Opinion guest column

Protecting religious freedom at MIT

Recent defacing of Falun Gong posters concerning for MIT’s campus, and liberty

I am a chaplain at MIT, as a well as a rabbi working for Hillel. In case it is not already abundantly clear, I am Jewish.

At the juncture of Buildings 16 and 8, there is a wall where all the religious groups have a poster advertising their basic raison d’etre, the programs they offer, and how to get in touch.

In my five months at MIT, I have only seen one poster defaced there, and it wasn’t the one that Hillel put up. It was for a group called Falun Gong — a spiritual discipline that originated in China in the 1990s, and combines meditation with a moral philosophy. Now, that poster is missing. It has been replaced with an advertisement for people who want to be dorm leaders for next year.

This is not my only encounter with what seems like unjust or inhuman treatment of Falun Gong. On most days on my way to work, when the weather is good, there is a display along Massachusetts Avenue, across from building 7. There are usually two women there who seem to be practicing the Qigong exercises — the physical component of Falun Gong. They have literature out as well — pamphlets in English and Chinese which tout the movement’s philosophy and its ability to cultivate truth, compassion, and forbearance.

But alongside their promotional literature are a few posters that are written mostly in Chinese, which I clearly do not understand, but the images on these posters are clear and universal: people in hospital beds, dead or near death, faces disfigured by torture of some kind. These people have been tortured for practicing or proselytizing Falun Gong.

For a brief period in the early 1990s, Falun Gong was accepted, and even endorsed, by the Chinese government. By 1999, however, the government started to crack down on Falun Gong, perhaps feeling threatened by its size, independence, and the nature of its spiritual teachings. In October 1999, Falun Gong was declared heretical. Since then, human rights groups have reported that Falun Gong practitioners in China have been subjected to a wide range of human rights abuses at the hands of Chinese authorities. These abuses include extra-judicial imprisonment, forced labor, psychiatric abuse, and torture.

Of course, the defacing of a poster pales in comparison to two decades of human rights violations. But that doesn’t mean that the poster, and the treatment of Falun Gong more broadly, are not MIT’s problems.

MIT is an institute of technology. This, for many, is tantamount to implicit permission to stay above the fray of politics, religious issues, and the like, in order to focus on the international language of science. But does MIT have some responsibility to learn about human rights violations, to get involved, or to advocate for religious freedom around the world?

If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said this is not MIT’s problem. But when that poster was ripped up, and then removed, it became MIT’s problem.

Yes, MIT has a right to remain above the fray, to focus on its own raison d’etre, to cultivate genius, to teach world-changers what they need to know in order to change the world.

But when a religious group’s material, which I assume was approved to be there, is torn up on MIT property, the Institute can no longer remain above the fray.

Anonymous almost 10 years ago

The poster in question was always such a calming image of meditation in that otherwise chaotic intersection. It was there for several years if I recall correctly. I, too, noted its effacement with disappointment.

Michael T almost 10 years ago

Hi Gavriel,

Thanks so much for being a righteous being. Religious and spiritual persecution in China is spilling all over the world - not just in China - as you can see.

Students and businessmen from China, many are afflicted with this poison. Whenever the Chinese Communist regime designates a group for persecution, a campaign of hate to the populace usually goes along with it; this make whatever the regime does legitimate and this will be imprinted in its citizen's mind and then transmit like virus wherever they end up.

Since the good Rabbi has raised issues about this hate, I would like to say a few words to those who still harbor this affliction.

It is in the name of nationalism that you do these acts, it is unfounded because this practice has not done you any harm, or to society. All the negativity you heard is fabricated propaganda.

Your act is not out of rationality, you don't know how it destroys you as a human being. The world over knows how brutal and unjust the Chinese government is, yet you still curry favors for them out of nationalism. No matter how great nationalism may seem, it actually is no greater than a decent human being.

The world outside of China is uncensored, you have the chance to seek the truth and be a good person, instead of pack your brain with technology and go back to China to defeat the West, and continue to harbor hate for all the people they told you to hate.

I say all this so you can self-reflect and not be on the side of evil. The West is free, and you have an opportunity to see who you really are, instead of being stymied into who you should be, by big brother.

John Ronan almost 10 years ago

Mr. Goldfeder - Very well written, Touch!

Anonymous almost 10 years ago

This is largely irrelevant to Gavriel's important points... However, just for clarity, the poster that replaced the Falun Gong poster was not "an advertisement for people who want to be dorm leaders for next year" from any sort of student/dorm group. Rather, it was a DSL/ResLife flyer advertising for applying for GRT positions.