An American Muslim group has joined a campaign asking Wal-Mart to stop selling a "Left Behind" themed video game, saying it demonizes Islam by creating targets with Muslim-sounding names.
A coalition of church-state separation and liberal Christian groups previously asked Wal-Mart to remove "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" from its stores, saying the game promotes intolerance and glorifies religious violence.
"We believe the message this game is promoting is one of religious intolerance," Nihad Awad of the Council of American-Islamic Relations wrote in a Tuesday letter to Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott. "The game's enemy team includes people with Muslim-sounding names."
Left Behind Games' President Jeffrey Frichner told the San Francisco Chronicle the game doesn't endorse prejudice. But he said "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ" and therefore cannot be on Christ's side in the game. "That is so obvious," he said.
A moderate Baptist ethicist called on Frichner to retract that statement, apologize to the Muslim community and "make a commitment to authentic Christian products."
"As a Christian, I regret so many in the Christian community continue to demonize people of Islamic faith and demonstrate so little knowledge about what Jesus would have us to do," said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
"I am confident that Jesus would not attack Muslims and endorse violence for the sake of a twisted evangelical, apocalyptic agenda," Parham said. "After all, Jesus said the peace makers are blessed. He told Peter to put away his sword. He said pray for your adversaries, not wipe them out."
Awad countered Frichner by noting that Muslims in fact do revere Jesus as one of God's prophets. "In the post 9/11 climate, when improving interfaith relations should be a priority for all, this type of product only serves to dehumanize others and increase interfaith hostility and mistrust," he said.
As "a company that prides itself in hiring and offering services to a diverse group of people," CAIR said, "it is Wal-Mart's corporate social responsibility to take into account the potential social impact of its decision to sell this harmful game."
Left Behind Games CEO Troy Lyndon said in a statement that much criticism of the video game was based on misinformation. "There is no blood or gore in 'Left Behind: Eternal Forces,'" he said. "The game is designed to be a classic battle between good and evil, but it does not gratuitously depict violence or death."
Tyndale House Publishers, which licensed Left Behind Games to create products based on storylines and characters in the "Left Behind" novel series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, also stood behind the game.
"There is a certain level of violence inherent in the story, just as there is a certain level of violence in the 'Left Behind' books," Tyndale President Mark Taylor said in a statement. "After all, the period in which the game is set is a chaotic and dangerous time.... The game is designed to be a classic battle between good and evil, but it does not gratuitously depict violence or death."
Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said on CNBC and his own radio program that asking Wal-Mart to stop selling the game amounted to censorship and an "attack on Christmas" and is part of a secularist agenda to "remove anything that has a faith-based component."
"Those of you listening, you can petition Wal-Mart, too," Sekulow told radio listeners. "Go buy the game. And let them know we want faith-based games in there. And this is based upon the Book of Revelation, which tens of millions of Christians believe, not just in the United States but around the world."
While many Christian Right commentators like Sekulow bemoan the so-called "war on Christmas," Parham said it is conservative Christians who "regrettably wage a war on Christ at Christmas."
"They bless the commercialization of the birth of the Christ child for corporate gain and worship unfettered consumerism," Parham said. "Some have sold their souls for a pot of marketplace capitalism."
The controversy is just one of ongoing spats between Wal-Mart and religious leaders. The Christian Right has threatened to boycott the retailer for joining a gay-rights organization and stocking its pharmacies with a "morning-after" birth-control pill that some say is technically an abortifacient.
A group of centrist Christians organized by the Baptist Center for Ethics last week cooperated with Wake Up Wal-Mart, a union-backed campaign advocating better treatment of Wal-Mart employees, to sponsor a pastoral letter challenging Wal-Mart to become a "Golden Rule" employer. A Baptist pastor appeared in a TV ad criticizing Wal-Mart labor policies and asking: "Would Jesus Shop at Wal-Mart? Should you?"
Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council both recently ran articles urging parents to monitor their children's use of violent video games, but neither appeared to have qualms about a Christian-themed game featuring shooting on the streets of a post-rapture New York City in "Left Behind: Eternal Forces." The game is rated for teen audiences.
A Focus on the Family Web site in fact gave the game a thumbs-up, calling it the "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior" with possible use even as an evangelism tool.
Frichner, the president of Left Behind Games, said on Sekulow's radio program that rather than focusing on killing, "Your role as a game player is to save as many people as you can before the ultimate Judgment."
"Once anybody has seen the game their concern dissolves," he said. "The game is intended to be a light in the darkness, the dark world of video games. We need as Christians to actually get into these places."
Left Behind Games was founded in 2001 for the purpose of developing games based on the blockbuster "Left Behind" series. The company's mission, according to a press release, is "to become the world's leading independent developer and publisher of quality interactive entertainment products that perpetuate positive values and appeal to mainstream, inspirational and gamer audiences, while remaining committed to increasing shareholder value and pursuing the highest standards of integrity and professionalism in all business affairs."
The Jewish Anti-Defamation League also criticized "Left Behind: Eternal Forces" as having a "built-in message of religious intolerance."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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