Thanks to a post over at the Friendly Atheist, we have information on an interesting incident that occurred several months ago at a high school in Tennessee. The school held a “Fictional Character Day” in which students could come to school dressed as a fictional character (can you guess where this is going?) One student came dressed as Jesus. Bam! There was anarchy the halls, babies crying, and cats and dogs taking up residence together.
Ok, not really. What happened was the student, Jeff Shott, was summoned to the principal’s office to have a conversation with three administrators at once about the “appropriateness” of his costume. Shott was told that his costume was controversial and likely to disrupt the learning environment. To be fair, the school administrators didn’t immediately force Shott to take off the costume. However, they did warn him that if even one teacher reported the slightest disruption, Shott would have to take it off. After being given this warning, Shott decided simply to remove the costume then and there (his writeup of the whole incident is available at the Friendly Atheist, linked above).
I’m going to present two sides to this, starting with the side I probably would have taken when I was in high school. I was a christian then, and I probably would have sided with the people who thought (as some people at Shott’s high school must have) that dressing up as Jesus and asserting his fictionality was a rude and disrespectful thing to do, and possibly shouldn’t be allowed. There is a feeling in American culture, and I’m sure others as well, that there is something “off limits” about religious beliefs. Criticize someone’s politics, or their scientific findings, or their beliefs about how to run a company, but as soon as a person’s beliefs become attached to a god somehow, they are then felt to be off limits, beyond criticism – as if a statement couldn’t be false just because it has the word “god” in it. It’s not a rational thing to think, but I’ve been there, I’ve felt it, and it’s real. When I look at the picture of Jeff Shott standing in his school cafeteria dressed up as a “fictional” Jesus, my mind goes back to the belief system I held when I was in high school, and my gut reaction is something like “Hold it – you can’t do that.”
But I see things differently now. It’s silly to object to, or be upset by (enough to cause a classroom disturbance) someone asserting the fictionality of Jesus. The supernatural Jesus is, after all, certainly fictional, and even the historical Jesus (in the form of an apocalyptic Jewish preacher around whom the Biblical myths coalesced) may be just a legend as well. But even if this weren’t the case, why should it be upsetting that a random student at a person’s high school was wrong? When a person honestly believes something that is patently false, there is little reason to pursue an argument with them, or to care very much about what they have to say. So why shouldn’t christian students at Shott’s high school simply ignore Shott, since he obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about? This is what anyone would do if a student came to Fictional Character Day dressed as Abraham Lincoln. No, clearly the idea that Jesus existed is one most christians find needs defending. I wonder why.
The school administrators’ response to this event is something I find more probematic. Apparently the administrators thought that if the sight of a student dressed as Jesus incited a classroom disruption, the solution would be to make that student remove the costume, rather than punishing the students who caused the disruption. It seems to me that the administrators wasted a teachable moment, and planned on holding Jeff Shott – who was following the rules – responsible for the actions of disruptive students who weren’t.
Instead, this would have been an excellent opportunity for the adults at school to teach the young adults that people have a right to their beliefs, and people have a right to disagree with those beliefs, and they must do it civilly. They must follow the rules of the school or the society at large that they are subject to. Offense is not free pass to behave however you like, or to silence someone with an opinion you don’t like. A braver school administration might have taken the opportunity to teach this, and it would have been far more pedagogically effective than any abstract discussion of free speech like the kind that are had in history class. This is real.