Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

A Way Through the Campus Violence

The medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali believed that one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny. Is it true? His words challenge me to ask, “If I had these two choices, which environment would I choose to endure?” Journalists like Robert Kaplan would concur with al-Ghazali. His experiences in chaotic regions of the world, like the Balkans, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq have convinced him that, as bad as it might be living under an oppressive dictator, nothing is worse than lawlessness and mayhem.

The current unrest, campus riots, and mob rule are also convincing arguments. We have moved into an age where social media and networks seem to be the drivers. There is little order. There seem to be no real spokesmen people rally around; hence, it is mobocracy. I experienced comparable turmoil (madness?) at San Diego State in the 70’s. There were similar sit-ins, class cancellations, student barricades, and smashed windows. The catalyst was the possibility of being sent to Vietnam—as well as the loss of so many lives.

When chaos takes over, be it in the halls of Congress, city streets, or university campuses, it can feel like the existing order is increasingly fragile and impermanent. In his book, The Jungle Grows Back, Robert Kagan likens our age to a garden “ever under siege from the natural forces of history, the jungle whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to overwhelm it.” Both authoritarianism and anarchy seek to do their damage. Once order breaks down, the worst qualities of humanity emerge. A culture hoping for stability and moral values will need constant tending lest the jungle grows back.

Behind so many of the voices demanding to be heard is an “expressive individualism.” This is how Carl Truman puts it in his Strange New World. We have become devoted to ourselves and undevoted to God. We act according to our feelings, believing that human beings must rise to the challenge of self-creation. This is what I see when I watch the nightly news.

Other voices help me to interpret the current turmoil, especially on campuses—

Ross Douthat of the NY Times has written two very helpful articles, “What Students Read Before They Protest,” followed by “What I’d Assign to Today’s College Students.” Today’s core curriculum focuses on the present at the expense of the past. In many cases, identity politics have replaced rigorous teaching.

In yesterday’s NY Times, Thomas Friedman wrote, “Why the Campus Protests Are So Troubling.” He identifies three things: They focus on Israel’s misbehavior and ignore Hamas and its horrific violence. They are protesting the very right of Israel to exist, rather than argue for a two-state solution. And they are ignoring the fact many Palestinians are enraged over the atrocities and misrule of Hamas.

Carl Trueman recently penned this article in First Things, “What the Pro-Palestinian Campus Protests Are Really About.”  He raises the question others have asked: “Why do we indulge as important young, angry, opinionated people”? It’s a fair question. Much of the chanting amounts to ill-informed noise. It’s about the exaltation of ignorance and incompetence and a growing nihilism that lurks below the surface.

Ben Sasse-a university President recently wrote, “The Adults Are Still in Charge at the University of Florida.” He too laments over the asinine entitlement of activists and the timidity of administrators. As he puts it, “Throwing fists, storming buildings, vandalizing property, spitting on cops, and hijacking a university aren’t speech.” They amount to violence. Anarchy.

I have witnessed disorder up close. Portland, the city where I live, has had its share of anarchy these past years. Absent any real leadership, the streets have been filled with bedlam and destruction. Things are calmer now, though most people I speak with are hesitant to go downtown.

Here’s what I observe: it is a lot easier to be a deconstructionist than a constructionist. It takes little effort to mindlessly chant, throw rocks at windows, and spray expletives on walls and overpasses. It takes incredible effort to listen, study the context, discern the real injustices, and offer a solution. But all too few make the effort.

Just returning from Athens, where I visited Mars Hill, I find Acts 17 to be a model for protest. Like many today, Paul was filled with passion and anger over a world he perceived was going the wrong direction (v 16). This was a Jew speaking to an opposing Gentile audience. But rather than set up an encampment and scream, he reasoned in the marketplace and synagogue (v 17). He adapted to his hearers. When challenged, he sought common ground (v 23). He appealed to thinking on both sides with honesty and grace (vv 24-28). And then he stepped back and allowed people to make their own decisions (vv 32-34). Order rather than anarchy. I think this passage should serve as a template for demonstrations.

Protesters who have not traveled, not sat down and processed the grief and hurt of people on both sides, have not read deeply and widely to understand the complexities, have not invited opposing voices to speak (believing the best arguments deserve the best counterarguments), and have not stood up and asked, “How can I be part of a solution?” are not worth a segment on the evening news. It’s easy to say what I am against. It’s much harder, though so necessary, for voices to rise and say, “This is what I believe we should be for. This is what we should come together to create. This is a vision that I believe will create flourishing for the common good, restore human dignity, and invite God’s blessing.”

Leave a Reply