KKK hoods, ‘two angels’ and a frustrating ghost

It’s a “where are they now” story that I was intrigued to read, since I had missed the first installment back in 1996. The 2013 update promised drama, forgiveness, lessons learned and perhaps racial reconciliation. Oh, and as a bonus: a faith element.

Darn the ghost.

Courtesy of GetReligion reader Kate comes this feature from BBC Magazine — an inspiring piece about a young black woman named Keshia Thomas. At a 1996 rally in Michigan, Thomas shielded a white supremacist from the sticks of a crowd of anti-Ku Klux Klan protesters.

In summary, the day of a planned KKK rally in Ann Arbor dawned with opposing sides separated by barricades of officers.

Thomas had participated in the protest and was photographed standing with other students. Events turned violent, however, when a woman with a megaphone shouted that there was a Klansman in their area.

A mob mentality rippled through the angry crowd, which chased and then began to punch the man, kick him and jab him with the pointed ends of their placards, according to the story:

“It became barbaric,” says Thomas. “When people are in a crowd they are more likely to do things they would never do as an individual. Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘This isn’t right.’”

So the teenager, then still at high school, threw herself on top of a man she did not know and shielded him from the blows.

So what gave Thomas the impetus to help a man whose views it appeared were so different from her own? Her religious beliefs played a part. But her own experience of violence was a factor, too.

“I knew what it was like to be hurt,” she says. “The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

 Thomas has never heard from the man she saved, but she did once meet a member of his family. Months later, someone came up to her in a coffee shop and said thanks. “What for?” she asked. “That was my dad,” the young man replied.

Kate, who came across the story after a friend linked to it as an inspiring example of compassion and mercy, saw more. She saw an impetuousness born of religious conviction, thanks to the story’s allusion. She and I want to know more about Thomas’ background, specifically her faith upbringing.

It appears that Thomas dropped plenty of hints that should have prompted faith-based questions from the reporter. For example, she offered this insight when asked what she was feeling when she decided to intervene:

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The BBC and the perils of press releases

The BBC’s internet news division stumbled badly this week in its initial report on a major meeting of Anglican church leaders in Africa. The 20 October 2013 story entitled “Archbishop of Canterbury makes Kenya detour on way to Iceland” has already had one correction and substantial alteration but the underlying premise of the story remains flawed.

It demonstrates the perils of relying on a single source in reporting the news.

The opening paragraphs of the original version, reprinted by the London Evening Post, and the revised BBC version are identical. They begin:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has made a detour of more than 8,000 miles to visit Kenya – on his way to Iceland. Archbishop Justin Welby, who arrived on Saturday night, gave sermons at All Saints Cathedral on Sunday morning. He made the “last-minute” 24-hour trip to offer condolences after the Westgate centre attack, Lambeth Palace said.He is also meeting conservative Church leaders who are in Nairobi for this week’s conference of the traditionalist Anglican lobby group, Gafcon.

The story offers background on the trip to Iceland and the al-Shabaab terror attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. And then more details about the trip are added:

Archbishop Welby delivered sermons at 09:30 and 11:00 before having lunch with the Archbishop of Kenya and five Kenyan bishops. GAFCON2013 – the second such conference – will starts today and runs till Saturday. The original conference – held in Jerusalem in June 2008 – was organised in response to the appointment of actively gay men and women as bishops, especially in the US.

The stories then diverge. The original version stated:

Through the GAFCON movement, conservative Anglican provinces – mostly in parts of Africa but some in South and North America, Asia and the Middle East- have begun to function independently of the official Anglican Communion.

The revised version states:

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Triumph of the stringer in the Nairobi massacre coverage

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African reporters are coming into their own with the stories coming out of Kenya this weekend. If you step back from the reports on the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — now entering its third day as of the writing of this post — and look not at the content of the news, but how it is being presented, you can see examples the changes taking place in journalism. Advances in technology, newspaper and network business models, and the worldviews brought to the reporting by journalists have resulted in different stories today than would have been written 10 years ago.

Religion is part of the story. In the last week Boko Haram has killed over 150 Nigerians, the Taliban has killed 70 plus churchgoers and the Mall death total is expected to rise.  All of the attacks were undertaken by Muslim terrorist groups, and the initial reports suggest they were targeting non-Muslims.

Twitter and the internet have changed the game. The police, the president of Kenya and the terrorists (if the tweets from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab which claim responsibility are to be trusted) have taken to Twitter or posted statements on the internet to release information that in the past would have come from press conferences or interviews. This story written by AFP and printed in The Australian as “More hostages freed as explosions rock mall complex” draws on on-the-scene reporting from local stringers and staff, statements posted on the web, Twitter tweets and press conferences.

The quantity of information has increased, but has the quality? By this I do not mean discrepancies such as the Red Cross reports 69 dead and the police report 59, as noted in this Reuters report. Twitter provides immediacy, but no context. The Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu reports that al-Shabaab has identified the names and nationalities of the killers.  Three are listed as Americans (two from Minnesota and one from Kansas City), one Briton and one Finn amongst the Somali and Kenyan terrorists.  Major news — “Twin City killers in Nairobi Mall Massacre” — but can we trust it? I have no idea who the Shabelle Media Network is, and their report is drawn from a Twitter post.

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Should some marriages be scare-quoted?

Many moons ago, when I was asking questions about why Religion News Service put “religious liberty” in quotes, defenders of the practice said it was just a way of signaling that while some people believe that a given issue deals with religious liberty, others do not. It’s a way to indicate that one is not taking sides on the matter. Astute readers noticed that if this were the policy, than we should see quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage.”

But we never see such quotes in mainstream media stories, even though the key to abortion battles is whether there is, in fact, a “right” to abortion. And with marriage issues, it’s the same thing. Supporters of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously think it’s a possibility that marriage law can be so changed while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility to have two people of the same sex in a marriage. And yet putting quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” would not be seen as neutrality at all, would it?

All that is background to a piece a reader sent in from the BBC this week, headlined “Kenyan trio in ‘wife-sharing’ deal.”

The quotes are all over the place in the article about two Kenyan men and the woman they both desire to marry:

Two Kenyan men have signed an agreement to “marry” the same woman…

Lawyers said the “marriage” would only be recognised if they could prove polyandry – a woman having more than one husband – was part of their custom…

People have reacted with shock to the “marriage”, arguing that it is not acceptable in terms of their culture, religion or the law, he says.

Defending the “marriage”, Mr Mwendwa told the BBC Focus on Africa programme that while he may acting in breach of the law, he had decided to enter into a contract with Mr Kimani to end their rivalry.

Later, though:

Community policing officer Adhalah Abdulrahman persuaded the two men to marry the woman after he saw them fighting over her in Mombasa county, the local Daily Nation newspaper reports.

The reader who sent it in:

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Where is the BBC’s coverage of Egypt?

What lays behind the Anglo-American press’s failure to report on the chaos in Egypt?

While there have been bright spots here and there in the coverage, the mainstream press appears to have dropped the ball, giving a stilted view of the “people’s coup” that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Pres. Mohammad Mursi. The claims coming from the liberal media in Egypt and pro-democracy activists is that the BBC and other major Western news agencies are pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Arab newspapers and blogs are full of reports of the crimes of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters — murder, arson, rape — yet the sympathy of the Western press is with the perpetrators of the violence.

Not all of the writing on Egypt is biased or ignorant. Look no further than Samuel Tadros’ article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “A Coptic Monument to Survival, Destroyed” to find a superior example of quality writing. This news analysis story printed on 22 August 2013 on page D4 in the U.S. edition of the WSJ  opens with a strong lede:

The Egyptian army’s crackdown on Mohamed Morsi’s Cairo supporters unleashed the largest attack on Coptic houses of worship since 1321.

And defends the assertion, telling the story of the destruction of the fourth century Virgin Mary Church by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In relating this tale, Tadros helps the reader understand the destruction of this church is analogous to the situation facing Egypt’s Christians.

A Coptic exodus has been under way for two years now in Egypt. The hopes unleashed by the 2011 revolution soon gave way to the realities of continued and intensified persecution. Decades earlier, a similar fate had befallen the country’s once-thriving Jewish community. The departure of the people is echoed in the decay of the buildings. The landscape of the country is changing along with its demography. A few synagogues stand today as the only reminder of the country’s Jews. Which churches will remain standing is an open question.

But this WSJ story is the exception. Writing in Al-Arabiya, Joyce Karam criticized the parochial mindset of the American press.

For reasons related to the security crackdown inside Cairo and  the nature of the debate in Washington, the media coverage of the Egyptian crisis in major American news outlets has been lagging behind other parts of the world. The focus has been more on the policy of the Obama administration and less on the Egyptian dynamics and events outside Cairo. The overriding theme in the U.S. media since the crisis broke out last July has been centered around the question: “What should the U.S. do in Egypt?” rather than “what is going on in Egypt?”

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The moral (and news) authority of Desmond Tutu

An article at BBC.com on the launch of a United Nations-backed campaign to promote gay rights in South Africa is a perfect example of the kinds of difficulties that mainstream journalists face when reporting on world figures who have left the public eye.

The name and the work of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known to most educated newspaper readers — but is a reputation built 25 years ago in the anti-apartheid struggle transferable to the modern debate on gay rights? Why should reporters automatically assume that the words of Tutu are major news?

Like Cher, Desmond Tutu has been on a never ending farewell tour. The ebullient archbishop will announce he is withdrawing from public life and then pop up again in conjunction with another cause or campaign. On 26 July the BBC ran a story under the catchy headline “Archbishop Tutu ‘would not worship a homophobic God.’” The article begins:

South Africa’s Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he will never worship a “homophobic God” and will rather go to hell. The retired archbishop was speaking at the launch of a UN-backed campaign in South Africa to promote gay rights. Despite same-sex relationships being legal in South Africa, it had some of the worst cases of homophobic violence, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said.

Archbishop Tutu, 81, is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, but has remained the moral conscience of the nation, correspondents say.

While it is tempting to focus on the first line of the story in this post, to do so would breach the parameters of this blog by discussing a religious and cultural issue, not journalism. Thus, my focus is on the last line of the paragraph, the “moral conscience of the nation” line.

Should the BBC be making this claim, or is this editorial advocacy? Is the Corporation making a value judgment that equates a struggle over race and politics with a struggle over sex and politics?

Tutu’s role in the transformation of the South African state is part of the historical record, and he is rightly honored for his work. Yet he is not universally beloved. The pull quotes from a story reporting on comments made during a campaign rally this week by Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe were unkind — and not unexpected.

“Never, never, never will we support homosexuality in Zimbabwe,” Mr Mugabe said. “Archbishop Tutu said it is nice to be gay, yet he has a wife, he should have begun by getting himself a man for a woman.

“When you are a bishop and cannot interpret the Bible, you should resign and give it to those who can. We will not compromise our tradition and tolerate homosexuality.”

For many years Mugabe has played upon the religio-cultural disapprobation of homosexuality in Zimbabwe for political gain. It may be an act — a way of demonizing or scapegoating an unfavored minority to distract the people from the woes of the country. Sources in Zimbabwe, however, tell me that this is not feigned anger — he means what he says.

Being the object of Mugabe’s invective, however, is a badge of honor and would tend to boost Desmond Tutu’s credentials. Yet within the archbishop’s church his post-apartheid actions have made him yesterday’s man.

In 1998 I attended a meeting of the Anglican bishops of Africa held on the margins of the Lambeth Conference. What played out at this dinner was a contest for the unofficial leadership of Africa — who would be the paramount bishop. The new archbishop of Cape Town, a protege of Tutu — who had retired by this point — had his following. But the mantle of authority passed from South Africa to Nigeria. No votes were taken, nothing official occurred but at that dinner the Anglican churches of Africa moved on from apartheid. The culture wars and homosexuality took center stage.

One thing I took away from these encounters with African bishops was their visceral dislike of breaking ranks and of voicing public criticism of their own. As an American clergyman, I was used to one style of church warfare — Smite the Amalekites Oh Lord, smite them hip and thigh — not the African softly softly approach.

Thus when I saw this denunciation of Tutu by the Archbishop of Ghana following the publication of the BBC piece printed above, I was taken aback by its vehemence.

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BBC silence on honor killings and Islam

YouTube Preview ImageThe BBC reports three Pakistani women were murdered by a member of their family for insulting the family honor by “smiling and laughing in the rain outside their family home” . The Corporation does a strong job in detailing the who, what, where and when of this “honor killing”, but continues its policy of hiding the why. The mention of Islam is absent from this story.

The story opens with the what, who and where:

Three women in north Pakistan have been shot dead by a male relative who seemed to have believed that they had brought shame on their family, police say. A mother and her two daughters – one aged just 17 – were allegedly killed by her stepson. He had apparently seen a family video in which the daughters were shown laughing in front of their family home.

We then are offered this tortured sentence explaining why:

The woman’s stepson appears to have considered the footage an assault on the family’s honour. So-called honour killings are common in northern Pakistan where women are seldom seen by men other than their relatives.

The story offers background information, noting this was not a freak occurrence.

The BBC’s Orla Guerin in Islamabad says that five young women and two men were reported killed in the same region last year after footage emerged of them singing and dancing together at a wedding. The killings were said to have been ordered by a tribal Jirga, or local council. But locals denied anyone had been killed when Pakistan’s Supreme Court send a fact-finding mission to the area. Leading human rights campaigners however expressed fear that all those in the wedding video were dead.

The article closes with this grim note:

Campaigners say more than 900 women were killed in Pakistan last year in the name of family honour. In spite of reform in the law they say conviction rates are not encouraging and in most cases the killers escape justice.

The self-censorship from the BBC on this issue would be comic if it were not so horrible. True, the BBC did not interview the killer and hear from his own lips the reasons why his relatives’ conduct impugned his family’s honor. Yet we have a statement from an advocacy group detailing the frequency of these crimes and the lack of punishment for the perpetrators. Might they have had an idea?

When the link between Islam and honor killings is raised, it more often than not takes the form of special pleading.  While it is important to hear why some Muslim scholars believe honor killings are not condoned in Islam, one is left wondering why we do not hear from those who support this barbaric practice, or who can explain why it is such a widespread belief. Do a little digging and you will find these voices. Do a little more digging and you will see that the legal codes of a number of Muslim-majority states do not in practice punish honor killings, or punish their perpetrators far less severely than they do others convicted of murder.

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BBC attacks major same-sex marriage stereotype (updated)

Here inside the Beltway, a kind of nervous hush has settled over the church-state battlefield while everyone waits for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue its ruling on the status of gay marriage in the battleground state of California (for sure) and perhaps even in the United States of America. There have been some hints from the legal left that the court will — fearing another Roe v. Wade apocalypse — issue a narrow ruling.

Most of the elite mainstream press have, of course, remained in full-voice cheerleader mode. As Arthur Brisbane described his own company, in his swan song last year as public editor at The New York Times:

When The Times covers a national presidential campaign, I have found that the lead editors and reporters are disciplined about enforcing fairness and balance, and usually succeed in doing so. Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism — for lack of a better term — that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times.

As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times, overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.

Stepping back, I can see that as the digital transformation proceeds, as The Times disaggregates and as an empowered staff finds new ways to express itself, a kind of Times Nation has formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview, an audience unbound by geography (as distinct from the old days of print) and one that self-selects in digital space.

But miracles happen. Every now and then, a major media outlet breaks loose and reports some voices who do not easily and quickly fit into the familiar templates, voices that might even point journalists toward the compromise that may still be possible between the entrenched armies on the cultural left and right.

The BBC team did that the other day with an entire piece dedicated to gays and lesbians who are opposed to gay “marriage.”

Now, the scare quotes around “marriage” are there for a reason. It’s clear, in this story, that the people who are in this camp are fully on board when it comes to full legal rights being granted to other gays and lesbians. The problem, for them, is the word “marriage” with all of — yes — its religious and moral overtones.

In other words, religion is a key part of this debate. Here’s a key block of material right up top:

Jonathan Soroff lives in liberal Massachusetts with his male partner, Sam. He doesn’t fit the common stereotype of an opponent of gay marriage. But like half of his friends, he does not believe that couples of the same gender should marry.

“We’re not going to procreate as a couple and while the desire to demonstrate commitment might be laudable, the religious traditions that have accommodated same-sex couples have had to do some fairly major contortions,” says Soroff.

Until the federal government recognises and codifies the same rights for same-sex couples as straight ones, equality is the goal so why get hung up on a word, he asks.

“I’m not going to walk down the aisle to Mendelssohn wearing white in a church and throw a bouquet and do the first dance,” adds Soroff, columnist for the Improper Boston. “I’ve been to some lovely gay weddings but aping the traditional heterosexual wedding is weird and I don’t understand why anyone wants to do that.

“I’m not saying that people who want that shouldn’t have it but for me, all that matters is the legal stuff.”

And what about viewpoints on the lesbian/feminist side of the aisle, where the word “marriage” has rarely been a happy word?

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