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.