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Swarthmore isn’t doing anything wrong by Queering the Bible

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On Monday, Jan. 29, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) led a protest objecting to one of the college’s tentative courses for next fall called “Queering the Bible.” According to its course description, the class will use “methods of queer and trans theoretical approaches” and will “destabilize long held assumptions about what the bible – and religion – says about gender and sexuality.” Protesters stood outside the Benjamin West Entrance holding signs that read, “Swarthmore College: STOP attacking God,” “Defamation is not free speech,” I’m Catholic, STOP Attacking my Faith,” and other similar slogans urging the college to cancel the course. One man protesting even said, “It’s worse than saying two plus two equals five. It’s an error, and it’s blasphemous.” In addition to the protest on Monday, TFP also created a petition with a goal of 20,000 supporters to cancel the course and asks, “Why is God and the Bible singled out for derision by a college that prides itself on so-called tolerance and inclusion? As of right now, more than 14,000 people have pledged their support to the petition. The course also made headlines mostly in right-wing news sources such as Fox News, the Washington Times, and the Daily Caller. Not surprisingly, most people responded disapprovingly. In the midst of all this opposition, however, I (and I am politically conservative and a devout Christian) see no valid reason to disapprove of the course. I don’t think the course is an attack to the Christian faith or to God, and I don’t believe the college is singling out God and the Bible.

One of the men protesting on Monday compared the course to an incorrect math problem. Just like how two plus two equals five is incorrect, so is thinking of the Christian god as anything other than the traditional masculine figure. “It’s error, and it’s blasphemous,” he said. But you can’t approach mathematics the same way you would approach religion. There are ways to prove math right or wrong, but you can’t prove religious beliefs to be true or false. Religious beliefs are just that – beliefs. Religion is inherently based on a faith about some truth that no one can prove or disprove. If we could somehow prove our religious convictions true, then our faith would have no value. Whether they realize it or not, the people protesting “Queering the Bible” have such a great passion in their religion because they believe it without knowing the absolute truth – that is the whole essence of faith. And if we’re talking biblically, humankind will never be able to know the absolute truth about God who is larger than Scripture and unfathomable by our limited and puny understanding.

This might be a little philosophically frustrating, but the beauty in our inability to comprehend God is that it makes it impossible for anyone’s interpretation of God to be right or wrong. Perhaps the traditional interpretations of gender and sexuality in the Bible are true, or maybe the truth lies within more fluid and flexible interpretations of gender and sexuality. Still, maybe the truth has room for both the traditional and the queer. My point is that we’ll never know, and because we’ll never know, it doesn’t hurt anybody – certainly not God – to study and explore the possibilities.

Still, others oppose the course because they believe that the college is purposefully singling out Christianity for what some would call a “left-wing” agenda, but I don’t think Dr. Gwynn Kessler, the professor who will be teaching the course, willingly excludes other religions in her work. If Dr. Kessler were an expert in all major religions but only analyzed Christian texts in the context of gender and sexuality, then I would be more willing to believe that the class singles out the religion. That is how someone would “single out” anything –  if someone has the means to choose all but only chooses one. However, that’s not the case for Dr. Kessler. She received her Ph.D. in Rabbinics with a specialization in midrash and focuses her research on rabbinic constructions of gender and identity, so it makes sense that her class focuses on the Bible with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. Moreover one of Bible’s original languages is Hebrew and gender and sexuality studies is a crucial part of her work. Dr. Kessler is not excluding anybody or any religion; she is inclusive in her best capacity by teaching only that which she knows well. Besides, the college offers another similar course called “Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Islamic Discourses,” which studies the roles of gender and sexuality in the Islamic faith. “Queering God: Feminist and Queer Theology” is another course that analyzes gender and sexuality in both Jewish and Christian texts. So, I fail to see how Swarthmore singles out Christianity when the college literally has multiple courses about gender and sexuality in different religions. It is simply untrue.

Protesters and petitioners believe that through “Queering the Bible,” the college is disrespecting and blaspheming Christianity and their God because it  teaches something erroneous and singles out the Christian and Jewish God. None of these are true. It’s impossible to know God fully and consequently the correctness of religious beliefs. The only reason left I can think of why people would be offended with the course is because it simply disagrees with their own beliefs and values. I understand how that could be. For many, including myself, the Bible and religion is at the core of our identity and purpose. Any change to our religious values and beliefs, no matter how small, will dramatically alter the perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. I admit, it’s scary to be introduced to such a change, so scary that people often find offense to a belief solely because it’s different; people who are scared translate differences to attacks and offenses. That’s why “Queering the Bible” is so important, not just in an academic sense but more importantly as an opportunity for personal growth. I think if everyone were to challenge themselves to truly understand and appreciate differing interpretations and viewpoints about literally anything, we could learn to disagree without angrily getting caught up in the tiny details of difference.

I know it’s easier said than done, and inevitably many will choose to the easy path of simply staying offended. Still, simple offense is not a valid justification for the course to be removed. Unless “Queering the Bible” actually breaks moral principles like truth and fairness and it doesn’t I stand with the college and with Dr. Kessler fully.

Some thoughts on “Queering God” and traditional religion

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A seldom spectacle arose in Ben West parking lot on the afternoon of Jan. 29 to the delight of some and chagrin of many others – a conservative Christian group protesting on our campus. The demonstration seemed to be a mixture of prayer, protest and bagpipes. The latter, I must admit, did not help their cause. I do, however, want to consider the question of whence their indignation comes.

 

Neither I nor the protesters have very much knowledge of “Queering God,” or “Queering the Bible,” besides the title, so I am in poor position to critique the course. Nonetheless, these two words, “Queering God” seem to point to a program of Queer Theology, which many people of traditional faith might find blasphemous by applying to God a term that implies sexual activity that the Bible treats rather disfavorably. But why should some conservative Christians from who-knows-where take issue with a course taught in a small liberal arts college? I could ask why any of us would take issue with a misrepresentation of our own views. I, for example, considerable myself an ardent proponent of the Romanesque style. I completely understand if the cathedral at Bamberg may not enthuse others so thoroughly as it does myself, but to interpret my preference of barrel to rib vaults as an implicit endorsement of fascism would be ridiculous and offensive. Traditional Christians might find a “queering” of their deity equally outlandish, and even make them feel powerless when this interpretation comes from a place of prestige. To traditional Christians any reworking of the faith is, moreover, not only a misrepresentation but an attack on what is held most near and dear, namely their sense of the sacred. All the more so with a course that seems to propose a sexualization of God.

 

This is not the first provocatively titled religion course to be offered in our college. Take “Is God a White Supremacist?” for instance. I do not doubt that these courses present some valuable theological perspectives, but what are we telling students of traditional faith when a course so brazenly undertakes to handle, according to the fads of recent discourse, what some believers reserve for the deepest reverence? I doubt that a course called “Gender depictions of the Divine” would provoke so much ire and indignation as “Queering God.” Consider an intelligent prospective student brought up in and practicing Christianity in the American South, but hoping to expand her horizons and challenge herself at Swarthmore. What if the most she heard about Swarthmore recently was an article about a “Queering God” or “Is God a White Supremacist?” course that her family has recently discussed with contempt. Even if she may be open to consider new opinions about her lifelong faith, the self-presentation of this course does not help to diversify our college with experiences such as hers.

 

To offer a course in queer theology may be utterly inoffensive to the majority of the campus population, but there are also believers whose pious sensibility these courses offend to its very core. Ought we not take care for them as well? The answer is not to suppress the speech of secular (Quakers, forgive me) college professors. On the contrary, it is the academic endeavor to critically evaluate the import of the perspectives presented in every course. Nonetheless, a clickbait course title, which can be taken by believers as irreverent, may do more to perpetuate a sense among them that “this course intends to attack my faith,” than “this course is presenting new and interesting theories that might challenge, but can respectfully engage with my faith.”

 

When I briefly observed the protesters, they were praying the rosary. I, for one, believe that I am in no position to refuse the prayers of anyone. Nay, my spiritual economy will always enjoy a gratuitous deposit. And, however much I regret how these Christians voiced their dissent from the Swarthmore curriculum, prayer is a rather mild manner of resistance. On that note, God bless the protesters for having so great a sense of religious propriety so as to come out and demonstrate. And God bless the academic investigations pursued at Swarthmore.

Conservative group protests “Queering the Bible” religion course

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On Monday afternoon, a group of protesters, dressed in red sashes and carrying bagpipes, gathered on the sidewalk outside of the Benjamin West parking lot. They were demonstrating in order to, as one sign read, convince Swarthmore to “STOP attacking God.”

These protesters were members of a conservative Catholic organization called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property. Their protests came after several right-wing news organizations, including Fox News and Breitbart, reported that Swarthmore would be offering a Religion course titled “Queering the Bible” in fall 2018. The course will be taught by associate professor of religion Gwynn Kessler, who is on leave and could not be reached for comment.

TFP Student Action leader John Ritchie took a break from reciting Hail Mary prayers to express his dissatisfaction with the college for offering the course.

“A college that purports to thrive on tolerance is committing an act of intolerance by attacking Christianity, and many people are offended. Most of all, God is being offended and as one nation under God, we want to keep it one nation under God as a country. That’s why we’re here praying.”

TFP has a long history of protesting institutions that it believes are violating its conservative values. This includes, according to the TFP website, organizations that support “abortion,” “the social acceptance of homosexual practice,” “transgenderism,” “international communism,” and “public blasphemy.” The Student Action wing of TFP, which led the Monday protest, has protested at many colleges and universities. TFP members have protested at Catholic colleges who have granted charters to LGBT affinity groups, including Notre Dame, and has held rallies in support of heterosexual marriage, which they refer to as “true marriage,” at colleges across the nation. Another wing of TFP, America Needs Fatima, has staked public opposition to works of art it finds blasphemous, including the film “The Da Vinci Code” and the HBO series “The Young Pope.”

By holding an in-person protest, the TFP members hoped to push President Valerie Smith to change the school’s curriculum.

“We’re really hoping that Dr. Smith will cancel the course and find a better way to teach religion,” Ritchie said. “We’ll have a delegation to present 14,000 petitions that we’ve collected … over 14,000 people have signed a petition asking Dr. Smith to cancel this course. We’re hoping that she will hear us favorably and resolve this question.”

A small crowd of student onlookers began to gather in the parking lot. At first, many did not know what the protest was about.

“When I got there it was me and a couple of other friends,” Peter Chong ’20 said. “People were walking by in the parking lot and we just got into a conversation about what this was because no one seemed to know.” Chong described student attitudes as “confused amusement.”

“A lot of them were trying to look and see because this kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often,” he said. According to Chong, several TFP protesters began to play the bagpipes, and students jokingly requested songs.

Chong himself chose not to engage with the protesters and recalled that a faculty member encouraged student bystanders not to take the protesters’ “bait.”

Bystanders who did talk to protesters did so calmly. Nathan Holeman ’18 noted that religion professor Mark Wallace was one of the first to engage with the protesters.

“Professor Wallace brought with him a mood of patience and respectfulness, and the students followed suit,” Holeman wrote. “That does not imply that any professors/students present agreed with any of the protestors. Instead, it was understanding for the sake of intellectual honesty.”

Holeman followed Wallace’s lead and ended up talking with a protester for about 20 minutes. During the dialogue, Holeman attempted to explain to her why the college would offer such a course.

“We told her calmly — and quite slowly — that sometimes it’s valuable to consider all sorts of ideas, even if they’re challenging. We explained that people should sometimes even scrutinize beliefs that they know are wrong,” Holeman wrote.

Though the protester did not dramatically change her view, Holeman believes that the conversation was somewhat fruitful.

“I determined that my conversation with [the protester] was getting somewhere. Her starting point was, ‘It’s stupid,’ which taken as an argument is vapid. Her ending point was ‘Some ideas are dangerous,’ which is indeed a real argument. She made one tiny step toward engaging in productive dialogue with us.”

John Woodliff-Stanley ’21 also attempted to engage in dialogue with a protester.

“I believe that they absolutely have the right to practice their religion and hold their own views,” Woodliff-Stanley wrote. “But their own religious freedom does not grant them the right to impose their views on others.”

While Woodliff-Stanley believes that dialogue between groups can lead to deeper understanding, he emphasized that it would be unfair to expect marginalized people, such as LGBT students, to engage with groups that oppose them.

“If a group is bringing into question someone’s fundamental identity or worth, I do not believe it is the responsibility of the oppressed people to engage in this in order to defend themselves,” he wrote.

The protest was ultimately a peaceful affair. “There were no explosions, tensions weren’t high,” Chong said. 

President Smith was out of town on Monday and was not available for comment. However, the Communications Office released an official response which showed no indication that the college would make changes to the curriculum.

“Swarthmore is committed to fostering intellectual freedom, respect for diversity of thought and expression, and the examination of ideas in pursuit of truth. We affirm the rights of our faculty to explore new ideas in their teaching and research, and the rights of our students to learn within and beyond the classroom. Members of our on- and off-campus community have the right to engage in peaceful demonstration and free expression as long as those rights do not interfere with the rights of others to work, to teach, and to learn.”

Reformation of Swarthmore Progressive Christians

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On Jan. 23, the Swarthmore Progressive Christians assembled for the first time in many months to provide an inclusive space where individuals of all sexualities and Christian denominations could talk about Christianity and meet together.

According to Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life, the renewed interest in SPC came after Swarthmore Voices published the article “Swarthmore Christian Fellowship Has a Sexuality Problem” which detailed the group’s policies prohibiting openly queer people from being in leadership positions.

SCF’s leadership policies apply to behavior and beliefs, rather than identity itself,” the Voices article stated. “In SCF’s eyes, that means you must resist your same-sex attractions, rather than celebrate them, because these desires are tempting you towards sin.”

After the Voices exposé, many vocalized discontent for the lack of progressive Christian groups on campus.

“I think it’s because of the [Swarthmore Voices] article coming out that there was a sudden interest in reviving the group, “ Tompkins said. “After the article, a bunch of people came to me [about the reformation of SPC].”

While SPC was founded in 1982, it recently morphed into what is now known as Swatties and Service, a faith-based service group.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18, a past and current member of SPC, believes that the renewed interest will help sustain the club.

“SPC has historically ebbed and flowed according to students’ needs,” Seitz-Brown said. “Now, I think that we’ll have new energy and that we can exist as a more diverse group that is more queer- and trans-affirming.”

At SPC’s first meeting on Jan. 23, many people shared their own past experiences with Christianity and why they felt the need for an inclusive space. Seitz-Brown described his own story about growing up in a progressive Lutheran household in a conservative area.

“The congregation was always conservative, so I always felt that I could not be open about what I cared about, like social justice,” Seitz-Brown. “I’m excited to have a space where people can talk about the challenges they’re feeling.”

Isaku Shao ’19 told of her experience growing up as the child of an Evangelical Lutheran pastor.

“Religion has been a pretty regular part of my life but when I came to Swarthmore, I abandoned church,” Shao said. “During sophomore year, I was trying to figure out my faith. I started looking into Christian groups.”

After discovering SCF, Shao was hesitant to attend because of its exclusionary policies.

“I looked into SCF and heard rumors that they were more conservative and were not really gay or queer friendly.” Shao said, “I’m a trans, bisexual girl, and that’s not somewhere I really want to go if I’m not welcome.”

While SPC’s first meeting focused on future goals and plans for the group, some discussed the potential for engaging in a conversation with SCF.

“I’m open to conversation with SCF, but I don’t think that’s the purpose of the group and the purpose is providing a safe space for everyone,” Seitz-Brown said.

Shao, however, was not interested in SPC maintaining communication with SCF.

“I don’t think SCF’s policies are ethical,” Shao said. “I read the Voices article and was honestly furious. I have very strong convictions about what Christianity is. I think that Christianity at its heart is an accepting and liberating movement.”

T. J. Thomas ’21, another an attendant of the meeting, who was raised Christian and attended a Jesuit Catholic all-male high school, shared that his church echoed similar sentiments — that Christianity is a religion that prioritizes the idea of love for one another.

“At my church, we were always taught that above all we should love one another. That’s been the message of my faith,” Thomas said.

Thomas also sees the renewal of the club as a way to change perceptions of Christianity on Swarthmore’s campus.

“I think that there are a lot of people who struggle with their faith or see it being portrayed in the media as radical and right-wing conservative, but people should know that there are true progressive liberal Christians,” Thomas said.

Shao shared similar views on how conservative views of Christianity have been portrayed as mainstream.

“When you go into the ministry, they give you a canonized interpretation of the [Bible], and it’s what the institutions have said is the right way to interpret the [Bible] even though that may not be true given historical context,” Shao said. “I think throughout Christianity’s history, which is a history haunted by violence and oppression, it’s also a history punctuated by intense commitment to liberation, to uplifting the poor and the marginalized, and to equality and viewing all those under God as equal.”

Attendants of the meeting discussed various ideas on what the group would become and what it would do. Some played with ideas that the group would provide group worship while others discussed the need for a conversation, and later, more faith-based service.

Though no consensus was reached, Tompkins is hopeful that with the resources she can provide — SPC still has funding allocated to it by the College — the group will come to an agreement on how the club will progress.

“I feel like what I can do is provide a space, budget support, my own background in Scripture, and ideas so I can help lead the group,” Tompkins said. “But I want the group to be what [the students] want it to be.”

If Jesus went to Swarthmore

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After reading the exposé about the treatment of LGBT Swatties in Swarthmore Christian Fellowship, I was appalled but not shocked. I went to a few of their events in my first year but stopped going due to a combination of schedule conflicts and because I thought that they took the Bible too literally. I remained on their email list, so I knew that SCF had intentionally chosen to stay affiliated with Intervarsity after the organization had fired someone for being in an LGBT relationship. I assumed that SCF itself was not that conservative, but it turns out, I was wrong.

I am a Christian, and I am viscerally opposed to SCF’s stance. I might not be the world’s best Christian—I certainly don’t attend church often enough, and I certainly am a sinner (as all of us are)—but I know in my heart that SCF and Intervarsity’s actions towards LGBT students are not what Jesus would do. As I reflected on the piece, I wondered to myself: What if Jesus went to Swarthmore?

Jesus accepted those who were marginalized by society. He hung out with tax collectors, lepers, and a Samaritan woman. In the case of the Samaritan woman, Jesus spoke to her and shared His Word with her, even though Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans. Jesus also rebuked leaders who were too caught up in petty rules and expressed that what comes from the heart is more important, “Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father and mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’  he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition,’” (Matthew 15: 3-7). Jesus spent time with folks from marginalized backgrounds, not those who were caught up in the laws and rules. I see a parallel: Jesus would spend his time with Swatties of marginalized backgrounds, but wouldn’t be an SCF leader. The same Jesus that said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” (John 13:34). Therefore, he would not be a part of a group that makes LGBT students feel unwelcome.

There is a troublesome contradiction in SCF’s policy. There are many ways to interpret the passages in Leviticus that appear to condemn homosexuality, with key words having five to six different possible translations that change the meaning of the passages. The New King James Version, The New International Version, and the King James Version all translate the passages differently. SCF and Intervarsity are choosing to interpret the text in the most conservative way that excludes LGBT people. Reading the Bible in this way and not allowing room for interpretation or context is a political act and a statement on their beliefs.

The Bible also says that women should not speak in church, “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:33-36). SCF allows women to be leaders, so why draw the line at homosexuality?

The Bible also tells us that Jesus came to Earth and was crucified to fulfil the requirements of the Law for his believers, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified,” (Galatians 2:16). The denomination I practice, United Methodist, preaches grace by faith alone, meaning that it is the belief in God and Jesus, and not good works that gets a person to heaven. Christianity does not require strict adherence to the laws outlined in Leviticus, Christ came here to fulfil them for us. I’m not a theologist, but the Bible is clear that Jesus’s purpose, the reason he was born and the reason he died, was for our sins and so that the only law that was required was this: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these,” (Mark 12:30-31).

There is no love more powerful than the love that Jesus has for us. Jesus loves all of us, no matter who we are or what our sexual orientation is. SCF’s exclusion of queer students in leadership position seems to go against what the Bible says about judging others, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

I highly doubt that if Jesus went to Swarthmore He would support SCF’s exclusionary practices. I also have a feeling he would live in Mary Lyons, as he survived forty days and forty nights in the desert, so I don’t think he would mind the walk.

Eboo Patel visit creates dialogue around religious diversity

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On Nov. 1, Eboo Patel, who founded the Interfaith Youth Core and served on Obama’s inaugural Faith Council, arrived at Swarthmore. During the roughly 24 hours he stayed, he led four workshops, participated in a world religions class, attended a dinner with President Valerie Smith and other faculty members, and delivered a keynote speech, “Building a Healthy Religiously Diverse Democracy: America’s Promise in a Time of Crisis.” The events focused on the benefits of understanding and acknowledging religious diversity, even in secular spaces.

In his keynote speech, Patel said that hatred of immigrants and other people with different beliefs creates a barrier against their contributions that inhibits societal progression. He then spoke on the history of religious prejudice in America, beginning with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s and the movement that pushed against it.

“What is Judeo-Christian?” Patel asked. “It is a genius civic invention. It is a new narrative for America that allows us to imagine Jews and Catholics as equal participants in American civilization. I want to say this again — a group of civic activists, as a way of responding to anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish prejudice in the 1920s, invent a new narrative for America that becomes so deeply woven into American DNA that we believe it was present from the beginning. That’s genius.”

Patel, a Muslim, applied this idea of a national narrative to the modern issue of Islamophobia and fear of Muslim immigrants.

“What new civic initiatives do we need now in this moment of Islamophobia?” he said.
“There’s a new chapter that needs to be written.”

Joyce Tompkins, director of religious and spiritual life at the college, planned Patel’s visit with pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church Joyce Shin and religion professor Mark Wallace, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County.  They aimed to bring together leaders of different faith groups and to strengthen relationships between the Interfaith Center and the Borough.

“When I first heard Eboo Patel speak on the need for interfaith cooperation in our society, I was struck by two things: first, his ability to speak across many different audiences, by which I mean audiences that consist of different religious backgrounds, different generations, different points of view, and different assumptions; and second, Eboo’s consistently constructive approach to making interfaith cooperation a social norm,” Shin said.

When Shin first pitched the idea over a year ago, Tompkins was doubtful that Patel, a prominent figure in interfaith leadership, would want to come to Swarthmore. However, Tompkins feels that Patel saw an opportunity for expanding interfaith collaboration to secular campuses.

“Swarthmore’s well known in higher-ed circles; it’s also a pretty secular school,” she said. “[Patel] and his colleagues at Interfaith Youth Core are particularly interested in broadening the interfaith conversation so that it’s not just faith groups talking to each other, but talking across the faith-secular divide, which seems to really be dividing our country.”

According to Shin, Patel touched on the significance of religious tolerance and sensitivity to religious issues, even for those who do not practice religion themselves.

“My hope is that Eboo’s constructive approach will draw out and make room for other constructive approaches in building cooperation among different religious communities as well as show the significance of interreligious cooperation in the civic sphere,” she said.

During the student workshop before his talk, Patel gave student leaders case studies of religion-related conflicts that have occurred in secular places such as schools and workplaces and asked them to discuss possible approaches. One situation involved an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to sit at his assigned seat on an airplane because it was next to a woman; one was the difference in power if it were a Muslim woman refusing to sit next to a man.

“We had some pretty interesting conversation,” Tompkins said. “Some people said, ‘Kick him off the plane,’ some people said, ‘Try to persuade someone to change seats.’ It was interesting.”

Another case study was a group of Muslim women who requested an hour of time at the public pool reserved for women only; another involved Hindu students that protested the dining hall serving beef in the only eating facility on campus as being offensive to them.

“What he said, what actually turned out to be true, was we never actually resolved the question of what should we do,” Tompkins said. “What was important was that we were practicing having this kind of conversation with some sensitivity to the issues that are raised by these different groups.”

Abha Lal ’18, an intern for the Interfaith Center, attended the workshop Patel gave for student leaders. According to Lal, religious literacy and interfaith dialogue can give us insight into everyday interactions.

“I think at Swat and a lot of college campuses religion is treated as a purely private matter, but the fact is that it is really important to how many people understand themselves and conduct public life,” she said. “I think Patel’s workshop encouraged us to see this not as a problem to be dealt with, but a fact of living in heterogenous societies that needs to be engaged with in meaningful ways.”

Though Lal feels that Patel’s message about interfaith discourse has crucial implications, she stated that she and other Swarthmore students would disagree with Patel’s claims about American excellence.

“My main qualm was that as important as his approach is, it seems to base itself a little bit uncritically on American exceptionalism, something that is hard to be fully on board with for people here for good reason,” Lal said.

Patel also led a workshop on sensitivity to religious differences for Swarthmore faculty, a workshop for students at Strath Haven high school and a workshop for leaders of local congregations.

Cielo de Dios ’21 attended Patel’s keynote speech with her classmates from “Religion and the Meaning of Life,” taught by professor Ellen Ross. The class is currently reading Patel’s book “Acts of Faith,” a memoir about the struggles of being a Muslim in America. She feels that her experience at the college has been in accord with Patel’s ideal for democratic discourse.

“A lot of what he said applies in my religions class specifically because in my religions class, we’re not all from one faith,” she said. “Most of us are Christians, but there’s a Jew and then there’s a Buddhist who was an atheist. We come from a lot of different backgrounds, and even before the talk, we were all open to talking about our experiences and our faith, which is what I think Patel is advocating for.”

Patel mentioned a “circle of dialogue” multiple times, which is the range of people with whom someone is willing to converse about differing beliefs. While Ryan Arazi ’21 agreed with Patel’s concept of a religiously diverse democracy, he found the notion of a “circle of dialogue” idealistic.

“I agreed with the very broad circle of opinions and allowing that circle to exist, and I’m someone who’s advocated for that a lot,” he said. “But in hearing someone else say it, I can understand why that can be too optimistic, especially in a society that’s as polarized as ours and especially with a topic like religion, which goes to your core beliefs, like who you are as a person.”

 

According to Arazi, Swarthmore students tend to be like-minded and therefore not particularly open to interfaith dialogue.

“This is exactly the type of place where that optimism might fail because you have people of very like-minded beliefs and it’s easy to forget about … the outside world and forget that it’s important to listen to everyone,” Arazi said. “I don’t think that it’s a reflection of the people here or the open-mindedness of the people, but that it’s just a natural product of putting like-minded people in the same place.”

According to Patel, religious diversity is a central tenet of social change.

“What else is it?” he said. “What else is social change but dealing with people with whom you disagree and engaging in a conversation in which sometimes, you will change your mind and sometimes they will change their minds?”

De Dios agreed with Patel’s emphasis on willingness to engage others with opposing opinions in conversation, but she felt that Swarthmore students generally identify more with the type of social change represented in the Desmond Tutu quote “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” which a Swarthmore student brought up during the 30-minute question-and-answer session after the keynote speech.

“I do think, though, that the first step is in dialogue,” she said. “Not that they have to be mutually exclusive, but the dialogue comes first, more than anything, than the action. I don’t think that people would agree with me that you can be tolerant and not act. I do think that the most important acts of tolerance and respect end up anyway leading to protests and action-based causes.”

Tompkins was very satisfied with the attendance at the workshops and at the keynote speech. She felt that this event is representative of recent changes that she has worked to enact as director of religious and spiritual life at the college regarding dialogue around religious differences.

“I absolutely resonate with what he had to say, because I’ve been here 14 years [and] we’ve made huge, huge progress as far as recognizing religious and spiritual identity as important parts of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “When I first came it was … really, nobody talked about religion; it was very marginalized, there was very little support. I see [the event] just as a continuation of the momentum we’ve been working on, but I feel like it gave us kind of a big push.”

For Tompkins, Shin and the Interfaith Council, the  success of the event bodes well for similar collaborations between the college and the Swarthmore community in the future.

“I am excited to work with the Interfaith Council of Southern Delaware County, Partners in Ministry, different groups at Swarthmore College, and members of the community in developing ways to cooperate inter-religiously,” Shin said. “By seeing who showed up, we have a better idea of who is interested in this work and with whom we can build more sustainable relationships.”

President Valerie Smith, who introduced Patel’s speech, delivered similar sentiments about religious diversity.

“During these tumultuous times when democratic values are being challenged, by engaging with difference, particularly religious difference, we acknowledge our shared humanity,” Smith said.

What’s in a fan?

in Columns/Sports by

Looking back, I realize I’ve spent all year talking about the problems inherent in the world of sports today. With all of that negativity out of the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind myself and everyone else that, in the larger scheme of things, I am a sports enthusiast down to the core, and that, in my opinion, sports still serve many valuable functions for people that go beyond simple entertainment. In particular, I want to focus on how fans develop emotional, personal connections to players and teams; the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics are a great example of this on the national scale. This is one of the ways that sports can bring people of all backgrounds and situations together in a way that few other things can. I think that the beauty of sports comes from the fact that every individual fan is entitled to their own individual connection that makes sports an enjoyable and meaningful part of their lives.

Surprisingly, though, there are always a few self-determined “real” sports fans who claim that support should be allocated based on measures that are more objective than whatever emotional attachments one may have; players should be evaluated for their skill alone, and a team’s fan base should be based either on locality and/or the team’s quality. Very few people here would make this argument, but there are plenty of sports “purists,” as they see themselves, who would and do. I’ll give a few personal anecdotes to explain what I mean.

I often scroll through the Facebook pages related to teams that I’m a fan of (although, sadly, I have fewer opportunities to do so now that I’m at Swat). On the fan page of the team Manchester United, I’ve run into a few posts that have annoyed me. Here and there, I’ll see a post degrading American fans, saying that they’re not true fans, and I even remember reading a comment about how the real fan base of the team is only in England, or even more restrictively, in Manchester. Of course, plenty of people responded negatively to these types of comments, but there were enough people supporting them to get on my nerves. Yes, I’m an American fan, and, yep, American soccer is relatively quite bad (especially compared to English soccer), but why is my support of Manchester United any less real? I visited my cousin in England when I was a little boy, saw Manchester United play, was in awe, enjoyed arguing with my cousin who was a fan of rival Chelsea, and became a lifelong fan in the process. I think that’s a fairly legitimate reason to support a team; I can’t claim to share in the element of the city’s and the country’s pride, but I have my own personal reasons that are just as important to me.

This is probably overreacting a bit, because the comments I’m responding to would almost universally be viewed as stupid. I’ll use another example that might not be as straightforward, then. In recent years, support for Manchester United among Muslim fans around the world has grown as a result of two high-profile Muslim players that they’ve kept, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj. I was a fan before they joined, and, as a Muslim, I was pleased to see them join and thus tracked their progress closely. Last year, for the Muslim holiday Eid-ul-Fitr, the Man U fan page put up a post saying, “Eid Mubarak” (may your holiday be blessed) with a picture of Januzaj in acknowledgement of this growing Muslim fan base. I thought it was a great step towards making their new fans feel welcome as well as continue to boost young Januzaj’s stock and popularity among them.

To my dismay, multiple comments immediately came up telling fans that they should keep religion out of sports (in addition to the usual derogatory comments accompanying anything that has any remote connection to Islam). This is a widespread issue evident, for example, in the debate surrounding NFL player Tim Tebow’s observance of his faith while on the field (Tebow-ing) and other instances/actions like that. I took the incident on the Man U fan page very personally, however. Why can’t I have a particular connection to Manchester United because of how I shared Januzaj’s Muslim identity? Why was it wrong for me to jump at the opportunity to hold on to a moment where the media actually allowed Muslims to be seen in a positive light? Why was it so wrong for Muslim fans around the world to take pride in the fact that they could be represented to the world through two talented soccer players instead of having to constantly apologize for the terrorists who usually get the spotlight? As I see it, support for players and a team based on an emotional reason and a connection through shared identity, religion in this case, hurts no one while having the potential to help quite a few people feel better.

This extends to other forms of emotional connection to players as well. It only adds to the diversity and strength of the fan base when someone supports a player on a team because they’re the same race, religion, sexuality, and, in general, when they find an aspect that they can associate with in some manner. Fans are people, and players are people, and shared identity is often a pretty great way for people to connect; as such, these ties should be considered a sound basis for support. Besides, if players or teams were supported for a set of objective reasons only, then fans wouldn’t be as widespread as they are currently.

Of everything I’ve written this year, this is probably the most jumbled, but it’s also the most genuine. I’ve talked before about all the ways that sports aren’t so great and need to improve, but, in the end, sports make me really happy (please excuse the cheesiness); they provide me with multiple avenues of emotional connection which, when needed, allow me to escape from all the issues of real life. So, as a closing remark, I hope everyone can realize that, to an individual, sports can mean as much as things like art, music, literature, politics, or even divestment might mean to someone else. We as sports fans have to recognize that the players, teams, and organizations we support often have problems, and we should use our power to pressure improvements in those cases. At the same time, we’re also lucky to have the pleasure and release that sports provide us and should take pride not just in the fact that we are fans of a sport, but also the reason why we’re fans. Hopefully, I’ve convinced you all that not only is the world of sports complicated and deep, but so are all the genuine fans out there. And, hopefully, they can get recognition for that, too.

Swarthmore Hillel votes to drop ‘Hillel’ from name

in Around Campus/News by

Swarthmore Hillel’s board voted on Monday to change their name after receiving an email from Hillel International that threatened legal action against the student organization if it did not change the agenda of an upcoming event so that it aligned with Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. The student group decided to remove “Hillel” from its name so that it could proceed with the planned event, where four activists will be presenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next week. The name change will also ensure its autonomy in choosing guest speakers and future topics for discussion.

In its letter to Swarthmore, Hillel International described the four activists as “promoting an anti-Israel agenda” that violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership. They wrote that if the event focused solely on the speakers’ participation in the American Civil Rights movement, then it would not be in violation of their policy, but that the group needed to correspond with Hillel International for confirmation. They issued an ultimatum demanding that the student group communicate with Hillel International by 5 p.m on Tuesday.

In a press release, Swarthmore Hillel said that the decision to drop “Hillel” from its name was made “in order to affirm [our] central Jewish values of openness and inclusion across differences.” Keeping the Hillel name “would prevent us from continuing to build that inclusive community we want to be,” wrote Joshua Wolfsun ’16, Swarthmore Hillel’s Israel-Palestine Programming Coordinator, via email.

Still, the decision to drop the Hillel name was a difficult one.

“For many of us, we identified with the Hillel name — either as a link to the larger Jewish student community, a connection to Hillel the Elder — the organization’s namesake — or quite simply as just what we have always called ourselves,” Wolfsun wrote. “As an organization that claims to promote pluralism and Jewish life in all its forms, it is deeply disappointing and frustrating that Hillel International has responded to our attempts to create an open and pluralistic community by threatening to sue its students and their college.”

Wolfsun reported that the Dean’s Office had been in contact with the student group, and had been “helpful and supportive” of the student-led decision-making process.

The meeting, which lasted two hours in Bond Hall, was attended by Jewish members both inside and outside of Swarthmore Hillel who discussed which aspects of Hillel they valued and desired to keep. Students also expressed concerns for the group to address going forward, such as feelings of exclusion and unilateral thinking. Having more diverse guest speakers with differing viewpoints is meant to address this issue.

According to its press statement, Swarthmore Hillel has yet to decide on the new name, although it will be chosen in the coming weeks, and the entire Jewish community at Swarthmore inside and outside of the organization will be invited to participate in the selection process.

Hillel International opposes programming that presents an anti-Israel view in any of its affiliated Hillel organizations. As part of a series on social justice issues on Israel and Palestine, Swarthmore Hillel scheduled a discussion entitled “Social Justice Then and Now: Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement” with civil rights veterans Ira Grupper, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Dorothy Zellner. Ira Grupper was involved in a 2009 march in solidarity with Gaza victims of Israel’s January 2009 siege. Mark Levy is a civil rights activist who regularly speaks to college groups about the relevancy of the Civil Rights Movement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Larry Rubin works with groups in Washington D.C. and Baltimore connecting the Black and Jewish communities. Dorothy Zellner was the co-editor of the civil rights newsletter “The Student Voice” and is now involved in advocacy work on behalf of Palestinians. They are scheduled to speak about their experiences in the American Civil Rights Movement and its applicability to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine next Tuesday and Wednesday.

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