Sunday, August 14, 2022

Nurturing sidewalk tolerance

April 18, 2012

Editor’s Note: Views expressed in guest columns and letters to the editor reflect the views of the author, not the views of The State News.

I don’t know how it is on most college campuses, because I have only ever spent a significant amount of time on this one, but around here, using sidewalk chalk as a way to get out a message is a very common thing. Clubs and events often are advertised in this way because chalk is cheap, and these organizations are running on limited budgets. It is perhaps the most effective marketing campaign that exists on the college campus, because everyone walks around and there’s no chance of missing it.

Easter Sunday occurred two weekends ago for those who practice the Christian faith. There are a number of Christian groups on campus who hoped to use the week leading up to Easter as a time to evangelize, and they settled on using sidewalk chalk to write bible verses as an inexpensive and easy way to get the word out.

This seems like a harmless way to bring to attention what Easter Sunday means for those in the Christian faith. It was, in my mind, neither as over the top as the Wells Hall preachers, nor as in your face as the “Do You Agree With Kirk?” campaign. However, similar to both of those things, this sidewalk chalk campaign had its very vocal opponents.

No more than a day after these chalk writings appeared, they were followed up by another round of chalk, from a completely different camp. These were from people who thought it was necessary to write near these verses quotes by Benjamin Franklin disregarding religion as foolish, or drawing the Darwin fish. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all of these response drawings was a form of the popular “Coexist” bumper sticker.

The irony of this symbol’s use as a response to a number of bible verses written on the sidewalk is not lost on me. I think it would be one thing if the verses written were offensive to large groups of people. A good example of one of these might be from Leviticus where homosexuality is denounced as a sin. However, when the verse that is being written is John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but will have eternal life,” — it becomes a different issue entirely.

That verse is the basic foundation of the Christian system of belief. There is nothing any more offensive about this than if someone were to write comparable verses from the Quran, the Torah or any other sacred text.

And yet the writers of these scriptures are told to “coexist.” America is a nation founded on individual liberty, an idea so important that a special section of amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights, is devoted to this idea. In the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech, religion, the press and assembly are established explicitly as individual rights that every American is guaranteed. Everyone who wrote on the sidewalk was well within their guaranteed rights.

However, in the new, modern era, we demand tolerance as well. Tolerance of those who are different be those differences of thought, religion, sexual orientation or political party. This is a noble principle, and I am glad that we strive as a society to not be as bigoted as our ancestors. And it seems to me that perhaps the folks in the “Coexist” camp who are advocating tolerance with their logo are not being all that tolerant.

Coexistence and tolerance are more or less synonyms. They mean to respect those that disagree with you and to learn to live with those differences as functioning members of society. What I saw from the sidewalk chalk responders was nothing short of intolerance. They saw something they disagreed with and instead of thinking that it was alright for them to have that belief, they responded with a misguided campaign that ultimately made them look intolerant and unwilling to coexist.

There are plenty of places for civil discourse in this country and the college campus should be one of them. However, oftentimes it seems the civility of civil discourse is forgotten amidst passion, anger and a rush to react.

As a campus we should work to coexist and to see the words on the sidewalk not as an attack that needs to be responded to, but as a thought-provoking message that can be respectfully disagreed with. If we cannot do this, we have failed only ourselves by not progressing further than our parents on the road to tolerance and coexistence. Indeed, we might be just as bad.

Nathaniel Fedorchak is a State News guest columnist and political theory junior. Reach him at fedorch2@msu.edu.

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