Confessions of a Brother Jed-head


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Brother Jed was here last week. You probably heard him preaching on the T. Anne Cleary Walkway. In case you didn't, here's the gist: All have sinned, all deserve damnation — repent in Jesus' name, and go to heaven. Jed goes heavy on the sin and damnation part, which rubs his audiences the wrong way. People tend to get pretty upset when told they're going to hell.

But I'm always happy to see him. Everybody looks at me funny when I say that. No, I don't believe Jed's metaphysics, and yes, Jed thinks I'm going to hell, just as you are.

I'm happy for two reasons. First, his entertainment value is massive. When Jed's not wrecking Biblically illiterate fools who try to play gotcha with him ("But Jesus was all about peace and love" or "John Wesley didn't go around confronting people like this."), he's vividly retelling his hippie transgressions in '60s Berkeley or graphically condemning some aspect of our college lifestyle. The man's got a rapier wit, and he's led a fascinating life. It's great theater.

But second — and more seriously — Jed is, to me, a symbol of free speech in America. That he can stand up and preach his gospel in public — and that you can stand across from him and preach yours — makes me happy. A few students captured the spirit of the thing perfectly on Thursday, when they stood across the walkway from Jed holding homemade signs that said "FREE HUGS: (we don't judge)." Some others, though, wanted to run him out of town.

It's easy to forget what freedom of speech is all about when all you ever hear is speech you agree with. The average Iowa Citian today has very different values from Brother Jed's. It may be good to recall that not so long ago, people with typical Iowa City-values were the ones widely seen as immoral crackpots — not people with Jed's. The right to speak freely and publish those views played a big part in their spread and acceptance. If we believe in moral progress, we must protect the free exchange of ideas that makes it possible.

At worst, then, Jed's preaching is a necessary evil in a free society. I'm not sure it's an evil at all. Maybe it's good for us to occasionally be slapped in the face by opposing views. Ideological conflict forces us to clarify to ourselves why we think we are right and they are wrong. And even if we are right, it must be this clash — what philosopher John Stuart Mill called "collision with error" — that yields the sparks of moral progress.

Kyle Oskvig is a junior at the University of Iowa.

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