Wednesday, February 1, 2012

NYPD "Training" Films and the Disease of Bigotry

Recent revelations about the so-called training film about Islam and Muslims shown to as many as 1400 New York City Police officers are a stark reminder that religious bigotry is as insidious as a cancer. Commissioner Kelly of the NYPD, who at first distanced himself from the film, "The Third Jihad," later was forced to apologize for it by revelations that he had allowed himself to be interviewed for the film, an anti-Muslim screed masquerading as a "documentary." Unfortunately, though he admitted the film was "inappropriate," Kelly tried to minimize the possible impact of its message by saying that it was shown in a "side room on a continuous loop."

Sadly, Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg, (who has stood by his commissioner), both seem to have missed the point. The fact that Mr. Kelly lent his image to the film at all cannot help but be seen by the men and women of the New York Police, by the Muslim community of New York City and by everyone else as an endorsement of its content. Even an unequivocal condemnation of the film along with a heartfelt apology would be seen by those who are already suspicious of our fellow Americans of the Islamic faith as a "wink wink nod nod" after Kelly agreed to be part of a movie which feeds every nasty stereotype about Muslims, including the idea that they want to make the United States a Muslim nation. But Kelly didn't give an unequivocal apology or condemnation of the film and he did not offer to do the only appropriate thing in the wake of this shameful episode: pro-active training with NYPD officers to counteract the effects of seeing their commissioner in a movie that promotes a negative image of the Muslim citizens they are sworn to protects and to serve.

There are those who have made it obvious that they believe that too much has been made of this incident. But acts of terror continue against Muslim Americans and others who are mistaken for them, negative myths and fears are rampant among non-Muslims about Islam and Sharia and the upshot of all this is that Americans of the Islamic faith are not able to enjoy the virtues of liberty and opportunity that are the foundational promises of our nation. More than that, our entire community is being poisoned by the cancers of bigotry and fear with the apparent endorsement of the Commissioner of the United States' largest police department.

Religious bigotry, like any cancer, can spread far beyond its original starting point, poisoning our relationships with our neighbors and undermining our commitment as a nation to the founding principles of liberty and justice for all that are what make this the great nation it is. As a diverse nation of immigrant people from every part of the globe, this experiment in human liberty that we call the United States can only grow and thrive if we are zealous in our insistence on the safeguarding of the dignity and rights of all religious, ethnic and racial minorities. The fact is after all, one way or another we all are, have been, or will be minorities of one kind or another. Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg need to do a lot more than some halfhearted apologies and inadequate explanations for this incident. They need to do extensive training and re-training of NYPD officers and they need to proclaim loudly and clearly, by their deeds as well as their words, that all residents of this city of immigrants will be protected, served and honored by our police and other civil servants every day, all the time.

Monday, August 15, 2011

911, Ten Years After

This year will be the tenth anniversary of the heinous attacks of September 11, 2001 that brought down the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon and took the lives of thousands of innocent people.In the after math of this terrible tragedy, we the people of the United States came face to face with our vulnerability and joined the ranks of nations for whom terrorism is a reality of daily life. At the same time, the outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from places all over the world reminded us of the possibilities for bridge-building from the ashes of this terrible act reminding us that even from the ashes of destruction, new and even better life is possible. Many claimed then that the world had changed forever, and in many ways, both positive and negative, they have been proven right.
In addition to the horrendous loss of innocent life and the fear that became a part of our national consciousness in a way unprecedented since the darkest days of the Second World War, 911 has left us with deep and lasting wounds, some of the worst of which may have been those inflicted not by the murderers, but by our own body politic in the aftermath of these terrible attacks. The hastily passed USA Patriot Act for instance, has undermined our constitutional liberties in ways that defy undoing by creating an extra-legal category of actions and individuals not protected by our civil and criminal or even military laws. The stain of torture in places like Abu Graib and Guantanamo have shamed us as a people who have prided themselves on their adherence to moral standards even in the face of enemies like the infamous storm troopers of Hitler's Third Reich, while the quagmires created by our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, have sapped our economy, our national will and our confidence in the bright shining beacon on the hill that most of us have understood our nation to be in the world. Acts of individual bigotry against Americans of the Islamic faith have sky-rocketed and despite the assurances of then President Bush that we were not at war with Islam, government sanctioned surveillance, warrantless wire tapping, deportations and even imprisonment of US citizens and resident aliens of the Muslim faith indicated otherwise as America seemed to be opting for security at the expense of liberty and a national hysteria not seen since the days of Senator Joe McCarthy.
The news, however, has not been all bad. For even as individuals and even government agencies seemed to be waging war not only on Islam but on our own constitution the spirit of the American people, our sense of fairness, our generosity and "the live and let live" ethos characteristic of this nation of immigrants has prevailed in many important ways, especially in the various faith communities of our nation. Even as the infamous pastor Terry Fox threatened to burn the Qu'ran, for example, in a naked appeal to bigotry and xenophobia, and the haters led by Pam Geller fought to stop the Park 51 Community Center and Mosque near ground zero, even as Representative Peter King, ignoring all evidence to the contrary, was holding hearings on the "radicalization of Islam" people of faith, clergy and laity were rallying to support our Muslim brothers and sisters with rallies, with interfaith educational efforts, with demonstrations and joint projects. Thanks to the public example and loud rebukes of some of his fellow representatives, Rep. King's hearings have faded into well-deserved obscurity. Here on Long Island, the courageous members of the Islamic Center of Long Island have been active and visible in interfaith outreach, aide projects for the community and the world, and in joint ventures with Temple Beth-El, the Long Island Council of Churches, the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives and, of course, the Interfaith Alliance of Long Island.
Ten years after the dark days of the 911 attacks, we have an opportunity to do it right this time- to work together as people of faith to build a better, more inclusive community together. Much has happened in ten years, some bad, much good. The "Arab Spring" across much of the Middle East has inspired many Americans to begin to see that the aspirations of the people there are much like our own and that the twisted religio-political version of Islam claimed by the terrorists is no more representative of this great faith than the so-called Christianity of Timothy McVeigh is representative of the Christian faith. As we commemorate this important anniversary then, let us do so not to revisit old wounds, but rather in the spirit of a renewed commitment to the aspirations of our faiths and of our founders as well, to make of this nation a blessed community, empowered by its wonderful diversity and dedicated to liberty, opportunity and justice for all.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

DOMA- What are We Really Defending?

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), according to it's title, is a federal law passed to defend the institution of marriage in the United States, an institution that certainly seems to need, if not defense, at least a whole lot of help. The problem is, I think, what exactly is DOMA defending marriage against? Because it is hard to see how this legislation helps with the high rate of divorce for instance, or the pressures of modern life that seem to take such a toll on this vital institution.

Instead, the truth is that far from being a defense of arriage, DOMA is an attack on it, both as a civil and a religious institution. It's an attack on the integrity of our constitution and on the basic civil rights of individual Americans as well. DOMA is an attack on marriage because it codifies this diverse and important institution in a manner that fails to recognize that diversity and excludes people who wish to, by their participation in that institution, strengthen and enlarge it. By preventing GLBT people from joining in civil marriage and with that, from enjoying the benefits and taking on the myriad of formal (and informal) civil and social responsibilities inherent in the institution, we impoverish marriage, lessen the number of individuals who get married and, (as they are forced to form alternative relationships and partnerships), we highlight those alternatives as viable and reasonable for all Americans. Marriage as an institution declines.

DOMA is also an attack on our constitutional principles in several basic and very important ways. First, while there are federal tax benefits for married people, in general, the regulation of the institution is clearly understood as a state, not a federal function. DOMA, by refusing to recognize same-sex marriages in those states that have legalized them, is usurping the sovereignty of the states and doing so in the second way it undermines our constitution, by undermining the constitutional principle of equality before the law. As our long (and continuing) battle for civil rights for people of color has established firmly, to imbue an institution with "special" rights and responsibilities and then define it so as to deny access to that institution to a whole class of citizens violates that principle. To use religious understandings of marriage to do so, is even more of a constitutional problem in a nation in which we have a separation of church and state.

That leads to another issue with DOMA, because the religious understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman is A religious understanding, not THE religious understanding and so, not only does DOMA deny GLBT couples from being married civilly, it also invalidates religious marriages for GLBT persons married in traditions (like my own) that understand marriage religiously in ways that do not exclude LGBT people. DOMA, by design as well as effect, codifies one, religiously based understanding of marriage at the expense of millions of our citizens, at the expense of marriage itself, at the expense of state sovereignty, and at the expense of those religious and secular understandings that accept and endorse GLBT marriage. That's an attack on all of us and its time to repeal DOMA

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"to bigotry, no sanction; to persecution, no assistance..." Congressman King vs the American Ideal

The words printed above were written by George Washington to the leaders of one of America's oldest synagogues in Newport, Rhode Island, as part of his assurance to the Jewish citizens of Rhode Island that this experiment in democracy would be something hitherto unheard of on this earth: a nation, by law, in which religious favoritism and bigotry would have no place. That promise, however imperfectly implemented throughout our history, has shone like a beacon of hope to persecuted people all over the world- people who have, by their contributions to our shared history proven beyond any doubt what diverse peoples can do together, in a society in which liberty,dignity and opportunity are available to all. When we have allowed racism, religious bigotry, or any form of prejudice to influence our behavior as a nation, from slavery, to Jim Crow to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, we have ultimately and always come to repent of that betrayal in bitterness and shame.

Unfortunately, political and personal opportunism as demonstrated by the likes of demagogues like Father Coughlin, Governor George Wallace and Senator Joseph McCarthy, has always been part of the public life of this nation as well. There have always been voices in our country, as in every other, making their bones or their careers by fanning the flames of prejudice against those whose race or faith or ethnicity or political views place them in the minority. Congressman Peter King of Long Island appears poised to become on of those demagogues with his plan to hold congressional hearings clearly designed to cast suspicion on the patriotism of Americans who happen to belong to the Islamic faith and to link them to terrorism. Despite public statements by law enforcement officials, including the FBI that Muslim Americans have and continue to assist them in combating terror, despite the fact that the trend toward terrorist acts in this country is increasingly found among domestic right-wing groups, rather than Islamists, King is focusing only and entirely on Muslims in genuine McCarthy style, calling as his witnesses, politically motivated individuals with particular axes to grind with the religion of Islam, none of which have anything to do with terror.

By doing what he is doing, Peter King is not simply demonizing the religion of Islam, or persecuting one group of people, he is attacking the principle of equality before the law, a foundational principle of our American democracy, and he is doing it by sanctioning bigotry on religious grounds. There is nothing more un-American and all of us, whatever our faith or political views should be outraged. If Congressman King believes congressional hearings are an effective means of combating terrorism and not just a political side show aimed at furthering his own career, then he should be looking at all forms of terrorism aimed at our country and considering the opinions of those who are on the front lines of the battle against terrorism, the FBI, Homeland Security and other law enforcement officials whose opinions he has thus far ignored. As people of faith, as patriotic Americans we must not stand by while our fellow citizens have their dignity stripped away and their commitment to this nation questioned simply because of their religious faith. The only way to stop this kind of pandering is to make it politically unprofitable for people like King. Please join us and stand up for America and Americans!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gunfire and Rhetoric

Most of us are still reeling from the terrible massacre perpetrated by an obviously disturbed man in a shopping mall in Arizona in which a federal judge and a nine year old girl are among those killed and a congresswoman is fighting for her life in an Arizona hospital. No words are adequate to the magnitude of such a crime- in which people attending a public forum were targeted. The horrendous assault on human life is compounded by the assault on the very fabric of our democratic values in what is no less than an act of terrorism.

Also disturbing, though perhaps a necessary part of the process of dealing with this terrible deed, have been the accusations hurled from all sides of the political spectrum. These range from the patently absurd insistence from the always over-the-top Glenn Beck that the shooter was a liberal (the evidence points to disjointed but decidedly right wing political views), to the insistence by voices on the left that Sarah Palin, with her target-studded political map is directly responsible for this man's heinous acts, to the words of Senator Kyl who seems to be insisting that this act was solely a product of the shooters (obviously) disturbed state of mind.

Beck's predictably ridiculous comments notwithstanding, I think it is clear that this was a disturbed individual, but it is equally important to pay heed to the words of the Sheriff of Pima County, Arizona who pointed out that the atmosphere of overheated and hateful rhetoric that has come to characterize our politics, especially on the right, cannot be discounted when we look at the rise in acts of violence directed at people whose views or whose religion, sexual orientation or immigration status have made them targets of the right. After the plans for Park 51 for example, the Muslim community center planned in downtown NY City were announced for example, the vitriol against Muslim Americans reached a fever pitch with one self-proclaimed Christian pastor even threatening to hold a Qu'ran burning ceremony. Vandalism against mosques spiked and hate crimes against Muslims and Muslim institutions did as well. Members of a Unitarian congregation in Tennessee were gunned down a year ago by a man whose hatred of "liberals" was, in his own words, fanned by the rhetoric of right wing pundits and politicians and let's face it, putting targets on people may not rise to the level of an exhortation to kill them, but the violence of that image is impossible to ignore. It is wrong to make Sarah Palin responsible for what this young man did, but it is right to point out that we don't need and we are not well served by violent images and rhetoric in our political discourse. At best, they polarize us as a people and demonize our fellow Americans, without whose opposing views democracy is not possible. At worse, they are provide a justification for those who are already inclined to violence.

If the left is better, they are only a little better, possibly because they are slightly less enamored of their firearms. Self-righteous finger-pointing is not constructive and it belies the obvious: that all of us, of all political stripes are responsible for toning down the self-righteousness and the hate speech. Disturbed people don't need us egging them on, even if that is not what we intend to do, but more to the point, hate speech has no place in a democracy. The people we disagree with are our neighbors and our friends and they are trying to do what we are trying to do, to make the country a better place. A democracy requires us to be able to disagree in an enthusiastic but civil manner. We need to stop threatening each other, stop looking down our noses at each other and stop calling each other names. As people of faith, we have a special responsibility here. We need to lead on this and insist on civil, nay, compassionate discourse, spirited but loving debate and we need to remember ourselves as we remind our flocks that as Dr Martin Luther King Jr, said,"... the ends are inherent in the means." You can be right and still be wrong if you can't remember that the person you are arguing with is a human being like you. Enough dead public servants, enough dead children, enough with the hate speech. Mistakes have been made all around- let us honor the victims of this tragedy with our resolve to be more civil and more reverent for the rights as well as the lives of our neighbors.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Channeling Joe McCarthy

In an op-ed piece in Long Island's Newsday news paper this past Sunday, Congressman Peter King wrote an article justifying his intention to hold hearings on Muslims in America and domestic terrorism.In it Rep. King noted an abrupt change in his attitude toward Muslim Americans after 911 based on a remark by an individual Muslim (uttered in the heat of the moment during a contentious discussion) in which this individual indicated, not that the terror attacks were in any way justified, but that they might have been the work of someone other than a Muslim extremist group- a remark Mr. King says, the public record to the contrary notwithstanding, were never properly repudiated by Muslim leaders. In point of fact, it was not only retracted by the individual who made it, but denounced publicly over and over again- a fact to which I can personally attest.

Even if it wasn't, no one has demanded that I or any other Christian leader publicly apologize for the remarks of Terry Fox, the infamous would-be Quran-burner of central Florida and therein lies the crux of the issue. Peter King, is an elected representative of the US government who is sworn to uphold the constitution. That includes the right to be an individual whose patriotism is not subject to congressional hearings because someone else makes a statement that offends- even if it offends your local congressman. It is a sad commentary on Mr. King's own character that his opinion of an entire religion is apparently turned 180 degrees because of one or even a few ill-thought-out remarks, but it is worse when he uses his office to initiate a witch hunt against a group which, also contrary to what he claims, the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as our local police commissioner have lauded for their cooperation with law enforcement in the fight against terror. But facts rarely matter when political opportunism rears its ugly head. Muslims are a vulnerable group, easy to victimize under the guise of concerns about security. A few well publicized incidents of domestic terror recruiting among Muslims in America, provide the excuse and anxiety about Islam and Muslims the fuel for a return to the Joe McCarthy-style congressional witch hunts that cast a shadow over our democracy, ruined countless innocent lives and disgraced our nation in the early 1950's. Is the threat of domestic terrorism real? Of course it is- not only or even primarily from Muslim extremists, but from right wing religious extremists in the mold of Timothy McVeigh, from so-called "sovereign citizens," armed militias and a number of other groups, the majority of which have nothing to do with Islam- extremist or otherwise. But King apparently doesn't see a political pay-off in going after domestic terrorism in general. Instead, he is picking on a vulnerable minority, cynically exploiting the fears of Americans and like his predecessor, Senator McCarthy, bringing shame to this nation, even as his enemies rejoice that America seems to be at war with Islam after all.
Shame on you Congressman King, shame on you!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The War on Christmas Revisited

It's that time of year again, when the Christian celebration of Christmas is upon us and the inevitable complaints about the so-called "War on Christmas" are being aired in many quarters in America. As more and more merchants are changing their "Merry Christmas" greetings to "Happy Holidays," as public schools and institutions are changing their "Christmas" pageants to "Holiday" pageants and Menorahs, Kwanzaa candles and even Star and Crescents are showing up in public places alongside of creches and Christmas trees, the complaints get louder and more urgent. Many of us Christians begin to wonder if indeed there really us a plan out there somewhere among the powers-that-be to erase this most important religious and cultural celebration from our land. Hey, what's wrong with "Merry Christmas" after all?

Not a thing- and as a Christian clergyman, I believe not only that Christmas is one of the two most important celebrations of our faith (Easter is the other), but that those who say that any religious celebration or proclamation has no place in the public square are not only wrong about what our constitution says, but profoundly misguided about the nature of religious belief itself. I believe as well that there is a indeed a kind of "War on Christmas." But that war is not being carried out by some secret cabal of anti-religious zealots, or by the so-called "liberal media" or by any of the other boogey-men (or boogey-women) one hears so much about from cable pundits. Rather, the war on Christmas is an internal affair that began when we Christians started turning the celebration of the birth of our Savior into a commercial buying spree so excessive that it became a cornerstone of our consumer economy and when far too many of us began looking for the "Christmas Spirit" at big box stores and malls, or in religious displays in the Village Square rather than where our faith has always said that spirit would be found. That is, in our houses of worship, among the poor and those whom the consumer economy has left behind and in acts of love and generosity that reflect our understanding of the incredible act of love we celebrate in the birth, the ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Christians claim to be disciples of a Messiah who eschewed political and cultural domination, proclaiming instead that his kingdom "is not of this world." We are the followers of one who said that he would be found not among the wealthiest and most fortunate, but among the least and the last, a rabbi who told those who would attain righteousness to "sell all you have and give the money to the poor." When we seek to dominate the public and secular arenas with our symbols at the expense of our neighbors, when we turn his birthday into an orgy of consumption, when we look for the spirit of Christmas in stores, it is we who are waging war on Christmas, not some "liberal" cabal. When we are subjected to skepticism about this day's meaning by others because of those patterns of behavior, that too is a self-inflicted wound and one that should be cause to "look to the plank in our own eye," as Jesus said, and not "the mote in our neighbor's eye."

We have the right as citizens of a free society to proclaim our joy at the celebration of our Messiah's birth and the duty as Christians to put that faith into practice in our public as well as our private lives. But the teachings of Jesus would seem to make it clear that doing so would be more about caring for the least of his brethren, coming together in worship than about demanding merchants say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays." Our religion calls us to struggle in our Savior's name to live our lives more compassionately and our faith more courageously, and maybe worry a bit less about getting "our" symbol up on the Village Green or our celebrations' name on the local school pageant. If those kinds of concerns are what Christmas is about, then the war is already lost because we've become just one more competing special interest group vying for power. But faith, all religious faith is about much more than that. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, about his love, his grace, his gift of salvation rather than about us. Remembering that and putting it into practice- that's how we'll "win" this one. To my fellow Christians, have a blessed Christmas. To my friends of other faiths, God bless and to all of my fellow human beings of ever faith and no faith, may this year bring you joy and good things!