While I am a frequent reader of the opinion section of The Hustler, I am rarely inspired to do anything more than read and discuss the opinions therein with my friends over lunch. A recent article, however, has brought to my attention a certain misunderstanding of a huge aspect of Vanderbilt culture: religion. Now, I realize that the previous sentence may inflame some controversy, as we are all aware that we attend a non-religiously affiliated university. However, to pretend that religion is not a large part of the culture is to deny the identities of many students here at Vanderbilt.
We as Vanderbilt students are lucky to attend a very open and accepting university where it just isn’t hard to find a group that adheres (even loosely) to your personal views, be that group sanctioned by the university or just a close group of friends. Even Rani Banjarian and I, with unique religious backgrounds, can find people with whom we enjoy discussing such issues or not as our preferences may entail. I understand his frustration: I was born to a Jewish father and an agnostic mother of Pentecostal family origins, so growing up watching other faiths without a strong familial tie to religion is something we have in common.
However, I see that I have interpreted those observations differently from how he has over my life. Perhaps I simply find chalk drawings less offensive than he does. Perhaps I have a different view on what “accusatory, inflammatory, patronizing and exclusive” remarks look like. I have been blessed throughout my life to have friends of many different religious beliefs and origins, and I have gained a unique appreciation for each as I learn from these friends. My two closest friends on campus are regular churchgoers who welcome my questions about Christianity at our weekly lunches.
I regard myself as a secular student and therefore a member of the audience that Rani Banjarian expects to share his views. I do agree that there is a fundamental misunderstanding at play here: the belief that all religious people condemn you for not sharing their beliefs. But very few religions are inherently exclusive or inflammatory. When I was exploring my Jewish heritage, I had the opportunity to learn about the Noahide laws. These laws provide for the treatment and lifestyles of Gentiles, people who aren’t Jewish. Judaism isn’t the only religion that accepts that there is a place for those outside the faith, however, and many people of varying faiths are quite happy to coexist with those who hold different beliefs.
As I said, I am rarely incited to write in response to an opinion article. In fact, this is the very first time I ever have. But I am deeply disturbed by the superiority that Banjarian shows in his April 15 column “Chalk Gods,” in which he asserts his belief that “with secularism comes a distinctive outlook on religion and the intrinsic propensity for conflict.” Religion is not something to be shut away in a closet or hidden from public light any more than sexual orientation or marital status is something that we should be ashamed of. One of the beautiful things about this campus is how the students are encouraged to explore their own identities and be proud of them. Rather than taking them away and labeling those identities as inflammatory or noxious, students on this campus would gain from seeking out a deeper understanding of the differences that make up our student body.
Banjarian says that he only has a problem if “you overstep personal bounds and force (him) to see something (he acknowledges) exists but (does not) necessarily enjoy.” I have heard similarly concerning arguments regarding many issues but most particularly in the recent debates regarding same-sex marriage. I worry about this idea that people are responsible for hiding the things that someone might not want to see.
In truth, this whole conversation brings to mind something my agnostic (and therefore theoretically inoffensive) mother said to me when I was a child: “If you are offended, that is your problem. Find a way to not be offended.”
If you take offense or insult to something as harmless as chalk on a bridge, perhaps you should examine your own motivations. Religious or not, gay or straight, black, white, brown or purple, people should not be expected to monitor their identities at all times to make sure that they don’t offend your sensibilities.
— Rachel Telles is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.