Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Struggle We Share

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.


Susan Furry said...

Thank you Joanna. Your thoughtful comments are very helpful.

I would add one comment about the "persecution" right-wing Christians complain about. For a long time Christianity, expecially Protestant Christianity, was overwhelmingly the dominant religion in our country. When right-wingers claim that "we are a Christian nation" that's what they are referring to; they seem to have little historical knowledge of the realities of the Constitution and the attitudes of the founders, many of whom were Deist, not really Christian.

When I was in public school, we had a Bible reading and said the Lord's Prayer every morning, along with the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court started changing that shortly after I graduated in 1962. You could tell who was who, because the Catholics didn't say the last part (for thine is the kingdom) and the Jews didn't say it at all, while the Protestants said "trespasses" or "debts" or "sins" depending on their denomination. The Bible readings were from King James Version of course. (Also, the school and the town was all-white. I knew no ethnic or racial minorities.)

No one talked about this Protestant devotional which started every day, none of the minorities protested openly, it was just taken for granted. That was establishment of religion. That's what the right-wingers want to go back to: white Protestant domination.

As a member of a Christian denomination which was persecuted in its early days, I treasure the guarantees of the First Amendment and am glad that they are being more fully implemented now than they were in my youth. It's true that there is prejudice and misunderstanding, but the First Amendment doesn't protect us against that. What it protects against is government interference in religion. I am not jailed for attending worship as the early Quakers were, nor am I forced to pay tithes to support an established church I don't belong to. That's the kind of thing the First Amendment prohibits. Praise God for that!

In 1660, Isaac Penington wrote a long essay about the Boston law which persecuted Quakers. The last part of it is a beautiful statement of the Christian basis for supporting the principles of the First Amendment. You can find it at

Joanna Hoyt said...

Susan, thank you for your thoughtful response, and for the Penington link. I think I will have to read the linked passage repeatedly before all the levels of it become clear in my mind. Certainly I see how it relates to not forcing our religion onto others. It seems to me that it could also be taken as a strong argument for faithful people not taking any part in government with its coercive basis….a position I respect, can't dismiss and haven't yet been clear to unite with either.

I certainly agree with you in valuing freedom of, or freedom from, religion for all citizens in civil society. I can't see how imposing explicitly religious observance can be done without great harm to religion and to civil society. Then there is a thorny question about the ethical behavior prompted by/united to religious conviction; what place does that have in civil governance? I tend to think it must have some place unless people of faith are to secede altogether from relations with the government, but I see that this raises many doubts and difficult does this look to you?

I have a different view of what 'right-wingers' want...or I think that they can't all be dismissed as wanting white Protestant domination, though there may be some who do. I'm thinking now of the folks at the little church where I worship. Many could be described as religiously right-wing, as they consider the Bible authoritative and literal, believe that the world is 6000 years old etc. I've heard one person there speak nostalgically of teacher-led school prayer, and heard more say that they think it's better not to have that, though they do encourage their children to pray aloud before eating in the cafeteria. 
When I've asked them about their statements about persecution I haven't heard them discussing school prayer or other First Amendment issues. I've heard three kinds of instances cited. First, personal rudeness/dismissal/mockery/shunning directed at them by individuals who don't appreciate their Christian identity. Second, individual acts of violence or vandalism directed against clergy or churches which they hear about on Christian news media. Third, the general sense that the culture they live in does not support the values they pass on to their children. They worry aloud about the obscene language their young kids hear on the school bus and the obscene imagery those kids encounter on TV or the Web; they perceive that young people are taught to get ahead, to promote themselves, not to live in service. I don't think these add up to a pattern of Christian persecution, but I do think they're valid concerns.

Susan Furry said...

Those are definitely valid concerns, Joanna. As a Christian pacifist, I've felt similar contrasts with the majority culture. At this time of year I feel I'm living in the Babylonian exile, radically alienated from the society in general. I can't join in the the commercial Santa Claus Christmas which is so alien to the story of Jesus' birth. But to me these are part of the natural results of trying to live obediently. I don't feel persecuted by Santa Claus or those who seem to worship him.

I feel a certain sour irony about the recent publicity about the Supreme Court taking up the private corporations' claim they shouldn't have to provide their workers with health insurance which includes birth control. I have been a war tax resister for forty years now; I have faced the challenges and penalties with no expectation that the government won't use its power against me just because I resist taxes in Christian obedience to what I discern of God's will for me. Nor do I call that IRS enforcement persecution.

Joanna Hoyt said...

I also resonate with the imagery of the Babylonian exile, not just this time of year--and I agree, that doesn't mean I'm being persecuted.

I'd be interested in hearing more about your war tax resistance. I have taken the easy way of not earning enough income to pay income-tax (though I do pay a token amount through self-employment taxes; they say it goes for Social Security and Medicare, which I would support, but I don't know how real the distinction is...)