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Dispatches from the present

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Love Thy Neighbor

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On a Tuesday in April, a shout of excitement managed to make me look up from my phone as I walked across the quad of Mississippi College, a small private Christian school outside of Jackson, Mississippi. The scene was like something out of a marketing brochure: friends throwing a frisbee, a group of girls sunbathing underneath a tree and several hammocks strung taut near the sidewalk. The Mississippi heat would soon make all these activities impossible, but for now a breeze washed over the sunbathers, swaying the hammocks back and forth. I overheard a conversation about getting ice cream. Was this the sound of a moral college campus?

When I returned to my phone, I saw videos of even more populated quads. They featured chants like “Disclose, divest, we will not stop we will not rest” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Sometimes the protests looked like scenes from my own campus, only with more people. Students were playing spike ball, and reading out in the sun, but they were also engaging in explicitly political action. In some cases, they were met with militaristic brutality authorized by their universities. Could such a thing ever happen at my college?

From what I have heard and seen around me, it seems unlikely. Many of my fellow students agree with critics of the protests, who argue that the students misunderstand the nature of civil disobedience, and protest itself. Sometimes these arguments come from a narrow understanding of higher education that prescribes the outlined curriculum as the only appropriate form of education. In the background linger ideas about the narcissism, virtue signaling and entitlement of those who are able to achieve spots at these top universities in the first place. Then there are the structural factors that might make protest seem especially futile at MC, where the university president is beholden to the board of trustees, a group chosen by the Mississippi Baptist Convention (with even that organization belonging to the broader Southern Baptist Convention).

These sorts of appeals frustrate me, especially when they are invoked to mock protesters at other schools. How can we as Christians criticize those acting out of a respect for human life? Surely a clear example of our universal and unconditional love would be to show concern for those who are concerned for others.

Campus occupation and civil disobedience are not the only forms of righteous action. The friends that I have made here—at school and church—volunteer at local charities and help distribute water whenever Jackson faces a crisis. On campus, students watch their professors’ kids and cook meals for each other. These may seem like superficial actions, but they hold value, especially as universities become more corporatized and necessities like childcare and meals are more precariously secured. At our best, MC students prioritize attachments to family and friends over self-serving desires for prestige or influence. Surely this counts for something, and stands in opposition to the anonymity of large state schools or the uprooted individualism of elite universities. Love thy neighbor, commonly invoked to suggest a universal concern for humanity, has a much more immediate interpretation that is made clear in simply repeating the phrase: love thy neighbor.

Still, I wish MC’s student body were more willing to engage with the broader world, even if it meant welcoming students who operate with a different moral vocabulary. Isn’t learning to coexist with people you disagree with a worthy educational aim characteristic of our secular age? And can’t the tangible kindnesses we practice among ourselves coexist with more capacious social commitments?

There is another reason that MC students are unlikely to follow others into protest on this issue. The Israel-Palestine conflict raises difficult questions for all Christians—conservative or progressive. The Old Testament is filled with verses that emphasize standing with Israel against those who seek to destroy it. The ethical metabolism of my dual college town and certified retirement community is slow, but it is girded by a desire for clear moral answers, for a “right” decision that satisfies religious, cultural and familial commitments, as well as broader commitments to justice and peace. The path between the two is straight and narrow, but not impossible. And it does not lead, at this time, in the direction being called for by pro-Palestinian protesters.

I have a professor who says that progressives at a school like MC have to work within the cracks. The administration can be difficult and unworkable, and some institutional methods of reform are simply unreachable in the immediate future. This may mean that what we as individuals can do is limited, but it does not mean we are powerless. It means our love is localized.

It comes to mind that this summer will be the sixtieth anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project. That campaign recruited students from across the nation, mostly prestigious institutions, to join with local Mississippians in combating voter suppression in the state where it seemed least feasible. In the end, Freedom Summer helped produce some of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Mississippi College’s administration was firmly anti-integration during that era, but I wonder how particular students spent their time, and what exactly they thought of the outsiders who came from the north. As the temperature rises, will our comfort withstand the heat?

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History