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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

FAU’s symbolic test of religious tolerance

BY RHONDA SWAN, Florida Voices

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As Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ on this Good Friday and prepare for Resurrection Sunday, some would do well to remember that Jesus can’t be crucified again.

You wouldn’t know that by the visceral reaction of so many to the “step on Jesus” incident at Florida Atlantic University.

It certainly wasn’t FAU’s finest moment. The university suspended Ryan Rotela from his intercultural communications class after he complained that the instructor asked students to step on a piece of paper containing the name Jesus. The university alleged that Rotela threatened Deandre Poole when he told the instructor that he was going to complain about the exercise to administrators and the media.

Rotela did just that and the story has gone viral, eliciting some quite hostile commentary.

FAU has apologized, banned the exercise and rescinded the suspension.

The exercise was intended to demonstrate that “even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.”

The controversy that erupted has certainly proven that point.

You’d think that Poole had asked his students to step on Jesus in the flesh rather than Jesus in the abstract.

The menu is not the meal.

Yet some have called for Poole to resign his position as vice chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. He’s been accused of being a liberal atheist. Some have called for FAU to fire him from his adjunct faculty position.

Others have asked why not step on Obama, Mohammed or Martin Luther King.

And many have said the incident is further evidence of the country’s growing intolerance of Christianity.

Gov. Rick Scott, who has low approval ratings even among his fellow Republican conservatives, is using the controversy to score political points. He is demanding a report on the incident and has called the exercise “offensive and even intolerant to Christians and those of all faiths.”

Scott called Rotela, according to a statement ,and “applauded him for having the courage to stand up for his faith. I told him that it took great conviction and bravery to stand up and say what he was asked to do was wrong, and went against what he believed in.”

The irony is Rotela responded as anticipated. Students are not forced to participate and are expected to refuse to "step on Jesus."

The instructor's manual from which Poole got the exercise says that "most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

Jim Neuliep, a communications professor at St. Norbert College, a Catholic school in Wisconsin, said he designed the exercise to show students the power of symbols. Neuliep wrote the textbook Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach and the manual.

Neuliep told the Palm Beach Post that in his classes most students won’t step on the paper They tell him “Jesus is important” or “I love Jesus.”

“Students, they get it,” he said. “They walk away understanding the importance of symbols.”

Why not ask them to step on papers with the name of Mohammed or another religious figure? Because nearly 80 percent of Americans who identify with a religion claim Christianity.

“We’re in the United States,” Neuliep said, “and this is probably the most important symbol. . . It wouldn’t make sense to use somebody else’s religious prominent figure”

Poole hasn’t responded to my requests to hear his version of what happened with Rotela.

It’s unlikely, though, that he intended to offend Christians any more than Neuliep, who says the exercise affirms their faith.

Poole serves on the usher board of Lighthouse Worship Center Church of God in Christ in Fort Lauderdale.

I was a member of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., for 37 years. I doubt many atheists would feel comfortable during a COGIC worship service. The shouting and speaking in tongues can be a bit much to take even for the believers.

If COGIC members are intolerant it certainly isn’t of Christians. Like Christians of other denominations, some COGIC members are often intolerant of people of other faiths, Islam for example, and people of no faith at all.

Yet too many Christians are quick to play the intolerance card.

When Jesus was hanging from the cross, he asked God to forgive those who were about to crucify Him.

Surely, He would ask the same for Poole who hasn't betrayed Him.

Be the change you want to see.

Rhonda Swan is an editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post and author of Dancing to the Rhythm of My Soul: A Sister’s Guide for Transforming Madness into Gladness. She can be reached

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