Jonathan Swift and the Jesus stompers

Jonathan Swift and the Jesus stompers March 28, 2013

You have doubtless heard about the college that had students stomp on the name of Jesus as an exercise in a class on cultural understanding.  I noticed the parallel to something that happened in Gulliver’s Travels in which the satirist Jonathan Swift portrays Dutch traders as being willing to trod on a Crucifix as a way to convince the Japanese that they weren’t Christians so that they could trade with that country.  Of course, the Dutch, being Calvinists, considered the Crucifix to be an idol, so stepping on it didn’t bother them.

I wondered how much of that was true and how much was Swift’s lampoon.  The Dutch were the only Europeans the Japanese would trade with.  Whether that was because they would trod on the Crucifix because of their iconoclastic theology, I’m not sure, but Swift, an Anglican priest, lambastes them.  Anyway, I was glad to see that Anthony Sacramone, who has taken up blogging again, makes that same connection and tells us more about the requirement for blasphemy in the context of Christian persecution, now showing up in a college classroom.

(There was only one student who objected, by the way, and he was a Mormon.  Did the Christians in the room just go along with it?  Surely, desecrating the name of Jesus would bother even iconoclasts whose distaste for physical images never extended to the use of language.) 

From New Addition to Core Curriculum: Stomp on the Name of Jesus | Intercollegiate Review:

Among Jonathan Swift’s many targets in Gulliver’s Travels are the Dutch. Strange you might say. Of all the evils to be bemoaned in the world of the 18th century, you wouldn’t think the tolerant Dutch would be among them. But you must see the world through a Swiftian eye. Japan of the Tokugawa shogunate had closed itself off to foreigners — except for Dutch traders (and then only under strict conditions). There were several reasons for this, but for Swift’s purposes, it was the Dutch tolerance rather than the apparent Japanese intolerance that was intolerable.

The Dutch toleration within their borders of vying religious sects was synonymous in Swift’s mind with a doctrinal and ecclesiastical wishy-washiness, which he despised, being a High Anglican. And so the great satirist composed a scene in which Gulliver asks the Japanese emperor if he can forgo stepping on a crucifix, as he, Gulliver, was “a Christian.” (What did that make the Dutch, who were allowed entry into Japan?) This ritual was resonant of the Tokugawa shogunate practice of “Fumi-e”: anyone suspected of secretly practicing the forbidden religion of Christianity was asked to stomp on an image of Jesus or Mary. Those who refused were tortured until they renounced their faith. If they held strong, they were executed. (Some Japanese Christians managed to secret themselves away for centuries.)

So any European who had access to Japan, and its trade, during this period must have been someone prepared to sell out his faith for a mess of patronage.

We now come to Florida Atlantic University, famous the world over for absolutely nothing. At least until recently, when an FAU professor asked his class to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper and . . . stomp on it.

Read the rest here.

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  • fjsteve

    Not to hijack the thread but the story of the Kakure Kirishitan, the hidden Christians of Japan who fled to the outer southern Japanese islands and disguised their practices and symbols in order to escape persecution, is pretty fascinating. They held their faith in secret for over 200 years, from the 1630’s to the 1850’s when Japan opened it’s doors again to Western traders. At that point, most of them rejoin the Roman Catholic church but some remained hidden out of distrust. These were the Hanare Kirishitan, or separated Christians. When this group was discovered in the 1980’s they found that the Hanare were practicing a syncretic religion with elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Shintoism. A semblance of the Eucharist was practiced with three bowls of rise and three cups of wine. Interestingly, they were practicing what appeared to be a Buddhist style chant but when researchers later examined recordings of the chant they found it filled with elements of the Mass in Portuguese and Latin. Unfortunately, the practitioners had little idea what they were chanting at that point and the vast majority of the new religion is very little like Christianity.

    Apparently, they new very little of the story of the resurrection but they referred to Easter as the “time when mourning ceases.”

  • fjsteve

    *they knew*

  • Tom Hering

    This isn’t Florida Atlantic University’s first or weirdest controversy. Also this year:

    “Private prison company pays $6 million for stadium naming rights”

    “FAU professor doubts Sandy Hook massacre actually happened”

  • Well, given that numerous students are imprisoned by their federal student loans, it kinda makes sense, don’t ya think, Tom? :^)

    Seriously, you can find nutcases at almost any school, and the light simply happens to be shining on FAU at the moment. What’s critical for me is how they deal with it, and (having personally sent a note to them) I received a note that was at least phrased as a sincere apology, admitting that it was obnoxious.

    In terms of university PR, that’s a birdie or an eagle, not a bogey.

  • Keaton

    This whole thing reminds me of the scene from That Hideous Strength. Lewis called this one.

  • Jen L

    I have a friend who is a Communications professor, and she explained this exercise from it’s original perspective and purpose. I’m not sure how it got so screwed up. The exercise as it was originally designed is for students to write things they don’t care about, then be told to stomp on them, then write a word that is important to them (she uses their primary caretaker as a child) and ask them to step on it. Most hesitate, and then conversation ensues about the importance of words and why they hesitated.

  • JonSLC

    Jen @ 6, thanks for the clarification. I’m certainly no supporter of stomping on the name of Jesus, but I suspect that some have taken this incident and blown it out of proportion. As an academic exercise, I can see the point about revealing deep cultural sensitivities. I do wonder, though, about reports that suggest that all students were commanded to stomp on the paper. If that’s true, then the prof was going 0ff-script and missing the point of the exercise.

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    The version that is reportedly the one to be used at FAU was meant to discuss the importance of images and ideas, etc. It was to allow students to stomp or not stomp then explain why they made either choice. So, I am not really sure what is going on at FAU. Is this a case the media is blowing out of proportion?

  • tODD

    Thanks to the latter commenters (@6, 7, and 8) for keeping your head in this matter.

    If you do a small amount of looking into the matter, you will find that the intended exercise is not as it has been suggested by those too busy swooning and proclaiming. Here’s a Sun Sentinel article (always best to go to the local source if you can) that backs up Jen’s comment (@6).

    Of course, we don’t know where the confusion is. Did the professor misunderstand the assignment from the instructor’s manual? Or did the student misunderstand the assignment?

    What’s so fascinating is watching right-wingers — who otherwise would tell you at the drop of a hat that the media is biased against Christians — credulously believe the (admittedly sketchy) details of a story … as long as it reinforces their previously held beliefs.

    That is to say, so great is the belief that any and all college professors (at least at public/secular universities) are anti-Christian liberal zealots, that Christians will readily believe anything critical that the media reports about them, even as they claim to believe that the media is not only not trustworthy, but will never show Christians favorably.

    In case I have to spell it out, the media storm on this story (and it is significant) has not been sympathetic to the professor. So the right-wing narrative about the media doesn’t work here.

    But seriously, Occam’s Razor, anyone? I have no problem in general believing that a communications professor at some middling public Florida university gave a stupid assignment, or even that it was laughably anti-Christian. However, I have a really hard time believing the student making these allegations. Namely, because, as far as I can tell, he’s the only one.

    And not only that, but the student is apparently claiming that he was “suspended” in some fashion for not completing the assignment. Um, when has that ever happened at any univerity? Disciplinary action for failing to do an assignment? Yeah, no. An F? Now that I might believe. But the university has denied any disciplinary action took place, and so it seems that this student is really inclined to blow things out of proportion in general.

    But the media loves a stupid controversy. As, it would seem, do credulous Christians. Sigh.

  • EGK

    The novel Silence, by Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo, deals with this persecution of Christians in Japan, and the “stomping on Jesus” question plays a part in the story.

  • fjsteve

    Maybe I’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks but this is the first I’ve heard of this story. Though it seems it’s at least been out long enough for the meme to develop (and for the governor to have become involved). I, too, am curious why only one student has come forward. Did the professor pick Jesus as the subject matter or was is voted on by the class? Is it different for every class? Because, not only would this student have to be the only one in his class to protest, but the only one in every class since the exercise has been around. Judging from comments here, it’s been around for a while.

    Anyway, in my opinion, assignments like this are silly and not higher education caliber. But what really puzzles me is how we got to post #10 without anyone commenting that this is a FAUx professor.

  • Grace


    “Anyway, in my opinion, assignments like this are silly and not higher education caliber. But what really puzzles me is how we got to post #10 without anyone commenting that this is a FAUx professor.

    I agree with most of your comment, however the “silly” part no. The professor, if that’s what one can call him, apparently wanted/needed attention, of which he has gotten to a small degree. The FAUx with a degree, is still a faux, they can be found in any university, even those that are Christian colleges.

    There are a number of degreed ‘boneheads, who take pleasure in decreeing, blasphemy.

    I don’t believe there was a misunderstood assignment, just an attempt at attention.

  • Joe

    I do find it somewhat interesting that kid is claiming he was suspended but the school is claiming that he has not “been” disciplined for anything.

    I think I found the way to reconcile this apparent divergence, labeling. It appears that the student was not suspended but has been charged with a violation of the student code of conduct and was told not to attend class while the charge was pending.

    So it is true that the student has not been suspended but it is true that he was told he may not attend class.

    In any event, I think this story is extremely overblown.

  • Tom Hering

    Then there’s the disciplinary action. Which may or may not have been initiated (there are conflicting reports about this). But it supposedly involved suspension – not from the school, but from the class in question. Because, according to some reporting, the student had the gall to object to an anti-Christian exercise. But other reports say it was because the student said to the professor, “You’ll be hearing from me.” Which, if true, is ambiguous enough to be taken as a threat in these times (when school shootings aren’t uncommon). I’d try to have his butt suspended too. I’d even go one step further: I’d make law enforcement aware of the guy.

  • tODD

    Joe (@13), as is typical in these cases, not only do we not know much at all about what really happened, but the way in which things have fallen out, we likely never will (because there appears to be potential for legal action, with the concommitant “no comment on ongoing cases” silence).

    The university’s claim isn’t that the student hasn’t been disciplined at all, it’s that he hasn’t been disciplined for anything regarding the classroom activity — presumably including his failure to participate in it, which was laid out from the beginning as an option.

    What we don’t know is what the student said in response to the assignment. Nor does he appear to be offering that important tidbit up, nor do the reporters seem to be asking. We fill that significant gap with our own presuppositions.

    It’s possible the student said nothing — or at least nothing beyond expressing disapproval — and that the university’s subsequent actions, whatever they are, are purely retaliatory. It’s also possible that the student got a little too upset and did or said some things in reaction that legitimately ran afoul of the university’s code of conduct. We just don’t know.

    But I will note that this media kerfuffle seems almost entirely fanned into flames by groups seeking to use the opportunity to their own PR ends. E.g., the Forbes article you linked to, in which the author oddly inserted the unexplained acronym FIRE three times … and, whaddya know, he’s the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

    And similarly with the Liberty Institute and your Fox News piece — which really goes out of its way to miss the point in favor of outrage. I mean, they label the lesson plan “Christ-bashing”, and yet the quote they present from the lesson makes clear that it assumes most of the participants will “hesitate” and “can’t step on the paper” — that is, that most of the participants will, in fact, show reverence to Jesus’ name, even if it’s just written on paper.

  • Grace

    The article below is very interesting. Governor Scott had a lot to say about the situation, very impressive. I only hope other governors in the U.S. would have or take the same stand.

    The student in this situation took a stand and reported what happened.

    This should put an end to all the contrary views, ‘supposed scenarios that have been posted on this blog.

    CBS Miami

    FAU Professor In “Jesus Stomping” Incident Placed On Administrative Leave

  • rvs

    Boy I enjoyed this post. Thank you.

  • fjsteve

    I saw something today that reminded me of this post and it suddenly brought to mind something I hadn’t previously considered. I don’t think it’s likely that Swift’s account of Dutch traders, being iconoclastic Calvinists, wouldn’t mind stomping on crucifixes to show they weren’t Christian. If they were true Christians, Calvinist or otherwise, they wouldn’t be any more inclined than their English counterparts to perform any action to prove they weren’t Christian, regardless of the action. Because it’s not the action that would be objectionable but what the action signified. I think it’s much more likely, if it is indeed true that stomping on a crucifix was a prerequisite for doing business, that these traders were successful with the Japanese because, much like the pre-conversion John Newton, they weren’t particularly Christian.

  • Tom Hering

    The page for Dr. Deandre Poole at the FAU site now carries this announcement:

    FAU instructor Deandre Poole, Ph.D., has been placed on administrative leave effective immediately for safety reasons. As a result of the reaction to a recent exercise in Dr. Poole’s intercultural communications class, the instructor’s personal safety has been compromised. [ Emphases added ]

    Seems Dr. Poole, himself a Christian (and maybe more truly a Christian than the complaining Mormon student), has received death threats. It’s reasonable to assume they’re from people who consider themselves to be Christians (and warriors defending the faith, I guess). Anyways, some sources are now trying to tell the other side of the story, despite the university’s refusal to release information on who said what to whom, and its gag order on Dr. Poole.

  • Tom Hering

    This is interesting. The student, Ryan Rotela, wrote this on his Facebook page two days ago:

    I write this with all respects to everybody’s opinions, because I deeply appreciate the support behind all of your words. However, I believe the professor and the institution’s image has been tarnished to a significant degree. I also believe that they have endured their fair share of karma for their actions and it is up to them to slowly build up their reputation again. If any well known public figure wishes to prosecute or further destroy the professor’s reputation they can do whatever they want, its America, that’s why I love the country so much.

    Hmm. Sounds to me like he’s out to get the professor and the university for more than just the classroom exercise. As for the university refusing to release information gathered during its investigation of how the whole thing went down (including disciplinary actions), and exactly who said what to whom, it’s considered part of Rotela’s student record, and it can’t legally be released without Rotela’s permission. Which Rotela hasn’t given, so far. I wonder why not?

  • Tom Hering
  • Grace

    There really is no new news Tom. All the scenarios are worthless, (the blogs are full of them) we will eventually find out what has happened.

  • Tom Hering
  • tODD

    Tom, thanks for the updates, although my spidey sense tells me that neither person’s take on this story is unadulterated at this point. Poole certainly doesn’t come across as getting the big deal (rather ironic for a communications prof, no?), attempting to draw a bright line between “stomping” and “stepping” and getting upset at people accusing him of asking students to “stomp”.

    Also apparently not self-aware: the author of that last piece, who wrote:

    Yet, as things go with the media and headlines, the incident snowballed…

    Yeah, you know how it is with the media! They’re so ridiculous! Them, not us. We didn’t contribute to this frenzy in any way.