Mill Avenue Resistance: Saturday, November 15th 2008

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the SFTS does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog for Saturday, November 15th 2008.

The nightly Saturday action-pack of the Way of the Master preachers has come to us again in the form of Al, Edwin, Erin, and Sean—I am missing a few but there wasn’t much going on tonight to speak of. Jim also came around in his wheelchair but we didn’t have much of a chance to speak when he did so.

They split themselves across the Ave between a spot at Borders (and across the street in front of the parking-lot formerly known as Long Wong’s) and the Post Office. The SFTS split themselves also accordingly. Setting up originally in front of the P.O. but then eventually heading over to set up in front of Borders. This is partially because while the preachers pitched in front of the P.O. at first, they did make a mass exodus and then gathered in front of Borders.

For the most part tonight Rocco and Joe dominated the speaker.

Rocco by presenting a strong, staunchly logical presentation; not accepting bad or un-cited messages, pointing out fallacies of bare assertion. A favorite that he uses is about the assertion that the Bible is inerrant because of the number of prophecies fulfilled—an thing possibly acceptable as long as those prophecies are not fulfilled by the Bible itself; because it’s provenance cannot be proven. (To explain: if there are prophecies in my history and I write a book speaking after-the-fact, I can say that they were fulfilled in my book and as long as my writings are not corroborated my assertions are not meaningful.) So the destruction of Tyre is brought up, as prophesized by Ezekiel. Except that it never happened.

Tyre was never destroyed—and still exists today.1

It is not uncommon for the evangelicals to attempt to use prophecy in their holy book as a proper and right resource to say that it is true. This has never been a good idea because of those prophecies that could be corroborated by history (i.e. by sources outside of the Bible) they are often shown to be either false, too vague to be trusted, or of a language that couldn’t be tested for truth anyway.

Joe chose to argue the depths of the philosophy and the flaws that it opens up. With his background in Catholicism he also uses Biblical scripture. His discussions tended around arguments that managed both morality and evidence in differing segments. Sean, of course, never quite listens to what’s being said to him. He is, however, a far better listener than Jeremiah.

Sean said, “There is more evidence for Jesus Christ than there is about George Washington, the first President of the United States.”

Sometimes these evangelicals say things that are so absolutely knowable as wrong that it’s hard not to mention them. There are thousands of corroborated documents to the existence of George Washington, even original manuscripts of his own writing still survive. We have paintings of the man created during the time he was alive along with other figures also corroborated. None of these things are true of the Christian god, Jesus Christ.

To say a thing like this a person must be staggeringly ignorant of not just the historical provenance of George Washington, but has to be totally ignorant of all modern knowledge of what we know historically about the history of the mythological figure of Jesus—who didn’t get written about in any sort of document until long after he would have lived.

When people wed their mythology as tightly as they can to empirical evidence and reality they set themselves up to be disappointed in some terrible ways. It is this sort of behavior that creates apostates and crisis in their very own congregations—because at some point, a lot like children discovering that Santa Claus is “just an idea,” people will discover that Jesus doesn’t have a lot of corroborating evidence.

What is a spectacle?

It is not the design of these evangelicals to actually convert anyone. They might believe in their minds that this is what they are doing, spreading their mythology, but they have been marginalized into something less substantial and more surface instead. Their behavior is almost wholly spectacle and not conversant.

When on their soap-boxes they do not converse, and they do not convert. They yell at passersby, present them with barely-quandaries, and instead puff themselves up in their own regard. The effect of a spectacle is to present yourself against the world, it deepens the bonds of the group through shared activity. They present themselves, their holy book, and their thoughts together in a sort of open-air echo-chamber where they do not hear and do not listen to the criticism leveled at them.

In order to provide a particularly effective spectacle they gather crowds, then they revert to their mirror-speech, absorb the catcalls as part of their performance, and then go on. It is in fact our very own little side-show for Mill.

The effect it has for them is one of bonding. It gives them something to do on a Saturday. A way to make each other see that they have worked at what they are about, providing their mandate, but it has little to no real effect on the world. It may also work as a sort of release-valve for their tensions over the week, a chance to speak their minds into the microphone and let them breathe out.

This is a lot of the reason why week after week extremely ignorant things get said. Especially things that could be corrected after five minutes of simple research—even things that get corrected by passersby, the STFS, and others every week. Mirror-speech is an unbreakable bubble designed to provide a sort of armor against criticism; but it also armors a person from enlightening themselves to the actuality of what they’re talking about.

People who agree with them while walking past will smile to themselves and chuckle; those who disagree will always shake their head; and those who don’t care will continue not to care.

The only effective part of the evangelism that has been brought to Mill Ave is the one-on-one speeches done by preachers to individuals. The speakers presenting themselves through the amplifications are only a spectacle to gather that crowd.

Mill Avenue Resistance: Friday, November 14th 2008

The Mill Avenue Resistance reports are written by Kyt Dotson as an extension of anthropological research on the population of Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona. Since the SFTS does their protests Friday and Saturday there are two reports a week. The supporting material not related to the Resistance reports can be found on the Under the Hills blog for Friday, November 14th 2008.

Out tonight were a small group of preachers—possibly two—who spend a bit less of a time with breaking people down and raking them over the coals, but instead stick more tightly to their Biblical scriptures. This proved to be interesting for members of the SFTS who like to discuss their interpretation of that mythology.

The True Vine Baptist Church in Glendale, Arizona appears to be their origin point. The True Vine is an international organization of churches, almost franchise-like. They appear to pride themselves in what they’d call “Biblical mandate,” which is how they attempt to separate themselves from other evangelicals who come out to Mill.

No need for amplification today: they weren’t using any.

It appears that several of the members who I’ve met before are already famous with the group. For example Tom, an elder with bright blonde-white hair that spikes above his head, who was initially holding a sign. Several interesting conversations sparked out but nothing that I found myself privy to.

Ed, who is an elder of possibly fifty or sixty years by now, is an overweight, post-athletic man with a projecting voice and a sensibility that I see sometimes in work-a-day veterans, like my grandfather. He carries his bible in his ham-fists, smiles under his round spectacles, and speaks with a careful diction. I’ve been seeing him on Mill for the past four years, and it took a while before he started to talk to me as a person rather than an evangelical.

Children

Tonight there were about six children. Four girls and two boys in the group. (Their names I have written but I’m not republishing.) Three of them are Ed’s adopted children, those who have been taken out of neglectful and abusive homes and given better lives. One in particular, huge Buddy Holly glasses, visible front teeth, and spiked hair, I’m told, has an ADD impatience because he used to spend days locked up in his room without attention.

The ages of the children ranged from about eight to twelve, all fairly preteen. They involved themselves broadly in the proceedings and rituals, mostly staying silent. Carrying about in groups or clustered near adults. All normal child behaviors. No gamboling and capering for them on Mill Ave.

Sign

I noticed a sign. A tall, screen-printed thing. It depicted one of the Christian gods, Jesus Christ, lashed to a tree (possibly a wooden strut), being whipped and insulted by a pair of Roman centurions—who were depicted with incorrect armor. Talk bubbles displayed things like, “This one for the fool!” and possibly messages about the King of the Jews.

(Some of the members of the SFTS found the quotes of Biblical script on the sign to be interesting and brought that up, but I don’t know what exactly so I’m going to have to ask tonight and modify this post to reflect that.)

Others, mostly latino men, shouted incoherent words into the street at passing cars—incoherent because the echo of their voices did not come back to me where I stood. They had smaller, white signs of laminated corrugated cardboard with black stenciled letters.

One in particular read:

And God shall judge the secrets of men.

Argument

Over the period of the night a few of the SFTS got into an argument with a latina woman wearing glasses, dark hair pulled back, who used the kids as messengers to find Bible passages for her. One telling event was when she became upset during a discussion of battles and the siege of cities in the Bible (possibly Jericho) where the invading army razed the city and murdered the civilian occupants upon the command of YHVH. Kazz and others argued quite directly if she condoned that then she condoned the murder of children.

Her heated reply, of course, was that people were putting words in her mouth. She didn’t condone the murder of children. I hope that it’s not necessary for me to walk people through the conclusion that when someone condones an act that involves the murder of children that they necessary also condone that. YHVH from the Old Testament of Christian mythology is a war god, leading tribes from land to land, annihilating foes, and often massacring children along with the adults.

Why? Because this is how tribal warfare is fought. An army cannot take care of a city full of children—if they just killed all of the noncombatant adults, the children would end up starving to death anyway.

After a certain point it’s necessary to acknowledge that tribal warfare, as put forth by YHVH, was a war of expansion and aggression and came with all of the vicious and horrible elements thereof—including the murder of children. It was a barbaric, horrible time and led by barbaric and terrible deities.

When attempting to argue these points members of the SFTS might be better to attempt to wrap themselves around a thesis of: “We have outgrown this.” And while pointing out these events talk about why we should not carry this baggage with us. Too many of these arguments devolve into spitting matches because the evangelicals feel like they’re under attack (and in a way they are right, but really it’s only because they’ve taken their mythology into themselves.) They shield themselves with a martyr complex that they then use to rationalize and justify their actions in the face of criticism.

It may be necessary to frame every discussion in order to prevent them from easily attempting to transfer their own demonization of others onto the people attempting to show them that these sort of myths—believed upon faith as grand tapestries of behavior—perhaps should be taken with grains of salt for the tribal desert clan stories they are.

Mill Avenue Resistance: Saturday, November 8th 2008

Introduction

Instead of introducing everyone to the cast of characters, I’m just going to jump right in. I don’t feel like playing this out like some stranger than fiction episode of Supernatural or bore everyone to death with a 48-hours with Dan Rather. Instead, let’s just wing it and see where we go. For a less dicey version that includes a different perspective on Mill itself, go see the Mill Avenue Nights for Saturday on my blog.

I have just gotten back from Michigan and so my perspective of all the players has yet coalesced but tonight I saw a number of the old standbys and a few new people. How about some old fashioned name dropping? Edwin, Jeremiah, Jim, Erin, Al… These are all names we’ll see appear in this post as the evangelists. As for the SFTS we have Kazz, Rocco, Todd, Rachel, Brad…

I am probably missing people so forgive me, my memory for names is only as good as my notes, but reflecting the actions of tonight I can do.

The evangelists pooled around the wan half-light of the Borders around the book trolleys as they waited for a consensus of action. By way of introduction, this group of evangelists who come out to Mill appear to be some schism of Protestant Christianity who study a religious marketing technique known as the Way of the Master—which is a technique taught through propaganda, political training, and videos produced by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron.

Tonight Mill welcomed the presence of a particularly well known almost-celebrity among the evangelists, Jeremiah. He is a stout, handsome man with a strong jaw and a stronger set of windpipes. He used to bring with him an easel with propaganda messages that contained mistakes and some easily researched outright falsehoods. But now he comes fairly unaccompanied except for his trusty metal step—which he uses as a pulpit—and a small amplified speaker about the size of a large flashlight.

The evangelists usually set themselves up in front of Urban Outfitters (much to the chagrin of the shopkeepers who actually tolerate them quite a bit) but lately a well-played busker with an extremely loud amplifier sets up there and drowns them out more effectively than the SFTS could. Although, extremely loud guitar music debate does not make. And I want to hear people talk: not scream their lungs hoarse.

So, Jeremiah set off across the street from Borders, in front of the dirt parking lot that used to be Long Wong’s. As the crowds stood, agitated and happy some with drink and some with their own frivolity, I watched the cabs as they drove up and parked along the edge waiting for their fares. I didn’t get a chance to interview any of them—but as anyone should know, I have a particular adoration for taxi drivers.

Shortly: it was on!

I have never witnessed such extreme noise before. Although, it was impressive. Here and there we could hear Jeremiah shouting out simplified, succinct versions of the usual mirror-speech the evangelists use. “Give up your sin that you love!” And once or twice he claimed to have his free speech diminished due to the criticism levied at him; but pretty much he simply shouted on and on, ignoring pleas of questions, and rolling over anyone who wanted to speak to him. But, this is Jeremiah to a T.

The result became audible chaos. A stream of burning words from Jeremiah refuted by tag-team echoes from Rocco and Todd of varied quality (since the amps seemed to have a problem) and direct admonitions from Omar with his bull-horn, which was clearly the winner when it came to audibility.

The real amusement of the night happened to be displayed in Jeremiah’s sulking behavior, generally right after he accused Omar and others of being rebellious children, or acting juvenile; more than once he abruptly changed position—never more than 6 yards from his previous. “Looks like we’re moving to the left people! There we goes, set up to our left!” He moved no less than four times, back and forth, and once stationed himself with his back to the street instead of the dirt lot.

Another time he mentioned that, “The atheists cannot get a crowd of their own, they have to steal mine,” and promptly went on—but, I’m sure he didn’t notice, but about the point he said that Todd and Rocco were in side conversations with such a mass of the people nobody was listening to him anyway. Shortly thereafter Jeremiah stopped speaking entirely, shut down, and hung around in the background for some one-on-one conversations with others.

Topics ranged from the origin of evil to the mechanism of morality. Largely the evangelical preaching from this side of the street didn’t evoke anything more than rebuttals instead of debate or observation. But then, I don’t know that it’s supposed to do more than that. An evangelist isn’t here to strike up thought; they’re speaking commands: “Do this. Do that. Or suffer this. Suffer that.” There’s little in the way of debate with this sort of behavior—it is a concrete I’m right, you’re wrong, do as I say.

I am interested in hearing what people of varied cultures think of what the evangelists do on Mill Ave. How many people think it is in their best self-interest to behave in this manner?

Aftermath

Although, I would guess that Jeremiah was fairly well running interference. He managed to blunder his way into gathering a large crowd of dissenters and some apathetic people—mostly of the younger teen variety who went away irritated at him and his message. However, all those losses could have been recouped by the fact that Al and his little crew set up in front of the Post Office while the rest were sitting around Borders, and all of the SFTS was next to the dirt-lot to counter him.

Suggestions

The SFTS can bring out a lot of amplification but the speakers seem to have issues with their upper end. Loud speakers like Todd have their voices husked and silenced in strange ways when they speak too loud. Perhaps it’s the speakers themselves or maybe it’s the microphones.

I’m no sound expert but Jeremiah’s little amp far excelled at clarion speech over that of the SFTS.

Avoid multiple speakers at once in the future. One speaker and the bullhorn should have been more than enough, especially with Jeremiah’s particular brand of talk-over-everyone-and-not-listen behavior.

Interaction

At this point I’d like to invite experiences from any of our users who want to tell us what they got out of the spectacle last night. And, if you’re willing, give me what you think about everyone coming out.

Remember: I’m here to study Mill, and especially its people, so if you have something to say about the current condition of Mill, the evangelists, the SFTS, I’ll be very happy to hear it.

Mill Avenue Resistance Reports

Kazz has asked me to come in as a guest blogger in order to produce observations of the Secular Free Thought Society’s activism on Mill Avenue as part of their resistance against the activity of Christian evangelists. I will attempt to do my best to perform a critique of the position and reliability of the SFTS, give sociological and anthropological observations of the evangelists, and hopefully entertain a few people along the way.

I cannot promise that I am going to be very kind to either side, although really I am reluctant to say there are “sides” here in spite of the obvious dichotomy of philosophy and the nature of protest activism. Expect a scathing whenever someone steps out of line—yes, I do pull punches, but that’s because I’m inherently academic and not mean spirited, but I can be riled when I see people misbehaving.

I am not a totally outside observer. I am strongly biased against evangelism on Mill Ave because I am essentially embedded with the SFTS cause, although I do not have a strong presence with them. This is because all of Mill Ave is grounds for my study, it’s the place that I’ve lived, and it’s pretty much my stomping-grounds. As a result I feel very strongly about things that disrupt, annoy, or otherwise cause injury to the Ave and its visitors.

If anyone has comments on my observations, my technique, or my apparent lack of discipline in my fields of study, please bring them up. Expect my style to be somewhat gonzo journalism and gung-ho anthropology.

I am here because I love people.

As always this will be excerpts and extended reflections of my notes from my author blog at Under the Hills.

I hope everyone enjoys and I’ll see everyone there.