May 4, 2001
Charlie Ward and Religious Ignorance
-- R. Jonathan Moore
It's been well over a week since a New York Times Magazine article by Eric Konigsberg portrayed Knicks point guard Charlie Ward as a crypto-anti-Semite. By now the story's details are probably familiar.
To research his story, the author often attended an evangelically flavored Bible study with leader Ward and three teammates. Despite being Jewish, Konigsberg tells us, he was beginning to feel like one of the boys: "I thought I was doing fine; the players seemed interested in Judaism. They started calling me 'E.' I fancied that the seeds of an interfaith fellowship were being planted."
Then, however, a once-comfortable exchange took on a much less amiable tone. The subject of Jews and Christians arose, and Ward began to get himself into trouble: "Jews are stubborn, E. But tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept? . . . They had his blood on their hands." Teammate Allan Houston immediately came up with a proof-text from his Palm Pilot, quoting Matthew 26:67: "Then they spit in Jesus' face and hit him with their fists." Ward continued: "There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day. There's been books written about this -- people who are raised Jewish and find Christ, and their parents stop talking to them."
Since the story appeared, everyone within range of a word processor or microphone has predictably -- and justifiably -- hastened to scold Ward and decry his religiously intolerant words. In response, Ward has half-apologized, spoken on the phone with a rabbi, and made very public plans to visit Israel in the off-season.
What seems to have disappeared in this rhetorical fracas is the religious tone-deafness of Konigsberg himself. Before relating the above encounter, the author offers a cynical, reductionist explanation of why some Knicks practice their little religious hobby. "The players have turned to religion in an effort to comprehend their good fortune," Konigsberg writes. To make it in the N.B.A. is to win a lottery, and they want to know that they are worthy people, to feel confident answering the question, Why me?"
By offering no real evidence to support this claim, Konigsberg is practicing an irresponsible form of pop sociology. With such (ignorant? arrogant? antireligious?) comments, Konigsberg hasn't exactly set himself up as a skillful and trusted guide to religion. So it's not surprising that he at least partially misinterprets his subsequent encounter with Knick evangelicals.
Part of what Konigsberg misunderstands is that, regardless of how uncomfortable it made him, his exchange with these players actually did signify that he was thought of as "one of the boys." After all, Ward and company weren't calling Konigsberg out as a Christ-killer from the get-go; only after "E" had attended several Bible study sessions did the subject arise. Only after these Knicks felt a certain level of familiarity with him did they try, however ineptly, to explore the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. They blew it with their insensitivity, to be sure, but the fact that they actively engaged a person of another faith says something more positive than negative about the possibilities of interreligious dialogue and eventual understanding.
Konigsberg seems woefully unaware of what religiously informs these Knicks, and this makes their anti-Jewish comments seem all the more harsh because they come at him (and then his readers) devoid of appropriate context. Ward and his compatriots, after all, are dedicated evangelicals, and with that faith usually comes a sense of duty to spread the good news. In the context of that Bible study, then, it isn't at all surprising that they thrust Christianity before Konigsberg. In fact Ward, the one most inclined to view his life as one big Christian ministry, may have felt most compelled to speak his religious mind. As the Chicago Tribune's Skip Bayless pointed out (in an all-too-rare application of big-picture sensibility to this situation), "For Ward, failing to challenge any non-believer would have been failing God." By attending the Bible study, Konigsberg was on Ward's religiously exclusivist turf and should have been expecting, at the very least, a spirited spiritual discussion.
Again, Ward's ignorance is not to be ignored or excused, nor should the potentially menacing nature of his words be minimized. He clearly needs both a good course in biblical history and another in the history of Christian-Jewish relations. Konigsberg is not somehow "complicit" in all this unpleasantness.
However, when a journalist handles religion with mild disdain and displays a woeful ignorance of how faith operates in context, the opportunities for misunderstanding only multiply. Yes, Charlie Ward needs to get a clue, but so do Konigsberg and his editors. In the end, it's hard not to wish that both Ward and Konigsberg had stuck to discussing only basketball.