Does a Charge of Bigotry Depend on Context?

Submitted by admin on Tue, 01/24/2012 - 08:26

The front page of The New York Times today carried this headline, “In Police Training, a Dark Film on U.S. Muslims.”  The article begins,

“Ominous music plays as images appear on the screen: Muslim terrorists shoot Christians in the head, car bombs explode, executed children lie covered by sheets and a doctored photograph shows an Islamic flag flying over the White House.  ‘This is the true agenda of much of Islam in America,’ a narrator intones.”

The article goes on to reveal that this film, “The Third Jihad,” was shown to nearly 1500 officers being trained in the New York Police Department over the course of months, possibly up to a year.  The narrator, himself a Muslim, states, “Few Muslim leaders can be trusted.”  In another damning quote he says, “Americans are being told that many of the mainstream Muslim groups are also moderate, when in fact if you look a little closer, you’ll see a very different reality. One of their primary tactics is deception.”

When this became public knowledge Paul Browne, chief spokesperson for the NYPD, called it a “wacky film” that had been shown “only a couple of times when officers were filling out paperwork before the actual course work began.”  Actually it had been shown in a continuous loop for months.  When a FOIA request that revealed these facts was filed, the NYPD fought it for nine months.

No one likes to be blamed or shamed, and my purpose is not to add to it.  But it raises two questions.  How is showing this prejudicial film different from reading prejudicial passages of Scripture aloud in the liturgy?  Different groups are targeted, true.  Otherwise, the same dynamic operates in both cases.  Or does it?  We accept that the film will instill attitudes in the police officers that are likely to result in acts of violence.  Will we not accept that the same process works with the churches’s defamation of the Jews?

Second, the police officials knew they had done wrong, as evidenced by their attempts to deny it.  How is it that their consciences can be so tender, while we who follow the Prince of Peace seemingly have no conscience about the damage we do?  Where is the outrage when we hear Jews maligned in the liturgy?  Can we not make the same connection that the police made, viz. see that we are shaping attitudes that will shape behavior to the detriment of a whole group of people?  Has centuries-long habit clouded our moral compass?

In the churches’s case, a lot has to shift before it becomes official that no readings prejudicial to Jews will be read aloud in the liturgy.  But while we wait for that moment, we can take action at the grass roots level, parish by parish.  As dictated by conscience, we can simply not read the offending verses; or we can substitute other words or phrases for the inflammatory ones; or we can use a translation that specifically avoids adding fuel to the fires of anti-Semitism.  For the last, it would be good to have on hand Norman A. Beck’s The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction, Fairway Press, 2001.

We must change the lectionary!