taking the words of Jesus seriously

Lowe’s national retail chain, following a conservative Christian group’s call for businesses to boycott advertising on a new TLC reality show about Muslims, pulled its advertisements from All-American Muslim. The Florida Family Association (FFA) claims the series, which follows five families in and around Dearborn, Michigan, is nothing more than propaganda masking a radical Islamic agenda. Though the FFA suggests over 60 other advertisers have also pulled their ad dollars, these reports have not yet been confirmed. In any case, Lowe’s has borne the brunt of media criticism for pulling their ads from the show.

The FFA’s odd beef with All-American Muslim is that the Muslims being featured are not radical enough. One is a high-school football coach. One is expecting her first child. Another goes shopping for the traditional hijab after abandoning it following September 11. With the exception of shopping list items, these folks feel pretty similar to most middle-class Americans. But not according to FFA, which says “the show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to the liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”

FFA’s twisty logic is subtle, so don’t miss it. By using the phrase “appear to be, ” FFA is not willing to admit that these Muslim Americans might actually be ordinary folks. Rather, to support the imaginary agenda—and to promote their own—the organization maintains the story that somehow, TLC producers are tricking us by presenting those who “appear” to be ordinary.

The group is right about one thing: Someone is masking reality to promote a radical social agenda. I just don’t think it’s the families in Michigan. In fact, when I tune in on Sunday night to meet these families from the safety of my living room, I fully expect that the elusive liberties and values cherished by the majority of Americans are also cherished by these American families. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I suspect that FFA founder David Caton won’t be tuning in. Recently appearing on ABC News’s World News, Caton insisted, “This program creates an image that’s harmful, education-wise, to the beliefs, structure and memories of millions of Americans who will look at this and say, ‘Well, all Muslims are like that, ’ when it’s not accurate.”

If Caton’s statement is confusing, you’re not alone. As a reality barometer, ask yourself if it would be more or less true to invert Caton’s statement, asserting, “This program creates an image that’s not harmful, to the beliefs, structure and memories of millions of Americans.” Would it more true or less true to say, “Not all Muslims are radical extremists”? Sadly, Caton has distorted truth to suit his group’s ends.

If TLC’s controversial, now-cancelled Sister Wives, which chronicled the daily life of a Mormon polygamist, was a scintillating private treat for curious evangelicals, All-American Muslim is its natural successor. Among the many millions of American Christians who will tune in to All-American Muslim on Sunday night, there will be millions of us evangelicals who, regrettably, do not have one authentic relationship with a Muslim American. Even if we can identify them in our communities, we’re not regularly breaking bread with them before a Friday night football game or attending their baby showers.

Whether or not we’ll continue to shop at Lowe’s, those of us who dare to watch on Sunday night will be educated, in a rudimentary way, about what “they” are really like. And, for groups like the FFA, that’s very dangerous. The success of Caton’s group, and others like it, depends on creating images of “the other” that are frightening and inherently distorted. When the Muslim community becomes our teacher—or the Mormon community, or the gay community, or the poor community—the stick-figure straw men that we use, and abuse, will be exposed.

Blogger Tod Kelly recently grieved this generation of protesters who seek to stifle ideas with which they disagree. Recalling the day when protests centered on ensuring the public good, he writes,

A fruit grower that used toxic chemicals that made their way into the product, for example, or companies that had been caught illegally paying slave wages are the kinds of boycotts I can sympathize with. These boycotts looked to change destructive examples corporate malfeasance—usually one that put the public well-being directly at risk. For my generation, however, it seems like boycotts are all about the stifling of ideas that are different from our own.

The contemporary impulse to stifle freedom of expression isn’t just coming from the Right. Over the summer, activists protested Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s scheduled appearance at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit by circulating an online petition claiming Willow Creek was “anti-gay.” The campaign resulted in Schultz withdrawing from the event. Rather than being open to the possibility that mutual exchange between those who disagree was possible or even beneficial, organizers reinforced the kind of binary thinking that disallows the very relationships that might actually heal and transform.

The words being thrown around these days to describe the FFA are “hate group.” Maybe it is. It is definitely a “fear group.” If the group’s type of lobby doesn’t represent your faith, consider watching the show. Decide for yourself. Better yet: Don’t watch the show, and pursue an authentic relationship with a person in your community who practices Islam.

Now that would be radical.

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Margot Starbuck is a speaker, volunteer and author of The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail. Her new book, Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor, with a foreword by Tony Campolo, will be released in January 2012.

This post originally appeared on Her.meneutics: The Christianity Today Blog for Women

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About The Author

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Margot Starbuck—author, collaborator and speaker—earned an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Bachelor’s from Westmont College. She’s convinced that because God, in Jesus Christ, is with us and for us, we’ve been made to be with and for others. So she’s passionate about equipping folks to love our (sometimes unlikely) neighbors and is the author of seven books and collaborator on others. She enjoys speaking to audiences around the country that include: Messiah College, MOPs International, Young Life Women’s Weekend, Urban Promise Ministry Summit and Wheaton College Center for the Application of Christian Ethics. Margot lives downtown Durham, North Carolina, with her three teens.

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