“Imagine if there were a cliff, and you saw a blind man walking toward it. What would you do?”
He is standing on the edge of the fountain at the center of campus, the one that the university never runs anymore in order to conserve water or energy or maintenance costs or something. Is it still a fountain if it has no water?
“What would you do?” he asks. A microphone belt pack amplifies his voice. “You’d warn him! You’d grab him and turn him away from the cliff! That’s what love would do – love would do whatever it could to stop the blind man from falling down the cliff!”
I am thinking, Love would erect a fence around the edge of the cliff. No; Love wouldn’t put a cliff there in the first place, not if Love knows there are going to be blind people walking around it.
Also, Love probably wouldn’t use a person’s disability as a spiritual metaphor.
“That’s what I’m here to do today. Friends” — he is calling us friends, this 50-year-old man who stands on the dry fountain and shouts at us — “I tell you today that you are walking toward the edge of a cliff, and if you don’t turn away from your sins you shall surely perish!”
This morning we were hit with a September heat wave, the last gasp of summer. It is 91 degrees outside, and the sunlight reflects off the faded bricks that pave the commons. Next to the preacher a second man holds a sign with a picture of a person being consumed by flames. “God’s Wrath,” it says.
“Your life of sin is condemning you,” he is shouting to the crowd of students that have gathered. “The Bible says that the fruit of the spirit is love and joy. People who are right with God don’t commit suicide! People who are right with God don’t need to pop pills to get through the day! They don’t need to smoke joints, and they don’t need to get drunk!” Whatever else he adds to this list is drowned out by the loud cheer that goes up at the mention of smoking joints and getting drunk.
This is the second time I have walked past the preacher today on my way from class to class. The first time I heard him he was declaring that the Bible was written by God. “A bunch of men wrote the Bible,” yelled one of the students, and the preacher went apoplectic. “The Bible was written by the hand of God,” he thundered. “Who here has read their Bible this morning?” he turned and shouted at a loose herd of students walking past. “Who here is brave enough to say they’ve read their Bible today?” One person stopped, raised his hand. “Was it indeed the powerful Word of God?” — you can hear the capital-W when he says it — “Is Jesus your Lord?” The student nodded.
“Then you’re a real man!” bellowed the preacher. “Our sinful society has lost sight of what it means to be a real man. A real man follows God! Ladies, this is a real man!” As I walked away he was still extolling the realness of the young man to the passers by like the hawker at a carnival side show.
Now his hand goes to the speaker at his waist, turns it up louder so he can shout over the laughter. “Do you know what happened to Jesus?” he shouts. “He told the truth of God’s word and he was crucified! Paul was buried under a pile of stones! Peter was crucified upside down! In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said blessed are ye when men shall revile you, so praise God, friends, you are blessing me right now!”
I am making my way closer to the not-fountain. I want to speak to the preacher. I want to say he is wrong. I want to tell him to stop. I want to ask him if he thinks he’s helping. I want to say something.
The Secular Student Alliance is beginning to amass on the sidewalk. The crowd grows louder, less respectful. The commons takes on a fierce jollity. The student next to me is holding a copy of The God Delusion. “Your God is dead!” someone cries and the preacher whirls toward him. “You’re going to hell!” he shouts.
Sweat glistening on his forehead, he tells us about his fearful God. “Jesus talked more about God’s wrath than about any other subject. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. When I was a boy I loved my daddy, but I feared him, too, because I knew if I disobeyed he would mess me up. If you don’t fear God, you’re a fool!”
Another student walks right up to the man and begins to shout back at the preacher that God is love. The crowd whoops and I can’t hear the rest of his speech until he says: “Jesus loves me! Jesus doesn’t care if I’m gay!” The preacher has been leaning forward to hear the young man but at this he lurches back. “Blasphemer! You are blaspheming the Word of God!”
Behind me the students yell that the preacher is a bigot. He is waving his Bible and shouting abuse back at them, and the young man who approached the preacher walks away with a face full of triumph and rage. I am trying to shout, too — at the preacher, at the students behind me, at the brave boy walking away — but my words are tangled and I couldn’t be heard even if I knew what I wanted to say. The shouting, the preaching, and my own impotence are bringing on a panic attack. I feel like I’m in the nightmare where I’m trying to scream and no sound will come out. I am shaking and wishing I could yell half as loud as the preacher. I wish I had a bullhorn so I could shout that God doesn’t have to be like this man’s frightening, vengeful God.
I long to point them somewhere else, away from this shouting man on the dry fountain. I long for living waters to pour out in a flood, to drench the crowd and douse the hellfire, to quench the preacher’s thirsty, angry heart, and mine.