On the homepage of his website, Jed Smock refers to his style of outreach as “confrontational evangelism.” He follows this with a verse: “Open rebuke is better than secret love” (Prov. 27:5).

The four men had come to the University of Illinois in uniform. Pleated pants and button-ups. Collars pressed against the heat. When I joined the crowd of students gathered on the lawn to listen, one of these men, priest-like in his neat black clothes, was thundering his way through a fire-and-brimstone harangue. Two others, flanking him, held signs: YOU DESERVE HELL and REPENT OR PERISH.

The fourth man sat. He was decades older than anyone present, and he wore a white suit and a yellow tie. Across his knees he balanced a staff with a crucifix on its end.

“That’s Brother Jed,” said an undergraduate, when I asked. He wore burgundy scrubs and stood cross-armed in the sun.

“Jeb?”

“Jed. Yes. He’s the real show.” He aimed his chin at the priest-like man. “This guy’s just the warm-up.”

I looked back at the priest-man. Warm-up or not, he seemed show enough to me. Even now, with a voice half-hoarse from yelling, he was demanding to know, in the name of Jesus our lord and savior, whether anyone among us had fornicated this week.

The students roared their giddy assent.

I laughed.

I laughed a lot during the half-hour I spent listening to the priest-man. A few times those laughs were even genuine—reactions to the scene’s absurdity. The priest-man railed against “evil-lution,” against “Gandhi-types.” Feminists, in his eyes, were “feminazis,” and Christians the inevitable “normal” folk. And when he damned someone—which happened with alarming frequency—he performed a strange, choreographed step-and-spin.

“Well, then, you—” Step. “Are going—” Spin. “To hell!”

Aim finger at sinner. Stand back and watch perdition’s flames lick up another lost soul.

So, yes, I laughed.

But mostly when I laughed, I laughed not because of the priest-man’s antics, or because of the students’ enthusiasm for debauchery. Mostly I laughed to hide my uneasiness. My extreme uneasiness. And to show which side I was on.

Before that day, I had never seen Christianity used so violently. Not in person, anyway. TV and the internet were where organizations like Westboro Baptist lurked. Not in the real world. Not on a college campus, in the Quad at noon, where actual people might be hurt. I felt sick. I felt angry. I wanted to strike the priest-man. I wanted to challenge him. Above all, I wanted to distance myself from him, to say, look, this man waving the flag of my faith while entrenched in the discourses of hate is not with me. That’s not even my flag.

So I laughed. I channeled my disgust and frustration, and I laughed with the crowd, at the priest-man. Long and loud. And sometimes I would say, “What a bigot,” so that my neighbors would hear me. Or, like when the priest-man asked a young woman if she was a Christian and she said, “Yes, but I’m not a dick,” I would whoop along with everyone else.

See? I was saying. See? We’re not the same, him and me. I hate this guy just as much as you do.

***

His name was Michael, I learned later. The priest-man.

Brother Jed and Co. were still proselytizing two hours later, and the friend I’d come back with—braver than I am—spotted the priest-man sitting on a folding chair near the perimeter. She told me she was going to talk to him.

I watched her walk over. After a moment, I lowered my head and followed.

He looked tired, sitting with his elbows on his knees and with fingers kitted slackly together; and when he spoke, it was with none of the raw-throatedness that had marked his earlier performance. Now he was just quiet. Soft-spoken. His eyes wandered as my friend spoke to him, as though her lack of hostility made him uncomfortable.

I felt uncomfortable, too. Watching him slouched there in his chair, I sensed the slow evaporation of my own hostility, the frame by which I’d constituted my relationship to him. I found myself wondering if I really knew this person at all.

“Doesn’t all this exhaust you?” I said. “All the heckling, I mean?”

He waited a moment to answer. “Yeah,” he said. He exhaled through his nostrils. “Yeah, it does. But you get used to it.”

In that moment, I had a glimpse of Michael standing day after day in college campuses—heaping abuse on others, yes, but also receiving their abuse in turn. Day after weary day, and what that must do to him.

Then I thought of the crowd and of my laughter earlier.

Something sick and heavy as guilt settled in my gut.

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