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‘Fighting’ hate by indulging it

The hosting of Louis Farrakhan at a Catholic Church was not, as billed, an effort to 'bring people together.' Far from it
Father Michael Pfleger sits next to Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam before they both speak at Saint Sabina Church, May 9, 2019, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)
Father Michael Pfleger sits next to Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam before they both speak at Saint Sabina Church, May 9, 2019, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Two polarizing and publicity-seeking Chicago religious leaders teamed up recently. The results were predictable and anything but positive.

Father Michael Pfleger, a gadfly Catholic priest, hosted Nation of Islam Minister   Farrakhan at St. Sabina Church.

It is rare when a religious leader from a mainstream faith like Catholicism provides a platform to a notorious bigot, who regularly goes after not just Jews, but Catholics and even the Pope, among others.

Pfleger is an experienced media commentator and moralist. He surely knew hosting Farrakhan would be controversial. But following Facebook’s ban of Farrakhan (and other bigots), the appeal of a major media event was just too enticing. Pfleger also knew hosting one of America’s foremost intolerant voices was indefensible  He thus had no alternative but to contrive disingenuous defenses for his decision.

How else but “disingenuous” can the following four Pfleger statements be characterized:

  1. “How dare FB BAN Louis Farrakhan while daily I come across Racist, Violent and Hateful comments and postings…I STAND WITH MY BROTHER….”

Pfleger knows that Facebook didn’t ban only Farrakhan, but several white supremacists, too. Surely, he knows of Farrakhan’s appalling statements: Jews are termites and Satanic; [they] were behind the 9-11 attacks; are sending America to hell; Judaism is a gutter religion; and, does [the Pope] really represent Christ…or that originator… of organized crime on this earth?

Pfleger doesn’t even plead ignorance of Farrakhan’s hate. So if ignorance isn’t a defense, then indulging it is the only — indefensible —explanation.

  1. “People who label Farrakhan a hater have [sic] spent the past week spewing Hate ar (sic) me and at St. Sabina….but I will continue to love, fight for justice and stand with my Brother.”

Irony, Exhibit A: Indulging Farrakhan’s bigotry against others while refusing to turn the other cheek when criticism comes your way.

Irony, Exhibit B: Rather than condemn Farrakhan for calling Jews “Satanic” at his church, Pfleger played the victim card: “…we are in a dangerous time when we can no longer have dialogue without demonizing one another.” And, “I have been cursed at, received…hate calls, emails, hateful Facebook postings…It is interesting to me that those who accuse him of hate have been so hateful this past week. Oh, the hypocrisy.”

Oh, the hypocrisy indeed. Pfleger endured several days of reactions from people who, from his very pulpit, were called Satanic. Farrakhan’s been threatening the Lord’s wrath on Jews, Catholics (for those counting, that’s Irony, Exhibit C), other Christians, and LGBTQ persons for decades.

  1. In defending Farrakhan, Pfleger cloaked himself in the 1st Amendment: “Too many people struggled and died for the right of free speech and I will continue to struggle to preserve it…This is a free-speech issue….”

But America’s guarantee of free speech applies to government actions, not private entities. Facebook is no more bound to host Farrakhan than Pfleger is to host me at his church. Forcing either private entity — Facebook or the church — to do so would be the constitutional violation.

In his new-found devotion to free speech Pfleger somehow forgot to advocate (also mistakenly) for David Duke’s 1st Amendment right to a Facebook account.

The ACLU called: They’re revoking Pfleger’s two-week trial membership.

  1. Pfleger quoted Farrakhan’s speech this way: “He [Farrakhan] said there were good Jews and there are bad Jews, true.”

No Jew is perfect, and there are a number of us who indeed might fairly be called “bad.”

But Farrakhan didn’t say we are bad; he said we are “Satanic.” Not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

How can so public a religious figure as Pfleger so blatantly misrepresent what was said from his own pulpit and caught on tape?

Irony, Exhibit D: Farrakhan refers to Jews as the “Arch Deceivers.”

Adding hypocrisy to demonization, Pfleger incredulously claims that he’s “try[ing] to…bring people together.”

It would take a sorcerer to both “bring people together” and host Farrakhan’s bigotry. Instead, Pfleger’s facilitation, broadcast and endorsement of Farrakhan’s hatred was Chicago’s most divisive interfaith moment in years.

The closest analogies would be if, in the 1930s, a synagogue had hosted the viciously anti-Catholic KKK. or if Pfleger’s predecessors had invited Father Charles Coughlin’s pro-fascist, anti-Semitic weekly radio show to broadcast to its 30 million listeners from St. Sabina.

As our community and others targeted by Farrakhan appreciate, we must simultaneously never turn a blind eye to bigotry and also never allow the Farrakhans and Pflegers in our city to derail us from our ever-deepening relationships with our African American, Muslim and Catholic partners.

Accordingly, the last word on this topic should not be from Pfleger or Farrakhan, but from His Eminence, Cardinal Blase Joseph Cupich. Upon learning what was trumpeted at one of his Archdiocesan churches, he responded swiftly and unequivocally: “I apologize to my Jewish brothers and sisters, whose friendship I treasure, from whom I learn so much, and whose covenant with God remains eternal.”

To that, may we all say “Amen.”

An earlier version of this essay appeared May 20, 2019 in the Chicago Sun-Times

About the Author
Jay Tcath is Executive Vice President of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
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