Commentary Magazine


Topic: anti-gay violence

Are Christians Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.

One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.

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Anti-gay violence is despicable and those who encourage it are to be deplored. The murder of an openly gay candidate for mayor in a Mississippi town has provoked some discussion about the source of such violence. That is a topic that deserves serious discussion. But there is a difference between sober soul-searching about instances of violence in our society and jumping to conclusions whose only possible purpose is to provoke a different sort of prejudice.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Rabbi Brad Hirschfield has done in the latest edition of his On Faith blog for the Washington Post. Hirschfeld, whose day job is serving as president of the non-denominational Jewish group CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, leads an on-line discussion that he begins by admitting he doesn’t know why Marco McMillian was killed or who or what could have incited the brutal crime or if, indeed, anyone one or any group had any role in doing so. But that doesn’t deter him from beginning his piece with the provocative title “What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?” According to Hirschfeld, Christians are clearly guilty until proven innocent.

One doesn’t have to condone the awful crime of anti-gay violence or even oppose gay marriage to understand that the assumption that an entire faith—or any faith that does not approve of homosexuality—is somehow responsible for what happened to McMillian is itself prejudicial. Of course, Hirschfeld doesn’t come right out and say that himself. But by posing that question and steering the discussion in a way that puts Christianity on trial in this manner, what he has done is to incite bias against traditional beliefs that are in no way connected to violence against gays.

Hirschfield does try and have it both ways in his blog by claiming that he is not so much pushing the case for blaming Christians as just trying to sort out “the biggest and ugliest public issues.” But these are mere weasel words to evade his personal responsibility by skewing the discussion to put those who are not in favor of gay marriage on the defensive.

But he isn’t shy about saying that he has no problem with saying that he considers the concept of collective guilt “a VERY valuable way to think about things” since it forces groups to ponder their own role in crimes that are committed by members of their group or faith.

There are instances when groups, faiths or even whole peoples have good reason to ponder collective guilt. When their faith or national leadership preaches hate in the name of the entire group then those who are implicated in this matter have a duty to speak out or act against those who have made such pronouncements or committed such crimes. Examples of this sort of behavior aren’t hard to think of. Under Nazi leadership, Germans killed Jews in the name of the German people. Iran’s religious leaders and many others in positions of influence throughout the Arab and Muslim world preach hatred of Jews in the name of all Muslims. Not all Germans killed Jews and not all Muslims believe their faith should be interpreted to condone violence. But all have an obligation to disassociate themselves and their nationality and faith from hate. The same rule would apply to Jews if most rabbis promoted hate in that same manner.

But except in the case of small outlier extremist sects, there is no plausible case to be made that any mainstream branch of Christianity does preach hatred of gays, let alone violence against them. There is, after all, a big difference between not approving of something and endorsing violence against anyone who is associated with it. While in response to one reader’s damning of “the church” Hirschfeld calls into question collective guilt against all Christians or churches, what he has done here is to set up an argument in which the premise of the discussion is one in which normative Biblically-based faiths are put on trial for the act of someone who may know little or nothing of their doctrines or practices.

The gradual demise of anti-gay prejudices in American society is a positive trend that should be applauded. But equality for gays or even approval of gay marriage ought not to come at the price of encouraging prejudice against faiths—Christian and non-Christian alike—that do not approve of homosexuality. And that is the direction that Hirschfield seems to be encouraging here.

What is so offensive about the column is not just his role in legitimizing bashing Christianity. The sheer dishonesty of his pose of objectivity and openness to all views is equally repulsive.

Hirschfeld can’t have it both ways. He can’t structure a public discussion about Christian guilt for a crime and endorse collective guilt while also claiming that he is nonjudgmental about faiths that won’t endorse gay marriage.

In other periods of history various branches of Christianity condoned and practiced discrimination and even violence against those who differed from their beliefs. But in popular American culture it seems that Christians are the one group that can be denigrated or labeled prejudicially with complete impunity. It is nothing less than a disgrace that the head of a group that has tried to speak in the name of Jewish unity and interfaith comity should play a role in this disgusting trend.

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