The Last Supper is revered by the world’s Christians, yet some in the media think it is a free source of comedy. Contrast the Christian reaction to that of Muslims when media attack their religion. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Christians resigned to media bias

  • October 10, 2012

This is a column about what happens (or doesn’t happen) when Canada’s publicly funded broadcaster mocks Jesus Christ on prime time TV and a no-name amateur filmmaker mocks Mohammad on the Internet.

Throughout September, deadly violence erupted in many parts of the world as groups of Muslims attacked American embassies and other installations after a low-budget video, called The Innocence of Muslims and posted on YouTube, depicted the Prophet Mohammad as a fool and a sexual deviant. In Pakistan, at least two six-figure bounties have been offered, one by a current government official and the other by a former one, to be paid upon the death of the filmmaker. The filmmaker himself is currently being held in a Los Angeles detention centre, reportedly for parole violations.

In Pakistan, at least 23 protesters have been killed. There were also deaths in several other Muslim countries. The violence coincided with an attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four people, including the U.S. ambassador.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 28 the CBC program This Hour has 22 Minutes broadcast a skit based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. It used the tableau as a backdrop to satirize recent news reports of writings on a papyrus fragment that allude to a wife of Jesus. (The fragment is of disputed origin and there is certainly no agreement among scholars that it refers to Jesus Christ.) In the skit, a woman identified as Jesus’ wife is shown continually disrupting the Last Supper, complaining that Jesus is constantly carousing with the boys and drinking too much wine. In a particularly offensive segment, the familiar words of the consecration (“This is my blood…”) are interrupted when the Jesus figure complains: “Ellen, do you mind, I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

Although both are offensive, the two videos are different in many respects. But perhaps the most striking difference was not the video content itself but in the respective response from Muslims and Christians. In the first case, we saw violence that we would normally expect only in conditions of war or civil uprising; in the second, there were probably a few hundred groans as many people reached for the remote and perhaps a few dozen angry e-mails and phone calls to the CBC.

The Catholic Civil Rights League has tried over the years to lead the way in protesting serious anti-Catholic media portrayals. I am often asked why the typical Catholic response is usually so tame, if one happens at all. Obviously, there is a cultural factor. North American and European Christians live in free-speech societies and in environments where religious differences tend to be accommodated and where religion is downplayed in a secular public atmosphere. This doesn’t make it right to mock religious beliefs as though faith was just another form of entertainment, but it probably does mean that when it happens Christians regard it more as tasteless humour than a serious attack.

More than likely, the people who send e-mails or make phone calls to complain know that change is unlikely. These complaints won’t reverse the ingrained biases of society and the media.

The CBC’s lampoon of  the Last Supper was far from its most serious example of anti-faith bias. No one would take the skit seriously. Some of the false impressions created by the CBC and other networks over the years by their slanted coverage of the sex-abuse scandals, or in police dramas where violence at abortion clinics always seems to have a Catholic angle, probably do more to perpetuate anti-Catholic bias.

Perhaps Catholics, and many other Christians, have stopped paying much attention to the media because the bias is rampant or because they believe any harm done falls short of egregious. While some of the worst South Park episodes, such as those involving a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary or a depiction of Jesus Christ who could not perform miracles, drew sharp responses, including boycotts, most people responded by simply watching something else.

This may well be part of the reason that the media continues to take liberties with Christianity that they wouldn’t dare take with Islam. Christians seem resigned to the insults.

No one wants a world in which violent responses are the norm, but a short e-mail or phone call in protest of anti-religious bias can let producers and advertisers know they’ve lost some audience. As media executives and politicians both attest, it’s an issue if they hear about it, and if they don’t, it isn’t.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League.)


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