘Here we're going to have some self-righteousness,’ ” Myers said. “He started to rant about how my prayers were wrong, how I shouldn't pray in public. But Jews have to pray in public.”
      Myers, an associate professor of English, addressed the crowd, telling the gathered students that “every man should have a right to choose how he's going to worship his God.”
      The crowd applauded Myers, who walked away, telling Short, “You're not worth listening to.”
      The A&M Christian Fellowship brought Short, a professional “campus preacher,” to speak on campus on March 20 and 21.
      The confrontation between Short and Myers punctuated a growing national controversy over religious intolerance on the Texas A&M campus.
      Short’s last appearance at A&M, last semester, made national news when he told Jewish student Lisa Foox that “Hitler did not go far enough” and that Jews were condemned to “burn in hell.”
      The incident led to A&M being listed as a major center of hate by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a civil rights organization for Jews.
      Rabbi Peter Tarlow of the Hillel Foundation said Short is an anti-Semite. “He's done A&M a lot of harm,” Tarlow said. “This reconfirms the stereotype that A&M only cares about white Christians.”
      But members of the A&M Christian Fellowship deny that Short advances anti-Semitic ideas.
      Melissa Villarrel, a junior education major, said Short’s message is positive. “He tells the truth, just like Jesus did,”" Villarrel said. “He is in no way anti-Semitic.”
      Short also denied charges of anti-Semitism in a tract he distributed at his rally. The tract states that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
      “I don't have any hostility at all toward Jews,” Short said. “You can love a person and disagree with them. Anyone who knows me as a person would be shocked by that [allegation of anti-Semitism].”
      But Foox, a journalism major, disagrees. “If you put in a phrase that the Jewish people killed Jesus Christ, there's no worse form of anti-Semitism you can promote,” Foox said.
      Despite the attention that Short’s last visit brought A&M, campus leaders have not denounced his anti-Semitism, Myers said.
      “The administration, the local clergy have not made a public statement to condemn this man,” Myers said. “He is a force for division, hatred, and violence.”
      Short accused Myers of name-calling after the professor left the rally.
      Foox’s Mail Call letter [to the editor] last year prompted Short to write a response to the Battalion. “In his letter, he called me a liar like Hitler,” Foox said. “My grandmother's family was all killed in the Holocaust. This has been very, very difficult.”
      Short denies he ever made the remark that "Hitler did not go far enough."
      “I was grossly misrepresented,” Short said in his tract. “The Holoocaust was a terrible evil. None of the victims of the Holocaust deserved to have been persecuted as they were.”
      Short's denial of his anti-Semitism is ridiculous, Myers said. “This guy is an obvious anti-Semite,” Myers said. “Anti-Semitism is the teaching of contempt. I can’t think of a better phrase for what Tom Short does. He teaches contempt. The Holocaust came out of that kind of behavior.”
      Short said he has suffered from misrepresentations of his statements on the A&M campus.
      Short’s tract contains the sentence, “Whoever rejects Jesus Christ will surely be damned.”
      “Why would anybody not be a Christian?” Short said. “God does not give us the option to believe differently.”
      Tarlow compared Short to Hezbollah, the Muslim terrorist group. “At least he’s an equal opportunity hater,” Tarlow said. “Gays are still his favorite group to bash. And I guess we [Jews] are No. 2. But he's also started to bash Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics.”
      Tarlow said he advises his congregation to react to Short's attacks with dignity. “Don't lower yourself to his level,” Tarlow said. “You can't expect everyone to go around loving you, but you can expect a certain level of civility.
      “Tom Short went beyond that level of civility.”
      Myers and Tarlow both said they worry about the image Short and the A&M Christian Fellowship are giving the university.
      “He's an intolerant bigot,” Myers said. “He's unchristian. He teaches contempt for homosexuals, non-Christians, nonwhites, anyone who’s not like him.”
      Tarlow said Short's appearances on the A&M campus prove the campus is insensitive to Jews.
      “Are there people here who are ignorant? Yes,” Tarlow said. “Are people insensitive? Often. Is the campus racist or anti-Semitic? No. This is not by any means Berlin, 1939.”
      Eddie Vitulli, a junior horticulture major and A&M Christian Fellowship member, said he supports Short’s “message of truth.”
      “He's preaching the gospel the way it’s supposed to be preached,” Vitulli said. “There's nothing wrong with that.”
      Short said he is confident of the message he preaches.
      “Sure, God hates, absolutely,” Short said, “God does not say, ‘Believe what you want to believe, follow what you want to follow.’ ”
The story doesn’t end there. After the A&M Christian Fellowship complained to the Battalion that Michael could not possibly be objective because he is gay, his story was killed—even though neither the paper’s editor nor its faculty adviser tried to demonstrate any lack of objectivity in the story itself. The principle was clear: a gay man was prohibited from reporting on an evangelical preacher who is anti-homosexual, even if there were no evidence the reporter’s sexual orientation affected his reporting in any way whatever. Robert Wegener, the faculty adviser, explained to Schaub that his story was not newsworthy, despite the rather striking appearance of an Orthodox Jew in the middle of an overwhelmingly Christian campus, swaying in a tallit just feet from an angry preacher who was denouncing him.

What did the Battalion consider newsworthy instead on the day when Michael’s story would have run? The paper’s lead story was headlined, Resurrection Week: Activities focus on outreach, and it began like this: “Easter weekend is approaching and Resurrection Week, a week that commemorates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is here.” Later in the story, reporter Jackie Vratil writes without attribution: “People of all kinds come out and participate in Resurrection Week.” All the news that’s fit to print!

Although I petitioned and agitated the Texas A&M administration for redress of the patent discrimination against Michael by a faculty member and an official organ of the university, nothing was ever done. I was successful in enlisting the English and philosophy departments in our protest—perhaps the only time my colleagues in English ever followed my lead in anything—but the administration waited out the incident in unbroken silence and permitted the official silencing of a young gay man, to say nothing of an evangelical Christian group’s intimidation of the student newspaper, to go unchecked. The experience cemented Michael’s and my friendship. It also taught me that Kierkegaard was wrong in saying that prayer only changes the person offering the prayer. It can also change a public, even if it is barely audible and offered in protest.


Unknown said...

I remain astonished that religion continues to be at the center of so many confrontations. You would think that we all would have learned better a long, long time ago. After all, if there are no other lessons taken from the Tanakh, there are at least the lessons of diversity and tolerance. Why is it, I wonder, that Christianity and Islam sometimes produces such intolerant souls?

Anonymous said...

I am deeply saddened and profoundly disturbed that one of my co-religionists would behave so abominably.

Tim in Seattle