Near the student union at Florida State University, there was a kind of informal “free speech area” where members of the public could stand and stump for their cause of choice. Student organizations had tables nearby, fraternities and campus ministries alongside the anti-circumcision crusader with his hand-painted sign declaring “Circumcision is a Sex Crime.”
That was where I first encountered Brother Jed. He stood on a bench, a man nearing the end of middle age dressed in outdated broadcloth and tweed like he might have fancied himself an extension of the faculty. With the calculated fervor of a seasoned professional, he preached to a small mob of students equally divided between the offended and the amused. He shouted down the frat boys, called them drunkards. Called the women sluts. Called any male with long hair a homosexual, the word broken out into five distinct syllables. He railed; they heckled. It was all part of his shtick, and he escalated his rhetoric to match the crowd, enlivened by their energy. He held a staff topped with a shiny crucifix and thick bible that, prop and percussion both, he thumped with his fingers to punctuate his points. He flipped the pages with authority and read from the King James in a sonorous, apocalyptic baritone. His voice over the static noise of the busy campus, his voice on the brick and cement. He talked a lot about fornication, a lot about marijuana. He talked a lot about the wrath of God.
I assumed he was a local. He seemed to be there often enough, and it made geographical sense: the rural stretches of North Florida around Tallahassee are about as Flannery O’Connor a place as you can find in the twenty-first century. Surely here was some deranged pastor from the pine woods who stumbled out of his clapboard church every now and again to make the trip in to town, to campus, to that den of iniquity to which he felt called and led by the Spirit.
I was twenty-two, on campus as part of a pre-pastoral internship in which I was charged with mentoring young men who made contact with our ministry, leading the occasional Bible study, and generally weighing the question of whether or not I felt called into vocational ministry. Sitting behind our folding table there in the union—fliers spread out, waiting for anyone who might be inclined to stop and talk about God, about their faith, about ours—I listened to Brother Jed, and listening to Brother Jed, I felt a kind of conflicted responsibility. Here was this bombastic heretic standing on a chair claiming to represent my God. Around him, a crowd was gathering. I was less concerned that someone would find him convincing, and more concerned that someone who found him understandably repellant would believe it was God they found repellant. I felt I should say something, muster some rebuttal. But what answer is there for a theology that is equal parts hubris and rage?
And besides, I didn’t want to. I wanted absolutely nothing less than to stand and answer his demoniac noise. I wanted to sit quietly, to leave the damning to God.
* * *
I didn’t find out until later, when I heard a profile of him on NPR, but Brother Jed is not a local figure. He is a national one. If you spent time on the campus of a large public university at any time in the past thirty-odd years, there’s a good chance you encountered him. He and his wife travel from campus to campus practicing what they call “confrontational evangelism.” I never saw her at Florida State, but his wife, Sister Cindy, has an even more remarkable shtick, which involves waving around a bloody tampon and comparing it to the sins of the unrepentant. They have a website where you can find out where they’ll be next week, but their Facebook page is more up-to-date. They also have a reality show, or the pilot of one anyway.
Perhaps none of this is surprising. Of course there is an old white man who travels across the country broadcasting his fire-and-brimstone bastardization of my faith to college students. Of course he’s offensive, and of course he’s on Facebook. I want him to be an aberration, but he is not an aberration. Jed represents an extreme version of an impulse that has plagued Evangelicalism in particular—and Christianity in general—for ages: the impulse to alienate.
Brother Jed is deeply committed to the art of giving offense. He has recognized rightly that much of what Christianity teaches runs contrary to the impulses of society, that much of it is difficult and even offensive. But rather than framing that offense within the context of the blistering beauty of God’s love for a fallen humanity, Jed revels in the offense itself. He goes well out of his way to alienate his audience. Jed—like much of Evangelicalism in its own way—is fixated on his own otherness, and he exaggerates that otherness by taking what is sacred, and beautiful, and often difficult, and presenting it in the most alienating way he can manage. He takes the elements of the faith that are most beautiful—the love of God, the sacrifice of Christ—and makes them into an awful, pedantic farce. He takes the elements of the faith that are most difficult—the gravity of sin, the weight of wrath—the very elements that call for gentleness and nuance, and presents them with manic, simplistic glee.
* * *
In the two years I spent in Tallahassee, I saw Brother Jed many times. I never confronted him, never said a word to him. Perhaps I should have, but then I would’ve been just another supporting player in his grand theatre. Sometimes I would listen, though. Sometimes I would approach. Sometimes I would linger at the periphery of the crowd that gathered.
Once, I saw a girl there sitting on a bench, looking at her feet and crying while he raged. On one of her feet was an ichthys tattoo, still fresh. She seemed terribly young, and when I sat beside her she told me she was newly a Christian herself, newly enamored of Jesus, newly baptized. She was feeling like I was feeling. She was feeling like she hated him, this belligerent pedant, this false prophet who was making her faith—our faith—sound like exactly the variety of retrograde hate-speech many already assumed it was. I didn’t have much to say to her, but I sat with her, and I prayed with her. And I told her that Jed did not represent Jesus. Because Jesus is kind, and Jesus is gentle. Jesus speaks difficult truths out of deep love. A bruised reed he will not break. A smoldering wick he will not snuff.
Like Jed, Jesus talks about God’s wrath. But Jesus goes further: Jesus knows God’s wrath. He knows God’s wrath because he drank God’s wrath, and he drank God’s wrath so we wouldn’t have to. He drank God’s wrath because he loves the broken, and in our brokenness he drew near us. Jesus came to reconcile a fallen humanity to a holy God, not to further alienate them. Which is precisely why some of his harshest words are leveled at those who, like Jed, put impediments between the light and all of us whose lives are marked by darkness.