Yesterday the Sojourners blog ran a short piece of mine about the angry arguments over whether contemporary US Christians are persecuted people or privileged persecutors, and the ways in which this argument can distract us from the real work of living faithfully and responsibly in the face of the consumer culture. Because Sojo has a 600-word limit I ended up passing lightly over some things that probably required more thought. The long version is here.
I cherish Christian friends and friends who practice other religions. With both groups I share the struggle to love God wholeheartedly, love my neighbors, and hear and obey the Spirit's promptings. In both groups I encounter some distrust of the other group. Some of my conservative Christian friends say Christians are being persecuted by non-Christians in the USA today. Some of my non-Christian friends say American Christians are privileged and are persecuting non-Christians. Both groups get outraged.
I don't see American Christians being persecuted. I see that American Muslims (and, to some extent, Sikhs ) often suffer heightened surveillance, police/judicial harassment, and violence at the hands of angry and ignorant people. American Christians--and, I think, members of most other religions in this country--can claim our faith publicly without risking surveillance, violence or imprisonment. Given this, I think that when we claim persecution people are apt to see us as whiny, blind or unreasonable.
In some ways I understand American Christians to be privileged. We are a majority. Our religion is and has often been invoked by public figures wrestling with weighty issues. When we speak in our religious language it is likely that some of our listeners will recognize our words, and we can hope some of them will share our understanding of what those words mean.
But when people say that US Christians don't understand how hard it is for US non-Christians who face ridicule, stereotyping, hostility and shunning for their beliefs, I beg to differ. Christians do face those things too. I know that according to the standard Privilege Checklist I am privileged as a white heterosexual Christian and underprivileged as a woman without formal education. However, in practice I've been given a harder time for being Christian than for being female. Many people have told me angrily that Christians are inherently ignorant, irrational, neurotic, joyless, homophobic, misogynist and anti-Semitic, and that when I use Christian language I make it clear that I share in these pernicious attitudes. Some generally scrupulous and sensitive folks who would confront the tellers of racist or sexist jokes have told me jokes based on the foregoing assumptions about Christians and been put out when I didn't laugh. Some people who I liked and respected have pulled away from friendship with me because I was Christian (and no, I was not trying to convert them...I don't do that.)
I know, to my sorrow, that members of my Christian community sometimes ridicule, stereotype and shun people from other traditions. I am convinced that this behavior is not consistent with our shared faith. When I hear it going on I generally confront it with all the gentleness, firmness and clarity I can muster.
We are all most apt to hear the stories about how Our People, however we define them, are being hurt. And in this culture there's plenty of hurting to go around. Responding appropriately requires some care. Legal and public discrimination can and must be addressed by law and public statements. The other wounds are more complicated. When someone loses a friend over religion, or is hurt by having their group denounced by a public figure they had respected, that hurts, and we need to listen to that hurt. When someone's place of worship is burned down or someone's religious emblems are taken from their home or yard and vandalized that's frightening, and we need to hear that fear. When someone is beaten up or killed and their faith appears to be part of the motivation that is tragic and we need to grieve. But as we sympathize and grieve we need to watch the stories we tell ourselves. Instead of keeping count of the times when Their People have hurt Our People, we need to work toward a culture that does not hurt people because of what they hold sacred-- if possible, one that does not hurt people at all.
I don't think the basic problem with our culture is either that it is Christian and therefore hostile to people of other faiths or that it's deeply hostile to Christianity. I think the problem goes beyond our different names for the holy. We live in a consumer culture which is fundamentally opposed to all attempts to live in faithful community.
By 'faithful' I don't mean 'believing correctly" but 'keeping faith with God and one another." Faithful community begins with the understanding that we are members of one another and of God, and that the world is made up of sacred living beings who were not created primarily for our use or enjoyment. We articulate this understanding differently in different faiths (I know "God" isn't the word some would use--it's my word, and I hope people with other sacred languages will be able to translate), but I think those varied understandings lead to a similar set of shared responses. These include gratitude for and wonder at the beauty of the world we did not make and do not own, which leads naturally to humility. They also include responsibility to and for God and one another, and compassion and the attempt to do justice for other living beings with whom we are, at root, one; these require self-discipline. I hear and see people of many faiths claiming these values and striving to embody them. I also see people who claim no faith striving to live in this way. I don't fully understand their worldview, but I am grateful for their lives.
The consumer culture, on the other hand, reduces other people and the living world to objects of our use or pleasure. We have let this culture take over our economic system, and from there it inevitably spreads to affect all aspects of our lives. The growth economy is based on a constant rise in spending and debt. This rise is driven by advertising, which admits to being based on 'need creation"--the stimulation of discontentment and self-centered desire. Need creation is fundamentally opposed to gratitude, humility and mutual responsibility. It works best on people who are cut off from the Spirit, from their neighbors and from the places in which they live, and it exacerbates this disconnection.
Once we accept this disconnected, distorted view of the world we act in very strange ways. We degrade our water supply and our climate in order to get more cheap energy now. We commodify sex in order to sell products. We move the care of children, elders and invalids from the family and community into for-profit institutions. We divide physical work up in such a way that some people work to the point of exhaustion and injury while others do only physically inactive jobs and have to take their bodies out for exercise, like pets. We require other people to work in conditions we wouldn't tolerate ourselves. We deny our membership in one another.
This denial makes us become increasingly frightened, lonely, and suspicious of people who are Not Like Us, whether they're members of another party, another nation, or another religious group. We think that their interests and ours are mutually exclusive. We think we can't understand them. We project our own feared qualities onto them. We disrespect them, and when they respond in kind we take it as a further sign that they hate us, that they are different from us, that we are enemies. Sometimes this enemy-making is explicitly stated. That is disturbing, but at least it's clear and can be straightforwardly addressed. Sometimes it happens more subtly, through the things we say as though they were jokes, through the stories we choose to hear and the stories we choose not to hear.
I don't think the consumer mentality is automatically opposed to the profession of Christianity or any other religious tradition. I do think it is fundamentally opposed to many of the core practices of faithful community, practices central to many religions. These practices include honesty, voluntary poverty, nonviolence, chastity/fidelity, care for the earth, care for people in need, and the attempt to create a just society which treats all people as children of God. In the consumer mentality honesty is seen as a failure to promote oneself and get ahead, voluntary poverty is failure pure and simple, chastity/fidelity is attributed to unattractiveness/neurosis/frigidity, nonviolence is seen as unrealistic in the face of an alienated world, and ecological damage, human need and social injustice are tolerated as part of the cost of doing business.
The divisions between Our People and Their People distract us from the struggle between faithful community and consumer culture which cuts through each of our lives and souls. In this struggle we are all united by our shared confession of fear, selfishness, falsehood and greed, by the love that heals and frees us, and by our repeated attempts to turn again and live in faithfulness.