There was a time when students were disciplined by universities for protesting injustice, including defending women’s rights, instead of chanting songs in favour of sexually assaulting young women. What’s happened?
Many of us will have read the recent headlines about student leaders from UBC and St. Mary’s being disciplined for leading some first year students in a misogynous chant that included the call to sexually assault young women. The student leaders will be required to spend hours in community service. At UBC the school has pledged to invest in programs to educate students about sexual violence.
While I was disappointed to hear that even isolated practices like this continue as part of “frosh” activities, and equally by the defence from some leaders that it wasn’t supposed to be “public,” I find it even more tragic that this activity is so in contrast to student led protests for women’s rights and other issues of injustice in the recent past. Students were often leaders in protests against injustice and were at times disciplined by universities for their disruptive social action. From my own experience, student groups like the Lutheran Student Movement and the Student Christian Movement were leading voices in protests against apartheid, for women’s reproductive rights, opposing war, in defence of sexual diversity, against environmental exploitation, defending the rights of first peoples, speaking up for the poor and marginalized and against consumption and economic exploitation. I know many students are still passionate about these and other concerns. But I wonder why student groups of the past have dwindled in numbers and seem mostly quiet on many campuses while issues of injustice continue? And the sad irony of students disciplined by the university for voicing injustice rather than for protesting against it is not lost on us.
Recognizing the hypocrisy of pointing my finger at students for not “protesting enough” is not lost on me either. I wonder how previous generations like my own have failed and continue to fail to protest against injustice and instead have bought into a materialist world to the extent that many of our children and today’s students aren’t protesting either.
It is especially concerning for me that voices from faith traditions like my own are too often quiet. Jesus clearly identified with the poor. It was among the poor that he spent much of his ministry of healing and teaching and he challenged and broke many of the religious and social and gender barriers of his time, protesting that they were opposed to God’s dominion on earth. Christian coalitions such as KAIROS in Canada continue this work for social justice in our time on behalf of many Christian denominations. But our individual voices and the collective protests of students and elders, parents and children and youth and all of us together are desperately needed to change the world for good.
And that voice of protest is stronger if it is a multi-faith voice. All major religious traditions at their heart oppose injustice and share a concern for the poor and marginalized. Despite differences in beliefs and practises, our joining together in common work for justice and peace and care for the earth makes for a stronger voice for change.
I see this desire for change in many students, including personal practises to “be the change they want to see.” Maybe what is missing is a faith in our collective strength to make it happen. I would love to hear of student leaders teaching new business school students a public chant for greater economic equality and justice. I couldn’t help joining in.
Lyle McKenzieis pastor of Lutheran Church of the Cross of Victoria and parttime chaplain in Multifaith Services at the University of Victoria
*This article was also published in Faith Forum section of the print edition of the Times Colonist on Sept 28 2013
You can read more posts from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking HERE