The Perspective of Religious Minorities

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 27, 2011 — 45 Comments

We in the West live in a world that is dominated and shaped by Christianity. That dominance may be fading in places, particularly in Europe, but few can deny that Christians continue to occupy a place of cultural and political privilege. This is especially true in the United States, where an unofficial religion test of our political candidates for national office is enforced by various pressure groups, religious leaders, and our own (theoretically secular) media.

As America’s favorite satirist put it:

“Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.”

The simple fact is that Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, and nearly 37% of the world’s Christians make their home in the Americas. Despite this dominance, or perhaps because of it, many Western Christians feel uneasy about the future, thinking that some secular/pagan/Islamic overthrow is just around the bend. This fear is often exploited by politicians to win votes, framing any limitation on Christianity or Christian institutions as a stalking horse for persecutions.

“You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.”Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago

I think few realize how limited the discussion of religion really is in our media, often limited to debates between liberals and conservatives (or progressives and traditionalists) within Christianity, sometimes with a token Jewish or secular voice thrown in. Any deviance from this pattern is seen either as satire or scandal. Coming out of the Christmas holiday, where a yearly fabricated “war” over Christian celebrations continues to garner press, it can be easy to forget the millions of individuals who fall outside the Christian paradigm, and how we exist, worship, and compromise in a culture that alternately enforces a Christian culture while claiming that culture in under constant threat. For example, CNN looks at how “other faiths” celebrate Christmas (aka December 25th for anyone who isn’t a Christian).

“Sometimes in the West these days there’s a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, ‘We’re all climbing the same mountain,’ and I think the intention there is nice. There’s a harmonious intention there. But I think it’s much nicer to say, ‘Let’s respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths,” [Buddhist monk Ajhan] Yatiko said.

Meanwhile, at RealClearReligion, columnist Jeffrey Weiss bemoans the “Xmas Borg” and discusses just how difficult it is to avoid wall-to-wall expressions of Christianity for two to three months out of every year.

“I defy Bill O’Reilly and his compadres to locate the smallest corner of our nation immune from the months-long drumbeat of Christmas stuff. For us, the holiday seems closer to Star Trek’s Borg Collective (“Resistance is futile!”) than anything I can find in the Christian scriptures. To be Jewish (or Hindu, Bahai or Brama Kumari) in America requires some effort to wall out the overwhelming pressure of our national majority faith.”

The tendency to bundle non-Christian Winter holidays together and treat them like cultural add-ons to the Christmas juggernaut has started to find some dissenters, but most of us rationalize celebrating the holiday in the secular-religious hybrid that has now become the norm (particularly since most of us have Christian relatives and friends). Pagans perhaps have the best excuse, as many traditions and observances have their genesis with our religious ancestors, but we still exist in a culture where those elements: trees, gift-giving, various decorations and customs, are understood by most as function of a nominally Christian holiday, not some syncretic hybrid.

So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold (or in the case of Mexico, progress), and that Christians of good conscience start to understand how their power works, and how that affects those who aren’t Christian.

“The most searching way to discover, recover, or practice one’s faith is to be a member of a religious minority–to live on a small island of Otherness in an archipelago of bigger religions or in the lake of a theocracy. The situation can be agreeable or dangerous. This is a truism for religious minorities, but it may surprise many in “Christian America.” Not everyone belts out Christmas carols.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber [...] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

The author of that piece, Professor Catharine Stimpson, was writing about being a Christian in the Islam-dominated United Arab Emirates, and how that perspective has shifted the way she sees all religious minorities. I think that her experience is important, and her testimony much-needed. Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all. All persecution narratives, even and especially our own, run the risk of becoming a toxic method of making people of different faiths or perspectives an inhuman “other.” Faceless villains who sport labels instead of human qualities, who become distorted monsters not to be trusted. The challenge for the formerly persecuted is to rise above their own persecution narratives, to build a future where none are persecuted, while it is the challenge of minorities to avoid enshrining them in the first place.

I hope that as this holiday season winds down we’ll all take a moment to consider the perspectives of others, and to critically think about the narratives we are participating in.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Jo

    Excellent article. I do think it’s useful to point out, however, that the world’s ‘xtians’ altogether only add up to 33% of the entire world – according to Adherents.com 2007 report. (http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html)

    This statistic gives us some real perspective. The apparent ‘look and feel’ dominance in the Americas is largely fueled by political power, and the Vatican in the South Americas as it focuses on 2nd and 3rd-world nations for new adherents.

    • http://en-pi.facebook.com/steward John Deltuvia

      Although that site shows only 33% Christian, one must also take into account the fact that Jesus ranks as a prophet second only to Mohammed in Islam. There are several sections of al-Quran about Jesus and his mother Mary as well. Add in the Islamics, who revere but do not worship Jesus, and you get 54%. Some Jews also see Jesus as an influential Rabbi and even a non-canonical prophet, like Rabbi Hillel is seen as well.

      • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

        “Some Jews also see Jesus as an influential Rabbi and even a non-canonical prophet, like Rabbi Hillel is seen as well.”

        You’d be hard pressed to find a Jew willing to state anything of the sort (not counting Messianic ‘Jews’ who are really just Christians masquerading as Jews, in any case).

        • Anonymous

          Indeed – one of the few mentions of anyone of the sort during his purported lifetime is of a heretic rabbi, an evil man, who was ejected from the Temple for saying blasphemous things.

        • http://www.jenlepp.com/ Jen Lepp

          Ok, found one!

          http://twelvetribetorah.org/TTT_courses.html

          My Rabbi’s pretty progressive (one of the reasons I gravitated toward it as I migrated from Paganism and back to a flavor of my religious youth), and our congregation straddles Reconstruction and Renewal Traditions (both considered fairly lefty) but in many smaller corners of the Jewish world this is not such a shocking concept.

          Do we pray to him? No. Do we learn what a historical Rabbi had to say? Yep.

          • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

            Of course, that kind of view point would be an extreme minority in Judaism, historically or in modern terms. In other words, it would be rare enough to find any Jews who would look to Jesus in any religious sense that it’s almost not worth mentioning. From the perspective of Rabbinic Judaism Jesus exists outside of the historical group of figures generally called ‘the Rabbis’ and the Rabbinic texts have always had very negative things to say about him (usually censored by Medieval Christians out of the Talmud, Midrash, Siddur etc). And in the context of the comment to which I was replying, that person seemed to suggest that the number of Christians in the world could be padded, so to speak, by Muslims or Jews who might view Jesus favorably, so I think that it’s fair of me to point out the statistical insignificance of any such number of Jews.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Kauko, you’ve just called Jen Lepp’s tradition too small to be significant. Is this really the sort of thing a Pagan wants to go around saying?

          • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

            Re: Baruch’s comment

            No, I said that the number of Jews who ‘view Jesus favorably’ is ‘statistically’ insignificant. Insignificant here meaning that it is such a small amount compared to the total number of Jews in the world that it has little bearing on Judaism as a whole. There was no judgment implied on any Jewish person who decides to personally view Jesus as a part of the early Rabbinic tradition, whom they might respect. But anyone who does hold that view would have to acknowledge that they are in an extreme minority of Jewish people on that issue.

          • http://www.jenlepp.com/ Jen Lepp

            I have to admit that when I got your comment under the subject “The Perspective of Religious Minorities” pointing out me, my Rabbi, my Congregation, and my branch’s statistical insignificance, I had to laugh a bit.

            There are over 100 synagogues in the US that belong to Reconstructionist Judaism, out of a total of roughly 3700 in the US according to JWeekly – so, from a statistical perspective, “we” have more “weight” in US Judaism as a whole than Paganism has in the US Religious community as a whole. So, I don’t see us as all that insignificant. You may, as is your choice.

            Your statement was that you would be “hard-pressed to find a Jew” – my statement came about to show you weren’t all that hard-pressed. If you choose to then further assert that even so, the point doesn’t matter because there are so few despite that class having been taught many times in Austin to a number of Jews at the local JCC from many branches and no branches, that, I suppose, is also up to you.

            I thank you for the laugh, however. It was fairly amusing. Good luck to you.

          • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

            “There are over 100 synagogues in the US that belong to Reconstructionist Judaism, out of a total of roughly 3700 in the US according to JWeekly”

            So, you’re saying that the Reconstructionist movement teaches that Jesus is a part of the ‘Rabbinic tradition’ and considers his teachings to be authoritative in some way? Granted I spent most of my time in Reform and Conservative congregations, but I have been to reconstructionist services and have knows Reconstructionist Jews and I’ve never heard that before. There is a difference between studying Jesus/ examining the historical figure from a Jewish perspective vs. actively including him or his teachings in one’s religious beliefs and practices, the latter, I still hold, being extremely uncommon in Judaism.

            And since everyone is jumping on me as being so mean because I said something was statistically insignificant, here you go: the Pagan tradition which I practice is, in fact, statistically insignificant (I know of almost no people outside of Finland who practice it). So, there you have it, I’ve said nothing about anyone else’s practices that I’m not willing to say about my own.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Couple days before Christmas I encountered on the streets of Oberlin three guys in burlap-and-twine impressions of Arab dress, just showed up and wanting to talk about Jesus. So we did. They argued for Son of God, I argued for Unsung Jewish Prophet, both referring to the same big book. I had to cut it short after two rounds because I had to be somewhere that would soon close for the day. Oberlin is an intensely liberal dot inside conservative north-central Ohio, and I daresay I was their welcome to the place.

  • Antonella

    “So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold” unfortunately that ship has sailed a loooong time ago at least in Italy :(

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    With organization, resistance is possible. The Unitarian Universalist church I was a youth in in the Fifties held a “Winter Solstice” celebration (of no Pagan intent, but a Humanist observance of the physical season). The UU church I joined in the Nineties offered a “Turn Off the Christmas Machine” service about toxic consumerism in December.

    This year we held a Christmas Eve service featuring a multi-generational play (an off-track angel speaks to a shepherd in the Scottish Highlands), and on New Year’s Day will offer a Yule service presented by yours truly and spouse. The Christmas drum can be occupied or muffled.

    This is my only UU chauvinist post of the year.

    • Ursyl

      At our UU, we hold Wheel of the Year ceremonies all year ’round, and various aspects of Paganisms will be the topic at times for Sunday service too.

      Our play this year was set in Bethlehem, the day after.:-)

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    As far as “Christians of good conscience” go, I would advocate setting the bar pretty high. Christianity has a lot to answer for, and I am skeptical that anyone could honestly face up to the truth of what Christianity has done, and continues to do, and still remain a Christian.

    Many Christians are eager to “cut a deal”, along the lines of “we’ll be good from now on, we promise.” But usually they won’t even go that far, and they try to convince us that they really have nothing whatsoever to answer for, because all the evil and violence that Christians have done throughout their history has been a mistake, and therefore neither “true” Christians nor “true” Christianity are actually responsible for any of it. But Christians (along with their non-Christian apologists) who want us to believe this have yet to present anything close to a convincing historical and theoretical narrative to back up their special pleading.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Cosimano/613012064 Charles Cosimano

      Of course would you rather they did the special pleading or simply laugh and use their power to squash the pagans like a bug.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Wherever and whenever they have the opportunity, Christians continue to squash all other religions (and each other) like bugs. It’s what they do.

        Fortunately, Christians have been deprived of much of the direct control of political and military power that they once enjoyed, thus cutting down on (but far from eliminating) their bug-squashing activities.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com/ Chas Clifton

    I just spent more than an hour helping a Muslim family from Texas get their minivan out of a ditch here in my snowy mountains. Still felt like the minority somehow. ;) (Muslim or not, Texans can’t drive in snow.)

    • Medeina Ragana

      Neither can people from Virginia or Tennessee…. :)

      • Nick Ritter

        Neither, strange as it may sound, can Minnesotans until after the first few snows.

      • cacbooseguy

        Tennesseans can most certainly drive in the snow. It;s just that they choose not to.

        • http://hellenicpolytheist.wordpress.com/ Pythia Theocritos

          I second cacbooseguy but make that defense for Virginians.

          If our cars end up in ditches on the side of the road with 2 feet of snow up the bumper it’s because we MEANT to park that way. Good way to air out the undercarriage.

  • Thelettuceman

    I think this year was the first year where I was so aware of deeply insidious the Christian scare-tactics are, especially in regards to the supposed War on Christmas. However, nothing turned my stomach more than the feature BBC article about it, which has really prompted me to limit my exposure to that news service.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Was the feature about Christmas or the “War on Christmas”?

      • Thelettuceman

        I believe the article was “Is Christmas Really Under Attack?”

  • kenneth

    The funniest thing about the whole “War on Christmas” is that the fools are fighting on behalf of a stolen pagan holiday which is still celebrated in pagan fashion by most Americans, even most nominal Christians. The traditions of parties and gift giving and decorating are pure Saturnalia in form and spirit. None of Christian’s own theology really supports a December birthday of Jesus. It’s an obvious lie, and because it’s a lie, it becomes that much more important for them to demand public acceptance of that lie as truth. The emperor is standing as naked as a jaybird for the world to see, but he expects compliments on his new clothes!

    • Nick Ritter

      I’ve come to consider the holiday season thusly: Christmas is nothing but a mask over Yule, and therefore most people are actually celebrating Yule, whether they know it or not.

      • Natalie Reed

        Exactly – I was going to point out the same thing. And not just Yule, they didn’t even bother changing the name of Easter. Christianity is really just another form of Paganism using Jesus as the focal god-son. Now if we could only convince the Christians of this……

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    This year, I noticed a very positive trend in the mainstream press, with articles about various Winter holidays, Christmas traditions that derived from Pagan customs, origins of holiday celebrations, and implorations for religious tolerance. It was good to see. Sure, there were a few beefs, mostly about various political figures not invoking God, or calling the ornament a “holiday tree”, and the usual creche on public property arguments. Yet the majority of the press seemed overwhelmingly accepting of various beliefs and celebrations.

  • Leea

    very excellent article! One thing I noticed on a lot of those FB Christmas pass-a-longs was a nastiness aimed at immigrants, probably Muslims…think next year I’ll suggest folks really concerned that this country isn’t Chriatian enough move to Mexico….

  • Anonymous

    Another good post, Jason.

    As I noted last month ( http://hecatedemeter.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/on-celebrating-holidays/ ) , I think it would make a lot of sense for Americans to acknowledge that there are two things going on here. On the one hand, many religions have religious holidays around this time of year. On the other hand, Americans of many (and of no) religious stripes celebrate a secular holiday that runs from sometime in late December until New Year’s Day. It involves decorating trees, baking cookies, giving gifts, gathering with friends and family, sending greeting cards, giving parties, etc. The big mistake we make is to call the secular holiday by the same name (Christmas) as the Christian holiday.

    No one is trying to stop Christians from celebrating their religious holiday. They can go to church, put up nativity scenes on their church property or their own yards, pray, sing hymns, etc. What they can’t do is appropriate public property and use that for their religious holiday.

    Nor should any other religious group be able to do so.

    But we can all share a secular holiday. Of course, there are some groups that gain both funding and power by inciting a feeling of persecution among some Christians. It’s in their self-interest to continue to confuse the Christian religious holiday with the secular holiday.

  • Lori F – MN

    Xmas Borg. [snort] That’s rich.

  • http://sari0009.xanga.com/ Karen A. Scofield

    Seems that the only way to get the harangue of the uber normative not-so-open dialog off of **religious identity** and the cultural war that depends on identity conflicts is to focus on various rites demonstrated and demonstrable character…character that aims at personal and social excellence and good will (really) rather than any sort of moral and social legalism…all while keeping joy, family, celebration and beauty in focus and in check (as opposed to using all the goodness and cheer of the holidays as a social weapon in a cultural/religious war).

    Piece of cake. (Sarcasm alert.)

    • Anonymous

      Did you know that your entire paragraph above was a single sentence? It may just be me, but I find it difficult to parse ridiculously long run-on sentences, barring appropriate use of punctuation.

      This of course has nothing to do with anything, other than pointing out a pet peeve of mine.

      • http://sari0009.xanga.com/ Karen A. Scofield

        Yeah, I kind of realized that. Holiday politics and the cultural war feeding off of it is just like that sentence — drawn out, cluttered, convoluted and difficult to follow.

      • http://sari0009.xanga.com/ Karen A. Scofield

        In other words, I humorously took a bit of grammatically and cognitively incorrect artistic license to make a social comment.

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  • Dan Allison

    It’s only 40 consecutively. Jefferson was a proud Deist, not a Christian.

  • http://twitter.com/ShambhalaPeople People of Shambhala

    “So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold.” It has held since the founding of the US. Moreover, Christians overwhelming argue (I think correctly) that the separation of Church and State is integral to Christianity (“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” Matthew 22:21). Even in medieval Europe Church and State was held apart by the offices of Pope and Emperor. Then there was the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the ousting of religion from public life in France, and to a lesser extent in other Western states.

    Of course, there are Christians who want to meddle in Government, but minorities live in the West with the full protection of the law. In any Western nation you can be a Jew, Hindu, Pagan, Satanist, Atheist, or anything else. Not so in many other countries. In Iraq the Yezidis are being ethnically cleansed; in Iran the Mandeans have fled into exile, the Bahai’s are persecuted; in Pakistan the Hindus and Sikhs are persecuted; In Egypt the Copts are persecuted — not to mention women across the Middle East.

    Try being a Pagan in one of those counties. Whatever upsetting events those of minority religions might have to experience in the West (such as their holidays coming below Christmas in the pecking order) there is no ethnic cleansing or mass slaughter or imposition of harsh religious law. There are no women or Pagans being stoned. Perhaps that’s something we can all be thankful for at this time of year.

    It’s simply impossible that Christianity will ever impose religious law on any Western nation. I wouldn’t guarantee that for another more aggressive religion with its own medieval laws and a vision of converting the whole of humanity.

    • http://profiles.google.com/vanye111 Jason Hatter

      No, not stoned, they’re now just executed for sorcery:
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16150381

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      “Whatever upsetting events those of minority religions might have to experience in the West (such as their holidays coming below Christmas in the pecking order) there is no ethnic cleansing or mass slaughter or imposition of harsh religious law.”

      If you were the least attentive to this board you’d know that holiday pecking order is the least of our concerns. The Turner family’s travails in Georgia, most recently, for example. Lack of ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter or religious law are not reasons to accept second-class religious citizenship under a Constitution that’s not supposed to have such arrangements. And, as in the Turner case, activist Pagans keep such things from getting worse, help keep us from ethnic cleansing, etc.

      “It’s simply impossible that Christianity will ever impose religious law on any Western nation.”

      It’s not impossible, just very unlikely at present. And, again, Pagan activists help keep its likelihood down.

  • http://twitter.com/ShambhalaPeople People of Shambhala

    In regard to Dreamstalker’s comments, I see that this is what you refer to this story http://atlanta.indymedia.org/local/children-have-rights-too:

    Christopher Turner took Samhain off from school (it was a Monday) but, the next day, was confronted by his teacher who “pulled him out of class and proceeded to drill him about Paganism, ending the conversation with ‘Paganism is not a religion.’ Remember, this is an 11 year old student, with no parent present while being harassed about his religion by someone who is suppose to be an educator.”

    The teacher also asked the class to write about the history of Christmas, excluding any reference to paganism. A student asked what paganism was. The teacher “looked directly at Christopher, not the student asking the question, and replied ‘anything that is non-biblical is paganism’.”

    Christopher Turner was later suspended for speaking Spanish on a school bus.

    I think the main point I was trying to make — apparently inelegantly — is that it might be nice if American pagan activists would raise the issue of the beheading of sorcerers in Saudi-Arabia or the ethnic cleansing of Yezidis (sun worshippers) in Iraq, or the persecution of Hindus (polytheists) in Pakistan — while of course continuing to raise issues such as the Turner case. What do you think?

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I don’t know if you’ve been reading this site, but I’ve raised the issue of witch hunts in Africa, the beheadings in Saudi Arabia, the murder of shamans in Peru, and several other issues. Further, Pagans in the Parliament of the World’s Religions have been working on the beheadings in Saudi Arabia. You should remember that the modern Pagan movement is quite small and can only do so much. Just because you didn’t see it/read it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

      • http://twitter.com/ShambhalaPeople People of Shambhala

        That’s great… I stumbled across this site a couple of days ago. Would you mind posting links? Thank you.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      You already know what I think, and you continue to prove it. You have not paid attention to issues that have been raised right here.