By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
Over the last few weeks we have read much about racism, bigotry and discrimination that continues to infect our social landscape. We have also seen the double standard when it comes to holding people accountable for the poor choices they have made.
Accountability seems to be a concept sadly missing in our civil discourse. Freedom of speech is a basic human right guaranteed by our Constitution. However, that right does not allow people to publicly disrespect and degrade others because we disagree with them.
Let’s take a moment and reflect on the social rhetoric that is infecting our civil discourse on a regular basis. Some feel that they have the right to say and do whatever they want even if it’s at the expense of someone’s character and integrity grounded in no fact or reality.
It becomes increasingly difficult to hold people accountable when those who lead us on both sides of the aisle live with a double standard; when our religious leaders live by a double standard. We have the right to hold any opinion we wish. We do not have the right to impose our opinion on others or demean them if we disagree. Basic human respect for the dignity of every person seems to be buried in the rubble of hateful speech and countless people making excuses for that hatefulness.
All the major religious traditions at their core espouse love, forgiveness and respect. It is unacceptable to use religion as a manipulative tool to justify basic hate, discrimination and bigotry. Our religious community has to move beyond their silence and speak to the issue of respect for all people, no matter what their social and/or political circumstance.
In early September a few years ago, a Jewish family was celebrating a Jewish holy day. The public schools in the community were closed to respect and honor the Jewish community. The family came home from temple and found a white swastika painted on their driveway. Needless to say, they were devastated.
Upon investigation, local law enforcement discovered that two Christian eighth-grade boys who were classmates of the boy who was a member of this family painted that hateful symbol on their driveway. Those young men did not know that the boy’s grandmother lived with them and that she was a survivor of the Holocaust.
Law enforcement took the two boys responsible for this horrific act, arrested them and charged them with a hate crime. The two boys were friends with the Jewish boy whose home they violated with that horrific symbol.
Unfortunately, that hateful act polarized that small community. Some felt people overreacted to a childish prank, stating boys were boys just playing around with no harm or disrespect intended. Others felt people minimized the severity of that act of hate and felt the young men should be held fully accountable for their reckless decision-making.
The victimized family, especially the Holocaust survivor, did not want to prosecute the guilty boys, but they did want them to be held accountable and helped to understand how profoundly hurtful their prank was.
After many conversations back and forth with law enforcement and the local school officials, the elderly Holocaust survivor suggested that the boys apologize before her temple community and participate in a full school assembly on the need for respect and tolerance of people from every walk of life and at that assembly apologize for being so hurtful.
The boys agreed. The charges were dropped and what was once a hateful act became an opportunity to learn a real-life lesson about respect, tolerance and accountability.
Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.