PASTORING: Stereotypes Back? It's No Joke


This article originally appeared in Issue# 43

"Have you heard the one about...?" Successful jokes depend on the irony and inconsistency that underlie humor. Recently, far too many of those introductions seem to lead directly to a punch line based on racial or sexual stereotyping.

Some observers contend that 20 years of unresolved ethnic tensions are bubbling through the veneer we laid over them to create an environment in which it is permissible to talk of others in deprecatory ways. I wonder if TV shows like The Jeffersons and Chico and the Man and movies like Beverly Hills Cop I and II haven't both given permission and content for these destructive attitudes.

More germane to the issue may be the news coverage of recent headline stories. When the network's choice from volumes of file tape is a picture of Panama's Gen. Noriega, standing at military review in a designer fatigue outfit, we tend to see the bandito caricature and believe its truth. When news documentaries show us the success of hard-working Vietnamese fishers in the Gulf of Mexico and give voice to those who hate and torment them, we remember our own economic insecurities and side with the threatened Anglos. When radio news carries the voices of Howard Beach, Queens, New York, residents denouncing the victims of that community's racial violence with the most base slurs, we learn that it's again all right to be angry and use that language.

Lest we in the religious community become too smug, our own media have done little to communicate the diversity of creation, the positive attributes of other groups of people and the sin of bigotry and racial hatred. Many of our young people, using our religious education curricula, picture the people in the Bible stories as Northern Europeans. The literature we have given them fails to teach them that the people of the Middle East are dark-skinned and speak a language other than English.

As evidence of bias accumulates, the religious leader is called to live a life that embraces the pluralism of our land and world. Illustrations in writing and speaking should be drawn from diverse peoples; religious education media should be chosen for their faithfulness to the pluralism of creation and the introduction to destructive humor should be followed with a joke-stopping NO!

In a way unique in this generation, the pastor, priest or rabbi is called to make words and deeds reflective of the fact that all people are loved and created equal. The destructive excesses of this permissive age must find their match in leaders who take personally the responsibility of modeling tolerance and are willing to call others — and the media — to task when they do not.

Author Bio: 

Peter M. Paulsen is director of communications at First Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA. A minister in the Reformed Church in America, he served as communication specialist in congregational, denomenational, and institutional settings. He taught communications theory and practice at the college and seminary levels, led ecumenical broadcast agencies, and writes for Christian and secular publications.