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Is stepping on a Sheet of Paper with the name Jesus an Expression of Academic Freedom?

Academic Freedom, Religious Beliefs, and Civility in the Classroom

Recently, I read about a self-proclaimed Christian instructor at Florida Atlantic University, Deandre Poole, who asked his students to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and "Stomp on it."

The exercise was from a textbook manual and was designed to teach that "even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings." The instructor indicated that he would not have stepped on the paper if he had been asked.

I’ve been teaching at the university level for more than thirty years and have rarely heard of such a stupid and disrespectful exercise. I can’t figure out the point of the exercise.

Let’s assume one-half of the class stepped on the paper. So what? What does this indicate to the professor with respect to the academic learning experience? Does it mean those students believe anything goes in a college classroom in the name of freedom to inquire? Does it mean one-half of the students are not afraid of the instructor’s response to his exercise? Does it mean one-half of the students are anti-Jesus and his teachings?

It seems to me an intellectual discussion of what Jesus has meant to a large portion of the population of the world makes more sense. The instructor could have asked probing questions such as if Jesus is the son of God how could he allow what happened at the Boston Marathon or at Newton and so many other tragedies in our recent past? Is this a valid question to ask from an ethical point of view? If so, why is it proper to explore the ethical dimensions of horrific acts and our faith in a higher being? If not, what is the appropriate frame of reference for the discussion on a philosophical basis?

Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon, refused, telling the professor, "With all due respect to your authority as a professor, I do not believe what you told us to do was appropriate.  I believe it was unprofessional and I was deeply offended by what you told me to do."

Rotela was suspended from class.  The university initially defended the professor, citing the lesson was intended to encourage a multi-faceted viewpoint and debate. Subsequently, the professor was put on administrative leave pending an investigation by the university.

Fay Voshell who holds a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, reminds us that stomping on Jesus touches a sore nerve. Beginning in 1626, Japenese Christians were forced to stomp or spit on an image of Christ or Mary. The images, named fumie, became a means of identifying Christians and a method of forcing them to repudiate their faith.  Stomping on Jesus or Mary also became a prelude to torture and universal persecution.  One torture involved cutting off three fingers from each hand, leaving only the little finger and thumb.  Children as young as five were subjected to this mutilation. The idea was that Christians were worse than animals and therefore entitled to fewer digits than the beasts. 

Generally, however, if believers refused to stomp their feet on the fumie, they and their families were put to death by drowning or being burnt alive.  Some of the faithful were not up to martyrdom and went into hiding, utilizing special prayers asking forgiveness if they had capitulated to the Japanese government's demands they renounce their faith.  For the next 250 years, the persecution of Japanese Christians was so intense they were nearly all exterminated, along with the symbols of the faith.  To this day, the number of Christians in Japan remains very low.

The attempts to exterminate Christians and the images of their faith have a long and bloody history, and certainly have not been confined to pre-modern Japan. While persecution has remained a constant of Christian history since the time of Jesus and the apostles, iconoclasm, the concerted attempt to rid a given civilization of Christian religious images, has been a recurrent issue, especially during the eighth and ninth centuries. During that time period, imperial legislation of Byzantium attempted to bar the use of figural images.  Existing icons were destroyed by those who had a theory that sacred images were "graven images," and therefore idolatrous. 

The Florida Atlantic faculty is currently suggesting that the administration's handling of the situation has compromised the instructor's academic freedom. The question is where does academic freedom start and end and when does civility enter the classroom experience. I don’t think academic freedom is a license to experiment with tasteless and historically offensive actions. 

A healthy classroom engages students in a rich debate of ideas. It should not encourage students to perform symbolic gestures that ridicule the beliefs of others. Poole should apologize for his lack of civility and then continue his task of educating and enlightening his students.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics sage, on April 26, 2013