Twice this week, Northwestern students were faced with the chance to engage with people of faith. First, on Tuesday, Cru unleashed their "I agree with Markwell" campaign all across the campus, in the form of flyers and t-shirts. Then, on Wednesday, The Veritas Forum brought MIT Professor of Physics and Christian intellectual Dr. Ian Hutchinson to speak. Over just two days, I got to see the worst (with Markwell), and then the best (with Dr. Hutchinson) that Northwestern students have to offer when faced with "Mere Christianity."
When "Markwell" hit, the response was like no other since the closing of the Keg. The cryptic slogan initially served its intended purpose. People asked their friends about it and sent emails over their listservs. NBN wrote an article about it (and then one about the reaction). Curious students visited iagreewithmarkell.com. Soon, word got around that the Markwell campaign was about Jesus, and for some reason, everyone went insane.
A fake twitter account @AgreeWMarkwell appeared, making lazy jokes and trying to get the attention of campus celebrities and student publications. A reddit thread in r/Northwestern remained fairly reasonable, if decidedly negative. Meanwhile, here on NBN, the comment section was jumping the shark.
One commenter likened Markwell to Jim Jones, the famous cult leader who organized a mass suicide of over 900 cult members. Another commenter said that they, as a member of a religious minority, were "threatened by evangelical Christian campaigns." Upvotes on anti-Markwell/Cru/Christian posts soared, while Markwell-defenders were down-voted to hell.
Perhaps the most bizarrely hypocritical of all comments was this one:
"Hey Markwell Believers - Get out of the comment section. Stop thumbing down everyone who disagrees with what you're doing. This is why people DON'T LIKE YOU."
I was shocked and appalled to see these reactions from Northwestern students. I am an atheist and find the particular brand of Christianity expressed on IAWM's website to be intellectually dishonest, but for Northwestern students to insist that flyers and t-shirts were "threatening" and had crossed the line? To liken Cru to a suicidal cult shoving their beliefs down our throats? To demand that the supporters of Markwell leave the comment section on a student website so their detractors could foment discontent in peace? This is not the school I fell in love with four years ago.
Cru, like any student group, has a right to share their views — their t-shirts and flyers are friendly and respectful, a marked difference from their normal tactic of showing up at students' doors unannounced. They plainly outlined their views on a website we visited on our own volition (and with clear throats). What we made of their ideas was our own choice, just as we can choose to ignore the College Republicans or refuse to attend yet another a cappella performance. However, a number of our students reacted in inappropriate ways that revealed the belief that anti-religious bias should take precedence over an open and civil campus discourse.
As college students at a distinguished university, we should all be able to do two things: see things from another person's perspective and recognize our own biases. It would be remiss if I didn't point out that the members of Cru fail these tests. Calling the majority of the student body "lost" and "wretched" can be extremely insulting. But the students who are most at fault in this discussion are those who felt that their desire to never glimpse a word of Christian evangelism should supercede the right of students of faith to express themselves.
They have failed to check their biases about Christians, an extremely diverse group. Commenters simply assumed that all Cru members were against gay marriage, women's reproductive rights and believed that the year was 6,000 years old. These are not views held by all the people we call "Christians," especially those with a college education.
They have failed to acknowledge that you cannot hold others to the standards of your own faith (or lack thereof), yet be outraged when they do the same. A number of students pointed to the lack of evangelism in Judaism — or the lack of a need to evangelize anything in atheism — as a model for the behavior of Cru members. This is as preposterous as suggesting Markwell stop eating pork for similar reasons. Many Christian denominations understand the "news" of Jesus' sacrifice as the key to salvation, and sharing this news is as important as, if not more important than, sharing a cure for cancer. From their perspective, they are trying to help you in the most important way possible. It is well within our rights (and possibly in our best interest) to politely ignore them, but confusing the minor annoyance of stepping over their well-intentioned flyers with the Handmaid's Tale is senselessly inflammatory.
Finally, they have failed to recognize that it was precisely these biases that led Cru to concoct this unusual and somewhat misleading campaign. The students behind the Markwell campaign wanted us to read what they had to say — devoid of all the cultural baggage we inevitably associate with "Christians" — without being met with disdain and vitriol.
In a way, it worked.
It made many of us think about the idea of a personal Jesus, the supernatural and the nature of ourselves. To some, this was an outrageous violation of their personal freedom. To others, it was something to be considered but ultimately rejected (admittedly, many of the comments were in the former vein). Perhaps to a few, it was a revelation, which will give them joy in their lives.
This whole ordeal caused me to question my own faith in the student body for a whole day. Fortunately, I was able to attend the Veritas Forum. Pick-Staiger was half-full of Northwestern staff and faculty, as well as some community members. The Secular Students Alliance (SSA) was there, as were a number of people in familiar orange-and-blue t-shirts. Dr. Hutchinson spoke eloquently from his perspective as a scientist and as a Christian. In the discussion after his talk, SSA offered compelling, respectful questions, as did a group of audience members from a variety of backgrounds. Ideas were exchanged civilly and his views were respected by all, even though many disagreed.
It showed me what our university could be and — at our best — what we are. Northwestern is a place where we seek to learn about others and learn from others in order to understand them and ourselves. It is a place where ideas and ideologies are exchanged freely without restriction based on personal discomfort. We are here to challenge one another, to engage one another and to grow.
The Veritas Forum showed me what the Markwell backlash could have been. Like Dr. Hutchinson, we have the potential and the intellectual responsibility to engage Cru — and all others — with respect and civility.